Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Exploring Atheism

In 2014 Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell embarked on a personal experiment to try on atheism for a year see if it fit. He announced in a Huffington Post blog: "For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances."

During that year he regularly wrote a blog entitled “Year Without God,” which I read religiously. The end result of his “year off” from God was that he rejected any religious faith and fully embraced atheism. He now has a new blog and podcast "Life After God."

My experience has been longer, less radical, and the end result is different. For the past seven years I have been studying the New Atheism. Atheism is not new to me. I was a teenage atheist. During my high school years I considered myself an existentialist in the spirit of Camus and Sartre.

Then I experienced a religious conversion in my twenties and have considered myself a Christian ever since. My Christianity went through various stages over the years, from evangelical to progressive to conservative again. But my skeptical spirit remained intact throughout it all.

Then came the New Atheism. I mark the beginning of this movement a decade ago with Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in 2006. I did not read this bestseller when it was first published. I was too immersed in my increasingly Calvinistic Christianity at that time. But I read it in late 2009, and I kept reading everything that this new breed of atheists published.

The result of my seven years in the Land of Skepticism is my recently published book entitled, Thank God for Atheists: What Christians Can Learn from the New Atheism. I rediscovered the skeptical spirit, and found that it is also the Christian spirit. As the apostle Paul put it, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21 NASB)

My observation is that most Christians have not critically examined their faith. They certainly have not tested it in the fiery furnace of agnosticism. Christians reflexively defend, coddle and protect their faith, as if it were too delicate to endure intense scrutiny. Too many Christians accept their religion as the “one true faith” without really examining if this is true.

I examined my faith and religion as thoroughly and critically as I could for the past seven years. I came out the other side of this process still a Christian, but a much more rational and skeptical one. You might call me a Christian skeptic or a skeptical Christian. My Christianity morphed into a worldview much more in keeping with the realities of science and history. 

Gone is the supernaturalism and anthropomorphism of traditional theism. My faith is based on the scientific method, historical criticism and my personal experience of God. During these seven years my awareness of the Presence of God has increased even as my skepticism of traditional theism has also increased.

I never would have expected that. Yet that is the mystery of the spiritual life. Skepticism has made me a stronger Christian, even though my more conservative and traditional brethren and sistren may look askance at my present theology. Some may think I have abandoned “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) I have not. I have rediscovered it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

I Wish Reincarnation Were True

I have been retired from full-time Christian ministry for nine months. People still ask me if I miss it. I respond honestly, “Not at all!” It is strange to feel this way. When I took a one year hiatus from ministry in 2010, I was not ready to retire. This time I am.

Whereas I do not miss being a pastor, I do miss all the other careers I could have had. I miss the “roads not taken.” The other day I remarked to my wife that I wish I had several more lifetimes. There are so many things I could do. 

I could have a career in science. That was my original plan when I entered college. Oceanography was my chosen field. I scuba dived and read Jacques Cousteau. By the time I was eighteen I had already narrowed down my career to geological oceanographer. 

I loved science, and I still do. But it was not to be. The spiritual quest captivated me, and I dove headfirst into the religious life instead.

I am glad I did. I have no regrets. I made a living at exploring spiritual truth full-time. I have spent my life seeking the ultimate truths of human existence. I was paid to ponder the deep philosophical and spiritual questions of life. I read many books and wrote a few.

And I helped some people along the way (I hope.) All that time, study, and effort paid off. I am more confident of my spiritual stance than at any other time in my life. But I still wonder who Marshall Davis, the scientist, would have been. 

Then there are other possibilities, such as teaching. That was my second career choice after science. In seminary my plan was to teach religion at the college or seminary level. I entered a PhD program with that in mind. But the pastorate called, and I answered.

I also imagine myself as a professional photographer. That was my dream in high school. I was photography editor of my school newspaper and yearbook. I was even offered a job on my hometown newspaper when I was a teenager. Now I enjoy that life vicariously through the beautiful photography of my wife, Jude.

There are a dozen more career paths I could mention. So many possibilities! That is why I wish reincarnation were true. Then I could do it all!

But, of course, reincarnation is not real. There is no evidence for it, in spite of the beliefs of billions of Hindus and Buddhists and the anecdotal accounts of past life regression. I need evidence, not faith, when it comes to afterlives.

We have one life to live. I still have years of my present life (I hope) to explore new things. And I plan to. But I am expecting no “midlife career change.” (To be in “midlife” would mean I would live to be 132.)

The truth is that I have not finished exploring this life path yet. I have more books to write and truths to uncover! I am just glad I have been granted the incredible blessing of this one human life. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Outsider Test for Faith

One of the most helpful techniques for spiritual insight is John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith”  explained in his book by that name. Loftus is an ex-pastor who encourages Christians to examine their own faith by the same standards that they would judge other faiths. In other words, evaluate your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your religion. 

This is the test in his own words: “The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith.” He describes it as a variation on the Golden Rule: "Do unto your own faith what you would do to other faiths.” 

This simple exercise opened my eyes. It was relatively easy for me to do intellectually, but very difficult for me to process emotionally. For much of my Christian ministry I have been a Christian apologist. I have debated Muslims, Buddhists, and Baha’is on live radio. I gave lectures and taught classes examining Mormonism, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I found it easy to identify the inconsistencies and fallacies of these belief systems.

But when it came to my own faith, it was a different matter. Christianity made perfect sense to me. Virgin births, people rising from the dead, axe heads floating, apostles walking on water, the sun standing still, talking animals – they all were completely believable. I was blessed with having the one truth faith!

Then I applied the “outsider test for faith” to my Christianity. I stepped out of my worldview and viewed my own religion from the outside. I mentally put myself in the positon of a non-Christian. I wanted to see what I would think of Christianity if I were not predisposed to accept it as God’s revealed truth. 

I looked at Christianity as if I was a Muslim or Jew. I looked at Evangelical Christianity as if I were a Mormon or a Buddhist. I looked at the Bible as if it were no more inspired than any other ancient book. I looked at the New Testament as if I believed the Quran were infallible. I looked at Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Second Coming as if I were a Taoist or Humanist.

When I looked at my faith as an outsider, what I saw made me very nervous. I was tempted to shut down the whole thought experiment. When viewed objectively Christianity does not look any more credible than any other religion. In fact when viewed from the outside, all religions look rather silly. I found myself laughing aloud at this new perspective. I suddenly understood why atheists think and speak the way they do.  

This doesn’t mean that I no longer hold Christianity to be true. It means that now I realize that I better have very good reasons for believing Christianity is true. I better have more credible reasons for believing that the apostle Paul received the gospel as a revelation directly from the risen Christ (Galatians 1:12) than that Muhammad received the Quran in a cave on Mount Hira, or that Joseph Smith discovered Golden Plates on the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York.  Try this test for yourself and see what happens. 

(This article is adapted from my new book, “Thank God for Atheists: What Christians Can Learn from the New Atheism” available on Amazon)