Evangelism, disbelief, and being ‘without excuse’

July 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

Christians who indulge in evangelism and apologetics often hold to a thesis of disbelief as epistemic pathology – that disbelief is the result of some culpable error of judgment. Such an attitude is a poor fit for the facts and counter productive to the cause of evangelism. Ironically, the urge of these people to pathologize disagreement is diagnostic of their own epistemic pathology.

Two tales of disbelief

Popular evangelism and apologetics seems to give a story of disbelief which is completely different to that told by actual disbelievers.

Take as one example Christianity Explored, a program run by the UCCF (University and Colleges Christian Fellowship), and written by Rico Tice. Here’s a few snippets from the Leader’s guide:

The reason why so many reject the Gospel is that the devil is at work preventing people people from recognizing who Jesus is.

The devil blinds people by making them chase after the things of this world, which are passing away, and which cannot save them. Their concerns are totally confined to the here and now: the career, the family, the mortgage, the relationship. They are blind to anything beyond that.

There will be those who delight us by turning up in the first week, but who never come again. There will be those who joyfully pray the prayer of commitment in Week 7 but, because of family pressure, they soon decide it’s just not worth the trouble. Then there are those who diligently attend each week of the course but decide right at the end that their material possessions mean more to them than anything they’ve heard.

[Church-based] events are for people who think that Christianity is untrue. People who think like this are unlikely to have heard the gospel preached in years, if at all.

One explanation is absent: that non-believers don’t believe because, after some enquiry, they think it is false. This sort of considered rejection is never mooted. The story, instead, is something like this:

The evangelical tale – Epistemic Pathology: People do not disbelieve for good reasons. Rather, the motivation for their disbelief can be located in some defective belief-forming practice: be that interference by spiritual enemies, a love of worldly matters, ignorance, or something else.1

This attitude – which we might call pathologizing disbelief is common. See for example Paul Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless, Speigel’s Making of an Atheist or a whole laundry list from Convervapeadia. The best example, of course, is Romans 1:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Romans 1: 18-23. NIV.

Disbelievers tell another story. Commonly, they cite lack of evidence or evidence against: indeed, some studies on deconversion narratives have them talk about little else.2 Whole communities on the internet are devoted to Atheism or leaving Christianity, and the story they tell is not of Christianity being too demanding, nor of it being morally offensive (although there’s that too) but of it simply being false. So they’d say something else:

The disbeliever tale – Honest Enquiry: The principal cause of disbelief is of someone, after honest enquiry, concluding that Christianity is false.

In other words, they think their conclusion that Christianity is false is not pathological. It may be mistaken, but this is an honest or reasonable mistake. Evangelists, on the other hand, think that the motives for disbelief are non-rational or irrational, and offer other accounts as to why people don’t believe. What’s going on?

Parochial narratives and self-serving stories

Deconversion narratives will be distorted: people will want to present themselves in a good light, and commonly the religion they left in a bad one. Hence the one-upmanship in the ‘free-thought’ community about how early one deconverted (I await the first self-report of in utero atheism). If they really did become Atheists due to daddy issues, or materialism, or love of sexual immorality, you’d hardly expect them to say so.

Yet it’s hard to see how this would always be the case. All sorts of intellectual and moral luminaries don’t believe: it is likely some of them will seem exceptions to whatever story is offered. Even though most disbelievers don’t have such expertise or insight (cf. Nu-Atheism), it’s quite another to think epistemic pathology instead of honest mistake is the cause. Many (perhaps most) believers and disbelievers lack reasons that would persuade them if they were more reflective, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made an honest jab at the truth.

Further, looking at the demographics of disbelief supports the ‘honest enquiry’ model. By and large, disbelief isn’t correlated with any major mental or moral malaise, but it does correlate with measures like IQ, academic achievement and eminence, and commitment to intellectualism.3 Attributing this to Theism being stupid and smart people ‘breaking the spell’ is simplistic, but perhaps it can support an idea that smarter, more academic and more open-minded people are more likely to call their beliefs (including religious ones) into question, and are correspondingly more likely to renounce them. Although being willing and able to perform honest enquiry about ones religious convictions won’t necessarily lead to disbelief, it would put you ‘at risk’. The epistemic pathology model simply fails to model the data of disbelief.

Logical rudeness

Back to Christianity Explored. The quotes above are not included in the literature for those taking the course, but rather for those running it. Keeping the epistemic pathology narrative ‘under wraps’ is wise. People tend to take offense at something like “You’re obviously wrong about this, and there’s no possible way you can reasonably believe it”. Still more at “You might say you’re being reasonable, but I know irrationality is really driving your disagreement with me.”

The posh word for this is ‘logical rudeness’4. Simply, it is when someone makes a claim about you which any denial or counter-argument is interpreted as further evidence in its favour. Simplest example is “You’re in denial!” “No I’m not!” “See! Right there!”. A rude hypothesis effectively condemns your opponent without the possibility of appeal: any response they make can be explained away without engagement (‘He’s just saying that because he’s in denial’).

There seems something unpleasant about telling someone they’re intellectually defective (especially absent addressing the reasons they offer). But there are other good reasons why Christianity Explored, and evangelism in general, keep their logical rudeness under wraps:

1) You have privileged ‘first person’ access to how you think, and this gives you powerful reason to think that you aren’t epistemically pathological.5 You don’t consider anyone else an epistemic peer with respect to how you think. If someone else tells you that you’re epistemically pathological, you won’t take their word over yours.6 You simply reject that out of hand, and perhaps take the speaker less seriously than before (how dare they arrogantly assume to know my mind better than myself!, etc.).

2) If a given position entails your belief forming practices are pathological, so much the worse for that position: you know that you aren’t being pathological, and so you know that position is wrong. On hearing “If Christianity is true, then your disbelief is epistemically pathological”, you’re led to simply respond “Well, I know I’m not epistemically pathological, and thus I know Christianity is false”.

3) Knowing someone thinks that you’re epistemically pathological makes you less inclined to bother talking to them. After all, if they think you’re being epistemically pathological, that substantially undermines the hope for any sort of irenic discussion. As far as they’re concerned, nothing you will say will be remotely reasonable nor motivated by an interest in the truth – it is no more worthy of serious consideration than the ravings of a lunatic. They might still be motivated to talk to you, or even provide the façade of serious engagement (that might be the best way to cure your epistemic pathology, or at least stop it spreading to others), but they are unable to ingenuously ‘take you seriously’. Most would rather spend their time talking to someone who does.

Pathologizing the pathologizers

The evangelical ‘disbelief-as-pathology’ narrative is both refuted by available evidence and is counter-productive for evangelism. There’s one more sting in the tail: it is suggestive of epistemic pathology itself.

Why? Because it is all too easy to explain away instead of engage, to dismiss doubters instead of disarming them, to be parochial instead of persuasive. Resorting to rudeness suggests that the ideas can’t stand on their own two feet in the marketplace of ideas: that the rude narrative shores them up against all the counter-veiling evidence by insulating the believers from what others have to say. Far from being annoyed at being dismissed out of hand, we should be happy that forcing someone to resort to these stories: it is intellectual capitulation by any other name.

Would saying this commit the same fault as the evangelist? No. So long as this isn’t relied upon to reject what they have to say, and is only deployed once rudeness is resorted to. It needs to be shown on merit that the rude narrative is implausible – it can’t be dismissed just because it is rude. In the same way, the entire problem of that pathologizing pathology is abrogated if evangelists can give good reasons on merit to believe what they do: to present the great reasons for which disagreement really has no excuse.

To whose benefit, Evangelism?

This tends not to occur, at least at the popular level. A skim through Christianity Explored devotes very little effort to showing Christianity to be true: the same applies for the alpha course. There also seems to be an obsession with ‘the culture’: a secular city of people who say un-Christlike things and need to be corrected. Yet people don’t just believe what they do through cultural inertia: I’m confident most people see no problem with homosexuality not because society told them so but because they see no problem with homosexuality. It seems by skipping straight to rudeness, evangelists relieve themselves of the tricky task of arguing for their position: they hoist up the victory flag whilst the enemy fleet is in full view.

I wonder to what extent evangelism is a defensive pursuit. That, instead of trying to convince believers, it is more to shore up the beliefs of those who evangelize. Perhaps the exercise of evangelism helps protect a community of believers.


Suber P (2002) Logical Rudeness. [Modified from Suber P Logical Rudeness, in Bartlet PJ, Suber P (1987) Self Reference: Reflections on Reflexivity. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers

Wright BRE, Giovanelli D, Dolan EG, et al. (2007) Explaining Deconversion from Christianity: Evidence from On-Line Narratives. [Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association

1 Excursus: Epistemic fault. We might want to plot out the following three cases of epistemic error/fault/whatever.

Reasonable (but mistaken) belief: Justified beliefs need not be true. Suppose stacks of evidence (DNA, witnesses, motivation, etc) link you to a murder. Yet you did not commit the murder – I know this because I was with you throughout the day of the crime. To my horror, I realize that, despite my testimony to the contrary, a reasonable jury would convict you on the available evidence. Their judgement is from a good epistemic method executed properly, yet nonetheless isn’t true.

Erroneous belief: Perhaps ‘mistake in good faith’. One’s following appropriate epistemic norms, and yet has made a mistake somewhere. Mucking up a maths test is one example, various bioethical flashpoints another: although one considers those who disagree with you on eg. Euthanasia mistaken, one usually charitably assumes they are making a good faith attempt to get at ethical truth, even if they’ve arrived at a mistaken conclusion.

Pathological belief: Beliefs which are formed through flagrant violation of the appropriate epistemic norms. Bigotry, spite, arrant ignorance and others would be epistemic pathologies. They don’t point one towards the truth.

3 Beit-Hallahmi (2007) gives a nice review of the data. The studies cited show that intellectualism also correlates strongly with disbelief: those who see themselves as intellectuals or show particular regard for intellectual virtues were more likely to disbelieve. This is exactly what would be expected on an honest inquiry model.

5 My hunch is that having any opinion on the matter in question implies commitment to thinking you aren’t being pathological about it. If you did think you were pathological, you simply shouldn’t trust your beliefs.

6 Obviously, if, in fact you are pathological, then you’d still protest your innocence: so someone convinced of your pathology won’t be swayed at your assertion you aren’t pathological. However, the point is simply that you aren’t going to credit accusations of epistemic pathology over your first-person access of your faculties absent very good reasons why.


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