I guess I will start this post by linking to something a friend of mine named Joel Furches wrote about an atheist engineer.
As an Aerospace Engineer for the U.S. Navy, Jason Pratt is not inaccurate when he describes himself as a rocket scientist for the government. He has flown F-14 Tomcats and the F/A-18F Super Hornet. He was a test pilot of the FA-18B and D Hornet, the FA-18F Super Hornet, and the T-45 Goshawk. His pedigree with all things aeronautical is well established. As was his atheism.
Pratt grew up in a single parent home. He and his sister were raised by their mother, who felt it was her duty to introduce them to church in their teenage years. The church Pratt attended was a religious shell: a ritualistic facade with little reference to actual scriptural teachings. He went through the ceremonial steps as a matter of form, and the moment he was confirmed by the church, he confirmed himself an atheist, and left the church in his dust. His family took this with barely a nod, and as soon as she was confirmed, his sister followed his example.
After High School, Pratt entered college to study engineering. Academically, he proved himself quite brilliant, and flaunted that brilliance at every opportunity. He describes himself as very much a “self-righteous atheist” in college.
He found his atheism very freeing, morally, living by the code of “do whatever you want as long as nobody gets hurt.”
“I started to meet other students, and some of them were claiming to be Christians. I even had some of them as roommates. Having had some church background, I knew the type. They were hypocrites, deluded by the silly book that they claimed they believed in. And so I frequently took pleasure in ridiculing them. I would mock them. I would look for any reason to bring out things that they would claim they believe and I would just make fun of them, and mock their God and the Bible that supposedly guided them.
“I generally enjoyed playing the intellectual superior, and I enjoyed challenging what they believed.”
Not much surprise to Pratt, most of the Christians he met had no ability to defend their faith against his ridicule.
[…]One day, however, Pratt met a fellow engineering student named John Thatcher. Thatcher had a perfect GPA, which was somewhat intimidating to someone like Pratt, who took such pride in his own intellect. Thatcher was a very likable guy. He was also a Christian. This made things difficult for Pratt.
At the same time, Pratt discovered that his Academic Adviser – a leading authority in the field of Thermodynamics – was a Christian. This discovery was made when Pratt went to his adviser’s office one day in order to request some help from the brilliant man. As Pratt approached his office, he was shocked to find a scientific article, arguing Thermodynamics from a Christian perspective, hanging from his office door. Pratt was so infuriated, he stormed away and never spoke to his adviser again.
Confused and upset that these two very intelligent men would believe in superstitious nonsense, Pratt made it his goal to truly examine the claims of Christianity for the first time.
This reminded me of a quote from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel.
He says this:
“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
(”The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)
I think in general, it’s a good thing when Christians strive to be different from the culture around them. Obviously, that means having different moral values and different goals than what’s popular and acceptable for non-Christians. It means not openly engaging in activities that are forbidden to Christians, like not getting drunk, not having premarital/extra-marital sex, etc. And I think it also means being as smart as you can possibly be about about areas that touch on your Christian worldview. Why? Because like the story above says, being informed and having the answers is attractive to people who are searching.
I say stuff to my co-workers
I’m going to give an example of a conversation I had recently with a co-worker, which he started.
Many of my co-workers know my politics and my religious views. I keep books on apologetics and economics, etc. on my desk from all the good academic publishers. So they know that I am informed and I do have reasons for believing what I say. My co-workers sometimes come to me and ask me questions about moral issues, science news, foreign policy and other things like that.
Just recently, one of our senior engineers asked me how can it be that people who are for limited government can be opposed to abortion, because wouldn’t stopping abortion require government to intrude into people’s lives.
Well, we had a wonderful conversation about how to restrict abortion without growing the government, and I was ready for this because I love to read current events about pro-life legislation in various states, as well as the writings of people like Francis J. Beckwith and Robert P. George. It went on for 15 minutes or so. And because we are seated in an Agile pod, everyone got to hear, too. If you are reading about these issues at a high level, you have confidence in what you say, which is why you should always be reading AND talking about what you read with other people who are studying, too. It’s in the talking with others (and watching debates) that you learn what you can and can’t say, and what you should and shouldn’t say when you have limited time to respond.
Frankly, I think a lot of people abandon Christianity in college and in the workplace precisely because they do not want to be thought stupid by their peers. And they also engage in a lot of “normal” behaviors, like drinking, partying, getting drunk, premarital sex just because they want to fit in with their secular peers. The solution to having confidence in the face of peer pressure is to know that you’re right about what you believe, and right about what actions you are taking. You need to situate your principles within a larger plan that is aimed at some goal, and be able to demonstrate to others that the steps you are taking to get there are likely to get the job done.
It doesn’t help God for you to be wild and stupid
Last point. In my life, I have sometimes tried to lead other Christians to study harder things and to get better jobs. Most of the time, this works. I can get young Christians to not study English or Drama or Art History, and instead get them to study Engineering or Computer Science or Nursing. And if they already are studying hard things, then I encourage them, I buy them books, I play games with them and ask them how things are going. Once they have the degrees, I encourage them to get jobs, to work in the summers, to open investment accounts, and pay off their loans.
The point is this – what you study and what you do for work and how good you are at your job plays a massive role in whether you will get into conversations with non-Christians at all. I can guarantee you that Jason Pratt would not listen to someone who was in their 30s, in debt, living at home with their parents, with only entry-level work on their resume at age 33.
It is not good service to God to bungle your education and career because you were more interested in feeling good, having fun and seeking thrills. You will lose opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others that way. Although skydiving, ziplining, surfing and flying off to Europe to help poor people might be fun when you are a teen, it makes you look foolish to non-Christians when you are still doing that into your 30s.
Managing your money – paying off debts and investing early and often – is part of that signal of maturity that you send to others. And don’t underestimate the importance of marriage and children – something I don’t have. If I had a successful marriage, and lots of well-behaved children, that would help a lot as well. Especially if people could come over to a warm and happy home. It sends a message. However, if you’re going to stay single, then keep your self-control and be content with it. That sends a message, too.
Life is short. Don’t do what feels good. Do what works.