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‘Christian humanist’ Daniel Taylor on freeing your inner atheist

Daniel Taylor, a self-described "Christian Humanist," encourages Christians to embrace skepticism in their faith. - Image courtesy of Daniel Taylor
Daniel Taylor, a self-described "Christian Humanist," encourages Christians to embrace skepticism in their faith. - Image courtesy of Daniel Taylor

Daniel Taylor, a self-described “Christian Humanist,” encourages Christians to embrace skepticism in their faith. – Image courtesy of Daniel Taylor

You might expect someone who’s taught for years at Christian schools like Bethel University and Westmont College to be of a certain theological flavor. You certainly wouldn’t expect that person to describe themselves as a “Christian humanist.” But that is exactly the label  Daniel Taylor uses. His recent book, “The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist, makes a compelling case for why skepticism isn’t the antithesis of faith. Here, we discuss religious certainty, doubt, and why he doesn’t resist his “inner atheist.” 

RNS: You call yourself a Christian humanist. What does this mean to you?

DT: Christians have foolishly allowed secularists to define humanism to suit themselves. (For example, the claim that the defining idea of humanism is that “man is the measure of all things.”) There’s a long tradition of Christian humanism that affirms the central orthodoxies of Christianity, one of which is that God made us and the world and that both are therefore valuable and worthy of exploration.

RNS: You grab readers with the seemingly contradictory idea of a “skeptical believer.” What does this mean?

DT: A skeptic is one with a habitual resistance to accepting truth claims—you could say a knee-jerk doubter, though skeptics like to think of themselves as people who look before they leap. A believer is one who accepts something as real or true or worthy of affirmation, often without proof. Sometimes skeptic and believer go together. I use the term “skeptical believer” to refer to Christians who want to believe the claims of faith but whose minds and will are constantly raising objections.

My central claim is that faith is possible for these types of people because God offers us a story to play our part in, not a set of propositions for us to prove. [tweetable]Certainty is a false goal for any thinking person when it comes to most of the important areas of life.[/tweetable]

Image courtesy of Bog Walk Press

Image courtesy of Bog Walk Press

RNS: What’s an “inner atheist,” and why do you maintain that having one is compatible with a life of faith?

DT: My “inner atheist” is that part of me that wants to play it safe (though in reality it’s not safe at all) by forestalling all commitments until one has proof or certainty. He gets especially jumpy about committing to ultimate things, which he rightly argues can’t be proven (though lots of evidence can be marshalled, a different thing).

I tried to kill my “inner atheist” for a long time, thinking he was some evil force separate from me. I have decided, instead, that my “inner atheist” is me or a part of me. He’s me when I’m tired, frustrated by life, insecure, or thinking I’m really smart. Now, instead of trying to squash him, I let him have his say, make his debating points, pass a little cynical gas, or whatever he feels the need to do. Then I go on with my commitment to my part as a character in the story of faith. He hates that, but I find it makes him much less powerful than he was when I was trying to do him in.

An “inner atheist” is compatible with the life of faith because faith is a life, one that requires commitment amidst uncertainty, not simply agreement to a set of propositions that one can prove.

RNS: You dismiss the idea that faith is a set of truths to be believed, in favor of viewing faith as a story to be lived. Say more.

DT: I don’t dismiss truth, but I do claim that intellectual assent to a set of statements about God is not what faith is primarily about. Faith is not a puzzle to be solved, but a life to be lived, and, literally, a story in which one is called to be a character.

God’s truth expresses itself in many ways—through story, relationships, art, nature, etc. Propositional truth—rational assertions—have their place but are not primary. The Bible, for instance, is mostly story. There are crucial propositional assertions in the Bible (for instance, that God is love), but these depend for their meaning on all the stories that surround them. We learn what “God is love” means by the stories of the exodus, Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, and, supremely, in the stories of the Gospels. Stories give flesh and meaning to the propositions, and the propositions help guard against misinterpretations of the story.

God invites us to join the story, not to prove beyond doubt the certainty of the propositions.

RNS: Many moderns find it difficult to believe that one can live a rich life of faith without proof. What has convinced you that this is a viable, and meaningful, way?

DT: Everything I have come to understand about the Bible, history, the human condition, and my own life has convinced me of this. There is a small area of the human experience which lends itself to proof or near proof. We generally call that area “science,” and it bases itself on experiment and a certain rationalistic method. It is powerful and often useful, but only in its limited sphere. Everything else that is meaningful in the human experience requires risk, commitment, uncertainty, and perseverance.

[tweetable]Difficult choices are always made in light of incomplete knowledge.[/tweetable] We always wish we knew more. Is this the person I should marry? Will this investment turn a profit? Is this the right person to vote for?  We accept risk in many important areas, why should we expect no risk when it comes to God?  God is offering us a role in the greatest story ever told. Neither reason or anything else will give us enough information to either accept or reject it with certainty. Even as a skeptical believer, I haven’t found a better story, and so I play my part, as best I can, in what I believe to be the story God is telling.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • There is a long history of Christian humanism but a much longer history of Christian persecution of other faiths.Millions have been tortured and enslaved for their beliefs.

    Christians love to site persecution that they have endured but it was minuscule compared to the persecution they have dealt out to others.

  • Of course Jesus was always frustrated with what we would call skeptical Christians and praised those who simply had faith. I’ll stick with Jesus.

  • “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” Hebrews 11:1

    Mr Taylor says certainty is a false goal. Certainty is not a false goal. Yes we we need to question and own our faith and study God’s word and his creation but certainy absolutely a goal. Just look at Jesus’ teaching and his interactions with his disciples.

  • An intriguing juxtaposition of stories in RNS, something from which believers and non-believers can learn a great deal if they would approach learning and thinking with a healthy, uncluttered, and open mind.

    We have the story of Daniel Taylor a “Christian Humanist” and the story of the Catholic Church that presumes the right to obtain compliance in belief and practice by threatening and hurting the personal, private lives of good people like Mark Zmuda and his partner Dana Jergens by compelling outward behavior of them that is a betrayal of the realities of their souls and nature.

    That is only one strange and cruel episode if the strange and cruel history of the Catholic Church. One must wonder, is ignorance and/or the sacrifice of one’s mind the prime requirement of membership in the Catholic Church? If so, then why bother with the baptism of immature people who are not yet even capable of forming any semblance of a mature, formal belief system?

  • Frank is dead wrong when it comes to Jesus. Jesus was slaughtered because he dared to take positions of honesty that contradicted the deceits of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and Priests of his own religion.

  • I suppose that would suffice for those who only needed to quote what they considered other authority.

    Actually, honest faith is the conviction that results from continuing study, learning, and thinking. To be honest, faith must always be ready to evolve in an honest thinker who never ceases seeking more knowledge and greater meaning.

    That’s life. That’s growth. That is what meaning is all about. That’s religion. That’s faith. Anything else is counterfeit.

  • Daniel Taylor might call his inner wonder or doubt an “atheist,” but it is really an “inner agnostic.” He constantly refers to “God.” He plainly suffers from uncertainty about the remnants of “religious” belief that have evolved from ancient mythology. He may be uncertain about some of his religious beliefs from time to time, but that stage of uncertainty is agnosticism, not atheism.

    Taylor refers to science as “a small ares of the human experience which lends itself to proof or near proof.” That is partially true. Science is “proof or near proof” of facts about great deal that exists. What science cannot yet prove, it leaves to continuing wonder and research.

    However, proofs are impossible and totally lacking for the claims of theism. That is why religion is metaphor. That is precisely why Taylor and so many others wander agnostically at times between the uncertainty of theism and the proven knowledge of science. It would be better to qualify religious belief as metaphor for what is unknown and/or can’t be known. It seems the majestic absolutes that have always passed as “God” must always remain metaphors.

  • It’s pretty straight forward. Pick any place where the dominant religion is something other than Christianity and, had Frank been born there and been indoctrinated into that belief system, he likely would be towing that religion’s line.

  • Scot,

    You quoted Hebrews:

    “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)

    What a pile of nonsense. This is the same argument for Sasquatch!
    With religion there is never an adult in the room!

  • The gospel stories are loaded with them. And why did the high priests arouse the crowd to get Pilate to respond as he did to their cries, “Crucify him!”

  • You really have no understanding of who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish do you? No wonder you are so confused.

  • I have sympathy for Daniel Taylor.

    At some point smart people begin to ask “wait a minute, why am I constantly apologizing for the absence of this god?”

    That is when the eyes finally open.

  • Jesus makes rather definitive statements regarding truth, faith, and belief. (I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father but by Me… I am the resurrection and life; he that believes in Me, though he may die, yet shall he live,,,I am the light of the world. He that follows Me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life… etc.)
    This would seem to eliminate any validity for doubt among Christians, and also invalidate the seeking of truth through feelings or life experiences, or any source outside of Him.
    Belief in Jesus as truth is faith – which is not a blind leap into the darkness of doubt – but a confident step into the light of truth.
    For those who have found the truth that is Jesus, all doubt vanishes. For those seeking proof or validation, Jesus own words should suffice. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.

  • Hmmm…

    Reading this, I considered how the “inner atheist” section would read if I simply changed the targetted group from one that is OK in our society to attack to one which is, instead, privileged. I got:

    “…my “inner christian” is me or a part of me. He’s me when I’m tired, frustrated by life, insecure, or thinking I’m in the special, chosen group. Now, instead of trying to squash him, I let him have his say, make his debating points, pass a little blind faith gas, or whatever he feels the need to do. Then I go on with my commitment to my part as a character in the story of reality. He hates that…… ”

    Yep, sure enough – so many people would howl if someone printed that, but bashing Atheists? Perfectly fine.. The book looks like just another exercise in bashing Atheists, showing the hold that Christian Privilege still has on our society.

    It’s sad to see.

  • Expressing doubt and skepticism is not incompatible nor unwelcome in Christianity. I happen to like and appreciate people of faith who have a mind inclined to such perspective. Mr. Taylor is dead on right when it comes to the Bible as story and the dynamic nature of living in one, as Christianity presents. Too often the focus has been on propositional truth which has given us much unnecessary conflict and extreme reaction as history can attest. I agree that proposition is not primary, but I would suspect that Mr. Taylor believes in many propositions regarding God or else he would not believe in God to begin with. I also appreciate how he recognizes the limits of science to answer all the questions of life, meaning risk, uncertainty, commitment, to which I would add beauty, love, kindness and hope. Mr. Taylor obviously believes enough about God to provide a solid foundation for his life decisions and direction, and that fits pretty well with the biblical story.


    Accepting an outrageous claim such as “I am THE way” without the slightest reason is ridiculous.

    Besides, what ‘WAY’ does Jesus offer? Behold a kaleidoscope of contradiction!

    WHAT ‘way’ does Jesus offer?

    He didn’t forgive his enemies – he sent them to Hell! (Mark 16:16)
    He cursed his enemies – “Thou Fools!”(Matt. 23:17)
    He stole things – “untie them” ..”bring them to me” (Matt. 21:2-3)
    He destroyed his enemies – “execute them in front of me”(Luke 19:27)
    He didn’t love most of his neighbors, – They are ‘Dogs’!(Matthew 15:26)
    He told people to judge others – “Remove your blessings”!(Matt 10:14)
    He was bigoted – “They are swine” (Matthew 7:6)
    He violently whipped people – attack on the temple (John 2:5)
    He didn’t want peace – “I do not bring peace.”(Matt 10:34)
    He lied to people – “He went in secret” (John 7:8-13)
    He prepared for war – “if you have money, buy a sword” (Luke 22:36-37)

    There is a REASON WHY religion doesn’t solve any problems in this world.
    JESUS isn’t A WAY that functions!

    Why do Christians double down on this nonsense when the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus is just problematic?

  • How embarrassing for you to expose the depth of your ignorance. Don’t you have a friend that can talk you off the ledge?

  • The problem is….

    No matter how he deals with his own understanding of Christianity, his children and grandkids won’t take it that way at all. That is what history teaches us.

    By elevating Jesus to a ‘god’ he is validating a fossilized philosophy which has repeatedly led to nightmares for 2000 years:

    “Bring those my enemies, and EXECUTE them in front of me” – Jesus
    (Luke 19:27)

    There are no checks and balances to this stuff.
    A recipe for hell on earth.

  • This is why we are all weary from your comments Atheist Max. You show your laziness and intentional prejudice when you take quotes out of context, when you make unfounded assertions about what someone’s grandchildren will become based on your own opinion, when you purposely overlook the undeniable benefits that religion and Christianity have made to history and the world at large, and when you take every opportunity to bash religion simply because that is your goal and you apparently don’t need to make sense when you do it. You add nothing to the debate at hand and your foolishness is apparent to everyone. Go troll somewhere else!

  • @John-
    I’m not weary of Atheist Max’s comments. He’s simply pointing out what the “less old” Testament says. If you don’t like that, that’s your right, but to accuse him of laziness (when he’s the one who bothered to look up scripture) and “prejudice” (which applies more to the profiled author), without supporting those accusations reflects worse on you than on him. You aren’t required to read his comments, nor to call him names (unless, of course, your scripture says to verbally attack him – but even if so, that’s still better than Deut 13).

  • Laziness is not taking the time or effort to understand something in its context and instead just jumping to conclusions. We’ve all done that before and played the fool for doing so. Prejudice comes from having an opinion formed about a topic without considering the issue itself but just using that topic to express your opinion. He knows nothing of Mr. Taylor’s kids/grandkids but continued to use it as an unfounded point to support his opinion. Come on, add something constructive to the issue.

  • I always marvel at the way religious people approve of certain Christian interpretations but not others, as if promoting one interpretation over another is the whole point.

    All without regard to the fact that the earlier ‘wrong’ interpretation will always be just as valid.

    “Bring those my enemies, and EXECUTE them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    If this upsets you, it should.

  • JOHN,

    Please realize that anyone who claims that God exists has made an outrageous assertion against all evidence.

    Expect to defend it.
    Many of us simply won’t take this silently anymore.
    The Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson and Michelle Bachmann types have pushed some of us out of the closet.

  • Not true. Religious faith does not have to explain everything. Instead, for instance, it can be focused on:

    Celebrating life major events. This could be accompanied by a faith that those celebrating will pledge to always care for each other, create ways to be of mutual assistance,. Once this original meaning of faith (the ability to trust that another human being will keep his/her promises) then there could be a belief atht ultimately there is a God that will complete and prefect the community of mutual love an respect we create. No need to explain how the world came into existence, what God’s plan of us is, how God really causes everything we do, etc., all the pseudo–scientific baggage requiring experts whose only evidence for their grandiose opinions are words written in a book in a pre-scientific era and a logical congeries unattached to the messy way things are experienced and sometimes put into very widely divergent meaningful forms by people.

  • Can you really be a humanist and remain in a religion with inhumane beliefs as held by the official doctrines of most churches and by co-religionists who feel compelled to insult other groups and often seem to delight in the sufferings of others?

  • You make my point…you are not interested in providing something of value to the conversation or article at hand, you simply take every opportunity to bash the beliefs of others. Boring and useless. That is your privilege and you are correct in saying that I can simply not read them. I will do just that in the future. I am merely making the point that you offer nothing to the conversation and that you do not even intend to. Everything is fodder for your rhetoric and it distracts from those who have something of value to say.