Atheism: An honest look at unbelief.
When I was an atheist I wanted everyone to know it and I often wore shirts that stated I was without God. This shirt reads: Good because I want to be. No superstition required
As anyone who knows me personally or who is a regular listener knows that a while back I completely lost my faith and identified as an atheist for a few years.
I think a lot of Christians mistakenly think there is only one reason a person would ever become an atheist, and that reason is that they hate God and all that is good and are living a life contrary to the gospel, a life with no morals, full of the most vile and perverse actions and beliefs, a life devoid of love, hope happiness or anything that is good. Many Christians believe that only such a life would cause a person to turn from God, but as with most issues in life, it is far more complex than it is made out to be by some. I used to be one of those Christians that believed that, that is, until I lost my faith.
When I was young I had unshaken faith, despite all of the horrors I put up with daily in my life. I always thought that I didn't understand why God would allow some things but that he must have a good reason. When I went to college and decided that I was smart I started to see fewer reason for a belief in God and I started to let my questions as to why God would allow some things to happen become reasons why God might not exist in the first place. I also had professors pushing me away from the reassurance of faith into the chasm of doubt and a worldview that offered no peace, no safety and no security, and not even a reason for existence or the possibility of something better after this life.
Chasm of doubt
I had professors pushing me away from the reassurance of faith into the chasm of doubt and a worldview that offered no peace, no safety and no security, and not even a reason for existence or the possibility of something better after this life.
I will not make the blanket statement that this is true of all people, or even most people, but when I started down the road toward unbelief I changed as a person, and not for the better. A desire to do what is wrong did not inspire me to abandon faith and become an atheist, but loosing my faith did change me and, as a result, I did a lot of things that I previously thought were wrong. As an atheists, the more I struggled to make sense of the world and my existence, the more depressed and hopeless I became.
Unlike the narrow view of atheism that I used to espouse, I now know, based on my own experiences, and those of people I know and people I have talked to, that there is more than one reason why people loose or abandon faith. I have learned that people identify as atheist for one or more of the following five reasons. These reasons are not ranked in order or importance or statistical probability, etc. but simply in a manner that makes sense to me.
Reason number one, they, the atheist people, were raised without religious or spiritual teachings, and as a natural result, have no belief in God and think such a belief to be silly at best. When a person is raised to believe a certain way it is difficult to believe in any other way.
For a person raised without belief it makes as much sense to them to believe in or pray to a god as it does to think there are storms because of someone angered the Greek gods, and Zuess in particular. To a person raised without a religion or belief in the supernatural, one claim is just as unlikely and difficult to believe as all others. The way you, as an adult, would look at another adult who firmly believes in the tooth fairy or Santa Clause is the way people who were raised without faith look at those of us who believe. Imagine, if you will, there is a person who absolutely believes in the existence of unicorns and this person believes that the unicorns are our rulers and have all these rules for us. You would likely view that person as crazy, but ultimately harmless. Now take it a step farther and imagine living in a world where the majority of the the people in the society in which you live believed in and worshiped unicorns and tried to male laws that forced everyone to do or not do specific things as to not offend the unicorns. That is precisely the way in which people who do not believe in the existence of God view those who believe in God.
The second reason why people loose faith is they have experienced hardships or abuse at the hands of religious people and judge the whole of religion on those who have wronged them or people they care about, and the problem is compounded when religious leaders or other religious people hide, condone or justify those actions. I would have to imagine that a lot of people have become atheist as a result of all the child abuse and subsequent coverup in the Catholic Church and that a lot of people will continue to leave the faith as a result, many of which will loose faith in God and people and not just the church. People who are disenfranchised and disgusted by religion will raise another generation of people who share their disdain for religion and God, which is on a whole other level than those who just don’t believe.
My father died when I was in my mid twenties, and in all those years I knew him I don't think we ever had a conversation that didn't include God in some way. My father brought God into everything, even if he had to shoe horn it in, but for all his preaching he was not a righteous man, or even a good man. My father was an extremely abusive person who took his frustrations out on anyone who was weaker than he was, and I was his target on many occasions, even when I didn't personally do anything to anger him. My father was also extremely abusive verbally, which most of the time hurt worse than the beatings, but for good measure he would always verbally abuse me whether or not there was any physical violence.
To the best of my knowledge, my father never touched me in a sexually inappropriate manner, but he did accept money from strangers to give them the opportunity to do so. I felt so dirty and worthless that I never wanted anyone to know about it. My mother didn't even know about it until I told her when I was in my early thirties; before that point I had been too ashamed to admit what had happened to me.
I often wondered why God would allow such abuse to happen to a child, and I knew that other people suffered more as a child than I did, and I personally know people who have had it much worse than I did. There came a point when I could no longer reconcile the apparent contradiction of God being all knowing, all powerful, all loving and still allowing such horrible things to happen to the innocent, even those who love him.
The third reason people loose faith or find it difficult to believe is their academic pursuits have made it difficult, if not impossible, to believe in the claims of religion. Many people decide on their own, as a result of academic study, that there is no God, but there are also many professors who make it their life goal to destroy faith and strive to get every one of his or her students to loose faith and join the ranks of atheism, which is currently the fastest growing system of belief. I had several of the before mentioned variety of professors, one of which flat out said she would be pleased if every one of her students lost his or her faith by the conclusion of the semester. This lady would make at least one dig at religion every class period.
While in college
One of my professors said on the first day of class it was her goal to make all of her students atheist.
A lot of scientist are without faith, many of whom have reasoned himself or herself out of faith by their academic research and decided with all of the collective knowledge possessed by the scientific community that there is no longer a need for a belief in God or the supernatural.
Carl Sagan, the famed American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrologist,
author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences once likened the belief of God to a person making the claim that he or she had an invisible dragon in the garage.
"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"
Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist
Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely
you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been
innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence.
What an opportunity!
"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a
ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.
"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention
that she's an invisible dragon."
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the
"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."
Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." And
so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special
explanation of why it won't work.
Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating
dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way
to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count
against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your
inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as
proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to
disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in
inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to
do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The
only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a
dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd
wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The
possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter
your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At
the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine
that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be
scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that
there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present
evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data
emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely
it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize
you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the
Scottish verdict of "not proved."
Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all
right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your
infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged
crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might
have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible
ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in
a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.
Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me. Suppose that several
people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure
don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their
garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of
us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so
ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We
speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really
hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching
on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient
European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.
Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But
they're never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative
explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that
the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up
with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation
of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We
understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath
of invisible dragons. Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the
dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling. Once again, the
only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis,
to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might
be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.
The fourth reason people loose faith or find it difficult to believe is that something has happened in their life that made it difficult, if not impossible, to believe in God. While this can overlap with reason 2, for this entry I am mostly considering those who have lost their desire or ability to believe in God because of a major tragedy in their lives such as the loss of a loved one, especially the loss of a child, natural disaster or war. It is natural to wonder where God was during all of the hardship and why He didn’t prevent it, and many never recover from that and their temporary doubt becomes a life of unbelief.
After I had lost my faith I wrote an article in response to a community that had suffered a devastating tornado praising God for his kindness in sparing so many people and I called the piece, "Thank you for not beating me harder, daddy!" The point I was making in the piece was that if God was a good father than instead of sparing a few people in the tragedy he would have prevented it altogether, after all, he is supposed to be all knowing and all powerful.
Many times during the season in my life when I struggled with faith I quoted the famous lines by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” (I discussed this in detail in another episode).
And last but not least, the fifth reason people abandon faith is their life choices are at odds with the teachings of religion and they choose not to believe in religion or God so they don't have to justify their actions and choices or feel bad about them. I personally know people who first started living a life Christians don’t agree with, then came out and said they did not believe in God and a short time later made some major changes to their lives such as a sex change. With every step they took away from religion the more they hated religion and all it stands for.
For me, it was all but the last reason that made me loose my faith in God, and even when I got to the point where I hated religion and everything it stands for and was outspoken against it, I still secretly wished that I could believe in God. I have said many times, there have been times in my life when I had no doubt there is a God, there have been times in my life when I was absolutely convinced there is no God, but there has never been a time in my life where I didn’t care either way. I have, for as long as I can remember, been fascinated by religion, even obsessed at times.
I remember listening to preachers on the radio when I was a kid, not because anyone wanted me to or made me do it, but because I was genuinely interested in what they had to say and I wanted to know more about God and the Bible. The first time I read the Bible cover to cover I was ten years old. Part of the reason I started reading the Bible was to see if the story of Moses happened like it did in the Charleston Heston movie, The Ten Commandments, and in case you are wondering; it didn’t. I also wanted to read the Bible to see if it said what my father said it did; It didn’t.
Those of you who are regular listeners or readers will recall that my father was a minister, but despite all of his self-righteousness, he was at least a few counties away from any conduct that could be considered holy or righteous by any sane or rational person. I often wondered why God would allow such a vile and perverse man to claim to be his mouthpiece.
In addition to my father, my college experiences and all of the suffering in the world, some other reasons for the loss of my faith how hypocritical, judgmental, hurtful and condescending Christians can be, people trying to force me to believe, my wife trying to force me to believe and our failed marriage, the con artist televangelist, the blatant lies some of the popular Christian apologist such as Kent Hovind use to support their claims, and of course, there are things in the Bible that are not easily reconciled with science.
It seamed that whenever I started considering faith or religion in a positive manner some Christian would ruin it for me. On many occasions Christians would quote scriptures to me in attempt to convince me that I was going to hell if I didn't see it their way, which is never going to win a person over, by the way. Whenever a verse was misquoted I would quote it properly and then quote a verse that would put the person's actions in question and told them if they were going to try and condemn me with the Bible they had at least better quote it properly. I would then proceed to tell them they should be ashamed of themselves to have an atheist know the Bible better than they do.
At any rate, telling an ashiest that he or she is going to hell because they don't believe in or live by the Bible is about as effective as a child keeping you from going to work by telling you that the floor is lava and that you will die if you step on it.
While I am on the subject of things that don't help, anytime you approach a person in a hateful of condescending manner he or she will close off and won't listen to a single thing you have to say, but if you approach them in love than the encounter will have more of a positive affect, even if they don't initially listen to your message. I know it is cliche, but no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
annual convention in Des Moines, Iowa, Some of the protesters condemned me with the Bible but did not actually know what the book says, and than there was one preacher who said he wanted to rip my head off and feed it to his dogs.
One day I met a pastor in Des Moines Iowa who said the only reason he didn't murder me, rip my head off and feed it to his dogs and then deficate down the hole in my neck while laughing was because he didn't want to go to jail. First off, that was the most horrible thing anyone has ever said to me and this man was not being a good example of Christ by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, for a man who claimed to believe in the BIble he sure was not concerned with the manner in which it says a person should live or the place it says we will go if we don't.
Many Christians also treat those who don't believe as if they are sub-human, which is not even remotely like loving your neighbor like Jesus said we should do. Some of the many things that don't help non-believers want to believe are being treated poorly for not believing, being threatened for lack of belief, having friends who make belief a stipulation for continued friendship, saying "I'll pray for you" in a condescending way or making church ultimatums.
If you are wondering what a church ultimatum is I have a good example. When I was married my wife would tell me that I had the choice not to go to church, but made it crystal clear that if I chose not to go I was also choosing for my life to be a living hell once she got home from church.
Staring Alan Ladd, one of the best movies ever made. Shane, Alan Ladd, is a gunfighter who rides into a small Wyoming town and realizes the homesteaders need his help. Seriously, you should watch it.
There is a classic western movie called Shane. In the opening scene, Shane shows up at a homesteader's property and almost immediately the ranchers who wanted to run the homesteaders out are seen coming from a distance so the homesteader assumes Shane is one of them and points a gun at him and tells him to leave.
"Do you mind putting that gun down?" Shane asks, "Then I'll leave." "What difference does it make, you are leaving anyway?" the homesteader asks.
"I'd like it to be my idea," Shane responds.
I think that is a basic human response, we don't like to feel like we are being forced into anything, and even if we know something is not our idea we like the privilege of thinking that it was. Trying to force a person to go to church will not win them over as a Christian it will just make him or her resentful, trust me, I know.
From my own personal experience I can say that some of the things that do help a person want to test the waters of belief are being a good example of the God you claim to serve, loving without judgement and showing how a belief in God has made your life better. People want and need to know what is in it for them if they change their life, and if you are showing them a life worse than the one they are living they are never going to change.
The most important thing is to never stop praying for them, though it is not always a good idea to tell the person you are praying for him or her. You can't change a person's heart; only God can do that, but you can help the process by showing love instead of judgement and hate.
I shared the story in a previous episode, but it was a religious group I encountered through work that set me on the path back to God, even though they had no idea that I didn't believe of that they were helping me. Always be a good example of Christ because you never know who or how your example will help or hurt.
Saagan, Carl , “The Dragon In My Garage .” Godless Geeks . 18 Sept . 2018 .