How to Overcome Atheism

Dear Atheists,

I am writing you this letter because I used to be one of you. I used to believe that God did not exist. But no longer do I believe that. While ultimately it is your choice what you believe, I am hopeful that this letter might bring you to an understanding that you do in fact have a choice.

I will recount my journey to atheism, and then back from it, and the reasons behind that journey. I am hopeful, that if some of my readers became atheists for the same or similar reasons to me, that this letter might prompt them to reconsider their atheism. I assume, since it is the only assumption I can make, that others’ journeys must be similar to my own; if that assumption is false in your case, then what I say will be unconvincing - but in that case, I would be interested to hear an account of your journey.

There are two basic reasons why people believe or disbelieve in anything - there are rational or intellectual reasons, and then there are emotional ones. Sometimes we like to pretend we are perfectly rational reasoning-machines, and our emotions have no role to play in our beliefs - but if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that both intellect and emotion play important roles in belief-formation, and there is nothing wrong with that - it is just part of being human. So, to truly understand why we believe what we believe, and why others believe what they believe, we must consider both the rational and emotional aspects of belief.

How did I become an atheist? I cannot remember exactly when it happened, but it was somewhere in my late childhood or early teenage years. Up to then, I had never really felt a relationship with God, but I passively accepted what my parents (more my mother than my father) told me. My mother made us go to church every Sunday (strangely enough, Dad didn’t have to come with us, he “went at another time”). I found church services very boring as a child, and did not want to go, but for a long time my mother forced me, until I eventually put my foot down and overcame her pressure. I was a bright child, a questioning child, so when I was introduced to ideas I would ask myself “What does it mean? Why is it so?”. And thus I found infuriating my mother’s ability to “believe” things she was utterly unable to coherently explain, such as her “belief” in the Trinity, which it seemed to me to amount to nothing more than rote repetition of some words she had been taught as a child, with no idea of what they actually meant.

The turning point for me was when I found the textbook from a philosophy course my father had done at university - Paul Edwards’ and Arthur Pap’s A Modern Introduction to Philosophy (the second edition, 1965). This was my first intellectual encounter with the idea that God did not exist, indeed with the idea that “Does God exist?” was a question that one could ask without prejudging the answer. Thus began my atheism.

I think that explains the emotional background to my atheism. What about the rational background? Well, to be honest, I don’t think reason played a major role. My real reasons for becoming an atheist were emotional, and I was lucky enough to find reasons to rationally justify and rationally enable a decision I made to serve my emotional needs. I learnt the arguments and could recite them by heart, but they weren’t my arguments, they were merely convenient rationalizations.

The thing is, I suppose, it was not the idea of “God” that was the fundamental source of my disagreement. I found church boring. I was raised a Catholic, and found much of Christian and Catholic doctrine and morals incoherent or questionable. And, I still have many disagreements with Christian doctrine, even to this day - the disagreements are tempered somewhat, since many things which I did not understand, I understand somewhat better, and so ideas that I would have once dismissed out of hand as incoherent (the Trinity), I am more open now to the possibility they may be coherent after all. But, in any event, in my world back then, there were only two choices available to me - the Catholicism of my mother, or the atheism of my father’s philosophy textbook, and I chose the later. These were not the only two choices, but they were the only two choices actually available to me. If someone in my life back then had presented to me some of these other choices - e.g. that one can believe in God, without needing to accept Christianity, or Catholicism, or the Bible, or so on - I might have chosen differently from how I did.

So, that is how I became an atheist; when and how did I cease to be one? I cannot put an exact moment on it, but it was somewhere in my later teenage years, towards the end of high school. What changed? I think, as a somewhat depressed teenager, I had began to think much more about death, about whether life has a meaning, whether there is really justice in the universe. And, faced with these questions, atheism had very bleak answers for me - death is the end, everything is ultimately doomed (heat death of the universe), the meaning of life is whatever you can manage to make of it, but if bad luck, or misdeeds of another, strike you down, then it is all over. These thoughts were not, for me, a recipe for happiness. I began to talk about God, religion, etc., with some Christian friends at school; I went to an Alpha course at a friend’s church. To be honest, much of what they taught did not convince me (for example, that Jesus died for my sins), although I was not overly open about many of my disagreements, since I did not think there was much point in arguing with them. But, it did make me reconsider some questions - is there a God? Is there a life after death? I asked myself, did I have any good reasons to disbelieve in God? And my conclusion was, I did not; so I gave up atheism.

I must say, this account simplifies things somewhat. It is not like, one day I was an atheist, the next day I was a theist. It was a slow journey, of over ten years duration, from atheism to theism, but that is how it started. My conviction that God did not exist began to slowly fade, and a conviction that God did exist began to grow in its place. I spent some time attending my friend’s church, there were many things I doubted (the Bible, the atonement, hell, etc.), but I felt like I needed to find a relationship with God. In the end, I drifted away from there, because I realised that I was not going to find there what I was looking for, since their perspective and my perspective were just too different. But, still, as much as I might disagree with them about many things, I have to credit them with leading me to the idea of God’s existence.

What is the moral of this story? Atheists love to believe that they are the ones being rational, while believers are the ones being emotional. I think, if they look into their own personal history, and try to find the origin of their atheism, they may well find that it arose out of a particular emotional situation, just as mine did. Very often, people don’t believe things because of reasons, they believe them because of emotion, and then go looking afterwards for reasons to justify the decision they have already made. Atheists frequently accuse theists of doing this; but, to be honest, everyone does it, theist or atheist. Maybe if atheists looked at their own situation, they would see that.

My challenge to atheists is as follows:

  1. The primary reason for your disbelief in God is emotional rather than rational

  2. You have likely confused your disagreements with particular religious groups you have encountered in your life, with disagreement with the idea of God in general.

    1. Those actual disagreements were probably not about God at all, but about other doctrines, or moral teachings, or the practices of the religion or behaviour of its leaders.

    2. Faced with only two live options - the religion you were familiar with, and atheism - you chose the better option for you.

    3. If more options had been available to you when you made that decision, you may well have chosen neither.

  3. Your emotional decision for atheism came first, your rational decision later. You went looking for reasons to justify your emotions.

  4. So, if you are to move away from atheism, you must first address those emotional reasons. If you become emotionally open to the idea of God’s existence, then you can become rationally open to the idea. If you are emotionally unable to accept it, then you will not, irrespective of rational reasons.

This all implies, that arguing back and forth about arguments for or against God’s existence (the cosmological argument, intelligent design, the problem of evil, etc), is ultimately a waste of time. We believe what we believe because of our hearts, not because of our heads - and that is true whether our position is pro or anti.

If you manage to emotionally open yourself to the idea of God, what’s next? Many will insist that they can’t choose their beliefs, that even if they want to believe in something, they can’t make themselves ignore the evidence or lack thereof. Can you choose your beliefs? You can’t just magically make yourself believe whatever you want. You can’t disbelieve what your own eyes see. So, there is no doubt, our power over our own beliefs is limited. But, to say we have limited power over our own beliefs, is not the same as saying we have none at all. The real question, then, is whether we have enough power to change our beliefs about God?

What are the reasons people give for disbelieving in God? A big one is lack of evidence. Now, this raises the questions, of what is evidence, why do we need it, how much is enough, etc. How do we answer these questions? Where do we get the answers to these questions from? In other words, what is the source and origin of rationality? Does it have objective reality? Or is it just our own arbitrary opinions? If there is a disagreement between two people as to these questions, is one person right and the other wrong? How do we know who is right and who is wrong? You have built your disbelief in God on what seems to be the firm rock of rationality, but when we look closer, rationality begins to look very shaky, very uncertain. Could it be, that you have the wrong concept of rationality? Could it be, that with the right understanding, that you have evidence for God after all (not through having something else you now lack, but by changing your understanding of what does and does not constitute evidence), or that you don’t need evidence?

Why do I believe in God? I do so on the basis of faith. Faith is my evidence. Now, faith is often maligned, but I think it is unfairly judged. What are the arguments against faith? One, is that faith is used to justify all kinds of misguided and evil behaviour on the part of religious people. Another, is that with faith you can believe anything at all. What do I say to this? Well, faith is not an amorphous whole, it takes many forms, it exists in many versions, in many understandings. Certainly, some forms of faith can be used to justify great evils, can be used to justify everything and anything, but that does not mean that all faith can be used that way. If there is a form of faith that cannot produce those things, then those things are not an argument against that form of faith, or indeed against faith-in-general - they are only an argument against those specific forms of faith that can produce them.

What is ethics? There are two basic views. Some say that it is just an expression of your own opinion or preferences or likes or dislikes. “Murder is wrong” and “I don’t like murder” are two different ways of saying the same thing. If someone else says “Murder is right”, then they are no more in error than if I like bananas and you hate them, they just have different personal preferences. The other basic view, is that “Murder is wrong” is objectively true, and “Murder is right” is objectively false, independent of anyone’s opinions on the matter; in the same way that the planet Jupiter exists independently of whether anyone believes it does or not.

Now, which view of ethics is correct. I, and many others, choose to believe the objective view. You might object, it lacks evidence, but does it need evidence? What kind of evidence could we even have for it? And, ethics and rationality are very similar - they are both systems which tell us what to do and what not to do, that judge situations positively or negatively - the only difference being that rationality is specifically about our beliefs, ethics has broader concerns. If we use rationality to attack the objectivity of ethics, then that is self-defeating, since we can equally use it to attack the objectivity of rationality.

Can beliefs be ethical or unethical? It will be suggested, that ethics is only about what we have the power to do (“Ought Implies Can”), and we have no power over our own beliefs, hence they cannot be ethical or unethical. But, the claim that we have no power over our own beliefs is false - while our power over our own beliefs is not unlimited, it is not non-existent either. Hence, what we believe can be subject to ethical judgement. This is also supported by the deep parallels between ethics and rationality.

We can justify faith on the basis of ethics. Faith is what we ethically ought to believe. If a family member or dear friend is accused of a horrible crime, but insists on their innocence, then I have an ethical obligation to believe them, that I do not have towards a stranger. That is not to say that I must believe them irrespective of any evidence for their guilt; but it does mean that I am ethically obliged to judge that evidence by a more demanding standard than I would use for a stranger. This obligation arises as a consequence of the relationship I have with them. This, I would say, is an example of faith.

This example shows an important aspect of true faith - it is not about ignoring the evidence totally. Even with faith, we still must give heed to the evidence. If evidence either way is weak or lacking, that creates a space in which we are free to make a faith-based decision. But, if there is strong evidence in favour of a particular position, then there is no space free for faith, and true faith cannot be used. Of course, there is still room here for the false faith which will ignore even the strongest evidence, but that is not a faith that I will advocate or defend.

Consider questions like - Does God exist? Is there an afterlife? Is ethics objective? We lack any strong evidence for or against these propositions, so that absence of evidence creates space for faith. So, we ought to believe here, by faith, whatever we will be ethically better for believing. And, I think there can be no doubt, that all things being equal, believing that good finally conquers over evil, is ethically better than believing that the good is doomed. If there is a God, an afterlife, etc., then the murdered child will live again, there will be justice delayed, but not justice denied. If there is no God, no afterlife, then the murdered child has ceased to exist, forever. It is clear to me, which belief is ethically superior.

I subdivide true faith into two types - lesser faith, and the highest faith. Lesser faith is like our faith in our dear friend or family member, that they are innocent of the crime of which they are accused - it can be defeated by the evidence. We will rightfully in such a case demand stronger evidence than we normally would, but if sufficiently strong evidence is presented, our space for true faith has been closed; and if we continue to believe by faith, our faith has become false. But the highest faith exists in a space which cannot be closed. “Good shall always triumph in the end” - no amount of evidence could ever justify us giving up on that faith.

So, I believe that our belief in God should be based on the true and highest faith.

There are other issues that must be addressed, like the problem of evil, claims of inspired scripture (such as the Bible or the Quran), religious exclusivity, hell, etc... And, if you will let me, I can address them. But I have written enough for today.

Best wishes,

Zachary Martinez