Not a good reason for being atheist

May 14, 2012

So I guess this is becoming a thing now? Clergy who are “coming out” atheist?

Clergy losing faith is nothing new, of course, but it’s now a trendy news item. This latest article concerns a preacher named Jerry DeWitt, whose path to atheism began when he started questioning the existence of hell.

DeWitt’s transition from true believer to total skeptic took 25 years. It began, he said, with the idea of hell. How could it be, as he had been taught and preached, that a loving God would damn most people to eternal fire? “This thing called hell, it began to rock my world,” he said.

I realize that since this is USA Today, we don’t have much to go on here. I’m reading a lot into it. But it sounds like DeWitt’s primary objection to God is moral. If you’re keeping score at home, a moral argument against God’s existence might be the worst reason to be an atheist.

For one thing, it’s a form of circular reasoning that goes something like this: “If God exists, God is loving. I know this because that’s what the Bible and Christianity tell me. But the Bible and Christianity also tell me that God sends people to hell, which doesn’t seem like something a loving God would do. Therefore, God—who, according to the Bible and Christianity, is a God of love—must not exist.”

In other words, he rejects God because of God. He’s enlisting the God of love in his argument against the God who sends people to hell and concluding that God doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t his cognitive dissonance over hell instead lead him to conclude the following: that the Bible and Christianity are wrong about the character of God (who may otherwise exist), or that God (who may otherwise exist) isn’t as loving as he thought, or—best of all—that since smarter Christians than he have dealt with these questions for 2,000 years, maybe he’s wrong and has a lot more to learn about the Bible and Christianity?

More importantly, apart from God, DeWitt has no moral foundation for judging God. Right and wrong don’t exist in any objectively meaningful way, so there’s no sense in getting worked up about what’s loving or not. That right and wrong seem to exist and have meaning, however, ought to serve as a rather conspicuous signpost pointing to God.

I thought this was funny:

DeWitt, who lives in Southern Louisiana, went public last October when he posted a picture of himself with the prominent and polarizing atheist Richard Dawkins, snapped at a meeting of atheists and other “freethinkers” in Houston.

Speaking in March before a cheering crowd of several hundred unbelievers at the American Atheists conference here, he described posting the picture as “committing identity suicide.”

But if that’s true, how do we explain this picture? Hmm…?

4 Responses to “Not a good reason for being atheist”


  1. This issue of clergy losing faith and “coming out” to athiest groups raises a lot of concerns for me.

    First, do these clergy who are struggling with their faith not share their struggles with other believers or clergy colleagues before turning to The Clergy Project, an organization decidedly biased against religion? I understand their need to feel accepted and respected in the midst of their struggle, but could that not happen within the believing community?

    I wonder too at the need to “come out” in such a public way – to an athiest convention. Did McBain (from earlier post) never consider that her church’s response might have less to do with her new beliefs than the sucker punch she delivered to them by saying on TV what should have been spoken to them directly?

    I strongly believe in and support the honest struggle and even doubt that will always accompany faith. I hope we in the church can be compassionate in supporting each other as we wrestle with the tough questions that will inevitably come to us. But lack of belief is not an excuse for irresponsible behavior, particularly among those who claim that you don’t have to believe in God to be good.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I largely agree with you (especially, what standard do you have to judge things against if you reject God?), but I think the issue may be a little more nuanced. A person can reject God and the Bible without necessarily being self-contradictory, I think. Thus, he believes that the Bible teaches God is love. He also believes the Bible teaches there is a Hell. However, the two are contradictory (in the “faller-away” mind). Therefore, he rejects BOTH.

    This is similar to part of what I did when I dropped off into atheism. I believed the Bible taught free choice. However, I became convinced through the teachings and opinions of others that it also taught predestination. Therefore, since the Bible taught something that was contradictory, I simply rejected THE BIBLE as a source of truth. Faulty, of course, but the appeal is to LOGIC as the source of all truth–i.e., self-contradictory propositions cannot be true.

    In my case, I became persuaded to return to the truth by, first, being willing to suspend my logical reasoning because of the “joy” in the lives of my Christian family, so I said, to the effect (if not in fact the exact words), “I don’t know how it can be true, but I am going to try to believe it anyway.” Virtually instantaneously I resumed my “Christian faith,” without trying to resolve the apparent conflict. Only subsequently did I try to reason through the matter and come to the view that the Bible did NOT, in fact, as properly construed (in my humble opinion, of course), teach that predestination is true, so there was no ultimate contradiction.

    For this fellow who rejected Christianity based on Hell, I don’t necessarily hold out a lot of hope, if he has all this time been surrounded by believers (I “lost” my faith in a largely pagan, though then, nominally, Baptist university). Nonetheless, as far as a logical argument to be persuaded is concerned, I think that the answer is again one of showing that there is no real contradiction once the scriptures are properly construed. However, he may not like the construction as logically reconciled and remain in his atheism (nevertheless not having, as you point out, any real rational basis to “condemn God” for what the atheist does not like because he has no standard to judge against). To reconcile the matter is not much easier with respect to hell than it is as to predestination, but I merge love and hell by my belief that the ultimate nature of love is conditional, as opposed to, as many pop-theologians (and even some good ones) teach, unconditional. If conditional, then upon being ULTIMATELY rejected, the rejecter is ultimately rejected himself. Hence, cast into Hell, not as inconsistent with “Love,” but in accord with its true nature.

    • brentwhite Says:

      At best, the skeptic can only say that the Bible is contradictory or unreliable (which I don’t believe, of course), not that God doesn’t exist. He’s using the Bible to “disprove” the Bible, which says nothing about whether God exists. Moreover, why get so worked up about it, because if God doesn’t exist, on what basis are you judging God? Morality is meaningless.


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