Simplistic Christianity leads to Simplistic Atheism: it’s our fault

Atheist-monster-poster(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)

“I walk outside my house, I look around, and it doesn’t seem apparent to me that there is a God. I just don’t feel it. It doesn’t seem to be the natural conclusion of reality when I live life and look around. I see the world, and the existence of God doesn’t feel like a natural conclusion one could draw.”

I stare down into my coffee, catching the corner of my pastor’s glasses in the dark reflection.

“Well”, he says, “I know it doesn’t fix how you feel, but in the grand scope of human history, and even the global humanity living today, that opinion you just expressed is in the extreme, extreme minority. Most people living in the past and now have found looked at the world and have not been able to come to any conclusion other than their being a God.”

Crap. He was right. What I thought was such an objective engagement with the world around me, was (of course) still the product of the cultural forces from which I drink deeply. History and developmental psychology have shown us that religiousness is the default mode of the human heart.

We are by nature religious. It takes other, external forces to push back against that and move us away from it. And this fact is no apologetic for religion. It’s neither a point “for” or “against” religion. We are also by nature selfish and willing to do whatever it takes to be the fittest and survive. We try not to give into this natural drive and through education and conditioning try to move away from it.

Something extra has to come into play to move someone from religion to Atheism. Something has to be added to the basic religiosity of folks to move them from it. Now this “extra” thing could very well be facts, enlightenment, maturity, therapy, medication, an inner self-honesty, or even understandable experience–it doesn’t have to be negative things, and this is not intended to be a knock on Atheism.

Religion could very well be an evolutionary artifact or a psychological coping mechanism that we have progressed beyond the need for and that we should shake off. That’s not my point, though.

The fact still remains: religion is the launching pad for Atheists. Which means, specifically for Christians, the kind of faith you perpetuate will dictate the kinds of Atheists you find, and their reasonings for thinking that way.

I have a friend named Daniel. We’ve had some “comment discussions” on various social media sites, blogs, and have had the privilege of hanging out for a weekend. He was raised in a more Pentecostal setting and in the past few years has given himself wholly to Atheism and articulating defenses for it and arguing against religion. He is a kind man far more interested in discussion and getting to the bottom of these things than simply yelling his opinions and leaving it at that.

A couple of days ago, he put up a Facebook note that laid out 20 things that would convince him that Atheism was false (it’s really a list of 20 reasons why he thinks Christianity is wrong, but that’s beside the point).

Looking at his critiques of religion, you can figure out the kind of God and Christianity he thinks he is not believing in–the kind of religion from off of which his Atheism is built. He received nearly 30 “likes”, started some comment warring, and received accolades and congratulations for definitively destroying religion, showing how Atheism makes sense, writing articulately, and even one comment praising his “diction” for not sounding “folksy”.

And yet, I couldn’t help thinking, as I read it, how the world it seems he is inhabiting as he writes is one of such utter over-simplicity that didn’t seem to know of any complexity, nuance, or substance in either the world or in religion. Throughout, he oversimplifies or misunderstands scientific and theological terms and ideas.

As I read, I kept thinking that he was speaking against both a Straw-God and a Straw-Bible that I didn’t believe in. And I don’t mean that in the liberal, post-modern “I’m enlightened and read the Bible in a unique way that’s different from everyone else”, which really just means watering down Christianity until there’s nothing distinctive to it all. I mean that he is reacting to a theology, Christianity, and Bible that bears little resemblance to Christianity as it has been known for most of its history.

He seems to be reacting to a very specific brand of Christianity known only in the past 150 years and only in the West, and only in response to the Enlightenment. But this isn’t Daniel (or any other Atheist’s) fault. I blame American Christians.

It’s our fault. We let a flavor of Christianity take hold in our country with no nuance, complexity, or substance. We let an idolatry of the Bible take root that no author of Scripture would have known. We evacuated doubt and humanity from our theology and spoke silly ideas with such unwavering confidence that even the Atheists think that Christianity falls or stands based on such minor theological issues!

And this is not just the previous generation of southern fundamentalists. I’m talking to all of you super cool awesome twenty-something “Neo-Reformed”, “Neo-Calvinist”, and “Emergent” Christians. You have exalted (read: worshiped) a group of people (read: white men) that “have it all figured out” and have every answer to every question and hold up such minor, idiotic things as essentials of the faith and Gospel. You do this while alienating and casting out those that try to offer substance, complexity, awe, mystery, and historical fidelity to our faith. It’s our fault as American Christians for fighting silly fights and clinging to everything but the truest essentials.

It’s because of us that Atheists can read something like Daniel’s post and say things like, “Brilliant piece Daniel, truer words have never been typed.” Never? Really? But back to Daniel.

He doesn’t get get completely off the hook, though. (I say that with a wry smile across my face, by the way.) I don’t know if Daniel knows this or not, but I remember having read this post by him a long time ago. He wrote it a while ago, and simply re-posted it the other day.

And here’s my frustration. When he first wrote this, maybe he had the kind of Christianity in mind that I was just talking about. Maybe he simply had only been offered a simplistic idea of Christianity and so the terms he was laying out against it were also simplistic.

But I know for a fact that he has–since he originally wrote this–read, commented on, and engaged with many of those writers, bloggers, scholars, and theologians that consistently speak directly to the issues he writes about. He interacts frequently with Christians that do not represent the kind of hyper-rational zero-sum truth world within which this post was written.

I do find this pretty consistently among the more ardent, evangelical Atheists out there. They fight with the such rigor to say that modernist Christian fundamentalism has to be the truest articulation of Christianity, no matter what anyone else says. They act as if that is “true” Christianity, and so if that can be dismantled, then all is “won”. They write off dissenting, legitimate voices–or simply disregard them.

So if we’re going to have this discussion, we should at least acknowledge the presence and knowledge of voices that have legitimate responses to the concerns raised in that post and others like it.

In my next post, I’ll try and walk through some of the over-simplicity of the faith and world that I think I observed in the post. I’ll also offer my answers to Daniel’s question: what would lead me away from my faith. Stay tuned. And feel free to comment below.


20 thoughts on “Simplistic Christianity leads to Simplistic Atheism: it’s our fault

  1. Paul,

    While I do appreciate your taking the time to respond, I don’t appreciate the flagrant misrepresentation. The religious opinion and intellectual caliber you ascribe to me in this piece in no way reflect my actual disposition and are so off-piste that I quickly lost track of whether you were talking about me or some nondescript internet denizen with which you have passing familiarity.

    To set the record straight, you do not know me personally, and you clearly know even less about my views of religion and the serious, contemplative academic respect for and to detail to which I approach the topic. If you have a question about my views on an issue, ask me. Ask me. Don’t implant your own thoughts onto my character and radiate them in a public post. It’s unprofessional and ventures headlong into character intrusion.

    To avoid further blatantly misinformed opinion from surfacing, I have tremendous respect for people of any and all religious persuasion, though I may depart from them on the metaphysics of their beliefs. I am under no delusion that theism, and Christian theism, can be dismissively fit into a box rather than a broad spectrum of nuance and theological nicety. Fundamentalism is *not* the truest articulation of Christianity and in fact is the most injurious strain of Christianity in its long history. There *are* legitimate theistic views to be voiced and I can entertain and respect those voices without affirming them for myself. I do so regularly and incorporate many of these voices in both my reading list and my book reviews on various websites.

    To suggest even remotely to the contrary is to paint a picture of me that not even my more distant acquaintances would recognize.

    I will respond very briefly to a few of the many misconstructions and misconstruals you’ve set down in your piece.

    “The fact still remains: religion is the launching pad for Atheists.”

    To the contrary, the majority of atheists are not vocal about their non-belief. Millions around the world are not raised in a religious environment and many maintain their non-belief through life. They are not persuaded by the religious institutions around them, nor do they see a need to vocalize their non-belief. Vocal atheism is a minority, and activism is warranted to keep at abeyance religious intrusions into public life and policy. Your characterization is plainly false.

    “…(it’s really a list of 20 reasons why he thinks Christianity is wrong, but that’s beside the point).”

    In fact, the majority of the preceding list speaks to an interventionist conception (i.e., the god of theism), which subsumes all Abrahamic religions. Numbers 7, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19 (i.e., 6/20) lay emphasis on Christianity specifically, as this is the religion in which I was raised and am most conversant. Your simplification is plainly false.

    “Looking at his critiques of religion, you can figure out the kind of God and Christianity he thinks he is not believing in–the kind of religion from off of which his Atheism is built.”

    It’s as if you’ve never examined the very things you inveigh against. Atheism is not a religion. Atheists do not adopt missional creeds; they do not gather once a week to perform sacred rituals; they do not place unyielding faith in a static, two thousand year-old set of texts; there is no official “church of atheism” to which members pay regular tithe and offering. Perhaps Christianity was what you were thinking of there.

    “started some comment warring”

    It’s as if you’ve specifically avoided reading the thread at all. In fact, there’s been no warring, and the discussion thus far has been mannerly, mutually respectful and highly illuminating.

    You insert one out of place claim that I “oversimplify” or “misunderstand” scientific and religious terms without providing even one example.

    In closing, this quasi-post reads like the hasty scribbles of someone exasperated on their own inability to respond meaningfully or thoughtfully to the discussion at hand, amounting to little more than a dismissive mischaracterization which gestures toward character assassination, as vacuous as it is ill-informed. I might expect far more adequate and engaging feedback from someone who has reflected in a deeper way on these matters, and this circuitous, thoughtless, error-strewn piece doesn’t come within hailing distance.

    – Daniel


  2. Even more unfortunate is that with your inaccurate criticism of my treatment of religion, you’ve only shown that you are unwilling to engage any legitimate criticisms of your own beliefs. If you cannot acknowledge that there is legitimacy to be found on both sides, then you have no real starting point for engagement.


    • For the record, I’ve received a number of messages and emails from Christian friends (and from Christians I’ve never met) thanking me for writing the piece as it has helped them evaluate their beliefs on a deeper level. It was not in any way intended as an attack on anyone’s faith but to promote constructive discourse on important questions we all consider throughout life. The fact that you seem to miss the point entirely and dive straight to attacks on my character reveals more about you than me and suggests a sign of desperation.


        • “…He is a kind man far more interested in discussion and getting to the bottom of these things than simply yelling his opinions and leaving it at that…”


        • “They fight with the such rigor to say that modernist Christian fundamentalism has to be the truest articulation of Christianity, no matter what anyone else says. They act as if that is “true” Christianity, and so if that can be dismantled, then all is “won”. They write off dissenting, legitimate voices–or simply disregard them.”

          This is patently false, and if it was not in reference to me then he should have stated so clearly.

          And then he has the audacity to claim:

          “So if we’re going to have this discussion, we should at least acknowledge the presence and knowledge of voices that have legitimate responses to the concerns raised in that post and others like it.”

          Again, if you can’t acknowledge legitimate challenge to your beliefs, then you’re needlessly propagating the stereotype of the close-minded Christian.


    • Daniel, having read this post, the follow up, and your Facebook post, I came to a few brief conclusions:
      !) Paul’s post wasn’t about you, but you made it about you. You were offered as both an anecdote and an impetus for what he really wanted to write about, which was only inspired by your post, not an engagement with it.
      2) Paul’s post was about the relationship between Christianity and the varied atheisms it inspires, not an evaluation of atheism itself.
      3) It is normative and expected in academic settings to name those with whom one disagrees. There was nothing unprofessional in Paul’s approach. In fact he gave you way more respect than was necessary. Your response to it was clearly from personal hurt and the ferocity in your tone demonstrates that. But unprofessional it certainly was not.
      4) Your original post was a cogent understanding of the problem of post-enlightenment belief. It, however, doesn’t give a particular reason for unbelief, nor does it take into consideration the very specific nature of the Abrahamic faiths in perhaps the most important area: GOD’s consistent refusal to give on-demand proof, relying instead on people to spread the word. The example I thought of in the midst of argument #1 was the story of Thomas from John. Thomas wants the proof the others receive and is pissed that he didn’t get it. But Jesus expected His followers to share the story and BE Christ to them. Christ doesn’t make a personal, supernatural visit to everybody, nor is this expectation engendered in Scripture or Tradition.
      5) Your original post which masterfully weaves classic arguments against the existence of GOD with your own, is a sound piece and is praise worthy. Where I take issue is in your placing the conversation neatly in the confines of Modernist thinking, which makes it easy to take pot-shots at texts derived with premodern thinking. Even describing in your introduction the home field advantage you use (demonstrable and evidence-based) is like holding a baseball game on a hockey rink and claiming baseball sucks. This is the trap philosophers and theists have often fallen into because of Platonic dualism. Can GOD make a rock so heavy that GOD can’t lift it? Well, crap. Construct an unsolvable paradigm and when it doesn’t work out, throw up your hands? It is still a constructed paradigm and one designed to prove what you want it to prove.
      6) Lastly, it often helps when you feel personally attacked, not to move the goal posts on what your true point was. Paul was clear throughout his post that he was speaking to Christians about the type of Theism they espouse and what type of Atheism they create because of it. And since hitting publish, he has been gracious, even giving you voice on his blog to appease you. A lesser man would take that as a sort of victory.


  3. Hi Paul and Daniel,

    Was intrigued by the post and your comments, Dan.

    Wanted to share a couple of my own thoughts:

    First, with regards to the following comment:
    “While I do appreciate your taking the time to respond, I don’t appreciate the flagrant misrepresentation.”

    Certainly while I respect your right to respond to a post that was written largely about you and your views, Dan, I guess I’m wondering how specifically Paul misrepresented you? It seems he indicated that his specific thoughts on your views would come in the next post? Perhaps it would be best to wait until then to write a long, stinging response? Just a thought.

    Also, while I’m not on facebook anymore and can’t speak to more recent posts you’ve written there, I think I understand what Paul’s getting at in some of his criticism – specifically some ways you seem to speak hyperbolically, excessively, and generally overstate your case (as if some of your points of view are simply self-evident – when I think you know that they’re not).

    The easiest example that comes to mind for me (and I mention this here only because we had our exchange about this “publicly” on facebook a while back) was when you stated something along the lines of how there was simply no historical evidence for the resurrection (something like that, I forget the exact quote). I responded by asking you if you had seen the video presentation by N.T. Wright that I sent you or were familiar with his contributions on the subject (well-respected by all sides as a scholar on the historical Jesus) – you said you had not. I pointed ou that this greatly diminished the credibility of a strong statement like yours. And actually I remember you acknowledging the fairness of that criticism.

    I think it’s those types of things that Paul’s getting at here…but I could be wrong.


    • Whit,

      This misses the point completely. He should have never mentioned my name in the post to begin with. The ‘me’ part of the post is irrelevant. The person behind the words is irrelevant. What matters are the arguments *themselves*, and when someone addresses the person rather than the arguments, it’s a key indicator you have a lock, stock and barrel substantive argument on your hands.

      So far, we’ve seen much of the former and none of the latter.


      • Daniel, if me using your name is such an indicator, how is spending so much time, energy, and Facebook copying-and-pasting complaining about how your name was used not the same thing? It prominently says, “Part 1”. This was setting a much bigger, foundation for the next post. Just simply in practical terms, how was I supposed to do this? Just talk about some mysterious, ethereal unnamed thing to which I was beginning to respond, and then in the next post have the grand “reveal” where I tell people who I was ACTUALLY responding to?

        And yes, you are significant. The disparity between the “you” I see now and the “you” this old writing reflects is important. The fact that I’ve at least met you in person once adds a dimension to this that deserves to be disclosed.

        Frankly, you do not reserve the right to gladly receive hyperbolic and over-the-top praise and accolades for your re-post and then go around complaining that someone didn’t respond to you in the fashion, order, or way that you want. You wrote the words that inspired what I wrote. Own it.

        You’ve already had several “defenders” of yours say things about me personally and this post (and you have gone on to further those lines of discussion) that fall in the same category of how you think you were “injured” by this post. And I have not gotten all worked up about it and felt some imminent “need” to “right this injustice”. It’s the internet. People say things. People misunderstand me. I miscommunicate. Others miscommunicate. It happens. No one’s mind is getting changed over this particular exchange. It’s not a big deal. I get over it. I will sleep perfectly well tonight. I hope you can also.

        And though you inspired this post, I didn’t really address it to you anyway. I referenced the source work, just as anyone would. And sorry, it was YOUR work that bears YOUR name. Honestly, this post was written more to Christians than to you. I didn’t expect you to need to respond to any of it. I didn’t ask you to. I never said that anything I said demanded a response. You assumed I was looking for some response from you after this particular post. I didn’t. I didn’t engage with the specifics of your post. I know that. I have a place set aside for that, and this wasn’t it.

        So I simply don’t understand what this “key indicator you have a lock, stock and barrel substantive argument on your hands” is that you wrote of here and on Facebook. I know that that is a catchy line to throw around the internet, but especially when you know that there’s a part 2 coming, it’s disingenuous to toss around after a Part 1, no matter how many Facebook likes you end up getting for it.

        Look, at the end of the day, I purposefully didn’t use your last name so it wouldn’t come out in a Google search if you didn’t want it to. I linked to the source, as is common practice. So what’s the problem? I didn’t make the post about you. I was trying to make it about the Church and their own over-simplicity. You are now making this post all about you. I didn’t.


        • Paul,

          This again misses the point. Of course it’s OK to link to the note, but to then try to paint a picture of the person behind the note makes no sense whatsoever. It’s the arguments that are important, not the person behind them.

          How many other apologetic blogs do you read? I know of no other reputable Christian blog who conducts their posts in this way. What they do is talk about a challenge to the faith and then craft a meaningful, thoughtful response. They don’t talk about the character and backstory of the person who pitched the challenge. To be frank, nothing I presented in my post was new, fresh or original whatsoever, only the prose and the phrasing were unique. These arguments and information have been around for decades.

          I just think the way you went about it was unprofessional and quite honestly I think you could have done without this 1st post entirely and jumped straight to post 2 where you address what was actually said.

          – Daniel


          • I don’t run an “apologetic” blog. It’s just a personal blog. And again, I could have gone into more “backstory” as you call it, more than the 1 or 2 sentences than I said, but I didn’t. Once again, the post was using your post as a launching point to talk about the Church, and also prepare for a second part. It wasn’t meant to “respond” to anything! I never said it was.

            I didn’t talk about your “character” at all. I think you have excellent character. Do I think you unintentionally mischaracterized some things in your post? Yeah. Is that a character issue? No, not really. I honestly have no idea what “picture” you feel was “painted” of you that grieves you and injured you so much. Were you raised a Christian and then became an Atheist? Yeah. Was it because of the force of many of the arguments you summarized in your post? I assume so. They’re at least things that keep you an Atheist. If anything, I would think that you would be glad for me to say that, as it speaks to the strength of what you wrote. It’s not that these 20 points simply reinforce what you were raised thinking, but they actually have the power to change one’s most deeply-held beliefs! I honestly felt more like I was giving you the honor and accolades that were due you, no matter how much I ultimately disagree with it.

            And so, as I was writing the other post, I had these other thoughts concerning the Church that did not count as “responses” to anything you were saying. And so I wrote this post for the Christians out there. In a couple of sentences in the beginning, I introduced people to you that may not know you. I complimented you and said how I respect you and like you (trying to show why what you had said had struck me so much, and to encourage them to read your pieces also). I didn’t say anything incorrect. I didn’t twist anything. And then I spent the next 1,000 words or so talking to the Christians about what I was thinking as I read your piece and wrote a response, and how I think it reflects on them. That’s it. I don’t see the issue. There was nothing overly personal, no insult (other than if you think me disagreeing with and thinking you got some stuff wrong is an insult), and no animosity.

            I hope my *actual* response is in fact thoughtful and meaningful. When I post it, I’ll let you know. This wasn’t it, nor was it intended to be. In fact (I just saw this), the draft of that post is subtitled “my response”. Why? Because this wasn’t ever intended to be it. Plenty of authors write anticipatory posts as they write larger pieces. It lets people in on some of the ways that they’re thinking “behind the scenes” on the thought process as they write.

            The only “character” statement you could accuse me of was the mentioning that this was a re-post of something you wrote before. If we’re talking “professionality”, not only is the re-posted nature of this relevant to the overall pre-engagement of the post (for the reasons I articulated), but I do sort of think that re-posting and copying and pasting should be disclosed on any piece, to give people context. It’s just best practice. This is what got Jonah Lehrer in trouble.

            And so I’m sorry if I offended you in some way. Would I rather you had any thoughts on how Christians tend to mess up the priorities of their doctrine? Yeah! I think you’d have an invaluable insight and perspective on that! Would I welcome a critique on an evolutionary perspective on religiosity as part of our nature? I’d love it! Would I appreciate an honest and potentially-vulnerable personal assessment by you of how your previous experience has shaped how you “wear” your Atheism? Oh my goodness, you have no idea how interesting, helpful, humanizing, and important I think that would be?

            But no. Instead of all these helpful, engaging possible conversations we could have–conversations that people don’t NORMALLY have on this kind of stuff–we’re getting Daniel’s personal injury and frustration over perceived “character assassination”. I really am sorry for anything you feel does that. If there are any particular lines or paragraphs you’d like taken out of the post, let me know.


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  5. “As I read, I kept thinking that he was speaking against both a Straw-God and a Straw-Bible that I didn’t believe in. And I don’t mean that in the liberal, post-modern “I’m enlightened and read the Bible in a unique way that’s different from everyone else”, which really just means watering down Christianity until there’s nothing distinctive to it all. I mean that he is reacting to a theology, Christianity, and Bible that bears little resemblance to Christianity as it has been known for most of its history. He seems to be reacting to a very specific brand of Christianity known only in the past 150 years and only in the West, and only in response to the Enlightenment.”

    It’s like I am the cookie tree and you’re the little cookie elves. Does ‘you complete me’ come off too strongly?


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