In my first post, I talked about my deconversion itself. In this post I wanted to talk about a few things I encountered after my deconversion, and also I wanted to talk about how I became an anti-theist. I know that testimonials and rants are both posted on this site, and this will be something of both.
After my deconversion I watched Evid3nc3’s videos on his deconversion process and his study of the bible. The subject of Old Testament scholarship comes up in his videos, and he talks about the Documentary Hypothesis. He also speaks of the idea of a simulacrum, something that you treat as though it has some kind of power, and over time you began to react to it as though it really did have that power.
I was studying the Bible, and I was reading about Biblical scholarship. One of the books I read was Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”. That book introduces the reader to new testament scholarship, and points out many misconceptions modern people have about the NT. For example, it points out that the new testament books were not all written by the people they are named after, and during the development of the cannon many decisions about what books to include were based on the impressions they had at the time about who wrote the books.
I was (and still am) interested in meditation, and the neuroscientist, writer, and atheist Sam Harris had posted a few book recommendations for secular people interested in meditation. I took a look at those, and also listened to some of Harris’ talks.
There were two reasons why I became an anti-theist. The first was a discussion I had which, quite frankly, horrified me. I’ll go into detail because I think it illustrates a lot about the effect religion can have on people.
I got into a conversation with a longtime Christian friend, and we watched some of Evid3nc3’s videos. After we had seen videos concerning the Documentary Hypothesis and the idea of a simulacrum, my friend told me that he believed in his religion because he felt like the Christian religion allowed him to make sense of the nature of the world. He felt like the Christian idea of a broken world, and of God’s love makes sense in explaining the real world. This, he claimed, was his reason for continued belief.
I tried explaining to him that other religions also have their own ways of making sense of the suffering in the world. I used Buddhism as an example (I’m not Buddhist) and I tried to explain a little of how Buddhists view suffering and love, but he didn’t believe me, and responded by saying “Don’t Buddhists want to feel nothing?” This showed me that his view of his religion as the best (or sole) sense-maker of the world was based on a profound ignorance of other religions. I then sent him a few links of Sam Harris discussing meditation and the idea of spirituality. In those links Sam Harris talks about how the constant, non-stop thought process often forms the basis for our experience of suffering. Although secular, this has some similarity with Buddhist thinking, and I wanted to clearly present an alternate example of a way of viewing the world and its suffering, in order to illustrate that his religion wasn’t the one to present an explanation for how the world is.
The links were very short, only a few minutes each, yet he kept avoiding watching them. A few months later, he finally sends me a message announcing that he’d watched them (as though it was some huge feat). We spoke over the phone, and I tried to remind him of what he had said about how he thought Christianity could explain the world, and I tried to explain to him that I had sent him the links in order to show that there were other ways of viewing the way the world is. At that point he pretty much dismissed what I had said and came up with something else to say to justify his beliefs.
I kept questioning him, kept trying to encourage him to present some kind of evidence or sound reasoning, but he just kept shifting his stance around to different places. For example, I remember that we got into the discussion of whether or not what the Bible says is true, and he suggested that, while the events in the Bible might not all have happened literally, maybe there was something true that was being conveyed. I told him about something I had heard, that in some Native American storytelling traditions, they say that the story didn’t happen, but is true, meaning that there is some message or teaching that is conveyed. I asked him if that is what he meant. His response was “kind of”. He tried to make it sound like there was something more to what he was saying about the Bible, but he couldn’t say what it was. From that I got the sense that he didn’t actually know. I mean, he was just taking a stance that was convenient for the moment, to help justify his beliefs, but when I actually spelled out what he might mean, he didn’t like it. My sense was that he pretends that it is something more in his mind, but there isn’t anything concrete.
Eventually he flowed back to his original position, which is that vague idea that Christianity just makes sense to him in how it views the world. I kept asking him how he knew the beliefs of Christianity were true, and he talked a lot, but never really gave me a straight answer. None of the answers he gave came in the form of evidence or sound reasoning, so I kept asking “How do you know that that is true?” “How do you know?”
Finally he was like “I just know.” “I just know that God is real.”
In hindsight, I should have seen it coming. But at the time, I was SHOCKED. The whole point of having a discussion is to explore why a conclusion is or is not justified. How can someone just say “I just know I’m right?”? (If I had been mean, I could have made my point by saying “I ‘just know’ that you are a moron.” But that isn’t really my style.)
I was intent on having a conversation based on reason, so I had no idea what to say to someone who says “I just know.” You see, in those days, I really did expect and believe that my Christian friends would be intellectually honest. They were my friends. (And to be fair, one of my other Christian friends had been much more open to a reasonable discussion, so that also influenced my expectations.)
I tried to explain to him that, if you are on the path to truth, you can’t choose where it leads. If you already decided you are right, then you can’t claim to be genuinely open to finding the truth. He just brushed that aside and made more excuses.
Since I didn’t really know how to respond, I decided to suggest that he and I might study the Bible together, and both of us could read about the scholarship. He responded by saying that he was too busy. Imagine that! The Christian is too busy to study the Bible, and the atheist is the one telling him to do so!
At some point he tried to justify himself by saying that he wasn’t really interested in studying the Bible from a scholarly point of view, but rather he just wanted to live as a Christian; and he added that he wasn’t interested in converting others. But I knew this to be a total lie. He had been involved in Christian ministry for some time in the past, and in fact, right after our conversation, he began contacting a mutual friend on facebook and later talked with this person about his beliefs. And this was especially irritating because he had made no move to talk to that friend at all until I mentioned that I had recently spoken with that friend. Later I found out that he had told that mutual friend that his religion was “truth”. Such a disingenuous, absurd thing to say after what he had told me.
In one of his e-mails, he tried to patronize me by saying that he was glad that I was searching for the truth and studying the Bible, all the while acting as if he needed to do no such thing. At this point I was very discouraged, and I think I now understand why. I was trying to talk in terms of reason and evidence, and was trying to appeal to him to consider the reasons for his beliefs, but he wasn’t affected at all by it. I had caught a glimpse of his perspective. He could brush aside the idea of studying the Bible and scholarship, because truth wasn’t what he was after. He wanted to believe, and by calling it “truth” and claiming he already knew enough, he was justifying his position. Well, I don’t want to live that way.
After reflecting for a while, I felt like I needed to try to call him out on his BS. I tried to explain that he couldn’t claim to know something without examining the evidence.
I was intent on having a conversation based on reason, so I had no idea what to say to someone who says “I just know.” You see, in those days, I really did expect and believe that my Christian friends would be intellectually honest.He responded by changing his argument again and sending me a link talking about how not everything in the Bible should be interpreted literally. This misses the point and illustrates his ignorance. He assumes that the Biblical cannon is “correct”, and that scholarship concerns literal interpretations of the Bible. In the Biblical scholarship, even the authorship of certain books is unknown or misattributed. I mentioned earlier that church fathers often based canon arguments on their impression of who wrote what book. How do we even know what books “should” or “should not” have been in the cannon? There are other issues as well. But conveniently, since this person won’t study the scholarship, he doesn’t know what those issues are, and he can just dismiss them as “interpreting the Bible too literally”. Man, I ached to explain to him what he was missing, but in his e-mail he kept insisting that he wasn’t interested in “proving others wrong” and that he didn’t want “debate.” Since I was being too polite, I obliged him, to a certain extent. I did try to point out that people who claim to “just know” something have lost the debate before it even begins, but he just brushed that aside too.
Later on I tried to explain to him that sometimes people have certain experiences, but explain them incorrectly. For example, sometimes people think they hear God talking to them, but in reality it is a psychological issue. But that explanation about perceived experience vs. reality was over his head.
He claimed to have some sort of non-scientific feeling-based evidence to justify his beliefs. In hindsight, he had some balls trying to feed me that crap, lol.
I pointed out to him that people who go to seminary to become pastors have to study the scholarship to some extent, but he responded that he wasn’t interested in seminary. That response completely missed the point, but it did illustrate his disingenuousness. He didn’t want to study anything that might question his faith, and he used his lack of interest in seminary as an excuse.
He ended with how his proof for his religion was how Jesus has affected his life. (sigh)
Looking back, I realized that I had been very hesitant to criticize him. I think he may have pressured me into not doing so, perhaps he made me feel like arguing would be mean or uncool or something. How did he con me into that? I think it was because I really did believe in our friendship, and I trusted that he would have something honest and genuine to say. Around that time I read the book “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. In that book one character tells another that friendship is based on respect and trust. Well that “friend” lost both my respect and my trust. My respect he lost for obvious reasons, and my trust he lost because I was intending to have an honest conversation about the truth, and he was not, but pretended he was.
One question I have been asked as an atheist is this: “If the evidence pointed to the existence of a God, would I believe in that God?” Originally I felt that the answer was clearly yes. And I still think it is, in principle, but with an important caveat:
If the path of Christianity leads people to say “I just know that God is real” then, Christianity, in principle, cannot lead to the same place as the path of truth. If a god existed, and there was evidence for that, then a truth seeker could acknowledge that. But a truth seeker could never say “I just know”. And that was the beginning of my anti-theism.
The other thing that influenced me to become an anti-theist was the Beyond Belief conference. I watched many famous scientists and writers speak at that conference about religion, science, and non-belief, and heard many discouraging things. There was one woman, Professor Joan Roughgarden, who kept playing the hurt feelings card, and at one point she said something about how valuing reason isn’t necessarily that great compared to religion because people who value reason have done some incorrect or unreasonable things. This made no sense to me, because a person of reason who chooses to ignore reason is no longer a person of reason. She seemed to think “reason” was some kind of club, with Christianity being an alternative club. She also said something about how religion has a certain advantage over science and reasoning because in religion you have certainty, you can know your beliefs, but in science and reasoning there is uncertainty. This seemed unfair, to say the least, because if you abandon scientific methods to just say you are right, of course you can feel like you are certain, but you are also much more likely be wrong.
There was another person, a Scott Atkin, or Atkind or something, who viciously attacked (verbally, of course) people who were seeking scientific explanations for religious feelings and phenomena, claiming that they didn’t have large enough samples. This was silly for two reasons. First, not all of those individuals were talking about experiments, some sounded like they were talking about various established ideas in psychology. Second, even if they were currently conducting experiments, and did not have large samples, what then? Choose a religious interpretation that was never supported by any data to being with? There was no good reason for him to be that vicious.
My conclusion from watching clips from that conference was that religion was still something many people held on to, and it could hold them back, even if they were otherwise intelligent and scientific people. It is like a default position that people are anchored to.
So to sum up, I am an anti-theist because religion holds people back from getting to the truth, primarily because, when people want to believe their religion, they often lose their ability to become intellectually honest in searching for the truth.
(A few acknowledgements:
I realize that my form of anti-theism is not the only form. For example, many people are against religion for the simple fact that they aren’t true. And I agree with that, but I just have my own emphasis because of my experiences.
I also realize that my anti-theism applies primarily to western religion, the god-worshipping religions as like Christianity and Islam. After all, anti-theism literally means being against theistic or god-worshipping religion. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of eastern religion, I just happened to know more about the silliness of western theistic religion.)