Sunday, March 9, 2008

Attacking faith: The impossible siege

When I put an end to my last blog, I explained that I no longer saw any value in trying to convince theists that they were wrong and wanted to go in a slightly different direction. Here, I'd like to expound on that a little bit.

The Impenetrable Wall of Faith

Any major religion that has stood the test of time has survived for good reason, and made the appropriate adjustments in order to accommodate cultural changes throughout history. This is the basic idea of a meme.

If a religion were easily penetrable by skepticism, it would have collapsed a long time ago. Specifically, if a religion's followers were easily convinced to leave that religion, the religion would no longer be with us.

So it is no surprise that religious people are not persuaded by what atheists consider to be irrefutable evidence that God does not exist. As an atheist, you can argue until you're pulling your hair out, saying, "How can you not see this? How can you be so blind? It's so obvious!" Believe me, I've been there.

So why can't they see? Are Christians inherently dumb? Absolutely not. They have a very good reason to refute every argument a skeptic can muster: "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted." - John 12:40

This verse is all the evidence any Christian needs to ignore our arguments. God exists. That's a fact, and anyone who claims otherwise is either blind to the truth, or in denial (If you're a non-believer, I'm sure you have had someone tell you matter-of-factly that you really do believe in God--you're just denying his existence so you can do whatever you want).

Any argument coming from a non-believer is thus discredited before it begins: "Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith." - 1 Timothy 6:20-21

Our desire to debate is, in fact, a surfire sign that we are corrupt and conceited: "If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain." - 1 Timothy 6:3-5

The Bible is chucked full of verses that make it clear that all non-believers are evil, selfish, conceited, blind, lost and even stupid. For a few (hundred) examples, just do a quick search for the word "understand."
If, despite all of these warnings to tune us out, you are able to break through and get a believer to admit a logical flaw in their faith (such as the trinity, the incompatibility of omniscience and omnipotence, the immovable mover, etc.) there is the powerful final line of defense: "We cannot understand the nature of God."

Christianity has built a powerful wall to defend every believer's faith. When a believer puts up the defense, it is simply impenetrable.

Therefore, the only way for faith to be defeated is if believers willingly open themselves up to skeptics, seeking honest answers to their doubts. But these doubts have to come from the inside. And for those internal attacks, religions have also devised some pretty crafty defenses.

Defending Against Internal Attacks

Some people are more than willing to accept something on blind faith, and for these people a religion only needs to provide the above-mentioned defenses from external skeptics. But other people are naturally inquisitive, and while they may be invulnerable to external skeptics, they will eventually begin to ask their own questions.

If you're like me and have abandoned a religion after once being a believer, it is painfully obvious to you that no major religion stands up to honest doubt and objective inquiry. For a religion to survive, then, it must have an effective way of stifling these doubts and questions.

There are two very effective ways to do this. The first way is to demonize doubt itself. Islam uses this path almost exclusively--to doubt Allah's existence is to commit blasphemy. Christianity condemns doubt to a certain extent as well, but more often uses a second method of deterrence. When a Christian begins expressing doubt, they will usually encounter a response like this Christian's advice, whose essence can be seen in this paragraph:

"In my own earlier struggles as to God’s very existence, it really came down to realizing that my struggle was against unseen evil spirits that were constantly saying, "Has God said?" In other words, it was the same old lie that the devil gave to Eve in the garden. It worked then, and it works now. But, there is no basis of truth in it! The bible is both logical, verifiably accurate, and true in every aspect of life. In short, there is nothing in it that should make us doubt. The real problem is the whispering of the devil(s)."

Christian counselers are less likely to condemn you for doubting. Like "Brother Dean" here, they will assure you that doubt is human. We are weak, and easily tempted. Evil forces pounce on this weakness, and we must pray to God for strength.

Many Christians will even claim that their doubt brings them closer to God, precisely because they have to call on him for the strength to get past their doubts. This should make perfect sense to an outsider: the more doubts you squelch by writing them off as a test, the more reason you have to believe that God exists. After all, if your faith is strong enough to overcome Satan's lies, you must have a pretty good thing going.

While doubt is not directly condemned by most churches, persistent doubt will punch you a one-way ticket to Hell. If you begin to find yourself doubting your faith, that's okay, you're only human...but you better make sure you rid yourself of that doubt as fast as you possibly can. Whenever I questioned my faith as a teen, I was told that I needed to pray for God to lift that doubt, and if my prayers weren't working that meant that something in my life was creating a sort of spiritual barrier between God and me. So doubt itself wasn't a sin, but it meant that there was some other sin in my life. In an indirect way, as long as I was living in doubt, I was living in sin.

I'm sure that I am not the only person who has been taught this reasoning. It was thoroughly convincing to me in high school and I was a smart kid. I cringe when I hear atheists call Christians stupid or gullible, because I understand just how strong the defense against external and internal attacks can be.

What's Left For Atheists?

Assume for a second that I'm completely right, and the only way to "deconvert" from Christianity (or any other religion) is for the individual to bravely embrace doubt and begin a personal search for Truth. Is there still something atheists can do to combat the destructive force of religion? Damn right there is; enough to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

First and foremost, I am not suggesting that people stop making logical and scientific arguments against religion. When believers embrace their doubt, they will seek answers, so those answers better well be out there. Personally, I started doubting God's existence a few years ago, but it wasn't until I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion that I became confident in my non-belief (weird as it seems, I first proclaimed myself an atheist less than a year ago). With each succeeding generation, there seems to be more and more genuine doubt. Christians see this as the corruption of society; I genuinely see it as an opportunity to save humanity (that seems extreme, I know, but it's how I see it). But the arguments that have convinced me and so many of you need to be readily available for every skeptic to come.

While I think that dedicated believers' faith cannot be changed, public policy based on those beliefs can and should be attacked. As skeptics, it is our duty to keep religion (especially creationism and ID) out of our schools and governments, fight for equal rights, and promote unhindered scientific research.

When you think about it, we are lucky to have minds inquisitive enough to break the spell, to borrow Daniel Dennett's phrase. We really are not very different from many adament believers other than our nature to ask a few more questions. Going public with our non-belief and continuing to live our lives is probably one of the strongest moves for change we can make. The more public atheists become, the more evident it becomes that we are not hopeless, immoral heathens who find no meaning in life.

In fact, we might even find that we all--believers and non-believers--have a lot in common. If we embrace a human community, there will be less of a need to form religious communities. But yikes, that's getting into a whole other topic...for another day.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I also have been an affirmed atheist for less than a year. I had lots of doubts about many Christian ideas for many years before that, but finally took the finals steps into unbelief last summer.

I've got two friends who stopped coming to church about seven months ago (my own attendance has diminished greatly, but not ceased altogether). We've spoken a couple of times and emailed each other a couple of times since then. We've noted that we have "doctrinal differences" with our church, etc. I think we're trying to feel each other out about where we all are "spiritually." We may be getting together for awhile next weekend and I'm trying to figure out a way to open up a really honest discussion about theism, atheism, the whole bit. It's risky, because they have connections to much of my social and family network - and vice versa - the risks run both ways.

I'm not out to proselytize, but I have a suspicion that many people in the church pews are closet doubters (as I was for many years) or closet agnostics and atheists. I wouldn't mind being able to be more open with at least a few more of my friends and giving them someone with whom they can be open too. I don't think I need to attack their faith as much as I may just need to let them be honest about their own questions and know that I'm not going to judge them, or even worse, "out" them before they're ready to out themselves.

Johnny said...

Very well written, researched, and intelligent post. I'm not going to argue with you, or say either of us is wrong.

However, I have to say (and I think you already know this), That I have blind faith. Note, this is different than blind obedience, which I believe we are supposed to have that too, however, I'm not so big on that one.

I have to admit I've never doubted my faith outright. I've thought "Hey, what if people are correct, and God doesn't exist?", but then I think it over, and just feel with every fiber of my being that he just has to. I'll admit I'm about one of the farthest people away from being a perfect Christian, starting with my sexuality (which I do not believe is a sin) and ending with my general attitude. I've gotten angry at God, swore, and shook my fist at the sky. However, I believe my faith is unshakable, partly due to the fact that althrough my childhood God was around in some form or another. I went to a parochial school Kindergarten through 8th grade. We had daily religon classes, along with weekly chapel. We went to church sundays and sang in the choir (we had to do that, we had no choice.) It was just assumed you would be confirmed upon achieving 8th grade. I still have images of Jesus around my home, along with Mary and some saints, and too many crosses to count. I pray at least once a day, and will offer special prayers through the day when the occasion calls for it.

Now, I don't subscribe to many of the beliefs of my fellow Christians, for example: views on sexuality, sex before marriage, the "sanctity" of marriage, church attendance, tithing, etc.

However, I lack the knowledge of the bible and church doctrines to have a good debate on the subject of the existance of God, and honestly have to say "I have blind faith and that's all" I'm not going to try to convert the masses, and don't really believe in Missionary work. However I can point out (and sort of enjoy doing so) the holes in church logics, in the speeches of religous leaders, and the inaccuracies in the Bible itself. Don't get me started on the different branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Baptism, Pentacostal, Lutheran, Adventist, Apostolic,Unitarian, Methodist and so on) and why I think that's all crap too.

Nathan said...

John, you're belief in God is exactly the type that I have no problem with. Obviously, I don't agree with your belief that God exists. But I know that you don't hassle people who believe something else, or don't believe anything at all. And I know that your belief doesn't lead to any form of discrimination or harm to other people. So what the hell is there to be offended by?

In the past, I know that I've claimed that ditching belief in god would ultimately make anyone a happier person. But I realized that I was just projecting my personality onto everyone else. I'm much happier without god, but that doesn't mean that everyone would be.

Johnny said...

Indeed, in now way was I offended by your post I think it's really great, and hope more people will read it.

I think that if your have a strong faith you won't be "lead away" from our Lord. However, I guess it's just not for everyone, like everything else in the world. I'm a very big believe in "Whatever blows your skirt up." That's what I like about the Jewish faith, they aren't out there trying to convert others. To them if you're a Jew, Great! Come eat with us. and if you're not, Ok, well, come eat with us anyway. I've seriously considered converting to Judaism, however, just can't. I've also considered joing Cathoiliscm, but then pretty much realized, I can do the Catholic things I want with out actually "joining" them.

As for you, I respect your beliefs and ideas, and enjoy your company, and will continue to do so.

Katie said...

hey nathan,

this is katie devitt -- i'm friends with the mikes and johnny and jenny and lisa. we've met a few times. anyway, very thought-provoking post here. as a devout catholic who teaches religion at a catholic high school and who is about to enter a monastery and become a nun in a few months, i would be very very interested in having a discussion with you. i'm not trying to change your mind about God's existence, but i'm very curious to hear the arguments that have led you to your atheistic beliefs. if you ever want to chat, you can shoot me an email: take care!

- katie