Wednesday, July 24, 2013


One thing that I've often noticed with mutually antagonistic groups is that they have a distinct tendency to talk past one another, even while they seek to refute each other. Last month, one Larry Alex Taunton penned an article for The Atlantic in which he prescribed that churches be more authentic in their dealings with young people if they wanted to stem the flight of youth into apostasy. It was an interesting enough article, even if it raised some red flags for me. Apparently, I wasn't the only one with concerns. To wit:

When Larry Alex Taunton talked to young atheists about why they left Christianity, he interpreted their objections as matters of style, not substance. That's not accurate or fair.
Jeffrey Tayler then proceeds to lay out why he feels that Mr. Taunton's "deeply problematic findings" serve to "peremptorily dismiss these atheists' valid objections and present snippets from the interviews in such a way as to insult the sincerity of their nonbelief and foreclose other possible explanations for their apostasy."

But there is an assumption there, that Mr. Tayler cannot, since he does not know the people in question, back up; namely that Mr. Taunton arrived at an incorrect understanding of why the particular subset of atheists that he speaks of left Christianity. The fact that that a nonbeliever may understand Mr. Taunton's conclusion (as presented by Mr. Tayler) "that if church services had been more 'meaningful' or if preachers had preached more convincingly, these lost sheep might never have strayed from the flock," to be conveniently self-serving does not mean that it was necessarily insincere. Or, more simply, we can't know, given the information at hand, that it was inaccurate.

To a degree, both Messrs. Taunton and Tayler make the same error - they treat the small handful of people that Mr. Taunton speaks of as being representative of a much larger community of people. Mr. Taunton may be absolutely correct about that small group. That doesn't mean that theirs is a majority or even a plurality opinion. As I noted at the time, "The young woman who decides that the Christian God is non-existent because a specific prayer wasn't answered or disavows a belief in the afterlife because she wants a hated relative consigned to oblivion, is not the same as someone who doesn't believe in something because the burden of proof they ask for has not been met." Perhaps what's at work is as simple as self-selection bias - the group of people who would find it worth their while to speak to someone who actively seeks a way to prevent others from following their path just may be those who would rather not have walked it in the first place. Personally, I felt that Mr. Taunton, the Fixed Point Foundation or both had likely engaged in a bit of cherry-picking, focusing in on those people, out of the "flood of enquiries" that were received, that were most likely to tell them what they may or may not have realized that they would be receptive to.

In any event, I'm not sure it makes a difference, except to the degree that, just as Mr. Taunton finds atheism "historically naive and potentially dangerous," Mr. Tayler finds that Christianity requires one to believe "improbable and troubling stories." For each then, they are playing a zero-sum game, where any member of one camp is to be jealously guarded and protected from the destructive blandishments of the opposition. Otherwise, is it at all relevant what (or why) Mr. Taunton, or anyone else, believes or disbelieves?

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