Randal Rauser: Christian Apologetics and the Indoctrinated American Atheist

Over the last fifteen years, I have engaged extensively with atheists across North America. I’ve spoken to local groups, participated in live and radio debates, traded emails, shared various conversations over coffee, and had countless exchanges on my blog. And I can report that my experiences are echoed in sociologists David Williamson and George Yancey’s book There is No God: Atheists in America. The book seeks to understand some common characteristics of the atheistic, secular humanist, freethought community by way of extensive interviews with atheists on topics like politics, ethics, and religion. And while neither I nor Williamson or Yancey would claim the characteristics I’m about to discuss are universal, they are, nonetheless, disturbingly common.

One trait which I have oft observed among atheists is a sharp division between the allegedly rational irreligious in-group and the irrational religious outgroup. So too, Williamson and Yancey observe, “atheists tend to argue that their beliefs about religion come from a rational exploration for truth, as opposed to the irrationality of religious out-groups.” (40)

Since atheists commonly assume that they are especially rational and the religious are irrational, they often dismiss Christian apologetics as a tortured, ad hoc rationalization, a pained attempt to defend the indefensible. This dismissive attitude serves to perpetuate in-group solidarity and dismiss out-group criticisms. Williamson and Yancey develop this theme in chapter 4 which is aptly titled “The Foolishness of Religion.” In one interview an atheist respondent made the following observation:

“It is time for those who challenge religion to come out of the closet, as it were. It is time to stare religion of any stripe in the face with fierce and undaunted truth, the truth that belief in imaginary friends is natural and expected in a 6-year-old. But just as a child develops and then rejects childish ideas, so must humankind abandon belief in an omniscient, omnipotent being.” (50-1)

This tendency to dismiss God, religion, and Christianity as infantilized and irrational denials of the overwhelming weight of evidence is pervasive within this “skeptic” community.

As you can expect, these sharp binary oppositions perpetuate a tendency toward indoctrination and inhibit the atheist’s ability to engage rigorously with the views of others. As Williamson and Yancey observe, “Because atheists have a tendency to see people of faith as irrational, they have a hard time understanding how individuals maintain religious beliefs.” (51)

Williamson and Yancey’s study includes both survey data and in-depth interviews. One of the in-depth interviews was conducted with a young man named “Ralph” and it effectively conveys the average skeptic’s general sense of incredulity toward religion and Christianity:

“Ralph truly struggles to accept the fact that an intelligent person can be religious. He likely struggles more with an inability to understand how intelligent people can be religious than other atheists, but the struggle itself is quite common among atheists. Many of them simply do not believe that a logical individual can have religious faith. For them, nonbelief is the only rational approach for an individual.” (53)

Williamson and Yancey draw some general conclusions about the reasoning of the atheists they surveyed:

“Using college experiences as a reason for leaving their religion buttresses atheists’ conviction about the rationality of their beliefs. It allows for atheists to look back at their transition from religious to nonreligious as moving from emotional indoctrination to a rational appreciation of the truth.” (54)

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Randal Rauser