During a recent conversation I was challenged to read Why I Left Atheism, a paper by a guy named John N. Clayton who runs DoesGodExist.org. The autobiographical "booklet" details Clayton's story of becoming a Christian, and I was encouraged to read it in the hopes that I'd find it convincing. Thus I sat about hear out the exposition of this so-called former atheist-turned-evangelical with an open mind. Here's what I found:
Very early on, Clayton begins making the common mistakes we see Christian evangelists make. In the second paragraph, he states that he used to be an atheist and the life he led was a stone's throw from pure evil. Clayton writes, "...that kind of life and conviction led me to do and say things and to be something that was really very unpleasant. I lived a life that was immoral and which reflected a lack of belief in God. I lived in a way that was very self-centered and that satisfied my own pleasures and desires regardless of whether or not other people were hurt in the process of what I was doing."
It is in this manner that Clayton shows us the first face of his ignorance. He equates being an atheist to living a "self-centered", "unpleasant", and otherwise "immoral" life. He argues from morality, assuming that all atheists are immoral by default, and that that kind of lifestyle is a reflection of not believing in God.
He couldn't be more wrong right off the bat. To falsify his claim we'd only have to find one person who doesn't believe in God (that is of course, the Christian God) and who leads a life that is not "self-centered", "unpleasant", or "immoral". Shouldn't be too hard.
We Don't Know Yet
Clayton then tells us that he was raised, nay indoctrinated as an atheist by non-believing parents. I'll give Clayton the benefit of the doubt, although this composition is already taking on the standard tone of the "once-blind-but-now-I-see" crowd. Things really start to get shady when Clayton claims to have had a discussion with one of his college professors on the "creation of matter from nothing" (apparently during an astronomy class where the topic was "origins"). Upon asking the professor which theory best explains creation ex-nihilo, Clayton is told he needs to learn to ask intelligent questions. Indeed, that's the smartest line so far, for Clayton should understand that matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed as per the First Law of Thermodynamics. The professor supposedly tells Clayton that these are questions not for the scientist but for the theologian, and Clayton is stunned that science doesn't know everything. The tone of this paragraph (and the following one) is reminiscent of the old email that has made the rounds a few times, the one about the atheist professor and the Christian student who "defeats" him with science.
The point of the paragraph seems to be that we are to focus on the answer the professor gave, about origins not being within the realm of science. Richard Dawkins covers this topic well in Chapter 2 of his book, The God Delusion. Put simply, religion falsely claims the right to answer why questions, and science gets the how. But not only is such a thing as a why question nonsensical, but the fact that most of the claims made by God-believers about their deity require some sort of physical interface, as it were. Dawkins writes, "The moment there was the smallest suggestion of any evidence in favour of religious belief, religious apologists would lose no time in throwing NOMA out the window." (NOMA being non-overlapping magisterium, the idea that science can't answer questions about God.) If God interacts in any way with the physical world, that point where the transaction occurs is (or should be) a place of testability.
Nevertheless, Clayton's unoriginal idea that science can't solve poorly-worded questions continues throughout the missive. Clayton moves on to the next professor (who always seems to be "one of the great XYZ professors in the country"), this time, biology. Again Clayton poses the question of origins to the all-knowing scientist, and again he is told that it is a question for religion, not for science. He then attempts to slip in a little argument-from-authority: "I guess what was happening to me was the same thing that Lord Kelvin, a very famous British scientist, described in his writings when he made the statement, 'If you study science deep enough and long enough it will force you to believe in God.' That is what happened to me. I began to realize that science had its limitations--that science, in fact, strongly pointed to other explanations than natural ones to certain questions."
A very famous scientist said science leads to God, so it must be true. More importantly, science doesn't know every answer to every question, so therefore Magic-Man done it! Clayton is just not seeing the problem here. An explanation has to stand on its own two feet. Even if the whole of science turns out to be a load of cow shit doesn't mean that God, FSM, Bigfoot, or Santa Claus wins by default.
Science is making progress; a thousand years ago people thought that lightening was caused by an angry god throwing bolts down to earth, and that illness was caused by evil spirits. We've come a long way to closing those gaps in our knowledge, but still some remain. Those gaps -- however convenient a hiding place to stuff a deity into -- do not suggest anything "supernatural" simply because they are unknowns. This God-of-the-gaps argument is the most-used attempt offered by theology. Not knowing something isn't a proof for anything except ignorance.
How The Bible Is Accurate
Clayton's next words reek of absurdity. While keeping the bad-boy image of living an evil immoral atheist life, Clayton reads his bible in the hopes of discovering scientific contradictions. You guessed it, he finds none! I'm not sure what his definition of "scientific contradictions" is, but I'm pretty sure "bats = birds" should qualify.
The intellectual bankruptcy continues for the rest of the paper, all the while Clayton cherry-picks bible verses and reiterates the view that he could do whatever he wanted to -- because after all, there was no God. He talks about his rebellious youth and implies that children who don't believe in a supernatural father-figure can't be good moral people and this is what's wrong with society today. Clayton recounts having to lie to his mother about certain happenings with a girl whom he had taken out the night before, and because "that was the last thing I was going to tell my mother", he learned to lie reeeel good. He then points to a bible verse that says "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger", thus blaming his lying, stealing, and general wickedness on the sins of his parents as strictly forbid in the "inerrant Word".
And of course no theistic proclamation is complete without the classic Psalm 53 attack: "The fool says in his heart there is no God"! Ouch, John. That always stings us heathens! Why you gotta do that?
The Need for God
Clayton admits to thoughts of suicide, recounting how his immoral atheistic lifestyle drove him to sink so low. It's the same old story you hear again and again about the drug-using rebellious hedonist who's hit rock bottom, then they "find Jesus" and all their problems just melt away. Even Clayton himself admits this and writes, "Have you ever wondered why it is that when a person gets clean from drugs, gets rid of the problem of alcohol, or conquers some of the problems like the ones I had, that the person always seems to get involved in some religious cause, halfway house, or something like that? Why is that?"
I'll tell you why that is. First off, it's easy to believe in God given the standard definition of his attributes. You can't see him, touch him, etc. but he'll take all your cares away and you'll even get to survive your own death! What's not to like about that, given your current state of mind?
But most importantly the reason lies in a common misconception (one that Clayton himself admits to subscribing to). There is this perception that you're either a godless, immoral, no-good asshat OR a god-fearing, virtuous, upright religious pillar. It's the idea that somehow religious people automatically receive respect simply because they're religious. By starting out claiming that you were a somewhat shitty person because you had no sky-master demonstrates this fallacy. According to this false dichotomy, what other choice do the run-downs think they have? People who think in this manner can't seem to understand that human beings don't need a god to be good.
Even if religion was proven to be the best way at dealing with these stereotypical problems, that would not make any of its claims true one bit. Being helpful doesn't equal being real. Beneficial? Maybe. But can anyone give me a benefit that religion offers that can't be provided by secular means?
Picking A God
Clayton next claims that he sought answers from other religions and "found that [they] taught many things I could not accept. There were teachings in their writings concerning what life was like after this life that were unrewarding and unrealistic and there were descriptions of God that were illogical and inconsistent."
Oh? And the omniscient/omnipotent or infinitely-just/infinitely merciful inheritances are logical? Streets of gold and worms that never die are realistic? Since he can't find anything to suit his personal taste, Clayton picks the bible as the only obvious truth (since truth is based on what suits you best). "I decided that if I ever came to believe in God, it would be a belief based upon the Bible." Statements such as these reveal Clayton as a poorly-reasoned atheist.
After picking out which flavor of Christianity he liked best (Church of Christ, apparently), Clayton finally gives us "the final straw" that took him from godless heathen to moral sainthood. Again, it's one of his "leading atheist" professors. This time it's geology, and Clayton ends up his somewhat contrived banter by telling his professor, "Sir, you have not really shown me any contradiction between what we have studied in this course and in what the Bible has to teach," to which he replied, "Well, I guess if you really study it, there is no contradiction." So again, he paints the picture of science (or scientists) not being able to solve his ill-formed questions...therefore Yahweh exists and the bible is literally true.
John Clayton finally sums up his "lesson" by saying if you're not with God you're against God. So remember, if you're not with the Tooth Fairy you're against the Tooth Fairy -- you can't be both!
This laughable tale has no hope of convenience any intellectual to take him seriously. At every point he incorrectly summarizes the state of things as we know them with regards to science, logic, and reason. He assumes first, and since no satisfactory answer is found, he turns to untested dogmatic irrational thinking that lacks any evidence whatsoever. Clayton's only arguments are from incredulity and morality. As for the latter, he doesn't get that he was just an immoral person, not because there was no God to tell him what to do or think, but because he didn't respect himself or his fellow man.
Clayton may indeed have been an atheist, although a poorly-informed and irrational one. Still, he displays an enormous lack of understanding about the scientific method and the fields of biology, cosmology, and geology. Those of us who hold our position due to reason and intellectual rationalization can quickly point out the flaws in Clayton's pesudo-arguments. This exercise has not truly been a waste, however, for the doors of conversation remain open, and the bright light of knowledge is still shining through and rousing the ill-informed.