Few people, if any, have had as clear of an impact on how I do theology as Dr. Steven Davis. Steve (he said I could call him that now) taught theology and Christian apologetics at Manhattan Christian College while I was doing my undergrad work there. He was instrumental in providing me with a systematic framework for understanding both what I believe and why, and his classes were easily my favorites.
As of this year, however, Steve no longer works at MCC. In fact, he’s no longer a Christian. In a recent podcast with some other MCC alumni (here and here), he came out (as it were) as an atheist. Which, of course, made me think, “Huh. Now isn’t that interesting? I wonder how that happened.”
Steve has graciously agreed to do a series of Q&As with me. So here it is.
Oh. Also, I’d love to hear from the readers any questions or thoughts that you have. Feel free to leave your mark in the comments section below, or shoot me an email. Or if you’d like to talk to Dr. Davis directly, hit him up either on Facebook or Twitter.
Alright, without further ado…
Most of my readers don’t know who you are. If you could, please briefly share your personal story with us. How did you get to where you’re at today? I know that cognitive dissonance can be a really painful thing. So talk to us about what was going on, both externally and internally.
I was raised in a family of devout Christians, and I was thoroughly involved in the life and ministry of the church for most of my 55 years on this earth. In addition, I hold two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and a doctoral degree, all conferred by conservative/evangelical colleges and seminaries. I was a pastor for 15 years, and I taught theology and apologetics at a Christian college for 14 years. Even though I’ve left out a plethora of details, my point here is to demonstrate that I was an ardent Christ-follower and a faithful pastor/teacher for much of my life. However, I recently revealed publically that I’m no longer a Christian or even a theist. You’re probably wondering what would convince someone like me to move from a position of devout Christian theism to my current non-theistic position. I hope to sufficiently outline that process of “de-conversion” in the paragraphs that follow.1
As I’ve assessed the last 25+ years of my life it became clear to me that four important concepts presented to me during my formal education and one professional task that I was engaged in acted together as five guiding principles that became instrumental in moving me from convinced theist to confident non-theist. The intellectual process was not as brief or as clean as it appears to be in outline form, but my hope is that what follows will give you some insight into my journey.2
Guiding Principle #1: The Truth Has Nothing to Fear!
I attended Ozark Christian College (hereafter OCC) in Joplin, MO. I chose to attend OCC due to the school’s reputation for an undying commitment to the truth of the Bible and to the universal propagation of the Christian message. While a student at OCC, I was frequently confronted with the mantra, “The truth has nothing to fear.” This maxim had a profound impact on me. It conveyed to me that I had made the right decision in leaving my construction career and attending Bible college at the age of 28.
Lesson #1: Warranted Confidence
I attended OCC with the conviction that I was a soldier for the truth, so there was no need for me to fear intellectual challenges to the faith. My respect for OCC assured me that my confidence in Christian theism was well-founded. At this point in my life, I had no doubt that the gospel of Christ was the Truth.
Application #1: Seek Unadorned Truth
As intimated above, the assumption at OCC was that Christianity was Truth, and all else was to be judged against that standard. Initially, I was on board with that thesis, but as I continued my studies, I began to think about this in a slightly different manner. Rather than just assume that Christianity was true, maybe I should just seek Truth? If Christianity is true, which at the time I was confident it was, it will stand up to the scrutiny.
I didn’t have the rational or empirical ability to challenge the Christian message at this time, nor would I have wanted to. I was too busy learning how to interpret, exegete, preach, and evangelize. But, “The Truth Has Nothing to Fear” stuck with me, and it established itself as an investigative principle that eventually became an integral component of my research methodology.
Guiding Principle #2: Humans Are Not Objective
During my education at OCC, I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.3 Covey’s book contains much practical advice, but it was this enduring idea that I took away from the book: “Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are—or, as we are conditioned to see it.”4
Lesson #2: I’m Not Objective
The reason that this portion of Covey’s book stood out to me was due to the fact that I had never considered my own objectivity prior to this time. I had just assumed that I was objective most of the time, especially regarding the vitally important things in life. However, I was at OCC to learn, and the book had been assigned for that reason, so I began to ponder my own objectivity. I don’t quite recall, but I think the course professor probably assigned Covey’s book so that we would implement his organizational principles in our life and work. It’s unlikely that I was required to read Covey’s book in the hope that I would question my own objectivity. But, that’s the way I took it, so another seed had been planted that would eventually come to fruition.
Application #2: Assess the Accuracy of Your Map
Covey likens our understanding of reality to a mental map. Covey maintains, “We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually even unaware that we have them. We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be.”5 This is an important point to consider, since we use these maps to navigate reality. In my case, I had a Christian map that I was utilizing to navigate through life. But, what if I had the wrong map?
Guiding Principle #3: Religious Beliefs Have Been Socially Constructed6
When I was in graduate school a professor I admired suggested that I read The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann.7 I took him up on his recommendation, and reading The Social Construction of Reality served as a eureka experience for me. The basic idea in the book is that from the time we were born, our understandings of the world have been fashioned for us by those who were most likely conditioned to believe what they then taught us. If this is the case, how would we know that those who built our realities for us were correct in their assessment and explanation? Most people probably don’t know. They have just been assuming all along that they got it right. In other words, we had an ironclad belief system in place before we even knew what a belief system was.
In addition, our socially constructed assumptions are naively taken for granted.8 We just accept them at face value. As Berger and Luckmann state, “The reality of everyday life is taken for granted as reality. It does not require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence. It is simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity. I know that it is real. While I am capable of engaging in doubt about its reality, I am obliged to suspend such doubt as I routinely exist in everyday life.”9 And if doubts about our views of the world do arise, “These doubts are ‘not to be taken seriously.’”10
Lesson #3: My Religious Reality Was Created for Me
It was at this point in my journey that I began to understand how the three previously mentioned guiding principles embedded in my thinking, along with their related lessons and applications, were connected:
GP1: The Truth Has Nothing to Fear!
If I’m going to be a genuine seeker of truth, I must pursue Truth itself, not a particular version of the truth.
GP2: Humans Are Not Objective.
Therefore, I’m not objective, so I need to discover a methodology for mitigating my subjectivity, if such a method exists.
GP3: Religious Beliefs Have Been Socially Constructed.
Since I was socially conditioned to accept the religious beliefs that I currently hold, an investigation into the foundation of said religious beliefs is warranted.
Application #3: Investigate My Socially Conditioned Reality
The application of the guiding principle is mentioned under GP3 immediately above. However, I must mention that I was still a committed Christian at this point in my journey, but the aforementioned discoveries created an awareness in me that didn’t exist previously.
Guiding Principle #4: The Necessity of Critical Thinking
My doctoral program in adult education introduced me to the specifics of critical thinking. I came to realize that adopting and implementing a critical thinking strategy would provide me with the best methodology for applying guiding principles 1, 2 & 3.
Stephen Brookfield is one of my favorite authors when it comes to thinking critically. Brookfield maintains, “We are generally enclosed within our own self-histories. We assimilate and gradually integrate behaviors, ideas, and values derived from others until they become so internalized that we define ourselves within terms of them. Unless an external source places before us alternative ways of thinking, behaving and living, we are comfortable with our familiar value systems, beliefs, and behaviors.”11
You probably noticed that Brookfield is saying much of what we’ve already discovered above:
However, Brookfield offers us a way to objectively examine our socially constructed belief systems. Just in case you missed it, “Unless an external source places before us alternative ways of thinking, behaving and living, we are comfortable with our familiar value systems, beliefs, and behaviors.”
The “external source” can provide the way of escape, but the external source is revealed to us only if we make a serious effort to engage in the critical thinking process.
Lesson #4: I Can Accurately Assess My Social Construct
Thinking critically provides me with the best method for revealing any inconsistencies in my socially constructed reality.
Application #4: Discover, Challenge & Expose Inaccurate Assumptions
Thinking critically helps us stand outside our socially constructed realities, mitigate our subjectivity, and discover previous unrecognized truth. Here’s how critical thinking works in its most basic form:
Step 1. We must recognize that we all hold unexamined assumptions about reality.
Your assumptions about religious reality likely remain unexamined, since they were a part of you before you ever knew yourself to be you. If you’re not willing to admit that you hold unexamined assumptions in the religious arena of your life, then you might as well give up in regard to critical thinking about personal religious matters.
Step 2. Our unexamined assumptions must be identified and legitimately challenged.
Notice that, once discovered, unexamined assumptions must be legitimately challenged. To be legitimately challenged, controls must be in place that minimize cognitive biases, eliminate logical fallacies, and squelch the influence of groupthink.
Step 3: If we discover that our assumptions were incorrect, then we must explore and imagine more viable alternatives.
Steps 1, 2 & 3 all require that one explore beyond their comfort zone (Brookfield’s “external source”). However, most people are loathe to seriously engage with unfamiliar or challenging information that contravenes their deeply held beliefs.12
Guiding Principle #5: Apologetics Requires Engaging Counter-Arguments
Despite what I’ve said above, when I started teaching theology and apologetics at Manhattan Christian College I was confident that the aforementioned principles, lessons, and applications would lead to a more solid personal belief in Christianity but also to a virtually irrefutable Christian apologetic.
My teaching career started with a militant commitment (not an exaggeration) to a fundamentalist/conservative interpretation of the Bible and to an informed Christian apologetic. I took the “always be ready to make a defense to everyone” (1 Pet. 3:15) exhortation quite seriously. At the time, I was sure that Christian “truth” relied on “divinely powerful [weapons] for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Cor. 10:4). I was completely confident that a divinely prepared apologist could destroy all “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). At this point in my life, my goal was to demonstrate that the arguments against the Bible and the Christian worldview were without merit and that anyone spewing them was being used by the Devil for his evil purposes.
Lesson #5: I Must Understand Counterarguments in Order to Refute Them
Since at this time I was still convinced that the Christian message was true, I experienced no hesitation in applying my five guiding principles to Christianity. I was not satisfied with merely listening to what Christian apologists had to say about counter-arguments. I didn’t think that only reading books by authors with a Christian worldview was enough. In fact, I was so confident that the Christian worldview was true, I was even willing to read, heaven forbid, books by atheists and apostates. I wanted to hear the arguments straight from the horse’s mouth in order that I might be better prepared to destroy their contentions. In spite of my Christian militancy, I entered my study with my mind set on truly understanding the counter-arguments to the Bible and to the Christian worldview.
Application #5: Reveal the Bankruptcy of Theism13
After several years of in-depth research utilizing the above principles as my guide, I discovered this inescapable conclusion: There’s no rational-empirical basis for a supernatural view of the world. As I mentioned near the beginning of this post, I’m no longer a theist. I prefer to call myself a Rational-Empiricist. Rational-Empiricism is the epistemological position and methodological approach of modern science. Rational-Empiricists hold that the best way humanity has for discovering, understanding, and anticipating facts about our world is when reason and experience (empirical data) work together. Other terms that can be acceptable labels for my position: Skeptic, Freethinker, Materialist, Naturalist, De-facto Atheist (A De-facto Atheist is one who thinks that, although we can’t be certain, the existence of god is highly improbable. Google “Dawkins Scale” and look at #6. A #6 on the Dawkins scale is an accurate representation of my position).
How is your family handling this, both immediate and extended? Where is your wife on all of this? Has your mother said anything, or does she even know yet?
I’ll provide a brief answer here, since there’s not a whole lot to say at this point.
I’ve told my family that I no longer believe in God. Their reaction was pretty much what I expected. They all told me that they disagree with my position, but they were quick to follow with sincere assurances of their love for me.
The interaction with my family since my revelation has been mostly superficial. I think they’re still processing something that they probably would have never imagined happening. Of course, it bothers me to know that they are hurting, but the high probability that they will never understand why I changed my mind bothers me more.
Frankly, they don’t have the knowledge or the tools to adequately assess my position and why I’ve reached the conclusion that I have. Please don’t misunderstand me. They are certainly intellectually capable of understanding my process and conclusion, however, they will never make a concerted effort to do so, since, like most people, they are unabashedly convinced that their most deeply held religious beliefs are an accurate reflection of reality.
I will briefly address intelligence and also critical thinking methodology below in regard to my colleagues. What I say there will also apply to my family.
My wife is pretty much where I am regarding theism. Her engagement in the above described process doesn’t parallel the in-depth nature of my investigation, but it was difficult for her to escape my audible theological and philosophical wrestling matches since we live in the same home. ☺
Tell us a little about how other people have responded. What sort of reaction have you received from the other professors at MCC, former students, or even current ones?
Again, I’ll keep this portion relatively brief since I spent so much time responding to the first question.
I have received unsolicited messages from a significant number of former students. They have been overwhelmingly positive. Even though most of them don’t agree with my conclusion, the messages have primarily been expressions of love and respect. Many of them also thanked me for teaching them to think critically and how that methodology has helped them in many areas of their lives.
I have also heard from what you might think are a surprising number of former students who no longer believe in God or who are dealing with serious questions regarding his existence. I wasn’t shocked by these revelations. Based on my research, I’m quite sure that there are many who find themselves in the same situation but are fearful of being found out so they remain silent.
My former colleagues at Manhattan Christian College have been strangely silent. Not long after my resignation, I received several messages suggesting that we set up a time to meet for coffee or a beer. However, there was no follow up regarding most of those messages, and I’ve heard next to nothing since. Here are a few of the reasons that I think might explain the silent treatment:
Please don’t misconstrue this as an indictment of the commitment or intelligence of my former colleagues. But, they probably don’t understand critical thinking methodology, and it’s highly unlikely that they would apply it to Christian theism even if they did.
First, one’s level of intelligence has little to do with possessing the ability to stand outside their socially constructed realities. In fact, a high IQ can actually act as a barrier to escaping the realities we’ve been conditioned to adopt as our interpretive grids.14
Second, most scholars (presumably intelligent folk) don’t understand critical thinking, so it’s even more unlikely that they apply critical thinking principles to their world views. As Richard Paul contends, “Most college faculty at all levels lack a substantive concept of critical thinking.” But, what’s even worse, they don’t even recognize it. Paul continues, “Most college faculty don’t realize that they lack a substantive concept of critical thinking, [but] believe that they sufficiently understand it.”15 I can assure you, based on a significant number of years of experience in academia, that faculty who obviously know nothing about critical thinking will argue vehemently that they do, even though the research (and their actions) clearly demonstrates that they don’t.
My goal is not to be petty or to offer undue criticism. Let me reiterate, my former colleagues are caring, decent, intelligent people. They’re just misguided as far as their theistic views are concerned. I hope it is clear that my purpose here is to point out the misplaced confidence that we often place in religious teachers, claims, and systems.
Request/Disclaimer: I welcome your sincere questions, relevant comments, constructive criticisms, and enlightening insights. Wisenheimers, nitpickers, pedants, and jackasses will be ignored by default. I’d appreciate it if you would gently point out any errors in spelling, grammar, and/or punctuation. I may not have the time or the desire to respond to every comment, question, or criticism. Please, however, do not make the false assumption that my silence indicates the inability to provide an adequate response.
1: Please understand that this blog post should not be construed as a defense of my non-theistic position. At this point, I am merely providing a brief summarization in answer to Rocky’s question. The current blog post is the first in a series of three. In the two subsequent posts I will provide more specificity regarding the atheistic position that I now hold.
2: It has been difficult for me to express my journey in the abbreviated form required for a blog post. Hopefully, the two subsequent posts I author will answer some of the questions you may be formulating at this moment. I have much more to say regarding my journey, but I want to keep this post to a readable length.
3: Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Fireside-Simon & Schuster, 1990), 28. ISBN: 9780671708634
4: Ibid, 28.
5: Ibid, 24.
6: The study of the sociology of knowledge teaches us that most of what humans believe has been socially constructed to some degree. My reason for focusing on religious beliefs here should be obvious.
7: Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Anchor-Random House, 1967). ISBN: 9780385058988
8: Including the religious views that we were conditioned to believe as children.
9: Ibid, 23.
10: Ibid, 44.
11: Stephen D. Brookfield, “Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning,” School Library Media Quarterly (1988): 103.
12: There is a large body of literature regarding this and related topics, but space limitations prohibit me from getting into any detail.
13: I’m not going to explain here. In the next blog post I’ll provide some details that answer why I came to the conclusion that belief in a god is bankrupt.
14: Read Robert J. Sternberg, ed., Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
15: See Richard Paul, The State of Critical Thinking Today (Fall 2004).