Monday, 23 April 2012

On Being Ignorant

I've noticed a common theme among de-conversion stories.  Well, actually, there are several common themes; but the one I am speaking of here is becoming acutely (and even painfully) aware of your own ignorance.  Christianity has a way of making its adherents feel as if they already grasp the really "big stuff".  As an unintended result many Christians slowly lose curiosity and, over an extended period of time, become unintentionally ignorant of their own burgeoning ignorance.

Now, please don't misunderstand me.  I'm sincerely not trying to throw rocks.  This isn't an atheist's way of trash talking believers.  It's just that I used to be something of a "go to" Christian myself; believed, by churchgoing friends & associates, to be very well informed.  They still think of me this way.  And in some ways I was (and am) well informed, on Biblical/theological arguments & issues; y'know, the "big stuff".  

However, looking back, I now realize that I used to be remarkably uninformed re: a large number of other areas that are quite relevant to Christian belief; for example, I knew next to nothing about recent findings in biblical criticism, archaeology, evolution, or cosmology.  These fields, and many others I haven't named, are inexorably connected, to the claims made by Christianity, yet I knew very little about any of them. I think this is common in Christian circles.  

It's a subtle thread of anti-intellectualism that lies essentially hidden, but runs through to the very heart of Christian culture, seeping out in a variety of ways.  I've been mentally noting some examples, over these past few months, as they come quite organically to my attention (remember, as an "in the closet" atheist, I am still surrounded by Christians day in and day out in the workplace).  

Here is my top 5:

5) "All you need is this book"

Christians believe the Bible is the ultimate guidebook to EVERYTHING.  It's not that they don't read other books (although some of them don't); it's just that they assume the Bible speaks more wisely, to every topic it touches, than a "regular" book possibly ever could.  If you doubt this, just go to your local Christian bookstore and read the back cover of a few dozen Christian books.  It doesn't matter the subject; sex, love, marriage, dating, parenting, you name is simply assumed that the Bible contains greater wisdom, on the issue at hand, than literally any other book on the face of the planet. Why would someone who believes this bother reading a large number of non-Christian books, by so called "experts", on topics the Bible already speaks clearly to?  They can't possibly match up.

4) "It's too long to read" (just tell me the conclusion so I can judge it immediately)

I work with a very bright (and talented) Christian girl, in her twenties, who generally refuses to read anything that is more than a few paragraphs long.  She frequently deletes e-mails, or even bows out of staff conversations, simply because they would require her to read too much background material.  I'm not kidding.  At the same time, this girl is extremely confident in her beliefs on spiritual matters.  She knows that she knows that she knows that Jesus is the only way, and the Bible is the word of God.  I have never seen her display so much as a whiff of doubt re: her Christian beliefs.  Has she ever read a skeptical book?  Nope.  I don't believe so.  Does she properly understand the theory of evolution?  Absolutely not.  But yet she knows she's right!  About all of it!  How does she "know" this exactly??  

You can't learn if you don't read.  A lot.  For certain personality types reading feels like work, yes, but it's worth the investment.  And the more you read the more you learn. Popular culture won't teach you what books can teach you.  Sorry. 

3) "Just trust"

I've spoken before, about the manner in which Christians conflate the ideas of belief and trust (as if they were precisely the same thing).  In fact, I consider it to be one of the most important posts that I've done on this blog to date.  So I won't repeat myself.  I'll just add that when Christians urge unbelievers to "just trust" they are, in so doing, asking the atheist to dumb things down.  It's like saying "those are all really great questions, many of which we can't actually answer, but if you'll 'just trust' it will all be o.k."

And as I've posited previously, on numerous occasions, what sort of God would condemn people to eternal punishment because of honest intellectual doubt?  

Only a monster would do such a thing.  Please think honestly about that.

2) "I'm offended!"

There has been much talk, in the atheist community, about how to best handle it when believers play the "I am offended!" card; and some of them play it often.  My own view is that people should be treated with respect (unless/until they prove themselves unworthy of that respect).  Having said that I also agree with the observation, made most notably by Richard Dawkins, that religion has been unfairly accorded a special place in our society.  A person's religious beliefs should not be viewed as untouchable, as in free from critique, anymore so than their beliefs on politics or literally any other topic.

I've also noticed that when Christians say "I'm offended!", it's often just their slick way of trying to shut the current conversation down.  You can see this, for example, in the q&a section of this debate.  Several believers made their way to the microphone, deeply emotional, with the express purpose of registering their offense at Richard Carrier's well thought out ideas.  Never mind the evidence he presented.  Who cares about that? Doggone it they just wanted him to know how "offended!" they were!  

And in so doing it became crystal clear, to the rest of us, that they didn't truly understand the arguments that were being made to begin with.  How unfortunate. 

1) "We need more humility"

I've also spoken before about how I consider humility to be one of the single greatest virtues.  I really do.  So why am I throwing an appeal for humility in with a list of things that supposedly promote ignorance?  I think it comes down to what is meant by the word humility.  What I'm objecting to is the use of the word "humility" as a stand in for "ignorance".  For example, I have sometimes heard Christians say things like "well, the truth is none of us know how it all began so I just think we need more humility".  What are the implications of this comment?  It might as well read, "well, the truth is none of us know how it all began so why bother trying to figure it out."  See the problem there? To be perfectly clear I think it's good for us to acknowledge that we haven't figured everything out.  Not even close.  In fact, there are probably things that we'll never be able to figure out.  All scientists realize this.  But it shouldn't stop us from pursuing the really tough questions with vigor.  What's ironic is that it's Christians themselves who hold the less humble worldview generally (see the Sam Harris quote in the second to last paragraph of this post).

As I said, off the top, my goal in this post is not just to rag on Christians.  I'm trying to make a point.  And, of course, it goes without saying that there are some believers who are well versed in areas outside of Christian theology.  But I believe these Christians are the exception, not the rule, especially in evangelical circles.   

By this point I've probably read a few hundred de-conversion stories, and awareness of one's own ignorance is perhaps the single most common theme.  I now know how little I know.  And I know a whole heck of a lot more than I used to.  But I make it a point to learn a little more each day.  It's one of the main differences between the man I was, as a Christian, and the person I strive to be today.


  1. My brother has the answer for every personal bad habit and imperfection, local case of social breakdown, and nationaland worldwide crisis: Sin. No research, thought, or study necessary. Oh, how easy life was when I had all the answers.

  2. My family is the same way. Any time something terrible happens it's because someone has sinned. No other explanations necessary. No questions allowed.

  3. Great points. I've learned so much since de-converting that I did not know when I was a Christian. I was actually planning to do a post about some of the a-ha! moments that I've had during the experience. I'll have to work on that.

    Another thing Christians will say is that reading secular books is "of the devil" so they just stay away from them.

  4. It's crazy how similar our backgrounds are. Fellow Christians used to view me exactly the same way -- I was someone who had thought deeply about theological issues, and I knew scripture very well. My comments tended to carry some weight... until I stopped believing.

    Like you, I had been completely unaware of so many things that effected the truth of my beliefs!

    1. What's ironic is that my comments still carry weight, with some of my Christian friends, but only because I remain in the atheist closet (sometimes I can't help but think to myself, "if only they knew")!

  5. How is masquerading as a Christian make you a respectful atheist? I think it makes you a liar and a coward....just my opinion.

    1. Masquerading as a Christian doesn't make me a respectful atheist...being a respectful atheist makes me a respectful atheist. I was a Christian when I entered my career, and I have been unable, as of yet, to find a clean way out of it (without plunging my family into financial disaster). If you want to call that cowardly go nuts, but I think it would be profoundly selfish of me to not consider their welfare. It's got nothing to do with fear, or the desire to deceive anybody, regardless of your implications to the contrary.

  6. I think the bible has always had a great fear of intellectuals.