In a recent blog post I offered three reasons why people typically reject a truth claim. Sometimes folks simply have rational doubts based on the evidence, some people have doubts that are purely emotional, and others deny the truth for volitional reasons. Until the age of thirty-five, I rejected the claims of Christianity (and theism in general). As an atheist, I adamantly identified myself in the first category of skeptics: I was a rational objector. When asked about my resistance, I repeatedly told people it was based on the lack of convincing evidence for Christianity and an abundance of evidence supporting naturalistic processes (like evolution). After examining the evidence and changing my mind, I revisited my prior opposition and realized much of my resistance was simply a matter of volition. At some point I had to ask myself, “Am I rejecting this because there isn’t enough evidence, or because I don’t want there to be enough evidence?”
After writing the post related to rational, emotional and volitional objections, I received the following note from an atheist who comments occasionally:
“I would place myself firmly in your first category, Jim: I’m not convinced by Christianity because I don’t see evidence for it. But I would not say it’s because I lack information – it’s rather that I have too much information, especially information about how the real world works. Your placing yourself in the third category, that of volitionally rejecting God, is telling. Almost all the Christians I know who were once atheists place themselves either here or in the second category, rejecting God because they hate Him. And almost all the atheists I know fit into the first, rational category. I would almost be tempted to say that you were never a ‘true’ atheist. It seems also to be a widespread belief among Christians that most of us atheist are god-haters or self-lovers. I guess that fits in with numerous Scriptural verses, but it doesn’t reflect reality on the ground in my experience.”
I immediately recognized the words of this atheist reader. They are my words, spoken many years before I became a Christian. All the atheists I knew (virtually all my friends at the time) identified themselves in the first category as rational objectors. I’ll bet Antony Flew, the famous British philosopher and atheist, would also have identified himself in this camp prior to becoming a theist. I don’t know anyone who was once an atheist who would ever have identified themselves as anything other than a rational objector. This really shouldn’t surprise us.
Looking back at my own life as a young man who spent nine years in the university (prior to returning for seven more), I now recognize a simple truth: The more I thought I knew, the less teachable I became. My educational self-confidence led to a form of self-reliance in many aspects of my life, including the foundational worldview I constructed along the way. My “rational” resistance to theism was deeply tainted by my desire to be the author of my own worldview (rather than the acceptor of someone else’s). I don’t think this is all that uncommon for people who think they know something. That’s why virtually every skeptic identifies himself as a rational resistor, and I think this is also why those who consider themselves educated often reject any theistic worldview that requires them to submit their authority.
Theistic claims are unlike virtually any other claim we might consider. Every day we weigh the evidence related to all kinds of important decisions. Which car would be the best for my family? What school should I attend? Which career path is best suited to my skill set? We evaluate the evidence and options without thinking much about the role volition and emotion are playing. But make no mistake about it, our wills and emotions are always at work, even when we would deny this is the case. Our decisions related to theistic claims are far more critical than other decisions we might make. As C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock, “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Even before we begin to examine the evidence related to Christianity, we understand the implications of any future decision. If we reject Christianity (or theism broadly), we get to continue living as the ruling authority of our own lives. If we accept, we must submit to a much greater authority. Our decision related to God’s existence has a deep impact on every other decision we make going forward. This decision related to theism is foundational in a way unlike any other. It’s foolish to think this plays no part in how we might consider the question in the first place.
Our wills and desires are often deeply connected to the rational resistance we offer prior to submitting to the truth of theism. I would never have admitted to any volitional resistance as an atheist, and it shouldn’t surprise us when other atheists also deny this to be the case. Volitional resistance to Christianity often masquerades as rational opposition.