The ex-non-believer

The other day, when doing some research for a forthcoming post, I came across a lengthy interview with renown geneticist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins. In the interview, he discussed his tenure as a somewhat obnoxious non-believer:
I concluded that all of this stuff about religion and faith was a carryover from an earlier, irrational time, and now that science had begun to figure out how things really work, we didn't need it any more. I think you wouldn't have enjoyed having lunch with me when I was in that phase. My mission then was to ferret out this squishy thinking on the part of people around me and try to point out to them that they really ought to get over all of that emotional stuff and face up to the fact that there really wasn't anything except what you could measure. 
He goes on to discuss some conversations he had with a minister, who subsequently loaned him a copy of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Then, this happened:
I was on a trip to the northwest, and on a beautiful afternoon hiking in the Cascade Mountains, where the remarkable beauty of the creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, "I cannot resist this another moment. This is something I have really longed for all my life without realizing it, and now I've got the chance to say yes."
He leaves out a bit of detail that he's discussed in the past: the three waterfalls. In a 2006 interview with Salon, he describes the most pivotal moment of that nature hike:

Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it -- also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth -- that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.
Back to the original interview, Collins is asked a question I would have asked as well:
Of Lewis's arguments, which one was the most difficult for you to dispute?
COLLINS: To my surprise, I found myself fairly easily compelled by his arguments about the existence of some sort of a God, because even as a scientist, I had to admit that we had no idea how the universe got started.

As an ex-Christian, the No True Scotsman fallacy is leveled at me fairly often: I only decoverted because I didn't really know Jesus. I had "religion", but not a "relationship" with Christ. Or maybe it's just that I didn't experience the Holy Spirit in the correct way. One way or another, no matter how passionately I might have believed, I'm often told I couldn't have a been a "true Christian".

When someone tells me that they are an ex-atheist, ex-agnostic or ex-whatever else, I don't question their honesty. But I do question their reasons for being a non-believer in the first place. As with anything else, people can reject religion for all kinds of reasons – some rational, some completely irrational. There's nothing about non-belief that is intrinsically rational. Some people arrive at non-belief out of complacency, some out of emotion, and others out of a long process of skeptical inquiry. And when I hear Collins' story, my thought is that he may not have been a believer, but he wasn't a very good skeptic, either.

I was a bit taken aback by his comment that Mere Christianity easily persuaded him, particularly on the notion that the universe required a creator. This question is what kept me calling myself a "theistic agnostic" for many years after my rejection of Christianity, but I wasn't being a good skeptic; it was, in fact, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time that persuaded me to discard that belief. But I didn't discard it because Hawking had provided an answer; what he had done was articulate how the question should be asked. Collins' assessment is essentially, "We do not know how the universe got here, ergo God" – or, "I don't know, therefor I know". Hawking posed many important questions: What if the universe has no beginning – no "boundary" in space or time? What if the universe did not "come from" anything at all, but – much like believers say of God – it simply is? And most importantly, he outlines ways in which we can begin exploring these questions using the tools of science.

Nobody goes from being a non-believer to experiencing Jesus without a healthy dose of sociocultural conditioning. A good skeptic would recognize that we can experience all manner of perceived presences, voices, or visions. If Francis Collins hadn't been having conversations with a minister and read some apologetics, would he still have looked at the cascading waterfalls and believed that it was a message from God representing the Christian trinity? Of course not. He might as well have seen the face of Jesus on the bark of a tree, or the shape of Mary in the clouds. He simply saw what he wanted to see.

I think back to my own conversion experience, when I was 14. I was sympathetic toward Christianity since my parents were Lutheran, but I hadn't been the least bit devout. But then one night I attended an evangelical worship service with my brother, who had been attending for some time. People spoke in tongues, fell to the ground, cried, laughed, and sang. That night, I believed that I had felt God's presence in me; my life changed dramatically thereafter. But in retrospect, it was a clear case of groupthink and confirmation bias. Without being sympathetic to Christianity, I never would have been so easily swept up by the atmosphere. And without the warm acceptance of others and the promises that Jesus would fill the emptiness in my life (what teenager hasn't wrestled with those feelings?), I would never have been so quick to uncritically accept the dogma.

I've read many stories of conversion that strain credulity: Lee Strobel, for example, says he was once an atheist. But when he embarked on a skeptical inquiry into the historicity and reliability of the Bible, he directed his queries exclusively toward evangelical Christians. Ravi Zacharias said in his flea The End of Reason that atheism's hopeless outlook led him to suicide; but in an interview, he says he was not an atheist per se, but rather "lived as an atheist" [1] – it turns out he'd been around religion most of his life, and suggests that his suicide was driven by familial pressures to perform academically.

Collins himself sums it up nicely:

Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith.
And that's just the problem. The very essence of faith is to suspend our rational faculties and to affirm beliefs as true despite – or even because of – a lack of evidence. But beliefs not derived from evidence are simply arbitrary. I suspect most of the faith know this at some intuitive level, which is why they engage in apologetics and attempt to justify their leaps of faith in some sort of rational capacity. None of us wants to be seen as clinging to irrational beliefs. But if religious beliefs were rational, they wouldn't require faith in the first place.

Notice, too, that religion preys on feelings of depression, emptiness, and low self-worth. We've all struggled with those feelings. But it's not the dogma and doctrine of religion that provides sanctuary – it's the community, the "come as you are" acceptance of others. Lace it with a little bit of guilt that places the blame for those feelings on one's own actions – you're feeling this way because you've sinned against God, and you need forgiveness – and people can be persuaded to belief all kinds of nonsense. It doesn't matter if, like Francis Collins, you are otherwise highly intelligent. We're all prone to make irrational assessments of reality. That is why it's so important to be aware of the effects of groupthink and confirmation bias, and to understand the principles of skeptical inquiry that have led us into our modern scientific enlightenment.


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