This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 4 (2018). For further information on the Christian Research Journal, please click here.
There are people challenging Christianity today whose identities may surprise us. They once called themselves Christians, and they include seminary graduates, former pastors and pastor’s children, theologians, chaplains, and some who were preparing for Christian ministry.
I experienced this firsthand some time ago when I participated in a debate at an atheist convention.1 Hundreds of atheists were there from around the world, and as the evening progressed, it became clear that many were not merely atheists but former Christians who had been “set free” from the “shackles of religion.”2 Their newfound freedom was, in fact, a cause of celebration.
These critics know their Bibles and theology better than most Christians. Furthermore, they often are granted special credibility in our culture because, unlike most other critics, they were once part of the group they are now critiquing. Some are now giving leadership to various atheist and skeptic organizations and are unabashedly calling on Christians to join them. Judging by the testimonials on their websites, more than a few are following them out of Christianity. Others occupy academic posts from which they articulate the reasons (sometimes in best-selling books) that compelled them to reject Christianity.
WHY DO PEOPLE LEAVE THE FAITH, AND HOW SHOULD WE ENGAGE THEM?
Their reasons for leaving are as varied as the people themselves. Allow me to mention just four that are cited commonly.
(1) Christianity’s Perceived Restriction on the Freedom to Reason
Many who leave have concluded that Christianity, by its very nature, prevents honest rational thinking and inquiry. While Christians may claim to value evidence, their views on every issue must conform to the Bible. They are handed the truth in advance, and anything that disagrees must be set aside or reinterpreted. If you want to think for yourself and no longer be told what to believe, the only solution is to throw off the shackles of religion.3
This theme resonates and is often the cause of great celebration. One need only look at the names given to the organizations such people either start or join once they leave the faith: Free Thought Society,4 Project Reason,5 and The Center for Inquiry,6 to name a few.
How can we engage this concern? First, we should point out that this charge against Christianity is hard to square with the fact that many of the world’s greatest intellectuals and thinkers have been, and continue to be, Christians. The list is long and includes names such as Francis Collins, world-renowned scientist and head of the human genome project; Alvin Plantinga, widely respected philosopher and former president of the American Philosophical Association; John Lennox, professor of mathematics at Oxford University; and Allan Sandage, one of the world’s greatest living astronomers until his death in 2010. He got his start as a graduate assistant of the famous astronomer Edwin Hubble. Somehow people like this have found ways of carrying out serious rational thinking while embracing Christianity.
Having said that, we need to listen to the experiences of those who have left and recognize the possibility that their particular Christian tradition, or church, may indeed have discouraged questioning. Perhaps it inappropriately elevated one or two viewpoints on secondary teachings to the level of essential Christian teaching and, thus, permitted no questioning of these viewpoints. We then can acknowledge this and clarify what counts as essential to Christian belief.
Christian culture at its best is a culture of questioning and thinking. The Berean Christians were commended for doing this, and the result was that many came to faith (Acts 17:11–12). Furthermore, Christianity does not call us to ignore evidence or reason. It stakes its entire message on a historical moment, namely Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and then invites the world to investigate it. If it did not happen, even Paul writes that the whole thing is a false hope (1 Cor. 15:17–19).
Third, let’s acknowledge that Christianity is a worldview and, as such, does exclude certain ideas. This, however, is true of all worldviews, including atheistic naturalism, the newly adopted position of many who have turned from Christianity. By moving to atheism, people do not walk away from all restrictions on their thinking; they merely replace one set with another. Ironically, as G. K. Chesterton pointed out in 1908, on certain important issues, atheism actually turns out to be more restrictive than Christianity. He mused about why the naturalist (his term is materialist) denied all miracle reports. He did so, said Chesterton, not because his viewpoint allowed him to deny them but because “his very strict materialism did not permit him to believe them.”7 Regardless of the evidence, an atheist-naturalist has no choice but to disbelieve all reports of miracles so long as he remains an atheist.
Fourth, to reject Christianity, or any other set of ideas, because one finds its teachings restrictive, or unappealing, is to play a dangerous game, since it entirely ignores the question of truth. If Christianity’s claims turn out to be true, then it will not matter that one finds them restrictive or unattractive any more than if I find it restrictive to be told I must follow the instructions on the medicine bottle or the meds may cause harm. Moreover, there appears to be a double standard in abandoning beliefs because one finds them restrictive while at the same time claiming to be pursuing truth. Being appealing or unrestrictive are not tests of truth.
(2) Personal Disappointment with God and the Christian Community
Imagine you have experienced a personal failure and decide to come clean. You go to your Christian friends to explain your situation, hoping for mercy and grace but instead find judgment. They doubt your word and treat you like damaged goods. It is not difficult to imagine the deep wound this could leave, or how you might start doubting God’s good nature, or even His existence. This is a real scenario for some who have left the Christian community.
We, as Christians, simply do not have the best record here, either with our own brothers and sisters or with others. One of my students, who interacts deeply with Mormon missionaries, commented recently that many of them report experiencing such unfriendliness, even hostility, from evangelical Christians day after day that by the end of their two-year stint, most have come to view evangelicals as a hostile group. Mormon missionaries with whom I have spoken tell the same story. As my student put it, if Christians would simply love them, it would make it easier for people like him to have productive conversations later.
We have an opportunity here to reach out and show love and grace to others and especially to those who have chosen to leave the faith. Jesus’ instruction is to put the shoe on the other foot and imagine what we would want done to us if we were in their shoes, and then do it (Matt. 22:39).
(3) Intellectual Difficulties with Christianity
A number of vocal critics who have moved from Christianity to atheism cite intellectual difficulties with Christianity. The list of objections is long and includes questions concerning the reliability of the New Testament, biblical morality, the character of God, and scientific objections, to name a few. In their minds, atheism has become a more intellectually tenable position.
It is prudent to ask right off whether the person has examined the best, most thoughtful, responses from Christian writers to their specific troubling issues. Perhaps they have, but if not, they are in the tenuous position of having concluded that no good answers exist, while at the same time admitting they have not read the best responses available. Have they read authors like Paul Copan,8 Michael Licona,9 Gary Habermas,10 Craig Blomberg,11 Christopher Wright,12 Alister McGrath,13 Alvin Plantinga,14 William Lane Craig,15 John Frame,16 and others who have written helpful resources that target the very issues that have caused some to leave?
We also should point out just how difficult atheism is to defend. Bertrand Russell, one of history’s most respected atheists, made it clear that both atheists and theists claim to know something significant about the universe. Neither is it a default position.17 While neither position can be proven with logical certainty, atheism has an often-overlooked difficulty, since it involves a universal negative. It claims there is no God anywhere in or out of the universe, well beyond the things science observes. That’s a claim that is beyond the ability of any human to know. At the very least, it is hard to see how this position is more tenable than theism, which provides answers to some of life’s deepest questions: why do beings with consciousness, morality, and rationality exist? How did the universe become so finely tuned as most scientists of all stripes believe it is?18 Or more foundationally, why does anything at all exist in the first place?
Many who have left the faith have come to believe that an informed twenty-first-century outlook requires a naturalist stance that rules out the possibility of miracles.19 Given how widespread naturalism is in Western culture, this is not surprising, but how can we engage such a person?
I suggest we simply ask how a naturalist can be sure that naturalism is true. Of course, if it is true, then Christianity collapses, since it would undermine much of the New Testament record of Jesus’ life and teaching, including the claim that He rose from the dead. It turns out, however, that naturalism has a grave intrinsic weakness, which British theologian and philosopher, Richard Swinburne, explains this way:
It is at least logically possible that the way things behave depends on God (or some other supernatural agent) and he can alter this on an isolated occasion, while conserving the normal way things behave on other occasions….That allows the logical possibility of a ‘transgression’, or, as I shall call it, a violation of a ‘law of nature’…‘by a particular volition of the Deity.’20
Swinburne’s insight here is that so long as God is even logically possible, miracles are also possible. This means that miracles can be ruled out only if one has an airtight argument for atheism, and even many atheists admit that such an argument is hard to produce.
Let’s pray for those who find it in their hearts to walk away from belief. We may be given opportunities to befriend or even engage them.
Paul Chamberlain, PhD, is director of the Institute of Christian Apologetics and teaches apologetics, ethics, and philosophy of religion at Trinity Western University, Langley B.C. He is the author of Why People Stop Believing (Wipf and Stock, 2018) and four other books, including Why People Don’t Believe: Confronting Seven Challenges to the Christian Faith (Baker Books, 2011).
- This formal debate took place at the annual convention of the Atheist Alliance International in Kamloops, British Columbia, on May 18, 2012. This debate can be viewed at the following website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QclvXCbRJc.
- This is part of The Atheist Experience TV Show host Matt Dillahunty’s personal testimonial. “Matt Dillahunty,” The Atheist Experience, http://www.atheist-experience.com/people/matt_dillahunty.
- This was told to me in a personal conversation with Matt Dillahunty on May 18, 2012. New Atheist Sam Harris also develops this argument in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005), 76.
- https://www.ftsociety.org/ (accessed April 23, 2018).
- http://project-reason.org/index.html (accessed April 23, 2018).
- https://www.centerforinquiry.net/ (accessed April 23, 2018).
- Gilbert K. Chesterton, Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000,) 279–80.
- Matthew Flannagan and Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015).
- Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
- David Baggett, ed., Did The Resurrection Happen: A Conversation With Gary Habermas and Antony Flew (Downers Grove, Intervarsity press, 2009).
- Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (Nashville: B and H Publishing, 2016).
- Christopher J. H. Wright, How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament For All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).
- Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (Somerset: Wiley, 2013).
- 14 Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015).
- William Lane Craig, God Over All: Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.)
- John M. Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R Publishing, 2015).
- Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, eds., The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (New York: Routledge, 2009), 557–58.
- Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Physics, Stanford University, one of the pioneers of String theory, author of The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Little, Brown, and Company, 2005), and an outspoken atheist, provides an exceptionally clear explanation of fine tuning at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cT4zZIHR3s.
- The Clergy Project’s stated mission is to help and support Christians who no longer believe in the supernatural; http://clergyproject.org/our-mission-nonbelieving-religiousleaders/. For a more detailed argument against supernatural beliefs, see John Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), 125–26. A scholar who accepts only the miracle stories of Jesus for which he can come up with plausible naturalistic explanations is Maurice Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myth? (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 6.
- Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2003), 18.