I started writing this summary of my shift from belief to disbelief a while back ago and adding to it as I went along. I have not shared this before and I think it’s time. I have included affiliate links to the works I read along the way. If you feel like checking these out, please consider using the links provided as it will help continue this blog. It won’t cost you a penny more than just visiting Amazon yourself. Now to begin…
I have faced the issue of God’s existence since I was young. But I will start the story off from when I was fourteen and I really started digging into facts about Christianity. I started off as an amateur apologist, someone who defends Christianity with facts and logic. One of the first things I encountered was the nature of Satan. I came across one website that argued that Satan wasn’t a real being, just a metaphor for the badness inside of people (or something close to that). This was the first time I had ever challenged a belief I was raised with. Know what happened? It turns out I was wrong and so was that article. I simply shifted my belief back to my original belief in the reality of a personal being called Satan. That was just the first issue. Other issues would come up about how to worship God and if women could be preachers or not. I felt that there was no distinction between men and women, some of Paul’s writings said otherwise.
Another thing that happened is that I was performing a song I had written at church and a string broke. I finished the song acapella and I said something about the devil not wanting me to perform the song. But then someone else said that God just wanted it to sound beautiful (presumably with just my voice – I still think this was a complement). But this made me think about why good and bad things happen. Was it Satan or God? The book of Job made it sound like God was the direct coordinator for Satan. The answer to this would have to wait.
What stuck with me: I can be lead astray by people with decent arguments and I didn’t always agree with my denomination’s interpretation (esp. in regards to women). I also realized that people could look at the same situation in the different ways – good or bad. I lost my confidence in explicitly attributing bad things to Satan and good things to God.
The next big issues came in full force. After I graduated, I went to a local Lifeway bookstore. I picked up a mostly green book titled, Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola (now rewritten with George Barna). I soon realized that I took a lot of my Christianity for granted: Sunday morning lineup, solo pastor churches, paid staff, sober communion and baptism, and the tithe. None of these things could be found in the New Testament. But when I challenged others about the above list, I got seriously shot down. My best friend even got mad at me because his father did some pastoring. I never could let those issues go. I also picked up on the whole Arminian/Calvinist debate around this time. There’s a ton of information that needed to be evaluated for it, but I never fully chose a side.
What stuck with me: The Bible has been misinterpreted and highly influenced by tradition and time.
One of the next big eye openers came in reaction from another book and some personal interactions. I read Hank Hanegraaff’s Counterfeit Revival and was convinced that the Word-Faith movement was a false cult. However, the book mentioned a lot about psychological manipulation by leaders and emotional altering by music that gave me pause at the end of the book. Why? Because Hanegraaff ended the book saying that good ole fashion hymn music and preaching is what was needed to combat the “counterfeit revival.” But I realized that manipulation and emotional influence could just as easily come from any type of preaching or music. Being a music leader, I realized the potential power I had in my hands.
Related to and partially inspiring my reading of Counterfeit Revival, I visited some churches of differing denominations that were charismatic. Specifically, there were two Pentecostal churches and two linked non-denominational churches. I actually had come to the conclusion that the Bible did not say that speaking in tongues, which are highly practiced in charismatic churches, had ceased. However, once I experienced being around it, I changed my mind back. The ecstatic utterances were broken, similar sounding short phrases. The first syllable was usually the same and the vowel sounds were usually the same across the phrase. This was gibberish. The faith healer at one service had my full skepticism. I didn’t believe for a second that he had any type of power to heal. It was what he said that vindicated my disbelief. He said someone in the room would make a million dollars by the end of the year. Wow. I wasn’t impressed since there were over 150 people present and the odds seemed likely that one of them was rich (not to mention no one would verify this after the year was up). Another miracle he pronounced was that someone in the room would receive healing in their eye over the next six months. Seriously? How is that a miracle? Jesus healed instantaneously in the Gospel accounts. So did the disciples in Acts. This was as much a miracle as natural blood clotting prevents continuous bleeding. The non-denominational church had one additional issue that I argued against. They taught Word-Faith theology and Hanegraff’s book left me wanting more understanding about why they that theology is wrong.
What stuck with me: Religious activities can manipulate people and so religious experiences might not be real. I also realized that you could make people believe a lot of things.
After I had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina, I read a book called The Word-Faith Controversy (now out of print). It had a lot of the same information as Hanegraff, but it also included a chapter about the tripartite nature of man. Tripartite simply means three parts and for the nature of man, that would be: soul, spirit, and body. The other two positions about man’s nature are dualism, man is soul (or mind) and body, and monism, man is only the body. That little book said one thing that stuck with me – the Bible seems to offer a strong case for monism. I had always believed that man was at least the two parts of body and soul, but once I saw a lot of evidence for monism, I couldn’t shake it.
What stuck with me: Human nature might just be the body. I realize that this requires a lot of argument, but at that time, I was okay with just being confused until I could investigate more.
Also, around the same time, I read through Norman Geisler’s Introduction to Philosophy. I was starting to get slightly familiar with the few major arguments for God’s existence. So I figured that this book would really help me grasp it all better. In the end, I felt like the case for God was 50/50. There weren’t any super strong arguments for God’s existence. My faith foundation had been completely shaken by a book meant to build it up. With the help of other books, I came to the philosophical conclusion that the only solid arguments for God’s existence were the fact that something cannot come from something (ie – the universe’s creation) and innate human morality. I also had the argument that the Bible had been overwhelmingly historically correct in many details and since it could be trusted in those areas, why not trust the whole book? And the book claimed to be from God, or so I honestly and deeply believed. It stood to reason that if God created the world, he would likely interact with it. Thus, revelation seemed like an honest bet and the Bible seemed to live up to the standard. I hadn’t yet engaged in much from other religions or atheism (beyond what the apologists said), but that was about to change.
What stuck with me: There was only a 50/50 shot that God existed and faith had to be put on one side. The best arguments were the cosmological and moral arguments. Revelation would be expected from a personal Creator and the Bible seemed to be it.
I think the first actual atheist book I ever saw was Christopher Hitchen’s God In Not Great in the bookstore door display at UT Martin. It infuriated me and I thought that I bet I could prove that guy wrong. It would be another year or so before I would read an atheist’s book though. Two reasons led up to me doing this though. The first is that I went to Jamaica on my senior trip in high school and some girls in my class encountered a Mormon, possibly even one of their missionaries. The girls related the story somewhat like this: The girls challenged the authority of the Book of Mormon and the guy countered them by asking if they had ever read it. The girls answered, “No.” The Mormon fellow then asked if they had ever read their entire Bible. Again, the girls had to answer, “No.” “How,” he asked, “can you say the Book of Mormon is wrong and only your Bible is right if you have never read either?” My internal reaction to the story was that I must read what others say in order to fully understand and argue against it.
The second reason I picked up my first atheist book is because I saw the apologist Norman Geisler (whom I greatly respected) at a small church conference. He said that he regularly read atheist works and refuted them. I was impressed and I desired to do the same. So I bought Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and, just to protect me from any confusion, Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion. I wasn’t too impressed by Dawkins’ arguments (but I was stunned by his adjectival vocabulary!). He seemed to lack a lot of knowledge about theology and his arguments felt more like rants without solid evidence. I was quite stuck to my evangelical Christian mindset and I was new to rational thinking, but I still saw too many issues with Dawkins’ view to take him seriously. I would have to review the book again to see what bothered me. But I felt like I actually could read and potentially refute the new atheists like the great apologists.
Building alongside this confidence was a previous concern about where demons came into the picture in the biblical narrative. Old Testament: none. Matthew onward: plenty of belief in them. I also was concerned about hell. Dawkins might have struck a chord there, but I might have already felt uneasy about hell. How could God be just to eternally punish someone for a finite sin? The answer would take years before fully forming. But I began to question the nature of the torture. Maybe it was just eternal separation? Maybe the talk about flames and worms was metaphorical? I was getting into the problem of interpretation. Something else was edging me on about this too. After reading Pagan Christianity, I realized that there were multiple things that preachers teach that weren’t biblical or were only partially biblical. So, what else had my evangelical background gotten wrong?
What stuck with me: I could comfortably read atheist works and not be afraid them. I figured there would always be at least even answers to atheist objections, perhaps better answers at times. I began to question more doctrines, especially hell.
The journey will continue in the next post. Thank you all.