Wednesday, December 02, 2009

No Going Back

I enjoy casually reading Christian apologetic sites. Some include tales of how the Christian used to be an atheist…just…like…me. So they know what I am thinking, apparently. We read the following stories:

My name is Todd Pitner and if you happen to be a non-believer, I used to be one of you – an intellectually fulfilled ‘good person’ who had a pretty good run for 42 of my 45 years. Although born into a Catholic family and lovingly forced into church attendance, after high school I couldn’t get church in the rear-view mirror fast enough. Other than the obligatory annual Christmas and Easter services, I was “godless and doing just fine.”

Upon joining the Church of NarcissistianityThe Gospel According to Me, the next twenty-plus years served me pretty well. I compiled quite an impressive non-believer’s resume. My credentials:

– Made a lot of money, lost it all (bankrupt)
– Got married, had kids, all-work, no pray (divorced)
– Tried drugs, drank enough to kill a moose (alcoholic)
– Broke all Ten Commandments* (could never fix ‘em)
– Decided to kill myself (too much of a wimp)

* See Matthew 5:21-26 and 1 John 3:15 if
your left eyebrow went up on this admission.

Yes indeed, my life sucked. But as God is so prone to do, He brought me to my knees so that I might look up. In my utter despair, I gave up on Todd 1.0 and prayed for a Divine reboot, “God, if you’re there, if you’re really, really real…would you please help me?!”[emphasis all in original]

Humanity had become nothing more to me than an organized network of molecules and enzymes. I viewed people as mere organisms going through their daily routines of metabolizing nutrients and expelling wastes, ovulating their eggs and ejaculating their semen. I knew the psychology of humans almost as well as their anatomies. The hidden things that pulled them this way and that were very evident to me. They were like guinea pigs, only more predictable, and my chief form of entertainment was to see how skillfully I could manipulate them. I knew that I was supposed to care about them, but I didn't. I couldn't. If mankind's goal was to alleviate its own suffering, a bullet to the head was more efficient and made more sense in my thinking than screwing around with medication or disease control.

What was the point of prolonging any one life? What difference did it make if a girl didn't live to marry or her mother live to see it? Of what value were temporary emotional experiences? They were simply the biochemistry of the brain reacting to sensory input and, upon that individual's death, any remaining memory of that experience would be thrown away along with the person who had experienced it. My extreme point of view had reduced people into throwaway metabolic units; I had become as cold and indifferent as the logic that I exalted.

I was an atheist for most of my life. I thought that the idea of an all powerful, all loving God was just silly. I learned in school that evolution was where life came from, so what do you need God for? And I had a lot of self-motivation for living an atheistic lifestyle. I was living a very immoral life and a drunken life, life that was really a hundred percent focused on journalism.

Right from journalism school I went to the Chicago Tribune, which was unusual; but I had so much experience for a kid...because I knew since I was a little kid what I wanted to do. So I started as a general-assignments reporter. I went to Yale to get my masters in law, came back as a legal editor, covered federal courts, covered criminal courts, covered the Illinois Supreme Court and really enjoyed it but without God, without a moral framework, my personal life was out of control, the drinking, the carousing. I had no moral framework of how to do journalism so I would do whatever it took to get the story. I would steal; I would commit a federal crime by stealing federal documents from the courthouse. I made friends with the court clerk, and he allowed me to go by myself into the court files; and so I would go in there, and I would beat the competition all the time by finding all this wonderful stuff in the court files that no one knew about. So when I would find something particularly juicy, I would slip it under my vest, and I would steal it so when the story broke, the competition couldn't find the documents. Then I gave it a day or two, then I put it back. I figured it was worth it because I never got caught.

I would lie. I remember covering stories at the police headquarters, I would call the witness to a crime and I would say, "Hello this is Lee Strobel calling from police headquarters." Well the implication was that I was with the police department. I intentionally mislead and deceived them, because I figured they would tell me more than if they knew I was a reporter. There was nothing that I wouldn't do in pursuit of a story. I would step on my colleagues, in a very Machiavellian way. I, behind the scenes, destroyed the career of one of my colleagues because he was in my way. By the time I was done with him, he was fired from the Chicago Tribune. That's a terrible thing to do, to destroy someone's career; but I did it. And I didn't care. It didn't bother me one iota, because he was in my way. Get rid of him, destroy him...and I was able to do it. He got called on his honeymoon to be informed that he had been fired from his job...a terrible thing. But, as I said, I had no moral sense of right or wrong. If something was in my way, I got rid of it.

And as I read these tales, I realized I could never go back to being a Christian. It would seem I do not qualify to be “atheist” enough.

I haven’t gone bankrupt. Haven’t cheated on my wife, nor been divorced. Not a drunk. The closest brush with the law outside of my job is speeding tickets. I haven’t destroyed someone’s career—I don’t lie and steal to frustrate my competitors. I don’t consider humans to be “guinea pigs,” nor do I think suicide is the solution is suffering.

Evidently, according to these Christians, there is quite a bit more to being an atheist and I am simply not getting with the routine.

Only a cynic would think these are horrendous straw-people, designed to impress other Christians as to how “atheistic” a person REALLY was. Only a scoffer would think these testimonies aren’t intended to relate to atheists, but are intended to tell Christians how miserable atheists actually are in the deep down inside.

I guess, until I qualify as a “True Atheist,” I will never have such great stories to tell of being so despondent, rich, and sexually immoral.


  1. Obviously you don't need God in order to be a good person.

    Good luck on your delusion, I mean, journey.

  2. My fault for being too subtle. Makarios, I will attempt to make my point more plain. It does not have to do with whether one can be moral without a belief in God—it has to do with relating to people of differing beliefs.

    Let’s try the shoe on the other foot. Imagine I wrote something like this:

    “Christians, don’t worry, I was once just like you. I was deluded into believing a mythical Father-Fairy lived in the sky, watching over my every move, anxiously waiting to spank my fingers if I so much as swore under my breath.

    “My Christian resume was complete: I threw rocks at nasty gays, shot Satanists, and burned witches. I successfully petitioned my church to ban women from even saying “Hello” upon entering the vestibule, based upon Paul’s admonition to not allow women to speak in Church. I even forced the resignation of a Pastor for taking Nyquil (alcohol.)

    “But deep, down inside I knew it was all false. I knew there wasn’t really a God, and this was just a fantasy, concocted by heterosexual men to manipulate homos and women.

    “Luckily I woke up from my schizophrenia, began to use the reasoning part of my brain, and am no longer a Christian-wanna-be. Life is all Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.”

    Obviously I do not believe any of those things, but even if I did—can you seriously imagine a single Christian reading it and thinking, “Wow—this guy really gets me. He really touches where I am at”? Of course not! I would be laughed at for creating an obvious straw-person, and demonstrating remarkably I don’t have a clue regarding Christianity.

    This is exactly how I feel when I read these stories. Maybe (giving the benefit of the doubt) this is how these individuals live. But it is nothing like how I live. It has nothing to do with why I am an atheist. Nor, to be honest, do I find any other atheist saying these things. Certainly no deconvert.

    These stories do nothing to further the discussion between non-believers and believers. In fact, they do more to cause division.

    My suggestion would be to drop them.

    They won’t.

    Hence a little mockery.

  3. I am a "true" atheist! I've gone bankrupt, I've been divorced, I smoke, drink and I've done drugs, I've been part of a Utopian Sex Cult and I've had quite a lot of adversity in my life. If you count bad thoughts, I've cheerfully broken all ten commandments and no small few should-have-been commandments.

    Still and all, I've never had the slightest impulse to seek solace in delusion or fantasies of an invisible sky fairy.

  4. What I'd like to read -- even one time -- is the story/testimony of an atheist who was leading a good moral life and one day decided to become a Christian. I'm talking about somebody who was happy and not facing a life crisis.

    Of course, it never seems to happen that way. Wonder why? :)

  5. In reading the Lee Strobel account, and how often he says he lived an immoral life, or didn't have a moral sense of right and wrong ... I just have to say really? Because aren't people who lack a moral sense of right/wrong considered sociopaths? The whole lacking a sense of moral responsibility?

    And that's not a definition to just casually throw around.

  6. "And as I read these tales, I realized I could never go back to being a Christian. It would seem I do not qualify to be “atheist” enough."

    It's funny, isn't it? How this brand of apologetics uses morality as a measurement, yet Christianity claims "... there is none righteous, no not one...." We could go right down the list and find "bankrupt, divorced, alcoholic, commandment breaking wimps" who identify as Christian.

    Any former Christian (or Christian for that matter) knows that churches are full of Christians who fail at keeping their moral code. People who are 'godfull and doing poorly.'

    Isn't it impossible to be a moral Christian, if your very thoughts disqualify you?

  7. Hey Dagoods,

    Reading these stories brought to my mind a blog I used to read, which hasn't been updated in a long time. Maybe he converted from atheism and you've already read his testimony? ;) Anyway, lotsa bleak pessimim to go around at:

  8. Isn't it impossible to be a moral Christian, if your very thoughts disqualify you?

    Our very nature disqualifies us!

  9. Thank you for this post. I discovered your blog a few weeks ago, but until now haven't felt compelled to comment. As a former christian, I bought into all the arguments about atheists having no basis for their morality, etc. Since leaving the faith (I don't consider myself an atheist--yet??--rather an agnostic), I have noticed how peculiar those characterizations were. I now pick up books written by "former atheists" and they are all as you have portrayed them: "I was a horrible person until I found God..." These make me want to gag. I don't necessarily doubt their sincerity, but what I can't stand is they way they extrapolate from their need to be rescued from their inability to cope with life(clearly many people cannot construct a meaningful reality without a god; this is not necessarily a bad thing) to a standard for all people.

    The most ironic part of it all is that, without exaggeration, the only two professing atheists that I personally know, are also two of the most moral, ethical, compassionate people I know.

    And I won't even get into all the "moral" christians I know whose true basis for their morality is what they want the bible to say on a day to day basis (relativism, anyone?); or the ones who cling to the inerrant word of god as their moral compass but live unhappy, unfulfilled lives that create misery for all those who love them...

  10. I don't necessarily doubt their sincerity"

    I think you do. Why else gag unless you don't believe they saw themselves as horrendou sinners in need of help?

    Jesus said that 'I didn't come to save those who think they are good enough. Rather I came to save those who know they are corrupt to the core."

  11. Makarios,

    I don’t think you are getting it. While obviously I cannot speak for caroline, I do understand what she meant and would tend to say the same thing. (I may doubt their sincerity more than she does, only because I consider Strobel a liar.)

    On the other hand, I don’t know their full story, so I am in no position to determine whether someone like Todd Pitner was alcoholic, immoral and suicidal. Therefore I reserve judgment, and would lean toward charity—granting them their story is true.

    What makes me gag (and what I read caroline to mean when she said it) is their transferring the same feelings of inadequacy on ALL other atheists. In other words, saying, “Since I was a miserable atheist, all atheists must be miserable, because they are just like me.”

    This is myopic, and poorly reasoned out. People are different.

    In reading your responses, and reviewing your blog entries, I see a disconnect. When we attempt to communicate something, you read it differently than what we are trying to say.

    Normally, I would recommend you exert a little charity yourself, and attempt to read it for what the person is trying to say, not what you are trying to read into it, but anyone who freely admits they are not quoting others accurately and then excuses it with: “If I get it close, that's good enough for me” and “…but the message I give is the message I received” is beyond hope, I fear.

  12. I'm with paul: there's a giant equivocation about what it means to be a "moral" Christian. On the one hand, we have all these stories -- "I used to be an immoral atheist, now I'm a moral Christian"; on the other hand, Christians themselves seem to freely admit — and dismiss as irrelevant — that as a group Christians do not actually behave any better than atheists.

    Furthermore, if some kinds of behaviors and attitudes actually make a person unhappy or miserable, that's a good enough reason to change the behavior: calling that behavior "immoral" doesn't supply a good reason to change it.

    We know that people often have conflicting desires, and we know that peer pressure can influence a person's behavior: people tend to act to gain expressions of approval from people they consider part of their in group... even if the act is a pretense.

    If Christians kept their behavioral pressures at (relative) sobriety and otherwise ordinary civilized, socially responsible behavior, there wouldn't be much of a controversy. But, like all cults, it never stops there, it always goes on to some form of toxic intolerance or stupidity (usually misogyny, homophobia, or woo-woo).

    There are two elements at fault. The first is attributing to objective (non-minded) reality what is the result of social construction. It's not god or Jesus that have helped these people feel happier, it's their congregations. The second fault is authoritarian submissiveness, which a lot of people really enjoy. Shared obedience is an easy, almost thoughtless way to gain peer-group approval. Worse yet, it allows people to escape feelings of guilt for behavior that's harmful to others: the leader offers to take the guilt, the followers are just "doing their job" or "following orders".

    Again I will repeat my charge that so-called "moderate" Christians (as well as "moderates" of other religions) actually reinforce these toxic elements. God really does improve peoples lives. God really is an authority, albeit a trustworthy and civilized authority; these "fundamentalists" just have the wrong objectification, the wrong authority. But it is the objectification and the authoritarianism themselves that are necessarily toxic.

    (And too, I've never met any moderate Christian who didn't have some form of toxic intolerance, usually a subtle misogyny.)

  13. "I think you do. Why else gag unless you don't believe they saw themselves as horrendou sinners in need of help?"

    No, I don't. The OP's interpretation was indeed what I meant. As I said, I come from a (very strong) christian background. I understand how christians--at least those of the evangelical, conservative variety--think. I know that many of them are very sincere, and often, the more extreme their conversion story, the more sincere they are. That makes complete sense from a psychological perspective. But that does not give them the right to suggest that everyone who once believed as they did (whether atheist or simply non-religious)is also miserable, immoral, or a horrible person. It's misleading and inaccurate, to say the least.

    Also, for the record, Makarios, your scripture paraphrase does not add anything to the discussion. I understand the doctrine of depravity, and it is irrelevant here. The examples the OP gave clearly referred to people who had messed up lives or twisted ways of thinking by almost anyone's standard. That was also the kind of thing to which I was referring. These were not people with whom I could identify, either as a christian (yes, I believed I was depraved, even thought I never did anything like these people described), or now. I was then and am still a moral person. Whether or not I believe I am depraved by the bible's standard really has no bearing on that fact. Morality is based on people's actions, not on their beliefs.

  14. It really is amazing what Christians mean when they say, "I used to be like you."

    It's a class A insult really, because when they say so, they mean that we are drunks, drug addicts, thieves, suicidal, adulterous, losers, unemployed, etc.

    And they think they're being nice, that they're finding common ground with us.

    No, they shouldn't compare themselves to us. They should compare themselves to people who live under bridges, and even those folks haven't done half the stuff those pious Christians list on their "atheist" resume.

    -- Lorena

  15. It was always clear to me that people love to hear the dramatic, juicy testimonies of Christians. It was pretty boring if you were born into a church-going family and were never into any dramatic, awful sins.
    If you had an awful past, you were a star based on that interesting past, not the boring present.
    It was entertainment.