If you remove God from your life, will it be better? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Recently, someone on twitter sent me a link to an article by Skeptic Mom on the question of if life is better without God. I took a look and saw a whole lot of issues that I deal with in the modern day church and figured this would be a good example. Now looking at the post, I don’t see Skeptic Mom at this point as some anti-theist, but just someone who is skeptical of religious claims, which is just fine, but I wonder how many of these claims she’s skeptical of are Christian claims and how many are cultural Christian claims. Let’s start with the first one.
For Skeptic Mom, the first benefit is that her life is more her own. What does that mean? Let’s look at what she says about this:
At church, we were taught stories about biblical characters, such as Jonah, who were punished for putting their own desires over God’s. Stories such as Jonah and the whale (or great fish or sea monster) were told to remind us that God had a plan for each of us and that we must follow his plan. Our job was to discover God’s plan and to follow the path he had chosen for us. We were told to trust that God knew best.
Now that I am an atheist, I no longer have to try to determine what God wants for me. I feel free to determine what I want out of life. I can set my own goals and make my own decisions. The realization that we create our own purpose in life has been a very freeing experience for me.
This is an example of how far our church education has gone. I do not fault Skeptic Mom for this. I fault our churches and the teaching curriculum that we often have. Let’s take a story like Jonah. Do we really think the writer of Jonah sat down and wrote the story hoping that the end lesson for his audience would be “God has a plan for your life.”? Unfortunately, too many of us are taught that. I still remember being in the Sunday School class at a church once and hearing that Joshua wrote the book of Joshua so that the Israelites would learn to obey God. This was in fact not a children’s class. This was the college class of which I was a member.
Our college students are getting simplistic teaching at their churches and Ph.d. atheism in the universities (Along with a culture of wanton sexuality) so why are we surprised that so many are falling away into atheism? It’s not really a contest.
If I was starting to teach on the book of Jonah, I’d want to ask some questions first. For instance, do we have any idea of who wrote it? Maybe it was Jonah. Maybe it wasn’t. Do we have any idea of when it was written? What was the context it was written in? Do we know who the audience is? For some books, we might have better answers then others. Then I’d want to know the historical situation going on. Why is this book important enough to be in the canon? For the Old Testament, what did it mean to the early Jews? For the New Testament, what did it mean to the early Christians?
Then I’d want to see what is going on in the book. For Jonah, this isn’t a book about following the will of God, though one certainly should. This is a book about the grace of God. God is a gracious God who desires to see all people come to Him, even a pagan nation like Assyria. In fact, Jonah tells us the reason he did not want to go to Nineveh is because he knew of the grace of God. This is a preacher who has a massive revival after a few days of preaching and he is upset about it. The point we have to ask from the story is who is the God described in the book of Jonah and how are we to live in response?
Much of what Skeptic Mom has here unfortunately comes from a rabid individualism that we have in the text that we center on what the text means for me. We often jump straight to application instead of doing a rich and rewarding look at the text. This also fits in with the idea of “God has a plan for your life” which is something not really taught in Scripture and no, do not dare try to individualize Jeremiah 29:11 on me. Try to look up the context of what is going on in that passage first.
Sometimes people come to me with what they think is a difficult question. They want to know what God’s plan is for their life. I tell them that’s really a simple question and they’re usually surprised. I tell them every time that the answer is to conform them to the likeness of Christ?
“Well what does that say about who I marry?”
“Well you need to marry a Christian of the opposite sex, but the more important question is not what kind of spouse will you marry, but what kind of spouse will you be?”
“What does that say about my career?”
“Don’t work somewhere immoral, but it’s not who will you work for but what kind of worker will you be?”
“Where should I live?”
“It’s not a question of who will be your neighbors, but what kind of neighbor will you be?”
Notice how many times we ask these questions, it’s about what the world and others can do for us instead of the other way around?
So as it turns out, I have great freedom here and so do you. I tire of the idea that we have to find God’s will as if it’s an Easter Egg Hunt and God will give us clues that we’re getting warmer or colder. #1 then is a belief of cultural Christianity. It is foreign to the Bible. Let’s move on to #2. This is about intellectual growth. Skeptic Mom writes that:
When I was a Christian, I did not often think deeply about religious issues. One reason for this was because I didn’t view religion as complex. I thought it was a matter of finding the true religion and the right answers. Often, I simply looked to an authority, such as a trusted minister or the Bible to find answers. The other reason I rarely thought deeply about religion was because my beliefs were rarely challenged. Almost everyone I knew was religious, and those who were not did not challenge my beliefs. It was a subject that was rarely discussed on anything more than a superficial level.
Now that I have become an atheist, I think more deeply about religious issues. Because the majority of people I interact with are people who do not share my perspective on these issues, I am forced to confront another point of view. Even when my beliefs are not directly challenged, I often hear people stating an opinion that differs from my own. This forces me to think about my position on issues to determine what I really think and to determine if I have a good reason for holding my position. Even when I am speaking with another atheist about issues that we agree on, I find the conversations tend to be deeper because we often look at the issues from other points of view to determine if our opinions and assumptions are correct. I think that the reason we can more easily look at different perspectives and possibilities is because neither of us believe that there is a right answer given to us by a deity.
This one really saddens me in particular. As many readers know, I have been on a long crusade to stop anti-intellectualism in the culture. Now do I think in many cases this has hit the atheist movement. Absolutely. Most arguments I see on the internet from atheists are quite frankly embarrassing to look at. I think many in the movement who claims to be “brights” and intellectuals are anything but. Yet if it happened there, I believe it happened because it started with the church first.
And this is the anomaly. You go back and look at the early church and the medieval period and the Reformation era and these were guys who took the life of the mind very seriously. The abandonment of intellectualism in the church around the late 19th century and the early 20th century was one of the worst choices the church ever made. Too many Christians live in a climate of anti-intellectualism where any real thinking is seen as going against the virtue of “faith.” This faith however is certainly not any kind of faith that the Bible endorses. That I have written about elsewhere.
In fact, I would say when I get together with my Christian friends, we have rich intellectual discussions. It’s not “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” When we do quote the Bible, we also have a great discussion on what the various passages mean and how best to apply them today. My own wife could tell you that if I need to tell her something, I could quote Scripture. I could also quote Lewis or Chesterton or Aristotle or Epictetus. I believe in having a rich intellectual reservoir to draw from and that includes those outside of the church. Christianity provides me a wellspring of knowledge to draw from.
For #3 Skeptic Mom says that the world makes more sense because:
When I was a Christian, there would be times I would learn something that did not fit with my Christian worldview. Often, I would have a brief moment of thinking, “if this is correct, Christianity is not.” Instead of revising my worldview, I would find a way to rationalize my beliefs, decide the information must be incorrect, or ignore that piece of information. For example, I used to believe that our personality was contained within our soul. When we went to the afterlife, our personality would be intact. When I learned how after Phineas Gage suffered a severe head injury his personality changed so drastically that his friends said he no longer seemed to be the same person, I began to see personality as a function of the brain and not the soul. For a moment, I questioned my religious teachings about the soul, but I quickly dismissed this thought and tucked it away in a corner of my mind.
Once I allowed myself to truly consider that my Christian beliefs might be wrong, thoughts I had dismissed came flooding back to my mind. Once I looked at the information without my lens of Christianity, it made more sense. It is very freeing to know that now as I come across new information, I can accept it without trying to make it fit into a preconceived worldview.
I can’t really buy this last part, because we all have a worldview and we will all try to interpret new data in light of that worldview first. Few of us would see a piece of data and decide to chuck our whole worldview at that point. For that to happen, it must be an incredibly convincing piece of data and if you trade in your faith lightly, then it was a faith that you took lightly to begin with.
Now I would like to state that I do not attempt to answer questions really on the relationship of mind and body or dualism like that. That’s not my area. I know many people who do and they happily address objections like this one. This I think is an important part of worldview thinking. You cannot be a master or authority in everything, so you need to learn to be an authority on select issues and seek to learn as much as you can about those. Still, this is a secondary question for Christianity. The primary questions are “Is there a God?” and then “Did He Raise Jesus from the dead?” If one is convinced of these, then one can look at an objection and say “I do not understand that, but I see it does not touch these primary issues so I am willing to think about it, but I am not willing to base my worldview on it.”
I would in fact argue that the world makes more sense on theism. I think theism best explains morality, existence itself, statements of truth, and the life and resurrection of Jesus. I do not think atheism really explains anything. This is part of the problem. I hold my worldview because it makes the most sense. Someone holds the opposite for the same reason. I advise those curious to read the best scholarship on both sides. From there we move on to #4 which is about having a morality that makes sense. Skeptic Mom writes:
I used to assume that whatever God said was right was good. And, anything God said was wrong was a sin. However, there were several Bible stories that I learned in Sunday school where it seemed that God was wrong. For example, I thought it was wrong for God to test Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his beloved son. Even though God did not make Abraham go through with the sacrifice, I thought that the experience had to have been horrifying for both Abraham and Isaac. I also thought it was wrong for God to demand that his subjects be so loyal that they would even be willing to sacrifice their own children. I would not have wanted my parents to be willing to sacrifice me to God and I knew I would never be willing to sacrifice children I might have one day. I struggled to understand how God was right in this and other Bible stories. My Sunday school teachers taught us that when we could not understand God’s ways it was simply because human beings were not smart enough to understand. Assuming that must be the case, I tried not to think too deeply about those stories. Later in life, I also began to question if everything I was taught was a sin was really a sin. Some things that I was taught was a sin, such as premarital sex, did not seem really wrong, at least not all of the time. I had a tough time reconciling how certain things could really be sins worthy of eternal hellfire. Yet, somehow, I assumed they must still be sins if god said they were.
Now that I am an atheist, I no longer believe in the concept of sin. I am not concerned with what the Bible says is right or wrong. I decide for myself whether something is right and wrong based on whether the action is harmful or whether it promotes human flourishing. My judgments are now based on my values. And, when I learn of immoral acts that are by the Bible, I condemn them.
The start is a basic version of Divine Command Theory, which I do not hold to. Still, even a holder of that viewpoint would want to flesh it out even more beyond that. I understand the problem with stories in Sunday School. One key part is that when difficulties were raised, students were told humans are just not smart enough to understand. While there could be some truth to this, in that surely the way a deity could act would be hard for me to understand, let us not dare make a statement that will dissuade the asking of questions and the seeking of answers! When we do that, we are creating atheists.
Just like Skeptic Mom.
Looking at the story of Abraham, it’s important to note that Abraham was told to do this for Isaac was not just a random child, but was the son of the promise. The way to know that Abraham believed the promise was to see if Abraham would act in a way that would put the promise itself in jeopardy. Abraham had himself interacted with God many times and seen miraculous events in his own life, so it wasn’t that he just heard a voice in his head and that had no bearing in reality. He had even spoken to God when God came before him in the form of a human messenger to discuss the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham was also an old man and Isaac would have been a much younger one. Anyone really think an old man like Abraham could force Isaac to get on an altar? Isaac was seen as a willing sacrifice, and Isaac lived in a culture where many would die at a young age and death could come from wild animals, enemy raids, or disease at any moment. Finally, let’s not forget that God STOPS the action from taking place. We also see how shocking this must have been for Abraham because the request is so unusual and out of character for God that we think that something has to be up in this whole story. Indeed, there is. This was the way of showing Abraham really believed the promise.
Yet I do not think morality makes sense in atheism. What is the good? What is the evil? To say that which promotes human flourishing is too vague. No doubt many slave owners thought human flourishing was benefited by owning slaves. No doubt many Nazis believed human flourishing was benefited by the final solution. No doubt many communists believed that human flourishing was established by removing those who were impediments to the rule of Communism. We can even ask it on a smaller level. Did the refrigeration industry cause human flourishing when it put many in the ice industry out of a job? Why should we care about human flourishing anyway? What makes us so special? Maybe we should stop having bacon and put pig flourishing primary?
Then of course, what is goodness itself? How does it exist? Is it a reality that is found in things and actions, or is it just this idea that exists in the mind that we apply to those things and actions? Those are two very different positions. One ends in objectivism. One ends in relativism.
I also do not think for a moment that we should take the position that we need the Bible to know right from wrong. I think the Bible teaches many great moral truths, but these could be known apart from Scripture. In fact, passages like Romans 2 that speak of the Law written on our hearts agree with this. The only reason the people in Romans 1 can be held accountable is that they already do have an idea of right from wrong. It is also not like that the Israelites got the Ten Commandments and said “Wow! We have to stop this murder thing! Turns out that’s not a good thing to do!” Christian morality should be informed by the Bible, but also by sound thinking in the study of philosophy and metaphysics.
The last part is a focus on life and here I will quote just the first paragraph.
When I was a Christian, I spent a great deal of time trying to make it to heaven and avoid being sent to Hell. I spent time trying to avoid activities that would bring the condemnation of God, feeling guilty over being a sinful human being, and begging for forgiveness from God for displeasing him. Instead of trying to make this life the best one it could be, I spent a lot of time worrying about the next life.
At this point, I have to wonder what kind of environment Skeptic Mom was in. It sounds like one that was highly legalistic and very anti-intellectual. This is a kind of Christianity that should be abandoned. Let’s consider something interesting about guilt. Recently I did a search on Bible Gateway after a guest on my show noted that guilt is never talked about in Romans. I went to the search tool and put in the word guilt. It was not in Romans, but I noticed something about every time guilt was used. It never once referred to a feeling of guilt. It referred to guilt in the legal sense. The same with innocence. Yet guess what we focus on here in America? Yep. The feeling of guilt, something not talked about at all in the text.
Are there some feelings talked about? Yep. Honor and shame. These permeated the Biblical worldview and yet how often in churches do you hear sermons on honor and shame? If you’re like me, never. In fact, a search for these terms in the Bible show that they showed up far more in the NT than their Western counterparts.
I also see in Skeptic Mom an idea that Christianity should be focused on the next life. To be sure, Christians should be heavenly-minded, but not at the expense of Earth. Earth is not an afterthought. It is not a mistake. It is the place God designed to dwell with His people. We might have interrupted the plan, but we did not ruin it. That is still His plan. The hymn is true that this is my Father’s world. We should focus on Christ, but never lose sight of this life that He has given us. This is the world we live and serve and worship in. This is the world that we are to seek that His will be done here as it is in Heaven. This is the world that we seek to have brought to Christ that He will rule over it.
Too many churches do have this idea that this world doesn’t really matter. Christ does not share that idea. This is the world that He loves.
In the end, I conclude that I have all the things that Skeptic Mom says she has and in fact, I think I have overall a better explanation of reality. Now to get into the arguments for that, there are many other posts on my blog here that can go into each of those, but I especially think Christianity best makes sense of the life and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It looks like Skeptic Mom got a legalistic and anti-intellectual version of Christianity and sadly threw the baby out with the bathwater. I wonder if she has ever considered reading someone like N.T. Wright and the depths of his knowledge on such subjects.
I also think this is a warning to the church. The Christianity Skeptic Mom abandoned is rampant and people see it as real Christianity. It is not. I do not doubt people in it are real Christians, but it is not because they are following the Bible well and the long Christian tradition. Our churches could all be benefited by better equipping the saints with good theology and doctrine and teaching them how to think and examine both sides of the argument.
Hopefully in fact, both sides of this argument will do that. We could have much better debates.