Neil Carter wrote a post recently on why abrasive atheism will always sell better. He talks about fundamentalism and how atheism is subject to tribes as well. This is an honest post that I enjoyed reading. In this reponse I ask if Atheists and Evangelical Christians can work together for the bettering of our species to combat fraud, waste, and the cover up of alleged criminal activity in evangelicalism when it happens. Can atheists and evangelical Christians be friends and work on a middle ground? My contention is yes….it’s time.
“People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction.”
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
James 3:17 NIV
Neil Carter wrote a fascinating post the other day at Godless in Dixie. He tackles fundamentalism, tribalism, always having an enemy and proposes a way forward to study the attraction towards extremism. I enjoyed this post and love Neil’s raw honesty. Its refreshing, open and encouraging. There’s several points that I agree on but a few I disagree on. Its with that said I would like to dive into this post today. I lifted the post and I will be writing in red when I get into the bulk of the post. I’d love for you to dive in and discuss some of what Neil says. By all means I also like dialog and being engaged, so feel free to jump into this post critique me as well. Feedback and differing points of view are essential to grow.
People often approach me to tell me how much they appreciate my tone when I write and speak about leaving my former faith. Of course, I do still offer criticism when I feel it’s appropriate, but I don’t resort to name calling, belittling, or impugning the intelligence or character of those who disagree with me. I was once an insider myself, so I ma not as prone to misrepresenting those who are still in the faith.
Criticism from the outside is necessary, healthy and something that we evangelicals should embrace. We never will grow if we listen to like minded people. That’s why I like many of the atheists that pop up here or who email behind the scenes. I like their differing point of view and how they think. But its not limited to that, I would be open and indeed welcome a friendship from any of the churches or movements I have written about, from Redeemer Arlington to Fairfax Community. Diversity increases strength and helps people in the long run. How will I or anyone ever grow if all they do is listen to those within their tribe and shut out differing points of view? We can agree to disagree? Can’t we? We can agree to be friends and be on the Christian and atheism spectrum, or Neo-Calvinist and regular spectrum. That is my hope and that is what I am looking toward.
Also, unlike so many I know I wasn’t really burned by my religious past as long as I was still in it. That’s not to say I was never mistreated; but you have to realize that I internalized a powerful narrative that excused and validated any mistreatment as “the Lord disciplining those who he loves.” So I never experienced mistreatment as such. I performed the mental gymnastics it took to turn it all into gold – a blessing from the Lord meant to keep me humble and dependent on him, so to speak. I never really experienced the nasty side of my religion until I found myself on the outside of it and saw the way people began to look at me. The difference was jarring.
Isn’t it amazing how a changed perspective can challenge you? Before my faith crisis I viewed those who walked away from the faith or who had a faith crisis as being lazy, wanting to sin, or they were never a Christian to begin with. It took a full fledged faith crisis to pop that bubble and tear that thinking from my mind. When the tables have turned and you go from insider to outsider it can be a lonely, difficult place to be. I know that feeling very well. In some cases I would suggest that you need a good amount of cognitive dissonance in order to make those “gymnastics” work. Religion can be ugly, I’ve been burned by fundamentalism more than I care to remember. Indeed Neil it can be jarring.
But a positive church experience – together with a strong emotional need to stay connected to people I love who are still on Team Jesus – has produced in me a strong desire to find a middle ground on which we can still converse. I am always looking for those people – regardless of personal belief system – who can engage in respectful, meaningful interaction. I actually love the process if hashing through things, debating issues and parsing out the nuances of perspective, especially when it effectively challenges my own beliefs.
We need a middle ground today, absolutely we need more discussion. Like Neil, I like people who push back and ask questions. I’ll be honest…I’m not going to have all the answers and there will be times I will say “I don’t know.” But I too love the dialog. I mean consider….I get home from work. Its nearly 9:00 pm and here I am reading and writing about atheism. I love the intellectual stimulation that comes from it!! I just dig it! But its important to challenge your own beliefs. How are you going to grow otherwise? I mean consider…in my faith crisis I walked away from Christianity and explored atheism, secularism, and today I look back and realize how much of a gift that was to me in the end. Its helped me grow, mature, become deeper. I couldn’t talk about atheism in 2007, whereas today I can. But I too love the hashing out and discussing. My biggest regret is that I can’t engage as many people as I like due to time constraints.
Like most thoroughgoing skeptics, I actually enjoy having my assumptions challenged. That’s how I got to be where I am in the first place. It’s how I keep myself sharp – how I keep learning new things. Since learning and discover are essential joys in my life, intellectual stagnation is among my greatest fears, and that is why I despise most of all the prospect of living my life in an echo chamber.
The most dangerous and foolish thing a person can do is surround themselves with like minded people who think, talk, process, and act alike. Conformity hurts and hinders development and its the lazy way of doing life. Those who pursue theological conformity are setting themselves up to be spiritually crippled in the course of time. Those are the people who will walk away and lose faith when the crap hits the fan.
Rooting for Team Atheist
But nuanced dialogue doesn’t always sell well. Appreciated though it may be among those who are as addicted to rhetorical precision as I am, it still doesn’t draw as much attention as does the more caustic, acerbic, polemical approach of the critics of religion who paint with a much broader brush. It seems the harsher, more sweeping your diatribe, the further it goes in garnering support from the masses. That’s true of individual voices, and I’m beginning to think it’s also true of organizations. If you want folks to support your organization, come out swinging as hard as you can against religion of all kinds. That’s going to score you more money that measured, nuanced dialogue.
In our time we live in a culture of extremes, the middle ground is gone, and our society and culture is suffering as a result. In religion the louder a person is the more attention they get. There are many people in religion who build themselves up by tearing other people down. That’s not how it should be but for many people that is the sad reality. The more ideological you are the more access to money, and I would suggest that money is a driving factor as well. After all you go for what sells.
If you haven’t noticed, atheists are just as prone to tribalism as are the members of any religion they oppose, and I think that has something to do with it. I know I am not alone in observing that too many members of Team Atheist seem to think that deciding the correct number of gods equals zero means that everything else the human race needs in order to advance will magically fall into place, because science, I guess.
Atheists are prone to tribalism for this one reason. I would appreciate critique and thoughts on this next point. Atheism as I learned is a faith system. I’m not trying to be condescending. I am not trying to tear down atheism, truth be told I would rather spend time with many atheists than people from the evangelical Christian church. There are very few Christians who make me want to hang out with them. But I must ask this question…what is faith? Faith is a set of beliefs, and its a trust in something. Every single person who is reading this has had faith or trust in something. You have had faith in a particular doctor or dentist. You have had faith in certain brand name like Honda, Toyota, Nissan, or Subaru. Faith is a belief system that requires an element of trust. When you have faith you also can have primary and secondary issues as well. Again I am not trying to knock down atheism, as I have a deep respect for the movement and the intellectualism. But all of us are going to have faith in something, or somewhere that is going to guide and influence our life. There’s nothing pejorative about me stating that fact. Again if you disagree please speak your mind.
Some of this may come from an inescapable need to differentiate ourselves from our previous social context. Like adolescents going through a rebellious phase, some of the angry atheism may be natural outworking of the individuation process. In order to wrest control of our culture from the greedy hands of religious empire, maybe a certain amount of tribalism is absolutely necessary. The celebrity worship, the group think, the branding, and even the merchandising may actually be necessary elements in our efforts to achieve the critical mass it takes to turn the tide of the culture wars.
I can see this very well. What is happening is that people are reacting and wanting to differentiate themselves from who they were prior. When I was angry in my faith crisis I was also driven by pain. The scars of fundamentalism can be quite painful as they leave tender and deep wounds to one’s psyche and soul. In the religious empires that exist today there exist clear and deep problems of celebrity worship, group think, branding and merchandising. I agree deeply with what Neil Carter says there, but I believe it should go deeper. In religious empires today you also have an emphasis on pure doctrine, elevation of secondary issues in making them primary, hostility to science and intellectualism, and a movement that doesn’t tolerate dissension or discussion. The key to much of this is the culture wars. Evangelicalism will always have an enemy, as it needs one to thrive. In the course of evangelical history the enemies have been women, alcohol, gays, Armenians, Catholics, the poor, the Communists, and many others. Maybe this need of an enemy ties into what Neil Carter states above with tribalism. An enemy allows a movement to focus on a single component, person, or thing. It can be used to rally the masses and inspire people to act. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear works well, and our history books are littered with stories of what people have done out of fear.
But I suspect there’s something else playing into this as well. I suspect that negative “memes” (you can thank Richard Dawkins for that term) garner more support than positive ones. This fantastic video went viral a few months ago expertly explains why that would be the case, and furthermore why it is the memes that make you angry that will truly achieve immortality.
Anger is an extremely powerful emotion. It can drive, guide, form and shape a person. However, anger can also be destructive. Then to offset destructive anger you can also have righteous anger. Righteous anger is healthy, needed, and should be key to every man. Can you imagine if men got angry at the fact that Mark Driscoll is preaching again? Can you imagine if men were angry and voiced that anger at CJ Mahaney preaching again at T4G? Responsibility doesn’t just rest on the leaders but also the men and women who support and hold up such leaders. The members of the Village Church in Dallas are just as guilty for the treatment of Karen Hinkley as is Matt Younger. The people who supported and tithed to Sovereign Grace also share joint responsibility in my view for supporting a system that hurt others. All of these problems could end tomorrow if people spoke with their feet and the ATM/Debit and credit cards and said, “No..” we’re not supporting this anymore.”
Around the 1:20 mark the video claims that it’s the memes which make you angry that get shared the most. I think the same principle applies to narratives in general. and as a friend pointed out, this makes sense if you think about it: Those memes and narratives which make us feel good leave us feeling satisfied with the world as it is. On the other hand, it is those thoughts which make us angry that make us want to get up and do something to change the way the world is. In a way, those negative emotions enjoy their own reward structure which enables them to outstrip their competing emotions every time.
I’ll get into this in a second but while anger motivates a large number of people and prioritizes some emotions it doesn’t do that for all. But it can do that for many people. The one concern I have with this is painting with a big brush in that regard. Some, if not many people will be driven by their anger. Yet others use that anger and trade it in and do something different. I fall in the later group with the forgiveness I did. Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge do this every time they speak about drunk driving to a high school class or members of the military.
So it turns out that the thesis of Inception was wrong. (with all full respects to Chris Nolan, who has become one of my favorite filmmakers of all time). It’s not the positive impulses that most effectively inspire action, it’s the negative ones. It’s those things that upset us the most that motivates us to do something, to change things.
COBB – Now, the subconscious motivates through emotion, not reason, so we have to translate the idea into an emotional concept.
ARTHUR – How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?
COBB – That’s what we have to figure out. Robert and his father have a tense relationship. Worse, even, than the gossip columns have suggested…
EAMES – Do you play on that? Suggest breaking up his father’s company as a ‘screw you’ to the old man?
COBB – No. Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.
Eames thinks. Paces. Looking back at the board.
EAMES – Try this… “MY FATHER ACCEPTS THAT I WANT TO CREATE FOR MYSELF, NOT FOLLOW IN HIS FOOTSTEPS.”
COBB – That might work.
That interchange bothered me the very first time I heard it. It’s a noble idea, but I don’t think it’s necessarily how human psychology plays out. And I’m virtually convinced it’s not how things play out sociologically. Groups thrive on maintaining tribal boundaries, and a large part of that involves singling out who the common enemy is, and rehearsing the narratives that remind the group why it is that they must fight the bad guys and win the fay.
Here’s the part I would like to push back a little. Let me state up front that negative can inspire and motivate people. I think it does that to varying degrees. I think there’s some truth in that just by the very existence of this blog. This blog was born out of pain, out of something heinous, horrific and traumatic. It wasn’t my goal in life to start a blog, circumstances and being so singed by fundamentalism forced the hand. While I do this for that benefit it’s not the only one. So while negative emotions can drive people and trump other feelings for some…I don’t think that can be universally true. In my life I approached 140 people and sought forgiveness from each one. If you want to read about it go into the tab faith crisis up top and read the third story. I went against my instincts and the instincts of others in some cases. While I had a drive to fix things outright and work things through I also was going against the norms by the volume and scale of what I did. Each of the 140 people I approached will likely in their lifetime never see something remotely similar again. I’m not trying to be arrogant and boast, I’m just being realistic. And that is why it stands apart and alone. Its why I’ve been approached about turning my faith crisis into a book by a few people. Positive can trump negative in this one sense…sometimes the benefits outweigh the negatives of anger and hate. Part of the reason why I have been so driven in my prayer life to work things out with Andrew is that it’s in both our interests to work things out. That’s also a driving force I think to Eric Smallridge and Renee Napier. They needed to do what they did to build each other up and to release each other. Out of incredible pain beauty arose that is unique and different. Does that make it easy? No…it’s hard but it also pushes back. Its not universal, and maybe 8 out of 10 people would do what Neil Carter suggests which illustrates that many people will do that. But those 2 out of the 10 who choose a different course illustrate why the plot for Inception holds water.
One other point, I think one of the reasons why people reacted the way that they did to me approaching them is the following reasons. Each and every person who reads this will have a name, a thought or an experience in their life they wish they could undo. A relationship they wish they could rekindle or a friendship they wish they could salvage. There is more pain in this world than people want to admit and its out there because we’re human. Human’s are creative in their suffering and invent dark ways to suffer more deeply. Yet every person reading this wishes they had one person, that would come up to them and say, “Jack that argument we had in high school years ago was wrong, it destroyed a friendship and I want to let you know that I am sorry about that stupid fight.” Each person here has someone somewhere they wish they could reconcile and work things out with. But I would also suggest for many other people that it is hidden and lurks deep in their subconscious. Some people may not be able to fully realize this, or in a later time in life they will. So when I approached 140 people seeking forgiveness I tapped into that hidden desire. Here is this person that has this disappointment about something they would like to resolve. Then along comes someone else doing what they wish person A would do. Most people in life want to forgive. And its because of the above that I would suggest peace becomes a desire of trumping negative actions as the motivating factor why when some people are diagnosed with cancer or terminal disease they sometimes reach out to people to resolve a conflict or issue. No one wants to die in conflict we all want to die one day in peace. That I think is a universal desire.
What Does This Mean for Humanism?
I think it explains why it’s the fundamentalist churches that keep growing, keep raking in the cash, and keep duplicating themselves all over the United States. It’s the harsher, more austere forms of Christianity that die the hardest, especially the ones which can successfully repackage that narrative in more romanticized terms. If you can make fundamentalism look attractive to millennials, you can rule the world. It’s the people who sugar coat fundamentalism who do it the most effectively.
At some point these fundamentalist organizations will die. In regards to John Piper I think a lot of the stuff he spews will go to the grave with him. Another reason why is that its also a personality driven theology system, and when he or another person croaks, well than things will unwind very quickly. It’s a matter of time, but at some point all of this fundamentalism will die out. One other thing I would like to point out, I agree that fundamentalism is sugar coated and made to look “cool” and “hip” and “trendy.” However at one point the sugar coating disappears and reveals itself for what it is in the end. Everyone involved in a totalitarian faith system benefits from it for a while…but at some point everyone is called to pay their due. And that is when the system will backfire on them. That time is coming for everyone in that train of thought.
Atheists are fond of claiming that religion will soon die away because we just know too much, but I think the opposite is the case. People said the exact same thing in the late 1800’s because of the Darwinian revolution within science, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. Religion has acquired a strong hold on American life now than it did a hundred years ago, and religiously motivated far-right extremism threatens to derail our political process today in ways that no one would believe even 50 years ago.
I have mixed feelings on this for the following reason. While religion has grown from the late 1800’s until today I also think the internet is going to play a huge factor in some of the demise of fundamentalism. I think the internet has given rise to atheism in that it allows atheists to congregate and read material. It allows doubters who struggle with evolution and science to read more about evolution. Likewise you can’t hide the waste, fraud and the abuse like you once could. The internet is the greatest threat today in that regard. But I want to pose this question..is Neil Carter downplaying a little bit the role of the internet? I’m not trying to be condescending…I’m honestly curious?
Because fear sells. That’s why people run out to buy books about the end of the world. That’s why people listen to pundits who claim Obama’s the anti=Christ, or making the way for the antichrist, or whatever the next bogeyman of choice happens to be.
My question is: What implications does this have for secular humanism as an identity, as an ideology? What lessons can we learn from this if we are about trying to fashion a new way of looking at the world? Humanism has been around for a long time, but it seems to me that it still hasn’t fully matured into an identity that unifies large groups of diverse people in the way that religion has for centuries. It seems to me as if humanism is more of an element that weaves itself into multiple identities, influencing them in a progressive direction without necessarily making them aware that what they’re doing is becoming humanistic.
Fear does sell, I agree with that and I think much of what we are seeing in evangelicalism is the reaction to society changing. It also makes me honestly wonder…for those ranting about gay marriage and society…how would some of these individuals have survived in the days of Nero’s Rome? How would they have tolerated the society and immorality then? What would they have done? I very much agree Neil fear does indeed sell. One thing I do have to say…I wonder if Neil is giving religion too much influence in some of what he says. Yes we’re religious, yes we’re more religious today than in the past. But consider…evangelicalism is also a very fractured movement that is becoming more fractured with the passing of time. One thing evangelicals are good at is feuding, dividing, and separating. I see a lot of that fracturing existing today.
From a branding perspective, I’m not sure humanism sells well because it isn’t angry about enough things.
You have to understand how reluctantly I am conceding this point. I am conciliatory by nature, and I’d like for us all to get along. But I’m also noticing that’s it’s the angry forms of ideologies – the ones which have clear enemies and looming disasters to avoid – which garner the most support. Large groups of people just don’t rally around a positive message in the same way they will around something they commonly hate.
Neil this is one of the reasons why I love to read your blog. You’re honest, you’re upfront, and you care about the truth. That takes courage. Its the reason why I’d rather grab a beer with you and chill for an evening than a pastor or many others. I appreciate your honesty in saying this and talking about your perceived flaws in humanism. There are idolatries on both sides, and yes atheism has their fundamentalism as well. I learned that in attending the Reason Rally in 2012. But can I also be honest about something? Fundamentalism knows no boundaries it exists in Christianity, atheism, Islam, Judaism, politics, the National Football League, College football, College basketball, business world, government and so many other places. Fundamentalism is a mere ideology. I bet if I got involved in the Poodle Club of Northern Virginia I could find some strands of fundamentalism there in regards to purity of breeding, standards for dog shows, and so much more. There will always be fundamentalists, just like there will always be Kool aid drinkers.
I don’t like saying this, you understand. I’m just calling it like it is, and I’m asking what you think we should do about it?
It seems apparent to me that it’s the abrasive atheism that gets the most “upvotes,” so to speak. It’s the brand that accumulates the most financial support, and it’s certainly the kind of that scores the most traffic on a website. People love a good show, and as the old journalism adage says, it if bleeds, it leads. The more dramatic the story – and the angrier it makes you – the better it sells.
But the parts that makes you angriest aren’t always representative of the whole. On the contrary, they can often obscure the bulk of experience that most people have within their respective religious traditions. That leaves us reacting to outliers that don’t match what most people think of their faith, which means we’re only talking to ourselves.
I want to explore this in more detail in a stand alone post but I think here is much that atheism can offer Christianity. I welcome and celebrate the movement in that I appreciate its diversity and intellectualism. But I also think atheism is needed to keep extremism segments of fundamentalism in check. I want to talk about this in a minute but I hope that a large moderate middle can grow in atheism. And I hope that a large growing middle ground in evangelicalism can grow and that we can partner and work together. This is not me being a dreamer, this is me seeing potential and hope. Let me explain how in a minute.
So What Are We To Do?
I’m not sure. I think a starting point is identifying those things which truly are a threat to human thriving. In some ways we’re already begun to do that. Most progressive humanists feel that things like income inequality, racial injustice, sexism, overpopulation, and planetary waste are threats to societal well-being. Not all agree on those things, of course, as so many of my friends remind me regularly. Atheists come in all shapes and sizes, and most of the are even convinced that things like climate change or science and critical thinking are as valuable as we make them out of be.
When the Mars Hill situation was ongoing and stories and pain would be hemorrhaging out of the organization I was upset by how it was affecting churches and organizations in the Washington, D.C. area. I couldn’t understand the mess. Mars Hill Seattle taught me how cancerous some parts of evangelicalism can be. I don’t think many Christians have a pulse on atheism or the movement; and many don’t understand it. I was reading all the stories of financial improprieties and the belief held by many that Mars Hill 501 c3 status was compromised. I read the stories of how people hoped someone would do something, yet I knew many people were afraid. I then decided and looked into the possibility of doing a tip to the IRS and asking them to look into the situation. What I wanted to do was trigger an investigation into Mars Hill and have the IRS fully investigate the organization and Mark Driscoll’s finances. But I didn’t want to attach my signature to the paperwork or send that email. I was afraid of retribution or something ugly coming after me, and I already was managing enough in a false accusation.
So here’s what I did. One day on Facebook I reached out to the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. I explained to them what was going on, my concerns and I asked them, “do you realize the alleged illegal activity that is coming out?” I asked the atheist organization given their activism in monitoring churches for politics, to file or give a tip to the IRS. The response I got was that they were not going to do it, it wasn’t their lane and they gave me the form that I didn’t want to send in. I was frustrated in that action.
I honestly believe that atheism has a lot of potential and can assist the evangelical faith. And I am reaching out to the atheist community and asking for help. Can the atheist community pay closer attention to what is transpiring in evangelical Christianity? Can they file a tip on behalf of those Christians concerned about financial fraud, child sex abuse cover up, or questionable church activity? There are Christians concerned about this stuff, heck I see how it influences churches I have popped up at. Can an atheist middle ground emerge of former Christians and atheists who understand the problems and look out for their friends and family members still caught up in these toxic movements? I wish a body of people can grow to understand each other and help each other out. If Christianity can’t police itself can atheists help police it and abort further Mars Hills for becoming the mess they are. Some of you may think I’ve spent too much time in the sun, but I am honestly serious about all this. Neil Carter will you and Recovering from Religion consider this point?
But for those who are convinced, I think there are opportunities for forging alliances among the devout and as well as the irreligious. Scores of theists are just as concerned about managing natural resources as we are, and many of them roll their eyes just as hard as the anti-intellectualism of their more gullible ideological cousins. I don’t see any reason not to gang up with them to fight those things we feel are a threat to the advancement of the human race (along with any other race in our ecosystem, because why does it have to be all about us?) .
There are scores of theists concerned about corruption, scandal, abuse of power, financial fraud, and child sex abuse cover up. We love the church too much to leave it like it is. But we need help. Please Neil I am not someone who rolls my eyes at the thought of atheists, I am a Christian who loves the movement and still listens to podcasts from the Thinking Atheist from time to time on the way to church. But Neil can you help us? Can you hear our pleas for help and can you answer the call?
Doing that requires finding middle ground, and learning to start conversations that don’t skew into the extremes the way the video above demonstrates. I’m suggesting we use our love of critical thinking to analyze our own attraction to extreme sensational forms of thinking within our own tribe. If we’re really so smart, why don’t we use that to discover our own innate biases and fight them by learning to listen to people who see the world differently from how we see it? Maybe we aren’t convinced they have anything to teach us (I disagree, personally). But even if that’s the case, we still could use their cooperation in order to reach the goals we share as a species.
I am asking for atheists to focus on constructing a middle ground. Can you build one that is solid, stable and one that we can work with and get to know. To quote Abraham Lincoln after my experience with atheism and my faith crisis I firmly believe that we are not enemies but friends. Can we cooperate to reach the goals of the same species?
So it behooves us to learn to play nice. Learn to show respect toward those who aren’t like ourselves even in the midst of sometimes disagreeing with what they believe. There’s value in finding the things we have in common. And honestly, I don’t think we stand a chance of succeeding as a species unless we learn to do that. In case you haven’t noticed, in the most powerful country on the planet right now, the tribe which this blog channel represents only accounts for about 7% of the population. I don’t think we can afford to go it alone.
Thank you Neil. This was a great post and one that was good to read. I enjoy your wiring and read it with joy. Please keep up the hard work writing a blog is a lot of work. I’ll leave you with the ending from Bill Maher’s Religulous. Plus since Inception is raised in this post and that deals with dreams, I am going to leave you guys with a classic Billy Joel song that supposedly came from a dream he had. And with that I am done and heading off to bed! It’s late. Love you guys! Take care!