On former atheists

I commented on an article over at scitascienda.wordpress.com and ended up expanding the whole thing into a rather longer piece than I’d anticipated. I thought I’d include it here by way of informing everyone that the infamous Todd’s comments on the whole thing have resulted in him being banned again, this time for good.

C.L. Dyck’s original article is interesting and you might like to read it first and then give feedback on it either over there or on my reply to it here.

Happy Humanist.JPGAn atheist is not an atheist because she doesn’t understand Christianity, or for that matter any other religion. Not understanding something, perhaps even to the point of refusing to find out, is the exact opposite of a mind content with reality–the key characteristic of free thinking secular humanism.

So when I hear of “former atheists” becoming Christians, I am often compelled to enquire of the neophyte, if it might be that, in fact, they were once merely a confused agnostic. This is descriptive of a great many people in the modern world, who if asked would, perhaps, use the word ‘atheist’ to describe themselves above ‘agnostic’, because of an almost cult-like definition these words have accrued in recent years. Unfortunately this brand of so-called “new atheism” has little in common with the philosophy of positive atheism espoused by Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Voltaire and so on. It should be noted that these prominent thinkers and commentators on the subject of religious faith, did so at a time when free speech was constrained by heavily enforced blasphemy laws and when to make a point in defence of rationalism required some considerable riposte.

An indicator as to the level of commitment the convert once showed to their apparently now lost atheism, resides in a few very important differences between questions an agnostic might ask and that which is of interest to a positive atheist. For example, an agnostic, in her inquisitiveness, might become concerned with the truth-claims of a particular religion, let’s say Christianity. This leads her to ask what Jesus is said to have said about such and such, or what St. Paul is said to have written in his letters to the Corinthians and so on–and without any concern for what prominent figures in other religions might have said along similar lines on similar subjects, which in fact contradict Christian teaching. This is a very important point to note, as the ultimate claim of many religions is that they are the one true faith, while other religions are more or less false.

This may seem a harsh comparison, but one only needs to look at the recent bloody history in Northern Ireland, where Catholics only differ from Protestants in their belief that in the sacrament of communion, the unleavened bread literally becomes the body of Christ, whereas religions not based upon the 11th century edict of transubstantiation make no such claim.

Atheists, on the other hand, are not concerned with the in’s and out’s of any one particular religion, as much as they are concerned with what can be proven to be true through an observance of reality, where the least assumptions are made about the nature of a given phenomena the better. This immediately poses a problem in the case of Christianity, because the very fact that the bible itself contains the kind of contradictions so blatantly the result of poor translation, which can not be resolved from a folkloristic point of view, let alone from empirical data sets, that it immediately discredits itself as a historical reference point, because it is the very article which must be verified for any of Christianity’s other truth-claims to withstand rational criticism. It should be noted, that this does not stop the vast majority of Christians contenting themselves with the notion that the bible is nevertheless the inerrant, perfect word of God, precisely because it says so in the bible. In the military this is known as scenario completion syndrome. In psychology and cognitive science, it is known as confirmation bias.

A common claim that many “former atheists” make to validate their conversion, is that they were touched by something beyond their comprehension. This should be treated with an additional degree of incredulity, if chief among their reasons for this new found belief, the convert describes the soul as distinct from the mind. The externalisation of the ego which the mind is responsible for, when religionists project catch-all, arbitrary meanings upon words like “God” and “Spirituality”, produces exactly the kind of bias confirmation we should expect to see in someone as agnostic towards the importance cognitive framing plays in forming our views, as they are the existence or otherwise of Russell’s teapot.

It should be noted that varying degrees of cognitive dissonance, when it comes to truth-claims made, despite no reasonable basis upon which to make those assertions, for example, often underpin a world-view based upon scientific naturalism–which is, to a certain extent, similarly reliant upon mathematical axioms, or arithmetic equations at the heart of scientific theories. That which is assumed to be correct as participial to a theorem is done so for purposes of efficiency, rather than because it has not been or can not be correctly calculated.

This is not, however, a perfect analogy, and you’d have to be pretty stubborn (bordering on pedantic) to cite mathematical axioms as the central basis of an argument which might attempt to equate their use in scientific naturalism with religious faith in Christian apologetics, but there is an element of trust inherent to very exacting orders of logical axioms, nevertheless. However, this is an entirely different level of assumption based thinking, because it is one which operates within margins of error. It is therefore not the sum total which collapses without an individual mathematician having faith in calculus, for example; merely that the degree to which the equation can be said to be absolutely accurate depends upon yet to be deduced factors which may later influence the outcome, but which at the time of operand are unknown.

In Christian apologetics, however, the margin of error analogy is an order of magnitude more wide-reaching than the common or garden variety of Alpha course Christianity might admit to, or even be aware of. Most believers in belief are not wilfully dishonest with themselves or anyone else about the gulf between their extraordinary beliefs and a lack of extraordinary evidence upon which to assert their claims. But this is precisely why it is such a pressing problem for “former atheists” to expand upon this paradox, since so many of the underlying principals of their apparently new-found allegiances reside in a fundamental miscomprehension of that which they claim to have once maintained a firm grasp.

The disagreements even within different tracts of Christian apologetics, as to how much emphasis is to be placed upon which interpretation of which book of which chapter in which codex is troubling enough. Let alone to what degree theology as a whole should be informed by scientifically obtained postulates which in many cases lead to full blown falsifiable theories, that completely discredit early philosophical attempts at describing the very natural phenomena upon which so much theology is based–such as the Adam and Eve or Genesis creation myths, for example.

If someone who once claimed to be an atheist now looks to these myths not as parables, but as literal descriptions of “how God did it”, she has immediately made a whole slew of assumptions from which no degree of an appeal to reason can dissuade her; or as is commonly accredited to Ben Goldacre, “You can not reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into”. This is not a commentary on someone’s faith, it is a commentary on their commitment to failed cognition–and that is anathema to the truth journey all religions are ostensibly charged with mapping, but few orienteer.

For identifying this paradigm, while in many ways displaying qualities of it, atheism is often described by those who understand it the least, as a religion without a deity. This and because a certain kind of highly motivated atheist will accrue a great deal of knowledge about both material reality and meta-physical ontology, while facing a great frustration at being accused of ignorance about the poetry in Psalms, for example, ironically means that, oftentimes, a well-read atheist will have a much greater appreciation for biblical narratives than those who claim to live their lives by them, while exhibiting much behaviour to the contrary.

There is no doubting the bible’s historical worth in human history. It is the assertions of those who claim to know it so intimately, while describing it as the absolute arbiter of morality, which anyone who has actually read Leviticus and Deuteronomy should quickly find insulting and false. This crucial difference between faith and free thinking, being the first of the reasons why atheism is so unlike a religion, should perhaps make a compelling enough reason to doubt the clarity with which “former atheists” are operating, quite obvious–although some will no-doubt still insist upon more compelling reasons to question someone’s beliefs than merely the semantic perception of doubt residing on the negative side of where faith rests on the positive.

What should be certainly very clear, is that an emotional commitment to theistic truth-claims is not proof that those claims are true. Many Christians, who insist that their subjective experiences do, in fact, constitute evidence of a spiritual aspect, beyond observable reality, are immediately faced with the question of why this realm is unavailable to those who refuse to suspend their critical faculties in order to tap into that which they may already be in possession of, without necessarily ascribing it to the supernatural.

For example, musicians often cite moments of bliss, within an ensemble, during improvisation; where a communication between the players and the audience transcends anything which could be pre-arranged, but which is nevertheless sympathetic to the overall arrangement. While a mathematical analysis into why in a given key, a certain range of notes in the scale are available, might technically describe why a given chordal passage is harmonious and melodic, it tells us nothing about why the emotional reaction of an audience might range from mild pleasure to floods of uncontrollable weeping and mania on a grand scale. This speaks to the emotional investment listeners to that band of musicians have in a form of non-verbal communication far in advance of anything found in other forms of artistic expression. Aficionados of Gauguin do not spend 24 hours queuing for tickets to a muddy field, where they will stand miles away from the revealed canvases, with a topless girl on their shoulders, enthusiastically yelling, “The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch!”

However, in both kitchen table apologetics and in the full-blown glossolalia of an evangelical rally, this is exactly what is happening. It is true to say that this entirely normal capacity for humans to profoundly influence each other’s emotions through unspoken and seemingly instinctive, if exaggerated and impulsive behaviour, remains such an easily exploited facet of prescribed faith, to confuse confusion with revelation, that in feeling as if they have been touched by something profound, the believer would rather assign an artificially inflated meaning upon that experience, than explore an honest description of the phenomena to which they have actually succumb.

Readers might be interested to know that I forwarded a copy of the above to this blog’s favourite saved and therefore righteous Todd, who regularly regurgitates hate theology in the comments. It elicited the following response, for which he was permanently banned…

“I take back any reference to my being a former atheist, as there’s no such thing (or confused agnostics, for that matter), only those who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness. That was me…then God turned the Jesus light switch on, thankfully. It sure wasn’t my doing.

You’re an evil man, Jim – serving Beelzebub like a good obedient minion. God’s been trying to get your attention and save you from the king of this world, but you refuse to respond. Your Satan-induced-narcissism today is going to yield huge dividends in your eternal afterlife unless you repent of your sins and respond to God’s grace through faith in His Son Jesus.

Otherwise, your eternal suffering is going to be well-earned and, dare I submit, “of the worst kind possbible.” When I think of what’s possible from God, I absolutely shudder for you.”