John W. Loftus – Why I Became an Atheist

January 30, 2009

John W. Loftus earned M.A. and M.Div. degrees in theology and philosophy from Lincoln Christian Seminary under the guidance of Dr. James D. Strauss. He then attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he studied under Dr. William Lane Craig and received a Th.M. degree in philosophy of religion. Before leaving the church, he had ministries in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, and taught at several Christian colleges. Today he still teaches as an adjunct instructor in philosophy at Kellogg Community College and has an online blog devoted to “debunking Christianity.” His new book is Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, John Loftus discusses his background as an Evangelical Christian preacher and apologist and what led to his rejection of the faith, including both emotional loss and “lovelessness in the church,” and also philosophical arguments and historical evidence that caused him to doubt. He critiques the Christian illusion of moral superiority. He challenges religion with what he calls the “outsider test.” He explores whether logic and reason led to his atheism, or followed only after he adopted an atheistic point of view for emotional reasons. And he explains what he does believe in now that he no longer believes in Christianity or God, and the benefits he thinks this new worldview brings him.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 30th, 2009. 

Welcomed a point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe he point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. I’m happy to be joined this week by John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist. A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. John Loftus is a former preacher who’s rejected Christianity. He’s studied under William Lane. Craig has degrees in philosophy of religion. Before he left the church, he had ministries in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana and has taught at several Christian colleges. Today, he still teaches as an adjunct instructor in philosophy at Kellogg College and has a blog devoted to, in quotes, debunking Christianity. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. John Loftus. Glad to be here, John. Unlike many of our guests who reject Christianity on kind of scientific grounds. You came at Christianity from a very devout place, then lost your place. You were not only once a preacher, but you actually trained as a Christian apologist with the likes of William Lane, Craig and others, I should say, for our listeners who are unfamiliar. William Lane Craig is one of the leading Christian apologists in North America today. 

Yes, I did. I had a Bible college background. I was in the ministry and I went to a seminary in Lincoln, Illinois. And then I graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School under Dr. William Lane. Craig? Yeah, I was privileged to have such an education at Lincoln. I stayed with Dr. James Strauss. He may not. Well, he’s not as well known, but he certainly is quite was quite an inspiration to me. 

Mm hmm. And so you had this great evangelical Christian training. You were trained to defend that, the faith kind of philosophically, the best arguments for believing in that version of Christianity while you were steeped in them. But they no longer hold water for you. 

No, they don’t. It was a long and drawn out process for me. I had some personal experiences that were devastating to me. And I studied some things a little further. As I experience lovelessness in the church and personal pain and grievance. So out of all that, I just couldn’t reconcile everything that I had experienced and everything that I had studied with my faith. Mm hmm. 

Let’s talk about some of those dramatic experiences. You founded a homeless shelter in Indiana and you had some kind of dramatic experiences of loss there and some other let’s just call it drunk, right? 

Yeah. In the era of tell all books, I thought, well, I would just go ahead and reveal the dirt on me. I mean, if by chance my book became pretty successful, then someone might want to try to dig that up anyway. And so I thought, well, I’ll just be upfront and honest with it. And in the process, maybe people could see that, you know, by sharing the dirt about myself that, you know, I’m a sincere person because I am anyway. 

But and the dirt about yourself. It’s not unlike some other evangelical Christian leaders. It was of a sexual nature. 

There are experiences that you have in the ministry that I challenged people to become one. And you’ll find out for yourself. You know that Christianity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be by far. But in the ministry, I was working close at hand with a woman who was running the shelter. And I am fair with her in that, you know, much like other ministers who might be sexually obsessed or something, you know, because of the constraints. Who knows why? But yes, I did. And I felt devastated by it, by that. And when I did that, I felt devastated by the guilt. I felt devastated by the response from the people in the church. 

And some of that devastation actually led to your loss of faith. Your you’re thinking that in retrospect, right? 

Yeah. You know, how could I have done that? And then after a while, two months, I told this woman my call, Linda. I said, you know, I, I really have to call this office is wrong. I can’t reconcile it with my faith. And she went off in a rampage that claimed that I had raped her, you know, which is totally false. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the programs on Dateline with cameras and what happened, but, you know, she was really mean spirited and just, you know, just that totally devastated me. You know, how could first how could I have done that? And then, you know, how could this happen to me? 

And without getting into all of that, all of that really dark detail. 

The church. 

Didn’t help you through this process? They were kind of rejected in in a way. 

Well, I felt that way. I really did. 

But, you know, sometimes it’s just the nature of the beast when you’re in the church. They do have that feeling of, you know, we’ve got to hold our leaders to a different, you know, accountability. So, you know, I’m not necessarily faulting the people. It’s just part of the beast, you know, of being a leader in the church. And yet I was devastated. 

If if the church were more welcoming, more loving to you through all of that. Do you think you may have slowed down your rejection of Christianity, maybe even kept you in the fold? In other words, if it were a more loving community, you might not have become an atheist. 

I’m not sure about that. On hindsight, because in the process, I was thinking deeply about the issue of creation versus evolution. And I was thinking about trying to harmonize my beliefs and creation Bible with with way come to realize about the age of the universe. So I’m not exactly sure about that. Well, what I do know is that taken in conjunction with each other, happening about the same time that I couldn’t reconcile my faith with everything I had experienced and everything that I had study. So I don’t know. 

But the point you’re making is that it wasn’t just these personal these emotional things going on. You reject Christianity on philosophical grounds. Oh, I sure do. The same arguments that you used to make in order to strengthen believers faith no longer work for you. It wasn’t just like you were burned by people and therefore kind of left one worldview for another Neisser one or one that was more accepting. You actually had issues with the philosophical foundations that that, you know, supported your faith. Let’s get into some of those arguments then that you point out in the book. Let’s talk about what you call the Christian illusion of moral superiority. This is one of the linchpins of Christian apologetics. It goes something like without God and Christ, you can’t be a good person. More often, it’s it’s the existence of morality itself proves that there’s a divine giver of that morality. And that argument just falls flat for you now. 

Oh, certainly does. This is part and parcel of the what’s known as the user ROE dilemma. And Socrates had first originated the question about morality, whether it comes from God by asking, you know, do they have something like effect? Do they have to obey morality or do they create morality? 

Is it moral because God says or does God say it because it’s moral? 

Yeah. And and because of that, you know, it just doesn’t seem to me that the answer that Christians find in God makes any sense, because either God himself must obey a higher standard of morality and that he just merely informs us what that is or it creates morality, like he creates heroes out of thin air. And if he can create morality out of thin air, then he could equally create us to do horrendous things. 

So if that were the case, morality is arbitrary. Just not for us, for God. Often the questions asked, where do atheists get their morality? Christians especially think they get it from God. But if you don’t believe in God, the argument goes, you can’t be good. But you point out in this book, I loved your exploration of this, that you should ask the same of Christians and other believers. Where do they get their morality? Because if you look at Christian morality in quotes, they disagree. Various Christians disagree on the central more questions of the day and they’re all supposedly getting it from the same ancient books, supposedly. 

Right. That’s the problem. They know we disagree widely today. But if you look at the history of Christian morality, they have disagreed. Since Christian inception, they there was a time and this just baffles me so much. There was a time where Christians didn’t find any difficulty in torturing heretics or witches and in burning them, you know, at the stake. I know they gave them over to the secular government. But the second government was, by and large, Christian itself. You know, that’s a morality that Christians today totally reject. As with, you know, slavery in the American South. Things like that. They’ve just changed so much. And then they have the audacity to claim that Christianity ended slavery or that Christianity is a moral issue. 

It merely assimilates morality in the surrounding culture. And if they read that morality back into the Bible and say, well, look, that’s been there all along. 

Indeed, the Bible has been used to justify horrendous acts of immorality and. Often in their histories of, say, suffrages or the abolitionist movement, they leave out the role of secular minded kind of free thinkers. The fried danker movement was really part of the abolitionist movement and they were coming at it from secular moral grounds, talking about morality in general. You say in the book that that for the secular, scientifically minded person, for the atheist, you admit that there’s no ultimate reason to be good. So you were a pastor. You’re kind of a secular evangelist. Now, if there’s no ultimate reason to be good, why be good? That’s kind of a downer that you’re telling people. 

Why? You know, you can just simply ask yourself. I’m never I’m going to talk to a Christian who would be listening here. What would you do if all of a sudden you realized there was no God? What would you do if all of a sudden it dawned on you that you were wrong and that there isn’t a God? I mean, it just seems patently ludicrous to say, well, I think I’m going to go out and murder and rape people. Do you have a family? You know, you have people who love you have the parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and, you know, you love them and you care for them and you still need to earn a good living. 

And so those should be enough to motivate you to be a good person. That is just patently ludicrous that anyone would say, I need God for that type of morality. That is the morality that. Of friendship and love and companionship, which we need a social human being. 

So just because there’s no God, you don’t love your children any less. Right. Love your spouse any less. 

In fact, you know, there’s a sense in which being an atheist, you know, this is the only life I have. I mean, I don’t have an eternity to look forward to. Perhaps, I don’t know, whatever I’m supposed to be doing during that eternity. But I’ve got today. You know, today’s all I’ve got. I don’t know when I might die. And so I want to be good to people now. That’s all I’ve got. And I want to make a difference because this is all a legacy, for instance, is all you have. 

So there may be no ultimate reason to be good, but there are many, many good reasons to be good nonetheless. They’re just not ultimately significant in the grand kind of cosmic history of it. 

Yeah, I’m not sure what it means to save as an ultimate morality. And I think with Bertrand Russell that if you claim your morality is ultimate, then it can justify horrific types of things like Manifest Destiny, which was justified Western expansion into Native American territories and a brutal rape and murder of large segments of society in Buffalo. Kill. And because why it’s manifest. It’s destined to be by God and rather than a thoughtful, more scientific approach to those sorts of issues. And you become more humble about your conclusions. You’re not so a cock sure of yourself, as God says. 

So you see, sir, the morality you’re commending is based on kind of a rational assessment of our experiences in the world as opposed to this. I love that you said cocksure faith that you know it’s right because it’s handed on down from God. 

So many things have been done wrong in the history of the church and even in today’s world because someone feels certain that God wants them to do it. Well, you know what? If you actually think about what is right and moral, then, you know, you don’t have the same sense of certainty. Questions arise and you have to think through these issues. You think, well, you know, this is probably the best thing to do, given the evidence and given the arguments that leads to a more humble type of a procedure than merely fanaticism. 

So contrary to what some Christian apologists say, you’re you’re arguing that this kind of atheistic tentativeness about morality is rather than being arrogant, it’s humble. It is. It’s kind of a wait and see or going on the best evidence as opposed to saying, I’m right and I’m certain that I’m right and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. 

Exactly. I think that the misnomer is that Christians believe that God wants them not to doubt, for instance, and so doubting is bad. You know, if you do doubt God won’t reward your efforts or if you doubt, you might end up in hell. You don’t really want to doubt doubts that faith is good. And faith is this idea that, you know, I’m sure at least I want to talk myself into being sure. I need to know that God is behind my efforts. And so, you know, even when it comes to raising money for church programs or or something, they will say, well, you know, God said this. We you know, we’re going to raise the money. And so let’s build this. Massive structure. We know the money will come in. Well, you know that that’s just not the way to build churches. That’s not the way to build businesses. You have to be have a more realistic assessment of place and morality as well. 

Tell me what you talk about in the book. You call it the outsider test for faith. It’s another it’s another challenge that you you’re bringing to bear on fundamentalist Christianity. 

Well, I think that they can apply to religions in general. In fact, Eddie Tomasz likes my book, and he he buys up copies of it for Jews and his heritage big because this HOUSEI test applies to the Jewish faith, you know, as well as Christians or even Hindus, and that is the Christians and writing specifically for them. 

So that’s I’m going to stick to that. They have an insider approach to their faith. And this insider approach was given to them because of being raised in a Christian home or a Christian culture or Christian town, you know, a small Midwestern town across America. And that’s all they’ve ever been part. I was I was raised myself in a Catholic home, in a Christian culture. And I I never met a skeptic. I didn’t know of one. And so I knew to believe was that Christianity is true, even if I didn’t know a lot about it. So I adopted a certain set of glasses, if you will call them your God glasses. And through these God glasses, you see the world has a tent to it. And so you that’s what you see. And when you study arguments or when you consider experiences, they’re filtered through this set of God glasses and anything that doesn’t fit the God site. You know, you reject like, say, Muslim faith or if you’re raised as a Christian or the Mormon faith or Hinduism, that we reject those faiths out of hand without even studying them. I mean, most Christians couldn’t tell you much about Hinduism or Buddhism, see, for instance, or Islam, because they rejected out of hand, because they’re insiders and they’re outsiders and we simply rejected it’s wrong. But when it comes to their own faith, they call it all kinds of slack, if you will. You know, there’s a problem here, but that can be reconciled easily. You know, why did Jesus died on the cross? You know what I would call a place for my sins. What does that mean to hope? It doesn’t. How is it the death of of of God, man, even if that’s possible, that death actually do anything to help forgive your sins? Well, I don’t know. But I just believe the Bible says so. Or here’s a particular theory of the discount alternative types of explanations easily because they’re in size. And so what I’m saying is in the outside, that is why is there this double standard? You have a double standard when you approach things. Not a scientist does. A scientist looks at the evidence and says, OK, let’s apply the same test here as we do over there. But Christians will say, no, we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to believe because God wants us to believe and we’re going to reject the other religions because we accept ours. And I’m just asking him, you need to apply the same critical skills to your own faith and demand the same types of evidence for your own faith as you do for the face of others. 

So the fact that Christians reject other religions should lead them to be a little more open minded. Why an atheist might reject their religion? 

Well, share or or even though why a Muslim might reject their religion or don’t say a Hindu, because they’ll say a test basically says test your faith as an outsider. You know, if God exists and if he’s going to send us to hell, if we don’t get it right, then surely the Christian faith should pass the outsider test. And that is no more quoting the Bible to account for how Jesus supposedly died for our sins. No more quoting the Bible to say that Jesus is 100 percent God, 100 percent man. You must now think about you must now answer how that’s possible, because that’s exactly how you would treat the Muslim faith. You would say, well, you know, that is crazy. Say Mohammed flew into the sky. You know, or or you know that he wrote Koran by inspiration of Allah. That’s the same thing that I want them to apply to their own faith. 

When you get down to it, the debate really isn’t about Christianity vs. Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. But your argument is even more basic than that. It’s about the debate whether or not God exists. You cover all the well-known arguments in your. Look, given your background as a Christian apologist, you you cover it in depth. The cosmological stuff, the ontological arguments, arguments from design, but surely you knew all of these arguments as a Christian apologist? Very, very well. In fact, it’s evident in what you’re writing. Why did these arguments work for you so well before? And then just stop working at some point. Is it like you heard, you know, new and better arguments that challenged you or I guess what I’m getting at it. Did you. Did you arrive at a belief about Athie ism and then reject all those arguments that worked for you for so long? 

Well, I describe it in terms of seeing things differently, like the God glasses concept I mentioned a minute ago. I just began seeing things differently. I had previously had assumptions about God and the universe from the Bible and from my upbringing, which forced me, I shall say, to see all the evidence and to see all of the arguments. In light of that, people come up with new arguments from time to time about the existence of God, and they say, see? What do you think about this argument? Well, I’ll I’ll reply. Well, you know, it wasn’t this argument that led you to believe in the first place. Let’s talk about why you came to believe in the first place. And let’s look at your initial reasons for that. In a lot of the times is because of basically personal experience. 

Well, that’s what I was getting at. These psychological reasons, as opposed to the philosophical arguments, you were a Christian, not because someone sat down and argued you into it. And it sounds like in your account that you became an atheist, not because someone sat you down and argued you out of your Christianity, but because of other complex things. And then the arguments. Kind of shore up your belief in Athie ism or call it your lack of belief in Christianity? 

Well, actually, it was the Bible. I tried to harmonize the Bible with. Disciplines of learning like archeology, astronomy, science itself. How can I reconcile? The way I live my life, assuming that there’s a natural cause for something like a noise in the night, I don’t assume it’s a ghost. 

For instance, I assume it must be a tree branch brushing against the house. 

Well, it should be said not everybody. Russy, with you on that. 

I say. And they will take us if if we follow them, they will take us back into a superstitious era and after reject that with everything in me. But as a Christian, I didn’t assume that that was God or angels or ghosts, you know. I mean, when I got sick, I took a pill or went to the hospital for something because I assumed that there was a natural. 

You also prayed for healing. 

I also pray like like pray and pass the ammunition. 

Right. In the book, you cover exactly how wacky the Bible is to you. But you don’t need to take the Bible literally to be a Christian. There are a lot of believers in God, even believers in Christ, who do not look at all the inconsistencies of the Bible and get bent out of shape. They look at the Bible kind of as a literary poetical text and look at archeology and history and and geology and. And they you know, they don’t have a problem harmonizing those two ways of seeing the world. 

No, some of them don’t. Many of them don’t. I take aim at evangelical Christianity for a reason. These are the people who believe in the Bible literally, or that they take it seriously. Let’s say it like that. And they believe the events in the Bible happened. I take aim specifically at them because I find them to be politically motivated. I find them to be obnoxious. I find them to be a major voice in American society. 

You also take aim at them because they’re aren’t they kind of an easier target than mainline Christians that are liberal on social issues? And, you know, they don’t get your hackles up. 

Well, I don’t know what an easy target is, you see, because there’s so many of them. If that’s an easy target, then I’ll have it give it to me. 

Because what I want to do in my book is I want to push them off center. I want to do it as gently and yet as forcefully as I can so that they will have to think for themselves. And then once they are moved in the direction where they have to think for themselves, some of them will follow my path and be an atheist. Some of them will become de’ath. Some of them will become liberal Christians. That’s that. That’s that initially my concern. I want to move them into the area where they will have to begin thinking for themselves about the issue. And then, of course, at the end of my book, a shirt, why I decided to become an atheist. And I’m trying to lead the way, you know, out of that morass. Once you have to think for yourself. So I take aim at so-called easy targets. Well, because it’s a major voices society, and I want to get them to think for themselves about what the Bible actually says. I want to draw out the kinds of inconsistencies are in it and how that theologians and apologists have to gerrymander the text in order to make sense of them over and over and over again so that they might say themselves, you know what, maybe I should look elsewhere. You know, maybe I should think the most for myself. Will be less obnoxious. There will be less certain of themselves. And they might actually move in the same direction. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Why I Became an Atheist. A former preacher rejects Christianity through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. John, you touched on so many other things in your book. You argue against various theories that try to show that Jesus was God and Karnet. You attack beliefs about prophecy and that the Bible can actually tell the future. You have issues with the concept of hell that you go into. But I want to finish up our conversation by switching gears a bit. We’ve talked all about what you don’t believe. You don’t believe in God or Christ or, you know, the foundations of the church, Christian morality. You don’t believe in miracles. You are someone who doesn’t believe you’re a nonbeliever. Kind of unpopular these days. But I’m interested in exploring what you do believe in as an ex Christian. You know, what are you preaching now? 

Well, I’m preaching reason thinking for yourself. I’m preaching evidence, scientific evidence. If you call that preaching. 

Yeah. Does that stuff satisfy you like like your old like your old message did? I mean, you’re you’re you’re saying, oh rah rah for science and reason etc.. Now I kind of do that for a living so I could get behind that message. But I’m interested in specifically what you believe in, what wakes you up in the morning. What gives you kind of meaning that maybe you had when you had these faith commitments previously? 

Well, my wonderful wife, of course. And my friends and family. But when it comes to these issues, what motivates me is just simply the fact that I’ve been there. I feel so much freer now in my life to think for myself and to reason, you know, for my self and not have to rely on some of inspired book or some kind of inspired teacher. I feel so much freer. I don’t have that fear of how I don’t have to attend to all those religious rights that you had to. I can enjoy life to the fullest. And I don’t have the guilt that is associated with Christian thinking, the kind of Christianity. 

Yeah. That kind of says that, you know, even though Jesus died on the cross, you said, and you saved and God loves you, you still need to. 

Oh, I don’t obey in certain areas like tithing or evangelism or praying. 

Right. The very confusing kind of conservative Christianity that says God loves you, you’re special, and the human heart is wretched and wicked and deceitful above all things. 

We’re worms. Yeah, spiders. 

As Jonathan Edward said, there’s spiders held over by a slender thread over the pit of hell. I mean, that’s a demoralizing, dehumanizing. And now I feel free from that pain of guilt. You know, when you don’t measure up, you know, the argument is that God was so gracious to you to die on the cross. You sense that, therefore, you ought to give him one purpose in your life. And it’s so dictatorial because he can read my thoughts. You see, you know, you can’t contain your thoughts as easily as you want when you see a pretty girl walk by or when you and entertain does, you’re not you’re never alone with this God and you can never think for yourself. 

For instance, Jim Underdown, John, I’ve really appreciate the discussion. I want to let our listeners know that they can get to your blog about debunking Christianity through our Web site as well. Thanks for joining me on Point of Inquiry. John Loftus, thank you. 

Glad to be here. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.