When is it enough?

I asked for Christian arguments to tear apart, thinking doing something so familiar might help me square away my brain.  Unexpectedly, this is the first thing I got.

JT-

Emailing you in response to your latest post, to give you something to think about, and something I’ve been trying to work through in my own journey away from faith:

How do I know when to call it quits?

I’ve been a lifelong evangelical Christian, and in the last couple of years have been reading and learning things that cast serious doubts on my faith.

The original trigger of my doubts was an article debunking astrology, of all things. After reading about all the reasons that people believed astrology (confirmation bias, selective memory, and over-general predictions), it occurred to me that all the same biases could apply just as easily to my belief in the effectiveness of prayer. This led me down a rabbit-hole of skeptical writers and podcasts, and ultimately to atheist writers like Greta Christina, who’s writing I consider to be the most influential in my journey away from faith.

So I’ve found the atheist arguments very persuasive, but it’s still not easy to toss away nearly 40 years of belief (sunk cost fallacy, anyone?). I especially feel some obligation to my still-devout friends and family to give the “Christian response” a fair shake before officially throwing in the towel. I even agreed to read through the Bible one final time (I’m only 6 chapters into Genesis so far, and am already getting a profoundly different impression than when I read it before).

So far I’ve read a couple of Christian “responses to the new atheists” and have been profoundly underwhelmed. I’m afraid, though, that my Christian friends and family are going to keep tossing more and more books in response to my continued objections (in some cases, ironically, books that they themselves haven’t read).

How do I know when enough is enough? How can I know that I’ve exhausted all the good arguments for God?
How do I know when to call it quits?

Part of the reason this is important is that I know the cost of actually coming out as an atheist among my family and friends could be very real. Nearly my entire extended family is Evangelical Christian, including my wife and kids. And once I make that decision (if I do), I know it’s not my personality to keep attending church as an in-the-closet atheist.

Let me know what you think.
Thanks,

Felix

Felix,

First, I don’t envy you.  The position you’re in is terrible, and there’s not an easy way out of it.  I’m sorry about that.

If you were to ask an astronomer how we know the sun is at the center of the solar system, how do you think the astronomer would lead off?  Would she open with a fuzzy, mediocre argument?  Or would she lead with the best reasons we have?  The answer is obvious.  When making a case for something, we always trot out our best arguments first.  What are the odds that those defending god’s existence are saving the best stuff and counting on their mediocre/lousy arguments to convince you?  Not very good, I’d wager.  That you have gotten through the initial arguments for god’s existence and found them wanting should hint very strongly at the soundness of all the arguments waiting in the weeds.

When I spent a year going to church and talking to the congregations afterward, I noticed a pattern that occurred with almost everybody with whom I spoke.  They would provide an argument, I would explain why that argument failed, and then they would ask me to read a book (usually one of Strobel’s The Case for This and That books).  You’ve likely picked up on this same pattern.  I began asking these people to give me their best/favorite argument from the book they recommended (since I had already read most of them).  If I could knock that one into orbit, how good could the rest be?  But almost every time they were unable to produce even a single argument from the book, which told me either that they had not read the book or that they had not read it with any pious care.  I concluded, very early in that year, that the book recommendation was an escape, not a sincere attempt at discussion.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you don’t need to knock down every argument in existence in order to call it quits on a belief.  Indeed, some subjects could keep you zipping from one argument to the next for the sum of your life, so at some point you must conclude that enough of the arguments suck that you can responsibly change your mind.  Once you’re through the best arguments and they have proven insufficient, and you realize that many of the “arguments” you face are not part of a conversation, but a way to avoid conversation, it’s wisest to reject their claims.

I know it’s not easy to conclude that you’ve been wrong about something your entire life.  It’s a pity that doing the right thing frequently requires more fortitude.  If doing the right thing were easy, the world would be full of good people, and nobody would ever be tempted to the vices of laziness or dishonesty.  But when you worry about whether or not you’ve given Christianity a fair shake, consider how much your history makes you reticent to change.  I’d wager you’ve given Christianity a much greater chance than you’ve needed to.  This is neither good or bad, but don’t beat yourself up for throwing in the towel early.  You’re highly unlikely to do that.  Besides, it sounds more like you’re winning the fight than throwing in the towel at this point.

As for the cost of coming out as an atheist, I empathize.  I’ve never been in your shoes, so I cannot fully empathize, but I’ve spoken with enough people in your position to know the worry and pain it brings.  I can tell you that most of the people in your shoes that I’ve helped, and there have been many, have had a difficult time, but have come out the other side with a new, more honest relationship with those around them that is far more fulfilling than maintaining the illusion.

Not all of them, though.  And I cannot possibly know your situation enough to tell you what is best (nor would I necessarily trust my judgment over yours even if I could).  But consider what your fears can tell you about the way Christianity maintains itself.  Look at all the arguments you’ve torn through for the existence of god: Pascal’s Wager, the argument from complexity, design, origin, etc.  Do you believe anybody was ever an atheist, heard the argument from complexity, and was convinced to adopt Christianity on its account?  Of course not.  These arguments were conceived by people who already believed for other reasons, but who knew those reasons wouldn’t convince anybody.  Now they are used to reassure the faithful more than anything and are presented to the unbeliever as though they were the reasons someone believes.

The real reasons people become Christian are largely because its the religion they were raised with (why Mormons tend to come from Utah, why Muslims tend to come from the Middle East, etc.).  Or because it makes life easier socially.  You already know how difficult being an atheist can be – like playing life on hard mode.  The reason people tend to stay Christian is because humans are good at rationalizing and because of the sunk cost you mentioned, as well as fear of what will happen if they leave.  You can see it all along the America’s highways.  How many billboards do you see promising and escape from hell (or threatening unbelievers with hell)?  Lots.  How many do you see saying, “Come to our church, we have evidence!”?  None.

Even for you, it sounds like fear has its hooks in you: the fear of losing relationships with your family and of others you love.  It sounds like it is worry keeping you in the pews, not the substance.  Once more, I cannot fully put myself in your shoes here, nor can I fully sympathize because I can never know what that’s like.  I’m glad that I can’t, because I am bursting with sympathy even with what I can imagine.  So it’s important you take the following advice with a grain of salt, knowing I can never fully comprehend your situation.

Your life belongs to you.  Those close to you are fortunate that you are sharing it with them.  If you love them, do not share with them a lie.  If they are to love you, let them love you.  Let them love an honest man, somebody who trusts them with the truth.  I could sit down and reason with those you love to the fullest of my abilities for days on end, and perhaps never sway them one inch closer to the fact that atheism is in no way pathological.  But you, in one sentence, might be able to do more than I ever could.  This is the power of honesty, and it can change the world.

Do not live as a man who is partially imprisoned by the conditional love of his family.  If ever there was a way to cultivate resentment over time, that is it.  That’s not love, it’s control.  This is why there are few happy relationships constructed upon lies.  If leaving feels like escaping, your beliefs have likely become chains.  Don’t swallow the key for forty years of familiarity.

I know this may result in losing the love of a lot of people.  But if they love someone who isn’t you, that love is already dead.  I know that’s horrible to hear, and a part of me feels cruel typing it.  But it’s the truth.

There are people in the world, closer than you think, who will love you for who you truly are.  There are people in the same pews who share your dilemma, but don’t have the bravery to face it that you do.  They are waiting for someone like you.

I too have read the bible, and I suspect you and I have come to see Genesis in the same light.  The bible doesn’t get much right, but when it says the truth shall set you free it hits the bulls eye.  This is true, of course, not because the bible says it, but because a keen observation of honest people confirms that they really are free, rather than shackled by the maintenance of an untruth.  If you continue to pretend to be someone you’re not, you will likely live your life fearing that someone else will find out the truth.  This will seriously impact your own happiness even if you successfully deceive the world unto death, and may cause you to unwittingly hold a grudge against the people you love during that time.  This is no way to live.

We grow wiser as we age, and life become more comfortable on account of it.  If you decide you must change as you move into your fifth decade, do so.  You are wiser now than any of the previous four decades of your life.  Trust yourself as you are, not as were.  Far better to be hated for who you are than loved for what you’re not.

I wish you nothing but the best.  Let me know how it turns out.

JT

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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