Editor’s note: My church does a thing called Food for Thought. Once a month we get together over a good, homemade breakfast to ask tough questions about Christian life and faith. Last month, my friend, and an ardent atheist, Luke Sullivan, agreed to let me interview him for the event. We had really hoped to video the interview and post it here, but that didn’t pan out. So, Luke agreed to do a second interview, this time in print, for you theologoholics.
We had such a good time with the first two that we then decided to put it in reverse and do a third interview in which Luke questioned me. You can ready that interview here.
So Luke, first, thanks for doing this, again. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your story—How did you become an atheist? Because you haven’t always been an atheist, right? (In fact, full disclose here, Luke and I know each other from church—we grew up in church youth group together).
That’s right. I should mention here, because when I talk to most Christians there is some confusion, that for most atheists I think there isn’t a conversion experience. I can’t tell you the day I became an atheist but I can tell you the day I became a Christian. I was raised in a Christian home and even attended a Christian school. It was sometime in my late teens and early adulthood that I really began to have difficult questions that I wasn’t able to get satisfactory answers for. So I began to sort of remove things and pick and choose the Christianity that was suited to my worldview until there was basically nothing of Christianity left. I looked into all sorts of other avenues for answers – I was even a Christian Buddhist for a while but ultimately I realized that I wasn’t a Christian at all. That’s when I stopped looking for churches that would fit my world view.
What sorts of questions were they that you couldn’t seem to find answers for?
Well I believe that it started with some moral and ethical questions and worldview questions. You know, I had questions about why God would care about homosexuality, why God would punish people with eternal damnation, and probably most importantly – even though it’s a bit cliché – why would God let bad things happen. I think that for the most part the answers that I got were almost always along the lines of “because” or “God works in mysterious ways” which aren’t very comforting to someone seeking truth and facts. There were lots of other questions as well that were really just inconsistencies with doctrine which I don’t find as important as I once did, but I was awfully concerned with the glaring incongruity between what biblical Christianity and science had to say about the facts of our world.
Do you still ask those same questions today? Like, when you engage with people of faith now, what’s the one question—and I’m sure there are many—but what’s the one question you ask that they can’t seem to give a satisfactory answer for?
I do ask those questions today and I usually get the same results as I am accustomed to. I think there are really two major questions that I am not able to get satisfactory answers to. The first one is the so called Problem of Evil which just asks the question: if an omnipotent God exists who is all loving and good why does evil persist in the world? “I don’t know” tends to be the answer that I get most often and the follow up question is “Don’t you think you should figure out why before worshipping him?” Logically it follows that for evil to exist God is either powerless to stop it and therefore not worth the adoration afforded him, or not all good and we should not want to follow him. The second one is the Problem of Multiplicity which asks: Let’s assume God exists – how do you know you’ve picked the right one? There are hundreds of religions, thousands upon thousands of deities and more often than not Christians believe that they have it right. In a Western culture it’s awfully convenient that most Christians have lucked into being born into the correct faith. The truth is most religions are just as sure of their “truth” as any other religion. The most common thing that separates them is not ideology but geography and cultural identity.
Are there questions that people of faith ask you that you struggle to answer?
Oh definitely. I think the biggest question for me—one that I have to default to “I don’t know”—is “Why be good if there’s no God?” And it’s actually a valid question I think for a Christian to want to know the answer to. Because without an afterlife or an eternity there’s this sense that nothing matters and that being a good person is no different from being a bad person. I think for me the answer must simply be “Being good works for me.” I have very little desire to be anything other than good and I might say shame on you to someone who can’t find a better reason to be good than God. For me I recognize that I have only a few short years of life and I really want to make the best of it. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it for the sake of you know, everyone else who will still have to be here. But “why be good?” is a question that I don’t think I ever really give a satisfactory answer to for Christians because my answer is “I don’t know, I just do” or “Why not?”
So you grew up in church. Your extended family are mostly all Christians. You still engage with Christians on a regular basis. In what ways, if any, do you think your atheism or just your own worldview has been or is being shaped by this engagement with Christianity?
I did. In fact I would say that a good portion of my closest friends are still Christians, my parents are quite fervent themselves as well. I think in a lot of ways the things I was raised to believe still impact me sometimes this is good and sometimes it’s not so good. Of course the people that I regularly interact with also affect me. More often than not these interactions are argumentative in nature. I should say here that in reality I’m only an “atheist” when in situations with a theist. The only thing that atheism really says is that I’m not a theist. But that means that any time the conversation turns to religious matters I’m in opposition to the religious people I’m around so even sharing opinions can turn quickly into a debate if you aren’t incredibly tactful.
That’s an interesting point, because I tend to include in my picture of an atheist a whole set of beliefs: skepticism, materialism, secularism, modern liberal optimism about progress and science etc. But I hear you saying that atheism, for you, really is just that—a negation of the proposition that there is a god. So I’m wondering if there are other misconceptions you might want to clear up. What do you think it the biggest misconception folks have about atheists?
That’s a very interesting point, because for me atheism did stem from skepticism, materialism, secularism, and a real humanistic optimism about progress and science – but I would be doing my fellow atheists a disservice if I lumped them all into that group. I think there is a common misconception that atheism is a religion and that we want you to join our numbers. That simply isn’t the case. I think that one is far better off leaving behind their belief in deities and their adherence to religion, but I have no real impulse to go out and preach that. Some of my dear atheist friends do have just that impulse, so it’s easy to get stereotyped as an “evangelical” atheist because that does happen, but it’s by no means a requirement and I really don’t think it’s all that common.
One other thing that I think probably is a common misconception, because it came up quite a lot in the facebook conversion we had leading up to the live version of this interview—and no one said this explicitly, but it was implied in many of the questions they asked: that this guys must be just so unhappy –I’m thinking that a lot of people of faith, because we find so much joy and excitement in our religious experience, must automatically assume that atheists are unhappy people. So, this is a two-part question. I’d like you first to address that assumption. Is that something you’ve been confronted with? And then can you tell us, what does make you happy? What excites you? What mystifies you?
That is a great question! I do get that quite often and I think in a lot of ways it is because for the religious person – the Christian – regardless if the level of devotion or zeal Christianity and God are such pivotal and integral parts of their happiness and their comfort. For me – I have a daughter – and my joy comes from her and my motivation again is to leave the world in a better way than I found it. I have such a short life and the ability to be impactful is important to me. Apart from that the world is such a fascinating place and it offers us so much to learn and to know and so many ways to grow I cannot help but to be curious and interested in that and what we can learn.
That kind of leads me to another question, because, you’re right, people do find happiness and comfort in their religious traditions. But some atheists, it seems to me, often feel compelled in public forums to refute or discredit religious claims. So in a certain sense I’m asking you to speak for atheists generally, but I have also known you do this—always gracefully and respectfully, but do it none the less. So my question is: Why do you care? If we agree that faith does these good things for people, why the compulsion to root it out? In other words, what makes faith seem dangerous to you?
I think that faith is dangerous for a lot of reasons but the biggest one is when faith trumps facts people can firmly stick to a belief despite their better judgment. I think that’s why so many parents spank their kids for instance, because they believe that’s what the Bible tells them to do and they have faith that it’s the right thing even though it seems and is very wrong. Faith can make people do horrible things and the benefit is usually feeling better. I also think that often times faith prevents people from being intellectually honest because they realize that getting answers from outside of the faith puts that thing which makes them feel better in jeopardy. It’s why so many people were content believing the earth was the center of our solar system and why so many people are content believing the earth is only six thousand years old. So in that regard I feel I have a duty to point out those things which are wrong and to promote reasonable thought and integrity when approaching a situation or a question.
So are there good and bad kinds or instances of faith? And if so, what makes the difference?
Oh definitely. I’m not the kind of atheist that believes that faith in and of itself is a bad thing. Bad kinds of faith can create suicide bombers and all kinds of evil because it’s a faith that doesn’t permit being disproven. It’s untestable and that means it can make good people do bad things all in the misguided belief that they are doing what’s right because God told them so. Good kinds of faith can keep a person motivated and at peace. A person can have faith that their spouse isn’t going to cheat on them and it will make their relationship better and give them peace but that can be disproven and that faith can end when it’s proved to be wrongly held. Another unique part of religious faith is that it can have such a huge impact on a person that if that faith is lost it can be detrimental to the person when it’s gone. Imagine discovering a cheating spouse but amplify that by a truly cosmic amount and that’s the kind of sorrow someone can feel when they lose their faith.
Oh, I can only imagine. And that’s a serious concern, because people are losing faith at an incredible rate these days. A study released by the Pew Forum just last week showed that twenty percent of Americans—one of every five people in America—do not identify with any particular religious belief. And that’s up from fifteen percent just five years ago. What’s interesting to me, is that much of that increase is accounted for by people who have not necessarily rejected a set of doctrines, but are instead disenchanted with organized religion. In some cases they even say that they like Jesus but not the Church. So to hear from you, as someone who identifies philosophically as an atheist: What do you think of Jesus of Nazareth?
Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I think that really is very true for a lot of people. I can’t say that I necessarily agree. I have strong opinions about some of the teachings of Jesus Christ and I feel that for the most part they aren’t all good. Although as a character, not as an actual person, maybe I do like Jesus a little more. And I’m not arguing about whether or not Jesus did exist, honestly I don’t really care or even think about it that much. If I had read the Jefferson Bible before I became an atheist I might still be an atheist, but I might be more sympathetic to Christianity simply because there are good lessons that can be gained from Christianity. The problem for me has always been that there are more good lessons outside of Christianity as well. One of the biggest failings of organized religion is that it often precludes its followers from learning lessons anywhere outside of their holy book. So I guess I’m saying that not all of Jesus is bad but only Jesus can be pretty bad. Does that make sense?
Which of Jesus’ teachings are bad?
I think the idea of giving no thought for tomorrow can be pretty damaging and I also think that there are an awful lot of people interpreting Jesus as being someone who preached that we should not judge our fellow man when in fact judging people is actually okay. I had a friend once who punched me, I judged him to not be worthy of my friendship. That was a good judgment on my part I think. Jesus took 12 guys and had them abandon their lives so that they could go hang out with him; I think that was probably a bad call. I think many wives would agree with me. Although the worst lesson I think Jesus probably taught was, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Of course I don’t believe that’s true so I obviously think it’s bad.
I’d like to switch gears for a moment, if we could, and talk a bit about your existential experience of atheism. People of faith (some of us, at least) often live with quite a bit of tension. So, the tension that comes with believing that God is good, that God created and sustains the world and at the same time recognizing that the world if full of abject evil—that’s one example. Or, there’s the tension between believing that the Bible is the Word of God and also recognizing that it is at the same time part of and often embodies that brokenness that we see in the created order. So the question is: Could you talk about some of the tensions in your belief system or philosophy?
Oh definitely. I think that tension is something that comes with any philosophy or with any worldview. For my, and this is just me I can’t really speak for other atheists, but for me I think that a big source of cognitive dissonance comes from how I deal with what is it that I’m doing with my life. It’s a little cliché I know, but for me finding out the meaning of my life can be a huge source of tension. But at the same time having the ability to find out the meaning of my life in fact to give my life meaning is an exciting experience. I think for me that’s another benefit of my atheism and of not relying on a God. For many religious people that tension is something that you simply must live with, ignore, or try to cover up. For me that tension is a huge motivating factor in my life and I feel it makes me a better person ultimately, but it’s still there and that means I still get pretty bummed out sometimes – I’ll admit that, but I think that’s part of the human experience in general.
And what about doubt? Christians throughout the centuries have testified to the experience of profound and lingering doubt. For some it comes in waves; for others doubt is just a persistent part of the structure of belief in Christ. Is that kind of doubt ever a part of your experience of unbelief?
There is a pretty significant measure of doubt associated with my lack of belief. I think in part that’s because of how strongly indoctrinated I was when I was younger. I still get a catchy Christian tune stuck in my head occasionally and momentarily I get the “what if this is God?” thought that rushes past me, but it’s always been dismissed as a hold-over from my past or nostalgia. I think that for most atheists doubt is unapologetic. You mentioned that many atheists are also skeptics and what is a skeptic if it isn’t someone who doubts? I would say that I am 95% sure that there aren’t gods at all with some room for movement depending on the specific god. I’m far more certain that Zeus doesn’t exist for example. For me that doubt is part of what makes my lack of belief honest, because I do leave enough room to be disproven.
Almost all religious traditions have some narrative that helps us to confront our mortality. So, for instance, in Christianity there’s the resurrection. Lacking any such narrative (at least of a religious variety), a lot of folks in our facebook conversation wanted to know how you think about, and deal with emotionally, the death of a loved one or the thought of your own mortality.
That’s a good question and it’s probably one that I get very often and the first major question I dealt with after becoming a non-believer. I recognize that it can be uplifting and hopeful to believe that I will live on in the next life forever and that next life will be better than this life. But for me as an atheist now I find that kind of disturbing. Since becoming an atheist I’ve never wished for the end of times. For me, having this one life is important. Because as the bible says our individual lives are like a vapor relatively speaking and we only get the one opportunity to make a difference and to do good. Without the threat of eternal life or eternal forgiveness we have to make this life count and we have to put forth our best effort to live the world a better place than we found it. As far as mortality in general? I’m not worried about my own death because when I am there death is not and when death is there I am not. It’s something that happens to everyone and I’m not really afraid of it, I probably won’t like it but there’s no reason for me to fear it. The same is true for my friends and family that die, there’s no reason to be concerned with death but rather to spend time cherishing life.
Okay, last question. Is there anything you miss about religious life?
Oh definitely. I think, for me, the biggest thing is probably the community and the support that you have being part of a religious group. I’ve made lifelong friends, I hope, being part of a religious community and I’ve lost friends by removing myself from that community. I’m not able to get the same kind of support that I used to get from my family either because for them I need to be a Christian first and then let everything else fall into place. There really isn’t a good secular alternative for an extended community like that. Groups like American Atheists are really great activist groups but they aren’t, in my experience, so great at building a community because two atheists don’t necessarily have much in common at all beyond atheism. So I do miss that, I have friends and family that I still rely on and that’s good.
Well, Luke, thank you again for doing this. I’ve learned a lot (both times!) And it’s been a real pleasure.
I enjoyed it as well as I always do. We’ll have to get together sometime and have a deep in depth discussion over a stiff drink or several.