Conversations in the Clubhouse of Truly Smart People

The title of this post alludes to the first few paragraphs of another I made recently (July 21, 2008): “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism.” Briefly put, I there compared becoming an atheist during my high school years to joining an imaginary elite society I’d glimpsed through reading Bertrand Russell and other such thinkers: The Club of Truly Smart People.

Now, back in those ancient days of my youth, there was no internet (no personal computers even) to provide access to and communication with the whole world. Living as I did in Dallas County, Texas, I really had no contact with other atheists or agnostics, known to me as such, until I went away to college. Well, I had at least one friend whom I think I had pretty well convinced of the irrationality of religion (God forgive me), but there was certainly no organized and open community of atheists. It was partly the ideal and semi-underground quality of membership in the imaginary club that gave it so much prestige in my mind. I should add that I did not wish for this to be a permanent condition. I looked forward to meeting others who shared my views and hoped that I would live to see progress toward the dispelling of the religious superstition that somehow still lived on in peoples’ minds.

I viewed religion and racial prejudice and discrimination in pretty much the same way, and even as being closely tied together, since I knew so many people who believed both in God and racial segregation, which was manifestly unjust in practice. This was pre-Civil-Rights-Law Texas, which was an apartheid society with oppressive government-enforced separation of races, basically an insane world view that it’s hard even to conceive of now.

As so often happens, I’m seeing things more clearly as I write about them. That connection in my mind between racism and religion was no doubt one of the factors that pushed religion into the category of being too unacceptably backward for further consideration. At the same time, I would have acknowledged that my personal rejection of racism was mainly based on the clear teachings of Christianity. I might note that my inability to come up with a satisfactory non-religious source for ethics and morality remained a problem for me until my conversion.

These times are very different. Partly, I’m sure, as a defensive response to Biblical literalists’ efforts to force inclusion of “Creation Science” in school textbooks and the perceived growth of the “Religious Right” as a political force, something of an antireligious movement has come into being that goes well beyond defense of science teaching or support for legal abortion. The number of atheistic and antireligious books appearing in recent years certainly far exceeds anything I’ve seen in decades past. Of course the internet and the blog phenomenon have made it easy for like-minded people to communicate and congregate virtually online, and atheists have taken advantage of the opportunity.

I recently did a little web surfing through atheist-oriented websites. Although my club analogy for smokers and atheists was fanciful, atheism as a sort of club (atheists strongly object to its being called a religion) actually makes a good deal of sense these days, at least for those who publicly define themselves as atheists and join together to promote and defend their views. It’s worth noting that the people that frequent atheist blogs and web sites are probably no more typical of atheists than the regulars on the Sons of Sam Horn web site are of average Red Sox fans, to take an example close to my home. From what I’ve observed, online atheists probably would agree that their society of non-believers does amount to The Club of Truly Smart People. Let this not be taken to mean that there are not, for example, Christian circles that view themselves as The Club of the Truly Saved People.

One thing I discovered in my surfing is that the atheists’ club now has an official emblem, a red letter A (get it?) that bloggers can post on their web pages to indicate their club membership. The show-the-A push is part of a campaign, evidently led by Richard Dawkins (a quote of whose I critiqued in my previous post), to have atheists “come out” as such. Dawkins apparently sees a commercial opportunity in atheism, since he has a web site that sells not only his books but tee shirts bearing the atheist logo and worn in the ads by nice-looking female models. I know it’s just me, but I was reminded of the cover of my old paperback copy of 1984 which featured a woman with an Anti-Sex League tee shirt.

One of the atheist blogs I encountered was called The Friendly Atheist. Its then most recent post asked readers to respond to the question “What Christian Arguments Could Use a Good, Short Answers?” This was taken by most of the commenters to call for humorous responses. Perhaps it was the blog’s name that invited me to post in the comments section the following off-topic entry:

July 22, 2008 at 9:29 am

Since this is the “Friendly” Atheist site, I dare to write here as a former atheist, current friendly theist. I’d just like to remind everyone that the question of God’s existence is really the most important one we have to answer, since it determines whether or not we find purpose in the universe. There is not really a competition between atheists and theists. There are arguments for God that involve no references to scripture of any kind. I invite you to read my post On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism for something about my personal experience.

I can see now that this was a bit like coming into the club house and telling the club members to stop horsing around and get serious about leaving the club to join its big rival. I wouldn’t have done it on a normal day, but I was still in the frame of mind in which the writing of my piece had left me.

The deed was done. How would they respond? I had already seen that someone had taken issue with one of the suggested anti-Christian retorts by defending (in a less than optimal way) the historicity of Jesus. He had been challenged and even ridiculed for his assertion by several commenters, but hadn’t really been abused, so I assumed that forays into the blog comment section by theists (assuming that commenter was one) were not forbidden, and were perhaps even welcome if only as a way of sharpening arguments and displaying them before other blog readers.

The full back and forth that went on between me and the other commenters can be found at Although their screen names (presumably identical to their actual names in some cases) can be seen there, and the comment section of a blog is in the nature of a public forum, I still feel more comfortable quoting commenters with the designation Commenter A etc. since they didn’t envision their comments appearing here.

The first response that I got (from Commenter A of course) explicitly welcomed me, then followed with

I am wondering if you’re going to keep posting here, or if you’re doing a one-or-two-off post. (I tend to get deep into conversations with new posters who have provocative questions… then they leave!)

There followed several paragraphs, mainly attacking the notion that purpose in the universe was a meaningful idea and pointing out unsupported assumptions (in the view of Commenter A) that I had made relating to the idea of purpose. He closed with

I won’t join a church full of people who are sure until I’m sure as well.

Have you evidence?

It was only as the discussion went on that I came to realize (I’m pretty sure that I’m right) that Commenter A was not just being confrontational, which is how it had seemed, but was genuinely if naively hoping to obtain such convincing evidence. His machinegunner’s approach to firing off questions and rebuttals to supposed arguments made it pretty clear why earlier theists had left before he was satisfied though.

Commenter B came on to say that she(?) had read my “blog/essay” but still had a question:

…what made you become a theist? was it because your previous ‘worldview’ (as an atheist) carried with it “the burden of purposeless mortality”? is that the main reason?

I ask because, although your blog post/essay is quite lengthy, you never really seem to touch on the specifics of what led to your ‘conversion’.

Now, in my blog post, which Commenter B said she’d read, I had explicitly said that my personal story would have to wait for another time. I could have left it at that, but given Commenter B’s friendly, even complimentary, tone, combined with my posted comment having called forth a number of responses, I felt I probably owed them a brief account, which I provided. I don’t know if it was a good idea or not, as it evidently deflected some of them from considering the main message of my blog post, which was whether they were open to any sort of evidence for God’s existence, toward making a quick decision about whether this bare outline of my spiritual trajectory presented a convincing argument for theism.

The commenters at the Friendly Atheist blog were going to view things in terms of arguments in any case, as this excerpt from the response of Commenter C to my blog post illustrates:

You then go on to quote a few major modern atheists and discuss them. Badly, judging by the few segments I could bother to read. I was personally interested in your own spiritual journey (I already quit smoking a couple of years ago).

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t just the sheer massive length of the post that put me off. But your arguments, such as they are, mostly fit nicely into Daniel Florien’s hundreds of proofs. I commend them to you as a resource. You could have saved us both some time by simply annotating which ones you were using.

Well, let’s skip over the rather unfriendly tone; since I did after all step into the clubhouse uninvited. The part that is very typical is the reference to my “arguments” (“such as they were,” but there weren’t any!) and how there’s nothing new in them. Is Commenter C really looking for a novel argument after centuries of disputation? Perhaps, but I think he is mainly out to display his worthiness for continued membership in the Club of Truly Smart People by being able to categorize arguments for theism and refute them by mere reference.

At the same time, of course, this ability to label an argument and toss it into the already-refuted pile, also serves as a way to avoid actually considering any arguments for God’s existence, for there are not going to be any new ones. Commenter C was not alone in this; virtually all of the commenters classified arguments by name (when they didn’t suggest going to a list, as this one did.) And yet that “personally interested in your own spiritual journey” seems to be genuine, so perhaps there is another truly disappointed reader.

Commenter C closes by quoting two sentences from my blog post and commenting on them.

Final observation:

[Quoting my blog post] “Are you truly open to revelation? The best way to become open to it must be through prayer, but few are the atheists who would start from that point.”

I think I’ll let that stand as emblematic of your arguments.

I’m not sure what Commenter C thought I was arguing for in that passage or whether he understood the point I was making, which I think should have been clear from the context. Anyone that wants to can go to near the end of my blog post and find the relevant section, which was mainly devoted to asking the atheist reader to seriously consider what, if anything, would truly constitute evidence for God. The quoted passage about prayer and revelation was addressed only to anyone that might feel direct revelation to be the only satisfactory evidence. It was meant to point out the inherent contradiction in that approach since prayer (a plausible minimal condition—nothing said about a guarantee—for its success) was not something a convinced atheist would usually be open to. The whole point was to remove that approach from consideration.

Everyone that mentioned the passage about prayer took it to mean that I was recommending something I thought they wouldn’t accept, and therefore leaving them without a prayer, so to speak. My inability to get my point across (judging from the responses, anyway) was very frustrating, but probably had as much to do with their mind-set and expectations as my expository skill.

Commenter A returned to have his say on the same quote about prayer, which he probably had seen only as quoted out of context:

To put it short and snappy: I prayed. Nothing happened. I’ve tried it several times, in several ways described by believers as the way to get certain results. When they failed, others told me I did it wrong. Must I repeat this attempt with each and every ‘god’ and ‘conception of God’ believed in by thousands of generations of humanity?

Because if you excuse me, I’ve got some living to do before I die. I’ll leave the chasing of ghosts to the Ghostbusters.

I’d say that the experience of Commenter A points to the need for trying another approach, but I feel the disappointment; and his desire for knowledge of God is apparent. I also wonder if there were really “believers” that told him that a specific way of praying would lead to “certain results.” I’m not doubting his word, just hoping there was a misunderstanding.

It seemed to be a bit disconcerting to some of the current members of The Club to encounter a former member that had not only resigned from membership but had, so to speak, joined the rival club. They responded in various ways to this puzzling phenomenon.

Commenter D in particular questioned my veracity. He wasn’t at all sure that I really had ever been a member:

After looking into Lee Strobel and his “Half-Case For Christ”, I am pretty skeptical of people who claim to be former atheists.

Others (let’s start with Commenter E) thought the club was clearly better off without me, as I had never belonged in it in the first place, not having the guts for it:

You wanted comfort, and there was none, so you switched beliefs to one that comforted you. Okay, so you’re weak. I can understand that, but don’t use it as an argument for theism.

Or (Commenter E again) sufficient breadth of intellect:

Dude, it’s clear to me that you never thought through your atheism. You were just young, arrogant, and ignorant. You are a narrow thinker; probably good for a work-a-day physicist, but not for someone tackling a subject like the existence of god.

Well, my being young and immature when I first became an atheist was one of the main points of my original blog post. As I lived, matured, and thought more, over decades, I finally was able to break free (with God’s help, I believe) from the mind-set that admits no possibility of the spiritual. But that hardly conveys all that went on, which I have pretty well committed to describing through this blog in more detail. Of course I have my own opinion about what constitutes narrow thinking—and arrogance, for that matter.

Commenter F expressed sentiments similar to the ones above on the inadequacy of my education and manliness to sustain my club membership:

…It just seems as though you were not an educated atheist back when you still were. I will wholeheartedly agree with you that the Universe is a wonderful place; I’ll even admit that I once thought as you do, and am still tempted to explain all this wonder by believing in something that I wish to be true, but is likely not. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows yet, just how all this works as it does. We may never crack the code, but that’s no reason to start dreaming up gods to make us sleep better at night.…I say, use your brain like a man (sorry women). Some things are difficult to accept–so what, do we just avoid them and prefer comforting beliefs, shut our eyes and whistle past the graveyard?

The interesting thing about the excerpt from Commenter F just quoted is that it acknowledges that the absence of God is difficult to accept, that God’s existence is something to wish for. It was this implicit longing for God that I was trying to point out (in my blog post) in the writings of Weinberg and Dawkins. I believe this is a universal longing innate in all thinking creatures because we are creatures of God. This very longing is in itself a reason seriously to consider God’s existence. I say this knowing it is the kind of quantum-tunneling statement (metaphorically speaking) that escapes the classical confines of the proof-demanding atheist.

Commenter F speculated that it was a genetic defect that had caused me to drop out of the club:

You were bothered by a Universe with no purpose, and now you feel better. Same old things. Reading your words makes me consider again the idea that propensity to believe in religions may be genetic.

Commenter A seemed to become increasingly troubled by my continuing to respond to comments, though he was the one that had initially expressed the hope that I not leave after only a couple of posts.

Treat us like human beings here. Don’t come here to chortle “ho ho ho, I once thought as you did, ho ho ho” and tell us where we’ve got it all wrong.

I’m not sure what your goals here are. If they are conversation, you’re failing. If they are conversion, you’re failing. If they are to convince us that you’re a deep thinker, you’re failing.

So why are you here? Is it to make yourself feel superior by dangling some meat over the edge of the dinner table to see if the dogs jump?

It’s almost as though Commenter A thinks I am taunting him by withholding some secret key to enlightenment, or pretending to do so. The interested reader can go to the full comments to see how little my words justified this kind of response. I wish Commenter A well in his spiritual quest, though I don’t think I have much more to contribute to it at this point. However, I invite him or anyone else interested in a more private conversation to email me.

Having been rebuked several times by the “friendlies” over the length of my posts, I think I will not get into our dialog, for now at least. I assume the whole comment section is still available for those that are interested.

I don’t regret having had the conversation “in the clubhouse,” though I don’t plan to make a habit of it. I’ll let my readers judge how well the excerpts of comments I’ve quoted (and the full set) fit in with the notion of some atheists’ seeing themselves as constituting The Club of Truly Smart People. Though most commenters had trouble suppressing their scorn for this turncoat and some didn’t try, I don’t hold it against them. Comment sections do not bring out the best in people for a number of reasons.

I detect in some of the comments disappointment or even resentment that I had no new and irrefutable argument or scientific evidence for God’s existence. I can only repeat that I claim no new evidence, even as I urge everyone to examine seriously and deeply all the circumstantial evidence in this ultimate mystery. I totally reject the idea, expressed by a number of commenters, that we choose whether to believe in God. We do, however, choose whether to strive for an open mind and what kind of evidence to consider. I again recommend the Polkinghorne book Belief in God in an Age of Science as a possible starting point.

I’m planning to take a break from metaphysical questions, but sometimes they are hard to escape, so we’ll see how it goes. That Michael Phelps can really swim, can’t he?

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