Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Øystein Elgarøy - the Christian defender who became an Atheist

I came across an interesting deconversion story in the Norwegian Fri Tanke magazine( for Norwegian humanists). I briefly translated a short quote from it and posted it at the Richard Dawkins-forum, and then I was asked to do a full translation for the frontpage, and happy to be at service I did so. So now I'll post it here as well.
It seemed to have struck a chord with people. I mean, we all like deconversion stories, but Øystein Elgarøy, professor of astrophysics, isn't the average ex-christian, so the reasoning here is definitely more intellectual than emotional.
The interview was done, and well done at that, by Even Gran.

A short while ago professor of astrophysics Øystein Elgarøy was a profiled liberal Christian who defended his faith in articles and at debates. But then he discovered that he actually agreed more with his opponents.

The first time the undersigned got acquainted with Øystein Elgarøy was at a debate about faith and science at a pub in Oslo, autumn 2005.
Elgarøy sat there with all his ballast as a professor of astrophysics and assured the audience that there are no conflicts between his field of research and God's existence. On the contrary, what we know of the cosmos points to there in fact being a god, he thought. The arguments from the Atheists in the panel, among others professor of biology, Dag Hessen, bounced off.

A little later, in 2006, the book "Tro og vitenskap – sammenheng eller sammenstøt"("Faith and science – connection or conflict") was released by the Christian publisher Lunde Forlag. Elgarøy contributed here too, and there was no doubt that his answer to the title was "connection".

– There is a beautiful symmetry and simple laws that govern nature. [...] Where I see God's hand clearest is in the beauty of these laws of nature, said Elgarøy in the interview he gave together with the nun and astrophysicist Katrina Pajchel in the beginning of the book.

But all this happened before he one Sunday in January this year heard a debate between the Atheist Christopher Hitchens and the theologian Alister McGrath.

Most in agreement with the opponent

– Suddenly I realized that it was much easier to agree with Hitchens than with McGrath. To put it short, I agreed more with the person I should disagree with. I then realised that I had to take the consequence of this. I could no longer live on an illusion. You might say that this Sunday became a turning point of sorts, Elgarøy says to

He says that this of course had matured within him for quite a while. The disappointment over the book "The Dawkins Delusion" by the same McGrath was one of the factors. In this book McGrath tries to rebut the Atheist Richard Dawkins' attack on faith in the book "The God Delusion".

– I read McGrath's book hoping to find some good answers to the challenges from Dawkins, but the book was a genuine disappointment. While reading it struck me that "is this really the best answer a theologian can come up with?" I don't think he came up with any good arguments. It was a surprisingly weak answer in many ways, says Elgarøy.

Irrational to believe without reason

He adds that even if both Dawkins and Hitchens are imprecise and may not come up with the most sophisticated arguments against religious faith, it's hard for Christians to come up with good answers to the main accusation that there's no empirical evidence for Christianity, or any other religion, being true.

– And that's not enough for me. As a scientist and astrophysicist I am used to rejecting hypotheses that don't cut it. That's what after a while made it hard for me to hold on to the hypothesis about God. I could not support it rationally, and realised in the end that I could not live with that there should be an exception for just this question. That's probably what I realised that Sunday in January, he says.

– So you're not an adherent to the widespread idea that religion and science are "two non-overlapping spheres"?

– I used to think so. But I can't really see any reason to believe that there's anything more than one reality. Religious allegations then becomes allegations about this one reality, and then they will also have to accept critical examination, as well as being rejected if they don't measure up.

– You say that you could not support the faith in God rationally. Are you saying that it is irrational to believe in God?

– Yes, I think so. It is irrational to hold on to something that simply is not the best explanation, and which has no empirical support. When one is examining the Christian notion of God, it just ends up as a fanciful idea, he says.

Elgarøy points out that there are so many other strange things too, that you're forced to accept if you want to be a Christian. A lot of stuff goes with it that makes it even harder to believe.

– Healing and miracles for example. As a scientist I can't believe that things like this happens now, and then it becomes difficult to believe that it might have happened 2000 years ago as well. Another problem is why one isn't instead a Muslim or Hindu. How can Christians say that they are right and the others are wrong, when they don't have any empirical evidence to build upon? When I was a Christian I could not come up with any good answers to this, he says.

The existence of evil was also something that bothered Elgarøy.

– There's so much going on in the world that is inconsistent with the existence of a benevolent and almighty god, and I think the Christian attempts to answer this are far-fetched and hapless, he says.

A relief to be spared from defending the faith

After a while Elgarøy realised that things fall better into place if the starting point is that there's no god, and that everything is created by humans.

– Reality and theory cohere better this way. If humans have created God and religions, and not the other way round, then it explains most of the paradoxes that Christians are struggling with today. As an example, it's not a problem that evil exists if everything around us is a result from natural processes that don't separate between good and evil. All the variations within and between religions, are no mystery either if your starting point is that only humans have created religions. But for a person with a Christian view of life, all of this is a great problem, he says.

– How did you react personally to the loss of faith?

– It was no sad experience. Absolutely not. It felt liberating. Suddenly I was free to use my energy on better things than defending self-contradictory religious dogmas and justify that I still called myself "Christian". It was a relief to let go of this, he says.

He adds that he never really had any strong religious experiences as many other believers report they've had. Therefore, this has not been a loss for him either.

Article in "Kirke og kultur" started the process

Øystein Elgarøy grew up in a family that was active in "Den evangelisk-lutherske frikirke", and during his teens he was a rather conservative Christian.

– In the beginning I found all the answers I needed in the Bible, but as I grew older, and started to study, I realised that conservative Christianity did not measure up. I became more and more liberal, and in the end there wasn't much left other than that I "believed that there perhaps exists a god". And then it starts wearing a little thin, he says.

However, it's only a few years ago that he really got interested in the relationship between faith and science.

– Around 2004-2005 I was asked to write an article for the periodical "Kirke og kultur" ("Church and culture") about the relationship between Christian faith and my field of research, cosmology. Before this I merely separated faith and science into two spheres, and didn't think much more about it. But through the work with this article, I was forced to think about the borders for my field of research and my own faith. The work made me more aware of what one can really know. You might say that this article in Kirke og Kultur was the beginning of my departure from Christian faith, Elgarøy says.

Liberal Christian relativism becomes meaningless

Elgarøy doesn't fancy the liberal Christianity with an abstract concept of God and which says that whether God "exists in reality" really isn't that important.

– That's not enough for me. This relativism that the liberal Christians are up to is just nonsense. Whether or not there's a god, is an important question. That God exists "in the eye", "in the language" and "as a concept" there's no doubt about. But that's after all not what Christianity is about. The question is whether or not there exists a personal god that that has created everything we know. If one can't make oneself to believe in this concrete personal image of God, then one is not Christian, as I see it.

He can't do other than see this as an either/or question.

– Either one believes in this god, or one doesn't. Either Christianity is true, or it's untrue. There's nothing between, Elgarøy says.

– Do you think that liberal Christians' relativisation and abstraction of God is an attempt to make their own faith easier to defend?

– Yes, I think that's true for many of them. It was like this for me at least. I resorted to this strategy to escape from the notion of God that I after a while found more and more difficult to defend rationally, that is the belief in the really existing, personal, creation and conscious god. But one can't get around that this personal notion of God is of vital importance for the Christian faith, he says.

– Mankind is the only source of moral and ethics.On the way out the astrophysicist is asked if he wants the latest paper version of Fri Tanke, that just arrived from the printers. But it's not needed, we learn.

– I probably get it in the mail. You see I just joined Human-Etisk Forbund, he says.

– What made you do it?

– It felt natural. It's very important for me that it's possible to have morality and ethics without God. Not even when I considered myself a Christian I based my morality and ethics in the Bible and the word of God. As I see it, it's only the ethics that starts with humans and human reason that holds water, he says.


Øystein Elgarøy (born 1972) is a professor in Astrophysics. He was only 27 years old when he did his Ph.D. a work he received H.M. the King's gold medal for. Elgarøy had by then published eleven scientific works. In 2004 he received Fridtjof Nansen's award for younger scientists.
In the 1990s Elgarøy was active in Norges Kristelige student– og skoleungdomslag, and has during the 2000s made a word for himself in the public as a defender of Christian faith.
Now he has abandoned the faith and joined Human-Etisk Forbund.(The Norwegian Humanist association)

Fri Tanke, 16.06.2008


Michael Martin said...

Any truly decent person will have to throw up thier faith before long, religion has so many selfish, scummy types it becomes impossible to align yourself with it, unless you are one of them

Fred Preuss said...

Does he still have to pay a tax to the (Lutheran)Church of Norway? Is Norway going to separate church and state any time soon?