The following is a letter I submitted to various Christian friends, family, and clergy on the eve of my recent deconversion, explaining my change in perspective.
Would-be Christian apologists often make the claim that atheism is itself a religion. Atheists may rightly respond that this notion is absurd; atheism does not adhere to a particular set of beliefs, practices, or laws as is typical of religions throughout history. Even the lesser claim that atheism is a “worldview” or “belief system” fails on the grounds that atheism makes only one declaration – namely, that God does not exist – and is therefore not a complete worldview but merely a rejection of the subset of worldviews incorporating God. In fact many “atheists” do not reject the possible existence of God but merely the existence of any of the finite number of Gods proposed by historic religions.
And in fact, even if he does not realize it, the Christian who makes this claim typically does not intend to imply that atheism is analogous to religion in these ways. Rather, it is an attempt to level the intellectual playing field. Atheists like to claim that logic is on their side. When analyzing the evidence for God, the atheist asserts that a default position of rational skepticism (if not outright disbelief) is superior for determining truth. The Christian asserts that the believer of God and the “believer” of the non-existence of God exercise the same kind of “belief”, and therefore faith is required for any pursuit of truth – in other words, “Atheism is a religion.”
Professional Christian apologists and philosophers recognize that the fundamental question is not one of terminology but of epistemology – what we know and how we know it. If the belief that there is no God – or lack of belief in God – is epistemologically equivalent to the belief in the existence of God, then Christians and skeptics are at least equally justified in their biases. Alvin Plantinga argues, for example, that belief in God is similar to belief in our senses or the existence of other minds. He calls these types of beliefs “properly basic” – that is, not defensible on purely rational grounds, but consistent nevertheless.
Is this all a pointless intellectual exercise? After all, claiming that both theism and atheism are epistemologically valid says nothing about the truth of either. Similarly, asserting that belief in God may be justifiable in the absence of a rational proof does not indicate that it is any less justifiable to start with skepticism as a default position. But does it matter? After all, we are interested primarily in the evidence for God, not in our individual biases. Do these basic beliefs matter?
Unfortunately, they matter greatly. It is difficult for a skeptic to consider Christianity fairly, just as it is difficult for a Christian to consider the possibility that God does not exist. The most significant factor in determining a person’s religion is not the merits of any particular belief system but rather the circumstances in which the person was born and raised. Richard Dawkins states this bluntly:
“Out of all the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happens to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favor … when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it.”
This is indeed an unmistakable fact. To the skeptic, this result is perhaps expected. To the theist, it presents a serious problem. How are we to reconcile this fact with the existence of the Christian God? No Christian can seriously deny that he would probably believe differently if he were born under different circumstances. If he considers the matter at all, he probably imagines himself lucky or blessed to have been born into the “right” religion. Perhaps it motivates him to witness to those who are less fortunate.
But if there are those who are less fortunate, we must also accept that God has made them so. In other words, when it comes to salvation, God is not an equal opportunity employer. Where and when we were born, what our parents believed, the culture in which we were raised – these things are the primary determiner of our religion and therefore our salvation. We may all be equally deserving of hell, but we certainly do not receive an equal opportunity to be saved.
This is illustrated with a simple example. Suppose two men are born into two families of different religion. Each man, as is probabilistically likely, accepts the religion of his parents. Furthermore, let us suppose that each man lives what might be considered a moral life by both secular and religious standards (this is not difficult to imagine, since many religions agree with each other as well as secular morality on the basics – do not murder, steal, etc). From a secular perspective, we might say that these two men have lived morally equivalent lives – each has accepted and lived in accordance with the religion of his culture – yet if the first man is Christian and the second is Muslim, one of them is doomed to hell, and the other is saved.
Any consistent Christian must admit this, and most do when forced to consider it. They reject the secular notion of “fairness” and perhaps, if they lean in a Calvinist direction, assert that the Muslim was not one of God’s elect. Likewise, if the Christian has more modern sentiments and an Arminian streak, he likely rejects the scenario altogether, claiming that God, through the Holy Spirit or otherwise, will give each man a chance to follow him. All nonbelievers, therefore, are aware of the existence of God and choose to reject him. After all, Romans 1:18-20 says:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Perhaps God’s eternal power and his divine nature are indeed clearly seen. After all, most monotheistic religions worship a divine, almighty God. If recognizing God’s power and divinity were the key to salvation, then we might drop the issue altogether. However, since our salvation depends on the identity of the God we worship, and the existence of this God is plain, we are left with the question, “Why do so many get it wrong?” And furthermore, why do so few that start off wrong ever get it right?
The problem is magnified tenfold when we examine our own beliefs. If it is the case that most people keep their initial convictions, how confident are we that our beliefs are correct? We are certainly subject to the same cultural influences; it would be hubris to suggest that we are somehow immune. How can we be certain? So we are back to the epistemological question. Perhaps it is right to assume, a priori, the existence of God? But if we do so, which concept of God do we assume? And how can we be certain?
Here is where many Christians would invoke the Holy Spirit. Dr. William Lane Craig states, “We know Christianity to be true by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit … the witness, or testimony, of the Holy Spirit is its own proof … it is self-evident.” The danger here should be obvious; this only presents a new variation of the same problem. Such experiences are common to people of nearly all religions, and they all claim them as evidence of the necessary existence of their God.
Perhaps an even more challenging problem is this: if Christians are indeed privy to a unique experience with the creator of the universe, it seems that they should develop some divine knowledge from these experiences. In other words, if the Holy Spirit is guiding Christians, why do we observe so many doctrinal differences among them? If these experiences are so vague, weak, or lacking in content that they produce no doctrinal unity among Christians, how can we have faith that any divine influence exists at all?
It is for these reasons that I have come to the conclusion that despite the possible epistemic validity of an a priori belief in God, skepticism provides a better test for truth. At this point you might say, “All this work simply to justify your skepticism! You haven’t even examined the evidence yet.” And you are correct; I have not said anything of my years as a born-again Christian, nor of my extensive investigation of the evidence for Christianity. I will not do so here, in this format. This letter is an explanation and not a persuasion. As I read over the words I have written, I notice that when referring to Christians I have interchangeably used the pronouns “we” and “they”; perhaps there is no more adequate description of how I feel.