The Toughest Question from Yesterday’s Atheist Conference

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Midwest Freethought Conference, which is a sort of regional “New Atheist” convention. As one of only 3 theists in a room of over 200 people, I was delightfully outnumbered. I was also intellectually outgunned, sharing the podium with the likes of Dr. PZ Myers, Brian Dunning, and a host of other leading atheist thinkers.

My purpose in being there was to serve on a “Theists and Atheists” panel, fielding open questions from the audience. I was joined on the panel by fellow Christian theist Fred Heeren, a science journalist from Kansas City; my friend Sarah Morehead, an atheist; and Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal minister who recently turned to atheism. Though Fred and I didn’t share the same views on every subject, I was pleased to find him a mission-minded evangelical Christian (I hadn’t met him before yesterday). And despite our differing worldviews, Sarah and Jerry are delightful people with whom I enjoy a warm camaraderie. The format was set up to engender thoughtful discussion rather than contentious debate. I hope to be able to post audio or video sometime soon for those who are interested.

Many friends have asked me what the toughest question of the day was. Honestly: there were many. Atheists tend to get right to the big questions: the problem of evil, the question of miracles, and so on. But I think the most challenging question was posed by Fred Edwords, former director of the American Humanist Association. He asked each panelist to answer the question: “What would it take for you to be convinced that what you now think is wrong, change your worldview, and embrace what you now deny?”

Fred is a savvy guy, and the question obviously puts the theist on the horns of a dilemma. If I say, “Nothing could change my mind,” I am narrow-minded and arrogant and shallow. But on the other hand, if I say that something could change my opinion, I undercut the grace of God in salvation.

I gave the best answer I could at the time. But then last night before bed, I had one of those “Oh, duh” moments where a better answer came to me.

What I said was: (thinking tri-perspectivally) – there would have to be a personal/existential component (“I’m no longer convinced Jesus died for my sins and has worked in my heart to draw me to himself”); an intellectual component (“I’m no longer convinced that the Christian worldview makes the best sense of reality”); and a historical/communal component (“The community of God’s people throughout history and around the globe ceases to be compelling to me”). I was trying to make it clear in my answer that Christian faith is not merely an intellectual/rational conclusion.

What I’d say now, having thought about it, would be: my affections would have to be captured by something else. Why is this a better answer, theologically and apologetically? Theologically, it’s a truer and better answer because true worship consists in the affections. Humans are loving/desiring/worshiping beings, not merely thinking things. I worship God because I am drawn to him… I am compelled by his beauty and holiness and grace… I find him “worthy to be praised” (Psalm 18:3). Apologetically, it’s a better answer because it opens up the question of the affections. Atheists tend to be sheer rationalists who frame everything in terms of reason: “If God would walk into the room and prove that he exists, then I’d believe in him. But until then, there’s just not enough evidence.” They see theism vs. atheism as a battle of rational proof, in which atheism wins by piling up a higher stack of evidence (defined, of course, according to their Enlightenment/modernist criteria for what constitutes “evidence”). But I want to press the question back further to the issue of affections, loves, desires. What is it that you love? What is it that you’re living for? My answer, as given, didn’t open up the opportunity to do that.

So, for me to be “de-converted” (their language), my affections would have to be compelled, drawn, captured by something more worthy of worship than God. What alternative loves/desires/”kingdoms” does atheism offer? From my vantage point, it seems to be: 1) love of self (classic self-worship/self-determination/autonomy), or 2) love of “the cause” – that is, the cause of spreading atheism far and wide and freeing humanity from the oppressive shackles of religion. But 1) I’ve been freed from love of self, and it’s a beautiful freedom, and I never want to go back there; and 2) the “kingdom” of atheism is a kingdom with no King. And no ultimate purpose or reason for existing – since according to its worldview we are merely lumps of highly evolved protoplasm spinning randomly in a purposeless universe. In which case I just don’t find it a compelling kingdom to give my life to.

I’m very thankful to my atheist friends for the privilege of spending an afternoon with them. And I’m filled with grateful longing to worship King Jesus this morning with the people of Coram Deo.

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  1. Excellent points Bob! I’ve battled with the secret ingredient which separates Christans from non-believers and logic (especially compiled reason) never seemed to get me over the hump to understanding the non-believer. I need to focus more on love and prayer. Proud of you for putting yourself out there especially when so many won’t due to fear or pride.

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