This review was written for Richard Dawkins Foundation
Beyond an Absence of Faith, edited by Jonathan Pearce and Tristan Vick, brings us the stories of 16 people who came to reject the faith of their upbringing. Most of the writers are American and former Christians, though some are former Muslims. They tell us of their journeys from strong religious faith to atheism, and in the process give a vivid account of the state of Christianity in America today.
What is striking is how all-encompassing and cult-like religious faith can be. These are not the stories of luke-warm believers, but of people for whom religion was a central feature of their lives. We read stories of people brought up in a “fundie bubble” to the extent that:
At one point, I counted five of seven nights of the week as church functions. Monday was a discipleship with a church leader and some students. Wednesday was a youth service. Thursday was a large-group discipleship, where we met at someone’s house for prayer and Bible study. Friday was the “Powerhouse,” a sort of hangout for teens with live music and a small service. Saturday was the Hellfighters service, and Sunday was the main service …
This is coupled with indoctrination of children so complete that one writer recalls:
I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out.
The 16 writers are among those who began to question their faith, but faced opposition from their pastors:
He dismissed my question by saying that there was no space for doubt or critical thought in matters of faith and they must be accepted for what they are.
Instead, the cult mentality demanded unquestioning faith:
Skeptics were bad people, who relied on evidence instead of faith in God. Skeptics burned in hell for eternity because they dared to question.
Not only that, but rationalisation to protect faith knew no bounds:
… to protect religion from criticism, all lies, distortions, and mental contortions were justifiable.
As is common for children in American religious families, many of the writers were home-schooled and then attended Bible college, where one can major in subjects such as “marriage and motherhood”. But the college credits are recognised only by other Christian colleges:
Many young people go off to Bible Colleges every year with grand plans of getting a Christian college education. Four years later they get a degree. Ten years later they find out their degree is worthless.
The lack of intellectual curiosity, suffocated by stultifying faith, continued at college level:
Difference and dissent were quashed. Curiosity about the world was shot down. Troublemakers were thrown out. Academic freedom did not exist. Either a teacher taught the party line or they were fired.
For many writers their whole lives, their families, and their social circles all revolved around their church. Losing faith could mean ostracisation, being shunned by their friends, disowned by their families, and abandoned by their partners. Owning up to doubts was acceptable, if it was followed by reconciliation with the church, but declaring a lack of faith was a daunting prospect:
It would get me wept over and prayed over; I would be testified to, fussed at, grieved for, conferred about, and spiritually counselled.
One thing that shines through these stories is that these authors were fully committed believers. Christians can often try to explain away apostates by suggesting that they were never “true” Christians, that they had never truly “experienced God’s grace”; yet, as one testifies:
In my mind, my heart, my family, and my community, I was by all definitions a devout Christian. I believed I had felt God’s presence, witnessed miracles, heard prophecies, heard God’s instructive voice, and seen lives transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. If I was not a “true” Christian, I can’t imagine what it takes to satisfactorily fit that definition.
Another popular canard is that the “shrill” voice of the “militant” New Atheists is counter-productive and can never make converts. The claim is that seeking not to upset anyone would be a better strategy. Yet, religious faith is always a matter of emotional commitment, rather than of academic reason, and jolting people’s emotions can be an effective tactic. The writings of Richard Dawkins can enrage the believer into trying to rebut him, a process that can lead to someone actually thinking about their religion — perhaps the first time they have properly done so — sowing seeds that, over time, can subvert the faith. As one author recounts:
Not even part way into The God Delusion I got to the page where Dawkins criticized my personal hero, and champion of Christianity, C.S. Lewis. Dawkins’ biting comments sent me into a rage. I became so distraught that I threw the damn book against the wall so hard that you would have thought I meant to break its poor little back. If Dawkins was around at the time I probably would have lobbed his stupid book at his big fat atheist-bloated head. [...]
The reason I was so outraged wasn’t because of Dawkins’ “attack” on my beliefs, but that I had no real answers for the simple, very mundane, even simplistic criticisms Dawkins was lobbing against my religion.
Dawkins is often accused of not giving “sophisticated” or “subtle” arguments, but why go for a “subtle” argument when the simple and straightforward one is entirely valid and much more effective? When theologians value the opaque verbiage of a “sophisticated” argument it is because it hides their lack of actual content.
Our writers have been through the emotional turmoil of the loss of the all-encompassing faith that swaddled their lives, and now testify to a feeling of liberation. It is uplifting that they tell us:
Then suddenly it dawned on me, so this is what happens to nonbelievers who go beyond an absence of faith. They find peace of mind in the tranquility and splendor of what they are a part of, and comfort in the realization that their minds are set free.
Or this, from a girl brought up as a Muslim:
For the umpteenth time, I adjust my hijab, pushing hair out of sight, loosening it from around my neck. Finally, I’ve had enough, and this time when hair escapes I don’t bother to fix anything. Another step, and the pink material slips further down. A few more heavy footfalls and now it’s completely off, hanging around my neck. I spread out my arms, and I’m flying. I imagine this is what freedom feels like — not living a life in eternal darkness, hiding behind a silly curtain.
This is a fine addition to a shelf of atheist books. It would be of greatest benefit, though, to believers in the first thralls of doubt, beginning to wonder about their faith, since it will challenge them to step boldly in that journey.