“I wanted to feel something, but I never did, not really. It seemed for awhile like God was hiding from me, and then I decided he just must not be there. After all, why would a good God hide?” —Janet
Janet was a fairly new atheist, having concluded that god was extremely improbable a year prior to our conversation. The question of God’s elusiveness, which lay at the heart of her de-conversion testimony, startled me. I was raised in the tradition of Luke 11:9, “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you.” I was taught that this verse was a promise from God to make himself plain to those who earnestly sought him. Yet here was Janet telling me that God had remained hidden—that she had made a genuine effort, and still couldn’t identify a genuine ‘spiritual experience’ in her life. Janet became a Secular Humanist and I was left with the troubling question of where God, or she, had failed.
Later, a woman I consider both mentor attempted to reassure me, saying: “Janet never experienced God for herself. That’s why it’s so important to develop a relationship with Jesus.” Her tautological answer rankled me. ‘Of course she never experienced God,’ I thought. ‘That was the problem.’ But there was also a philosophical problem with my mentor’s explanation.
The position that atheists like Janet are responsible for their lack of belief seems to suggest that it’s primarily man’s responsibility to engage God–that failure to connect with God is the burden of those who don’t try hard enough, or the right way. In my opinion, this suggestion places too much pressure on the individual seeking God. After all, cannot an all-powerful god make himself plain to everyone who seeks him? Can’t he close the gap between man’s earnest effort and true knowledge of Himself? On the other hand, if God is good, why would he choose to conceal himself from earnest people—or at all?
I cannot accept that God is so particular or so primitive that he may only be reached through combinations of magic words and rituals (read: specifically worded prayers and worship practices). A deity worthy of my worship must be too transcendent to require the primitive manipulation of ritual.
Of course, I can’t know God’s side of the story. Perhaps Janet—exercising her freedom of will—willingly and intentionally rejected God. Many Christians in my community believe an atheist is someone who consciously spurns salvation; that the crux of atheism is not disbelief, but arrogance. If you find it necessary to both explain atheism as a negative phenomenon and hold God blameless, this is the easiest conclusion to draw. However there are philosophical problems with this argument as well.
The implication behind the suggestion that a relationship with Jesus would’ve saved Janet’s faith reveals the misconception that ‘experiences with God’ are a permanent inoculation against skepticism. This isn’t true. It may be perplexing how one could give up their faith when their own personal experiences testify of something divine, but I have a hypothesis:
If Christianity is my native way of understanding reality, and I am later confronted with a secular-scientific way of understanding reality, I am faced with a dilemma of holes. If I chose to leave my religion in favor of a secular-scientific worldview I will face philosophical holes—personal experiences science does not explain. However, scientific theories that conflict with the texts and traditions of Christianity also enable me to use GPS and benefit from medical research. Some experiences may become somewhat mysterious, but a strictly scientific worldview fully explains almost all the natural phenomena I am likely to encounter. If I choose to stay within the traditional bounds of my religion those few glorious and poignant experiences may be satisfactorily explained, but gaping intellectual holes in the topical scope—the social, and scientific explanations presented by my religion—will confront me at every turn. So why not trade big holes for little ones?
Several of my friends once believed they had a relationship with the divine, but the evidence of science, frustration with the biblical record, or anti-intellectual strains within their religion led them to trade one reality, set of holes, and worldview, for another.
Related articles (just some interesting perspectives):
- Alvin Plantinga on the Four Horsemen of Atheism (keithburgess-jackson.typepad.com)
- An Atheist Roundtable (slacktivist.typepad.com)
- Alvin Plantinga on the New Atheists (keithburgess-jackson.typepad.com)
- What do “Atheist” and “Agnostic” Really Mean? (mechanicalbrain.wordpress.com)
- What’s a ‘Faitheist’? Chris Stedman explains – Articles (religionnews.com)