I’ve recently had a number of people tell me why I became an atheist. Most of the explanations hinge on the core assumption that I know in the back of my mind that God (presumably, the Christian god) is real, but that I’m rejecting him or suppressing him for a variety of reasons (e.g., anger, trendiness, love of sin, etc.). The option that God doesn’t really exist is rarely put on the table; it’s an unquestionable a priori assumption in believers’ minds. These conversations are troubling in two ways.
First, these conversations are troubling because believers think that quoting scripture will be convincing. No matter how many times I point out that it’s circular reasoning to say, “God exists because the Bible says so, and the Bible’s true because God wrote it,” believers still assume that I’ll have some inherent respect for the truth value of their book–to the point where I’ve received emails consisting entirely of copied-and-pasted Bible verses. No matter how many errors, contradictions, falsehoods, and immoral passages I point out in the Bible, believers know that somewhere in the recesses of my rebellious mind, I still recognize that the Bible is the perfect word of a perfect god and that I’ll be “convicted” by what it says. This is best explanation I can come up with for why they think quoting Bible verses will be helpful. Most of the people I’m referring to are aware of the fact that I’ve been immersed in the Bible since before I could walk and have read it cover-to-cover several times.
Second, I find these conversations with believers troubling because they demonstrate a lack of respect for my intellectual honesty. A good friend told me earlier this week that I’ve “been caught up in the popularity of the new atheism.” The implication of this statement is that I know good old-fashioned Bible-believing religion is true, but my desire to try something new or different has just gotten the better of me. Let me ask you a question: if you knew that you would be tortured for eternity if you hopped on a popular bandwagon, would you do it? Isn’t this a no-brainer? Hhmmm…eternal torture looks a lot better when combined with the possibility of looking trendy for the next few years….
The same case applies to the argument that I chose atheism because I fell in love with sin. Let’s think about this. What sins am I currently committing that I was previously restrained from committing when I was religious? I don’t steal, I don’t litter, I don’t treat strangers or my friends badly…well, I do support gay marriage, but I’ve always done that, even when I was religious. I can’t really think of anything else. I’m not the best guy in the world, but there’s no huge rush of sinful lifestyle changes that I was really able to dig my greedy fingers into when I abandoned Christianity. Most of the atheists I know are the same way. Even if there had been a ton of fun new sins available to me after my deconversion, however, would any of them have outweighed the assurance of eternal torment? Seriously? I don’t think so.
If I can move into subjective territory here, it’s also worth noting that atheism for me doesn’t really fit the basic requirements of “popularity.” As the least trusted minority in America, a lot of atheists stay “in the closet” to prevent isolation from their believing communities or even to keep from losing their jobs. To this day, nearly all of my oldest and closest friends are strongly religious. Without exception (or with one exception), my entire family is religious. They think I’m going to hell to be tortured eternally, and they’re on the side of the guy who hates me enough (love the sinner, hate the sin, still send the sinner to hell?) to send me there for not seeing a difference between the mutually exclusive god-claims of all religious groups. Unless you’re in what would currently have to be termed “unique” circumstances, the popularity of atheism argument doesn’t fly.
At least start out by giving me the benefit of the doubt. If, after a few conversations, you realize that I’ve aligned myself with atheism for superficial reasons that don’t have rational support, then you can start talking along the “deep-down he really knows the Bible is true” lines. But until that time, have enough respect for my intellectual integrity to assume that I’ve chosen atheism because it makes the most sense. In fact, in light of the stunning lack of evidential support for any religion, atheism is the safe bet. One of the deepest flaws in Pascal’s Wager is that it ignores the existence of other religions that would send you to hell for betting on whichever one you randomly chose in order to hedge your bets. Isn’t skepticism until evidence emerges the safest possible place–especially in light of different religions that all rely on the same “just believe” and “old books” stuff to make their cases?