Peter Rollins: “Why the New Atheists Don’t Go Far Enough”

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 29, 2010 in Christian Theology

Peter Rollins is a leader in the emerging church who recently spoke about Why the New Atheists Don’t Go Far Enough:

I want to argue that religious belief is not what you explicitly say… It’s the opaque, coded beliefs that lie behind it…

So for example, someone could belief in God and not be religious… and vice-versa someone could say “I don’t believe in God at all…” and yet be deeply religious.

I’ll use an example. Somebody could say, “I believe in God, because I’ve looked at philosophy and I’ve looked at the 5 ways of Aquinas and I’m just philosophically convinced that God exists.” Now what you actually find is that for quite a lot of people who say that, the coded message is: “Well, I grew up believing in God, I’m really scared that life is meaningless, that I’m gonna die and everything I do has no purpose… so I went and studied philosophy to find reasons to justify my beliefs, and then I pretended to myself that I believe because of the evidence.”

And we all do it. We all read books that justify the position we already agree with…

So somebody says “I believe in God because of the evidence”… but as soon as they get anybody who attacks their belief, they get really aggressive. Now what that belies is that their belief is not just some sort of philosophical belief, but they get psychological pleasure from the belief, because otherwise why would you get so pissed off when somebody doesn’t agree with you?

My problem with the New Atheism is that because the New Atheists are coming from the scientific discourse, they have a naive view of language. They think religion operates that the level of [explicitly stated] belief, so they attack [that]… So they up only attacking a form of fundamentalist belief, a form of psychotic belief, which is what I said before: where the split between the opaque, meta-language and [explicit language] isn’t felt…

I never understood this type of criticism of the New Atheism from liberal Christianity. The problem is not that the New Atheists have a “naive view of language.” The problem is that billions of religious believers really believe what they explicitly say they believe. If they didn’t believe what they say they believe, they wouldn’t try to teach young earth creationism as scientific fact, or blow themselves up, or outlaw gay marriage while citing ancient scriptures.

If you’re the kind of “emerging Christian” that doesn’t literally believe those things and isn’t trying to outlaw gay marriage, then most of the criticisms of the New Atheists are not directed toward you. The reply given by people like Peter Rollins should not be “Straw man!” but instead “Not my theology.”

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Patrick October 29, 2010 at 11:40 am

I don’t think his argument is a good defense from liberal christians, but I do think its a reasonable point that we should keep in mind. A lot of religious believers believe nothing like what they say they believe, and they “believe” these things in ways that are very different from how normal people believe normal things like that their car is a particular color. And a lot of atheists tend to react to religious people as if religious people believe exactly what they say they believe.

Religious (and also political) beliefs are often a sort of rich imaginative life. I think its perfectly reasonable for atheists to argue that religion shouldn’t be treated in this way, and that religious beliefs should be held to the same standards as actual beliefs. But I do think its a mistake for atheists to assume that religious people already do this.

The discrepancy between stated and actual beliefs is what initially got me interested in the whole religion thing, and in more open atheism. I find it absolutely amazing that you can get a modern, 21st century person living in America to apologize for, say, the use of female prisoners of war as sexual rewards for soldiers. But you can, because its in the Bible. And yet the people offering these apologetics do not seem to actually believe that these things are morally acceptable in real life, even though they’ll defend them in a religious context. There’s a barrier between their religious beliefs and their day to day beliefs that is almost impregnable.

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Peter October 29, 2010 at 11:59 am

If you’re the kind of “emerging Christian” that doesn’t literally believe those things and isn’t trying to outlaw gay marriage, then most of the criticisms of the New Atheists are not directed toward you.

But aren’t there still criticisms that ought to be directed at these “emerging Christians” (whatever that means)? For instance, if they practice their Christianity in a way that the apparent propositional content of their “beliefs” is not taken literally, why do they bother with a commitment to those particular “beliefs,” especially knowing (as they must) that others profess the same beliefs in a literal, non-metaphorical sense? Aren’t they inviting confusion and providing cover to others? And isn’t the “not my theology” reply, especially in the context of Christianity and its theological diversity, essentially just a slippery cover?

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Chuck October 29, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Patrick,

The strategy of the new atheists is to provoke those who assert belief with the doctrine that drives their assertions. Psychological truth may be one thing (a doubt in epistemic commitments faith demands) but, there is safety in religious speak and group think. By confronting doctrinal beliefs with a sincerity towards its assertions exposes the background fallacies that give it life. My wife admitted to me this morning that most of what Christians assert she doesn’t believe and my unwillingness to dismiss the seriousness of the doctrine of Hell relative to church-goer’s admiration of me was a catalyst for this admission. Many of our former church friends admire the love I show my wife and son, my ability to communicate and my kindness to many people and my reply was, “How? I’ve blasphemed the Holy Spirit and that is contrary to the church’s teaching. I’m guaranteed to be Hell-bound. Why do they admire me? Why aren’t they running in the opposite direction?” Her response, “They don’t believe that.” Mine, “What else do they pick and choose?” By giving respect to the sincerity of religious assertions opens the conversation to the moral relativism most believers practice and it shocks them out of their cognitive coma.

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Chuck October 29, 2010 at 12:06 pm

But aren’t there still criticisms that ought to be directed at these “emerging Christians” (whatever that means)? For instance, if they practice their Christianity in a way that the apparent propositional content of their “beliefs” is not taken literally, why do they bother with a commitment to those particular “beliefs,” especially knowing (as they must) that others profess the same beliefs in a literal, non-metaphorical sense? Aren’t they inviting confusion and providing cover to others? And isn’t the “not my theology” reply, especially in the context of Christianity and its theological diversity, essentially just a slippery cover?

Absolutely Peter! They remind me of the family member who enables the alcoholic by ignoring the damage done by the drunk.

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Ralph October 29, 2010 at 12:14 pm

The truth is, as long as there are sustained attacks about the rationality of accepting religious claims, then religious theists could not long sustain their own beliefs – no matter how liberal they get. It is often the case that one loses religious beliefs first before one ultimately rejects belief in God. And why is that? Simply, what would be the psychic benefit of sustaining a belief in an imaginary being without the trappings of a full old-time religion?

“I believe in a God but I can’t believe that these rituals actually mean anything or that the holy book that I’m supposed to live by is moral even by the loosest standards. It’s fun but I can get this elsewhere. Why do I still believe in a God?…”

That’s when the questioning starts and the real search begins….FWIW, the New Atheists help to move this process along by showing you how ridiculous your religious beliefs are and in the process removing some of the benefits that you get out of religion

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Little James October 29, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Rollins’ suggestion is unproductive and sounds like concern trolling to me. When discussing these things, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt that they really believe what they are saying. Of course you can question them about it, ask them to clarify, etc, and often you will learn that they hadn’t thought about it and actually they don’t really believe what they originally said. But, importantly, they have to be the one to admit it.

It is not an effective strategy to tell the other person what their true motives are. It works both ways; it is unproductive for a theist to argue “all you atheists say you don’t believe in god, but I know that you really do and just want to sin without consequence.”

The bigger question is why religion should be allowed to get away with so much misdirection. Isn’t it a red flag of irrational thinking to outwardly express beliefs that are “psychotic” (his words!), but that you don’t actually believe?

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Bradm October 29, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Luke said:

“The reply given by people like Peter Rollins should not be “Straw man!” but instead “Not my theology.””

Isn’t that what he said?

Peter Rollins: “So they up only attacking a form of fundamentalist belief, a form of psychotic belief, …”

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JS Allen October 29, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Pretty standard fare for emergents. They would rather natter about how language is subtle and accuse you of being unsophisticated, than ever have to defend any solid belief.

I find it hilariously ironic that he says a scientific approach leads to a “naive” view of language.

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ildi October 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm

I keep thinking Henry Rollins…

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cd October 29, 2010 at 4:35 pm

What Rollins is preaching is not traditionalist Christianity, it’s a semi-pop formulation of religious mysticism which has Jesus packaged into it.

Religious mysticism can, I think fairly, be described by the adherent passing through following sequence of theological primary beliefs that correspond to stages of the mystic journey as described by e.g. Teresa of Avila:

1. pre-faith; magical beliefs and acceptance of divine revelations to other people
2. immanent deity
3. transcendent deity
4. ‘transparent’ deity- the ‘personal’ God accessible in prayer
5. incremental and very complete rejection of 1.-4. (theism) as inadequate and probably selfish delusion; ‘absence of God’ perception that leads into theological atheism
6. mystical union; “ineffable” notion of a high Self-Other relationship with the universe (i.e. theism is an erroneous or highly inadequate description)

I’d say that the New Atheists are vindicated, not refuted, by 1.-5. What Rollins is doing is dodging into 6. and trying to attack the New Atheists from that. He’s eliding that Christianity’s traditional Exclusive Mediation doctrine (based in a literalist reading of John 14:6, rejecting the metaphorical reading) doesn’t allow a proper adherent to fulfill/complete 5. or assert 6., i.e. adherence to a godhead that doesn’t conform to theism.

The historical Christian mystics have almost invariably been accused of heresy and employed various defensive dodges and softpedalling around these problems. And it’s quite evident that Mother Teresa failed at stage 5. It’s entirely possible that it’s all bunk, but on the faith that it’s all correct she was sabotaged by her adherence to conservative religious doctrine in which rejection of theism is always and entirely wrong. (I enjoy asking religious traditionalists why their religious groups have produced no mystics or great moral or intellectual leaders of any kind within human memory. The responses and follow up questions are a lot of fun.)

Peter Rollins doesn’t have a novel or effective counter to the New Atheists. Religious mysticism is the one position from which some religion can be salvaged, but that’s high ground on which few Christians actually live.

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Ben October 29, 2010 at 7:52 pm

What is to “believe”? Can you truly believe something and doubt it as the same time? I don’t believe that would be full pledged belief.

How is it possible to truly believe something without having any idea (which a lot of people don’t) about history, theology or philosophy?

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Hermes October 29, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Ben, I find that frustrating too. I try and make my beliefs follow what is backed by evidence and careful thought, I don’t do that all the time and I doubt that many people do that in the case of religious/theistic issues. Would it be better if everyone did? Absolutely.

Yet, belief in theistic/religious claims often overrides evidence and careful thought to the point of being superior to knowledge in many instances. People can do better, but they often do not yet still believe in different ideas or concepts based on a variety of reasons — or no reasoning at all.

While we both have nearly instant access to a variety of credible and verifiable resources, there are people who insist that because two claims can be made that both claims have equal merit. Religious/theistic examples of this include the Genesis world wide flood. There are easy to verify reasons why there was no world wide flood a few thousand years ago. There is not parity between the evidence for a world wide flood and the evidence against a world wide flood a few thousand years ago. Similar easy to address comments on the age of the Earth can be made — one covering thousands of years and others covering billions. These two options are not equal and it is not just a factual mistake that these are promoted as equal options, but a deeply moral problem.

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JS Allen October 29, 2010 at 11:04 pm

it is not just a factual mistake that these are promoted as equal options, but a deeply moral problem.

Very well said. @Hermes nailed it.

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Hermes October 30, 2010 at 5:03 am

[tips hat]

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CharlesP November 1, 2010 at 5:41 am

Rollins is an interesting character for me, because his book “How (not) to Speak of God” was one of the first breakthroughs I had in my journey out of Christianity. I had started to have doubts, and some Stephen Hawking had moved me from the YEC I grew up with into… something else. I hadn’t delved into evolution yet (12 years of YEC x-tian education system had never touched the subject in a serious way, and biology was the one science I didn’t care for so it hadn’t come up in my self-study time yet), and my pastor at the time had put together a little book group among his friends in and out of the church and Rollins’s was the first (and ultimately last) book we read.

From a literary standpoint I remember my description of the book as being: “Fascinating, but this guy has spent WAY too much time in graduate level philosophy classes enamored with the nuances of language.” However, it was one of the first things that let me say “well maybe I ‘believe’ this way” and let me start questioning my beliefs more (the other book that did this for me was Collins’s The Language of God).

Rollins is also the guy two of my best friends from my old x-tian days still turn to and buy into and identify with… and maybe because of this I can still have good discussions with them and only come away mildly theological BS annoyed instead of VERY annoyed as I do if I try and engage others. Because of our (my friends and mine) intellectual journeys though, I’d think that 1-6 list above in cd’s comment may really be more accurately described as 1-4 + 5A or 5B… my journey looked at the atheism and the mysticism and realized that the mysticism would only be wishful thinking. One of the friends didn’t find atheism “spiritually fulfilling” enough I think. And the other is still somewhat on the fence.

Though I may be just rambling here, I think the useful take-away (I hate that phrase) from Rollins is not that as he has done a lot of the navel gazing the “normal” x-tians haven’t he is an example of how you should interact with them, but to take that navel gazing gleaned information and use that to inform how you interact with them. What the “new atheist” approach fails at, sometimes, is addressing how people feel they believe. If you only address a person on the words they say about how they believe, but that don’t describe what their belief really is when they “feel” it, it is easier for many people to dismiss you as simply not knowing… not “getting it”. You can’t say “you don’t really believe X” (well, and you can, but you’re probably going to be dismissed as a jerk), but you can take the knowledge that they might not really believe that we should be stoning adulterers and use that to make a more persuasive/subtle argument.

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Todd Smith September 22, 2011 at 3:30 am

well, your critique began “i never understood this….” and by reading what you continued to write I tend to agree. What Rollins is getting at here is that religious people are really talking about meaning, as he says, and that stated beliefs in God etc are really part of a larger frame that is often not analyzed as such. I definitely agree with Rollins on that point and that most athiests operate out of a corny 19th century materialist view, “scientism”, that says if we just get enough people enrolled in chemistry classes and all get our math scores up, then the world will look it does in a science fiction movie, where everybody drives flying cars and there are no problems in the world. It’s a fantasy. Rollins says criticizes both of these unanalyzed panaceas and says get to what’s really beneath both, which is the attempt to creat a larger and more ethical self and a better and less cruel world. If we are going to confront fundamentalists, either athiest or theist, we need to learn to unpack what they are really saying so as to reach common ground with them and thus be able to show them that some of their ideas are counter productive to what they say. Dawkins’ colonialist “everyody should think just like me and and you 90% of the plant who are religious deserve to be exterminated” is not actually in line with his respectable goal of improving the self and the world.

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