Thank You, New Atheists, For Saving My Faith
It is a terrifying thing to discover that everything you have believed to be true your entire life might be a lie. This is the place I was in as an 18-year-old student finishing up high school in 2005. But first, let me explain how I found myself inside a worldview that was collapsing around me.
I grew up in a Christian home with a mother and father who were devout Evangelical Christians. Our family went to church every Sunday since I was a little baby, and we were raised to believe in God and have faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord. Most of my extended family and many of my friends shared these beliefs, and so I was raised in somewhat of a Christian bubble. I don’t think this was intentional on my parent’s part, it was simply the natural outcome of being surrounded by people who had the same faith.
Of course, I still knew people who weren’t Christians, both in my family, in my school, and in my neighbourhood. I cared for these people and enjoyed them very much, but I had a sense deep down that they were missing out on something they needed because they did not share my Christian faith. Sometimes I would be brave enough to talk about it with them, other times I simply wanted to fit in like any other kid. As a result, I spent much of my high school life vacillating between two inner personalities: one that was unashamed of Christ no matter the cost, and one who tried to fit in and be liked by people. I later discovered this was a miserable way to live, because it meant I was never really my true self at least half of the time, only pretending to be.
That was until around age 17 when I began to wonder which version was the real me. Was I actually the devout Christian who struggled with compromise, or was I slowly emerging from immaturity into a reasoning man who had no need for fairy tales?
This was right around the time of the rise of the New Atheists. New Atheists, unlike your “ordinary” atheist, don’t just merely disbelieve in God. They also see squashing all religious belief as necessary to the advancement of the human race. While most atheists are content to let other people believe what they will and extend a measure of tolerance, New Atheism had no intent on extending such courtesy. New Atheism explicitly existed for the purpose of freeing mankind from archaic belief in an imaginary sky fairy, and needed to succeed in this quest at all cost, because the survival and flourishing of our species depended upon it.
And so here I was in my late teens, experiencing the existential crisis that every person does sooner or later, confronted head on with a cultural movement that attacked the very foundation I stood upon. For the first time in my life I realized that I believed Christianity was true only because I had been told by everyone around me that it was so. Most of the people I looked up to were believers. They all agreed with me that I was on the right track and needed to rescue others from their lost condition. But it struck me one day that I did not believe Christianity was true for any reason of my own. I was simply riding on the coattails of confidence that other people had in their own faith.
The New Atheists presented a challenge. The “four horsemen” as some have called them—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—began writing books, doing interviews, and posting lectures online that mounted to a full-on assault of religious belief. Never before had I been presented with arguments so direct, so articulate, and so menacing for the atheistic view. I used to think atheists just buried their heads in the sand and ignored the obvious…but now I was being presented with reasons why religious belief is a joke. And these reasons were ones that I had no answer for. I was shaken to my core.
Statements that packed a punch sent me reeling, dazed and confused. Things like:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins)
“On the subject of religious belief, we relax standards of reasonableness and evidence that we rely on in every other area of our lives. We relax so totally that people believe the most ludicrous propositions, and are willing to organize their lives around them.” (Sam Harris)
“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.” (Christopher Hitchens)
“To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write.” (Daniel Dennett)
Titles like The God Delusion, god is Not Great, and The End of Faith all declared with such certainty that I was foolish to believe what I grew up believing. Their contents provided pages upon pages of scathing rebuke for the vileness of religion, God, and belief in the Bible. The message was clear: only idiots or complete sociopaths believe this stuff, and the rest of the world is moving forward. Either join us or be left behind.
I was left with some serious problems that needed reconciling. I did not want to be duped into believing something that wasn’t true. I did not want to have blind faith. I did not want to cling to religion or God, even if it offered comfort in the midst of tragedy. I needed to discover for myself if what I believed had any rational, scientific, historic, or philosophical backing to it. I needed to find solid answers for big questions.
I set myself to pursuing the truth. As much as I could, I tried to take an honest look at the arguments from both sides with an open mind. In all honesty, I was ready to walk away from Christianity if that’s what the results of my findings demanded I do. I refused to any longer follow a belief system without being able to provide a convincing rationale for doing so. I needed to find a worldview that made sense of the universe and was grounded in reality.
Someone once told me that no one learns without first having a problem to solve. I believe this to be true. I was always an 80’s student in school, but I never actually tried to learn much of anything. I just did what I needed to do to get good grades. Yet this endeavour was much different. I found myself reading books for the first time. I discovered an intellectual vibrancy which I didn’t realize I possessed. And I became skeptical. I believed that everyone I listened to had an agenda for winning me over. In short, I discovered critical thinking. Too bad it came that late for me, but better late than never.
Not only was I consuming everything I could find from the New Atheists, but I stumbled upon a world I had never known existed before, the world of Christian apologetics. Here I found people who were far smarter than I, far more educated than I, some even world-renowned scientists or philosophers or historians or scholars, who believed everything I have believed since I was 5 years old. If these people couldn’t help me answer my questions, no one could.
And so my reading list doubled. I began consuming everything I could from Christian apologists and scholars like Ravi Zacharias, Don Carson, Timothy Keller, William Lane Craig, Josh McDowell, C.S. Lewis, J.P. Moreland, and Craig Blomberg. With the rise in popularity of YouTube, I was able to watch dozens of debates between these two groups and assess for myself who’s arguments weren’t up to snuff. While I had no idea how to counteract many of the critiques from New Atheism, I found that there actually were intelligent answers to many of the objections that were raised. To be fair, I did not always find the Christian counterpoints convincing. At times I found myself wincing at what I heard or read, seeing what I assessed to be a critical flaw. But there was certainly more to this discussion than I had ever realized.
This process lasted several years, but one day I had an awakening of sorts. Without even realizing it, it dawned on me that I could never accept atheism as a tenable worldview. This did not mean I was ready to re-accept Christianity, but I knew for certain that atheism didn’t hold enough weight to be the thing I built my life upon. It simply couldn’t be true. There were too many inconsistencies, too many logical flaws, too many problems to overcome. I determined at worst I was an agnostic and at best a theist.
From this point I found the journey much easier. Agnosticism is a challenging view to investigate, since it is simply a shrug of the shoulders that says, Who knows? This of course is true. It’s not as if I could put a bunch of chemicals into a test tube and by the end of the experiment prove God existed, or that I could put a bunch of raw data into a computer and have it spit out the best religion. Therefore I set agnosticism aside and figured I would consider what world religions and various pagan spiritualities had to say.
It did not take long for Christianity to stand out from the crowd. There are a few things that make Christianity unique among religious viewpoints, but the most prominent of the bunch is Jesus Christ. Every other religion has a god that can’t be seen or known, or at best can be described as a feeling or force, but Christianity gave me something concrete to examine: the life of a historical figure who was supposedly God in the flesh. It’s hard to refute the belief that god is in all things; how can you even test such a hypothesis? But if ever there was a religious claim that could be refuted it ought to be the Christian claim about Jesus, that he was a real person who lived at a real place at a real time in history, whose life is accurately recorded and preserved in the Christian Scriptures. There are so many opportunities to be a caught in a lie when religious belief is grounded in something so historical and real. Therefore, Christ and the reliability of the Bible became the focal points of my studies.
What I uncovered dumbfounded me. While so many are quick to dismiss the claims of Scripture, I was blown away to find how much support their is for its historicity and reliability. It became apparent to me that many of the criticisms of Christianity were not grounded in truth. Attacks on the Bible, which originally seemed insurmountable, were largely cleared up with a simple examination of the evidence. Alternative accounts of Christ were exposed as the obvious manipulations they are by merely fact-checking with known history. Over time I found that the endurance of the Bible and the unrelenting centrality of Christ in human history were warranted. As it turned out, the New Atheists were just blowing a lot of smoke.
In short, I believe I discovered the truth.
So, over a decade later, here I am, an Evangelical Christian and proud of it. Only I’m not the same. I’m more confident than ever in my belief that Jesus is the God-man and that the Bible is God’s Word. Once upon a time, I would have said that without having much to back it up. But now I am much more prepared to have my faith challenged. I don’t feel like I’m standing on shifting sand anymore, ready to be crumbled by the slightest distress. Instead, I have a faith that is built on a rock. It is a faith that has been tested and stood firm. It has proven reliable, rational, scientific, historical, and philosophically sound.
And, quite strangely, I owe it all to the New Atheists. Without their influence, I never would have questioned my faith the way I did. It would have remained frail and untested and unlikely to survive. I would never have been able to keep my belief that God is good and that he loves me in spite of having to bury my first child. I most certainly would not be a Christian pastor who has dedicated his life to building solid faith into others who are looking for answers. I would not be who I am today.
So, New Atheist friends, I want to say thank you. I know you intended to bring people like me crashing down in unbelief, and it almost happened, but that’s not how things ended up. You did manage to produce a committed evangelist, however…just not the kind of one you were hoping for.