Published on 09/03/2020 (originally published in 2019 on the Christian Post)
Written by Luke Douglas, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix
If I believe in God and He exists, I’ve gained everything. If I believe in God and He doesn’t exist, I’ve lost nothing. If I disbelieve, and He does exist, I’ve lost everything. Therefore, a rational person who has any doubt should take the leap of faith just in case. I don’t know when I first heard about Pascal’s Wager, the argument for believing in God based on possible outcomes. It went on to be an enormous part of my training to defend Christianity in a secular and hostile culture and be ready always to give an apologia for the hope within me.
Being a warrior for Christ was, without any hesitation, everything to me. I was homeschooled outside Molalla, Oregon with a strong emphasis on debate, the written word, and defending the faith. I don’t remember asking Jesus into my heart, but my parents say I was about four or five at an Easter Sunday service. What I do remember is that my entire childhood revolved around reinforcing and strengthening that commitment through a social life centered on church and a curriculum centered on Creation science. I was eight when I first heard the earth was 6,000 years old, which quickly became a central theological litmus test for whether one took God at His Word.
It’s impossible to say when doubts first began creeping in. I remember spending hours on my knees in prayer, my entire emotional focus pinned on talking to God, only to hear nothing back. I would feel my stomach churn wondering if there was nobody there to hear me, then convince myself it was my fault that I didn’t believe hard enough, or that I was trying to connect with God on my own strength, or something along those lines. Then, I’d redouble my efforts to connect to God more strongly in worship, or in Bible reading. If I ever felt doubts, my focus was to study to show myself approved, a workman who need not be ashamed.
So study I did. Delving into the Bible was never my weakness. Starting when I was 13, I memorized twenty-two books of the New Testament, all in KJV. I got some of my earliest public speaking experience reciting chapters of the Bible aloud in front of church, and it was only a matter of time before my pastor was mentoring me to teach and preach from the Word of God. I think I was fifteen when I started, and seriously considered the ministry as a calling throughout my teenage years. I never decided against it, really. I just had the opportunity to go to law school and thought I would get my seminary degree in my spare time. That way, I could be available whenever a congregation might need me to step into that role in the future while making a living in the meantime. So during my two summers of law school, I took seminary classes online, always aspiring to be an advocate for Christianity in the public arena.
On that track, I learned there’s a funny thing about legal education. It requires you to argue for both sides of a case. The better you understand your opponent’s position, the better you will be at advancing your own. So in the interest of being the best Christian apologist I could be, I learned a fair bit about arguments for and against Christianity and took a strong interest in the work of the apologist who influenced me most growing up, Ken Ham. When he debated Bill Nye the Science Guy on the scientific legitimacy of creationism, I was about halfway through law school and organized a debate watch party, ordered pizza, and gathered my Evangelical colleagues to root for Ham together. So imagine how devastating it was to watch my childhood icon be so embarrassingly destroyed before my very eyes. Ken Ham brought faith to an evidence fight, and even my fundamentalist creationist eyes could see it. I resolved in that moment to learn more about evolution, astronomy, and geology so that, when it was my turn to debate the Bill Nyes of the world, I would do better than Ken Ham had.
Armed with the ability and the will to research both sides of a case, I channelled my curiosity into philosophy, science, and ancient history to disprove alleged falsehoods in my belief system. In ancient history, I learned just how impossible it is to cram the entire Bronze Age into the time after Noah’s Flood around 2,300 B.C. Growing up I was taught that the pyramids, for example, were newer than that, with whole systems of pseudo-history developed to validate creationism at any cost. The more I tried to investigate, the more problems I ran into. If the pyramids were built during the Fourth Dynasty, I couldn’t just say they were built a little later. I had to push the date of the pyramids more and more recently to make room for earlier dynasties and somehow justify believing that every date recorded both in antiquity and by modern archaeologists was wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the only way it made sense was if all of academia were conspiring against the Bible. Starlight is another good example. Growing up, I was taught that starlight literally speeds up and slows down during transit across the universe in order to arrive from across the cosmos in less than 6,000 years. A simple course on physics, which was not prioritized in my secondary education to say the least, cleared that up without any difficulty. At some indistinguishable point along the line, my quest for effective counter-arguments for Christianity became a sincere search for what I believed myself.
I won’t belabor the examples because plenty of good books have been written on point-by-point refutations of young earth creationism. I only narrate these instances to highlight that I had to make a choice. Could I modify my views of Genesis and keep the Gospel intact? In the end, I couldn’t make it fit. Not for a lack of trying, either. I just couldn’t separate creationism from the Gospel. My entire frame of reference for Christianity had Genesis as its foundation. If the creation story is unreliable, then why believe in the resurrection? If Noah’s Flood didn’t happen as described, then why believe Jesus was coming back someday? I say this with no disrespect for those who do reinterpret the creation account in order to let their faith evolve, but for me, I may as well have converted to another religion or to no religion at all because that was no further from my starting point. To bend my rigid faith was to risk shattering it entirely.
Yet no matter how far I ventured into private doubts, Pascal’s Wager loomed large at a level deeper than rationality. I was afraid. I was afraid that if I were wrong, I would lose everything. I was afraid that my friends and family would disown me if I lost the faith that held us together. How could I countenance Christianity being false if all I could think about were the consequences? It was my journey in philosophy, so well prepared-for in my theological education, that took away the fear.
I studied the Stoics. Their resolution in the face of anxiety was helpful in all the stress of doubting my faith, as they would go on to be in the depression of losing everything after deconverting. And it was my favorite Stoic thinker, Marcus Aurelius, who so profoundly answered Pascal’s Wager over a millennium before Pascal was born with a preemptive counter-argument that I call the Stoic Wager:
“If gods exist, you have nothing to fear in taking leave of mankind, for they will not let you come to harm. But if there are no gods, or if they have no concern with mortal affairs, what is life to me, in a world devoid of gods or devoid of Providence?”
Essentially, don’t think about death worrying if there are gods or not. If there are, they will care how virtuous your life was. If there are not, you will have lived a virtuous life. If there are gods, how would you know whether they care how you live your life at all?
This perspective, predating the prevalence of Christianity, lays bare by comparison some of the assumptions that Pascal makes. Pascal assumes that nonbelief is a choice, for one thing, rather than a disconnect. He assumes that willing oneself to believe, or at least try to believe, is something that God would want more than He wants honesty. If God would reward insincere faith but punish honest nonbelief, it begs the question first why God has such arbitrary standards and second why I would want to worship Him anyway. Pascal’s Wager has nothing to do with reasons to think God exists. It’s just a way of hedging bets for a desired outcome, and it assumes the Judeo-Christian God to be the only possibility one should consider when aspiring to those outcomes. Detached from those assumptions, the Stoic Wager became my preferred bet for any judgment day I may find on the other side.
So in the end, I lost my faith in a Chick-fil-a.
I was 23, working for a conservative state legislative campaign in central Texas in the summer of 2016. I’d been visiting churches, synagogues, Humanist meetings, and philosophical discussion groups of all types just to compare them in the search for truth. I had a copy of Spinoza’s book about comparative theology in my hand, continuing my faith journey over waffle fries in this iconic institution of Evangelical culture. True to form, the restaurant was playing instrumental-only worship music, providing just enough subtlety for a nonbeliever not to be offended by songs they didn’t recognize while a believer would know all the words. And so the songs played, and my head filled in the lyrics of my favorite familiar worship songs. My mind left the book I was reading, pulled toward the vivid flashbacks of every fundamentalist sermon, every apologetic talking point, every one of the thousands of King James Bible verses I had memorized, and in a flood of what I can only describe as turmoil, realized I had long since read all the philosophy and theology that I needed to make my decision.
I dropped my book, went into the men’s room, sat on the toilet, and bawled my eyes out for an hour and a half. It was over. I was an atheist, having been drug kicking and screaming by the evidence against every desire, incentive, and goal that I had set out with. It was all for nothing but to learn that my curiosity would not sleep until my desire to be an effective apologist left me with nothing to defend. I had wanted nothing more than to reinforce my faith, but willing myself to believe something that just didn’t make sense was no longer sustainable. So adrift on a sea of chaos, I called my then-fiance, who was doing missions work in Asia at the time, and begged her not to leave me as her faith insisted she would have to.
I lost an incredible number of relationships, either by their choice or mine. I lost my career in the politics of the religious right and took some time to reestablish myself as a progressive activist instead. I expected my entire family to disown me, which they actually didn’t. What many of them did instead was to become so controlling and condescending that I ended up being the one to cut them off. Other relationships changed as a result, arguably for the better. I think I’ve come to realize that many relationships are conditional. A friendship with Jesus, for example, is conditional on obedience (John 15:14). A relationship with a person that has shared faith at its foundation might be conditional or it might not. When you remove the faith element, you discover whether that person loved you for you or simply loved you for fitting a particular mold. It was agony to find out who was who. The whole thing was without a doubt the worst thing I’ve ever been through at the time, but in hindsight, the best thing that ever happened to me.
What I didn’t expect were all the new relationships. Old friends and acquaintances, and even family members with whom I had lost touch over the years of living away who, upon hearing about my journey, told me they, too, had lost their faith. The pews of America are emptying out, and even the ones that are still occupied are often filled by people who just aren’t ready to leave even though they may want to. If you’re reading this as a Christian and weighing your doubts, wondering if it’s worth losing everyone you know, I guarantee you that you know more secret atheists than you realize. My earliest support network after leaving the faith didn’t come from atheist or Humanist organizations. It came from old friends who confided in me about their nonbelief as we talked about the life after and where to go next.
Where does one go next? For me, the sacrifice was more than just personal and professional relationships. It also left a gaping hole where purpose used to be. See, my whole upbringing’s teaching was that, apart from God, there would be no basis for morality, for purpose, or even for logic itself. If there were no higher power Whose nature exemplified right, there would be no such thing as wrong. The further removed I become from presuppositional apologetics, however, the less sense that whole line of argument makes. My morality post-Evangelicalism is driven by tough questions about maximizing happiness in a complex world. It’s driven by empathy for my fellow human beings, and the last thing that would help me be more moral is turning off my questioning mind in order to defer to a higher power Who allegedly answers (or has people who speak for Him answer) those gray questions in black and white terms.
It’s a jarring realization, when your sense of purpose has been framed according to Christ’s call to be a witness, to realize that life just is. If I longed for a purpose to make sense of its chaos, I had to find that purpose for myself. It’s terrifying. It’s hard. And it’s mind-openingly more rewarding when I realize the only purpose I have is what I can find in a short life that, to my knowledge, is the only one I have. The brevity of that one life makes its every moment that much more precious.
If I could help it, I didn’t want to make that journey alone. I’m active in the interfaith movement and wish nothing more than that every religion embraces the best, most forward-looking version of itself and continues evolving in directions that embrace evidence rather than denying it. For those who refuse to evolve, the future is only decline. This country is full of empty churches and pastors who’ve secretly lost their faith. It’s full of religious “nones” who now outnumber Catholics and Evangelicals, many of them having dropped a religious affiliation in their past.
I can’t speak for anyone else who’s left Christianity or what they are looking for, but for me, the best community so far has been Humanism, starting around early 2018. I lead an organization of fellow freethinkers who volunteer together, advocate for separation of church and state, fight for equality for secular Americans, and dialogue robustly about thought-provoking issues where questions, not creeds, unify us. As we grow, we may just find a use for some of those empty churches after all.
Now that I spend most of my days with people who have left or are still leaving Christianity, I’ve come to appreciate Pascal’s Wager differently. Never in any stage of my journey have I met a person who converted to Christianity because of Pascal’s Wager. But what I have encountered are countless instances of Christians who stay in the faith in spite of their doubts because of Pascal’s Wager. To someone who already experiences Christianity as their normal and sees nonbelief as the scary unknown, it is an apologetic tool that works as an incredible holding strategy. Evangelicalism, though, is on the decline. As fewer people each generation grow up with Christianity as their normal, the apologetics that have been fairly effective at keeping believers in will have to evolve if they want to move forward in an increasingly secular world.
“Luke Douglas is the executive director and general counsel of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, serving as an organizer, advocate, and board member for the Secular Coalition for Arizona. As a former fundamentalist Christian, Luke’s personal journey brought him to the progressive movement with experience that spans the political spectrum on the campaign trail, the legislative gallery and the court of law. He holds a Juris Doctorate with a concentration in constitutional law and a Bachelor of Arts in communications.”