Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Saved as an Atheist

Sean Ewart

This is a response to the article "Saved by an Atheist" found in Christianity Today.

Atheism is a philosophy which should not exist. G.K. Chesterton was not far off when he said, “If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.” In fact, the position of atheism is as ridiculous as someone who calls himself an a-alchemist, or an a-toothfairist. It simply should not have to be said. However, in a world which is so defined by religion, we who do not believe must define ourselves as anti-theism. We simply do not accept that which is without evidence.

My own religious path did not begin in the murky waters of faith, but outside it. Until 7th grade, I was expressly non-religious. Besides religious motions, mostly required of me, I was not a Christian. Why did I not accept the religion I was so immersed in? Growing up in a Christian household should have been enough to blind me to the intellectual bankruptcy of religion, and yet it simply could not. I had no reason to oppose god, no pain or suffering to speak of, and had only the best examples of what Christianity should look like. For me the issue of religion was simple: where was the evidence? In my young mind, I had already seen the naked king, though I was incapable of truly exposing him. “What,” I asked, “separates Christianity from any myth of my own design? Prove that the world was not made by a dragon!”

This disbelief continued until I was given a new argument in favor of Christianity. I was told, in 7th grade, that Jesus Christ is the only solution for global injustice. It was then that I accepted Christianity as truth; that I subscribed to the entirety of Christian doctrine (a move I have since come to regret). My conversion was based entirely on the idea that Christ alone would bring justice to the world, that he was the only answer which would satisfy the cries of a hurting world. Christianity, for me, was never about my own personal salvation, but about the salvation of the world.

So I dove into the world of Christian theology. If Christ was the answer to global injustice, and if that fact required that I believe the doctrine of Christianity, I figured that I had no other option than to understand that doctrine to the fullest. The creation – fall – redemption story held great merit in my mind and spoke to my moral sensitivities in ways which, at the beginning, captivated me.

My devotion to the Christian religion was strong. During the 5 years I believed, I started a bible study at my high school, lead church devotions, attended numerous retreats and conferences, and was often cited for my faith and leadership. I read the bible daily, studied theology, and focused my intellectual energy at proving the faith to be fact. To this end I energetically studied creationism, biblical history, and any scientific finding that confirmed the biblical narrative. Surely, if Christ is the answer for global injustice, if his word is true, then the world and my own reason must reflect this fact.

There were several moments which shook me awake to my own disillusionment. The first came in the form of abortion doctor murderer, Paul Hill. Paul Hill shot gunned John Britton and bodyguard Jim Barret on the morning of July 29, 1994, believing himself to be the hand of god. I was given his manifesto and confessions by a good friend and fellow believer to think over. Myself strongly against abortion for religious reasons I was shocked to find that I could not find fault with this murderer. He justified the murder as being in defense of the unborn children.

“The scriptures teach that when the government requires sin of its people that they "... must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29b). No human government can remove the individual's duty to keep each of the Ten Commandments: these duties are inalienable. When the government, thus, will not defend the people's children—as required by the Sixth Commandment—this duty necessarily reverts to the people. You don't need the government's permission before defending your own or your neighbor's child. If the people's children will not be defended by the government, they must be defended by the people, or they will not be defended at all (Paul Hill, Defending the Defenseless).”

Really, as an anti-abortionist myself, if I truly believed that abortion was murder, shouldn't I too be willing to go to the greatest lengths to protect the victims? Doesn't “using the force necessary to defend the unborn give credibility, urgency, and direction to the pro-life movement which it has lacked, and which it needs in order to prevail”? I could not refute him on the ground of religion. Morally I was disgusted by such an act, but I simply could not find where he was wrong - and my moral outrage alarmed me. If I was disgusted by the hand of god, what kind of Christian was I?

The second moment which opened my eyes to the impossible falsehood I had swallowed was reading Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. I had no answer to his attacks on the faith. Sure, the straw man arguments he presented were easily cast aside, I understood that the evil of men in no way reflected the nature of god. Even evil Christians were not evidence of an evil god. However, many of the arguments are not so easy to dismiss. I include several of these arguments below:

1) One often given reason to believe in Christianity is that the New Testament confirms Old Testament Prophesy. Would it really have been that hard for the writers of the New Testament to make a book that did just that?

2) Isn't the story of Mary's virginity simply a mistranslation of the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14? Doesn't the Hebrew text simply use the word which denotes a 'young woman'?

3) Doesn't Paul talk about Jesus being born of the seed of David, according to the flesh? Doesn't this imply that Jesus was simply born the natural way?

4) Doesn't Matthew 27:9-10 claim to fulfill a quote from Jeremiah, when it really quotes from Zachariah 11:12-13?

5) Doesn't the gospel of John tell us that Jesus was killed the day before the passover was eaten, while Mark says it happened the day after?

6) Are the prophesies in scripture really that amazing? Wouldn't the word of an omniscient god be more precise? Doesn't the fact that the bible contains not one single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century AD speak to its human origin?

7) Doesn't the biblical assertion that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is 3 to 1 (1 Kings 7:23-26, 2 Chronicles 4:2-5) show that the book was not authored by divine breath at all? Even by the standards of its time it was a terrible approximation. Even before the bible was written the Babylonians and Egyptians had already calculated Pi to several decimal places. The bible is clearly a terrible source of mathematical insight. Wouldn't the bible look more divine if it had its mathematics written by Archimedes or some other ancient genius?

8) Why was so much space wasted in the bible telling us how to sacrifice animals, destroy cities, and keep slaves when the divine breath was capable of telling us how to cure cancer, solve global hunger, or create renewable energy?

9) Don't the ontological arguments, and arguments from a first cause simply create larger problems for religion? They simply do not prove that Christianity, or any religion, is correct.

I struggled with these issues. I lead bible studies based around them, discussed them with pastors, friends, parents, and held heated theological debates within the confines of my mind. If the bible is not accurate on matters we can test, why trust it on matters we cannot test? The solution to these attacks was simply to ignore them. I pushed them to the back of my mind and purposed to ignore them.

Truth, I found, is hard to ignore. It was nearly a year and a half after reading Harris that I rejected Christianity. If Christianity could drive me to the defense of a murderer like Paul Hill, and forced me to ignore reason in order to accept it, I wanted no part. Moreover, Christianity was reveal to me to be a terrible answer to global injustice – the reason I had joined in the first place.

Sure, it is true that many human rights leaders have been and currently are Christian. But as has been admitted earlier, just as bad Christians do not prove Christianity to be wrong, good ones do not prove the opposite. The Bible, as a guide to morality, is simply a terrible book. I came to this conclusion after reading the Bible again through the eyes of a moralist. Here are some gems:

1) Exodus 4:11-12
  1. The LORD said to him, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
    1. Here the Lord claims responsibility for the afflictions of man
2) Exodus 4:21-23
  1. The LORD said to Moses, "When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.' "
    1. Here the Lord hardens Pharaoh's heart and then punishes Pharaoh for it.
3) Exodus 7 – 12 The Ten Plagues
  1. All of these are instances of collective punishment, punishing many for the 'crimes' of a few. This behavior is illegal according to our current international law.
  2. Exodus 12:29-30
    1. At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.
      1. Is this not the epitome of evil? Imagine the morning when thousands of Egyptian fathers and mothers woke to find their children dead all around them. If you do not shake with rage at such a crime, how can you call your self a lover of humanity or a steward of life? “There was not a house without someone dead.” Let that sink in.
4) Exodus 21:1-11
  1. God is fine with slavery, and even has provision to sell your daughter into slavery.
5) Exodus 22:20
  1. God expects us to kill people of other religions.
6) Leviticus 27:1-8
  1. This is very useful as it determines how much money people are worth.
7) Leviticus 27:29
  1. This verse SHOCKED me. It talks about how a person, once committed to destruction in the name of god, may not be ransomed, but must be killed. This verse was graphically played out in Judges 11:30-40 where a daughter is burnt alive in the name of god after being dedicated to destruction. God has no problem with human sacrifice, only human sacrifice to other gods.
8) Deuteronomy 13:6-18
  1. A direct incitement to genocide and ethnic cleansing.
9) 1 Samuel 5:6-12
  1. God directly acts in genocide and collective punishment yet again.
These are only some of the pages of notes I have collected during a cursory reading of the Bible. Surely there are 'good' passages as well, especially in the New Testament, however, when speaking of the laws given humanity by the eternal and perfect god, we should never have to say that they are simply better than what came before, an improvement. They should be perfect. We need to stop making excuses for god and realize that when god uses evil for good, he is implicit in the act of evil. There is no excuse good enough to justify the slaughter of innocents.

The story of Jesus, upon examination, is equally disgusting. Jesus was sent to redeem humanity from sin which has been with us ever since Adam. His death is reported to have allowed us to have union with god. However, this presupposes several things:

1) Adam actually existed. Why else would Jesus have needed to come? This implies that the creation story must be fact, or else the entire story of Jesus is a mockery. Creationists have realized this, and moderate and liberal Christians are left without base.

2) Adam's sin is passed down from generation to generation. The idea of hereditary punishment is so repulsive as to make the mind spasm in disgust. We are the inheritance of sin because someone ages ago slipped up. Where is the justice in that?

3) God was incapable of reconciling humanity without a blood sacrifice. It was either our blood or Jesus'.

4) God, being incapable of reconciling humanity without bloodletting, decided to commit suicide. If Jesus is god, this is the only possible way to understand the crucifixion. All that bloodletting was divine masochism.

5) The only way for us to reach heaven and union with god is to accept that we are sinners along with Adam and to apologize for making god commit divine suicide.

Christianity is based on the most ridiculous blood sacrifice of all time: divine suicide to save us from a mythical man's sin.

My atheism is not the result of a god who does not behave as I want him to. I was ready to accept god on his terms. But the bible itself is simply not a textbook. The 'facts' in the bible are either untestable or proved mostly inaccurate. Again, what cause do we have to trust a liar about things we simply cannot know?

Moreover, since the bible is such a miserable source of knowledge, looking at its morality is not a useless task. Perhaps it is so morally sound that it still deserves our respect. This is clearly not the case. Christians with intellectual integrity are presented with a choice. They must either accept the Bible as complete truth and believe that its morality is somehow better than any other (as Paul Hill did), or reject the Bible outright. Either Jesus is the son of god or he is not. Either he died and rose again or he did not. Either Moses crossed the Red Sea or he did not. Either Adam existed or he did not. These are scientific questions. The Christian intellectual must grapple with them.

In fact, my own rejection of Christianity was not the result of me throwing away my morality, but my coming to grips with it. I freely admit that I am opposed to genocide, to ethnic cleansing, to slavery, to murder, to rape, to theft, to human sacrifice, to collective punishment, and to the systematic mistreatment of women. I had to reject Christianity because my morality clashed with its foundational text. I had to come to grips with the fact that murdering an abortionist doctor was, in my mind, wrong. This was the hardest thing I have ever done.

Atheism is the only choice for moral and reasonable people. The bible is factually inaccurate and morally despicable. How can anyone follow its word?

I have no answers. I don't know where my moral compass came from. I don't know what caused evolution to begin. I don't know what initiated the big bang. I simply have no answers. But I have come to understand that speculation on the things of god hinges on what we do not know. Speculation on the things of science hinges on what we know. Religion is based in fear, science in wonder.

I have no answers, but I don't need them. What I do need are correct answers, and I am willing to wait for them rather than suffer incorrect substitutes. There is nothing like seeing the world through the eyes of someone who has no answers. For me, wonder is everywhere. It is in every discovery, every new piece of information. I am saved as an atheist – saved from intellectual and moral bankruptcy.


  1. Sean, thank you so much for this article. You have no idea how encouraging it is for a 20 year old man such as myself to read this, and not feel so alone. It truly is amazing to be 20, and to realize that I've been indoctrinated and fooled. Suddenly the world fascinates me, I don't have the answers!

    There are so many things that you have said that resonate very deeply with me... The last few paragraphs really hit home. I will be saving this to my hard-drive, and reading it often. Thank you so much, I actually feel incredibly relieved right now just from reading this.

    Your friend, Travis

    1. Indeed an article that is very reflective of my actions, words, thoughts and feelings. One of thousands that are out there, Travis. You are very much NOT alone. Ours is too often a loosely connected community, as in one rather obvious way, we eschew large organizational gatherings. And of course - while neither of these descriptors are applicable to ALL non-believers, there is nonetheless also a large underpinning of individuality amongst us.

      I genuinely understand how you feel. I am open and sometimes....overly outgoing, we'll say, about my lack of belief. This made my almost two decades living in Utah a very difficult time. Seek out information. Authors like Sean, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins. Seek out a community, be it locally or online. Find allies. And though you may doubt religion, never doubt our numbers.

    2. Just wanted to say that Travis is no longer with us, he has passed on to whatever there may be after.

    3. I'm sorry to hear about the passing of Travis, let us know if there is anything that we can do.

      Sean Ewart

    4. Believe in The Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!

  2. I just wanted to say: Bravo.

  3. I just wanted to say thanks...

    I'm not there yet, as I still feel a deep sense of spirituality/need for answers and inner peace.

    What Pierce Smith wrote here on "Purpose" ( struck a chord as well:

    To do right by other people, just because that's what they deserve, not because God told you to.