April 27, 2009

“Evangelical” Atheism (or: Hey, Steve, You’re Not Helping!)

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences, Science, The Universe, Worldview tagged , , , , , , , , at 11:55 am by Andrew

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.


  1. Matt said,

    But when it comes down to it the Christians are just wrong. Isn’t that part of what atheism is about? I care about whether my beliefs are true, and having as many true beliefs and as few false ones as possible.

  2. makarios said,

    You don’t like Carrot Top????

  3. John Huey said,

    I did a quick read of the article and I didn’t get any indication that he felt that Christians were idiots. Spiritually straight-jacketed, maybe, but not idiots.

    Also, if it were strictly a choice between all Christians becoming ‘Steve-ites’ or staying as they are, I think that I’d vote for the ‘Steve-ites’: What he is proposing seems to be significantly more benign that what many Christians profess -about on par with the more liberal Christian Churches.

    I don’t think that people with a Naturalistic Worldview (I hate to use the moniker ‘Bright’), should in anyway advocate the way of the Steve, that would be rather dishonest and patronizing, as you point out, it is just swapping one delusion for another, even if it is a less harmful delusion. I just not sure it warrants active combating – except as part of a general effort to combat magical thinking.

  4. Siamang said,

    Um… so this guy is telepathically contacting Jesus and asking him to turn down his aura a bit. He also communicates with Mary and various angels and archangels. Nowhere does he speak of nonbelief in God, or skepticism.

    He seems to be talking about moving from standard protestantism to standard new-age religion. It’s a conversion from one religion to another, not a leaving of religion.

    I admit, I skimmed a bit… but is there anything in “Steve-ism” that wasn’t covered 20 years ago by Shirley Maclaine?

  5. Awesome McCool said,

    According to a deleted scene from The Office (American Version,) season 4, episode 1 (Fun Run,) Oscar the accountant is an agnostic and secular humanist. He’s pretty likable.

  6. Siamang said,

    According to a deleted scene available on the DVD supplemental features the gay accountant background character is agnostic??!?!

    Mainstream acceptance HERE WE COME!!!

  7. Siamang said,

    I’m just joshing you there. I was going to call you out on major office nerd-dom. But then again, I wrote this:


    So… yeah. Clearly since I wrote that the characters have been clearer about their beliefs. But I still like what I wrote.

  8. Luke said,

    Pavlina is sort of the online version of David Allen. No wait, Leo Babauta is the online version of David Allen. Steve Pavlina is the online version of Rhonda Byrne.

  9. Quinn said,

    Hasn’t Hitchens explicitly stated that he would not want everyone to convert and agree with them because he enjoys the argument too much?

  10. barklah said,

    Hi, just stumbled on this and clearly late to the party, but as a Christian-turned atheist-turned Christian again, I wanted to thank you for the respectful and reasonable tone if this post … If only more people of all beliefs did si, we’d be much further along. Well done!

  11. Hannah said,

    Great job!
    Thank you, I understand and respect to your article unimaginably (wishing I wrote it). I am coming to believe that our world (new generations) is being more accepting of each others views more than ever before. It is refreshing, after understanding that each others point of view is not going to be changed, that it is okay to agree to disagree.

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