The Price of Leaving Christian Conformity
I was listening to Stefan Molyneux's podcast entitled, "The Economics of Conformity," and I was struck by his description of the reasons why power structures levy high costs for apostasy, in an effort to coerce members from abandoning conformity to the group. For certain political groups, violence or the threat of violence is the typical cost, but for groups without that power, it's more typical to attack the apostate's (or potential apostate's) social network and reputation.
It occurred to me that this effect explains perfectly the fascination with atheists, and particularly ex-Christians, that I've seen with a number of Christians. Interactions between the two groups are never productive- they generally devolve into denigration of the apostate's personal history, particularly religious history. I never could understand why this was the ultimate conclusion of their argument, because aside from being immaterial logically, it never really seemed to matter to the apostate. Ultimately, of course, the legitimacy of one's own religious convictions are subjective, and it's impossible for another person to speak confidently of one's intent. So it seemed like an absurd accusation/conclusion, and I just chalked it up to the incoherent nature of religious thought.
But I think it makes more sense to look at it from the perspective of constructing a high cost to abandoning Christian conformity. Christians who attack atheists and question their religious history aren't doing so to make a point to the atheists themselves; they're doing so to make a point to other Christians. If you allow yourself to question the validity of Chrisitanity, your reputation will be attacked and your present legitimacy as a Christian will be thrown out. When debating with an atheist, it doesn't matter for the Christian to actually win objectively- all he has to do is make Christian-relevant points against his atheist opponent, and his job is complete. It's almost as if the debating Christian isn't really speaking to his opponent- he's constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure that his points resonate with the choir.
EDIT: By sheer coincidence, Evan May at Triablogue has reinforced my point.
"But, when a Christian comes across an apostate in an apologetic vehicle, it should be viewed as an opportunity. Perhaps, to be used to reach to this person’s life, but more so to portray the goodness of the gospel to those who are watching. It isn’t for my own benefit that I show the opposition to the faith to be the foolishness that it is. And it might not even be for the benefit of the opponent. However, in all of this the Christian faith will come out looking glorious to those who watch. Christians will be strengthened; religious seekers will find a home in Christ. The gospel will be proclaimed. Though it will harden some (which is, we must not forget, God’s work as well), it will save God’s chosen."