Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Christians Become Atheists

One woman's story, Paula Kirby is her name. She tells how she went from being Christian to being atheist.I got the link from Barefoot Bum.
Like every other Christian I have ever known, I had clear ideas about the kind of God I believed in and, on the basis of those ideas, I accepted certain bits of Christian dogma while utterly rejecting others.  Again, let me stress: this is par for the course.  In practice faith is always a pick-and-mix affair: believers emphasize those bits that sit comfortably with them, whilst mostly ignoring those bits that do not, or concocting elaborate interpretations to allow them to pretend they do not mean what they actually say.  So this was the question I faced up to in 2003: What was there to suggest that the version of Christianity I believed in was actually real? Was there any better evidence for the version I accepted than there was for the versions I did not?
What she calls par for the course is quite sad. What she is doing is confessing something as the truth about God but then not treating it with the respect God's truth deserves. She is right that it is common in the modern western world. It was not common in historical Christianity. It is the fruit of the reformation but it was not the immediate result. The reformers did take their doctrine very seriously. But as the number of divisions grew it became impractical to do that. Then in more modern times as mass media grew and people became aware of just how many different doctrines exist the practice of picking and choosing for yourself became more common. But that isn't Christianity. Christianity teaches that God came to earth and revealed Himself. It does not teach that you can make up whatever doctrine suits you. Even protestants who seem to me to be clearly doing that would deny they are doing that and insist that it is not a legitimate thing for a Christian to do.
The Bible could not help me. Both kinds of Christian – the ultra-conservative and the ultra-liberal – find abundant support for their views in the Bible provided they cherry-pick enough (and, of course, they do just that, filing the bits that don’t suit their case under the convenient headings of “Metaphor” or “Mystery”). 
This is quite a cynical view of scripture.  My guess is she has not spent a lot of time trying to discern what the bible really says. Yes, everyone claims to be biblical and you can't appoint yourself as the final infallible interpreter but I would never say the bible could not help.
Tradition was not reliable, either: a false belief does not become true simply through having been held through many generations.
This is a very quick way to write off what I came to understand as an important key. If God revealed something to Christendom and that revelation happened in the first century then that teaching should be there from that time until now. Things people made up recently or even 500 years ago don't fit the bill. Is everything that is old true? No. People can make the same mistakes for generations. But if something has been solidly part of the Christian faith for a long time then we have to wonder what gives us the right to change it.

Just about all the Christians I came into contact with “knew” there was a god, too. They, too, spent time in meditative prayer with him on a daily basis. And as a result, they, too, “knew” what God was like. So what did that knowledge tell us about him? How reliable were these personal relationships when it came to establishing the truth about God?
Some of us, on the basis of our relationship with God, knew him to be loving, compassionate, generous, always reaching out to us, pitying our mistakes rather than condemning them. Others, on the basis of their relationship with God, knew him to be angry, jealous, punitive.
Some of us knew that God had more important things to worry about than our sex lives; others knew that human sexual impurity was deeply offensive to him.
Some of us knew that God wanted us to respond to other people’s shortcomings with tolerance and forbearance and humility; others knew that he wanted sin to be made an example of, to be held up and publicly rebuked.
Some of us knew that God was offended by conspicuous consumption when so many people had nothing; others knew that God showered wealth along with other good things on those of whom he approved.
Some of us knew that God saw all religions as different expressions of people’s yearning for him; others knew that traditional, orthodox Christianity was the only route to him.
Some of us knew that the devil was just a myth to explain the existence of evil; others knew that the devil was very real and a genuine threat to our souls.
Some of us knew that there was no way God could ever allow such a thing as hell; others knew that hell was very much a part of God’s ordained order.
We all knew we were right, and we all based that knowledge on the personal relationship we had with him.  How could any of us possibly be wrong?
This is quite an amazing phenomenon. The truth is they are all right to a certain extent. Like the CS Lewis analogy about the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone experiences a part of the ocean and comes to know things about it. But nobody has the picture of the whole thing. How do we put it all together? That is where the church becomes very important. But in the protestant world what happens is everyone finds like minded Christians who have had a similar experience. Rather than putting ideas together and arriving at a deeper truth about God they exaggerate their pet doctrine and end up with a distortion. Then they create an echo chamber community to create absolute certainty about the truth of their teachings.
What was striking about these observations was that those of us whose personalities led us to embrace the world and other people in a spirit of openness, generosity, warmth and tolerance “knew” that God did the same. And those who lacked the confidence for that, and consequently saw the world as threatening and evil and bad, “knew” that God saw it that way, too.
This is why subjective experience cannot tell us anything about God.  Knowing what kind of god someone believes in tells us a great deal about that person – but nothing whatsoever about the truth or otherwise of the existence of any god at all.

This is too strong. The subjective experiences can tell us something. They just can't tell us everything. Yes they do tell us about the person themselves. But that person was created by God. There is truth there. Just not the whole truth.
And this brings us to something very important about atheism.  Atheism is not in itself a belief. Few atheists would be so bold as to declare the existence of any god at all utterly impossible.  Atheism is, quite simply, the position that it is absurd to believe in, much less worship, a deity for which no valid evidence has been presented.  Atheism is not a faith: on the contrary, it is the refusal to accept claims on faith.
But saying worship of God is absurd is a statement of faith. It is based on reason but most people have a rational basis for faith. The point is that after examining all the evidence a choice was made to embrace one conclusion. That is faith. You need some certainty about the big questions in life in order to proceed. The choice to live under the assumption that atheism is true is very similar to the choice to live under the assumption that Catholicism is true. It is central and far reaching. It is not in a different category at all. Now it is in a different category than the half-baked Christianity she believed before. Where she manufactured her own God. People such as St Thomas Aquinas and Bl John Newman have said that such a person has no faith. I understand that. But atheists? They have faith.
Atheists recognize that we need evidence in order to come to reliable conclusions about reality and that, so far, those who claim there is a god have signally failed to provide it.  And atheists care about reality: not what it might be comforting to believe, or what has traditionally been believed, or what we have been instructed to believe.  
There is the idea that religious people don't look at evidence.  We do. We just come to a different conclusion. I find atheists are quicker to write off whole categories of evidence. Miracles, personal stories of lives transformed, visions, etc. Christians can make sense of all the evidence.
And this focus on reality, far from diminishing our experience of life, as so many religious people imagine, actually makes our lives all the richer: once you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too, and there is no reason to believe there will be heavenly compensation for their earthly sufferings.
But why? What is the reason to live your life to the full? What does that even mean? Does it mean pleasure? Does it mean achievement? What is going to matter after you are dead? Anything?
An atheist life, well lived, leads to the only kind of afterlife there is any evidence for whatsoever: the immortality of living on in the fond memories of those who loved us.
OK, fond memories. But the people who remember us will die too.  So you still have the problem of finiteness. You can imagine people will remember you for a long time after you die. How often do you think about those who have died? Maybe those who have recently dies you fondly remember. What about those who died a while ago?

I would also dispute the claim that there is no evidence whatsoever for an afterlife that Christianity speaks of. I have personally heard so many stories of dead people appearing to their loved ones. Then there is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. For people who claim to care about evidence they sure dismiss a lot of things.

15 comments:

  1. As a former Protestant, I somewhat see where she is coming from. There is an epistemological black hole at the heart of Protestantism because sola scriptura is incoherent in theory and unworkable in practice. This dilemma leads one logically either to skepticism (unless one is swayed by atheist polemic that pretends that atheism is less dogmatic and supra-rational than faith) or to fundamentalism or to historical evidence. How did the leaders of the early church see the issues of authority and formation of doctrine in the church? Authority resided in the bishops, who held authority by succession from Christ's apostles, in union with the successor of Peter. The Church's Tradition --its living memory-- provides the guide to legitimate and coherent interpretation of the Bible and has done for 2000 years. That is, if it's evidence we're looking for.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is a good point. I didn't want to focus on that in this post but I did mention this is the fruit of the reformation. She was a liberal protestant but I think also a liberal Catholic for a while. Conservatives do want to find the truth. Liberals don't really. They kind of enjoy being able to pick and choose doctrines. So I am not sure how hard she looked for something really solid like Catholicism.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Paula Kirby's definition of atheism sounds more like agnosticism to me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Atheism, agnosticism, and wishy-washy Christianity all boil down to the same thing in practice. Atheism is the most honest. Saying there is no god when they are living as if there is no god. Saying I believe God exists or may well exist and I am just going to ignore that in my life choices is harder to understand. More common but harder to understand.

    ReplyDelete
  5. One other thing about atheists--they work hard to convert others to their way of thinking and believing. That's a religion. They keep trying to say they're not a religion. It's not what you say. It's how you move. It's how you operate. Atheism is a religion. Pure and simple.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It becomes a matter of definition and of language. Even Christians sometimes say Christianity is not a religion. But if you give them the definition of "religion" from a typical dictionary Christianity seems to fit.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sometimes I feel that atheist argue their point so vehemently because deep down inside they really are hoping for someone to prove that God does exist. That's never going to happen though because belief in Gos is all about faith...not absolute proof of His existence

    ReplyDelete
  8. Many people dismiss Christianity because they can't understand what or who God is, try reading Jacob Boehme's books, he had a great revelation from God, even John Wesley required his followers to read his writings.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Didn't know about Boehme. He does seem interesting. In the 17th century Lutherans were more open to the idea of special revelations. Not so much anymore.

    I don't think the problem is not enough suggestions. It is too many. Everyone is making truth claims so the temptation is to take none of them seriously. Catholicism does allow you to explore these interesting revelations without risking being roped into some serious error. We can trust the light by which we look at these things.

    ReplyDelete
  10. dude try Islam...... u'll find loads of answers in it...... besides..... the Quran have no mistake..... and alot of scientist facts tht proves it's the only true book from god ;)

    ReplyDelete
  11. You could try and demonstrate the Quran is from God. Just asserting it is not helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  12. There is no god- enough said.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thanks for reading. What you say is interesting. If there really was no God it would seem that should be the case. Nobody should keep talking about Him if He did not exist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. People keep talking about your god simply because of the insidious nature of religion and that it is foisted on children without their consent, which based on the evidence, is tantamount to child abuse.
      The numbers of non religious adults who make a conscious informed choice and become religious is infinitesimal. Anthony Flew comes to mind and the way his case was reported leaves a LOT to be desired.

      If it were law that religion was not allowed to be preached to children within a generation or two it would become almost a n on entity.

      Meantime, it is on the wane. Enjoy 'the god delusion'
      while you can. (apologies to RD)

      Delete
    2. The end of religion has been predicted for centuries. People continue to predict it and be wrong.

      Non-religious adults becoming religious. That is actually common. I remember one study suggesting it was a majority of those who say they were raised with no religion claim to be religious. So I'd like some documentation on why you think that is infinitesimal.

      Think of atheist societies. When communism fell in 1989 was religion dead? Even after 75 years of active, violent, government discouragement it was not just there but very strong.

      Delete