An Important Factor In Understanding Anti-theism's Trust Issues

As Christian apologists we naturally get annoyed at various leaps of anti-logic thrown around by our opponents. But there's an important psychological factor frequently involved here, which we should keep in mind -- and I'm not talking about a factor worthy of derision either.

To make a potentially long article much shorter (a relevant concern when I'm the author {wry g}), and to also give credit where it's due, let me first link to this July 26 commentary article at The Federalist, written by Denise C. McAllister, on why Sansa Stark -- a fictional character of G.R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels (better known nowadays by its TV series title Game of Thrones) -- can't bring herself to trust one of the only clearly good characters in the whole story, her half-brother Jon Snow.

McAllister's thesis, which I think is sound, is that this isn't just convenient plot tension from Martin (and/or the screenwriters, so far as the show may be deviating now from the books having passed them as its source material recently). It's a psychologically realistic behavior from someone who has been so abused in her life that she finds it highly difficult to trust anyone again -- even where she could have rational reasons for doing so.

Nor is this a problem external to McAllister as a sympathetic observer: she herself has suffered several kinds of physical abuse and sexual assault, as she mentions in the article, and as she goes into more detail about here. (Be aware that this later article, from October this year, is also highly political and critical of the Clinton campaign and the Obamas. Reading it isn't necessary for this article, but I thought it important to reference for context.)

Anyone who has now read McA's earlier article, should be able to make a reasonable and correct guess about what I'm going to follow up on: her finale, where she writes that, with difficulty, she has come to accept that only God is both perfect in love and strong enough to do something about it, and so serves as a standard for her to work from in coming to trust (both provisionally and actually) creatures who are necessarily less perfect in love and less able to protect others against abuse. "If we truly want to be happy, if we truly want to overcome the effects of abuse, we need to draw close to the One who loves us perfectly and choose to let down our stony guards and open our hearts to others."

What a sceptic (particularly) will notice quickly in the finale to her argument, is that she runs directly foul of typical anti-theistic arguments from evil (and/or from inconvenient suffering more generally). She doesn't blame her mother anymore for not protecting her from her father even though she once regarded her mother as somewhat complicit, because her mother didn't have the ability to stop what was happening.

Most anti-theists, not merely disbelievers in the existence of God (of a Judeo-Christian version anyway) but morally (or at least personally, depending on their beliefs about morality per se) opposed to the idea of theism, will quickly observe and retort that if the God she believes in exists, then God, unlike her mother, could have stopped her father, and all the other abuses -- but didn't.

Now, McA is clearly a thoughtful woman and seems intelligent enough to have noticed this, not least because of how strongly it has impacted her personal life, so I don't think it would be a good idea to conclude she just hasn't thought this out sufficiently to notice the problem. I expect she has answers to those criticisms, and I expect they're at least somewhat similar to various technical answers and arguments Christian apologists (including ourselves) provide for theodicy purposes. (She's clearly a fan of C. S. Lewis after all: The Four Loves isn't a casually popular part of his body of work!)

But Christian theological and philosophical arguments about morality and the problem of evil (and suffering), aren't why I'm writing this article -- I have hundreds of pages of discussion about that elsewhere. (Here's an article from 2013, for example, on the question of how far God is authoritatively responsible for my own sin.)

I'm writing this article because I think it's important to understand that most anti-theists are directly or indirectly in the position McAllister is defending in her article, even when not to the same degree as herself or Sansa the fictional character -- but abuses of those degrees do happen, and did happen in the past, and until some radical change (or many such changes) they will continue to happen in the future. They happen to people we love, they happen to us directly, and even when the abuses aren't that extreme different people have different thresholds of what counts psychologically as a critical shattering of trust: a shattering so strong that the person will have trouble ever, ever trusting people again -- or people of a particular sort.

It literally doesn't matter whether there are, objectively, good reasons or rational explanations, even hypothetically, for why God might or might not do this or that (aside from whether such explanations are valid and accurate as to facts, but where they are perceived not to be -- and at least sometimes accurately perceived to be faulty explanations! -- that only makes matters worse.) Because, even if God exists, it is blatantly obvious from the totality of past human history that God is (at best) not always going to act to stop every injustice from afflicting victims, or even always act to stop accidental inconvenient suffering regardless of the extremity of that suffering.

Now, it's true that anyone who thinks Christians and similar such theists are living in ivory towers oblivious to the true amount of suffering in the world, and denying it in order to spare their beliefs about God, is flatly and maybe willfully ignorant. As I occasionally quip, the guy nailed up there on the big plus sign stands forever as a reminder to Christians that pain hurts and injustice really happens and God doesn't always spare people from it -- if any Christian actually needed that reminder from living such an otherwise insulated life. (Jews, whether Christian or not, have their own reminders, whether inflicted by Christians or Muslims or others; ditto Muslims for that matter.) All the great religions of the world, as Lewis observed, were instituted and long practiced for centuries before the invention of chloroform. It would be more accurate to infer that where religions are only human inventions, however many religions that includes, they are intended as rationalizations about a world of horrifying levels of suffering and injustice, not in denial of it -- strictly speaking, sceptics are never going to understand even the falsity of religions (however many are false), much less the truth of any religions (however many are true or to what extent), until they approach the topic from that direction.

But there's a flip side to this observation that Christians (and other theists) ought to keep in mind, whether we're technical apologists or not. And that's that anti-theists have reasons of their own not to trust God, and not to trust defenders and allies of God, which we ought to be able to recognize as natural, and to at least some extent even proper, responses to endemic personal catastrophe. Because we go through those catastrophes, too; and we have the same psychological trouble trusting any proposed or actual goodness, too, to the same various extents. We should be able to understand that there comes a point where, rightly or wrongly -- but sometimes rightly! -- trust simply cannot be placed because too much has happened to allow a person to infer anything other than that such trust would be mis-placed. Much moreso when strong feelings rise up, as they naturally and sometimes properly do, against the threat of mis-placing that trust again and being hurt again as a result.


Jason Pratt said…
This has some connections of course to my recent article on why the Trinity is a problem as well as a solution -- I do think trinitarian Christianity offers the best conceptual path forward, despite its necessary difficulties, but I can't deny that trinitarian Christians have contributed to the levels of distrust, sometimes directly in how we have promoted the reality and importance of the Trinity.

Also, registering for comment tracking.

Excellent article Jason, Very timely; as usual well thought out and well written. If ever there was a time to see people are complex and to remember that we don't understand each others view points and we need to be open to the histories that lead others to oppose our views, this is it.
Jason Pratt said…
The 'broken trust threshold' problem does indeed have applications to both sides of the American political mess, too, yep.


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