Milton’s Eve & Conscientious Apostasy

To apostatize, all you need is love. At least, that’s what worked for me: it was love for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful that led me away from Christianity. This is what I call conscientious apostasy. And I communicate my impiety to others out of concern for their well-being and the desire that they share in my newfound freedom of thought.

But there is a tall tale that Christians have been telling one another since the beginning, that those who deny their deity are in fact rebelling against him and therefore stand in opposition to all that is good and true. They get this idea from their scriptures. Psalm 14 paints a portrait of the godless: they are wicked fools who have turned aside from the right path. And throughout the Psalms, enemies are described as doubting God’s power or concern. Romans 1:18-32 draws the same picture in more grotesque detail. And at the end of history, unbelievers are doomed to the Second Death.

When, therefore, I discuss worldviews with Christians, I have to combat this unfortunate bit of folklore. Ultimately they must be convinced of my compassion by my conduct. But when it comes to explaining myself, I sometimes liken myself to Eve as portrayed in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. While she is, as it turns out, altogether wrong, there is never any question of her motives. She implores Adam to join her in unholy munching because she loves him. And if a Christian can understand her character as wrong and in the wrong yet motivated wholly by affection, then they can understand how an atheist friend can be—even if deluded—sincerely concerned for their good. To drive the point home, I like to recite my favorite passage from Milton’s epic, taken from a speech by Eve in Book IX: 

Were it I thought death menaced would ensue
This my attempt, I would sustain alone
The worst, and not persuade thee, rather die
Deserted than oblige thee with a fact
Pernicious to thy peace, chiefly assured
Remarkably so late of thy so true,
So faithful love unequalled; but I feel
Far otherwise th’ event: not death, but life
Augmented, opened eyes, new hopes, new joys,
Taste so divine that what of sweet before
Hath touched my sense flat seems to this and harsh.

And sometimes the Christians close to me do come to understand that mine is compassionate blasphemy.

For another blogger’s excellent take on conscientious apostasy, see Daniel Fincke’s “Apostasy as a Religious Act.”  For an eloquent expression of how it feels to be misidentified as evil by the religious, see Stephen Fry’s opening remarks at the Intelligence² debate of 19 October 2009 (excerpted here).

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