Why People Become Atheists
Would atheists regard it as heresy if I were to allege that most of them, like Christians and other theists, occasionally have doubts? The atheistic doubt, of course, is a suspicion that despite all their well-crafted arguments – and the science that undergirds them – God may exist. Some deny that such puerile thoughts ever cross their mind, but others admit they do. The Doubting Thomas is not just a Christian phenomenon; skeptics waver too.
In fact the same wide range of gradations -- from unshakable faith, to strong faith, to fragile faith, to wobbly faith – marks both the atheist and the theist communities. At different times in our lives we may find ourselves at different places on that spectrum. The unshakable may be shaken; the wobbly may become strong. And every year each camp boasts converts from the other.
Simplicity vs. Complexity
Since I was once a convert to atheism, and later in my life a convert from atheism, I know something about conversion and the complex of factors, intellectual and emotional, that bring it about. One advantage atheism has in making converts is that it asks them to assent to an extremely simple proposition: There is no God. The Catholic, the Protestant, and the Jew, by contrast, must convince the prospective convert not only that God exists, but that a hundred – nay, a thousand – things about him and his interactions with mankind are true.
The Protestant Bible contains 66 books (39 OT, 27 NT); the Catholic Bible contains 73. The prevailing Christian view is that all those books are not only sacred but trustworthy – error free -- in every line. Add to this the numerous theological “confessions,” one for every Protestant sect, the 700-page Catechism of the Catholic Church, Torah and the Talmud for Orthodox Judaism. You can see why it’s easier to exit a formal religion than it is enter one. “It’s all rubbish” is a much easier sell than “it’s all true, you must believe it, and you must live by it.”
Biblical Cruelty Provokes Atheism
For many the complexity of an established religion is not the major problem. They point to one or two dogmas, behavioral rules, or Biblical events, and those are enough to make them recoil from the sect. I am astonished at how often people give scriptural reasons for their atheism. The Christian doctrine of eternal damnation to a fiery hell, for grave sin (or because of predestination), terrified many when they were believers. Better to abolish God entirely than live in fear of being immolated by his wrath. Atheism offers escape from that horrific aspect of the Christian worldview. Better no God, some decide, than one who might torment me for eternity.
Some see the God of the Old Testament as unpardonably cruel and obsessed with being worshipped. What kind of God, they say, would demand that Abraham be willing to slaughter his own son with a knife to prove his devotion? But he didn’t really demand that, I point out; he relented at the end. He demanded that Abraham be willing, they insist; that was monstrously egocentric.
Slaughter at Jericho
Others point to atrocities that the God of Abraham ordered and did not relent from. When he gave his chosen people the Promised Land it was filled not only with milk and honey but with inhabited towns and cities. The residents were living normal lives; working for a living, raising and loving their families. We are not told they were wicked like Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet when Joshua had his army march around the walled city of Jericho, just before the walls collapsed, he said to his people: “Shout; for the Lord has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction….”
The trumpet sounded, the people shouted, the wall fell. “Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword…. And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the Lord.”
New Testament Harshness
Atheists can go on, citing dozens of atrocities like these from the Old Testament and the New. Some rival fundamentalists in their knowledge and memory of selected scriptures. But where, you ask, did God do something brutally cruel in the New Testament? I know a Catholic woman who never left the faith but could not forgive God for requiring that his Son be crucified, though Jesus implored, “Let this cup [of torment] pass from me.” How could a caring Father turn a deaf ear to that plea? He must have loved his Son much less than she loved hers. My pointing out that Father and Son were one, and that the sacrificial death redeemed us all, did not avail. She would never have consigned her son to the cross. (Since I was that son I smiled indulgently at the heresy.)
Tedious Demands and Impossible Standards
Yet barbaric cruelty, ordered or sanctioned by the deity, is not always the main indictment. For many the numerous demands and constraints of religious teaching are enough to make God unpalatable. What a killjoy, they protest. He takes all the fun out of life. Who needs him? Who needs this nonsense about dietary laws and keeping holy the Sabbath -- dragging yourself out of bed every Sunday morning, even if Saturday’s fun kept you up till three? Sitting through services so boring you couldn’t stay awake even if you weren’t sleep-deprived?
Who can live by the impossible standards Christ preached? All this stuff about loving vicious enemies; turning the other cheek when someone hurts you, blessing those who curse you, lending with no expectation of repayment, going the extra mile for people who oppress you, forgiving a nasty relative 490 times (“seventy times seven”), feeling guilty of adultery if you cast a lustful glance at a woman, and defiled if you bed one out of wedlock.
Then the Church adds that you’re in mortal sin if you use a condom with your wife. It’s all so unnatural and extreme, they say, I’d be a neurotic if I tried to practice it. And I’d be psychotic if I feared that a sin or two would cast me into “outer darkness” where there’s “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Talk about fire and brimstone – it’s not for me. I not only don’t believe, I don’t want to believe!
An Alternative to Organized Religion?
These objections to religion are heartfelt. We can’t dismiss them lightly. Even weightier arguments can be made. And there are strong counterarguments to vindicate belief. I will not give them here. Instead I’ll propose an alternative to all organized religion -- yet one that organized religion should not object to. But if atheists don’t want to hear it, why bother?
[My next posting Pure Theism: Ponder It is a continuation of this piece.]