How to talk to a true believer

I think this blog has failed to do something it could do reasonably well: Help literal Bible-believers and non-believers to understand each other.

There are too many stereotypes flying around on both sides (notably with both atheists and self-professed fundamentalists accusing each other of stupidity), and I think I have sometimes taken the lazy route of treating fundamentalism as ridiculous. The truth is that when you believe the Bible literally, it does form a coherent worldview. There are tensions and difficulties with it, but that’s true of all worldviews, and usually we’re all blind to the faults in our own belief systems.
This is not me going soft. I certainly will not stop supporting the victims of abuse. This is just me saying “We’re not getting anywhere by attacking each other.” I want to join Adam Laats in saying “why can’t we all just get along?
I had a message the other day from one of my oldest friends. It said (in part):
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is calling you back to Himself. It is time to stand up and be counted.

The seed which He put in you, even as a young boy the things that He spoke into your heart, He wants to bring to pass.

You have calling, you have purpose, you have destiny, and as you read this now, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

Open your Bible Jonny, take a deeper look! Allow His love to carry you, allow His grace to keep you. When everything has turned to dust, what remains true is God Almighty. He is calling you!

Now, I could say a lot of things about this, but I’m only going to say one: The idea that I just don’t think God exists is incomprehensible to my friend.

Some atheists consider the concept of God to be logically contradictory and incomprehensible. This is theological non-cognitivism, brilliantly illustrated by my friend The Singing Duck:

God exists ≈ I will grapefruit my talons when I triangle

God exists ≈ I will grapefruit my talons when I triangle

What atheists often fail to understand is that to believers like my friend, atheism is non-cognitive. The existence of God is just obvious. It is beyond question because it is one of those assumptions that is necessary to function. I can’t prove that the future will be like the past, but I still don’t jump out of high windows because in the past, people who tried found that it ended badly. I can’t prove that human senses aren’t deceiving us about the nature of the real world, but assuming sensory information is accurate allows me to exist. For many Christians, belief in God is in this class.

I didn’t know about presuppositional apologetics when I was younger, but I suppose I was more or less a presuppositionalist. The existence of God was just a lens through which I made sense of the world. When you think like that, you see God everywhere, “sustaining all things by his word”. It then becomes absurd not to believe. 

These days I don’t think we should lump “the existence of God” into the same class of ideas as “my senses are trustworthy”, because I can conceive of another way of looking at the world. If I decided my senses were untrustworthy and therefore ignored the visual signals warning me of an oncoming car, I would die. If I decided it is not rational to assume that the world will continue to operate much as it always has, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. But I can stop thinking God is there, and the world continues to spin on its axis. That, I think, should stop us from taking the existence of God for granted.

Alright, philosophical detour over.

Because it didn’t make sense to my friend that I simply wouldn’t believe in God, her message says “you know what I’m talking about!” Having grown up in that spiritual milieu, I can guess that she was thinking either that I was “running from God” or that I was “angry at God”. That’s what we used to say about pretty much all “backsliders”. And, well, they both sort of imply that I must be stupid.

Running from God

I always believed that God is everywhere. The only realm where God is not, inside or outside of this universe, is hell. By all accounts, hell is not an especially welcoming place, and only an idiot would want to go there. Therefore only an idiot would run from God.

Angry at God

This probably makes more sense to my atheist readers. They would say that an all knowing and all powerful God who allows suffering deserves anger. But to a believer, this position again makes no sense. God is good. God is the definition of good; there is no goodness outside of God, and there is no evil within Him. If I believe God exists, I’d have to be stupid to be angry at Him. Especially since being angry at God is a sin, and sin has ugly consequences.

So, I am not “running from God”. I am not “angry at God”. I just don’t think God is there. To my old friends, this is very hard to understand because the existence of God is just basic common sense. They feel God in everything, so to them I’m just denying what I know to be true. They think this is true for everyone, but it’s especially true for me because I used to be one of them.

All this doesn’t mean that anyone else is stupid for believing in God. I went to see Alom Shaha speak at the weekend, and he made this point very well. We all have narratives that we use to make sense of our lives. That’s not to say all narratives are equal; I haven’t become a relativist. But when we realise that emotional and social reasons play as much of a role in shaping our beliefs as rational ones, we can become a lot less judgemental of each other.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on October 9, 2013, in Atheism, Christianity, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. Interesting introspection. And who better than you to see it from both sides. Apologetics can be interesting, and the ability to see a beautiful design in everything awe-inspiring, but someone watching your every move and listening to your every thought, demanding attention and adoration – now that’s another thing.

  2. I think your declaration that you’re not a relativist might be a tad premature, and perhaps it’s important to disentangle what relativism is.

    (In short, I’m happily a descriptive, even an ethical relativist, but I am not a prescriptive/normative relativist!)

    The following comes from some lecture notes I have on the topic:

    “Ethical relativism is usually put forward not in the guarded form argued for here but as an absolute and universal claim that all values are culturally relative. There are three different positions that are often confused: (1) descriptive relativism, the claim that cultures differ in their fundamental beliefs about value; (2) ethical (meta-ethical) relativism, an action right in one culture may be wrong in another; there are no universal moral truths; and (3) prescriptive (normative) relativism, when it is wrong to condemn or pass judgment on those with different cultural values. …

    “There is a standard relativistic argument often offered as a proof. The argument moves from descriptive relativism to ethical relativism and to prescriptive relativism:

    “Step 1: Different cultures differ in their fundamental ethical beliefs.

    “Step 2: An action that is right in one culture may, therefore, be wrong in another. There are no universal moral truths; what is right and wrong varies from culture to culture.

    “Step 3: It is, therefore, wrong to condemn or pass judgment on those with different ethical values.

    “Such an argument appears in the work of Sextus Empiricus (A.D. 200) and in Michel de Montaigne (1500) … [and] is also central to the violent pornography of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. Relativism often represents an important stage in ethical maturity but a stage one must move beyond.

    “How good is the relativistic argument? In order to support a universal ethical relativism in the second step, we would need a universal descriptive relativism in the first step: The claim that there are no values that hold across cultures.

    “Neither Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne, nor the Marquis de Sade offers reason to believe that universal claim. It is not true: There is no culture that holds that it is ethical to kill children for sport, that one always ought to harm oneself, that we have an obligation to lie to each other, or that it is wrong to pass on cultural traditions. No culture could hold such beliefs because it could not then survive as a culture. The first step of the argument, therefore, fails to get off the ground.

    “Even if the first step held, the second step would not follow. It would demand a fallacious move across Hume’s “is/ought gap,” from fact to value. It would also demand a move from statements
    about belief to statements about how things really are. Such a move is invalid in the ethical case, just as it is in the scientific case.

    “What of the move from ethical relativism in step 2 to prescriptive relativism in step 3? Prescriptive
    relativism does not follow from ethical relativism. Ethical relativism actually contradicts prescriptive relativism. If nothing is universally right or wrong (ethical relativism), then contrary to prescriptive relativism, it cannot universally be wrong to pass judgment on another culture.

    “Relativism is a case in which people’s standard motivations are often right, though their explicit formulations are almost always wrong. The position defended … is a qualified form of ethical relativism: Some things may be right in one ethical context and not in another. What follows is a qualified form of prescriptive relativism: It is wrong to pass quick or precipitate judgment on those who have different values. Be careful: Given different cultural contexts, different values may be as valid as one’s own.”

    (From Questions of Value Course Guidebook, Professor Patrick Grim (2005) The Great Courses)

    • Thanks David. I do need to think more about this, but I certainly think I’m not a relativist as it’s popularly understood, so I won’t change anything I wrote above.

      (1) descriptive relativism, the claim that cultures differ in their fundamental beliefs about value

      No argument there.

      (2) ethical (meta-ethical) relativism, an action right in one culture may be wrong in another; there are no universal moral truths

      Perhaps not universal or absolute in the old fundamentalist sense, but I am inclined to think that moral values really do exist. I have some philosophical legwork to show that I can do this without signing up to some metaphysical/religious notion, but I think it can be done. In other words I think it can make sense to say of cultural values other than my own “those are bad and/or wrong”. This will make me quite unpopular with almost everyone.

      (3) prescriptive (normative) relativism, when it is wrong to condemn or pass judgment on those with different cultural values.

      Well, for reasons I’ve explained above, I wouldn’t like to condemn or pass judgement on people, but for reasons (sort of) explained under number (2), I think we can sensibly say that some values are wrong.

      • I think my position is probably a limited form of ethical relativism: there are some values which are universal across cultures (/sub-cultures), because without them the culture wouldn’t be able to survive. “Do not murder” is universal at a cultural level, but note the difference between cultural and individual values within this context (just because it’s a value held by the culture doesn’t mean that every member of the culture subscribes to the values, eg. Dexter).

        What would be really interesting is an exploration of:
        a) What values we hold (in respect of, say education, childhood, religious freedom)
        b) What values are held by other groups/sub-cultures
        c) How those values differ; and
        d) How those values are similar

        I think you’ve done a fair amount of this, albeit not always explicitly.

        Of course, there comes a practical issue because a universal value is probably that children survive, and another (at least in this context) is freedom of religious practice.

        Group A believe that survival doesn’t end at death, and therefore want to ensure post mortem survival. Given group A’s beliefs, they would be breaching the commonly held value (survival) if they didn’t pass on their beliefs about post-mortem survival to their children. Group A depend on the freedom of religious practice to ensure their interpretation of the survival value is met.

        However, group B don’t share those beliefs in post-mortem survival, and therefore the interpretation of the common value by group A is anathema to them.

        And that’s where it all gets quite interesting 😉

        Normative relativism is obviously impossible because *my* culture says it’s OK to criticise other values 😉

  3. This is now one of my favourite posts. I can totally relate to the “the existence of God is just obvious”. I remember when I used to feel that way, and thought people who didn’t believe in God were just deluded and stupid. Thank goodness I have moved on from that.
    Also, I am most curious as to who your friend is….

  4. All of the philosophy in the comments is making my head spin; philosophy was not offered in my public schooling, sad to say. I wish it had been. So, my simple take on the blog post. Of course it is possible for a former believer to change his mind and become a nonbeliever. I don’t understand why your fundamentalist colleagues think otherwise. I would hope that someone’s worldview would change over time. It’s called personal growth. I have chosen to continue to believe in God, but my view of him is vastly different from when I was a child, and mostly under the influence of my parents and their church leaders. If we don’t challenge ourselves as we grow, we stagnate. I liked this post very much.

  5. Here is why I say something unproveable, but from my own experience: I don’t really think Christians do believe God is ‘common sense’. I believe it’s like the Emperor’s New clothes. As long as they call keep saying that, they don’t have to deal with the nagging doubt inside their heads that says “Maybe this is all nonsense?”.

    I believe, from 20 years in a fundamentalist environment, that what they call faith is what I’ve heard a psychologist describe as “Stop-Think”. The second the doubt comes into their mind, they stop the thought, they squish it down. Of course that doesn’t stop the thought, but it does enable them to deny its existence.

    When confronted with an atheist, they become anxious. You can see this from the body language, the strained voice, the excitability that some people have. They *have* to get you to see, not just because they’ve been told to, but because your very existence causes intolerable cognitive dissonance.

    They won’t believe you really don’t believe because in their heart of hearts, they really don’t believe. If they did, there wouldn’t be such a thing as hypocrisy within the church. Christians really would be the best people, instead of muddling along pretty much like the rest of us. However, to cover up this nagging doubt, they are encouraged to be more and more extreme to ‘prove’ their faith, or as they see it ‘exercising their faith’.

    Like I said, I believe this to be the case from observing Christians in action, watching what they say and having caused some consternation in Bible studies over the years, such as when I asked why we were raising money for the church roof when there were hungry people in the world? Surely, I said, if we *really* believe the Gospel, a leaking roof would seem utterly unimportant, trivial even?

    So they say God is obvious, impossible not to see, and yet they don’t live like that. I’m not saying most were bad people – they weren’t, but nowhere near as good as they’d be if they actually believed in God like they did in gravity or air.

    • Wow, you must have run into my brother. He delights in getting into online skirmishes with atheists. It’s really quite embarrassing for me. I tried to talk to him about it and got rebuffed. You are absolutely on target when you describe the body language and affect of Christians when they talk to atheists. Notice I said talk TO. They often don’t speak with atheists. I’m a believer but I don’t try to convert other people.

  6. I’ve always gotten angry at God. :p and the fundies always think I’m a bad Christian for it.

  7. This is a really helpful piece for me as a humanist who thinks that it’s useful (within obvious limits) to try to see believers as fellow humans who hold beliefs I consider to be wrong (and vice versa), and to seek mutual understanding on that basis.

    That doesn’t threaten my atheism any more than it threatens their belief (though of course both sides quietly harbour the hope that the other will see the light when they’re exposed to it!)

    Just getting angry with believers because they can’t see that Santa doesn’t exist gets us nowhere.

    Personally, I don’t find philosophical on the meaning of moral relativism useful. The sense in which it was used in the post, and the only one I’ve seen in which I have seen it used generally (and I use it when denying that I’m a moral relativist) is the most extreme case. It’s exemplified by the view help by a colleague of Sam Harris’s – cited with horror by him in a lecture – that we should respect the fact that female genital mutilation is a cultural norm in some societies, and hence that it’s a form of neo-colonialism to condemn it. That’s crap (IMHO).

  8. Hello.

    First of all I want to congratulate you for your willingness to avoid huring people in a useless manner, like many folks on both sides of the theism/atheism debate are constantly doing. I’m a progressive Christian and I pointed myself this out:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/blogging-as-a-spiritual-experience/

    However I disagree with many things you have written.

    “The truth is that when you believe the Bible literally, it does form a coherent worldview.”
    Fundies like to believe that but this is not the case at all.

    The Bible is full of contradictions concerning nature, history, ethics, theology and everything. You just cannot derive any self-consistent worldview without distorting the meaning of many verses beyond recognition:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/on-the-art-of-picking-and-chosing/

    Lovely greetings from France.

    • Thanks for commenting. I agree of course that the Bible contains contradictions, and that the fundamentalist worldview is based on their cultures and traditions at least as much as it is on the Bible, even though they won’t accept that.

      I’m walking a slight tightrope here, because I want to make this blog a place where fundamentalists can feel comfortable engaging in fair discussion, so I don’t want to attack them. At the same time, I don’t want to compromise my clearly held view, which is that fundamentalism is harmful.

      Fundamentalists know about what we see as the contradictions in the Bible, and they try to reconcile them. While non-fundamentalists don’t find these reconciliations very convincing, they do work. Then you have to remember the fundamentalist belief that the Bible must be inerrant, and if it doesn’t make sense to us, that’s just because God is too big for us to understand.

      You and I can’t accept that viewpoint now. But I used to believe it, and it is impervious to counterargument.

      • “Then you have to remember the fundamentalist belief that the Bible must be inerrant, and if it doesn’t make sense to us, that’s just because God is too big for us to understand.”

        The problem is that this trick allows fundies to believe in two LOGICALLY contradictory statement at the same time.

        Like:

        1) God never punished children for the sin of their parents
        2) God does punish children for the sins of their parents

        Fundies always attempt to deceitfully shift the meaning of the words so that the contradiction becomes more tenable, but they are then very far from the original meaning intended by the author.

      • In response to lotharson…

        The use of the word “deceit” implied intent where I don’t think it exists. The changes in the meanings of the words – which happens both within and without fundamentalist belief systems – are a reflection of the resolution of cognitive dissonance, not intentional deceit.

        And I’m not sure how you establish “the original meaning intended by the author”: is that something objective you can identify? I know when I’ve written things I’ve deliberately left meanings and intent vague, so that it can be interpreted in two or more ways: it’s a hallmark of good literature to be ambiguous (not that my writing approaches that, obviously).

  9. And with this post, I can no longer help but follow you. It is so good to see people willing to try to bridge the divide between religious and non-religious, between fundamentalist and liberal, and everything in between. I think much of our differences tend to be based on misunderstanding, and bitter rhetoric does nothing to bring understanding. I’m certainly not saying that there is no place for anger and harshness. There is. But I am always glad to see someone recognize the viewpoint of their opponent. After all, we’re not enemies. We’re all just human beings.

    • Great, I’ve been hoping to get you on board! And I completely agree.

      • My personal experience, of having been raised a liberal Christian (ish) and then ‘converting’ to fundamentalism in my teens, is there are broadly two different sorts of ‘Christians’.

        There are the sort who are still friends with me, despite my having ‘come out’ as lesbian in later life, and despite my then adopting Buddhism. These people tend to be the ‘live and let live’ types who believe, but don’t spend too much time analyzing their theology. They might believe God saved them from a puncture of their car tyre, but they won’t spend my time worrying if this is inconsistent with a god who doesn’t answer the prayers of the millions in the world who don’t have enough to eat. Not because they’re hypocrites, but more because they’re ‘doers’ rather than ‘thinkers’. It simply isn’t that important to them. If you say “here is an error in your thinking”, they’re as likely to agree with you as not, but it doesn’t affect their fundamental belief in a ‘god’ who is sort of friendly and caring and makes everything all right in a harsh world.

        I might criticise these friends for being somewhat irrational and logically inconsistent, but they lead good lives and they are loyal friends to me (ie don’t condemn me) so they’re OK.

        Then there’s the sort I used to hang out with. The sort I devoted myself to for 19 years, and in return received judgmentalism, cruelty and hypocrisy. These are the Biblical literalists who missed all the bits in the Bible about love and compassion and went straight to the judgement of God (of whom they see themselves as instruments). They are the only ‘true Christians’. If something is irrational, cruel or goes against their conscience, they’ll do it if they think the Bible says so. They aren’t interested in love – they’ve morphed the meaning to mean ‘obeying God’ (=obeying their favourite bits of the Bible). They talk disparagingly of people who ‘live by works’ (ie Christians who think its about doing good).

        These are the kinds of Christians who encouraged battered wives to stay with their husbands, excommunicated teenage girls who got pregnant, but not the boys, rejected my disabled son on the grounds that he was a judgement from God and when my husband and I were going through a crisis of conscience about our sexuality, they simply told us that if we did anything about it, we’d go to hell (effectively telling us to live a lie). These people still cross the street when they see me, and only speak to me if they are trying to drag me back into one of their evangelical meetings.

        They were frankly horrible people towards us, and to others who failed to tow the line. Even devote fundamentalists who happened to think slightly differently.

        So when people talk about ‘building bridges’ and communicating with such people, to me that is like a victim building bridges were their abuser. I’m not saying there is no good in these people, but they have so lost their way, and are so rigid and brainwashed that nothing I say would be acceptable to them. If I said the sky was blue, they’d look out the window to check.

        To me, talking to Christians is a little bit like swimming with sharks. Sharks can be noble, majestic creatures, but they’ll also have your arm off as soon as look at you, so excuse me if I’m wary.

  10. Jonny, I like the change of tone. I know you respect thoughtful believers, but this post sounds even more so.

  11. Great post.

    My problem is I am more a Misotheist than an Atheist. I INTELLECTUALLY reject the existence of “God” but emotionally I find Yahweh a monster. God as the source of evil. So I find it hard to deal with the True Believers because emotionally I consider them, to borrow and reverse their terminology, Devil Worshippers.

    Sorry…no more rants.

    Deathspell Omega:
    “Firy Serpents”

    One may argue that it was flawed
    since the beginning
    that the dice were loaded
    that God had it all within
    that He is the Source.
    O heavenly Father!
    pathogenic agent of contamination.
    harbringer of catastrophe,
    icon of the impending Fall:
    but what difference does it make?
    Altitudines Satana
    the vertigo of Liberty
    tipped the scales.
    A shadow of horror is risen.

    This will not be redeemed
    no matter how sincere the genuflection
    and ardent the confession.

    • Brian M, I empathise with you. I think the reasonable Christians that read this blog maybe aren’t aware of the emotional damage some of these ‘Christian’ organisations have done to people. Not that I hold them in any way responsible, but they do need to understand that if people are reacting badly, there’s probably a reason.

      • I’ll be honest, Anna. I am not really blaming Christians or their organizations here (although the American right wing is frightening to me, to be sure). I have Christian friends I respect.

        It’s the story itself, the theology, the character of God as explained in the Bible and Christian traditions that I find appalling. I don’t find Jesus’ words or concepts “Good News”. I don;t find the character of God compelling or worshipful.

        This is a combination of intellectual and emotional reactions. Not even directly personal history, although I am a member of minority groups that (some) Christians think worthy of persecution. So…there is a little bit of that.

        To sum it up, The Problem of Evil and the internal contradictions and incoherence of the Three Omnis that is the core problem here.

        Maybe I am a dualistic Gnostic?

        I am hijacking the thread here. Sorry, Jonny.

      • Nope, I had pretty much the same problems myself, but intellectual difficulties are not the reason I automatically look for the fire exit if someone starts trying to ‘evangelise’ me. I can accept that people have different opinions, only they don’t accept that, unfortunately.

  12. I think this is a wise and humane article Jonny and I wish your attitude were more evident within the skeptics movement.

    Whilst the division between religious believers and non-believers can be particularly incendiary it is not the only one and a few years ago, after an unpleasantly heated exchange around the subject of alternative medicine, I had a think-aloud about the nature of belief and the differences between the beliefs of those involved which I regurgitated at http://stumbles.org.uk/John/respecting_beliefs/. It’s a different issue but I hope it may be complimentary in some ways.

  13. Not an atheist. But I was a believer. If you think that the comment threads above are moving you closer to a mode of discourse that will be fruitful in bringing theists and atheists together, I have to question that. Maybe if you’re only interested in theology students and intellectual believers. Maybe. But this is America in 2013. So the goal should be to open a constructive dialogue with fundamentalists in this context. This philosophical approach is clearly fun and engaging for readers of this site, and that’s absolutely wonderful, but it will never open the mind of an evangelical Texan. You want a truly difficult challenge? More difficult than just explaining how you think you think to others who mostly agree? Invite the Texans. Just “composing the invite” will keep you busy a while.

    • Thanks for this Dave. You’re quite right; this conversation isn’t acceptable to fundamentalists. But lately I have gone back to despairing of the possibility of fruitful dialogue.

      • I sent a link to a post by a fundamentalist to another fundamentalist about the whole “literal, plenary, infallibility” of the Bible. I critiqued the reasoning of the post, and I got this reply: “You are oneofthe mostarrogant [sic] , self righteous, self justifying, self satisfied , self deluded human beings that I have ever met in my life. I just read many dozens of your posts and was sickened.” It went on from there. Fruitful dialogue with died in the wool fundamentalists is really, really hard.

  14. I cannot talk to believers about god or the nonexistence of god. It’s just a waste of time for both of us. With people in my life who believe in god (and there aren’t that many of them, oddly), I just don’t want to go there. If a person starts in with me about god I just say something like “I’ve thought this all through years ago, I’m not going to change my mind, so let’s just not discuss it.” I hate it when they say “I’ll pray for you” because I think it’s incredibly condescending. Nor do I discuss spirituality with my New Agey or pagan friends/relatives. Nothing good has ever come of it for me.

  1. Pingback: Does Theism Prove God Is Good? | findingdoubt

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