Getting a Philosophy Under Your Feet

Getting a Philosophy Under Your Feet August 5, 2009

I recently read a Christian book that’s more interesting than the usual anti-atheist apologetics: Not the Religious Type, by Dave Schmelzer. Its author is a theologian and self-proclaimed former atheist who now pastors an evangelical church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, in the Boston area.

This book is in large part about the New Atheist movement, and unlike most Christian authors, who have nothing but anger and scorn for outspoken atheists, Schmelzer actually shows our viewpoint a measure of sympathy and understanding:

So in this world where the conversation between secularism and faith is such an important one (read, for instance, the first chapter of The End of Faith – Harris says what, at that point at least, no one had said so directly, and good for him), I say three cheers for thoughtful atheism, which did such a service during the Louis XIV era in moving us past theocratic bigotry, warfare, and suppression of thought… and brought us such profoundly helpful things as modern scientific advancement and made a few key contributions to, say, the U.S. Constitution. I like those things! (Whatever the downsides of modern atheism.) [p.153]

Although Schmelzer has to throw in that sop to his Christian audience, his willingness to acknowledge freethinkers’ contributions in moving humanity past the era of theocracy and ushering in the Enlightenment is unique, as far as I know, and certainly praiseworthy. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by a prominent Christian writer who had anything good to say about atheism, much less “three cheers” for it. So I say, kudos to him for that! It’s rare to find a religious person with such a commendably open-minded attitude towards atheists, which makes it all the more welcome when it appears.

I’ll say some more about this book in future posts, but for now I want to focus on a different aspect of it, which is Schmelzer’s own account of how he, in his words, became a “turncoat atheist”. There are some lessons worth taking away from his story about what most commonly makes people turn religious.

To hear Schmelzer tell it, he was an atheist up until college; in fact, he “was tagged as the dorm atheist” [p.13] after getting in an argument with three Christian students his first week. What provoked him to change his mind was this:

A professor mocked me in class for something I thought I’d done especially well. Another teacher moved up a deadline on a paper and suddenly I saw with new clarity how close I was to failing the class. And those two things were enough to make me question the whole basis of my life… [p.14]

As he explains it, his entire goal in life was to get good grades, get a good job, and become wealthy and successful, and the possibility of doing badly in school put all of that at risk and left him feeling frightened, depressed and rudderless. In his distress, he says, he prayed that if God was real, he would reveal himself. That night, while he was out driving, he got lost and veered off the road while trying to drive and read a map, bumping into a post – which turned out to be a giant cross set up by a local church. Still trying to find directions, he pulled off the road into a lit parking lot, which turned out to be the parking lot of another church, with another giant, floodlit cross. At this point, he says, he had a strong impression that God was speaking to him, saying: “I’m here to tell you that there is a God, and I care about you” [p.32]

Leave aside the silliness of what actually precipitated his conversion. (He lives in 85% Christian America. What other religious symbols did he expect to see while randomly driving around town? If he had come across two mosques in a row, that would have been a far more unlikely coincidence.) Schmelzer himself admits, “Looking back, my reasons seem superficial” [p.13]. Like Francis Collins, he converted as the result of a sudden emotional experience, not because an accumulation of evidence finally persuaded him.

But focus, instead, on what precipitated Schmelzer’s initial crisis: He was worried about getting bad grades in school. This upset him because, up till then, he had only envisioned the good life in terms of material success: landing a high-paying job, being wealthy, being a famous author. The prospect of losing all that threw him into turmoil.

In effect, Schmelzer fell for two illusions, one right after the other. First, he bought into our capitalist, consumer-driven society’s message that happiness is achieved through acquiring money and possessions. He found out for himself that this was a false ethic, but then fell right into a second trap, the religious message that happiness is achieved only through worshipping God. Atheist though he was, what he was lacking was a real philosophy of his own. Without a solid ethic under his feet to ground him, he fell prey to one false creed after another, like a leaf being blown around by the wind.

This story shows why we, atheists and freethinkers, should promote a positive ethic of our own: one which counsels that happiness is found in the simple pleasures of life, in the company of others, and in experiencing the world and all it has to offer. We need to broadcast this philosophy far and wide, emphasize its good aspects, and encourage others to adopt it. A person who’s rooted in this philosophy, who knows how to find happiness for themselves, will not be so easily diverted by fluctuating winds of dogma as Dave Schmelzer was.

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