How Not To Witness to Atheists

It’s a sign of how far atheism has come in recent decades that religious organizations openly discuss how to lure us (back) into the fold. They used to lump us in with non-practicing theists and miscellaneous sinners, but now, we’re worth specific attention. There’s something satisfying in that.

David Robertson of Dundee, Scotland thinks he knows how to convince atheists that being Christian is a better bet, and wrote “Four Ways to Witness to Atheists” for the blog Desiring God. I’ve been mulling over his thoughts for a while now, because they’re a rollercoaster of amusement, bemusement, and insult, and the ride is as incoherent as the text.

Robertson starts with the rather anodyne suggestion, “Treat them with dignity and listen carefully.” He rightly points out that, often, people with a mind to recruit into Christian groups don’t talk the way atheists talk, and so it’s easy for things to get lost in translation. This isn’t bad advice for anyone with a mind to convince others of something or recruit them into a community, so it’s nice to see it here. Admissions of not knowing what one is doing already and exhortations to learn are rare enough to treasure, even here.

He doesn’t elaborate on the “dignity” aspect of his suggestion past generic advice not to be a jerk to one’s potential converts, which makes sense, given that he spends most of the rest of his essay contradicting it. The rambling insults begin in the very next section, “Be willing to address their ‘defeater beliefs.’”

In this section, he describes a type of atheist he calls the “New Fundamentalist Atheist,” who fits stereotypes of the so-called New Atheists of the past decade. It’s exceptionally common for even religious writers to forget that “fundamentalist” doesn’t mean loud, angry, strident, extreme, or dangerous, but rather refers to groups that see themselves as deliberately returning to the fundamentals of something that they see others as having warped or corrupted. The New Atheists made no such posture for themselves, instead presenting a face of intentional challenge to religious hegemony not commonly seen before and insisting on their newness rather than any presumed return to a previous ideal. It’s hard to imagine Robertson doesn’t know the rhetorical game he is playing with this word, but the effect is the same: to liken open advocacy for atheist positions to the reactionary violence of Christian fundamentalists, who functionally own the word in the West. Christian writers are fond of positioning atheists this way, as part of a broader strategy to make their own positions seem like neutral middles rather than opposite poles. It’s an old trick, as stale as it is offensive, and its efficacy is part of why atheists continue to be seen as fundamentally untrustworthy, dangerous people in much of the West.

Robertson describes four basic tenets of this “New Fundamentalist Atheism,” each a paraphrase of one or more uncredited quotes from famous New Atheists. Each of the four is presented much as it would appear in a blithe Internet comment, rather than the more careful presentation offered by the original quote, in an effort to make atheist positions seem laughable as well as extreme. For Robertson’s purpose, it hardly matters that the original truisms are flawed, incomplete statements that serve better as food for thought than as guiding principles, because his real goal is to make atheists look ridiculous, which his misquotes (particularly his mangling of the definition of agnostic atheism, truism #1) capably achieve.

It’s worth noting that most of the people who made names for themselves as New Atheists did indeed turn out to be reactionary bigots, but it’s not this fact that Robertson uses as part of a (still incorrect) attempt to liken vocal atheism to Christian fundamentalism. He takes rather greater offense that they’re not quiet about being atheists than he does to any of that.

Robertson follows this ramble with an exhortation to prove to atheists that Christians can be nice people, which is a strange suggestion to place after insulting us in detail, and before the real meat of his incoherent screed.

Robertson spends the most substantive chunk of his essay suggesting crude rhetorical counters to common atheist talking points. In particular, he suggests a way for Christians to claim that atheists have both “beliefs” and “faith,” and thus aren’t so different from Christians who claim the same. He’s right to challenge the ridiculous idea that atheists lack beliefs, because it’s a waste of a useful word like belief to confine it to supernatural ideas. All humans have beliefs, most of which have nothing to do with magic creator beings, and atheists and theists alike who claim otherwise are flatly wrong. His thoughts on faith, however, reveal damning ignorance on his part.

To impute that atheists have faith, he claims that believing in science and philosophical naturalism are both acts of faith on par with believing in supernatural forces. He is telling us to look at a world so obviously governed by fixed natural laws that humans have figured out how to turn those natural laws into supersonic flight, laser-guided anti-cancer nanoparticles, global positioning satellites, and corn dozens of times larger and tastier than its teosinte ancestors, and consider that it might instead be the whimsical doings of a cosmic power that could rearrange all of those natural laws in an instant if it so desired. He is telling us that it is reasonable to observe natural laws that have not changed in the entire time that humans have ever observed them, and imagine that everything we know about them is built on demiurge sand, negated in a moment’s deific caprice. He is claiming nothing less monumental than that knowledge is impossible, as a justification for believing in his version of Christianity.

If this belief were as widespread as Robertson’s essay desires, science would never have happened, because no one would expect the world to be consistent enough to be worth examining and trying to predict. But our world is worth examining and trying to predict, because it is predictable. Naturalism is a conclusion from millions upon millions of observations, all leading to the inexorable conclusion that material, natural forces are what move particles and change outcomes in our world, and holding within its expanse every natural law ever quantified and every scientific conclusion ever formed.

What makes believing in supernatural forces an act of faith isn’t that it “might” be wrong, or that proving that something doesn’t exist is impossible. It’s that there is no evidence whatsoever in its favor that isn’t more effectively explained by something natural, and people believe anyway. This is a crucially different kind of belief than the millennia-honed conclusion of naturalism, and one that Robertson can only liken to accepting science’s conclusions by claiming that it is reasonable to believe that knowing things about our world is both impossible and pointless. If it’s “faith” to imagine that the cosmic laws that held together for humanity’s entire history will keep holding, then everything is faith.

Robertson makes another elision within this paragraph, sliding smoothly from “faith” about the nature of objective reality to “faith” about moral questions and intellectual best practices. To regard these as acts of faith, he has to conveniently ignore what’s implied in the “should” modifiers he uses. Those are goal markers, and don’t make sense without a desired outcome that acting in accordance with “should” or “shouldn’t” allows one to pursue. By deliberately leaving out this aspect of his own argument, he can claim that statements such as “one shouldn’t believe in things they can’t prove” are declarations of faith, rather than conclusions based on premises. “If one doesn’t wish to believe in nonsense, one should avoid believing things that can’t be falsified” isn’t a declaration of faith any more than “if one wishes to avoid falling out of trees, one should avoid climbing trees” is.

This kind of subtle trickery, detectable only by carefully watching the writer’s cards to notice when words like “belief” and “faith” change definitions between uses, ensnares many people who should know better. Robertson’s hope, in no uncertain terms, is that his readers will meet atheists who aren’t savvy to this trick, and trick them.

That Robertson has the temerity to call atheism “intellectually vacuous” after this display is positively galling. That he can do so in between a renewed call to bring us in with demonstrations of niceness is baffling. In the end, it’s clear his suggestion to “listen carefully” is purely predatory; he kept only what he could use.

How Not To Witness to Atheists

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