Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Why do people become atheists? Can an unwise person be a Christian?

Why do people become atheists? Let’s take a look at some examples.

From this post on “Atheist Nexus“, there’s this blurb about Michael Shermer:

Dr. Shermer characterizes himself as a skeptic. As he confesses in his book, “What I want to believe based on emotions and what I believe based on evidence and empirical data may not coincide. I am a skeptic not because I don’t want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true or what is actually true” (p. 2)? Dr. Shermer succumbed to skepticism after his girlfriend, Maureen, was critically injured in an auto accident and he appealed to God for her healing. “What finally tipped my belief into skepticism was the problem of evil–if God is all knowing, all powerful, and all good, then why do bad things happen to good people?” “A just and loving God who had the power to heal would surely heal Maureen. He didn’t. He didn’t. I now believe, not because God works in mysterious ways or he has a special plan for Maureen, but because there is no God” (p. 45).

Here’s what got John Loftus started on atheism, according to his own book:

Loftus starts off reminiscing on his deconversion story by stating that it was an appeal to the emotions, and not so much for intellectual reasons: “Some former believers have rejected their faith based upon the evidence itself. My initial reasons for rejecting the Christian faith are not the same ones that others have had…For me there were three major circumstances that happened in my life that changed my thinking. They all happened within the space of about five years, from 1991 to 1996. These things are associated with three people: A woman I’ll call Linda, Larry, and Jeff. It was Linda who brought a major crisis into my life. Larry brought new information into my life. Jeff took away my sense of a loving Christian community…” (first paragraph, pg. 25)

Not far off, things start to get a little weird: “I was the founding president of a shelter for the homeless in Angola, Indiana, where I was ministered. It was devoted to giving temporary shelter to people in need. I worked day by day with Linda, the executive director. She practically idolized me. She did everything I said to do, and would call me daily to ask for help in dealing with various situations that came up from running the shelter, along with her own personal issues. I was also having problems with my marriage at the time, and Linda made herself available to me. I succumbed and had an affair with her…”

Loftus does not hesitate to get into the details of his extramarital affair with someone who was an alledgely “a former stripper in her younger days” who “had it in for preachers.”

He complains that other Christians were “quick to condemn” him. He didn’t like being judged.

Previously, I wrote about Lewis Wolpert‘s decision to abandon God – because when he was a child, God would not help him find his cricket bat. (His own words in the linked pocast).

And here is the case of Dan Barker, who decided that wandering across the country singing for “love offerings” was a stable enough financial arrangement to support a family. When his sensible plan failed, he began appealing to more liberal Christians in order to make more money, and adapting his message to suit his audience. Eventually, the hypocrisy became uncomfortable and he dumped God. (This is my conclusion from his own words in the podcast).

Excerpt:

I think [Dan Barker] abandoned his faith because he wanted people to like him and because he needed to be invited to liberal churches in order to make money to pay for the “real life” needs of his family.

He seems to have thought that Christianity is about having his needs met and being liked by others. I think he wanted to feel good and to make people feel good with his preaching and singing. He seems to have become aware that the exclusive claims of Christianity made other people feel offended, so he cut them out. He hadn’t studied philosophy, science or history so that he would have been able to demonstrate to other people whether what he was saying was true. It’s hard to offend people when you don’t really know whether your claims are true or not, and when you don’t know how to demonstrate whether they are true or not.

I also think money was a factor. It seems to me that it would have hurt his career and reduced his invitations from liberal churches if he had kept up teaching biblical Christianity. In order to appeal to a wider audience, (like many Christian singers do – e.g. – Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, etc.), he would have felt pressured to water down the unpleasant parts of his preaching and singing. Lacking apologetics skill, he instead abandoned his message. He needed to account for his family’s needs and “real life”, and exclusive truth claims and Hell-talk would probably have reduced his ability to do that. It seems to me that he should have scaled back his extreme schedule of preaching and singing, and instead gotten a steady job so that he could afford “real life” and a family without being pressured into altering his message.

There never was a cognitive process for these atheists. There was just the dashed expectations in a Santa Claus God. I think that every person has to decide for themselves whether they have done a fair assessment of the evidence for and against God. You decide whether God exists based on whether he is nice to you, and whether he prevents suffering for you. It is a blessing to suffer for the sake of righteousness, and even Jesus suffered for being obedient to God. Your level of happiness simply has no bearing on the arguments and evidence for God’s existence. When it comes to arguments about the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning and the moral argument, your feelings and needs are irrelevant.

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30 Responses

  1. johnodendaal says:

    Why do people become theists?

    • I think that what God does is that he reveals reasons for his existence in nature (big bang, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, habitability), conscience (moral law, consciousness, free will, rationality) and history (resurrection). Theists are the ones who don’t mind re-prioritizing their lives based on this evidence, even it it means a bit less autonomy and happiness. I think the main think is that when a person likes you (God) and wants a relationship with you, some people don’t mind that there will be a little give and take in the relationship. Other people don’t want give and take, they just want take, and they get mad when anything is expected of them, like a little restraint or patience.

      • johnodendaal says:

        The examples you’ve listed as reasons for a god’s existence are interesting, and certainly are compelling to some, but what about the rest who aren’t well-read or educated in those subjects? And besides the adult layman, what about the child who comes to believe in a god?

        It seems clear that those who come to believe in a god are compelled to, and what compels them is (partly) dependant on and relative to the person’s cognitive development. The arguments and evidence needed to compel a well-read atheist to believe in a personal god or even a deistic variant are not the same as those needed to compel an eight year old. A child does not need to understand thermodynamics or cosmology, or be well versed in biology or anthropology or philosophy to decide to believe in a god. But the more advanced the intellect, the more complex the arguments.

        It is important to distinguish between the two (childhood and non-childhood theism) because most people become theists during childhood, a phase in which little is required to compel belief (prior to full cognitive development). All you need is an authority figure and argumentation by assertion. A prod in the god direction, if you will. Wishful thinking, naivety, imagination and ignorance are more than enough to handle the rest. Throw in theistic culture and social structures to solidify that simple foundation, and confirmation bias to continually support the god-model, and you’re set for life!

        The reason I asked this question is to highlight the irony in identifying less-than-rigorous intellectual processes involved in certain atheists’ “de-conversions” while ignoring the elephant in the room — that is, the less-than-rigorous intellectual processes involved in acquiring childhood god-belief in the first place.

    • There are as many reasons as there are theists.

    • Neil Shenvi says:

      I think people become theists for quite a variety of reasons ranging from peer pressure to emotional need to an examination of the scientific, historical and philosophical evidence. Some reasons are obviously better than others.

      However, I would argue that people become Christians for one reason in particular: they recognize that they are sinners in need of a Savior.

  2. I find this a common theme in Christian circles – people stop believing because they were ‘hurt’ or because of hypocrites in the church. Or because they couldn’t live up to God’s standards and preferred a lower one. Or God didn’t do things they way they wanted him to.

    Perhaps some of us just grew up. Just as a child might stop believing in Santa when he became aware of better explanations, some of us just found explanations and ideas that worked better. I don’t see that many people who’s lives are ‘changed’ by God as dramatically as they claim. But my life has become exponentially better since I stopped expecting Jesus to do everything and started living my life rationally.

    It doesn’t mean I’m against the Jesus crowd. But it’s funny what you say about Dan Barker – wonder how many pastors are still ‘preaching the truth’ because they don’t know what else they’d do for a living.

    • Tracy says:

      You were expecting Jesus to do everything? Why? What did you think he gave you hands and brains for?

      • I don’t expect Jesus to do anything to make me feel happy – I think it’s pretty clear from the New Testament that the normal Christian life involves obedience to God, suffering and being hated by other people. That’s been my experience. But I don’t think that the church does a real good job of making that clear to people – they do present as singing, community and very often Jesus as life enhancement. It’s nowhere in the Bible, mind you. God was not willing to spare his own Son any short-term pain.

        • Jared says:

          Modern churches teach Jean-Jacques Rousseau philosophy, but in a Christian style, e.g., self-authentication, self-discovery, and self-enhancement stuff; they let their “inner voice” be the arbiter of truth for their lives, which isn’t exactly the way a Christian is supposed to live.

          Clearly, you can see that modern church teaching this philosophy due to the reasons Shermer, Barker, etc. abandoned Christianity the moment things became rough in their lives. Jesus was supposed to change their life for the better and make things easy, but alas, that just didn’t happen. It’s actually sad, I think, because their world, emotionally speaking, was shattered. This god they were taught about was not supposed to let evil happen to them. Maybe they didn’t pray for the “hedge of protection” enough or before the calamity happened or maybe they didn’t speak enough positive things over themselves. They begin to question everything they were taught and only find despair. They dug down deep within themselves and didn’t find the happy feelings anymore. So, being consistent, they followed their “gut” or “inner voice” and left Christianity.

          When churches abandon the happy feelings and looking inside yourself for answers philosophy, there will be fewer Christians surprised by suffering, I think.

    • Grace says:

      “Perhaps some of us just grew up.” I find that an odd statement to make. If you switched political parties, or made any other kind of switch, say to a different company, would it be because you just “grew up”? I would agree with you if you had said, “Some of them just grew tired of their faith.” Actually, I do agree that some deconverted Christians were looking for better explanations. It seems as though they were sheltered from other teachings except what was taught from their churches, and when faced with doubt, they did a complete 180 because they thought what was taught to them was wrong when really are other interpretations. And then there are the other reasons Wintery listed.

      I am curious, though, how one can live their lives rationally when, on atheism, things such as purpose in life, ultimate meaning, truth, and morality are all illusory. Can atheism/naturalism/materialism really provide ultimate meaning and purpose for life, truth which is intrinsically valued, and coherently ground morals?

      • Tracy says:

        Some atheists believe that God is like Santa Claus and since not believing in Santa Claus equals growing up, not believing in God equals growing up too. They’re the same thing after all. Christians are therefore poor ignorant kids who believe ridiculous things and need to be taught better.

        I don’t think they actually understand how condescending that is. Or perhaps they do and they think it’s true for some strange reason.

        • Certainly didn’t mean to be condescending. I only meant that children sometimes believe in things they can’t see – Santa, Easter Bunny, imaginary friends, Tooth Fairy, etc. We think there’s something not quite right about people who continue to believe in them as adults. But when we continue to believe in Hell, the Virgin Birth, and other such things that no one has ever seen, we’re considered devout.

          There are just as many people in the world today who think that Islam is the truth as there are who think Christianity is the truth. Millions more believe in a dozen other religions. All are just as sure that they are right as Christians are. All have their sacred books, their proofs. All earnestly believe.

          Before them there were other religions, such as worship of Ra or Osiris in Egypt. Millions of people believed for three thousand years. We teach them today as ‘myths’ as we do the Greek and Roman gods, and marvel that such sophisticated people could believe in such infantile ideas.

          But no one at the time thought they were childish myths – they centered their lives around them. It’s just that later we found out they were.

        • Troy says:

          Well that is a bad analogy no one believes in Santa Clauss, no one writes books or debates about Santa Clauss existences because prooving Santa Clauss doesn’t exist is trivially easy there is no toy factory in the north pole nor do spy satellites pick up santa’s sled and flying reindeer.

          • Grace says:

            Troy – Exactly. Nobody spends every week attempting to deny the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, imaginary friends, or the Easter Bunny. They do not argue with anyone over whether the Tooth Fairy is good or evil. We certainly do not see _any_ scholars spending their time determining if these things currently exist.

      • Political parties and corporations are real things that can be seen; you can’t really compare them to God. I don’t mean for the ‘I grew up’ comment to sting everyone – it’s just how I feel about it. Part of growing up is learning to deal with reality; we are allowed to live in fantasy worlds when we are children, protected from truths that we’re not quite capable of dealing with yet. I see losing my religion as the final step in divesting myself of childish things. I still believe a person named Jesus existed, I just don’t believe in all the stories people have made up about him over the years.

        I didn’t rely on what people taught me when I was a believer, I was a student of Bible myself. This, in itself, can cause you to lose faith. If you study the Bible honestly, coming at it with no preconceived ideas or bias, looking at all the information available, not just the commentary supplied by your church – you may find yourself in the same place.

        I find it ironic that you consider any other philosophy for life other than believing in our culture’s particular deity ‘illusory’.

        • Grace says:

          “Political parties and corporations are real things that can be seen; you can’t really compare them to God.” Actually you are comparing them to God. Your statement implies what is real can only be material. Yet beliefs are immaterial; so are minds, the truth, love, good and evil, and the laws of logic. If what I just listed is illusory, then how can one trust his beliefs if they are an illusion? You certainly seem to want the truth, but how can you trust the truth when truth is only illusory and of instrumental value? Can atheists actually deal with reality when on their worldview all immaterial is illusory?

          Richard Dawkins wrote: “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”– “God’s Utility Function,” published in Scientific American (November, 1995), p. 85. Here Richard Dawkins comes right out and says that there really is no purpose, good, evil, etc. on atheism. Basically, the world is valueless on your view, but you are able to create meaning and purpose to life and this world. Whatever instrumental value you give something would then be illusory and nothing more than the product of wishful thinking. You do not want to live in a fantasy world, but on atheism, that is all there is. It seems as though you want things such as truth to have intrinsic value and that you want life to have ultimate meaning and purpose, but you can’t do that on your worldview. The atheist worldview is incoherent with reality, but you can get all that from Christianity. So, yes, I do consider other worldviews, having done a basic study of the major worldviews while in college, and the conclusion I have come to is that the atheist worldview is truly incoherent. But maybe you could explain how an atheist can live a rational life with their worldview.

    • Most Christians lives become better when they stop expecting “Jesus to do everything” as well. Believing something false is believing something false.

    • Oftentimes, people grow up and leave the faith because all they have been taught is what I call the “Sunday School Fairy Tale” version of the Bible. Too often, churches teach only a superficial and sensationalized set of “Bible stories” and never give people a realistic understanding of the historical context or the evidence for the truth of the Bible. When you find someone who claims to have outgrown the Bible or who claims the Bible is just a collection of myths, they often have only this superficial understanding of the Bible. I recently blogged about this at http://www.lindsays-logic.blogspot.com/2012/05/sunday-school-fairy-tales-or-why-bible.html.

      • I resent it when Christians who’ve never read the Bible through once decide that an unbeliever has only a superficial, fairy tale understanding of the Bible. I’ve never depended on what ‘I was taught.’ I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover a number of times, taken Bible courses from both secular and religious universities, can discuss Josephus’ commentaries at length – as well as Wesley’s, Spurgeon’s and Finis Dake’s. The majority of Christians have never even bothered to read the entirety of the Bible, let alone any literature that might place it in its philosophical and historical context.

        If you are a believer – read the Bible for God’s sake. Read it critically. Turn off the TV evangelist, don’t pay too much attention to the car salesman who teaches Sunday School once a week, or the pastor who tells you what you want to hear. If you don’t feel like doing this, then just admit that your faith is faith; it’s ok – faith doesn’t require rational justification.

        • Tracy says:

          I get what you’re saying but I also see Lindsay’s point. All the atheists I know who say things like you said know about as much about the Bible as I know about global warming – not very much. In addition to that they lack a knowledge of basic philosophy and the ability to read a passage and understand it. It’s nice to know that you’ve read it although I daresay you sound a lot like those who haven’t.

          Now, you’re the one suggesting that Christians don’t read the Bible. I read the Bible. I’m reading it through and blogging about it – just like you. My pastor doesn’t tell me what I want to hear and my Sunday school teachers aren’t car salesmen. One of them has a degree in Biblical studies.

        • I totally agree with you that Christians should read the Bible critically and place it in its historical context. That was the point of my blog post. I am totally against anyone simply believing what someone else tells them to believe rather than studying for themselves. People should learn more about the Bible, not just rely on simplistic children’s tales derived from the Bible. Real Biblical literacy is sorely needed.

          As for your other comments, it isn’t always the case that unbelievers are ignorant of the Bible, but it often is. In talking with many atheists, agnostics, and others, I usually find that their complaints about the erroneous and mythical elements in the Bible are derived from a superficial fairy tale type version. They’ve never bothered to actually study the Bible for themselves before rejecting it (and posting comments all over the web about the “errors in the Bible” and such things). Again, that’s not all of them, but a large portion of the ones I’ve talked to.

    • Neil Shenvi says:

      AmericanSecularist,
      I found this statement interesting because it seems to support Wintery’s point:

      “I don’t see that many people who’s lives are ‘changed’ by God as dramatically as they claim. But my life has become exponentially better since I stopped expecting Jesus to do everything and started living my life rationally.”

      Here, you seem to connect the ‘change’ that happens in someone’s life when they become a Christian to their life becoming ‘exponentially better.’ And you claim that your own life became ‘exponentially better’ when you became a skeptic. But I think both points are approaching the problem from exactly the perspective that WK criticized.

      For instance, I would not say that my life became ‘exponentially better’ when I became a Christian if -by ‘exponentially better’- you mean ‘exponentially happier.’ I would say that I am probably both happier and sadder as a Christian than as the vague theist I was before my conversion. I am happier because I know God and I can rejoice in his love and forgiveness. But I am sadder because I realize the depths of evil in my own heart, because I am more involved with the tragedy and hurt in the world, and because I have far more empathy for those who are suffering. Before I was a Christian, I was certainly happy, but I was also arrogant, disdainful, superior, and calloused. So the change that happened wasn’t primarily in my emotional state, but in my character.

      As WK said, many former Christians talk about the liberation and freedom that atheism offers. That does not say anything about the truth of atheism, however, only about the psychological state of the atheist. Moreover, rarely do atheists claim that atheism made them a more loving, more compassionate, more generous, more humble person. If we insist on looking only at objective psychological changes, I would want to start with character first rather than with happiness. After all, sociopaths may be the happiest people on the planet. But I’m not looking to sign up with them any time soon.

      • Good point – and there are many good points in this forum. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I just know that the Bible doesn’t have them either. I’ve read the NT through a number of times when I was a fervent believer, and I’m currently reading through it again – as someone not so sure – and commenting on my blog. I challenge Christians to follow along and tell me where they think I’m reading the scriptures in the wrong way.

        I’m sorry, but a religion that makes me miserable is no earthly good. I’m not living in medieval times. People often ask me what if I’m wrong, and there is a God after I die. I ask the opposite question – if your God does not offer more fulfillment in this life, and you’re wrong about the afterlife – what a terrible tragedy. What if this is the only life you have, and you live it feeling sad and guilty about your ‘sin’?

        No one is suggesting that personal happiness alone is what life is all about – or that happily being a serial killer or the like is ok. But if you compare Christians to the population as a whole, the confirmed data you’ll find shows that there’s not much difference. Christians spend a little more on charity, a little less on porn – otherwise, everything from murder rates to divorce rates is remarkably similar.

        Where’s the power of the gospel? This was my question as a believer – and it remains my question today. Without the power, Christianity is just another dead philosophy.

        • Neil Shenvi says:

          AmericanSecularist,
          “Where’s the power of the gospel? This was my question as a believer – and it remains my question today. Without the power, Christianity is just another dead philosophy.”

          I agree with you 100%. 1000%. Watch this video:
          http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/the-story-of-ian-larissa
          Also, if you want to send me an email, I will ship you a book you should read and would be happy to locate a good church in your area.

          • Beautiful and touching video; I don’t see the power of the gospel in it, but I do see the power – and the capacity to love – within the human spirit. I wish them all the best.

            Thank you for the offer to locate a good church; I’ve visited dozens of good churches over the years, and have met many wonderful people there.

            But as Paul once said “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

        • Grace says:

          “I’m sorry, but a religion that makes me miserable is no earthly good.”

          Americansecularist, are you concerned with the truth or what makes you feel happy? Christians would say that it is the Holy Spirit convicting you if you feel guilty about sin. Sin is what separates the believer from having fellowship with God, so there is a reason for that conviction! And actually that is what this is all about – restoring the fellowship that was lost at the Fall of man, and having fellowship with God for all eternity. With that will come those feelings of happiness that you yearn for because joy and happiness and goodness can all be found in God. On this earth we will feel pain and sorrow, and for the unbeliever, that will continue on after death, but for the believer joy and happiness with God in the next life will be for all eternity.

  3. And the short answer to ‘can an unwise person become a Christian?” Certainly.

    • Neil Shenvi says:

      “Beautiful and touching video; I don’t see the power of the gospel in it, but I do see the power – and the capacity to love – within the human spirit.”

      You don’t see the power of the gospel in it? What kind of power are you looking for? The power of the gospel is primarily shown in changed hearts. If you’re simply looking for magic tricks or special effects, you will probably be disappointed.

      “Thank you for the offer to locate a good church; I’ve visited dozens of good churches over the years, and have met many wonderful people there. But as Paul once said “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.””

      This is where WK’s site will be helpful. There is an abundance of evidence for the truth of Christianity. But it will meet a fundamental roadblock in your heart. You consider skepticism to be astute, sophisticated, and polished in contrast to the rude ignorance of faith. Until that barrier falls, evidence will not matter.

      Your quote is taken out of context and actually shows precisely the error we’re discussing. Paul was chastising the Corinthians for viewing ‘miraculous’ gifts as displays of power rather than as tools for love and service. Let me provide a different quote that is more appropriate:

      [Jesus asked] “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:1-4

      Jesus doesn’t want us to be irrational or ignorant or immature or naive. But he does tell us that we need to embrace him with a child-like trust. That is something arguments and reason alone can never produce.

      • This is actually a great verse, and it explains most of what religion requires – blind, childlike trust. It’s ok for you if that’s what you want – but stop pretending that it’s logical, and that other people’s beliefs – or lack thereof – are illusory. At the end of the day, if you are religious, you have to fall back on the line that there are ‘some things arguments and reason alone can never produce’.

        I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that – it’s just not for me. I lived that life for 20 years. I taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, played the piano, when on missionary trips. It was a good time – it just wasn’t real. I quoted scripture tying to defend my views back then – but I didn’t know that many of them were not even written by the people who were supposed to have written them.

        I answered honestly the question in the original post – why do people become atheists? Pretty much everyone has had issue with what I said or tried to refute it. There’s nothing really to refute. Studying the Bible academically, as I would any other writing, caused me to look at my beliefs in a new light. Living abroad for a decade, out of the American Christianity bubble – helped me to see things more clearly as well.

        I’ve helped drive enough traffic to this site -haha. I just started blogging the New Testament through secularist eyes on my own blog. If you’re brave enough, follow me there – I’d be happy to continue the conversation with all of you, verse by verse. i’d be happy for you to point out where you feel I’m in error in my reading of the Bible, and where you think my conclusions have gone wrong.

        Thank you, Wintery Knight, for allowing me so much space to comment on your blog! Hope you’ll comment on mine as well.

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