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Losing my atheism

07 December 2012, 09:43
I remember so clearly being 16, sipping some hot chocolate in a plastic cup while sitting in a Ford Cortina looking out over the Indian Ocean, and losing my atheism.

It was 1997, so the Ford Cortina was already a confirmed antique. It belonged to my newest friend, the Youth Pastor at the church I was attending. And I really was just “attending” there along with my family, because I had realised a few years earlier that the God I been brought up to believe in as a child did not exist.

I remember less clearly the process that led to a kid like me, brought up in a Christian home, coming to decide, at the tender age of 13, that there was no such thing as God. I used to read like crazy (I remember reading every single book in the school library at one stage, and running out of stuff to read) and maybe exposure to some alternative viewpoints had come in somehow. I also had access to the internet, albeit through a horribly slow 56K dialup modem (remember those?), and I remember reading some articles about en Buddhism that made a lot more sense to me than what I had been hearing in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches I had grown up in. But somehow, I got to the point where I just knew there was no convincing argument for God’s existence. I have a strangely vivid memory of being outside in the garden, holding my pet cat and my eyes welling up with tears as I mulled over the realisation, “There is no God”.

Back to the Ford Cortina and the ocean. Some dolphins made an appearance that day, playing in the waves. The Youth Pastor was probably feeling more intimidated than I was, facing this confirmed atheist who ironically was signed up for his “Confirmation” classes. When you grow up in an essentially Christian world, this is the type of absurdity that can happen so easily. You believe everything that is told to you when you’re younger, then one day you figure maybe you know better. But it’s a little hard for a 13-year old (or 14, 15, or 16 year old) to tell their parents that they have given up on the religious beliefs that supposedly form the basis of all reasonable consensus on what life is about and how to live it. So if they attend church, you attend too. If you come to the age where a particular tradition (in this case, Methodism) expects you to be “confirmed”, then you sign up.

I had resolved in my own mind, however, that this Confirmation thing was a kind of test. I had decided I was going to give this Christianity thing a chance, and once I had learned enough about it to be sure, I would be able to reject it with confidence.
Looking back on it, though, this was anything but an unbiased test. I was clearly predisposed to see “losing” my religion as something bad. For someone brought up in a fairly religious home and with plenty of exposure to church, it seemed “obvious” that hopelessness, moral relativism and despair must follow upon loss of faith. One has been told that this is the reality awaiting those who abandon belief in God, and if there seem to be no examples at hand of a viable alternative, then one feels cast adrift. I felt depressed and alone as a result.

The problem is that this feeling of loss predisposed me to long to return to Christianity and a belief in God, although I did not know it at the time. In a sense, I was always hoping that it would turn out to be true after all, so that I could have my comfort, sense of identity and certainty restored. All it needed was a reasonable-enough basis for belief, and I would be able to run back into the loving arms of my faith.

But it could not have happened without at least addressing some of my intellectual concerns. Enter “apologetics”.
The Youth Pastor had decided that the Confirmation should include, understandably, an overview of the main claims of Christianity. (It is a strange indictment on the state of contemporary Christianity that a pastor in a Confirmation class actually anticipates that many, if not most, of his confirmands will actually be lukewarm or even outright rejecting towards the faith in which they have been brought up for their entire lives!) He chose the “Alpha Course” as a way to give this overview of Christianity. This is a course originating from the evangelical-styled Holy Trinity Brompton church in the UK, championed by its leader Nicky Gumbel.

Charitably understood, the Alpha Course is a well laid out presentation of the “Gospel” (specifically, the original-sin-substitutionary-atonement evangelical sort of Gospel).

Cynically understood, it is just good old Christian apologetics. It was nicely dressed up with the title “Explore the Meaning of Life!” which implies (1) an honest, even-handed evaluation of the possible ways to approach this question and (2) a genuine desire to “explore”. It was neither of these. I also now object to the whole premise of assuming a “meaning” to life. Who says there has to be one? It sort of predisposes one to assume that there must be an “answer”, and that life becomes more meaningful when one finds what that “answer” is. Begging the question, indeed.

One section of the Alpha Course material that sticks out in my memory, and which made a huge impact on me, was a discussion around the historical evidence for Jesus’ life. It seemed so obvious that Jesus was a real character in history, testified to by many sources from outside the Bible. Years later, while still a Christian, I came across multiple problems with this sort of assertion. I remember that the Alpha Course even had the nerve to quote the infamous passage from Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

This passage has long been known, with more or less certainty, to be either partially or wholly a Christian forgery. After all, Josephus was a Jew, and definitely not a Christian, so how could he possibly write something like “He was the Christ”? And yet the Alpha Course quoted him, just like that, without any mention of the controversy surrounding this passage. I first came across the problems with this passage, many years later, while reading Paul Johnson’s “A History of Christianity”. Paul Johnson is certainly not an atheist. I was appalled that I had been pulled over the line of faith to a great extent by such an impressive piece of highly dubious “historical evidence”.

There is a much bigger problem than just the Josephus passage, however. The Alpha Course gave the impression that there was lots of evidence to support the “historical” picture of Jesus. The Course even gushed that there was more evidence to support the existence of Jesus than Alexander the Great (I have since heard other apologists repeat this same claim). The problem is, as I was forced to admit much later, that there is an embarrassing dearth of any historical evidence for even the mere existence of Jesus, let alone any clear picture of who he was - outside of the New Testament, that is. Alexander the Great may well have existed, and so did Jesus, but nobody is claiming that “Alex” was actually divine, or the Son of God.
Yes, some people mention the name of Jesus within a hundred years or so of his supposed life, but it is clearly hearsay, and it usually refers either to the existence of Christians or what they claimed about Jesus. None of these passages are contemporary - Jesus was supposedly long dead when they were written.

To realise that there literally are no contemporary accounts of supposedly the most important figure in all of history is an astounding blow to anyone who seeks to maintain traditional Christian faith. Christians typically believe that Jesus was literally divine. He was capable of performing miracles, including healing people and raising them from the dead. His teachings were supposedly unparallelled in the history of mankind. And yet not a single contemporary source exists to corroborate the accounts given in the Gospels.

The New Testament itself isn’t much better. The Gospels were all written after Jesus died. (Scholars are virtually unanimous that even the earliest, Mark, was written at least 40 years after his death.) Paul only claims to have met the “risen” Christ (in whatever form that may have been) and his writings certainly appear to make virtually no mention of Jesus’ life or teachings as recounted in the Gospels.

The Gospels are suspect historically from at least three points of view - they are obviously biased, they appear to be anything but independent, and they contain masses of details that are either demonstrably inaccurate, contradictory or wildly improbable.

The scholarly consensus at present (and I mean, the real scholars, not the fundamentalist types) is that a historical person did exist. You could make a big deal of that, but it’s really no help at all. Lots of people in the past did exist. Sometimes you can construct reasonably probable accounts of what sorts of people they might have been and what they got up to in their time on earth. You have a different order of problem confronting you when trying to decide if a particular person in the distant past was, say, the Son of God, divine, the saviour of the entire world, etc.
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