April 27, 2009
“Evangelical” Atheism (or: Hey, Steve, You’re Not Helping!)
Okay, this one is a real head-scratcher. A self-help guru (“Steve Pavlina,” not that I’ve ever heard of him) has posted his personal guide, “How to Graduate From Christianity.”
Ugh. Hey, Steve: you’re not helping! After the jump, I tackle Steve’s misguided notions of “graduating” from Christianity and defend my own vision of “evangelical” atheism.
First, can we tone down the arrogance factor? Look, the stereotype we’re fighting against as atheists is the perception that we’re smug, self-satisfied, condescending, arrogant, etc. Some of this is misguided; Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, for example, are no more arrogant or curt than Lee Strobel (and PZ and Dawkins are a hell of a lot more honest). But sometimes the arguments against Christianity — and the people making them — really are arrogant and tone-deaf, and we should be cognizant about fighting against stereotypes.
(A side note: I really enjoy the TV show House, but I am a bit distressed that House reflects all of the common stereotypes about atheists; he’s obnoxiously arrogant, antisocial, unethical, immoral, hedonistic, etc. I don’t know that there’s a single fictional character on TV who’s unambiguously admirable and also an atheist; the writers of CSI, for example, even made Grissom a loose theist.)
So I think Steve steps in it right out of the box. I consider myself to be an outspoken, even “evangelical” atheist. I don’t want people to “graduate” from Christianity; if it makes you happy to believe in Jesus, then by all means believe in Jesus. It makes me happy to watch movies in which “giant robots beat the hell out of each other. To each his own.
But implicit in the notion of personal preference is a healthy respect for those who don’t share those preferences. If you like the comedy stylings of Carrot Top, the music of the Backstreet Boys, and look forward to the day’s “Full House” re-runs, well, the most I can say is that I think your tastes are pretty misguided. But they’re not wrong in an objective sense, and I wouldn’t try to persuade you that you need to “graduate” form “Full House” to Transformers.
To me, that’s what evangelical atheism is all about. Implicit in the notion of personal preference is a healthy respect for those who don’t share that preference. All I want Christians to do is to understand and accept that there are good reasons for not believing in Jesus. In fact, I think all of the harms of Christianity in contemporary society stem from this fundamental roadblock — that there are Christians who think that it is patently obvious that their god exists and that anyone who doesn’t accept it is “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” and therefore those interests aren’t a legitimate part of the equation. It’s those people who need evangelical atheism, until they realize that the atheist position is reasonable, legitimate, and worthy of their respect.
Steve, on the other hand, thinks that you Christians are idiots. But guess what? Steve also thinks he has magical powers! No, seriously: advice #5 for “graduating” from Christianity — according to Steve — is to “connect with Jesus directly,” by which he means:
Mentally invite Jesus to come and talk to you. Wait patiently, and at some point you should be able to feel his energetic presence. Jesus has an extremely powerful energy. If you’ve taken the time to develop your psychic skills, you may feel a huge surge of emotion when he shows up. Usually I can’t help but cry when I do this because the energy of his presence is super strong. I’m actually getting a strong emotional hit just writing about this because I’m effectively pinging him by thinking about him.
Someone who thinks that you can “develop your psychic skills” and detect the “extremely powerful energy” of Jesus should probably think twice before engaging in a whole lot of namecalling.
This, I think, vividly illustrates by contrast the second prong of evangelical atheism. I don’t think the world would be better off if all the Christians were suddenly replaced by non-Christians who believe that they have magical powers (we’ll call them “Steve-ites”), and I doubt that even the most outspoken atheist (Christopher Hitchens?) would prefer for Christians to convert en masse to Steve-ism. In our view, you’d be simply swapping one delusion for another. What we want is for you to adopt a rational view of the world, to agree with us on the scientific method, and then apply that to your own personal beliefs. If you still come away convinced in Jesus because of personal experiences — but you can understand the atheism of those who don’t share in those experiences — then we’ve done our job.