I’m a firm believer in speaking the truth with love (Eph. 4:15) and letting my speech be gracious, “seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). Usually this means practicing great patience and gentleness. There is one frequent form of skeptic/atheist argument, though, for which love demands a firm and intense rebuttal. I’m referring to the argumentum ad smarterum, defined as, if you were smart like me you’d be an atheist (skeptic) like me.
The argumentum ad smarterum usually comes in the form, “Christians are irrational; atheists (or skeptics) are rational.” It also shows up in hand-waving dismissals like “Faith is belief without evidence,” or “You might just as well believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Sometimes atheists trot out statistics showing that belief in Christianity correlates negatively with educational level.
The argumentum ad smarterum is not to be confused with smart arguments. Well-reasoned arguments based on solid, relevant evidence deserve thoughtful, respectful responses. But the argumentum ad smarterum deserves a smart kick on the backside, especially when it shows up the way I see it so often here. Erstwhile Thinking Christian commenter doctor(logic) adopted the argumentum ad smarterum into his very nom de blog. The not-too-subtle implication was that he was the logical one; but the fact is that quite frequently he wasn’t. (He is still most welcome to comment here, though we have not seen him in a while.)
Sam Harris played a similar tactic, just slightly removed from doctor(logic)’s: he named his organization (not himself, thankfully) Project Reason. When faced with logical arguments, though, he retreated to emotional answers. That was odd, I thought. \
You know plenty more examples, so I need not multiply them for you. Dawkins comes to mind, but in the words of a friend of mine, when I made some remark that opened me up for an obvious wisecrack in response: “Nah, too easy.”
The trap that theists can fall into with the argumentum ad smarterum is to think that it’s about refuting the smarterum arguments (“There’s no more evidence for God than there is for a Flying Teapot!” etc.). That has never worked, in my experience. It’s not following Christ’s example, either. The person who comes presenting this argument comes with a great deal of personal pride; and when Christ saw pride, as in the scribes and Pharisees, he hit it square on. When they laid theological traps for him, he turned around and dealt with their pride instead. You can find examples all over the book of John and in the latter chapters of Matthew and Luke.
This was love in action. It was tough love, sometimes seemingly brutal (see Matthew 23:1-37). But self-satisfaction is the hardest of all spiritual barriers to topple; and self-satisfied error is the most deadly impervious of all. Sometimes the best approach is through correcting the error, but often the error itself is less an obstacle than the self-satisfaction that supports it.
So increasingly I find myself countering the argumentum ad smarterum with something like this:
You believe that you are more rational than Christians, and that your rationality supports your decision to reject Christ. I will show by your own words that you are not as rational as you believe yourself to be. Your view of yourself is false. You are deceived. Your self-deception harms you. It does me no damage except that I care about you, and it hurts me to see you doing that to yourself. So I urge you to look in the mirror. See yourself as you really are. You are not as self-sufficient as you think, and your self-satisfaction is built on a crumbling foundation. For your own good, please don’t try to stand there!
The other trap we Christians can fall into with this is failing to follow Christ’s example the rest of the way. When he confronted the scribes and Pharisees it was always to bring truth against pride, never pride against pride. There is a way to walk the path of truth and of humility, too. I have gotten this wrong far too often; and that, too, is a frighteningly insecure foundation on which to stand.
I would not want to fall off the cliff in either direction: failing to call pride what it is, when I’m confronted with it in others; or failing to call my own pride what it is when I’m guilty of it. It is a narrow walk to walk. Maybe the best way is in the words with which I opened this blog post: speaking the truth always, always speaking it with love. That’s the goal, I think. It is a long way from where I am now, and I’m sure I will go wrong while trying to get there, but nevertheless it is my goal.