The Biggest Challenges to Staying Christian

On Patheos’ evangelical Christian channel, Peter Enns has been soliciting comments from his readers about what the greatest challenges are to remaining Christian. He got hundreds of responses, and he’s compiled a list of five common themes in the answers:

1. The Bible, namely inerrancy. This was the most commonly cited challenge, whether implicitly or explicitly, and it lay behind most of the others mentioned. The pressure many of you expressed was the expectation of holding specifically to an inerrant Bible in the face of such things as biblical criticism, contradictions, implausibilities in the biblical story, irrelevance for life (its ancient context), and the fact that the Bible is just plain confusing.

2. The conflict between the biblical view of the world and scientific models. In addition to biological evolution, mentioned were psychology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. What seems to fuel this concern is not simply the notion that Scripture and science offer incompatible models for cosmic, geological, and human origins, but that scientific models are verifiable, widely accepted, and likely correct, thus consigning the Bible to something other than a reliable description of reality.

3. Where is God? A number of you, largely in emails, wrote of personal experiences that would tax to the breaking point anyone’s faith in a living God who is just, attentive, and loving. Mentioned were many forms of random/senseless suffering and God’s absence or “random” presence (can’t count on God being there).

4. How Christians behave. Tribalism, insider-outsider thinking; hypocrisy, power; feeling misled, sheltered, lied to by leaders; a history of immoral and unChristian behavior towards others (e.g., Crusades, Jewish pogroms). In short, practically speaking, commenters experienced that Christians too often exhibit the same behaviors as everyone else, which is more than simply an unfortunate situation but is interpreted as evidence that Christianity is not true-more a crutch or a lingering relic of antiquity than a present spiritual reality.

5. The exclusivism of Christianity. Given 1-4 above, and in our ever shrinking world, can Christians claim that their way is the only way?

One thing we can take away from this list is that Christian leaders who seek to shelter their flock from doubt clearly haven’t succeeded. These are all very good arguments! And if there are so many Christians who’ll admit to being troubled by them, you can be sure that there’s an even larger number who feel the same way but aren’t willing to admit it. (Personally, I’d also have added the arguments from religious confusion and locality: how can anyone be expected to choose among the enormous diversity of all humanity’s religions when a person’s own affiliation is so clearly influenced by the time and place of their birth?)

Though it’d be almost impossible to get a verifiable answer, I’m tempted to wonder whether religious doubt is becoming more widespread now than it was in the past. Has the burgeoning secular movement (or the free flow of information over the internet) had an impact, exposing believers to skeptical arguments they’d never have come across otherwise? Or have theists like Enns’ readers arrived at these arguments on their own, by applying their own reason? Either way, it’s good news: it means the efforts of preachers to construct an impermeable bubble haven’t been successful. The best arguments against Christianity are circulating within the Christian community itself, in spite of all efforts to shut them out or dismiss them with handwaving rebuttals.

We should welcome this! Regardless of whether or not the person goes on to become an atheist, admitting religious doubt is a courageous and honest act, greatly preferable to the brittle and ignorant certainty of fundamentalist dogma. But even so, we can temper that praise by encouraging them to take the next step.

As Enns writes, “These issues aren’t new… They keep coming up, which is sort of the point,” and adds “that these issues don’t go away tells us something: either the answers aren’t all that persuasive or the answers aren’t getting to where they are needed.” In my opinion, all he’s missing is the obvious fact that there’s an abundance of Christian efforts to propagandize and defend the faith against objections, which means that the first explanation is much more likely than the second. The apologetics industry hasn’t failed to conquer doubt because it lacks the money and resources needed to get the word out; it’s failed to conquer doubt because its arguments just aren’t very good. And a belief system that’s not true would be inherently unable to muster convincing arguments in its favor.

His conclusion is that “faith in a true God is necessarily trans-rational (not anti-rational)” and that the solution is for Christians to “giv[e] up anything under their control, any ‘reasons’ for holding on.” To my mind, this is a refusal to face up to the problem. There is no such thing as “trans-rational” that’s different from “irrational”: either you’re making decisions based on sound logic and the evidence available to you or you’re not. We atheists shouldn’t shy away from pointing out that we hold to a worldview that’s rationally consistent, free of those gaps and contradictions that cause Christians and other theists so much intellectual difficulty and strife.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • silentsanta

    I would like to add that I -along with, I suspect, many other atheists- are significantly only mildly invested in whether these doubting Christians find themselves swayed all the way over to identifying as atheists, or even agnostic; what matters is that there is enough air given to these critiques that those people who choose to remain Christian, or to become agnostic, or to become atheist, can reliably posit good reasons for their choosing whatever affiliation they identify with.

    That attitude is, I think, necessarily subversive. It is the rejection of dogma that we venerate. If the claims of religion, of tradition, cannot support themselves on their own merits, they deserve no special status. This makes of us natural enemies of most of Christianity, a faith whose dominance now produces most of its adherents through children inheriting their parent’s faith. Paradoxically, this makes us allies of the kinds of Christians who actually want to ask hard questions about their faith.

    I wish also to comment on how Enns intimates a kind of trans-rationalism – I have seen this pocket argument produced by a great many people I have spoken with who have found their attempts at apologetics dispensed with; it seems -to me- quite a popular refuge, and perhaps one in need of better addressing by the atheist camp for this reason.

    The defense is invoked commonly as a ‘leap of faith’, usually conflated with or coupled with an assertion that there has to be something ‘greater’ (or ‘better’?) than mere materialism and/or mortal experience. The argument is often given even without any conscious awareness of Kirkegaard’s formulation of it, although I suspect some degree of cultural osmosis.

    Each and every single time that I have seen, the speaker has been unable to characterise or even vaguely conceptualise what a trans-rational or ‘super-rational- system would look like.

    Importantly, I think, the argument (at least as I have encountered it) fails in that they have invariably

    a) been unable to give any way how they might distinguish a legitimate or reasonable ‘trans-rational’ inference from an irrational (unreasonable) inferrance, and

    b) been unable to identify why the specific domains in which they defer to trans-rationalism is distinct enough to deserve different rules

    c) been unable to remotely approach the problem of how the same trans-rational inference they favour is distiguishably more legitimate than the corresponding trans-rational inferrence to the opposite conclusion, or more legitimate than any given competing religion’s deferral to some kind of trans-rational inference.

    d) been demonstrably unaware that the rationalism they reject is in the simplest terms, a mere call for consistency, for decoupling the rules of inference from the specific premises, necessarily leading to a system where each method of inference itself is either legitimate or not; a single inferential approach is not both invokable for conclusions we favor and suddenly discountable when we choose.

    another way of regarding b) and d) is to regard this ‘appeal to vaguely defined trans-rationalism’ as nothing more a dressed-up brand of special pleading, which it is.

    I really do wish this preposterous argument would go away, but I don’t imagine that will happen any time soon.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Ooh, “trans-rational.” That sounds so Zen.

  • http://fractalheretic.blogspot.com/ Fractal Heretic

    “Trans-rational.” That just made my day.

  • Bdole

    “Christians too often exhibit the same behaviors as everyone else”
    Let’s be honest. They are often much worse than average if they are “trying” to be Christians.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    Thanks for posting this. Many of these factors played a factor in my own deconversion. I agree that “trans-rational” isn’t a logical concept; either belief is rational or it’s not. It seems to me that when we truly allow logic in, faith often goes out.

  • DoctorDJ

    This is exactly the mental mishmash that believers have to live with.

    I love WL Craig’s admission to the dissonance:
    “The way that I know Christianity is true is on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2C3T17aKPCI

    Evidence/science/truth be damned! “I’m gonna believe what I want to believe.”

  • koreypeters

    I dub this type of argument as: “i can invent word?” therefore God exists.

  • John

    Hey Adam,

    I’m completely new here… so possibly you have discussed things like this before, so I apologize if you have. I read Pete’s blog fairly often and followed the link here.

    I certainly see myself in many of the struggles to remaining Christian that Pete cataloged, and am in complete agreement with you that it is impossible to keep the questions out, and also in agreement with you that it is healthy to ask the questions. And also quite sympathetic to the perspective that ‘trans-rational’ can be pretty slippery, and yet her I am.

    So here is my honest question for you and any of your regular readers: do you ever experience doubt, and if so what does that doubt look or feel like?

    And what would your gut be about the biggest challenges to remaining Atheist?

    I’m truly curious and simply interested in learning, and again sorry if this has been a topic here before.

    Thanks,

    John

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    “Trans-rational” isn’t just slippery, it’s outright ridiculous.

    The biggest challenge for me remaining an atheist is the cosmological argument: the argument that the universe’s stability is unlikely to have arisen through simple natural laws. However, although it’s probably the most promising out of the various theological arguments I’ve heard, it’s still not very strong: it comes down to a God-of-the-gaps, and relies upon a notion of the probability distribution of possible laws of physics, which may not even make sense.

  • pRinzler

    The only challenge to remaining atheist would be if the evidence was sufficient to believe in a god, but that’s not even a challenge because if the evidence was sufficient, I’d believe, I wouldn’t resist.

    Your question treats atheism as if it is a belief, when it is precisely the *lack* of a belief. Remember, if atheism is a religion (belief), then Off is a TV channel; if atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color; etc.

  • cheribom

    No apologies needed for asking an honest and polite question. :)

    I’d been questioning/agnostic for almost 15 years, atheist for nearly 10, (after being raised Catholic) and the closest I come to what might be regarded as “doubt” is when I consider the idea that something that might be thought of as “myself” or “my conscience” might live on after I die. I’ve read too much, know too much, examined and studied too much to still believe. Re-believing in a god, now, would be like re-believing in Santa Claus.

  • John

    Thanks David. Here’s a quick follow-up if you have time. It’s strikes me that Pete’s list is both cognitive and emotive. I could certainly see cognitive reasons why I might leave Christianity, but I doubt that it would ultimately be cognitive reasons or rationality that would cause me to leave. I think it would be more emotive reasons – perhaps ones akin to what Pete lists as too few “God moments” and the problem of pain – ultimately for me that is not as much an intellectual problem, but emotive. It’s an interesting philosophical question as long as I’m in a classroom, but it is altogether different when I or worse someone I love am in actual pain that seems completely random and un-redemptive.

    So, what I hear you saying is that there is a little rational heft (not much from your perspective) to the cosmological argument – that migth sway you a little rationally.

    But, I’m also curious if there is an analogous experience for an atheist to Pete’s “too few God moments.”

    There seems to be a good case for the evolutionary development of religion – ‘agency detection’ etc., So I would guess that our brains are evolved for a lack of a better word ‘god experience,’

    I guess I’m asking is there emotional doubt for an atheist – like an impulse to pray, or a sense of gratitude for beauty etc… and what does that feel like and what do you do with these feelings etc.

    Does this make sense?

    Thanks,
    John

  • Pofarmer

    John, I’ve recently deconverted, well, more or less. It’s been a process of around 3 or 4 years. First rejecting my wifes brain dead Catholicism, then finally reading and searching and realizing that most of the bible, old and new testament, is literature and myth. That’s to put it simply. Do I have doubts? Not really, I’ve ALWAYS had doubts about the nature of God and Jesus and the role of the Church. I have less doubts now than I used to. I’m open to an intervention from the divine, but I’m certainly not counting on it. I’ve noticed intervention only happens when we get off OUR butts and do something. The hardest thing for me is that this puts me in conflict with my wife, and would probably cause some wide eyed glances if it were more widely known.

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    Hm, that’s an interesting question. I haven’t had those moments that you’ve described; most of my odd moments are along the lines of seeing “auras”, feeling like I’m connected to other people psychically, etc.

    My religious background was more vaguely spiritual and woo-y than theistic, so this makes sense. It comes down to training your brain to think one way, and then another: traces of grooves and ruts from the former remain for quite a while.

  • Azkyroth

    Trans-rational would be a person raised as a believer who became an atheist, wouldn’t it?

  • John

    Thanks pRinzler,

    That’s a helpful distinction for me, I guess what I am after is understanding the human experience of being an atheist. So perhaps what I mean to ask is… Christianity at its best like practiced by someone like Mother Teresa is beyond belief it is a way of life.

    But Teresa had real doubts etc…

    For atheism – I get from what you are saying that “doubt” would not be the right word. So to re-phrase the question: what are the challenges to atheism as a way of life? (which I still realize might not be the right way to phrase it)…

    Pofarmer indicates it is the conflict it causes with his wife who is Catholic, and cheribom perhaps wonders about something like “conscience” going past death.

    Just curious about life as an atheist, because it is far from my experience. I get the challenges of being Christian…

    Thanks,
    John

  • Bdole

    Abiogenesis is intuitively difficult to accept when you look at the complexity of living systems. So, while I have no doubts that personal/moral gods are a figment of human imagination, I sometimes wonder if something somewhere has done some tinkering. I put this right up there with the whole, “what if we’re all in the matrix?” type doubt. I have absolutely no expectation that I will live on after death in any form. Whatever this being is, if it exists, obviously doesn’t care about humans.

    It would be like a race of sentient machines a million years and a galaxy away from now trying to ascertain if there was a race of biologics that created them. I imagine some could point to a fragment of TRS-80 and say, we evolved. Others might say “sure, but how did the Silicon get doped?” heh.

  • Sven2547

    Great question!

    As someone who was formerly religious and now non-religious, I’ve been there. I’ve experienced doubt and asked hard questions and that’s healthy. A bit of introspection and honest inquiry goes a long way to self-improvement.

    Do I experience doubt? Nothing to the extent that I doubted my religion years ago, not even close. That said, let’s look at two areas I can relate to:

    There are times when it’s easy to feel like someone’s looking out for me. I’ve lived a really fortunate life so far in many respects. I’ve got a great family, a good job, good health, great friends, and a generally nice middle-class lifestyle. I’ve escaped uninjured from several incidents that by all means should have killed me, and I am the luckiest person I know at roulette, bar none. Do I think a higher power is responsible for my good fortune? No. Is that idea appealing? Sometimes.

    I believe in good deeds. It’s hard to put into words, but I think there are few things more virtuous than helping people without any consideration of reward. I lend a helping hand to pretty much anyone who asks, friend or stranger, because that’s what I like to do. Despite regular contributions to charity, I never ever declare charitable contributions on my taxes. Even my job (which is not charity but still) is one that directly involves helping people. Do I think there’s a cosmic scorekeeper marking a naughty/nice list? No. Is that idea appealing? Sometimes.

    So there you have it. While it may be a stretch to call these “doubts”, they are things I reflect upon, where religion still seems to have appeal.

  • Frank Key

    I wonder what the glue is that keeps folks clinging to their religions in spite of these challenging doubts.
    Is it the social factor? Lose too many friends. Alienation within their community and loss of income. Loss of support base.
    Is it the lack of an atheist glue? Not willing to believe in nothing. Failure to perceive value in atheism. Nothing else can fill the gaps except God.
    Is it fear of consequences, “What if you’re wrong?”

    It would be interesting to find out what reasons for sticking around dominates their thinking.

  • smrnda

    I’m an atheist because all religious appear to be human inventions. There’s nothing that can be done to actually prove the existence of gods since religions are built on unfalsifiable hypothesis – if you pray to a god and the god answers your prayer, believers consider that proof even if the event prayed for was somewhat likely to happen, but no quantity of unanswered prayers disproved anything.

    I never really have any doubts because imagining a god, to me, is like imagining that there *might be* ghosts – I’m confident enough in a materialistic worldview that anything that goes against it is easy to dismiss because a materialistic world view delivers such great results.

    The other issue is the sort of philosophical ‘problems’ that the existence of gods are supposed to solve don’t really seem to be solved by gods at all. If the question is ‘where do morals come from’ gods seem pretty capricious and arbitrary: the Bible hardly depicts a consistent god with consistent values. It just seems to have so little to offer.

  • DavidMHart

    I can speak to this, a little. I can honestly say that I have never in my life felt an impulse to pray. Even when I was a fairly impartial agnostic, as opposed to a 6.9 atheist (back at school – I never took religion seriously, but when we started to get told about God and Jesus by our teachers, I didn’t presuppose that they were lying to us), I always felt prayer to be boring and pointless.

    This, actually, is what particularly pisses me off about the religious accusation that atheists substitute themselves for God, or ‘worship science’, or even worship X famous atheist public figure – such people have absolutely no idea what it feels like not to have any inclination to worship anything.

    As regards gratitude for beauty, I can certainly attest to feeling lucky to have had some experiences, but (except where there has been an obvious human person to thank for them) gratitude has never been on my radar. Again, some people have no inclination to insert supernatural entities to thank into situations that, however wonderful, do not appear to be the result of anything other than impersonal natural forces.

    You speak of how you don’t think that any cognitive reasons could would be likely to persuade you to deconvert from Christianity, but that if you did, it would be more likely from emotional reasons. I must say, I strongly hope, for me, mutatis mutandis, that it would be the exact opposite.

    Emotional reasons are a terrible basis for reaching conclusions about what is or isn’t true about reality (though they are perfectly valid for subjective things like what your favourite song is, or your favourite city etc). I strongly suspect – and I certainly hope – that I would only join a religion if there were good evidence that its central claims were true, and that no subjective experience, however mind-swirling, would persuade me in the absence of independently verifiable evidence.

  • Jason Wexler

    This might be the wrong crowd to promote Mother Theresa to. Most of what she did was promote suffering, she did very little if anything to alleviate the suffering of many of her flock. If she’d been operating in the west she would have been shut down for health and safety violations.

    As to your original question, my answer dovetails nicely with pRinzler, in that to be atheist is to doubt. That is the whole point, we see doubt as smart and strong and wise. When I was younger the emotive doubt you ask about for me was about whether or not an afterlife was a worthwhile wish, I’ve since concluded it isn’t, but I suspect the allure of an afterlife is still a source of hope or “doubt” for many non believers.

  • pRinzler

    Some of the challenges of being an atheist:

    1. Living in a country where some religionists think they own it;

    2. Always trying to hone one’s critical thinking, trying not to fall prey to the mistakes and foibles that everyone is subject to (confirmation bias, other forms of illogical thinking);

    3. Accepting that one’s life is finite, that there is no afterlife. For many, that’s a bracing concept.

    But the payoff is knowing that you’ve lived your life in reality, and not something made up.

  • Carol Lynn

    do you ever experience doubt, and if so what does that doubt look or feel like?

    Doubt about what? The experience of “doubting”something is a pretty common one. Do I have “doubts”? Sure. I’m sure I experience my doubts pretty much the same way you do. I sometimes doubt that American can remain governed by secular principles when I see the way that too many people want it to be theocracy – and can’t imagine anything beyond their particular theocracy, either.

    Do I have doubts about being an atheist? I’ve never found any credible challenges to remaining an atheist. I found too many challenges to staying Christian, pagan, or deist to keep being any of those. That’s where my doubts were. Now… nope.

  • someguy

    I find quantum physics hard to understand, so I still don’t really know how the universe began. It’s possible that something set it in motion. I can’t really argue against the ‘prime mover’ argument very convincingly. There are gaps in the scientific explanations of the world- abiogenesis, the problem of conciousness. I believe in evolution but sometimes it’s still hard to grasp- how did animals evolve wombs, for example? There’s still so much we don’t understand, dark matter and dark energy. And I do find the atheist experience kind of bleak. The heat death of the universe depresses me. There’s so much evil in the world and no-one’s really got the power to stop it. Look at what’s happening in Syria right now. Global warming too. It would be nice to think there was some higher power, someone to fix all the pain.

  • Dryad

    There are a number of things I could label as challenges to being an atheist, but it’s not the same kind of “challenges” that are described in the article above. That’s talking about intellectual challenges to a Christian worldview; experiences or evidence that could serve to convince one Christianity is incorrect. Experiencing conflict or discrimination as a result of being an atheist is a challenge, in the sense that it’s something I might have to face and overcome, but it’s not something that could convince me atheism was the wrong position. I’ve never encountered anything I found to be a convincing challenge to a weak atheist position; if I encountered arguments for the existence of a God or gods that I found compelling, I wouldn’t struggle to remain an atheist (though without a darn good explanation for a few things, I would be more likely to become a maltheist than a Christian!)

    Personally, I’ve never experienced anything I would describe as a “God moment”, but it’s possible I’ve had similar experiences and am using different terms for them. Can you describe what one is like?

    Thanks for your great questions!

  • HA2

    The biggest challenges are, basically, peer pressure. I can’t help but doubt myself when I see that even though to me, atheism seems pretty clearly correct, but obviously so many other people in the world – including people who I know are extremely smart! – think the opposite.

  • DoctorDJ

    Anjezë Bojaxhiu was a self-serving gold-digger who benefited from the suffering of others. Hitchens blew-up that mythology long-ago. cf. “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.”

    Better come up with another Catholic hero.

  • ImRike

    John, I hope that wherever you end up, that you will be happy with your life!
    I was raised Catholic, but remember asking questions in grade school (in Germany). I do not think that I ever really believed and I did not have to struggle to be an atheist – somehow I just was! But if I ever should have any doubts about it, I know one reading of the bible would cure that for me.

  • wombat

    I was an evangelical Christian for my adolescence, and became an atheist in my early twenties. For me, the biggest challenges to remain atheist are twofold – first, unlearning the things that I was taught as an evangelical, and learning to think rationally and always question. I can often fall into the trap of believing a charismatic leader without question, and that’s always a mistake. The second challenge is the lack of fellowship. Church was always such a close community, and losing that communion of believers has been really hard.

    Sometimes I do doubt my atheism – my Christian experience was so strong, I felt God so much, how could it all have been wrong? But when I think harder about it, and critically evaluate the myriad moments when God entered the room, I realise the complex psychological forces at work.

    It would be easier to be an atheist if I knew more atheists, and felt more part of a community. The ones I know are wonderful, but they’re almost all online, and I miss face-to-face fellowship.

  • John

    Thanks everyone for your gracious replies. Thanks Adam for letting me participate. I hope I didn’t pull the conversation too far afield. It was good to be with you all in cyberspace for a bit. All the best to each of you.

  • Sally Strange

    Well, wince faith really means believing without evidence, or believing in the face of contradictory evidence, logic kinda sorta has to preclude faith.

  • ctcss

    “I wonder what the glue is that keeps folks clinging to their religions in spite of these challenging doubts.”

    The challenging doubts listed don’t necessarily apply to everyone who is a Christian (which can cover quite a range of theology and practice). For instance, 1 would probably only affect those who approach the Bible in a literal-minded way. But if instead of being regarded as a literal stenographic transcript, it was regarded more as a highly valued (to those who made the effort to write its contents) record of thoughts, inspirations, ponderings, and various tellings of events relating to God, it might prompt further investigation and exploration, and deeper pondering on the reader’s part, rather than a feeling of confusion or dismay. The problem of the Bible’s usefulness can also be considered from another perspective, such as, reading a AAA guidebook to a region of the US is not a substitute for actually visiting and exploring that region IRL. The AAA guidebook is an invitation for those who read it to explore that region. The Bible can be considered in a similar way, at least IMO. Thus, if the subject matter is of interest, one explores further. If not, one doesn’t. The book (Bible or AAA guidebook) is only useful when one includes it in a much larger plan of action.

    2 would probably only affect people who were looking to trying to conjoin a spiritual view with a material view and using that combined outlook as a basis for their religious belief. Since God isn’t material and God’s kingdom isn’t material either, I’m not sure why trying to combine a material outlook and a spiritual outlook would help one grasp either what God was about or what matter was about. They are very different areas of study and don’t lead towards each other. Why combine them when they don’t seem to be about the same things?

    3 would probably only affect those who thought that what happens in the everyday world reflects God’s intent or permission. Jesus often used examples showing that he did not regard this as being the case, but rather, that untoward events that happen in the world should be overcome by turning to God, not by relying on the often indifferent world to adjust things for the better. And based on what is related in the Bible, especially what is related in the NT, it would appear that learning to rely on God is a non-trivial exercise that takes quite a bit of effort. The point is, Jesus said that the world needed to be overcome. So, troubling occurrences that happen in the world shouldn’t actually be dismaying to someone who has noted Jesus’ take on such things.

    4 should not surprise anyone who is familiar with how humans behave. Nixon took an oath of office swearing to uphold the Constitution, but did the opposite. The Penn State scandal occurred not by upholding the high ideals of sportsmanship, but by giving into less than admirable human failings. Christ-like behavior does not come about by simply wearing a label of “Christian”.

    5 points out the difficulty of adherents of Christianity trying to claim something for Christianity that they have not fully proven in their own lives. Jesus pointed out the problem with this kind of thinking by his illustration about the speck of sawdust and the log and one’s hypocritical blindness to one’s own failings.

    So, in Pogo’s words, “We have met the enemy and they is us”. Christianity is not simple or easy, and for an adherent to regard it as such is probably going to lead to disappointment.

    “Is it the social factor? Lose too many friends. Alienation within their community and loss of income. Loss of support base.”

    For me it is not the social factor, although having friends around to support and encourage you in your journey is rather helpful. And the support from others can make things during troubling times go a lot more smoothly. And with helpful support from one’s fellow Christians, considering atheism as a possible choice doesn’t necessarily add value to the mix. I would say that trying to get better, more satisfying answers from one’s own chosen path would be more useful. But sadly, all too often, it appears that better answers to troubling problems need to be forthcoming. Christians, and especially Christian leaders and teachers, really need to up their game in this particular area. Lame or uncaring answers and lame or uncaring actions really don’t cut it IMO.

    “Is it the lack of an atheist glue? Not willing to believe in nothing. Failure to perceive value in atheism. Nothing else can fill the gaps except God.”

    Atheism, as such, has no intrinsic value. It is a single answer to a single question and does not provide anything in and of itself. (Theism, as a one note answer, also offers nothing in and of itself.) The question is, if one chooses either path (believing or non-believing), what further work needs to be done by the believer or non-believer in order to make their belief or non-belief a productive path to take? Nothing about conducting one’s life or finding useful answers to one’s questions is simple. It takes sincere and concerted effort no matter which direction one goes in.

    What any of us need to ask ourselves is, are we willing to do whatever it takes to succeed on our particular chosen path? This is a sobering question, not one to be taken lightly, and people need to be brutally honest with themselves. Are Christians truly willing to follow Jesus as he asked and in so doing, actually strive to work to bless others in practical, loving, non-intrusive and non-judgmental ways, rather than simplistically hounding others about joining up? Are atheists willing to do whatever it takes to carve out a largely uncharted and unspecified path that will cause good to happen both for themselves and others, and to try to figure out how to get satisfying answers to the problems of being a frail human in an indifferent universe?

    None of this is easy. All of us should recognize this and realize that we should be supportive of those on paths different from us. We are all in need of succor from time to time, and a friendly smile and an encouraging word would be much appreciated by everyone, I’m quite sure.

    “Is it fear of consequences, “What if you’re wrong?””

    For me, I have not finished exploring my particular Christian path just yet. “What if I’m wrong” is no more a useful question to ask one’s self when exploring a thoughtfully chosen path than it would be when, after thoughtfully choosing one’s spouse, one embarks upon a path of marriage and encounters the travails of life. It will probably take my entire life, and then some, in order to find out all my answers regarding God. So far, I personally have found it a useful, but demanding journey. (And I expect exploring my marriage to take the rest of my life as well!)

    Does that help answer any of your questions?

  • Frank Key

    Yes, your response certainly adds thoughtful depth to the discussion.

  • DavidMHart

    To be fair, “What if I’m wrong” is an important question to ask, and I don’t think religious people can brush it aside so easily.

    A religion is not merely a lifestyle choice, a set of personal preferences. A religion is a specific set of factual claims about reality, each of which must have a true-or-false answer (even if it isn’t always practical to figure out). If gods exist, and have some sort of impact on the natural universe, then atheists are simply wrong to base their lives on the assumption that there are no gods. And so on for any proposition: either Jesus existed as a historical figure or he didn’t. If he did, either he came back from the dead or he didn’t. If he did, either his resurrection somehow allows all humans to live forever, or it doesn’t. Etc.

    The only way you can justify not asking ‘what if I’m wrong’ is by pretending that the answer to the specific claim in question doesn’t have any morally significant consequences. But most of them do. For one thing, in traditional strains of Christianity that posit a Heaven and a Hell, there is literally no conceivable question that it could be more important to get the answer right, since it makes the difference between an eternity of happiness or an eternity of suffering. For more liberal strains that have a heaven but no hell, it still makes the difference between getting to experience the eternity of happiness versus missing out on it.

    And of course, if you believe that the god in question has any specific demands, such as who we should or shouldn’t sleep with, what rights women have to exercise control over their own fertility, whether stem cells are fair game for medical research etc, then it becomes more and more obvious that if mainstream Christians are right, then the ethically optimal ways to set up our social and legal systems are very different indeed from what are the ethically optimal systems if mainstream Christians are wrong.

    And of course, if you’re married, then in any disagreement with your spouse, the ability to ask yourself “What if I’m wrong?” will do wonders for keeping the relationship stable :-)

  • ctcss

    “To be fair, “What if I’m wrong” is an important question to ask, and I don’t think religious people can brush it aside so easily.”

    Actually, I wasn’t brushing it aside. I was simply pointing out that if a person, having given the matter some deep thought before beginning (or, in my case, continuing forward in what I had been raised in) on their religious path, they need to fully explore that path before just chucking it aside because they find the road somewhat bumpy.

    That said, is it possible to ask one’s self such a question along the way, at least in some manner? Of course. But the whole point of doing that deep thinking and consideration up front (before starting or continuing) is that those kinds of questions have likely been addressed already. Thus the question “What if I’m wrong” should quickly bring to mind the reasons and conclusions one considered initially, hopefully reassuring one that a reasonable decision had been arrived at quite some time back.

    Do I have doubts from time to time? Yes. But I also know that I have not exercised sufficient due diligence in the execution of my plan. Thus, there is a definite need for me to “up my own game” before abandoning it. In addition, in my case I think I have enough “evidence” (not proof) regarding God’s existence that I feel that there is more than enough reason to want to try to explore further to see if more evidence continues to show up.

    Would this evidence be sufficient to convince someone else? Probably not, in my experience. As I said over on Cross Examined a while back

    “I believe that I have evidence (but not absolute proof), and that evidence means something to me, but I do not think that what I consider to be evidence would necessarily be considered as evidence by others. I have mentioned such things to others in real life and have received a “meh” in response. The difference between their “meh” response and my own more enthusiastic response (which impels me to further pursue my religious path) is context. That which I consider to be evidence is something that has provided a necessary answer to me in a time of need. To others, hearing a simplified version of my experience, but not having such a need (nor an answer) themselves, an impressed response is not forthcoming. In many ways, this strikes me as being similar to someone who meets that special someone whom they then desire to marry. Others, not understanding why that spousal candidate is so special (because they don’t meet a need for that other person), are either puzzled or not as impressed. Thus, they can easily dismiss something that doesn’t mean much to them. But to the person who finds value in that same something, ignoring it or discarding it is not a viable option.”

    Thus, so far, I am not concerned with “What if I’m wrong” because I have done my best to address it and I am not done fully exploring my chosen pathway yet.

    And as regards your references to standard theological concepts and what they might mean for a believer or a non-believer, I have already considered all that to my own satisfaction before having committed my self to this journey. So you do bring up valid points, but anyone who considers this subject seriously should also have considered those same points and come to some conclusion about them. I certainly did.

    (And BTW your advice for keeping one’s wife happy is very apt.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    I think you may be confused about the motivations of atheists. Or at least about the motivations of this particular atheist. :-)

    I’m not at all interested in choosing atheism as a “path”. What I value is not atheism itself, but finding truth. At the moment, the best truth-finding mechanisms we have all point due atheism. If it points at a religion in the future (e.g. if new evidence comes up), then I sincerely hope and expect that I would change my mind and start believing in that religion.

    Also, regarding #3: I think you are seriously underestimating the problem of evil as an issue even for progressive Christianity. If people pray not to be hit by a tornado, but it hits them anyways, you seem to be prepared in advance with the excuse that they simply were not relying on God well enough. (Please correct me if I am misunderstanding you here.)

    That explanation is dramatically unfalsifiable, but even aside from that, the big issue is the implication that “God’s love” is arbitrarily conditional. What kind of parent doesn’t pull their child out of a busy road unless the child can ask for help in some specifically “correct” way?

  • GCT

    I believe that I have evidence (but not absolute proof), and that evidence means something to me, but I do not think that what I consider to be evidence would necessarily be considered as evidence by others.

    Evidence…I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    That which I consider to be evidence is something that has provided a necessary answer to me in a time of need.

    That is very definitely not what “evidence” means, or should mean. :-

    Evidence for or against objective statements needs to be impressive in an objective way. Otherwise you’re using “evidence” as just a fancy word for intuition.

  • GCT

    I could go through your long post and make quite a few comments, but I’ll restrict myself…

    You seem to have had no trouble coming up with an excuse for everything to make sure that you never doubt your “chosen path” which leads me to believe that you are not at all interested in what is true. I think the OP was talking about people who are at least somewhat interested in what is true, instead of what they want to be true.

    For me it is not the social factor, although having friends around to support and encourage you in your journey is rather helpful. And the support from others can make things during troubling times go a lot more smoothly. And with helpful support from one’s fellow Christians, considering atheism as a possible choice doesn’t necessarily add value to the mix.

    You claim it’s not the social factor, but then go on to affirm that you get all kinds of helpful support from your fellow Xians. Typical.

    What any of us need to ask ourselves is, are we willing to do whatever it takes to succeed on our particular chosen path?

    Because it’s always better to decide on your conclusions first and then do everything you can to make sure you come to those conclusions?

    Are Christians truly willing to follow Jesus as he asked and in so doing, actually strive to work to bless others in practical, loving, non-intrusive and non-judgmental ways, rather than simplistically hounding others about joining up?

    This I have a problem with, and the main reason I decided to comment. If you wish to follow Jesus as he asked, then you should be hounding others about joining up and threatening them with hell-fire if they don’t join. This religiously privileged idea of Jesus as a paragon of virtue simply doesn’t hold up if one actually reads the Bible without the religiously privileged preconception of religion (or more specifically Xianity) = good.

    Are atheists willing to do whatever it takes to carve out a largely uncharted and unspecified path that will cause good to happen both for themselves and others, and to try to figure out how to get satisfying answers to the problems of being a frail human in an indifferent universe?

    More religiously privileged blather. “Largely uncharted and unspecified path?” As if the path to causing good in the world must come from religion? Blech.

  • ctcss

    “Evidence for or against objective statements needs to be impressive in an objective way. Otherwise you’re using “evidence” as just a fancy word for intuition.”

    Do you really think that when presented with something not easily or fully comprehended by the human framework of thinking, the impression one receives would not be a subjective one? In such a case, I would say that intuition would be a useful tool to help determine whether or not to further explore that which is not clearly discernible and understandable. The point is to continue exploring until one obtains a clearer view. At that time, a better determination can be arrived at.

    Not everything is immediately as cut and dried as you suppose.

  • ctcss

    “Evidence…I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

    Actually I think it does. You are simply using it in a narrower way than I am. I never said it was scientific evidence. My wife picks up on many a thing that I do not. The reason I miss what she is picking up on is because I am dismissing or discarding evidence she is not, thus I come to a conclusion that doesn’t take into consideration the facts that she has noted.

    Evidence of whatever sort has to be weighed and evaluated. If a skeptic discards evidence that is actually true but that they consider to be unlikely, they will come to a different conclusion than someone else would who considers the evidence to have more merit.

    All you are saying is that you would prefer to have evidence that is indisputable. I think we all would, but sometimes we need to work with what is currently available to us until a clearer answer becomes apparent.

  • GCT

    Actually I think it does. You are simply using it in a narrower way than I am. I never said it was scientific evidence.

    Well, then, by your criteria absolute anything and everything can be considered “evidence” of a proposition. Therefore, the word no longer has meaning. Congrats. In the meantime, the rest of us will use it with its actual meaning and ignore your nonsense about having evidence, since you have none.

    The reason I miss what she is picking up on is because I am dismissing or discarding evidence she is not, thus I come to a conclusion that doesn’t take into consideration the facts that she has noted.

    Not observing a factoid is not the same as “dismissing or discarding” evidence. That people pick up on different observations is not a new concept. That, however, doesn’t change the actual facts. That you might not observe something that your wife does doesn’t give you license to claim that reality is different for her than for you.

    Evidence of whatever sort has to be weighed and evaluated.

    Which you have made impossible by claiming that your evidence is beyond my powers of evaluation.

    If a skeptic discards evidence that is actually true but that they consider to be unlikely, they will come to a different conclusion than someone else would who considers the evidence to have more merit.

    Let’s get something straight, we don’t discard evidence. We discard hearsay, irrational assertions, etc, but not evidence. This is why you obviously have no idea what you are talking about.

    All you are saying is that you would prefer to have evidence that is indisputable. I think we all would, but sometimes we need to work with what is currently available to us until a clearer answer becomes apparent.

    Sigh, no. You’ve simply proven my point that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Science is the process of coming to conclusions based on what we have at the present time while searching for more and better understanding through the accumulation of more evidence. It has nothing at all to do with being “indisputable.” What I have a problem with is your wishful thinking that you are trying to pass off as being evidence.

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    I agree that intuition can provide a good starting point for research, but it only raises the hypothesis a tiny bit above background noise, certainly not enough to justify continuing to put any confidence down that line even after years of turning up negative results on the objective side of things.

    And my main problem with your original quote was “necessary answer in a time of need” bit. The timing of your intuition, and the relative importance of the question to you, doesn’t make the intuitive answer any more reliable.

  • evodevo

    From David Simon: “What kind of parent doesn’t pull their child out of a busy road unless
    the child can ask for help in some specifically “correct” way?”

    THIS.

  • Sunny Day

    Stupid/Irritating theist characteristic number 3: – Redefining words into meaninglessness while still attempting to use them as everyone else does.

  • DavidMHart

    Sorry, I’m a bit late back to the party, but I hope you won’t mind me responding now.

    “in my case I think I have enough “evidence” (not proof) regarding God’s existence that I feel that there is more than enough reason to want to try to explore further to see if more evidence continues to show up.”

    There is nothing about being skeptical about a conclusion that prevents you from looking for more evidence in support of that conclusion. If the evidence in favour of the existence of one or more gods is good evidence, it will be good evidence regardless of whether you have already committed yourself to the conclusion that gods are real.

    “Would this evidence be sufficient to convince someone else? Probably not, in my experience.”

    Do you understand what a failure of intellectual honesty this is? If you believe that you would be generally unable to persuaded fair-minded adults that a certain set of evidence justifies their believing a certain conclusion, then you should not be willing to believe that conclusion yourself. To do otherwise suggests that you are letting yourself get away with a higher level of gullibility than you would expect of other people. It also suggests that you have pre-selected your conclusion and determined to defend it regardless of whether there really are good reasons to think it is true.

    Your analogy with a marriage partner fails, because people differ in their personalities and interests and all sorts of other factors that make one person attractive to someone but unattractive to someone else. A human being is an entity which is inherently more maritally compatible with some potential partners than with others. A human being is not a factual claim about reality that must either be true or false. Religions, as I mentioned earlier, are chock full of factual claims about reality which must either be true or false (and the overwhelming majority of which must be false given their mutual incompatibility).

    A religion is not something you can justify saying you’ve simply fallen in love with, unless you are prepared to admit that you don’t care about what is true or false, that you only care about whether believing it happens to work for you.

    “Thus, so far, I am not concerned with “What if I’m wrong” because I have done my best to address it and I am not done fully exploring my chosen pathway yet.”

    As others have pointed out, this isn’t about ‘pathways’, this is about reality. You should always be willing to discard your current pathway if presented with new evidence suggesting that it is factually mistaken, and you should never require stronger evidence to lead you away from a particular hypothesis than you would to lead you to stick with it, unless, again, you are prepared to admit that you care less about the truth than you care about your beliefs. Atheism isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a ‘pathway’ at all – it is simply the conclusion that the most likely number of gods in existence, based on present evidence, is zero. Any atheist who is being intellectually honest will say that they care about reality more than they care about any commitment to there being no gods – that if you can coherently define a god, and then come up with some sort of replicable demonstration that one or more of them actually exists, then they would be persuaded. Religious people, on the other hand, despite usually failing to have a coherent definition of their god or gods, tend to show a remarkable commitment to believing in those gods in the face of a stunning lack of evidence – even considering it a virtue to do so. This is the opposite of being concerned first and foremost about reality.

    I have a vague inkling I may have asked you here before whether you really care whether what you believe is true, and (correct me if I’m wrong) you said that you did, but your arguments here speak strongly to a deeper concern for justifying-to-yourself the belief in something implausible than for forcing your beliefs to adhere to reality as closely as possible.

  • GordonHide

    I know it’s nice to think that non-believers are the logical ones but it ain’t necessarily so. If you examine the work of Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul it is easy to conclude that it is our emotional side which is the main instigator of our world view. Non-belief is highest in those societies which have removed most of life’s anxieties.

    You personally may have made your decisions on the matter through rational considerations but before you dismiss this idea let me discuss the phrase, occurring in the Google entry for this site: “Adam Lee advocates secular humanism as a positive, uplifting and joyous worldview”. Now there’s nothing wrong with that but I think you can see, just like religion, Adam Lee doesn’t emphasize the correspondence between his philosophy and reality. It’s not as attractive as “uplifting” or “joyous” as a selling point.

    Speaking for myself, I first rejected the idea of God at the age of ten when I was living in Edinburgh with my grandmother and going to a school that made very liberal use of corporal punishment. God seemed to me just another cruel and arbitrary source of authority. At this age this was clearly an emotional decision.

    Here is another view of what science and atheism are telling us about the real world:

    There are no gods.

    There is no afterlife. Death is final.

    The soul does not exist.

    The world is largely deterministic.

    There is no free will in the traditional sense. This means
    you should reconsider what the term “responsibility” actually means and reconsider the role of punishment and retribution in society.

    Those who escape the law on Earth receive no punishment
    elsewhere however heinous their crimes. But then the idea of retributive
    justice is based on a false premise.

    You are just a very complicated self programming biological
    robot.

    Existence has no discernible overall purpose. On a cosmic
    scale existence appears completely pointless.

    All life on earth evolved from an original self replicating
    molecule.

    The amount of suffering involved in the process of natural
    selection is unimaginably huge.

    Morality, like other human traits, evolves over time.

    There are no absolute, objective or universal moral values.

    In any case the vast majority of moral decisions are taken quickly on an instinctive or emotional basis. Deep introspection and tortured deliberation are very much the exception.

    Right and wrong are terms relative to the moral code of
    conduct in use by a particular group at a particular time.

    Atheists have to take on board the idea that only those they
    have wronged can forgive them.

    Human exceptionalism is just another fantasy. Human beings
    are just animals. That’s not to say they don’t have unique or more highly
    developed capabilities, but so do all complex animals.

    The Earth and indeed the galaxy will eventually be destroyed by natural processes. Current science would lead us to believe that our descendants will not be able to escape this destruction.

    The human condition is so complex that any philosophy dreamed up by men, secular or otherwise, is likely to be so inadequate that it might as well have been scribbled on the back of a fag packet. (That doesn’t mean that some aren’t a lot worse than others.)

    Now this is not quite such a joyous and uplifting view of things. All of the above are not absolutely certain but if you have any real problem with these items you should perhaps consider whether you are not a little too smug about your claims to rationality vis-a-vis the theists. Are you listening Adam?

  • David Simon

    At least half those statements are phrased in a negative way even though they aren’t actually negative to anyone except people who are already blindly comfortable with their inverse. And worse, the other half are just straight up misleading or incorrect (like really, you’re making the scope error regarding society and free will? Still?)

    More to the point, you’re creating a no win situation here. If we did talk exclusively about correspondence with reality, you could make all the exact same complaints about our supposed smugness by dismissing us due to emotional deafness.

    But finally: we talk about reality correspondence and the accuracy of beliefs all the damn time! Adam does so in this very article! Sheesh!


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