Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Adams' Conversion

Town Hall columnist Michael Adams tells us about his conversion ot Christianity in his latest column. Long-time readers of this blog will recall that Adams has happily promoted some of the most ignorant misunderstandings of evolution through his column (see here, here, and here for a discussion of Adams' past musings on this subject).

Adams begins in typical fashion:

When I pulled into the parking lot this morning, I saw a car covered with sacrilegious bumper stickers. It seemed obvious to me that the owner was craving attention. I’m sure he was also seeking to elicit anger from people of faith. The anger helps the atheist to justify his atheism. And, all too often, the atheist gets exactly what he is looking for.

Not much to reply to here. I would simply point out that in my neck of the woods there is no shortage of people with religious bumper stickers on their cars. I suspect Adams would not describe their motives so snidely.

But he really gets going in the next paragraph:

In fact, just the other day, I heard a Christian refer to Michael Newdow as an “attention-craving SOB.” It reminded me of the time I heard someone refer to Annie Laurie Gaylor as a “b**ch.” I don’t have the same reaction towards atheists, even when I see them attacking my basic religious freedoms. When I look into their eyes I see an emptiness that evokes pity. Maybe that’s because I was once one of them.

Right-wingers are fond of this idea that you can look into someone's eyes and thereby deduce important things about the state of his soul. On the subject of pity-evoking emptiness, my experiences at various creationist conferences over the years has left me with a similar feeling about many Christian fundamentalists.

Actually, though, the part of his column I found interesting came later:

I still remember the night I publicly declared my atheism. It was April 3rd, 1992. I was a long-haired musician, playing guitar at a bar called “The Gin” in Oxford, Mississippi. The subject of religion came up in a conversation during one of my breaks. An Ole Miss Law student, who had been an undergraduate with me at Mississippi State years before, asked me whether I was still dating my girlfriend, Sally. Then he asked why I had broken up with my previous girlfriend two years before.

After I explained that my former girlfriend was too much of a fundamentalist while I was an atheist, his jaw nearly hit the ground. “Are you really an atheist?” he asked. He assured me he didn’t mean to pry and that he was merely concerned. He didn’t have to tell me that. His reaction gave him away. It was a reaction he could not have possibly faked.

That law student, whose name I have forgotten, made no effort to convert me on the spot. But he did plead with me to pick up a copy of Mere Christianity. “I’ve heard it all before,” I said. He told me I was wrong. He said that C.S. Lewis was the best apologist of the 20th century, but he didn’t push the matter. The conversation ended abruptly. I never saw him again.

Years later, I read Mere Christianity and it did have a great effect upon me. But, recently, I was thinking about what really drove me to read the book. How could I have remembered the title of a book I heard only once? After all, it was many years before at the end of a long night of drinking in a bar in Mississippi.

The answer is simple. The advice was given to me by someone who sincerely considered the matter to be urgent. And that sense of urgency was conveyed without a trace of anger. It was just a matter of one human being communicating his concern for another without being pushy and holier-than-thou.

I found this interesting because I had nearly the same experience. It happened while I was in graduate school. I was not especially secretive about my atheism, and a Christian acquaintance of mine, genuinely concerned about the future of my soul, encouraged me to read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. One of the Christian student groups on campus was handing out free copies of the book.

In my case I immediately ran out and got a copy of the book, and devoured it over the next two days. No one ever accused Lewis of being a bad writer, after all.

But here is where my story diverges from Adams'. For all of Lewis' eloquence, the arguments that he was making struck me as embarrassingly weak. For example, his opening chapter attempts to prove God's existence by the fact that there are certain moral standards that are universal throughout all human societies. The fact that so many people had this innate moral sense implied, somehow, that there had to be a transcendant moral lawgiver. God.

Are you impressed by that argument? I sure wasn't. To the extent that there are moral standards that truly are universal throughout all human societies, they are precisely the ones that are necessary for a society to function at all. That suggests cultural reinforcement, perhaps with an assist from millennia of natural selection, as a more plausible explanation for this universal moral sense.

And the book went downhill from there. I emerged from the experience far more confident in my atheism than I was before. I had read the best arguments Christian apologetics had to offer, from one of the smartest and most eloquent apologists ever to write down his thoughts, and found nothing of importance.

In fairness, I should also mention that many of my Christian friends have told me that while Lewis had many interesting and insightful things to say, I should not take him as authoritative on Christian theology. Fair enough.

Over the years I have approached Christianity from a variety of angles. There was a period in my life when I set aside a chunk of time every night to pray, with every ounce of sincerity I was capable of. People had told me that they had done that, and immediately felt such a sense of relief and joy that they knew Christianity must be real. I never felt that. I never felt anything at all from all my hard work.

I have also made several attempts to read the Bible. I knew people who told me, with obvious sincerity, that by spending time in the Word (their phrase) I would see that it had to be divinely inspired. So I tried it. I found it by turns, unreadable, incoherent, breathtakingly dull, or positively disturbing.

I have read voluminously on the subject of Christian apologetics, and have yet to find an argument that wasn't easily refuted.

I learned as much as I can about science to see if there was any empirical reason for believing God existed (you may find this surprising if you read this blog regularly, but I don't consider design arguments inherently absurd). I found none.

So, I have come to the conclusion that the Christian God does not exist. Many others have come to a different conclusion. I don't understand why they have done so.


At 5:15 PM, Blogger L said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one to get that reaction to Mere Christianity. While I'm sure it was charmingly written, it had absolutely no basis in logic whatsoever -- although the author seemed to think that it did.

I won't even get into the book's section on women (and how they're such emotionally unstable creatures that they must be kept in the home)


At 12:20 PM, Blogger gravitybear said...

Unclear on the concept file:
Conversion story reminded me of something my wife told me the other day. My wife works in a hospital and talks with a lot of nurses. Now, at least at my wife's workplace, the nurses seem to be religious to a greater percentage than most people, seeing it as part of their Christian duty to help people, I guess. But when they discovered my wife is an atheist, one of her coworkers asked, "But you believe in God, right?"
Obviously not quite getting it.
I've never read "Mere Christianity" but perhaps I shall.

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wonderful twist on a famous story:

Bertrand Russell was a well known British philosopher of the 20th century. He was arrested during World War I for anti-war activities, and filled out a form at the jail. The officer, noting that Russell had defined his religious affiliation as "Agnostic" commented: "Ah yes; we all worship Him in our own way, don't we." This comment allegedly "kept him smiling through his first few days of incarceration."

At 12:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The officer, noting that Russell had defined his religious affiliation as "Agnostic" commented: "Ah yes; we all worship Him in our own way, don't we." This comment allegedly "kept him smiling through his first few days of incarceration."

That reminds me of a fundamentalist girl I was dating in the 1980s. As we passed a Christian Science reading room, she was eager to employ the training she received regarding Christian Science being a "cult." The book in the window referred to Omnipotent (capital-O) and she was proud to say: "See. They don't even call our God by the same name as True Christianity." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.


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