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This began as a response to Ryan’s comment on the post the simple answer.  After failing to answer his questions, it turned into something else and I set out to do more of what I do best: complicate the obvious and reinvent many wheels.  My explanations are roundabout, but this is the way my mind works, and this blog, after all, is a record of my thinking.

*Edit:* Make sure you read the comments, where my conversation with Ryan continues.  I think it’s pretty fascinating.

First I’ll answer the easy question.  I have read a few works by Ravi Zacharias but not the book you mentioned.  From his other works, I remember thinking that his apologetics was uninspired because he lacks the ability to understand the atheist’s lack of Christian presuppositions.  Actually, every work or message of Christian apologetics I’ve ever seen has answered completely the wrong questions, and is not on the same wavelength as any of objections to Christianity that I could conceive.  This was true for me even when I was a Christian.  This is also true of every type of apologetic found in the bible itself.

I should also note that unless otherwise stated, when I say “God” I mean the Christian God, the triune God as he is described in the bible and by orthodox Christianity.  I admit that my objections to Christianity don’t themselves completely preclude a deistic god or something resembling the Force in Star Wars, and my reasons for not believing in those types of gods are a whole other discussion entirely.  (I think I touch on it at the end.)

When I said that I could see the edge of God, I didn’t mean any of the things you suggested in your comment.  I definitely did not mean that God became real to me.  I wanted that.  I wanted God to become bigger and clearer, no matter how he manifested himself.  This is where my powers of explanation fail, because I’m a very visual person, and I think in pictures and diagrams that are hard to translate into words.  The best explanation of what I mean by the “edge” of God (and this is itself an analogy) is that I began to see God as an idea rather than a person.  Another analogy that comes to mind is my understanding of Descartes’ ontological argument for God’s existence: God is completely perfect, and existence is a part of perfection; therefore God must exist.  When I was contemplating this argument in freshman philosophy class, I had a lightbulb moment when I realized the reason why this argument didn’t work.  At the most, all that could be determined from the ontological argument is that any idea of God must include the idea of existence.  Sorry, but this explanation is the best that I can do to turn pictures into words.  Maybe if you marinate in the analogy for a good long while you’ll understand what I mean by seeing the edge of God.

The existence of God and the truth of Christianity as a whole are predicated on a set of antecedent assumptions.  The most important assumption, in my view, the one without which the entire thing would fall apart, is that the world is Fallen and in need of a Savior.  Christ didn’t come to add to the world, he came to fix something that was broken.  I stopped believing in the brokenness.  I’m not saying that the universe is perfect, or that people don’t mess up, or that the world isn’t shitty.  But the way I see it, the philosophy of Christianity digs a pit for the universe to fall in so that it can rescue us from it.  I realized that I didn’t want to base my life on the righting of a wrong.  It was already becoming harder and harder for me to believe that my sinfulness was such a big deal to God that I had to spend my life mourning over it and thanking him for rescuing me from death.  You know what that reminds me of?  It reminds me of what abusers do to their victims to keep them from seeking something better.

The gospel is predicated on a negative– sin.  Christianity first creates a system in which God is necessary, then satisfies its own dilemma.  It’s a closed system, a system with no net change.  I wanted something better, something more than the Gospel could give.  I wanted an open system.  If Christianity were the supreme Truth, it shouldn’t have to dig a hole in order to fill it.  It should be able to be good news without being bad news first.  It should be able to do more than save us from the wages of sin.

For those who have suggested that I consider postmodern, emergent, or any related version of Christianity, I already have.  During my last year of being a Christian (when I was still trying fervently to save my faith) I read every single book by Brian MacLaren, Rob Bell, Don Miller, and probably a few others I’m forgetting.  I found none of them even remotely intellectually satisfying, rather insulting to my intelligence.  In my opinion, the God described in those books was much smaller than the God of orthodoxy.
I’ve never wanted God to merely help me live a better life.  I know there are a lot of people who believe in God for that reason, who follow him for that reason.  I commend you.  But Pascal’s wager does nothing for me.  I wanted to follow a true God.  I wanted to follow a powerful, omniscient God.  I realized that he wasn’t there.  And I would rather not have anything to follow, than follow a God who may or may not be there, who may or may not perform miracles, who saves me from thinking too much.
(I know a lot of readers of this blog are postmodern Christians who follow the theology of Brian MacLaren and company.  To them, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, if I have offended anyone.  Those Christians are the ones who have been the most gracious and loving towards me all along.  You are a credit to your faith, but that doesn’t make it true or any more appealing to me.)

I’m a scientist.  I believe in objective truth.  I believe that God either exists or he doesn’t.  I wanted nothing more than for God to exist.  I wanted nothing more than for God to be immeasurably huge and powerful, capable of satisfying and astounding the most voracious intellects.  But I found that he was not.  All God could do was fix what he told me was wrong with me, and if that small savior god existed, I didn’t think him worthy of dedicating my life to.  But that small savior god probably doesn’t exist, just like all the other savior gods of myriad cultures.  Since Christians like to recommend books for me to read, I will recommend one that extremely enlightened my perspective on the uniqueness of Christianity.  “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer.  It’s anthropology, psychology, evolution, and just so fascinating that I keep re-reading it and haven’t actually gotten to the end yet.

So I will echo what Richard Dawkins said in closing his debate with Francis Collins.  All the evidence points against the veracity of Christianity– but I’m willing to keep an open mind.  My mind is open, but not to mere parochial gods who save.  My mind is open to things that are beyond what anybody can dream.

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the simple answer

The question I get asked the most is: what was the one thing that made you became an atheist? Answering this question now is as hard as it was when I originally became an atheist. I do want to explain my process, but it’s very long and comes with a large smattering of antecedents and tangential clarifications, so bear with me.

If I had to pick one reason why I’m an atheist, this quotation from The Chronicles of Narnia would be the simplest way I can think of to explain it:

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

(Prince Caspian)

I used to be like Lucy. The idea of a ‘big’ God, infinitely omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, has always been very important to me. As I grew—spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, temporally—I always found that God was bigger than I had previously realized.

I’m a visual person, so here is the illustration that I see in my head:  I see my mental conception of the universe as a box, whose boundaries are constantly expanding. Sometimes the size of the box remains static for awhile; usually, it grows at a slow to moderate pace. Sometimes certain things make my box suddenly increase exponentially in size: having an artistic epiphany, working on an agonizingly painful quantum physics project, living on my own in a big city for the first time, taking Jerry Root’s Christian Education class at Wheaton.

Always, always, my box was completely filled by God. Every time my box grew, my conception of God grew along with it, seamlessly. Often, it was God who grew first, pushing the sides of the box outwards. I never had to work to make God big enough for my box. He was always there, infinitely big.

Then, during my junior year at Wheaton, several things happened in quick succession that made my box double in size. It was fantastic, until I realized that God didn’t quite fill it. I realized that I could see the edge of God, and that scared me. So I threw myself even more deeply into my faith. Contrary to slowly sliding away from faith, I found that there was a very fine line between earnest, committed, conservative Christianity and radical atheism. It’s hard to describe what my faith looked like at this stage. I desperately wanted to stay a Christian. I desperately wanted God to fill my box. But he didn’t, and still my box was growing.

In my view there is absolutely no place for a God who is less than infinite, but I didn’t know what to do now that the only God I knew was a small God. Then, for the first time, I heard someone else voice my belief: that no God at all was preferable to a small God. I threw God out of my box and began looking out with new eyes, and my box immediately increased logarithmically in size.

My love of analogy tends to get lost in itself while complicating the obvious, so I’ll try to follow this up with an actual explanation sometime.

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My friend Grant is a Wheaton alum and a political scientist who is writing a book about student culture at Wheaton. I met him last year after I began this blog, upon which I found that not all Christians are complete morons.

One of the chapters in his book-in-progress is about atheism at Wheaton, and my experience as chronicled here. Reading his synthesis of my blog posts was a great gift for me, and helped me understand my own experience better. You can read a description of the book with a link to the chapter on Grant’s blog. He also has another chapter up about homosexuality at Wheaton.

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This week passed the anniversary of the day I was baptized.  I was baptized while I was a student at Wheaton, and it was a big, big deal to me.  I saw it as more than a symbol.  For those at Wheaton, I’ll just say that my thoughts on baptism were very heavily influenced by professors Gary Burge and Mark Husbands.  I don’t remember much of the theological terminology.

Anyway, I regarded my baptism as the best day of my life.  From that day on, whenever my faith failed, whenever I struggled or doubted, I remembered my baptism.  It was like a jewel that would always be there, never tarnishing no matter what the state of my life or my faith.  Every time I thought of it I was filled with a sense of goodness and peace that reached deep into me like a well.  It was the core of me.

Of course, I no longer feel these things.  I had to reach deep for these memories.  In fact, one of the ways that I knew I was really becoming an atheist and not just ‘falling away’ from Christianity was when I realized that my baptism was no longer sacred to me.  When I remembered it and realized that I no longer felt a sparkling core that was the essence of my identity.  When I remembered it and it seemed like any other memory, like a memory of a wedding that I attended a long, long time ago.

At first, it felt like a loss.  In addition to the loss of community and belonging and cultural identification that came with deconversion, there was also a deeply-felt loss of memory.  I no longer had such a memory to depend on, to reach back to whenever I needed confirmation, strength, assurance of who I am.

The feeling that I had when I thought of my baptism as a Christian was similar to what I see in some Christians’ eyes of their love for God.  It’s similar to what I witnessed in Francis Collins when he talked about Jesus, his voice and expression cradling something holy.  Sometimes I have wondered why I have never seen anything similar in atheists.  Why haven’t I met any non-Christians with that sense of peace and tenderness in their countenances?

But I’ve forgotten– I have seen it in atheists, but not when they were talking about atheism.  I’ve seen such pure expression of love in the eyes of a friend talking about her beloved.  The fierceness by which her entire being told of her love for the person standing next to her rivaled that of any Christian boasting their love for Jesus.  I’ve seen passion and complete certainty in someone as he called for the protection of the earth and the raising up of the next generation to do good, tangible good in the world.  The pillar of strength that I saw in him resembled the well of strength that the memory of my baptism gave me, and that was what inspired me to enter my current line of work.

Atheists have every measure of peace, love, reverence and conviction.  They just direct it towards what is really worthy of being called holy.  I don’t derive my worth as an atheist from a memory or from someone telling me it is so.  My life is a continual making of myself into something, something that I think is special and worth remembering.

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This is the story of how I got to Wheaton and my first year there. This is all Christianity; not even an inkling of atheism yet, but every story has to start somewhere.

I did not actually spend my entire college career at Wheaton. I transferred there at the beginning of my sophomore year, after spending my freshman year at an elite secular liberal arts college that I loved.

I went to Wheaton for one reason only: because God told me to go there. I remember it quite vividly. I was sitting in my dorm room at my desk, and suddenly the idea popped into my mind: I’m going to transfer to Wheaton. Like all ideas that popped into my mind in those years, I attributed it to God. I was convinced that this was God’s will for me, but, as always, you have to give a little test just to be sure. So I told God I would apply to Wheaton, and if I was accepted, I would go. I prayed that if God didn’t want me to go to Wheaton, then I shouldn’t get in.

I got in, as I knew I would academically– but I had hoped for some fluke by which I would be rejected. As my freshman year ended, I really didn’t want to leave my beloved school. I didn’t want to go to Wheaton, and I started a series of mental gymnastics by which I tried to reason out a loophole to disobey God. Because, no matter what I felt about going to Wheaton, I never doubted that God wanted me to go there. To me, it was exactly like the commandments God gave to people in the Old Testament to leave their homes and go to a place where he would lead them.

By the end of the semester, I had done enough reasoning that I could have stayed where I was and been fairly confident that God wouldn’t smite me. For awhile there, it looked like I could go either way. I sought the counsel of my Christian friends and mentors, and all of our discussions seemed to weigh in favor of me staying.

I sent in my deposit, figuring that I could stand to lose $200 if I decided not to go to Wheaton. But I knew, all along, that I was going to go. I couldn’t stand disobeying God. So against all my better judgment, against all my desires to stay with my friends and professors in a thrilling academic environment and a part of the country that I felt connected to, I withdrew from my school and committed to going to Wheaton, sight unseen.

Luckily, when I first saw Wheaton I thought it seemed an idyllic place. At the time, going to a college on a hill with a big sign in front that declared “For Christ and His Kingdom” was a dream come true. I missed my old school, but Wheaton was so different and challenging in its own way that I didn’t feel the loss too severely. My first semester, I took Introduction to Christian Education with Jerry Root. To be honest, I now can not remember a single thing about that class, besides the fact that Jerry quoted C.S. Lewis a lot. But at the time, and for several semesters afterwards, I regarded that class and its spiritual insights as the highlight of my Wheaton life. For awhile, I was enamored with the idea of majoring in Christian Education.

There was no shortage of spiritual highlights at Wheaton. By spiritual highlights I mean both highs and lows, because struggles and anguished fights with God were as important to my spiritual development as the days of spending all my free time reading the bible or praying for hours in the chapel while fasting. The amplitude and wavelength of my spiritual highs and lows were intense enough to keep me occupied during my first year at Wheaton, making me ignore completely all academics aside from religion-oriented classes, which were the only ones in which I learned anything anyway. I grew a lot as a Christian that year, and I even had time to go through sophomore cynicism, a stage that most Wheaton students experience of being disenchanted with the church and with Christianity. It’s the spiritual version of sophomore slump. I fell deep into cynicism and then emerged from it, my faith stronger.

Wow, I wasn’t planning on telling this much of my story. Still, there’s a long way to go before hitting atheism. To be continued, maybe…

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reading the bible

Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve struggled with the dichotomy between wanting to put Christianity completely behind me and wanting to honor its role in shaping me. At first I thought the demarcation would be easy; I even thought that I could somehow retain partial membership in the cultural accoutrements of evangelicalism. So for a time, my habits didn’t alter much. I continued to listen to Christian music and read Christian websites, keeping tabs on cultural trends.

Leaving a community is a sad thing. Even while I knew that, I didn’t appreciate what it meant to actually relinquish my claim on the culture and community that was the most significant one I had ever known. But it was necessary, because while I was trying to preserve the cultural identity that Christianity had given me, I was really only preserving my bitterness.

So I swung to the other extreme. I wanted to forget everything about Christianity. I wanted to forget the many memorized bible verses that were written in my mind, the mental gymnastics of theology and biblical scholarship that I used to find fascinating. I didn’t keep any of my bibles or Christian books, I deleted the worship music from my ipod, I haven’t stepped foot inside a church—all in an effort to leave behind the bitterness these things evoked in me. That’s also why I haven’t been back to this blog much since I graduated. Now, going back and reading my entries, I am surprised by how desperate, dark, and sarcastic I was.

I’m not that desperate, dark, sarcastic person anymore. And I woke up one morning and had a desire to read to bible. I simply missed the literature of the bible.  It contains some of the most creative and evocative constructions of language I have ever read.  I no longer feel any bitterness in acknowledging that, and being able to learn from it as I do from many works of fiction.

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down memory lane

My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else… I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.  –Richard Dawkins

The quotation is from a debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins in Time magazine (titled “God vs. Science”) a few years ago. I first heard the quotation from Francis Collins himself, who mentioned it in a lecture I attended around that time. He used it as part of an argument for God, but I saw it as the opposite. Dawkins’ words expressed my feelings about religion perfectly. I wanted something more than Jesus, something more than salvation, more than a God with a plan for the universe. I could imagine something more. I knew then, with those closing words of Dr. Collins’ lecture, that I wasn’t the only one. Richard Dawkins could imagine it too. That was the first time atheism entered my mind, and the universe suddenly seemed a hundred times bigger and scarier.

I’ve met both Collins and Dawkins in person, and I have to say that Dr. Collins is the pleasanter of the two. He’s warm and genial, with a twinkle in his eye and a welcoming handshake for everybody. When he talks about Jesus, when he says the name of Christ, it’s clear that he’s in love. He’s one of the handful of Christians I know who radiates their love for God, whose voice bespeaks an intimacy that makes me jealous.

I used to be in love with God in that way. But it was no longer enough for me; the very fact that I could imagine something bigger and better than Christianity had been a clue to me for some time. When I realized that I wasn’t alone, that others had imagined it before me, I decided to leap into the unknown.  I dared to dream.

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