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Reply to a reader having a crisis of faith

A reader having a crisis of faith sent me an e-mail describing his situation; with permission I’m posting excerpts from it with my responses:

As you may have realised, I’m having a crisis of faith. Partly because of the horrible things that God apparently commanded, but there’s more to it. The more I research, the more I realise that pastors and evangelists lie. Sure I realised all along that William Lane Craig and Kent Hovind were dodgy, but when a professor of zoology uses the “hopeful monsters” parody of punctuated equilibrium, it’s tough to believe he made a mistake. When pastors make claims about there being no contradictions in the Bible, it’s tough to rule it out to being illiterate or ignorant, so when an elder in the church told me yesterday that they’re basically trained to lie about these things, I was livid. The lure of Heaven or threat of Hell have never really motivated me, it’s about doing things for other people, getting the truth (whatever it may be) to people, so they can make informed decisions. If people need to lie to support their position, they probably don’t have a very strong position.

Thanks for sharing your experiences here. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear you’ve seen Craig is dodgy all along (the emphasis above is mine). Normally, I feel like it’s a huge struggle for me to get people to realize this. Craig strikes me as a charlatan who’s done a very good job of refining his scam for the type of people who wouldn’t be taken in by Hovind.

To add to that, after reading Dawkins and Harris, who didn’t shake me, I read a book that did make an impact, mainly because it asked some really good questions about the prophecies of Christ. You may be familiar with the book, it’s called UFOs ghosts and a rising God. I think it comes down to that Harris deliberately cherry picks things from their context to make out like you need to stone people to be a good Christian, whereas you put things into their context to refute them.

It’s flattering that my book had such an impact on you, but I’m not sure I’d agree with you about Harris. I don’t think I’d ever say good Christians need to stone people, but I don’t think Harris ever says exactly that either.

What I would say, and what I think Harris would say, is this: even though the overwhelming majority of Christians don’t want to execute people for adultery, or blasphemy, or homosexuality, they’ve still inherited a holy book containing laws whose closest modern equivalents is the sharia law found in today’s more repressive Muslim countries. It’s not clear that Christians have a good reason from within Christianity to claim those laws don’t apply today, but even if they did, the fact that those laws are in the Bible at all is a serious problem for Christianity.

I’m not sure where I’m going, whether I can stay as a Christian, or move on. I doubt being an Atheist is nearby, I do believe (as I have always, even when I wasn’t a Christian) there is something more to it. I don’t find it convincing that evolution could produce such complexity through random processes. Sure, design is a pretty rubbish argument, but so are genetic algorithms.

I remember when I was on my way to atheism saying something similar to what you just said, roughly, “I feel like there has to be something.” Now, though, I realizing that that was a hopelessly vague statement. An undefined “something” might be nothing like traditional conceptions of God or gods.

As for evolution, describing evolution as working “through random processes” suggests a misunderstanding of evolution. If you haven’t already, I recommend spending some time with TalkOrigins.org, Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True, and Richard Dawkins’ books on evolution.

Unfortunately, within those places, I’m a little unsure where to tell you to start. TalkOrigins is great because it’s free. Among Dawkins’ books, The Greatest Show on Earth is the one that presents the evidence for evolution, but if the issue is clearing up the misunderstandings of evolution promoted by creationists, The Blind Watchmaker might be better. The Selfish Gene is my favorite Dawkins book, but it’s more about the finer points of evolutionary theory than countering creationists.

Obviously it’s tough to make a conversion or deconversion online, Leah Really impressed me, even though I was somewhat unimpressed with her going to Catholicism and citing moral grounds as a reason after have blogged so much about how they were morally dodgy. That’s her though, not me, and I’m not sure how to go about things…. Maybe I’ll be able to retain my faith, but I’m really not confident in that.

I’m sorry if I’m rambling, but I don’t really have anyone to go to with this, not anyone I feel won’t in some way judge me. I figured you’d been here, and would understand. I’m not sure why you, I could, I guess, have emailed Daniel Fincke or Chana Messinger, or Hemant, all of whom I follow. I guess I engage more with your blog though.

No problem. When going through a crisis of faith, it’s really important to reach out to people who can let you know you’re not alone. I have no idea if there are atheist groups in your area or what they’re like, but it’s worth trying to attend a meeting, pub night, or whatever if possible. You may be surprised by what’s available–atheist groups are often stronger in more religious places, because they’re more needed there. Even if you don’t know of any, try searching on Google, Meetup.com, etc. and see what you find.

I should mention that while having to “come out” as a non-believer can be rough, it went fine for me. In retrospect, I regret not tearing that band-aid off sooner. My experiences aren’t universal, of course, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

You may also find Luke Muehlhauser’s advice helpful here.

Best wishes,
Chris

  • Slow Learner

    Sound advice Chris; I’d modulate it with something that Richard Wade has said (over at Friendly Atheist) many times:
    If you are financially or otherwise dependent on religious believers, consider their attitudes carefully before you come out, or post anything publicly on the internet, which eventually amounts to the same thing.
    And I understood that you aren’t currently, and may never be, an atheist. However from experience some religious people treat questioning their specific creed as tantamount to atheism, so you may well be in a similar boat even if you aren’t, yourself, an atheist.
    From anecdotal evidence, most people coming out have some friction with believers in their family; I was dealing with moderate Anglicans (Episcopalian in US terms) and had none beyond my dad calling me a heathen and trying to make me go to church at Christmas; but there are extreme cases like Damon Fowler (thrown out of home and disowned by his parents.) I’m not saying lie, just if the reaction is likely to be hostile, be prepared to maintain radio silence while you figure things out for yourself.
    Good luck!

    • Chris Hallquist

      Good point. I think Dan Savage’s advice to gay kids is appropriate here: if you’re financially dependent on people who would freak out over your unbelief, it’s OK to stay in the closet awhile to get independent. But if you’re already independent, be ready to play the adult to your parents’ temper tantrum, don’t give in, make it clear that they’re the ones who need to accept you for who you are if they want a relationship with you.

  • David Christy

    I always recommend ‘The Theory of Evolution’ by John Maynard Smith for anyone seeking a broad understanding of evolution.

  • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

    Really good read. I hope that whoever this is can get through it without too much pain on their end.

    Issues like this popped up for me when I started questioning things which eventually ended up with me leaving. I’m clearly going to be rooting for one side here, but the best advice I think I can give you is to say never stop looking for the truth, test everything. I’d like to think that doing this will likely deconvert you, but if it doesn’t then you’ll end up with a much stronger faith as a result having tested it.

  • MNb

    About evolution besides Jerry Coyne’s book there is also the equally excellent Evolution: What the Fossils Say And Why It Matters by Donald Prothero.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      While Prothero’s book is enjoyable, it really isn’t a book about evolution. It is a book dismantling Creationist claims, particularly those related to geology and paleontology. He rips through them, from the Grand Canyon to transitional fossils to human ancestry.

  • B-Lar

    “If people need to lie to support their position, they probably don’t have a very strong position” is a an astute observation which I made myself before I left the church. Dont judge them too harshly though. Humans be humans.

    Keep truth as your lodestone; whatever choices or mistakes you make you will have no regrets at the end. This is the highest height to which I hope to aspire.

  • JohnH

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to try and find someone that actually believes in your belief, if possible. Just because someone is a Pastor or whatever doesn’t mean (and from studies I have seen rarely means) that they actually believe in what they preach. Their lack of belief, which would lead to lying about a lot of things and lying rather then seeking answers, does not necessarily imply that the faith itself is wrong, can’t have good answers, or isn’t defend-able. To know if it does have any answers for you would require finding someone that actually knows their own faith and believes their own faith, if you can’t find such a person from within your own particular church then perhaps checking out other churches may be a good idea before taking the position that all Christianity is your particular background church and rejecting it all because your background church doesn’t appear to have the answers you seek.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that presumably your faith believes in the Bible and in the Bible it says to seek God and ask Him, as He is claimed to be a living God. I suggest you do that as I know that God will respond to those who seek Him diligently and with full purpose of heart.

    • Slow Learner

      So if you decide that you know the answer, and set off fully determined to find that answer – or as you phrase it “seek Him diligently and with full purpose of heart” – you have good odds of ending up holding to your preconceived answer?
      Oh dear me, however does that work?

      • JohnH

        If you set off having decided you know the answer then you aren’t really seeking an answer now are you?

        • Slow Learner

          So you do understand how it works. How then can you say this:
          “I know that God will respond to those who seek Him diligently and with full purpose of heart.” with a straight face?
          You’re telling someone who has a question to wrestle with that they should pre-suppose the answer; I don’t think that’s helpful or constructive.

  • Mick

    To the e-mailer: Sorry to sound so harsh, but sometimes we need to be jolted out of our comfort zone.

    — the horrible things that God apparently commanded
    — pastors and evangelists lie.
    — an elder in the church told me yesterday that they’re basically trained to lie
    I’m surprised you are still interested in staying with the group.

    — If people need to lie to support their position, they probably don’t have a very strong position.
    Somebody else with a not very strong position is the parishioner who stays in the religion and listens to the lies.

    — I’m not sure where I’m going, whether I can stay as a Christian, or move on.
    A religion whose leaders tell lies and whose god does horrible things!? Seems to me any decent person might decide to get out.

    — I doubt being an Atheist is nearby.
    Really? You’d rather listen to the lies?

    — I do believe (as I have always, even when I wasn’t a Christian) there is something more to it.
    Perhaps there is something more to it. More horror and more lies.

    — I don’t find it convincing that evolution could produce such complexity through random processes.
    A short course in probability theory would do wonders for you. The odds against some of those random processes are not quite as unlikely as you may think they are.

    — Maybe I’ll be able to retain my faith, but I’m really not confident in that.
    Retain your faith in a horrible god who inspired a contradictory text used by lying preachers? Why?

    — I don’t really have anyone to go to with this, not anyone I feel won’t in some way judge me.
    Yes, Christians know a bit about passing judgement, don’t they?

  • BradC

    Regarding cherry-picking from the Bible: I’d highly recommend Greta Christina’s article, A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside (as well as virtually everything else she’s ever written):

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2007/08/19/a-self-referent/

    Jerry Coyne’s book (and an open mind) was all it took for me to discard 40 years of literal Biblical creationism. All my prior research and reading on evolution was from creationist authors, which (to put it mildly) mis-represent most of what evolution really is about.

  • qbsmd

    I remember preferring “Climbing Mount Improbable” to “The Blind Watchmaker”, but don’t recall exactly why. I had the same problem with evolution producing complexity; I even wrote a genetic algorithm to try to simulate eye evolution because Richard Dawkins made the process sound really straightforward and obvious. I never got really spectacular results, but depending on what I used as a fitness function, often I got things that worked like pin-hole cameras or kind-of looked like they were trying to be lenses.

    At some point I realized that evolution by natural selection basically is an intelligent process: it has a memory in the form of every genome, a goal of creating as many copies of genomes as possible, and a trial-and-error process. It’s not any more intelligent than algorithms AI researchers can produce, but it’s intelligent enough.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I read a book that did make an impact, mainly because it asked some really good questions about the prophecies of Christ.

    If that’s an issue you’re interested in, I would recommend The Age of Reason part three: Examination of the prophecies by Thomas Paine. Published by American Atheists, ISBN-13: 978-0910309707, originally written over two hundred years ago. Paine went through the alleged OT prophecies fulfilled by the NT, one by one.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Another good book on evolution is Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea (2006) by Carl Zimmer, who is an excellent science writer. ISBN-13: 978-0061138409. This book is should be accessible to a reader of almost any age; it is probably a bit more elementary than those of Dawkins and Coyne.I see Zimmer, along with Douglas Emlen, has a new book out now, Evolution: Making Sense of Life, (2012) ISBN-13: 978-1936221172. I have not read it, so have no specific opinion to offer.

  • http://explorereading.net Eric Pettersson

    I really resonate with a lot of the reader’s experience. I think at some point every believer, if they are going to grow into maturity and authenticity, needs to wrestle with these kinds of questions. I found a link to this blog on Twitter, so I apologize if my comment is a little out of place, but believe me when I say I am the kind of Christian who respects atheists and in fact prefers them to most other Christians.

    If that sounds a little confusing, here is what I would like to share with the reader who sent the email. Part of the problem with many churches is that they never seem to be able to get past a first grade understanding of their own faith. That is possibly a harsh exaggeration, but it is not far from the truth. One thing that has helped me more than anything else on my spiritual journey is to recognize that when you read the books of the Bible in the order they were written, you see a gradual developing of ideas, an evolving consciousness of who God is and what God is like. Thus, earlier writings reflect an early level of understanding, and later writings show more experience, reflection, and maturity. To put it in theological terms, which I hope are not too taboo on this page, its what can be called progressive revelation, the idea that God chose to be revealed to humanity in small increments because humanity wouldn’t have been able to handle everything at once. I have found this idea very liberating, because it means that those of us at a later period aren’t necessarily bound to accept everything the groups at the very beginning thought they knew about God. Those of us at a later stage can continue to listen to the Spirit of God and move humanity forward without being trapped by the areas that were less clear to our predecessors. It’s also exciting to me because it means God isn’t done teaching us things, but I know many fellow Christians find it frightening, because it takes away a level of certainty. That’s why people like me are the minority in the church today, but if you are interested in hearing more about such perspectives, I’d recommend looking into the writings of Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, and Walter Bruggemann. Or if you want to start with browsing another Patheos blog, I highly recommend Tony Jones’s Theoblogy.

    I offer my comments not as a final destination and sure fact, but as what seems to be the best truth I’ve found so far. I hope they are helpful, and if not, I wish you the best on your search for truth and meaning.

    • Slow Learner

      Eric, I can’t speak for Chris, but I don’t think this is inappropriate here. In fact, I think it’s to the benefit of all people questioning faith to hear from both people who have questioned and then reaffirmed their faith and people who have questioned and then abandoned it; I think people can much more honestly face up to their questions and really deal with them if they are assured that they can still be a moral person with a purpose in life whichever set of answers they reach.
      Where I think your approach is better than JohnH’s above is that you aren’t pre-supposing the answer our questioner must find, just offering a line of questions they might find useful or constructive.

  • Lillynyx

    I had to respond to your writer’s comment, when he stated, “I think it comes down to that Harris deliberately cherry picks things from their context to make out like you need to stone people to be a good Christian…”.

    I got so sick of people cherry picking parts of the bible, in particular to state that the bible says that homosexuality is an abomination, to justify their blatant homophobia. I don’t believe they’re actually afraid of gay people, unless it’s a fear of their own latency, but I do believe they have a lot of hatred for them. There is one book that I’ve, so far, not seen mentioned in any of the atheist blogging I’ve read. I have to admit that I have not been reading any atheist, or religious, blogs for very long so it may be mentioned elsewhere. It is called, “God Hates You, Hate Him Back: Making Sense of the Bible”, by CJ Werleman. It is an excellent break-down/analysis of the bible. I have also found it to be an excellent ‘go to’ source whenever somebody tries to justify their bigotry and hatred when they declare that, ’the bible says it is an abomination’. The following is a short description of the book, via an e-reader site.

    “CJ Werleman lays out all 66 chapters of the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament) to present an irrefutable argument that indeed God hates us all.
    If you have never read or never fully understood The Bible then you will do no better than this unique, comedic, 21st century summary of the greatest story ever sold.
    This book provides atheists, agnostics, rationalists and religious sceptics with an arsenal of Biblical facts, stories, mythology and assertions to ensure you victory in any religious debate.”

    When I got this book, it had been more than 40 years since I read the bible…far more agreeable than actually buying a bible and having to search through it for specific stories.

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