This entry began its life as a comment in which I responded to Phillychief’s post entitled, Insularity?. With some encouragement from no less a personage than the Exterminator, I’m expanding that comment into a separate post.
One of Philly’s points was that atheists, by and large, are critical thinkers. I agree with this view. Even those atheists who are born into atheist families and have never held religious beliefs often, at some point in their lives, weigh their non-belief against the theistic and other religious alternatives to which they are inevitably exposed, and choose atheism as the most rational choice. For many, this process occurs in their childhood or teen years.
The other set of atheists, those who have deconverted from a particular religion, usually do so after a period of critically scrutinizing their beliefs. My cruises around the blogosphere, plus nearly 5 decades of living and interacting with evangelical theists, have shown me that many theists refuse to believe that deconversion is a rational decision. Instead, they typically ascribe deconversion to a multitude of other causes, such as (this list is selective and representative, not anywhere close to exhaustive):
- anger or disappointment at being hurt by another believer
- a desire to embrace a wanton lifestyle free of the moral constraints religion imposes
- having been a false convert rather than a real Christian
- failure to practice such spiritual disciplines as daily prayer and Bible reading
- having a flawed understanding of Christian doctrine
- harboring a secret sin that is getting between oneself and God
The list goes on and on and on and on. . .the Eveready Bunny of Deconversion Rationales According to Theists. The notion that believers of any theistic faith can examine the tenets of their faiths and find them wanting is troubling to many theists. If theists accept such a possibility, then they are put in the awkward position of having to decide whether they also ought to undertake such an examination. Based on my own experience, plus reading scores of deconversion accounts on the Internet, I believe that the vast majority of deconverts are intelligent people who prize rational, critical thought and require evidence upon which to base their beliefs. Most of them abandon their religions for rational reasons rather than the emotional or sinful ones that theists typically enumerate. Like many other atheists, deconverts value critical thinking and are willing to change their minds when given good reasons to do so. As I will explain momentarily, I believe this mindset is one characteristic that distinguishes rational thought from religious thought.
Before moving on, I want to lay aside any suppositions of intellectual elitism. I absolutely do not believe that atheists are smarter than theists. Many theists are incredibly smart, as are many atheists. Many other theists are also pathetically stupid, as are, again, many other atheists. The position I am taking here is not about the inherent intelligence of atheists and theists, it is about distinct mindsets that lead to two distinct modes of thought. Those modes of thought lead to strikingly different conclusions.
Another point that Phillychief made, with which I agree, is that atheists are not as prone to hero worship and personality cults as theists appear to be. He cites the examples of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, et al, and notes that their positions are scrutinized incessantly. What he implied but didn’t say outright, which I will say, is that much of this scrutiny comes from people who generally accept these writers’ ideas. The critics criticize because they want to sharpen their own thinking skills and also because they want to challenge these writers, and others like them, to put forward the strongest possible arguments for their positions and to articulate those arguments clearly, succinctly and coherently. I, for example, like Richard Dawkins and I enjoyed reading The God Delusion. That doesn’t blind me to the fact that the book has some substantive flaws (I’ll post my review at the chapel one of these days). My atheism does not depend on Dawkins being infallible. Ditto for all the recent flap about Antony Flew – the fact that he shifted from atheism to a deist position doesn’t undermine my atheist position at all. My atheistic view does not depend upon the Gospels according to St. Antony and St. Richard.
The two characteristics that I’ve discussed thus far, independence in thought and independence from persons, contrast starkly with traits that are common among many theists. Consider, for a moment, independence of thought versus indoctrination. Theists, particularly conservative ones, are conditioned to accept what they are taught, via indoctrination (not education), with few questions. St. Ignatius had good reasons for saying that, if he could teach children from infancy through early childhood, they’d be believers for life. He understood how impressionable and malleable young minds are, how amenable to indoctrination. As believers young and old grow in their faith, it’s acceptable for them to ask shallow, simple questions for which their leaders have prepared answers. If they start probing too deeply, however, they are discouraged from going further and thereby endangering their souls. The answer to hard questions is generally something along the lines of, “God works mysterious ways we can’t possibly comprehend.” In other words, don’t bother asking such questions because we don’t have (any good religious) answers for them. Throughout the history of the Christian church, independent thinkers usually were branded as heretics. They were the ones who questioned the status quo, the ones upon whom the indoctrination did not completely take or retain its hold. They were also the ones who, more often than not, were later proven to have been right. Believers today are pressured, via various mechanisms, to leave the heavy intellectual lifting to their priests and pastors and to accept their spiritual leaders’ teachings without raising any, or not too many, questions.
In contrast to atheists, who are often as quick to criticize their heroes and allies as harshly as they skewer their foes, theists, especially conservative ones again, frequently get caught up in personality cults. Spiritual leaders are expected, and often believed, to be holier than the average believers sitting in their pews. These beliefs and expectations are unreasonable, but believers can hardly be faulted for holding them, since said leaders are presented by their governing and ordaining bodies as having attained a greater than average knowledge of scripture, as well as habits of holy living, that qualify them for leadership roles. Atheists have heroes, but they usually recognize that those heroes are flawed beings, just as they themselves are. Atheists are repeatedly dumbfounded at the faithful who continue to believe and follow their leaders long after the latter have been discredited. Atheists honestly cannot fathom how the followers of, for example, Oral and Richard Roberts, or Earl Paulk (to cite fresh examples rather than stale ones), can remain faithful, not only to their religion in general, but to particular leaders, in light of ongoing revelations of malfeasance, moral degeneracy and multitudes of other greater and lesser sins. If they were to think about it for a moment, atheists would realize that they shouldn’t be the least bit surprised by this slavish loyalty in the face of all evidence that argues against it. After all, worship of, and a purported relationship with, an allegedly personal deity is itself nothing more than a personality cult writ large.
Theism can only be maintained by a mindset that is predominantly religious, a mindset that does not necessarily eschew rationality, but does necessarily relegate it to a plane lower than spirituality. In the minds of many theists, if spiritual and rational claims conflict, the spiritual ones must be retained and the rational ones discarded as errant, if not downright evil. In contrast, many atheists believe that rational thought, based in scientific findings from many fields of inquiry, is the primary means by which humankind can and should derive human values. Atheists don’t necessarily eschew spiritual, or aesthetic, or other non-material values. They do seek to hold such values in balance with knowledge gained via rational channels. One of my reasons for abandoning the theistic mindset with which I was raised, and to which I adhered for several decades, is that theism is not only well suited, but is intentionally designed, to breed dependence and authoritarianism. I find both of these outcomes dehumanizing and unacceptable. In contrast, atheism is especially well suited for cultivating autonomy and distrust of brute authority. These are qualities that enhance rather than degrade human life.
Noting that metaphors are colorful, often revealing, ways of describing reality, I leave you with one question: is it any wonder that theists are referred to as a flock of sheep, and atheists are likened to a herd of cats?