Not All Atheists Hear The Same Thing When People Debate Theology

Dante and Virgil in Hell

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I’m an Amanda Marcotte fan, but I’m also one of those atheists like Robert Farley who doesn’t really get her hostility to theological debates. Nor do I think there’s any reason to doubt that Andrew Sullivan, et al, are sincere in their faith. Lots of intelligent people really are devout believers, and to suggest otherwise seems either profoundly misguided or just plain churlish.

Given all of that, I think there’s value for nonbelievers in figuring out why intelligent people believe, and in grappling with theological claims on their home turf. Back around Christmastime I wrote a series of posts about atheism in which I argued, among other things, that atheists could benefit from understanding theological claims as an indirect way of describing the structure of the claimant’s perceptual experiences.

So take for example Andrew Sullivan’s understanding of Hell. He says:

Whereas in fact Hell is, in orthodox terms, is simply our refusal to accept the love of God. Our inability to accept it. And that exists on Earth as it does after death. We can be living in Hell right now if we do not accept the love that is openly given us by God, the Father and the son. And that is what Hell is. Heaven is simply the ability to let go of your pride and let God in.

One way to react to all of this is just to take offense at Sullivan’s assertion that we nonbelievers are in Hell and ascribe all sorts of unsavory motives to that claim. Or you could just mock Sullivan’s faith and suggest that he’s some kind of dumb rube for believing what he does. But I don’t think either of those possible responses are all that useful or interesting. I’d rather take a closer look at Sullivan’s reasons for believing what he does and consider how those shape his interface with the world. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of those claims. But for Spider-Man’s sake, at least be critical in an engaged, interesting way.

Since I’ve blogged a bit about Nietzsche recently, I might as well note that he had some very engaged and interesting ways of responding to the sort of doctrine Sullivan espouses above. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he calls those who speak of Hell on earth as “preachers of death” who “carry around within themselves the beast of prey and have no choice but lust or self-laceration.” The point being that, in Nietzsche’s view, this urge to embrace the eternal and escape from the worldly represents a sort of fear and loathing of the world as it is. His response is to embrace the world — what the preachers of death call Hell — just as those same preachers embrace what they call God and Nietzsche calls death.

I don’t subscribe to Nietzsche’s scorched-earth style, but I think there’s a kernel of insight and psychological acuity in his writing you won’t find in a blithe dismissal of all faith as meaningless bullshit. And even if you disagree, at least Nietzsche’s making a proper argument out of it.

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11 Responses

  1. I like this approach. Dealing with the faithful on their own terms is an easier way to get listened to. But I think there’s also a place for dismissing faith–in a reasoned and non-blithe way. If Sullivan can talk to me about accepting the love given to us by God, then I’d think it only fair to talk to him about evolutionary biology, the fallibility of the human brain, and the history of mythology.

    • I should say–I identify a lot with what Marcotte is saying. Many theological debates do nothing more than annoy me personally because I so fundamentally reject their premises. And she points out some legitimate hypocrisies in the panelists’ arguments. But I agree that people who have faith and argue for it tend to be sincere in their beliefs, and don’t do it, er, in bad faith.

    • Here is the thing though: for a fair number of believers — and I’m one of them — there is no conflict between “accepting the love given to us by God” and also accepting the truth of evolutionary biology, human fallibility and mythology. There isn’t even a conflict between understanding the Bible as mythology and believing in God, and I say this as someone fairly orthodox in my theological beliefs. For a lot of believers, that the Bible is riddled with inconsistencies and errors, doesn’t erase its core truths.

      One last point: I think overwhelming prominence of fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals in American life has really distorted what nonbelievers believe about Christian doctrine.

      • Fair. In relation to your last paragraph–I used to be a strong believer, so I feel like I’ve earned my position on nonbelief. ;) But the fundies sure don’t help my overall opinion of religion.

        I know a lot of people think they can reconcile God and evolution. Perhaps they can–I used to think I could–but then I thought a little harder about it. (Not to be an ass; that’s just how it went for me.) If I have a receptive conversation partner and the time and patience to go there, I probe those who would defend their faith in the face of science further and try to explain the exact reasons I find it awfully flimsy.

  2. I have to agree with Amanda in that the engine of religion is ‘keeping the tribe together,’ and that this particular panel exemplified this idea perfectly. And her transcript was spot on to this atheist. Every one of those people had their religion chosen by their families, and every one remains religious so they can socialize with their neighbors and share moments with family… they selectively chose which parts of their faith they tell themselves is true so that there won’t be any tension at Easter.

    Being an atheist is hard – you have to either forswear family gatherings or do the nod and smile 3 or four times a year. My parents had the brilliant idea of just throwing a champagne brunch on Christmas and inviting all their Jewish friends over. We got to feel like the holidays were still special in some way, and our friends got nosh. In a world dominated by people who politely lie like the aforementioned and so provide cover for those who actually use religion for control and profit, you take your fun when you can.

    • Your experiences with faith are you own, but you and Amanda both assume an awful lot about those panelists.

  3. Given all of that, I think there’s value for nonbelievers in figuring out why intelligent people believe, and in grappling with theological claims on their home turf.

    Well said. Though, I hasten to add, that as a religious believer, I’m still trying to figure out why I continue to profess a religious faith. I wonder sometimes whether my faith genuine. Whether it is real. Am I really responding to a God who reveals? Or am I rather (or also) engaged in group-think or the comforts of a shared mythology? Perhaps my faith is only an opiate. Perhaps it’s my unconscious way of dealing with neurosis. I cannot say for certain, but then, that doesn’t bother me much, because I have no faith or interest in certainty.

    • These aren’t dissimilar to the questions I asked myself. My answer ended up being something like this: the subjective experience of feeling in touch with the sublime is real, which is why so many people hold on to whatever faith gets them there. The part that’s mistaken is where people explain that state in terms of a non-material plane or supernatural entities.

  4. As a reformed* former anti-religion nonbeliever, I am only interested in theological debates when the believers try to argue why their “moral compass” should be used to define what I should or shouldn’t be allowed to do. As there are as many aspects of religious beliefs as there are humans, I really can’t get very enthused about whether one sect’s credos are more or less relevant than any other.

    *After reading sites like Talk2Action, RD, etc. I have come to realize that I don’t really have any animosity towards any religious sects, and I admit that, in general, gathering in churches, revivals, or whatever means of congregating can be good for them, and good for community building. I mention T2A specifically because it is an example of people of devout religious faith, fighting for my right as a nonbeliever, and working hard to keep the wall of separation intact.

  5. Also, I think atheists (me included) have a problem with “grappling with theological claims on their own turf” because we consider that turf to be entirely irrelevant. As in your atheists and myths post about metaphysical facts–there can’t be any. But most believers argue as if they are. Sullivan certainly talks about Hell as an earthly rejection of God’s love as if it were a fact. The logical response is to dispute that fact, which is effectively done by disputing the faith that led him to assert it. Dismissing faith in that context isn’t necessarily just laziness.

  6. The theological doctrines of the world and their followers cannot be seen as either correct or incorrect. Believe what you will but the truth will only be revealed when we are incapable of telling anyone on this planet all about it. So live your life in the aspects you envisage and welcome, and don’t be a martyr by trying to ‘save’ everyone else from your so called bitter end. Anyone without the intelligence to properly analyse and debate theology and blindly adheres to there chosen faith, In my eyes truly do not understand their own faith, and simply shouldn’t comment.

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