Oftentimes, when we find ourselves listening to or reading someone who is opposed to our particular point of view, the urge to become irritated and/or dismissive is strong.Even if we genuinely want to understand someone’s point of view, we may not always succeed because we are not paying very close attention. But these moments demand that we take care and consider the ideas being put forth. We must always assess others’ ideas fairly in order to be good thinkers.
Case in point: The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Tayler, an atheist, recently wrote an article that took umbrage with an earlier piece that sought to investigate the journey to atheism. This earlier piece, written by Larry Alex Taunton, a theist, analyzed the findings of a “nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS).” Tayler’s post, which allowed him to expound on his own grievances against Christianity, leveled this accusation against Taunton’s conclusions:
“what this kind of analysis does, whether intentionally or not, is peremptorily dismiss these atheists’ valid objections and present snippets from the interviews in such a way as to insult the sincerity of their nonbelief and foreclose other possible explanations for their apostasy…”
He also wrote:
“Taunton’s analysis amounts not to an objective assessment of [the atheists’] words, but pseudo-diagnosis presented in a way that skirts what they were really trying to tell him.”
So what did Taunton say that got Tayler so miffed? Here’s an excerpt from Taunton’s article about an atheist, college student named “Meredith.”
“She explained in detail how her study of anthropology had led her to atheism. When the conversation turned to her family, however, she spoke of an emotionally abusive father: ‘It was when he died that I became an atheist,’ she said. I could see no obvious connection between her father’s death and her unbelief. Was it because she loved her abusive father — abused children often do love their parents — and she was angry with God for his death? ‘No,’ Meredith explained. ‘I was terrified by the thought that he could still be alive somewhere.’”
At first blush this does appear to substantiate Tayler’s claim. For, even though Meredith explicitly states that her study of anthropology led her to atheism, Taunton is focusing on her emotional reaction to the possibility of meeting her abusive father in an afterlife. So isn’t this an example of dismissing the atheist’s “valid objections” to Christianity by providing other “possible explanations for apostasy?”
This is where it is important to pay close attention to what is actually being said. The reason Taunton focused on Meredith’s (and other atheists’) emotional condition during their journey to unbelief is explicitly stated in the fourth paragraph:
“Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question [i.e. “What led you to become an atheist?”] usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective… To hear them tell it, the choice was made from a philosophically neutral position that was void of emotion.”
But, as Taunton points out via his study, “for most [atheists], this was a deeply emotional transition as well.” This is the reasoning behind focusing on the emotional aspects of embracing nonbelief. For most it is not an emotion-less inquiry but an emotional one. And this is, as he says, surprising considering the way that nonbelievers package the atheistic enterprise.
Tayler characterized Taunton’s argument as, “dismiss[ing] out of hand the most relevant and mature critiques leveled at religion.” But this is not the case at all. Taunton never said that emotional reasons were the only factor in someone becoming a nonbeliever. Rather, he acknowledged the atheist’s perceived scientific incompatibility with Christianity, lack of Scriptural reliability, and doctrinal incoherence. He simply points out that the journey entails an emotional factor as well.
Ironically, Tayler proves Taunton’s point when, towards the end of his own article, he lists what he calls “troublesome” characteristics of the Old Testament. The word “troublesome” means to cause annoyance or distress which are, themselves, emotional reactions.