Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why People Become Atheists
Shane Hayes

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.]


  1. Funny, you mention Abraham, but there is no evidence that he existed. On the contrary, he was simply an invented legend. Same with Joshua doing the battle of Jericho and the walls falling down. Also invented by the religious establishment to give the Israelites a past to be proud of after having been in exile. Jericho, at the time was a one horse town with no walls. There is no evidence of the Israelites being held as slaves in Egypt and then wandering the desert for 40 years and then conquering Caanan. Evidence shows that this never happened. Also, the Israelites were originally Caananites who peacefully took over the highlands by moving there. Don't you see? The Bible was man made. It was not the Word of God. And the Church requiring that you never use condoms with your wife. Ridiculous. One woman had 12 kids and then stated that it was the Will of God. What rubbish. The church is so concerned about the use of condoms that it overlooks the fact that this can lead to unwanted babies which then may end up with abortions. Isn't it more sensible to prevent the pregnancy in the first place? The Morman's believe you should have as many kids as you can. In one case, the doctor warned that another pregnancy could kill the woman, but they decided to follow the Morman doctrine. The woman died. Need I say more? As far as Hell goes, initially it was believed that you went to some dark gloomy place no matter how your life was. Later, this place morphed into Hell and lakes of fire. It was invented by man's imagination. Shane, since you originally were an atheist and now, that you are getting older, have become a Christian, I must assume that you did so because you are now reaching out to the hope of eternal life. I can't fault you since so many others have done the same thing. Let's look at the morality of God's law. It is OK to have slaves, you simply must not hurt their teeth or eyes when you beat them. It is A-OK to sell your daughter into sexual slavery. If your child talks back to you, you must kill him. If, on your wedding night, you determine that your wife is not a virgin, you must stone her on the steps of her father. I am not making this stuff up. If you want the passages, I can give them to you.

  2. Strong faith, wobbly faith. It is all the same. It is believing in something with no proof. So far, the claim that the Bible is the Word of God isn't all that hard to dispute.

  3. Wayne,

    Though I do not regard the Bible as inerrant I think your skepticism about it is extreme. Since defending the Bible is not what I’m about here I will not attempt a point-by-point rebuttal of your attacks on it. My impression is that you select proponents of strong anti-Biblical views and treat those views as if THEY were inerrant. If there is a spectrum of ten scholarly positions you pick the one to the extreme left and, because its viewpoint pleases you, disregard the other nine, at least five of which are in the mainstream of respected scholarship and regard your source as spurious. (The numbers are merely illustrative.)

    I have read Jewish history in recent years – by respected modern Jewish historians -- which completely disagrees with the radical debunking conclusions you and your sources have reached.

    You and I do agree, at least, that the Church’s teaching about birth control misses the mark. What I did, in the piece above, is recount reasons many modern atheists give for their atheism. I did not say they are good reasons, and it is not my business in this essay to confirm or rebut them. The point of the essay comes in Part II. I’ll be VERY interested in your reaction to that.


  4. Shane,
    I neglected to make the point that I feel that Theists, atheists and agnostics, if they do the research, can actually prove that the Christian God doesn't exist by showing that the Bible is man-made and not God inspired. That said, disproving the God in the Bible, does not disprove that a God or Creator exists. Since I have Theistic leanings, I obviously agree with you that the existence of a creator is highly likely. However, I just don't agree with your selection of the Christian God as being that creator. Also, being that you are an agnostic, I cannot understand how you can determine that the God described in the Bible is the actual description of the creator. I find it amusing that an atheist can look at the God of the Bible and say that they don't believe in a god since this god is immoral when I feel this description of the creator is nothing more than an invention by man. As far as saying that my views are from the left, I can give you straight forward references from the Bible that clearly describe in the law about the handling of slaves and that it is OK to sell your daughter into slavery. Also, there is absolutely no archeological evidence that there were all those people wondering the desert for 40 years, etc. Also, it makes no sense that Jesus would be preaching fervently for the people to prepare for the coming Kingdom, if he meant that it wasn't going to happen milleniums later. He said he didn't know the exact time, but that it was going to be in the life times of some of the people. This makes Jesus a failed prophet, and definitely not the Son of God. This is just a few things I have discovered. There is so many more that I can't go into here. One more thing about those laws about slavery. Some would argue that Jesus changed them. That would be incorrect since Jesus stated that he was not changing even one dot of the law. Also, there were slaves during Jesus' times.

  5. The fact that the Bible is obviously not inerrant would be rather surprising if the Christian God actually existed. Biblical errancy constitutes a good reason for concluding that such a god doesn't exist.

  6. P.Coyle, I would tend to agree with you, but since humans are involved in writing down God's word, they are open to errors. You can see evidence that Jesus believed that God was coming in His Kingdom in the life time of most people standing there. It obviously didn't happen, or we either would not be here or we would be living in this Kingdom. Since it didn't happen, it is very difficult to consider Jesus the Son of God.

  7. Autumnal HarvestMay 28, 2010 at 10:02 PM

    "Instead I’ll propose an alternative to all organized religion -- yet one that organized religion should not object to."

    I look forward to it. However, I'll make a comment that I've made before. If your "alternative" consists of beliefs that include (1) a monotheistic entity who is (2) omnipotent and omniscient and (3) who created the universe (which is finite in age) and (4) who is still around today and (5) who cares about humans, then that set of beliefs is narrow enough to clearly identify it as an Abrahamic religion. If, in addition, you're going to (6) place great emphasis on orthodoxy over orthopraxy (i.e. empahsize the importance of having certain beliefs regarding your deity, more than on practices such as food rules and purity rituals), then you're engaging in an emphasis that is fairly inconsistent with most Jewism and Muslim understanding of their religion, and looks peculiarly Christian. If your next post is going to consist of a set of beliefs that look very much like the core set of Christian beliefs, but are nevertheless going to claim that they're a generalized alternative to "all" religions, I hope you'll find time to address how that claim is reasonable with regard to religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, traditional Yoruba and Mayan religions, and ancient Norse mythology.

  8. A. H.,

    That's the first detailed comment I've ever had BEFORE a posting. Should I see it as blogging progress when I'm told of the errors and misconceptions in statements I haven't made yet? If all my readers were as prescient as you I could have an active blog with no postings at all. But they're not, so I'll post at least once more. I'll learn which is more stimulating and vulnerable -- my silence or my pronouncements.


  9. Shane,
    A.H. isn't really psychic. He merely has summarized what you have said so far, and I must say it appears to be accurate. I myself initially wondered why you chose Christianity, but then it makes sense since it is what you are used to. If you were living in India, you most likely would chose Hinduism.

  10. Wayne,

    Why can't I convince my readers that though I'm a Christian I'm not making Christian arguments? My next posting, "The Only Way Out of Atheism," is not a pitch for the Christian Gospel.


  11. Shane,
    The reason you can't convince us is because you keep stating about a loving God. Sounds like that belief has come from the Christian document.

  12. Shane said: "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? "

    First of all, from the Old Testament:

    23 Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, "Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!" 24 When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. 25 And he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.

    PZ in Pharyngula blog said "Oh, that story always warms my heart and reassures me of the all-encompassing nature of god's love."

    So much for God's love. Also, it was A OK to sell your daughter into slavery and if a person discovers that his wife on his wedding night is not a virgin, he is supposed to take her to the steps of her father and stone her to death. also, slaves were supposed to obey their masters, but there were certain rules when you beat your slave. You have to avoid his eyes and something else. What did Jesus say about all this? Well, he stated that he has not come to change one iota of the law in the Old Testament. Marcian developed his own theory and version of Christianity. He believed that the God of the New Testament was a different God then the vengeful God in the New Testament and that Jesus was sent in spirit form to pretend he was in human form and to pretend to die on the cross so as to appease the vengeful God in the Old Testament.