I do not believe that God or gods exist. For anyone who has read this blog, that much should be obvious. I was not always an atheist, however, but was once a Christian, who was raised in a non-denominational Protestant congregation. The story of my deconversion is a complicated one, which spans a number of important moments in my life.
These moments include: 1) my original conversion experience to Christianity when I was about five years old, 2) my initial deconversion to atheism when I was thirteen, 3) my reconsideration of the Christian faith in my mid-twenties, during which time I studied the New Testament and Christian theology in graduate school, 4) my ultimate decision, as the result of my research, to not only remain an atheist, but to further become a metaphysical naturalist, and 5) where I stand on the matter of religion and theology today, as a Ph.D. candidate writing a dissertation on the genre of the canonical Gospels.
It is important to understand each of these moments in my religious history, since I am an atheist and a naturalist today for very different reasons than when I first deconverted. Over the years my perspective on religion and Christianity has changed considerably. I do not argue that my personal journey, which has led me to atheistic naturalism, should necessarily convince others to share my views (especially since there are others who have had very different journeys in the direction of Christian theism, as well as other religions), but I think that it is worth discussing my experiences here, for readers to understand some of the work that I do on this blog.
After originally posting this essay in January 2013, I have updated it over the years to include some of my new life experiences, as well as links to some of my more recent arguments and essays. Below is the story of “why I am not convinced,” and why I am an atheist and a naturalist, even after studying the arguments of several Christian apologists and theologians. I shall start at the very beginning, when I first converted to Christianity.
1) The Early Days
I still remember when I first consciously became a Christian, even though I was very young at the time, since it was very important to my life and early identity. I believed fully what I had been taught about the truth of the Bible and of Jesus. I prayed in order to ask for the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus offered, confessing my sins, without feeling any mental or intellectual reservation. As Jesus is reputed to have said (Mt. 18:3): “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As a child I fully sought Jesus, and yet, as I grew older, studied the world around me, and analyzed the religious beliefs that I was raised in, I began to have doubts.
In my early church days, the congregation that my family belonged to was highly conservative, and likewise had charismatic and apocalyptic tendencies. Our church was located in a very isolated community, being furthest from the bright center of the universe in Trona, CA (population: 2,742) in the Tatooine-like Mohave Desert. There, I only knew Christians and was even discouraged from making friends with children outside of my church, lest they not have our spiritual enlightenment. In fact, I went to a private school managed by the church, in which I had little to no exposure to anyone outside of our church community. It was naturally assumed among all in the community that the Christian God existed and anyone who did not believe in and follow him was a moral and spiritual monstrosity, living in sin, and ultimately bound for eternal torture in the depths of Hell. Our preacher was very apocalyptic, urging us to always prepare for Jesus’ second coming. As such, Jesus was always on my mind!
My first doubts about my faith were not intellectual, but experiential. I could never feel anything during prayer, even though it was taught in our charismatic church that you would feel spiritual transformation during prayer. I would see those in church around me speaking in tongues and appearing to have the Holy Spirit filled within them, and I would seek the same communication with God. In fact, I yearned for this connection. But prayer never felt like anything spiritual to me. No matter how devoted I worked to become, no matter how much I tried to genuinely pray to God, it always felt like doing nothing more than closing my eyes and talking to the wall. I did not think this insolently and say, “Prayer is stupid!”. To the contrary, I felt that maybe something was wrong with me. Maybe it was my fault that I could not experience the Holy Spirit through prayer.
Then there was reading the Bible. I considered without doubt that the Bible was true and contained great wisdom. But, I could never discern any of this when studying the Bible. When I read the Bible, its teachings often seemed rather odd, obscure, and not very similar to real world around me. Parts of it seemed very severe and violent, but, as my pastor taught about the impending apocalypse, I figured that violence was something that we all had to expect. I also accepted that billions of people were going to suffer eternally in Hell for not following Christ. I won’t deny, this was very scary to me as a child, but I never doubted the Bible’s truth. Once again, I thought something must be wrong with me, if I cannot see the Bible’s wisdom.
I did not spend all of my pre-adult years in this congregation. My family moved to Arizona in 1997. I still remained Christian after the move, as did my whole family, but being taken out of my highly insular Christian environment, I began to be exposed to new ideas. To begin with, I had never even heard of the concept of “atheism.” Whenever I was taught about people outside the church, we were taught that those people were consciously rejecting God and Christ’s salvation. I was never given a balanced enough view to believe that some might intellectually doubt the existence of God or the truth of Christianity.
2) Becoming an Atheist
My first experience with an atheist was during my freshman year of high school, when I had a class taught by an atheist creative writing professor. He was a cool teacher, who was very open to talking to students in class and facilitating discussion about current events, philosophy, and spiritual beliefs. I learned during these discussions that my teacher was an atheist. Growing up in a Christian community, I was always taught to accept the truth of Christianity without question. But my teacher introduced a new way of examining my faith: Why is it true? What evidence supports its truth? Do you have actual knowledge or experience that has led you to believe it is true, or are you merely believing what you have been told?
I realized that, if I were to examine my religion as an outsider, I would never believe it was true. Prayer didn’t work. The Bible made no sense. There appeared to be no reason or evidence at all to believe in God. The more I reflected on it, the more everything about the religion I had been raised in felt incredibly fake. Like the exact sort of thing you would expect people to invent and make up–especially if they lived thousands of years ago in primitive and superstitious time. I realized that, had I not been told that Christianity was true from as early as I could remember, I would immediately recognize it to be myth.
But, above all, I knew that I had sought Jesus with all of my heart, prayed, repented, prayed more, and had done everything that I could to be a Christian. And yet, I had experienced nothing. Literally nothing. God was completely silent, completely unreachable. His telephone seemed broken. It was almost as if, maybe, just maybe, God didn’t actually exist…
Eventually, I could no longer consider myself a Christian. I had no reason to be. Nothing suggested to me that God exists, and, actually, when I stopped believing in God, I became much more intellectually interested in the world around me. Deconverting was both an intellectual and personal awakening for me. Coming out of Christianity, I soon had a new curiosity that drove me to craft my own philosophy and shape ideas greater than the superstitious ones that I was raised with. At the same time, however, I was (for the most part) completely alone. My whole family was and still is Christian.
Excursus 1: Evaluating My Initial Deconversion
What I have described above, thus far, is only the first part of my deconversion story. It does not end there, however, since many more of my doubts about theism and Christianity emerged in later years, when I had the time to academically study the Bible in both Hebrew and Greek, as well as the theology of Christian philosophers, such as Augustine and Aquinas. I discuss my teenage deconversion above, however, to raise a couple of crucial points:
First, one of the reactions that I have received over the years is that I deconverted due to emotional reasons. When strangers make this claim, my first thought is that they know nothing about me. It is true that my first doubts were experiential, and not intellectual, but “emotional” is the opposite term that I would use. Rather, I deconverted from a profound lack of emotion, from the utter shallowness and vapidness of my Christian experiences. I would have loved to have an emotional experience involving God when I was a Christian. Instead, Christianity felt profoundly fake, like something that was silly to believe in. When I deconverted from Christianity, I felt no anger towards God. Rather, I believed that God simply does not exist.
Something that should be said on this point is that psychological studies on the origins of religious disbelief have identified intuition as a major factor that shapes both belief and disbelief. As Norenzayan and Gervais in “The Origins of Disbelief” (pg. 20) explain:
“Cognitive and evolutionary theories of religious belief highlight the evolved cognitive biases that predispose people towards religion … According to this view, if the mind-perceiving and purpose-seeking brains of human beings effortlessly infer the existence of invisible agents with intentions, beliefs, and wishes, then disbelief lacks intuitive support. Therefore, atheism is possible, but requires some hard cognitive work to reject or override the intuitions that nourish religious beliefs.”
An important point that Norenzayan and Gervais bring up, however, is that many people lack this intuitive predisposition. Rather, the existence of supernatural agents, such as God, can feel highly unintuitive to many individuals. Norenzayan and Gervais (pg. 23) explain:
“Intuitive difficulties in understanding religious agents arise from deficits in mentalizing that erode the intuitive foundations of belief in a personal God, spirits, and other religious agents with rich mental states who are believed to interact with humans and respond to their wishes and concerns (such as in prayer).”
I think that this latter group describes me rather well. The idea of God existing has always felt highly unintuitive to me. God has always felt like an imaginary concept that human beings simply invented. I would say, therefore, that my early atheism was caused more by a lack of intuitive belief in God, than it was from any bad emotional experiences that I had with Christianity.
On the other hand, I can understand where this reaction might come from. To some, my experiences above might sound quite emotional, especially if you are not familiar with charismatic versions of Christianity. I was raised in a charismatic and apocalyptic Protestant congregation, where it was taught that you would experience the transformation of the Holy Spirit within you, and that you would also see signs and miracles of God in daily life. I thought that the Christian faith was something you would experience, not just believe.
But, not all Christian denominations adhere to this exact view of prayer or salvation. When I grew older, I studied the theologies and doctrines of other Christian denominations–such as Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Unitarian, and less charismatic Protestant denominations. There is a much greater diversity in modern Christendom than what I was raised with. I do not take it for granted today, therefore, that all Christians believe that you will feel the presence of the Holy Spirit during prayer, for example. Although, given that speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:1-25) and expecting Jesus’ imminent return (1 Thess. 4:16-17) were major features of 1st century Christianity, I think that my church actually held views closer to what the earliest Christians believed than what most modern denominations believe today.
Second, I have encountered a number of apologists over the years who have accused me of never being a “true Christian” (many of whom have not even known me personally, but have merely made this assertion upon mere acquaintance). Beyond the fact that those making this claim are usually committing a “no true Scotsman fallacy,” I raise the points about my early experiences above to illustrate the sincerity with which I believed in Christianity. I never experienced any “intellectual doubts” when I was younger, but instead fully poured myself into the Christian teachings that I was raised with. I believed in the Holy Trinity, that Jesus Christ was the sacrificial lamb, who had been sent by God to die for our sins, that he did die and was raised from the dead on the third after his crucifixion, and that you cannot work your way to salvation through deeds, but only by accepting Jesus as your lord and savior, and receiving the salvation that he offers. I prayed sincerely to Jesus Christ in order to receive this salvation when I first became a Christian.
If I was not a “true Christian” then, you might as well say that I am not a “true atheist” now, since I believe what I believe today with equal sincerity as what I believed when I was a Christian. So, as far as I am concerned, I was a “true Christian” before my deconversion–as much as there can be such a thing.
I should also note that, when I first became an atheist, I was not a naturalist. I still believed that there might be other kinds of supernatural phenomena, such as ghosts, out of body experiences, clairvoyance, and even mild forms of telekinesis. I suppose you could have called me an atheist who was still a supernaturalist. I don’t know why I believed in that stuff. Maybe I wanted to live in a more magical and mysterious universe than plain old naturalism. But, it’s important to know that the beliefs I hold today are very different from those when I was a teenager. It’s difficult to talk about my deconversion sometimes, because I was so young when it happened. Then again, I can’t exactly help that I started to disbelieve at that age, rather than later in life, but my journey does not end there.
Excursus 2: My Introduction to Christian Apologetics
When I first became an atheist, I received disapproval from many Christians, especially from church-going adults whom I still knew through my family. But, not many seriously tried to debate the matter, until one day I had my first introduction to apologetics. One of my friends had told his father that I didn’t believe that Christianity was true. The man immediately had a barrage of talking points and slogans to smack down upon this rebellious teenager. He was very aggressive and did not seem interested in connecting with me personally. Instead, he presented me with supposed “facts” and evidence (which I later learned upon research were complete baloney). The man very clearly wanted to squash my doubt. In fact, we talked for many hours that night. Leaving was awkward, since he seemed to not want to let the issue go until I had confessed Jesus’ resurrection and reconverted. I did not.
The reason why is that, no matter what this man had told me, I still knew what I myself had experienced. No matter how certain he was about the truth of Christianity, I knew that I had poured my whole being into becoming a Christian, and still felt a deafening, utter nothing. But that does not mean that I did not listen to and consider what the man had to say. In fact, I paid a great deal of attention to his arguments, not just accepting them, but planning to check them out for myself later. Could the man be right?
Even if Christianity spoke to me in no personal way whatsoever, maybe there was still objective evidence that could confirm its truth. Maybe, even if I felt nothing, there could still be evidence outside of myself that showed how Christianity is true. I was open to this possibility, and it was a new way of looking at the Christian faith. I would still reconvert to Christianity today if I believed that demonstrable evidence supported its truth, and so my early experiential doubt was no longer enough of a reason to disbelieve. Being barraged by a ton of talking points, I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to re-examine the issue. So, I did research to see if his arguments and evidence held up.
What I found was that the man had no idea what he was talking about. He had given many reasons to believe in God and the truth of Jesus, but none of them could stand up to scrutiny. It was almost as if he was trying to give after-the-fact rationalizations as his pretense for belief, when it appeared that he did not reach these conclusions through evidence, but instead through faith. The man had merely used dubious evidential arguments to retroactively justify this faith. This was the exact opposite stance from which I was approaching Christianity. I had no reason whatsoever to believe on faith. As I’ve said, Christianity felt completely vapid and fake to me. But, I would still believe in the religion if objective evidence were presented. This second approach, however, is still skeptical and not merely looking for a rationalization, which is why I think Christian apologetics has never been persuasive to me.
Many of the man’s talking points focused on the “historical evidence” for the Christian faith. But, when I did research, I found that his claims were either false, exaggerated, or merely half truths. “Three hundred contemporary authors say that Jesus rose from the dead!” was one of the man’s claims. I still have no idea how he came to the number, but I later learned from studying scholarly resources like the Oxford Annotated Bible that neither contemporary sources nor eyewitness accounts exist for Jesus. He also claimed: “There isn’t one contemporary source for Julius Caesar, but you believe in him!” I later learned that we have Julius Caesar’s own writings in his Gallic War and Civil War commentaries. Wherever this man had gotten his information, he was wrong, and he seemed far less concerned with actual evidence, rather than seeking to paint me as ignorant or dishonest for not believing in his religion, so that he might pressure (more like bully) me into reconverting.
My friend’s dad was an amateur, but, when I later entered college at the University of Arizona, I was surprised to learn that there are “professional” apologists, people who are paid and funded, and sometimes given faculty positions at Christian colleges, to go out there and try to do the same thing that my friend’s dad had done. Once more, I found that they had an arsenal of talking points and slogans to try to defeat atheists in a debate. But, when these talking points were examined, the points did not hold up, and those making them came off far more like trying to convert people to their religion, rather than actually searching for evidence and truth.
The first professional apologist that I encountered was Cliffe Knechtle. Just like my friend’s dad, he had grandiose claims to smack down on the skeptic: “42 sources mention Jesus within 150 years of his lifetime, but only 10 mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius! Tiberius was the most famous man of his day, and yet you are going to tell me that you don’t trust the evidence for Jesus!”
Now, here is the thing: At the University of Arizona I studied Classics (the study of the ancient Mediterranean world), and I was actually doing research at the time on the Roman emperor Tiberius. I asked Cliffe to name his sources, he pulled a list of his pocket (that I later learned he had merely copied from apologist Mike Licona), and read out his 10/42 statistic. As someone studying Classics, I knew a number of sources that Cliffe had missed, and I tried to communicate to Cliffe the problems with his comparison.
But, pumped up with his microphone and camera crew, Cliffe would not have it. He tried to talk down to me and to distract me, and he mocked me when I pointed out that I had Classical training. I later learned that he even put up an online video (starting at 7:30), which repeated the 10/42 statistic, and that his film crew even edited this video to show my comments out of context. The man literally did not care at all about the truth, but only attacking those who did not convert to his religion. Finally, I made a video response, meticulously documenting all of the mistakes that Cliffe had made. Eventually, after my friend later showed Cliffe the video, Cliffe posted a very brief apology (at least it was something), in which he did nothing but ask me more questions, and state that he would pray for me to one day “come to trust in Jesus Christ” (so patronizing, condescending, and hubristic, especially when there was a time when I had trusted in Jesus, long before I caught factual errors in Cliffe’s rhetoric). Nevertheless, I still responded to the questions in his response.
I was utterly confounded by this event. To begin with, Cliffe missed a whopping 77% of the literary sources for Tiberius within 150 years of his (I list all of these authors in my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic), and did not know that, when one re-crunches the numbers in terms of contemporary, quality sources, the ratio comes out to 14/0 in favor of Tiberius (in addition to the fact that Cliffe did not know that there are hundreds of contemporary epigraphical and papyrological sources for Tiberius, and yet none for Jesus). While I do think that an obscure (and otherwise unmiraculous) historical Jesus existed, I knew that Cliffe’s comparison was an extreme exaggeration and that there was no way that one could use ancient historical evidence to “prove” Jesus’ resurrection. Every Classics and Ancient History professor that I know realizes that historians cannot prove paranormal claims, which we wouldn’t even accept in news reports today, using millennia-old texts.
This really bothered me, because how could someone without Classical training ever fact check Cliffe’s claim? It was only because of my knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Classical databases that I was even able to show just how wrong Cliffe was. But how much does the average man on the street have the ability to evaluate these claims? How many people in Cliffe’s audience even know how to assess the validity of his arguments? This event also reminded me of my high school experience with my friend’s dad, and I started to see where people were getting this false information.
I knew that Cliffe had not done his own research, but had only copied the number from someone else. I later discovered, upon research, that the claim originated in apologists Gary Habermas and Mike Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (pg. 128). Reading the book, it came off as nothing more than a manual for how to intimidate non-believers with big numbers like the 10/42 apologetic and how to smack down any skeptic who dares to not believe the claims of Christianity. And yet, it was spreading completely inaccurate information.
My suspicions that the book was really designed to attack non-believers, rather than to give actual evidence, were later confirmed. I read another statement from apologist Mike Licona, when he was being interviewed by apologist Lee Strobel in The Case for the Real Jesus (pg. 136), in which he made the following remark about people who doubt Jesus’ resurrection:
“Sometimes it’s moral issues. They don’t want to be constrained by the traditional Jesus, who calls them to a life of holiness. One friend of mine finally acknowledged that Jesus rose from the dead, but he still won’t become a Christian because he said he wanted to be the master of his own life–that’s the exact way he put it. So in many cases–not all–it’s a heart issue, not a head issue.”
Seriously? People doubt the resurrection of Jesus because of heart issues, when Mike Licona himself was actually circulating false information? It was very clear to me that apologetic claims like this are only designed to smear atheists who do not convert to Christianity. To his credit, when Licona was later informed about the errors in the 10/42 apologetic, he too publicly acknowledged making the errors (thankfully, in a tone that was much more sincere than Cliffe’s brief apology). I thanked him personally for this, but I am still completely against the claims that these apologists circulate.
I did more research into Christian apologetics to see where all of this stuff was coming from. I learned that most apologetic “research” is done at faith-based universities with doctrinal statements requiring adherence to Christian beliefs. Apologists who were trying to pass off their arguments as objective research were doing nothing more than circulating the claims of biased Christian universities, when Religious Studies, History, and Philosophy professors at secular universities would very often not accept their outlandish claims.
Other apologists told me to check out the works of Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, and C.S. Lewis, all former atheists who (allegedly) saw the evidence and later became convinced of Christianity’s truth. After being gifted by my sister’s pastor with a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, I applied my Classical research again and found numerous research errors and false information in Strobel’s arguments.
I wondered if Strobel, McDowell, or Lewis had really taken the effort to study the strongest arguments on the other side, or to familiarize themselves with atheist philosophers and historians. I later read Ed Babinski’s research on these men’s conversion experiences, in which he shows that neither Strobel, McDowell, nor Lewis did extensive research into the arguments on the other side. All of them had simply gained popularity and sold books by pulling the “former atheist” card when marketing to a built-in Christian audience. I also learned that there were many former Christians, who actually received university training in the New Testament, such as Bart Ehrman, Hector Avalos, and Robert Price, and who later deconverted due to intellectual doubts and a lack of evidence.
I did more research and found that apologists like William Lane Craig actually discourage their readers from reading the writings of experts, like those listed above, who are not Christians. Craig even describes the writings of skeptical non-believers as “literally pornographic,” and says the following about people who deconvert from Christianity:
“I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures.”
I couldn’t believe it: The more I studied it, the more I realized that professional apologists are only in the business of attacking non-believers, in an effort to paint them as intellectually dishonest, while providing after-the-fact-rationalizations (even if inaccurate) to those within their religion. They did all of this through abusing and misrepresenting more legitimate academic disciplines.
Let me make one point clear: I do not think that this behavior from apologists reflects on all Christians. Not all Christians believe that atheists are intellectually dishonest or irrational for their disbelief (for a more representative picture of what Christianity looks like as a global religion, see here). Apologists represent a very small fraction of Christians, who engage in aggressive evangelism in order to convert people to their religion with arguments. I was very troubled by the rhetoric of apologists, not people having faith in and practicing Christianity.
There are also Christian scholars, whom I have met over the years, who set a very different example than the professional apologists described above. One is Robert Burns, who is a Religious Studies professor that I met at the University of Arizona during my freshman year (Spring 2006, to be precise). I was taking one of his courses on the Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–and I visited him during his office hours to get his opinion about many of the claims that I had heard from Cliffe Knechtle. Dr. Burns is a Catholic priest, and so I was curious to see if he would agree with Cliffe’s “historical evidence.” Quite to the contrary, he disagreed with many of Cliffe’s assertions and pointed out that apologists like him frequently exaggerate the evidence for Jesus, when they are trying to convert people to their religion. I realized, talking to Dr. Burns, that there is a much bigger picture out there than the shallow and oversimplified slogans that I had heard from apologists.
3) Reconsidering the Christian Faith
Despite the fact that Christian apologetics left a very sour taste in my mouth, I still gave Christianity a second chance, due to the important influence of one particular person: the love of my life, Camille. I first met Camille during her freshman year at the University of Arizona (2009-2010), when I was about to enter my M.A. program in Classics, studying ancient history. To be sure, some of my experiences with the Christian apologists described above overlapped with this (if you want a precise chronology, I was encountering apologists at UofA from 2005-2012), but none of these apologists even came close to making the Christian worldview seem persuasive.
Camille was a much more sincere individual, however. When I first met Camille, she was a Christian at the time, and I started to attend church with her on a regular basis. This time, I did not attend a highly conservative congregation, such as the one of my childhood, but instead a more moderate and humanistic Protestant congregation that emphasized charity, and did not evangelize aggressively. Camille and I prayed together. We went through all the steps that we could think of, to do what you were supposed to, if Christianity were true.
It was during this time that I began to take the Bible and theology much more seriously. I studied the New Testament in Greek, and Camille and I even traveled to Rome in 2012, in order to study Biblical Hebrew at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. As a graduate student in Classics, I also helped to teach a class about the entire canon of the Bible (including even the Catholic Apocrypha), and you can still access my PowerPoint slides, here. I likewise traveled to Milwaukee in the summer of 2011, in order to study spoken Latin with one of the Pope’s former Latin secretaries, Reginald Foster. During this summer, I studied the theological arguments of Thomas Aquinas in Latin. More recently, I have written a lengthy essay on why I do not find Aquinas’ Five Ways for proving God’s existence to be persuasive, here.
Camille and I likewise traveled to Jerusalem in the summer of 2012. It was an incredible learning experience, but overall I found the Holy Land to be highly unimpressive in a spiritual sense. Much of it was superficial, such as the numerous gift shops, selling things like water from the Jordan River (if it even came from there), to passing by tourists. But that was nothing compared to the massive cathedrals that were built on every alleged holy site. I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher–the supposed site of Jesus’ resurrection–and merely found it to be a goady place, filled with tons of gold and other expensive decorations. It kind of felt like the genie cave in Aladdin. Visiting the Vatican in Rome was much the same. As I traveled through its museum, staring at the endless heaps of art and gold, I could not help but think, “How many human beings must have suffered under European Christendom, merely to build this place?”
Camille and I tried to make sense of the Christian faith, but we ultimately could not find any intellectual reasons for believing in it. We studied the Bible, and found that it contained a massive amount of violence and barbarism, which could not be excused except through the most strained of interpretations. Camille was able to illustrate to me just how sexist the Bible is, with its almost exclusive focus on male protagonists and its blatantly antiquated views about the role of women. Even if one accepts a liberal view of scripture, however, I likewise studied theology and found the philosophical view of theism to be highly unpersuasive. I studied cosmological arguments for God, and found that their claims did not hold up to the secular explanations offered by cosmologists. I studied the moral argument for God’s existence, and found that there are better secular accounts for human moral behavior, such as the social contract. I studied the arguments for Jesus’ resurrection, and found that all of the paltry evidence that historical apologists offer could easily be explained in natural terms.
What really convinced me of atheism, however, was studying the arguments of atheist and secular scholars. I studied philosopher of religion Graham Oppy’s Arguing about Gods, for example, and found that he could easily counter many of the theological arguments for God. I watched ethical philosopher Shelly Kagan’s debate with William Lane Craig, and saw him easily demolish the moral argument for God. I read Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted, and found that his methods for studying the Bible were much closer to those I had learned as a Classicist, rather than the methods that I had seen used by historical apologists, who treated the Bible differently than any other ancient text that I had studied. More recently I have been studying under NT scholar Christine Thomas at UC Santa Barbara. She is a former Christian who deconverted to atheism after academically studying Christian origins and the historical Jesus. What is incredible about talking to her is that she can counter almost any apologetic argument that I bring up to her, with considerable ease, due to her sheer knowledge of the subject matter.
I realized from these scholars that there are a ton of thoughtful, knowledgeable, and sincere individuals who doubt Christianity for intellectual reasons. Despite all the lambaste that I have heard from apologists about needing to study the evidence, I have found numerous individuals who are thoroughly familiar with that evidence, and yet do not see it as pointing to the truth of the Christian faith.
I likewise studied the worldview of metaphysical naturalism, through resources like Richard Carrier’ Sense & Goodness Without God and Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism. Through these resources, I was not only able to reject religion and the supernatural, but was also was able to start building a positive worldview of what I actually do believe about reality. I was no longer just an atheist, but also a naturalist. I had a worldview that could explain things like cosmology, ethics, and aesthetics, all without appeals to religious explanations. The question was no longer about whether God exists, but whether theistic explanations are necessary to explain anything at all. I found that natural and atheistic explanations could explain almost everything about my reality, and that God and religion were simply not needed.
Nevertheless, not many people are familiar with the scholars that I have discussed above. And so, I created Κέλσος as a resource that critically examines the arguments of professional apologists and offers atheist/naturalist/secular responses.
4) Why I Remained an Atheist
And so, after academically studying the Bible and the theological arguments for God, as well as Christian history, liturgy, and philosophy, I chose to remain an atheist, and even became a metaphysical naturalist. I’ll freely admit that when I first deconverted from Christianity, at age thirteen, I had not studied theology and all of the arguments out there pertaining to religion. Who could at that age? But, my journey did not end there. My first doubts about Christianity were experiential, but as I grew older I found many more intellectual reasons to doubt the religion. When I was asked by apologists to look at the evidence, I did so, in a rigorous academic setting, and I found it to be highly unpersuasive. What choice should I have made then, other than to remain an atheist?
Below is a three-part treatise on why I doubt many of the arguments for God and Christianity, which I wrote back in January 2013. Since then, my views have become more elaborate and sharpened, but I think that the discussion below still provides a good summary of why I chose to remain an atheist, following the research of my mid-twenties.
Apologists have dozens of talking points that supposedly prove their deity, but what is remarkable is that many of them rely on identical formulas. I have noticed three trends that most apologetic arguments fall under, which I believe are all grounded in commonly flawed reasoning and assumptions:
I. The God of the Gaps
Tried and true, the god-of-the-gaps formula is where belief in deities first began. Humans live in a biologically diverse environment where our ancestors were continually threatened by living predators. Evolution designed us to personify the murmurs that came from dark places, in case they be signs of an intruder. Hear a noise at night, think that it is an intruder, check to only find out that it is only the wind, and you have merely wasted a little energy. Hear a noise at night, think that it is merely something impersonal, don’t check it out to discover that it is an intruder, and you are dead. Our minds are selected to presuppose that personal forces lurk within the gaps of our knowledge, since on prehistoric earth that was a safer (even if not more likely) bet. This intuition helped us at one time, but it does not help us much in understanding the greater universe. Earth is a tiny biological exception in a vast universe comprised of non-living, impersonal forces. See a light flash in space and the cause is almost certainly impersonal. But our knowledge of the universe has only recently caught up to understand how most of it works.
The gaps of our knowledge were once very great: Lightning was caused by gods, volcanoes were acts of divine wrath, agricultural cycles were at the mercy of invisible beings. For everything that we did not understand there was always a supernatural and often sentient explanation. However, the marvel of our modern age is that, despite all this superstition, science has done an incredible job explaining the previously unexplainable through impersonal, observable, and predictable forces. Behind nearly everything we observe in the external world, natural explanations have succeeded in demonstrating that previously deemed supernatural phenomena are actually the result of causes that can be reduced to space, time, material, and physical laws. The success of methodological naturalism in eliminating these gaps and explaining what previously lied within them has shown beyond most doubt that ontological naturalism is probably true.
Nevertheless, we do not know how everything works and there are still gaps to be filled. Apologetics for the last several centuries has kept moving the goal post. Whenever a natural explanation is found for a supposedly divine event, then the event right before it must this time have the supernatural explanation! Take Michael Behe, for example: In the face of overwhelming evidence, he had to concede the truth of evolution from common descent, only to argue that the complexity of biochemical structures must this time be the magical ingredient! The goal post merely moves in the face of methodological naturalism’s success. Today, the god-of-the-gaps has so completely retreated into the corners of our knowledge that he is hiding behind things like the Big Bang or the numerical values of our cosmological constants. God is always just beyond the horizon, just one step further than we can see. However, when the cause of every phenomenon right up until that gap has been successfully explained by physical, natural forces, and the supernatural has never been demonstrated, what is the likelihood that just the next step will be supernatural, unlike the thousands of natural ones leading up to it? And further, why assume a highly specific supernatural entity, when any billions of hypothetical ones are possible in the case of complete ignorance? The whole argument is a backwards approach, from the beginning insisting on the exact deity that apologist believes in, and only bothering to find evidence as a tedious afterthought.
Why am I not convinced by the Cosmological Argument, the Fine-Tuning Argument, or Intelligent Design? Because they are all little more than reshuffled terms applied to the same common misconception: for everything that is currently unknown, Goddidit. What’s worse is that those making these arguments often ignore the current state of science that does explain, or at least provides viable theories, for these phenomena. The multiverse theory, while still theoretical, provides a plausible explanation of our universe’s origins (along with many other secular cosmological explanations that are plausible), and could also explain alleged examples of fine-tuning in our universe. Likewise, natural abiogenesis is the most plausible explanation of life’s origins, and modern evolutionary biology has explained (as scientific fact) the common descent of species on earth. Many are not aware of this information, but dedicated apologists make pot shot objections at small portions of these theories, insisting that that their magical God explains things better. But as I explained in my first essay on this blog, “God Mode,” once you assume an omnipotent deity capable of doing anything, you can explain anything with minimal effort. Assuming that an omnipotent deity causes currently unexplained phenomena is an easy epistemic shortcut. Actually explaining the universe with evidence and observation takes work, but has succeeded in eliminating gaps and showing how everything once within them can now be explained in natural terms. The god-of-the-gaps is merely a temporary argument, relying on our ignorance, constantly moving the goal post, and ultimately seeking to find room in an ironically massive universe for evidence of a God that from all visible vantage points does not exist.
II. The God of History
So God’s involvement is completely undetectable in the world today, but what if we could demonstrate God’s involvement in a historical event? We can’t directly observe many events in history, but we still assume that they happened, right? The god-of-history is the effort, once science has failed to prove God, to rely on the method of history. The problem, however, is that history, particularly ancient history, is a much inferior epistemology. History relies on hearsay, the bias of sources, speculation into lost events, probing the psychology of long dead persons, and ultimately a rough guess over what probably happened in the past. Moreover, history can simply be made up. If an ancient source says that something took place, then it becomes a piece of evidence, even if it had been purely fabricated. Why do we use history? It is often the only method that we have to learn about things that we can no longer observe directly; if we could observe them directly, that method would beat history in a heartbeat.
Nevertheless, the god-of-history formula is more interesting to me than other apologetic formulas, simply because it at least tries to use real evidence. If God were parting the seas for us, coming down to earth and rising from the dead, and giving us tours of Heaven like John, then that would be very compelling evidence for his existence! The problem is that these types of events only seem to have happened prior to more reliable methods of documentation. Today we have cameras, videos, scientific instruments, and countless ways to document God’s involvement through corroborating media. Sure, hoaxes could be invented and forgeries made, but we could test them far better today than we can ever test literature from thousands of years ago. God could indisputably prove his existence to us today through all kinds of documented evidence. So why did he only directly interact with us in the past, during a period of inferior methods of documentation? As David Hume once astutely stated about the supernatural events of ancient history, “It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages.”
Why do I not believe in the miracles of the Bible and the resurrection of Jesus? Because it is simply far more probable that these stories were invented rather than that they actually took place. The underlying flaw of the god-of-history formula is that while hypothetically an ancient act of God may have been recorded, it is far more likely that it was simply fabricated or misunderstood. Furthermore, why would a God who supposedly wants us to know him choose an inferior method for revealing himself? Why give us papyrus scraps as evidence when he could use the same kind of miracles today to prove his existence? Perhaps God doesn’t want us to have that much evidence and certainty that he does exist, but what kind of deity playing games with us and constantly allowing seeds of doubt to blossom is worthy of worship and praise anyways? Ultimately, the god-of-history formula fails, because even if there could possibly be a God who interacted with us in ancient history, although he has mysteriously withdrawn from us in modern days, there is a far greater precedent for humans merely inventing false and imaginary concepts.
III. The God of the Unwarranted Premise
This last category I have observed to be on the rise as a new fad in apologetics. Once beaten in the fields of science and history, apologists need to retreat to philosophical deduction. The more tangible the evidence, the worse the case becomes for God, but the more abstract, the easier it is to sneak in the concept of a magical deity. The god-of-the-unwarranted-premise follows this basic formula:
Major Premise: X cannot exist unless Y exists
Minor Premise: X exists
Conclusion: Y exists
Plug in whatever value that you want for X: absolute truth, objective morality, free will, reason, abstract objects, the uniformity of nature, math. Y will invariably be God, specifically the apologists’ exact God. The god-of-the-unwarranted-premise argument is attractive to apologists since it relies on mere assertion. So long as they can repeatedly say something like, “You can’t have objective morality without God!”, merely repeating the major premise over and over again creates the illusion that an actual argument is taking place. However, the first premise in the syllogism merely creates an arbitrary and fabricated connection between X and Y. Consider a similar use of the formula for a concept other than God:
Major Premise: Trees cannot exist unless Unicorns exist
Minor Premise: Trees exist
Conclusion: Unicorns exist
This argument clearly fails because there is absolutely no basis for the major premise. One merely asserts it. However, because the idea of God creates an epistemic shortcut through assuming omnipotence (something that would seem rather like magic), God can not only be used to explain the gaps of science but furthermore abstract ideas. In effect, apologists can sneak God into almost everything as supposed “evidence.” In fact, I have seen apologists argue before that nothing can exist without God, in effect arguing that everything is proof of God! But this is once more just an assertion of the major premise without any basis.
Nothing about absolute truth, objective morality, free will, uniformity, or math by any logical necessity requires a deity to exist. Often times, the minor premise is flawed as well: I do not believe that indeterminist free will exists to begin with. Many times, it is actually the reverse where Y cannot exist unless X exists: If absolute truth does not exist, then how can it be true that God exists? Thus, God is in fact dependent on the concept of truth, not vice versa. As even the theist philosopher Lotze once said, “Our ideas concerning even God and divine things can satisfy us only when they are in harmony with those general laws of thought and those truths which reason sets before us to judge.” Thus, reason does not require a magical deity for us to use it, when, in fact, the concept of a deity itself depends upon reason to be valid.
Why am I not convinced by the Transcendental Argument, the Moral Argument, and Presuppositional Apologetics? Because all of these arguments merely beg the question, connecting philosophical concepts through unwarranted premises to theism. They are not actual arguments, rather than mere assertions. While the god-of-the-unwarranted-premise can create specious and often emotional appeals, it is in truth a desperate, fourth-quarter Hail Mary attempt to rescue the concept of God, when all tangible evidence has suggested otherwise. Think about it: Why try so hard to attach Y to the more established concept X, unless you problems with proving that Y exists? The god-of-the-unwarranted-premise formula attempts to hijack more established philosophical concepts merely to drag along the unnecessary baggage of a deity.
My friend Michael Torri often calls these types of arguments “cartoon proof,” stressing the artificial and made up nature of the supposed “evidence,” as if by taking a crayon and drawing a picture of car, I would have a car. The god-of-the-unwarranted-premise merely draws arbitrary connections across the canvass of nature in order to create an illusionary image of something else. An impersonal universe governed solely by physical laws may be unappealing to apologists, but it is the only background that we demonstrably have to work with. If apologists think otherwise, let them give demonstrable evidence, not a priori assertions from the arm chair.
So why am I not convinced of the existence of God? If God did exist, he would not have to be defended by such bad arguments. An omnipotent deity that wishes for us to know him has the least excuse to be unprovable. The Christian God could prove himself with the snap of his fingers, and yet his influence is completely undetectable within the universe, defended only by flimsy arguments all based on commonly flawed assumptions.
I wrote the three-part treatise above back in January 2013. If you are interested in a more updated version of my counter-arguments to theology and apologetics, however, see my “History & Philosophy FAQ.”
5) Where I Stand Today
It has been a number of years since I first started blogging here on Κέλσος. In that time, I have held four recorded debates with professional apologists and Christian scholars–on topics such as the naturalist worldview, the dating and historical reliability of the canonical Gospels, and the arguments for the resurrection of Jesus–all of which can be viewed here. Almost every day over the last couple years I have read and considered the evidence presented by theologians and apologists, and responded to them with counter-arguments. It’s been a long journey, but I must admit that I am more of an atheist today than I ever was before. Studying Christianity’s history and the theological arguments for God has only strengthened my disbelief, contrary to what many apologists asserted would happen, when I first began my journey.
You are welcome to disagree with me, if you do not agree with my arguments or conclusions. That’s fine. But there are two critical responses that I will immediately disregard:
First, I will immediately disregard anyone who claims that I haven’t studied the evidence. I have studied the evidence for Christianity vastly more than the average individual. I have taken graduate seminars on Christian origins and the New Testament, studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, and have likewise studied the arguments of medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas in Latin. I am currently working on a dissertation on the genre of the canonical Gospels. The truth is that I’ve studied Christianity more than most Christians. That said, it is also true that there are people who have studied these issues much longer than I have. Of course. There are scholars twice my age who have been dedicated to these pursuits for over twice as long. But, I can’t exactly help when I was born. Regardless, I have still given Christianity a more than thoughtful consideration and found its arguments and evidence to be unpersuasive.
I’m also annoyed when people make this response, because I wonder how much they expect anyone to look into these issues. I am a graduate student who has the funding, training, and leisure to spend my time investigating the claims of theologians and Christian biblical scholars. But what if I didn’t have that time? What if I had to work full-time on minimum wage? What if I was a single mother? What if I had a brain injury that caused learning disabilities? It’s unfair to demand that everyone spend hours upon hours researching Christianity and apologetic arguments, simply to come to the conclusion that they don’t believe in the religion. There are many other beliefs that I doubt, which I have not spent nearly as much time looking into. People are free to reject Christianity without doing any research at all, and it’s not because they are dishonest or ignorant, it’s simply because many people have better things to do with their time.
Second, I will immediately disregard anyone who claims that I only don’t believe because I am angry at God. Since my earliest childhood, I have not been angry at God, but numb and callous to God. As I have said, religion has always felt counter-intuitive to me. When I first doubted Christianity, it was because it felt immensely fake, not because I had experienced a bad emotional experience. But that doesn’t matter anyways. My early teenage doubts occurred a long time ago. Now, in my late-twenties, I have spent many years studying both theology and the Bible. My reasons for disbelieving are much more sophisticated than when I first deconverted from Christianity.
Likewise, I did give Christianity a second chance in my adult years. Looking back, I don’t think that it deserved reconsideration. A major reason why I have given the religion so much thought is because other people have urged me to. My church in Trona urged me to, my family and their friends have urged me to, the apologists and preachers that I met at the University of Arizona have urged me to, and several strangers that I have met online have done the same. But, if it were just me, and nobody had told me to believe this stuff, I doubt that I would have ever given it serious consideration. There is nothing in my life experience that even remotely leads me to believing in Christianity. I have only given it so much consideration and attention to meet the demands of others. And, at the end of the day, I have to follow my own beliefs and convictions.
Of course, you can make what you will of my story. Personally, I don’t place much stock in conversion or deconversion experiences. What matters most is the evidence. Going after someone’s personal motivations for believing or disbelieving is simply an ad hominem attack. Likewise, I don’t believe that my personal experiences make a case against the existence of God. Only my arguments can do that, not how I came to believe in them. But, I’ve decided to share my story above so that readers of this blog can know who I am and where I come from.
A final question that someone may ask is, if I don’t believe in God and Christianity, why do I spend so much time writing on the subject? Truth be told, there are many other things that I would rather do. I first became interested in Classics and ancient history, not because of Christian origins, but because of Roman history, and especially the emperor Tiberius. But, I think that my skills are useful for communicating with both believers and unbelievers. When I first started to study Christian apologetics, I would have loved to have found a blog like this, which presents counter-arguments, and directs people to the best research of secular scholars. I did find a couple of resources that were like that, such as the Secular Web and Bart Ehrman’s Christianity in Antiquity. But, I felt that the Internet could use more of them, especially since there tend to be more websites and organizations out there focused on Christian apologetics. So, I started Κέλσος to simply be one more voice and resource on the secular side.
I’ve come a long way, and I am going to continue to study these issues for decades to come. Perhaps my views will change. But, as far as things stand now, I am an atheist and a naturalist, and I have reached these views after years of studying the arguments and issues. That’s the story of “why I am not convinced” of theism, Christianity, and religion, and you are welcome to make what you will of it.