Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Response to Michael Robbins' review of The Apostles of Reason by Molly Worthen

I wrote the following as a response to Michael Robbins' review of Molly Worthen's The Apostles of Reason on at I also sent it to their feedback link. I expect to hear nothing further.

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I doubt whether Michael Robbins has ever met an atheist who understood Christianity and rejected it nonetheless. As difficult as it may be for Christians, liberal and otherwise, to believe, there are atheists who struggle and occasionally triumph over the same problems and conundrums with which Christians struggle but without the false and manipulative promises. It is difficult for Robbins to accept that there are compelling reasons to shy away from religion and not just the vulgar Christianity of our Conservative Evangelicals. Many atheists become atheists because they take the claims of Christianity more seriously than do many Christians. For example, this is especially true of how many atheists read the Bible, if it is so important, then what of the passages that are all too frequently ignored? Hence the charge that Christians, and not just Evangelicals, all too frequently pick and choose for extra-textual reasons which verses are to be taken as important.

Too many Christians, liberal and otherwise, are prone to dismissing atheists as not understanding Christianity. If only those poor atheists really understood Christianity like I do, then they would not reject Christianity. This attitude is frightfully smug and condescending. It also neatly sidesteps the problem of actually listening to what atheists have to say. Faith in such cases becomes indistinguishable from laziness.

I have known liberal Christians over the years, some were even well-educated. I have also known atheists lacking in subtlety where questions of religion where concerned. I suppose it is a remnant of my own Evangelical upbringing that it is important to me what my opinions are. It is of little concern to me that others hold the same opinions that I do. I do not concern myself with proselytizing (God forbid!) for my own opinions, even if at the same time I am curious as to the opinions of others. Although when I was younger I did go through a phase in which ready to play dumb I would lie in wait for hapless proselytizing Evangelicals, figuring that they had never met an atheist who knew the Bible better than they did. My rationale for that bit of fun was that if it they expected me to put myself at risk, but they were not, why should I play by their rules?

In case it is not obvious, I am an atheist. Growing up I alternated between a fervent, even vulgar Christianity and an equally vulgar atheism. I had assumed that I had to be the one or the other. After a brief but intense infatuation with Evangelical Christianity, I discovered Nietzsche. The concerns and interests of those spheres of my life were not mutually exclusive. Nor did it turn out that I was condemned to the primacy of Christian morals and ethics: there are alternatives. This might all seem trivially true, but for me it was a revelation. Instead of despair in a life without God, I found liberation and freedom.

After a stint in Eastern Europe when Communism looked like it might last for decades yet, I found out that I rejected both Marxism and Christianity, and ideology in general, because of their unquestioning belief that they alone possessed the truth. Truth was something one possessed or else one possessed error. In the Christian version, Truth was, as it were, something for which one quested like some Arthurian knight: once the Truth was found, the quest was thankfully over with no small relief. I found myself asking, but what if it is the questing itself that one loves? God and revealed Truth are injunctions not to inquire.

Probably the major reason that I cannot accept a liberal version of Christianity is that when I did investigate it I found that it was too prone to seek accommodation with the latest intellectual fads. Even if dated, the “God is Dead” school of theology comes to mind. I was never sure that liberal versions of Christianity actually possessed substance. And the more substance, meaning coherent doctrines, that it did possess meant that the reasons for rejecting it that I gave above applied.

A non sequitor. Hell has always been an important, if not intrinsic, part of Christian doctrine. The question of what happens when I choose not to become a Christian needs an answer. If it is nothing, then why bother? Institutions can be built when it is of vital concern to save one’s fellow human beings from eternal torment. If, however, one does not become a Christian, it appears intolerable to believers who do not accept the doctrine of Hell that someone should be left alone with their guilt, even if the unbelievers don’t feel particularly guilty. Guilt is something to be interrogated and not something from which one is redeemed.

The doctrine of Hell is probably the most reviled Christian Doctrine rejected by many Christians. But the question is if one is free to pick and choose one’s doctrines, then what of Christianity’s claim to be a revealed religion? If the doctrines are picked through according to human reason and human feelings, then what remains? A human-built institution without authority that exists completely in this world unable to offer comfort and with no claim to the world to come and without the promise of redemption. And if Christianity is human-built then it is to be judged according to human standards.

I can understand how a person could call himself a Christian out of cowardice in the face of reality, out of nostalgia for an idealized Middle Ages, out of a (mistaken) belief that it is (somehow) true, out of respect for one’s parents, and the list goes on. But none of these make Christianity true according to its own standards of truth or any other, unless it is as a gruesome slow torture of one’s powers of reasoning. Whether to believe or not to believe shows itself as a problem of psychology. Lest I be accused of maligning Christianity with my penultimate point, I refer the interested reader to Pascal’s Pensées.

As a final word, hell, that darling of the Evangelicals, is their answer to the question why a person should be a Christian. Evangelicals, if nothing else, have the virtue of consistency, wherever it may take them.

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