Atheism vs. Theism 1: Independence in Thought
In Phillychief’s post entitled, Insularity?, one of his points was that atheists, by and large, are critical thinkers. I agree with this view. Even those atheists who are born into atheist families and have never held religious beliefs often, at some point in their lives, weigh their non-belief against the theistic and other religious alternatives to which they are inevitably exposed, and choose atheism as the most rational choice. For many, this process occurs in their childhood or teen years.
The other set of atheists, those who have de-converted from a particular religion, usually do so after a period of critically scrutinizing their beliefs. My cruises around the blogosphere, plus nearly 5 decades of living and interacting with evangelical theists, have shown me that many theists refuse to believe that de-conversion is a rational decision. Instead, they typically ascribe de-conversion to a multitude of other causes, such as (this list is selective and representative, not anywhere close to exhaustive):
- anger or disappointment at being hurt by another believer
- a desire to embrace a wanton lifestyle free of the moral constraints religion imposes
- having been a false convert rather than a real Christian
- failure to practice such spiritual disciplines as daily prayer and Bible reading
- having a flawed understanding of Christian doctrine
- harboring a secret sin that is getting between oneself and God
The list goes on and on and on and on. . . the Eveready Bunny of De-conversion Rationales According to Theists. The notion that believers of any theistic faith can examine the tenets of their faiths and find them wanting is troubling to many theists. If theists accept such a possibility, then they are put in the awkward position of having to decide whether they also ought to undertake such an examination.
Based on my own experience, plus reading scores of de-conversion accounts on the Internet, I believe that the vast majority of de-converts are intelligent people who prize rational, critical thought and require evidence upon which to base their beliefs. Most of them abandon their religions for rational reasons rather than the emotional or sinful ones that theists typically enumerate. Like many other atheists, de-converts value critical thinking and are willing to change their minds when given good reasons to do so. As I will explain momentarily, I believe this mindset is one characteristic that distinguishes rational thought from religious thought.
Before moving on, I want to lay aside any suppositions of intellectual elitism. I absolutely do not believe that atheists are smarter than theists. Many theists are incredibly smart, as are many atheists. Many other theists are also pathetically stupid, as are, again, many other atheists. The position I am taking here is not about the inherent intelligence of atheists and theists, it is about distinct mindsets that lead to two distinct modes of thought. Those modes of thought lead to strikingly different conclusions.
Independence in thought contrasts starkly with traits that are common among many theists. Consider, for a moment, independence of thought versus indoctrination. Theists, particularly conservative ones, are conditioned to accept what they are taught, via indoctrination (not education), with few questions. St. Ignatius had good reasons for saying that, if he could teach children from infancy through early childhood, they’d be believers for life. He understood how impressionable and malleable young minds are, how amenable to indoctrination.
As believers young and old grow in their faith, it’s acceptable for them to ask shallow, simple questions for which their leaders have prepared answers. If they start probing too deeply, however, they are discouraged from going further and thereby endangering their souls. The answer to hard questions is generally something along the lines of, “God works mysterious ways we can’t possibly comprehend.” In other words, don’t bother asking such questions because we don’t have (any good religious) answers for them. Throughout the history of the Christian church, independent thinkers usually were branded as heretics. They were the ones who questioned the status quo, the ones upon whom the indoctrination did not completely take or retain its hold. They were also the ones who, more often than not, were later proven to have been right.
Theism can only be maintained by a mindset that is predominantly religious, a mindset that does not necessarily eschew rationality, but does necessarily relegate it to a plane lower than spirituality. In the minds of many theists, if spiritual and rational claims conflict, the spiritual ones must be retained and the rational ones discarded as errant, if not downright evil. In contrast, many atheists believe that rational thought, based in scientific findings from many fields of inquiry, is the primary means by which humankind can and should derive human values. Atheists don’t necessarily eschew spiritual, or aesthetic, or other non-material values. They do seek to hold such values in balance with knowledge gained via rational channels.