Tuesday, January 5, 2010

South Going Zax


Some Christians refuse to engage Atheists entirely. I find that these types of Christians can be broken down into two categories: 1) Overly Confident (reckless) faith, and 2) Dwindling (prudent) faith.

The first type are so confident that they just don't see how anyone could not be a Theist like them! Impossible! they claim. God is definite, most certainly so, a matter of fact, there's no two ways about it!

For these presumptuous Christians, atheists appear to be little more than a South Going Zax. This means, when the two come nose to nose on a narrow impassable path, neither wants to get out of the way because they feel they're entitled to their own way. Because there can be only one way, after all. No other way will do. They are at an impasse.

This is occasionally true of some atheists as well, but it's far less obvious because atheism isn't holding to a belief that they are indelibly right.We're holding to the belief that the evidence doesn't lead to a particular verdict, but if new evidence were forthcoming and we're proven wrong, we'd gladly take this fact into consideration and update and correct our beliefs accordingly.

Often times, though, I wonder if Christians really understand what the atheist position is at all. The atheist blogger SmartLX wrote a very clear definition of the Atheistic position on his blog Ask the Atheist, informing:

...atheism itself is the absence of a certain type of belief, not the presence of an equivalent belief. It feels wrong to advance the lack of a belief as correct, let alone proven.

What we need to sort out beforehand is the position of atheists (or at least the majority of them) on the existence of gods and the truth merit of religions. This can be defended, as “what atheists think”, far less awkwardly.

This attempt is probably not definitive, but here goes: the atheist position is that there is no available, substantive evidence for the existence of any god. Therefore it’s likely that there isn’t one.

This is a great definition because it accurately captures the misconception of atheism and corrects it. Atheism is the 'absence of theism' plain and simple, and not an equivalent belief.

Christians often think that when they say there is a God, even cordial disagreement with the theist stance, makes them feel that an atheist is simply denying their God by saying there isn't one. Some atheists might do this to get attention, but most atheists I know aren't doing it just to be contrarians, they're doing it because all the evidence they can find does not substantiate the existence of any god.

Therefore, it appears Christians often misunderstand atheists because, as it often seems to be the case, they don't take the time to fully understand the atheist perspective.

Yet the thing that needs to be pointed out is this, as an atheist I'm not denying YOUR opinion about God or YOUR right to believe in God. Although, I am denying your God and beliefs for myself.  

If you believe, that's fine. I might point out why I can't agree with your sentiments, and I may state my case and cite my sources, but I'm not saying you shouldn't be allowed to hold those personal convictions, even as I can't personally buy into them.

But because Christians inevitably want others to be Christian too, meaning they DO want YOU to believe in what they do. At least in many cases this seems to be the case. It was while I was yet a believing Christian and I could cite numerous examples of such thinking. 

When you have an agenda, such as winning converts over to God or Christ, having a pesky atheist saying the exact opposite can sometimes prove frustrating to the Christian and even, possibly, confrontational. They see it as a confrontation to their goals of evangelicalism. If atheists are preaching the antithesis to what Christians use to convert gentiles into born again believers, then they view this as an obstacle. 

Christians often think that whenver an atheist denies God's existence we mean to say, "You can't believe that, you're not allowed!" but that's not necessarily the case. What we are saying is that, "We can't believe that, and here's why..."

So I would say it's not so much a South Going Zax issue as it is that atheists are perfectly fine to step aside and allow Christians to go on their merry way believing what they will--just so long as their beliefs aren't causing any harm. 

(Please, don't get me wrong though. Since the majority of religious beliefs and practices stemming from those beliefs have historically caused their fair share of harm... they need to take the blame and correct their wrongs. If not, then there is absolutely a need for a certain amount of advocacy against such ideologies and institutions. But even Christians realize this when they preach out against the dangers of 'organized religion').

Austin Cline wrote a recent article reflecting this very same stigma against atheists, but I find that his take is slightly different from mine. Cline supposes that because Christians presume to know the atheist position  in-depth already, even as it is a blatant misconception, they don't really take the time to understand it or ask genuine engaging questions on the subject. Cline writes:

No matter what the atheist says or does, it will appear to have little impact — the theist will remain convinced of whatever they believed from the outset, and contact with a real atheist who reflects none of these things is not seen as any reason to reconsider. Given all this, why did the theist ask any questions in the first place? Why ask questions when you are convinced you already know the answer and will not be swayed by any contrary answers, evidence, or arguments you might hear?

The answer, I think, is that Christians asking such questions aren't asking real questions at all. A real question is an admission of ignorance, an expression of a desire to learn more, and an invitation for someone to help a person expand their knowledge, understanding, and horizons. People can only ask genuine questions on the premise that there are things they should or could know which they don't already know, that they might be mistaken about some of the things they think they know, and that one might need to change in the future. Given these conditions, how often do Christians ask genuine questions of atheists? Not very often, in my experience.

Instead, it's more common for Christians to only ask rhetorical questions about atheism and atheists.

Rhetorical questions, or faux questions, are the best way to avoid getting real answers. 

Whether or not Christians are intentionally doing this or whether it is sheer habit is besides the point. In both instances Christians neglect to consider the atheist perspective because of their convictions that they couldn't be possibly wrong on the subject of God. And this hubris breeds a reckless sort of faith.

The second type of Christian, the Dwindling faith variety, are more difficult still. They are the ones that are meticulous when it comes to faith based matters. I think because they have some knowledge about their religion or faith, maybe a little bit more than the over confident sort of Christian, they also have more room for doubt. This makes them more prudent in their faith.

However, this prudence often causes them to grow overly cautions, sometimes even paranoid, about anything which would threaten their faith and jeopardize their relationship with God / Jesus. 

And because they don't want to be challenged, since they are on the cusp as it is, they will often ignore atheists. 

If any more weight applied to their growing skepticism, pushing their reason a little bit further would tip the scales and they would inevitably fall into unbelief, and so they try to distances themselves from anything that would cause them to "question" God or their faith. This is quite understandable, but their response to avoid people who think differently than they do is a bit extreme.

The fundamental ones will likely demonize atheists, and make them into adversaries, thus redirect their paranoia and make atheists into scapegoats. The more liberal ones will just allow bygones to be bygones, but will probably privatize their faith and not engage atheists on the subject of religion.

In both cases, and in general, Christians think unbelief is accompanied by a great overwhelming sense of despair,  of longing, and of emptiness. They think atheism is a nonprofit organization. They will often chime in with the reassurance that they don't have enough faith to be an atheist! But then again, I would say they do

They have the very minimum required to be a believer, because any less and they would be an atheist instead.

However, because these second type of Christians are so insecure, they dodge skeptics at every turn, and they would rather keep their faith to themselves. If pushed on the matter they often lash out with verbal attacks and becoming very vitriolic toward anyone who would try to pry their minds open with the powerful tools of reason, science, and critical thinking. 

These Christians, in my opinion, should be left to themselves. Considering they are nearly already on the edge of disbelief, they would rather fight tooth and nail to hold onto their cherished beliefs rather than relinquish them, therefore I would suggest to let these North Going Zaxs to continue going northward until they run out of road.

My point is this. When it comes to opposing opinions, atheists aren't taking the role of the opposition, because that would be rejecting "something" and disagreeing with "it." That's not what atheists are doing. What we're doing is stepping back and saying, "This isn't anything really. Could have been something wonderful though."

So next time an atheist tells you there is no God, just know that they're not telling you that you can't have faith or continue to believe in that God should you desire. What you believe in is your own prerogative, and who am I to tell you what to believe?

I will, however, take the time to correct your misconceptions if I know for a fact that you are wrong about something which is well established and that we have evidence for, and that's different than saying you're not allowed to be wrong. Everyone is wrong sometimes, even I make mistakes. But if we realize the error, should we not try and correct it? That's why critical thinking skills are so important. How will you know whether or not your belief is the right one if you don't occasionally take the time to think about it critically?

For those who see problems cropping up in their beliefs, then faith increases, as well as their doubt. Those who are over confident often have an obtuse sort of faith, one which is more pantomime than genuine, because for me, faith requires an inkling of doubt. Why? Because the person who never has any doubt can't possibly know what it is they don't believe in, especially if you believed everything you held to be true was right all the time, then there would be no reason to examine those beliefs. Indeed, it requires doubt to have faith in anything at all.

The person who practices a prudent faith has more to lose than the person who practices a reckless faith. An over confident person is much more easily persuaded to change their mind if they should be shown that they're wrong. A prudent person will always be second guessing themselves, and so they might go back and forth on the issue, but ultimately they will make the choice which suits their own needs the best.

Atheists need not worry about such problems because theirs' is an absence of belief altogether. From our perspective, there is nothing to doubt in. And so I think it's safe to say, if you ever do come across a South Going Zax, don't automatically assume he means to get in your face and cause you trouble. He might just be, in all honesty, going about his own business.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist