Or Why I Don’t Think Your “Angry Fudamentalist Atheist” Exists, Any More Than I Think A Cogent Argument Exists In Your Article
“I believe that science offers solid evidence for God,” she said- eyes peering over her hot cup of coffee.
Was she engaging me because she knows I’m an atheist blogger, I wondered?
Wendy was the wife of a close friend, who had done me a solid the week before. To express my gratitude, I was treating her to coffee at one of those swanky $10 latte joints. Was she trying to be argumentative? I didn’t want an argument. I flashed a coy smile. “Well, I’m not here to judge your personally held beliefs,” I said, “but for the record, the God you believe in is probably so vague that it is immaterial for us to argue the point,” I was trying to diffuse any hostility and maybe open a dialogue about her confused cafeteria Christianity, since she brought it up. She was having none of it.
“No,” she said leaning forward, “I still believe in the biblical God” her words loud enough to push me back in my chair. I tried to pacify her. “I’m not interested in shadowboxing a vaguely effective but specifically affected triune God. You can self-identify how you please ” I said, trying to avoid the inevitable.
“I believe in all of it!” She was becoming increasingly hostile. I was unsure how to respond. Her husband also identified as Christian, but we’d had a great discussion about skepticism as well as relationships, friends and past experiences on a road trip all the way from Toronto to New York City. As I was parsing a reply she cut me off before I could drop a syllable, “I think science and philosophy prove the Christian God.”
Should I tell her I that science can not and will not vindicate personal faith? That the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which infers a more dynamic universe than we previously imagined, doesn’t mean what Deepak Chopra thinks it means? That even the loosest allegorical reading of the Bible is entirely inconsistent with what we understand from evolutionary biology and geology, that there is no place for anything more than the most uninterested of Gods as the artistic author of creation- like the man who first created the first rectangular wooden frame taking credit for the Mona Lisa? It seemed she was more interested in contorting her faith into an abstract forgery of science that might look science-y if you tilted your head and squinted really hard from 100 yards. I wondered if she had ever read a peer-reviewed article in her life. I tried my best to explain.
“You know,” I sighed, “There have been so many discoveries in biology and physics in the past hundred and fifty years, it’s a shame that they haven’t been understood by the informed general public. They talk as though we’re still talking about large gaps in knowledge that could as easily be filled by God as by curiosity. Anything more specific than a ‘Prime Mover’ requires increasingly intricate apologetics that render the biblical Word impotent at best and demonstrably false at worst, leaving someone arguing for the bible as The Word Of God–a God who is like a puppeteer pulling strings, controlling the progression of life, saying, ‘I shall redeem you of Original Sin through faith in Me’- without anything more than naked faith in Bronze Age mythology. That’s nutty. That’s not an open mind, that’s creating religious fan fiction”
She broke in. “But God is an awesome God who used scientific laws to bring forth His Creation!”
“Let’s roll with that idea for now,” I interjected, hoping that my concession might stop her from bottling up, “but you must have some immutable traits of the God you believe in. Everyone does, and many Christians have the same concept of what makes their God uniquely Christian. That He felt His creation was perfect. That He created man in His likeness. That we are cursed by His anger. That He is perfectly moral and just- that salvation can come only through belief in Him. That He performed and continues to perform miracles big and small. Those facts are definitional to your God. If you claim to be a Christian you must choose to ‘believe’ your God possesses these attributes. Yet all of these premises are logically incompatible with each other- and are equally incompatible with what science has shown us. Imagine what it would be like if you simultaneously agreed that you were a virgin and the mother of your children, and yet that’s exactly the inconsistency of your epistemology!” I chuckled, knowing that she would immediately get the inside joke. I thought the analogy was apt, that it might make her ask more questions. It didn’t.
“The Bible is as much allegorical as literal” she quipped. “I believe that no inconsistencies exist between facts and the Word of God . I told you: I believe that science proves Christianity!” She rhymed off an incoherent word salad of Deepak Chopra buzzwords. She was becoming increasingly agitated. She started to talk about the very personal experiences she had that made her certain of God. I listened. She raised the holocaust as an example of atheism inspired nihilism, along with some horrors that she thought proved Free Will.
I obliged. “I agree there are horrible people in the world.”
“It’s not just people, it’s the wages of sin. But with such a world, how could you deny we need salvation?” she asked. It was an honestly asked but dishonestly pondered question.
I still proceeded as though I was talking to a liberal thinker, open to discussion. I knew her to be quite liberal on other issues, such as politics and sex. So I took a swig of my Venti fair trade Peruvian dark roast and plunged in, “You know, I think I have something insightful to say about this,” I offered. “If a religion is going to take root and spread- it has to have some explanatory value to the people who adopt it. If a religion said ‘people are always benevolent’ then you could imagine how worthless that religion might be to people seeking an explanation for observed phenomena. Religions start the same way science does- with an interesting and perplexing question. The difference is the process used to provide an answer. Science tests a hypothesis, religion dictates an answer. We ‘appear’ to be sinful not because we fell from perfection but because we are risen from instinct.”
“I already told you, I think God is necessary for science to work- Who created the laws of nature and physics?” she interrupted. In her head Laws were created for man, man was not a creation of the laws . I stopped. I wanted to ask what she thought science really said about spirituality, the appropriation and perversion of physics, the hijacking of great thinkers like Einstein and Bohm, who would never have imagined their complicated work being obfuscated to lend credibility to the dubious claims of touchy-feely New Age Mystics. I wanted to, but I didn’t because I realized she didn’t want to engage with the questions; she already knew all the answers. She wasn’t interested in an informed and honest discussion. That’s when I realized….
I was talking to a fundamentalist. What I was saying threatened her very identity and construct of life. My coffee shop companion knew that God existed, and by God the knowns are going to fit the narrative whether they require reshaping or not. Most people adjust their beliefs to new evidence, she just makes the evidence sound something like her belief. Where I would adjust my narrative, she would adjust the knowns. I remembered being told that her mother died a few years ago. Clearly she had wrapped that faith around her like a security blanket.
This was not my first time trying to discuss science with a fundamentalist, but every other time they were Young Earth Creationists or Climate Deniers. The whole conversation seemed eerily similar. I was talking to someone who claimed to know exactly how ‘it’ is, who believed in a flexible, infinite, and compassionate universe that was designed to nurture them (despite every available fact in biology, astronomy and physics) and believed it with a kind of pseudoscientific cognitive dissonance as dogmatic as Biblical literalism.
A fundamentalist is not willing to consider the unsettling possibility that the universe is governed by immutable, explainable, and observable rules that require no intervention in order to function. A fundamentalist will systematically disabuse themselves any part of a fact that might contradict his/her epistemology or faith, be it carbon dating or theoretical physics. A fundamentalist does not want to examine specifics and presuppositions, or really study and understand concepts, scientific or philosophical, that otherwise could be twisted into ignorant half-truths–similar to the bumper sticker slogan of Biblical literalists, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The new fundamentalists say “God said it, I wan’t so badly to believe it- that I’ll make the facts agree with it.”
When did Liberal Christians become the new fundamentalists? I have known many Liberal Christians beginning with the Pastor of my past church, who passionately defended the difference between knowledge and faith. But this new breed is different: pompous, unmoved, and belligerent, insistent that science owes them absolution from the sin of blind faith. These people feel that fundamentalism is the opposite of what they profess, because they have staked out the middle ground. There is no virtue in the middle ground when you are discussing facts- any more than I might call you open minded because I want gays to have equal rights, someone else thinks they should have no rights- and you want to compromise that science recently suggested that “gay” might not even exist. My mind is not blown. I’m nonplussed. And do you need to be so angry?
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