Sunday, February 11, 2007

Response to John W. Loftus' Why I'm An Atheist

As part of our email correspondence, John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity graciously offered to send me a chapter from his book; the chapter titled Why I'm An Atheist. As a part of our conversation, I've been meaning to in some way respond to that chapter for a little over a week now. But, life keeps interrupting. I've had other projects - including work for my book-in-progress. I've joined the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring, and so have been exploring issues related to peace-making and non-violent resistance. And, of course, I've started back to school, working toward an MAR (Masters of Arts in Religion) at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

This weekend I've had to read seminary-related texts until my eyes bled, and by this afternoon I could take it no longer. So I've finally carved out a little bit of time in front of my computer, with the furnace blasting next to me and the washing machine chugging along in the room adjacent my basement office so that I can really concentrate - you know, focus, without any distractions. (Sometime sarcasm drips from my lips!)

Seriously, though the internal and external conditions may not be exactly right, and while I may not be able to give Loftus' work the attention it deserves, it is high time I made good on my promise to read and respond to this chapter from John's book. I've now read it a couple of times, and can honestly say that I am once again impressed with his writing.

I don't always like John's style or method. He can be very abrasive, confrontational. He often operates with the implicit understanding that ideas must wage war against each other, fighting to the death until a single set, the right set, stand alone as the winner. As the son of a lawyer I think I understand that mode of discourse, though it hasn't always been fruitful for me. My approach is, I hope, more cooperative, more conversational. That is, ideas that at first appear to contradict may have enough points in common that they can be seen as intellectual cousins; sharing enough to be able to, in many important cases agree, while deviating enough to offer interesting counterpoints to each other.

But underneath that important difference in approach, John and I share a great deal in common. Especially, at least in lip service, we share an understanding of the need for interpretive charity. I say "in lip service" because I'm sure both he and I deviate from our most charitable values from time to time, being only human. Also, I suspect, we both from time to time intentionally suspend our charity when confronted with what we individually consider to be the ridiculous. For me this happened most recently when I saw that a Creationist museum was being built in my home state. For John this happens most often when he is confronted with the uncritical arrogance of some Christians, who believe that they alone are in possession of some absolute truth, the content of which they have never critically engaged.

One thing that I really like about John W. Loftus is reflected in the chapter of his book that he sent me - his realization that people change their religious views for both rational and non-rational reasons. Separating those twin sets of reasons can often be difficult, as our emotional state and our cultural, social, historical, environmental, biographical, etc. contexts shape the way in which we reason. We are not purely rational animals, though we exhibit rationality. Rather, our reasoning shapes and is shaped by so much that happens in and around us.

In this chapter as well as, I suspect, in the book as a whole, John W. Loftus explores as best as he is able all of the factors that led to his rejection of his former faith - both the conceptual and the more personal. He does his best to place the reader in his shoes, setting the stage for his final affirmation of atheism (and his affirmation of atheism is much more than just a rejection of Christianity).

The chapter begins after his rejection of Christianity. He describes that rejection as a "demolition," and I can certainly relate. The first noble truth of the Buddha has often be rendered in English "Life is suffering." While that translation is a limited and inaccurate one, the sentiment behind it is something that we can all relate to from time to time. Life is marred by suffering, and our suffering - our moments of intense, existential anguish - lead us to a place of demolition. Former views that provide no help or comfort in a trying moment are smashed by suffering, leaving only philosophic and theological rubble. Once cherished beliefs are swept away with the rest of the debris of our former mindset, a mindset that could not handle the explosive crisis of pain and doubt.

In the face of this rubble, John asks

But after the demolition is done, what could I now believe about how we got here on earth and why?

This question shows that John, like so many of us, asks principally metaphysical questions. This is a product of a model of faith as belief, and of a model of religion that is principally concerned with being able to articulate true statements about God and the nature of the universe, and with being able to convince others of the truth of those propositions. I say this not to criticize John, but simply to explain that I understand his current position as a product of both his intellectual honesty, and of his former position. He is fond of saying - and I suspect rightfully so - that he is basically the same person he was before he lost his faith. In my reading of him, John W. Loftus the atheist is a direct product of John W. Loftus the Christian apologist; and that both are in part a product of a particular model of the Christian religion - a model I have serious problems with.

The chapter then describes his search for answers to this fundamentally metaphysical question, moving through various kinds of almost post-Christian theology, including Deism, theological existentialism, and Process Theology. I use the phrase "post-Christian" theology not because I think than any of these theological positions are incompatible with the Christian faith, but because I suspect that John saw each of these modes of thinking about the nature of both God and the universe as almost "post-Christian" ways of looking at such theological and metaphysical questions. For him Christianity was a very tight set of propositions that, once challenged, fell apart. These ideas were, I suspect, ways in which he tried to rebuild the house of his faith on the rubble of his formerly systematic Christianity.

John W. Loftus was for a short time a devotee of John Hick, who he calls "arguably the most important philosopher of religion in the past century." He turned to Hick's Process Theology - a way of thinking that he has since described as a kind of "half-way house" between theism and atheism - to try to help him cling to what was left of his faith. As such, Hick is a very important figure for him. What both impressed and disturbed him about Hick was his willingness to accept criticisms of more traditional forms of Christianity, creating a more flexible kind of theology that adapted itself to a changing view of the world. He quotes from Hick's An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent:

The universe is religiously ambiguous in that it is possible to interpret it, intellectually and experientially, both religiously and naturalistically. The theistic and anti-theistic arguments are inconclusive, for the special evidences to which they appeal are also capable for being understood in terms of the contrary world-view. Further, the opposing sets of evidences cannot be given objectively quantifiable values.

This more phenomenological approach to religion - which accepts that our beliefs are shaped by our experiences, and that our experiences can be described multiple competing explanations - must have troubled someone who has long sought certainty. After exploring Hick's (and others') concept of a religiously ambiguous universe (and exploring both emotionally and rationally) Loftus writes:

Then the question hit me. Why is this universe religiously ambiguous capable of being interpreted in various rational and sometimes even mutually exclusive ways? Why does it all appear absurd when we approach it all with reason? Why must I resort to giving up on reason and punting to the view that I just don't know, or that it cannot be figured out rationally? Why?

The answer he arrived at was this: "[B]lind chancistic events cannot be figured out!"

This epiphany lies at the heart of his atheism, even though it often hides under the cumulative case against a particular understanding of Christianity. In the context of his rejection of Christianity, Loftus asserts that the universe is a mystery not because there is some cosmic Mystery, some mysterious divine nature at the heart of it all, but rather because the universe is the product of a series of random events, chance occurrences. Unguided. Thus the only world-view (to the extent that it can be called one) that he had left to turn to was atheism:

Atheism was a very unsettling conclusion to me, in one sense. It means that I have no hope in a resurrection, that I no longer have the hope that there is someone outside the space-time matrix who can help me in times of need, or give me any guidance. But one the other hand it's finally a conclusion. I now can believe something, and, as I've said, it's better over here. In one sense my intellectual journey is finally over. It's very relieving to reach a conclusion that I can partially defend.

I suspect that the biggest difference between John W. Loftus and me is that I am more comfortable with mystery. I don't mean that to imply that being comfortable with mystery is a virtue, or that needing to finally arrive at some solid conclusion is a vice. Rather, I say that to say that the biggest difference between the two of us is a psychological one, an existential one. It may also be a product of the very different forms of Christianity that we each inhabited. While I had a fundamentalist phase, and while I've read more than a few books that sought to systematically demonstrate that Christianity is a set of true propositions and that all else is false; John lived that version of the faith far more than I did. I was raised in a much more relativistic and pluralistic environments. So, emotionally speaking, that which threatened his faith can't touch mine. God is to me both a mystery and an experiential reality, not a set of true propositions.

That does not, however, mean that I am right, or that my faith is somehow superior to both his former faith and his current convictions. Simply put, I don't know that there is a God; I only know that I experience something that I call by that name. I know that my faith works for me, that my church nurtures me, and that my experience of God sustains me. These, however, do not prove the validity of any propositional truth-claims concerning them. But, unlike John, I'm OK with that.

In the end, for me belief is not the substance of faith; practice is. For me, faith is a way of life, not a set of demonstrable propositions. For John that simply isn't a satisfactory answer.

I suspect that there is still a great deal of room for dialogue between our two positions, especially as, absent claims about God, our world-views have so much in common. I appreciate reading what I have read about his intellectual and spiritual journey, even as I don't share his final conclusion, or the pressing need to even arrive at a final conclusion. And, I wonder what he would be like if he had inhabited a different Christianity from the modern bastardization of Christianity that has been so dominant in evangelical American circles. I bet he also wonders what I might be like if I had grown up an atheist. In either case, we'll never know.

As a personal note, I don't see people like John W. Loftus as "enemies of the faith." I see John as an honest and noble person, who wrestles with the same questions I wrestle with. The God that I experience is a God who accepts John as he is, knowing that John is a product of God, made in the divine image, with a bright, inquisitive mind, and an obsessive need to uncover the truth. In his quest John does each of us the service of keeping us honest, and should be thanked for that. Any faith that cannot withstand rigorous criticism is not true faith at all.


Anonymous said...

Wow! You think I write well? I pale in comparison to you. You are very articulate and very bright.

You're comfortable living with mystery, eh? William James talks about a "forced option." And it was a forced option for me. Maybe it is somewhat psychological. But I cannot do what you seem to do. I must disambiguate my world, after all, one view is right, in my opinion. Only one. Thay cannot all be right, in my opinion. They just can't. If you were to spell out your version of process theology, you yourself think you are right and that certain views are wrong.

Anyway, I welcome you as a friend. In the end, I don't think how we live our lives is different, and surely if there is a God, that's what matters to him/her/It.

Thanks for your effort and time to understand.

BTW, my book just got picked up by a publisher. You're the first one I've told about this. It should be out in the Fall. I will not reveal which one, especially because there isn't yet a signed contract. But I'm busy revising to have it to them by the end of this month.

Sandalstraps said...


Perhaps one difference between you and me is that, while you and I both agree that not all viewpoints can be right (we do, in fact, agree on that, despite some views of mine that seem to contradict it) you - who many claim have no faith - have a faith that I - the supposedly faithful one - do not have: faith in the power of an idea to be right.

I think that all metaphysical claims are probably ultimately wrong; that the universe is mystery that can never fully be unraveled (if that isn't a mixed metaphor). Ultimately every single view is bound in important respects to be wrong. We are constantly learning the errors of yesterday's knowledge, and I see no reason why that process of unlearning past truths won't continue indefinitely.

That does not, however, mean that all claims are equally wrong. I think that we can make relative distinctions, relative truth-value claims. Some claims are, thus, more wrong than other. But no claim - at least no speculative claim, and what we're wrestling with here are speculative claims - is entirely right.

Yes, I think that my views are relatively right, but, as I joke with Christian audiences, I can't wait to get to heaven so that God can show me how wrong I've always been. As such, I try not tobecome too attached to my own ideas, as they will all, I'm sure, be found wanting. The key is to keep pressing on, to keep trying to describe the indescribable and to understand the imponderable; to eff, I suppose, the ineffable.

Congratulations on your book getting picked up. May this work out the way that it appears to be working out, as this looks like a big day for you. Whenever I am free and clear of schoolwork I look forward to reading your book in its entirity.

Anonymous said...

Some claims are, thus, more wrong than other. But no claim - at least no speculative claim, and what we're wrestling with here are speculative claims - is entirely right

You know of course, that such a position of yours is correct, don't you? ;-)

Agnosis said...

Thank you for a very interesting and well stated article and discussion. Chris' position sounds very similar to one I have recently come to in my own journey. I've chosen to designate it as Theistic Agnosticism. You've also both touched on a theme that has been at the forefront of my thoughts throughout this journey: Is christianity/religion a way of life or a set of propositions? The relationship between both ideas seems to guide where people draw lines or conclusions.

I look forward to the book and hopefully more just such conversations as these.