In my previous post, A Little Class, I let you, my gentle readers, in on my upcoming appearance in a class at Western Seminary in Santa Clara. Friday, October 30, 2015, has come and gone. I am still an atheist, and my friend’s students are still Christians.
Yet it was a really amazing morning, beyond my expectations.
First, a little proof:
Yes, I was really there.
It was a very open session. Dan didn’t censor me at all. In fact, he encouraged me to really lean on the hard questions that convinced me to leave the faith. Now, I confess that I was slightly nervous, but those of you who know me know that I’m most at ease with an audience.
I began by thanking Dan for making me part of his celebration of “Take Your Atheist to Work Day.” There was a long pause, then laughter. It occurred to me that they had no idea what sort of “atheist” I was going to be. I can imagine they expected someone hateful, abrasive, obnoxious, and so on. Now, I can be all of those things, but for the most part, I’m a decent guy. Once everyone had had a little laugh, the room eased up. I told my story for about 35 minutes, from my early church experience, my conversion, some of the more tumultuous events in my Christian life, right through to my deconversion and abandonment of the faith.
We followed that up with about 80 minutes of Q&A. This was the part I that gave me pause. I think it would have been possible for any of us, myself included, to derail the morning by getting entrenched in a position rather than simply discussing.
This ended up being extremely rewarding. Dan’s students were very thoughtful and open. Though they showed their preconceptions at times, as I’m sure I did to an extent, they were genuinely curious and gentle. Truthfully, I regret not finding the means to record the session. I think everyone would have enjoyed the give and take.
As for my hope that the morning would progress in the spirit that I’d hoped to conduct this site, well, that was quite fulfilled. These are the conversations I want to have.
Let me share with you some of the more interesting questions they asked. A note: I may be paraphrasing a little bit, or separating a larger, multi-part question into smaller segments for the sake of clarity. If anyone who was there feels I didn’t accurately relay the conversation, please say so in the comments so I can correct it.
Do you believe you were genuinely Christian?
I do. I had a deeply genuine, sincere, experiential relationship with Jesus Christ. Something I sometimes say is that if I was not, then you are not.
If you experienced that, then what do you attribute those experiences to now?
I was really happy they asked this question. I think it’s really honest and it invites an answer that is pretty harsh in a way, but I did my best to be gentle. I said that I believe the experience was self-generated by a combination of wish-fulfillment, group suggestion, and my desire to be part of the group and related to god.
Do you wish there was a god and savior who would make everything right and allow you to live forever?
I answered that, sure, in a way, I do. Some of my atheist friends think the idea of eternal life is a recipe for boredom. Maybe in the long-long-long run they’re right. But, as I said, I want to visit every star. I want to know everything. I want to see how it all ends some day, billions and trillions of years in the future. I very much wish I didn’t have to go out not knowing so many things. However, my wanting something doesn’t motivate me to believe something unreasonable. I have to accept the reality I can perceive.
Are you afraid of dying?
I am. Actually, I’m not afraid of being dead. It will be just like before I was born. There will be no conscious experience of it, I believe. What I’m afraid of is no longer being alive to experience all that I do and hope to.
Do you think your life has a purpose?
I think we make our own purpose. I find meaning in my actions and my relationships. My “worldview,” my “belief system,” is Humanism. I think that we are all the victims of random fortune, good for some of us, bad for others. If I have been fortunate, which I have, then my purpose includes doing what I can to make the world better for the unfortunate, and raising children who will go even further and make the world even better.
Are you and your wife on the same page right now, in how you look at the world?
We are very much so now. When I left the faith, she was very much agnostic, perhaps by default. But my transition created much, much more conversation that got both of us thinking, so that we sort of came to the same conclusion that, as far as we can tell, there is no god as anyone currently defines it. We both consider ourselves Humanists Atheists.
How do you feel about religion in general?
I’ll be frank about this – even though I respect everyone’s right to believe as they will, I believe religion is a divider. It breaks people into us vs. them. And I think Christianity is particularly divisive because of the doctrine of Regeneration. According to theology, humans, are body, soul, and spirit. At birth, our spirit is dead through Adam’s sin. When we accept Jesus Christ, his finished work results in the Holy Spirit indwelling us, resurrecting our spirit and giving us a direct connection to YHWH that non-believers do not and cannot have. That sets up the Christian to dismiss the ideas and thoughts of the unbeliever. After all, according to that doctrine, the non-believer isn’t equipped with true understanding and discernment, so their words are empty. If a person’s input can be rejected solely on the basis that they’re not part of the group, then that person is ostracized, and the religion has only served to divide decent people who otherwise would get along just fine.
I generally refer to atheists as “Theist Type-A” in that it seems that my position that there’s a god behind everything is more reasonable than random chance. How do you see it?
To my readers – I think it would be easy in some arenas to take offense at this, but the student who asked clearly came from a place of telling on himself. Like I said, the whole spirit of the conversation. So in answering, I said that of course I didn’t agree. We as people have 5 sense through which we perceive the world around us: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. All information about the universe comes to us through those five senses. When I perceive the world and universe around us, I don’t see any evidence for any “other.” More specifically, when I see how the world works, nothing that I see points to any of the gods that have been asserted to exist, including Jesus / YHWH.
What about the concept of Intelligent Design?
While I’m not well-read enough to discuss the scientific details, what reading I have done indicates that the idea that a designer is required is not valid. I trust the scientific consensus on this one, a consensus I think was arrived at reasonably and objectively, despite what Michael Behe and others might assert.
What about evidence about god healing people in other parts of the world?
Honestly, I don’t believe those accounts. If someone were to provide me with verified, falsifiable evidence that someone had a limb regrown, verified by a doctor with no vested interest in my actually believing it, then we’d have something to talk about. Generally those accounts come from less developed regions that are more prone to superstitious thinking and might be less critical of such accounts. Such accounts are usually promoted by individuals who have an interest in being believed, which automatically makes me skeptical, before I even consider the physical possibilities.
Are you willing to change your mind?
I think I’ve already shown that I am, right? (That got a little laugh.) Absolutely, but only if the conclusion I come to is the most reasonable conclusion from the evidence at hand. Changing your mind is difficult. I’m even a little bit proud that, despite the threat of hell I felt I could be under, I still was willing to look objectively at the issues and come to my own conclusion. That said, given evidence, it wouldn’t matter what god it was. If a prophet came down from a mountain with solid evidence that I should believe in Zeus, I would be at the temple every Sunday, or Wednesday, if that was more his thing. I would be a dishonest seeker if I wasn’t willing to follow evidence where it led.
There were several other questions that aren’t coming back to me now. If and as I remember them, I’ll add them to this post.
As we wrapped up, Dan invited me to provide the url to this site, my email address and my Twitter handle. I do hope they visit. We don’t have to change each others’ minds, you know. We can just learn to discuss these things a little more constructively.
Dan and I got ready to leave for lunch. At that point a young man, who, if I recall correctly, was the only one not to ask a question while in class, approached me. He found the dialogue very interesting because, even though he has atheist friends, they had never been believers. He then brought up Pascal’s Wager in kind of a sideways manner (not dishonestly, just talking our way through it.) He did actually use the word wager. His basic position was that if there was even only a 1% chance, considering the disastrous eternal consequences, wouldn’t it be a better bet to believe and risk nothing rather than reject it and risk everything. My answer was two-fold. First, if Allah was real and I believed in YHWH, I risked just as much, and with just as much of a chance of being wrong. Second, the other risk is that I would waste my life being dedicated to something I didn’t think could be true rather than spending my life focused on reality.
He had a very hard time letting this go, which is testament to the level of belief dedicated Christians have. For me, there was no risk inherent in the conversation. Either we would agree, or we would not, and it would be okay. For him, if he couldn’t get me to agree, then the risk that I would suffer in Hell forever was a very real, tangible outcome that still remained. We had to agree to disagree, and I’m sure he is still praying for this very poor gambler.
One lady, who had asked me about healing overseas, was crying through part of it, and gave me a big hug, saying, “I feel your heart.” Even if I don’t fully understand what she meant, it was sweet nonetheless.
Dan and I followed up with lunch, discussing the class and some of our church past. He was such a fantastic host and is an open-hearted teacher. He seeks understanding. He just wants all of us to get along and find a way to be decent to each other, even when we don’t agree so deeply on certain things. I’m all for that.
A couple days later, he bought a copy of John Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist. Many of you know that book was instrumental in finding many of the answers I sought. We are both reading it and will get together soon to discuss some of the ideas therein. I don’t expect him to change his mind, but I look forward to hearing his thoughts about it and other things.
I have to close by thanking Dan for his openness and for having me into his class. It was everything I hoped it would be and more. I hope we get a chance to do it again sometime in the future.