(estimated reading time 6 minutes)
After I “came out” as an atheist, I started noticing something about the responses I got from Christians. Here’s the kinds of things people would say:
“How sad that you don’t believe anymore!”
“Doesn’t it make you miserable to think that your life doesn’t have any purpose?”
“Wouldn’t you like to believe that there’s a God who really, really loves you?”
“But Christians are happier than atheists!”
Here’s the kind of responses I didn’t get:
“Did you consider the evidence for God thoroughly?”
“But what about the very clear and obvious historicity of the Bible?”
In other words, the responses I have gotten have all been about the emotional benefits of believing, not about the objective truth value of Christianity.
There’s a funny Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon that sums up emotional objections. It shows a man engaged in a philosophical debate, saying “If P is false, I will be sad. I do not wish to be sad. Therefore, P is true.”
I’ll admit that there has been one exception to this rule. Someone asked me to explain from an atheist perspective “how we came to be”. Now, on the face of it, this is actually the kind of question theists should be asking atheists.
Upon hearing this question, though, something struck me for the first time: when I was a Christian I was never asked to explain my beliefs to other Christians so that they could weigh whether my reason for believing was adequate. Every reason for believing in Jesus was adequate, as long as you believed. I would regularly hear and read testimonies from other Christians:
“I had a beautiful dream in which Jesus appeared to me.”
“I attended church and immediately felt like I was home.”
“I was living on the streets and some Christians showed me the love of God by helping me.”
“I started reading the Bible and it matched up with my ideas about God.”
“I started praying and I was filled with this feeling of warmth and love.”
“I had an intense emotional experience in church one day.”
“I’m from a Christian family and I’ve believed since I was 3 years old.”
“I read the New Testament and I liked what it had to say about things.”
My own conversion story is some combination of four of the above.
I found that all of these are considered, by most if not all of the Christians I met, to be acceptable – perhaps even compelling – reasons to believe in Christianity. I’ll admit that there were one or two occasions while I was a Christian where I heard someone’s conversion story and thought “Really? You started believing because of that?”. But then I’d think: God’s ways are mysterious. He talks to everybody’s heart in different voices. God likes simplicity in belief. He doesn’t condemn people for being credulous; in fact, He seems to kind of like that (1 Corinthians 1:22-29). I’m not saying Christians don’t believe there’s good evidence for God that anyone could access; only that it seems secondary in importance to reasons that are based in emotional responses to personal experiences.
I was the same way. I became a Christian as a teenager because having grown up in Sunday School and British state schools, Christianity was granted a credence in my eyes that other religions weren’t. We sang hymns in morning assembly, we prayed before meals, we enacted the nativity at Christmas, and one of my teachers had us recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning. While I was drawn to Buddhism it seemed on a gut level that Christianity was more likely to be true. Quite simply, I’d been raised to believe it, the authority figures in my life at the very least kept quiet about not believing it and at most taught me it as a matter of fact, therefore it was truthier. But for many years, I wasn’t enough of a skeptic to realise that truthiness isn’t truth. And I didn’t realise that sometimes people lie and sometimes grown-ups believe things and promote things for bad reasons. I loved the character of Jesus in the Bible, and when I was a young teenager I had a series of dreams that seemed to confirm that I should commit my life to him. That was enough for me.
In my later years as a Christian, perhaps I felt that my reasons for believing were not as robust as I would have liked, because I always really enjoyed hearing about clever people who believed Christianity was credible for what seemed like sound historical or philosophical reasons. William Lane Craig seemed like a very clever man, and he believed in Christianity. There were scientists like John Lennox and Richard Swinburne (I didn’t ask why they believed; it was enough that they were prominent scientists and therefore intelligent enough not to believe things for bad reasons). And what about Lee Strobel? His books were full of historical and scientific evidence for the faith (albeit presented in a completely one-sided way that didn’t inspire total confidence). As long as some clever people held their beliefs for what I think of as strong reasons (arguments based on shared facts of reality like logic, cosmology, science etc), it was OK for me to hold the same beliefs for weak reasons (like coincidences, feelings, intuitions, etc).
When you come out as atheist, though, suddenly demands for reasonable justification are put upon you, even from the kinds of people who would have accepted you at your word if you said that you were Christian because Christ had appeared to you in a croissant. How do you explain this, then? What about this aspect of evolution? How about this unanswered cosmological question? Why does everything exist instead of nothing? How about the existence of the consciousness? Of physics? How do you explain morality?
The person who asked me to explain “how we came to be” appeared to mean it as a challenge, and if I couldn’t answer that challenge then I was wrong to stop believing in my original answer “God did it, of course.”
But my answer is that I don’t explain it. I don’t have to explain it. Christianity claims to explain life, death, existence, the universe, and everything; atheism doesn’t. Being an atheist – more precisely an agnostic/”weak” type of atheist – means that I haven’t come across what I consider to be any reasonable justification for believing in God. I’m not making an assertion about whether or not there definitely is a god, or what happens when we die, or where the universe came from; only that I don’t believe in a god, and I think the evidence for any god is insufficient to the point where I might as well say there isn’t one, the same way I can say with some confidence that unicorns don’t exist.
I don’t mind saying I don’t know the answers to these questions I’m asked. The fact that I can’t explain how the universe came into existence, doesn’t mean that God does explain it. “I can’t explain it; therefore, God” is a fallacious argument, as is “Well, how else could the universe have gotten here?”. Ignorance of an alternative explanation is an insufficient reason to accept that Christianity is true or that God exists.
Evidence needs to be offered, and God needs to be defined, not just used as a catch-all term for “the answer to all the questions I can’t answer in any other way”, or “the thing that made the things for which there is no known maker.”
Something else I hear from time to time, and may have even said myself when I was a believer, is along these lines: “Even if you have what any sane person would call ‘overwhelming’ evidence that God existed, you STILL wouldn’t believe in Him!”
Well first of all that isn’t true; if the evidence for God was overwhelming I would indeed believe (of course, I have no idea how you’d go about discovering overwhelming evidence for the supernatural, but that’s not my problem). However, here’s the important thing: The reasons people typically give for being Christians are a world away from anything that could be classed as “overwhelming evidence”. It’s generally stuff like the reasons I listed earlier. And when it’s something superficially more impressive like “I saw someone get healed of a disability in Jesus’ name”, on closer examination it often turns out to be vastly less remarkable than it would seem at first. And that’s not even touching on the fact that people give reasons for believing in other religions, which make mutually exclusive claims to divine truth, that are exactly the same as the reasons I hear from Christians for believing in Christianity (see here for an example of some of the things I mean).
Christians often seem to think that atheists set the bar for evidence too high, but we can certainly counter-claim that Christians set it far too low. I don’t even mean to pick on Christians by writing this; I could have written about a number of different beliefs, and not just religious ones. I believe that we all need to be skeptical, including myself and especially myself.
Edit: I wrote this post several months ago, but it occurred to me lately that I should point out that yes, I think there are also bad reasons for losing faith or for dismissing a claim about God’s existence. Here’s an example from my childhood: One of my classmates said that she didn’t believe in God because she had been up in an aeroplane and didn’t see God anywhere. I remember thinking that was rather silly because no one had ever claimed that God was literally an old man who sat up in the clouds, and in any case, even if God literally was an old man in the clouds, maybe he just happened to be in the clouds on the other side of the world.