I am sometimes asked, by both skeptics and believers alike, why I was once an atheist and what convinced me to become a Christian. I will answer the latter in another post but let me deal with the former now.
I am a “PK” or “preacher’s kid.” My father served as the founding pastor of the largest church in southern Ohio. It is a non-denominational, evangelical congregation that grew very quickly.
As a PK, I was privy to a lot of “inside information” and it was not encouraging. I learned men and women who sang hymns with passion and shouted “Amen!” with gusto during the sermon were cheating on their spouse or on their taxes.
By the time I was a teenager I understood why those who called themselves Christians lived secret lives–they wanted to believe but really didn’t. I understood because I became one of them.
I was an active member of an ’80′s evangelical youth group. So, I rocked out to Stryper, had comedian Pat Hurley tapes and volunteered for the children’s ministry, which consisted of videotaping episodes of Superbook and The Flying House for the kids. However, I actually seriously doubted if God even existed.
I was struggling with the normal sins of a teenager and begged for help in prayer. I also petitioned God on a regular basis to feel His presence but that didn’t happen either.
I eventually came to the conclusion that Christianity simply didn’t work. I declared myself an atheist at age fifteen and remained an unbeliever for the next ten years.
I ran away from home at age fifteen as well eventually making my way to Hollywood. During those days I partied like it was 1999 (until 1997) and like Aldous Huxley is quoted as saying decades before, I came to not even want God to be real because even the possibility interfered with my desire to create my own morality.
Christianity is not something where you just profess it and suddenly you are automatically perfect. You get the gift of eternal life immediately by faith in Christ, but becoming more like Christ takes time. It’s easier to act consistently with the teachings of Christ if you have spent the time studying, practicing and growing as a Christian. You shouldn’t expect perfect behavior on day one – that is crazy. You should expect that as your beliefs become more solid, then your outward actions will change naturally. And often what you hear at home and in the church is not the best for finding truth through investigation and debate.
It would be terrible to have to put out “good” actions when you never settled the questions of what is true and how are we going to apply what is true in our own decisions. Sometimes, I think that young Christians face too much pressure to appear to be perfect when no one has been willing to help them work through the grounding for the behaviors they are expected to display. And I think a lot of the behaviors they are expected to display are either not important or not Biblical. Behaving like a Christian should be natural – it should proceed from free inquiry, not dogmatism.
Now I’m skipping a lot, but here is his advice for people who were in his situation:
I’ll get to my conversion later but keep in mind: (1) just because a person attends a church, even if they are a PK, that he or she truly comprehends the Gospel because I didn’t a full understanding; (2) pastors need to constantly remind their parishioners that sin is easy and living for Christ is difficult because believers are part of a cosmic struggle; (3) the spiritual disciplines are invaluable especially so for young people; and (4) there are many solid arguments for the existence of God and few for materialism and all Christians deserve to know them.
I’ve spent some time mentoring young Christians who had fallen away for some period of time, and I always make a point of asking them why. Their answer is usually something like this: “I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but I didn’t care because no one else cared.” The first thing to do with a person who is rebelling is to get in there and start to ask them questions and get involved in helping them to succeed in their lives. People do bad things because they feel that no one cares. So you better start caring for these young people, whether they are smart, dumb, pretty, ugly, poor, rich, popular, unpopular – it doesn’t matter. They all have souls, and they were all made to know God. Get in there and be real with them before they make a mess of their lives.
The beginning of the universe is more at home in a theistic worldview than an atheistic one
The beginning of the universe fits in well with the Bible, e.g. – Genesis 1, Titus 1, etc.
In case you are wondering about what the evidence is for the Big Bang, here are 3 of the evidences that are most commonly offered:
Three main observational results over the past century led astronomers to become certain that the universe began with the big bang. First, they found out that the universe is expanding—meaning that the separations between galaxies are becoming larger and larger. This led them to deduce that everything used to be extremely close together before some kind of explosion. Second, the big bang perfectly explains the abundance of helium and other nuclei like deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) in the universe. A hot, dense, and expanding environment at the beginning could produce these nuclei in the abundance we observe today. Third, astronomers could actually observe the cosmic background radiation—the afterglow of the explosion—from every direction in the universe. This last evidence so conclusively confirmed the theory of the universe’s beginning that Stephen Hawking said, “It is the discovery of the century, if not of all time.”
By the way, Dr. Meyer also does a great job of explaining the problem of proteins, DNA and the origin of life in this lecture. And you can hear him defend his views in this debate podcast with Keith Fox and in this debate podcast with Peter Atkins. He does a great job in these debates.
First, here’s an article from the blog of the peer-reviewed journal Nature, probably the best peer-reviewed journal on science in the world.
The article is written by Dr. James Hannam. He has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge and is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (published in the UK as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science).
Few topics are as open to misunderstanding as the relationship between faith and reason. The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus. For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway. Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet. No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress.
Admittedly, Galileo was put on trial for claiming it is a fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than just a hypothesis as the Catholic Church demanded. Still, historians have found that even his trial was as much a case of papal egotism as scientific conservatism. It hardly deserves to overshadow all the support that the Church has given to scientific investigation over the centuries.
That support took several forms. One was simply financial. Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organisation in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.
But religious support for science took deeper forms as well. It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications. Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs. Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.
Given that the Church has not been an enemy to science, it is less surprising to find that the era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. In the field of physics, scholars have now found medieval theories about accelerated motion, the rotation of the earth and inertia embedded in the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population.
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I do when I am trying to find a game to play is ask “is it well designed?” If it’s not well-designed, then I will not take the time to learn the rules and practice playing. That was the situation before science started. The non-scientists thought that the universe was chaotic, that there were no rules, and so there was no point in trying to learn the rules. It was the idea that the universe was made by an intelligent Creator and Designer that made the first scientists start to do science. If there are rules to the game, then it’s worth it to learn them. But that’s a belief that’s more at home in a theistic worldview, not in a pagan or atheistic one.
Who was the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world? Most people probably assume that the answer is Adolf Hitler, architect of the Holocaust. Others might guess Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who may indeed have managed to kill even more innocent people than Hitler did, many of them as part of a terror famine that likely took more lives than the Holocaust. But both Hitler and Stalin were outdone by Mao Zedong. From 1958 to 1962, his Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million people – easily making it the biggest episode of mass murder ever recorded.
Historian Frank Dikötter, author of the important book Mao’s Great Famine recently published an article in History Today, summarizing what happened:
[…]It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.
The basic facts of the Great Leap Forward have long been known to scholars. Dikötter’s work is noteworthy for demonstrating that the number of victims may have been even greater than previously thought, and that the mass murder was more clearly intentional on Mao’s part, and included large numbers of victims who were executed or tortured, as opposed to “merely” starved to death. Even the previously standard estimates of 30 million or more, would still make this the greatest mass murder in history.
Some may say that the root of this mass murder is communism, but you can’t do these mass murders if you expect to encounter a God on the other side of death whose design for each of his human creatures was for them to love God, and love their neighbor as themselves.
In any case, opposition to religion is a cornerstone of communism, as this article by professor of political science Paul Kengor explains:
As Mikhail Gorbachev aptly stated, the Soviet communist state carried out a comprehensive “war on religion.” 1 He lamented that the Bolsheviks, his predecessors, even after the civil war ended in the early 1920s, during a time of “peace,” had “continued to tear down churches, arrest clergymen, and destroy them. This was no longer understandable or justifiable. Atheism took rather savage forms in our country at that time.” 2
The Soviet Union, reflective of the communist world as a whole, was openly hostile to religion and officially atheist; it was not irreligious or unreligious, with no stance on religion, but took the position that there was no God. Moreover, that atheism translated into a form of vicious anti-religion that included a systematic, often brutal campaign to eliminate belief. This began from the outset of the Soviet communist state and still continues in various forms in communist countries to this day, from China to North Korea to Cuba.
The roots of this hatred and intolerance of religion lie in the essence of communist ideology. Marx dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses,” and opined that, “Communism begins where atheism begins.” 3Speaking on behalf of the Bolsheviks in his famous October 2, 1920 speech, Lenin stated matter-of-factly: “We do not believe in God.” Lenin insisted that “all worship of a divinity is a necrophilia.” 4 He wrote in a November 1913 letter that “any religious idea, any idea of any God at all, any flirtation even with a God is the most inexpressible foulness … the most dangerous foulness, the most shameful ‘infection.’” James Thrower of the University of Virginia (a Russia scholar and also a translator) says that in this letter the type of “infection” Lenin was referring to was venereal disease. 5
“There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” wrote Lenin in a letter to Maxim Gorky in January 1913. 6 On December 25, 1919, Christmas Day, Comrade Lenin issued the following order, in his own writing: “To put up with ‘Nikola’ [the religious holiday] would be stupid—the entire Cheka must be on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.” 7 Under Lenin, this was not an isolated occurrence.
Along with Trotsky, Lenin became involved in the creation of groups with names like the Society of the Godless, also known as the League of the Militant Godless, which was responsible for the dissemination of anti-religious propaganda in the USSR. 8 This institutionalized bigotry continued to thrive under Lenin’s disciples, most notably Stalin, and even under more benign leaders like Nikita Khrushchev.
This atheism was endemic to the communist experiment. Even those communists unable to secure political power—and thus lacking the ability to persecute believers—still did their best to persecute the teachings of organized religion and ridicule the idea of the existence of God. Even in America, it was no surprise to stroll by a city newsstand and catch bold front-page headlines like this in the Daily Worker, the communist organ published by CPUSA: “THERE IS NO GOD.” 9 Communists were proud of their atheism, and militant about it.
[…]“Religion is poison,” as Mao Tse-Tung was said to have stated.
The ideas expressed in these quotations of atheist leaders are pretty much every atheist will sign off on, as long as you don’t tell them who said it. These are normal atheist views of religion, and the hatred is especially strong against Christianity.
Let’s take a look at what atheist leader Josef Stalin did during his rule of Russia in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed.
The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited. By 1939 only about 500 of over 50,000 churches remained open.
Atheist propaganda and the struggle against religion began immediately after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. While social change would, under Marxist theory, bring religion to disappear, Leninists argued that the Party should actively help to eradicate religion as a vital step in creating ‘New Soviet Man’. The energy with which the Party struggled against religion, though, varied considerably from time to time and from place to place, as did its hostility to particular faith groups. The 1920s saw the closure of innumerable churches and synagogues (and to a lesser extent mosques) and the active persecution of clergy and harassment of believers.
An article from the pro-communism Marxist.com web site says this about Stalin:
During the ultra-left period of forcible collectivisation and the Five Year Plan in Four an attempt was made to liquidate the Church and its influence by government decree. Starting in 1929 churches were forcibly closed and priests arrested and exiled all over the Soviet Union. The celebrated Shrine of the Iberian Virgin in Moscow – esteemed by believers to be the “holiest” in all Russia was demolished – Stalin and his Government were not afraid of strengthening religious fanaticism by wounding the feelings of believers as Lenin and Trotsky had been! Religion, they believed, could be liquidated, like the kulak, by a stroke of the pen. The Society of Militant Atheists, under Stalin’s orders, issued on May 15th 1932, the “Five Year Plan of Atheism” – by May 1st 1937, such as the “Plan”, “not a single house of prayer shall remain in the territory of the USSR, and the very concept of God must be banished from the Soviet Union as a survival of the Middle Ages and an instrument for the oppression of the working masses.”!
If atheism is true, there is no objective morality out there to make anything you do objectively wrong, and no one to judge you when you die. Humans are just accidental machines produced by random, undirected evolution in a random, undesigned universe. You won’t be able to ground human rights and objective moral obligations in a universe like that.
Here is Dr. William Lane Craig giving a long-form argument for the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, and taking questions from the audience.
The speaker introduction goes for 6 minutes, then Dr. Craig speaks for 35 minutes, then it’s a period of questions and answers with the audience. The total length is 93 minutes, so quite a long period of Q&A. The questions in the Q&A period are quite good.
Many people who are willing to accept God’s existence are not willing to accept the God of Christianity
Christians need to be ready to show that Jesus rose from the dead as a historical event
Private faith is fine for individuals, but when dealing with the public you have to have evidence
When making the case, you cannot assume that your audience accepts the Bible as inerrant
You must use the New Testament like any other ancient historical document
Most historians, Christian and not, accept the basic minimal facts supporting the resurrection of Jesus
Fact #1: the burial of Jesus following his crucifixion
Fact #1 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #1 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
Fact #1 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it praises one of the Sanhedrin
Fact #1 is not opposed by any competing burial narratives
Fact #2: on the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some women
Fact #2 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
Fact #2 is implied by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #2 is simple and lacks legendary embellishment, which argues for an early dating
Fact #2 passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it has female, not male, witnesses
Fact #2 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it is reported by the Jewish leaders
Fact #3: Jesus appeared to various people in various circumstances after his death
Fact #3 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #3 is supported by multiple, independent reports of the events from all four gospels
Fact #3 explains other historical facts, like the conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother James
Fact #4: the earliest Christians proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus
Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians continued to identify Jesus as the Messiah
Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians were suddenly so unconcerned about being killed
Dr. Craig then asks which hypothesis explains all four of these facts. He surveys a number of naturalistic hypotheses, such as the hallucination theory or various conspiracy theories. All of these theories deny one or more of the minimal facts that have been established and accepted by the broad spectrum of historians. In order to reject the resurrection hypothesis, a skeptic would have to deny one of the four facts or propose an explanation that explains those facts better than the resurrection hypothesis.
I listened to the Q&A period while doing housekeeping and I heard lots of good questions. Dr. Craig gives very long answers to the questions. One person asked why we should trust the claim that the Jewish leaders really did say that the disciples stole the body. Another one asked why we should take the resurrection as proof that Jesus was divine. Another asks about the earthquake in Matthew, which Mike Licona and I doubt is intended to be historical, but is more likely to be apocalyptic imagery. Dr. Craig is also asked about the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, and how many of the minimal facts he accepts. Another questioner asked about the ascension.
You can see this evidence used in an actual debate, against a historian who disagrees with Dr. Craig. That post contains a point by point summary of the debate that I wrote while listening to it.