Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Atheist Ex-Pastors and the Problem of Belief

Why do people believe? Why do they stop believing?

I am pondering this because of a long Times piece by Robert Worth about Jerry DeWitt, an ex-pastor who has become an atheist leader. What strikes me about DeWitt's story is the prominence he gives to particular events in conversion both to and away from Christianity:
DeWitt was born again in Jimmy Swaggart’s church thanks to his former elementary-school teacher, who persuaded him to come along with her to Baton Rouge. He later discovered that his teacher almost died while she was being born, and that she had emerged safely from the womb only after a preacher from a neighboring town was roused from sleep to offer a blessing in the delivery room. That preacher was DeWitt’s paternal grandfather. This coincidence had seemed providential to DeWitt, a sign that he was meant to be a preacher himself.

“This story has kept you feeling that God has a destiny for you,” DeWitt said. 
I have seen many similar stories. It seems that most people approach these most general and theoretical of questions through particular, dramatic events. Obviously the ground was well-prepared for DeWitt's conversion, through having grown up in a very religious family and community. He was looking for a sign. But he did not truly convert until he saw one.

For the reverse direction, Worth says that many young atheists cite the 9-11 attacks as the event that turned them decisively against religion in any form.

The habit of reading events as signs seems to be very deeply human. It may be at the core of what it means to have a religious outlook on life:
I heard parallel stories from a number of other participants in post-religion networks. “People have a really difficult time making decisions after they’ve lost their faith,” said Amanda Schneider, who organized a local Recovering From Religion group in Santa Fe (and also helps manage the broader organization). “They used to always base it on ‘What is God’s plan for me?’ They are still looking for something miraculous to guide them.”
I find this example strange. Unless you are hearing voices, how, exactly, is God explaining his plan? In a practical sense, how does pondering God's plan help decide people whether to major in accounting or marketing? However it works, many people seem to feel much better both about their choices and about the various random things that happen to them when they see everything as part of the Plan.

I am also struck by the role suffering plays in both kinds of narratives. Many people are turned toward God by suffering or failure; Chuck Colson's prison conversion comes to mind as the nearest example. On the other hand, many believers have turned away from God after thinking hard on suffering and what it means. Bart Ehrman, one of my favorite writers on early Christianity, renounced the church a few years ago, saying that he could no longer reconcile belief in a good God with the amount of suffering in the world. DeWitt, says Worth,
found it unbearable to promote beliefs that only seemed to sow confusion and self-blame. He recalled how one middle-aged woman in his church who was suffering from heart disease asked him anxiously: “How am I going to believe enough for salvation when I can’t believe enough to heal?”
I suppose one reason I find these dramatic conversions interesting is that I just don't have that sort of personality. I have had the same attitude toward religion – curious but faithless – since I was a child, and nothing that has happened either to me or in the world has given me any reason to change. Angry atheism puzzles me as much as speaking in tongues.

The universe is a mystery. What else, really, is there to say?

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