By Dr Stephen Pihlaja
For the last 10 years, I have been studying interactions between Christians and atheists on YouTube and social media, focusing particularly on how they structure arguments and categories to fit very specific social contexts. One recurring issue in my work, and one that seems particularly prescient as we collectively practice saying the words ‘President Tump’, is how arguments about theology and science are often used to reinforce beliefs which a user’s audience might already hold. They need not be logical or fact-based, but they must appear to be delivered by an ally and broadly comport with a viewer’s own belief system.
One social media user, Joshua Feuerstein, provides a particularly good case study of how this operates. He has over 2 million likes on Facebook and holds a set of intersectional beliefs that are not uncommon—the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, the right to bear arms, a small government, and Donald Trump. His videos are portrait—shot on his phone—and feature two minutes of focused and simple sermons meant to be shared for the encouragement of all.
Feuerstein’s interaction with Muslims and atheists is the focus of my forthcoming book, Religious Talk Online: Muslim, Christian, and Atheist Discourse on Social Media (Cambridge University Press); particularly two videos that Feuerstein made in 2014, entitled ‘Dear Mr Atheist’ and ‘Dear Mr Muslim’. In both videos, Feuerstein addresses atheists and Muslims as categories of belief, but not as real people, presenting their beliefs in incomplete and inaccurate ways. In much of his talk focused on atheists, Feuerstein argues against evolution, heavily relying on a misunderstanding of what evolution actually is. In one video, Feuerstein directly addresses the hypothetical ‘Mr Atheist’ saying:
Now let me show you how much faith it really takes to believe in evolution. You want me to believe that in some accidental cosmic bang, that out of that was created one cell and from that one cell that all life springs? Every plant, every animal, every single human being? And that somewhere along the way over years and years we mysteriously and magically all developed different wills and we all developed different characteristics and traits? All because we willed it in our… You mean you really think that everything came from one single cell? How much faith does that take?
Feuerstein inverts an argument about faith that the fictional ‘Mr Atheist’ might use against Christians: believing in an ‘accident’ that resulted in the natural world actually requires more ‘faith’ than a belief that God created it. The argument reifies faith and allows Feuerstein to rank different amounts of faith, placing faith in God and faith in science in the same categories of belief about the world.
The false equivalency in Feuerstein’s argument, that both Christianity and evolution require ‘faith’, is problematic. Feuerstein doesn’t deny that atheists (who he presents as ‘believing’ in evolution) might have empirical evidence to back up their claims. Rather, Feuerstein argues that both Christians and atheists have evidence for their claims, and his experience of the natural world is as equally valid as whatever evidence ‘science’ may offer. Moreover, Feuerstein’s claim that nature isn’t an ‘accident’ is a straw-man—few, if any, atheists would present this argument. Instead, it reinforces a particular Christian narrative about evolution in particular and science in general, that all evidence is taken on faith, and there is no real difference between ‘believing’ in Creationism and ‘believing’ in evolution.
The argument highlights two challenges when interacting with Evangelical Christians like Feuerstein about evolution. First, Feuerstein makes clear that his belief in Creationism and his belief in Christianity are inextricably linked to a particular reading of the Bible. If one fails, the whole system of belief fails. This stance makes any challenge to any element of Feuerstein’s faith problematic for his whole belief system and a potentially larger threat than it might be otherwise. Second, Feuerstein oversimplifies scientific understanding and claims that it should, therefore, be doubted. While this serves a belief about Creationism, it also opens the door to other problematic understandings of the world that don’t allow for complex explanations.
By misrepresenting the position of evolutionists and casting doubt on a complex process with a simple argument, Evangelicals like Feuerstein are unlikely to convince atheists that they are correct. Instead, the argument can serve as a way of offering support for a belief that the viewer already holds. Even Facebook preachers like Feuerstein hold a position of authority, seen in the praise heaped on him by commenters who agree with him and share his videos.
Videos like these show the difficulty of arguing with preachers like Feuerstein and how ‘debate’ with them is unlikely to yield much progress. These arguments, as my research has shown, very rarely move public figures to take new positions, and they are rarely genuine theological or scientific arguments, meant to persuade one’s opponent. Instead, the arguments used in these online forums become platforms to present their own beliefs, rally their supporters, and claim victory regardless of the outcome. They assume a shared understanding with their viewers about the world and offer a counterpoint to narratives about science that their audience already accepts.
Dr Stephen Pihlaja is a discourse analyst and applied linguist working at Newman University (Birmingham). His research interests include inter-religious dialogue, online interaction, and discourse about sexuality. His first book, Antagonism on YouTube (Bloomsbury, 2014), looks at arguments between Christians and atheists on social media.