Hi again! We’ve been discussing a new apologetics book by Shane Hayes and today we’ll be starting to get into the meat of his argument–the one he thinks is “a new approach to the question of God.” Here is the link to the Amazon preview of his book, The End of Unbelief, so you can follow along, and I’ll link you up to anything else that’s pertinent as we go.
First, though, let’s talk briefly about what this book actually is, since Shane Hayes himself seems unclear on that topic. I noticed today that he’s reprinted on his site a letter he’d sent to a philosophy professor trying to talk him into writing a review for his book. After taking a look at the book he sent along with the letter, the professor told him very politely in reply that he only reviews peer-reviewed works in academic publications (as opposed to a popular, non-academic book like this one) and that even barring that objection he didn’t review Christian apologetics books anyway as he didn’t feel qualified to do so. That’s a perfectly reasonable objection, and it was nice that he took the time at all to respond to what was clearly an unsolicited request. But since when do toxic Christians respect boundaries? Indeed Mr. Hayes replied, rather huffily knocking aside that gentle refusal:
I must point out that it is NOT a work of Christian apologetics. Though I tell of my ultimate conversion to Christianity I do not urge the reader to become Christian, nor do I argue for Christianity. My approach to the hardcore unbeliever is more subtle, oblique, and tactful. . . This, my friend, is not Christian apologetics.
Ignoring his incredible boorish gall in showing such disrespect to clearly-established boundaries, leaving aside his weird overly-chummy “my friend” reference to someone who doesn’t sound like a friend of his, exactly why does Shane Hayes think that the dreck he’s offering here is anything but apologetics? Because he doesn’t think he is explicitly offering an altar call, and because he sees what he’s asking non-believers to do is try this bizarre little spiritual belief he’s calling “Pure Theism” rather than “Christianity.”
You know, for a while I could think that maybe this guy was just hugely ignorant and oblivious (with a few dishonest handlings of facts that I don’t hold against him all that much, considering how much worse his peers in the industry do it), but now I’ve got to think that he is actually self-serving, controlling, manipulative, and blatantly dishonest. Being accused of being an apologetics author seems to bug the hell out of him, though, enough that he devotes a good number of words to argue this professor into doing what the fellow had already said he didn’t feel comfortable doing. He brushes aside the professor’s stated reasons for not wanting to review the book, restating them as “not having time,” which is not at all what the professor said were his reasons in the first place, reasons which Shane Hayes knows because he actually quoted them on his damned website, and then couldn’t resist spin-doctoring what he saw as the professor’s alarming lack of lockstep with his own high opinion of his work. (Can you even believe this got reprinted on his website like it’s some kind of admirable thing! I’d have been beyond pissed if I’d been that professor!)
So let’s get back to his book and see if that high opinion–and the definitions he’s using–sound about right. He gives two assertions about his work: first, it can’t be apologetics because he’s not talking about the Christian god, and second, it can’t be apologetics because he’s not actually exhorting readers to take up Christianity but rather something else entirely.
First, let’s look at what apologetics even is. One definition I found of the word was “the defense of the Christian faith,” going on to develop the term “defense” to mean a sort of courtroom debate-style defense: “In ancient Athens it referred to a defense made in the courtroom. . . After the accusation, the defendant was allowed to refute the charges with a defense or reply (apologia). The accused would attempt to ‘speak away’ (apo–away, logia–speech) the accusation.” Over time, the term came to be used to describe a person who is specifically defending Christianity against skeptics. So Mr. Hayes is correct when he asserts that apologetics is about Christianity.
I can see why Shane Hayes treats the very idea of apologetics as a dirty word. Non-Christians are not generally fooled by what has become an entire cottage industry of Christians trying to find new slogans and catchphrases they think prove that their claims have some sort of factual merit. Apologetics has its own culture at this point, its own accepted ideas, canon, and practices. If a genuinely persuasive reason to believe in any religion’s claims ever emerges, it will not be from apologists; they’re all eating their own tails and spinning in circles trying to recycle something new (and marketable) out of old unpersuasive ideas. I don’t think they’d know what to do with themselves if it ever happened. Meanwhile all they can do is get more and more froth-mouthed trying to defend an ancient idea that really isn’t very defensible to anybody sensible anymore–and Christians will buy whatever they write because they don’t know any better, having been raised with those selfsame ideas, canon, and practices. (On a side note, when Christians finally realize how truly lame these works are, the Christian publishing industry is doomed.)
So is Shane Hayes defending Christianity here? Well, he does write this in his first chapter:
My solution may not be yours. But of this I am sure: believing in God can enrich the lives of many who have ignored or rejected that option.
I guess he can call the object of his belief whatever he wants, but that sure sounds like a very specific divinity. There’s really only one personage Christians mean when they refer to a capital-G deity like that. The author is certainly not encouraging people to believe in Zeus or Thor or the Spaghetti Monster. Any other suggestion should be rightfully dismissed as dishonest. He is talking about his own god and no other–and the professor rightly noticed that.
The reason he says he can’t possibly be writing apologetics is that rather than pushing Christianity, he’s pushing “Pure Theism.” When you see Christians making up words to describe their religious ideas, you should take the results the same way you’d take it if a pudding-bellied middle-aged white dude said he’d made up his own martial art. The results are going to be both cringeworthy and hilarious. And Shane Hayes doesn’t disappoint when he describes in this letter to his professor “friend” what “Pure Theism” is all about:
the belief in a personal and loving God, not otherwise defined. Not the God of the Old Testament, or the God of the New Testament, or the God of the Koran or the Book or Mormon (sic). JUST GOD — a Creator God who loves what he created and whom we can connect with in prayer, without benefit of any scripture, with no organized religion, and without the intervention of any priest, minister, rabbi, or imam.
And now we can say for sure he’s not real clear on what “theism” actually means either. Despite his numerous, vehement protests to the contrary, there’s only one religion that features “a Creator God,” only one religion that features “a personal and loving God,” only one religion that pushes the idea of “connection” with a god “in prayer, without benefit of any scripture.” Guess which one? If you answered “Celtic reconstructionist paganism,” you get a–oh wait no you don’t, because he’s talking about Christianity. There aren’t a boatload of monotheistic religions anyway, but there is only one monotheistic religion that fits the description I just printed here.
In reality, when you hear someone talking about “theism,” what they’re usually talking about is just a very generic form of belief in at least one god. That’s it. The term does not imply monotheism, nor does it impart any characteristics to whoever it’s talking about. Not very descriptive, is it? It doesn’t get a whole lot more pure than that already, but to Shane Hayes, “Pure Theism” sounds an awful lot like the exact god he happens to worship.
The only reason he even knows about that god is, precisely, the Scriptures and belief system that sprang up around Christianity. That’s it. Nobody would know anything about his “personal and loving” “Creator God” if it weren’t for various anonymous Gospels. Certainly no extra-Biblical early-first-century scholarship would turn anything up about it. Certainly no scientists would ever find this deity’s name written in the stars or the dust of the Milky Way above our heads. The only way we know anything about a “Creator God” who is “personal and loving” is the religion that pushes that selfsame idea. So I find it more than a little off-putting and weird that this author is pretending that he’s talking about anything but the Christian god. A person who claims, as he does, to have dabbled in Hinduism and Buddhism really should know better than to think any other religion might be construed as this “personal and loving” “Creator God.” Belief in this “Pure Theism” is nothing more than a baby step toward Christianity, and he doesn’t present it as anything else or intend it to lead anybody in any other direction.
Shane Hayes wants us all to pretend along with him that we don’t realize he’s talking about Christianity, like our spiritual lives are like a rom-com where we’ll pursue this Pure Theism and realize five minutes before ending credits that our one true love, Jesus, was standing right there all along (!!!), but that’s just the religious equivalent of pretending along with Republicans that “stopping voter fraud” totally doesn’t actually mean “disenfranchising black people.” I find his whole wheedling pretense to be beyond unscrupulous, and it’s shocking he thought anybody would go along with the ruse. I can see why he does it in a way; if he can sell an audience on Christianity Lite, it’s not that much of a leap to get to actual Christianity. But oh what a leap from atheism to Christianity Lite!
Moreover, this “Pure Theism” he claims he’s pushing is not only a “personal and loving” “Creator God,” but one who offers a Creationist worldview, who will hurt (or allow to be hurt) people after they die if they refuse to love and worship him, and offers tangible aid to those who do love and worship him. That sounds terribly familiar to me. I don’t think I’m misconstruing what he’s saying, either. He actually showed up on Hemant Mehta’s blog, Friendly Atheist, to respond to people criticizing his book. There, he confirmed what he’d said to the philosophy professor, saying that his idea was “Just God”–
I began with the most simplified and essential concept of a supernatural being: one who created the universe, loves what he made, and follows with benevolent concern the fate of every human life. . . a supreme being who cares about his human creatures and wants a relationship with them.
Yes, that really is his idea of “the most simplified and essential concept of a supernatural being”: one that created the universe, craves the love and obedience of his followers, and both protects and gives presents to his created pets.
Nowhere in the book’s preview could I find anything about “Pure Theism” except at the very end of it, so maybe he develops the idea a little more than I’m seeing, but all I’ve got to go by is what he said in that letter, on Friendly Atheist, and what I saw in the preview. And absolutely nothing I see sounds like anything but a standard-issue “it’s a relationship not a religion” sort of touchy-feely Christian god. His god is the Christian god, and from what I can see it always was, even for that brief time when he was busy denying that god.
I probably don’t need to tell you this, either, but of course nowhere at all does he offer even the slightest hint of evidence for his claim about this “personal and loving” “Creator God” of “Pure Theism,” or for that matter for the religious worldview that he thinks is soooooooooo much better than cold, cruel, uncaring atheism.
The first part of apologetics is that it involves the Christian god. We’ve demonstrated here that his argument definitely does so. The second part of apologetics is persuasion. Is Shane Hayes trying to persuade readers to accept his religious arguments and embrace the worldview he recommends?
On that second point, we convict this book as well. When Shane Hayes says he certainly doesn’t insist that everybody should believe as he does, that’s very good and nice-sounding on the surface, but in this very same first chapter he has done the following:
* Threatened people with vague hints of Hell for non-belief;
* Asserted that, if this worldview is embraced, adherents will get to see their dead relatives again;
* Compared atheism with an icy windswept hellhole and belief with a gorgeous vacation island;
* Claimed, utterly without any proof whatsoever, that some form of “supernatural help” is available to believers that is not available to non-believers;
* Outright denied established principles in science as “wildly improbable” and condemned the scientific method; and
* Claimed that his belief system can “enrich” those who might otherwise reject it.
Here is what I heard while reading that first chapter and the other stuff he’s written: “Do what you want, but if you don’t do this, then this absolutely ghastly, out-of-proportion fate is yours and you’ll be totally miserable during your lifetime and bereft of all help from my invisible friend, oh and you’ll believe total lies.” Am I the only one who thinks he’s talking out both sides of his mouth here–that his claims and threats around “Pure Theism” sound exactly and precisely like the claims and threats that regular Christian apologists make? How am I supposed to read what he has to say about his belief system and what he thinks (erroneously, obviously) about atheism and think he’s doing anything but trying to persuade me to take up his belief system? I don’t think he’s being honest here about something or other.
The threat’s what really clinches it, this idea he puts forth (without proof, but you knew that, I hope) that “if this life is harder because we have rejected belief in God, a future life might be harder still because we’ve done so.” He is not allowed to threaten people and make claims about the consequences of non-belief, then say he’s totally fine with people not believing his claims. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. If he was genuinely okay with people not believing his claims, then he wouldn’t have written a book. He’d be letting folks live their lives free of his meddling and interference, false promises and empty threats. He didn’t do that. He wrote a whole book and a series of blog posts pushing his views. So he most certainly does care enormously. This, too, is something he is not being honest about.
He cloaks the threat he makes in another redefined term, “consequences,” which Tea Partiers and forced-birthers alike love to use because it sounds so much nicer than “punishment.” He’s making a very roundabout and politely-worded threat, but a threat is a threat no matter how nicely it’s said. And it dwarfs anything else he could say, really. He’s not talking about enjoying a present lifetime of “lush Capri” vacationing and getting the personal love, “enrichment,” and attention of a god. He’s also making quite clear that if his viewpoint isn’t accepted, that there’s going to be some very bad times coming for non-believers.
And if he’s really totally fine with people not believing the way he does, knowing what they face for not believing it, then he is a monster, and his god is certainly even worse than he is for making a system that involves that kind of punishment–and thus is not worthy of my worship and love, even if he could be demonstrated to exist in the Lite form Shane Hayes likes to think is the stepping-stone to Christianity that totally isn’t Christianity at all.
I’m certainly under no obligation, as I said last time, to accept the redefinitions he’d really like us to use. I realize that accepting them would really make it a lot easier for him to support the rest of his argument, and I realize that those redefinitions in large part make his argument even possible, but resolving those issues is his task, not mine.
As for me, I’m glad that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Shane Hayes’ vision of divinity is actually real, though that does seriously undercut his argument. Next time, we will be continuing our discussion of this book and its associated ideas–see? I’m getting smarter about this. I know better than to say exactly what’s coming next. Either way, though, please feel free to join me.
On a final note, incidentally, I’m sure I’ve mentioned this, but I’ve got a brainy UU friend and seminary graduate who told me once that apologetics is only deployed to explain away shitty theology. Something true doesn’t need apologetics. But something false needs it very much. Keep that in mind as we tackle the next part of this series.