10 “Unanswerable” questions #1

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.


  1. says

    1. How Did You Become an Atheist?

    There go the christians, disproving the old adage “there’s no such thing as a dumb question”

    I got one of those lists from a christian once and replied:
    1. How Did You Become an Atheist?
    2. What happens when we die?

  2. says

    I imagine he’s going to object that you didn’t truly answer the question. The true answer is that you’re angry with god and this story is just a rationalization to justify your continuing sinning. It doesn’t matter what you say after that, because he “knows” that he’s right and can disregard anything that doesn’t fit his point of view. That’s how these things usually pan out.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      True, but I will point out that his refusal to hear my answer does not change the fact that I made it. I’m not writing to change TC’s mind, but merely to document his or her refusal to face the facts, for the benefit and/or amusement of others.

    • Len says

      You can always ask him why he’s angry at the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Does he say he doesn’t believe in them? He does (you can assure him), he’s just angry at them.

  3. StevoR says

    I just about lost my faith at that point, but then I encountered the Eastern Orthodox church.

    But which one? Serbian? Russian? Greek? Armenian?

    If you’d just picked the right one .. ?! Or not.

    I dunno.

    l am surprised and curious here though. How did they react to you and aren’t they mostly full of ethnic minority traditionals who have always been going to their one “true” church? I dunno. I speak based on ignorance and curiosity here. I’d like to know more please.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      It was a Russian Orthodox church and they were very warm and welcoming. We learned a lot of Russian phrases, but only the ones related to the liturgy, and I’ve pretty much forgotten them all now. But they were very welcoming to converts.

      Finding the “right” Orthodox church isn’t quite the same thing as finding the “right” Protestant church. The doctrinal variations are relatively minor, and nobody feels strongly enough about them to schism, generally. The major differences relate to secular politics and particularly the relationship between the church and communism in Russia, and as far as I was concerned that really wasn’t any of my concern. So yeah, the church was fine, it was Christianity itself that ultimately (and inevitably) let me down.

  4. Catlyn says

    How did I become an atheist? This question is so easy to answer, it’s absurd!

    For me, the answer is “I didn’t become an atheist, I was born this way.” I was not raised with any religious teaching of any kind. I once attended a Southern Baptist revival meeting with my best friend at the time. I was 14. I found it all to be a bunch of ridiculous, melodramatic play-acting. I couldn’t grasp the concept of what they believed they needed to be “saved” from.

    I took on further religious study as an adult, because I wanted to learn about it. I immersed myself in Buddhism, Islam, and Wicca, among others. Each and every one of them felt silly and unnecessary. I emerged from those studies still an atheist.

  5. rietpluim says

    Also: I admire your honest attempts to answer the questions. I’ve totally lost patience with BS like this.

  6. al kimeea says

    Born atheist, no religion in the home. So, about grade 6 I read the holey buybull, because what if they’re right.

    Holy crap, couldn’t believe grownups still take it seriously.

  7. Nick Gotts says

    I have some difficulty answering the question, because the process was such an early and gradual one. I was brought up in milk-and-water English Christianity: my parents sent me and sibs to various Sunday Schools – Anglican and Baptist* at different times – but this was probably more from cultural habit and so they could have some time with each other than from any deep conviction – my mother was an humanist and my father simply indifferent in later life. I know it was complete by the time I was 12, and the process was probably accelerated by being sent to a very Christian private school** at 11 (again, not out of any deep religious conviction on my parents’ part – it was just (wrongly) supposed to be a very good school, and I got a free place as a bright kid. But even before that I’d asked my parents if I could stop going to Sunday School, to which they agreed without demur. Whether this was because I’d already stopped believing, or because it was such a tedious waste of a Sunday morning, I can’t be sure.

    *English Baptists bear little resemblance to American ones, from what I can gather.
    **Eltham College, a “School for the Sons of MIssionaries”, may termites undermine its foundations.

  8. Megamoya says

    I never became atheist either: to be more precise, I was born being soft atheist (weak atheist, implicit atheist, negative atheist, four names for the same thing), just like every single intelligent or semi-intelligent being in the whole universe is. I was defaulted to catholicism, sure, but the very weak attempts at brainwashing I went through when a child never managed to stick, and by the time I was old enough to think about it I was already on my way to actively consider theist claims false (i.e: go hard atheist).

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