This is the second installment in the series “Why they don’t believe” in which atheists, agnostics and other assorted skeptics are invited to explain why the reject Christianity and/or theism. Today we have Counter Apologist who blogs at http://counterapologist.blogspot.ca/
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I was raised a fundamentalist Christian, went to evangelical private schools, was taught creation science, and lived in the church until college. In college I “backslid” a bit, but re-committed myself around graduation and was very active in the church for eight years before becoming an atheist. From age seven to 28 I was a theologically educated believer. I believed, fully and with conviction. I took actions privately that make no sense unless I actually believed Christian theology.
I began to question my faith because I had close friends who were gay that clearly shared the same committed and fulfilling love that my wife and I shared. By having more non-Christian friends, the Problem of Hell weighed heavily on my mind, and I started the process of deconverting. For the first time in my life, I asked myself why I believed in a god and I found no good answers. Because my wife still was a believer, I spent two years engaging with church leaders, friends, and reading apologetics trying to go back to the faith.
In every case, I found the apologetic arguments to be completely vacuous. I researched every argument I could fully, trying to explore both sides, and every time I found that the arguments for god just did not establish their conclusion. When researching the arguments involving modern cosmology (these were the most convincing to me), I found the science in question was being distorted, with half-truths being told in debates and presentations as to what was actually established. Philosophical sleight of hand was constantly employed, and I found that answers to common atheist objections ended up contradicting other answers or different parts of theology. How can god permit evil because of free will, if at the same time goodness is defined by god’s nature? That would mean that it’s logically impossible for god to sin, meaning he has no moral free will. Further, if his nature defines goodness and god doesn’t have moral free will, then moral free will isn’t “good” by the Christian’s own definition!
The process of trying to believe again weighed on me, but fortunately my wife (who was not indoctrinated as a child like me) also deconverted. The times we spent discussing things had convinced her that the version of Christianity she believed, which was far more liberal than what our church taught, was false. My love for her was the only thing that kept me searching for ways to believe, so that was the last straw for me and I was finally able to embrace the fact that I was an atheist: I didn’t believe in any god or gods.
The process of deconverting and trying to go back for so long had kindled a love for philosophy in me that I hadn’t had before. I’m an engineer who wrote off philosophy in college, but now I found a use for the subject – helping to show others the flaws in apologetics and how atheism makes better sense of the world we find around us.
Let’s start with the initial catalyst for Counter Apologist’s deconversion: “I began to question my faith because I had close friends who were gay that clearly shared the same committed and fulfilling love that my wife and I shared.” In one sense, this is a surprising starting point for deconversion given that Christians line up on different sides of this question. Some, like Richard Hays, maintain the historic Christian position that passages like 1 Cor. 6:9 constitute a prohibition of homosexual acts simpliciter. Others like Peter Gomes think this is a culturally specific prohibition. And still others like Lewis Smedes take a middling position that would allow for the moral licitness of same-gendered monogamous relationships while recognizing that they represent a deviation from God’s optimal design and intentions. (Smedes develops his case in parallel with the way Christians justify remarriage after divorce.) So while this is an important moral issue, it is not one that is determinative of one’s identity as a Christian. That point is illustrated in the fact that Tony and Peggy Campolo disagree on this question while (by all accounts) maintaining a healthy marriage in which each recognizes the other as an evangelical Christian.
At the same time, it isn’t that surprising at all. Deconversion often begins with a relatively small starting point, like that first hairline crack which appears in the iron girder of a bridge and leads some years later to a devastating bridge collapse.
Next, I note that Counter Apologist reflects: “I found the apologetic arguments to be completely vacuous.” I hope this is hyperbolic. To be vacuous is to be without content, empty, lacking in intelligence. Does Counter Apologist really believe that all the arguments for God’s existence are utterly empty and lacking in intelligence? If he does then this represents a red flag for me as regards Counter Apologist’s objectivity. (By comparison, I would doubt the objectivity of any Democrat or Republican who declared that the other party’s platform to be “completely vacuous”.)
The third point that strikes me is Counter Apologist’s claim that the apologists he listened to were employing “Philosophical sleight of hand”. The phrase “slight of hand” is a metaphor which is used to flag skills in deception. There are two issues here. First, were the apologists Counter Apologist listened to in fact being deceptive? That’s a strong charge which, as they would say in the courts, would require Counter Apologist to have access to the operation of their minds. I suspect that in at least some cases it is an unjustified and unfair charge. But that brings me to the second point of trust. Think about the husband who violates his wife’s trust by having an affair. In the future when he is late getting home because he was caught in traffic, his wife may not believe him. Once trust is gone it is difficult to regain.
So it is for apologists (whether Christian, or atheistic or anything else). This fact hit me in an interesting way when I was in a group the other day and the profound topic of “Ford vs. Chevy” came up. I was about to say “Ford, of course!” when two people jumped in with their opinions. Both told stories of how they’d owned a Ford in the past and it was a lemon. “I’d never buy a Ford again!” each declared. These were intelligent people, but their position was irrational. Indeed, it was just like the jilted lover who declares “I’ll never trust a man again!” (If you’re in the market for a compact car, the rational thing to do is read up at JD Power and Associates, Consumer Reports, automotive journalists, and so on. That provides good evidence for the relative merits of the Ford Focus over-against other models. The 1998 Ford Windstar you owned that blew the transmission doesn’t.)
The lesson is this: don’t squander trust when you’re defending your beliefs. (For more on that see my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think.)
Counter Apologist writes: “can god permit evil because of free will, if at the same time goodness is defined by god’s nature? That would mean that it’s logically impossible for god to sin, meaning he has no moral free will. ” However, libertarian free will doesn’t require the ability to sin. I have a chapter on this topic in my forthcoming book on heaven.
Finally, Counter Apologist concludes: “I was finally able to embrace the fact that I was an atheist: I didn’t believe in any god or gods.”
This puzzles me. Theism is the belief that there exists a necessary agent cause, and atheism is the belief that there does not exist a necessary agent cause. Even if all the arguments for the existence of this being were completely vacuous, it wouldn’t follow that one ought to believe no such being exists. So I wonder why Counter Apologist is an atheist rather than an agnostic.