You don’t often meet many Canadian Reformed people who grow up to reject the faith altogether and become atheists. But apparently it does happen, and one of them decided to make a public statement about it. Mr. Chuck Eelhart wrote a piece over at exchristian.net, a site devoted to “encouraging de-converting and former Christians.” His article is called “Why I left the Canadian Reformed Church,” and is an example of the sort of thinking that characterizes the New Atheist movement today. This thinking has reason, objectivity, and the material world as the bases for its worldview, and disparages faith as a crutch for the weak-minded. It praises itself as being neutral and humble, for avoiding authoritative assertions of truth. The trouble is that many Christians buy into this, and many atheists today were once Christians. The questions they raise are not always easy to answer, and most Christians who attend university, especially in Humanities programs, will be confronted with them. I know that I was, and many of the convictions I have today are the result of wrestling with those questions. I’d imagine that I’m not alone in having dealt with them; when I see that they’ve claimed at least one Canadian Reformer, I feel compelled to respond.
What Eelhart explains for the most part is his journey from being a somewhat content, although questioning, Christian, to being a more content, but still questioning, atheist. He describes many of the benefits of growing up in the Canadian Reformed Community, benefits which those of us who belong to it are readily thankful for, but he also describes the problems. He claims that our church discourages critical thinking, forbids reading secular literature, and that Christians in general are lazy thinkers who are happy to have their lives controlled by others. As he grew older, his questions became more intense and he turned to classic literature to find answers. He writes, “A new world opened up to me. It had been there all along but I had been unaware of the possibilities. I devoured literature. Starting with Hemingway, Michener, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Dumas, Poe, Tolstoy, Homer many of the classics as well as current writers, beat writers, comedy, science even some philosophy” (All bad punctuation his). When he began to think critically about the world, he found that his religion could not stand.
I do believe in meeting people on their own terms. Since Eelhart establishes his rejection of Christ on the grounds of critical thinking, then it is upon those grounds that he should be met. We should think critically about his arguments, and see whether or not the arguments he levels against Christians are not, in fact, more appropriate when leveled at him. Here are three of his claims: the world is not as black and white as Christians say it is; Christians, particularly CanReffers, discourage engagement with Western culture; and Christians are Christians largely because of lazy thinking.
First, Eelhart makes claims that I, and probably most Christians, would have no difficulty accepting. He says that “the world is not … black and white, right and wrong [but] made up of many grey areas. We do not know the answers to many things but we are seeking them.” This discovery came about because he “had stumbled upon the principle of Critical Thinking.” This is all fine, and I believe that reading good books equips your mind to think imaginatively about these things.
I, too, have read Dickens, Poe, Hemingway, and Homer, along with a number of the other Western classics. And although Eelhart is wrong when he says that none of these books are pro- or anti-religious, it is true that most of them are not. But there’s a reason that these books, out of the millions that have been written in Western history, stand out above all the others. Roger Scruton, a contemporary English philosopher, says that these “chosen authors have had something to give to all who have studied them, that their words, thoughts, and images have a proven capacity to illuminate the problems and experiences of every age and to present the human world in all its real and enduring complexity.” The fruit of studying these writers, and studying them well, is a mature imagination, one that is broad, deep, and well-equipped to think carefully and creatively.
But alas, after trumpeting his belief that the world isn’t “black and white, right and wrong,” Eelhart proceeds to affirm that the world is, indeed, black and white, right and wrong. He asserts that “there is no heaven or hell. No amount of praying changes anything. Blasphemy is a victimless crime. Christian education is an oxymoron.” And just like that, too, a staccato-style thumping-over-your-head of his beliefs. Further, randomly stringing together a series of unconnected statements does not constitute critical thinking, despite what they’re teaching in Atheism 101 these days.
Secondly, Eelhart was discouraged by his elders to read secular literature, and was warned that it was dangerous. As a result, he gives the impression that the whole church is opposed to cultural engagement. I can sympathize with people who have had less-than-savoury experiences either in our church or in any church. Churches are populated exclusively by sinners. So I can understand if some people who have had particularly bad experiences come to characterize the whole church according to those experiences. This is unreasonable, but it’s understandable. But since he claims that “reason and logic are valid ways of thinking,” why did he not apply reason and logic to his own situation in the Canadian Reformed Church? Had he thought reasonably and logically about the Church, and had he cast the most flippant glance in the direction of empirical evidence, he would have realized that forbidding secular literature was simply the hobby horse of a few members, and in no way representative of the Church’s general position. I have never encountered one member who forbade secular literature; nowhere in our written statements of belief is this even implied. In addition, our cultural and theological heritage has been one of very robust engagement with the world’s thought, of reading widely and reading well.
Finally, Eelhart says that “religion took a lot of energy,” which is odd, because he accuses Christians of being too lazy to think for themselves. But Eelhart, in fact, is the lazy one. What he truly desires is not reason, logic, or empirical evidence, but autonomy. He writes of Lord’s Day 1, “the audacity that one does not belong to one’s self is so absolutely absurd to me and of course as I knew is also the first step used by any person or force that wants to dominate someone.” This is the core of his belief system, of all atheistic belief systems, and his much-vaunted discovery of critical thinking was nothing more than the discovery of a cheap justification for his personal rebellion. The root of his rejection of religion turns out to be a religious one: he believes in himself. Belief in oneself is, in fact, the laziest and shallowest religion known to man; it is the path of least resistance.
So his world turns out to be as black and white as he claims the Christian world is, and he is as uncritical in his dealing with Canadian Reformed culture as he claims we are in dealing with Western culture. Further, he makes use of lazy thinking to criticize lazy thinking. Indeed, he is guilty of the very faults that he accuses Christians of having. If he truly has discovered critical thinking, I wonder why he uses it so sparingly. People have made thoughtful, well-reasoned, and nuanced arguments against Christianity, arguments to which the Church ought to devote the same thoughtfulness and care in refuting. They may be wrong arguments, but at least they are sincerely wrong. Eelhart, however, seems to have resorted to reciting the catechism of contemporary pop atheism in place of laying out a carefully reasoned argument. If he truly desires to be a reasonable, logical, and good man, which no doubt he does, he’ll have to drop his unreasonable antagonism to Christianity, leave his lazy thinking behind, and once again take up the hard but joyful work of living a life of thankful obedience to the King who died for his rebellion.
(I won’t be approving any new comments on these posts. Judging from the ones that have been made so far, I can’t see this going in any sort of fruitful direction.)