Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Common Sense Atheism:" A Critique

As I mentioned yesterday, the Christian apologist Vox Day and Luke the “Common Sense Atheist” are having a spirited debate about the merits of faith and Christianity.

Not surprisingly, Luke is winning the debate because Vox isn’t equipped to be a defender of his religion (either temperamentally or intellectually). In any case, I was intrigued enough by Luke’s writing to browse his website, Common Sense Atheism, which is quite comprehensive and pleasing to the eye.

However, before I started to troll through Luke’s archives, I speculated about what kind of person would found a blog called Common Sense Atheism and eagerly volunteer to be a proponent of atheism. I thought back to my post on June 10, The Blasphemy Challenge, in which I discussed a strange, growing phenomenon in which people were posting videos of themselves on the Internet and “denying the existence of the Holy Spirit.”

At the time, I wrote…

While I’m reluctant to psychoanalyze over different 1,000 people en mass, I would wager that most of these folks were either 1) raised in a deeply Christian family, and therefore their “courageous act” is simply the act of disobeying their family, or 2) at one point, they held a deep faith in Christ, but through disenchantment with life itself, they lost their faith (although they regret that circumstance, and wish it could be rectified - even now). By denying God, they are expressing their childish rage against their Father (in a desperate plea to get His attention).

With that in mind, I speculated that Luke was the son of a pastor or some other leader in the church and was raised in a deeply Christian family, community, etc.

Sure enough, as soon as I clicked on Luke’s essay, My Story, I was greeted by this opening sentence…

“Ah, the life of a pastor’s kid!”

[Smiling] Anyhoo, to continue Luke’s story…

I grew up in Cambridge, Minnesota – a town of 5,000 people and 22 Christian churches. My father was (and still is) pastor of a small church. My mother volunteered to support Christian missionaries around the world.

I went to church, Bible study, and other church functions every week. I prayed often and earnestly. For 12 years I attended a Christian school that taught Bible classes and creation science. I played in worship bands. As a teenager I made trips to China and England to tell the atheists over there about Jesus.

And it goes on from there…

So what happened to the dude’s faith?

I moved to Minneapolis for college…By this time I had little interest in church structure or petty doctrinal disputes. I just wanted to be like Jesus. So I decided I should try to find out who Jesus actually was. I began to study the Historical Jesus.

What I learned, even when reading Christian scholars, shocked me. The gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, by non-eyewitnesses. They are riddled with contradictions, legends, and known lies. Jesus and Paul disagreed on many core issues. And how could I accept the miracle claims about Jesus when I outright rejected other ancient miracle claims as superstitious nonsense?

These discoveries scared me. It was not what I had wanted to learn. But now I had to know the truth. I studied the Historical Jesus, the history of Christianity, the Bible, theology, and the philosophy of religion. Almost everything I read – even the books written by conservative Christians – gave me more reason to doubt, not less.

I started to panic. I felt like my best friend – my source of purpose and happiness and comfort – was dying. And worse, I was killing him. If only I could have faith! If only I could unlearn all these things and just believe. I cried out with the words from Mark 9:24, “Lord, help my unbelief!”

I tried. For every atheist book I read, I read five books by the very best Christian philosophers. The atheists made plain, simple sense, and the Christian philosophers were lost in fog of big words that tried to hide the weakness of their arguments.

I did everything I could to keep my faith. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force myself to believe what I knew wasn’t true. On January 11, 2007, I whispered to myself: “There is no God.”

The next day I emailed my buddy Mark [TW: Not this Mark, I presume?]:

I didn’t want to bother you, but I’m lost and despairing and I could really use your help, if you can give it.

I made a historical study of Jesus, which led me to a study of the Bible, historical and philosophical arguments for and against God, atheist arguments, etc. It has destroyed my faith. I think there is almost certainly not a God…

I’m fucking miserable… I told my parents and they sobbed for 30 minutes. Can you help me?

As always, Mark responded with love and honesty. But he didn’t give me any reasons to believe. He said he believed mostly for the “aesthetics of belief” and his “somewhat mystical experiences of Christ.” He wrote, “In a way, I am a Christian because I want to be one, and the logic flows from there.

Very interesting. Actually, this whole tale seems straight out of The Mustard Seed.

Anyway, Luke continues…

I also wrote a defiant email to an atheist radio show host to whom I’d been listening, Matt Dillahunty:

I was coming from a lifetime high of surrendering… my life to Jesus, releasing myself from all cares and worries, and filling myself and others with love. Then I began an investigation of the historical Jesus… and since then I’ve been absolutely miserable. I do not think I am strong enough to be an atheist. Or brave enough. I have a broken leg, and my life is much better with a crutch… I’m going to seek genuine experience with God, to commune with God, and to reinforce my faith. I am going to avoid solid atheist arguments, because they are too compelling and cause for despair. I do not WANT to live in an empty, cold, ultimately purposeless universe in which I am worthless and inherently alone.

I hope that I find a real, true God in my journey of blind faith. I do not need to convince you of that God, since you seem satisfied as an atheist. But I need to convince myself of that God.

Matt responded to my every sentence with care, understanding, and reason. But I still tried to hang onto my faith. For a while I read nothing but Christian authors. Even the smartest ones just made lots of noise about “the mystery of God.” They used big words so that it sounded like they were saying something precise and convincing.


My dad told me I had been led astray because I was arrogant to think I could get to truth by studying.

Oh brother!

Humbled and encouraged, I started a new quest to find God. I wrote on my blog:

I’ve been humbled. I was “doing discipleship” in my own strength, because I thought I was smart enough and disciplined enough. [Now] having surrendered my prideful and independent ways to him, I can see how my weakness is God’s strength.

I’ve repented. I was deceived because I did not let the Spirit lead me into truth. Now I ask for God’s guidance in all quests for knowledge and wisdom.

I feel like I’ve been born again, again.

It didn’t last. Every time I reached out for some reason – any reason – to believe, God simply wasn’t there. I tried to believe despite the evidence, but I couldn’t believe a lie. Not anymore.

No matter how much I missed him, I couldn’t bring Jesus back to life…

Looking back, I feel lucky that I left God for purely rational reasons instead of emotional ones. Indeed, all my emotions were pushing the other way...

In many ways I regret my Christian upbringing. So much time and energy wasted on an invisible friend. So many bad lessons about morality, thinking, and sex. So much needless guilt.

But mostly I’m glad this is my story. Now I know what it’s like to be a true believer…

I know what it’s like to isolate one part of my life from reason or evidence, and I know what it’s like to think that is a virtue…I know what it’s like to believe God is so far beyond human reason that we can’t understand him, but at the same time to fiercely believe I know the details of how he wants us to behave.

That was my experience for 22 years, and I am grateful for it. Now I can approach believers with true understanding.

All very interesting. But note that – at least in this essay – Luke shows the same mentality as the folks who took the “Blasphemy Challenge.” On June 10, I wrote about them…

I think they’ve incorporated society’s overarching flawed assumption that there are only 2 possible sources of truth: 1) Christian Revelation, or 2) nihilistic atheism. And if the first choice is so obviously untrue, then the second choice is all that remains.

Could there be a third choice? A third way? [Short answer: Yes]

This morning, I sent Luke an email, in which I wrote (in part)…

I am thinking about writing an analysis of your intellectual journey on my blog, but before I do that, I was wondering: Do you have any essays which go into detail about why you have chosen to become an atheist - as opposed to just rejecting Christianity? In other words, do you have 1 or 2 links which explain why you have chosen to reject the notion of God entirely, and not just the Christian God?

Luke sent me 3 links. They were: My Journey to Atheism, Open Letter to a World of Believers, and My Fondest Memories of God.

I read through those essays, and while they were certainly fascinating, they did not address my original questions. Later on, when I sent him my essay, The Best Evidence for God in One Paragraph, his response was pretty mean-spirited.

I quickly replied…

Just out of curiosity: Have you done any research and/or thinking about the 3 issues I bring up in my essay (The Anthropic Principle, Intelligent Design, and Near Death Experiences)? And I don't just mean regurgitating Richard Dawkins screeds ("Intelligent Design is Creationism in a cheap tuxedo", etc). I'd honestly be interested to know how much time (if any) you've spent examining the validity of those arguments.

Luke’s response was vague and confusing (I’ll refrain from quoting it directly because I'm reluctant to share what other people write to me in emails). Of course, I can certainly post what I wrote.

I told Luke…

You'll have to forgive me if I remain skeptical. And the best evidence for my skepticism is your blog itself which (despite being quite comprehensive) never addresses the issues I raised. Not one of them. And not once.

And then, later on, I said...

To the extent that you are sincere in being a lover of truth and reason, I want to make sure you have all of the facts and arguments at your disposal, knowing full well (based on my own experience) that those facts and arguments cannot be found in either the Bible or in the New Atheist literature. They require an even deeper search than most people can even begin to imagine.

So where do things stand at the moment? Well…I don’t know…At first, I thought Luke was a sincere lover of truth and reason, but now – based on our email exchange – I’m not sure. Actually, I doubt it. The seemingly knowledgeable, thoughtful young man who leaps out in the dialogue with Vox Day did not appear in my email exchange. Quite the opposite. I should mention, however, that I’m a pretty forgiving person when it comes to ignorance. Of course, I am NOT a forgiving person toward those who refuse to overcome their ignorance. And I fear that Luke enjoys his ignorance too much to consider other possibilities. We’ll see, though. This warrants monitoring.

**UPDATE, OCT. 21, 2009**

Luke just wrote a very thoughtful response on his website. I'm impressed. There may be hope, after all.

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