Children of God?

Note: In response to some comments that have come in, I should clarify that in this post I am not referring to agnosticism or even “passive” atheism. I am not talking about someone who is earnestly evaluating the evidence, but is unconvinced that faith in God is justified.

I am rather referring to an angry and aggressive denial of the Divine, which may bear more than a passing resemblance to a teenager slamming the door and screaming that they hate their parents.

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I recently read an article on “Motives for Atheism” by David Carlin. Among the various motives suggested (libertinism, intellectual laziness, etc) I was struck by one in particular:

Conspicuous Nonconformity

Some people like to be “different.” If they are teenage girls, they may color their hair orange or wear a ring through their nose. Prior to the sexual revolution, a teenage girl could differentiate herself from her peers by losing her virginity at an early age, an age at which almost nobody else would think of doing such a thing. But losing one’s virginity at an early age is too common an event to make a girl different nowadays … If they are teenage boys, they may talk very loud in inappropriate places or freely use obscenities in public. The point is to give offense to respectable opinion. In a cultural milieu in which everyone, or at least nearly everyone, takes it for granted that God exists, you can shock respectable opinion by openly announcing your atheism.

I find this interesting in light of the stage of life at which several prominent figures among the more militant atheists made their commitments to their creed:

  • Richard Dawkins rebelled against his “normal Anglican upbringing” as a teenager, and decided that God didn’t exist.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche dropped out of his theology studies at age 20 and became an atheist.
  • Bertrand Russell discarded his Christian faith at 18.

As Vox Day points out:

“The idea that there is any rational basis for atheism is further damaged by the way in which so many atheists become atheists during adolescence, an age that combines a tendency toward mindless rebellion as well as the onset of sexual desires that collide with religious strictures on their satisfaction.” (The Irrational Atheist)

I present, as food for thought, accounts of three men who went the same direction in their teenage years, but later changed their views:

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Francis Collins was formerly head of the Human Genome Project, and now serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health. A brillinat geneticist, he has been described as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. Collins was brought up as a “nominal Christian” but regarded himself as an atheist by graduate school. He came to Christianity aged 27, after mature reflection and an investigation of several faiths.

He described his experiences in an interview for Salon.com :

“I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn’t see any need to go beyond that. Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself. But then I went to medical school, and I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, “What about you? What do you believe?” And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I’d never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

“… So I set about reading about the various world religions, but I didn’t understand their concepts and their various dogmas. So I went down the street and met with a Methodist minister in this little town in North Carolina and asked him a number of blasphemous questions. And he smiled and answered a few them but said, “You know, I think you’d learn a lot if you’d read this book on my shelf. It was written by somebody who has traveled the same path — a scholar who was an atheist at Oxford and tried to figure out whether there was truth or not to religion.” The book was “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. And within the first three pages, I realized that my arguments against faith were those of a schoolboy.

“… As I read his arguments about the Moral Law — the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes no sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology but makes great sense as a signpost to God — I began to realize the truth of what he was saying. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t go back to where I was. I could never again say atheism is the only logical choice for a scientifically trained person.

“After I had struggled with this for a couple of years … 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.”

—————

C. S. Lewis also departed from his Christian upbringing in his rebellious teenage years. Born into a church-going family in Belfast, he became an atheist at the age of 15, mostly due to his struggles to reconcile a benevolent Creator God with the broken and wicked Creation which he saw. He was fond of quoting Lucretius (De rerum natura, 5.198–9):

“Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.”

But by 31, after years of wrestling with his philosophical demons, he described his acceptance of God in Surprised by Joy:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Lewis was possibly the greatest Christian writer of the 20th century. In addition to his masterpiece of apologetics, Mere Christianity, he continued to contend with the existence of evil. The Problem of Pain ranks among the finest works ever written on this difficult issue.

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Augustine of Hippo (aka St. Augustine) was born in 354 in Thagaste (in what is now Algeria). Although raised as a Christian, Augustine left the Church (much to the despair of his mother) and spent most of his teenage years as a wild and reckless delinquent. He hung around with the the euersores (or “wreckers”), who encouraged extreme sexual promiscuity (and were thus understandably popular with teenage boys).

In 384, at age 30, Augustine was awarded the most prestigious academic position in the Roman world, the Professor of Rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan. Three years later he underwent a profound personal transformation and converted to Christianity:

“Eagerly then I returned to the place where … I laid the volume of the Apostle … I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions, Book VIII)

More than 1600 years later his astoundingly deep understanding of the Christian faith and the nature of human psychology remains just as relevant. He was among the first to clearly articulate the interpretation of Genesis as a logical framework rather than a scientific treatise, and also a profound writer on the doctrines of Grace and of human frailty.

—————

Christopher Hitchens abandoned religion aged 9. His brother Peter recalls burning his own Bible at 15, but Peter returned to faith when he was 30.

We are all children of God, and we all go through our rebellious teenage years. Thank God that some of us grow out of them.

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24 thoughts on “Children of God?

  1. An excellent evaluation. Did you ever read “The Making of an Atheist”? It’s pretty good, and a very quick/easy read. I recommend it. Atheism in general seems to be just as dogmatic, if not more dogmatic, than the faith it rebels against.

  2. Might one of the (non negative, non immature, and non rebellious) motives for being a non believer in extraordinary religious claims is that it makes good sense to maintain a consistent default position when faced with any extraordinary claims? After all, we assume this intellectual default position in all other areas of life because we have learned (most of us, anyway) that being openly gullible to any and all extraordinary claims is neither a character strength nor an intellectually sound approach. This non belief is rather prudent in practice, no? And prudence in matters of believing extraordinary claims is not usually considered a sign of immaturity, a character flaw, or an intellectual weakness as you seem to be suggesting… except, as you suggest, when addressing the truth value of extraordinary religious claims.

    How odd.

    I wonder on what grounds you justify the epistemological switch based not on a consistent approach to any extraordinary claim but switched based on the subject of the extraordinary claim, namely a christian version of religious belief! That doesn’t appear to me to be justifiable but rather intentionally biased. Yet this arbitrary and purposefully biased switch in epistemology to exempt extraordinary religious claims from the same kind of intellectual prudence used elsewhere is what you consider a mature reflection and non rebellious investigation?

    • You’ll note that the three examples I cited (Dawkins, Nietzsche and Russell) did not “maintain a default position”. I am not referring to agnosticism or even “passive” atheism.

      I am rather referring to an angry and aggressive denial of the Divine, which may bear more than a passing resemblance to a teenager slamming the door and screaming that they hate their parents.

      • True; they had to overcome a childhood of indoctrination before coming to the intellectual default position for extraordinary religious claims. You seem surprised that the ‘tone’ of the their mature response contains what you call anger and aggression at being intentionally misled.

        [Quotation deleted – inflammatory rant]

      • …and yet the three counter-examples I gave also had to “overcome a childhood of indoctrination”. I’m not sure how you think this supports your first comment?

        Your use of “intentionally misled” carries the implication that Christian parents knowingly lie to their children – are you sure that you can defend that charge?

      • I might be wrong, but didn’t Collins and Lewis return to the faith of their childhood? In this sense ,they had nothing to overcome.

        As for Augustine, his religious conversion was hardly what we call a similar return to childhood christianity: he was one of the church fathers who designed what we now call christianity! It’s not like he left the philosophical domain of Platonic dualism and then returned to it; he extended it with great success into his theology, thus successfully uniting Greek philosophy and physics with the monotheism of the christian tripartite god. (I’m a big fan of Augustine, BTW, and have great respect for his philosophical brilliance.)

        I guess my point is that I find it a very strange concept to ‘overcome’ non belief in how we approach extraordinary religious truth claims as if non belief were anything other than a generic default position. I understand why there is a tendency to great frustration and even anger when some faux argument is presented to show why an exemption of this basic approach to coming to know anything is considered of intrinsic value rather than a danger that undermines the honest attainment of all knowledge.

        Thus, my deleted quotation on tone was meant to portray exactly this danger, that when we allow for an exemption from a default position of non belief, we open ourselves up to gullibility that (I think and for excellent reasons) requires far more criticism than the blanket of uncritical respect to this exemption under the guise of piety.

        I think teaching children to identify with a particular belief system is the lie. The child is just the child… not a christian child because of christian believing parents any more than a communist child or a Keynesian child is such because of some belief set of the parents. But I do know that children are remarkably susceptible to this kind of indoctrination, which I think is a very intentional undertaking on the part of parents who make no effort to protect their children from this kind of false labeling.

      • tildeb :
        In this sense ,they had nothing to overcome.

        Your argument was that the atheist examples had to “overcome” religious childhoods. My observation was that all three Christians that I cited also “overcame” their religious upbringings and renounced their childhood faiths, but then accepted Christianity as they matured.

        tildeb :
        I think teaching children to identify with a particular belief system is the lie.

        Teaching a child anything, whether it’s why the sky is blue or the multiplication tables or how much God loves them, can only be a lie if you yourself believe it to be untrue. Thus your implication is still that Christian parents knowingly lie to their children, and again I have to ask you whether you can support that accusation?

      • Yes, I think I can. Remember, it is the label I am calling the lie, so anyone promoting the truth of that label by my meaning, is lying. Consider: has the child actually done the necessary legwork to be – in this case – a christian? Has the child compared and contrasted various religious beliefs and chosen christianity? Is a child born of parents who have registered as Democrats automatically a Democrat, and is such a label justified? I don’t think so. I think we have no idea what political label will accurately describe that child until the child him- or herself has done the necessary legwork and has decided an appropriate political label that best describes the choice finally reached. For these parents to insist that their child is a Democrat at birth I think is an incorrect label, a preemptive label that is unjustified, a label that is not true (yet), in the same way that for parents to insist that their child is a christian at birth is also an incorrect label, a preemptive label that is unjustified, a label that is not true (yet); hence, my accusation of lying.

        If nothing else, the assignment of such labels and thinking them to be justified I think is a clear sign of very poor parenting more concerned with their preferences to be held in higher regard than the healthy development of the child’s own preferences.

      • tildeb :
        … anger and aggression at being intentionally misled.

        tildeb :
        …teaching children to identify with a particular belief system is the lie.

        See, I still find it hard to read these is merely being about a label. I could be wrong, but it really looks like you’re suggesting that teaching a child that Christianity is true is equivalent to a deliberate deception.

        I would refuse to label a child as Christian based on his upbringing, because that is not a defining characteristic of a Christian. To be a Christian is to have made a conscious decision to accept Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and acknowledge him as Lord of your life.

        If a child has made that decision, great, they’re a Christian. If they haven’t done so, then they’re not.

        But for a parent to teach their child the truth of Christianity as they themselves believe it is no deception – indeed, I believe it would be dishonest of the parent not to teach their child about something so radically important.

  3. I like the tantrum analogy and highlighting the development component. Similar to sexual puberty a spiritual puberty may likewise result in healthy development or unhealthy issues being held on to for a long, long time. One can find affirmation for healthy expressions as well as for unhealthy ones.

    I like the tone of your articles, there’s no axe to grind while dealing with topics highly emotive to many 🙂

  4. Can’t speak for the atheists you have listed, bu I am an atheist simply because I haven’t found any good reasons to believe that gods exist. That’s all.

    • … and that’s perfectly fine. I would fully support you following your convictions wherever they lead. I think it’s vital that we evaluate all the reasons that are relevant for us personally and that we have the courage to follow the evidence. My evaluation has led me in one direction, yours has led in another: we have been working with different evidence, so I see no reason that we can’t both have been honest in evaluating our reasons, even if the conclusions differ.

      The kind of thing I’m really referring to in the post are people who seem to be angry with God and therefore declare themselves atheist to “get back” at Him – which to me looks more like an act of teenage rebellion. A person who earnestly investigates the evidence and seeks the truth, and comes to the conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to support a belief in God represents a very different state of mind from what I was talking about.

  5. I also don’t fully buy the argument that some individuals become atheists because they want to be free of sexual restrictions. There are religious cults that promote sexual promiscuity (such as Family International). If letting go of sexual restrictions was my motive for leaving the faith, as your post claims, it would have made more sense for me to join up with that cult and benefit from having the best of both worlds: being promiscuous AND believing in God. As an atheist, I’ve given up both, as I’m no more promiscuous than I was when I was a Christian.

  6. Hi Sentinel,
    Those are fascinating case studies in unbelief. Accounts like those are encouraging and remind us that there is still hope for those who militantly deny God. Oftentimes it is life experience that reveals the poverty of the naturalistic worldview. In youth, much of life is abstract and can be theorized about from the ivory tower. But real life has a way of waking us up to a very different reality.

    • Poverty of the naturalistic worldview? You mean, you can look through a telescope at the night sky or through a microscope at the marvel of cellular activity without any sense of awe because you think it bereft of richness? Really? Or does it gain your interest only if you believe it was all made by a creator who holds you in a special place in its universal concerns? Either you are pauper in wonder or exceptionally rich in species chauvinism.

  7. Great post and interesting comments. I find one thing most fascinating in many of my discussions with atheists–and it has to do with the “minority” status of atheism. On the one hand some of them have talked with me of the “oppression” felt so often by atheists because everything in our culture is centered around a theistic framework. On the other hand this “minority” viewpoint is the obvious intellectual and rational default position. Most intriguing is that the “truth” of atheism is so clear and irrefutable that the burden of proof falls heavily on the one who would dare believe there is a God.

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  11. @tildeb

    Militancy in Atheism can take numerous forms:

    -from decrying all religion as being tantamount to child abuse, calling it indoctrination (whilst also creating a system of summer camps, and an academy franchise to serve the same purpose of indoctrination, but hey, as long they believe in YOUR claptrap as opposed to the OTHER fellows claptrap, right?)

    -to ordering the removal of scientists and politicians simply because they are religious (even when their religious views do not conflict with their work) simply out of paranoid spite.

    -to burning down churches, synagogues, mosques and temples and butchering religious folk by noose, bullet, brick, and blade (as seen in Cuba, China, North Korea, etc).

    …and every flavor in between.

    You see? Atheist fanatics are no different from their Theistic counterparts.

    When I became an Agnostic, it was from a simple reality: that as much as did not agree with Christianity, I found nothing to like in Atheism either.

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