I wrote an article last month posing the question: Can Christians and Atheists Find Common Ground? In exploring that question with both believers and nonbelievers, I came away a bit discouraged. The answer appeared to be “as long as.”
In that article, I made the following statement:
“Apostates such as myself, meaning I once was a theist and have chosen to reject a belief in a deity, often are met with a certain mixture of sadness, incredulousness, and anger for rejecting God and Christ.”
A reader of this blog left a comment and a challenge for me that I’ve long meant to follow up on. He wrote:
“I challenge YOU to seriously question the literal truth of the following statement from this blog: “…I once was a theist and have chosen to reject a belief in a deity,…” I submit to you that you had no more “choice” in being an atheist than you did in being a Christian.”
It was not the first time I’ve seen this challenge of choice proposed and I admit, I spent several days mulling the “challenge” over. Did I “choose” atheism? Did I choose to stop believing in a god? What follows is an expanded response to the challenge:
My wife and I had a discussion on the issue – I asked her if she had chosen to stop believing in God – at first the question gave her pause, then she responded emphatically that it was indeed a choice.
Here’s the rationale behind this: In our case, once upon a time we were both Christians. Along the way, we came to have doubts on the veracity of the Bible. We read many books and did our homework and came to the understanding that the Bible was man-made and not the direct word of god as we were raised to understand. As a historian and an analyst by profession, my analysis of the historical record and understanding of the cultural geography led me to believe that the fundamental underpinnings of the Christian narrative was beyond flawed – and in fact all made up after the fact.
Having said that, we made a choice to explore our initial doubts and to go down the path of discovery. As my wife pointed out – at any point along the way, we could have turned away and “plugged right back into the Matrix.” The choice was in pursuing knowledge to the end, and, being open-minded enough to accept the reality (a choice) and not reject the truth in favor of belief.
I think people that have that “crisis in faith,” followed by the realization that everything they once “knew” was wrong, makes a choice in that moment: either embrace the facts and reject their religion or they can choose to pour themselves back into their faith and chalk the crisis up to a “challenge of faith.”
Last week I was involved in a discussion with coworkers in a social setting. One considers herself a secular humanist, the other two Christians. Along the way I mentioned that I have tremendous respect for people of faith. While a true statement, it is also somewhat facetious. Here’s what I mean: I’ll wager that the majority of Christians rarely, if ever, question their core belief system. They were likely born and raised in Christian households and even if as adults they no longer go to church or read the bible, they hold on to the Christian label – call it brand loyalty. For these people, I have as much respect for their faith as I do their ignorance.
On the other hand, for the Christians that struggle with their faith and their beliefs in trying to reconcile the brutality of nature and man in this world with a loving deity that personally cares about their well being – that search the bible for the answers to the questions that plague them – yet choose to put stock in faith over the stark realities they are confronted with, that is bravery and I have to give it respect. They make a choice, for the right reasons or not, to hold on to their faith – as one put it: it’s better to believe because the consequences of being wrong are such…
The response was pure Pascal’s Wager, but understandable to understand why many choose belief in god. It strikes me that these people have a choice. When they are at the point of understanding Pascal’s Wager they truly are confronted with extremely divergent paths – either continue to believe in the Christian construct because the risk of an eternity of hell in the afterlife is not worth turning away, or break from religion altogether with never the thought or worry of what lies beyond as it is just as real as Neverland.
Austin Cline, a prominent writer on atheism, argues the other side:
“It isn’t true that one chooses to be an atheist. Atheism — especially if it is at all rational — is simply the inevitable conclusion from available information. I no more “choose” to disbelieve in gods than I “choose” to disbelieve in elves or than I “choose” to believe that there is a chair in my room. These beliefs and the absence thereof are not acts of will which I had to consciously take — they are, rather, conclusions which were necessary based upon the evidence at hand.”
I’d like to think I made a “rational” decision to let go of a belief system that “guaranteed” eternal life and happiness. I weighed the facts and consequences – what if I’m wrong? – and came to the conclusion that I was not wrong and there were no consequences associated with making that choice. Choice being the key word. Atheism, especially for those that were once theists, in my opinion is a choice – just as is that leap of faith to continue believing in Christianity despite grave misgivings and unanswered questions.