“The Motivated Atheist”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

People do things for reasons.  Well, unless they’re morons, they do.  As a rule, the larger the change is, the more compelling the reason behind it. 

As Proverbs 4:23 observes, these reasons proceed from the heart.  This is not the Western heart, as in “the seat of the emotions”, but rather the Eastern mind-and-heart, the place where reason and emotion intersect.  In fact, I think that one of the great weaknesses of Western thought is its failure to acknowledge the interplay of the two in the human mind.

In consequence, whenever I hear someone announce that they have changed their mind about something purely through disinterested logical consideration, I become suspicious.  This is particularly true when something else in their lives is providing powerful motivation for them to change their minds. 

Here, consider the man who “restudies” Matthew 19 after his daughter gets divorced and—surprise!—reaches a different conclusion on the text, or the church that “reconsiders” 1 Timothy 2 in a feminist age and decides that women in the pulpit are OK after all.  In both cases, the restudiers will loudly insist that they were motivated only by the love of truth, despite the circumstances that make their new beliefs convenient.  Nonetheless, I raise a skeptical eyebrow.

I will confess that I feel a similar upward tugging in my forehead whenever a Christian, typically a young Christian, proclaims that they have become an atheist.  In such cases, the rhetoric doesn’t vary much.  The newly minted unbeliever will talk at length about how hard this was for them, how they are acting against their own interests, and how only their determination to follow reason wherever it goes has led them to this point.  At times I wonder if there’s a “How to Come Out as an Atheist” script online.

Again, my time on planet Earth leads me to believe people act because they want to, not because they don’t want to.  The problem is, though, that atheism itself doesn’t offer much intrinsic motivation.  Christianity does.  If you buy into the Christian belief system, you get God, absolute right and wrong, meaning, people who care about you, and the promise of eternal life.  I think even atheists would acknowledge that it’s a powerfully attractive set of ideas!

Atheism, though, offers no absolute morality, no meaning, and no hope.  Life is a small span of suffering before the universe squishes you into oblivion.  Admittedly, atheism might give you the satisfaction of believing that you’re smarter than the believers, but feelings of intellectual superiority only get us so far.  You only can join Mensa once.

Instead, in my experience, if you probe a little bit, underneath the intellectual superstructure of atheism, there lurk powerful (if reluctantly acknowledged) motivations behind such a dramatic life change.  I’ve seen them include:

  • Grief at the loss of a loved one.
  • Objection to the moral teaching of the Bible, particularly about homosexuality.
  • Resentment of bad treatment by Christians.
  • Distaste for the perceived connection between Christianity and political conservatism.
  • An unbelieving spouse.

I have no trouble understanding how any of those things would move someone to leave the church and the Lord.  The problem is, though, that they don’t provide intellectual cover for such a change.  You might not like the God who does such rotten-to-you things, has such rotten-to-you followers, or makes your personal life so inconvenient.  However, none of those things justify the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.

They do, though, leave you very receptive to the possibility that He might not exist.  If you are of a mind to do so, you can evaluate both creation and the Bible in such a way as to lead to the conclusion that God is not real.  In fact, Romans 1 and 2 Thessalonians 2 promise that if you want to reject God, He will give you the rope you need to hang yourself.  It is hardly surprising, then, when people who want to leave the faith find the justification they’re seeking.

This process is, to say the least, intensely frustrating to watch.  Often, concerned brethren try to restore the atheist to fellowship by attacking their intellectual conclusions.  Sadly, that’s about as effective as trying to kill a dandelion by pulling the leaves off.  As long as the roots are there, the leaves will be back soon, and somebody who doesn’t want to believe in God never will have any trouble manufacturing reasons not to.

Instead, we must reckon with the underlying motivations.  We need to be able to have those discussions about theodicy and to critically examine our society’s conviction that sexual autonomy is the preeminent human value.  We need to make sure that our behavior isn’t alienating others. 

Sometimes, we simply must acknowledge that the motivation isn’t susceptible to reason.  Somebody who goes atheist because of their spouse probably will stay atheist as long as they’re married.  Indeed, even attempts to address the reasoned component of a motivation are not certain to succeed.  However, atheism that starts with want-to must end there too.