Reasoning with Atheists

On Monday, professor PZ Myers wrote a nuanced treatise titled “Jennifer Fulwiler: vacant-eyed, mindless cluelessness personified.” Oh, man, he doesn’t even know the half of it. I’m no genius on my best days, but I’m so sleep deprived right now that I’m shuffling around vacant-eyed and mindless, acting like the poster child for cluelessness. I’m drooling on myself as I type this.

After the accurate title, however, the piece kind of goes off the rails. I don’t recommend that you read it due to offensive content, so I’ll summarize it: Professor Myers was flustered about my post called 5 Catholic Teachings that Make Sense to Atheists, and in response to most of the points he basically said “BUT WE DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD!” He missed the point, but that may have been my fault: I evidently did not make it clear enough that all of my examples were meant only to illustrate the intellectual consistency within Catholicism, and therefore assumed that you would be in a discussion with an atheist who would stipulate belief in God for the sake of argument. E.g. In the case of Purgatory, when I was an atheist I would have said, “All belief in the supernatural is crazy. But if you must believe in all that God and heaven mumbo jumbo, then, yeah, you need Purgatory in order not to contradict your own bizarre little belief system.”

Anyway, I’m glad for Myers’ post, and even for the, ah, lively discussions that occurred both here and at his place, because they illustrate something I’ve been trying to explain about atheism and conversion. When people ask me for tips about how to reach out to atheists, I’ve noticed that their questions tend to be along the lines of how to better educate these folks about the truths of the Faith—which books to buy for them, the best arguments to make, etc. This seems like it would be a good path; after all, most people who self-identify as atheists are reasonable, linear thinkers, so you’d think that the best way to introduce them God and his Church would be to lay out all the compelling arguments in favor of our beliefs. This may be a good strategy for someone who displays a sincere, peaceful openness to the discussion, but for the average person whose identity is deeply wrapped up in his or her atheism, it’s not going to get you very far. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that reasoning with them is a waste of time.

What you will see in the comments to both posts from Monday, and you may have experienced if you’ve dialogued with staunch atheists, is that Myers and atheists like him are trapped in a prison of reason. As G.K. Chesterton famously pointed out:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. [...]

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

If you try to evangelize to these folks through reason alone, your head will feel like it’s going to split too. For every point you make in the case for Christianity, there will be a counterpoint, and then you’ll have a counterpoint to their counterpoint, and this will go on and on until it spirals back to where it began when they say “BUT I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD!” They’ll fancy themselves to be intellectual woodchippers (to borrow Myers’ analogy), and you’ll feel like you’re trapped in some macabre version of Who’s on First...And that’s when you see that people simply cannot reason their way into faith.

In my experience, the formula for conversion comes down to intellectual assent + openness to love. Nobody should check his rational mind at the door when it comes to exploring nonmaterial realities—to do so is a great way to end up in a cult. Dispassionate, rational analysis of ideas is what keeps us from doing stupid things based on fleeting emotions. However, God is love*, and conversion is therefore more of a process of falling in love than accepting an idea intellectually (though, again, it can and must be based on reason).

To understand the limits of reason in the conversion process, replace the word “God” with “Love.” Instead of asking, “How can I explain God to my son?” ask, “How can I explain Love to my son?” You quickly see that it’s going to take more than books and arguments. Again, this does not mean that there’s no place for rational analysis, just that it will only take you so far. An analogy I often think of is one of those college relationships where a boy is trying to convince a girl that he loves her, but she is simply closed to the concept. He can make his case by offering solid evidence all day long—“What about the hot air balloon ride I arranged on Valentine’s Day? The chocolates on your birthday? I saw Eat, Pray, Love with you, for goodness’ sake!”—but if she has closed herself off to the possibility of love, data cannot convince her. She’ll always be able to find some equally reasonable argument to throw back at him—the time he stood her up for dinner, the time he forgot to call, etc.

So how does someone go about accepting love? Again, think about what we know from the world of relationships: You look at the data to see if there’s good reason to believe that the other party loves you, but then, in order to go any further, it takes vulnerability and humility. By humility I don’t mean low self-esteem, but that softening of disposition when the wellbeing of others becomes more important than appearing smart, when you care more about being gentle than being right. Only then, when your heart is open, will you experience love. And so it is with God.

And so, with your atheist friends and family members, love them, pray for them, and show them the light of Christ at every moment possible. But don’t worry too much about winning arguments, because you can’t reason your way into love.

* I can hear the keyboards clicking now: “SUFFERING! A loving God wouldn’t allow it!” I am aware of this argument but simply didn’t have the space to go into it in this post. However, if you would like, I could address it in another one. I’m here to serve!