"I stopped believing in God."

The whole premise sounds so predictable it's almost uninteresting: a Christian pastor short on book ideas decides to write a book on living as an atheist for one year, and at the end decides not to come back. Setting aside all the ways that this should be impossible if one is truly a person of faith (and there are many, some of which we will get to), in a post-deconversion interview, the author says:

I’d just say that the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary.
— http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/12/29/year-without-god-pastor-im-no-longer-believer/

Questions of doubt are delicate, and no one should be lampooned or disregarded simply due to his or her faith affiliation (or lack thereof). But this is a a public choice meant to help others, so it is OK to wonder whether this pastor adequately understood his "options." And so we can ask, is Christian belief the icing on cake that is perfectly good without icing? Is it simply an extra layer of complication?

At almost every level of society & from almost every angle, faith is presented as an extra layer of complication. Faith is what you do in your free time when you have it. Faith is a hobby, another reason to get together with other people. Liking Jesus is alot like liking an NFL team - you can be a fan if you have the time & energy, and you like that kind of thing. Even deeper, faith is the act of taking seriously a fairly inconvenient ancient text with views that seem so backwards, and come with so much baggage, that you must have very "interesting" reasons for sticking with it. When seen in full, it's the kind of thing that is extreeemely inconvenient, burdensome, stifling, problematic, willfully myopic, etc.

There are a number of reasons that this position lacks integrity, including:

  1. Christian faith is not a matter of "belief," it is a combination of belief and practice. So you can never live as an atheist for a year without actually being an atheist that year. And if you think you can live for a year as an atheist while on some level remaining a Christian, you probably have a very unchristian idea of what Christianity actually is.
  2. The social conditions and categories that we benefit from regardless of our faith affiliation - a general understanding of human rights, love for one's neighbor, the basic equality of all persons, etc - are derived from Christian belief (this is not to say that the church's heritage is without baggage). To pretend that these conditions will self-perpetuate without Christian faith as a reference point is highly naive, and empirically untested.
  3. Thinking as a Christian is more than harboring certain strange beliefs about the afterlife and several acts of history. It is not simply a set of facts that one can reject, while continuing to understand a separate set of facts the same way. Christianity is more like a set of glasses, binoculars, a telescope, and a microscope, that we have been given through which we see the world very differently than we would without it, and that cause us to linger over certain aspects of our world in amazement and gratitude. This raises the question whether Christian belief can be simply abandoned at all - whether a post-Christian person will not to some extent go on using Christian ways of seeing things, but without committing himself to ensuring that future generations will understand those tools and be able to use them.

David Bentley Hart describes how Christian belief eradicated "hard-won" ancient pagan wisdom by simply pointing out that the gods were not there. Embedded in many ancient pagan beliefs are matrices of practical wisdom - how to interact with one-another and the surrounding environment, how to go on living as a society. Those traditions have been discontinued and replaced (to some extent) by Christian traditions of thought. A post-Christian era is an untested proposition - how long before it will be a new era that rejects Christian heritage in full? How long can "human rights" be a meaningful phrase without a basic understanding of what it means to be human? No one will remain a person of faith simply from fear of a slippery slope into anarchy - belief in the Bible's God is ultimately a matter of love - but a person who rejects faith must do the hard work of identifying a tradition of goodness and freedom that does not require the resources of faith if it is to be sustainable for generations to come.

This post is meant to raise a question for Christians: is your faith icing on the cake, or does it give you a basic framework for your life and imagination? If you walk away from your faith today, will it make a difference in your life tomorrow?