In the comments section of a recent post Judge asked a number of questions regarding Christianity, which I found to be interesting enough to merit individual posts. I will combine a number of them, but a few deserve individual attention. So then following question, Judge’s first, is one of those. He asks:
- How do you account for people brought up in Christian families/education who then willingly and freely turn away from the religion (without being pushed by terrible personal tragedies or some such)? (Mike at the A-Unicornist is an example we both know, of course). In your opinion, what needs and desires did these people have which Christianity failed to fulfill?
I will say at the outset this has been very difficult to write on this, partly because it was not my desire to attack anyone in answering Judge’s question and also because it was easy for there to be so much here that the topic could easily become unwieldy. Since Judge specifically references Mike at the A-Unicornist, and because Mike has written himself about his de-conversion and his story is similar to many converts to atheism, I will start there. I don’t plan to speak for him because I can’t; indeed I don’t need to because he has been fairly clear about the cause of his de-conversion. So I will merely cite his own reasons for de-converting then respond to those. As far as I can tell, these are the reasons Mike gives for surrendering his faith:
1. He de-converted because he didn’t think Christian claims were substantiated:
“I deconverted because when I finally undertook that critical inquiry, I came to believe that the claims and tenets of Christianity are unsubstantiated.”
2.Because Christianity couldn’t answer certain questions like “why are there so many religions?” too his satisfaction:
“My deconversion was a gradual and emotionally trying process of disillusionment. It began with a simple question: why are there so many religions?”
3. Because the answers of Christian apologists are inadequate and easy to dismiss:
(Citing a chapter by C.S. Lewis he read) “Lewis failed to demonstrate why a “sinful soul” was a valid explanation for human behavior – he just assumes that it is. And since we cannot prove or disprove whether we have souls, I did not need to disprove his argument – merely find another plausible alternative. And if that plausible alternative is scientific, well, a scientific explanation is always more parsimonious than a supernatural one.”
He has lots of other bits and pieces where he levels criticisms of Christianity, but over all these seem to capture the essence of his reasoning. I think it could be summed up by saying he de-converted because he didn’t find Christianity to be intellectually satisfying – that appears to be the only “need or desire” it failed to fulfill in his estimation. And I think is a fairly typical description of converts (typically young men) to New Atheism. They had Christian childhood experiences of some sort, and then as young adults they chose to reject those childhood beliefs and adopt an atheistic worldview, often justifying it by their perception that Christianity is unable to meet the intellectual standards of science.
My own experience was almost the opposite of Mike’s. I was raised by a free-thinking father and a mildly religious mother. As I have detailed elsewhere I was immersed in a very secular upbringing – from the earliest age I was not only taught about the natural history of life and the earth (such as it was at the time) I was encouraged to read about it and learn it for myself. My father died when I was still a kid and so I was actually quite independent at a young age – I experienced significant povety and became increasingly street smart. By the time I was the age Mike became a Christian, I was a full blown skeptical agnostic – and I was encouraged to be so by my teachers and peers. I openly mocked the religious who I saw as backward and intellectually inferior. By the time I got to the university to study biology I wasn’t only an agnostic and skeptic I was a Marxist and anti-authoritarian. Again, this didn’t hurt my college career; it advanced it since I shared a worldview with most of my professors.
Because I was brutally honest in my materialism I didn’t pretend that I could simply ‘generate’ meaning and morals and purpose for myself. I was never a good pretender; if I believed something to be true I wanted to live like it was true – and I believed anyone who said life had meaning or purpose or claimed to have some corner on morality was pretending, even if they were an atheist. Such beliefs simply don’t comport with my wholly naturalistic viewpoint – yet even atheists desperately cling to them. And yet I still acknowledged my desire for such meaning and purpose. Though I denied the existence of morality, I had standards I wanted to maintain and yet found myself failing to do so repeatedly. Nonetheless I was a happy person, though too reflective and realistic to think happiness was all that important.
As I got older, I started turning a skeptical eye on my own beliefs. Many of the peers who shared my beliefs turned out on closer inspection to be just rich kids rebelling against their parents instead of people who had intellectual motivations for rejecting weak dogmas. I noticed knowledge didn’t stop people from being arrogant or selfish or indifferent to human suffering, including myself. Science didn’t stop wars or violence or poverty- in fact sometimes it made them much worse. As a biology major, I had many opportunities to question up close those professors who were actively researching the issues I was dealing with – and soon found that the public confidence they had in their beliefs was much less certain when examined. I was discovering that human intellect and empirical knowledge alone was never going to meet our greatest needs. I started to become skeptical of skepticism. In a sense I left materialistic skepticism for the same reason Mike left Christianity – because it was intellectually unsupportable. That is where my faith begins, not as a blind accession to certain truths but with epistemic humility, the realization that our knowledge is limited. This limitation is a product of human nature – not only our physical limitations but our temporal limitations as well as the acknowledgement that our ability to understand is effected by our own inclinations, desires and biases. No person and source of knowledge is free from human weakness though it can be checked to some extent.
Interestingly, Mike seems to have made peace with that. He admits that science is provisional, and our knowledge of reality is limited, and always will be, as I have pointed out elsewhere:
We simply cannot know anything of absolute truth – it’s beyond our capacity as human beings. I, for one, take that as a good thing. It’s not scary to admit you don’t have it all figured out – that’s how you start growing.
The difference is Mike is confident that what he knows now (primarily through popular science books) is sufficient to be confident of a materialist worldview, though he will not actually defend such a worldview. And he has faith that scientific progress will certainly continue to support such a worldview despite the acknowledgement that knowledge is constantly being revised.
So in a sense he ends up back where he he claims he left, with unanswered and possibly unanswerable questions and a faith in a something he cannot see.
So that leads us back to why he would need to reject Christianity for scientism given that those intellectual limitations haven’t been alleviated? Again, I can’t speak for Mike, but I share with Pascal the conviction that men reject God because of their passions rather than their intellect. From his own testimony, Mike seems to have gotten involved in church as an emotional experience as a young teen. It wasn’t until later he actually considered it intellectually and ‘counted the cost’ of following Christ as it were. Again this was quite different from my own experience as a young man; I had already experienced what atheism had to offer by way of intellectual satisfaction and lifestyle choices. So it does not suprise me that he found it lacking – but I don’t think that is the only reason he left. Interestingly the fact that many would walk away from their faith is anticipated by Jesus Himself. He gave three reasons why people walk away from their faith:
1. Spiritual opposition.
3. The desire for material pleasures. – Mark 4:13-20
These reasons comport with observations I have made with many interactions I have had with atheist converts. They never merely reject Christianity but they always reject Christian morality as well. It’s never a case where they persist in the lifestyle Christian beliefs require (sexual purity, self-control, self-sacrificial relationships, etc) and only reject its truth claims. And it isn’t necessary for this to be so; they themselves often argue that they are equally moral to Christians. And yet they invariably adopt lifestyles that are morally antagonistic to Christianity. I think it is no coincidence that atheist converts are mostly young men whose lives are most driven by their selfish passions, and who are most willing to subvert belief to desire. If Mike were someone who had persisted in Christian morality I could say this wasn’t the case but he is no different in this regard. The ‘need and desire’ Christianity doesn’t fulfill, and can’t, is the freedom to sleep around guilt free or live a lifestyle that is gratuitously selfish. And as much as these desires drive the choices of young men they provide a strong motivation for rejecting Christianity. I also note that a lot of these guys when they get older and marry and have children are much less antagonistic. They may not return to Christianity, but they certainly don’t see it as the enemy they did of their youth. This isn’t universally true but is often the case for men I see in committed long term relationships with healthy families.
In the end I can only speak from what I observe – but as the intellectual case for materialistic atheism seems to have uncontestable weaknesses and Christianity is more than rational in it’s understanding both of the natural world and as a foundation for human flourishing, I am inclined to conclude that rejection of Christianity is more often a product fulfilling one’s passions than it is of intellectual satisfaction.
Hope this response is helpful. I am sure it will generate discussion.