Weird Things talks to Daniel Florien of Unreasonable Faith about his life as a Christian and why after over a decade of belief he decided to change course and become an agnostic who lives as an atheist. We touch on some of the upsides and downsides of religious belief, shine a light on the question of what makes someone reject a faith and try to answer one of the most debated and controversial questions about atheism. Is religion the key to morality?
Q: What was your experience as a devout Christian?
A: I had a born-again experience with Christianity which is when your views change so radically that you become a whole new person. I was living an aimless teenage life, but Christianity gave me a solid purpose and belief. I gave up punk rock and a filthy mouth, began carrying around a Bible and reading it every chance I got. I wore in-your-face Christian clothing and I knocked on random people’s doors to tell them they were going to hell unless they accepted Jesus as their savior. I taught a Bible study at my public high school and would begin and end every day with a prayer and a reading from a few chapters of the Bible.
Eventually I felt “called to ministry” so I went off to college to train to be a pastor. I was exposed to new viewpoints and eventually became more of an intellectual Christian. I started to despise what I was before, realizing my early naivet. I wanted to be a scholar and teacher of the Bible. I studied Hebrew and Greek, church history, theology, and practice. After college, I received a job offer from a popular church that I respected, and I couldn’t turn it down. I found personal and intellectual freedoms there I’d never encountered in Christianity before. Believers read secular books and listened to secular music. They drank beer. It was life changing. I found new love for reading outside of theological books.Before long, I was reading over 10,000 pages a year and never happier in my life. That is, until my reading lead me to start doubting my faith.
Q: What did you like about your faith?
There was the community. All the best friendships I’ve had were based on Christianity and I’d say that’s what I miss most about my faith. I also loved making a positive difference which is a feeling Christianity gives in large measure. If you help someone with food or shelter, that’s just temporary. The gift of Jesus is forever. So when you’re involved in spreading Christianity, you get the feeling that you’re doing something that really matters – unlike all the poor saps who waste their lives helping people with “earthly” things.
There is something about human nature that desires black and white instead of shades of gray. I liked knowing what God was like, why he created us, why we were created, what was right, what was wrong, etc. There was an answer for everything, as long as you didn’t go too far (then you always discovered “mystery”). Perhaps something surprising that I liked about my faith is that it sparked intellectual curiosity in me. I reasoned that God revealed himself through a book, thus books must be one of the most important things in the world. So it was Christianity that made me love reading, a gift I’m very thankful for because without reading, I would’ve never escaped Christianity and became a reasonable person.
Q: What did you dislike about your faith?
A: While believers often think their faith is based on evidence, it’s really based on emotions. You can see this by asking a believer why they believe. Usually they say they’ve “experienced Jesus” and have been “born again.” I have seen this discussion many times on my blog: believers start out talking how reasonable Christianity is, but by the end, they say they’re not really sure about all the specifics, they just know they’ve been changed by Jesus and that’s all that matters.
I hate the hypocrisy that religion fosters. Every Christian knows about the “Sunday face” – you put up a smile on Sunday even when you’re not happy. While Christianity is vehemently against premarital sex, I don’t know many Christian friends who waited until marriage and they studied to be pastors or theologians. I lost my virginity in college and the guilt is horrible. We had many scares that my girlfriend was pregnant. We didn’t use birth control because that would be a sin and if she actually did get pregnant, we would’ve been kicked out of school, disowned by family and friends and my chances to become a pastor would have been severely hurt.
When I worked closely with pastors, I often found pornography on their computers. A college roommate would have women over when I left for vacation and had a collection of porn tapes in his room. I could go on…
There’s also a lot of fear and guilt mongering. Children are bused to churches where they are told that they’re very bad sinners and God is going to torture them in a very hot place for all of eternity. This scares these little urchins pretty bad. Then they hand out treats and explain that if they just say this nice little prayer to Jesus, and believe that he is God and died for their sins, they go to heaven with Jesus instead of the place of fire with the Devil. Of course, most will say the prayer. I also worked with a lot of plays and pageants that used the same tactics on adults.
Q: As a theist, what was your conception of atheists?
A: As a theist, I believed atheists were immoral, evil, and stupid. I thought that even though they denied it, they believed in God, but refused to admit it because they hated him. (This is the view of many Christians.) I thought they were bent on tearing down the fabric of our society because of their hatred of God. I believed they wanted to kill and persecute Christians and would if given the chance. I thought America was a Christian nation, and they didn’t belonged here. I thought evolution was an atheist conspiracy – there wasn’t any evidence, but they didn’t want to admit that biblical creationism was the only explanation.
Q: When did you turn to atheism and why?
A: It took a long time to call myself an atheist even when I started to doubt my beliefs because it was one of the worst labels I knew. My faith began to crumble when I started reading more and more secular books. After learning more about science, young earth creationism was the first to go. I spent six months reading authors like Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Zimmer, Kenneth Miller, and Francis Collins to learn about evolution from a source other than Christian apologists. The evidence was overwhelming and after much struggle, I accepted evolution as fact.
As I thought and researched more about these things, I realized I was deluding myself for over a decade. I wanted to believe, but the more conversations I had about it with friends, the more I realized how unlikely that my beliefs were true. Technically I’m agnostic. There really is no way to know if there is no god. He could be hiding. But I’ve chose to live like an atheist or like there is no god. If god shows up, then I’ll gladly change my mind. But I think that’s pretty unlikely.
Q: What would you identify as the driving factors to rejecting a faith?
A: I think it depends on the person. For me, the route to unbelief was solely intellectual. I made a conscious decision to be open-minded, to read the “opposition,” and go wherever the truth lead me – even if it was away from God. It doesn’t seem like many Christians are willing to be that open-minded. But I think it’s very important. Otherwise, through cognitive dissonance, we only see what agrees with our worldview, and reject and explain away what contradicts it. The beauty of reason is that we can consider any proposition and attempt to figure out whether it’s true or not. But religion already has the truth. It’s not seeking it. It’s defending it. That mindset has to be overcome.
Q: Do you think that atheism can become radical or radicalized? If so, how would you define radical atheism and how do you feel about it?
A: I encourage passionate atheism. Done appropriately, it furthers truth and increases human knowledge. I consider myself a passionate atheist. But I discourage radical atheism. I have only encountered this a couple times. Recently, for instance, there was someone on PZ Myers blog who was questioning my “sincerity” as an atheist – in other words, he wasn’t convinced I was a TrueAtheistTM. This is simply the antithesis of a religious fundamentalist – only people who are exactly like them qualify in their club. To me, this is a symptom of a small mind.
Q: Some theists say that without a higher power, atheists have no use for morality since they’re not being judged. Do you feel like you’re being judged by anyone and how do you define what’s moral and immoral?
A: I’m judged by people and by history. I generally accept traditional morality, unless a case can be made against it. I was helped by Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good & Evil here. I think a good basis for morality is based on suffering. If something makes another person suffer, then we probably shouldn’t do it, unless by suffering it will end up reducing suffering.
Q: Do you feel your theistic upbringing had any effect on your conceptions of morality?
A: Absolutely. My “conscience” is very sensitive after many years of introspection and guilt. I’m ashamed of many of my instinctual reactions like to seeing two boys holding hands because it was drilled into me for so long that homosexuality is disgusting and immoral. But I don’t think that way anymore and as soon as I think about that, I’m fine. If they feel love for each other, why should I care if they’re holding hands? It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for my initial reactions to be replaced.
Q: What is the role of science in your life? How do you see science and secularism?
A: Science is the light of my life since it illuminates truth and falsehood. It gives me methods by which I can understand the world around me. It forces me to be objective because it forces me to have evidence before I claim something to be a fact and science is the judge and jury of my beliefs. To me, science and secularism go hand in hand. Religion is a fantasy that’s created by the blind, science is a method that cures our blindness. Religious beliefs require faith, they are based on things without evidence. When they do have adequate evidence, they cease to require faith and are simply considered facts.
Q: If you had the chance to give a message for all theists, what would it be?
A: I would plead for them to be open-minded and willing to go wherever the truth leads them. I would ask them to read books by non-believers and people of different faiths. And above all, to really research their holy books outside of conservative scholarship. Learn the history of how and when they were written, how they were changed, and how they were written by mere men.