This post is both highly personal, and also quite generally applicable. It is personal in that my remarks derive from my experiences in talking and engaging with Christians over the past several years, many of whom I consider to be close personal friends whom I respect a great deal. It is general in the sense that I believe the key ideas apply much more broadly to a wide diversity of interactions and engagement between Atheists and Christians (as well as those of other religions). In keeping with the personal nature of this post, I shall henceforth use the second person (‘you’) in reference specifically to my Christian friends, though it can also be interpreted more broadly to apply to any Christian, and indeed (with certain appropriate modifications of content), also to any religious person.
The Question and Possible Answers
My key purpose for this post is for you to seriously consider the question: why aren’t I a Christian? Even after nearly five years of fairly intensive thinking, reading, discussing, and debating about these ideas, why have I nonetheless not been converted to Christianity? I can see four classes of possible answers to this question, and I shall examine each of them in turn:
- Because Christianity is in fact false, and hence the arguments and evidence in favour of it are lacking. Not surprisingly, this is the answer which I like to believe is most likely. Perhaps more importantly, it is the only reason for which I would want to hold my current beliefs about Christianity. That is, if this is in fact not the case, then I want to change my views. Needless to say, you do not believe that this option is the correct one, so let now consider the others.
- Because there exist arguments and evidences with which I am insufficiently familiar, or which I have not heard explained in a sufficiently convincing way, or misconceptions or misunderstandings that result in mental barriers or objections to my belief.
- Because, consciously or otherwise, I do not and have not engaged in this pursuit with sufficient sincerity and objectivity. My analysis of the evidence and arguments is excessively and overwhelmingly clouded by my own prejudices, desires, presuppositions, or otherwise, such that I am not properly receptive to the true strength of the evidences and reasons offered.
- Because conversion to Christianity is not ultimately determined by our own beliefs or arguments we have heard, but comes as a result of an act of God’s grace. There are two main subsidiary possibilities I can see here: a) God has reached out his grace to me in this way, but I have rejected and refused to accept it, b) God has not done so, as for his own reasons I am not one he has chosen to save (or at least not yet). If you believe in the doctrine of Irresistible Grace, then you will of course not believe that (4a) is a possibility.
You may of course be inclined to say that my lack of conversion results from a combination of the above factors, but personally I think most of the possibilities listed above make the others either impossible or redundant. So, for example, (2) and (3) could both be true, but in that case (3) seems largely beside the point if I am not engaging truly openly or honestly. Likewise, you may believe that reason alone is not sufficient, even if it is necessary for a strong conversion, in which case the question would become which of (2) and (4) you consider to be the main ‘limiting factor’, so to speak, in preventing my conversion to Christianity.
Four Possibilities in Depth
Here is where things get especially difficult, because it seems to me that whichever of (2), (3), or (4) you believe is the case, there are fairly negative implications.
Suppose you believe (2) is the main reason for my lack of conversion. If this is the case, then I must ask in total earnestness and sincerity why you do not make a greater effort to share these reasons or arguments or evidences with me? You may have done so to some extent, but if I still haven’t heard the most important reasons or the most persuasive articulation, or if I still hold objections or reservations based upon misunderstandings or misconceptions, why do you not point me to them and help me address them? I try to be very clear and upfront about my objections and reservations, and have written extensively about my views concerning such matters as arguments for God’s existence, the role of subjective religious experience, disagreement between Christians about important doctrines, my various key objections, the moral argument for God’s existence, the importance of reason in forming our beliefs, and I think most importantly, the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I honestly feel that I have raised numerous cogent arguments, doubts, and objections in these various pieces, and it is on this basis that I tend to believe that situation (1) in fact prevails. Though this applies more to some people than others, on the whole I feel that you have not engaged very extensively or carefully with most of my writings or objections, and if you believe that (2) is in fact the main reason for my lack of conversion, I really would appreciate it if you would do so, because (2) is not a situation I would like to be in. The negative implication here, as I see it, is that if you believe (2), then you believe that there are cogent, persuasive reasons of which I am unfamiliar, and responses to my objections which I have not heard, but which you have not told me, or not explained in a way that I can properly grasp.
Now let us turn our attention to possibility (3). If this is the main reason for my lack of conversion, the negative implication for me is fairly clear, since in this case I will not be properly receptive to any arguments or responses to my objections that anyone may raise. If you believe (3) is the case, I would truly appreciate it if you would be so open as to tell me so, and suggest ways I might be able to remedy this defect in my thinking. Perhaps there may be specific clear instances you can point to where my sincerity and objectivity has been clearly and substantially clouded (obviously none of us are ever going to be perfect in this respect, but its a matter of degree). Either way, I would greatly appreciate your assistance in extricating myself from (3), which truly would be a terrible situation for me to be in.
Even worse, arguably, than (3) is situation (4a), in which I have rejected God’s grace that he has offered to me (feel free to phrase this in a slightly different way if you disagree with my use of language here, its the underlying idea that I want to focus on). If (4a) is the main reason for my lack of conversion, then basically it seems that all is lost, at least for me. I’m fundamentally a bad person and just are unreceptive to the truth and light offered by God through his grace. There’s little or no question of changing my mind in the basis of reason or evidence, because its not a question of reason or evidence, just of being unreceptive to grace. If you believe that (4a) is the case, then you perhaps think that deep down I’m fundamentally not really a very good person. Maybe you have some way around this, I don’t know, but at least as I see it a good person doesn’t just reject a good God in this way. I know that you probably believe that no humans are ‘fundamentally good’, but if you believe that some people choose to accept God’s grace while others don’t, presumably that makes a meaningful difference in terms of what sort of person they are.
Lastly, let us consider possibility (4b). Maybe it is the case that I have the intellectual knowledge I would need to become a Christian, but nonetheless I have not yet received the outpouring of God’s grace, or spiritual witness from God, or whatever language one cares to use to describe this. This possibility is the one I find hardest to understand. If you believe that (4b) is the core reason I am not a Christian, then presumably you also believe that a major reason why you are a Christian is because you have been the recipient of such an act of grace, or spiritual witness, or whatever wording you prefer to use to describe the experience. If you do believe this, I guess I just find it very hard to understand why God would withhold such things from me. Doesn’t he want all of his children to enter into a relationship with him? Why would he extend his grace (etc) to you and not to me? I guess being God he can do whatever he wants, but still it kind of sucks for me (and those like me). Nor does it do any good to say that I still have misconceptions or mental barriers that prevent me being a recipient to God’s grace, because then we no longer think that (4b) is the main reason for my lack of conversion, but rather have reverted to options (2) or (3). The negative implication of (4b) is that there is effectively nothing either of us can do to change the situation. That said, however, I would still appreciate you telling me if you genuinely believe (4b) is the case. I would find it helpful to know.
So we have reached the end of the possibilities for why I have not converted to Christianity. As I have said, I don’t think any of them are especially positive, or free from negative implications. Nonetheless this matter does not go away merely because you or I fail to think about it or talk about it. You believe, I presume, that my eternal salvation is at stake in this question, and I believe that it may be at stake (because I might be wrong in believing (1)), so the stakes are high, and there is no time to waste. So what do you think? What is to be done? This question isn’t just for me; I think Christians everywhere should ask this of their non-believer friends, and seriously consider their answer. It is a matter none of us can afford to ignore, easy as that can often be to do.