A while ago, Kirk Cameron popularized a fairly-new evangelism technique: claiming that he knows all about atheism because he, himself, was once an (gasp! Shock! OMG!) atheist. He thought it gave him some kind of leg up on authority and credibility to say that he’d once been an atheist, and though the attempt backfired hilariously on him, I saw the approach spread like wildfire among Christians who began using it as well. Now it’s one of the big trendy things I see Christians saying to non-Christians, and you’ve probably seen the book that resulted most recently from that mindset.
It is written by Shane Hayes and is called The End of Unbelief: A New Approach to the Question of God, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more blatantly dishonest book title than that one–because it is not a new approach at all to the “question” of the existence of the particular god described in the Bible, as we’ll see. It was written, however, by a fellow who claims that he was once an atheist and then converted to Christianity, which he thinks gives his ideas more merit than they would have if he’d been a lifelong Christian.
I think that in the last few decades at least (and probably longer), Christians have tried to have their testimonies draw from the big Christian fears of the moment. Back in my day, the trendy testimonies involved pasts in Satanism and Wicca because those were the big fears at the height of the Satanic Panic. Christians were convinced, thanks to irresponsible lying evangelists like Mike Warnke and books like This Present Darkness, that there was this huge, organized, Mafia-like network of Wiccan Satanists (or was it Satanic Wiccans?) out kidnapping children, torturing black cats, and seducing innocent young Christian women into debauchery and hooking innocent young Christian men on drugs, D&D, and easy sex.
Now the boogeyman that threatens to destroy families and seduce kids away from Jesus is atheism. At least it’s a slightly more realistic fear, but the exact way Christians fear atheism is, as with the previous scares, rather blown-up and insultingly inaccurate, resulting in all kinds of weird misunderstandings about just what non-belief looks like.
There are still a lot of Christians who, like me back in my day, don’t really know any atheists (that they know of, at least). And I’ve run into Christians who also don’t think they know any ex-Christians in real life. It’s a sure bet that they actually do, even in the most Christocentric of all Christian areas; many ex-Christians and atheists have to camouflage themselves and slide under the radar to keep their families and employment intact. Sometimes those hidden souls are even behind the pulpit; sometimes they sit beside their Christian peers in pews every Sunday; sometimes they work the lights or sound systems so they can escape having to pretend they’re more engaged than they really are. Often they’re young people–teens even–who know that revealing disbelief means possibly losing their parents’ affection and getting thrown out of their homes. But the point is that Christians very often don’t know that they already know at least a few atheists and ex-Christians.
Combine that lack of personal connection with a lot of demonization and dehumanization of both atheists and ex-Christians, and you get Christians who pretty much will believe anything anybody says about people in those groups. They don’t know better, so when a source they think is authoritative puffs him- or herself up and says something like “atheists don’t have any purpose in life,” they’re very likely going to just swallow that poisonous brew. Or they’ll hear that ex-Christians just left the religion “to sin.” Then they’ll trot those lines out in a forum somewhere, since they don’t actually know any real sources to set the record straight, and get demolished as atheist after atheist comes in to say, in some confusion, that actually they feel their lives are very purposeful, or these chirpy Christians will see throngs of ex-Christians who tell them that actually they live way more moral lives now than they ever did while Christian. At that point, those demolished Christians will have to decide what they believe more: the authoritative source they so foolishly trusted, or the actual people standing before them who are shredding that source’s authority to bits.
Most of them will go with the former, alas. This ignorance opens the door for authoritative-sounding people to meander into their vision claiming to have been atheists and whatnot. These people spout the same tired clichés and debunked talking-points that non-Christians have been dealing with since forever, but they find some new way to say them that sounds very impressive to their target audience–who, again, don’t generally know anybody they can actually talk to about this stuff, and who certainly aren’t making a big habit out of seeking out dissenting sources to help them evaluate the claims they’re hearing. Let’s face it: the entire religion as a whole isn’t real big on teaching its adherents how to think critically and assess claims.
So let’s look at this new book. I’m going to be quoting from the Amazon preview so you can follow along. I’m assuming that the publisher chose the best bits of the book to put into the preview to entice people into wanting to buy it, so it seems fair to me to judge the book based on that preview. I’m going to go stream-of-consciousness here. Feel free to follow along.
The rah-rah blurb on the front cover says that “this is an unusual, deeply felt, utterly logical, and persuasive book. . . An excellent contribution to the great theological debate.” This unequivocal thumbs-up is from Paul Theroux, a rather questionable sort of person to quote on the cover of a book aimed at convincing atheists to convert. He’s an author (he wrote The Mosquito Coast) who has quite a few controversies in his background. He has never actually written anything theological that I can tell, doesn’t appear to have a theological or ministerial background, and generally doesn’t seem like the sort of fellow one turns to in order to pump a book about religion. A novelist, however celebrated, doesn’t necessarily have the credentials to evaluate a religious argument. Basically, I don’t see why I should give a shit what Paul Theroux thinks of this book. I’d be a lot more impressed if they’d gotten someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson or some top lawyer or doctor to review this thing. Too bad C.S. Lewis and JRRT are dead, huh? So we’re not off to a great start. I’m downright baffled by this choice and we’re not even past the top third of the cover yet.
Notice as well that at the bottom, there’s a little insert there for the word “former” before “atheist” in “Arguments & Stories by the former atheist Shane Hayes.” Sounds kind of twee and manipulative. This book isn’t just “a new approach to the question of God.” It’s absolutely making sure we know that the book is written by someone who claims to have once been an atheist.
Hoo boy. Moving on. We’ve got some slightly more credible endorsements following that, though not a single one from any atheists who changed their minds as a result of Mr. Hayes’ book–in fact, quite the opposite, with atheists saying that no, they weren’t convinced. That’s not really a good sign, all things told, but okay, let’s keep going.
Oh, he uses “discrete” correctly. I like that. There’s not enough love in this world for the word “discrete.” But then he goes on to say something ridiculously ignorant in that introduction:
“Part One is pure argument. It takes on the New Atheism, showing that it is a belief system, not a proven theory, and that it offers less to rational thinkers than faith in God does.”
What the fuck?
Seriously…. what the fucking fuck?
As a dear friend of mine says, hold my bra.
Okay, look. Y’all know I don’t identify as an atheist. But that’s largely semantics. I may feel like I’m a little too friendly toward spirituality to qualify as a true-blue Scarlet A, but I know what evidence is and I don’t go in for woo. I know that nothing supernatural–including every single supernatural truth claim made by every religion ever–has ever been credibly demonstrated. I know the definitions around atheism, though, and clearly I know those definitions better than the guy who claims he was once a “militant” atheist.
To anybody reading this who maybe doesn’t know better yet: NO, atheism is not a belief system. It’s not a proven theory, either, because it can’t be, and I don’t know any atheists who would say otherwise. Mr. Hayes is making a strawman here to tilt at, and you know it’s because his strawman’s a lot easier to engage with than the truth. So here’s the truth: atheism is a reaction to religions’ lack of evidence for their claims. That’s it. You can’t “believe” in atheism, as in you physically can’t, as in it’s not something that anybody could believe in because it’s not structured as a belief and indeed it can’t be. And it doesn’t “offer” anything to those who identify as atheists because it can’t offer anything by its very nature. It’s the absence of belief, the null hypothesis. By definition it isn’t going to be able to offer anything to anybody.
That’s not a bug in atheism, folks. That’s a feature. That’s a good thing. He’s implying it’s a bad thing, but only Christians–with their manufactured need for a belief system that offers them benefits–could actually be bothered by that facet of atheism. I’ve certainly never met any atheists who had a problem with it.
And let’s face it: just because something makes adherents feel good doesn’t mean it’s true. Indeed, “faith in God” may offer all sorts of things to adherents, but that doesn’t mean those things are true, and it certainly doesn’t mean that those promises will be fulfilled. Promises and offers are cheap to make. Moreover, “faith in God” can offer me anything it wants, but I can’t just force myself to believe in something because it promises me lots of goodies. If anything, I could get myself to mouth belief, but it wouldn’t be real belief.
Part Two is apparently going to be about how he had a big “crisis of faith”–at seventeen years old–and was helped out of it by a Trappist monk. Wow. I’ve got no words. This sounds so damned insufferable and self-important to me already. But Trappists are pretty cool folks so that’s nice. Glad he ran into one. I knew some in Kansas and they were hoopy froods. Nothing like a “wise man in the desert” encounter to boost a story’s resonance. I understand that the idea has found its way into a few other popular narratives.
Part Three is going to tell us all about how he moved through “atheism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to Pure Theism. . . and finally back to Christianity.”
Holy shit, so he was raised Catholic, then went through all those phases starting at around what, seventeen? Wait just a damn minute, how old is this guy? (Rushing to another window right quick on my Mac now.) Oh my gosh, this guy is really old. He comes off sounding like one of those arrogant college bros who reads a lot of Ayn Rand, but he’s apparently in his 70s. And that’s okay, obviously, people are allowed to be old, but finding out his age makes the shallow nature of his assertions seem all the more striking to me.
His website asserts that he was an “ardent Catholic (nearly a Trappist monk at seventeen), to militant atheist at twenty, to dilettante Hindu/Buddhist, to Pure Theist. . . to a Christian studying for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.” He conspicuously doesn’t provide a timeline for anything after the atheism, so we don’t know how long that lasted, but at 24 he writes that he quit his job after college to try writing as a career, which didn’t pan out, so I’m guessing that all this religious bed-hopping didn’t last that long. If the order of religions is correct and we give him a year or so for each of the other ones, then atheism wasn’t more than a blip on the radar of his spiritual searching. That silly insertion on the cover–“FORMER atheist”–might as well have read “former Hindu” or “former Buddhist.” Or “former Catholic.” Sounds like he was Catholic more than just about anything else. But it says “former atheist.” I’m liking this whole book less and less. It really doesn’t sound like he really did much with the atheism; he certainly doesn’t seem to have learned much about it, as “militant” as he was.
By the way, it’s my personal impression and experience that when you see someone doing a lot of that religion-hopping, especially when it’s really disparate religions, that seems to me to be someone who is looking desperately for something and not finding it in those religions. That’s someone who thinks that religions can and do offer and promise things, and cycles through these religions trying each one on and discarding it as he or she realizes that the promises didn’t pan out–or that there weren’t enough promises. I’ve done it myself, and for me the cycle didn’t really end till I realized that what I was seeking in those external sources was stuff I needed to do for myself. I’d been going around to all these different religions and philosophies like a starving child with a begging-bowl looking for scraps, when all that time I had a feast in my own heart that I’d overlooked. Looking back, I don’t hold against those religions that they weren’t what I needed right then. Nothing could have been. What I needed wasn’t something you could have fed me from an external source. I eventually found what I sought, and I’m at peace now–and sufficient within myself. And I wonder if maybe that same problem is what I’m seeing in this list of religions–recited with such obvious pride, as if trying them all on in such rapid succession was some kind of positive distinction. I don’t know enough to say for sure but I’ve seen this kind of claim many times before, so I think it’s worth mentioning briefly now.
Okay, let’s head back to the introduction. Now it makes a lot of sense that he’d include quotes in this part about how “subtle” and “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” the Bible’s god is. Sounds like we’re getting set up for an argument from ignorance–“We can’t know this god’s ways, so therefore Jesus.” Oh yay, and apparently in Part Three we’ll be putting the problem of evil on trial in a mock courtroom. Not surprising, considering Mr. Hayes was a lawyer at one point according to that biography I dug up; when all you have is a hammer, then everything starts looking like a nail. But lawyers don’t determine the truth; they win arguments. And an argument can be won or lost and that has nothing to do with whether or not it’s true. It really sounds like Mr. Hayes has fallen into that very common apologetics trap of mistaking a good-sounding argument for evidence for a religion’s claims. He might be okay with wasting his life on something based on a good-sounding argument, but it matters to me if what I believe is true or false. And arguments don’t uncover truth. Observable, measurable evidence does. And I’m not thinking he’s got any, based on this bit. That’s why he’s printed those quotes there: because he needs to make wanting evidence sound like a bad thing, and more importantly to make not having evidence sound like a good thing.
Part Four is apparently a retelling of his mother’s life and death, which doesn’t really form an argument in favor of Christianity, but okay. Christians usually see great value in personal testimonies; I don’t think non-Christians do in general, but I’m the last person to tell someone he can’t write about his mother. The last bit is apparently about how a guy who sees himself as “philosophically agnostic yet passionately Christian” perceives his religion and his savior. That phrase sounds weird to me–sort of like saying “short tall person” or “plastic cotton tablecloth”–and doesn’t bode well. I knew a lady once who called herself a “Christian sorceress” and did magic rituals and stuff, and it made about as much sense as this guy being two things that are diametrically opposed. And if he’s using the word “agnostic” correctly, then he knows he really doesn’t have any proof for his claims–and that there may not be any proof at all–which means diddly divided by squat as far as persuading anybody with critical thinking skills.
Jesus Christ, this is long, sorry! I’m going to wrap this up and take on Part 1’s excerpt next time. Let me close this first part thusly, though:
Part of me really thinks that Christians give people like Mr. Hayes a soapbox because he tells them what they want to hear about atheists and about non-believers in general. But he is not telling them accurate things, as I can see already, and I wish it mattered more to his audience that those things aren’t accurate. He’s not being perfectly honest about just how long this atheist phase of his was, unless he outlines it elsewhere.
So basically this is another entry in the Cult of Before Stories. It really sounds like he’s blowing up his pre-Christian atheism to sound a lot more impressive and defining of an experience than it really was. It’d be just as dishonest for me to say something similar about the very brief time I sat zazen (seriously, didn’t most of us do something along those lines?) and bill myself as a former Zen Buddhist. His atheism sounds an awful lot like the atheism we’ve seen many times before in Christians’ testimonies: just a simple rumspringa, a bit of a walkabout from Christianity, some phase of anger or spite, that got itself corrected and sorted out and he came trotting home to Christianity once he’d gotten that blaze of anger out of his system.
And that doesn’t mean we say that he wasn’t a TRUE ATHEIST™. There are probably a lot more people like that than we want to think about. If he says he was an atheist for that short time, then fine, I’m not going to gainsay him. But so far it’s not looking like he was an atheist who cultivated critical thinking skills, and that’s what’s more important than the label. I don’t call myself an atheist, but I do try hard to cultivate those skills. He bills himself as a former atheist, but he didn’t bother. Once again we see that the label isn’t the important part. I admit, too, that I’m really bugged by this suspicion I have of the author’s self-centered dishonesty. I shouldn’t be surprised; I did after all write the “book” (well, blog series anyway) for Christians exaggerating their pre-conversion stories for personal gain. But it still bugs me.
Take this for what it’s worth, but a commenter over at Patheos who claims to know the author personally doesn’t believe a word of his breathlessly-earnest claim:
The man (Mr. Hayes) was NOT raised atheist. He was raised in an intensely Christian family. I know him well. . . I would also add, from personal acquaintance, that for most of his life he was a devout believer. The “atheistic” period was, I suspect, a relatively brief, sulky time-out–a personal argument with God. And who can blame him? God –“god”–let’s [sic] a lot of bad things happen.
So while I hesitate to doubt Christians’ stories of having been atheists, it seems quite clear that if this claim is true, then my suspicion is confirmed: the author was hardly deeply invested in disbelief; it was really just a short phase as I’m suspecting, and the skeptic community is right to hold his feet to the fire and not accept the label alone as a substitute for intellectual rigor.
But Christians will eat this shit up with a spoon and ask for more. OMG! A REAL LIVE ATHEIST CONVERTED TO CHRISTIANITY! WE FINALLY GOT ONE! They’ll flock to him and look up to him to tell them all about the dreaded tribe of atheism that he escaped. And he’ll tell them, all right.
A pity he won’t be telling them anything reliable.
This time around, we looked at Shane Hayes’ book’s introduction and examined some of his claims about his atheist phase, and I at least sure didn’t find either one very compelling. Please join me next time as we examine what this Christian actually thinks is a compelling argument for belief in his god–and what “belief” actually means in the real world. See you soon!