Three Pillars of My Atheism

“We have in this century discovered our universe”

My focus in this article will not be suffering—colossal human and animal suffering—that is built into creation, and renders the concept of a caring, competent god incoherent and meaningless. There are three other realities that make Christian theology highly suspect, and contributed mightily to my rejection of the faith; that’s my focus here, but please be assured that the scale of suffering alone blasts Christianity out of the water. Nobody has said it better than Stephen Fry, when he was asked in an interview what he—an outspoken atheist—would say to God if the latter confronted him at the Pearly Gates:


“I’d say, bone cancer in children…what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That's what I would say.”


But Christian theology is crippled by other realities.


Pillar 1. Our utterly absolute isolation in the Cosmos 


Back in the day when New Testament authors imagined God, he resided somewhere between visible clouds in the sky and the realm of the Moon. He had a throne—with Jesus sitting at his right hand—and the Earth was his footstool (Matthew 5:35). Mountaintops were a good place to get as close as possible to God; it wasn’t hard to assume that God kept a close watch on everything.


The telescope was invented early in the 17th century, and observers suddenly gained new perspective. As we know, Galileo got into big trouble with the Vatican, but the holy protectors of the ancient worldview didn’t stand a chance. Flash forward to the 1920s, when Edwin Hubble determined that one particular smudge of light on photographic plates of the sky was in fact another galaxy, Andromeda—with billions more stars—far beyond our own. Subsequent sky surveys, making use of the orbiting telescope named after Hubble, have brought home the reality of a Cosmos vast beyond human capacity to grasp. 


In 1994 Astronomer Alan Drexler reflected on this development:


“True revolutions in human thought have been rare, but one occurred when astronomers discovered that we live not just in a galaxy, but in a vast universe of galaxies in flight from a remote primal cataclysm…we have in this century discovered our universe.”


“Perhaps it is fortunate that a full view was withheld for so long from human eyes, since an early confrontation with the gargantuan size and ferocious dynamism of the universe might have rocked the secure cradle of anthrocentrism in which humankind was coddled through its infancy.”


“After ten thousand generations of myth and superstition, the discovery of the real universe has been traumatic; coping with this awakening demands full use of our imaginations. Without question, it is well within the power of our minds to embrace this new cosmology—were we incapable, we would not have come this far—and it is surely to our benefit to widen our vistas in order to understand better human origins, human life, and the promise of human destiny.” (Alan Dressler, Voyage to the Great Attractor: Exploring Intergalactic Space, p. ix, 8 & 9)


One of Dressler’s sentences above all has stayed with me in the years since I read his book: “…the bowl of the Big Dipper alone frames about one million galaxies—something to remember when you’re out for a walk under its generous scoop.” (p. 20)


So, instead of God’s throne parked between the Earth and Moon, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies and trillions of planets. That’s a lot for a creator God—supposing there is one—to keep track of. Weighing probabilities, free of faith biases about “omniscience,” what are the chances that such a creator God…


1.  Even knows about a thinking species of mammals on a planet orbiting one star among billions  

2.    Selected a chosen people 

3.    And, moreover, is angry with each one of us for our behaviors

4.   Also craves/demands human worship and praise—which includes getting off on hymns sung to him/her/it 


Where’s the data to back up any of these ideas? Aren’t they all aspects of the myth and superstition that Dressler mentioned?  


Beyond the size of the universe, another thought gnawed away at my faith even while I was in seminary: we don’t know what’s out there. Well, we do actually. Advanced analysis of light has enabled cosmologists to depict the evolution of the Cosmos since the moments after the Big Bang. 


But we don’t know who is out there. There might be many thinking creatures who have been probing and contemplating the cosmos far, far longer than humans have been: maybe hundreds of thousands of years—if not more—while we’ve been at it for five or six thousand years, if we credit the Sumerians with making the start in Western history. 


So this was the thought that occurred to me: our theologians make confident pronouncements about God—but here we are, utterly, absolutely isolated on this small planet. Making declarations about God seemed to me then—and still does—pretty foolish. What a lot of nerve, confined to this “pale blue dot,” being so certain about God. We’ve had no chance to compare notes about theology with anyone at all beyond our thin biosphere. What justifies our confident conclusions about God, often worked out in frivolous detail? Actually, nothing whatever justifies it, given our utterly absolute isolation in the Cosmos. Can we break the isolation? How about checking out planets in the star system nearest to us, about 4.3 lights years away? If we launched astronauts to get there on a ship traveling at the speed of the Space Shuttle, it would take…more than 100,000 years to get there. 


Why, how, do earth-bound theologians imagine they know so much—indeed anything—about god(s)? Well, they’ve got answers…but don’t hold your breath.  


Pillar 2. Claimed sources of God-knowledge are not credible/convincing


“God has chosen to reveal himself to us.” So say theologians, but when they cast their eyes on revelation claims endorsed by other theologians, they can’t agree on whose revelations are authentic. The sources of the revelation might be visions, scripture, prayer, meditation—even séances for all I know—but theologians are in perpetual denial when these experiences are used to validate other religions. Catholics are enthusiastic about the ongoing appearances of Mary around the globe, but these are denied by Protestants, who are generally dismissive of the Catholic cult of saints. But how could Catholics be so wrong about such real visions experienced by real Catholics? Christianity has splintered endlessly because devout believers cannot agree. We suspect pious fraud.


But such disputes within Christianity pale in comparison to strife among competing monotheisms. John Loftus draws attention to this:


“If Allah is the same deity as the one worshipped by Christians then that deity duplicitously revealed two different religions. This means God, by whatever name is used, helped to instigate the wanton slaughter of Muslims by Christians and Christians by Muslims because of his conflicting revelations. It also means God duplicitously promised salvation to believers in one of them who will end up being condemned to hell for not believing according to the other one’s creed(s). These are two different gods, each of whom denies doing some of the things the other one claims to have done, especially with regard to the resurrection of Jesus.” (John Loftus, The Outsider Test of Faith, Kindle, loc 558)


We occasionally see leaders of major world religions getting together to “dialogue” and exchange smiles, hugs, and kisses, but not for a moment would they be able to agree on theological fundamentals. Even laypeople are fond of sentimental banalities, e.g., “We all worship the same God, don’t we?” Not at all; there is no movement afoot to expand the Bible—that magnificent artifact on the altar at church—to include the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. Even the Old Testament seems to be unwelcome much of the time when its dreadful descriptions of God are faced head-on: “Well, that’s the Old Testament, you know.” 


Moreover, Christians cannot agree on Bible interpretation. How can it be revelation when its meaning is ambiguous—and indeed has produced wildly different ideas about God?  Dan Barker has captured what a mess it is:


“Believers regularly take opposing positions on such matters as capital punishment, abortion, pacifism, birth control, physician-assisted suicide, animal rights, the environment, the separation of church and state, gay rights and women’s rights. It might be concluded from this that there is either a multitude of gods handing out conflicting moral advice, or a single god who is hopelessly confused.” (Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, 1992)


Theology is long on speculation, guesswork, and yes, pious fraud, but short on actual data about God, i.e., something that independent observers could confirm. All of the claimed sources of God-knowledge don’t work—which also became obvious to me in seminary when I grappled with epistemology at a deeper level. There was endless discussion and argument about what this or that theologian suggested about God. My question became: how do they know about any of this stuff? 


Pillar 3: The big New Testament cover-up and unsustainable lies 


Am I being too harsh? If the gospel authors wrote fantasy novels, can they be accused of lying—any more than other novelists? They gave free flight to their imaginations, and eventually their creations were taken as “true stories.” But the crucial “truth” at the heart of Christian faith—the resurrection of Jesus—also turns out to be pious fraud on the basis of New Testament texts themselves. How can anyone stay with Christianity when this is the case? 


This brings is back to God’s throne parked somewhere above the clouds and below the moon. In the first chapter of Acts, there’s the story of Jesus ascending to heaven, disappearing above the clouds. This is fantasy and we know it: nobody could have witnessed such a thing. Above our biosphere is the sub-zero radiation of space, a fact unknown to the spinners of ancient tales. So it’s just a fact that the body of the newly alive Jesus—for those who accept the resurrection—could not have left planet earth. He remained on earth. He died again. He’s not sitting on a throne next to God, having triumphed over death. Apologists can rush to speak of metaphors, symbolism, and “spiritual meanings”—but these excuses don’t work if Jesus indeed remains dead in the ground on earth. The ancient storytellers might not have consciously lied, but theologians today who argue that these tales hold deep theological meaning are lying. There were other ancient tales of dying and rising gods: why not try to defend those as well? 


So what really happened to Jesus? The New Testament doesn’t tell us: there was a cover-up. Just as silly is the borrowing of other features of myth and magical thinking: Jesus glows on a mountaintop while chatting with long-dead heroes; his garments have healing powers; he talks to demons and transfers them into pigs. There is so much that drags down the New Testament, in fact sabotages the faith. Except for carefully selected feel-good texts, there is little in it to sustain hope for sane, reasonable religion.  


Fractured and contentious though it may be, the colossal Christian bureaucracy tries with all its might to maneuver around these tall pillars. Robert Conner once commented on this blog (6 September 2017):


“The Evangelical Resurrection Industrial Complex (ERIC) has churned out scores of scholarly tomes, hundreds of erudite disquisitions in scholarly journals, dissertations and commentaries, as well as debates and conferences beyond numbering, and the tsunami of dishonest verbiage shows no signs of receding.” 


So it goes—intrepid Christian apologists soldier on—arguing that the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult has locked down the truth, despite all the evidence and logic to the contrary. If somehow the apologists manage to stomach the suffering that God allows, then nothing should surprise us. 




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.