From Graceful Atheist
These kinds of messages have become cliché, but I find the need to write it anyway. Mostly this is an attempt to communicate to my friends and family as succinctly but thoroughly as possible the what and the why of my deconversion from Christianity. This is also for those of you readers who have had doubts and have struggled to keep them contained.
What I am
I am no longer a Christian. In the summer of 2015 after it became increasing more difficult to hold my beliefs against surmounting evidence to the contrary I admitted to myself I no longer believed. I was a Christian for approximately 27 years, until the Jenga tower of contradiction between belief and facts came crashing down. I could no longer sustain the mental effort it required to maintain belief against the overwhelming lack of evidence for that belief.
I am an atheist. Others, wiser than I, have pointed out that this does not tell you very much about me. To say that I am not something is not very descriptive. The list of things I am not is infinite. But I am not afraid of this moniker. I am not a theist. This means I do not believe in God or gods. I do not believe in the supernatural of any kind. The natural is more than sufficient.
I am a humanist. This means that I believe humanity is the most precious existence in the cosmos. It means that loving people trumps ideology. Julia Sweeny said it better than I can. In “Letting Go of God” after tentatively putting on the “Not believing in God glasses” she says:
And I thought wait a minute, wait a minute, what about all those people who are unjustifiably jailed? … There is no god hearing their pleas and I guess this goes for the really poor people too and really oppressed people who I had this vague idea that they had a god to comfort them and then an even vaguer idea that god had orchestrated their lives for some unknowable grand design. I walked around and thought oh, no one is minding the store! … And slowly I began to see the world differently.
We are responsible for each other there is no one else minding the store. Being acutely aware that this is the only life we get to live sharpens and focuses one’s sense of how precious our time together really is. There is no after life where we get a do over. This is it. We need to take care of each other. My time with my family and friends is the most important part of my life.
To say that I am a former theist is significant in that I have rejected Christianity not out of ignorance but from having lived it and found it wanting. It also means that I am not hostile towards my friends and family who are still believers. I have been there. I still respect and love those of you who are believers. Having said that, I acknowledge off the top that my rejection of Christianity and statement of unbelief necessarily implies a particular opinion about your beliefs. I cannot change this. I still love and care for you.
I am the same person I have always been though I am no longer a Christian. My morality did not disappear the moment I admitted to myself that I no longer believed. For my friends and family I hope to continue our relationship with each other. I have lost no love for you. If you choose, we can enter into a new conversation with one another. If you choose to pick up stones … well, there is a saying I can quote you.
A few things I am not
I have learned that there a number of common, shall we say, embellishments that Christians tell each other about atheists that turn out to be untrue much of the time. And I am no exception.
I am not angry.
I am not hurt.
I am not depressed. My life is actually unbelievably wonderful.
I am not running away from anything.
I am not throwing away my morality to live a “sinful” life.
I am not ignorant of the Bible or the teachings of Christianity. My unbelief is because of this knowledge not in spite of it.
I am also not interested in arguing with you about your belief. I will say only this if you are having doubts try trusting your doubts.
Answering the why question will be the ongoing project of this blog but here are some of the highlights.
The Search For Truth
In a word: Science. The scientific method has proven over and over to be a reliable way to determine truth. A hypothesis is made. Evidence is gathered. If the evidence supports the hypothesis it may become a theory. Other test the hypothesis to find its weaknesses. If the evidence does not support the hypothesis then it is discarded.
David Deutsch in “The Beginning of Infinity” posits that for most of human history we have had “bad explanations” for things. If the weather was bad the gods did it. If the weather was good the gods did it. He describes this as highly variable. Which god? Any god will do. How? Magic? He points out that until the scientific method came along and we as humans began to discard bad explanations we did not begin to have good (non varying) explanations.
In science theories are falsifiable. Meaning if evidence is found against the theory it has been falsified and thus will be discarded. What is important to understand is that scientific theories may be dependent on one another. If one dependent theory was in fact false subsequent theories would find falsifying evidence.
A quick example. Einstein’s theories of General and Special Relativity predicted several phenomenon that were not testable at the time. Black holes were predicted by the theories but not discovered until 1971. The theories predict time dilation both at relative speed and near a gravity source. GPS would not work if it did not account for the time differences between the moving satellites in orbit and the receivers on earth. Lastly, gravitation waves in spacetime, a mind bending phenomenon, was not proven until one hundred years after the theory was introduced that predicted them. The LIGO lab detected these waves in 2016. Ultimately, studying gravitational waves will give us a better understanding of our universe.
The point is, if either of the theories were incorrect then none of these findings would have been possible. And if we found contradictory evidence the theories would be discarded. Better yet, if we find a better theory that more tightly explains the data (less variance in Deutsch’s words) even Einstein would be replaced. It is not personal, it is about the truth.
Contrast this with faith. Questioning and doubt are things to be avoided at best and sinful at worst. Adherence to dogma is considered a virtue. Faith is hoped for and unseen. Seeking evidence is seen as “testing” God and a sign of lack of faith. And I can see why. The deeper I dug into my Christianity looking for evidence the shakier things became.
I happened to grow up in the United States in a nominally Christian household. When I became a Christian in my late teens it was within the context of a culture soaked with Christian themes. But what if I had been born in Saudi Arabia? Wouldn’t I have become a Muslim? What about India? A Sikh or a Hindu? How can I honestly say I would have become a Christian if I had been raised in a different culture. The answer is I can’t.
People of faith have no problem not believing in other faith’s gods. They do not believe that Zeus controls lightening. Nor do they believe in the literal thousands of gods worshiped throughout human history. Stephen F. Roberts famously responded to a believer with this quip:
I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
Even within Christianity we have a tremendous amount of disagreement. Catholics and Protestants. Evangelical and Main liners. There are something like 2000 different Christian sects alone. As an evangelical we call many of them cults. But how do we determine what is a cult and what is gospel?
How does one determine whether one faith is more right than another? If your answer is the bible re-read the line about 2000 different sects of Christianity. Most of them use the same Christian bible.
Even within a narrow group like Evangelicals, who or what decides between two contradictory beliefs? Is pre-destination correct or is it human choice? Is baptism submersion or will a sprinkling do? Is it pure grace or good works that saves a person? I had strong opinions on each of these as do those who would have disagreed with me. But there is no way to determine which is true and which is false.
It comes down to cultural microcosms. If you were raised Baptist, then pre-destination is true. If you were raise Pentecostal then speaking in tongues is true. All the while both groups point to the other with disdain.
It was when I began to look at what my in-group considered to be cults trying to understand why a person would believe these “crazy” things, that it occurred to me that they saw my beliefs as just as crazy. And atheists thought we were all crazy.
You see, it is not enough to convince those who agree with you. If a belief or a theory is true it must convince even the hardest skeptic. John Loftus calls this the outsider test for faith. If someone outside your culture is unconvinced by your arguments, maybe it is time to re-evaluate your belief.
I believed that if faith was worth while it should stand up to scrutiny. Once I used the same basic scrutiny and incredulity on my own faith as I used for others, it did not hold up.
Reading the Bible
One of the factors leading to my deconversion was reading the bible through in a year. Seriously, have you read the bible lately? As believers (of all faiths) we have an amazing ability to cherry pick the bits of our ancient texts that suit us and be completely blind to the parts that are contradictory, horrifying and down right dangerous. The whole of the bible, including the parts often not read like Numbers and the prophets, and even the parts read often like Psalms, is dark, violent and hateful. Only through the rose colored glasses of blind faith can the whole of the bible be seen as a moral book about love.
Read the bible without the rose colored glasses of inerrancy or authority and a different picture of the holy book appears. Does the bible contradict itself? Try this yourself. Read the genealogies at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. Notice anything? They don’t match. If you say one is for Mary and one is for Joseph, isn’t God supposed to be Jesus’s father? Read the passion story in all four gospels and try and unify them. What events took place in which order? Who first saw Jesus after the resurrection? How many people/angels were at the tomb?
Apologetics is the defense of Christianity. Over many years I have read the best apologists Christianity has to offer: William Lane Craig of the Kalam cosmological argument fame and Guiermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards who wrote “The Privileged Planet”. As well as some that are not so great like Josh McDowell and Lee Stroble. The more I read the more doubt crept in. The arguments from these authors were bending over backwards requiring mental gymnastics to try and fit the supernatural into the frame work of the scientific understanding of the world and the cosmos. The more I dug the less convincing the arguments became particularly when pitted against established scientific knowledge like evolution, the big bang.
We can argue over first causes or supposed missing links but the point is this is the “God of the gaps” or argument from ignorance. Throughout history science has been filling in those gaps overcoming ignorance with evidence. A couple of hundred years ago there was no germ theory. Attributing sickness or healing to a god was the “best” explanation we had. Now we prescribe penicillin.
There will always be gaps in our knowledge but this is a prompt to explore and discover and not be satiated by “God did it.”
I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
― Richard Feynman
A tautology is a circular argument. Here is an example:
Why do I believe in God? Because the bible tells me so.
Why do I believe in the Bible is authoritative? Because of God says it is.
Now you can throw a lot of elements into this tautology beyond just the bible: The known universe (“creation”), one’s subjective experience, stories from missionaries from far off lands, however each of these is interpreted based on the others. In a word tautological.
The most convincing argument for any believer is their own subjective experience.
You don’t understand, I know God exists! My relationship with God is special and real.
I do understand. I felt that way. I knew that same way. Until I did’t.
The second I asked myself one simple question, “Could I find an objective non-tautological foundation for my faith in God?” That was the beginning of the end.
The invisible and the non-existent look an awful lot alike.
This was not a choice. I did not wake up one day and decide I no longer wanted to believe in God. This was something that happened to me.
When Bart Campolo, Tony Campolo’s son, was asked when did he start to lose his faith he said:
About 15 minutes after I started to believe.
In a sense, that is true for me as well. I struggled with doubt throughout my Christian faith. I knew there were areas best left unexplored. If I asked too pointed of questions I might not like the answers. So I didn’t for a very long time.
But this masks the fact that I had very real very deep faith for more than twenty years. It makes it sound as if my faith was not the right kind of faith. If you find that argument convincing, more power to you.
Under scrutiny, I could no longer believe. Belief escaped me. The very foundations of my faith gave way. I no longer believed.
The emperor has no clothes.
To the extent that this happened in an instant, my exact thoughts where:
Oh, ____, what am I going to do?
The very search for truth that led me to Christianity led me away.