The next installment in our series is focused on Mike D who blogs as The A-Unicornist. Not to be confused with Mike D from the Beastie Boys, our Mike D is a metal fan. And now without further ado, The A-Unicornist:
* * *
Ironically, I’m not a Christian because at one time, I wanted to be the best Christian I could be. After several years in the evangelical church, I became frustrated with some persistent unanswered questions – the biggest for me at the time simply being “Why are there so many religions?” The more I thought about it, the more it vexed me. I realized that I’d never be the Christian I wanted to be unless I made a sincere effort to really understand my faith, and that simple question was the catalyst that plunged me into an intensive study of Christian theology, the Bible, and apologetics. Notably though, I didn’t just limit my studies to Christianity; I also studied world religions and read Eastern and Classical philosophy.
It was a slow and frustrating process, but the answers I found weren’t what I was looking for. As much as I tried to reconcile my beliefs with reality, I couldn’t shake the fact that it was making less and less sense to me. The apologetics arguments seemed riddled with holes, and Christian theology seemed nonsensical. Often, the Eastern and Classical philosophy I read made far more sense to me than anything from Christian thinkers. The straw that broke the camel’s back was my study of the book of Hebrews, which almost single-handedly undid my Christian faith by describing a theology that in my view was utterly absurd. My deconversion wasn’t a sudden pronouncement of disbelief, but a gradual process of frustration and disillusionment. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t be honest with myself and still call myself a Christian.
Nonetheless, I still hung on to a vague sort of agnostic theism for nearly a decade. I still believed I needed God to explain the existence of the universe, the complexity of life, altruism, and for my life to have any real meaning or value. The most significant change occurred when an budding interest in physics and cosmology prompted me to read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The eighth chapter, “The Origin and Fate of the Universe”, challenged my believe that God was necessary to explain the existence of the universe. It could disprove God, of course, but that wasn’t the point; it’s that I’d always assumed any nontheistic explanation of the universe’s origin was logically implausible, and had learned that I was wrong. This cognitive dissonance caused me to rethink my positions on morality, evolution, and meaning as well. Within a few months of reading Hawking’s book, I was a bona fide atheist, and I haven’t looked back since.
* * *
“Why are there so many religions?” That was the biggest question that troubled Mike D. On its surface this question appears relatively innocuous. On more than one occasion I’ve wondered “Why are there so many species of beetle?” But it never prompted an existential crisis. But religions aren’t beetles. I take it that Mike’s question provides a sort of shorthand for several apologetically serious concerns like these:
(1) If there is a God then why would he allow there to be many diverging interpretations of the human problem and the means to resolve it?
(2) If one religion is true, how can we tell which one it is?
These are good questions. Concerning the first one, I think my exchanges a couple years ago with Steve Maitzen are relevant. See “Religious Demographics and Divine Hiddenness” and “Ad Maitzen: On what must I believe to be saved?”
As for the second, think about the parallel with science. If there is one secure result of the natural sciences it is that our scientific description of reality is always changing. So how can we know what the true description of reality really is?
Well at this point we can choose to become skeptics or scientific antirealists, or we can continue to work from our inevitably limited place in time and history to gain the fullest understanding of what the world is.
This isn’t just true when it comes to science. It is a reflection of our general place in history as finite creatures, whether the matter concerns questions of ethics or culture or metaphysics or theology. So in each case we simply do our best with our limitations to understand reality. How then do we tell which religion is true? We start from the place we are — as a Christian or Mormon or skeptic or whatever — and begin stepwise by considering the evidence for our view and potential defeaters to it.
Reading Stephen Hawking. I first bought A Brief History of Time back in 1988. I think I read half a chapter. I returned to the book in 1996 at which point I read the entire book. When I did finally read it I found a brilliant scientist offering a speculative theory to a general audience. Remember how I observed a moment ago that scientific theories are always changing. Given that fact you might think that scientifically literate folks might be chastened in granting assent to particular speculative proposals. (And the Hawking-Hartle attempt to remove the singularity is certainly speculative with its application of the concept of imaginary time.) So it was surprising to see how widely and enthusiastically Hawking’s book was received (straight on down to Carl Sagan’s adulatory foreword). But then maybe it wasn’t that surprising. After all, many people desperately wanted Hawking to be right because they didn’t want a singularity or any perceived need for a creator. Hence, Hawking’s less than subtle suggestion that should his theory be true, we’d no longer need an agent cause to kick things off. “What place, then, for a creator?” Hawking asked.
I’m not commenting on Mike D at this point, mind you, but rather on the general reception Hawking’s book and its highly speculative proposal received. The way that Hawking’s speculative model was received reflects motivated reasoning at its baldest. And yet the irony is that Hawking’s book doesn’t eliminate the metaphysical problems at all, for the book doesn’t even discuss the supporting reasoning for Thomistic and Leibnizean cosmological arguments.
On not looking back. Finally, I was struck by Mike’s parting quip: “I haven’t looked back since.” This is a powerful metaphor to reflect the decisiveness of one’s decision. I’m not sure what Mike means here. That he’s had no doubts about his decision? That he’s never asked whether he made the right decision?
I’ll simply make an important observation: whenever we make a big decision that shapes our lives and beliefs, our natural inclination is to move on rather than return to that moment of decision to re-examine the basis for it. This is understandable not least because decisions of this kind involve an unsettling existential dimension. At his recent presidential library interview George Bush was still unequivocal that invading Iraq was the right thing to do at the time, despite the fact that the rationales for invasion provided at the time have been abandoned and the human and material cost of the war has outstripped all projections by orders of magnitude. One wishes that President Bush would look back and seriously re-examine the grounds for the invasion.
Fortunately most of us don’t have major geopolitical decisions on our shoulders, but each of us makes life-changing decisions, and it is always worthwhile to take a look back and re-examine the grounds for those decisions.