My Doubt Almost Killed Me

Editor’s Note: This is this former Lutheran minister’s second post on the Rational Doubt blog – and it’s a doozy.  / Linda LaScola, Editor

By Kenn Nilsen

  1. What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?

There were many tributaries emptying into my river of doubt over the years, but the one that really led to flood stage was a conversation I had with my then 13 year-old daughter. She approached me on day while I was working in my woodshop.

“Daddy, am I going to hell?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“Because (older sister) Sarah said I would if I used Tarot cards and studied Wicca.”

“The God I think I know wouldn’t send you to hell for using your brain and curiosity. But may I ask, what do you find interesting about Tarot and Wicca?”

“So far, they seem to be more oriented towards earth things. I mean, I just don’t like Church. I like your sermons, but the other stuff sounds crazy.”

“Like the liturgy?”

“Yeah, and that Creed. It makes no sense.”

We conversed a little more. Then I said to her,

“Em, do you remember we saw that play, Inherit the Wind, about the Scopes monkey trial? One of my favorite lines is when Bert Cates challenges that old preacher who was cursing everybody by saying, ‘Religion should help people, not scare them to death!’ I guess all I ask is that whatever spiritual path you take, It should be something to help people, not hurt them.”

My wife and I had always told our daughters that there was nothing they could do or say that would make us stop loving them. It made me wonder what they were picking up from Christianity, or any religion, that suggested there were limits to God’s love? Why would God have hell in the religious medical bag at all?

  1. How did you initially react to the doubts?

I had already been steeped in the scientific study of the Bible at seminary. I was quite enamored of textual criticism, and fascinated by the deletions and insertions in Holy Writ. With all its contradictions, I tried to elicit what the central idea of God was in the Bible. For me, it crystalized in Exodus 3:

“I have heard the cry of (my) people, and I have come down to deliver them.”

Religion – God – was supposed to help people, not scare them to death. From my experience in Christianity, the helping part wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening in other religions either, apart from Buddhism, which is more of a philosophy and leaves the existence of God an open question. Terrible burdens were being laid on people by religion, and I didn’t like it. Would the God who made the fantastical scenes coming in to the Hubble telescope really consign my daughter to a black hole because she studied Tarot?

If so, I was going with her.

I’m the kind of guy that, if someone breaks into my house and goes after my girls, I wouldn’t be discussing gentle Jesus, meek and mild, or turning the other cheek. One of us was going to die while the girls escaped. So I decided to get to the bottom of what was the Faith was communicating. I read the triumvirate of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, primarily to see if I could remedy some of their objections in my ministry. But I found them very persuasive instead. They were voicing in print the very same vexations I was experiencing in the Church. It was clear to me that the distance between what Jesus said and did, and what the Church was saying and doing, was getting wider and wider. I remembered the comment by the Native American Red Jacket as he voiced his anger with the missionaries sent among his people.

“Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book?”

From there it was a short step to Voltaire, who observed that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. My suspicion was that we humans had done just that.

  1. What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?

I read. And read, and read. I paid close attention to what was happening in The Jesus Seminar, and I found very convincing their findings that Jesus was very human and made a break with traditional religion to free people. John Dominic Crossan of The Jesus Seminar went so far as to say that the gospel of John, which is the basis for our idea that Jesus is God and that the Church has authority over God’s world, was probably invented out of whole cloth. My suspicion was that, rather than being a community, the Church was merely another corporation and used a carrot-and-stick method to enforce order. The hideous doctrine of the Atonement was just another way of saying,

“Look what I’ve done for you – you owe me. By the way, you can make interest payments through the church and its clergy.”

The idea of God was being used by religion, from Pharaoh to the Pope, to enforce political order and conformity.

I also kept up with my readings of ecology and evolution from my days studying for a Master’s Degree in Conservation Education. During my service as a Church Camp Director, I infused our program with “Creation Care” activities, as well as a Science and Faith Camp, which involved hands-on studies of archeology, forest ecology and astronomy. For the latter, I built an observatory out of an old farm silo, equipped it with an eight-inch telescope and engaged the volunteer services of a Unitarian astronomer who had retired from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The reaction from my Synod leadership was tepid at best, hostile at worst. My attempts were seen, not as an attempt to bridge deductive truth and inductive reasoning, but as an attack on the latter. Any thrust I made toward earth care, or “stewardship” as Christianese puts it, was met with the response that humans are too depraved to do anything good for the planet, and that Jesus will take care of the planet when he comes again to make all things new.

That was simple escapism dressed up as piety, and I wanted none of it.

  1. How did the doubts affect your preaching/teaching/other responsibilities? Your interactions with your congregation and your family?

Metaphor became my chief exegetical tool. I poo-pooed literalism, and tried to show how Jesus made extensive use of hyperbole in his teaching. Much the same as the old farmers would whack their stubborn mules with a two-by-four to get their attention. Eschew obfuscation – I avoided words like “eschatology” and “prolegomenon” and phrases like “justification by grace through faith.” That language was much too preppy. I reinterpreted old theological concepts, such as the Atonement (mentioned above) and Original Sin, which I took to mean that we are born selfish. It is how we survive. But as we grow, we need to recognize that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe and other people need our love, care and regard as much as we do. Sin is not cheating at cards, but thinking always of our own selves or our own tribe. That is troublesome for social creatures. It raised some eyebrows with my congregation and my bishop, but I had long ago carved out a reputation as an ecclesiastical eccentric, and they saw it as entertainment.

My wife seemed pleased with my teaching and preaching. She said I was so clear when I said it, and she always wondered about the inconsistencies in the Bible, but when she asked questions, clergy became evasive.

My daughters and their husbands/boyfriends were way ahead of me. They would say,

“We know this is all a crock, and we know you know it, but you are the most loving man we can imagine, and if we were to believe, it would be because of you, not God.”

On the other hand, my parents and siblings were not happy. My father, an ordained Lutheran Minister, detected unorthodoxy and doubled down on his heated arguments with me, using belittling sarcasm as his weapon of choice. My family had always used the withdrawal of love as a disciplinary tool, and I began to feel its effects.

  1. How did you come to the realization that your doubts were overcoming your beliefs; that you were no longer a believer?

After my mother died, the behavior of my father ran contrary to everything he said and spoke about from the pulpit. He hit on every single or widowed woman in my congregation. And sometimes married women, too. They would complain to me. He asked both my divorced sisters-in-law to come live with him. His conduct led me to construe that he didn’t believe this stuff anymore than I did. I had been seeing therapists for most of my career, and began to concentrate on my doubts when I met with them. Most were believers of one kind or another, and tried to steer me towards faith again. They posed that useless question,

“What kind of God do you not believe in?”

I read John Updike’s novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, in which a pastor in the early 20th century comes to the realization that there is no God. I thought,

“That’s me!”

I realized I had been living a lie. I had foisted it on others. Everything I thought I knew was wrong. Mine had been a wasted life. I felt suicidal. I confessed these thoughts, in tears, to my therapist. He asked if I had a plan. I said that I planned to go home, load my hunting rifle and blow my fucking head off. He got me a bed in the local Behavioral Health Center, and I was locked down for a week.

There I wrestled God like Jacob at the Jabbok River, and found that doubt finally won out. I beat God. Now I needed to reconstruct a life that would, as I told a subsequent therapist when I got out, help me be comfortable in my own skin before I died.

  1. How did you think of yourself at that time? (e.g., agnostic, atheist, spiritual-but not-religious, something else)?

It’s fair to say that before my emotional crash I was spiritual-but-not-religious. I said as much from the pulpit, telling my people to keep the faith; lose the religion. After I left the hospital, I joined a local secular humanist group, and when I told them I was agnostic, one of the participants smiled and remarked that agnostics were atheists without cajones. He suggested I join The Clergy Project. I laughed and told him he was right. I became an atheist. My nickname during my life had been “full throttle” and I embraced the idea.

But I still had five years to go in the pulpit before I retired with a pension.

  1. What happened then?

I had to get through the subsequent years with a semblance of integrity. I had good people who really believed all this religious stuff, and I saw no point in blowing them out of the water. I stressed the ethics of Jesus, and encouraged my people to practice behaviors that would do good. In teaching or counseling contexts, I did not respond to what I thought about the Divine, but instead asked people to share how they saw God in their lives. We would then proceed with “Have you thought of this?” type of questions, and prod to see how their “spirit” could reflect positively in human society and nature. I tried to have them see “God” as an ally, not a judge.

Gretta Vosper’s book, With or Without God, with its theme that it doesn’t matter what you believe, it’s your behavior that counts, was enormously helpful to me.

With Or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe by [Vosper, Gretta]

But I did not openly come out until after my retirement, and then only to a select, close group of friends. I didn’t want anything to jeopardize that pension!

  1. Anything else you would like to say?

For me, the role of pharmacology in treating my depression was critical. Most church types thought I should be able to pray myself out of depression. But that was a canard. I was prescribed lithium, Prozac and Lamictal, and tried to wean myself off them several times with disastrous results. Anger, nay, rage, was the defining emotion after the deconversion dam broke, and I must use these drugs to even out the mood so I can talk about it. I continue to use these drugs under the guidance of a licensed psychiatrist, and I maintain contacts with secular and non-believing friends such as those in The Clergy Project. Un-faith is not something I could do alone.

A closing word about addiction: I smoked a pipe extravagantly for most of my life. I felt it gave me an aura of wisdom as well as a calm demeanor. I developed alcoholism during my ministry, fortunately staying under church radar until I kicked the habit largely on my own. I tried AA, but the whole notion of a “higher power” was anathema to me. God was not the answer; he was the problem. It is interesting to me that I kicked my addictions largely on my own. I see now that religion – God – was just such an addiction. My mission now is to try and help others in its grip break free. That seems like a healthy thing to do with whatever is left of my life. A sobering thought.

==================

Bio: Kenn Nilsen is a retired ELCA Lutheran minister, who came to unfaith by reading the unholy trinity of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins and witnessing the hypocrisy of the institutional church. He lives in a notch of the Bible belt, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with his freethinking wife of 38 years, Dee. He currently creates furniture out of lumber he reclaims from decrepit barns and buildings around the Valley. As his picture suggests, he is happiest when canoeing the storied Shenandoah River.

> Photo Credits. Red Jacket, By Chromolithograph by Corbould from a painting by C.B. King; printed by C. Hallmandel – Library of Congress Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4782008

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  • Thank you so much for sharing your journey. You show a lot of wisdom and courage getting real help from a mental health professional.

  • You wrote, “It was clear to me that the distance between what Jesus said and did, and what the Church was saying and doing, was getting wider and wider.”

    Your bio says you came to “unfaith by reading the unholy trinity of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins.”

    Intriguing, because reading famous atheists back when I was a young adult resulted in the exact opposite experience for me. On Long Beach State’s central quad, in the midst of studying famous atheists, and having mostly atheist professors, I came to the crisis of my life. So much of Christianity I realized was illusion and delusion, however, the negation of atheism and its denial of moral realism and claim that existence is “meaningless” and “purposeless” deeply troubled me. At the time, it seemed that it was an either/or decision, either be religious or reject ethics and meaning. So I hung onto a liberal form of Christianity.

    If I could live again, I would think more decisively, realizing that there are plenty of more options than the two extremes.

    What confuses me about your account is that for a long time you were a Lutheran minister with doubts, and believed “Religion should help people, not scare them to death!’ I guess all I ask is that whatever spiritual path you take, It should be something to help people, not hurt them.”
    BUT the Lutheran creed and Luther’s theology themselves are so horrific–claiming that humans have no choice, that infants are born sinful, etc. (I admired Luther until I read his rant against free will and his mean attack on Erasmus in Bondage of the Will when I was about 19 years of age).

    When you read all that stuff in seminary didn’t such theology deeply trouble you at the start of your ministry?

    (Just asking, since I was once a minster, too.)

    • Jennny

      In my case, yes I was deeply troubled by the theology of what I was teaching for the last 5 yrs of my x-tian faith. I led children’s work and because I’ve always loved children and storytelling, crafting singing etc, ploughed on, not daring to face the dissonances involved – that I wanted kids to convert to belief in a torturing tyrant of a god. Decades of self- and church-indoctrination caused me to compartmentalise, to rationalise anything that may cause any sinful doubt..and never think of it again. Kenn implies an addictive personality led him to religion. I realise now that I was a prime candidate for conversion in that 4-14yo window when most do so. I had very judgemental parents who were hard to please and my early teen years were full of self-doubt and self-dislike. So hearing about a god who loved me unconditionally and would always show me the right thing to do and not be constantly critical of me was a wonderful thing and what I needed to hear in my naive and young confusion about myself.
      Thank you for this post. All good wishes for the future and the freedoms you can now enjoy.

      • Hmm…we had very different growing up experiences. Sad to hear of your very hard upbringing.

        Also, I never in my years as a Christian ever believed in a God who was “a torturing tyrant of a god.” But then I grew up in what many creedal Christians consider a heretical Christian aberration. Heck, a famous Christian theologian said I was NEVER a Christian for all those years, not even when I was a dedicated minister and Bible teacher, because I didn’t believe in the Creeds.

        What led me to finally see that Christianity can’t be true was how so many Christian leaders–both in history and especially now-believe in what seems to me to be a tyrant of a god who foreordains billions of humans to eternal damnation for his own “glory.”

        Even worse, our church here promoted The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler who claims that every infant is in “essence, evil”! And at my father’s memorial, the minister side-tracked in his sermon to emphasize that even little grand children are “guilty sinners.”
        Our dear 4 and 3-year-old grandchildren were sitting down on the front row, so I suppose the theological slam was aimed at them and us:-(

        I am still very angry.

        About 8 years ago, when I was in severe doubt but still a liberal Christian, I turned on the radio for hope. The first thing I heard from a Calvary Chapel minister was that ALL humans are “worthless.”
        Then another minister on the radio, Jon Courson of Applegate Fellowship, said that God creates some humans as “toilets” and “spittoons.”

        That was the end for me of any hope in Christianity.

        • mason

          “Also, I never in my years as a Christian ever believed in a God who was “a torturing tyrant of a god.” but as a bible teacher and I assume (maybe in error) a bible reader, didn’t you notice that the Bible God was a totalitarian religiously genocidal tyrant?

          Until I joined the Clergy Project in 2012 I had no idea how much anger and resentment I had for being bullied and brainwashed into Evangelical Fundamentalism. The years on TCP have been very therapeutic and beneficial in ways I could have never imagined.

          I think there are thousands, maybe millions of ex-Evangelical clergy and ex-believers in the US who could really benefit from the help available on Recovering From Religion & TCP. I see that the national conversation about the dark side of Evangelical Christianity, and other sects too, is growing. The mental-emotional abuse done to children, and the shaming and persecution done to ex-believers is a hugely needed expose’. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ab9d3cf11dd57c171dab1e1d202a091042a92664b1c13c5e9d6ab832be1d7a22.jpg

          • ? You wrote, “….as a bible teacher and I assume (maybe in error) a bible reader, didn’t you notice that the Bible God was a totalitarian religiously genocidal tyrant?”

            I read the Bible through repeatedly, and studied the Bible over 55 years, attended seminary though I dropped out, taught church classes, was an elder, attended one liberal church in Southern California where one of the top 20 Greek scholars was a member, blah, blah…

            Please keep in mind there are many thousands of contradictory Christianities. I thought I gave enough of my own bio in my earlier comments to emphasize that as an adult, I was never a part of any Christian church that had a creedal or fundamentalist outlook. Even when I was about 11 years old, in my childhood Baptist church and our Sunday school teacher told us one Sunday that God had sent bears to maul some kids who had made fun of the prophet Elisha, I got very upset and told her and the other children that God would never do such an unjust, evil act!

            Maybe, also, we have a different perspective on the Bible, because besides being a liberal Christian, a liberal Quaker for many years after being a liberal Baptist, I am a retired literature teacher.
            For years I taught world literature to students in secular public high schools in Arizona and California, including passages from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Greek Scriptures, The Odyssey, Hindu and Islamic literature, and so forth. There are passages in the Bible which do portray God as a “totalitarian religiously genocidal tyrant.” There are others which describe him as infinite love, others which emphasize determinism to eternal torture (Calvinists and Augustinians love to quote those verses), etc.

            KEY POINT: The Hebrew Bible of the Jews and the Christian Greek Scriptures have multiple contradictory views on ethics, theology, etc. like most other human literature.

            Since deconverting about 8 years or so ago, I no longer read or study the Bible. But then I don’t read or study Homer’s Illiad or the Quran either. Yet I know from studying them in the past that they, too, have contradictory views on ethics, living, and humankind.

            Thanks for posting the Kelly quote. I’ve saved it to my computer:-)

    • mason

      Daniel, “there are plenty of more options than the two extremes.” what do you consider the two extremes?

    • carolyntclark

      “……either be religious or reject ethics and meaning.” Huh ???…. I’m sure glad you finally rejected that mindset.

      • But what’s very weird is how many–multi-millions of people–still subscribe to one or the other.

        And that so many of those who claim religion, especially Christians, Muslims, and orthodox Jews, actually live by self-centered unjust, immoral unethical actions. Just look at the 81% of of Evangelical Christians who are anti-immigrants, pro-torture, pro-nuclear weapon, etc. And many of them also claim that God only foreordained a limited number of humans for value, but billions of others were foreordained to eternal torture for “God’s own glory.” And that all of the worst evils in existence exist for God’s own glory.” ETC.

        Or the Jewish settlers who put their own ethnic-religious identity first, steal land, water, etc. from Arabs, some of whose ancestors have lived in Palestine-Israel for hundreds of years. (I lived in Palestine-Israel for 7 months working on a communal farm near the Jordan border). And the orthodox Jewish leaders who claim that G-d “created evil.”:-(

        And Islam…

        • Jim Jones

          > Just look at the 81% of of Evangelical Christians

          I call them alt-Christians.

    • Linda_LaScola

      FROM KENN NILSEN, Author of the post, who is having trouble responding via Disqus:

      “It sounds like my little bio-essay has provoked some excellent discussion, which was my chief aim all along.

      I did want to respond to Daniel’s honest and helpful question regarding doubt at seminary. I was indeed sensing reservations before and during my theological training. Sadly, I began by researching, and ended up rationalizing. I can only plead Religious Addiction. My emotions over-rode my intellect.

      One thing I wanted to do at Seminary was get something that might help me get my head around the Holocaust, which was engendered by the country that produced all these famous theologians I was exposed to in classes. I had been horrified by it since I first learned about it from my Jewish friends in childhood. On my own (because it received little or no remark from my professors) I discovered Luther’s vicious treatise, ‘On the Jews and Their Lies.’ You think Luther was mean to Erasmus? Apparently, Luther at first thought that if he presented the Gospel to the Jewish people in a gentler way (rather than by pogrom), they would flock to the Christian banner. When they politely said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,” he turned on them with a fury, and advocated treatment of them that Adolf Hitler later picked up and practiced with glee. Still I pursued some way to set this in the context of a loving God in control of the world. My bad.

      Shortly before my breakdown, I was confronted by Holocaust survivor Primo Levy’s quote, “There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be god.” One of the final nails in my coffin of faith.”

      • Thanks, Kenn. As a teacher for many years I taught the Holocaust to students, so I also know “Luther’s vicious treatise” where he advocated the burning of synagogues, and worse. And there’s the passage against others where Luther advocated that the leaders ought to wash their hands in their enemies’ blood.

      • Linda_LaScola

        Regarding seminary questions, Kenn Nilson says: “I began by researching, and ended up rationalizing.”

        In my experience talking to clergy about their time in seminary, this is similar to and in some cases more than many seminarians do. Many have doubts and concerns and questions. Then at some point they put them away to focus on their original goal of obtaining a degree and becoming a member of the clergy.

  • Maura Hart

    sorry you almost died learning the truth. sorry you had to misrepresent yourself for years to your congregation. that’s totally different than lying. sorry you could not find any other occupation but lying. good thing you do not have to explain to zombie jeebus why you lied. but, really, all those lies. lies, lies, and more lies. all in the name of a loving mythical fairy tale deity. well. i guess if you have no other reason for being good or doing good is collecting your salary….that’ makes it all ok. fear of punish by zombie jeebus or fear of find a real job. seems legit

    • Jim Jones

      Are you 14 years old?

  • Maura Hart

    everyone here is commending you. but in fact you were lying. first about the existence of god. then about the existence of god. same lie. shame . people like you brought us people like trump and pence.

    • mason

      Wow … What are you smoking Maura 🙂 ?

    • It’s not a lie unless you know it to be false. Almost everyone who believes in a god thinks their god is real. If I believe that fairies live at the bottom of my garden, telling everyone about the fairies isn’t a lie: it’s a mistake. There’s a big difference.

      In this case, sure, the idea that God exists is a lie, but it’s only a lie to those of us who realize gods aren’t real.

    • Jim Jones

      “We all know that any emotional bias — irrespective of truth or falsity — can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value…. If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction.”

      ― H.P. Lovecraft

  • mason

    Kenn, thanks for candidly sharing key aspects of your journey that’s required so much intellectual fortitude to get yourself out of the delusional world of Evangelical Christianity. I have very much enjoyed your posts and participation since you joined the Clergy Project. Here’s a re-write I did of the Battle Hymn of the Republic into Battle Hymn of Freethought. You have certainly battled the demons of theistic delusion :), and fought long and hard to gain your new life and freedom brother!

    BATTLE HYMN OF FREETHOUGHT
    © Mason Lane 2018
    (Dedicated to FFRF Freethought Today Newspaper)

    VERSE 1
    MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY OF REALITY AND SCIENCE
    BANISHING THEOLOGY THIS POWERFUL ALLIANCE
    SUPERSTITION FLEES BEFORE THE LIGHT OF THIS BRIGHT DAWN
    TRUTH IS MARCHING ON

    VERSE 2
    IN THE BEAUTY OF INTEGRITY WE FIGHT TO MAKE US FREE
    WE WILL NEVER WORSHIP DEITY OR EVER BOW A KNEE
    SUPERSTITION AND MYTHOLOGY ARE BEING OVERTHROWN
    TRUTH IS MARCHING ON

    CHORUS
    GLORY GLORY IT’S A NEW DAY
    GLORY GLORY IT’S A NEW WAY
    EVIDENCE AND REASON ARE THE HOLY GRAIL
    FREETHOUGHT SHALL PREVAIL!

    VERSE 3
    WITH THE POWER OF OUR DIGNITY WE QUESTION EVERYTHING
    IN THE DAWNING LIGHT OF REASON WE ARE RISING UP TO SING
    GOODNESS FLOWS WITHIN BECAUSE OF OUR HUMANITY
    TRUTH IS MARCHING ON!

    CHORUS

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/81e2a978267039a9ac5d3b4a636c7dda10a82f0198d65dc784c25abccd2b6c61.jpg

  • carolyntclark

    Kenn, you tell your story with such strength and conviction.
    Some good take-away’s : “God was just such an addiction.”…as he is for many.
    “God was not the answer; he was the problem.”
    Being “Full Throttle”, it’s understandable that when the “deconversion dam broke, the anger, rage, emotional crash, it brought
    thoughts of your hunting rifle.”
    I’m glad for your meds, glad that you were able to make it til pension, and since un-faith is not something you can do alone,
    I’m glad that you found TCP and can share your story.

  • ctcss

    Linda

    IMO this is not so much a doozy as it is yet another cautionary tale of the need to perform due diligence when aligning one’s self with any particular pathway. As with all human endeavors, it’s the approach to a subject matter that determines whether it winds up being helpful or harmful to a person.

    For instance, when people start to notice things like a Christian religion being not actually in accordance with what Jesus taught and acted upon, maybe that’s a signal for a person to pause and take stock of the situation. Blind faith in another person’s assertions, as well as blind loyalty to another person or group never tend to work out well because they remove the need to exercise one’s thinking in a careful and thoughtful manner. The Jesus I read about seemed to very much encourage his followers to carefully examine their thinking rather than to unthinkingly follow along. And he also very much railed against religious hypocrisy and unkind and unloving actions towards others. He seemed to me to be all about bringing healing to troubling human situations. But sometimes in doing so one would need to choose a more helpful pathway forward that others in one’s current group might not agree with or offer support for. Taking a stand for what is right is not necessarily going to be popular with those who support the human status quo, whatever it may be. But I never got the sense from what Jesus taught that he felt that only by abandoning God would one find a better pathway forward. Rather, it seemed that he taught that what was necessary was to correct and improve one’s understanding of God so that one was thinking and acting more in accordance with God, who (as Jesus noted) expressed love and kindness towards all, not just a favored few. The hypocrites Jesus railed against weren’t evil, after all, they were just ignoring what was required of them by God, or were adhering to a notion of God that was less than helpful.

    So while I can applaud this person’s efforts to exercise their thinking with regard to their particular religious pathway, I still keep wondering why they only managed to find a non-religious pathway that allowed them to act in a kinder and more loving way towards others, not to mention a religious pathway that expressed a kinder and more helpful thought about themselves.

    I’m glad they managed to find a way forward without harming themselves, but the enemy, IMO, was not religion per se, but an unhelpful approach to religious thought and practice.

    My 2 cents.

    • carolyntclark

      “….acting more in accordance with God, who (as Jesus noted) expressed love and kindness towards all, not just a favored few. …”
      You must have a different version of the Old Testament.

      • ctcss

        Interestingly enough, Jesus only had the Old Testament and yet he was teaching about God as being good and loving towards all. So the question is, why was his perspective on God and the OT the way it was? And if a person were interested in following Jesus’s teachings, maybe it would behoove them to ask why they were so intent on adopting their own personal view rather than the one Jesus espoused. Not to mention maybe rethinking their personal view of the OT to perhaps begin to see how it was that Jesus arrived at his conclusions.

        • Linda_LaScola

          If a person were really intent on understanding Jesus and seeing the good in him, they might do the things you suggest. Some Clergy Project members did those things for many years until it just didn’t work any more.

          • ctcss

            Linda what, specifically, didn’t work anymore? That they couldn’t view Jesus in a good light? That they couldn’t understand the kind of reasoning that he was espousing?

            I very much get that some Clergy Project members were very sincere in their eventual abandonment of the Christian faith (whatever variety they each might have been associated with), but I’m not sure what specifically they might have had against Jesus’s teachings and actions. I can easily see them having some questions. That’s quite understandable. But I have a harder time believing that the balance of their opinion of all of Jesus’s teachings and actions skewed towards the negative side. I would find it a whole lot more believable that they were rejecting the theology of their particular religions than rejecting the theological outlook of Jesus. Rejecting one’s group and becoming discouraged because of perceived flaws within it is a very different kettle of fish.

          • Jim Jones

            You’re assuming that:

            1. There was a Jesus

            2. His ‘teachings’ are described in the gospels.

            The evidence suggests you are wrong.

            The gospels are fan fiction for the mythical Jesus, just as “50 Shades” are fan fiction for the mythical Christian Grey.

            Written 100 years after the supposed events, they are no history.

            It’s now 2018: by the same standard we could now write the first books about WWI.

        • Jim Jones

          > Interestingly enough, Jesus only had the Old Testament and yet he was teaching about God as being good and loving towards all.

          The gospels were written by Greeks about 100 years after the supposed events. They didn’t have a good translation of the OT (they used the Septuagint) and their knowledge of Jewish life was poor at best. And Paul was inventing a new religion with a mythic savior. It’s no wonder there is so much contradiction confusion and error.

          • ctcss

            Jim, are you suggesting that the gospels were created out of whole cloth and had nothing in common with Jesus and that it would be impossible for Jesus to have espoused the kinds of ideas that he is supposed to have had? The Jesus I read in the gospels strikes me as being a rather deep thinking individual who seemed to grasp that God had to be a loving God. And looking over the OT, one sees quite a few instances of this kind of thinking. To me, Jesus was simply bringing out a higher sense of God than was typical for the mainstream view of his day, but it didn’t strike me as being all that much out of character for the universe of Jewish religious thought.

            And if Jesus had been only run of the mill, I doubt that he would have stood out they way he appeared to. And as for Paul, whatever he may have done in his later days to preach Christianity, his early objections to the new sect were focused on what they seemed to be teaching. So when he did an about face, it would seem likely that he would have aligned himself more along with the teachings of the Christian sect rather than going off in a completely new direction from them. He simply felt that Christianity could be applied to a far larger canvas than just the Jewish people. Thus, he went with the fresher thoughts of the Christian faith and dropped the onerous rituals that Judaism had focused on.

            And the thing is, there were previous Jewish thinkers who had also decried all of the excessive rituals (as opposed to improved thoughts and actions bringing one’s self in closer accord with God), so that, once again, was not all that unusual.

            My 2 cents.

          • Jim Jones

            > And as for Paul, whatever he may have done in his later days to preach
            Christianity, his early objections to the new sect were focused on what
            they seemed to be teaching.

            Paul is another Joseph Smith or L Ron Hubbard. He’s a compulsive liar and invented a religion for his own self promotion and maybe profit.

            Compare the Paul of Jesus to the Alexander (of Abonutichus) of Glycon. What’s missing is the Lucian to criticize the new nonsense.

            It’s possible that there was such a criticism of Jesus and the early church destroyed it, ironically removing the best evidence for a real Jesus.

            http://pocm.info/

    • Linda_LaScola

      Hi, ctcss – nice to see you here. Kenn is not unlike many of his clergy peers in his efforts to understand and stay in the faith. In his case, it almost killed him. He’s better off now that he’s out of it.

      You found a different path and I’m happy that it works for you.

    • mason

      ctcss … “when people start to notice things like a Christian religion being not actually in accordance with what Jesus taught and acted upon” … According to what? Who? It’s all myth legends passed on verbally for 40-60 years after the rather schizo Jesus character was created.

      “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. -Jesus, Matthew 10:34 This is the mythical God Jehovah and Son’s expression, as you say, “expressed love and kindness toward all, not just a favored few.”

      So if not based on the Bible Jesus ctcss, what is your Jesus character and your religion based on? (I think you’ve always been clandestine about your religion)

      “I still keep wondering why they only managed to find a non-religious pathway that allowed them to act in a kinder and more loving way towards others, not to mention a religious pathway that expressed a kinder and more helpful thought about themselves.”

      Well wonder no more. 🙂 Being freed from religious theism and superstition allows the brain to function rationally and more intelligently based on reason and not fear of punishment or promise of reward in a celestial kingdom rule by a totalitarian deity.
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bd7e8fbf5ab56830d50187f86cdd6b69de9b8fbc61e1913d817d450411ff055f.jpg

      • ctcss

        According to what? Who?

        Mason, the main thrust of my statement was based on what Kenn had noticed himself. (“It was clear to me that the distance between what Jesus said and did, and what the Church was saying and doing, was getting wider and wider.”) And what he had noticed was based on comparing his own religion’s teaching and practice compared to the ministry of Jesus as recorded in the NT. So, pretty easy to determine, actually.

        For I came to set a man against his father …

        And if you note, I addressed this in my statement “But sometimes in doing so one would need to choose a more helpful pathway forward that others in one’s current group might not agree with or offer support for. Taking a stand for what is right is not necessarily going to be popular with those who support the human status quo, whatever it may be.”

        The point of the quote you so much seem to like is not Jesus espousing open warfare with one’s familiy and others, but to simply point out that that by veering away from what is popularly accepted by one’s in-group in order to follow something different is very likely to set one at odds with one’s former group. Or hasn’t following atheism (a very different path from your former in-group) made that clear to you?

        So if not based on the Bible Jesus ctcss, what is your Jesus character and your religion based on?

        Mason, my view of Jesus is based on the Bible. It’s just not based on Bible literalism. Which, contrary to those who view literalism as the unvarnished truth, is actually just another interpretation. (To make a case for literalism being the unvarnished truth, one would need to provide rock solid proof that the text of the Bible was a stenographic transcript of all that was said and witnessed, which, ironically enough, you are strongly pointing out that it could not be.)

        So, is my view of Jesus different than yours was/is? Of course. But it is very much based on what I have noted about Jesus in the Bible, both in what he appeared to be saying and doing, and what his reasoning seemed to be.

        Do I still have questions about it all? Of course I do! But I do see enough there that I want to explore my particular pathway further.

        Being freed from religious theism and superstition allows the brain to function rationally and more intelligently based on reason and not fear of punishment or promise of reward in a celestial kingdom rule by a totalitarian deity.

        Well, since my religion does not teach such a concept, and very much encourages thinking and coming to one’s own conclusion as to the truth of what is taught, I don’t find myself in the same boat as you appear to be thinking I might be in.

        And your graphic also appears to espouse the same notion of not being willing and/or required to think. Which I also rejected in my response to Kenn as an unhelpful way to approach any pathway, religious or non-religious.

        And, quite frankly, I very much view religion (seriously approached, studied, pondered, and practiced) as also not for the weak. It is, among other things, a serious mental discipline whose practice is meant to transform one’s life and character for the better. It demands loving actions rather than empty speech. After all, what Jesus asked his students to do when making their own individual efforts to follow him was very much non-trivial in nature.

        All the best.

    • Linda_LaScola

      RESPONSE TO CTCSS FROM KENN NILSON:

      “Dear ctcss,

      I find your line of thinking fascinating and endearing, if a tad rarified. Just one anecdote to pair with the view of Jesus you have exegeted from the NT:

      When I was in seminary our class viewed a film of a group of inner city High School students watching ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ as part of a study on the lives of poor, disenfranchised youth. The researchers expected them to hoot and howl and otherwise denigrate what they were seeing. Instead, there was dead silence, and when the lights came back on, one student was quietly weeping. When asked what was wrong, he responded, ‘I wish it could be that way.’

      Thank you for your comments.

      • Linda_LaScola

        CLARIFICATION FROM KENN NILSEN:

        Regarding the video I viewed during seminary, if memory serves me, it was made by one of my seminary classmates. It was of young men in a juvenile detention center in Columbus, Ohio, where he was a quasi-chaplain. The seminary is in Bexley, one of the richest areas of Columbus, and just across Alum Creek is one of the poorest. He was attempting to record the impressions of one group or another, and this happened to be of the poor kids.

        They started out by saying, ”Oh, man, that’s bunk, only white people live that way,” but then the room gradually fell silent. Especially during a scene on Andy Griffith where Opie used his sling shot to kill a mother bird and Andy forced him to listen to the fading cries of the chicks as punishment.

        The figure of Andy Griffith as a father may have hit the young man to the point of crying, and he may or may not have had a father of his own.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Apologies for going off-topic, but Bart Ehrman is appearing on the latest edition of Fresh Air on NPR.

    link

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thanks — he was on yesterday here – good show

    • mason

      I respectfully have to take issue with Bart’s answer to this in the article. (I love Terry Gross & Fresh Air): “On why pagans converted to Christianity”

      Fresh Air question to Bart: Why would somebody give up religious practices that had been going on in their family for generations, millennia, in order to follow a new religion?

      Bart’s answer: “What the Christians argued was that the Christian God was more powerful than any other god, that this God was active in the world … etc …” Bart seems to ignore that there was really no “arguing” with Christianity, that spread as a brutal and https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bd06e35ce523af9bcdb8b9749289a4ecf1cfd74800c4906b6c1235aa86650bb7.jpg imperialistic religion and promises a celestial North Korea with golden streets and plenty to eat while defying gravity, for its adherents.

      Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, when Emperor Theodosius I made it the Empire’s sole authorized religion. Christianity then spread around the world under political and military force of the superior weapons of swords, guns, cannons that the other cultures did not possess.

      • DoctorDJ

        Hence, “My god’s bigger than your god.”

  • Linda_LaScola

    ANNOUNCEMENT: The author of this piece, Kenn Nilsen, tells me he is having difficulty posting responses. If he can’t get Disgus to work, I will post responses for him.

    Stay tuned.

  • ElizabetB.

    Such an intense life, Ken! “Full Throttle” sounds perfect!! Thank you so much for outlining the story of your wrestling with truth, goodness, and beauty! One tragedy that stands out for me is your Synod’s not being thrilled with your innovative, creative Creation Care!!! It’s so sad that the ugly in religion can overwhelm the good in it. Sounds like during your ministry you energetically highlighted the good… “Your people” had to benefit deeply from your approaches. Much sympathy for your growing up with conditional love… that is devastating. I am happy that your nuclear family and TCP can help with healing from that trauma!! Thanks again for sharing so poignantly and forthrightly… it will be great to hear how your contributions to the world continue to unfold! Keep writing!

  • Linda_LaScola

    POSTED ON BEHALF OF KENN NILSEN, Author of the above post, who cannot respond via Disqus:

    “It sounds like my little bio-essay has provoked some excellent discussion, which was my chief aim all along.

    I did want to respond to Daniel’s honest and helpful question regarding doubt at seminary. I was indeed sensing reservations before and during my theological training. Sadly, I began by researching, and ended up rationalizing. I can only plead Religious Addiction. My emotions over-rode my intellect.

    One thing I wanted to do at Seminary was get something that might help me get my head around the Holocaust, which was engendered by the country that produced all these famous theologians I was exposed to in classes. I had been horrified by it since I first learned about it from my Jewish friends in childhood. On my own (because it received little or no remark from my professors) I discovered Luther’s vicious treatise, ‘On the Jews and Their Lies.’ You think Luther was mean to Erasmus? Apparently, Luther at first thought that if he presented the Gospel to the Jewish people in a gentler way (rather than by pogrom), they would flock to the Christian banner. When they politely said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,” he turned on them with a fury, and advocated treatment of them that Adolf Hitler later picked up and practiced with glee. Still I pursued some way to set this in the context of a loving God in control of the world. My bad.

    Shortly before my breakdown, I was confronted by Holocaust survivor Primo Levy’s quote, “There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be god.” One of the final nails in my coffin of faith.”

    [This comment is repeated below in response to Daniel – for emphasis and to help assure that Daniel sees it.]

    • Thanks, Kenn. As a teacher for many years I taught the Holocaust to students, so I also know “Luther’s vicious treatise” where he advocated the burning of synagogues, and worse. And there’s the passage against others where Luther advocated that the leaders ought to wash their hands in their enemies’ blood.

    • ElizabetB.

      Professors at Luther Seminary in St. Paul were agonizing over these writings in the 90’s when I was there, and there was some speculation that Luther suffered uremic poisoning in later years that affected his mind. One official declaration in 1994 says in part:

      “Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden in this regard [anti-Semitism] because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented….

      “In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther’s own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations. In concert with the Lutheran World Federation, we particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther’s words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day.

      “Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people. We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us….”
      http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/declaration-of-the-evangelical-lutheran-church-in-america-to-the-jewish-community

      I haven’t read the offensive writings (not being a Lutheran, didn’t follow up), only heard of them; it’s a horrible tragedy.

      • Jim Jones

        Luther strikes me as a typical Catholic priest. Many of those I have met seem to be very arrogant, angry men, not at all like the movie versions.

        Forget the antisemitism; he behaves like many of them who have little time or patience with those who won’t do as he tells them.

        If you really want to see them clearly, try cutting off the donations they get weekly, something that did happen early in the pedophilia scandal. They went berserk.

        • ElizabetB.

          Thanks, Jim Jones! … That’s an interesting view of Luther… I usually think of him as a monk, a professor — who argued that every believer is a priest by virtue of their baptism, opposed heavy taxation by the pope, and was officially condemned as a heretic and rebel. It’s discouraging to hear that many of the priests you’ve met are angry and arrogant. I haven’t known many personally, but I like the writings of some like Richard Rohr and Henri Nouwen, and one of my favorite people was an ex-priest I met in Minnesota. Maybe they’re a mixed bag like all of us humans : )

          • Jim Jones

            That’s the vibe. He’s like one of those angry bishops who expects total obedience from everyone – including non-Catholics.

            Sure, some are fine – but this is a type.

            While the conflict has not yet killed 80-year-old Sister Rita Callanan, the nun says that the past few years have left her completely broke. She claims that Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gómez, who finalized the property sale with Perry (he sold their nunnery to Katy Perry for more money and kept it), sent the nuns to retirement homes and closed their bank accounts.

            “I have health issues, I have diabetes and breast cancer,” she told the Mail. According to her account, Gómez has been paying for her monthly convent rent but has neglected to make her health insurance payments on time.

          • ElizabetB.

            What a story!!! If all true, I wonder how Ms. Perry could “sip green tea and find herself” there if she succeeds in the purchase. yuk. How horrible for the archbishop & any similar to this story. ” The good Jesus” and the Hebrew prophets had much to say about “devouring widows’ houses” — none good. Thanks for lifting it up, Jim Jones!
            http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5510721/Nun-says-shes-left-legal-fight-Katy-Perry.html

          • Jim Jones

            The nuns planned to sell the property and move out. They wanted to sell it (for less money) to someone for a mini hotel. Katy Perry offered more money. BTW, it’s possible that if she got the deal the other buyer could have turned around and resold it to Perry for a quick profit.

            Katy has zero fault here. It’s the archbishop who has, if anyone has.

            But this is typical archbishop behavior IME, on multiple levels. No one who knows these people should be amazed.

          • ElizabetB.

            Sounds like money management is part of the lament too…. Sounds like the nuns have not lived there for several years —
            “Sister Callanan says: ‘All we are asking is to sell our own property, keep our own money so we can take care of ourselves until the last person dies, then the money and property can go to the archbishop. There’s not many more years, give me a break. He’s supposed to be a chief shepherd.”
            Seems like there would be yukky vibes moving in after all this. What a tangle!!!

          • Jim Jones

            Nothing about this plus a bishop surprises me. Some can be pleasant people but some are assholes.

        • Linda_LaScola

          There’s a special kind of meanness I’ve seen in catholic priests — many years ago. Their meanness comes from God – in their minds. They can’t be wrong, because they have God’s moral authority behind them.

    • mason

      Ken, “My emotions overrode my intellect” … that’s such an excellent concise way to explain what happened to most all of us. My intellect at age 5 told me Evangelical Christianity, blood sacrifice-a God kills a son for me etc., was repulsive and just plain nuts. But, the constant family, church, cultural pressure, fears of hell and greed for heaven, gave my emotions the power to do the absurd override.
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/48c12542f053d8aec0b47e41784a565130e0bd8e1ccd3448eb7c11e5d6b96050.jpg
      I’ve read hundreds of bio stories of fellow former clergy and how they battled and struggled to regain their authentic intellect. This battle is especially rugged for those steeped in Christian fundamentalism, and then they continue and rebuild a new secular life, which is often an even harder struggle … but they do it! My emotions overrode my intellect. I love it!

  • Jim Jones

    > From there it was a short step to Voltaire, who observed that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. My suspicion was that we humans had done just that.

    The question that has occupied me for a few years now is, what IS a religion? We seem to have a case of “can’t see the forest for the trees”. It’s one thing to come up with a wacky idea like religion, but why do so many people comply with it? I found this a hard question to solve. Until now.

    I finally figured it out the other day. People are wired to form or join groups. These may be families, clans, tribes, cities or countries or more.

    The most basic form for strangers forming a group is a gang. I hardly need to point out how common these are.

    Religions are usually better organized and better structured than common gangs but they still have similarities at their core. It’s a bit surprising how many similarities.

    • ElizabetB.

      Interesting question, and theory. I guess a question would be, what is the common thread among religions that makes us call them religions rather than common gangs?

      • Jim Jones

        Better structure, and a lot less crime. At least by the church as a whole. But look at the outliers where they beat a parishioner to death for trying to leave or being gay or whatever.