Two concepts few would ever find themselves combining into one are “Baptist minister” and “agnostic” – unless of course one is describing a debate of some kind. Keep them separate and they make sense, bring them together into one person and the dissonance begins. And yet, an agnostic Baptist minister is exactly what I am. How I came to this place from fundamentalist Christianity is a story in itself better told another time, and where my beliefs might end up is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, this is what I am today.
I have been impressed with and an avid reader of articles on the Secular Web for about two years now. In fact, I suppose one could say that the Secular Web has played a significant role in my move from an advocate and employer of conservative Christian apologetics to a place of general theistic agnosticism. The Internet Infidels helped jam my own theistic memes, not by jamming anything down my throat, but by providing a resource of information to which I could turn as I sought answers to my own personal questions and suspicious regarding my religious tradition. In my life experience, when an “evangelistic atheist” came along attacking my faith, I would immediately respond defensively with an arsenal of apologetics. I would never have changed my mind because of frontal attacks on my beliefs. Neither did those attacks play a role in my eventual turn to agnosticism. That gradual decision came about as a result of other, much more subtle events and resources slowly helping me to be more honest about why I believed what I did at the time. I was not coerced but rather persuaded by a combination of rather subtle information and my own reasoning. I believe there is something very valuable to learn from my experience – especially when it comes to the mission of culture-jamming theistic memes effectively yet respectfully.
As a non-Christian, if you’ve bothered to enter into debate with a Christian – say, in a Christian chat room – then you have probably discovered that the debate quickly reduces to “Yes it is / No it isn’t” kinds of exchanges. Instead of discussing the issues at hand with relative openness and a willingness to learn, both parties often end up staking their claim without so much as attempting to try on the metaphysical glasses through which their contender views and interprets reality. Now, already some might be balking at my suggestion that we should learn from each other; that it is the Christian who needs to revise his or her beliefs and abandon the bent to explain naturally occurring facts by invoking supernatural myths. It is important to understand, however, that both sides are operating from a particular viewpoint. Both believe themselves to be equally right. Now, I concur that reason and the history of empirical success are more than enough to make the naturalistic worldview a cogent one – likely the correct one. What we’re talking about at this juncture, however, is perspectives, not necessarily reality and it is critical that one remains conscious of this point while in debate. From the Christian perspective, naturalism flies in the face of much of what Christians hold true by faith – and the atheist or agnostic must at least, out of respect, try to understand that perspective. By better understanding the Christian’s perspective, not only do non-believers show basic human consideration, but they also better understand why Christians often respond the way they do. If the Christian is unable to return this basic human courtesy, then at the very least you have done the right thing. Furthermore, showing respect and courtesy for the other person’s perspective tends to help lower guards so that genuine exchange can transpire. But I believe it would be productive to explore a little more specifically just why most Christians react the way they do to non-Christian challenges to their beliefs. In so doing, I hope to increase some understanding to those who get frustrated trying to debate (or at least discuss) your respective epistemological differences.
The Common Christian Worldview
Let’s begin here by cutting to the chase. The reason the Christian worldview is so at-odds with naturalism is because of its dependence upon and veneration of its sacred writing, the Bible. Bottom line: to argue with a Christian is to argue with their faith that the Bible is a book inspired by God. The atheist must understand that when he or she sets out to dismantle the Christian beliefs, he or she is arguing with an entire system of thinking, another world wherein lie even its own debates and viewpoints based upon varying interpretations of its own sacred text. Thus, even the famous Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga wrote in his now-renowned article “Some Advice for Christian Philosophers” that Christians (particularly apologists and philosophers) should stop worrying about defending Christianity from atheists and focus more on questions and issues within Christian theology and philosophy (see http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth10.html). Probably 90% of the debate regarding Christianity is internal/internal (i.e., debates among professing Christians stemming from multitudinous and conflicting theologies and interpretations of the Bible) rather than external/internal (i.e., non-Christian/Christian debates about the veracity of Christianity or theism in general). Therefore, try to argue the scientific certainty of evolutionary theory with a Christian and you will get quotes from Genesis as a rebuttal. The Christian may take the literal, six-day creation stance and simply deny science is correct at all, or perhaps claim that there is an evil mind motivating the theories of natural science (e.g., the devil or some demonic force). More often than not, however, the believer will often try to intertwine science and the biblical text in order to attempt preserving biblical integrity in the face of scientific fact. Either way, they will refuse to abandon their text as anything less than divine in origin and thus, ipso facto, as correct no matter what. If one tries to undercut the integrity of the Bible by revealing contradictions, blatant historical and factual blunders, etc., then be prepared for either the classic “Wall of Rejection” response (i.e., “You simply refuse to believe God’s Word, so I have nothing more to say…”) or the growing “Volley of Apologetics” response (i.e., “Those are not contradictions, they can be explained this way…”). But it is doubtful you will get much farther than that. Why is that?
There are many reasons why you will get a Christian only so-close to thinking twice about his or her presuppositions regarding the divine nature of the Bible. Let me mention just three of them that I believe to be the most salient. First, one’s metaphysic, one’s beliefs about reality, is usually a very personal thing that resists being violated. This is due, as you might have guessed, to the fact that one’s metaphysic is the means by which he or she makes sense of the world. It helps one deal with the ebb and flow of life, self-concept and worth, joys and tragedies, etc. In this way, the atheist is no different than the theist. We all try to make sense of the world, even if we’re not fully aware of it, and we all have our own metaphysic, even if it has been handed down to us from our teachers and mentors. This brings us to the next reason.
Second, everyone has certain innate conceptual templates hard-wired into our brains from years of evolutionary development, and these concepts are susceptible to being attached to religious ideas. This is a fascinating and compelling theory spelled out in great detail in Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001). Without getting into the ultimate origins of supernatural belief here, we can at least say that religious concepts are passed down, generation to generation, culture to culture, so that their inferences seem as real to many people as inferences for any natural empirical fact. With this in mind, one must remember that faith-based concepts held by Christians are very concrete to them, so that for them to question such concepts would be like questioning their own existence or the existence of “that tree over there”. I should, however, qualify all this a bit by saying that it is nonetheless still possible for a Christian to question those deeply held religious concepts – it’s simply unlikely if they are soundly rooted. Once supernatural concepts become attached to certain naturally occurring conceptual templates in our brains, it becomes very difficult, though not impossible, to separate them.
Third, Christianity has a built-in defense system that effectively wards off attackers with the flick of a cliché or pat answer and a retreat to Bible verses considered relevant for supporting “proof”. Here are a few examples.
- The non-believer cannot understand the things of God because he doesn’t believe; if you would only believe, then you would understand. This is clearly a circular argument, but one usually used with confidence nonetheless. Such a statement further presupposes that there is some mystical, epistemological window of understanding opened up in the mind of the believer because he or she has taken the “leap of faith”. Thus according to most Christians, anyone, regardless of their education, will a priori have a deficient understanding of reality unless and until they become a believer in the Bible.
- The Bible is the Word of God; therefore, anyone who disagrees with it must be wrong. This, again, presupposes the very thing it sets out to prove. Nevertheless, it serves as a very effective shield against rational and critical thinking that might undermine the believer’s trust in the Bible. To undermine this presupposition, one would have to convince the Christian to doubt the veracity of the Bible, but then this presupposition automatically dismisses any such argument to do so outright. So, we end up going in a vicious circle:
Christian: “The Bible is the Word of God.”
Critic: “But what about verse x and it’s blatant contradiction with verse y?”
Christian: “The deficiency is not with the Bible, but with our understanding of it. After all, it is the Word of God and thus cannot be in error.”
- Jesus said we should expect unbelievers to try and lead us astray. This might be stated in any number of ways using words like “persecution”, “deceive” and “Satan” to give additional support to the idea that Christianity is the truth and anything that seems to be subversive should instantly be relegated as a “lie”. The Christian worldview tends to be very dualistic: that is, most things are interpreted as either God’s will or Satan’s doing. The everyday events of life are often perceived as either being orchestrated by God or the Devil, and often believed to contain warnings or messages to help guide one through his or her day. Thus, anything you present as contrary to biblical truth (however they might interpret it) is often automatically interpreted as deceptive, originating from some evil source, since it could not be from God. The Bible is backed by scientific proof. There is a great deal of Christian literature that tries to establish the Bible’s truthfulness using evidence from various scientific fields: physics, astronomy and cosmology, medicine, microbiology and archaeology just to name a few. But again, most of these writings are fueled by the same adamant presuppositions that they are setting out to prove (i.e., that the Bible simply must be literally true). Thus, the “evidence” is almost always very selective, very biased and often inaccurately interpreted. Christian professionals are quoted and non-Christian professionals often misquoted (or taken out of context) in order to shift empirical weight to whatever biblical claim being staked. In brief, this answer is often given with a cluster of quotations and “did you know…?” trivia, but it hardly has the kind of backing Christians would like to think. Nevertheless, the literature available to buttress this kind of defense of the Bible is plentiful and gives the Christian the rather confident feeling that they’re using their opponent’s arsenal against him while giving strength to their own position. Pseudo-science and misapplied good science supply a false sense of certainty to beliefs, but don’t expect it to go away anytime soon. And don’t expect to change too many minds set in this way…no matter how much evidence you bring to the table.
Taking these three factors alone into account – the personal nature of one’s metaphysic, the difficulty of disassociating supernatural concepts from natural ones hard-wired in the brain, and Christianity’s built-in defense against attack – one can see just why it is so difficult to get beyond “You’re wrong and I’m right” volleys in Christian/non-Christian debates. To question the veracity of the Bible would be to cast a shadow of doubt over what we might call the believer’s RCP – their Reality Central Processor, the central presuppositions by which they live their lives. They live in the security and safety of the walls of “Castle Christian” one might say, and they are taught that, truly, there is nothing outside its walls, or at least nothing but lies. Thus, it is a frightening prospect for them to discover that there is a much bigger world beyond the walls of “Castle Christian.” This is frightening to them for at least two reasons, one socially motivated and the other more personal. From a social standpoint, Christians usually face a great deal of (often unspoken) peer pressure from fellow believers to remain faithful in the face of doubt and the accusations of infidels. To question those traditionally held beliefs places one in danger of being ostracized, ridiculed, avoided and/or pitied as a believer who has “strayed from God’s truth.” Second, there is often a personal fear associated with facing life without the emotional and psychological safety nets that Christianity provides. Most Christians have established their worldview through their lens of their faith as a way of understanding life with all its ups and downs as we’ve already mentioned. Seeking hope in the face of the finality of death or trying to find purpose in the midst of suffering is inextricably woven together with their faith. Thus, although some have ventured beyond the walls of “Castle Christian” and have claimed to experience a newfound, even euphoric sense of intellectual freedom, for most inside the safety of the walls, such a journey looks foolish at best and hopeless at worst. Additionally, for many Christians there is the fear of being condemned to hell for all eternity if they choose to abandon the faith and become apostates. With all of this in mind, it is not difficult to see why the whole enterprise of trying to win a debate with a Christian (i.e., make him concede) is highly unlikely.
Recognizing Futility and Respecting Feelings
So what is the point of trying to get a Christian to abandon his or her faith? Is there good reason to try and “de-convert” those who are established in their faith? Or am I suggesting here that “culture jamming [Christian] memes” is an impossible or unethical thing to do? Not necessarily, but hear me out. To be sure, there are some “evangelistic” atheists out there with such a passion for educating the public that they do little more than engage in debates with Christians or publish writings intended to dismantle beliefs in the supernatural as superfluous, even dangerous. Then there are others, like Shermer and Sagan, who have written popular books just trying to preserve the integrity of methodological naturalism in science by exposing and discrediting pseudo-science (i.e., science mixed with supernatural or paranormal hypotheses). I will be the first to admit that there has been (and continues to be) a great deal of pain and suffering in the world caused by religious beliefs. I will also concur that the search for truth (i.e., the correct facts about reality) is something of no small importance and science should not be diluted with theistic ideas. At the same time, however, one’s method of “culture jamming” will have everything to do with both success rate (putting efforts where they are most effective) as well as whether such jamming, understood by those involved as a positive effect on our world, actually becomes personally hurtful to some people. What can we say about these two concerns? At least two things.
First, and probably not surprising at all, I believe it’s a waste of time and energy to try and change the way most Christians already believe. Based upon what I’ve already mentioned above, it’s just not going to happen at any rate worthy of notice. A few believers might venture out beyond the wall, but most will not. If they do, it will not likely be because a debate effectively shattered their faith; rather, it will more likely be because they decided to journey beyond the wall for their own personal reasons.
Second, I believe that actively trying to dismantle someone else’s faith, and thus their current Reality Central Processor, is simply unnecessary and can often even be hurtful. Now, granted, there are some who are wrapped up in truly harmful, hate-propagating cults and need rescue from causing harm to both themselves and others, but that, I think, goes without saying. We’re talking here about Christians who are just trying to live their lives by living out their faith in positive ways (which includes, by definition, hoping to see others also become Christians – and respecting their wishes if they choose to decline). Do they need to know the truth about the historical and philosophical problems that exist within the infrastructure of Christianity, its evolution and its sacred text? Will it truly free them, or will it crush them? We must remember that there are a great number of people in the world, and not all of them have the same desire to seek truth “whatever the cost”. There have been many simple people who have lived simple lives with simple faith in their god or gods, and I believe we must respect their beliefs. For many people, their faith is not a tool to rule or dominate the lives of others, but merely how they get through their day. Who am I or anyone else to raze their hope, even if that hope doesn’t in fact jibe with reality (i.e., if there is no God, etc.)? True, there are many Christian groups and coalitions that seek to impose the Christian belief system on others through the power of politics, and those groups need to be dealt with and neutralized by the same political medium they are using to gain power. But for me, as an agnostic Baptist minister, though my personal beliefs differ significantly than those of my parishioners, I have no reason to try and pull the confessional rug out from under them. If Christianity works to help them deal with life, then well and good. My job is to teach and preach the sacred text of the Christian faith and I do that faithfully. I veer away from interpretations that induce judgmental or condemning attitudes and draw close to those that engender love and acceptance of self and others…and my parishioners – most all quite conservative in their thinking – seem to love it.
“Culture jamming the theistic memes” is a perfectly legitimate enterprise if that is what one believes will make a positive difference in the world. Keep in mind, however, that it will be most successful reaching those not already rooted in their particular faith, not to mention that militant culture jamming could hurt some people who truly aren’t hurting anyone with their faith and have no reason to abandon their beliefs.
So what about me? As a Baptist minister who is also agnostic in many ways, do I try to live by what I’m “preaching” here in this article? I try to. Am I a hypocrite for believing one way and teaching another? For some who believe that Christianity is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, yes, I suppose I would seem to be. And even to some atheists or agnostics I might seem a little on the hypocritical side. To me, and to others who understand my perspective, however, no, I am not. But this “Yes and No” answer also sheds a great deal of light on why it can remain in apparent contradiction without actually being contradictory. It reveals why I believe it is not only pointless to try and convince my church to abandon their faith, but also why I think it would be wrong to do so. It reveals how religion, though perhaps a colored lens through which to view reality, can serve a practical purpose in people’s lives if they so choose to believe and that I should not seek to break that lens. It reveals how, if I were indeed asked by an inquisitive Christian about what might be outside the walls of Castle Christian, I would gladly and gently express my views, what I have discovered in my search. The rest should be up to them.