He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, April 25, 2016

Fair Questions: How do people become atheists?

There are a variety of stories I've heard and read about how people became atheists.  One I've mentioned before is Penn Jillette's story of how reading the Bible prompted him to become an atheist (which I call a case of Biblical atheism).  Richard Dawkins, if I recall correctly, claims to have intuitively come to the conclusion that no gods exist while fairly young rather than having undergone a deprogramming or deconversion experience.

Mark Bauerlein, on the other hand, had a sudden realization that convinced him that there was no god at all, that such supernatural and transcendent notions were utter fiction.  A sudden realization that carried with him for 3 decades of his life.  Holly Ordway never had a sudden realization, but rather gradually came to be an agnostic as a child and then an atheist after an irreligious upbringing.

What's interesting is that in none of these cases did any of these people become atheists because they were mad at God.  While it is a fairly common thing (at least in the U.S.) for a certain subset of zealous Christians to believe that atheists are all mad at God, it's simply not the case that all atheists reject the concept of God because they have built-up repressed anger from childhood because of a tragedy.  And the angry atheist is going to be less and less common as more and more children are raised by atheist parents who don't set them up for disappointment by telling them, "God will never let anything bad happen to you."

So the trite trope of the angry atheist professor in the film God's Not Dead is understandably appealing to those who think of atheism as just a childish emotional response, but it doesn't have the virtue of being straightforwardly true.  Which is not to say that there aren't people who reject God because of tragic circumstances about which they are angry.  One young man I encountered stopped believing in God fairly young after his dear friend died of cancer, and he was quite obviously angry about it.

He believed firmly that a loving God would not let young people suffer and die, and that any God not loving in the sense he meant it was a bad God and not worth worshiping or trying to have any kind of relationship with.  He was wrestling with the Problem of Love, as most of us do at some point.  Sometimes we call it the Problem of Evil, but on a personal level, it's the Problem of Love, because we no longer believe that God could love us and allow such suffering to befall us.

And this is something we should not at all be aghast at when we encounter it in our atheist friends and family members.  Christians of all people should be wrestling with the Problem of Love.  We have been shown by the death of Christ on the cross that Love Himself suffers and dies, that God sent His only begotten Son to die for the sake of love.  The Christian who has not yet asked, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" as Jesus did will almost certainly ask it once before they die themselves.

No Christian who has read the Gospels should look down upon the atheist who is wounded deeply by death and suffering and the sins of believers, believing that God has abandoned them.  Of all people, the People of the Cross should be compassionate with those who cry out that God is missing from the circumstances of their lives.

And of all people, the People of the Cross who often fail to live up to the commandments of the one who loved us unto death should know that in each moment when we do not show people the love of Christ in the midst of suffering, the less believable the love of Christ becomes for those who witness our lives.  If we abandon them because of their atheism, then are we not demonstrating once more that love fails in the midst of struggle and suffering, that there is no resurrection of love?

If we as Christians would seek to understand why people become atheists, we should look at our own lack of sincerity about our religion, our own doubts and anger, our own struggles to understand the connection between love and suffering, and our own actions which fail to show people that love and suffering are inextricably bound up with one another.


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  2. It is sad that the modern Christian apologetic has become so adversarial toward atheists. I myself have come to the realization that atheism has some intractable problems, such that even if my Christian beliefs were entirely debunked and dismantled, I would still have to cling to some sort of basic theism/Deism in order to make any sense out of consciousness and morality. Even though don't find atheism particularly compelling, I still have to give it the respect it deserves as a growing philosophy of choice for many intelligent people.

    The idea that we should seek to understand those who disagree with our Christian traditions is not a new one. In 1 Corinthians chapter 9, St. Paul said that he became all things to all people, in order that he might win some of them. Read the Acts of the Apostles. Paul didn't go around quoting Psalms to the Greeks like he did to the Jews. He understood that the traditions of the former did not regard the Scriptures of the Jews with any particular esteem, so he hit them from a different angle, quoting their own pagan philosophers in order to point them to Christ. But this "becoming all things to all people" goes beyond a mere intellectual understanding of what non-Christians believe. When we live this precept out in a Christ-like way, we actually seat ourselves at the table of the unbelievers and sup with them.

    St. Therese of Lisieux, during the last 18 months of her life, experienced a "dark night of faith," which she described as follows: "When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE." -(Story of a Soul, John Clarke translation, page 214). Rather than framing this as an individual trial that had only to do with her, she thought of it liked this:

    "Your child, however, O Lord, has understood Your divine light, and she begs pardon for her brothers. She is resigned to eat the bread of sorrow as long as You desire it; she does not wish to rise up from this table filled with bitterness at which poor sinners are eating until the day set by You. Can she not say in her name and in the name of her brothers, "Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!" Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus! if it is needful that the table soiled by them be purified by a sould who loves You, then I desire to eat this bread of trial at this table until it pleases You to bring me into Your bright Kingdom. The only grace I ask of You is that I never offend You!"-Story of a Soul, page 212.

    At the risk of sounding cliche, she saw the unbeliever not as "other," but as "brother." Since our faith itself is a gift of God's grace, we cannot boast in any inherent goodness of our own that sets us above unbelievers. Therese most often described unbelievers, not as "evil" or "sinful" (epithets which could describe any one of us, really), but as "poor" or "unfortunate." For she knew that the pure grace of Jesus could bring them to know Him, just as it had drawn her to His heart.

    My fear is that the Christian subculture in the United States has gotten into such a warrior mindset that it thinks that the only way to gain ground for Christ is by brute force. Rather than engaging the world through the arts, we produce our own movies and books that are about as subtle as a bag of sledgehammers and that don't make much of a cultural impact beyond convincing the already-convinced. This results in perpetuating an "us vs. them" mentality and does little to further intelligent dialogue. Correct me if I'm missing something, but I don't see any contemporary equivalent of a C.S. Lewis, a G.K. Chesterton, or a J.R.R. Tolkien, who is unabashedly Christian and yet produces works of literature that are actually taken seriously outside of Christian circles.

    1. Good points, Jack. I don't know of any authors at the level of Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkein currently. Of course, that could be because I stopped reading fiction many years ago.