30 March 2016

Randal Rauser's "Is the Atheist My Neighbor?" — a review

I remember several years ago when I was debating a Christian acquaintance of mine on Facebook — who, incidentally, has since deconverted — and he inquired about the real reason for my atheism. We'd been exchanging ideas about epistemology, extra-Biblical evidence, and evolution, but he asked me if I'd had a bad experience in the church, or if there was some "sin" I was determined to act out. He was having a hard time accepting that I'd deconverted only after tremendous reflection on my beliefs — a process that stretched out over nearly ten years; that my atheism was, and is, a sincerely-held intellectual position and not an emotional rebellion against a divine creator that deep down I still knew existed.

My acquaintance's view is not an anomaly; it's a common refrain directed at us non-believers. In my personal experience, it most commonly takes the form of, "If you don't believe in God, why do you talk about Him all the time?" This was satirized in brilliant fashion six years ago (has it really been that long?) by YouTube artist NonStampCollector:

We've seen this perspective reach peak pop culture exposure with the film God's Not Dead (sequel on the way!), in which Kevin Sorbo plays a curmudgeonly atheist college professor whose deep-seated anger at God is calmly yet incisively exposed by a studious Christian pupil — before the professor is hit by a car, recants his atheism moments before dying, and all the Christians appear to celebrate his death at a big rock concert.

This, in a nutshell, is the Rebellion Thesis: the idea that atheists don't really exist. Rather, people like yours truly who say they are atheists are really just angry at God and/or desire to live a hedonistic lifestyle without facing accountability to God's divine commandments. Atheism, no matter how rigorously we might argue for it intellectually, is really just a front. Deep down we know that the evidence for God's existence is overwhelming and obvious. And it's this thesis that is at the center of Randal Rauser's latest book, Is the Atheist My Neighbor?.

At under 100 pages in the Kindle edition (including footnotes), Randal's book is as brisk as it is erudite, humorous, and thought-provoking. In this review of the book, there are two major topics I want to touch upon: the first is Randal's central thesis that the Rebellion Thesis lies at the heart of Christians' dismissive and condescending attitudes toward atheists; the second is his reflection on the nature of discourse, and the responsibility we have to ourselves and our interlocutors to, as Randal aptly describes it, "empty our cup" — to work to rid ourselves of prior assumptions and prejudices that hinder our ability to understand and, possibly, persuade one another. Lastly, there's a third minor topic I want to address, and that's a specific theological idea Randal discusses in the book, but I'll save that for a separate post.

The Rebellion Thesis

Randal does an admirable job making the case that the Rebellion Thesis is a prevalent attitude in Christiandom, and has been for hundreds of years. He looks at historical writings that portray atheists as weak-willed cowards, the words of popular figures in modern Christian apologetics, and yes — he talks about God's Not Dead. Randal's treatment of the subject is rigorous, and my fellow atheists could be forgiven for thinking this section of the book was written by an atheist, and not by an academic theologian. Randal is uncompromising in his criticism of Christian culture, and he contends that the Rebellion Thesis only caricatures atheists and hinders productive dialogue. Sure, some atheists out there may be acerbic and may even harbor resentment toward religion or religious people. But that doesn't mean that atheism is itself not a sincerely held and often deeply nuanced intellectual position.

He takes the time in chapter 3 to examine the scriptural basis for the Rebellion Thesis (we're all familiar with Psalm 14:1 - The fool has said in his heart, "there is no God") and constructs a robust argument against it. I personally found my attention waning in this chapter, because it's clearly directed at Christians. As an atheist, I already know the Rebellion Thesis isn't true, and I don't particularly care what the Bible says about it because I don't believe there's much in the way of truth to be found in the Bible, either. Yet I found something to like quite a bit here, which is Randal's discussion of Christian doubts. Surely if the evidence for God is so overwhelming and obvious, Christians shouldn't themselves wrestle with serious doubts. And yet they do, and that goes for laypersons, saints, and lauded theologians alike

And in chapter 4, Randal gives what I found to be a surprising amount of space to Jeffrey Jay Lowder, who comments both on the Rebellion Thesis and lays out his case against theism. To his credit, Randal refrains from indulging himself in a debate with Lowder, and instead uses Lowder's detailed arguments as an example of someone who is an atheist for nuanced, deeply contemplated reasons. 

Randal works hard to show that the Rebellion Thesis is both prevalent in modern Christian culture and drives atheists further from Christianity by misrepresenting their beliefs. He makes a well-researched theological argument against it, argues that it is by its falsity antithetical to Christian values, and concludes by imploring Christians to eschew their biases and engage atheists in thoughtful, charitable discourse.

All of this is compelling, and true. And yet, I can't get fully behind Randal's thesis here. Not because I disagree that the Rebellion Thesis is both false and destructive to discourse, but because I think there's a chicken-and-egg issue here. Randal is (as one might expect) approaching the problem like a theologian, addressing the problem among his fellow believers by appealing to what he presumably hopes will be their respect for well-argued Biblical exegesis. In my estimation, though, the Rebellion Thesis is symptomatic of deeper pathologies within the church, some of which speak to our most primitive tribal tendencies. Personally, my perspective on the issue wouldn't be theological, but anthropological. I'd be more interested in why doctrines like the Rebellion Thesis emerge from within Christian culture in the first place. In my estimation the problem is not the doctrine per se, but the in-group culture that gives birth to it.

It's here that I turn back to one of the most influential books I've read: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer, Henry Luce professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis. In the book, Boyer examines religion from the perspectives of cognitive science, evolution, and anthropology; he discusses how religions emerge, why certain religious ideas are successful, the utilitarian value of religion, and much more. 

Notably, he discusses in chapter 8 of the book the tendency of religion to cement in-group bonds, with a corresponding weakening of out-group bonds:
Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred. [p265]
It seems to go without saying that holding the same concepts and norms as other Christians, for instance, does make people members of a group, with the expectation of a degree of solidarity with other group members and a general distrust toward nonmembers. People describe themselves as "members" of this or that religious group, with important and often tragic consequences for their interaction with other groups.[p285]
It bears emphasizing here that Boyer's book is not remotely a polemic; it's an academic inquiry into religion bridging several scientific disciplines. Nothing he writes is intended to belittle religion or religious people; and indeed it's difficult to give an accurate impression of his complex thesis through a few select quotes. But he's touching on an important topic: that religion, in fostering in-group solidarity among its members, creates a corresponding distrust of those beyond its walls.

Religious thought is the only human intellectual endeavor I'm aware of that has, historically, done such a fine job of insulating itself from skeptical inquiry that it even has a word for those who dare to question established church doctrine: heretic. Of course, a heretic need not be an atheist; any dissent from a given doctrine can be viewed as such. But what greater heresy could there be than atheism? At least those who express dissenting doctrinal views in the Christian church almost certainly accept the basic tenets of classical theism. Even those misguided cultures elsewhere in the world worshiping false gods and spirits are at least correct in yearning for the divine and in their acknowledgement of a higher power. An atheist, though, doesn't give an inch: to them, the entire facade of religion is a farce. Its most basic doctrines are false. And if it allays anxieties or 'saves' us from anything, it is only from its own pathologies, as Boyer argues elsewhere in Religion Explained:
[Religious] concepts, if they are solutions to particular emotional needs, are not doing a very good job. A religious world is often every bit as terrifying as a world without supernatural presence, and [20] many religions create not so much reassurance as a thick pall of gloom. The Christian philosopher Kierkegaard wrote books with titles like The Concept of Anguish and Fear and Trembling, which for him described the true psychological tenor of the Christian revelation. Also, consider the widespread beliefs about witches, ghouls, ghosts and evil spirits allegedly responsible for illness and misfortune. For the Fang people with whom I worked in Cameroon the world is full of witches, that is, nasty individuals whose mysterious powers allow them to "eat" other people, which in most cases means depriving them of health or good fortune. [...] If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates. [p20]
Consider the basic Christian doctrine of original sin: that you are born a sinner, through no fault of your own, and will inevitably transgress and fall short of worthiness to commune with your benevolent Creator. This inevitability will lead you to certain doom, when your immortal soul is expunged to some unfathomably dark place upon your death. Worse, there is nothing you can do about it — no act of kindness or goodwill can save you. It is only through the grace of the Creator that you can be saved from what you are. Christianity can offer 'salvation' only if one accepts the doctrine of depravity that is required to coerce you into acquiescence. And while on the mortal coil, even if you've repented and accepted God's grace, you must constantly be on the lookout for dark forces attempting to pull you away from the light — your own carnal desires, devils and demons attempting to obstruct you, or even perhaps God's own 'tests' of your faith and fortitude.

Is it any wonder, then, that atheists are seen as such a threat to the tribal mindset of Christianity? To many of them, atheists are not just misguided, but they've given in to their most heathen tendencies and will readily pull pious Christians away from their salvation in Christ. Consider, for example, William Lane Craig's stern reprimand of a young Christian whose doubts and curiosity led him to arguments by well-known atheists:
I find myself utterly baffled by the cavalier way in which many ill-equipped Christians expose themselves to material which is potentially destructive to them. It’s like someone who doesn’t know how to swim deciding to take the plunge in the heavy surf. Wouldn’t it be the sensible thing to do to first prepare yourself before venturing into dangerous waters?
Craig doesn't hesitate to frame atheistic ideas not merely as wrong, but as dangerous. Exposure to them could have eternal repercussions, as he goes on to explain:
I remember vividly that when I first became a Christian I was very careful about what I read because I knew that there was material out there which could be destructive to my newfound faith and that I had a lot, lot more to learn before I was ready to deal with it. Do we forget that there is an enemy of our souls who hates us intensely, is bent on our destruction, and will use anything he can to undermine our faith or render us ineffective in God’s hands? Are we so naïve?
In this way, Craig has framed the discussion between atheists and theists (Christians, in particular) not as an irenic exchange of ideas but as a battle for hearts, minds, and souls. He brashly derides secular material as "garbage" and implores this young Christian to distance himself from it and instead immerse himself in Christian apologetics:
What would prompt you to feed on the garbage you’re reading and watching, thereby polluting your mind, rather than diligently studying the work of, say, Alvin Plantinga? We are called to be disciples, which in the Greek means “learners.” Is what you’re doing your idea of what Christian discipleship looks like? Is this the path to transformation by “the renewal of the mind” (Romans 12.1-2)? 
Certainly, someone does need to read and interact with secular material, but that person is not (yet) you. You first need to prepare yourself.

We can see the congruity with Boyer's thesis above: to Craig — certainly a highly regarded academic theologian and apologist — those outside of the walls of Christianity are a threat. In my estimation, the Rebellion Thesis arises and propagates within the community of Christianity because it appeals to that most basic tribal tendency: it's us versus them. "We" are intelligent, enlightened, seekers of truth and doers of good; those outside our group are wicked, deceitful, and will lead us astray if we let them.

I don't think, then, that the prevalence of the Rebellion Thesis is due to misguided exegesis. I think that, as is usually the case in my estimation, biases and prejudices themselves create the exegesis — not the other way around. Randal is in a unique circumstance because he's befriended some atheists that he's found to be cordial, thoughtful individuals (Jeffrey Jay Lowder is an obvious example). It seems that Craig, by contrast, is only exposed to atheists in the adversarial arenas of his carefully choreographed academic debates. While Randal has found good cause in his friends to shed hostile and reactionary biases, Craig seems much more deeply entrenched in the in-group mentality. It should be no surprise, then, that Craig himself appears to tacitly endorse the Rebellion Thesis:
If you're sincerely seeking God, God will make His existence evident to you.
Because I see the Rebellion Thesis primarily as an anthropological artifact and not an exegetical one, I don't think that attempts to win Christians with progressive interpretations of scripture will be particularly effective. At the same time, Randal himself stands as an example of someone who is a devout Christian yet rejects the Rebellion Thesis, so I can't be so hasty as to proclaim this as a problem that is necessarily endemic to religion. In-group tribal mentality can pervade political and ethnic groups, sports teams, nations, neighborhoods, and much more — including atheist communities. The problem here is bigger than any one idea; it's a fundamental human trait that helped us survive in small tribes, but is divisive and destructive in today's modern super-tribes (to take a cue from Desmond Morris). Eroding the Rebellion Thesis from within the walls of Christianity will require a shift away from treating certain ideas as sacrosanct, and welcoming contrary ideas as part of a mutual search for truth. On this, Randal offers a number of suggestions for Christians, which I think many atheists — myself included — would be wise to heed. It's to this search for irenic discourse that I'll now turn.

Building Bridges

Randal mentions in the book a view that I share, which is that traditional 'debates' only serve to cement the adversarial attitudes between believers and non-believers. I think the same is often true of online debates, which almost inevitably trudge toward impasse and only further entrench us in our positions. Surely my own disagreements with Randal escalated beyond either of our better judgments.

This isn't idle speculation on my part, either; there's been some good research into how we change others' minds, and we tend to be very bad at it — not the least of which is because of the adversarial manner in which we tend to frame our arguments. How many of us have heard, or ourselves used, statements like:

  • "I showed your argument to be false"
  • "As I've already demonstrated..."
  • "You clearly don't understand..."
  • "You don't know what you're talking about"
We have a tendency to lay the blame for any impasse at the feet of our interlocutors. We spend a lot of time thinking through our positions and typing them out as clearly as we can, and just when we think we've created an air-tight argument we find a spate of objections. Indignantly, we insist that our opponent has failed to see what has been clearly laid out before them. They're wrong, we're right, and their failure to realize that is their fault alone. If they were more educated, more thoughtful, or would just read more carefully before springing into a rebuttal, they'd see the error of their ways.

Now, I suppose there are times when this is actually the case. But we tend not to make very good judgments about our performances, especially in the immediacy of a discussion. I've found that it's best to divorce myself from those attitudes as much as possible. If you want to change someone's mind, you have to do something radical: you have to show that you are willing to change your mind. 

I certainly haven't mastered this. I'm a work in progress. And I was pleased to see that Randal views himself as being in the same boat:

[Too] often I find myself failing to achieve a detached and generous demeanor when interacting with others. Indeed, I suspect we’re all tempted from time to time to write off those with whom we disagree as ridiculous fanatics. So rather than point an accusing fingers [...], we should all reflect on the extent to which we are prone to treat others uncharitably.
Of course, this is easier said than done; self-criticism isn't easy, especially when we feel really strongly that we're right. As much as possible, criticisms need to be framed as questions, and we must invite others to offer their ideas for consideration. This doesn't mean debate cannot be spirited, but that a degree of humility and understanding must always underscore the discussion; after all, we're likely talking with people who have very different biases and assumptions underscoring their arguments. As soon as discussions become some kind of point-scoring contest, it's best to just walk away.

Randal mentions an interesting strategy he had proposed to what he only describes as an "atheist group": debate your opponents' position. My father was on the forensics team in high school and college, and he's recounted stories in which this was a valuable part of the debate process. They'd spend weeks researching a position and carefully articulating arguments and anticipating counter-arguments. Then they'd be told, without warning, to switch sides. It's a novel idea, but the purpose of it is to keep us dispassionate about ideas and approach discussions in an inquisitive mindset.

Closing thoughts

Initially, I was dismissive of Randal's book. After all, I'm an atheist. It's not exactly news to me that Christians have a tendency to caricature us. But we atheists do the same from time to time as well, and we should seek to follow Randal's example here. He critiqued his community from the inside, implicated his own failings as contributions to the problem, invited someone with contrary ideas to explain their point of view, and sought out ideas to foster mutual understanding going forward. Is the Atheist My Neighbor? is a brisk read injected with some well-timed dad humor and thought-provoking discussion. While I don't fully agree with Randal's thesis, and I could probably nitpick his thoughts on Christopher Hitchens and a few other things, I think he's done an admirable job in arguing that hasty generalizations and uninformed prejudices do nothing but widen the chasm between believers and non-believers, and he offers up worthwhile considerations that may help us build bridges, and who knows — maybe change each others' minds.

In the next few days, I'll follow up with a post on the specific topic of "Should we want God to exist?" and discuss my disagreements with some of Randal's arguments. In the meantime, you can of course read the book yourself.

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