Belief despite understanding the logic, and three steps to freedom

Hambydammit's picture

    I am an atheist. I used to be a Christian, and then I read the Bible, thought about it, and left Christianity. Soon after that, I examined the concept of “the supernatural” and became an atheist. Hearing my story would probably be interesting to some people, but apart from some minor variances, it’s no different from the stories of thousands of other “de-converts.” Most atheists are well versed in the logic necessary to rid the mind of religious delusions. What I want to discuss in this essay is the number of theists who fully comprehend the same logic, and yet remain theists. Clearly, this phenomenon should be of great concern to the freethinker who would like to see friends, family, and society in general rid themselves of the poison that religious thought injects into culture.

To begin with, let us briefly examine the reasons that people follow religion. Some people are afraid of death, and gain comfort from the belief that they will not really die. Others want some truth to help explain the pain and suffering they or their loved ones experience. Many people attend church for social reasons – Christianity is, after all, the biggest social group in the country. Many people accept Jesus into their hearts because they’re afraid of hell. Obviously, there are also many people who firmly believe that they have spoken to God, witnessed a miracle that only God could have performed, or felt a “presence” they believe to be the Holy Spirit within them. All of these reasons, and many more, would be listed if you took a poll of believers.

I submit that close examination will reveal that virtually all of these reasons can be reduced to fear. Some are easy. Fear of death, hell, pain and suffering, and the unknown are easy to understand, but what about the other reasons? Do people who have spoken to God also believe because of fear? I believe so.  The real question is, why would a person either try to hear God’s voice, or upon hearing a perceived spiritual voice, be inclined to believe it? The answer is still fear – most likely one of the ones I’ve already listed. Why would a person be inclined to believe that there is a supernatural force that performs miracles? Again, fear -- the fear of being in the position of needing a miracle would certainly make one more likely to believe in miracles.

I’ve left out one big fear, and it’s the primary focus of this essay. I noted earlier that many people attend church for social reasons. This fact is, I believe, the key to understanding why theists who understand the logical reasons for disbelief continue to profess belief. For a moment, think about as many of your friends as you can. If you are a Republican, are most of your friends also Republican? If you are a Christian, do you spend most of your free time with other Christians? Here’s a nasty one. If you are white, are most of your friends white? Unless you are one of a few very rare personality types, or are forced into living in a culture that is not your own, you must admit that the majority of the people you surround yourself with are very similar to you.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It is built into the survival instinct, and is an intrinsic part of human nature. Also part of this survival instinct is the fear of being ostracized by the group. In the earlier days of the human species, exclusion from the group meant death in most circumstances. Even in more recent recorded history, there are many examples of places and times when banishment from a group would cause real mortal danger. In America, this is no longer true, but the instinct remains. Most people, given the choice between conforming to the group and leaving the group, will choose conforming. This isn’t speculation. It’s scientific fact.

Here, then, is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning. Why do theists who understand the logic of atheism remain theists? I suggest that it is fear of being ostracized. If you are a Christian, think of everyone you know who is also a Christian. How would it feel to be hated and distrusted by all of them? Am I being overly dramatic? Sadly, no. A recent survey showed that a very large portion of U.S. citizens would rather see a homosexual president than an atheist one. Furthermore, they rated atheists as the least trustworthy group of people – lower than lawyers and politicians who profess faith in Jesus Christ. If you are an atheist, you know these facts from personal experience. It is fair to say that a rational person, given the choice between believing in a deity or joining the most distrusted and disliked minority in the country, will choose to believe in a deity and be part of the largest and most well-regarded social group in the country.

Am I suggesting that there are “believers” who don’t really believe and use Christianity for social status only? Absolutely. But I’m also suggesting that there are many people who clearly understand the reasons for not believing, and perhaps even grasp the inherent danger posed by modern Christianity, and subconsciously create layers of apologist theory to shield themselves from having to face the seemingly awful truth that would force them to abandon the comfort of the group. Any atheist who has debated a Christian has seen the layers of circular logic necessary to answer even the simplest question of faith. For example, examine the question of an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful deity. Did this deity know before he created the universe that he would create literally billions of people who would not profess Jesus as their savior and would therefore be tormented for eternity for not believing a book riddled with inconsistencies and improbabilities? The correct answer is “yes,” but try to get a Christian to say it.Once we establish this, can we describe this being as “good?” Obviously, the answer is “no.” This being would be so atrociously evil that we would have to put Hitler on the list of “pretty ok people.” At least Hitler’s torments only lasted minutes for the lucky ones who got the gas chambers, and years for those forced to endure medical experiments and grotesque abuse in the concentration camps. Again, many Christians have a ready-made answer – “We cannot understand the ways of God. Good doesn’t have the same meaning for him because he is love.” This is obviously circular logic, and is nonsense even if we accept it. If God is truly beyond human comprehension, how do you know that he is good, or bad, or anything, for that matter? The answer to this – “Because he told me.” If you respond by asking if that doesn’t mean that God has given us the means to understand him, you’ll just get more circular logic.

Eventually, most Christians, when backed into a corner, will resort to saying something like, “Well, you just have to have faith, and I can’t make you believe, but I do.” In other words, “You’re right. I don’t have any reason to believe this, but I do, despite the logic that has defeated my arguments.” Faith, by definition, then, is believing something despite all evidence to the contrary. Many Christians will balk at that definition, but it’s true. Not only is there no evidence that the Christian god exists, there’s no evidence that any god exists. None! Even so, they will believe this book of myths that tells them that God made the earth, populated it with people who were predestined to sin, sent himself down to the earth to be sacrificed to himself so that people who believed that he had done this bizarre thing would be saved from a place of eternal torment designed by God for the people who were predestined not to believe such rubbish.

If this seems ludicrous and possibly even insane, it’s not exactly. Believing that all Christians are insane would be, well, insane, but we must be careful of how we're using the word.  Many people with mental disorders are not called insane.  Think of how many people you know who take a mild antidepressant.  Many people with mild bipolar disorder function very well in society, and we don't call them insane. This is where the issue of social pressure becomes paramount. It is much easier to postulate that many people will accept the circular logic if they can convince themselves that A) Christianity makes them feel good, so it’s ok if it doesn’t make sense, or B) Everybody believes it, and it doesn’t do any harm, or C) It’s too scary to think about leaving Christianity, or D) It isn’t worth bucking the system because it wouldn’t change anything for them to leave.

All of these reasons are hedges for the real reason – they are afraid to be ostracized. This fear is so pervasive that their subconscious will not even allow them to consider the possibility that not only are they wrong personally, but that our entire culture is wrong for basing so much of its morality on an ancient fairy tale. The question for atheists who would like to see change is this: “How do we, as atheists, help to create an environment conducive to de-conversion?” I don’t have all the answers to this, and I hope that this essay will spark discussion. I do have some suggestions, though.

First and foremost, it is important for the potential de-convert to see that there is a large group of freethinkers who will happily welcome her to “the group.” She needs to see that not only will her social life not end by leaving religion, but that she will have a strong support group that will be loving and fun and permanent. The best first step in this direction is for atheists to “come out of the closet.” We as a group should be proud of ourselves, and should display our disbelief to anyone who cares to look.

Second, it is important for the potential de-convert to be drawn away from religious influences as much as possible. Think of it this way. It’s a lot easier for a man to think about religion in a critical way if everyone around him has already done it, and seems no worse for wear. The more a theist can retreat to the religion that enslaves him, the more he will want to remain a slave.

Third, and possibly most controversial, I believe theists need to be exposed to embarrassment for their beliefs. Factually, their beliefs are ridiculous, and this needs to be pointed out clearly and often. Logically, their beliefs are nearly insane. This needs to be drilled home at every opportunity. This is difficult, because it’s hard to separate the person from the belief. Remember, we’re talking about people who can understand the logic, but are resisting because of social pressure, so we’re not talking about idiots. I think it’s crucial to remember that the beliefs are stupid. The people are just victims of a mass movement to believe in stupidity. Educate them in the same way you would someone who had never been taught history. (Because many of them are people who heave never been taught history!) Remember the mantra: Build up the person, tear down the belief. {edit: I've already received criticism on this one on my livejournal, but I stand by it. First, let me emphasize that these steps are in chronological order. If you start making fun of their beliefs before they're attached to your group, yes, they will run away as fast as they can. Second, if you think I said we should make fun of Christians, go back and read it again, and again if necessary until you see that I didn't say that. Nowhere in the paragraph did I say we should belittle the people. We should belittle the beliefs and do our best to point out that it's a shame that a person with enough intelligence to be an atheist would believe such silly things! Tear down the belief, build up the person!! I don't know how I can say it any more clearly.}

I think one of the biggest mistakes made by atheists when debating Christians is that they overlook the simple fact that all the logic in the world will not overcome the fear that pulls Christians back into the fold. It takes a two-pronged approach to successfully pull a sheep out of the flock. They need to be exposed to the illogic of their belief, but more importantly, they need to be shown that there is another side of the fence, and that it’s greener – not just from an intellectual standpoint, but from the all-important social standpoint. They need to know that they will not be alone if they choose to leave. They need to know that even if they lose many, or even all of their friends and family, they are not alone, and they will be accepted and loved. In fact, they will be loved based on the intrinsic value of their life, not on their acceptance of someone else’s system of beliefs and morality. There is freedom in atheism, and theists need to be shown how amazing it is to be free.

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
Books about atheism

Hambydammit's picture

To update this essay

To update this essay slightly, I'd like to mention a specific kind of theist -- The non-believing theist. Have a look at this thread, and scroll down a bit to see the post where the theist in question basically admitted to atheism, and promptly reverted right back to the default of going to church.

I have long suspected that there are many theists who do not believe, but who go along with the status quo. The thread I referenced is anecdotal evidence that this suspicion is true. I've run into many of these people myself over the years. It usually takes a good bit of work to pry it out of them, though. Why?

You've already read my essay. You know. Fear of being ostracized.

These are the people we need to identify and specifically target for deconversion. This is the front line in the war against irrationality.

One more thing needs to be added. I want to emphasize just how important it is to stay in steps one and two for a long time before you crank out the religious ridicule. These folks have been in church for a LONG TIME. They will find it very easy to retreat to the comfort of the established group. When working with these people, you need to get them at least as attached to your group, and at least as comfortable with their non-theist friends before turning up the heat and ridiculing the beliefs of everyone they've known all their life.



Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
Books about atheism

Hambydammit's picture

Just a little self promotion

Just a little self promotion and a bump.  I haven't put this at the top of the recent threads in a long time, but I think it's something everyone should read.

As a little addendum, please don't blast me for saying that this is the only reason theists continue to believe.  I will probably go back and rework it a little bit so that there's no possibility to say this, but in the meantime, realize that I submit this essay as an explanation of a very prevalent fear, not a ubiquitous fear.


Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
Books about atheism

Hambydammit's picture

Wow.  Two posts up is one

Wow.  Two posts up is one year back.  Definitely time for another bump.


Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
Books about atheism

What about non-Christian theists?

I came across this blog after reading your series on debate and I have to say, I quite enjoy what I've read so far.

I was curious, however, what you thought of non-Christian theists in relation to your fear theory. For the sake of the conversation, I think we can assume that you believe that anyone who believes in any type of "higher power" isn't thinking logically (or still believes, despite knowing the logic), so that would be a given (unless I'm mistaken in my assertion, in which case, feel free to correct me). The focus of my curiosity, then, is on the social reasons you gave for a person to not "de-convert."

The reason I ask is because, socially speaking, non-Christian theists (specifically, those in an area where Christianity is the dominant religion, and grew up in Christianity) still face being ostracized by their "circle" of people, and even disowned by their families for not only not believing in the Christian god, but for "worshiping the Devil." And, to compound matters, they are still subject to the ridicule of atheists for believing in anything. In other words, they take shit from all sides, yet still believe what they believe. It would seem to me that ostracization is among the least of their fears, or if it was among the top of their list, they wouldn't be NCTs.

It seems to me, too, that most atheists focus on the mindset of the Christians (my guess is because of the same reasons that non-Christian theists rail against Christians, too -- they're the most vocal and constantly try to convert others), and seem to forget that NCTs don't think/believe the same way that Christians do (even in their view of the deities they believe in, I've seen some who don't believe that their deities are perfect and all-knowing; while this probably makes you think "well, why worship them, then?" it is how many people believe, and I think it's enough to acknowledge the difference). So, I think many people lump NCTs into the "theist" category, but then, basically, talk about Christians almost exclusively.

So, I guess, the TL;DR version of what I've said would be -- what do you think about non-Christian theists in terms of your social reasons for not becoming atheists? If ostracization is one of the prime reasons for a "Christian" to not turn to atheism, even when they acknowlede that there's no logical reason for them to believe what they believe, and NCTs face the same ostracization by Christians and ridicule from atheists, then what keeps NCTs from either returning to Christianity (assuming they were originally Christian) or "going all the way" to atheism?