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An Atheist Explains His Atheism (Part One)

By Ben Love ~

It’s been my experience that many Christians, though not all, simply cannot understand why a human being would choose atheism, although it may seem somewhat easier for them if the atheist in question did not come from Christianity. What seems to particularly perplex them, though, is when a believing Christian rejects his faith, renounces his religion, and then becomes an atheist. That’s what I did, and I seem to find myself repeatedly answering questions as to why it happened. Many times, some of the friendlier believers give me the benefit of the doubt on the surface, but I know that underneath they’re thinking that something terrible must have happened, something that particularly disappointed me or hurt me, and thus they think my atheism must be a kneejerk reaction. Other less friendly believers don’t hide these thoughts; they just come out and say them. Very, very few believers actually listen to the intellectual reasons for my atheism and concede that, while they would never reach the same conclusions, they nevertheless can understand why I did. It’s very refreshing when that happens, though it doesn’t happen often.

Why am I an atheist, anyway? Why would anyone want to be an atheist, right? The widespread stigma is that atheists don’t have anything to live for, that they don’t believe in anything, that they have no hope for the future, and that they find life empty and meaningless. The fact is that none of these things is true. Perhaps for some atheists they are, but they can be true for some Christians as well. For this particular atheist, life is very much worth living, life is very meaningful, and I have much to believe in and hope for (just not in a religious sense; and that is perfectly okay). The incorrect stigmas associated with atheists are due in part to, well, I won’t call it a smear campaign, but so much is preached from the pulpit in America about the benefits of faith and religion and so on that many people come away thinking atheists must be among the sorriest bunch of miserable, depressed dissenters anywhere. Also, I think many people seem to synonymize Christian faith with good values, as though a human being could not possibly be a decent, generous, kind, moral, loving person if they don’t believe in God, go to church, and base their life on the Bible. Those who think this way are sadly narrow-minded and, if I may say, somewhat uneducated in their views of sociology and culture, to say nothing of their woeful grasp of reality (since, if they assert that a person cannot be good without a belief in their God, then more than half of the world’s humans must be steeped in barbarism and rampant mayhem—many are, but just as many are not).

Therefore, if you have never read another one of my essays or articles, at least read this one (parts one and two). Because here, in the forthcoming paragraphs, I am going to make it as easy as possible for you to understand why this former Christian, who spent hours of each day in prayer and Bible study, who was instrumental in the erection of several church ministries, who once used to sit alone in his dorm room and sing love songs to God, eventually renounced all of that and embraced nonbelief with both arms.

I want to begin by saying upfront that I did not set out to become an atheist. I merely wanted to know for a certainty why I, as a Christian, believed what I did. I knew, however, that I couldn’t ask the question as a Christian; I knew I had to suspend my faith and religious preferences and come to the issue as neither a believer nor a nonbeliever but rather an interested, unaffiliated third party. Some will say that this is impossible, that a human being is incapable of shedding such biases. I disagree wholeheartedly because I know that I myself did it. Yes, it can be done, but only with tremendous determination and a strict inner sense of honor. But it can be done. I knew that if I asked the question as a Christian, it was likely, if not probable, that I would simply be led right back to my faith. Why? Because when you look at something through the lens of that which you’re personally invested in, your mind can and probably will distort not only what you see but also how you process it. I like to use the baseball analogy here. If you ask me what the best Major League baseball team is, I’ll likely answer as a St. Louis Cardinals fan, viewing the question through my love of my team. But if I were truly impartial, not emotionally invested in any particular team, perhaps I would view the statistics and come away with a different, truer answer. Thus, when our personal investments are involved, it is likely that our pursuit of truth will be distorted. That is why I purposely laid down my Christianity for the duration of my investigations. It just turned out that I never picked it back up again. But I did not set out to become an atheist, though that is nonetheless what I ended up becoming.

The questions with which I was concerned were as follows:

  • How do I know there is a God?
  • If there is a God, how do I know that the God I believe is the true God?
  • Why do other religions have opposing conclusions on these matters?
  • Why should my religion happen to be the correct one?
  • Why should I believe the Bible simply because I was taught to do so?
  • Why do I believe that Jesus rose from the dead?
  • Is there a good reason to go on believing that Jesus rose from the dead?
  • Are there other answers out there that my religion has sheltered me from?
  • If so, why should I accept one answer over another?
  • Is it just a matter of culture?
  • How can I know truth without my human interpretations of religion clouding my judgment?

With these questions in mind, I assigned myself the tasks of reading, researching, and reflection (the Three R’s of Intellectual Discovery). I was careful to read material written by believers, nonbelievers, and undecided agnostics. This is important because a truly unbiased examination must entertain possibilities and views that represent the entire spectrum.

As best I could, I filtered all the information gleaned in such a way as to take it exactly as it is without adding to it or taking away from it based on my own personality, preferences, predispositions, or personal agendas. I say all of that because I’m about to divulge to you what I found and the conclusions I reached, and it is important for you to understand that I didn’t necessarily want to reach these conclusions—but I did reach them because I was compelled to do so based on my findings.

When asking myself how I knew there was a God, the truest answer I had to accept, based on research and reflection, is that I don’t know there is God any more than I know there isn’t one. No one “knows.” Everyone has a belief, even if that belief is in the nonexistence of God. But no, no one knows. Since everyone only has a belief, and since no one has a certainty, the existence of God seemed to me to be largely based on a person’s own perceptions. These perceptions, which usually come from the particular religion or belief system that a human being happens to subscribe to at any given point in history and in any given geographical place, change with the person, with the culture, and with the age. If we were living 3,000 years ago and discussing the existence of God, we would be having a much different conversation than we are having now. We’d be referring to other ideas of God, other names for God, other possibilities for what God is like. This is because we would be having the conversation at a different point in history and therefore in a different culture. This led me to conclude that human perceptions of God are fluid. They evolve. They are not fixed throughout human history but rather reflect the ever-changing fabric of the human mentality as it progresses. This led me to conclude that it would therefore be very difficult to discern a true God among the varying buffet of gods offered up in the annals of human history, be it ancient history or modern history. I therefore felt that, as problematic as proving the existence of God is (since no one knows; they only believe), it is even more problematic to confirm that one’s own perception of God, based as it is on one’s own religion, is indeed synonymous with the one true God (assuming that there is one).

These reflections made me acutely suspicious of my own thoughts about God. As a Christian, I had a very defined idea about who God was, and I obtained this idea through the Bible, through my church, and through the Christian culture in general. But why should the religion in which I happened to find myself, the one in which my parents happened to raise me, the one which is quite common in my culture as opposed to other cultures, be automatically accepted is the only correct religion when other people in other cultures from other time periods have reached other conclusions? Was I just supposed to take for granted that all of those people living in all those other places at all those other times were wrong while I enjoyed the lucky benefit of being right? This thought left a sour taste in my mouth.

I therefore concluded two things at this point: I didn’t know a God existed, and even if I did, I wasn’t sure I could, with good conscience, definitively know that my version of God was right.

The widespread stigma is that atheists don’t have anything to live for, that they don’t believe in anything, that they have no hope for the future, and that they find life empty and meaningless. The fact is that none of these things is true. So I shelved theology for the moment and turned to science. If I couldn’t be sure that there is a God, how was I supposed to explain the presence of the Universe and indeed my own existence within that Universe? Did science shed any light on this question? To find out, I poured over science books written by the best minds in the field. The question that was driving me at this point was this: Assuming there is no God, how could a godless Cosmos come to be? I felt that there was no answer to this question, and I felt that here was the avenue that would likely lead me back to my belief in God. But I was surprised by the things I read. It turns out that not all scientists and even not all believers are sold on “Creationism.” Many are, sure. But many aren’t. I learned that recent overtures in the cosmological community point to the possibility that the Cosmos might need no designer at all. I found that hard to swallow, and still do to a certain extent, but the mere fact that some of the smartest minds on the planet are admitting the possibility of a godless Cosmos led me to believe that I couldn’t definitively use Creationism as a means to confirm my belief in God. The only responsible stance I felt I could adopt was to conclude that while the origins of the Universe are a mystery, it is not right for me to insert my particular perception of God into the slot of “possible Creator,” especially when smarter minds than I are coming to entertain more and more the idea that no designer is needed. I don’t understand cosmology, no; but I trust that the cosmologists do.

And so I thought a lot about the Creationists. I felt sympathetic to their stance because I could see the logical problems that come with accepting a godless Cosmos, and I identified with the comfort that comes from assuming that all this exists for a reason. Still, I felt that linking Creationism to myreligion was bias. I felt that using the mysteries found within the origins of the Universe to my own theological advantage was beneath me. I felt that just because a gap existed in our knowledge of the Cosmos, it didn’t give me the right to tout my perceptions of God as the automatic Creator. In fact, I was coming more and more to see that, as a Christian, this is exactly what I had been doing. I had been taking the God that my religion professed and using him to fill in the cosmological gaps in our knowledge of the Universe. It was as if I took for granted that the existence of some galaxy on the far side of the Cosmos was definitive proof that the Apostles’ Creed was valid, that the mystery of my own existence on this planet confirmed that every word of the Bible was true. One doesn’t necessarily demand the other, any more than the mystery of my existence demands that Islam be true, or Zoroastrianism, or any of the countless brands of religion and spirituality that human history has known.

It was this point that I began to seriously question all that I had been taught as a Christian. And that was why I finally turned my attention to the Bible. I decided that if my religion supposedly had the final word on who this possible God was, then I needed to reexamine what my religion’s scriptures had to say about this God. After all, where else is a Christian supposed to derive knowledge of his God if not within the very pages of the Bible? However, I was again careful to keep myself neutral. I didn’t want to the review the Bible as one who wanted it be true, and I didn’t want to review it as one who wanted it to be false. I tried to review it as one who wanted to see what was actually written there without the distortion of my own feelings clouding the matter, without the agenda of my own faith lurking over my shoulder. To accomplish this, I tried two experiments. One, I decided to use a translation of the Bible I’d never read before. This was to ensure that the wording wouldn’t be too familiar. And two, I decided to read it in reverse, starting at Revelation, and moving backward, book by book, until I finished by reading Genesis. Without trying, without even thinking I would notice this, with no inkling whatsoever that what happened would happen, I noticed a glaring trend: God got worse the farther back I went, and Jesus got less interesting. Moving through the New Testament in reverse, I saw Jesus go from the Christ-Savior-Redeemer-Spiritual King of Paul’s device to the less emphatic though spiritually wise local, itinerant prophet of the Gospels. Moving through the Old Testament in reverse, I saw God go from the portending voice of the prophets to the genocidal thug of Canaan to the insecure tormentor of Job to the insanely vengeful deity of a small band of nomads.

I wondered how one God, who is supposedly the true God, who is represented in a book that he supposedly inspired, a book that is supposed to be the one, definitive message of revelation to humanity, could be so conflictive within his own self, so utterly human in his character, so far removed from what any legitimate standard of deity should be. I wasn’t looking for these conclusions. And believe me, they certainly weren’t welcome. But I couldn’t deny what the information on the page was saying. And I couldn’t deny that the human traits in this God were so palpable and so strong that no impartial person anywhere could possibly accept that this character is indeed the same person who allegedly created the Cosmos.

And so I began to ask myself: Why had I never seen this before? I’d read Job a thousand times. I’d read Genesis and Exodus and Numbers and Samuel (1 and 2) countless times. Why, why, why had I never before taken notice of the behavior this God displayed? Why had I never taken the time to ask why a perfect God, the Creator of the Universe, should need the humans of one tribe to murder the babies of another tribe, so much so that he orders them to do it? How could I never have noticed that an alleged “Lifegiver” who erases his creations in a flood for simply being what he created them to be could not possibly be anyone worth worshipping? Why had I never allowed myself to wonder why it was okay for this God to use a human being to prove a point to Satan, especially when no God should be that insecure, especially when no God could be so goaded by someone like Satan? And then to casually replace Job’s children as though the lives of the ten dead ones are so easily exchanged and forgotten about? The thought sickened me. Why had I never questioned how a perfect God could devise such an imperfect system? Why had I never before asked why this God trusted his revelation to the imperfections of human memory, especially when so much is on the line? Why was it okay that God could indiscriminately take life when he was supposed to be our standard for what “good” is? Why had I never demanded to know how many deaths were okay at his hands when none are okay at ours? Why would a truly loving God give humans free will and then bully them with the threat of hell if they choose incorrectly? 

Why had I never seen any of this? The answer was a hard one to accept: I didn’t want to. My investment in my religion, in my faith, in my worldview, in my way of life, compelled me to either ignore these things or use shoddy mental gymnastics to explain them away.

“No more,” I said to myself. “Never again.”

But what about Jesus?

(stay tuned for part two)