A Religious Non-Believer

I have just started reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  I am going to do what I did for Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great and blog chapter by chapter.

I have only just started the book, but I am immediately struck by the differences between Dawkins and Hitchens.  So far Dawkins is much more restrained in the over the top rhetoric.  I find it much more readable.  I appreciate Dawkins brutal honesty here as well.  He is not just interested in conversation between worldviews or expression of his own beliefs.  He states plainly that he wants theists to read this book and become atheists.

Dawkins’ first chapter deals with religion that can be respected and that which cannot.  Dawkins examines the God talk of Albert Einstein.  Christians sometimes quote Einstein as if he had some good things to say about the God of the Bible.  The truth is that Einstein explicitly denied a personal God.  There are those that speak of religion as the awe one feels at the beauty and complexity of the universe but have no place for a supernatural personality in charge.  Dawkins has respect for this kind of religion.  For those who believe in a personal God and supernatural revelation, there is no place for respect.  To illustrate that, Dawkins reminds us of the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.  In this way, Dawkins is putting himself in a position of advantage.  He is not just taking aim at Christianity but all religion.  Even if there was something good in Christianity, he could look at all the bad things in other religions and still conclude that religion is bad.  The other observation is that Dawkins is appealing to emotional reaction rather than rational argument.  Many people, non-religious and religious (including me) were disturbed by the Muslim reaction to the cartoons.  But that event says nothing to the existence of God.  There have been plenty of abuses of science and yet surely we should not abandon science.  However, Dawkins knows that people are influenced not just by reasons but also by emotion.

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30 thoughts on “A Religious Non-Believer”

  1. I’m sorry that you are reading this book. A while back I was curious about the current atheistic arguments and chose to read it (I was a Christian at the time). To me it came off as an ignorant rant and I thought that if Dawkins represents what atheists are, I never wanted to be associated with it. Today I am an atheist but I still have little to no respect for writers like Hitchens and Dawkins, who use condescension to prove their points rather than good argument.

  2. So far I don’t mind God Delusion, although God is Not Great was a chore to read. Do you mind me asking what turned you to atheism? I had the opposite experience, coming from atheist to Christian.

  3. Donna, I checked out your blog. Thanks for your honesty in your journey. Am I right in saying the main issue was reflecting on the eternal consequences of having the truth (heaven or hell) and the unlikelihood of being able to determine the truth in the relatively short time we have on earth? Is that correct?

  4. That’s sort of right. The afterlife is really only a secondary topic for me. My main reason for rejecting Christianity was that I realized that there are other perfectly plausible ways to understand the world. I don’t think I will ever know enough to be able to fully dedicate myself to believing that any perspective I’ve been led to believe is the only “right” one. It’s a matter of faith, and I don’t have that much. Certainly not in my own ability to discern truth. That said, I don’t know what my mind will deem worthy of faith in the future. I’m just quite certain it won’t ever be Christianity.

  5. I guess there are different ways to see religions or philosophies. Some judge a religion by how plausible it is to explain life, give meaning and provide a moral framework. Many religions can do that. As someone who is more a historian than a philosopher, I look for what faith is most historically likely. The uniqueness of Christianity is that it is the only religion that is historically verifiable. If you had a time machine and went back and observed Buddha or Muhammad, you would still have no idea if those religions were objectively true. But if you saw Jesus emerge out of tomb, knowing that he had been dead for days, you would be wondering what was going on. I don’t mean to sound preachy. I am speaking to you as skeptic not an apologist. In the times that I am most skeptical about religion or confused about some aspect of theology, I go back to the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection tells me that Christianity is not just plausible, it has good reasons to be considered historically true in its claims. If I’m too pushy, tell me to back off. But I would love to talk with you (not preach at) about this and I hope to learn from you as well.

    1. It’s becoming more clear to me that when two thoughtful people contentedly holding opposing frameworks of understanding enter a dialogue about their frameworks of understanding, both secretly hoping they can say something that might persuade the other to come to their side, it only results in frustration.

  6. Donna, as much as I love apologetics, I have yet to set forth an argument that has moved someone from an opposing side to my side. I don’t expect that you will be my first “success.” If you are not comfortable, that is fine. I am sure there have been many well meaning Christians who have tried to bring you back. However, I also believe when two thoughtful people who hold opposing frameworks express themselves in honest a respectful ways that both parties can learn from each other. Any way, I am not offended if you would rather not.

  7. I do agree that learning from someone with an opposing framework of understanding is a very good and helpful thing. In this case, I feel I’m a little too familiar with the Christian framework of understanding and would rather spend my time investigating other perspectives.

  8. I was brought up as a Christian. I became a skeptic, an agnostic and eventually an atheist. When I became convinced there was a God on reflection of the existence of the universe and the design of life, I was still skeptical of Christianity. My assumption was that there was a true worldview but it was not likely Christianity as that was too obvious. Familiarity breeds contempt as they say. However, my quest in fact led me back to Christianity. I say back, although I discovered that the Christianity I had rejected was not the one I embraced later on. I am not referring to denominations but rather a discovery of what C.S. Lewis called mere Christianity. You can read my story at http://stephenjbedard.com/My_Journey.html
    However, if you have already closed the door on Christianity, there is not much to say. I am always here to discuss theism or anything else whenever you feel so inclined.

  9. Yes, it is all very psychological. The mind is good at remembering past events and associating bad times with incorrect beliefs and good times (psychologically, not necessarily circumstantially) with correct ones. I don’t know if at some future point I will be in some form of despair and for some divine reason crack open my Bible again, and my mind will associate good things with some fuzzy memory of my past belief in it and I’ll become a Christian again. Hey, then I could have my family back. Either way, right now Christianity is completely false to me. But my mind is full of tricks, so who knows what it’ll convince me of in the future!

  10. I mean it doesn’t make sense to me that it could be true. (Or were you asking something else?…I do acknowledge that if Christianity somehow is actually true, it is “true to me” regardless of whether I believe it)

  11. I was asking more about the truth and falsehood of Christianity as opposed to if it works for you or if you feel compelled to align yourself with this worldview. Speaking of Christianity can be kind of vague. For myself, I see four main Christian truths.

    1. God exists as a personal divine being who created the universe.
    2. Jesus died and rose again.
    3. There is an afterlife, continued fellowship with God or continued separation from God after the grave.
    4. Fellowship with God is by accepting what God offers through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

    Which of these seem false?

  12. It is a serious question. I encounter people who say Christianity is false. What they mean is “Christians are hypocrites, annoying or stupid.” Or they mean they disagree with the church’s stand on social issues or the way people/groups affiliated with churches have done evil things. For many, it never gets to issues of the existence of God or the activity of Jesus.

    Do you mind me asking why you don’t believe in God? I ask because of my own background as a former atheist. I don’t get a chance to chat with nice atheists very often. Unfortunately, most atheists I encounter focus on how much they can offend Christians rather than actually having a dialog. By the way, I know some Christians do the same thing.

    1. I’ve always known that there are Christians who are hypocrites, annoying and/or stupid. That’s just because they’re human like everyone else. And I’ve always known that the church has done a whole lot of awful things. Of course all that can be written off by appealing to the Platonic ideal concept of Christianity and saying that all the screwed up versions of Christianity that individual Christians come up with (always turning it into a “religion”) don’t even touch the “real” and “pure” version of Christianity. Nothing can touch that.

      I don’t believe in God simply because the concept of God is much more easily explained as something constructed by humanity long ago to deal with life’s struggles and unanswered questions, then prolonged through tradition. Even now, belief in God helps to answer life’s many unanswered questions. I just think that sometimes it’s better to leave the question unanswered than to posit a supernatural being, even if it’s super loving and makes you feel like your life has meaning. But I guess if it works, why not? It worked for me for quite some time. Personally, I don’t have any issue with people choosing to believe in God and living their lives according to that. My only issue is when these people get the idea that they’ve somehow discovered THE answer and go around trying to persuade other contented people that they’re not actually contented. They haven’t discovered THE answer, they’ve only discovered A answer. There are as many answers to life as there are people.

  13. Thanks for your tolerant attitude. I disagree with you however, and not just on the existence of God. I don’t think that every answer is equally valid, even if it makes people feel good. Either there is a God or there isn’t. Maybe people on either side are content with their belief, but one group is actually right and one is actually wrong. That is why I think this is an important question.

    I find it interesting that your skepticism seems based on psychological explanations for religion. I don’t encounter that often. More often I find a (almost religious) attachment to science as a worldview that provides all the answers. I guess I start not with the history of religions, as there are psychological and anthropological reasons for how different people have envisioned God. The history of science has an equally colourful history, including alchemy and astronomy. It could be argues that magic is more of an ancestor to science than to religion.

    I start with if God answers the questions today that science cannot answer. There were two that stuck out for me. Why is there a universe? Why is there something than nothing? Did all of this come from nothing and from no reason? And how did life as we know it come about. Just saying evolution is not enough. How did the first life start? Does Darwin’s theory really explain how humans came from one celled creatures? I think of an eyeball. How do you gradually get from no eye to an eye with all of its complexity when the in between stages gave the animal no advantage? I am not parroting back something I read in an apologetics book. These are the questions I had before I knew there was such a thing as apologetics. To believe that the universe and life are both the result of some unlikely accident required more faith than I had. You could say that my skeptical nature brought me to theism as a default position.

  14. Sure, I believe that God either does or doesn’t exist and someone has to be wrong. Sure, the question is “important.” But there’s really no definitive way to answer it so it’s best to place your bet on the side that makes most sense to you. The side that makes most sense to me is the non-theistic one.

    I’m not going to argue evolution as I am no scientist and have no desire to pretend that I can “defend” it. Evolution does seem plausible to me and I acknowledge that it doesn’t give an account for why there is something instead of nothing. Why is there something instead of nothing? I don’t know.

    Furthermore, if somehow it was magically discovered that evolution is false (or very different from the way it is currently thought to be), it wouldn’t mean anything to me in terms of my lack of belief in God. My main interest is philosophy, not science. Because I don’t have the time to come to an understanding of everything within every branch of thought, I take on faith the leading theories in many of them, including [most of] science. And if they’re wrong? Well, shucks I guess. I did my best, placed my faith in those things I deemed worthy of it, made my choice of belief based on what seemed most sensible and true to me, and if I land in hell for it, well, so be it. What more could I be doing?

    Also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_the_eye.

  15. Well, I am glad that you are not taking on the position of systematically defending evolution, as I do not want to take on the position of systematically attacking it. I am not a scientist either. I also agree that we can not become experts in every area of study.

    However, I am confused by your philosophical reasons for believing that atheism is correct and theism is false. I know you have said that there are other worldviews that have explanations, but what tips your views toward atheism rather than theism. From my perspective, atheism does lack explanatory power in terms of how the universe began and how life began. Theism does have answers for these questions. Could you fill me in a bit more on your reasoning?

    PS Thanks for the eye link.

  16. I guess I just decided that a theistic world-view prevented me from being able to say “I don’t know” when I didn’t know. I don’t believe I’ll ever know enough to feel comfortable latching myself onto any belief system that requires me to have “faith” in a particular explanation for so many things that can easily be explained other ways or just simply don’t have answers (like the origin of the world or what every person fundamentally desires/needs (relationship with Christ)). When I stopped believing in Christianity, all I had done was admitted that there was one more thing that I didn’t know, one more god that I didn’t believe in.

  17. But atheism requires just as much faith as Christianity. You have traded one group of things you did not know for another group of things you do not know. Atheism does not say that there is no explanation for these things, it has its own theories for origins and morality and everything else religion has. As for Christianity, there are people who pretend to have all the answers as if it puts the world and life in a tight little box. I don’t see the Bible as giving people that kind of system. Christianity gives us broad categories of creation (who knows how or when?) and salvation (how exactly did the cross pay for our sins?) and afterlife (do I have to learn to play the harp?) but leaves plenty of room for mystery and discussion. Christians should be full of questions and curiosity and humility and honesty about our own ignorance. While in general I think Christianity gives better answers to origins of universe/life, meaning, morality and suffering than atheism, it still leaves lots of room for figuring things out on our journey. I’m sorry if that was not your experience as a Christian.

  18. Atheism is not a system of beliefs. It is a lack of belief in a god. It is true that all atheists, like all people, have systems of belief but their atheism is only a part (well actually a “non-part”) of that system not the core of it. While “God” can be an explanation for things, “not-God” is not an explanation for anything. Someone who calls themselves an atheist is only stating that “God” is one of the things that they don’t use to explain things.

    “But atheism requires just as much faith as Christianity.”

    For you? Yes. For me a couple years ago? Yes. As a standing concept? No. Not in the slightest way. It’s completely relative.

    And sure, Christians can be super swell people who are humble and like to learn things, as can anyone else. As a Christian I loved to learn things about my faith, other people’s faiths and philosophical concepts. All of it seemed to fit right into my Christian world-view. It was a neat little system.

  19. Atheism is just as much faith because you have to replace Christian beliefs with non-Christian beliefs. For example, you just can’t remove God as the source of life on earth and not come up with a replacement. For me the faith I didn’t have was all the complex and beautiful forms of life today coming because a chemical accident millions of years ago. It is interesting to watch scientists scramble to explain away what seems to point to theism. The fine tuning of the universe is an example. Many atheist scientists will admit the universe looks fine tuned. But since we “know” there is no God, there must be another explanation. The current trend is the multiverse, something without evidence, but one of the few aways to try and explain away the evidence that points to God.

    Do you mind me asking what you do with the resurrection of Jesus?

  20. Sorry if I got pushy. Not my intention. I really believe this stuff and sometimes it comes across strong. I will shut up and let you talk. Help me to understand your position. Teach me.

  21. “It is interesting to watch scientists scramble to explain away what seems to point to theism.”

    That offends me. Writing off most of the scientific community because they conclude something other than what is obvious to you (and must therefore be obvious to everyone else), is simply making an entirely false sweeping generalization about the character of these people. Sometimes people look at the data and do not derive “God,” not because they’re biased but simply because they don’t see the data pointing in that direction.

    But as long as you hold to that, there’s nothing I or anyone else can say that will mean anything to you. After all, we’re all just skirting around the “obviousness” of the existence of God because we just don’t want to admit that he exists.

  22. I have not written off most of the scientific community. I appreciate the work of scientists and try to learn from them the most I can. But there are things that frustrate me. The theory of the multiverse does not begin with evidence for parallel universes. It starts with the observation that the universe seems designed for life and the assumption that God does not exist. Why cannot a designer be on the table as a possible option? Is that really so off the wall that we have to focus on things that seem as wild as parallel universes? I am not saying that scientists should throw away their telescopes and satellites and just read the Bible. But I am saying that science has not provided all the explanations needed to jettison God. In fact I see science as complementing belief in God very well.

    My question for you is: what was the weakness in Christianity that made you want to leave? You have said you discovered there were other options that provided some answers to life’s questions. But just the presence of options is not enough reject one’s current position. I will give an example from my own experience. I was an atheist and became a Christian. I did not leave atheism because I discovered that Christianity also had explanations for the origin of life. In fact I became dissatisfied with atheism before I ever considered Christianity. It was the idea of how the universe could pop into existence on his own and how the complex life we see today could come from a chemical mishap millions of years ago. That did not point me to Christianity immediately (like you I was hesitant to reconsider it as that is how I was raised). But it was enough to make me want to look beyond atheism.

  23. Thanks Donna for the chance to chat. I appreciate the respectful tone you have taken despite our disagreements. If you ever have reflections on any of the posts on my blog, would love to hear from you. Take care.

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