When reading or hearing the stories of atheists, certain patterns tend to emerge.  One standard account goes like this:  I was a devout Christian but along the way became dissatisfied with certain aspects of my faith.  As I learned more about the Bible I realized that it is loaded with problems.  After examining it more closely, I concluded that it is horribly unreliable and really just a bunch of made up stories, essentially religious fairy-tales.  This realization, combined with all of the hypocrisy I witnessed among Christians, essentially spelled the end of my faith.  So now I’m a completely fulfilled atheist.  Examples of this basic story abound on the Internet, such as here and here.

Now there are a few things about this journey to un-faith paradigm that bother me and that from a rational standpoint don’t add up.  For one thing, it strikes me as odd that so many atheists moved directly from giving up Christianity to giving up theism.  The Christian faith is just one of three major brands of theism (along with Judaism and Islam).  To falsify one form of this general religious perspective is not to falsify it in all of its forms.  After rejecting Christianity, why not look into one of the other major versions of theism?  Perhaps such atheists will insist that in discovering the Bible is a book of fairy tales they have basically discovered that all religions “of the book” (in this case, all three including the Old Testament) are baseless.  But, then, we may ask, why limit one’s theistic alternatives to these three traditions?  Why not consider generic theism or a non-religious philosophical theism such as that espoused by the likes of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle?—at least until one has thoroughly reviewed the evidences for God.  Some thinkers, such as Antony Flew late in his career, have done just this, all the while keeping an open mind about the possibility that the world creator had revealed himself in some special way.

The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt
The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

Another unsettling fact about many atheists is their rejection of Jesus Christ, not just as a religious figure or, more specifically, the God-incarnate savior of humankind, but in toto.  That is, in rejecting Jesus Christ as Christians believe in him, one need not also reject his teachings.  One can deny that Jesus is “Lord” but still recognize his wisdom, even philosophical genius, as evident in his many brilliant discourses and parables.  One might even reasonably say that Jesus is a great philosopher.  As Doug Groothuis shows in his fascinating little book On Jesus, the itinerant Nazarene is undeniably a profound and innovative philosophical mind, whatever else he might be.

Suppose a religious tradition emerged which had as a core teaching the notion that Immanuel Kant was divine and somehow God’s envoy to save humanity from our moral faults, such as by assiduously following the Categorical Imperative, praying in Kant’s name, and so on.  Now if I decided, as I think we all should, that Kant is not the savior, would it make sense to also completely disregard him as a philosopher or otherwise ignore his many valuable insights about ultimate questions?  The same might be said of many other great thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Hume, and Plantinga.  The fact that none of these thinkers is divine is no excuse to completely ignore them as philosophers and sources of great wisdom.  In fact, we should study their teachings closely regardless of how they might be misconstrued from a religious standpoint.  Other people’s overestimation of their ultimate identity or moral goodness is no reason to ignore their philosophical genius.  Yet, this is what most atheists and other non-Christians do when it comes to Jesus.  They seem to assume that rejection of him as God-incarnate and/or savior of humanity is tantamount to rejecting him as wise or even as a significant ethicist or philosopher of religion.  But these two things are far from equivalent.

For this reason I often implore Christians-turned-atheists to return to Jesus, if only as a student of the man’s philosophical acumen.  Jesus’ logical skill, ethical teachings, anthropological insights, and cultural criticism (usually aimed at religious leaders, which should please any atheist)—not to mention his rhetorical genius and unparalleled influence on world history—all merit close study.  For these reasons we can all benefit from a better understanding of Jesus, whether we call him Lord or merely a great human thinker.


5 Responses to “From Christianity to Atheism?”


  1. Kevin Holtsberry

     

    That is one reason why I have never liked CS Lewis’s assertion that Jesus was either God or a lunatic. I also think that this common trope seems too simplistic to be true for large swaths of the population.

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  2. Lezlie

     

    I’m torn on this one. On one hand, one only has wisdom to gain from studying Jesus’s teachings. On the other hand, dismissing someone who claims to be God makes sense to me. I think that if another wise person such as Socrates had claimed to be God, I would dismiss him entirely. I guess I tend toward an all-or-nothing kind of approach. …Which reminds me that, in conversations about various topics, you cautioned me against throwing babies out with bath water. :)

    I have been one of those people who, doubting things about Christianity, decided to try atheism. However, I didn’t doubt Jesus because he claimed to be God. It was much less rational than that and much more as you described above. Wiping the slate clean is a lot easier than trying to carefully edit your slate.

    Though I have yet to do so, I suppose there is wisdom to gain from studying other religious teachers. I may be benefited by doing so, though I do not subscribe to their overall worldview. Maybe. It is very hard for me to agree to someone’s conclusions when I do not agree with their premises. If one was to study Jesus in such a way, what’s to be done with that pesky claim to divinity? At this point in my spiritual journey, His divinity is my reason for buying what He taught. While something in me agrees with Kevin that the whole “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” chapter of a book that was required during my time at Taylor seemed too simplistic an argument to be taken seriously, I don’t know what else to make of an educated person making divine claims.

    Perhaps a secular humanist has no problem gleaning from any human teacher and as such should include Jesus among the greats to be studied and emulated (minus that talk about there being a God and being that God). But if one is to dismiss the authority or authenticity of scripture, why bother with Jesus, its central character? The Bible is an historically significant work if ever there was one, though, so perhaps it should be studied for that reason alone. Maybe those who do not subscribe to a particular religious text are more suited to read everything, looking for whatever bits of truth or helpfulness they could offer. In that case, there are certainly easily-recognized helpful, wise, and true sayings in scripture in general and coming from Jesus specifically. I would just be left scratching my head as to why someone with such an obvious grasp on justice and the way the world and the people in it should work would make a claim to be God if there was no such person or if God was not specifically revealed.

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  3. Daryl

     

    “Now there are a few things about this journey to un-faith paradigm that bother me and that from a rational standpoint don’t add up. For one thing, it strikes me as odd that so many atheists moved directly from giving up Christianity to giving up theism.”

    I understand how it could seem direct, especially if someone is speaking about how he ultimately identifies himself now, without elaborating much on the phases to that end. But, the atheists whom I know (including myself) had a phase of agnosticism for years as an interim to atheism. At that time, my thinking was that theists claim to know there is a God. Even more than that, many theists claim to have a relationship with God which certainly alleges more than knowing there is one. Whereas, atheists claim to know there is no God. And, while thinking about the two groups this way, I concluded that both were outside of the bounds of what they could support. And so, I self-identified as an agnostic. I’m summarizing years of rumination. But, I’m going to attempt to explain my transition from agnosticism to atheism. A pivotal question became “why would both groups be outside of the bounds of what they could support?” I concluded that the steps needed to determine whether a statement is true are generally the same. That is, if a statement were made that “{Some subject}[is as described in the predicate]” the first step would be to reliably distinguish the {subject} from every other noun that could be said to be effectual as depicted [in the predicate]. And, the second step would be to simply see whether the subject is as described in the predicate, or the discovery of its negation—that the subject is altogether other than depicted in the predicate. A quick example of this is the statement “{Sarah}[owns a blue car]” The first step, to prove the statement true, would be to reliably distinguish {Sarah} from all the other people who own blue cars. And finally, to see whether she owns one as depicted or one altogether other than depicted—the discovery of its negation, which would prove the statement false. In those years, it became clear to me that the reason the theists and the atheists could not prove statements about {God} to be true nor false, was not because they did not know the steps to do so, but was because neither could do the first step—neither could reliably distinguish the subject {God} from all the other nouns that could be said to be effectual in a given circumstance making it furthermore that neither could move to the second step of seeing whether {God}[is as depicted in some predicate]. This included statements such as {God}[is just], {God}[is personally concerned with the affairs of humans] and even statements like {Jesus}[is seated at the right hand of the father with angels, power, and authority beneath him].

    So, why are people unable to do the first step when the topic is {God}? Is it because God is invisible or spiritual? Is it because God is non existent? Let’s explore the first answer. If someone said “{Bacteria}[reproduce asexually]. But, {bacteria}[are invisible to the unaided human eye],” it would not remove the implications that his statements about bacteria are both true and determinable—despite the complications of being invisible to the unaided human eye. Similarly, when someone makes an assertion about God, and then says “But, {God}[is invisible or spiritual]” it does not remove the implications that his statements are both true and humanly determinable despite the complications alleged by being invisible. But, when you inquire about the methods theists use to conclude that {God}[is as depicted in some predicate], it becomes clear that the methods are that of (1) adopting assertions about God on faith and (2) highly interpreting God’s involvement various places. That is not confirming what is specified in a predicate; that is adopting it on faith. Then, people are so well indoctrinated to think that faith is virtuous, to think that God has made a faith-based system, and to think that believing when it is evidentially challenging to believe is “blessed” or will be rewarded, that they do not use their usual standards of truth in the religious areas of their life.

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  4. shawmutt

     

    As someone raised Christian, Baptist no less, I’ve come across many of these prepackaged stories of the “ignorant atheist”. In fact, many of the tracts my faith required me to hand out had these stories. There are many tellings of this trope, a more recent version is the movie “God’s not Dead”.

    By reducing atheists to a trope, Christians can begin the construction of the straw man, as shown in the rest of this blog post. The faithful shake their head and wag their fingers at the stories about the unfortunate fools–if only they’d see the Truth! They bow their heads in prayer for those sorry souls, and lament when those hateful atheists dare rear their heads and try to get equal rights in the United States–a country obviously founded by Christian principles.

    As far as my story, it was a slow gradual decline to atheism through study. It was a study of humanity, study of the Bible, and the recognition of the stories we tell ourselves to feel a modicum of security in this random, violent universe. It was saying goodbye to good friends who couldn’t face my descent from His grace. It is constantly battling with zealous family members who fight with and give guilt trips for decisions I’ve made as an adult of reasonable intelligence and critical thinking skills. It was a battle through many -isms, not just a straight change from theism to atheism. It was refusing a culture of folks afraid to be alone and inventing a daddy in the sky to look over them. It is a battle to raise my children as freethinkers while being raised in a largely religious environment.

    For your faithful, for your fans, you need the easy argument, the straw man. I understand that. I come from that. But I hope that both Daryl and I shed some light on the fact that we are as complicated and faceted individuals as the most devout religious person.

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