Interview with an Atheist

Following are my answers to a some questions I received from a Christian reader of this site. With the purpose of increasing understanding of people on “my side of the fence,” I publish them here. The story of my original deconversion from Christianity is essential background, and is available here.

If others want to write with questions, I might answer some of them here too: ironwolf@dangerousgames.com.

This is an edited version of our e-mail exchange.

Q You have said that when you started looking into things, you were a Christian attempting to understand why atheism was untrue. How deeply grounded would you say you were when you started searching to discount atheism?
A This is a subjective question. Should I say I was “grounded enough?” How about “very grounded?” Is “very very grounded” any more informative? As far as I know, there is no objective way to rate a person’s “grounded-ness.” I believed, and my belief was sincere. I think I learned the entire Bible better than most people growing up in a church do.
Q Did you study apologetics first?
A Apologetics was not a subject widely taught to the laity of my church (the Worldwide Church of God or WCG), although certain sermons or publications may have touched on it without ever calling it that. I never went to the church’s college, where although I knew they taught “comparative religion,” I don’t recall ever even hearing the word “apologetics” mentioned by anyone in the church. I only learned that word when I began my independent studies into religious thought.
Q What was it exactly in the apologetics course work that specifically began to undermine your beliefs?
A I get the sense from your question that you think I took some sort of “apologetics” class that led me astray. My independent research began primarily on the Internet in the early to mid 90s, reading so-called FAQs, (“Frequently Asked Questions”) lists posted to by various Internet discussion groups at that time. These documents were created on hundreds of different topics to orient newcomers to the discussion groups and help the “old hands” to avoid having to field the same questions over and over again. Among many others, I read FAQs on atheism, written by actual atheists, and apologetics, written by actual Christian apologists. This was the first time I ever had access to either kind of material. Various references there led me to further web sites and numerous books on “both sides of the fence.”
Q Is it possible that the instructor wasn’t very good or had enough knowledge?
A Again, you seem to presume that I took a single course that changed everything quickly for me. In reality, I studied many materials and had many conversations over several years before accepting that I had arrived at a different world view. Examples of books on Christian Apologetics I read are Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict, E. Calvin Beisner’s Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics: Dialogs About Christian Faith and Life, and Norman Geisler’s, Christian Apologetics.
Q Since your wife is a believer, does she attend church or studies?
A Yes.
Q Did you meet when you were of faith or after?
A We met, dated, and married while we were both in the faith.
Q Is it painful for her, knowing you don’t believe in God?
A She wishes we both believed the same way. At the same time, we’ve discussed our world views enough so I think we understand and accept each other.
Q What did it feel like when your belief left you?
A It was not a sudden thing— there was no single moment of epiphany. It was a gradual accumulation of learning and thinking. Along the way I went through many emotional passages. In the most painful moments it was a sense of mourning the loss of promises my religion had made. At times there was the furtive thrill of breaking taboos— learning things that I felt had been kept from me “for my own good” so-to-speak, and realizing that I was capable of drawing my own conclusions. In the best moments there was the thrill of discovery, the feeling of many long-jumbled puzzle pieces finally clicking into place. There were times of deep introspection as I came to grips with the implications of my new knowledge. Looking into the abyss of my own mortality was frightening at first, but now I simply accept it as inevitable. There was a sense of great relief, freedom, lightness, and renewal at finally accepting all these implications and realizing that I had the rest of my life before me.
Q Did you ever really love God at one time, or do you think you were just following church protocol?
A I really loved God as I understood Him. The “church protocol” was never as important to me as my basic faith.
Q Was there one specific thing that was the clincher for you to turn to atheism?
A As I have explained above, no. There were certain things that did begin to give me doubts. For example: growing up in the church I was never exposed to lists of biblical contradictions like those found so easily and discussed so fervently on the Internet now. But I was taught to really studymy Bible, and was taught a unified view of scripture that I think is still more inclusive of the entire Bible than many denominations trouble themselves with. But I remember when, as a teenager, I realized that the Bible contained two disparate accounts of the death of Judas Iscariot. I discovered this on my own— no-one pointed it out to me. As I had always been taught that the Bible was a historical document, I wondered how anyone could be described as having two very different methods of death, and several other details about the two accounts also conflict. I found myself intellectually unsatisfied by the answer I received, so I asked other ministers as well, and received several different answers ranging from:”First he hung himself, and the tree limb he used was suspended over a cliff, and at the moment he hung himself the rope broke and he fell onto the rocks below where his body broke open.”

to…

“After he hung himself and was dead until his body softened and bloated, he slipped out of the noose and his body popped and broke open on the ground.”

to…

“What exactly happened doesn’t affect our basic understanding of our Savior’s story.”

As I say, there were several other variants. The answers all seemed to hinge on either constructing a wild, speculative scenario about how it “could” or “must” have happened, or acknowledging the conflict while attempting to negate its importance. And all of the harmonizations asked me to take an additional, uncritical “leap of faith” to be at peace with them, even though the various harmonizations didn’t themselves make physical sense and were themselves in conflict.

But as I said, this is not “the thing that did it for me.” It was still to be a number of years until I seriously embarked on my study of materials outside the Bible and the church’s teachings about it. It was the accumulation of many things like this and other lines of reasoning in addition.

A major “puzzle piece” that eventually fell into place with regard to stories like the Death of Judas Iscariot was in learning that it is perfectly normal for folklore to change, often dramatically, as it is told and re-told over time, particularly in times and places where oral tradition is a primary way of passing information. There are literally thousands of examples of this that folklorists collect and study. And it is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the discrepancy: different people heard and passed on what was initially the same story, and over time different and conflicting details were introduced.

Of course, you may say that we should then accept the facts upon which these two stories agree: there was a person name Judas Iscariot who died somehow. This might be reasonable to accept as a provisional belief, but the tale it is woven into is full not only of discrepancies, but extraordinary events called miracles. This too is common in folklore— stories from religions outside of Christianity and secular folklore as well tell of characters, acts, and situations that are magical or supernatural. If people take such stories seriously we call them mythology, but mythologies still follow folkloric patterns. So while it might be reasonable in isolation to accept that a person upon which the character of Judas is based lived, it is another thing entirely to transform that plausible idea into Judas Iscariot as a betrayer of God-made-man who ended up buying a field (and also not buying it) and dying a bizarre double death that was both suicide and accidental— and expect it to be accepted as historical fact.

Furthermore, there are many stories about Jesus which do not agree with the canonical Bible, including many apocrypha, the Islamic view of Jesus, and the Jewish view of Jesus. The fact that later folkloric texts include characters based, yet very different from the “orthodox” view of Jesus is not surprising at all when viewed from a folkloric perspective, nor is it surprising that numerous characters with striking similarities to Jesus appear in older religions and cultures that would be drawn upon as source material for the Jesus myth.

The question comes down to, “Which explanation of the facts fits them better?” For me, the folkloric explanation fits all the facts, including the myriad contradictions in the Bible. While faithful Christians must tortuously construct custom interpretations, miracles, and metaphors to explain each one (not to mention hold a world view that includes all the other Lunacies of which I have written elsewhere), the folklorist simply points to the accumulated folklore of humanity and says, “This fits the patterns we see everywhere.”

Q Are your children being raised as atheists?
AMy wife takes our kids to church. They are learning Bible stories and quotes. But neither my wife nor I am telling them that they must accept these stories as historical facts.At the level they can understand, I teach them an appreciation for critical thinking and science. I am not “raising them as atheists,” for several reasons:

  1. I do not think that teaching dogmatic world views is conducive to mental health (and certainly atheism can be taught this way: witness the “state atheism” of the Soviets.)
  2. I think that putting religious or philosophical labels on kids such as “Christian child”, “Muslim child” or “atheist child” is premature and coercive.
  3. I am committed to loving them regardless of their eventual choice of religion or no religion— whether they self-identify as atheists or members of a religion is unimportant to me as long as they are good people.
QHow does your family feel about your atheism?
AMy Dad has always been an unbeliever, but he was never outspoken about it— as far as I can tell he just had no interest in talking with anyone else about why he didn’t believe, much less trying to convince them. My Mom has always been a spiritual seeker, and has been some form of Christian since I was five, which for my purposes is all my life. When I first told her I was an atheist, she assured me she thought it was just a phase. That would be almost 13 years ago now. She also went through some hurt and anger, but has since come to terms with that. We have discussed why I believe what I believe but I never raise atheism with her, as I know where she stands, don’t ever expect she will change, and respect her. But she and I have had our tensions because she also wants to “share her joy” quite a bit, but I have let her know that I am not there to be a vessel for her preaching and she knows that if she does start going on I will listen and then raise objections she doesn’t want to hear. Most of the time we get along fine as long as we discuss other topics.I am the oldest of three brothers, and we were all raised in the WCG. The middle brother describes himself as a “liberal Christian” who still attends WCG, and we get along fine. He married a lady who also grew up in the WCG and now attends one of its conservative offshoots, and although we are cordial I think she views me with a good deal of suspicion merely because I am an atheist. The youngest brother describes himself as agnostic and (similar to our Dad) has no interest in engaging in debate.

Q Are most of your friends atheists?
A Currently I have friends who are Christians, atheists, and agnostics. Looking back, I realize that my non-religious friends were always quite respectful of my beliefs, and while I had a few religious debates with acquaintances or colleagues over the years (taking the Christian side, of course) I never felt that anyone ever tried to push me into irreligion. In the late 90s I eventually told some of these friends about my in-crisis and/or changing views, and found them to be quite supportive. My Christian friends of that time were clearly caring, but also pretty much at a loss over how to “talk me out of” the direction in which I was headed.
Q Do you have Christian friends?
A Yes, not the least of whom is my wife. Outside of that, yes again, although usually religion doesn’t come up, or when it does it is usually the subject of a brief, yet collegial debate.
Q Why was Ronald Weinland the one you wanted to expose, was it because of his claims for April 2008?
A Besides Ron Weinland, I have so far written about two other false prophets on my site: Ahmad Nishitoba and Yisrayl Hawkins. Yisrayl Hawkins was also once a WCG member. Nishitoba, on the other hand, comes out of an Islamic world view. You can see these articles by clicking here, and will need to click on each article title to read the entire article.As I grew up in the WCG headed by Herbert Armstrong, who by almost any stretch of the imagination must now be called a false prophet, I find myself particularly amazed that people still have the chutzpah to come forward with near-term predictions. While (to my experienced eyes) they are clearly deluded, the delusion of their followers is even more astounding. It is really impossible to reason with them, even after their specific prophecies fail to manifest. So I often have fun with them instead. I don’t consider mockery and satire in these cases to be mean-spirited— I wish these people no harm. And valuable ideas can be taught quite well with a measure of laughter mixed in. Finally, sometimes laughing in the face of tragedy is all we can do.

I suppose I go after guys like Nishitoba, Hawkins, and Weinland because they are entertaining, easy to expose, and make vivid cautionary tales for would-be followers.

Q Do you believe in love?
A This question could mean “Do you think love exists?” or “Do you value love?” The answers are yes, and yes.
Q What is love, in your opinion?
AConsidering that this is a deeply-discussed issue among both philosophers and theologians, and that “love” has got to be one of the most overloaded words in English, I don’t think I’m going to be able to give you a short answer that fully defines love. But allow me to hazard a guess that what you really want to know is: “Do you think love is (at least in principle) completely explicable by natural means and is therefore devoid of any sort of supernatural component?”The best evidence I have leads me to believe that love is entirely an aspect of the natural human experience— so, yes.

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