Noel Plum Doesn’t Understand ‘Escaping Atheism’

This is a response to Noel Plum’s YouTube video “Dean Esmay’s “Escaping Atheism” Project”.

Dear Noel,

Hi. I’m Eve Keneinan. I’m a philosopher by profession and an Orthodox Christian by way of adult conversion.  I’m also part of the Escaping Atheism project.  I know Dean Esmay, via the internet, but Escaping Atheism is more a volunteer confederation than a monarchy (we gave Dean the title “Patriarch”—I’m sure you can see why that’s funny), so this is just my thoughts on what you have to say.  Dean was one of the folks who proofread it, and had a couple corrections to the parts where I mention him, but this isn’t in any way from him.  It’s basically all me.  Sorry I couldn’t answer you on YouTube, but I don’t really make YouTube videos (unless occasional screen captures count), so my blog will have to do.  I’m afraid I didn’t work out whether this was going to be a commentary on what you had to say or a reply where I spoke directly to you, so it ended up a bit of both. I’m going to offer some critiques of some of your points, agree with you sometimes, and sometimes when you particularly address Dean, just not say anything at all.

[ADDENDUM: Dean says that he “will get back to you and the rest of the atheist community on his alleged hypocrisy, but not to worry, it isn’t personal, and may god bless you.”]

So let’s go.

The first thing to note is that Noel is the sort of atheist that argues in same way that anarchists do: he seems to think there is some one thing called “religion,” and that it is bad in a general way, in exactly the same way anarchists condemn “government,” with an amazing inability to distinguish between, say, a totalitarian dictatorship such as North Korea and democratic federation such as Switzerland.

So you need to keep it constantly in mind when Noel says something about “religion,” it will be true only if an implicit “some, but not all” is added.

I’m going to take Noel’s major points one at a time, with the heading of N1, N2, etc.

N1: Noel’s first point is that “escaping atheism is easy to do.” He points out that, in Islam, the penalty for apostasy (leaving Islam) is death, and that this is endorsed by large number of Muslims—even in Britain. He also notes that that leaving one’s religion can result in estrangement from one’s family. He describes the case of a man who had effectively been cut off by his family upon becoming an atheist, who was only allowed to see one of his children, and this because he was able to legally enforce the matter. “What a terrible situation to find yourself in,” Noel adds.

“Find yourself in”? Noel speaks here as if the man in question had no agency or responsibility in the matter. He chose to renounce his religion, and his family in turn chose to distance themselves from an atheist. One might think this was an unwise or unfair or uncompassionate decision on the part of his family, but without knowing the circumstances, I don’t think we can one way or the other. Distancing one’s family from an atheist, it seems to me, can in some cases be an entirely rational decision; it seems to send a strong message to the children especially that “this is not okay.” And while it does sound like a terrible situation for the man himself, how is it not his own responsibility, based on his own decisions?

Noel’s point here is that while leaving one’s religion might have severe consequences indeed, escaping atheism has no such consequences, so it is rather silly to regard atheism as something that needs to be escaped from.

First let’s note that there are positive consequences to “escaping” something as well as negative ones. Noel just told us about a man in a “terrible situation,” the direct cause of which was his atheism. Were this man to escape atheism, it seems very likely he could be reconciled with his family. His atheism is the thing that is preventing that from happening.  Very obviously, escaping atheism means escaping the bad consequences atheism brings.

Second, let’s note that Noel is simply wrong. One tends to gather a peer group of like-minded people, and so, if one is an atheist, renouncing atheism could very well cost one some or all of one’s friends. And in the milieu of the twentieth century, when atheism had become fashionable among the educated classes, particularly among the academic, artistic, and political classes, renouncing atheism can have a significant impact on how one is regarded by others, and thus a direct impact on one’s career and career prospects.  This is perhaps more true than ever today, given that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, by far the most common religions in the Western world, are at one in condemnation of same-sex sexual acts as inherently sinful—a position that can very easily get one labeled as a “bigot” on par with the vilest sorts of racist in many places.

Noel significantly underestimates the degree to which secular people regard religious people through the lens of bias and stereotypes, as “one of those people.”  Nor is this particularly new in the West.  Consider Virgina Woolf’s reaction to T. S. Eliot’s conversion to Christianity:

virginiawoolftseliot

Note the language she uses (about a man considerable more intelligent than her, and a far greater literary genius): “shameful,” “distressing,” “dead to us all,” “shocked,” and “obscene.”

“Dead to us all.” That sounds familiar.  It is almost like a group of people cut someone off entirely from their circle.  Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, in the story Noel just told, when he was trying to say this is something only religious people do, but atheists don’t do.  The most certainly do, Noel. “There’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” If you can find “tolerance” anywhere in those words, it has escaped my notice.  And this was LITERALLY decades ago, in 1927!  If renouncing atheism could get you ostracized in 1927, do you seriously think it cannot do so TODAY, in many social and intellectual circles?

Finally—and this is probably the most important point of all—escaping atheism is not primarily about any kind of external social consequences (although those are very real).  Atheism is a kind of prison of the mind.  Escaping atheism is more like escaping a cult, or an ideology, or delusion (and atheism has some aspects of all those). Atheism is, first and foremost, a total worldview.  However much atheists claim that it is something insignificant, that it is simply not believing in some item or entity in the world, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or fairies at the bottom of the garden, it is not so.  Either God exists or God does not exist. And this fact is a total fact, which affects everything: a Godless reality is not the same as a reality grounded in God.  To disbelieve in God is, in this respect, comparable to disbelieving in truth.  If someone, in all seriousness, claims not to believe in truth, then it becomes very hard to know what to do with such a person. There is nothing in his thoughts or actions that would not be affected by this failure to regard truth (and his not believing in it is a sufficient ground for us to think he would not regard truth).

Assume for a moment that God does exist. If this is the case, then atheism is not simply a mistaken opinion, but an actual state of being cut off from God—one cannot have a healthy relationship with what one does not regard as existing.  Atheism is, necessarily, a non-relationship with God. And given that God exists, a non-relationship with God is a failed relationship with God, a being cut off from and apart from God.  And again, since God is the ultimate source of all goodness, happiness, and fulfillment, and since God is also that goodness, happiness, and fulfillment to which human beings are directed by their nature, an atheist is a person who is significantly damaged with regards to his own ultimate good, ultimate happiness, and ultimate fulfillment.  And this damaged relationship with God will, in time, become irreparably damaged, resulting in a permanent cutting off of the atheist from God—which means a permanent cutting off of the atheist from goodness and happiness.  The traditional Christian term for this state is Hell.

When estrangement from God becomes irreparable, one is rightly said to be damned. But if one’s estrangement from God is not yet totally irreparable, then one is not fully in Hell: one can still escape. There is still time.

This is the real meaning of escaping atheism:

Escaping Hell while there is still time.

I know this line of argument will not much move a convinced atheist, sure as he is that neither God nor Hell truly exist.  Nevertheless, a non-dogmatic atheist should be at least able to entertain the possibility that his beliefs are mistaken, and if they are, atheism cannot fail to be one of the worst possible states of the human psychē.  Father Josiah Trenham puts it this way:

FatherJosiahTrenhamAtheism

Bishop Robert Barron puts it this way:

robertbarronatheismthreat

“Nothing more grotesque for a human person to do than to embrace atheism”? “Atheism represents a supreme threat to humanity”?

YES! As Bishop Barron says, this is not a parlor game. If atheism is a false belief, it is not a harmless false belief—it is a ruinous false belief, ruinous to the one who embraces it, ruinous to anyone else he infects with it, ruinous to his community if it comes to predominate within it, and ultimately ruinous to all humanity.  The atheist, intentionally or not, is an advocate for and agent of damnation; his own, and everyone else’s.

THIS is why there is a need for ESCAPING ATHEISM.  Atheism is not merely a harmless choice among “belief alternatives”; it is the choice between happiness and ruin, or if I may put it in even more appropriate language, between salvation and damnation—for each of us and for all of us. Christians have every reason to see atheists acting just like the dog in the famous “This is fine” internet meme:

thisisfine

Noel Plum’s easy assumption that atheism amounts to no more than yet another lifestyle choice in a democratic consumer society shows he doesn’t have a real understanding of the issue or the stakes—or at least that he doesn’t appreciate that the issue looks quite different from the Christian side.

While it is understandable that an atheist would much rather remain complacent in his belief that his nonbelief is not a big deal, this is part of the very issue. “Atheism is no big deal” is an implicit belief held by atheists because it follows from “There is no God”—and there are many beliefs of this sort held by atheists, many of which they are unaware of. And if the atheist is wrong about the primary belief, then he is also wrong about the others.

And the atheist is wrong.

N2: Noel’s second point is that Dean Esmay, who is the point man on the Escaping Atheism project, used to be very much involved in the Men’s Rights Movement. There really doesn’t seem to be anything worthwhile here—unless Noel is trying to poison the well with a guilt by association fallacy. Dean thought, and still thinks, that there are systemic injustices against men in the modern West; and he has been savagely attacked for a period of years for speaking out and trying to bring attention to these issues. For my part, I consider myself also a supporter of the Men’s Rights Movement, although not a Men’s Rights Activist (MRA), simply because I’m not an activist. I wish the MRAs success however, because they are fighting for what seems to me a good cause, that all persons who uphold the ideal of gender equality can and should be in agreement with.

Dean, for his part, is a former (that is, not active) Men’s Rights Activist. He still passionately believes in justice and decent treatment for men and boys, but as he has gotten older, his priorities have shifted.  He converted to Roman Catholicism back in 2008, and while his conversion was both due to and caused a significant shift in his way of viewing the world, it was, as all Christians but not all atheists understand, only the beginning of his journey in the faith.  During his time as a (Christian) MRA, he experienced firsthand the ways in which MRAs are attacked, mocked, and ridiculed by their enemies, and presented in a false light to many people who really knew nothing about the issues; many of the ideological opponents of the Men’s Rights Movement, just “knew” that Men’s Rights was an absurd and/or reactionary and/or misogynist cause.  Over time, he couldn’t help but notice an identical pattern in the attitude of many secular people, particularly in the internet ‘atheist community’ (so-called, you guys aren’t a hive-mind)—namely, a simple dismissal of any kind of theistic ideas, just on the grounds that they were theistic and (therefore) presumptively absurd. He discovered through experience that it was much easier to get his fellow Christians to listen to issues touching on men’s rights, and that self-identified atheists were among the most closed-minded people—he found that trying to change an atheist’s mind was like trying to change the mind of a person with a deep ideological antipathy to Men’s Rights: it is nigh impossible to do.  This is one reason that he came to regard atheism as an ideology, something I know you are keen to deny—and my own experience with both atheists and anti-MRAs confirms this.

There are many ideologues who will assert that their goal to be one thing, when it is clears from their actions that their goal is something very different; similarly, atheists tend to  assert that they are open to evidence and changing their minds, but again and again, this fails to be true in practice, even touching upon things that have nothing to do with atheism. “Atheists are open-minded and willing to listen to evidence” looks, from the outside, exactly like an ideological talking point that is ritually repeated, despite it being obviously false.  You have to admit there’s something unusual going on here: people dogmatically asserting they are not dogmatic, or closed-mindedly holding on to the belief they are open-minded.  Most people can’t seem to get past “people are what they say they are” (which is why con-men are so successful, I suppose), but I assume you are a thoughtful enough observer to see the humor and irony in (for example) a thousand identically-dressed Objectivists kneeling before an icon of Ayn Rand and chanting in unison “I am an individual. I will never live my life for another.” If you are interested, philosopher Ed Feser has a very insightful blog post about this phenomenon, which he terms Walter Mitty Atheism.

As Dean’s understanding of his faith deepened, he began to see the root causes of the problems he was fighting were deeper than his secular friends realized, and in fact he began to see how much his secular friends’ secularism was getting in their way. At the same time, the more his faith matured, the more he saw the virulently anti-religious many atheists were, casually equating religion with stupidity and evil.  Since he is an activist by temperament, he has therefore chosen (or has been called) to put his energy into helping people free themselves from the mental prison of atheism.  This too seems a worthwhile goal to me.  Dean’s personality is very confrontational, which is a double-edged sword. It makes him very active and aggressive for the causes he fights for, but also leads him sometimes into being a bit of an asshole (as he himself freely admits).

Noel, your YouTube channel is called noelplum99.  It’s your channel.  It’s all about what you say and do. Now, if you look on YouTube, you’ll find a channel called Dean Esmay. That’s Dean’s channel. It’s all about what Dean says and does.  Now, a third look at YouTube reveals the channel Escaping Atheism. Note that the name “Dean Esmay” appears nowhere on this channel. Dean is the point man and organizer, but he’s not in it by himself.

N3: Noel’s third point is that it is a “North American” perspective to approach atheism as if the majority of atheists were once religious, had a religious upbringing, and at some point abandoned their religion and embraced atheism.  Many atheists, he points out, particularly in Northern and Western Europe, were simply raised without any kind of religious belief at all, and so didn’t really go through any process of changing their beliefs.

I’m not really sure what Noel’s point here is meant to establish, given that Placeholder Films, the atheist that Dean is having a discussion with, does have a religious background, so he does fall into the “North American” category.

Considered generally, one who was raised in non-religious way would seem to be at an intellectual disadvantage in the matter of religion: he or she would (1) never have had to think about his or her reasons for nonbelief, or struggled with the issue, and (2) he or she would largely lack the conceptual and linguistic framework even to think seriously about the issue.

Unless Noel is arguing “It is common to be raised in some parts of the world without religious beliefs, therefore religious beliefs are false,”—which is an obviously invalid argument—it’s not clear what his point is.

If it is only that many atheists find atheism to be no big deal, because their atheism has never been a big deal to them, because it has always been normal to them—so what?  One could note that many of the French Aristocracy in the 1770s could easily have considered aristocratic privilege and want among the common people to be “no big deal,” since they were simply used to their privileged aristocratic life. They didn’t think much about the common people, because it didn’t have any effect on their lives. The common people really didn’t matter to them, nor the condition of the common people. “They’re hungry? Let them eat cake.” But while it may have been both easy and common for a member of the French aristocracy at that time not to consider the situation of the common people or to think the state of affairs in France was “no big deal” because they didn’t want or need to think about it—well, they didn’t “need to” think about it … until they did.  The fact that a pampered, privileged noble had perhaps little or no idea of the plight of the common people (maybe because they didn’t want to know anything about it) didn’t stop the revolution nor spare them the trip to the guillotine.

Some atheists are so because they were simply raised not to regard belief in God or atheism as a big deal. This fact does not in any way show that belief in God or atheism is in reality not a big deal.

Noel’s argument seems to be “Many or most atheists regard their atheism as not a big deal; therefore, it isn’t a big deal.”  But this is either directly invalid, or circular, since if atheism is false, it is not “no big deal,” but as I said above, one of the greatest evils that can happen to a human being—worse than any disease, any mental illness, any amount of suffering, worse than death itself.

The short version is: Noel is preaching to the choir. Of course many atheists are going to find the notion that atheism is something it would be a very great good for them to escape to be unpersuasive. Even the use of the term “escape” is bound to sound ridiculous to them. But such a dismissive attitude is warranted only if atheism is, in fact, true—if it isn’t true, then this attitude isn’t warranted.  Whether atheism is a big deal or not is itself part of what’s in question here. In assuming, as he does, that atheism isn’t a big deal, or is harmless, or benign, or is certainly not something that needs to be escaped from, Noel is just assuming that atheism is the correct position, or at least a rationally warranted one.

N4: Noel’s next point, which is a continuation of the previous, is that atheists who are not raised in a religious context do not face the problem of a “void” left behind by belief in God.  He finds discussions of this “void” to be odd. He tells us he has seen

just how difficult it is for some people to leave a religion, because it leaves a void within them, that’s not full. How do you feel that void that religion once occupied? What tends to happen is that people who do do that seem to impute that on atheism generally: all atheists must have this same kind of void. And of course for me that sounds really rather silly …. [the experience of religion] is not really something I’ve ever experienced, so that void doesn’t actually exist.

This isn’t a bad observation, but the conclusion is a non sequitur.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. We philosophers like those.  Suppose we perform a surgery on a child in utero in such a way as to inhibit his ability to see.  That is, we render him blind. Suppose in fact we do this with a group of, say, 100 children, and as part of our experiment we simply don’t tell these children that there is such a thing as sight. We have them raised exclusively by blind caretakers, etc.  (We aren’t very ethical, apparently).

Now, all else being equal, there’s nothing to say that these children couldn’t have relatively happy and healthy lives, and none of them would be consciously aware that they were missing anything—their sight—since they would have neither direct experience of being sighted, nor indirect experience of knowing about sight.

Have we done them any harm or wrong in depriving them of their sight?

I would say that we have, because they are, objectively, missing something which is a good, and which they should have by nature, and this is true whether they know it or not.

To take an even simpler example, if I, as executor of your parents’ will, cheat you out of your inheritance—but in such a way you don’t know you’ve been cheated out of anything—it seems again very clear I have both harmed you and wronged you, again whether you know it or not.

Here’s the logical error: Noel infers from a lack of awareness of missing anything to the objective truth of nothing being missing, “that void doesn’t actually exist.” But it doesn’t follow from one’s being unaware of a void, that there is no such void.  The sighted person knows very well that the blind children are lacking sight—even if they do not.

I’m not going to make the case, because it would JUST BE the case for theism against atheism, but if atheism is false, then once again Noel’s assumption of there being “no void” is an objectively false assumption.

Consider these two rather famous sayings:

augustineourheartsarerestless

BlaisePascalGodShapedVacuum.png

[NOTE: the saying attributed to Pascal is most likely not something he said, but a summation of his view.  In this respect it is entirely accurate, and so reasonably associated with his name, just as Evelyn Hall’s characterization of Voltaire’s philosophy, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is rightly associated with Voltaire, although it is not a literal quote of his.]

From a theistic point of view, Noel’s point only shows how much worse the plight of the atheist is. An atheist who is aware or becoming aware of the extent to which atheism is a prison has a much better chance of escaping this prison than one who remains totally unaware of his situation.  And again, if theism is true, the state of the atheist is a very bad one indeed. In fact, let’s go ahead and use Pascal’s actual quote:

blaisepascalgodfilling

If Augustine and Pascal are correct, an atheist is necessarily condemned to a life of futility, forever trying to fill a void which, whether he is consciously aware of it or not, is ruinous for his true good and true happiness. His ignorance only makes his situation worse.

I’m fairly sure Noel isn’t seriously arguing “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” which would imply things like “so long as your are unaware you have cancer, you are healthy,” but this does seem to be what his “unaware of a void” argument comes down to. He doesn’t seem to have thought it through; or to the extent he has, has done so question-beggingly, once again presupposing the thing at issue: that atheism is something benign, and so “missing” God would be no big deal.

N5: Atheism vs Antitheism: Next, Noel distinguishes between atheism and antitheism.  He identifies himself as an antitheist, and notes that the meaning of such a term is contentious:

He [Dean] regards an antitheist as someone who wants to, I don’t know, gun down theists, destroy them, wipe them out, forcibly make everyone an atheist, or something like that.

I’ll just pause here to note that there have been and are such people.  Here’s one of the more famous:

josephstalinreligion

Here’s an expression of his policy:

militant-atheism

And here’s the man he put in charge of executing it:

yaroslavskyatheism

Now, I’m neither accusing Noel Plum of having anything to do with this sort of thing, nor trying to tar him with guilt by association, but I do want to make it very clear that this kind of antitheism, the kind that wants eradicate religion—and often religious persons—from the face of the earth is a real thing. And there are more than a few contemporary atheists—Sam Harris leaps to mind—who have said things not unlike this.  So while this may not be Noel’s position—and it definitely isn’t—it isn’t a position that can be simply dismissed, because it has happened elsewhere, and “it could never happen here” is a rather naïve belief.  If religion is on the wane, as Noel thinks it is (mistakenly, I would argue) then why should Christians not reasonably fear becoming a persecuted minority?

Noel’s stance is much more reasonable, and I have no reason at all to think he’s being disingenuous here:

I regard myself as an antitheist, and that is the last thing I would do. In fact in many cases I wouldn’t even want to disavow [sic; he means “disabuse”] people of their religious belief, who already have a religious belief …. I’m not going to go looking for you and try to destroy your faith, because that might make you a more unhappy person. And however much part of my antitheism is that I … kind of object to the fact that people are basing their lives around things that I regard as a load of bullshit effectively, that I don’t regard as being true. So it’s kind of like astrology, right? There’s a part of me, even if I think it’s probably not doing a lot of harm, that wants to talk people away from it. But if I know that somebody’s getting a lot out of that, I’m going to leave that.  I’m not even going to try to disavow [sic] them of it under those circumstances.

These seem to be laudable sentiments to me. Noel has a regard for truth, and it bothers him that people are basing their lives around something he regards as false.  At the same time, he recognizes that the false belief in question is frequently a harmless belief, and in fact, in many cases a good thing, insofar as the false belief contributes materially to the one who lives by it’s happiness.  Again, commendably, Noel does not think it would be a good thing to try to eradicate someone’s religious beliefs, especially if it is clear that these beliefs make a substantial contribution to their happiness.

I agree with Noel on two key points: (1) I agree that truth is a good thing in itself, so I am bothered when I see people believing what I regard to be false things, especially obviously false things, but (2) I don’t see this as morally authorizing or obligating me to try to destroy every false belief I see, and especially not ones which are clearly contributing to the happiness of those who hold them, so long as these beliefs are in other respects, relatively harmless.

I am never bothered by people having true beliefs. I am somewhat bothered by people having false but harmless beliefs, but my annoyance is not a sufficient justification for me to try to disabuse them of their beliefs, if I have reason to think the belief benefits them in some way.

Now the hard question: What do we do about people whose beliefs are both false and harmful? e.g. a man who persists in the belief that he does not have cancer because he doesn’t want to face this?

Some antitheists (like Noel) regard (many) religious beliefs as FALSE but HARMLESS.

Some antitheists (like Yaroslavski or Sam Harris) regard ALL religious beliefs as FALSE and HARMFUL.

And theists (like Dean and I) regard atheism as both FALSE and HARMFUL.

All theists, at least all Christians, are anti-atheists.

Christians, however, unlike the anti-theism of a Yaroslavski, do not wish to eradicate atheists, as persons, but atheism, the belief-system or worldview.

We want, in fact, to help atheists.  We are acting as best we can, as we see it, for the good of atheists.  Hence the name “escaping atheism.”  If we are right, then atheism is one of the worst states a human being can be in, and those who are in this state deserve compassion and help.  Again, I know this will sound like nonsense to a convinced atheist, but we are driven to at least try to get him to see his own state.  Many of us (as it happens in this case, both Dean and I) are ourselves ex-atheists.  And as those who have, by God’s grace, escaped from that mental prison, naturally we want to help others to do so as well.

No one has a right to attempt to change another person’s beliefs by force.  But from our point of view, we also cannot simply have a policy of “live and let live,” as if atheism were a harmless belief.  If we are right, it is far from harmless, not only for the atheist himself but to those around him as well. It would not be a kind or loving thing to allow a fellow human being to ruin their own good and happiness because we couldn’t be bothered to warn them.

So, back to Noel, he says that, for him, antitheism means that he hopes for a future in which religion will have vanished entirely, not because it was forcefully eradicated, but because it simply dies off naturally.

I understand the position as a hope, but frankly, this scenario sounds as realistic as the Marxist’s dream that the state under the communist dictatorship will “wither away” into  a classless society or the anarchist’s similar hope that “government” will somehow simply vanish due to a natural death. I hope that disease will just magically vanish from the world tomorrow, but I’m not going to base anything on this wildly unrealistic hope.

To disappoint the anarchists: government isn’t going anywhere, because we are, by nature, social and political animals, and not, as you think, little autonomous semi-demi-gods.

And to disappoint Noel, religion also isn’t going anywhere, since human beings are, again by nature, religious animals.  Realistically, your only two options are to put up with religion, or to attempt the same forceful eradication of religion that we theists worry about.  Realistically, when faced with these two options, my guess is that Noel would choose to coexist with religious people , but it is clear that not every antitheist would chose that option.

N6: Not all atheists are antitheists.  Antitheists are, in fact, uncommon.

Yes, we know this. There are various types of atheist, for example, here’s the typology that researchers at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga have formulated:

atheist-types

I believe Noel is putting out a bit of a straw man here. We are perfectly well aware that there are many different types of atheist.  Again, both Dean and I were previously atheists ourselves, and also know or have known, as Noel says, literally hundreds of atheists.

I can’t speak for everyone, but in my (North American) circles, I know plenty of people who simply haven’t had any sort of religious upbringing, or a nominal religious upbringing  so weak as to be essentially meaningless. I’m an academic, and the majority of my fellow academics, of whom the majority are atheists, have intellectual backgrounds, and thus, given the intellectual character of the 20th and early 21st centuries, have been raised in an entirely secular way.  This is probably less common in the US than in the UK, but it’s not uncommon.

I think Noel is probably overstating the difference between the US and the UK here, and as a result overstating the importance of said difference. I myself had a nominally religious upbringing, but I found it an entirely painless matter to give up my faith (such as it was), and encountered no resistance whatever to this, internally or externally.  And this was in the US, in the South, and 3 decades ago.

Trust me, many of those who have a “religious” upbringing don’t find much loss there.

N7: Concerning Dean’s personal spiritual journey.  Well, I’ll have to let Dean speak to this part, mostly.

I think, though, Noel, you are giving a bit of a straw man of Dean’s point.  What he is distinguishing is between what is a LIVE OPTION and NOT A LIVE OPTION. I’ll let William James explain the distinction:

williamjamesliveoption

I think two points are worth making here before I move on, since only Dean can speak to Dean’s spiritual journey:

  1. My path was completely unlike Dean’s. I’m a professional philosopher, and have never had the slightest amount of interest in the occult or anything like that. However, my experience with the history of Western thought led me to be able to “think outside” the local box of recent Western intellectual history (by “recent” I mean the past 500 years).
  2. You seem to be treating atheism as if it weren’t itself an “option” with respect to beliefs about God, when it most certainly is.  You compare Dean’s approach to furniture shopping—and yet you don’t seem to recognize that if you decided “You know what? I don’t need any more furniture, so I’ll buy nothing” that this wouldn’t also be a choice.

All this is to say that you are no more or less guilty of “shopping” than Dean is, since you went “shopping” for belief in God too, and (so to speak) elected not to buy anything.  That’s still a choice among possible options, one which is, as you know, a very live option for an Englishman in this day and age. This would very likely not have been a live option for you had you lived in England in 1370.

I would argue, as per above, that Dean was being driven by the restlessness that St. Augustine mentions and the felt experience of the existential lack of which Pascal speaks—and on this basis, he sought a live option that could answer his need.

This is not irrational, no more than a Western person who has contracted a rare disease to consider various treatment options.  Very likely, for a person in the UK, voodoo is not going to be among the live options for treatment—even though it is at least logically possible that voodoo is, in fact, the best or only treatment for said disease.

If you have never read James’ very famous essay “The Will to Believe,” Noel, I highly recommend it. I believe it could show you some assumptions you are making, and why they are erroneous.  I find James’ argument entirely compelling, although I will say again that this was not the path that I followed to conversion.

N8: Atheism is not linked to other positions.

This seems clearly false. BELIEFS HAVE ENTAILMENTS. If you do not believe that there is a God, it follows that you do believe that the world is Godless, from which numerous other things follow. It is EXTRAORDINARILY rare to find an atheist who believes in angels, demons, or supernatural powers—although this is technically logically possible. I have never met such an “atheist.”

N9: Dean is brusque and rude. Yeah, he is, sometimes. I can’t argue that. Especially since he says so himself, in one of the clips you played.

There is nothing inconsistent in thinking that there are worldviews which are toxic and harmful, although they may have relatively benign forms.

Atheism is one. Islam, I would say, is another.

Whether or not Dean’s rhetoric makes him a hypocrite, I can’t say. I wouldn’t present the case in the same way, but Dean is who he is and I am who I am.

I think, Noel, you are not right (or not mostly right) to say that Dean is going wrong based on his own experience.  Perhaps he is, to some extent, but don’t we all speak primarily from our own experience?—even though we can be aware of the fact that others’ experiences may be quite different.  Dean and I share very many conclusions, and yet we got to our respective views by very different paths.

Is it at least possible, Noel, that you are particularizing too much, and ascribing to Dean Esmay the man, what are in fact more general and substantive points about atheism, its nature and current historical configuration?

I suppose this is a good place to bring this to a close, since your video is done.

I don’t know if you’ll take the time to read this.  Maybe someone can help this humble blogger make this into a YouTube video so it can be a proper response.

In any case, I wish you well, and will mention you in my prayers.

Yours,

_Eve Keneinan

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4 comments on “Noel Plum Doesn’t Understand ‘Escaping Atheism’

  1. Socrates von Bismarck says:

    I am not caught up on the historical backdrop of this post, but there are some things I would like to address.

    I find it odd that “escaping atheism” means “escaping Hell”. For someone to “escape Hell”. they would first need to “escape non-Christian God beliefs”. Surely the atheist and the deist have the same destination.

    While I would disagree with Father Trenham, I would somewhat with Father Barron insomuch the liberation atheism brings is one that is insurmountable by humanity. We see this sort of thing in the Madman’s lament of humanity not being able to handle the death of God. In a more real world example, National Geographic reported on 23 January 2008 entitled Most Captive-Born Predators Die If Released touch upon the low survival rate of carnivores released into the wild from captivity. Another example would be recidivism of prisoners who lacked the skills necessary to make it outside of prison. Freedom is a threat to those incapable of handling the pressures associated with it.

    It’s interesting to highlight existential issues associated with religion as that would support the notion that religion is more about an existential problem as opposed to a matter of facts. If I were a betting man, I would hypothesize that religiosity would be inversely proportional to societal development. For example, the higher a person’s income, I would imagine the lower the religiosity as the would have no need of God. This would go the same for countries higher on the Human Development Index would have a lower religiosity. In fact, Gallup produced a report on 6 March 2009 that would support the former entitled Religion Provides Emotional Boost to World’s Poor ( link not provided as I don’t know if hyperlinks are supported).

    What I was most interested in were the alleged entailed beliefs from not believing in a God. You seem to suggest not believing God entails not believing in non-God metaphysical entities yet you state it’s logically possible to believing in non-God metaphysical entites while being an atheist. I would propose that the reason you haven’t met any of atheist who believes in these is not because it’s entailed but rather the atheist you’ve met are from a more naturalistic (methodological or otherwise) background. Here in the West, we’re accustomed to a more naturalistic thinking (again, methodological or otherwise), and thus an atheist would be more likely to ignore other metaphysical possibilities as opposed to someone from a more Eastern perspective.

    In closing, I would caution you against such broad generalizations such as “All theists, at least all Christians, are anti-atheists.” Surely you haven’t queried all theist or even all “Christians” (depending on how you define that).

    —SvB

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  2. […] Read more on Eve’s Blog or watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OB_n8ZWfMYo […]

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  3. Eric says:

    What a strange position.

    “Assume for a moment that God does exist. If this is the case, then atheism is not simply a mistaken opinion, but an actual state of being cut off from God—one cannot have a healthy relationship with what one does not regard as existing. Thus, atheism is, necessarily, a non-relationship with God. And given that God exists, a non-relationship with God is a failed relationship with God, a being cut off from and apart from God. And again, since God is the ultimate source of all goodness, happiness, and fulfillment, and since God is also that goodness, happiness, and fulfillment to which human beings are directed by their nature, an atheist is a person who is significantly damaged with regards to his own ultimate good, ultimate happiness, and ultimate fulfillment. And this damaged relationship with God could, in time, become irreparably damaged, resulting in a permanent cutting off of the atheist from God—which means a permanent cutting off of the atheist from goodness and happiness.”

    There is a lot of assertion without much substance in this segment. If one of the gods exists, I see no indication of it. How then can that be anything other than a mistaken opinion? It is a totally dispassionate observation of my perspective on reality. Yet, even if one of the gods existed, and even if it happened to be yours, how then can we further conclude that it was the source of “goodness, happiness, and fulfillment?” What is this besides simply a bald assertion?

    You ask that I consider, temporarily, that your god exists. This exercise is trivial, and I have no problem doing so. But can you honestly consider my perspective? Why would it be that happiness is impossible without the gods? Even if the gods existed, why should I care any more about their opinion than I do about any other stranger? I would not reject a god that actually invited an interaction; such a relationship would be, at the very least, enlightening. But I know of no such thing. What then should I do? Pretend to care about nothing? Why? I cannot think of anything in my experience that would change whether there are any gods or not. Take care.

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    • Eve Keneinan says:

      You are confused on several levels. Most essentially, you are confusing God with a god. This may be comforting for you, but it shows that you are not actually engaged in a “dispassionate observation” of reality. If you have to fundamentally alter the nature of the question in order to avoid confronting it, that is NOT a dispassionate, rational consideration of truth. That is a deliberate evasion of having to confront the truth.

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