I spruced up the old testimony for Brian Auten’s Former Atheist Project on Apologetics 315, just in time for my approaching born-again birthday. If you’re a former atheist, Brian would love to hear your story–and so would I :) Mine begins here…
Before I became an atheist, I had grown up in church, a preacher’s kid who prayed to receive Christ when I was four. I never matured beyond the Sunday school understanding of avoiding the punishment of hell and gaining the reward of heaven. There were lots of questions my parents did their best to answer, but many questions lingered after I got married and moved away from home.
When we bought a computer, I used it to witness in chat rooms and message boards, even met a few times in person with one of the people to whom I was witnessing. In the process I discovered people have a lot of doubts about Christianity, and I added those doubts to my own.
I remember the night when the scales tipped and my doubts outweighed my faith – I had a nightmare that I rode in the passenger seat of a car speeding through a hilly stretch of road and could not make the driver slow down. I woke up terrified as the car launched off a cliff into the blackness of night. The grounding of my faith gave way to an abyss of nothing. It didn’t kill me, but it didn’t make me stronger, either. The abyss provides no ground for meaningful strength.
I lived as a lost, prodigal sheep for about five years. Emotionally I abandoned my family, paying as little attention to them as I could get away with, and invested all my spare time in online philosophy message boards. I did a lot of selfish things I rationalized were okay at the time, as long as no one knew. Now I regret those things. They caused pain and left scars. I learned that nothing genuinely good needs to be hidden. Really, I knew that, but I ignored what I knew, and God gave me over to delusional thinking. I remember with sadness even the happy memories during that time, because they are all colored with the full reality of what I hid.
By the time He brought me back to Himself, I no longer thought about God. I didn’t think a God existed to think about. I felt apathetic about life. I taught my kids that believing in God was like believing in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. My still-believing husband and I butted heads over my stand.
The nagging question of why something exists instead of nothing needled me. It bothered me because I couldn’t answer it, not because I thought an answer exists.
Finally I tired of lying to my husband and stopped doing things I had to hide, hoping my marriage would improve. I became a zombie. I merely existed, and would’ve continued that way if God had not intervened. I wished I could believe like my husband believed, to make our marriage go more smoothly, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t believe something for which I felt there was no evidence.
It all became real on September 22, 2005, when God smacked me upside the head. I am leaving out details no atheist would believe unless they experienced them, but He influenced me to tell my husband everything I had ever done. It felt like I threw my whole marriage and our parenting up in the air and trusted God to catch it and help it all land safely on the ground.
It turned out my husband had broken down and prayed two days before that I would find God and our lives would get straightened out. He already knew I wasn’t completely present in our marriage, and when I told him the truth, he wanted to leave, but God put it on his heart to stay.
Besides guiding me to tell my husband the truth that day, God helped me quit smoking and let go of other addictions. Life wasn’t all sunshine and roses—things got much worse before they got better, but God was on our side and carried us through the storm of insanity. I refer to it sometimes as the fiery whirlwind. God broke me, sifted me and refined me.
He made His saving love real to me by offering me His hand and giving me the choice to be saved out of the mud when I still wallowed in it. The transformation God brought about in my life helped me and my husband go from the nightmarish brink of divorce, to best friends in love all over again, united in our faith. He helped me gradually restore the intimacy mothers are supposed to share with our children.
After Jesus made himself real to me, I decided I wanted to actually look into the evidence, rather than chant the mantra still heard from atheists today, that “there is no evidence”. I’ve been involved in apologetics ever since. Now I teach my sons about arguments for God’s existence and evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.
“For You had cast me into the deep… But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” –Jonah 2:3, 6
This is a very interesting story. (I came here from WK's site btw…so he you can give him props for linking to your blog :D) I can't imagine what it was like for your marriage since both of you had different worldviews. Ouch.
I grew up in a Christian family (pentecostal to be exact). I “gave my life to the Lord” at 10ish. I think it was legit back then, but I didn't learn that much about Christianity and I dropped the faith in such a thing in my early teens, but I still told people I was a Christian because the school I went to and the community I lived in were (and are) not very accepting of atheists or even agnostics. If you said anything like that then you were an outcast and labeled a Satan worshiper.
Anyway here's a sketch of my story. I was that kind of skeptic read about Christianity from non-Christians, didn't read the bible (except when I had to read a verse out loud in sunday school or in youth class). My understanding of Christianity came from the leaders of the pentecostal/charismatic churches I grew up in. So, I thought Christianity was just a social group that got together to sing, cry, yell, shake, and seek holistic healings of their afflictions. I didn't have an interest in a book I thought was primarily about all of that. I didn't like it. I didn't hate religion like new atheists, but I personally didn't want to be involved in it at all. When I asked them questions about God's existence, emotional experiences of other religions, and apparent contradictions in the bible I was usually answered with, “That's not for us to know,” or “Ya gotta take it on faith brother!” Yeah, ok.
When I was an agnostic, the only Christian philosopher I knew of was Soren Kierkegaard. l liked his writing, but he wasn't an excellent defender of Christian theism because his philosophy was that faith is a leap in the dark, so he confirmed what the Christians I knew at the time told me: take it on faith. I was very much into existentialism and was convinced of the despair flavor offered from Sartre, Heidegger, and Nietzsche (though to his credit, thought the despair flavor was for the weak – oh well). I didn't know about Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm, or Bill Craig (:D). Anyway, in college there was a guy who gave me good discussions about philosophy and pointed me in the direction of apologetics and Christian philosophy. Over the years, I followed the evidence where it led: Christianity. Specifically, the moral argument and the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus convinced me.
This is a good post. I can't wait to peruse your blog! :)
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Seth–are you sharing it with Brian Auten as well (even though you didn't call yourself an atheist?)? Your story is very encouraging :)
P.S. I did thank WK–and shared your story on Christian Apologetics Alliance fb page… :)
No I'm not going to share it with Brian because 1) I think the new breed of atheists would say I wasn't a committed atheist, or that I was an existential atheist not a “scientific” atheist so my lack of belief in God wasn't solid and grounded, or say some other ridiculous thing that my stomach just can't handle and 2) I can't imagine there being enough there for a good story. I can't imagine people actually being interested in my story, haha.
Thanks for sharing the story! Yours is a good story too.
You don't share your story for the ones dead-set on rejecting it. Not all atheists are dead-set. Remember where 'we' were before God brought us back–some atheists are there or getting there, too. Pray for God to give you a stronger stomach :0) There is a hunger, a need, for stories like ours, especially as more pastors come out as atheists. I gently urge you to reconsider :) –but, I understand and respect your decision, either way.
Good points. I'll think about it. :)
Seth, I encourage you to share your story. It's real and someone will be encouraged.
I don't think “there is no evidence” is actually a mantra of all atheists. “Poor evidence, or lacking evidence,” would be more accurate. Maybe that's what they mean by “no evidence?”
It's not so much an assumption as an observation, really. Perhaps more of a commentary on the quality of what constitutes “evidence.”
For example, evidentialists believe there has to be, at least, an empirical basis for qualifying a belief proposition.
Even Kant believed metaphysical claims have to be grounded in real experience.
So perhaps the Atheist statement “there is no evidence” is more a statement on one's own skepticism with regard to quality of the evidence.
The veracity of belief, mind you, doesn't require evidence either way in order to accept the belief as true. The veracity of the evidence, however, requires systems which demonstrate themselves in order for the evidence to be deemed true.
One of the things I've learned, and is evident in your own story, is that you were not what I'd consider a genuine atheist.
But don't feel bad, I don't believe that C.S. Lewis ever a genuine atheist either.
You may have had a nondescript period of unbelief. You had some doubts. But that isn't the same as nonbelief, i.e. not starting with the belief at all, or disbelieving something because it doesn't stand up to scrutiny, which is where the majority of intellectual atheists fall.
Like C.S. Lewis, I would simply consider your experience a period of skeptical inquiry, in which you pulled away from your faith, then once you had a few steps distance between you, were able to see it differently. Your period of skepticism probably helped you do this, so that once you began to rationalize your faith, it was easier to make the rationalizations support the overall faith–because you had stepped back far enough to see certain patterns in how the beliefs supported one another (this is what I would call a belief network infrastructure; i.e., multiple beliefs or belief systems all working in tandem to form a functioning network, often times akin to a worldview).
But to doubt the existence of God or the historicity of Jesus briefly, or even periodically, does not constitute a lack of belief in which all the propositions of the beliefs are rejected because the assumptions prove either unfounded and/or lacking in definitive proofs, but rather, reflects a natural tendency of the human brain to attempt to look for patterns. When patterns cannot be found, the brain becomes confused, and doubt is the natural recourse.
I think that (what I mentioned above) is how I separate atheists who arrived at their conclusion vs. those who had a brief bout of skepticism and thought, in their moment of panic, that they had lost faith. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. Maybe they only think they did. I for one am the strong opinion that C.S. Lewis NEVER stopped believing in God, or the idea of God. Yet he describes himself as a 'once atheist' as well.
It comes down to stances on theological and philosophical positions, and which way one leans. But as I see it, most honest atheists admit to agnosticism with regard to the existence of God (at least when entertaining the theoretical plausibility of such constructs).
The type of “atheism” you describe, and which those like C.S. Lewis described, I would not categorize as lack of belief. It's more of a internal conflict between the rational skeptical mind and the mind which forms beliefs based on conviction and intuition.
Even when you doubted, you admitted to having a Christian foundation, a Christian environment, and were raised largely in a socio-cultural Christian worldview. The only kind of “atheism” which could survive in this environment would be one of disbelief, which accounts for why so many “once atheists” talk about coming back into the fold. It was merely disbelief. Not–absence of belief. If that makes any sense.
Apologies if it sounds like I am not taking your experience at face value. I certainly can't tell you what your own experiences were, but I have done a lot of research in this area and have found many people are often simply mistaken about their experiences. I'm not saying that you are, but your experience sound eerily familiar to those I do not consider proper atheistic positions, so it would be worth examining further.
Yeah…I don't think anyone who “claims” to be an atheist, is someone who simply lacks belief. I think they “believe” there is no God–and it matters not one wit how they arrived at that belief. If one genuinely believes something, one believes it. Belief is not made less genuine if the thing believed is less justified or not true. I think if someone genuinely does not know what they believe, the correct title to claim is agnostic, and then only temporarily. If one does not feel like they will ever move out of an agnostic position–they need to pick a different title (atheist…or research the evidence…more fully than intellectual atheists who claim “there is no evidence” hyperbolically…and choose Christian). I did not have a period of unbelief, I had a period of believing God did NOT exist. I was not undecided (agnostic) about it (that is the 'only' honest reason to claim agnosticism–because you are temporarily undecided)–I did not simply step away from my belief in a moment of panic…I believed something else entirely. And I did not rationalize my way back to faith–you have not read my testimony (original post). I would have stayed an atheist if God had not intervened (granted: that is only empirical for 'me'…hence, the whole field of Christian apologetics). I believed God did not exist, despite the nagging doubts I had about it (Why is there something rather than nothing?), btw. What my period of atheism did help me do–once God brought me back–was to have a reasonable, critically examined faith, since I've seen it from within and without. The faith that is not killed (permanently…) by reason is made stronger by it.
Regarding background–what is yours? No exposure to Christianity whatsoever? (Were all who instructed you of the same persuasion?–If they were, should you therefore doubt your persuasion on that basis?) I agree our background influences our beliefs, but I do not believe it necessarily determines them. That is 'why' reform of any sort is possible.
That said, there must be some reason I hear atheists say, “Oh…you must not have been a 'genuine' atheist, then…” but, then…I hear the same thing from some Christians when I say I was an atheist for a while. “You must not have been a 'genuine' Christian before that, then.” But Christians do this for different, once-saved-always-saved, reasons, rooted in Calvinism…a moderate version of which I do accept. Atheists don't have that excuse, so–I'm wondering where it is coming from. I think it is because they feel they have done all the research there is to do, and that a genuine atheist would never conclude “theism” from that research. That's how I felt about it when I was an atheist, too, but perhaps you have a different perspective on this?
I'm curious how far you have explored the evidence Christian apologists have on offer. Books, debates, et cetera. Have you written anything on any of that, in response, that you can link me to?
I would like to focus my efforts on replying to our Euthyphro discussion, so forgive me if I do not reply to future replies here immediately.
I actually am extremely interested in why people deconvert, reconvert, and often times change faiths entirely. This is an area I have been doing some research in.
I don't mean to make a No True Scotsman falacy, and I can only take your word for it that you were a true and blue atheist. But atheism in itself isn't a belief system, ableit you are correct in stating it is a formal belief in the non-existence of Gods.
I would stress, however, the difference between strong and week atheism, which is a real difference which shouldn't go overlooked lest we stereotype too broadly.
The same holds for religious faiths. But where religious faiths do differ is many of them are, in point of fact, self sustaining beliefs systems.
Anyway, to answer your question, I was a devout Evangelical Christian for about 30 years. Active in apologetics and the ministry.
I used to maintain a popular apologetics blog called: The Chronicles of a Sympathetic Christian, which I took down once I deconverted and realized many of my arguments were either appeals to authority, anedotal, or simply appeals to emotion. Very little reasoning except for extremely well formulated harmonizations. A lot of what I said rang true to believers, but it was the Biblical Historian James D. Tabor, who engaged me in an email discussion, who really helped me to refine my critical thinking skills when it came to religious concerns of history.
I then felt like I had the ability to challenge Robert M. Price on his mythicist position, but another series of email exchanges began and, well, Bob and I are good acquaintances now. We mostly talk about comic books and all things H.P. Lovecraft.
So I studied a lot of what these guys pointed me to, as one of my degrees is in history, and at the time (when I was still an active believer on fire for Christ) I was thinking of entering in a theology course or a NT studies course, but was ultimately talked out of it by Hector Avolos' book The End of Biblical Studies.
There just really isn't a future in the theology or history of Christianity. Apologists can still make money though, because it's built into how Christian churches set up their ministries.
A lot of reinforcement.
But yeah, I do have some retrospective pieces on my atheist blog about my past Christianity, my time with Campus Crusaders for Christ, as well as meeting my “apologetic idol” at the time, Josh McDowell (I met him twice, actually, and got to talk with him in a panel once).
Here's a link to my Christian story and my deconversion, if you're interested:
It should read “weak atheism.”
Sheesh. I need to drink some wake up juice or something.
Also, although unrelated to the conversation, you might like to read my concise timeline for the creation and canonization of the Bible.
Biblical Historian R. Joseph Hoffmann has vouched for me that my timeline is thorough and unbiased. It may help you if you ever need to use it for referencing when certain canonization events took place as well as help give insights into who wrote the Bible.
Although I'm sure you have plenty of apologist websites that have similar timelines as well.