Here’s another excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey.
A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of Rev. Samuel Hargrove, a famous pastor. Paul is doing his best to evangelize Jim, though Paul’s faith is now wavering. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s house.
“What did he say?”
“That you and he debated a lot. He said that that’s where his passion for apologetics came from.”
“We did debate a lot. Sam liked to win. I took that as a challenge and learned more about apologetics to present the atheist counterpoint. Perhaps I played the role of the freethinker a little too energetically—I like to win as well.”
“But you were a believer then.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t argue from the opponent’s side. You must know his position. Until you do, you don’t completely understand your own.” Jim dried his hands on a towel. “I met a woman in Boston once. The conversation turned to travel, and I asked her where she liked to go. She said, ‘Why should I travel? I’m already there!’ Extraordinary—and yet that’s the way many Christians think. ‘Why should I critique my position or evaluate someone else’s? I’m already there!’ ”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about my own position. It’s hard to admit this, but I’ve been having some doubts.” Paul looked at the floor as he smacked his fist against his thigh. “Just a little.” He looked hard at Jim. “As an atheist, I guess that must please you.”
“Not really.” Jim set the kettle on the stove to boil and walked past Paul to the living room. “I care about the truth.” Jim sat and motioned Paul into his chair. “If you think you have it, I want you to argue as convincingly as you know how. On the other hand, if you find my opinions convincing, you’re welcome to them—they’re free. And if neither of us changes but we can live in a civil manner with each other, then that works as well. Thomas Jefferson said, ‘It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’ ”
Jim walked to a bookshelf and pulled off his Bible. He returned to the sofa, set the Bible on the center table, and slowly flipped through the pages so Paul could see. “This was my approach to truth.” There didn’t seem to be a single page without a handwritten mark. Some notes were small and dense while others were scrawled in large block letters. Some notes were in pencil while others were in various and seemingly arbitrary colors of ink. Some pages had margins full of comments with more on scraps of paper.
“Wait—what did that page say?” Paul pointed at a page.
Jim leafed back, page by page.
“There!” Paul said. In the outside margin of the page, with a dark pen and in capital letters, was written the word “Nonsense.”
“Oh, that,” Jim said. “That’s the book of Job.”
What was next—shopping lists? Drinking songs? Bawdy limericks? “Why would you deface a book of Scripture? And why Job? It’s the book where we see God’s consistent love during hardship.”
“Indeed? Then let me suggest you read that book more closely. God says that he ruined Job without reason—took away his health and money and killed his family. Why? Because he could. That’s not a very helpful book if you’re trying to find God’s love.”
“That’s not what I remember from the book.”
“Sermons rarely tell the complete story of Job. Read it and decide for yourself.”
“I critique what I read, and whether something is wicked or noble, I write what I think.”
“But you can’t treat the Bible that way. It’s a holy book.”
“Who cares? If it’s the truth, then surely it isn’t so fragile that it can be damaged by a nasty comment in the margin. The truth can take whatever punishment I give it. If it can’t, then it’s not worth my regret—or yours.”
“It just seems disrespectful.”
“I treat the claims of Christianity as if they can be tested against logic and reason. I can’t give a philosophy any more respect than that.”
The kettle whistled, and Jim went to the kitchen. He returned with the tea tray and set it on the center table.
“Tell me about your change—how you became a freethinker,” Paul said.
Jim eased back into the sofa. “I left the church in about 1885.”
“Why did you leave?”
“There was a falling out in the church. I wound up on the losing end, and Sam was part of the group that forced me out.”
“That must have been devastating.”
“I felt betrayed, but that’s another story. A few years later, Vive died—it’s been over twenty years now. I was still a Christian then, but struggling. How could God have taken Vive from me? Every Christian who endures the death of a loved one asks the same questions, of course, but it was especially tough since I didn’t have the church community for comfort. I felt very alone.
“Then I began noticing natural disasters that God apparently felt were necessary to impose on his favorite creation. One year, a blizzard in the Midwest killed hundreds of people, many of them children. It was called the Schoolhouse Blizzard. There was one Nebraska school—when the stove ran out of wood, the teacher led her students to another building less than a hundred yards away. The blowing snow made visibility so poor that they didn’t make it, and all the children froze to death.” Jim swallowed hard and faltered.
Jim ticked off other disasters that had made an impression, making clear that this wasn’t a period of unusual tragedy, just unusual awareness on his part. “These disasters prodded me. What explained natural evil? I called out to God and got no answer—as if there was no one on the other end of the telephone—and that was when I made those notes in my Bible. I felt abandoned, in agony.”
Paul often felt privileged when parishioners confided their difficulties in him, but he had rarely heard so personal a story.
“Then I began to take seriously the objections from the atheist side,” Jim said. “I knew them well, but I had always assumed that they were wrong. I had never given them a chance. But when I did, I noticed something surprising. The difficult questions in Christianity fell away when approached from the atheist viewpoint. Why do natural disasters happen? Because they just do—there is no conscious cause, no particular message behind them. Why does God answer my prayers but let millions of people die every year from malnutrition or disease? Because there is no God, just an unfeeling and indifferent Nature in which people are hurt sometimes. Why does God answer some of my prayers but not others, even the unselfish ones? Because there is no God to answer prayers, and I just imagined answers. Why is there support for slavery and barbarism in the Bible? Because it was written by ordinary men thousands of years ago and is a reflection of their primitive attitudes, nothing more.”
Jim set the cups on their saucers and swirled the tea in the pot. “It was a revelation—all the convoluted and flimsy rationalization that had been necessary before just vanished. My God hypothesis was a poor explanation of reality, and when I no longer insisted that it was correct and simply followed reality where it led me, things made vastly more sense.”
Continued in part 2.