Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

I was raised Roman Catholic, so until my teens I took it for granted that God existed. However, I was never given any solid biblical teaching, so my ideas about Christianity were colloquial at best, and for the large part just plain naive.

In high school I had many non-Christian friends, and one quasi-New Age friend in particular challenged my beliefs, showing that (as far as I understood them) they did not stand up to much scrutiny. So I adopted his New Age philosophy instead, outlined in a book called Thinking and Destiny, by a man with the enviable name of Harold W Percival—because they seemed like a more reasonable way of viewing and explaining the world.

My Catholic parents weren’t pleased, and my father spent many fruitless hours trying to change my mind—but since I’d already convinced myself that the Bible was part-truth, incomplete, and totally misinterpreted (what can I say, I was 15 and hadn’t been taught to think critically), I was not in a fit state to be listening.

But as time wore on, I became disillusioned with my New Age beliefs. Like my previous Catholic ones, they couldn’t be “proven”. So I became a New Atheist (before New Atheism was cool). I got me a shiny materialist worldview, and would accept only what could be shown empirically or via reason. Except, you know, all those things New Atheists believe that can’t be shown empirically or by reason, like, that we should only accept beliefs which can be proven empirically or by reason. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, all fired up for logic and reason, I made myself well known on various messageboards as an outspoken apologist against religion.

During this time I obviously encountered a lot of Christians—yet none of them had been trained in biblical theology or apologetics, and they were frankly inept at dealing with my arguments. Hence my zeal for apologetics now. None of them could decisively refute me as they ought to have. I was never challenged to develop a more accurate understanding of Christianity than the strawmen I often burned. Since no professing Christian had ever exposed them as such, I naturally assumed my understanding of Christian theology was good.

For a long time I also encountered no convincing arguments against atheism, primarily for similar reasons: Christians in general receive no teaching on even basic philosophical and theological issues.

However, around the beginning of 2004 I came across the transcendental argument for God (TAG). This drew my attention to a major defect in my worldview: I could not account for the existence of reason; nor for the fact that math can perfectly describe the physical laws of the universe as we know them.

The basic thrust of the TAG is that any non-Christian worldview is, in asserting the non-existence of God, already unknowingly presupposing his existence by borrowing from him the reasoning required to make its assertion. Only the Christian worldview can account for reason, by acknowledging that it is an intrinsic, transcendent attribute of God.

I didn’t find this line of argument entirely convincing, but it did plant a seed of doubt. I had to acknowledge that the problems the TAG exposed in my atheistic worldview weren’t minor. I spent a lot of time researching this problem, assuming I would quickly find a resolution. Yet while atheists would constantly deride the TAG, they would always do so by presupposing some other epistemological explanation of reason which they themselves did not accept, in order to prove it a false dichotomy. Even very knowledgeable non-believers, formally trained in philosophy, seemed unable to deny or offer any resolution to the epistemological and ontological problems it raised.

During this time of intellectual doubt I became involved in a spur-of-the-moment real-life debate with one of my martial arts students, a Christian girl by the name of Sarah Marshall (whom you may call Smokey the Magnificent). Being the daughter of a Reformed Baptist pastor, she was notably better equipped than most Christians I’d met to demolish my by-now-standard responses to their (supposed) doctrines. (I was the very definition of a belligerent village atheist—a true Dunning-Kruger Skeptic.)

During the course of our argument she ably refuted most of my canned objections by simply “voiding” them—slipping to one side or the other so my objections never landed, because they were directed at caricatures of the doctrines taught in the Bible. When she explained what the Bible actually said—for instance, that there is no contradiction between free will in salvation, and God’s foreknowledge, because God chooses whom to save—I could find no inconsistencies or illogic in it (I’d never even heard these doctrines before!)

Now, admittedly my long experience at debate left our impromptu audience with the impression that I had gained the upper hand. But that was a purely rhetorical effect. I was rather less convinced of my own victory. In fact, I was startled by the consistency and logic of her beliefs. I didn’t accept them, of course—they still seemed like fairy tales and nonsense. But they were consistent fairy tales. The nonsense made good sense if you accepted it on its own terms. She had explained these doctrines enough for me to see a convincingly cohesive worldview with no obvious holes.

In fact, all she’d done was expound the biblical worldview. Until that time I’d never encountered Christianity in its undiluted, genuine form. I went away that night and looked up the five points of Calvinism, emailing Smokey shortly thereafter to get clarification—I was convinced that with enough digging I would find the usual contradictions in her “version” of Christianity, just as in any other. We spent several weeks emailing each other, covering a wide range of topics. I spent many hours researching, sure that I could find convincing arguments against her position, and in favor of mine.

I did find plenty of arguments—some of them were even fairly good. But they were all based on an epistemological framework which I could no longer bring myself to trust. It was very clear to me that Christianity could be easily refuted if I accepted non-Christian presuppositions; but the opposite was also true. Which presuppositions to use became the very issue at hand. It seemed, at least, intellectually dishonest to use a worldview which couldn’t convincingly account for reason to refute one which could.

That said, there was still a completely impassable obstacle between me and Christianity, and that was faith itself. I don’t mean that namby-pamby “leap” which people these days seem to think faith is. I don’t mean some irrational or emotional commitment. I mean pistis: biblical faith. A personal and saving trust of God. Regardless of the intellectual reasons for believing in him, I couldn’t do it—my heart was stubbornly opposed to him. The human will just can’t manufacture faith: it is foolishness without the Holy Spirit indwelling you and irresistibly turning you around.

So although God slapped me around a good deal with the intellectual arguments, I would have remained an aggressive skeptic (though perhaps more an agnostic given time) if he hadn’t also joined his Spirit to mine and made me what the Bible calls a “new creation”. It wasn’t my idea. He did it without my knowledge or consent. But once it was done, I had no choice but to believe in him, and eventually trust him and love him.

Although this was a gradual process, “V-Day” was clearly defined. (I appreciate that, since it is a good reminder of God’s sovereign control over my life. There’s no doubt who’s boss.) One day in July, I was emailing Smokey regarding a discussion of the nature of hell. It wasn’t a very remarkable discussion; nothing deeply theological was said—heck, it was probably more speculative than it ought to have been. Yet as I was writing, it occurred to me quite out of the blue, despite it having been weeks coming, that I wasn’t writing any longer as a skeptical outsider; but as a skeptical insider.

I was at work at the time (I had a lot of downtime since I worked on a helpdesk), and I actually had to lock myself in the bathroom for a while to get over the shock of realizing that against all my intentions and desires, I could no longer with any conviction deny God’s existence. It took me weeks to get used to this. It was especially embarrassing given the great lengths I’d gone to to establish myself as an advocate of atheism. Making a seemingly unprecedented about-face was distinctly uncomfortable. But good things often are. As C S Lewis described it, I was dragged into the kingdom of God kicking and screaming. I did not want to be there.

Now, I don’t know who you are or why you are reading this, but I’d like to stress that there’s a big difference between belief in God, and faith in Jesus. But the one does follow pretty inevitably from the other when you have the Spirit of God. Faith took a little longer to develop, especially given my confusion and reluctance starting out. At Smokey’s encouragement I went to a youth Bible study, and took the comically frightening step of going to church with her. And gradually I started to develop an actual relationship with God, and I began to stop wanting to go back, and started wanting to go forward.

Still, it was weeks between becoming a “theist” and becoming a Christian. It took a long time to feel confident that I really had saving faith—because I just couldn’t take in the hugeness of what Jesus had done. I overthink things. I felt like I had to get my mind all the way around it to have faith in it—but then how could I ever have faith?

But one day I was stopped on the street by someone asking for money, and he asked me if I was a Christian. And it surprised me that I didn’t hesitate to say yes. As I continued on my way, I reflected on this, and realized that my instinctive response had not been wrong. It still took me a while to really understand that faith in Jesus meant just that—trusting in him as a person, without having to be able to fully grasp the enormity of what he did—but that day I knew I was a Christian. That day, I confessed to God my sinfulness, and asked for his forgiveness, and trusted in Jesus for the righteousness that I don’t have myself.