Five Steps to Atheism
A former preacher lists five steps that led to his atheism. Dr. Craig not only offers answers but insight into the process of deconversion itself.
Five Steps to Atheism
KEVIN HARRIS: Hi! Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. Dr. Craig and I were in the studio not long ago, and I had a sore throat at the time, as you will hear in a moment. So please bear with me as my voice was getting kind of weak. I was not feeling very well. Thankfully I just tried to stay out of the way and let Dr. Craig do all the talking anyway, but thanks for your patience.
Several of you have sent us articles on a Christian musician who renounced his faith. Part of the process of his deconversion was due to his reading Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. Social media blew up on this. Many of you have requested Dr. Craig's comments on it. We've gotten other articles, like this one from Huffington Post, on a former Pentecostal preacher who has become an atheist, and he lists five steps that he claims led to his deconversion.
Deconversion stories are nothing new. You win some; you lose some. Of course, in biblical theology there are several options on what it means for someone who once claimed to be a follower of Christ to change his mind and reject the Christian faith. I'm, of course, talking about options like the possibility that that person never was truly saved to begin with but merely went through the religious motions and for whatever reason never actually received Christ. Then there is the view that a person truly saved cannot lose his or her salvation, but may fall into a state of disfellowship with God due to various factors – views usually known as the security of the believer. And another view is that a Christian can in fact lose his salvation and apostatize. Scholars disagree on these options. It is an in-house debate for the church. Rather than deal with that issue, Dr. Craig will first look at these five steps that Jerry DeWitt lists that led to his becoming an atheist, a former Pentecostal preacher from Louisiana. He has written a book about it, and got lots of attention in the press, and is a prominent speaker at many secular events. I asked Dr. Craig about not only the answers to these five steps but the process itself. Have you noticed that it is usually not just one thing?
DR. CRAIG: Yes, I think his experience is typical. This is a gradual loss of faith that moves from Christian theism to a sort of monotheism or deism to agnosticism and then eventually to an outright atheism. We can learn from his experience as to the slide that he went through so as to better understand this and perhaps help people who are midway through this slide to reverse course and come back.
KEVIN HARRIS: Anecdotally, I can think of three prominent atheist speakers who were once in Pentecostalism. While I don't want to paint with a broad brush, there are aspects of Pentecostalism [unintelligible] and in particular they are not just non-intellectual but are anti-intellectual.
DR. CRAIG: Yes, strong emotional emphasis with not much intellectual engagement or life of the mind. That caught my attention, too, when I first saw this article. It is difficult because this fellow does sound very thoughtful. He mentions a number of authors that he was reading that helped to propel him down this slide. You just have to ask what sort of training did he receive? What sort of theological education did he have that he was disabused of his Christian beliefs just through reading challenging material? Fortunately, I think this is changing. I think among Charismatics there is a kind of intellectual awakening. A number of them are theologically sophisticated. This is a very healthy sign, I think, for the Charismatic movement.
KEVIN HARRIS: He says the understanding of these five steps, “ultimately led to a confident theist becoming a humble atheist at the age 42.”
DR. CRAIG: That is a very self-congratulatory description, isn't it? I also noticed, too, late in the article that he said that, “the seeds of my atheism were inherent in my religion from the beginning.” I don't think that is true. As we see this slide, it seems to me that they sprouted up along the way. They weren't planted there already in the beginning.
KEVIN HARRIS: By the way, he says that he is going to do this briefly. We'll look at these briefly. He has briefly commented on the five steps. But he said that Daniel Dennett actually used these steps in one of his presentations at the Global Atheist convention in Australia.
What are the five steps? Number one: “God LOVES everyone.”
DR. CRAIG: And that is why I say the seeds of decline are not sown at the beginning because every orthodox Christian affirms that God's love is universal and impartial. As he says here, John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world.” This is a good starting point. The thing that I thought was very odd was where he said,
Unlike most of my fellow Pentecostals, I was starting to believe that our good works weren’t good enough and that instead Jesus’ death had completely paid the price for our sins.
I am shocked to hear him say that most Pentecostals believe in salvation by works rather than on the basis of Christ's death on the cross. That I hope is inaccurate, but the affirmation of the love of God is a part of orthodox Christian belief.
KEVIN HARRIS: Sure. He says earlier,
Despite the fact that the Pentecostal doctrine is judgmental and exclusionary, my grandmother was an example of inclusion and unconditional love very early in my life.
So she had an influence on him.
What was the transitional concept?
DR. CRAIG: He says,
Whatever comfort I received from believing that God loved the whole world was morally challenged by the question, if he loves them, why doesn’t he save them? And for that matter, why allow them to be “lost” in the first place?
Those questions struck me as very odd. It would seem to me that in both cases human freedom would come into play. If people separate themselves from God then insofar as he gives them free will to be autonomous moral agents they have the ability to reject God and his grace and so be lost. God is not to blame for the lost. That is something that human beings work on their own. As for why doesn't God save them if he loves them, again that might press against some sort of Reformed or Calvinist doctrine of election where God chooses to elect only some, but again if you believe in free will that is perfectly consistent with God's universal salvific will and love for all persons and yet some persons freely rejecting God's salvation and being lost.
KEVIN HARRIS: This struggle with this concept here in number one – God loves everyone and then the idea of eternal punishment – led to number two: God SAVES everyone. Jerry was influenced by William Morrison Branham, a late Pentecostal. He said,
the very first time I heard a minister challenge the idea of Hell, and it wouldn’t be the last. Though Branham didn’t teach that God ultimately saves all souls, he did do away with the notion of eternal punishment, and did so while remaining the foremost Pentecostal of his day.
DR. CRAIG: I don't know this Branham. It makes me wonder if he was an annihilationist perhaps who didn't believe in the eternality of hell.
KEVIN HARRIS: He says,
Later, I would grow out of my prejudices and would allow myself to be exposed to the works of Universalist from every ilk.
His theological view – Universalism – now seems to be from number one embracing number two.
DR. CRAIG: Right, the idea that God loves everyone and therefore he saves everyone. The difficulty there is, again, he seems to be presupposing a kind of unilateralist doctrine of salvation that God has the right simply to impose this upon creatures independently of their free will. From my point of view, God is too loving to treat people as mere automatons or puppets where he pulls the strings and makes them behave in certain ways. So it is a big jump from “God loves everyone” to “God saves everyone” - a jump that someone who believes in human freedom wouldn't be inclined to take.
KEVIN HARRIS: The transition out of “God saves everyone” (Universalism) was what he calls the concept of Sonship. He says,
“Sonship” is a doctrinal expression referencing the family-like union between God the father and the saved individual. The sinner’s justification is so complete that his standing in God’s eyes is equal to that of Christ’s, the only begotten “son” of god. Thus the use of the positional title, Sonship.
We are sons of God. We are daughters of God.
The original questions, though somewhat shelved by Universalism, still remained but were temporarily eclipsed by more technical questions. Questions such as how and when does God “save” everyone? Are they saved at death or were they saved before they were even born? Will they get a second chance for salvation in heaven or were they simply saved when Jesus died on the cross? What about those who died before Jesus’ crucifixion? When does Sonship technically begin?
He doesn't know when we become sons and daughters.
Number three – “God is IN everyone.” He began to listen to another Pentecostal whom I met a long time ago. He came to my hometown. Bishop Carlton Pearson. He went through and is still going through publicly a lot of trouble because he embraced against the teaching of his church – a form of Universalism – and denounced the concept of hell. This person began to have an influence on Jerry DeWitt. The theological view is called “Inclusion.”
The doctrine of Inclusion in Bishop Pearson’s own words: “The Gospel of Inclusion is the exciting and liberating news that in the finished work of the cross, Jesus redeemed the entire world to God from the cosmic and organic sin imposed upon it by Adam, the original man. In effect, the world is already saved, they just don’t know it; and, unfortunately, most Christians don’t believe it.
They have a few verses they go to. 1 Timothy, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, and so on.
DR. CRAIG: Those passages he cites, though, don't support the view that God is in everyone. The quotes from Act 17 – Paul's Mars Hill address – where Paul says that God has determined the exact times and places that people should live and he did this so that they should seek after him and find him though he is not far from everyone of us for in him we live and move and have our being. There Paul is not saying God is in everyone. On the contrary, he is saying everyone is in a sense in God. We are within the providence of God and his sovereign direction of the times and places that we live. So he is accessible to us if we will just reach out and, as he says, feel after him and find him. Paul is talking there about the universal accessibility of salvation, but he is not talking about God's presence being “in” everyone. Again, this is a step along the slide that I don't see any justification for.
KEVIN HARRIS: From there he moved to number four, but he said once he started moving away from mainstream Christianity and started becoming inclusionist – that all will be saved eventually somehow – he said,
there simply wasn’t anything that wasn’t on the table and thus questionable. What I was soon to learn was that once you out-grow of your religious traditions, your superstitions may be soon to follow.
So he says the transition was,
The gospel of Inclusion [that he embraced] turned the majority of my investigation inward. No longer burdened with making sense of the God, the Bible and religious contradictions, I became interested in the nature of reality and particularly in human nature.
DR. CRAIG: I don't understand that sentence either. How does being a Universalist mean that you no longer need to make sense of God, the Bible, and religious contradictions? I would think those would all continue to be things that would be of interest and importance to you.
KEVIN HARRIS: Number four: “God is everyone's INTERNAL DIALOGUE.” He says the influential person was Joseph Campbell. He says,
While reading everything I could find that dealt with the nexus of religion and Human nature, I came across Joseph Campbell. I found Campbell’s teachings on comparative religion to be both refreshing and explanatory. For the first time in my studies, questions were actually being answered without the creation of more questions.
DR. CRAIG: And I think that is a fatal sign. When you have come to the point that all your questions are being answered and you don't have any more questions then you become brain-dead and you are just beginning to accept by authority or on face value the claims rather than critically assessing them and thinking about them. That seems to be what he did at this point. I don't even know what it means to say God is everyone's internal dialogue. That seems to me to be just mystical-sounding mumbo-jumbo. It sounds so profound, but what does it mean to say God is everyone's internal dialogue?
KEVIN HARRIS: It is really moving toward God is a delusion.
DR. CRAIG: Sure.
KEVIN HARRIS: It is self-talk. You are kind of talking to yourself. Another thing, real quick. This is the second person – again, not to besmirch all Pentecostals – the second Pentecostal pastor who is now an atheist speaker who said that when they began to read atheist writings and so forth they made so much more sense than what they were being taught and learned at church. It grabbed them and gripped them. One Pentecostal preacher, he traveled on the road with a really crazy evangelist. She made no sense. She was really out there. Then he started reading Thomas Paine and other stuff and it made so much more sense than she did. Again, a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
OK, from there he has kind of embraced a deism and is moving toward agnosticism because of Joseph Campbell. Then he begins to look at biological evolution and evolutionary psychology. That led to number five: “God is a DELUSION.” He lists the influential persons: “The Four Horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late, great Christopher Hitchens.” The four horsemen of the New Atheism.
DR. CRAIG: You know what is so sad about this is that these fellows are popularizers for the most part when it comes to theological discourse, not scholarly work, and yet so influential in this man's life. I think it is just tragic.
KEVIN HARRIS: Particularly The God Delusion is a biologist's attempt at philosophy and there are plenty of missteps.
DR. CRAIG: One can only wish for this man that earlier on in this evolution that he had been exposed to better theology and a good dose of Christian apologetics – arguments for the existence of God, for the historicity of Christ, and so forth. It might have enabled him to withstand the onslaught that he received because of his belief in Universalism and then a slide into atheism that that resulted in.
KEVIN HARRIS: Next week we will look at a recent story of that Christian musician I was talking about who renounced his faith. Our prayer is that the situation will change before the next podcast. Thanks for joining us.
 Total Running Time: 21:37 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)