An Atheist-Turned-Christian Responds to Those Who Are Trashing His Book September 20, 2014

An Atheist-Turned-Christian Responds to Those Who Are Trashing His Book

Last week, I posted an excerpt from Shane Hayes‘ new book The End of Unbelief. Hayes is a Christian who believes he can reach out to atheists more effectively than most apologists because, well, he used to be one of us.

Commenters ripped him a new one. (I feel obligated to mention that I warned him that might happen.) But I told Hayes beforehand that he was welcome to offer a response to whatever they said.

And so that’s what he did. His full response is below.

My sincere thanks to Hemant for posting an excerpt from my new book on his widely-read blog. I was prepared for a rough welcome, and I got one. On my own blog at shanehayes.com I wrote a posting captioned “Throwing Shane to the Lions.” That’s wry hyperbole, but Hemant’s readers have sharp polemical teeth and claws, and I have literary scars to prove it.

Which Way Does the Tide Flow?

Many of you were understandably rankled by my saying that: “The tide of modern intellectual culture flows strongly toward atheism.” Andrew EC spoke for many of you when he said:

… Our culture is OVERWHELMINGLY Christian, and that’s objectively obvious to literally everyone who thinks about it. And yet Christians have this deep-seated “need” to believe that they’re a tiny minority, and that by preaching the same crap that 85% of the country believes, they’re somehow courageous culture warriors. The mind boggles.

What’s weird is that Hayes grasps for this brave-soul-swimming-upstream metaphor when his own book has a much better one: you’re a sheep. You’re part of a flock that includes 85% of this country and two billion people around the globe. It’s a huge, huge herd, and you’re just one more sheep going along with it.

Andrew and many of you ignored that my phrase “the tide” is a synonym for “trend,” and that the trend is different from the status quo. Yes, the status quo is still overwhelmingly Christian in America, but the trend is toward unbelief. It must rejoice your hearts that the number of American adults with no religion doubled between 1990 and 2008. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) estimated that the 14.3 million who said they had no religion in 1990 had grown to 34.2 million by 2008. That represents 15% of the U. S. adult population (up from 8% in 1990), and indications are that it’s still growing. It could easily double again in the next eighteen years. Such trends tend to accelerate as they gain momentum.

The Pew Forum’s U. S. Religious Landscape Survey figures are even worse — from my point of view — than ARIS’s. Pew reports:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

Between 1990 and 2008 the number of people in the U.S. who said they had no religion increased by 20 million. That’s an increase, on average, of more than a million a year. If three of ten of those people with no religion are agnostics or atheists, that means their number is increasing at the rate of over 300,000 a year!

Gripping the Levers of Power

And when I speak of the tide of intellectual culture, most of you know exactly what I mean, because you’re a militant and articulate part of it. Skeptics are carrying the power centers of Western intellectual culture with them. The most acclaimed university professors, philosophers, psychologists, scientists, novelists, playwrights, TV talking heads, and print-media journalists tend to be in sympathy with their worldview — and to see ours as quaint and antiquated, laughable at best, evil and pernicious at worst.

Joining that sophisticated, free-thinking avant-garde was a major enticement for me when I was grappling with religious doubts in my late teens, and aspiring to be a novelist. It was an emotional factor in my final break with religion at age 20. (Philosophical factors were more compelling, but the emotional factors were there; they always are.) Today’s New Atheist authors and their disciples are so proud of their intellectual superiority that they call themselves “the brights,” because they’re so bright and we believers are so benighted. They’ve found other rationalizations for the term, but pride is at its core.

Turn in Your Badge!

So I make no apology for saying that “the tide of modern intellectual culture flows strongly toward atheism.” Imagine yourself telling your intellectual friends, and announcing by comment on the Friendly Atheist, that you’ve shed your atheism and become a devout believer. Imagine vividly how that and the derisive reaction would feel — then tell me it wouldn’t be swimming against the tide. It’s like turning in your badge of intellectual superiority. I’ve done it, and that’s exactly how it feels. (My book shows the contrary to be true.)

I refer to atheism as “a destination congenial to some but abhorrent to others.” I was careful to make my Antarctica metaphor a statement of my subjective truth — not an indictment of atheism for everyone: “For me it was like Antarctica…” (Emphasis added.) I know that for some it may be a Tahitian paradise. But not for everyone. So I make my appeal.

How Is My Approach Different and More Effective?

One of the most balanced and incisive comments was made by Overlapping Magisteria, who said:

Seems that his argument is this:

1. We cannot know one way or another whether or not God exists.
2. Believing that God does exist is more comforting and beneficial than believing that God does not exist.
3. Since we cannot know one way or another, it makes sense to choose to believe that which is more comforting and beneficial.
4. Therefore, it makes sense to believe that God exists.

The biggest thing to note is that this isn’t an argument for the existence if God, but only an argument that one should believe in God, regardless of whether or not he exists.

And of course, as others have noted, premise 2 is very debatable and subject to personal experience.

Cormacolinde added:

A slight correction:

4. Therefore it makes sense to believe in the *Christian* god.

There’s always that huge, unprovable and meaningless jump every time an apologist uses the good ‘ole wager argument. [Not so, as you’ll see below.]

Madcaphal added:

“is atheism where you want to go?” and “Atheists choose not to believe”.

Nope, nothing new here. Tired old arguments for believing something that isn’t true.

It surprised me that the overwhelming tenor of the comments was that “this is the same old stuff, rehashed; nothing new here at all.” No one thought it noteworthy or interesting that here is a Christian author who not only doesn’t try to prove God’s existence or quote scripture at us, he proclaims himself an agnostic. The title of the chapter Hemant posted — Chapter 1 — was “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.” A few modern Christian authors admit, quietly, deep into the text of their books, that they don’t think God’s existence can be proven. But they don’t follow that concession to its rigorous logical conclusion — that we can’t then know whether there is a God or not.

I, on the other hand, use agnosticism (my own) to make an argument for faith. In the posted excerpt I say:

I believe. Atheists choose not to believe. I can’t tell them they’re wrong, and they can’t tell me I’m wrong. We all grope in existential darkness. I use religious faith as a compass. They think it’s worthless. I don’t say everyone should believe as I do. I’m a pragmatist, not an evangelist. I know how different people are. My solution may not be yours.

Hemant included only Chapter 1 of the book in the posted excerpt. In Chapter 2, Believing Without Proof, I say:

Skeptics, Come as You Are

I proclaim this good news to atheists and uncommitted agnostics: You don’t have to renounce a spirit of skepticism to believe in God. Agnostic philosophy lets you retain all your reasons for denying his existence. You needn’t repudiate any of them. As long as you can discern this truth: even the strongest anti-God arguments are not conclusive, and the undisproven God may in fact be real; so, you can hang on to agnosticism with one hand and grasp faith with the other. I’ve done it and it works.

That may strike you as contradictory, illogical, or self-delusive. It is none of those. But do me this justice. Concede that subtle, sometimes complicated, philosophical arguments may have to be expanded on in a book-length work. It’s easy to shoot down out-of-context passages, or even a full chapter, which might be cogent and persuasive in the context of the whole book. I need space to explain why, in my dialectic, “agnostic” does not mean “unbeliever”; and the crucial difference between one’s philosophical position and one’s personal belief.

Pure Theism: Another Major Difference in My Approach

Same old stuff, you say in the comments. All old hat. He’s just a standard-brand Christian apologist. Not noting that in the excerpt I never mentioned the Christian faith, the Bible, the gospel, or even Christ. I said I’m a Christian, so I revere all of those — but in this book I don’t argue for them. I argue instead for something I call Pure Theism, which evolved from my personal experience of atheism and the occasional wish that there was a rational way out of it. There is. But first consider this capsule account of my background, which appears at the end of the book (Madridkid‘s comment was right about my parents’ strong faith):

His religious experience is multifaceted and gives him a rare perspective: he went from ardent Catholic (nearly a Trappist monk at seventeen), to militant atheist at twenty, to dilettante Hindu/Buddhist, to Pure Theist [at 28], to a Christian [at 30] studying for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, to a man with such strong ties to both Protestant and Catholic Christianity that he can identify himself only as “a Christian.”

Chapter 10 is “Why People Become Atheists.” Here’s a passage from Chapter 11, “The Only Way Out of Atheism”:

One Step out of Atheism

Look anew at the question of God’s existence completely apart from the Bible, Judeo-Christian theology, and the theology of any organized religion. The doctrines and Scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims need have no bearing on the elemental question of whether a personal and loving God exists. If he does, we can conceive of him apart from all established theologies and Scriptures. We can commune and build a relationship with him directly without intervention of a rabbi, priest, minister, or imam.

Although I have embraced an organized religion, I was a pure theist for years. For me, it was the only way out of atheism. I began with the most simplified and essential concept of a supernatural being: one who created the universe, loves what he made, and follows with benevolent concern the fate of every human life. Not the God of Abraham, not the trinitarian God we Christians believe in, not Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. That would have been too much for me — and I had said no to it again and again. Just God, a supreme being who cares about his human creatures and wants a relationship with them. The distance between no God and just God, Pure Theism, is immeasurable. I was there for two years after atheism, before Christianity became possible for me. [For some, like me, this step will be transitional. For some, final.]

Why the Benefits or Detriments of Belief or Unbelief Matter

primenumbers responded to Hypersapien with this comment:

He’s rating comfort over truth. Not that atheism has to be an uncomfortable place, but given how often societies despise atheists, I can certainly appreciate some of the discomfort. As for intellectual discomfort, any reasonable investigation of Christianity will produce vast amounts.

Agnosticism, as I use the term, means “we can’t know whether there is a God or not.” When the human mind, after utmost exertion, reaches that conclusion, the mind has done all it can. But the imperatives of a reflective human life require that I form an opinion on what I can’t know, that I proceed as if there is a personal and loving God or as if there is not. Since rational considerations leave us without decisive guidance, other considerations should be weighed.

Apply a Pragmatic Test: If one hypothesis (either God — or No God) will make you happier, stronger, more resilient, more at home in this brutal universe, more able to cope with life’s setbacks, tragedies, and the inevitable decline or plunge toward death, it is prudent, pragmatically sound, and entirely rational to embrace that view. Agnosticism assures us there is no rational barrier to either view. Neither can be known. Either may be true.

Many of Hemant’s commenters say it’s irrational to even weigh such factors as what makes us happier, stronger, more hopeful, more serene. It’s not. Others say that when they weigh them, atheism wins. Fine. I admit that atheism can be a rational choice, and as an agnostic I can’t argue with it. But be sure that you weigh all the benefits of belief that I mention — including those you’re most inclined to scoff at — because they all matter. In his book Pragmatism, William James said: “The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?” The practical consequences are huge!

Can a sophisticated widely read atheist in this era choose to believe in God?” My Chapter 13 says yes — tells why and how, exploring the psychological components of the issue. We can decide to hold as true something we can’t be sure is true. I’ve done it for fifty years.

Please note that Pascal’s Wager is only a tiny part of my benefit analysis in Chapter 1. Almost all the benefits I cite are ones we enjoy in this life. Subtract the wager about the next life and this life is still so enriched by faith that it would be the right choice — the right bet — for me. Afterlife or none, faith rewards. Call that Shane’s Wager.

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