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.

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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?”

ListeningThis 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.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve had a very similar experience with a former brother who left the church. He claimed he couldn’t believe anymore on the basis of scientific findings and evidence, etc. After a couple emails back and forth it actually boiled down to dealing with the death of his wife’s grandfather, an illness of his wife’s grandmother and being diagnosed with cancer himself. All that on top of issues in various forms of the “problem of evil”. Despite that, one of the first things he cited to me in talking with him about his falling away was how it would’ve been impossible for the Koala to migrate to make it onto Noah’s ark!

    Needless to say, sometimes you gotta peel back some artificial layers to find the true reasons for unbelief. Good analysis, N.P.

    • I know what you mean. I’ve had long conversations with my best friend and, if you ask him, he says he doesn’t believe because of X, Y, and Z. But scratch the surface and he says that one of his major hang-ups is the thought that people will be separated from their loved ones in hell. I’m very sympathetic to that concern as well. It just goes to show that this journey (like many) is not an emotion-less one. Thanks for the comment, Gene! Will come stalk your blog soon (after class)!

      • Again, that is logically inconsistent with a benevolent, kind, merciful, infallible god. That doesn’t mean he’s crying himself to sleep every night thinking about it and that’s why he doesn’t believe. It could also be that it simply doesn’t make sense that a good god would do such a thing. Many people have a problem with the concept of hell, believers and atheists. As I said above, why is it legitimate to dismiss the other views of atheists because they share the same doubts as theists?

        • Just for clarification, agnophilo (cool name, by the way), all I said was that the journey is not emotion-less. We can talk about Theodicy and whether or not the ancients’ musings in this regard are logically inconsistent if you like. But, as I previously said, I haven’t dismissed my friend’s more substantive reasons for unbelief. I’m simply pointing out something that I think is rather obvious. Our journey towards belief in any regard is not entirely free of emotion. Whether or not emotion has a larger or smaller role to play in that venture is different in each case but, nevertheless, it is there. We are human beings after all.

    • How is that not a valid reason to question his beliefs? I know if someone I loved and cared for and served for years gave me and my loved ones cancer and could cure it but didn’t I’d start to question my assumptions too. And losing faith is generally not something that happens in an instant, someone can have an inciting incident or thought that starts them questioning and then change their mind based on other information. Most christians have crises of faith or times of doubt, why is it okay for them but a “gotcha” that can be used to dismiss an atheist’s opinions?

      • I appreciate the thoughts. I can’t speak for Gene or for any other Christians you’ve had experiences with. What I can tell you is that I’m not dismissing the reasoning for someone’s unbelief. I’m sympathetic to the concerns of the unbeliever because I used to be one not too long ago. The point of the article I referenced was to highlight that emotion is a factor in many people’s journey towards their worldview. And I’m certain this pendulum swings both ways — nonbelievers and believers.

        The takeaway I was aiming for was that, if we’re not careful to pay close attention, then we can easily slip into the misrepresentation that you say evangelicals do all the time. You’re right, that’s definitely a bad thing. From my vantage point, atheists do it all the time as well. In other words there are careless thinkers on both sides of the aisle. I know nonbelievers have more substantive reasons for their nonbelief. But so do Christians. And that’s the conversation I would like to see pursued.

  2. As an atheist I’ve never heard a criticism of atheism that doesn’t misrepresent it, and evangelical christians misrepresent it to extremes, reinventing hitler as an atheist and darwin as a racist (who converted to christianity on his deathbed, they want to have their cake and eat it too). And atheism, we are told, is either nihilism, self-worship, an attempt to avoid moral accountability or the belief that “there was nothing, then nothing exploded out of nothing and the universe popped out” or one of a thousand childish misrepresentations of scientific ideas about reality.

    It’s really annoying.

    When atheists criticize religion we criticize what people actually believe, say and do, we don’t pervasively misrepresent it. We don’t have to or want to. Most non-believers are skeptics who are interested in getting to the bottom of things, not cheer leading for their “side”.

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  4. Great post Nate. I have been trying to figure out what caused my husband to turn from Christianity to Atheism. According to him, the journey was gradual. He started to see the world in a specific way and to believe certain things about life to be true, and he found confirmation for his view in atheistic materials such as God Delusion. But from what I can understand, the true turning point was when his sister’s first baby was born with Down Syndrome. So there was definitely strong emotion involved when he turned from God although he tries to deny that it played a big role in his turning away. I might be wrong but it seems to me that atheists hides the emotional reasons for not believing in God, and they try to stand on purely rational reasons. It probably makes their case against God stronger. So yes, we have to listen very carefully to be able to get behind their true reasons for not believing.