Reader Alex recently asked a question in a comment on an older post:
Hi Mike, I’m sorry for my hard words, but there is no other way to tell it. I just read what you say in “About Me”. The very important question that you should pose to yourself some day, when you feel strong, is the following: Considering that just very recently I was stupid enough to be fundamentalist Christian, how can I be now so sure that being an Atheist is very intelligent?
In other words, if I was so wrong before, how can I know I’m right now? It’s a perfectly fair question, and it’s one I’ve asked myself several times. And there are several reasons I think I’m smarter now.
1. I no longer claim to be totally certain that I’m right.
Fundamentalist Christians deal with absolute certainty. They leave no room for questioning. The dogma is nicely self-contained: it’s Satan who leads you to doubt and ask questions, and you’re just supposed to trust that God will do well by you.
As an atheist, I don’t have absolute certainty; I think absolute certainty is a red herring. The fact that I don’t know something for sure doesn’t mean I’m arrogant, ignorant, or stupid to pick a side on the subject.
2. I am no longer willfully ignorant or deceptive.
Fundamentalist Christianity stands at odds with reality. There is no other way to put it. As a fundamentalist, I had to abandon any semblance of logic or care for evidence and simply believe whatever the Bible taught. I had to discard everything humanity had learned about biology, cosmology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and all other branches of science. I believed that science was man’s attempt to rationalize away the existence of God. I believed that atheistic scientists (i.e., most scientists) were actively involved in conspiracies to suppress the truth – that the evidence really pointed to an intelligent creator who built the universe from nothing at some point within the last 10,000 years. I argued that evolution was a deception; a lie perpetrated by evil men who wanted to destroy Christianity. I made jaw-droppingly stupid, evidence-free, baseless arguments about the age of the universe. And now, I recognize that there is no evidence for the Creation story. It’s not just a matter of interpreting the evidence differently; it’s totally dismissing the evidence and crafting a house of cards built of just-so stories and lies. That’s the biggest difference: to support the idea that the world is as young as I once believed, I had to lie about the evidence.
Now, as an atheist, I resent my former ignorance. I no longer ignore what we’ve learned through the process of science. I actually care if what I say has a basis in reality, and if I don’t know something, I no longer simply make up whatever nonsense best suits my needs in a debate.
3. I am no longer willing to accept nonsensical platitudes or logical fallacies as valid arguments for belief.
As a Fundamentalist Christian I predicated my beliefs upon a slew of unwarranted assumptions, and constructed elaborate rationalizations for their beliefs upon them. The entire dogma hangs upon nothing more than clever wordplay, emotional manipulation, and an insistent refusal to see the flaws in your own arguments. Logic and reason were the enemy – tools of Satan employed by atheists because they hated God and by false Christians because they loved their sin more than they loved Jesus.
Even when I wasn’t a fundamentalist, but just a generic cafeteria Christian, I was terrible at critical thinking. I loved nothing more than to think up some pithy piece of verbiage that worked to end a discussion rather than promote a real search for truth, and I thought that what I was doing was sharing insight and wisdom. Whether my conclusions followed from my premises never crossed my mind; I didn’t even really have a concept of a sound, valid logical syllogism.
As an atheist, I realize the power that logic and reason have in helping us determine what actually makes sense and what we’re right to believe given the information at hand. I know how to use critical thinking as a tool to prevent myself from being swindled. I can come up with real reasons to hold beliefs that are actually the logical choices, rather than the comforting ones.
4. I am open to being proved wrong.
As a fundamentalist Christian, I knew I was always right about my beliefs. If someone told me that I was wrong, I could come up with myriad Biblical explanations of how I was still actually right. If I didn’t understand something, it wasn’t because the Bible was wrong, it was just that I didn’t know it well enough. Fundamentalists are convinced that they have a fount of knowledge that is beyond repute, and that any question you could possibly think up has an answer that can be found within minutes. We’re talking about a book that is supposed to be the infallible, unalterable word of the creator of the universe; anything that contradicts it is necessarily wrong, and I always began at that assumption and go on from there.
As an deconvert and an atheist, I’ve already been humbled with the knowledge that something I hold to be true could be irrevocably wrong. I understand the power of empiricism, and I’m open to considering evidence that contradicts my core beliefs. I know I don’t have all the answers, and that it’s silly to think a book written more than 1500 years ago would have them either. There’s wisdom in acknowledging that you don’t (and can’t) know everything, I think.
These aren’t the only reasons; these are just the ones that came readily to mind. But if these aren’t signs that I’m more intelligent now, I don’t know what would be.
I posted a link to this on Twitter. I got a response from a Christian that I find illustrative:
him: Do you mean smart as higher IQ smart.
me: No, I mean ‘smarter’ as in ‘knowing whether or not my beliefs are likely true.’ Read the post; all will be made clear.
him: So you believe that what u believe is the total truth?
me: your answer is in the title of the first major point in the post. You didn’t even have to scroll down.
Some Christians don’t need to read anything to argue against it… they just instantly assume they know what’s going to be said and skip past everything but the first few lines. Sigh… I used to do this.