Why I am not exactly a Christian

by Harry on June 14, 2021

The last talk I gave before lockdown (sometime in March 2020) was for the annual Freethought conference held by the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics of Madison (No, I don’t think they know Alan Partridge). It’s much looser, and more fun, than my usual talks: they asked me because the President of AHA had heard from a small group of my students the way I think about these issues, and, to be honest, I think they bugged him to invite me to force me to write something down. Here it is:

This talk doesn’t really contain an argument, unlike most that I give. It’s more an autobiographical sketch on the topic of its title – which is a sort of tribute to Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, but has a twist to it. I’m not a Christian. Not exactly. I’ll explain why I’m not, but also why it’s a little misleading to say I am not.

I’ll start with two stories about students.

First. About 13 years ago an evangelical Christian student was in my office discussing career options with me (this is one of the many great parts of my job). At one point I asked if she’d considered becoming a pastor. She shot back “No, I couldn’t be a pastor”. After a pause she added: “You should become a pastor”. My reaction was immediate: “Um.… I lack one key qualification”. “Oh, that’s ok”, she retorted, “I’m sure lots of pastors don’t believe in God. And, anyway, if you were a pastor, perhaps you’d come to believe in God”. [1]

Second. A student who just graduated [Dec 2019] is getting married and invited me, and many of her classmates from a class that she took (though didn’t much enjoy) as a freshman. Her spouse-to-be, impressed presumably, that she was inviting a professor not in her major, asked her if Brighouse would be willing to do a reading. She told us all that she replied, “Oh no, I don’t think he’d do that because he is an atheist”.

I’m glad she told us this. Because I said “Oh, I’d be happy to do a reading. I’m not that kind of atheist” and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised that she didn’t already know that. [Sadly, COVID prevented me and her classmates from attending the wedding, but I am glad to say it did go ahead without us]

Maybe you can tell something about the kind of atheist I am through this story, from the 1980s shortly after I moved to the US, and was still quite bemused by the culture. I heard a news story about a lawsuit. Football players at a public high school had been praying in the end zone during a game. And someone was suing the school district to try and get it to prohibit them from doing so. My immediate reaction went something like this:

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