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

  • William R. Dickson

    If I may, I might add that if you’re looking for evidence or an argument to support theism and/or Christianity, then you’ve already crossed the line. The burden of proof has shifted, and you’re just haggling with yourself over whether you’re willing to accept the new label.

  • RhubarbTheBear

    I just like this response. Yeah.

  • doctorburger

    “Better to be hated for who you are, than loved for who you are not.”

    Also, there’s a lot of people who have gone through exactly this.

    Jerry DeWitt, former pastor, on “Identity Suicide”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DdicxKxAFQ

  • TGAP Dad

    Two points:
    1) In my experience, you can’t be forced, nor can you simply will yourself, to believe anything. You may become convinced of something, which you will then believe. You can be coerced into professing a belief, but that doesn’t make you accept it. If you truly believe something, you act on it appropriately. The more basic issue is “do you believe?” Once you’ve answered that, go forth and live it.

    2) JT writes:

    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.

    To be fair, we have one contemporary counterexample: Leah Libresco.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Leah Libresco wasn’t convinced by the argument from complexity.

    • John Horstman

      Maybe, though Libresco’s conversion narrative makes it sound like the Argument from Orgasms may have played a primary role in her conversion (I’ve seen that one be a major factor in deconverting theists, and I imagine it could work in the reverse as well).

  • Dan DeMura

    I would encourage Felix to find a local group in his area where he can meet with people and share his thoughts and concern… leaving religion can be a very scary and lonely experience, it’s good to know you have people around you who understand where you’re coming from… you might be surprised how many are former believers themselves. Check meetup website for a local Humanist Organization and also if there is a Recovering from Religion group in your area that might be a good group for you to check out as well… I’m wishing you all the best to Felix.

  • http://www.facebook.com/using.reason usingreason

    I have been where you are Felix, I grew up in a rural area where everyone was Christian and when I overthought Christianity in my early teens I was absolutely alone. I think JT is right in that you already know what you need to do and are just dreading the consequences. If you live in an area with a Atheist/Skeptics/Humanist group I would highly recommend seeking them out and talking to them. There is a community for you to be a part of; you do not have to be alone. Trying to deny your new knowledge will only make you unhappy. The problem with the books you will be tossed is how shallow and transparent they are; once you see that, you cannot unsee it.

    My family is still Christian, I am not, my kids are not; it’s not easy. It doesn’t have to be a source of constant conflict (it does come up); how you deal with it is up to all of you. I hesitate to give any specific advise as everyone’s situation is different. I’ll simply repeat that you are not alone, other people like you are out there and can certainly help you with what you are going through.

  • PatrickG

    Seconding Dan, finding a group in your area (or online) might be very helpful. You’re not alone in your experience here!

    Good luck, Felix. I wish you nothing but the best.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/VeritasKnight VeritasKnight

    Good luck, Felix.

  • briandurden

    And that is why I read WWJTD :)

  • http://twitter.com/johnradke jtradke

    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?

    My advice? Never call it quits. I don’t mean continue to beat your head against the wall searching for theistic arguments for the rest of your life. I mean go ahead and adopt the label “atheist”, but always consider it provisional. Don’t commit to atheism, but view it as a label of your current state of mind. It’s not a party line. You don’t have to continue being an atheist if you do eventually learn of a good argument for theism. You reserve the right to change your mind at any point.

    Remember that you are, regardless of any particular beliefs, a person committed to truth. This means that you must always be open to changing your mind should more convincing arguments or evidence arise.

    • eric

      I wholeheartedly agree: never call it quits. The answer to “How can I know that I’ve exhausted all the good arguments for God?” is: you can’t. You make the best decision you can based on the information you have at hand, and you maintain a willingness to change your mind if your information changes.

      This is not to say anyone should stick one’s head in the sand and purposefully limit the information they get, so they never change their mind. That’s a bad option also. Due diligence in terms of looking at opposition arguments is definitely a good thing. But “due diligence” does not require reading everything ever written about it. You don’t owe either Christianity or atheism (or any other belief) a 100% exhaustive search before deciding on what to believe.

      You will never achieve 100% certainty based on evidence. Induction doesn’t work that way. So (1) don’t stress if you don’t achieve it, and (2) be suspicious of anyone who argues that you ought to stay in the fold until you achieve it.

      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.

      That is a difficult and very personal decision. I would certainly not fault anyone who chose not to “come out” to a non-understanding family. Like JT, I think that in most cases its better in the long run to be honest. But not every case is like that.

    • John Horstman

      I agree: I don’t believe in any gods because the null hypothesis is that any proposed god doesn’t exist, and there has not been sufficient (any) evidence to convince me otherwise. Were such evidence to be presented, I would change my mind. Similarly, I don’t believe that there’s a teapot sitting on the martian surface (again, the null hypothesis for this claim; incidentally, the odds are higher than those for a god – we know both teapots and Mars exist, so this scenario is just a NASA sky-crane away from being true), but if Curiosity sends back pictures of one, I will change my mind. Pretty much all of apologetics is dedicated to demonstrating that it’s not impossible for a god (usually a specific god) to exist, based on what we’ve observed of reality (and it doesn’t even do a good job of establishing that – it’s increasingly difficult to reconcile the existence of Yahweh as interpreted by any strain of Christianity with observed reality as we make ever more detailed and complete observations of reality): in a way, that’s really beside the point; as with my teapot example, just because I know something is possible in no way convinces me that it’s true. So, you can pretty much dismiss all apologetics arguments out of hand, and insist that someone provide you with the slightest shred of direct evidence for the existence of a given god. From this perspective, zero arguments is already enough – I could accept every apologetics argument and still wouldn’t believe in a god because without direct evidence to back the truth claim “Yahweh exists,” the arguments establishing possibility are meaningless. We don’t go around believing that anything and everything that is possible is true, with good reason.

      As for what to do about your specific situation, I’m afraid I can’t offer any suggestions beyond what others have said. I’m particularly ill-equipped, as I was not raised religious and never really believed in any gods. Likewise, my immediate family is (mostly) atheist (one deist/agnostic sister and one Catholic bother/sister-in-law pair), as is my social circle, so there’s no real risk of ostracism for me. I am very, very sorry to hear that you are in the position in which you find yourself, Felix, and I wish you all the best (or the best possible for your situation) moving forward.

      • John Horstman

        Rats, failed to capitalize Martian. +1 vote for an edit feature.

  • http://writtenaftermidnight.wordpress.com jaime

    Wow. Felix is a brave guy. I can sympathize to a small degree. I also was raised conservative evangelical, and while I am still religious, reading the bible myself dramatically impacted the way I thought and felt about my faith, as well as showing me how little I actually knew about Christianity. It was only a couple of months ago that I told my family that I wasn’t a political conservative, and that has already put a strain on things. Kudos to you, Felix, for pushing forward even when it hurts.

  • Rieux

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that anyone who can name, comprehend, and even diagnose in his own thought patterns the sunk cost fallacy is not long for the evangelical Christian world.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/ Greta Christina

    Felix: If you don’t already know about Recovering From Religion, I urge you to contact them. They would be really good people to talk with about this.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    One more point that Felix should consider, if he’s reading this: He may not be the only closeted atheist in his family or his social circle! It’s surprisingly common that when one person comes out as an atheist, they’ll hear from other people they know who had come to the same conclusions and had believed they were alone.

    This isn’t to downplay the very real costs that coming out of the closet can have. It’s just to say that there are benefits to go along with it in addition to the major benefit of honesty that JT described so well.

  • articulett

    Sometimes when the topic turns to religion… instead of mentioning god– I mention “souls”. I say, “I wish there was good evidence for souls. Because if there was such evidence, scientists would be testing and refining knowledge on the subject.”

    If souls don’t exist, gods are irrelevant. And there is no more evidence for “souls” than there is for any other invisible entity (god, demons, Thetans, fairies, etc.)

    Humans are clearly good at making up magical beings to explain that which they don’t understand, but despite eons of such beliefs, there is no evidence that any such being exists… or even what it means to be conscious, but have no measurable properties.

    This puts the ball in the other persons court–

    Other good questions that change the focus from non-belief are

    1. Couldn’t a real god do whatever is necessary to get people to believe whatever he wanted them to believe if for some reason “belief” was important to him?

    and

    2. If your god was as mythological as Zeus, would you want to know?

    I think these are good questions for anyone letting go of faith.

  • http://daisiesandshit.com DaisiesAndShit

    Aside from echoing the promotion of Recovering from Religion (full disclosure – I’m their webmaster and the Denver chapter coordinator), I would simply like to offer my support. I remember quite vividly the night I realized I no longer believed – it wasn’t a choice, I didn’t call it quits… I fell to my knees in the middle of the night to pray that my husband would make it home safely, and then began to giggle because I finally realized I was talking to myself and that talking to myself would have absolutely no effect on his welfare, then the giggling was overcome by tears, and then sobs… it was the most difficult night of my life. Happily, it was also a night that marked my entrance into a reality more comforting, more beautiful, more full of hope and joy and honesty and respect than ANYTHING my faith had ever offered me.

    Find people near you who can help you through the rough spots, and celebrate with you when you rise above them. It gets better. :)

  • http://www.atheistforums.org Jeremy

    Coming out while having an evangelical family is hard. It was probably the most difficult juncture of my life, and it cost me severely. I still have relationships that I haven’t been able to fully mend, and it’s been a decade.

    The best advice I can give to someone teetering on the edge is to make the transition quickly. Don’t be overly aggressive about it, (as I was) because that in turn tends to make it seem like you are merely angry at Yahweh/Jesus/Flying purple people eater. That’s a difficult stigma to overcome.

    Don’t wait for that one argument that can convince you otherwise either. As JT said, it’s likely you have already heard the very best argument for believing, and all that lies before you are rehashings of the same regurgitated special pleading arguments. Christians fancy the special pleading, trying to convince them that their god and mythology is no different than Greek Mythology is near impossible. They feel that somehow, Christian History is unique, it’s splendor seperates it from every other religion, that’s mostly why the “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” nonsense has become popular.

    So to reiterate, make the transition and come out quickly, take your lashings, and move on with your life. It likely will be costly, and you will have some damage control with friends and loved ones. Just keep in mind that it isn’t through fault of your own, your relationship was based upon a shared ideology or way of life that isn’t real, so the relationship will likely have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

    Don’t be afraid to become the black sheep. Believe me it isn’t so bad. While i’m not popular during the holidays, especially since the pre-meal prayer, my family tends to leave me alone in regards to proselytizing because they know it’s a conversation with me they don’t want to have. They fear a debate on the subject, so our conversations usually don’t encroach upon their faith, it makes it easier. The world is not kind to we heathens. But be happy with yourself. Read as much as you can, and surround yourself with people who enjoy your company just because. Best of luck. :)

  • plutosdad

    Having made this same journey myself, there are a few things you can do.

    With your wife, well I haven’t been married, long, but does she know you are reading and thinking about this? The time to talk is now, not after you make a decision about what you believe. She has to know what you are reading and thinking about.

    At least then, it won’t be a shock and surprise to suddenly come out as an atheist. it will just be the direction the two of you are going. To hide it all, thinking about it for years, then suddenly say “i’ve come to this life altering conclusion over the past few years and haven’t included you” will be seen as a betrayal, because it would be – (to hide something that important for that long is the betrayal, not becoming an atheist.)

    I’ve been going through this with my theist wife as well. But she knew I was an atheist right from the start.

    You could also start talking to people now, not “i have a doubt” but “i just learned this interesting fact” just bring up what you are thinking, you don’t need to go into the implications.

    When I did that, I quickly learned who respected logic and trying to understand, vs who just shut their ears and got angry. I stopped worrying about what the 2nd group thought of me. Only my pastor actually encouraged me in my study of apologetics and history. Most other people were against it, and said “you don’t have enough faith”.

    This will, of course, meet with the same annoying “i’ll pray for you” and all your friends praying and trying to convince you of things. But also, you might become better friends and find support with other people going through the same thing. There will be very few though. As Neitzche said it’s not “courage of your convictions” it’s “courage to question your convictions”

    Above all, i’d say go to church less often right now. Once you are away from the constant brainwashing, you start realizing it is, in fact, brainswashing, and reenforcing the same ideas over and over to try to batter down your resistance.

  • Felix

    Thanks, everyone, for your encouraging words and good advice.

    There doesn’t appear to be a chapter of Recovering from Religion in my city, but I have been involved with the local skeptical meetup group for about 6 months or so. I even took the opportunity to ride the bus to stand in the rain at the Reason Rally, and am planning to attend Skepticon in November!

    I think you are right, though, I’m not likely to encounter any new, super secret “advanced” arguments that are any more convincing than what I’ve already examined and rejected. So at least internally, I think I’ve already given up the faith.

    That leaves the issue of if/when/to whom/how to actually come out as an atheist, which is something I’ll continue to think about. Lots of scary stories out there about the fallout/impact of doing that. Fortunately, several key family members (including my wife) know of my current struggles with the faith, and I have good reason to think that they would stand by me if I announced I was an atheist, even though they would be saddened by my decision. I also recently discovered another extended family member who is going through a similar journey of re-evaluating beliefs.

    I realized, though, that there is another reason I agreed to read those Christian books and read through the Bible one final time: even though I don’t expect to be persuaded by them, I am hoping that it will demonstrate that I’ve given their arguments a fair shake and that I’m not doing this hastily, or because I’m “angry at God” or “being influenced by Satan” or “just want to follow my own sinful desires” or all the claptrap I’m sure to encounter.

    But the truth is, there is nothing I can do or say that will cause them to think “wow, he really is taking a rational approach and has rejected Christianity for legitimate reasons”. No matter how many apologetic books I read and refute, that is just not in the cards, it is literally a non-sensical statement for those still stuck in that world view.

    So I guess at a certain point I’ll just have to draw a line in the sand and refuse to read yet another apologetic book that they are urging me to consider. I like the idea of asking them to summarize their favorite argument from the book; that puts a spotlight on the fact that in most cases they won’t have read it themselves.

    So at this point I think I’ll probably follow through with some of the reading I said I would do, even though I know it’s unlikely to “bring me back into the fold.” At the very least, I can then say “I gave God one final chance to make his case, and he failed.”

    Unless, of course, he shows up and demonstrates otherwise :)

    Thanks again, JT, Greta, and all those that commented. Your writing and support and encouragement to those in my position are invaluable. Thanks for what you do, it really does make a difference.


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