In “God, Christianity, and the Bad Hyundai Objection” I noted that people often grant far more weight to personal anecdotal experiences than an objective assessment of the evidence. One bad experience with a particular car can tarnish an entire brand, even if the evidence considered objectively supports the overall quality of that brand of cars. And I further observed that many atheists behave similarly when it comes to their atheism. That is, one particular bad example with a Christian can tarnish their entire experience of Christianity.
Consider, for example, Emma Tom’s essay “Confessions of a Kindergarten Leper,” in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists, ed. Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). While Tom is invited in this book to provide evidence as to why she is an atheist, her essay is more obviously a portrait of her psychology. Indeed, it points to what I’ve called the Bad Hyundai Objection (that is, one based on isolated anecdotal experience rather than an objective assessment of all available evidence). She writes:
“When I was a very small human, an over-enthused public school scripture teacher told our class that children who didn’t believe in God got leprosy. At first, this was excellent news. Leprosy sounded like some sort of delicious, frosty sweetie. Unfortunately Mrs You Will Rot In Hell (And Also For A While Here On Earth) was a deeply committed educationalist. She made sure her tiny, wide-eyed charges learned that leprosy was actually a hideous, Satan-related disease that caused the crusting arms and legs of its victims to snap of as easily as a Twist ‘n’ Turn Barbie’s.” (82)
“When I got older and realized atheism didn’t need to carry a gangrenous health warning a la cigarette packets, I looked back on the Rotmeister’s religious bullying with fury.
“How dare this devout bitch try to scare the bejesus into little kiddies with her tale of disease and abductions? (Her other favorite warning was that God would send men with guns in cars to snatch sprogs who wagged school.) I responded by embracing fundamentalist atheism, convinced that the broad church of utter disbelief represented true tolerance and enlightenment.” (82)
No doubt Tom can provide additional reasons to support her disbelief after the fact, but it is clear that this seminal experience set her on a course and oriented her to perceive evidence through a particular grid of experience. And all of this traces back to the obnoxious and offensive actions of one “over-enthused public school scripture teacher”.
Does Tom really think that this one over-enthused public school scripture teacher is somehow properly representative of Christianity let alone of theism? Does she think it provides some kind of broad evidence against Christianity (and theism)? If she does, then she really is extraordinarily ignorant. If she recognizes that this experience doesn’t provide evidence, then she has done little more than provide a portrait of her own psychological state of disbelief. Admittedly the subtitle to Blackford’s book is ambiguous. “Why We are Atheists” could suggest evidences to support atheism or it could imply personal psychological portraits. But presumably most readers will be assuming the book purports to provide the former: that is, they want to hear Tom’s reasons. Her personal demons may be of interest to her psychologist but they are of much less interest to the reader seeking evidence to support a worldview.
It seems to me that Tom does view her experience with that teacher as providing some kind of evidence against Christianity and theism. In that case, this is a clear example of the Bad Hyundai Objection, and as such it provides a sobering picture for the rational status of Tom’s disbelief. You don’t reject an entire marque of cars based on a bad experience with one particular car thirty years ago. And you don’t reject an entire religion (Christianity), let alone theism, based on a bad experience with one over-enthused public school scripture teacher.
Obviously some atheists have rational grounds for disbelief (including many of the contributors to Blackford’s book). But Tom’s essay reminds us that becoming an atheist is often a matter of emotion rather than reason.