Brandon, yesterday we talked about your understanding of the central belief of Christianity—The Gospel—and your journey in the Christian faith. Today let’s talk about how you began your journey away from faith and toward reason.
When did you begin to become disillusioned with Christianity?
The other enduring love of my life beside God has been learning about the natural world through the methods of science. I have always been thrilled by science and contemplating the Universe in all its vastness and elegance has been the only experiences that can consistently bring me to tears. My Dad told me that when I was three years old I told him I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, and that’s eventually what I became.
My time in graduate school just so happened to coincide with the crescendo of the anti-vaccination movement’s popularity. Jenny McCarthy was everywhere peddling the nonsense that vaccines cause autism. Though I was outraged at the attack on perfectly good, science-based medicine, I felt a lot of sympathy for parents. I had the benefit of an advanced training in biology and I could (and in fact did) read and understand the relevant literature on the subject, but lay people really could not. Who’s a person to believe? I wanted to get involved in the scientific response to this misinformation and what I found was that the notable people involved in this response were also members of a wider skeptical movement that I had never known about. People were actually spending time to help others navigate their way through tackling claims of the paranormal and supernatural out of a genuine desire to safeguard the public against those who prey on the uninformed.
I gravitated toward this endeavor and community quickly, until I discovered that these same people who promoted skeptical thinking and evidence-based beliefs on matters ranging from the moon landing being a hoax and 9/11 being an “inside job” to the tricks pulled by TV psychics and televangelists, were also to a person, and most importantly for the same reasons, skeptical of all religious claims. Every one of them as it turned out, were atheists. I wondered how this could be. To me belief in God was incredibly reasonable. Though I valued faith, I always believed that the core of my views was grounded in firm evidence and that God wanted me to seek out his fingerprints in the world. I had a solid belief that if God is real, his presence in people’s lives and his creative power were discoverable by rigorous investigation of human experiences and of the things he had made (Romans 1:20). No one had to be motivated to believe in Jesus before seeing the evidence. The evidence would be compelling all on its own.
Initially I thought they must be wrong. They just had to be missing something. I was not deterred by the challenge to my beliefs and I made a commitment to accept the truth whatever that turned out to be. What I came to discover was that my beliefs were not based on solid evidence, but rather were based instead on the same special pleading, arguments from ignorance, appeals to authority and the majority, and cognitive biases as people who believed in UFO abductions, out of body experiences, and Big Foot. I did not leave Christianity because I was hurt, or due to a bad experience. I left Christianity because I found out that it is unsupported by the evidence.
So what was your breaking point?
I think the breaking point had to be one night in 2008 after I had finished reading The God Delusion. What challenged me in Dawkins’ book were not so much the arguments since I was quite familiar with them, but rather his assurance as an atheist that it is possible to live a life of joy, satisfaction, and purpose without God-belief. I think the view (engineered by religious indoctrination) that all which awaits the soul that abandons God is lonely and pointless nihilism is what so often keeps believers in the fold. The fact of the matter is that life is more precious when you realize you have a limited supply.
I remember laying in bed and feeling as though I was holding on to a bar or rod with both hands, hanging over an abyss, and all at once I remember thinking “just let go”. In my mind I let go of the thing I was so desperately grasping onto. I remember thinking “OK, so there is no God, and I am going to die. I’m really going to end, and so is everyone else, so there’s no one I can petition to change my circumstance.” I began to have an anxiety attack and had to pace around my house at 3 AM. This lasted about 10 minutes, until I began to realize that Dawkins was right. What did I have to worry about? If this is what was really true, then it was true about my situation an hour before I “let go”, and a day, and a year, and a decade before that. I have never been in another boat no matter what I may have thought, and yet all the while I had a good life. Then a quote I had read, attributed to Mark Twain came to mind:
“I do not fear death. I was dead for a billion years before I was born, and hadn’t suffered the slightest inconvenience.”
Christianity claims to be a way to conquer death, and by extension the human anxiety of death. It just isn’t a very good one. I was never so peaceful, so sublimely resigned to my inevitable future annihilation than immediately after realizing the truth of Twain’s words. There is nothing to fear in death, and that peace has stayed with me ever since. Today I feel lucky to be here at all, and though I want to live a full life, I actually do not want to live forever and I’m content to leave the decision over the timing of my exit (mostly) to nature.
A quote from Richard Dawkins may help to explain this sense of gratitude:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here… We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state, from which the vast majority have never stirred.
Thanks for sharing this part of your journey toward rationalism. I think tomorrow we should talk about evidence and I’ll give you the last words on what you want people of faith to know about you as an atheist.
Readers: Those of you who are people of faith, why do you maintain that? Those of you who do not, why not?