Today is part two of my interview with Dr. Steven Davis. In case you missed it last time, Dr. Davis was my theology and apologetics professor in my undergrad years. He recently left his position at my ol’ alma mater, because he’s now an atheist (which makes teaching college kids to defend the faith awkward).
In today’s installment, Davis shares a bit more of his personal journey out of Christianity and into atheism. In particular, he answers a question that has become repetitive in the conversations surrounding his de-conversion.
Davis and I both welcome any feedback and dialogue. Just remember, if you want to engage in meaningful discussion, try your best to stay at the top of the pyramid (below).
Alright, let’s get going.
philosopher standup comedian, George Carlin, said, “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.” Recently I’ve had a number of former classmates reach out to me regarding your self-outing as an atheist, and they always want to know if you came to this conclusion purely by cold, objective, intellectual study. When it comes to church folk and the general Christian faith, you’ve always struck me as cynical… perhaps even a bit misanthropic at times. How much did or didn’t that play into your move from Christianity to atheism?
I doubt if many of the decisions we make are purely rational (maybe 2 + 2 = 4).1 But, even if my decision wasn’t purely rational, it doesn’t mean it was entirely irrational.2 I would argue that my change of mind was based predominately on “cold, objective, intellectual study,” and I’ve already provided a cursory presentation of that process in part one of this interview. In fact, social and psychological reasons kept me chained in Plato’s Cave longer than I should have remained there.3 I don’t think most religious or secular people comprehend the power of the social and psychological manacles forged by religious indoctrination.4 I’ll have a little bit more to say about this below.
Let’s take a look at what making my decision public has cost me:5
1. Loss of Employment:
Fortunately, my wife has a good job, but we’ve still lost a significant portion of our income. Unless you’re quite wealthy, which we’re not (I’ve worked for non-profit organizations most of my adult life), a loss of income can quickly wreak havoc on your financial situation. We’re not in trouble at this point, but we’re not as financially secure as we were, and our situation could degenerate quickly. Unfortunately, we’ve been saddled with increased expenses while our income has decreased.
To illustrate, we’ve had to begin paying for our own health insurance (it was previously employer sponsored). Our health and dental insurance is almost $750.00 a month (and that’s for a Bronze plan). In addition, our 15 year old refrigerator stopped working recently, and we had to spend almost $1000.00 for a new one.
2. End of Teaching Career:
Although I’m an experienced college professor (14 years) with excellent references and stellar evaluations (both employer and student) it’s unlikely that anyone will offer me a teaching position.
An evangelical school is not going to invite me to join their faculty, since I’m not a theist.6 In addition, for many there’s a stigma associated with the conservative/evangelical institutions that granted my academic degrees, so it’s highly improbable that I would be hired by either a secular or religiously liberal college or university even though the schools I attended are accredited by the same associations that accredit theirs. Of course, rejecting me solely on the basis of the schools I attended is a form of the poisoning the well fallacy, but I doubt if any educational institutions will be concerned about that.
3. Lost Respect and Trust:
Atheists are the least trusted group in America.7 Why would I choose to identify with the most hated segment of the population? Because I’ve concluded, due to an honest and thorough investigation, that there’s no legitimate evidence to support belief in a god. That’s it! I’m still the same person I was before I publicly admitted my change of mind. Unfortunately, the immature are unable to see that this is the case. The fact that most would celebrate my humility and courage if I had adopted their perspective merely demonstrates the duplicitous nature of their judgments.
4. Strained Familial Relationships:
There’s really not much to say here. I don’t envision the relationship with my family ever being restored to what it once was.
5. Charges of Irrationality, Insanity, and Demonic Influence:
I’ve seen all of these charges leveled against me. I’m sure there will be more to come. Frankly, I’m not going to dignify this type of baseless charge with a response.
6. Loss of privacy:
I’m not a recluse, but I’m a relatively private person. I’m happy to be alone reading a book, working on a carpentry project, fishing, or exercising. When I do spend time in the company of others, it’s usually with a small group of family and/or friends. I mind my own business, and I prefer that others attend to their own affairs as well. So, you probably won’t be surprised if I tell you I’m not thrilled with the extra attention I’ve received due to this blog interview. I don’t have anything to hide, but I’m just not the kind of person who seeks to be noticed. However, I’m happy to provide answers to these questions for Rocky and others who might be interested in why I’m no longer a theist.
7. Exposure to Unfair Scrutiny:
I don’t mind just criticism. In fact, I welcome it, but, to be forthright, I really don’t care to hear from anyone who hasn’t done their homework related to the subject matter of this interview. And, frankly, most people, despite their academic achievements, haven’t exercised due diligence regarding the investigation of their own religious perspectives. This was evident in the comments I read that were posted in response to part one of this interview.8
8. Emotional-Psychological Anxiety:
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I did not make the move from theism to atheism on a whim. I’ve spent many a sleepless night wrestling with the deep thoughts and raw emotions related to such a radical change in thinking. You can disagree with my conclusion, but you’d be sorely mistaken if you thought I made my decision without experiencing the angst associated with such a transformation. As someone has adroitly said, “People who surrender their religious beliefs must be counted among the smartest, bravest people in the world, because they set out to find truth despite threat of ‘eternal damnation’” (Anonymous).
How I have benefitted from my decision:
1. An Authentic Life:
I’m not using the word authentic to indicate that I’ve created my own meaning. I’m merely saying that I can now be myself, and I can freely live my life based on rational-empirical principles and practices.
2. The Discovery of Genuine Friends:
One of the positive discoveries I’ve made since my declaration is the identity of individuals who I can consider my true friends. It’s bittersweet, but the wheat has been separated from the chaff.
Here’s what making my decision public looks like illustrated in tabular form:
It should be clear that I haven’t done myself many favors by making my decision public. But, would I do it again? Yes, because I don’t think any other conclusion was legitimately possible.
I do find it interesting that people are concerned about the rationality of my decision in light of the fact that most people, if not all, are religious for non-rational reasons. A high percentage of people are conditioned to accept the religion of their parents (they are not converted). In other words, most people are theists of one stripe or another due to socio-cultural factors. Their religiosity is not a result of engaging in a rational decision making process:
Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: 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. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.
… the religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography.9
And, most people who are converted to a particular religious point of view do so for emotional-psychological reasons. That’s why during a personal evangelism class in college I was taught to capitalize on life events that caused people to be receptive to the gospel (these are also the times in people’s lives when they are most vulnerable to psychological manipulation).10 Oddly, this is reminiscent of the tactical methodology that cults utilize to gain adherents and retain members. This procedure is not automatically manipulative, but why would this be necessary if God’s message is so clear? You’d think that the best time to reach someone with the gospel would be when they’re thinking most clearly. If you’re asking someone to make a life-altering decision, wouldn’t you want to present them with all the relevant data so that they could make an informed choice?
But, frankly, the evidence (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter to most people. The overwhelming majority of people become religious due to socio-cultural and emotional-psychological factors, and they remain religious for socio-cultural and emotional-psychological reasons.11 As Guy Harrison explains in the introduction to his book, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God:
Most of the Christians I have encountered around the world … don’t give much thought to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas or C.S. Lewis. They will tell anyone who asks, however, that they believe Jesus is a real god because the Bible says so or because they feel his presence when they pray. Out in the real world I found that believers have little interest in convoluted arguments for gods that involve imagining perfection, irreducible complexity, or the laws of thermodynamics. Unlike professional creationists and apologists, most of the believers I talk with do not feel the need to cite long lists of questionable evidence to attempt to prove that their God is real. They “know” their gods are real because they have “faith” that they are. They believe because they think that they must in order to be a good person. They believe because the world is “perfect” or at least “beautiful.” They believe in a god because it is the only way they have ever known.12
I find it incongruous that folk are concerned about the rationality of my decision when the most likely reason they are religious has little to do with rationality. Frankly, whether you are a pastor, priest, professor, or layperson, there’s little chance that you’re one of the few who have honestly and thoroughly investigated your favored religious view. As J. L. Schellenberg points out:
Propositions promising the good and evoking positive emotion, especially in respect of matters deeply implicated in the nature of things and thus liable to be associated with the meaning of human life and perhaps cosmic opportunities, will be the ones that anyone might want to be true. And so we find ourselves in an arena where neglect of alternatives flourishes, and where past neglect due to the influence of attractiveness may lead to the relative impoverishment of our present evidence concerning such alternatives, yielding a situation in which much relevant evidence we might otherwise have taken account of is instead inaccessible or undiscovered.13
Now, back to the question. Admittedly, I can be cynical, but I’m not a cynic. And, I can be quasi-misanthropic on occasion, but I’m not a misanthrope. But, so what if I was? What if I did make my decision based solely on cynicism or misanthropy? It wouldn’t make Christian theism true. In the same way, the fact that your religious belief is most likely a result of sociological as well as psychological factors wouldn’t make Christian theism false. These are simply textbook examples of avoiding the issue. Only the proper investigative procedure can help us make the most probable determinations regarding these matters.
As I conclude my response to this interview question, I can’t help but point out the following conspicuous irony: It appears that I was willing to sacrifice more for my position than most believers are willing to sacrifice for the god(s) they claim to adore. Something to consider.
1: I can already “hear” people saying, “See, I told you it was emotional!” I find it interesting that in cases like mine religious folk attempt to find non-rational reasons for the change. I’ve read numerous testimonies written by those who have made the move from theism to atheism, and the overwhelming majority describe their transformations in the context of rational processes. See Russel Blackford and Udo Schüklenk, eds., 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), this playlist, and exchristian.net for examples.
2: Black-white, either-or thinking is fallacious and a sign of intellectual immaturity. Watch this video.
3: I think a better title for this series of blog posts would have been, “My Escape from Plato’s Cave.” Here’s a link to a short video (3:10) explaining Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Believe me, I sympathize with the friend who escaped the cave and came back to tell his friends what he had discovered outside the confines of the cavern.
4: I’m admittedly annoyed by atheists who claim to be well-informed yet refer to all religious people as stupid. Those who adopt this position are obviously ignorant of the maximum security prisons created by most religious perspectives. Religious sociopsychological fetters bind both the dolt and the intellectual.
5: BTW, I’m not fishing for sympathy. To quote Lynyrd Skynyrd: “You will not hear me cry ‘cause I do not sing the blues.”
6: However, I think all religious schools should have someone like me as a member of their fulltime faculty. That is, if they want to offer their students a well-rounded education.
7: Atheism is not a group in the sense that one might think. The significant unifying feature is they remain unconvinced that gods exist due to the paucity of evidence in support of god belief. Other than that, atheists are a mixed bag politically, socially, economically, educationally, etc. As Richard Dawkins has observed, “Organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.”
8: I’ll speak more specifically about posted comments in the final part of this series, but it seemed that most commenters were unfamiliar with essential principles of interpretation. Sadly, commenters displayed an apparent inability to recognize author’s purpose and type of literature. I clearly stated that part one “should not be construed as a defense of my non-theistic position,” and that I was “merely providing a brief summarization” of my journey (Part 1, Note 1). It appears, though, that the majority of commenters missed what was clearly stated, and critiqued my cursory introduction as though I intended it to be an exhaustive academic treatise. As I used to tell my students, “If you begin on the wrong hermeneutical foot (i.e., ignore purpose and genre) you’re sure to misinterpret the document.”
9: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Dawkins_Richard/NoNothings_Dawkins.html. In case someone is under the false impression that all I have read are popular works written by the so-called Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse, you can view my reading list here.
10: Here is the list we were given. These are also the times in people’s lives in which they are vulnerable to psychological manipulation. Here is a site that recommends the same scale for evangelism.
11: See this Psychology of Belief playlist for more.
12: Guy P. Harrison, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008), 13-14.
13: J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 38.