Hi and thanks for joining me! We’ve been talking lately about Shane Hayes’ new apologetics book, The End of Unbelief. It’s about how he was raised a fervent Catholic, spent a brief time as a “militant atheist” as well as a member of a number of other religions, and then reconverted to Christianity. It features what he claims on the cover of the book is a “new approach to the question of God.” Today we’re going to begin discussing what he thinks is a “new approach.” We’re going to start by looking at his conceptualization of atheism itself and how it led to his argument. It’s a very common mistake made by Christians, so it’s worth taking time to look at it.
So far, I just want to say that I’ve been hugely unimpressed with this author’s assertions and logic–or lack thereof. Nothing he’s saying about atheism even sounds halfway like what atheists usually mean by the word. He’s been either utterly ignorant of simple concepts or else disingenuously handling them to make Christianity sound stronger than it really is. I’m sure his audience–Christians–won’t mind; they already think this way about non-believers, largely thanks to people like him. But it’s still dishonest and mean-spirited, however nicely he cloaks the attempt.
We first talked about my general thoughts about Shane Hayes’ path back to Christianity, and how I didn’t think any of the other religions he tried were really nearly as big a deal in his life as he’s making them sound. As we progressed on through his preface, wherein he demonstrates near-total ignorance of science, atheism, and the other religions he claims he pursued, I talked about how he doesn’t understand how a belief can be built from blind faith–which is to say from a base of innocent ignorance or willfully-ignorant self-delusion–or from credible, demonstrated facts. He seriously thinks the scientific method and established principles like kinetic theory are on the same level as anything out of Christianity. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no way to really know for sure about anything at all. If we told him he’s totally wrong there, it’d wreck everything to follow.
This particular erroneous idea of his–that nothing can actually be proven true or false–is supremely important. Indeed it forms the very basis for the argument he’s about to present. Because no belief can be demonstrably truer than any other belief, by definition one should go with the belief that confers the most benefits, in his argument. You might as well believe this stupid thing as that other stupid thing, since neither one can be conclusively proven to be truer than the other. At that point you’re down to which belief serves you the best and has the greatest payoff. I’m sure it makes perfect sense to him, since he always believed in Christianity anyway so he can fool himself into believing he “chose” it.
Obviously, like almost every Christian I’ve ever run across, he very clearly thinks that beliefs can be chosen at will and can be willed into existence, fervency, and strength. He is presenting his story as if he, as a Christian, dutifully considered the available information and arguments and decided in cold rationality to become an atheist, then to become a member of all the other religions he pursued, then to reconvert back to Christianity.
So let’s actually look at this first chapter of his, “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.”
One of our blog’s friends recently made a comment that’s been making me reconsider my stance about flat-out not questioning someone’s status as an ex-atheist, and this chapter has sealed the deal. Whatever this guy thought atheism was, however “militant” he says he was as an atheist, what he describes does not actually make him sound like any atheist I’ve ever heard of. Certainly it doesn’t sound like the unshackling and sudden rush of freedom and liberation that I consider all but synonymous with atheism:
For me, (atheism) was like Antarctica–glacially cold and wind lashed, an icebound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible on the horizon, and beyond the horizon … nothing. I endured my own atheism for most of a decade. Then, drawn homeward, I swam against the tide for years, made a grueling journey back to the island of faith–for me, a lush Capri of the soul.
Why are the choices Capri or Antarctica? Which belief system is Germany? Which one is Canada? Or Somalia? (Dare I say it? Yes. Atheism is a place like abstinence is a sex position.) We’re going to talk about this error in thinking in the next post, but for now, let’s concentrate just on his conceptualization of atheism and Christianity and the idea of happiness: Does that description even sound vaguely like any atheist’s story you’ve ever heard?
Here, by contrast, is my friend Neil’s very well-written account of what his life was like after rejecting religion: Peace of mind, rediscovery of his love of learning, the ability to accept people he’d once judged and even his own deeply human foibles, an appreciation for people’s abilities and the ability to thank them instead of a god, getting more free time, having better health, enjoying a richer and freer sex life, acquiring a circle of friends who are a lot more fun to be around, and having much more realistic expectations about life–and an appreciation for its genuine beauty and preciousness–in general. Does any of that sound like a bleak Antarctica to you? No, Neil’s account sounds more like the “lush Capri” in the false dilemma above–and it matches very well with what I’ve heard from more atheists than I can count.
And, too, I’ve described the crushing hell that was Christianity in my own life and how relieved and happy I was to realize it wasn’t true at all and that I could quit laboring under those false ideas and cruel chains. I mean, sure, some people who leave Christianity do experience a little depression afterward for a short while until they rebuild their worldview with the new, more truthful information they’ve learned. Some people don’t just leap into the sky like superheroes, exultant and delighted, the second they realize that Christianity’s claims aren’t true. I went through a very brief period where I felt absolutely adrift because I’d spent my whole life imagining (falsely) that I had this invisible friend protecting me and being passionately interested in every tiny detail about my life.
But I have to admit that I have never, ever, ever run into an atheist who after years in the worldview still holds that bleak, joyless view of the universe. It doesn’t surprise me that Shane Hayes held that view, though, because we’ve already seen that he doesn’t have the faintest idea what atheism really involves or know anything about how humanity can know what is and isn’t factually true. Maybe there are some atheists out there who really think like that, but I’d argue that those people maybe aren’t actually atheists but Christians on a time-out from their religion.
We do get a little confirmation regarding the timeline of his religious walkabout, though. Last time we talked, I was pretty sure he was only an atheist for a year or so. To my astonishment, in this chapter he reveals that his atheist phase lasted, he says, “most of a decade.” But that sounds pretty vague, doesn’t it? How long was “most of a decade”? If he’s rounding up, that could mean anything from 6 years to 9–because if it’d been a solid 10 or more years, he’d have said “over a decade” or “a decade,” not “most of a decade.” (Yes, Shane Hayes, if you’re reading this, I caught that bit of weaseling.)
Indeed, a post he wrote for Friendly Atheist indicates that the timeline runs thusly: ignorant Christian from birth, then ignorant atheist at 20, then ignorant Hindu/Buddhist at an unnamed point, ignorant “pure theist”–which we’ll talk about in a little while, because trust me, it’s comedy gold–at 28, and then back to being an ignorant Christian again by 30. Looking at his timeline from his own website, midway through there, he tried and failed to be a writer and went back to work for his father, and the “pure theist” phase seems to have started around then. During those early years in atheism, he was “brimming with literary ideas” while globetrotting–which doesn’t sound like he was that upset with the universe. Is it possible that the atheist phase began around the time he began trying to write for a living and was rejecting his previous life, and the bleakness he perceived in atheism maybe was associated with the failure of that attempt to strike out on his own? Because it’s notable that when he got back with his father’s company, his Christianity reasserted itself.
Even so, there’s one thing we’re not taking into account here. And Shane Hayes has certainly completely overlooked that thing himself (and probably hopes we have too):
A person’s happiness level with an idea does not impact its truthfulness even a little.
Maybe this is an excessive liberty I am taking, but I perceive a downright childish vibe here, an indignant, petulant tone to his description of how he perceives atheism and the sense of betrayal and disappointment he describes when he realized that atheism didn’t live up to the standards he’d imagined for it. This is Christian egotism at its very finest. He fully expected atheism to be a “lush Capri of the soul” like his religion had been. When it was not, when it did not offer him those false hopes and illusions that Christianity had that had felt so good, he got visibly upset about something that atheism–as the null hypothesis, remember–doesn’t pretend to offer. He is way more concerned with how an idea makes him feel than he is with whether or not it is actually true.
I find his approach more and more insincere the more I look at it. For example, in this chapter he writes, “I’m a pragmatist, not an evangelist.” But he’s written a book that aims to convert people and he discusses “a new approach to the question of God,” so I find that insistence more than a little disingenuous. When he continues in that vein, this impression of mine gets much stronger:
believing in God can enrich the lives of many who have ignored or rejected that option.
I’m pretty sure he’s not going to offer any really good reasons for believing in any gods, particularly his own, and he doesn’t seem all that interested in anything beyond “enrichment.” It doesn’t really matter if the belief is true or false at its core as long as it “enriches” him.
A true pragmatist would be interested in what can be accomplished the most certainly with the most efficient expenditure of resources. Christianity is not a pragmatic religion–unless someone is certain to profit by it (helLO book publishing contract!). Rank and file believers who haven’t got book contracts (or ministerial positions in prosperous churches) don’t profit by Christianity–except by a promise that after their lives are finished, they shall go to a Heaven whose existence has never once been credibly demonstrated and by vague assurances that their lives will be improved in tangible ways that may not never quite materialize for reasons that will doubtless be laid at their own feet. In hopes of gaining those promises, they will waste their lives parroting nonsense, spending their limited money and time on churches whose function is largely to perpetuate themselves rather than truly help anybody, trying to control outsiders who would rather be left alone, denying facts up and down because they contradict a holy book, and refusing to partake in the full richness of the human experience. And they will waste their lives in this manner because they want to get those earthly rewards (which are not actually credibly demonstrated) and then go to this afterlife that is promised them (which is also not ever actually credibly demonstrated). None of that sounds particularly pragmatic to me.
When Shane Hayes claims that his approach is “pragmatic,” what he’s really saying is that he has found a way to profit off a system that exploits and hurts a great many people and has held humanity back from progress so many times it hurts me to even think about it.
We’re just talking about idealized Christianity here, of course–that “lush Capri” style of Christianity. Of the many vile abuses that Christians have inflicted on humanity, he is silent, but that goes without saying. If he’s benefiting from his beliefs, then those beliefs are good even if they have hurt others. Fuck all y’all–he’s got his.
I’ve run across many Christians who just don’t understand how anybody could ever see anything objectionable about their religion. They act like their religion is SO wonderful and SO glorious and SO fun and SO loving–and I know how that is, because I did it once myself. Unlike Shane Hayes and his atheism, I really was a true-blue Christian. I really felt flummoxed when people said they thought my religion sounded abusive or that my god sounded like a total dickweed. I suspect this guy’s wearing the same blinkers I did once.
I don’t think Shane Hayes has actually talked to a lot of atheists if he refers to his opinion as “the radiant view” (emphasis his), which implies that any other view is the opposite of radiant. And to him, that radiance matters more than whether or not something is true or false or is demonstrably harmful to people’s sanity and well-being.
When they don’t have facts to base their opinions on, Christians end up having to push the religion’s perceived positive social aspects, or their erroneous conception of its society-civilizing effects, or their obliviously shortsighted view of how happy it makes (some) adherents. Obviously, this author is not going to explain why we should choose either between Christianity and atheism if we want to be happy; he doesn’t offer a single word about why paganism, for example, couldn’t make someone just as happy. If all things being the same was actually the case, which it isn’t, but if it were, then why not go for something more affirming, loving, progressive, and science-friendly? Nope! Atheism = sadface, and Christianity = happyface. That’s all he cares about. Those are the two choices.
What’s really mind-blowing, though, is that even he can’t keep up the pretense that Christianity is make-happy-feel-good. In this very first chapter, he briefly alludes to the fearmongering threats woven all through Christianity:
And if this life is harder because we have rejected belief in God, a future life might be harder still because we’ve done so.
Oh, really? Is he actually going there? Because I can go there too. Oh yes, I can indeed.
As we’ve seen so many times before, when every other argument has proven unpersuasive, a toxic Christian will yank out the threats of eternal torture at the hands of his radiant, Capri-island, joy-giving, enrichment-providing god. Shane Hayes only hints at the threat here, but the mere fact that he included it tells me that it’s definitely a factor in his pretense of Christianity. He also briefly mentions that he likes this religion better than atheism because it gives him hope of seeing his dead relatives again one day–a bit of callous emotional manipulation if there ever was one. I don’t know about you, but I find it downright offensive that he’d ever hold out false hope to someone who has lost a dear relative. “Recite this completely nonsensical magic spell and see your mother again one day!”
(OH, FUCK YOU, SHANE HAYES. FUCK YOU IN THE NECK. FUCK YOU, FUCK THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON, FUCK THE GUY WHO SOLD YOU THAT HORSE, AND FUCK THE TOTAL STRANGER WHO FED IT APPLES. BUT ESPECIALLY, COMPLETELY, PARTICULARLY, GALACTICALLY, SPECTACULARLY: FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU FOR GOING THERE.)
My mother is dead. I will probably never see her again. That’s how it is. I don’t like the idea of never seeing her again, but I need to come to grips with that loss instead of chasing dragons trying to get her back, and I will work it out just like billions of other people have before me. Death is scary, but it’s part of the human condition. I don’t think Christianity deals well with that part. I don’t think it’s healthy to grasp at straws held out by opportunistic, manipulative, pandering frauds instead of spending my time and resources in honest growth. I’d rather have honest loss than false hope. It’s shameless and cruel to hold out that false hope, just as it is to threaten someone with an eternity of torture he doesn’t even have evidence for, but hey, anything to convert someone, right?
So to this apologetics author–as with a great many of his peers–lovely perfect Christianity is the best option because it is radiant even when it isn’t, gives joy except when it doesn’t, provides enrichment for him at least even if it penalizes and hurts a bunch of other people but who cares about them, gives him the illusion that he’ll see his dead relatives again one day so he doesn’t have to come to grips with their loss, and will maybe keep him out of an eternity of torture at the hands of his purely benevolent Capri-island god.
By contrast, mean ole atheism is a bleak windswept icy hellhole that doesn’t make false promises or give him false happiness, doesn’t make excuses for why reality looks like it does, doesn’t deny science, doesn’t give him false and deceptive hopes, and doesn’t threaten to torture him forever if he denies its nonexistent blandishments.
Wait, tell me again why atheism is the bad choice here?
In conclusion, I’d rather make my own happiness on honest terms than to take an illusion veiling threats and cruel false hopes. Shane Hayes has said absolutely nothing here to make me think that his “new approach” is either new or even really an approach. He’s deluded himself quite deliberately and thinks that it is a novel and good thing that he has done so.
We’re going to continue talking about this chapter’s errors next time, but I wanted to take a minute to specifically discuss this weird idea before we do that. Next time, we’re going to cover his idea that beliefs are a choice. It ought to be fun–please do join me. (We’ll be talking about Antarctica, too! Because he’s wrong about that as well!)