Why do people reject Jesus? As someone with a keen interest in doctrine and apologetics, I usually focus on the more intellectual reasons for disbelief. I have found that skeptics are generally ignorant of sound theology, sketchy on the facts of history, and shoddy in their use of logic and philosophy. As such, my goal is always to gently instruct them in these areas, using evidence and argument to help them understand the teachings of orthodoxy and the reasons for believing that the Christian worldview is true. But I also know that even if I succeed in my argument, that’s won’t necessarily get a skeptic to turn to Jesus. There are a myriad of other factors at play. Here are six.
Christians Behaving Badly
People who call themselves Christians can be jerks. There is just no way around this fact. From sign wielding preachers of hate to motorists with fish stickers who flip obscene hand gestures, believers don’t always show much gentleness and compassion. This turns people away from Christianity. After authoring The End of Faith, Sam Harris was motivated to write his Letter to a Christian Nation in part because he received so many letters telling him how wrong he was not to believe in God. He notes, “The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism” (Letter to a Christian Nation, vii.)
There is no doubt that Christians are often immoral and this does immense harm to the cause of Christ. As Gaudium et Spes points out, “believers themselves often share some responsibility for [atheism]…To the extent that they…fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.” (19) If your conversation partner seems more resistant to Christians than Jesus or Christianity, it may be because he has been hurt by believers in the past.
When Russell Baker was 5 years old, his father was suddenly taken to the hospital and died. As the New York Times columnist recounts in his best-selling autobiography, it was a pivotal event in his life:
For the first time I thought seriously about God. Between sobs I told [the family housekeeper] Bessie that if God could do things like this to people, then God was hateful and I had no more use for Him.
Bessie told me about the peace of Heaven and the joy of being among the angels and the happiness of my father who was already there. The argument failed to quiet my rage. “God loves us all just like his own children,” Bessie said. “If God loves me, why did he make my father die?”
Bessie said that I would understand someday, but she was only partly right. That afternoon, though I couldn’t have phrased it this way then, I decided that God was a lot less interested in people than anybody in Morrisonville was willing to admit. That day I decided that God was not entirely to be trusted.
After that I never cried again with any conviction, nor expected much of anyone’s God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five I had become a skeptic. (Growing Up, 61)
Baker’s heartbreaking (and all too common) story is quite revealing in regards to the psychology of skepticism. I’m sure most of us can think of someone we know who is angry at God about some tragedy in their life. Often, it seems, this goes hand in hand with a denial of his very existence. A recent study led by psychologist Julie Exline of Case Western Reserve University supports this notion. In studying college students, her research indicated that “atheists and agnostics reported more anger at God during their lifetimes than believers. A separate study also found this pattern among bereaved individuals.” If atheists and agnostics are angry at God, what does that say about their skepticism? It seems to suggest that the intellectual label they wear is motivated by their hurt more than rational analysis of the evidence.
Baker’s situation, unfortunately, made him particularly prone to such a reaction. As Paul Vitz argues in his provocative and persuasive book Faith of the Fatherless, the absence of a father, or presence of a defective father (one who is abusive or weak or cowardly, for example) can play a major role in young men becoming atheists.
Vitz’s “defective father hypothesis” suggests that a broken relationship with one’s father makes it very difficult to accept a supposedly loving father in Heaven. Vitz developed this theory while studying the lives of history’s “great” atheists, including Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre, Camus, Hobbes, Voltaire, Butler, and Freud. All had fathers who died when they were very young or were “defective” in some major way. James Spiegel notes that this principle also applies to many modern day skeptics as well, including Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. (The Making of an Atheist, 68)
Of course this does not mean that all fatherless kids will become atheists, and there are many qualifications and subtleties to Vitz’s argument that I won’t get into here. However, his point is something to keep in mind when talking to skeptics. Humans naturally conceive of God according to the pattern set for us by human fathers. When that father isn’t there or isn’t loving, “an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God” (Vitz, 16). In a culture where a third of our children are growing up without their biological dad and 40 percent of babies are born to unwed mothers, you can expect to run into this problem much more in the future.
Vitz himself became an atheist in college, and offers a frank assessment of his motives: “On reflection, I have seen that my reasons for becoming, and remaining, and atheist-skeptic from age eighteen to age thirty-eight were, on the whole, superficial and lacking in serious intellectual and moral foundation” (Vitz, 139). He notes that he accepted the ideas presented to him by academics without ever actually studying them or questioning them in any way. So why did he accept them? One reason was “social unease” (134). Vitz was embarrassed to be from the Midwest, which “seemed terribly dull, narrow, and provincial” compared to the big city. He wanted to “take part, to be comfortable, in the new, glamorous secular world” into which he was moving, as did many of his classmates” (135). He also wanted to be accepted within his scientific field, so just as he had learned to dress like a college student by putting on the right clothes, he learned to “think like a proper psychologist by putting on the right – that is, atheistic – ideas and attitudes” (135).
Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptics Magazine and Executive Director of The Skeptics Society, has a similar explanation for his deconversion story:
Socially, when I moved from theism to atheism, and science as a worldview, I guess, to be honest, I just liked the people in science, and the scientists, and their books, and just the lifestyle, and the way of living. I liked that better than the religious books, the religious people I was hanging out with—just socially. It just felt more comfortable for me. …In reality I think most of us arrive at most of our beliefs for non-rational reasons, and then we justify them with these reasons after the fact.
Well, I’m not sure if most people do that or not, but it certainly does seem to be the case with many skeptics. Again, they are not evaluating evidence and making reasoned decisions. They are becoming unbelievers because they like how it makes them feel to be accepted into the “in” group.
The Cost of Discipleship
G.K. Chesterton famously said that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World, Kindle Location 405). That sums up another reason for skepticism: following Jesus is hard!
For example, Vitz admits that “personal inconvenience” was another major factor in his atheism: “Religion takes a good deal of time, not just on Sunday mornings; the serious practice of any religion calls for much more than that. There are other church services, as well as time for prayer and Scripture reading, not to mention time for ‘good works’ of various sorts. I was far too busy for such time-consuming activities” (Vitz, 136-137).
Philosopher Mortimer Adler became a Christian while in his eighties, after spending decades refusing to make that commitment. During that time he admitted that converting to a specific faith would simply be too hard for him. It “would require a radical change in the way of my life, a basic alteration in the direction of my day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for. …The simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person” (Philosopher at Large, 316).
In cases like this, skepticism is simply the rationalization of a desire to stay comfortable. People don’t want to take on the commitment that becoming a Christian requires, so they claim that it must be false.
Pope John Paul II noted that this attitude can also lead to resentment and even hatred of religion. “The fact is that attaining or realizing a higher value demands a greater effort of will. So in order to spare ourselves the effort, to excuse our failure to obtain this value, we minimize its significance, deny it the respect that it deserves, even see it as some ways evil” (Love and Responsibility, 143). That would certainly help explain some of the contempt we see for Christianity among modern skeptics. If you run into an unbeliever that offers scorn rather than reasoned arguments, this may be why.
Now for the big one. Of all the motivations and reasons for skepticism that I encounter, immorality is easily the most common. In particular, sexual sin seems to be the largest single factor driving disbelief in our culture. Brant Hanson calls sex “The Big But” because he so often hears this from unbelievers: “’I like Jesus, BUT…’ and the ‘but’ is usually followed, one way or the other, with an objection about the Bible and… sex. People think something’s deeply messed-up with a belief system that says two consenting, unmarried adults should refrain from sex.” In other words, people simply do not want to follow the Christian teaching that sexual intercourse should take place only between and man and woman who are married, so they throw the whole religion out.
The easiest way to justify sin is to deny that there is a creator to provide reality with a nature, thereby denying that there is any inherent order and purpose in the universe.
Aldous Huxley admitted that this is a common reason for skepticism:
I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless. …
For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was …liberation from … a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom…. There was one admirably simple method in our political and erotic revolt: We could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever. Similar tactics had been adopted during the eighteenth century and for the same reasons. (Ends and Means, 270-273)
Indeed, similar tactics have been used extensively up to the present day. If you are looking for two great resources that document the extent to which the work of the world’s “great” atheistic thinkers has been “calculated to justify or minimize the shame of their own debauchery,” (Spiegel, 72)I recommend Intellectuals by Paul Johnson and Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior by E. Michael Jones. The bottom line is that these skeptical scholars didn’t reach their conclusions by following the evidence where it led. They didn’t “discover” that the world was meaningless and then proceed to live accordingly. They lived sinful lives (usually involving some type of sexual deviancy) and then produced theories that justified their actions.
This connection between immorality and unsound thought is clearly scriptural. Paul tells the Ephesians that they “must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Eph. 4:17-19) Paul blames futile thinking and a lack of understanding on hard hearts. When we compare this passage with Romans 1, it seems that immorality and bad ideas work together in a vicious cycle that spirals downward. Sin leads to false philosophies which then lead to more sin.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised (Rom. 1:18-25)
So Paul argues that the nature of reality is clear to everyone but people suppress the truth by their wickedness. Rebellious people become fools as they deny the obvious meaning of creation because of their sin. Their foolishness leads them to indulge in more immorality. Thus immorality is very closely linked to skepticism and we need to be aware that sin will almost always be at least an underlying issue in our conversations.
This post is adapted from How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics (Bethany House, 2013)