I keep seeing claims going by on Twitter, made by self-professed theists, which are blatantly untrue, yet even after being corrected, they keep making them. Are these people horribly dishonest or are they just too stupid to know any better? That’s really a much larger question than it seems at first and perhaps it’s one that we need to spend some time examining because I’m pretty sure most atheists have seen it themselves or made similar observations.
Imagine this scenario. It really doesn’t matter where it happens, online, in person, on Twitter or Facebook, but sooner or later it will happen to just about every atheist. A theist will make a claim that atheists believe X. It will be untrue. You will point out that it is untrue. You will demonstrate that it is untrue. You will ask the theist for evidence for their claim and they will ignore you. The theist will either demand that you’re wrong or that you’re not an atheist and will continue to make the very same claim over and over again.
You might also see the same thing with regard to demonstrably false claims about their religion. They have no evidence to back it up. You have evidence that shows it’s not true. They will continue to repeat it verbatim, even after being proven wrong.
So what are we, as supposedly rational, intellectual atheists, supposed to think about this. I see only two possibilities, either these people know they are wrong and are spouting false claims anyhow, or they are stupid, deluded and too far gone to even know how wrong their claims actually are. Of course, I’m sure that for most theists, the answer resides somewhere between these two extremes, but for others, not so much. Most professional apologists, for example, I’d say are virtually all dishonest. They know better, they have to, they just don’t care. This is, in my estimation, for the same reason that a lot of ministers and priests who have lost their faith continue to work in the church, their “faith” is also their ticket to a paycheck, there is no easy route out of the religion without sacrificing financial security, thus they keep spouting the message without believing the words. On the other side of the spectrum, you have those wonderful Internet theists who are so “on fire for Jesus” that I fear they’ve burned out the parts of their brains that control reasoning. They are fanatics, they’re not really concerned whether or not the Bible is true, it makes them feel good to think that it does, therefore there is no chance whatsoever that they’ll ever accept otherwise. Some of the more honest ones, in moments of uncharacteristic candor, will admit that there is nothing anyone can ever say that will convince them that they’re wrong, which is a sure sign that rational people ought to slowly start backing away.
But what about the rest, the ones that fall somewhere between the loony-toon fanatics and the absurdly dishonest? Is there any chance that we can reach those people with rational, reasoned and evidenced arguments? Now maybe I’m just getting more cynical in my old age, but I don’t think so. Religion is one of those beliefs which is not amenable to evidence. The people who hold it are not interested in being right or wrong, but in feeling good. You have about as much chance of reasoning a theist out of their religion as you do reasoning a conspiracy theorist out of their conspiracies and for mostly the same reasons. There’s a certain pathology here that says that it’s more important to be emotionally satisfied with one’s beliefs than it is to be factually correct with them. These are people who I’d argue fundamentally don’t like reality. It scares them. Therefore, in order to make it through their day-to-day lives, they have to invent or adopt a magical security blanket that stops them from thinking about all of the scary things they’d otherwise have to deal with. But that’s ultimately an immature way of viewing the world. Part of the maturation process is learning to deal with the world the way it actually is, not the way you wish it was. It’s a problem that an alarmingly large portion of the population have, theist and not. It is no more acceptable among non-theists than it is among theists. People all need to grow up and deal with the facts and leave the comforting fantasy behind.
So how do you stop this problem? I don’t know that you can. Sure, you can teach people how to think rationally and critically but you cannot force them to actually employ those tools. You can point out when they’re being dishonest or stupid, but most of us realize that the dyed-in-the-wool believer won’t care, they’re supremely convinced that they’re right and can never be wrong, therefore any criticism will fall on deaf ears. Perhaps the only real thing we can do is be patient and wait. Religion is failing miserably in the modern world, people are fleeing the churches as it becomes clear that religious teachings are factually incorrect and that you can live a fulfilled life without religion. I think some of us atheists, seeing the signs that we’re “winning”, want to declare a total victory far too early, these things take time.
In the end, it’s just sad that theists have to be liars or lunatics, to play the C.S. Lewis card, since quite clearly, there’s no evidence for a Lord. We just have to understand that they can’t help it, it’s a fundamental part of what religion is.