Pastor Herb Swanson rationalizes his cowardice

In a post from earlier today (which, by the time this is published, will be tomorrow), I linked a three part response to an old post of mine about the truthiness of religion.  I tried to initiate a dialogue with Pastor Swanson about some of the errors in his analysis of my views in order to try and dispel common misunderstandings of (new) atheist views.   I think it’s important to keep open and honest dialogue with people of other beliefs in order to see if understanding is possible, even if agreement is not.  However, it was pretty obvious to me from his early responses that he was not taking me seriously and had no real interest in dialogue, but I went ahead in good…faith…and tried to articulate my thoughts to him via email.

But after some back-and-forth, I was not getting any of his thought back; no responses to my criticism at all.  Not completely perturbed, I decided to continue composing my thoughts concerning what I would like theist leaders,  like him, to understand about atheists.  I was generally curious if he understood what I had to say or if they would seem strange or interesting to him.  But rather than get any response of substance for day or so of email correspondence, he finally emailed me quoting what I said at the bottom of my earlier blog post, apparently ignoring the content of my emails altogether.  The entirety of his most recent email was the following:

To quote you regarding the Rev. Herb Swanson, “I will hope to get some actual dialogue going with him, because he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is all about.”  Serious dialogue requires trust, which does not begin with putting the dialogue partner in a box labeled, “just another theist.”  I’ve engaged in a fair amount of dialogue with people of other faiths, Buddhist mostly but with Muslims as well, and this is not the way its done.  I appreciate your desire to instruct me and will take to heart the point that there’s more for me to learn.  Actually, I knew that anyway.  But, all of this has only encouraged me to stay clear of the battle you new atheist guys are engaged in as I seek to make sense out of how scientific thought and developments in science can help me better understand and express my faith.  Evolutionary theology – not sure what it means yet, but that’s the sort of thing I’m really interested in – process theology stuff.
Well, any way, don’t see that this is going to work.  Too bad.  But, as I say my plate is really full anyway.  Gee whiz.  Just another theist.  Really?  My bad.  Peace, Herb Swanson

OK, I admit that the choice of words “he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is” may not have been ideal.  But what is really frustrating is that the content of my emails was ignored because of it.  Again, it’s about tone.  Just like the arguments between the accomodationists and us gnu atheists, there is no addressing the actual content.  It seems to be mere rationalization of not wanting to address any actual content; we are so fundamentalist, so angry, and so unworthy of their ecumenical and respectful character that they merely have to quote a seemingly disrespectful phrase and wash their hands of us.


So, for greater context, and put this in the public record, I want to publish my attempts to articulate my ideas to Pastor Swanson.  What will follow below are the emails which we both sent after some initial friendly correspondence between us.  After making some comments about how I was disappointed to see no comments were allowed on his blog and that his readers would not see my responses, he wrote me saying:

Hi Shaun,
I appreciate your concern.  Let’s see where this goes, if anywhere; and if our exchanges actually prove fruitful, one way or another your concerns will get shared with “my” readers (never thought of folks who read the blog that way, I guess).  We’ll see.  Herb

This was after the email, quoted in its entirety from earlier today (it’s actually yesterday as of now), in which I gave him a lot of substance to which to respond.  I assumed at the time that he had been busy, and that may actually have been the case.  So,with that assumption I wrote back to him the following:

I’ll share an oft-repeated truism which is popular amoung the atheist community, especually around discussions between atheists and theists.  When you debate (or discuss) a topic with someone with whom you disagree (or with whom you expect to disagree, at least), the points you make are not for the sake of the person with whom you dialogue, rather they are for the people listening or reading.

The running assumption behind this idea is that you are almost certainly not going to change the mind of one defending their position.  There is something about the structure of our brains which does not allow our opinions to be changed while in a discussion, or at least to make it extremely rare.  Being aware of this, I recognize that while we may learn things about the other’s perspective, which is valuable in itself, I have no expectation to convince you of anything.  At this point, I think my goal is to have you understand my position as a new/gnu atheist, and not for you to agree with me about anything.  This way, ideally, when you speak to your audience (whether it a congregation or your blog readers), you will have a more rounded perspective on what at least some atheists say.

I say that knowing you will almost certainly misunderstand essential elements of my worldview no matter how clearly I explain myself, as even porfessional apologists and debators still get so much wrong no matter how often they are corrected about the opinions of their debate opponent’s position.

I blog for the readers.  And those who read my blog are my readers, menaing that for the most part they tend to agree with me.  I’d bet that most of your repeat readers agree with you more often than not.  The down side of lack of comments means that they will see, by necessity, less dissent than they would otherwise.  They see one side of the argument, with no response.  Of course there will be trolls, assholes, and irrational people who say stupid and annoying things.  But I think that this is a fair price for free speech.

In any case, I will look forward to talking with you.

To which he responded, within a half-hour:

Hi Shaun,
OK.  So what is it you’d like to have me understand?  Herb

Ok, so now I have written two emails with considerable substance, and have gotten nothing back but meta-discussion about talking more…possibly…if it is fruitful.  A little frustrated by this, I decide to just bear down and articulate more thoughts, hoping he will keep in mind what I have already said.  here is the email I composed shortly after that one-line email above:

Well, I was hoping to get some response to my initial email.  I tried to correct some of the claims you made in your posts, and I was wondering what you thought of what I said.  But, ok, I’ll spell out some of the big issues for you.

Generally, I want you to understand that many of the people in the atheist community are people of genuine desire to understand the world around them.  Most of them are former theists, usually former Christians.  I’m an exemption to this rule, but I wanted to point that out.

Most atheists I have met do not make any absolute claims about the existence of any gods.  The definition of atheism is (And this is a little bit of a controversy, as some atheists have a different definition) someone who lacks beliefs in any gods.  Most atheists would be open to new evidence, others’ experiences, and would be very open to friendly discussion.  I, for example, have been having conversations with theists for many years, and consider myself very experienced in such conversations.

Many atheists, such as myself, primarily identify as skeptics (not to be confused with cynics).  Our epistemological view is one of saying that for something to be considered true, it has to be demonstrated empirically.  It is derived from the methodological naturalism necessary in science; science can only deal with physical things by definition.  The metaphysical naturalism that I hold as true I reach via philosophical argument, and is not an absolute conclusion.  I simply see no reason to believe anything non-physical exists; it does not explain anything, and the gaps in our knowledge cannot be logically filled with claims of supernaturalism without justification.  I simply don’t see such justification.

This skepticism is where the use of science and empiricism comes into play, and why I think many people assume (as you did) that we use the scientific method the same way that literalists use their (more absolute version of) faith.  As skeptics, we demand a higher criteria for belief in things.  We hold the idea that the more extravagant the claim, the more quality the evidence has to be.  And because we don’t see any method which [can] compete with that of empirical science, we use it primarily, perhaps exclusively.  We are, of course, wiling to consider new evidence, but the use of another method will have to be demonstrated as useful in some way before it can be taken seriously.

You should also understand that not all atheists are skeptics, and that many of them will have bad reasons and bad arguments for their lack of belief.  I am as critical of them, upon talking with them, as I am of anyone else.  We need to keep our own house clean.

Most atheists are not strictly logical; we are not Vulcan-like, eschewing emotional considerations because they are all delusions or anything like that.  While some atheists can be largely rational, sometimes seemingly too rational, it is because we appreciate reason-based conversations with people who challenge us intellectually.  We are often people who argue with each other about just about anything, because we are interested in the truth and don’t mind furious debates.  We are also often emotionally open, loving, compassionate, and generous.

We do not hate Christians or have any ill feelings for them, in general.  Now, we have ire for some Christians (say the Westboro Baptist Church), but our dislike is directed at the theology, not the people.  We “new atheists” are particularly concerned with the theology because we genuinely believe, upon reflection based upon experience, that many theological ideas [are] not only are harmful to many things we value, but seem simply untrue.  That is, even if religious ideas inspire people to be better and so forth, we realize that these personal growth and transcending experiences are possible without the theological baggage which we find lacking in moral and intellectual value.

That is, we know theology.  Not all of us went to seminary, but many of us did.  I, personally, have studied Christian history extensively and have read the Bible completely (much of it several times) and seek to understand different religious traditions as an anthropological exercise, among other reasons.  It is only after this experience with theology, Christian culture, and the philosophical arguments can we become confident (often seen as arrogance) in our atheism.  Quite simply, we are familiar with apologetics, usually have had hundreds of conversations with believers (whether family, friends, or otherwise), and get frustrated that they usually know less than we do about the religious tradition they follow.  Studies have shown that atheists have a better understanding of religious beliefs than the religious.  Thus we often feel, and often are, more educated and knowledgeable about religion in general.  And when we talk with the educated believers, we at least have a common share of information, even if we disagree about it.

Finally, and this is more specific to new atheists in particular, we view so-called “sophisticated theology” as often linguistic salad; postmodern meaninglessness.  As a philosopher, I am familiar with postmodern philosophy, and the modern theology I have read, whether it is process theology or otherwise, seems to be of the same caliber.  We are interested in the truth as it can be gleaned through the best intellectual methods we have developed.  We don’t respect faith, as even if it is not the absolutist faith of literalists, it still points to the abjuring of reason for the sake of belief.  As Aquinas said, faith precedes reason, and as Luther said, reason is a whore.

It is there where I think our worldviews differ the strongest.  Our strong words that look so absolutist and angry at this point in the conversation are due to the fact that criticism of each of our most important (“sacred”) values always looks more aggressive than they really are.  There simply is no way to say something critical of someone’s values while sounding nice, which means when we talk about this strongest of distinctions between worldviews emotions become more exposed. We are not trying to be offensive, we just can’t say what we really think without causing offense.  It’s unavoidable, but we have to be honest anyway because for us, respect means honesty.

And in response to that, I only get a complaint about an admittedly poor choice of words and the implication that there really is no point in continuing the dialogue (the first quoted response above).  Not even an attempt to respond to the content of my emails which I spent a little time working on.  It really, honestly, hurts my feelings a little. And so I responded with a short email of my own:


What is frustrating about that is that you focus on one line, taken in a context in which it was not meant, and ignore the vast content I tried to articulate.  It is not me that does not want to dialogue.  Rationalize it as you like.


Snarky, I know, but at this point it is obvious that this is not a person who wants to dialogue.  He will make noises about us being absolutist and like the literalists, and I’m sure he has many reasons…or something…for his faith, but I see none of it.  I only see the arrogance that we atheists are accused of.  I only see an up-turned nose at my direction, as I am simply not worthy to talk with.   I’m simply too rude, too harsh, to take seriously.  He’s “just some theist,” and so I’m just some atheist.  Too bad, indeed.

This is reminiscent of the charges by theologians who say that (for example) Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was insufficiently versed in sophisticated theology to be a serious criticism of theology.  Eric McDonald has been doing a series of posts about the reviews of Dawkin’s famous book (here is a recent example), and has pointed out that there really is no substance worth being versed in.  Jerry Coyne has been making the same kind of point for quite a while now, as well.  And having some familiarity with theology myself, I easily agree with this diagnosis of theology being unworthy of much attention.  I suppose that is how Pastor Swanson views me.  I suppose my sophisticated atheism is really mere postmodernist dribble, rationalizing my desire to be disobedient to god and to live in sin.  I suppose there is no real substance, no real subject at all, to my thoughts.  Because otherwise Pastor Herb Swanson is merely taking the easy road out of a situation he does not want wade into.  The atheist pool is unclean, distasteful, and vile.  Or, perhaps,  he is cowardly rationalizing a reason to ignore me and my ilk.

Yet, still, he will post a part 4 of his series in response to my elder post.  Still no comments allowed, and so still no dissent visible.

In other words, like just another theist.

And yes, this time I meant to be offensive.  I see no reason to be otherwise at this point.  Cowardice deserves no respect.