Christian apologist Randal Rauser has written a book every atheist should be ready to cite. Not only because it’s important to keep on hand examples of Christians acting like actual Christians (why can’t there be more of that??). But also because, on one important point, it makes a better argument in defense of atheists than you might ever muster yourself. Not in defense of atheism being correct. But in defense of atheists themselves, as people deserving of respect and dignity, and of being taken seriously, as intelligent, reasonable, ethical people. And not mocking them with Bible verses supposedly calling them wicked fools.
The book I’m talking about is Is the Atheist My Neighbor: Rethinking Christian Attitudes Toward Atheism, and it’s packed full of facts and arguments in only just over a hundred pages.
Rauser’s general point in this brief but thorough and well-studied book is that Christians need to give up the “Rebellion Thesis” (the notion that atheists are only atheists because they want to sin or are in rebellion against God, rather than because they have actual reasons); and to stop quoting at atheists things like Psalm 14:1, that infamous verse which says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’. They are corrupt, their deeds are vile. There is not one who does good.” Doing so not only perpetuates a falsehood (the verse, understood in such a way, is demonstrably, empirically false, Rauser argues), but it is destructive to the Christian mission, since calling nonbelievers evil fools is neither a Christian thing to do, nor will it ever bring anyone to faith in Christ. Likewise, empirical evidence amply refutes the Rebellion Thesis. Basically, trying to foist it on atheists does nothing to bring them to Christ.
Rauser likewise takes down many other versions of the same trope, covering all manner of verses, sayings, and legends designed to paint atheists as intrinsically foolish or vile or “really just” in rebellion against God (including equally infamous passages on that point in Romans and Ephesians). It’s actually quite a valuable survey and critique of all sorts of Christian anti-atheist memes. And he argues all of them are products of bad faith that bring harm to Christianity. Christians need to quit it. That’s his overall point. And he makes that point from within the Christian perspective. Which makes it more authoritative to a Christian audience than anything an atheist may have written.
Rauser also, of course, must defend the biblical text, so his tack is to argue that the verses quoted at us have been taken out of context and misinterpreted, when used to attack modern-day atheists. One might find some aspects of this case a bit too much like convenient apologetics, but credit is due: he does probably as well a job as anyone could at making a well-researched bible-based argument for his conclusions. And again, that has particular power among those who take such arguments seriously.
Many pages in this book also contain an excellent effort at steel-manning arguments for atheism, presenting a best-case instead of a caricature (benefiting from the added contribution of renowned atheist Jeff Lowder), and using it to valuable effect. In turn, Rauser has no patience for Christian-built straw-men of atheism, and admirably deconstructs and exposes them as bogus, and admonishes his fellow Christians to stop using such terrible arguments. Because, again, it actually damages the Christian mission. Atheists are actually turned off by Christian efforts to attack straw men (or to quote-mine, a tactic Rauser also calls out); it makes Christians look as ignorant and foolish, or even dishonest, and their religion as indefensible, as atheists and atheism seem to Christians when they straw man their faith back at them. Rauser repeatedly takes on this point and does a good job of explaining why Christians need to quit this, too.
For example, when Christians argue that if atheism is true then the brain is just ooze or atoms in motion and therefore we have no free will, therefore atheism is false, Rauser points out that this is wrong a dozen ways over. He notes there have been Christians who were determinists and there are atheists who are not and that compatibilism is a thing and so on. That “the brain is just atoms in motion” is false even on strict deterministic mind-brain physicalism (I call this the modo hoc fallacy and deconstruct its ill-logic in Sense and Goodness without God, index). And even if there would be no free will if it were true, that does not even logically get you to the conclusion that “therefore there is a God.” As Rauser remarks, “the fact is that such flippant caricaturing of atheism remains distressingly common among Christian leaders,” and Christians leaders should be embarrassed by this (pp. 26-27). It’s not going to bring atheists to Christ, it instead just makes Christianity look bad, so why bother with such arguments?
This is a book you will want to read, for the information in it you can use, but also as a book you will want to repeatedly cite and recommend, not just to fellow atheists, but even more so to many Christians you encounter, whether within your family or social networks or anywhere. Overall I found this a very good book, and in most respects it’s well-argued, accurate, useful, and decently ethical. Also a fast and pleasant read.
In the remainder of this review I will focus on the few points where I still disagree with Rauser’s book or found it wanting (although also still pointing out some of its virtues). But I don’t want that to distract you from my overall and positive conclusion above. Regardless what follows, this is a book well worth having, reading, using, and recommending.
Survey of Qualms
- The problem of why Christians repeat these memes.
Rauser compares the popularity of these memes (like Psalm 14) with racist jokes that reflect latent bigotry in those who use them or find them funny. They are obviously “indicative of some preexistent prejudicial hostility toward atheists,” Rauser concludes (pp. 11-12). Though no doubt that’s often enough the case, I think actually there is another, even more common cause of the popular resort and assent to these memes. While Rauser wants to call Christians to task for bigotry, and that’s indeed a worthy point, I think we also need to be calling Christians out for something that’s more sinister here: these memes exist in a matrix of control doctrines designed to scare Christians away from even contemplating, much less accepting nagging doubts. Repeating these memes, and checking to see who laughs at them or assents to them, is intended as a threat—not to atheists, but to fellow Christians. There are countless analogs in other social movements, where certain memes are designed to shut down questioning and shore-up a feeling of in-group superiority that aims to prevent or discourage insiders from even contemplating agreeing with outsiders, much less leaving the in-group to join them.
I’m reminded of a story a girlfriend of mine related to me that was told her when she was a Jehovah’s Witness. The gist of it was that (the story would go) a boy, and a girl he liked, both faithful to the sect, went hiking alone, and the girl starts furtively testing to see if she could be open and honest with him about her doubts regarding the faith. He is relieved and admits he has the same doubts. At which she then rats him out for having doubts, admitting she was only pretending, to get the truth out of him. Of course the story is apocryphal. Just like the silly stories about atheists that Rauser tackles (and he agrees they’re silly). But notice what the point of telling that story is: anyone who hears it will now be terrified of admitting their doubts—even in private to someone they love; because anyone could be pretending, tempting them, to expose them. This is cult behavior. It creates a fear of open communication and fosters a paranoia that ensures no one talks to each other, everyone keeps quiet about their beliefs, and consequently avenues of escape from the cult doctrine are blocked. The story was invented, and gets told and retold, for that very purpose: to scare fellow sectarians into not sharing or exploring any doubt they might have.
Psalm 14 and other tales and verses that paint atheists as stupid or immoral, or both, often serve the same function. If to be an atheist is to be a fool and to be vile, and no one wants to be a fool or vile, who then will dare contemplate becoming an atheist? Circulating such memes, like constantly repeating Psalm 14, is thus not a tool to convince atheists to become Christians. It is a tool to convince Christians not to become atheists. And in this one key respect Rauser has missed perhaps what is actually the most pernicious and scary thing about such memes. He mistakenly thinks Christians are just wrongheadedly trying to persuade atheists with these things, when in fact they are more often trying to persuade their fellow Christians. Their function is not conversion, but defense against defection. And the more you see Christians doing this, the more they are retooling their religion into a cult.
This is not to detract from all the refreshing things Rauser says about and against anti-atheist bigotry. The atheist is the Christian’s neighbor, and, as Rauser argues, Christ calls the Christian to see and treat them as such. But the book does have the defect of overlooking the key element of cult behavior in all this, of how this is actually a tool for controlling Christians. These memes are, in other words, just an affective well-poisoning fallacy. And the reason this is a serious oversight is that in his last chapter Rauser gives a lot of cool advice on how Christians could interact better with atheists. What he overlooks is why none of his advice can ever be followed: because every single suggestion he makes, gives publicity and respect to atheism within the Christian community, and thus defeats the very purpose these memes were created to serve—to prevent any Christian ever thinking atheism is a respectable option.
- The problem of conveniently reinterpreting the bible.
Rauser presents two arguments against the common reading of Psalm 14. First, he argues that actually, grammatically, it does not say all atheists are fools; it says all fools are atheists. And it is a fallacy of illicit conversion to move from the latter to the former. Yes, a fool will say there is no God. But there may be non-fools who also say there is no God. Psalm 14 does not say anything about them. Rauser thus makes a good distinction between the intellectual atheist and the atheist who gets to atheism by an irrational process rather than a well-considered one.
The problem is that this is not such a secure reading of the verse. “The fool says x” can in fact mean x is paradigmatic of the fool (equivalent to, “He who says x is a fool”), just as one might say, “The brigand robs the innocent,” wherein those who rob the innocent are being defined as brigands. The poetry of the wording is thus not securely analyzable by strict logical standards. Just as a Christian apologist will appeal to “poetic phrasing” to escape problems arising from a strictly literal reading of a passage, ironically Rauser here tries to appeal to a strictly literal reading of a passage to escape problems arising from its poetic phrasing.
A repeated gist of biblical authors is that knowledge of God is synonymous with wisdom; ergo the absence of such knowledge exists only in the fool. You can escape this by reading the words more literally than the author may have imagined anyone doing, and by ignoring the context of how biblical authors repeatedly thought and expressed themselves regarding the wisdom-fool dichotomy. But that might not be so convincing a trick even to many of Rauser’s fellow Christians. It seems you have to already be convinced of the conclusion, to buy the argument for it.
Rauser still builds a good contextual case for his reading that’s worth considering. But there is a reason Hector Avalos lambastes these kinds of exegetical tricks in The End of Biblical Studies. They are often aimed at “saving” the Bible, from being the vomit of primitive and savage minds, by turning it into some sort of miraculously prescient treatise on 20th century science and logic that it’s not. As a matter of historical fact, the Bible wasn’t written by people that well informed or that wise or that nice. And we have to interpret it realistically accordingly. Even so, Rauser’s argument will at least make more sense to Christians who don’t accept that conclusion.
- The problem of maybe not quite so accurate history.
Rauser then does the reverse, after first converting a colloquial author maybe saying atheism is the lack of wisdom into a 20th century analytical philosopher saying merely that all fools are atheists, Rauser then says this same verse was written by pre-common-era thinkers who had no exposure to modern ideas like intellectual atheism (p. 35). I’ll set aside the possible contradiction of making the Bible say a modern thing and then in the next paragraph insisting it couldn’t. More to the present point is that Rauser now incorrectly says that intellectual atheism is a modern phenomenon. That’s not true (see Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World). But that might yet have been true of whoever wrote Psalm 14—if they did so before any exposure to Greek philosophy after the 6th century (when extant evidence of intellectual atheism begins). But Rauser says intellectual atheism wasn’t a known option even in the days of Paul the Apostle, the first century of our era (p. 40). That’s simply untrue. The theodicy of the Epicureans, the pantheism of the Stratonicans, the full-on atheism of the Cyrenaics, were all well known by then.
Nevertheless, this is not a major error. Because Rauser still does a good job of arguing that the Psalmist, at least, was talking from a cultural context in which “everybody…professed belief in God (or gods) with his or her mouth,” yet “the psalmist observes that nobody lived consistently with that confession” (sic, p. 37). And so the psalmist is actually attacking not atheists, in the sense of nonbelievers, but believers who don’t live their faith. Rauser’s interpretation this time is surely correct. And his concluding observation is charmingly apt:
Given the fact that the Psalm 14:1 is so commonly used as an indictment of atheists, it is surely ironic to observe that it is, in fact, an indictment of devotees of Yahweh who fail to live up to their professed belief. … To put it another way, how ironic it is that a text that was intended to warn against religious hypocrisy is instead proof-texted as a rhetorical bludgeon against atheists who make no such faith confession in the first place. And just who is the fool exactly? (p. 37)
To revisit my first point, of course: I think actually, more commonly, such verses are not being used to bludgeon atheists, but fellow Christians, to scare them into not contemplating atheism. Christians who say it to atheists are doing so as much to say it to themselves and fellow Christians in audience, than actually intending it for atheists. But Rauser’s point about irony remains. Psalm 14 is a criticism of bad believers, not of actual unbelievers.
There are a few other places where Rauser is accurately illuminating on how the ancient context differed, and how this changes the meaning of verses Christians today like to cite against atheists; though I can’t vouch for every point he makes, as for example when he mistakenly says intellectual atheism did not then exist.
- The problem of which God.
Rauser struggles to both explain the intelligibility and reasonableness of the modern atheist rejection of God on the basis of arguments from evil, and at the same time not admit that the argument is correct.
Here he almost but doesn’t quite work out that contextually we aren’t talking about just any God; that as far as generic gods go, Rauser himself has no belief in them and would be an atheist himself, were they the only thing on offer. For example, in his admirably sympathetic treatment of Hitchens (and his famous treatment of God as a monster we ought to rebel against rather than worship), I don’t think Rauser makes clear enough that Hitchens is not arguing against or ever even talking about “just any god,” but specifically a God who is claimed to be morally admirable, after in turn looking at the evidence before our eyes. Once you limit the conversation to that specific kind of God, theodicy is a universal acid. There is no empirical room left for any god like that. Instead, the sort of God who would allow the things that happen in this world, must necessarily be the most horrible person imaginable (a fact Rauser does eloquently describe and explain, so he definitely gets this much).
That is why atheists say God is a horrible person: not because they think there is a God or because they wish to insult the Christian construct of God or because “they just want to sin” or are just “rebellious” or whatever, but because that horrid God is the only kind of God compatible with the evidence; and surely no one, not even the Christian, should wish such a God would exist, nor praise it.
The reason atheists being against God is not indicative of the Rebellion Thesis is that the God atheists are against is not the God Christians claim exists, but the God that must necessarily exist, if any god does and the evidence is as it undeniably is. Sometimes, true, these are the same—fundamentalists who gleefully worship a gay-murdering God, endorser of terror and genocide, are indeed claiming a horrific God exists. I believe Rauser himself would condemn such a God; that doesn’t require being an atheist, and thus, I’m sure he’d agree, this is not evidence of the Rebellion Thesis, it’s evidence of Rauser having a moral conscience. And likewise all atheists who share the same sentiment as his.
But in most cases, the God Rauser claims there is, simply isn’t a god compatible with the evidence. Rauser tries too imagine the “logical possibility” of such compatibility, but it requires too many convoluted impossibilities. Certainly, atheists would be delighted to discover a God existed who was actually a supremely moral person, someone who was always honest and compassionate and never abandoned or betrayed or tortured anyone and always helped everyone. But that’s not the God atheists like Hitchens were ever talking about when they spoke of rejecting God. When emphasizing the depravity of God, a God we would rebel against even to our torment, we are talking about the kind of God so morally depraved that he allows the daily mass rape of children by his own priests for decades on end. As for example.
That is not the God Christians like Rauser claim exists. It is not the God they want there to be. But it is, alas, the only God there can be. Unless you intend to insist no children were ever raped, that they were all mindless holograms placed on earth to test the flock. Otherwise, you have no logical option left: your God is okay with mass child rape. And such a God is simply depraved. And only the depraved would worship so depraved a God as that. Rauser gives the usual apologetic reply that there could still be some logically possible reason unknown to us that, were we to discover it, we would understand it wasn’t depraved, that allowing the mass rape of children was actually the best thing ever. But that’s not even remotely probable. It is, in fact, even more ridiculous than my mindless hologram theory. Because we know how to make better worlds without the mass rape of children. And surely we can’t be better at this than God. Rauser means well. But he isn’t seeing the truth here.
An atheist has no reasonable basis for thinking that a God who allows his own chosen representatives to rape children en masse (regardless of his excuse, even had he one) is going to exercise any more admirable judgment in the afterlife than he has in this one. No one should want such a God to exist. Much less to also be making decisions about us. Yes, a God who is so good he would never allow such a thing is probably a God we’d love to have ruling over us. But that’s precisely not the God we have—if we have any.
And that’s the dilemma that Rauser never escapes. All his compassion and understanding and wisdom and useful advice and admonishment against anti-atheist bigotry is admirable and well worth his writing and our reading. But such compassion and understanding and wisdom should take you the rest of the way. Rauser just hasn’t quite gotten there yet. Here’s to hoping someday he does. Because his good heart is already there.