What I Got Away With On My Way to Atheism

It was about 1970, when I was a graduate student at Boston University School of Theology, that I wrote an essay titled On the Improbability of God. This was not part of any class assignment; I just wanted to get some of thoughts down on paper—and I showed the essay to only one colleague, who was not pleased. Many years later I found out that Percy Bysshe Shelley had been expelled from Oxford in 1811 for writing his essay, The Necessity of Atheism. Well, 1970 wasn’t 1811, and I survived my blatant cheekiness. Since I never went to chapel while I attended seminary, I was considered the class eccentric, the contrarian seminarian.

I wasn’t kicked out of BU, and I finally managed to write a statement of personal theology that was given the imprimatur by that liberal Methodist institution. I leaned heavily on the obtuse theology of Paul Tillich, who called God the Ground of All Being—and said that God couldn’t be said to “exist” because existence would be a limiting concept.

So I survived to make it into the ordained ministry, but the sophistry wore thin as the years passed—as did my tolerance for conducting weekly worship services. After all, the members of my congregation thought of God as The Man Upstairs who looked forward to hearing their songs of praise and flattery, and listened to their payers. How does the “Ground of All Being” play that role?

Over the years the conviction increased that I’d been on the right track with my cheeky essay. I had argued in that piece that we don’t know enough about the Cosmos to jump to conclusions about God. It’s not a matter of feeling so tiny in the scheme of things, rather, we need to come to terms with our isolation. It was less than twenty years before my birth that Edwin Hubble had demonstrated that the Andromeda Galaxy was indeed a galaxy far outside our Milky Way. With that discovery came the realization that the Cosmos is vast beyond imagining, and that our isolation is more profound than anyone had ever suspected. I had argued in my essay that, until we’ve been able to compare notes with a few other thinkers ‘out there’—especially those who have been thinking about the Cosmos far longer than we have—we’re in no position to be so confident about deities. Why is this so hard for theologians to grasp?

In the decades following Hubble’s discover we’ve made great advances in analyzing light. On the basis of that analysis, we know that the Cosmos is 13.7 billion years old, and that thousands of stars have swarms of planets. But we still have no way of knowing what thinkers on some of those planets may have deduced about cosmic origins. Our isolation remains utterly profound.

But theists claim that our isolation has been mitigated by the open channels of communication that exist between God and humans, such as meditation, prayer, visions, and revelations. However, the believers who embrace such channels have paid scant attention to a major epistemological roadblock: how do you tell the difference between revelation and imagination—or hallucination? Can it possibly be true that our mammalian brains are in touch with deities? What would be the mechanism for that? All of these channels are unverifiable, and revelation in the form of holy books is especially suspect, given, for example, that the Bible is such a deeply flawed book. Theologians have devoted considerable effort to picking out the bits and pieces that could deserve the designation “holy writ.” But few people outside the cult are convinced.

In the years following my departure from the ministry, my interest in theology and Biblical studies did not diminish—not because I was trying to find my way back or conquer disbelief. There has been no grief or regrets; it was a relief to move on. I’ve just been curious how religious folks still try to make their case, as the case against Christianity piles on. In the last couple of decade especially the rush of atheist writings—the full frontal assault on Christianity—has been robust.

How can it not be a good idea for seminaries and schools of theology to hire atheist professors? Especially those who have mastered the case against Christianity; seminary students need to hear it, full force, undiluted. During my seminary experience, what did I actually get away with? Thinking. Outside the box of theological certainties. I pursued answers to that overriding dangerous question about Christianity: how can this possibly be true

David Madison was a Methodist pastor in Massachusetts for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies. 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 August.