Why I Became an Atheist 06 – Bad reasons for belief (Part III)

NOTE: This post is part of a series in which I am blogging my way through John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.

In Part I and Part II of this mini-series, I covered the lists of bad reasons for both belief and disbelief. In this post, I’d like to discuss my own list of bad reasons for belief.

My list of bad reasons to believe include:

  1. Guilt manipulation by preachers
  2. Fear of punishment
  3. Choosing the default belief of one’s family or culture
  4. Secondary benefits of religion like community, education, child training, or social and business contacts
  5. Reaction to abusive secular, atheist, or religious parents or leaders
  6. A response to a near death experience or trauma
  7. Believing the first good argument you hear
  8. Experiencing awe and reverence at creation

1. Guilt manipulation by preachers

The Catholic Church is infamous for this, not only in leading people to conversion, but in keeping them obedient. Part of what makes this so insidious is that their soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is very works-based, unlike the Protestant/Calvinist position, which teaches forgiveness and freedom entirely through faith – that is, it can’t be earned.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NKJV)

Not that Protestants are innocent in these matters. Arminian movements (Methodism, Pentecostal, Charismatic) often fall into the trap of requiring increasing devotion and holiness in order to keep salvation. It’s sick.

It might be important to alert us to our guilt before God, but only if you are going to provide a solution that is not only efficacious, but desirable. Slavery to a religion isn’t really desirable. In this vein, I’ve always liked the passage differentiating ‘good’ guilt from bad – it involves a real change of heart, not just begrudging obedience – it’s the difference between being sorry you are caught and being sorry for doing wrong.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11a)

There is a real difference between wanting to help and serve people by giving them the information they need to make educated decisions, and manipulation. For more on the function of the conscience and guilt, see The Tripartite Man (Part 3): Spirit – Conscience.

2. Fear of Punishment

Similar to guilt manipulation v. providing awareness of and solutions for guilt, there is a real difference between warning someone and threatening them with hell. But just like we warn teenagers not to drink and drive by showing them the consequences, we can also responsibly warn people of the potential dangers of hell. If hell is real, then a warning seems appropriate.

There is such a thing as healthy fear, and as I wrote in yesterday’s post, fear is often what is required to initially wake us from our stupor or hardness.

For more on the use and misuse of such warnings in preaching, see some of my previous musings on this:

3. Choosing the default belief of one’s family or culture

This is obviously an example of an unexamined faith, but there are some deeper considerations that go along with this.

A necessary step in maturing is to form our own answers to life’s questions, not just take what we’ve been handed as gospel. The problem is, during the late teens and early 20’s, most of us form our sense of self NOT by rational skepticism of our culture or familiy’s values, but by either accepting them complacently or rebelliously rejecting them. Neither of these are good reason to accept or reject a value system.

The fact that one leaves the faith of their origins for another does not really assure that they’ve done their due diligence in being skeptical. In fact, it is more likely that a radical conversion to a new faith or unbelief is arrived at for emotional reasons, usually rejecting the initial perspective without careful evaluation, or with a bias against it.

What happens with most of us is, at some later point, like during a 30-crisis or mid-life crisis, or during some trauma, we realize that our currently adopted value system is not working for us.

4. Secondary benefits of religion like community, education, child training, or social and business contacts

Many people return to church or religion for these reasons, but of course, real belief is not created by these, they only act as a carrot to attract us, or a reason to NOT leave once we’ve taken haven there. This is not a fault with faith, but it is something to consider – am I failing to question my faith because I am afraid to lose these secondary benefits? Am I here because of these, but not because I believe?


While all of these bad reasons for belief are important to recognize, they don’t all point to malfeasance on the part of religion – the secondary benefits might even be taken as evidence FOR faith’s verity in that it produces some good things.

We’ll review the last four bad reasons tomorrow. Thank you for reading, and commenting!

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