Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Emotion or Reason?

A couple of folks have requested a response to this post by a man named Luke who has deconverted from Christianity to atheism. As I mentioned in the comments where the request was made, the testimony that Luke gives is very general, and as a result it is impossible to respond to any actual claims since he didn’t really provide any (that is, while Luke claims that things such as contradictions in Scripture, inconsistencies in Christianity, etc. caused him to disbelieve, he does not give examples so it is impossible to interact with those claims). However, one commenter stated he was looking more for a general examination, rather than specifically refuting claims, so I will provide that now.

Luke begins his post by pointing out that he is the son of a pastor. On this point, I can empathize completely, as I too am a PK. Luke also grew up in a relatively small town. He described it as “a town of 5,000 people and 22 Christian churches (at the time).” Having lived most of my life in small towns, I understand where he comes from here as well. The last small town I lived in had roughly 800 people and we probably had 22 Christian churches too (I never did count). My dad was pastor of one of them, and when the summer tourists (read: “Texans”) invaded, I believe our church was one of the largest, if not the largest, with around 60 people.

I should note that small towns and PKs do not mix very well, and it could be that this is where problems began for Luke. Generally speaking, children of pastors are viewed in two diametrically opposed ways. One faction of people view PKs as angels who ought to live perfect lives because they’ve grown up closer to God by virtue of their parents. These people are aghast when a pastor’s son is caught smoking in the boy’s room. On the other hand, there are those who expect PKs to be demons running rampant. For them, it is no shock at all to find the pastor’s son has knocked up the Homecoming Queen.

The reality is that PKs are just like anyone else. We’re neither more of a saint nor a sinner than any other person.

In any case, personal problems can be amplified in small towns where privacy doesn’t exist. Small towns are places where rumors run rampant, and if they don’t begin true they have a way of becoming true (“Did you hear Chuck is an alcoholic?” “No, really?! Lemme buy him a drink.”). Now while Luke’s town is about six times bigger than those I grew up in, I imagine it wasn’t much different there either. These kinds of pressures exist, whether we want to accept them or not.

Luke says that he felt God while he was a Christian. For instance, he writes:

I felt the presence of God. Sometimes I would tingle and sweat with the Holy Spirit. Other times I felt led by Him to give money to a certain cause, or to pay someone a specific compliment, or to walk to the cross at the front of my church and bow before it during a worship service.
I have no doubt that Luke did, indeed, feel something. But since he doesn’t believe in God, obviously he doesn’t believe that he really felt the presence of God at all. On this point, I would agree with him.

By this, Luke exposes one of the problems with the modern church. Christians believe now that you must “experience” God in some manner, and that manner is subjective. Yet most churches never bother to try to discriminate between a typical emotional response to stimuli and an actual feeling of God Himself.

To give one example, a few years back I went to a Promise Keepers event. About a month or so before I went to it, I happened to see a concert that included one of my favorite bands, Three Days Grace. Despite what people might assume from the name, this is a secular band and as far as I know has no Christians in it. In any case, Three Days Grace played with Hurt, both of whom opened for Staind, and it happened to be in the exact same auditorium that Promise Keepers was in.

Why do I bring them up? Because when I watched Promise Keepers and they played “worship music”, the crowd behaved exactly like it had for Hurt, Three Days Grace, and Staind (sans mosh pit). In other words, people got just as into the music in a secular concert, and had the same types of reactions to the performers on the stage, as they did during the “Christian” concert “worship service.”

To put it plainly, standing in the same auditorium, there was no objective difference between the secular concert and the Christian concert as far as I felt. And I doubt my experience is unusual. So when Luke says that he felt the Holy Spirit as a Christian, I have no doubt that he felt something, but I know from Scripture that what he felt was not the Holy Spirit.

Now Luke claims that he did not leave Christianity for emotional reasons, stating:

Looking back, I feel lucky that I left God for purely rational reasons instead of emotional ones. Indeed, all my emotions were pushing the other way.
However, this is impossible to square with other things he’s mentioned. For example, he tells how he went through depression at the age of 19 “probably because I did nothing but work at Wal-Mart, download music, and watch internet porn.” This last part is key, because he concludes:

In many ways I regret my Christian upbringing. So much time and energy wasted on an invisible friend. So many bad lessons about morality, thinking, and sex. So much needless guilt.
It is clear that sexual ethics had a lot to do with Luke’s deconversion. Frankly, it is not at all surprising that someone who does little but listen to music and watch internet porn would suffer from feelings of guilt, and it’s easier to not believe what you’re doing is wrong than it is to refrain from committing sins. This reaction is not atypical at all. Anyone who is in bondage to sin will refrain from fellowship with God.

It is also not at all surprising that Luke would go through depression and connect it to this sinful activity. He had grown up in church and had known that such behavior was wrong, yet he did it anyway. This would cause cognitive dissonance in him. He was doing something that he wanted to do (view pornography) but which he thought was evil to do. Luke chose to ease his conscience by denying the reality of evil rather than by refraining from committing evil.

But this is not a rational decision at all. This is a purely emotional reason. He did not like how he felt when he felt guilty, so he acted to remove the guilt. After the fact, he used reason and logic to try to justify his new position.

The reality is that despite what Luke thinks, he did not become an atheist by thinking, but rather by emotion. The emotion was to avoid the pain and discomfort of guilt.

Now along the way, Luke didn’t get very helpful advice (if what he’s relayed is accurate). Part of the problem was that he attended an emergent church in college, and if there’s one thing the emergent folks lack it’s reason.

Luke’s experience is not atypical there either. One friend of mine (who remains a Christian) has had the same struggles with the rash of anti-intellectualism in most Evangelical churches today. For someone like Luke, who obviously is intellectually oriented, he would not have found anyone in an anti-intellectual environment to respond to his questions in any meaningful manner. Sadly, most Christians are content to let the few intellectualists go to hell rather than learn something that may hurt their brain so they can respond to those intellectualists.

None of that excuses Luke, however, for not having sought out those who could respond to any arguments he brought forward. That we are few does not mean we are non-existent, and he could have used the same internet he was surfing porn on to find answers to the questions he had.

Furthermore, it seems that Luke’s dad wasn’t very helpful either. He chastised Luke “because I was arrogant to think I could get to truth by studying.” If this is an accurate depiction of what happened, it is a travesty. It is also unbiblical. Hosea 4:6 tells us: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” And Jesus Himself said, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” (Mark 12:24). Studying does lead to truth.

Of course, it also depends on what you’re studying, and Luke doesn’t tell us what he was studying at the time. So his father might have had a legitimate reason to complain. After all, one doesn’t learn about quantum mechanics by studying accounting.

One of the biggest problems with Luke’s idea of Christianity is found when he writes:

I know what it’s like to isolate one part of my life from reason or evidence, and I know what it’s like to think that is a virtue.

(emphasis in original)
This does not describe my Christianity. And I’m not surprised that anyone who holds to this form of Christianity would reject it. I would too.

But that’s not what Christianity is. It is, however, what atheism is.

See, there’s a lot of Luke’s story that I identify with. The small town, the depression, the struggle with sin, the feeling that God isn’t there (or that He doesn’t care). Yet these are all things that I expect from my understanding of Christianity. These things are not surprises at all. They are, in fact, inevitable in a fallen world.

But why would looking at pornography on a computer cause you to feel guilty in an atheistic world? Why is it that our sex drive—the very impetus that fuels evolution—causes universal feelings of guilt, even in people who do not believe in God, when it is not used appropriately? Further, what evolutionary benefit would there be to deluding yourself that God exists, as all but the 3% of people who are atheists (according to some polls) do? From purely naturalistic principals, the universality of religion is impossible to explain: it must provide an evolutionary advantage, yet it is supposedly completely irrational! In other words, Darwinism has selected for make-believe, and not for the world as it actually is. And that is something that I just can’t put together rationally in my mind.

And that doesn’t even get into the problem that if Darwinism can select for an irrational worldview such as theism—something that is completely alien to reality, according to the atheist—then how is it possible for the atheist to know that he is not completely deluded in his naturalism?

Luke may very well be beginning to see this, for he writes:

In my studies I uncovered lots of false facts and dishonest arguments from Christians and atheists. Each discovery only deepened my hunger for knowledge, but also my realization that humans know very little, and with little certainty.
I have little doubt that if Luke continues down the path he is on, he will ultimately discover that to reject theism is to reject rationality altogether and to embrace nihilism. Without God, there is only uncertainty and irrationality. And for this reason, even if we discount the other evidence Luke himself provided and assume that he converted to atheism by reason rather than emotion, he will only stay an atheist if he rejects reason as impossible to obtain. Reason itself must become just as delusional as theism.

The only other option he has is to hold to reason for the same emotional reasons he once felt for God.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I think Luke is someone you should take some more time to respond to. He also seems to be a little more willing to dialogue on these issues. I await future responses!

  2. Just FYI: He has made a big deal about his current ethical system found here:

    He calls it Desire Utilitarianism.

    And I also would benefit from a response to his recent critique of William Lane Craig and the God of the OT article here:

  3. Rob,

    I recommend you check out his pitiful little e-book on the topic, and I'm engaging him on it here, so feel free to follow along and/or ask your own questions there too.

  4. Peter, Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Hey Rhology,

    Thanks for the links. I am enjoying the discussion.

  6. Peter,
    This was what I was looking for, excellent!

  7. "This does not describe my Christianity."

    So, believing that God controls all your actions, even what ice cream you choose at basket and robbins....that's not being irrational and pretending its a virtue? Sure could have fooled me!!!

  8. It is rather easy to fool one who is adept at self-delusion Bayoh.

  9. Dear Peter,

    Thank you so very much for writing this counterpoint essay. It is extremely helpful and illuminates the self-serving sin and delusion plaguing young Luke.

    Thanks for taking the time and thought to do this. If Luke reads your essay and comes into a saving relationship with Jesus, or if anyone is prevented from apostasizing like Luke did because of your essay, then you will be richly praised for your good works.

    Thanks again Peter.

  10. I am trying to learn how to make syllogisms out of arguments written in paragraph form. I was wondering if you would show me how you would turn the statement, " to reject theism is to reject rationality altogether and to embrace nihilism. Without God, there is only uncertainty and irrationality" into a syllogism (premises with conclusion), so I can see how it is done. Thanks!