Tag Archives: Fideism

Why did Dan Barker leave Christianity for atheism?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

Unbelievable’s  radio show featured a discussion with former Christian Dan Barker, the founder and co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The MP3 file is here. (60 minutes)

I thought that I would make some general comments about why I think that many people leave the Christian faith, and what you should be careful of in order to avoid following in Dan Barker’s footsteps, specifically.

Basically, there are four major reasons why people leave Christianity.

  1. They want to do something immoral with impunity. This type of person wants to do something immoral that is forbidden by Christianity, like pre-marital sex or getting drunk in clubs with friends. They dump Christianity in order to have freedom to seek happiness in this life.
  2. They want to make decisions based on their emotions, rather than wisdom. This type of person thinks that God’s job is to save them when they act irresponsibly. When God disappoints them by not make their recklessness “work out”, they leave the faith.
  3. They want to be loved by people, not by God. This type of person thinks that Christianity is a tool that they can use to become popular. When they first try to articulate the gospel in public, they find that people don’t like them as much, and they feel bad about offending people with exclusive truth claims that they cannot back up using logic and evidence. So, they water down Christianity to get along with non-Christians. Finally, they jettison Christianity completely. This happens to a lot of young Christians the moment they hit college / university.
  4. They don’t want to learn to defend their faith. This type of person is asked questions by skeptics that they cannot answer. Usually this happens when people go to university after growing up in the shelter of the Church. The questions and peer pressure make them feel stupid. Rather than investigate Christianity to see if it’s true, they drop it, so they can be thought of as part of the “smart” crowd.

Now listen to the discussion and see if you can identify some of these factors from Barker’s own carefully-prepared words. He is trying very hard to make himself look honest and moderate, because he wants Christians to be sympathetic with his story and his motives for leaving Christianity. But I think that there is enough in his statements to construct a different hypothesis of why he left Christianity.

I’ve grouped the data by risk factor. Some of this is my interpretation of his real motivations, based on my experience dealing with former-Christians.

Non-rational, emotional approach to Christianity

  • he was raised in a devout Christian family where he probably wouldn’t have faced skeptical questions
  • he converted to Christianity at age 15 as a result of a religious experience, not a serious investigation
  • his idea of God was probably idealized and uninformed, e.g. – a loving God who wants us to be happy
  • he wandered around from church to church preaching, with no fixed address or source of income
  • he earned money by collecting “love offerings” from churches where he performed his music
  • he wrote Christian songs and Christian musicals, but nothing substantive on apologetics and theology
  • he worked in three churches known for being anti-intellectual and fundamentalist
  • there’s no evidence that of any deep study of philosophy, science and history during this time

Desire to gain acceptance from non-Christians

  • he began to notice that some people were uncomfortable with sin and Hell
  • he began to avoid preaching about sin and Hell in order to make these people comfortable
  • he watered-down the gospel to focus on helping people to be happy in this life
  • his manic approach to Christian ministry was challenged by the “real life” needs of his growing family
  • he met liberal pastors while performing his music in their churches
  • he found it difficult to disagree with them because they seemed to be “good” people
  • he watered down his message further in order to appeal to people across the theological spectrum

Ignorance of Christian apologetics

  • he began to think that if there are many different views of religion, then no view can be correct
  • he was not intellectually capable of using logic and evidence to test these competing claims to see which was true
  • he decided to instead re-interpret Christian truth claims as non-rational opinions, so they could all be “valid”
  • he became a theological liberal, abandoning theism for an impersonal “ground of being”
  • he embraced religious pluralism, the view that all religions are non-rational and make no testable truth claims
  • he began to see God as a “metaphor” whose purpose is to make people have a sense of meaning and purpose
  • he jettisoned God completely and focused more on helping people find meaning and morality apart from God
  • seems to think that religion is about having a “great life”, and felt that you can have a “great life” without religion
  • seems to think that religion is about being “good”, and felt that you can be “good” without religion
  • religion makes people feel bad by telling them what to do instead of letting them do anything they want
  • religion makes people feel bad by telling them what is true, instead of letting them believe whatever they want
  • religion makes people feel bad by telling them that God will hold them accountable for their beliefs and actions

So what do I think happened?

Barker was generating an income from donations from churches where he entertained them. Gradually, his family grew to the point where conservative churches were not enough to support him. He had to change his message to appeal to liberal churches in order to cast a wider net.

He seems to have thought that Christianity is about having his needs met and being liked by others. I think he wanted to feel good and to make people feel good with his preaching and singing. But Christianity is not a feel-good religion. It’s not a tool to make people like you. He seems to have become aware that the exclusive claims of Christianity made other people feel offended, so he cut them out. Christian apologists learn how to provide evidence for claims that non-Christians find offensive or hard to believe, but Dan hadn’t studied philosophy, science or history so he couldn’t defend it. It’s hard to speak unpopular truths when you have nothing to back it up except your music composing. Eventually, Dan just quit making the truth claims entirely.

I also think money was a factor. It seems to me that it would have hurt his career and reduced his invitations from liberal churches if he had kept up teaching biblical Christianity. In order to appeal to a wider audience, (like many Christian singers do – e.g. – Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, etc.), he would have felt pressured to water down the unpleasant parts of his preaching and singing. Lacking apologetics skill, he instead abandoned his message. He needed to account for his family’s needs and “real life”, and exclusive truth claims and Hell-talk would have reduced his ability to do that. It seems to me that he should have scaled back his extreme schedule of preaching and singing, and instead gotten a steady job so that he could afford “real life” and a family without being pressured into altering his message. The Christian life requires a certain amount of wisdom that Dan did not have.

Life isn’t a fairy tale. God isn’t there to reward risky behavior. We need to be more shrewd about financial matters so that we have the ability to not care about what people think of us. Look at this blog. I work all day as a senior software engineer with two degrees in computer science, so that I don’t have to rely on donations. Additionally, I save most of what I make in case a tragedy strikes. Since I am financially secure, I can say what I think, and disregard anyone who wants me to change my message because they are offended. Becoming a Christian isn’t a license to behave irrationally and immaturely with money. For some people, (like William Lane Craig), stepping out in faith works. But if it doesn’t work, it’s better to retreat and re-trench, rather than to compromise your message for money.

I actually met someone like Dan Barker recently. She grew up in an anti-intellectual hippy Christian home. Her mother came from a good family, and decided on a whim to marry a non-Christian. Like Barker, the family exalted feelings and irrational expectations of miracles from God for “fearless” acts. She got herself into trouble with alcohol and promiscuity in her 20s, by making emotional decisions and mixing with the wrong crowd. Her way of fixing this was to fly off on a one-year missions trip, wrecking her resume and finances. Now, she is in her late 30s, unmarried, and literally blaming Jesus for putting too many demands on her that she doesn’t have time for, e.g – morning quiet time. This causes her to feel guilty, and make her want to reject Christianity. She had no intellectual conception of basic core doctrines like God’s existence or Jesus’ resurrection, which might have acted as a bulwark against her emotions. When I explained to her how I had structured my education and career so that I could have an influence without testing God, she seemed bored and said that I was too “fearful”.

This is apparently widespread, especially among anti-intellectual denominations. Another ex-Pentecostal atheist woman I heard about from people who knew her when she was young decided to drop out of college to travel around North America doing pro-life work. When she found herself penniless, unmarried and without children in her mid-30s, she decided to have a baby out of wedlock. The government will pay for it, she said. Rather than trying to justify this decision as a Christian, she blamed God for not making her madness “work out”. She is now an atheist, because God did not reward her decision to live fearlessly for him with a husband and children. It was all God’s fault. There is a whole subculture within Christianity, where the pursuit of fun and thrills can be masked with pious language, and all talk of prudence and restraint is seen as cowardice and lack of faith.

The Christian life requires a certain level of intelligence, a certain level of practical wisdom, and a certain level of self-control and discipline. Make sure that you don’t walk away from God because of your own bad choices.

Is the Big Bang cosmology a theistic or atheistic theory of cosmic origins?

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Dr. Michael Strauss is a practicing particle physics employed as a professor at University of Oklahoma. He does research in particle physics at CERN, a large hadron collider. It’s safe to assume that he knows something about experimental physics.

Here’s what he writes about Christians and the Big Bang at his new blog:

When my children were young, I would often drive to the home of the person babysitting my kids, usually a young teenage girl, pick her up, then drive her back to my house.  In the car I would ask questions about her interests or her school.  In addition, I would sometimes ask a question that intrigued me since I am a scientist and a Christian, “Do you think the Big Bang is a theistic theory or an atheistic theory?”  Now that question is not on most people’s list of babysitter interview questions, but I was interested to know their answer even though it would not affect their monetary tip. Every time I asked this question I always got the same answer, that the Big Bang is an atheistic theory.  This is just one example of the fact that many kids growing up in an evangelical church environment have the perception that the Big Bang is an idea which removes God as the creator.  It seems that many Christians may disdain the Big Bang.

Subsequent conversations with people of all ages have shown me that many individuals (1) don’t really understand what the Big Bang is, (2) don’t know the scientific evidence for the Big Bang, and (3) don’t comprehend the theistic significance of the Big Bang.   So let’s explore these ideas a little bit.

Here is his overview of the scientific evidence for the Big Bang:

There are three primary observations that are best explained by the Big Bang.  First, the universe is expanding so that it must have had a beginning of expansion in the past.  Second, because the universe was once very hot, we can still see the remnants of that heat in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation.  The latest measurements of the CMB spectrum made by the Planck satellite (shown above) agrees almost perfectly with theoretical calculations using the standard Big Bang cosmological model (see the plot at the end of this post).  Third, the theory predicts the amount of primordial light elements that should have been created in the first few minutes of the Big Bang, like hydrogen and helium.  Again the observations and the theoretical calculations align almost exactly.   A few other observations are supported by Big Bang predictions, like the distribution of galaxies and primordial gas.  The agreement between what we measure and what is expected from a Big Bang is so remarkable that just about all scientists accept the Big Bang as the origin of our universe, despite its implication that the universe had a beginning.

Does this scientific evidence support theism, or atheism?

Because we don’t have any observations that tell us exactly what happened “in the beginning” of our universe, we can only speculate.  But let me point out the obvious.  All of the observations we do have, and all the theoretical calculations, and even some projective calculations like the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem… give credence to the conclusion that all of the space, time, matter, and energy of this universe had a beginning.  The Big Bang is a misnomer for it is not some kind of explosion since there was nothing that existed to explode.  It is the origin of the universe.  So if this universe had a beginning, then the cause of the universe can not be a part of the universe.  The cause must be transcendent, like the Christian idea of God.  Is the fact that all the evidence points to our universe having a transcendent cause proof for God?  No, but it is extremely powerful evidence.  If one hundred years ago you had predicted that scientists would obtain unambiguous evidence about the history of the universe for 13.8 billion years, all of its lifetime except the first fraction of a second, and that all of the evidence would point to an actual beginning consistent with a transcendent cause, I don’t think anyone would have taken you seriously.  But that is exactly what has happened.  Theists could not have outlined a better scenario to support theism.  The scientific facts are completely consistent with the statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

I know how I account for this scientific discovery in my worldview: a non-physical mind that existed eternally created the physical universe at time t=0. But how do atheists, who can only explain the world by appealing to matter, explain the origin of matter itself?

Here’s Oxford University professor of physical chemistry (and atheist) Peter Atkins explaining how he grounds the Big Bang cosmology:

Easy! Nothing actually exists, according to Peter Atkins.

What about a theoretical physicist, like Lawrence Krauss? Well, he just redefines the nothing that causally preceded the origin of the universe so that it is actually something. Pure speculation, and it goes against the experimental scientific evidence we have. Exactly what you’d expect from a man who wrote a book about “the physics of Star Trek”.

Each of us has to come to terms with this scientific evidence. What could have caused the beginning of the universe? It can’t be matter, because this was the beginning of all the matter in the universe. It has to be a mind.

Although most theists have no problem with this scientific evidence, atheists really hate it. When I tell them about this evidence, they tell me that in a few years or decades, all the evidence for a beginning we have now will have gone away. “How do you know that?” I ask. We have faith” they reply. I don’t think anyone should deny the objective reality we all share just because it’s what they want to believe.

Is the Big Bang cosmology a theistic or atheistic theory of cosmic origins?

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Dr. Michael Strauss is a practicing particle physics employed as a professor at University of Oklahoma. He does research in particle physics at CERN, a large hadron collider. It’s safe to assume that he knows something about experimental physics.

Here’s what he writes about Christians and the Big Bang at his new blog:

When my children were young, I would often drive to the home of the person babysitting my kids, usually a young teenage girl, pick her up, then drive her back to my house.  In the car I would ask questions about her interests or her school.  In addition, I would sometimes ask a question that intrigued me since I am a scientist and a Christian, “Do you think the Big Bang is a theistic theory or an atheistic theory?”  Now that question is not on most people’s list of babysitter interview questions, but I was interested to know their answer even though it would not affect their monetary tip. Every time I asked this question I always got the same answer, that the Big Bang is an atheistic theory.  This is just one example of the fact that many kids growing up in an evangelical church environment have the perception that the Big Bang is an idea which removes God as the creator.  It seems that many Christians may disdain the Big Bang.

Subsequent conversations with people of all ages have shown me that many individuals (1) don’t really understand what the Big Bang is, (2) don’t know the scientific evidence for the Big Bang, and (3) don’t comprehend the theistic significance of the Big Bang.   So let’s explore these ideas a little bit.

Here is his overview of the scientific evidence for the Big Bang:

There are three primary observations that are best explained by the Big Bang.  First, the universe is expanding so that it must have had a beginning of expansion in the past.  Second, because the universe was once very hot, we can still see the remnants of that heat in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation.  The latest measurements of the CMB spectrum made by the Planck satellite (shown above) agrees almost perfectly with theoretical calculations using the standard Big Bang cosmological model (see the plot at the end of this post).  Third, the theory predicts the amount of primordial light elements that should have been created in the first few minutes of the Big Bang, like hydrogen and helium.  Again the observations and the theoretical calculations align almost exactly.   A few other observations are supported by Big Bang predictions, like the distribution of galaxies and primordial gas.  The agreement between what we measure and what is expected from a Big Bang is so remarkable that just about all scientists accept the Big Bang as the origin of our universe, despite its implication that the universe had a beginning.

Does this scientific evidence support theism, or atheism?

Because we don’t have any observations that tell us exactly what happened “in the beginning” of our universe, we can only speculate.  But let me point out the obvious.  All of the observations we do have, and all the theoretical calculations, and even some projective calculations like the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem (which I should probably blog about at some time) give credence to the conclusion that all of the space, time, matter, and energy of this universe had a beginning.  The Big Bang is a misnomer for it is not some kind of explosion since there was nothing that existed to explode.  It is the origin of the universe.  So if this universe had a beginning, then the cause of the universe can not be a part of the universe.  The cause must be transcendent, like the Christian idea of God.  Is the fact that all the evidence points to our universe having a transcendent cause proof for God?  No, but it is extremely powerful evidence.  If one hundred years ago you had predicted that scientists would obtain unambiguous evidence about the history of the universe for 13.8 billion years, all of its lifetime except the first fraction of a second, and that all of the evidence would point to an actual beginning consistent with a transcendent cause, I don’t think anyone would have taken you seriously.  But that is exactly what has happened.  Theists could not have outlined a better scenario to support theism.  The scientific facts are completely consistent with the statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Now I’ve had conversations with atheists about this scientific evidence during my lifetime. And the conversations always go like this: I lay out the experimental evidence and theoretical evidence for a cosmic beginning, and they start to talk about science fiction: Star Wars and Star Trek. But there are also famous atheists who have tried to account for the Big Bang cosmology in their atheistic worldview.

Here’s Oxford University professor of physical chemistry (and atheist) Peter Atkins explaining how he grounds the Big Bang cosmology:

Easy! Nothing actually exists, according to Peter Atkins.

What about a theoretical physicist, like Lawrence Krauss? Well, he just redefines the nothing that causally preceded the origin of the universe so that it is actually something. Pure speculation, and it goes against the experimental scientific evidence we have. Exactly what you’d expect from a man who wrote a book about the physics of “Star Trek”.

You don’t get to start with the laws of physics in the Big Bang cosmology. You don’t get to start with an electron. You don’t get to start with a quantum vacuum, nor even quantum foam. You start with nothing: no matter, no energy, no space, and no time. From that state, the universe begins to exist. Atheists hate the Big Bang cosmology. And they also hate the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the Big Bang that allows the universe to support complex, embodied intelligent life. (Another miraculous evidence for God that is opposed by the anti-science fundamentalists).

I see resistance against the use of scientific evidence to support the existence of God from many pious pastors like Al Mohler, Russell Moore, etc. Some pastors think that you can just read the Bible out loud to someone and it will convert them to Christianity, as if the words of the Bible, in and of themselves, were some sort of incantation. It’s sort of like the “burning of the bosom” that Mormons are supposed to have when reading the Mormon Bible, which Mormons use in place of evidence, since they don’t have any. Many fideist pastors adopt this Mormon approach to trusting in God. Never mind that Jesus offered his resurrection as evidence of his claims to divinity to skeptics. Apparently, These pious pastors know better than Jesus how to evangelize non-Christians, and they’ve decided that the magic words fideist approach is better than use of scientific and historical evidence. It’s really annoying that the pious pastors have so much more influence in churches than the witness of experimental science, which is just God speaking to us through nature. I’d trust scientific evidence over an uneducated fundamentalist pastor any day of the week.

Are pious pastors preparing young Christians to defend their moral values?

Younger evangelicals more liberal than older evangelicals... is it just ignorance?
Voting for Obama means abortion, gay marriage and end of religious liberty

You might expect Christians to advocate for values like chastity, life-long natural marriage, protection for unborn and born children, right to work, low taxes, limited government, free speech, religious liberty, and so on. But today, many young evangelicals are embracing  higher taxes, more spending, socialism, retreat from just wars against evil forces, abortion, gay marriage, global warming alarmism, etc.

Why is this happening?

Christianity should make me feel happy and be liked by others?

Here is the first problem. When you advocate for moral causes like protecting the unborn, or school choice, or freeing the slaves, a bunch of people are not going to like you. Christians in the time of Jesus knew that being bold about their Christian convictions would make a lot of people think bad things about them – they expected it. But young evangelicals have gotten the idea that being a Christian should not involve any sort of unhappiness and unpopularity. They’ve been told that God has a wonderful plan for their lives, and that plan involves happiness, fulfillment, travel and adventure. They wouldn’t have learned this from the Bible, because the Bible emphasizes suffering and unpopularity as part of the normal Christian life. Christianity has always been opposed to abortion and homosexuality, but these things are not fun and popular today. Since these young Christians believe in a God of love – a cosmic butler who leads them to happiness through their feelings – of course they are going to find defending traditional Christian values too difficult.

Christianity should be about my private experience of belief?

What young evangelicals learn in many churches is that religion is something that is centered on the Bible and the church building – it is not something that flows into real life. This is actually the goal of the most pious, orthodox pastors, with the exception of people like Pastor Wayne Grudem or Pastor Matt Rawlings who can integrate the Bible with real-world how-to knowledge. Pastors want to protect God from being “judged” by evidence, because they regard evidence as dirty, and unworthy of being allowed to confirm or deny blind faith / tradition. Pastors instead teach young people that you can’t find out anything about God from things like the Big Bang, the DNA, the fossil record, or even from the peer-reviewed research on abortion, divorce, or gay marriage. And they don’t respond to arguments and evidence from non-Christian skeptics, either. Their goal is to insulate belief from evidence. If the Bible says “do this” then they don’t even want to study the way the world works in order to know the best way to do what the Bible asks.

For example, when it comes to politics and social activism, young evangelicals learn in church about helping the poor. But pastors never tell them anything about economics, which shows that the free enterprise system is the best at helping the poor. (Just compare the USA to North Korea or Venezuela or Argentina). Instead, young evangelicals blissfully accept the left’s narrative that free markets and charity don’t work, and that  government must step in to redistribute wealth. Most pastors never pick up an economic textbook to see which economic system really helps the poor. And that ignorance is passed on to gullible and sentimental young people, who jump on any slick politician who promises to help the poor through redistribution rather than economic growth and innovation. What you learn about in church is that religion is private and has no connection to reality whatsoever., so there is no point in learning anything – science, economics, philosophy. Pious pastors put Christianity outside the realm of truth.

The (young) people perish for lack of knowledge

What follows from having a view that Christianity only lives in the Bible and church, and not out there in the real world of telescopes and microscopes? Well, most young evangelicals will interpret what their pastor is telling them as “our flavor of ice cream” or “our cultural custom”. They don’t link Christianity to the real world, they don’t think that it’s true for everyone. They think that “people in church” just accept what the Bible says on faith, and that’s all. So what happens when topics like abortion, marrige, economics, war, etc. come up in their daily conversations? Well, all the pastors have equipped them with is “the Bible says”, and that’s not enough to be persuasive with non-Christians. They have no way of speaking about their beliefs and values with anyone who doesn’t already believe in the Bible. And that’s why they go left… it’s much easier to just go along with their secular left peers, professors and cultural heroes. And that’s exactly what they do. Without facts and evidence – which they never taught  or even mentioned in church – how can they be expected to stand up for Biblical Christianity? They can’t.

If young Christians never learn how to present a case for traditional values and beliefs apart from the Bible for concepts like pro-life or natural marriage or religious liberty, then they will cave to the secular left culture. And this is exactly what the pious pastors have facilitated by “rescuing” the God and the Bible and the historical Jesus from evidence and knowledge. Young people lack courage to take Biblical positions, because they first lack knowledge. They don’t know how to make the case using evidence that their opponents will accept – mainstream evidence from publicly accessible sources. And that’s how the pastors want it – piety, not evidence.

Christianity is a knowledge tradition

No young evangelical is going to lift a finger to take bold moral stands if they think their worldview is just one option among many – like the flavors of ice cream in the frozen section of the grocery store. They have to know that what they are saying is true – then they will be bold. Boldness is easy when you are aware of facts and evidence for your view. Not just what the pastors and choirs accept, but facts and evidence that are widely accepted.

UPDATE: A friend just sent me this series by a pious pastor named Andy Stanley. My goodness, he is doing well with apologetics. I’m listening to #2 in the series now and it’s just really honest talk about atheism and Christianity.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Ryan Bell’s year of atheism testimony shows need for apologetics

The Christian life requires a certain degree of mental toughness and non-conformity
The Christian life requires a certain degree of mental toughness and non-conformity

Are you interested in knowing how to avoid losing your Christian faith? Well, an episode of the Unbelievable show featuring well-known apostate Ryan Bell will give you some clues.

But before we go to the podcast, I want to recap some reasons why people think that God exists.

In addition to these arguments for theism, Christians should be able to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection, one that leverages the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. And some sort of case for the belief that Jesus was divine using only the earliest sources.

In addition to those positive evidences, there would be informed defenses to other questions like the problem of evilthe problem of sufferingreligious pluralismthe hiddenness of Godmaterialist conceptions of mindconsciousness and neurosciencethe justice of eternal damnation,sovereignty and free will, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Trinity, and so on.

I listed these out so that you can see how many of these positive arguments and defenses that Ryan Bell wrestles with in his deconversion testimony.

The podcast

Details:

Ryan J Bell is a former pastor who has decided to try being an atheist for a year. He explains why and interacts with New Zealand apologist Matt Flannagan.

The MP3 file is here. (We only care about the first 45 minutes)

Matt Flanagan and Justin Brierley do a great job in this debate getting the real issues on the table, although you have to wait until about 20 minutes in. Quick note about Bell. He has a BA in Pastoral Ministry, an MDiv, and a doctorate in Missional Organization. Now I have a suspicion of people with a background like that – my view is that they are more likely to be impractical and/or insulated from real life.

I also noticed that his politics are liberal, and that he is featured on the web site of GLAAD, a gay rights organization, for supporting gay marriage. Why do people support same-sex marriage? I think the most common reason is because they care more about the needs of adults than they care about the needs of children for a mother and a father. That’s where this guy is coming from – he is a people-pleaser, not someone who promotes the needs of children over the needs of adults.

Summary:

At the start of the podcast, we learn that Bell was in the Seventh Day Adventist church, which is strongly invested in young-Earth creationism. Depending on how strict his young Earth view was, this closes off many of the best arguments for theism from science, such as the cosmological argument, the cosmic fine-tuning argument, the stellar habitability argument, the galactic habitability argument, the Cambrian explosion argument, and even the origin of life argument (to a degree). These are the arguments that make theism non-negotiable.

When he started his journey to atheism, he says that he was reading a book called “Religion Without God” by Ronald Dworkin.I was curious to see what view of faith was embraced by this book. Would it be the Biblical view of faith, trust based on evidence? Or the atheist view of faith, belief without evidence? I found an excerpt from the book in the New York Times, which said this:

In the special case of value, however, faith means something more, because our convictions about value are emotional commitments as well and, whatever tests of coherence and internal support they survive, they must feel right in an emotional way as well. They must have a grip on one’s whole personality. Theologians often say that religious faith is a sui generis experience of conviction. Rudolf Otto, in his markedly influential book, The Idea of the Holy, called the experience “numinous” and said it was a kind of “faith-knowledge.” I mean to suggest that convictions of value are also complex, sui generis, emotional experiences. As we will see… when scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

The excerpt quotes William James, who reduces religion to non-rational emotional experiences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that view of faith is Biblical at all. Biblical faith is rooted in evidence. So clearly, what is important to this Dworkin is not objective evidence, it’s feelings. And this is what Bell was reading. He was not reading academic books like “Debating Christian Theism” to get the best arguments pro-and-con. He was looking for something that “resonated” with his feelings.

His journey was prompted by a female Episcopal priest friend who was asked by an atheist “what difference does religion make in my life?”. So, the framework of his investigation is set by a question that is not focused on truth, but is instead focused on emotions and life enhancement. Now Christianity might be a real stinker of a worldview for life enhancement, and the Bible warns us not to expect a bed of roses in this life. Christianity is not engineered to make you feel good or to make people like you, especially people like female Episcopal priests and GLAAD.

When talking about atheism, he is not concerned with whether atheism is logically consistent or consistent with objective evidence. He is concerned by whether atheists can have the experience of being moral without God. He sees an atheist who has moral preferences and seems like a good person by our arbitrary social standards, and he finds that as “valid” as religion. He is judging worldviews by whether people have their needs met, not by truth.

He says that as a pastor, his method of evangelizing atheists was to encourage them to “try on faith” “go through the motions” “participate in social justice outreach events”, etc. His goal was that they would “step into the stream of the Christian narrative and discover that it held value and meaning to them, and find that they actually believed it”. So his method of recommending Christianity to others has nothing to do with logic, evidence or truth. He is offering Christianity as life enhancement – not knowledge but a “narrative” – a story. If it makes you feel good, and it makes people like you, then you can “believe” it. He says that he was “a Christian by practice, a Christian by tradition”. Not a Christian by truth. Not a Christian by knowledge. He just picked a flavor of ice cream that tasted right to him, one that pleased his parents, friends and community. And now he has new friends and a new community, and he wants to please them and feel good about himself in this new situation.

He says that the Christian worldview is “a way of approaching reality” and “creating meaning” and “identifying meaning in the experiences we have”. And he says that there are “other ways of experiencing meaning”. He talks a lot about his correspondence with people and reading atheists, but nothing about reading Christian scholars who deal with evidence, like William Lane Craig, Stephen C. Meyer or Mike Licona.

Literal, literal quote: (23:35) “Well I think the only access we have to  the question of God’s existence or not is how we feel. I mean there’s no falsifiable data that says God either exists or doesn’t exist. It’s all within the realm of our personal experience”. “If living as though God exists makes you happy and comforts you, then by all means, go for it”. This attitude is so popular in our churches today, and where does it end? In atheism. I had a fundamentalist woman telling me just last night how this feelings mysticism approach was the right approach to faith, and that the head knowledge approach was bad and offensive.

I’m going to cut off my summary there, but the podcast goes on for 45 minutes. Matt Flannagan is brilliant, and went far beyond what I wanted to say to this guy, but in such a winsome way. I recommend listening to the whole thing, and be clear where this fideistic nonsense ends – in atheism.

My thoughts

This podcast is a great warning against two views: 1) faith is belief without evidence and 2) religion not about truth, but about life enhancement. Three other related stories might also help: the story of Dan Barker, the story of Nathan Pratt and the story of Katy Perry. I think the Christian life requires a commitment to truth above all. If you think that you can get by as a Christian relying on hymn singing, church attending, mysticism and emotional experiences, you have another thing coming. This is a different time and a different place than 50 years ago, when that sort of naivete and emotionalism might have been safe. Now we have many challenges – some intellectual and some not. To stand in this environment, it’s going to take a little more than piety and emotions. 

People today are very much looking for religion to meet their needs. And this is not just in terms of internal feelings, but also peer approval and mystical coincidences. They expect God to give them happy feelings. They expect God to give them peer approval. They expect God to make every crazy unBiblical, unwise selfish plan they invent “work out” by miracle. They feel very constrained by planning and moral boundaries, believing in a “God of love” who is primarily concerned with their desires and feelings, not with rules and duties. Nothing in the Bible supports the idea that a relationship with God is for the purpose of making us feel happy and comfortable. When people realize that they will be happier in this life without having to care what God thinks, they will drop their faith, and there are plenty of non-Christians to cheer them on when they do it.

I would say to all of you reading that if the opinions of others causes you to stumble then meditate on the following passage: 1 Cor 4:1-4 too. There is only one person’s opinion that matters, ultimately.