Why Come Out of the Closet?

No not that closet. But a similar kind of closet, according to Greta Christina (and she should know).

I sadly realize that many of those dear to me will be quite distressed if/when they see that I no longer believe in God. And why don’t I believe in God? I’ll get to those whys and wherefores, I’m sure. But now isn’t quite the time for that. Now is the time to share my reasons for publicly coming out. Why put myself and so many of those I love through this ordeal, when I could simply continue to remain silent?

Let me first be a bit more clear: I’m persuaded that the God of perfect-being traditional monotheism almost certainly does not exist. So why do I think it’s important for me to come out as an atheist? That’s actually a more complicated question than it might seem, because contrary to common belief, the question in-and-of-itself of God’s existence doesn’t have any practical consequences, that I can see. Because even if God does exist, we can’t know anything about God, including anything about God’s will and purposes. And in fact, on the assumption that God exists, we can’t know anything at all, and thus our assumption that God exists immediately involves a contradiction.

These are bold and controversial claims, I realize. But again, now is not quite the time for me to try to carefully establish them. If you’ll temporarily grant me these claims, my point here is that God’s non/existence doesn’t have any consequences for us that we can legitimately discern. It doesn’t have any discernible implications for morality, meaning, purpose, afterlife, or any of the other looming existential questions. And so it might seem odd that I’ve decided to come out as an atheist. So let me try to briefly explain why, in no particular order, and certainly not in an exhaustive fashion. And I’ll begin by noting several important points of disagreement I have with many of my fellow atheists:

1) I believe there’s still a wealth of beauty, goodness, and truth to be found in the Christian tradition and (no doubt, though I’m far less familiar with them) in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many of the enduring religious traditions of the world. If there were not, they would long since have vanished from their positions of prominence. Although most traditionalist Christians wouldn’t consider me a Christian, and I’m not sure whether I would either, there’s nothing about the heart of Christianity (so far as I can discern that heart, at least) that’s incompatible with atheism. Christian atheism is simply the next logical step in the Protestant tradition (and perhaps in the Catholic, Orthodox, and other Christian traditions, though I’m less familiar with them) and thus there’s nothing paradoxical about Christian atheism. I still participate actively and frequently in a progressive Christian community in Minneapolis, which I’m able to enjoy as it’s fully welcoming of women and LGBT+ folks (atheists as well?) and has a very healthy focus on the right here and now. And Catholic aesthetics (the incense, the transcendence, the Miserere) so often take my breath away.

2) Religion is not the root of all evil. To take perhaps the most pressing contemporary example, Islamic belief is not the source of “Islamic” terrorism. To be sure, the relationship between religion and violence is complex, and I strongly suspect that a world free of fundamentalism (religious or otherwise) would be a more peaceful world. But we do no one any favors whatsoever (other than politicians and war profiteers) if we fail to recognize that the primary motivators for such terrorism are secular geopolitical concerns, and very basic human concerns. Address these concerns (by ceasing to bomb and slaughter Islamic peoples and by ceasing to functionally occupy their lands), and the vast majority of this terrorism will quickly vanish.

3) Theism is most certainly not deserving of contempt. Most of those I love most dearly are theists, so it would be a very sad day for us all if I began holding in contempt and mocking many of their dearest beliefs. [I take it, by the way, that there’s a valid distinction between appropriate satire in certain forums and vicious mockery.] And when I claim that I’m persuaded that God almost certainly does not exist, I am not claiming that my conclusion is an immediately obvious or uncontroversial one. It’s perhaps a surprising conclusion, which I came to only over the course of an extended and careful review, and I recognize that highly intelligent people with expertise in these fields of study disagree with me.

I reserve the right to add to this list in the future, because I’m sure I’m forgetting several notable considerations. And now I’ll take several more moments to explain why I have decided to come out publicly:

1) I don’t want to have to be disingenuous. Although atheism is not the sort of thing that’s likely to come up very often for me in everyday non-internet conversations, I don’t want to actively hide my beliefs, either. Though you won’t see me sporting one of those “I’m an atheist – debate me” shirts anytime soon.

2) There’s nothing at all scary about atheism. It seems very strange to me now that it’s the sort of thing one might feel the need to “come out of the closet” about, but such it still is. Atheism is a perfectly normal, healthy, moral, and rational response to a question which (common opinion notwithstanding) isn’t actually a very important or meaningful or self-defining question. And I’d like to do whatever small part I can to help more people realize this and truly welcome the agnostics and atheists among them, and give themselves the freedom to identify as agnostics or atheists if they feel pulled in those directions.

3) My journey from a very conservative Christian theism to atheism has been quite unsettling and lonely at times, but it has also been exhilarating and tremendously freeing in many ways. And besides the emotional roller coaster, I’ve learned so much (with still much more to learn, no doubt) about how to think carefully and critically and how to develop a better epistemology. I’m excited to share my experiences with those who might find them helpful.

4) There’s something wonderful about recognizing that “I don’t know.” Why does the universe exist? Why should I be so fortunate to presently find myself on this breathtaking earth, out in the sea of this unimaginably vast and ancient and beautiful and mysterious cosmos? Why am I even capable of asking these questions and perceiving my own existence? I have no idea. But that’s not something to fear–it’s something to encourage awe and wonder and a thirst for exploration. And when we come to realize that theism cannot provide genuine answers to these questions, we can truly begin this exploration.

5) There’s a color to the world, a vibrancy to it, a beauty to it, a sweet serenity to it, which I could never truly taste and appreciate while held captive to the false and fearful god of my youth, who condemns/abandons so many people to eternal anguish. I’m a big fan of Stanley Kubrick and I remember summing him up like this: “What an amazing, incredible genius. Too bad he wasn’t a Christian–too bad he didn’t believe in God.” That, I submit, is a very dull, grey view of the world which tends to reduce our fellow humans to flat objects to be saved rather than real subjects to be loved. Now admittedly, there’s nothing about mere theism or mere Christianity which implies this sort of god. But I suspect that to rid ourselves of this god, we have to more or less get rid of God, because this god’s proponents insist that God has spoken these frightful things, and so a deconstruction of this epistemology is going to tend to deconstruct God as well.

And once again, I reserve the right to add to this list in the future.

A few last words for those wondering what the chances are that I might one day return to believing in God: A helpful analogy I’ll borrow is that such a turn of events would be similar, I think, to squeezed-out toothpaste being manually fit back into its tube. It’s remotely possible I suppose, but I can’t imagine how that might plausibly happen, because I’m persuaded that theism is so deeply conceptually problematic, and I no longer have an emotional or nostalgic attachment to theistic belief. And as for the chances that I might return to traditional Christian theism? Perhaps similar to the chances that a full tube of toothpaste could be squeezed inside another full tube of toothpaste, without anything spilling out. I almost don’t know where to begin when discussing the conceptual problems of traditional Christian theism, which are on another level altogether from those of mere theism.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  • Mike D 3.5.15 at 10:44 pm

    This is an exceptionally well-articulated post, and your process reflects my own. Are you a recent apostate?

    • Jeff Kesterson 3.6.15 at 1:49 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Mike. I’ve been an atheist for several years, although I haven’t made a public declaration of it until now (of course I’ve shared it privately with several of those close to me, and I’ve participated in online forums as an atheist, though rather anonymously).

      You and I have actually interacted several times on Randal Rauser’s blog, and I checked in fairly frequently at the A-Unicornist as a (usually) silent observer. I’ve always found you to be one of the most intelligent and articulate atheists who’s active online. Though I’m excited to see your new site, which should give you much more freedom to explore a wide variety of topics and interests, rather than being pigeonholed into discussions related to theism. I’ve purposely given myself similar freedom here, as I suspect I’d grow bored of the topic if I didn’t leave space for other outlets as well.

      • Mike D 3.10.15 at 10:54 pm

        Thank you for the kind words as well — did you have a different Disqus handle previously?

        • Jeff Kesterson 3.13.15 at 10:23 pm

          Here’s my Disqus profile, which I’ve had for quite a while but only recently added my full name (was just “Jeff” previously) and an avatar.

  • Daniel Wilcox 3.6.15 at 10:57 am

    After reading your thoughtful article, I am torn between identification and confusion:-)

    So many points, I do identify with, yet I’ve never been attracted to atheism (though I have joked for a long time that on Thursday’s I am an existentialist like Albert Camus’ The Plague).

    Get this! I would probably have given up on Christianity as a way of life 47 years ago (because of all of its incoherencies and contradictions), but my encounters with atheism at university and elsewhere later, were so negative that I didn’t want to jump out of a sinking boat into an abyss.

    You say,
    [Atheism] “doesn’t have any discernible implications for morality, meaning, purpose, afterlife, or any of the other looming existential questions.”

    But in my experience it’s been just the opposite. The latest go-round has been with atheist Sam Harris’ claims that not only do humans have no choice, but even our sense of “I” is an illusion. In one of his last videos, he and two other academics get almost ecstatic about how all humans are “tumors all the way down” like the mass killer in Texas.

    And other atheists claim humans are “bags of chemicals,” “meat puppets,” etc.

    Not a very positive view of humankind, and definitely not humanistic in the best sense of the word. The only ones who think more negatively about the human species seem to be Augustinian-Calvinists.

    And if I had earned 1 dollar for every atheist who has argued that ethics are relative and subjective, etc., I would be a rich man.

    However, (as I said today on another blog), I would be an atheist before I was an Augustinian or Calvinist Christian.

    Great title for your blog.:-)
    By the way, there’s a cafe in our city called Cafe Noir where there’s been poetry readings for sometime.

    • Jeff Kesterson 3.6.15 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks for dropping by Daniel! Several things in response:

      First, if it’s true on atheism that we’re tumors all the way down, then it’s equally true on theism. That’s a long discussion (and I plan to spend quite a bit of time on this blog analyzing and discussing these pressing existential questions), but for now I’ll simply say that theism can’t–on close inspection–offer any unique, genuine tools for addressing concerns about nihilism.

      Second, to the extent that any philosophy is anti-human or ambivalent toward humanity, then to that extent it’s an incoherent philosophy (or at least, it tiptoes mighty close to incoherence). The only reason we’re able to make any value judgments in the first place is because we exist and enjoy at least a moderate level of well being. So any value judgments that sweepingly de-value human life and well being are incoherent.

      Cool about the real life Cafe Noir. In which city, if you don’t mind me asking?

  • Daniel Wilcox 3.6.15 at 2:36 pm

    Jeff, You said that “tumors” is also “equally true on theism.” If you are speaking of Islam, Augustinian-Calvinism, or some forms of Hinduism, I would agree. But there are other forms of theism which explicitly reject determinism.

    Cafe Noir is in Santa Maria, California (north of Santa Barbara), but it recently closed. Good you are starting the virtual one:-)

    • Jeff Kesterson 3.6.15 at 2:55 pm

      Jeff, You said that “tumors” is also “equally true on theism.” If you are speaking of Islam, Augustinian-Calvinism, or some forms of Hinduism, I would agree. But there are other forms of theism which explicitly reject determinism.

      It has nothing to do with determinism, or with specific theistic doctrines of the Islamic or Augustinian-Calvinist sort. It turns out that theism itself leaves radically under-determined questions about what value and purposes, if any, God assigns to us humans. So the common (and quite intuitive, I might add) assumption that God loves us and wants what is best for us is quite unfounded. Again, there’s a long discussion to be had here, but in a terrifically brief nutshell, the Holocaust (for example) makes this all clear when we stop to closely examine these questions.

  • Daniel Wilcox 3.6.15 at 3:21 pm

    Yes and no;-)
    I no longer think that God loves us, or that Christianity is true.

    However, I spent many years teaching the Holocaust to students, have lived in Palestine/Israel, blahblah;-)

    This does lead to a very long discussion, in my case going on now 58 years!

    But I don’t find atheism’s extreme negativity and determinism a good counter view.

    So we differ, but here’s a coffee or rum to you.
    Thanks for the exchange of views. Keep up your controversial work so I can read it.

    • Jeff Kesterson 3.6.15 at 3:27 pm

      But I don’t find atheism’s extreme negativity and determinism a good counter view.

      I’m still not sure why you say that. I suppose there are versions of atheism which might be extremely negative and nihilistic, but that has nothing to do with mere atheism. And as I mentioned, to the extent that these versions of atheism (or of whatever other -ism) devalue and debase human life and well being, to that extent they are incoherent and ought to be rejected.

      In any event, I hope to hear more from you, whether in this thread or on future posts!

  • Mark K 3.8.15 at 3:20 pm

    Hey Bro!

    I have always admired your ability to articulate well and your skill of navigating sensitive topics with grace. The world would be vastly improved, in my opinion, if we were more honest with ourselves and with each other. Inquiry and open discussion ought not cause fear, for it can only help to illuminate the dark. Anyone who considers “truth” to be desirable, however they understand it, ought to seek out the unknown, not hide away from it. In so many ways life is a mystery. The only way to solve it, if one wishes to do so, is to go exploring for answers, with a willingness to find them, and, perhaps, creating a few of our own along the way.

    I am excited for your new site and I look forward to your future posts!

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