The ‘Faith’ of Unbelief
Would it seem curious or perhaps oxymoronic to you to use the phrase ‘the faith of an athiest’?
It was with great curiosity that I awoke this morning to discover this article appearing amongst the ABC’s ‘Top News Stories’ listed on their web site and app. The article is a retelling of Michael Collet’s journey from Christianity to Atheism, the catalyst for which was an ‘unbelieving girlfriend’.
Collet describes this young lady:
She wasn’t a radical atheist. She didn’t try to steer me away from my faith. She had a sense of spirituality of her own, and was open to the idea of there being a god. In short, she had nothing against my Christianity: she just wasn’t convinced by it.
And that this experienced ‘changed everything’.
It put me down a path of questioning from which I never returned.
Confront, Challenge or Clarify?
Collet goes on to describe that, in the end, the nub of his move to atheism came about because the evidence surrounding the life and death of Jesus was not sufficiently compelling for him to believe that this historical man was, in fact, the Son of God.
Now at this point, I wonder how you would respond? Are you straight away reaching for your copy of Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict) or Lee Strobel (Case for Christ / Easter / Resurrection) and wishing that Collet had read it a little closer?
Would you consider Collet’s position to be one of denial or perhaps even disobedience? That if in fact he had truly searched for God, and not followed the whims of his heart, he would still be a Christ follower to this day?
If your gut instinct are towards the former (reaching for your copy of McDowell), you might be inclined to our challenge Collet by gathering the evidence, highlighting his apparent inconsistency of thought and press him to reconsider.
If your response is more towards the latter, your inclination might be to confront Collet. Maybe you’ve heard a sermon like this one. It interprets the journey toward atheism as one in which “people reject Christ because they love their sin and they hate having it exposed by God’s light”. In this sense, Collet is being willful in his disobedience and needs to be confronted such that he might repent.
I would like to offer a third option (apart from just leaving the guy alone), and that is not to challenge, not to confron, but to Clarify
The Giant ad hominem
As I read Collet’s article, it seems to me that a very significant dimension to his story was not just that the ‘Christian’ view of science and history relating to “what went down in Jerusalem circa 30AD” didn’t add up to him, but that the way Christian’s interpreted his experience of wrestling with these matters over a three-year period through university was drastically insufficient.
Have a listen to some of the things Collet has to say about his journey:
I came to realise this is just a giant ad hominem attack … I didn’t want to lose my faith. It hurt alot.
It always seemed unconscionable to me that someone could be denied salvation not because of a moral failing, but because they simply disagreed about the evidence for God … (Yet) for many Christians, people don’t come to be agnostic or atheist after genuine searches for the truth. Instead, lack of faith comes from deliberate ignorance and wilful denial.
More and more, I came to realise that the unbelievers I’d come across hadn’t rejected faith because they wanted to remain ignorant or they felt Christianity threatened their immoral lifestyles. Instead, they’d looked at the evidence and concluded it didn’t add up.
Just as I’ve always seen most Christians as holding their beliefs sincerely and genuinely, I came to see the same was true of the atheists and agnostics around me.
The point I want to underline here, is that while we might wish to focus on the end game of Atheism and the conclusions that Collet has reached in relation to historic claims of Christianity – ie, that this would be the point we want to take up with Collet to see if we can sway his position – a VERY significant part of Collet’s journey, was the overly simplistic interpretation Christians gave him in relation to his experience of doubt.
The ‘Christian’ interpretation offered to Collet meant that he was either being irrational or sinful, which in Collet’s mind amounted to a ‘giant ad hominem‘. ad hominem is a rhetorical mode of engagement that avoids the substance of what the speaker is on about, and instead attacks them as a person, the example here being labeling them non-rational, sinful, disobedient, or willfully defiant. ad hominem translates as ‘to the person‘, thus you make an argument relating to the person, making a moral or theoloical assessment of them, rather than engaging with the substance of their wrestle.
Collet himself concludes:
I might be wrong about God. But what I’m sure of is that my search for the truth has been genuine and my beliefs are sincere… I can’t prove that, of course. All I know is my own heart and (I think) the hearts of the nonbelievers around me. So in the end, rather ironically, I can only ask that this be taken on faith.
The Gift of Clarification
Something I have noticed in my doctoral research interviews is that when a young person has a conversation that provides greater clarity upon their present circumstance, it is powerful.
Notice that I didn’t say ‘when a young person has a conversation and it answers all their questions’; or ‘when a young person has a conversation and it resolves all their doubts’. As wonderful as these moments might be, they are usually rare because faith challenging questions of any significance normally take much longer than a single conversation to resolve.
Clarification is not so much an answer to someone’s doubts, but a clear understanding as to what exactly their doubts are and how they have arisen. Such young people get a sense of what is being called into question, what lies underneath it all, what are the options, where are the resources, and which are the different pathways that lead out of this place.
The gift of clarification is so powerful because it is not just a signpost in the wilderness pointing to a way out, it is like being plucked from a dark wood to be given a helicopter view of the terrain. From this vantage point you can see where you’ve come from, and how you got to this place and the various destinations to which you now might go (or whether you might like to turn back).
The alternatives of challenging or confronting, while they have their place, are more like wrestling with the young person in their dark wood in an effort to make them go this way or that.
The gift of clarification is the gift of perspective, and when you see a young person gaining perspective on their experience, you can literally see them breath easier. Instead of feeling lost and alone they suddenly feel oriented and that this stage in their journey is purpose-filled. And while you ultimately drop them back into their dark wood, they nonetheless return with a sense of empowerment to take the next step.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that Collet would have otherwise remained with his Christian faith if only someone had been able to play a clarifying role in his life. I am saying that I find his reflections instructive, insightful, and a timely reminder. When we Christians too glibly write-off the journey to atheism as one of disobedience or denial, when we only engage in challenge and confrontation, we can at times fall into the ad hominem trap, condemning the individual when we could have, at the very least, gifted them with perspective.