This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the launch party for a new “secular ministry” called Life After God. You may recall at the beginning of 2014 how former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell embarked on a yearlong journey to see what difference it would make to live each day “as if there were no God.” He had come to a point in his life at which he had become suspicious that having faith in a Supreme Being and not having faith in a Supreme Being yielded essentially the same results. At the end of his experiment he concluded that:
…the intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us…
I’d just say that the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.
An unnecessary layer of complexity. That’s very well put, and I completely agree. Ryan’s journey mirrors my own, as does his present focus on helping those who are leaving their own religions in order to explore “life after God.”
(Incidentally, if you’d like to keep up with what that project has going on, you can “Like” its Facebook page below:)
These Are Not the Atheists You’re Looking For
Over the course of the weekend Ryan shared a stage with Clergy Project leader and United Church of Canada minister Gretta Vosper, speaking to a group of college students and other locals at Kennesaw State University. Among those who came to listen and ask questions were a group of zealous young evangelists from the local chapter of Campus Crusade (excuse me, “Cru”), who seemed to keep asking the same basic question in different ways, over and over again: “Prove to us that there is no God.”
If you know either Ryan or Gretta, you know that’s not even what they’re about. That’s not what I’m about either, in case you’re wondering. Because each of us writes and speaks in front of people about why we no longer belong to our respective religions, people assume we are trying to be atheist evangelists, traveling around the country just to disabuse people of their faith. But that’s not really what we see ourselves doing.
For what it’s worth, I have many friends who have made that their focus, and at this point I personally see nothing wrong with that. I could catalogue for you many effects and consequences of religious beliefs which I see as harmful to the people who hold them, and I myself often single out specific doctrines which I think cause real harm. One of my next posts, in fact, will address the next chapter of Tim Keller‘s book The Reason for God, in which he defends the abhorrent notion of eternal punishment. Hell is one of my most frequent targets, and you will often hear me enumerate my reasons for finding that concept as detestable as it is absurd.
But it’s just not within my trajectory to try to convince people there is no God, nor I believe is it within Ryan’s or Gretta’s. If people come to the same conclusion as we did, then fine. But getting them to that point is not our mission. Each of us is focused on helping those who are already on their way out, or who have already come out, and who are wondering now what they can do in order to rebuild their lives around this new way of seeing things.
All that to say, these eager young college students were probably looking to practice their apologetics skills on someone, and Friday night’s talk wasn’t the ideal place to do that.
They Came to Do Battle
But they did get to cross swords with a real, live atheist after the talk was done because after they left the event I spoke with them in order to find out to which campus ministry group they belonged. I wasn’t looking to get into a debate with them, I just wanted to see if I had guessed the right group (I was wagering it was either a Baptist Student Union or else a Campus Crusade group). They couldn’t resist launching into apologetics, though, and for the next hour and a half my friend Shan and I fielded questions and asked questions of our own with a group of around a dozen students who had apparently come to do precisely that.
I’ll be honest, it was fun. Not gonna lie. It was strangely rewarding to interact with what Shan and I would probably both describe as younger versions of ourselves. You know how people often say they wish they could have a few words with their younger selves? Well that’s what this felt like, and it was oddly enlightening.
What you discover when you speak to a younger version of yourself is that, at twenty years old, you think you’ve already got all the most basic secrets of the universe figured out. Your head is full of answers and you’re primed and ready to drop some knowledge on people more than twice your age. That’s especially the case if you’ve been indoctrinated into a religion that teaches you to view all of humanity as bewitched by an evil curse that prevents them from seeing things the way you see them. They had come to set us straight, and we did our best to not let their presumptuousness get in the way of an entertaining conversation.
In the end it was an enjoyable interchange. Since my friend and I weren’t aiming to deconvert anybody, we were able to just enjoy the process of being sounding boards for these eager young Christians looking to demonstrate the superiority of their religion over all others, and of course over no religion at all. We got all the standard challenges:
- If there’s no God, then where did everything come from?
- If you don’t believe in God, then how can you have any morals? What will guide human behavior?
- Doesn’t NOT believing in God require a kind of faith as well? Maybe faith in science or something?
- How could such complex beings have evolved from some primordial soup?
- What if you’re wrong? Isn’t the downside of being wrong so catastrophically bad that you should believe just in case?
I forgot to bring my apologetics bingo card, but I think we would have probably marked off most of the usual squares. Considering how young they were, I thought they really did a good job of hitting all the highlights. It’s not their fault these approaches don’t really do much for deconverts like Shan and me. We’ve been down each of these roads so many times we could walk them blindfolded and drunk. Come to think of it, that could be a very entertaining way to engage in debate next time: Drunken apologetics. I’ll have to make a note of that for another time.
While I figure nobody’s mind was changed even after an hour and a half of back-and-forth between us and these eager young college students, I did make sure that before we shook hands and parted ways I took the liberty of offering a bit of elderly fraternal advice. I told them at least four things, and I wish I had added a fifth, except it didn’t really occur to me to make that last point until after the evening had passed. I think I’d rather include that as a separate post (look for that soon) just in case they find their way to this site. [Spoiler: It has to do with privileging the beliefs you grew up with instead of holding them to the same critical standards as you do other beliefs from other places]
Four Pieces of Advice for My Young Apologist FriendsFirst, as a word of warning, I told my new friends they should take care not to press too far into these theological and philosophical questions unless they are prepared to find that in the end they no longer believe in any of it. Asking all these questions—and working so hard to think through them all to our own intellectual satisfaction—is precisely what got so many of us apostates to where we are today.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but I just felt like it ought to be observed that it was precisely these kinds of pursuits that eventually led us out of our religious traditions. It helps me to remind myself of this as well, because it reminds me that often the people who throw themselves so fervently into defending their faith are trying to convince themselves as much as they’re trying to convince the rest of us that their faith is indeed valid and supported by reality. They may not even realize how deeply their own doubts fuel their need to prove what they believe. But it motivates them nonetheless.
Second, it would clear up a lot of confusion and eliminate a ton of unnecessary distractions if they could realize that many of us left our faith, not because we cared so little for it, but because we cared so much. It is a common misconception among the devout that when people leave their religion, it’s because they didn’t care enough, or maybe its demands were just too hard. Maybe the sacrifices were too great, so we quit. We just gave up. But that’s not a fair assessment at all. For people like me, leaving our faith was the inescapable conclusion of a several-year journey in pursuit of the truth as best as we could determine it. From our perspective, we went wherever the evidence led us, and for us that meant leaving behind the things we were taught to believe from our youngest years.
What’s more, we prayed our way through our entire deconversion. Not everyone had that exact same experience, of course. But for many of us, that’s exactly how it went down. I add that here because I think it would avoid a number of futile appeals that we should simply pray more, read the Bible more, or be more sincere or open to possibilities in the pursuit of the truth. We’ve been there and done that, and it would help if they could learn to accept that now instead of only years after living in denial of what we’re trying to tell them.
Third, don’t trivialize our rejection of the claims of your religion by misrepresenting what our expectations were in the first place. When we say that we found prayer an utterly useless practice (other than as a centering or calming meditative practice), don’t distort what we are saying by accusing us of wanting a pony, or a million dollars, or whatever superficial or materialistic thing it is that you think we are chasing.
Fellow ex-Christian writer Galen Broaddus addresses this problem in his post “We Didn’t Expect Some Kind of Spiritual Bliss.” It’s a lot easier to dismiss the concerns of former believers like us if you can first make it look like our concerns were misguided and selfish to begin with. Although ironically it should at least be mentioned at some point that while many of us didn’t come to our faith with such unrealistic expectations as defenders of this faith would project onto us, other versions of that same faith do indeed promise material, relational, and even economic success as a consequence of believing the right things. The prosperity gospel is a thing, and even though we didn’t ever buy into it, some people do, and there are verses within the Bible which don’t take any twisting whatsoever in order to make them sound like they are promising precisely what other folks would insist are never promised at all.
Fourth, instead of demanding that we list for you all the things it would take to prove to our own satisfaction that this faith is true, why not determine for yourselves if your religion in fact makes any claims which are testable? Instead of telling us all the places we and others have gotten your religion wrong, how about you take some time to figure out for yourself if your faith does indeed promise anything that you can look into and decide whether or not anything of the sort has materialized?
My contention has been that we should be suspicious of any ideology that relies too heavily upon claims which are non-falsifiable. I’ll grant that the presence of such doesn’t automatically signify that a belief system is fallacious, but the more routinely it invokes things which are unfalsifiable and subjective, the more we should excuse ourselves for not taking that belief system too seriously.
I would like to add a fifth piece of advice, but it rests on an analogy which I think deserves a post of its own, and I’ve already said enough for today on this matter. The only other thing I think I would add is maybe next time while you’re wrapping up your evangelistic pitch to the people with whom you are talking, I think it would be better if the rest of your friends did not circle around into a huddle in order to pray for your evangelistic prospects right in front of them for several minutes. It’s a little bit creepy, a bit melodramatic, and the theatrics of it all can really be a turn off. Just a final piece of friendly advice.
All that being said, it was a fun and enjoyable night for both me and my friend, and I hope you got as much out of it as I did. Keep up the earnest seeking. You never know where it may lead you :)
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