Sunday, September 15, 2013

Christian to Agnostic: A Short Explanation

[I'm making this the latest post because a family member asked over the weekend. This was originally posted here on June 11, 2012 and written around 2008.]

    During my last year at Iowa State University, I stopped believing Christianity — or anything like it — is actually true. This came at the end of several years of study which began with the opposite goal: learning how to show others that Christianity is true. Talk about backfiring! Instead of finding more and stronger justifications for Christian belief, I lost even my starting justifications. All remaining evidence was compatible with Christianity being an entirely manmade religion, so I concluded that's probably all it is. I drew the same conclusion about other religions. If there is a God at all, it's not one concerned with setting us straight on religious matters.

    I was raised in the Churches of Christ sect. Early on, I was under the impression that everyone in the world believed the same things I was taught in Sunday School. Why wouldn't I? Everything from Biblical history to theology was presented to me as a matter of uncontroversial fact. If someone didn't worship God, that was only an obedience problem as it is with kids who don't mind their parents. I accepted God's offer of salvation with unquestioning faith. I believed God had forgiven my sins and would raise me to live in Heaven with other Christians forever. Prayer, praise, and scripture reading were not a burden but a joy.

    That joy started to sour when I was sent to an interdenominational Christian high school. You see, the Churches of Christ teach baptism as an essential step in accepting salvation; they even refer to baptism as "obeying the Gospel." By contrast, all the teachers and most of the students at my new school believed that only faith was necessary to be saved. This meant most of the Christians at school had not obeyed the Gospel and were still on their way to never-ending torment in Hell. Yet these were not apathetic or rebellious people; many were clearly striving to understand and submit to God's will. How could people serving God to the best of their knowledge deserve eternal torment? And the more I thought about Hell, the more I began to question its justice. I realized that no human — no matter how monstrous — could cause as much suffering as an eternity of hellfire. For a long time, I didn't doubt the truth of any of this, but I did start to see the next world as a far greater horror than even the worst temporary evil in this world.

    Just as high school opened my eyes to divisions among Christians, college life put me in direct contact with a wider array of religious beliefs. I went from only hearing debates about the meaning of Bible verses to hearing people claim the Bible wasn't inspired by God at all. So I did what I always do when challenged: study up! I already knew the book of Daniel contained detailed prophetic descriptions of Alexander the Great and the kings who followed him, so I started looking into arguments from supernatural prophecy. I was confident I could show that the Bible was more than a collection of human writings. But it didn't take long for my confidence to turn into disappointment.

    Daniel was supposedly written in the sixth century BC while the Jews were exiled in Babylon. Among other things, it describes Alexander's fourth century BC eastward conquest and the fate of the empire after his death. Even without names, the descriptions match up with secular history too well to be a lucky guess. Or at least, they match until the 160s BC when the prophecies become much more elaborate…then go wrong. See where I'm going with this? Many Biblical scholars believe Daniel was written during the 160s BC as if it contained ancient prophecies leading up to the ongoing Maccabean Revolt. The author simply wrote history and current events disguised as prophecy, then got the future parts wrong. This is a mainstream view in the Catholic Church, probably because their Bibles still contain histories of the revolt, which happened during the mysterious "intertestamental" period as far as Protestants are concerned. I was disappointed in my own Bible teachers for failing to know or failing to tell me about any of this.

    I needed to find prophecy immune to date-based skepticism, so I turned to messianic prophecy. Figured I'd start with Matthew and look up Old Testament references as I got to them. Big mistake. It turns out Matthew had little regard for the context of his quotes. The original passages concerning "Immanuel," "out of Egypt," and "Rachel weeping for her children" were written about specific situations far removed from the Gospel plot. I was amazed to find that the first few pages of Matthew mistreat the Jewish scriptures so badly no one could fault a curious Jew for picking up a New Testament and setting it right back down a minute later. Are the other messianic prophecies merely less obvious impositions of new meaning on old scriptures? My studies were inconclusive. With Christian preconceptions, it's easy to see Jesus in the Old Testament. But without those assumptions, all "messianic prophecies" can be reasonably understood as merely human Jewish hopes. For example, the servant described in Isaiah 53 can be understood as religiously faithful Jews who suffered through the Babylonian exile along with the unfaithful Jews who brought about the judgement. As a reward and justification for their suffering, God would end the exile and set Israel above all other nations forever. The exile ended, but the rest proved too optimistic. Later Jews reinterpreted the passage as a future event, then Christians used it to build a theology to justify the suffering of Jesus on the cross. This naturalistic interpretation is strongly in line with the overall historical context of Isaiah 40-55. I eventually had to give up on using prophecy to argue for a supernatural Bible.

    What would it take to show the truth of Christian belief over alternatives? Critical evidence, i.e. evidence which is compatible with Christian belief but not compatible with alternative beliefs. Take the book of Daniel. It fails to be critical evidence because it can be explained as history rather than amazing prophecy. However, Daniel would be critical evidence if compelling, secular evidence were found that Daniel's prophecies actually were written in the sixth (not the second) century BC. Skeptics who acknowledge the uncanny accuracy of Daniel between those centuries would be unable to maintain their belief that Daniel was written by human means.

    I continued looking for any critical evidence which favored Christianity over the alternatives. Instead, I kept finding critical evidence against the fundamentalist Christianity I was taught at both church and school. A quick rundown:

    I had believed first-century apostles finalized the Bible as I knew it and that any later ideas or writings were either superfluous or deviations from true Christianity.
  …but then I learned that the New Testament's table of contents was settled much later by distinctively Catholic Christians who also affirmed a larger Old Testament. I couldn't trust my sixty-six book Bible had only inspired books and all the inspired books without believing God whimsically guided fourth century Catholics to put the New Testament together right and AD-era Jews to put the Old Testament together right.

    I had believed the Gospels were independent witnesses to the life of Jesus, by the traditional authors.
  …but then I learned that the first three Gospels are textually dependent on each other like three homework essays showing signs of collaboration; scholars call this the "synoptic problem." Not such a big deal for Luke since the author admits to putting together earlier accounts, but I found it impossible to believe Matthew was written by an apostle of Jesus who only bothered mangling other accounts instead of writing his own.

    I had believed all scriptures were preserved word-for-word in their original languages.
  …but then I learned that the New Testament authors usually quoted an Old Testament with many subtle differences from the Old Testament I knew. For example, Matthew 21 depicts children praising Jesus during the triumphal entry. Jesus defends their actions to critics by quoting Psalm 8 as, "Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself." Yet Psalm 8 reads, "From the mouths of infants and nursing babes You have established strength." I realized either Jesus had a corrupted Old Testament or I did.

    I had believed the Bible accurately reports speech, though not necessarily everything a person said.
  …but then I learned that the Bible inaccurately reports speech even when accuracy would have been just as easy. For example, Mark 11:1-3 reports Jesus asking for a single donkey while Matthew 21:1-3 reports him asking for plural donkeys. This isn't an omission or a matter of translation into English; the words in Jesus' mouth are just different. If it's ok to mess with the speech of God incarnate, what else might have been adjusted?

    I had believed Biblical history was reliable and any secular history that disagreed was simply mistaken.
  …but then I learned that the Bible starts with fictional creation and flood stories. This might have been fine if they were treated as myths-with-a-message (like the Narnia novels or the Parable of the Vineyard Workers), but Eden and the flood are part of the main historical narrative. Luke even traces Jesus' genealogy back through David to Noah and Adam. I had to start worrying that other parts of the Bible might also be fiction presented as fact.

    As I was discovering problems with my fundamentalist view of the Bible, I heard about "progressive" Christians who get around all of the above by treating the Bible as a fallible human work: a book about God but not from God. This lets progressives write off gender roles as a cultural vestige and distance God from troublesome Old Testament morals such as enslaving foreigners (Lev 25:44-46), killing children as part of genocide (1 Sam 15:3), executing apostates (Deut 13:6-11), and taking virgins as sexual spoils of war (Deut 21:10-13, Num 31:17-18). Progressive Christians usually also deny Hell doctrine on the basis of incompatibility with a morally praiseworthy God. They've effectively reshaped Christianity to fit modern knowledge and moral sense. After all, there are still many wise, good, and possible things in the Bible after cutting out the foolish, evil, and false. I tried to adopt a progressive Christian view, but it was short-lived. I didn't see how a God interested in forming loving relationships with humanity or even in being worshipped as a good God would be so hands-off in allowing his character to be slandered by his own followers.

    I began to see Christianity as "just another human religion." That's the phrase that got stuck in my head and wouldn't go away. I identify with stories of other deconverts who said that once they were capable of seeing Christian faith as a product of mere human psychology and culture, they suddenly had great trouble taking off those new "glasses." (Or putting the Christian glasses back on, if you prefer.) Take prayer, for example. The doctrine that all prayers are answered "yes," "no," or "not yet" is hard to take seriously after seeing it as precisely the doctrine people would invent if no prayer were ever heard by a God. A false Christianity would also neatly explain why the Holy Spirit does not counteract the ever increasing schisms among Christians. Or why there seems to be needless suffering in the world even though an all-good, all-powerful God would ensure all suffering is for the best. And finally, why the best predictors of Christian faith are where and to whom a person is born.

    Though my beliefs had changed, I didn't want to be an unbeliever so I kept looking for reasons to think some form of Christianity is true. What if I had simply missed something? So I deliberately put my new skepticism at risk by continuing to engage with apologetics. I did come to see problems with many popular skeptical arguments and I also came to appreciate some of the more refined defenses of Christianity, especially those of Alston and Plantinga. But in the end these were only defenses of the possibility of Christian Theism, not critical reasons to believe any of it is true. Then I realized something which gave me confidence I wasn't missing some hard-to-find good reason for belief: if there is an all-powerful God who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," it would be in God's own interest and power to make religious truth unmistakably clear so that "all men" are able — if willing — to respond to his offer of salvation. For this reason, I take the lack of clear critical evidence for Christian belief as strong positive evidence against Christian belief.

    Where does this leave me? Not too different in day-to-day terms. I found it doesn't take belief in God and an afterlife to believe in other people and this life. If it matters how I'm treated, I know it matters how I treat others. I can't rely on thinking God will right every injustice, but then I hadn't believed unending paradise and torment were just fates since high school. I now believe it's up to us to correct injustice and suffering in the world. It's also up to us to preserve our planet for those to come, with no scheduled remake of a new heavens and new earth. And if anything, I have an increased sense of humility from realizing the universe wasn't made just for us. No single religious image ever brought out the awe I feel looking at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and trying to grasp the sheer scale of what it reveals in one tiny, seemingly dark patch of the night sky. Is there a God hidden beyond it all? Maybe, maybe not. Though I remain open to the possibility of a God who hasn't bothered to reveal its identity and desires to humanity, I lean toward a fully natural order because God-explanations have been steadily retreating in the face of natural explanations. I doubt we'll ever run out of unanswered questions, so there will always be room to project religious answers onto the unknown, but I'm comfortable waiting until there's good reason to believe those answers are correct.


  1. Rather enjoyed this, was very well-written.

  2. Hi Garren, just wondering, how do you think your thoughts and attitudes toward Christianity stand now four years on from that essay? 

  3. Not much changed. I've grown a little less apathetic about the forms of Christianity which encourage an unwarranted level of skepticism about science, since this has a dramatic impact on voting and family health decisions. For example, the lectures in that "Contending for the Truth" series I blogged about were often astoundingly dishonest or ignorant (and therefore ironic). I'm sure they're very effective for a certain audience, but hearing such apologetic antics just reinforces my disbelief.

    I'm pretty far past the question of "Is this true?" and on to questions about "How do I get along with people who believe it's true?"

  4. if there is an all-powerful God who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," it would be in God's own interest and power to make religious truth unmistakably clear so that "all men" are able — if willing — to respond to his offer of salvation. For this reason, I take the lack of clear critical evidence for Christian belief as strong positive evidence against Christian belief.

    So, you became atheist on the Christian God but agnostic on gods in general?

  5. Something like that. I don't think it's reasonable for sufficiently informed people to believe any revealed religions on offer today. Beyond that, the evidence isn't up to the task of deciding the question.

  6.  The critical question, it seems to me, is what's "the question"? "God" is perhaps more profitably defined in a fashion narrower than any expression of "supernaturalism" but broader than the God of revealed religion or any God who's concerned with our disposition to worship him. You load the dice for agnosticism if you use a nebulous definition of "God."

    If you define God as a person responsible for the existence of the cosmos,  I think we can be as sure this being doesn't exist as we are of most anything because the God concept is incoherent for the same reason libertarian free will is.

  7. If you define God as a person responsible for the existence of the cosmos

    I do.

    the God concept is incoherent

    I don't see how.

  8.  The basic argument against libertarian free will is that randomness and determination exhaust the logical possibilities regarding the conditions for occurrences. Libertarian free is incoherent because it amounts to the proposition that conduct is neither determined (else it isn't free) nor random (else it wouldn't be willed).

    A personal God must have libertarian free will. If God's conduct is determined, the rules determining God's conduct determine everything else, and God himself becomes otiose. Also, he is no longer the creator, for the laws precede him and must be explained. But if God acts randomly, God isn't really originating anything. And again, you could just skip God and say the universe itself is random.

    So, a personal God is a being with libertarian free will. But libertarian free will is incoherent because it contradicts both of the possibilities that God's acts are random or they're determined.

  9. The reason you or I don't have libertarian free will is that our choices are constrained by our respective characters, which in turn were formed by outside forces. A personal God's choices could similarly be constrained by its character, with the difference being that its character was not formed by outside forces (a fairly common theology). This avoids both randomness and "laws" that "precede him and must be explained."

    Frankly I'm not very interested in arguments that a God necessarily does or does not exist. I consider them fringe positions in both camps, with all the really interesting disputes being about which sort of world we actually do live in.

  10.  The issues raised are the key epistemological ones necessary for other disputes and perhaps more clearly seen here: or one can hope.

    The nation that God is incoherent may be a fringe position in the philosophy of religion, moreover, but it certainly is not a fringe position in metaphysics, epistemology, or the philosophy of mind. Few bother to discuss the matter, because the proof that God is incoherent is just so damn obvious.(You've maintained some of the authoritarian mental set of a devout Christian--"frankly I'm not interested"-- pompous baloney.

    If God's choices were constrained by his character, you would have to explain what formed God's character.

    If God's character determines his actions, we have no reason to invoke God at all. His character would simply constitute the laws of nature, although they'd be purpose laws rather than causal laws.

    Libertarian free will lies at the heart of the belief in monotheistic God. Monotheism is an extension of animism--consider the line of cultural development. People naively think their will actually causes things. They project their will onto the world; finally onto God. Without free will there's no God, no sin, no soul.

  11. If God's choices were constrained by his character, you would have to explain what formed God's character.

    Nothing. It would be a brute fact.

    Anyway, you seem to have misread "I'm not very interested" as something like "It's not worth anyone's consideration." I feel the same about Jesus mythicism.

  12. I enjoyed reading your article. 

  13. Garren, I am always fascinated how the study of apologetics and
    philosophy can lead otherwise intelligent people to opposite conclusions. In my case philosophy strengthened my faith.

    Mr. Diamond, I don’t understand why you think libertarian is
    incoherent. Libertarians will rarely, if ever, say that our actions are undetermined, full stop. What they usually say is that free actions are self-determined by a rational agent.

  14. Hi Garren,

    Nice deconversion bibliography!
    But "short" !? ;-)

    The short version via my speed read seems to be this:

    (1) I was raised Christian and didn't doubt it

    (2) I started seeing through fundamentalism

    (3) I hoped progressive Christianity would stop me from totally deconverting

    (4) I see through all the obvious problems with all forms of Christianity

    (5) I think ALL other religions have similar issues.

    (6) I'm open to other solutions, but just don't see religious answers as viable now

    Is that close? :-)

    I just did a post called "Agnostic of Gutted Gods" which shows how I could be considered and "agnostic" rather than "atheist" -- it seems to relate to a bit of what your story tells here.

    My story is very similar to yours -- well said!!