Recently I read how Christians can deal successfully with (that is, convert) unbelievers. The writer (please allow me to render the writer anonymous) says his recommendation is almost guaranteed to work. His method is to inquire into the unbeliever’s life, an inquiry that soon yields accounts of riotous weekends, jet-paced but ultimately meaningless revelry, and a generally unfulfilling life. Having admitted his or her futile existence, the unbeliever is thus reduced to an awkward silence.
Perhaps the writer has actually had experiences like this, coming in contact with unbelievers with such a wretched existence (the “whitened sepulcher” analogy comes to mind). Can it be? Of course, it can. Unbelief does not assure a life of meaningfulness. But neither does belief that Jesus is the son of God (just look around). In the scenario, however, the Christian’s life is presented as full to overflowing with joy and with certainty. Can that be true? Of course, it can. I’m sure there are Christians for whom it is true. The error in the argument is the implication that religious belief is both necessary and sufficient for such an assurance.
A distressing number of religious people play this shallow game, keeping up a fantasy of joyful Christians and unhappy unbelievers. It is similar to another pretense: that Christians are moral and unbelievers are not…or, at least, that Christians subscribe to a high code of morality while unbelievers have no moral basis to subscribe to.
Obviously I don’t know how true the writer’s story is or, if true, just what kind of unbelievers the writer has met. He seems never to have met the atheists that I know. By far most of them live meaningful, ethical, loving lives. In a previous post (“Atheism born in tragedy and in thought,” July 26, 2013) I pointed out that a person can be an atheist for reasons as superficial as the reasons given by some for being Christian. In that post, I was pretty rough on such atheists and frankly have little truck with them. Just that sort of unthinking atheist would fit the writer’s stereotype of the empty-headed unbeliever, vulnerable to the sophomoric arguments advanced by the writer.
I remember such ridiculous accounts presented by leaders in the church of my childhood as they tried to demonstrate the supposed validity of some point. I’m embarrassed how long it took me to learn that examples and rationale need little coherence among the faithful so long as there is no serious questioning of the dogma that binds the group together. That exercise in self-congratulation leads to their feeling increasingly invincible, but to others not part of their smug game, they just look silly.
Each of us brings meaning to life. Secular humanists do it by accepting responsibility for creating it, then searching for what makes life better. Religionists do it by choosing (or inheriting) one of a number of prepackaged dogmas. Those dogmas should be required—just as all human propositions—to stand on their own feet, that is, to produce evidence as convincing as that for a scientific hypothesis.
In the absence of evidence, religionists rely on hope, groupthink, social pressure, intimidation, and punishment (happily, less of the latter than in previous times), rather like shouting makes one’s point more effectively. But sadly often their “proofs” fall back on such shallow, frivolous, and—ultimately—unethical arguments as those that stimulated this post.