After being a die hard Southern Baptist Christian for a couple of years, I innocently started asking a few questions. If we’re born sinful, why is it our fault for being sinners? If people have free will, why should we pray for their salvation? If God is just, why does he send good people to Hell? I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being a good skeptic.
Skepticism is an important part of the scientific method. It stops scientists from accepting any crazy claim or idea without first asking questions like “How does that work?” or “What is the evidence?” Everyone is a skeptic to some extent. Most people will raise an eyebrow when they hear an alien abduction story. And most people will ask for proof if you tell them you’re a psychic.
The problem is, people tend to throw their skepticism out the window when it comes to their personal beliefs about pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and religion. But when I was a Christian, I wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions about my religion. I was so certain that Christianity was true, I had absolutely no fear of discovering it wasn’t (I wonder what this says about the faith of Christians who are afraid to ask tough questions).
To my surprise, I found that Christian apologists did not have very good answers to my questions. They would try to justify God’s erratic behavior and explain away all the Biblical contradictions, but their answers sounded like ad hoc rationalizations to me. And more often than not they would say, “God works in mysterious ways” or “You just have to have faith.” But I knew that was a not a good way to learn about reality.
Back in the nineteenth century, scientists used to believe in something called the ether, a transparent and intangible substance that fills all of space. There was no evidence for it, but scientists used it to help explain the movement of light. They thought that since light moves, it has to move through something (just as sound waves move through air).
Then Einstein came along with his general theory of relativity and showed that the ether is not necessary to explain the movement of light. If there’s no evidence for it and it’s not needed to explain anything, then it probably doesn’t exist. What if someone had told Einstein, “But it does exist! You just have to have faith”?
This is why after talking to Christian leaders and reading books by Christian apologists, I was left with even more questions. I knew that if Christianity were true, it shouldn’t be necessary to “just have faith.” If faith is all there is, then why not put my faith in Islam or Buddhism or some other religion?
I kept searching, and eventually I realized there was one explanation that answered all my questions: Christianity isn’t true. This explained everything: why the god of the Bible is so erratic, why there are no more miracles, why there are so many Biblical contradictions, etc. From then on, every time one of the tough questions about Christianity occurred to me, I realized the simplest explanation (and therefore the most likely explanation) was that Christianity just isn’t true.
At no point during this journey did I think, “I’m gonna convert to atheism now.” Atheism is the default position you take when you realize there is no reason to believe in god. In fact, I actually remember the moment when I thought, “Holy shit, I’m an atheist!” I really didn’t like that idea. Atheism seemed like a dirty word to me, but I couldn’t deny it. I didn’t choose to be an atheist, I simply became one as a result of my skepticism.
There’s a major misunderstanding among Christians that ex-believers chose to become atheists. The fallacy is in the idea that belief is a choice. The fact is, it’s not a choice. I can prove it right now. Close your eyes, focus real hard, and try to believe that you can walk through walls. Now stand up and run headfirst through the nearest wall. Did you do it yet? No? I bet you didn’t even try because you know you would just end up on the floor with a headache. Based on everything you’ve learned about the world, you don’t believe people can’t walk through walls.
It’s the same with atheism. Once you learn about the history of god and realize there’s no evidence that a god exists, you can’t force yourself to believe in one. Trust me, I tried. About a year after I deconverted, I was going through a period where I felt lost and lonely, and I missed the ready-made support system I used to have at church. (Fortunately, I soon made some good friends instead.) For a while I tried to believe again, but it didn’t take. As I often tell people, it was like trying to convince myself that Santa Claus is real.
Christians don’t like the idea that atheism is not a choice because their whole religion depends on it being a choice. If atheists can’t help being what they are, how can God punish them? So Christians tell themselves that atheists could choose to believe but they don’t want to. Therefore, they are without excuse. This is like telling a teenager, “You’re not getting presents for Christmas this year because you don’t believe in Santa anymore, and that’s your own fault.”
On the flip side, I’m not convinced theism is a choice, either. I know of some Christians who say they are choosing to believe, but there are usually other reasons why they believe. Most people believe in god because they were indoctrinated at a young age, and their belief is regularly reinforced because the people around them also believe. People who go to church, read Christian books, and pray on a regular basis are constantly reinforcing their beliefs, making them stronger and stronger.
Psychology has shown us that people can be brainwashed into believing almost anything, and undoing a strong belief often takes years of deprogramming. Some people unknowingly erect powerful psychological mechanisms to protect their beliefs because the pain of realizing they are wrong is too much. For example, if someone like William Lane Craig–who has spent his entire career defending Christianity–became an atheist, he would have to admit he wasted his one and only life. On top of that, his career would be over and he would lose the respect of his friends and loved ones. At this point, his psychology won’t allow him to stop believing.
So if we have no choice over what we believe, what are we to do? Well, you can indirectly change your beliefs by exposing yourself to new information. I want to believe whatever is true, so I expose myself to a wide variety of ideas and viewpoints. However, I never accept anything at face value. Instead I take a very skeptical approach, always asking questions and looking for consistent explanations.
If you’re a believer, I recommend you do the same thing. This might make you nervous, but if you’re so certain your religion is true, what do you have to be afraid of?