It seems that some religious fundamentalists are so threatened by atheists, and so befuddled about what to say in reply, that they need special iPhone apps to provide snappy comebacks for the village or the campus atheist in their midst. And there is also an app, the “BibleThumper,” for combative atheists who want to keep a collection of silly Bible verses close at hand should they be needed to demolish the arguments of an app-dependent Christian fundamentalist.This is not a tale of atheism or religious fundamentalism but of the sorry state of a culture in which rhetorical and analytical skills have become so dumbed-down that people cannot even argue about big issues that people have been arguing about for millennia without digital prompts.
Want to convince a believer that the miracles depicted in the Bible never happened? “The Atheist Pocket Debater,” according to a roundup of supernatural and skeptical apps in The New York Times, advises atheists to argue that because events like Moses’s parting of the Red Sea aren’t happening today, it’s irrational to believe that they happened long ago. Any atheist who needs to fall back on an argument this stupid ought to go back to school. Any true believer (if he or she isn’t too tongue-tied to speak without consulting an app) would instantly answer, “But, Mr. or Ms. Atheist, miracles are happening today, all around us. You just don’t realize it.” Believers consider it a “miracle” if their house is spared by a tornado, and as for their neighbor’s house being destroyed–oh, never mind. It’s a “miracle”–certainly one more important than the parting of the Red Sea–if cancer chemotherapy has kept them alive for five years when their doctor said they’d be dead in five months, and never mind about the woman down the block who just died of breast cancer and left two little children behind. But of course, there’s probably an app that explains the theodicy problem too.
As for believers, a Christian publishing company’s app tells them just what to say if they are called “narrow-minded” for asserting that faith in Jesus is the only path to salvation. The believer’s immediate answer, the app suggests, should be a question: “What do you mean by narrow-minded?” Ah yes, the old answer-a-question-with-a-question gambit. This is also a tactic favored by adulterers. “Just tell me the truth, are you cheating on me?” “What do you mean by `cheating?’” Note to the incurably dense: if anyone asks you to define narrow-mindedness or cheating, he wants to evade your question.
I am not a fan, as close readers of this column will know, of arguments about religion or atheism. I don’t think that people “lose” their faith because they have read a convincing argument by Susan Jacoby. That so many fundamentalist Christian leaders think their flock will be destroyed by those wolves, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, seems to me to attest only to a deep underlying insecurity beneath all of the aggressive biblical literalism in American society. I wouldn’t say–how could any writer like this maxim?–that no girl was ever ruined by a book, but most books that seem life-changing exert their effect by touching on needs and doubts that the reader has already experienced but has never before allowed to surface.
What is so demoralizing about these Christian and atheist apps is that they attest to a loss of cultural memory, and the capacity for sustained thought, that have invaded every aspect of our intellectual lives. In his recently published book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr observes that “when we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even identity.” I don’t know what to make of Christians who bolster their faith in an argument with an unbeliever by parroting the “anthropic principle,” which asserts that the complexity of the world is such that it is mathematically impossible for our surroundings to be an accident. This is, of course, the argument for “Intelligent Design” over evolution. On the contrary: the complexity of the universe, beginning with our bodies, is the strongest argument for evolution over design. The classic medical example is the body’s need for six different proteins to work properly in order for blood to clot. If just one is out of whack, you will bleed to death too rapidly to be helped. Only an incompetent designer could have thought this was a good idea.
The faith of the religious–and their knowledge of even their own religion–must be weak indeed if they need an app to defend their core beliefs. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an On Faith contributor, told the Times, “There is not one student on this campus who doesn’t have at least one person in his circle of family and friends voicing these (skeptical) ideas.” Mohler hopes that the new apps can give believers tools for answering the skeptics. “The app store is our new public commons,” he said. To which I say, God help us all.
The app offers nothing more than rote answers for people who are increasingly unable to think for themselves and who lack the base of knowledge that allows one to engage in intellectual and philosophical discourse on what used to be an adult level. I never thought I would be nostalgic for high-minded college sophomores excited by their first encounters with Plato, Neitzsche, Augustine, or that greatest philosopher of all, Groucho Marx. (“Now there sits a man with an open mind. You can feel the draft from here.”) But at least those philosophy-stuffed sophomores had actually read something and tried to think something through instead of consulting a $1.99 app.
Believers and atheists poring over their iPhones to “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God have one thing in common: if they’re driving, they’re more likely to cause an accident and kill you, thereby rendering all further theological argument moot. Or is that all part of God’s plan?