The De-conversion of Doctor Who

Recently I learned that one of my favorite TV actors of yesteryear is an avowed atheist.[1] The person in question is Tom Baker, who played the titular role in the marathon sci-fi series Doctor Who. So yes, I hold up my right hand and confess, “I am a geek.” To make matters worse, I am a British child of the ’70s. This means, of course, that I spent the requisite time cowering behind my father’s armchair while the Daleks threatened to Exterminate! Exterminate! pretty much everyone I knew and loved. Ah, good times, but I digress…

The standard biographical line on Baker is that he spent some years in a monastery before losing his faith. De-conversion stories are popular among the New Atheists, and why not? Christians have been telling real-life conversion stories ever since Peter preached on Pentecost. The latest crop of militant skeptics have made a conscious, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” decision to hide their toxic nihilism under a simulated wood grain happiness which includes, apparently, the giddy pleasure to be had from thumbing one’s nose at God. This is meant to serve as an ersatz analog of the Christian joy that attends our hope of eternal salvation (1 Peter 1:8).

Actually Baker, like many unbelievers, may not have had much in the way of belief to begin with. He talks about growing up in a Catholic family, but even as a kid he entertained some skepticism toward priests and the church. We have to keep in mind, of course, that when he speaks dismissively of “church” and “Christianity” he really means the specific variety of religion he encountered as a young boy. So why bother going into a monastery at all? On Baker’s account it was a purely pragmatic decision: he wanted to escape a poor, overcrowded home and a seemingly futureless existence on the dowdy streets of Liverpool. There is little here of a good and honest heart, or the fruits befitting repentance, that we encounter so often in the New Testament accounts of faithful living (Luke 3:8, 8:15; Acts 26:20).

An atheist professor of mine loved to assail his students with the story of his own de-conversion. He grew up in a Baptist home, went off to college, enrolled in science, and that was that. The intent of the testimonial was clear: “You, too, can give up this Christian nonsense if you take the right classes in school.” Later, in a less public setting, he criticized his mother for being a Christian in name only. She never went to church, and neither did he. This made me wonder how reason could triumph over religion, when there was no religion? How could science triumph over faith, when there was no faith? In other words, in the absence of conversion, how could there ever have been a de-conversion?

There are plenty of examples out there of seemingly active, committed believers losing their way. But the condition of unbelief is not always arrived at through the stereotypical channels of materialistic science, humanist philosophy, and hedonistic morality. Sometimes there is no arrival because there was never a departure. When we are told of an atheist’s journey from faith to faithlessness, it is always worth checking his ports of call.

This is not the same as impugning Baker’s motives for unbelief. There is an unfortunate tendency among believers – even professional apologists – to portray atheism as a simple moral failing. Specifically, we are tempted to blame unbelief on a deliberate decision to ignore the case for Christ. “They don’t believe,” some of us like to say, “because they don’t want to believe.”[2] This incredibly popular response to atheism blinds us to the reasons that people actually give for unbelief, and it exposes us to the counter claim that Christianity is likewise nothing more than a will to believe rather than to disbelieve.

Still, morality is often at the heart of unbelief. It is not so much the morality of the atheist, but the morality of God, that is brought into question. When Baker is pressed to justify his atheism he blames God for being too melodramatic. Faith was a tempting option, the actor admits, but God wanted “far too much,” and He “overstated everything.”

Baker’s objections are probably, as Catholic philosopher and blogger Michael Liccione would put it, immature and anthropomorphic.[3] But Liccione comes even closer to the truth when he insists on recognizing the atheists’ gripes for what they are. As we teach our families and churches, and as we engage the world, we need to take those complaints seriously. We also need to examine our hearts and lives to ensure that our own conversion is lasting and true (2 Peter 1:10).

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, January 2011, p. 7.]

[1] Laurie Taylor, “Alehouse Rock,” New Humanist, March/April 2005. [Online]

[2] See, for example, Paul E. Little, Know Why You Believe. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 18.

[3] Michael Liccione, “Why atheism can be respectable.” [Online]

© 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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