For over a year now, I’ve been trying to think of the best way to say this, and I still can’t think of any way that would be ideal. I’ve been in a very awkward position for so, so long now of trying to find the easiest ways of describing where I am now spiritually, theologically, philosophically, or however you’d like to put it. I’ve mostly told people that I’m in a place where I’m asking lots of questions or re-thinking some things. This is putting it very lightly, but since so many of my friends and my family’s friends have been quite devout Christians, I didn’t want to say anything that would concern the people I’ve been friends with for several years, or that would possibly reflect badly on my parents. However, I’m an adult now, at least legally, and I’ve gone off to college and started making my own assessments of things, so I think it should be understood that my views are now very much my own, based in my best reasoning, research, and judgment.
The fact is, I’ve had to leave religion behind me, because I simply don’t know how I could possibly accept it at this point. So, you could call me a secularist or a non-theist, or “agnostic atheist” is a pretty good term, but the best word for the kind of person I am is probably skeptic. Now, Googling this word doesn’t give you a very good definition, but Merriam-Webster defines a skeptic as “an adherent or advocate of skepticism.” The website for Skeptic.com defines skepticism really nicely. It says, “Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas – no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.”
The thing about skepticism, of course, is that it eventually does lead to temporary or conditional positions. That is to say, when you’ve challenged any and all ideas with questions, logic, and reasoning, you eventually start to find that some claims severely lack the evidence that would be sufficient to justify them, so until you have such evidence, it only makes sense to assume it’s not a valid claim. Consider the concept of “tooth-fairy agnosticism.” It’s true that you don’t know for certain that fairies do not exist, and you may never be able to disprove the existence of fairies, but without sufficient evidence, no matter how agnostic you try to be about the matter, you’re going to have to say you’re not a believer. This is an example of what’s called assuming the null hypothesis, which is a term used in science for when you put claims to the test by starting with the supposition that a claim is false, and waiting for the evidence to come in to prove you wrong.
Now, one might say that it’s unwise or inappropriate to use this approach to something as important as the existence of God, since there’s a lot more on the line here than there is with the existence of fairies. I would also expect to hear objections that argue that if you don’t accept the existence of God, you’re left with insufficient or silly explanations for the big and complex mysteries of the universe, such as the origin of the earth and the like. While I can understand where both of these positions are coming from, and I’ve seriously considered them myself, I do think that the skeptical approach is still the most reasonable. In response to the first objection, I’d argue that if someone told me there was an invisible dragon that would breath fire on me for all eternity if I didn’t accept his existence, then I’d have to understand that the intensity of this claim, and the severity of the consequences of denying it, do not increase the plausibility of the claim. That being said, I’d obviously want to hear the evidence this person has, just to be on the safe side. Naturally, because I always like the safe side, I’ve continued to study religions, particularly Christianity, by reading about Christianity, meeting with pastors, watching debates, and of course looking at passages from scripture itself.
That second objection takes a little more time to handle, but rather than bore you with another hypothetical counterargument, I think it’s best to share some of my story about how I got to where I am today. Obviously, I was brought up in a Christian home as a child, so I watched Christian videos, had Christian friends, and attended church regularly. My faith was always very important to me growing up, and I took it quite seriously, even if I’ve often struggled – well, okay, always struggled – to read through much of the Bible itself. I guess all the stress of AWANA psychologically trained me out of it somehow. The point is, my faith in God is something I never wanted to lose under any circumstances.
Things took a slight turn, however, when I was about thirteen years old. I noticed that two Christians in my life, both of whom I cared about and respected very much as authorities on the Bible, had very different beliefs on a specific, mildly controversial subject. This left me rather confused and concerned, since both of them were known for prayerfully reading scripture regularly, doing their best not to contort it. So why the different conclusions? I was at this time forced to confront a thought I’d been trying to block out of my mind for years – with the sheer number of denominations that divide Christianity, wouldn’t at least half of the teachers, preachers, and pastors in these denominations have to be getting the Bible wrong, in spite of the guidance that Christians have been promised to receive from the Holy Spirit? It certainly reflects badly on Christianity of most Christians can’t even understand the basis for their faith. Are they unintelligent, or just self-deceiving? How can even those who prayerfully read scripture while doing their best to avoid self-deceiving still fall into this trap? Is God really that bad at communicating his message?
I did my best not to worry about this too much, and soon I was able to mostly get over it. On the other hand, this did appear to be a bit of a red flag, and after seeing one red flag, my brain had started to develop a skeptic’s protection kit, starting with a little alarm that went off whenever such red flags appeared. Throughout middle school and my first few years of high school, too often I would hear this little alarm going off, indicating there was something wrong with the logic in a lot of the stories, arguments, or passages I was hearing from my Christian teachers. The annoying thing is that I could never put my finger on what it was that was bothering me, so unless I could come up with the right challenging question to ask, or could find the right Bible verse to use to form a counterargument, I very often just had to accept the things I heard as truth.
Then, with little warning, my life totally changed right around the time when I turned sixteen. As my sophomore year of high school was coming to a close, one of my teachers gave the class a warning about an observation of his. It seemed that there was a shift in attitudes among most students when they moved from the tenth grade to the eleventh, and many either lost their faith(s) or started behaving less appropriately. This naturally made me more concerned about the security of my faith, but at the same time, I was rather curious … how could people abandon something like Christianity? What else could be better?
It was during that summer when I had a pretty big revelation: I’d been living my whole life in a bubble. I spent my life entirely in a social circle of Christians, and I never had the opportunity to hear other perspectives. Sure, I knew the arguments that my teachers claimed atheists made, but I’d never heard the other side. I couldn’t understand Christianity in context, so I couldn’t know how it holds up in relation to other viewpoints. What else could be better? How would I know? I had to change this.
I’d felt the weight of my ignorance pulling me down more and more over the years, and I knew I had to do the research that would liberate me of this weight. At first, I started simple. I looked to YouTube for video of a debate on a very general topic – the existence of God – and I figured I could build on that. The video also included people’s reactions to it afterwards, and most of them felt that there was no clear winner. Frighteningly, I found myself feeling the same way. Both sides made a good case, and it was easy to understand where each was coming from, which was terrifying. This meant that the truth of Christianity was not obvious, and consequently, the thought that people who were unaware of the truth of Christianity would suffer in hell seemed more than unwarranted, but unethical.
When I returned to school, matters got more complicated. One of the teachers presented an audio clip from someone who had recently spoken at her church, John Lennox, who happened to be the apologetic speaking in the debate I’d seen. This teacher told the class that Lennox would always “run circles around” his opponents in debates, but I knew that this was very untrue. I found that I actually had to respect both gentlemen for standing for what they believed in, and for providing well thought out arguments for their positions. It was clear to me that this teacher, along with many, many other Christians, were blinded by bias to the point that they could not see this reality. Would I have to pretend that Christianity was obvious and that Christians always have far superior arguments in order to keep my faith?
As I continued on my journey over a few years, I found that nearly every argument I’d ever heard that was meant to reduce opposing views of Christianity to absurdity were built on lies. I remember always hearing that the theory of evolution was comparable to shaking up the pieces of a car in a bag, and dumping them out on the floor, expecting to have a fully functioning car. This is the prime example of the false analogy fallacy at work, because this is not at all similar to modern evolutionary theory – it is propaganda. I always heard my fellow Christians laughing at how stupid atheists were for denying the existence of God so they could sin all they wanted, which was considered to be tantamount to jumping from an airplane expecting to be unharmed as long as you don’t believe in the ground. I learned in time that atheists laugh at how stupid it is for Christians to think that atheists could be so stupid as to think that way.
Apologetics is dependent on these straw men, but straw men are indistinguishable from real men when you’re looking through a bubble that distorts them. Over time, I learned about Carl Sagan’s “Bologna Detection Kit,” and about a variety of logical fallacies. I learned about the beauty of skepticism, and I still can’t help but gush and fawn over a good logical argument. I ended up becoming exactly what I feared, although I suppose liberation is often a scary thought. My cage had been a cozy one, but I still needed to get out.
That’s not to say my life is hunky-dory now. I don’t feel particularly hopeful. I don’t feel any comfort from the thought of a perfect plan or someone watching over me. While I’ve heard some freethinkers claim that wishing you could be a Christian is like wishing to be in a “divine North Korea,” and I can understand that point of view, but I don’t feel that way. It would be nice to have the comfort that comes with theism, and sometimes I do wish I could have it again. The problem is, I know from too much experience that it comes with the crushing weight of ignorance. I don’t know how to put that burden on myself again, and I suppose I don’t want to.
I am now left without a faith, and that’s not a bad thing. I was always told that I had faith whenever I got into a car, but that’s obviously not true. We wear seatbelts. We have car insurance. We know that something could go horribly wrong, and we don’t deny that possibility – we just make the best, safest bet we can based on the facts we have. I like to say that if you have insurance, that means you don’t have assurance, and vice versa. If faith is rooted in assurance, than clearly that’s something I have, and I don’t think most other skeptics have it either. My present mindset is rooted in using the best facts to make the best bets, without expecting a perfect, undeniable explanation for every big mystery out there.
This brings us back to the second objection I mentioned earlier – aren’t I left with insufficient or silly answers to all the big questions? No. I’m not. Because I’m not left with definitive answers. I have theories, hypotheses, and educated guesses, but these are at least built upon evidence. My alternative is to accept miraculous answers, which are really non-answers. No one could put the transformation from dust into Adam under a microscope and understand the science behind it. The way that happened is a mystery of God, as is the case with anything miraculous. If Sherlock Holmes claimed to have solved a case by simply stating that it’s a mystery, he would be considered delusional, because this is clearly no solution. I think it follows that if every explanation that relies on miracles is in fact claiming something to be a mystery, then theism doesn’t offer answers that are any more complete than what science can offer.
So, in order to be a logical person – and in order to appease my need to question – I have had to discontinue my faith in favor of skepticism. This is the only way that I can be honest with myself. Since this is where my reasoning leads me, I would be required to employ wishful thinking to hold any other stance, which would be unethical. There have been many times along my journey when new evidence – be it an argument I’d never thought of or simply an answered prayer – has made me seriously reconsider religion, and I am certainly open to considering it again if logic allows. In the meantime, however, I must remain as I am – a non-theist and a skeptic. Hopefully, those who read this will understand.