Early in December I invited atheists and skeptics to tell their stories here, the idea being that if we see each other as real people, we are much more likely—even on the Internet!—to treat each other as real people.
Ron P. sent me an email with this. I appreciate him sharing this with us.
I suppose I will start at the beginning. I grew up in a nominally Christian home in a fairly typical middle class American household, where weekly church attendance was mandatory but faith itself wasn’t spoken about too much. I was baptized a Catholic when I was 13 but my family went over to Protestantism a few years later, so I attended an evangelical church during my later teens and early twenties when I headed off to college.
During my senior year of high school, I remember picking up a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and subsequently seeking out other works by Lewis—both fiction and non-fiction—to devour. During my first two years of college, I joined a Christian youth group and went to church service every Sunday at a local Baptist church. I met my best friend through that college youth group there. I remember going to their weekly meetings in a lecture hall where we’d sing worship songs and listen to various guest speakers.
This sounds like a typical Christian conversion story but it was much more complicated than that. I always had doubts about faith and thus sought to read a lot to help me navigate through those doubts. I’ve read more apologetics than anyone I personally know, for example. I’d question the party line more often than most in my Bible study, which came to a head during a retreat I went on at the end of my freshman year. The big issue that bothered me the most was the problem of hell, which at first was about how a loving God can consign people to an eternity of conscious torment for their sins (conjoined with their unbelief of course). The rationale of meriting infinite punishment for transgressing against an infinite Being struck me and still strikes me as ridiculous for a number of reasons. None of the evangelical authorities I spoke to could really give me satisfactory answers about this, so I soon decided to prefer a more liberal theological outlook.
I remember clearly my best friend (who also shared my doubts) lending me a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s collected quotes. Kierkegaard was a 19th century Christian philosopher who is known for being the “father of existentialism.” Basically, reading him turned me on to a different way of conceiving Christian faith. Instead of thinking of it as having to assent to a bunch of dubious doctrines, I could think of it as being primarily of existential commitment or venture. This comes down to reading the New Testament as a challenge to obey rather than a holy text filled with doctrines that one needs to mentally affirm.
As time passed, I switched churches a few times before I stopped going altogether. I went from supporting a sort of theological liberalism that was some odd mixture of C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell to really doubting the worthiness of the whole project, as it all seemed after much reading a searching just to be an issue with no clear answers. Sure, I could take a position and argue for it well, but at the end of the day I’d wonder if there really was anything to argue about, or if it was just all an enigma wrapped in a mystery with no possible solution that isn’t just made up. Proof texts can be found for a variety of views ranging from C.S. Lewis’ moderate view, to eternal conscious torment, to annihilationism to universalism.
There is even a deeper problem lying behind all of this, though. The problem is that it is one thing to say one has epistemic justification for believing a certain thing, say, that Jesus is God incarnate or rose from the dead, which are two huge propositions. I think to this day that the arguments for the resurrection are pretty good, all things considered, but I wonder about whether I’d be justified in saying that someone else needs to believe in this in order to be saved from God’s wrath or whatever. Before I get too far off the trail let me turn back to the autobiographical approach that I forgot about once I got on this philosophical tangent.
In my freshman year of college, I had a profound conversion type experience on my knees giving my life over to God. Since then I’ve struggled with sins to which young men are increasingly susceptible, which never really went away despite all my prayers, resolutions, plans, etc. God increasingly became just a theoretical abstraction in my mind, ever more distant and less real when it comes to my daily life. I guess I went from believing he was there and very real, inspiring the Scriptures I read and guiding my life, to not really knowing what was there when it came to questions of ultimate reality. I felt that my personal experiences could be chalked up to the emotionalism of a young man desperately wanting to find some deeper meaning to his life. That and all the pretty young women in my college group gave me a ‘spiritual’ feeling that I now realize was more biologically based.
Since I graduated college in ’08, I’ve gone to church a few times here and there. I still find myself hoping that God is there and thinking about the possibility of it really being true. No label really clearly describes what my position is on the issue well. I could say that I’m a ‘skeptic’ but I’ve never liked how that term means basically atheist or materialist. In a way, I could be taken as a Christian in a dim light, I suppose. I have atheist friends that think of me as that although that’s mainly an assumption on their part. I mainly argue against atheists for the same reason I argue against Christian fundamentalist; I seek to shatter rigid ideological certainties since this world seems bigger than what fits neatly into a pre-fabricated ideology.
I’ve enjoyed this blog and hope I haven’t written too much. I realize during many parts of this that I could have written a whole lot more, mostly about the philosophical issues I’ve just briefly touched on. I tried to strike a balance between philosophical thinking and autobiography. I do know that a lot of people in my age range have felt disillusioned by church and are in my position right now. In any case, this is a haphazard piece of writing so I’d very much appreciate any questions, challenges, etc. from anyone reading this. I’m finding that this exercise has helped clarify things in my own mind at least.
In my December invitation I assured my guest writers of this:
Once your story is posted, I’m going to strongly encourage others to ask questions, and I’m going to enforce the above-mentioned moratorium on judgmentalism… The questions people ask you should be for the purpose of understanding you for who the writer is, rather than something like, “How could an educated person like you come to such irrational conclusions?” which is really just judgmentalism in thin disguise. Of course if the writer brings philosophical/atheist apologetical topics into your story, those things are open for people to ask about.
The floor is open for getting to know one another better. Thanks again, Ron.