Dr. Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists is due for publication on November 1. What the title implies is true: atheists are made, not born. Some atheists seem to think that atheism is a sort of default position that requires no proof to support it. Both anthropological and human developmental research, however, indicate that belief in God (or gods) is the human’s natural position. It takes effort to make an atheist.
As national field director for Ratio Christi, an alliance of students focused on reasons for confidence in Christianity, I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes people into atheists. Though there are many directions I could go with that, I’m writing this post with Peter Boghossian on my mind. As far as I understand his method, based on pre-publication interviews, he’s on the right track: the way to create atheists is to cause Christians to question why they believe.
It’s what he calls “street [glossary id=’18002′ slug=’epistemology’ /]” and though it includes a fifty-cent word, it’s simple: just ask believers where they get their beliefs from, and then question whether that’s credible. You’re bound to see at least some believers realizing their faith is built on a vapor, and just giving up on it. Again, there’s research behind this: The National Study on Youth and Religion found that among American teenagers who turned against the religion they were brought up in, the main reason they did so was because of intellectual questions about their faith.
Boghossian’s methods wouldn’t work without some help. I’ve summarized part of his approach in a BreakPoint column. It’s as simple as asking, “Do you believe x about the faith?” — for example, Do you believe Jonah lived three days in the belly of the big fish? And then following that up with, If so, how do you know?
More often than not, the answer eventually turns out to be, “Because I have faith,” or, “Because the Bible says so,” or something similar. The problem is, both those answers work just as well in in Mormonism, Islam, or any other religion; or I should say, they work just as poorly in all faiths. There’s no substance to them. They’re bad reasons to believe.
(The problem with “the Bible says so” is this: although it’s true, it’s a true answer to a different question than the one he’s asking. It doesn’t explain how we can count on the Bible to be true.)
Boghossian’s questions wouldn’t work with most Christians, though, if he didn’t have some people behind the scenes helping him. And those people, I am sad to say, are fellow Christians. In the unforgettable words of the classic Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This is how we’ve helped create atheists: we haven’t asked ourselves those same kinds of questions. We haven’t searched out the answers for ourselves. We haven’t trained the next generations to do it either. We’ve left ourselves wide open to doubt, just because we don’t know how to answer, “why do you believe?”
Boghossian knows this. His strategy is brilliant. He’s poking at the soft underbelly of Christian belief: our careless teaching, our taking belief for granted, our emphasis on what to believe apart from why we should believe, and all the time we spend on how to behave without also teaching why the whole thing makes sense in the first place.
The church is complicit in the creation of atheists. By what we’re not teaching, we’re contributing to Boghossian’s success. We’ve opened the door of opportunity, and he’s walking through it. Why wouldn’t he?
But it need not be so. It certainly ought not be so—because Boghossian is wrong. He’s wrong in multiple ways. In public lectures he presents bad reasons for belief and puts them up for laughter. What his audiences really should laugh at are his own silly caricatures of belief. (I promise, if I ever get to attend a lecture like this one I will laugh out loud at appropriate moments. It’s really the best, first line of disputation to arguments as bad as his were that day.)
I don’t know whether he knows he’s wrong, and is being dishonest with his distortions of Christian belief; or if he is unaware of his error, which would amount to professional incompetence on his part. Either way, he has a strategic stake in preserving the illusion that he knows what he’s talking about, since his methods will work only where people don’t know the truth.
For there really are good reasons to believe in Christ. I know why I believe Jonah survived his experience in the belly of the big fish, and it isn’t just because “I have faith,” or “the Bible says so.”
More than that, I know why I believe that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again from the dead. I know why that’s an historically credible belief, and how it helps make sense of all reality. The resurrection really is the point, after all. Suppose the Jonah story were just an allegory, or suppose no one had any idea why they believed it was true. The resurrection trumps all that. If Jesus really lived, died, and rose again—and if we can really know that he did so—that’s enough to establish the reality of Christian belief.
(And that’s not to mention the many, many other reasons we have to believe in God rather than in atheistic explanations for reality.)
Atheists are made, not born. Solid, firm believing Christians—people who can’t be made atheists by Boghossian’s “street epistemology”—are born, then born again in the Spirit, then made by good training. They know their reasons to believe because they’ve been taught. They know how to handle questions because they’ve been trained. They’ve studied: they know their reasons for believing in God, Jesus Christ, the historical reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, the trustworthiness of the Bible, and more. They’e even practiced: they’ve put their beliefs to the test, whether in the safety of a simulated training environment, or in real-world situations where the questions are real and the questioners really care about the answers.
Churches that take this training seriously produce believers who will stand solid, no matter what strategy atheists might throw at them—because they will know the truth, they will know that it really is true, and they will know why they know it’s true.
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