we explore the house of cards christian smith built
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Sigmund.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back, y’all! We recently reviewed a 2019 book by Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach. In it, he developed a thesis that he felt merited atheists’ attention: that Catholicism–er, sorry, religion represented some humongous value to humanity that they needed to accept for humanity’s own good. In short, he argues for compliance with religious leaders’ demands, not belief itself. He seeks not to persuade, but to scare into submission. And thus, he gives away the game he’s playing — and the product he’s actually peddling in his book.

we explore the house of cards christian smith built

(Notes: In the book, Christian Smith specifically tries to make it look like he’s talking about all religions generally, not just Christianity. However, the way he talks about “religion” makes it clear that he really means Christianity alone, and Catholicism in particular. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition. Please check out the “Atheist Overreach” tag for lots more posts about this book!)

Up-Ending the Usual Christian Sales Pitch.

Christian leaders and their recruiters sell a product: active membership in their groups. Their specific belief system simply represents the make and model of the group itself, that’s all. Once you’ve seen one of these groups, you’ve seen ’em all. They differ only in exactly what demands and benefits they make and offer, and the extent to which they can deliver on their promises.

For many centuries, Christians didn’t need to sell that product. People had to buy it no matter how ugly it looked or how obviously-incapable it was of fulfilling its own marketing promises.

After World War II (if not somewhat before), Christianity’s cultural dominance began to falter. In response, Christian salespeople suddenly realized they needed to learn to sell their product. It would no longer move on its own!

Their leaders responded by pushing a sales script on evangelists that they still use today.

The Sales Flow of Evangelism.

Here’s how that script goes.

  1. First, convince the mark of the truth of various supernatural claims. Often, these salespeople utilize emotional manipulation to push through these desired beliefs. They must, since there’s no objective support for any of them.
  2. Once the mark believes those claims, draw upon this new belief to push the product: active group membership. It’s Marketing 101: Manufacture a need, then convince the mark that only their product can possibly meet that need.
  3. Until the mark signs up with the salesperson’s group, the sales attempt can’t be considered successful. Only created-belief plus recruitment will put that coveted notch on the salesperson’s Bible cover.

We explored this script in C.S. Lovett’s 1959 book, Soul-Winning Made Easy. But you can find it literally anywhere. I can’t think of a single evangelist that doesn’t use it.

But Atheist Overreach goes a different route.

Instead of deploying the usual sales script, Christian Smith seeks to persuade atheists of his take on morality in the absence of belief. He doesn’t seem concerned at all about convincing them of his group’s supernatural claims. So he acts like his goal isn’t persuasion-and-recruitment so much as it is silencing critics and returning his religious leaders to power.

It is such an odd position for a Christian to take, and it’s one reason why I wanted to check this book out.

This Is RILLY RILLY Important, You Guize.

Throughout the book, Christian’s Smith focus and concern remains on the greater good (the greater good). At its heart, Atheist Overreach is about which moral frameworks actually allow the most people to live good and moral and ethical lives. He conceptualizes the fight as occurring between secular powers and Catholic–er, sorry, religious ones.

He writes (p. 42):

[. . .] I began this inquiry with a genuinely open mind, interested to see if atheists really could make a solid case for the rational justification for a strong morality. I’m afraid I came away disappointed.

See? SEE? He was totally open-minded, y’all. He said so! The uber-Catholic theologian-professor with a major stake in the survival of his business was totally okay with discovering that atheists do just fine without his product. We can totally trust his assessment of atheism. He’s not just parroting the Christian party line about their enemies.

Smith also stresses all through the book that he thinks that atheists should pay attention to his arguments and take them to heart for their own good as well as that of humanity, not just to maintain their own intellectual integrity.

Assertions Without Evidence.

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Hitchens’ Razor

Atheist Overreach, as far as I can tell, avoids religions’ (and particularly Catholicism’s) grand-scale and endemic pattern of moral failures, abuses, and scandals like a garden slug avoids a line of salt.

Christian Smith also never engages with the objective veracity of any of Catholics’ — er, sorry, religious people’s truth claims. He repeatedly insists that they’re true in some nebulous way that he never clarifies, yes. But he never offers atheists any reason to change their minds about it. He not only never goes there, he insists that nobody can. Indeed, he writes (p. 125):

A proper reading of these matters rightly concludes that science is inherently incapable of proving or disproving God’s possible existence.

(See why I think Smith’s really just talking about his particular religion, not religions in general? He litters his book with tells like this one. If he really intended to argue for the necessity of religion-in-general, I’d expect him to write “gods” up there, not “God.”)

So that settles that. Don’t ask him for solid, objective, credible support for a single one of his truth claims. They’re just true. Because shut up, that’s why.

Having dispensed with his burden of proof, Christian Smith moves smoothly into arguing that Catholic — er, sorry, religious systems of morality represent something enormously valuable to humanity. He wants to persuade us that it’d be really harmful to all of us for Catholicism — er, sorry, religion to continue declining and losing relevance in people’s lives.

That’s Step 1 of his sales script.

The Actual Error of Atheist Overreach.

More than that, though, it is Christians’ shared belief in their imaginary friend Jesus that creates this morality, not any actual gods animating the religion. He hints this truth to us as he snarks the secular mindset (p. 56):

If we are able to slough off the superstitions and errors of pre-modern mythologies about spirits and gods and heaven and hell, what honest, cogent answer might we give to this perennial moral question?

He’s a lot less concerned about whether it’s correct to slough off false beliefs than he is about what’d happen afterward.

That’s the principle error of this book. It’s just one long argument from consequences. It seeks to frighten us with what might happen if Catholicism — er, sorry, religion fails than whether or not its claims are even true or not.

If they’re not true, then we should abandon them. When we embrace false beliefs, that creates an opportunity for abuse and drama to enter our lives. False beliefs are the grease that keeps broken systems — like Catholicism — ticking along.

As much as you possibly can, build your life only around that which is objectively true.

Pushing For the Sale.

Going back to that sales script I talked about earlier, the first step Christian Smith uses consists of convincing atheists of his group’s stranglehold on morality, not on inspiring belief in his claims about the supernatural.

Later, he tells us that such an overarching moral framework is necessary for our children’s safety. After spinning a horrific dystopian picture of what would totally happen if those pesky secularists had their way, he writes (p. 86):

What we also need is an articulation of some rational and compelling account for high moral standards of benevolence and rights–if indeed such an account exists. Nothing short of this is needed for the sake of our children, grandchildren, and all future generations whom we want to live in humanistic, not inhumane societies.

Obviously, atheists — in his view — would want this same good happy future for their own descendants. So rejecting Christians’ moral framework means they don’t, I suppose.

STOOPit secularists. STOOPit atheists. Hmph. They just want us all to suffer!

He’s issuing a manipulative demand for compliance-despite-disbelief, not making a persuasive case with strong supporting evidence for the necessity of compliance with his demands.

They’ll Gladly Take Compliance Instead of Belief.

I mean, maybe Christian Smith thinks that once an atheist accepts his preposterous claim about religions’ stranglehold on morality, then belief in the imaginary friend will follow afterward soon enough.

And perhaps it is so, for some of them. I know that’s one Catholic convert’s story. Leah Libresco joined that cackling gaggle of control-hungry conjobs, child-rapists, and cover-up artists in 2012. At the time, many of us were baffled at how she’d settled on this flavor of the religion. Her reasons always hinged on the strength of Catholic morality. In response, Dan Fincke wrote:

Some atheists (including me) are primarily baffled at how her metaphysical and moral philosophy concerns that make her think there is something to Catholic philosophy at all justify the leap to the numerous wild beliefs of Catholic theology.

It was impossible to imagine someone raised in atheism suddenly deciding that imaginary friends are real. And based on Catholicism’s take on morality, at that.

Many of us suspected at the time that her romantic entanglement with a Catholic guy had way more to do with her conversion. Nonetheless, she’s maintained her story for a while now. I’m sure it’s the same for other Catholics. And it’s possible. There’s a real tendency for Christians to assume that if one claim seems to be true, then the rest must be true as well.

Either way, I don’t think belief is really a top concern for Christian Smith. He never suggests that atheists should convert to his religion. Instead, he insists that everyone should allow Catholic — er, sorry, religious leaders to take a dominant role in all spheres of all people’s lives, for their own good.

More to the point: If mean ole secularists/atheists keep rejecting his religion’s control-grabs, there’ll be chaos in the streets forever.

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”

Our Unique Position in History.

For the first time in our history, perhaps, people in many societies now have a completely free and clear choice about accepting or rejecting religion — especially Christianity, and especially in Europe and North America where that dominance reigned uncontested for so long.

More than that, even, that onetime absolute dominance has frayed to the point where Christian leaders can’t keep their scandals under wraps. Nor can they keep their growing number of critics silenced.

There was a time — and it was not long ago at all — that anybody using their out-loud voice to say that the Christian god is simply an imaginary friend for grown-ups could expect to face very serious retaliation — er, sorry, Christian love from the devotees of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love.

Back then, speaking one word against a major Christian leader like Jerry Falwell, Jr. or his sleazy daddy could ensure the end of a journalist’s career. If the neighbors found out that an atheist lived nearby, they’d be sure to evandalize that person’s property and proselytize that whole family nonstop — and if that Christian love failed, ostracize them utterly.

Christians still do this and worse — wherever they can, to whomever they can.

Even longer ago, Catholics could exact even crueler revenge on anybody defying their control.

Don’t be fooled. Those dark days would return in a heartbeat, if Christian leaders could only make it so.

The Truth About Christians’ Superior “Morality.”

Christians didn’t gain dominance through their superior morality. They gained it through the use of force upon unwilling victims, and maintained it through the same. They still despise having to sell their beliefs to others — and would far rather just force it on everyone again.

It’s just so funny to me that Christian Smith is reduced to pretending that his religion held its position for any other reason. It’s even funnier to know he’s pretending like this as a way to hopefully regain that power.

Ultimately, though, the whole house of cards still rests on the imaginary friend Christians think animates their entire religion. Smith very coyly says-but-doesn’t-say that his imaginary friend must be real for Catholicism’s — er, sorry, religion’s morality to work; he hints at it repeatedly but doesn’t flat-out come out and say it as such.

If his wizard friend is, well, imaginary, then the whole house-of-cards falls apart.

This Doesn’t Work.

A system needs to have some rational, empirical basis to stay consistent and workable in the real world. It needs to work: to produce good and not harm, to fulfill its own stated goals, and easily adjusted if reality shows us a better way.

But Christian Smith has already shot himself in the foot there by insisting that nobody can question the basis for morality that Catholics — er, sorry, religious believers use. He further destroys himself by insisting that naturalism can’t possibly provide a substitute base.

So the only way we know his preferred morality works is that he says it does. How do we know he’s correct? He says so. The guy selling the system of morality says it works great. But he has no way to demonstrate that besides fancy footwork with words, words, words. In the real world, we see it doesn’t work at all — it produces nonstop scandals and abuses wherever it goes, and always has. But he ignores all of that, directing our attention only to the words, words, words he spins to sell his product. If we disagree, he accuses us of wanting to euthanize old folks and sick people.

It is ridiculous.

Christian Smith is good at arguing himself into circles, I will say that. But even a child could look at it and see the flaws involved here. He just wants to sell the same old product Christians have been flogging for ages.

The new approach doesn’t fool me, and I doubt it’ll fool many others. 

NEXT UP: Bro-dude evangelicalism and the tragedies it creates in the men who subscribe to it.

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Last Note: Lord Snow Presides (LSP) will return next week, when I’ve had a chance to think about where I want to go next with it. Mark Driscoll is too boring and I’m Christian-litted out for a bit.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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