Six Characteristics of Adolescent Atheism

A while back, I posted an article entitled, “What an Apologist’s Job is Not,” in which I advised fellow apologists on how to recognize (and stop wasting time in) futile interactions. This post is sort of a follow-up, in response to the ongoing positive feedback I’ve received on the piece. My objective this time is to outline six common characteristics of “Adolescent Atheism”–a brand of poorly-informed, logic-disregarding, verbally hostile atheism that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

NOTE: I do not use the term “adolescent” in the pejorative sense here; rather, I mean it in the technical sense–the condition of not being fully matured. Adolescent Atheism is a state of arrested intellectual development with marked characteristics that I will discuss below. Please also note that I am not stereotyping all non-believers; I fully recognize that some are careful to avoid the following errors.

1. The tendency to accuse Christian scholars of pushing their religious agenda for emotional (as opposed to rational) reasons. The main problem with this tactic is that it doesn’t address any argument whatsoever. For example, the statement: “Francis Collins is a brilliant scientist who is emotionally motivated to believe and promote Christianity” says absolutely nothing about whether or not Collins’ views about Christianity are actually correct; his reasons for holding his views are entirely irrelevant to the discussion. It has been argued (and I agree) that anyone who promotes a particular metaphysical view (theistic or atheistic) is emotionally motivated. That doesn’t mean that the person is exclusively motivated by emotion and hasn’t also examined their belief system for rationality and coherence, and it says nothing about truth or falsehood.

2. A refusal (often a poorly-disguised inability) to interact with key scholarship in philosophy and theology, often dismissing it as a “word salad” or “verbal diarrhea.” This attitude is rather amusing, because it is so self-incriminating; it comes across as nothing more than an arrogant cover for the inability to comprehend the complexities of philosophy and theology. Recently, I came across an article in which Dr. Sam Harris (neuroscientist) referred to the works of Dr. John Polkinghorne (theoretical physicist and theologian) and Dr. N.T. Wright (theologian), by saying: “…when you consult their work, you get just pure madness. It is just a word salad, which is foisted on scientifically illiterate people by scientifically literate people for reasons that are patently emotional.” (Notice that this statement also displays characteristic #1.) I’ve heard very similar remarks from individuals who failed to grasp arguments made by esteemed atheist philosophers regarding the intellectual respectability of theism. If there’s no direct interaction with the philosophical and theological assertions themselves, the credibility of the detractor instantly dissolves. Side note: It’s interesting that some atheist scientists find it entirely acceptable to be outspoken about disciplines they are not trained in themselves, but woe to those in other fields who dare to talk about science without “proper” credentials. 

3. A penchant for attacking the character of the Christian theist with high-voltage language in an attempt to cast doubt upon their viewpoint. This is the classic fallacy known as ad hominem. It often involves expletive-laced name-calling, but I just as frequently see it manifested (and experience it) as accusations of purposeful dishonesty. I sometimes receive emails–dripping with angry arrogance–that accuse me of lying about the historical evidence for Christianity. When I provide scholarly references for my claims (carefully avoiding the fallacy known as “appeal to authority”), I either get chirping crickets or the attack is shifted to the cited scholars in the form of statements such as “they’re not a legitimate scholar.” It seems that a PhD from Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Caltech, etc. is only legitimate if the graduate is an atheist.

4. Habitual use of worn-out straw men in place of orthodox Christian doctrine. A favorite tactic of Adolescent Atheism is using misleading or silly portrayals of Christian beliefs in an attempt to make the beliefs seem absurd. For example, they might refer to God as a “wish-granting genie in the clouds.” The irony is, orthodox Christians don’t believe in that god, either (divine attributes are definitive). Another common approach is to interpret Scripture with a hyper-literalism–completely ignoring the genre or context of the passage–and then knocking down the alleged teaching of the text: “Voila! The Bible is rubbish!!” I often see this done by self-described “former Christians” who mutilate cosmological and eschatological passages. (I do not deny that part of the blame for this phenomenon rests upon churches that should be doing a much better job of teaching biblical exegesis and doctrine.)

5. The [intentional?] failure to include important historical details–which sometimes results in a grand irony. On Christmas day this year, atheist scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted, “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.” What Tyson conveniently omitted was the fact that Newton was a Christian theist who wrote reams of material on theology (perhaps even more than he did on science) and took an unmistakably theistic view of the cosmos. In his famous scientific treatise, The Principia, Newton said, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God…” A couple of days ago, in a comment thread of a news article about Tyson’s tweets, someone listed other famous scientists of Western history who were Christians, and a self-described atheist responded that Galileo lied about being a Christian so that he wouldn’t get in trouble with the Catholic Church. Someone who has studied Galileo’s writings (including his personal letters) for more than ten minutes will likely recognize how ludicrous this statement is. Christianity has a broad and rich intellectual history involving great men and women of science, and the better-informed acknowledge this rather than sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug or trying to explain them away.

6. The ceaseless effort to continue riding the dead horse of scientism (the self-refuting belief that only science can be the source of well-grounded knowledge). A major problem is that those holding this view have many firm beliefs about reality that actually cannot be confirmed through the project of scientific investigation. Many who embrace scientism also like to claim that science has demolished the case for God; therefore, those who take science seriously and are intellectually consistent do not believe in God. For a full discussion of this mistake, see my recent article, “Sorry; No Such Thing as a Scientific Argument Against the Existence of God.”

Christian apologists have differing opinions on whether or not correctives to Adolescent Atheism should even be offered. Some say that we shouldn’t bother, because it’s rare that it will make much difference in the thinking of the Adolescent. But, as I’ve said before, some of the chief objectives of public apologetics are to equip other Christians to think clearly and logically and to encourage them to use their time and energy wisely rather than getting swept up in emotionally-charged conversations. To be sure, any public interaction with an Adolescent should be brief, to the point, and done primarily for the benefit of the observers, not in an attempt to influence the interlocutor (though, in rare cases, progress is made).

ruse bookI’ll end by saying that there are atheist and agnostic scholars of past and present that do not display the above characteristics and have made respectable, erudite contributions to the age-old debate about the existence of God. They are thoughtful (interacting with the ideas rather than haughtily dismissing them, and not attacking people), are usually considerate of those with whom they disagree (some even maintaining genuine friendships with Christian scholars), and are knowledgeable about the relevant history, philosophy, and theology. A few who immediately come to mind are Dr. Michael Ruse (Florida State University), Dr. Bradley Monton (University of Colorado), and Dr. Thomas Nagel (NYU). This is not to say that I have not found points of theological and philosophical disagreement with these scholars; but they demonstrate seriousness of thought and a desire to correctly understand and portray opposing views. I’m looking forward to reading Ruse’s latest book, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, and I have enjoyed the writings of Nagel and Monton as well. I’ve recently begun reading some of Bertrand Russell’s work for a research paper I’ll be writing in the spring. Stay tuned for my observations and reflections.