I’ve seen a few posts on this, here at FtB and elsewhere, and I thought it looked kinda fun. From a website called TodayChristian.net comes a list of 10 Questions for Every Atheist. According to the intro, this list consists of “Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…”
And the first of these mind-boggling, unanswerable, gotcha-at-last questions, that no atheist can truly and honestly REALLY answer is this:
1. How Did You Become an Atheist?
Way to set the pace there, TC.
In my case, the answer to this question is, “Through decades of prayer, Bible study, and even fasting. Plus a promise I made as a youth to believe only what God said, and not what men said about God.”
I was raised in a Christian home, with a Christian mother and father who took us to church every Sunday and were proud to enroll us in what the church called “confirmation class,” a catechism-like series of lessons intended to ensure that we all knew the basics of the Scriptures. At the end of the class, each student was awarded his or her own “Child’s Study Bible,” a big blue book with handy introductions, footnotes, maps, glossary, and so on. Really, a fairly nice book.
Since the church we were attending was fairly liberal, the study Bible included the findings of some fairly liberal scholarship. I remember the book of Job being introduced as being some kind of deliberate fiction or play, intended to convey moral lessons without asserting any actual historical events. And that bothered me. As far as I could see in the text, Job was no different than many other stories in the Bible. The men who wrote these notes weren’t there when Job was written. They had no way to know (as far as I could see). And I decided I wasn’t buying it.
I made myself a promise, at the age of 12, that I was going to believe what God said, no matter what men said about God or about His word. And ever since, I have always been careful to distinguish between the things that were directly revealed by God, versus all the commentaries, footnotes, interpretations, study guides, and other contributions made by men.
The problem, of course, was that at a certain point I began to become aware just how much of Christianity was based on taking man’s word for things. By my mid teens I had become a conservative evangelical Christian, since they seemed to be more Bible-believing folk than the United Methodist church I had been attending. But I noticed that even Bible-believing Christians were prone to embellish the Bible, and inject their own personal opinions as part of the message they declared the Bible was trying to teach us. And I had made a promise.
The issue really started to come to a head when I got involved in scientific creationism. Initially, I was all for it, being scientifically-minded. I attended a conference featuring the (in)famous Duane Gish and Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research, and they wowed me. I was so enthusiastic, I wanted to get out and find my own holes in evolution, using the techniques of Gish and Morris (i.e. reading scientific literature and discovering guilty admissions of evidence for creation).
What I found instead was that the creationists were lying. They made great promises, and had great quote mines, but when you went back and looked up the original references, you found they were totally misrepresenting the context, the evidence, and the reactions of the researchers. It was far too pervasive and tendentious to be accidental. They were deliberately distorting the truth in order to make their claims sound true.
So I fell back on my promise: I would believe what God said, and not what men said, even if the men were defending conservative Christianity. I understood that it was possible to be a conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical Christian, and still be wrong. Wrong enough, in fact, to be downright dishonest.
That was a revelation to me. I couldn’t just assume that everything my fellow believers said was consistent with what God was really saying through the Bible. I began to pay more attention to what people were saying in church and in religious books and on Christian radio, and began noticing some discrepancies between what they were telling me and what the Bible was telling me. I began having unacknowledged doubts.
I joined the Churches of Christ, which claims to practice only what is authorized by Scripture, either by direct statement, apostolic example, or necessary inference. Finally, a church without traditions, that practices only what comes directly from the Bible!
In theory anyway. In practice, there were as many divisions within the Churches of Christ as there were outside of it, and maybe more. The difference was that in the Churches of Christ, each sect claimed its doctrines were the direct teachings of Scripture, and therefore all the other sects were damned to hell because they were opposing the direct teachings of Scripture.
It sounds like I jumped from the frying pan into the fire, but in a way that was a good thing for me, because I came to realize that there’s no such thing as sola Scriptura—the very act of reading imparts a personal interpretation to everything you read. Each of those divisions within the CoC was based on someone’s personal interpretation of some passage of Scripture, and there is no objective way to determine whose interpretation is correct. Unless, of course, you define “correct” as “whatever fits in with my beliefs.”
I couldn’t define “correct” in that way, because I’d made a promise to believe what God said rather than what man said, and if I made my own beliefs the standard for what the “correct” interpretation of Scripture was, then I’d be violating my promise. I just about lost my faith at that point, but then I encountered the Eastern Orthodox church.
Orthodoxy offered me one last shot at retaining my faith, because they had an explanation for why sola Scriptura was a failure. The writings (said the Orthodox) were never intended to embody the full teachings of God, but must be passed on from generation to generation by living teachers who knew and understood the truth and were able to pass it on to others, so that they could teach also. This, in all its glory, was the Apostolic Tradition.
I was in awe. It explained so much that was wrong with Protestantism, and was consistent with a number of New Testament passages on tradition that I knew quite well but never really looked at in that light before. Here, I thought, was surely the last bastion of the true faith, the temple of the Holy Spirit which He still indwelt. I became active in the church, serving as cantor on numerous occasions and joyfully participating in the fasts and the prayers and all the rites of the faith.
It was when I enrolled in some seminary courses by extension that the old troubles re-surfaced. I was doing quite well in my course work, and would likely have ended up being ordained as a deacon in the church. But the material on the Old Testament bothered me. The OT was “true,” the texts assured me, but only “true” in a nationalistic, patriotic sense. Moses and the Exodus never really happened, and Joshua never really “fit” the battle of Jericho. A tribe of Canaanites, uniting around David as king after the defeat of Saul, needed a mythos to unite them as a brotherhood of chosen descendants of Abraham, to make a nation of them. And so the Pentateuch was born.
And so on and so on. The thing was, this was all uncontroversial in the Church. They didn’t really need Scripture the same way Protestants do, so they were free to examine the history of the text in a more objective, unbiased fashion. And what they found was that the Bible is not really the word of God. It’s a collection of writings by men to satisfy the political expediencies of their time, sometimes in support of the ruling class, and sometimes against it.
At this point, I got tired of trying to continually come up with new rationalizations for why the world, and particularly the Church, lacked the characteristics that would have resulted from God being a real, divine being. I took a good, serious look at the crucifixion story, and realized how very easily it could arise without any actual resurrection whatsoever. All it takes is a willingness to embrace the words of men as though they were the Word of God.
I kept my promise. I reserved my belief for only what God Himself has said, and I rejected those things which were merely the words of men about God. As it turned out, all of it is merely the words of men about God, and none of it is what God Himself said. Therefore, I have no belief in this god.
So much for Question #1. Let’s see, what’s next? Oh. “What happens when we die?” That’ll be fun.