May 2, 2019

Dave Gass was an evangelical pastor for some forty years. He took to Twitter recently [but he has now restricted access] — starting on 4-30-19 — in order to proclaim that he had forsaken Christianity. I make replies to his claims below. His words will be in blue. I have no beef with him saying he’s sorry to his former congregants, etc., and so I will not critique those sorts of statements; only reasons he gives for his decision.

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For those of you who want to yell at me, that’s fine. I know that many will call me an apostate, say I was never really saved, that I was a wolf in sheeps clothing, and that a hotter hell awaits me. And to you I say I love you. My heart is tender toward you.

No one can definitively know those things. Even John Calvin taught that no one knows for sure who is among the elect. We know from the Bible (i.e., those of us who accept its inspiration and status as a revelation) that there is such a thing as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We can’t know for sure if Dave is or was that. He is an apostate, which means, former Christian or one who has rejected Christianity. That’s uncontroversial.

Most Christians throughout history have believed that one can fall from grace or salvation; can lose salvation. I believed that as an evangelical, and I do now as a Catholic. So I need not deny that Dave was ever a Christian. I assume that he truly was one. There is also a real hell that awaits those who know that God exists and that Christianity is true, and who reject both. We can’t know for sure that Dave is headed for this hell. He may be; he may not be (he could return to faith again, for all we know).

Nor do I have to “yell” at him.  My job as a Christian apologist is (for others’ sake) to demonstrate how nothing he says refutes Christianity or provides sufficient warrant for him to forsake the faith, and (for his sake) to charitably try to persuade him of his errors, if he is willing to listen.

Eventually I pulled the lever and dropped the bomb. Career, marriage, family, social standing, network, reputation, all gone in an instant. And honestly I didn’t intend to fully walk away, but the way the church turned on me forced me to leave permanently.

Well, I would have to know more about the details of how “the church turned on” Dave, to make an informed comment.

I was a part of a system that enslaves people, and I was both a slave and a slave driver. We called chains freedom, and misery happiness. We had impossible standards that we could not meet so we turned the attention on others so the spotlight wasn’t on our own inadequacies.

That’s an extraordinary accusation to make, and it does not describe true Christianity or the best that can be found in Christianity. It’s ridiculously broad and thus has little meaning. For those who don’t like God’s laws and moral precepts, I suppose it would feel a bit like being a slave. But the question then becomes: why don’t they like them? What is it about God’s revelation and Christian teaching that is so terrible, so as to feel oppressive rather than freeing? A simple broad statement like this has little content to examine.

I agree that Christian standards are impossible to meet: under our own power. This is precisely why we have grace and the Holy Spirit to give us the power and ability to abide by Christian teachings. All Christians agree on that. But if those are spurned (which are the result of sin and rebellion, or false premises leading to an intellectual rejection), then this would be a serious problem, and we wouldn’t be able to live out the faith. Dave wants to blame God and the Christian system for that shortcoming. I would tend to suspect that the root of the problem lies somewhere in him.

I learned that love is real. That acceptance is possible. That life is vibrant and full. But the church burdens people with fear, shame, and guilt, all for the purpose of maintaining control. I now see the church as a system perfectly curated to control people and culture.

Again, such super-broad statements are difficult to critique, or for Dave to prove. On the surface, they appear to me to be over-emotional and irrational. The last sentence seems to come right out of standard anti-theist-type atheist talking points. “We are what we eat.” If Dave started reading anti-theist polemics, then he would start to change his thinking, until one day everything just snapped, and he felt that atheism was more plausible than Christianity.

There are millions of us who have found an inner peace and joy and fulfillment in Christianity that we have fond nowhere else. We’re happy. We have no reason to leave. Quite the contrary. Our experience is not Dave’s. I was a practical atheist / non-practicing Christian / occult enthusiast for ten years. I certainly was nowhere near as happy and personally fulfilled as I have been since committing my life to Jesus. Dave has his experience; we have ours.

During this time I also found something amazing: I found a handful of people who were more Christian than any Christian I had ever met – and they weren’t Christian. I found love in places where love wasn’t supposed to exist. I found acceptance among people who were godless.

One can find good people in any belief-system. I suppose this would also entail defining what Dave thinks is “Christian” and “love.”

Eventually I could not maintain the facade anymore, I started to have mental and emotional breaks.

And how is that all God’s fault, or Christianity’s fault? It’s not specific enough. It just sounds like atheist talking points and saying what his new “choir”: the atheists –, love to hear.

My internal stress started to show in physical symptoms. Being a pastor – a professional Christian – was killing me.

There are many possible reasons for that: none of which necessarily stem from God or Christianity, rightly understood. He could have gotten a raw deal from certain Christians, who sinned and mistreated him. Maybe he was in the wrong profession in the first place, which would be highly stressful. We don’t have enough information. But a certain number of Christian sinners don’t disprove Christianity at all, just as the atheists (at least the ones politically to the left) always tell us that Stalin and Mao and Marxist atheism doesn’t mean that all atheists or Marxism / Communism are that way. 

This massive cognitive dissonance – my beliefs not matching with reality – created a separation between my head and my heart. I was gaslighting myself to stay in the faith.

Once again it’s too vague to be able to critique. He has to offer objective and not just subjective reasons at some point.

I spent my entire life serving, loving, and trying to help people in my congregations. And the lies, betrayal, and slander I have received at the hands of church people left wounds that may never heal.

What happened? But even if terrible things did happen and he was wronged, this is no disproof of Christianity or God. It’s proof that Christians are sinners like everyone else and capable of great sin: which is what Christianity taught all along.

And the entire system is rife with abuse. And not just from the top down, sure there are abusive church leaders, but church leaders are abused by their congregants as well.

And there is nary a ray of light or hope anywhere in the whole system? He expects us to believe that this is true of the entirety of a billion Christians? If it were truly that bad he would have never devoted 40 years of his life to the pastorate. That would only have proven that he was virtually self-deluded and acting irrationally the whole time: if we accept his report of universal sin and drudgery and bondage and cruelty, etc.

All the while, the experience I had within the church was that a lot (granted, not all) people use the church for power and influence. Many involved people in churches use it as their small kingdom for personal control and ego.

This is better: finally a qualification. Some Christians do indeed fall into those sins, and others don’t do this. Of course it’s patently obvious that any large social group will have good- and bad-behaving people in it. All this amounts to saying, then, is “there are good and bad people on the earth, and I’ve personally run across a lot of bad ones.” We already knew that. So his claim is that other huge social groups are exponentially better than Christian ones? I don’t think so. That’s just not reality or the real world.

An inescapable reality that I came to was that the people who benefited the most from organized religion were the fringe attenders who didn’t take it too seriously. The people who were devout were the most miserable, but just kept trying harder.

That’s the exact opposite of my experience and that of millions of other Christians, and also the opposite of many secular social studies showing that the most devout, observant Christians are happier and more fulfilled: even including their sexual and marital happiness. That ain’t just Christians saying it (what we would expect): it’s social science.

I traveled on speaking teams, preached to thousands of teenagers at a time, wrote blogs, was published, formed curriculum, taught workshops, was an up-and-comer reforming my denomination. The whole time hoping at some point it would click, and become true for me.

So he did all this for forty years, not believing it was true? That would be deceptive. It sounds like he was trying to coast along on his own power, and this is precisely what Christianity itself teaches is impossible (that would be the heresy of Pelagianism, or salvation by our own self-generated works, apart from the grace that alone can enable good works and salvation). Something’s gotta give there. But he was responsible for actually believing what he was teaching others, instead of playing some game of going through the motions (and getting paid by his congregants). If that’s the sort of “dual life” that he has been leading all these years, I can certainly see how he could grow tired of it.

But the blame lies on him, not God, or the Christian system. He wants to blame God. No one forced him at gunpoint to be a pastor or to do all this stuff. I do what I do as an apologist (in some form for 38 years now) because I absolutely love it and  believe 100% in what I am doing, and believe with every fiber of my being that God called me to it. I don’t have to pretend that I am something I am not.

I pastored mega churches & tiny churches. I did college ministry, camp ministry, youth ministry, music ministry, preaching ministry, church planting – everything in the church except work in the nursery. And what I saw was people desperate for the system to work for them.

Yeah, he did a lot of stuff. Jesus said there were people who did all kinds of things and called Him “Lord, Lord” yet were never among His flock to begin with. We don’t know if Dave is in that category, but it’s not an impossibility. All those ostensibly good works and sacrificial service don’t necessarily prove anything. And was it truly out of love? St. Paul observed:

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. [2] And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. [3] If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 

My devoutly christian parents were abusive,

Was that God and Christianity’s fault, or theirs?

my marriage was a sham,

Was that God and Christianity’s fault, or his and/or his wife’s?

prayer was never answered, miracles were never performed. People died, children rebelled, marriages failed, addictions occurred – all at the same rate as non believers. The system just doesn’t work.

That was his experience. It is not that of many millions of Christians. Just in my own family,  my wife and I and our oldest son Paul have all experienced healing. 

In 40 years I never witnessed a single event that was supernatural. Not one. Time and again I watched people die of cancer. I did funerals for 47 people from the age of 4 to 96. I prayed in faith with hundreds of people for healing to no avail. god didn’t answer prayers.

So what does this prove? People die; therefore, Christianity isn’t true? How much longer was the 96-year-old supposed to live, in order for Dave to believe that it wasn’t God’s fault that he or she died? It becomes absurd . . . Miracles are always very rare by nature. But they do exist. And there is plenty of documentation for them: some of which I have written about.

The more I read and studied the scriptures the more questions I had. Literally from the first chapter to the last, so many problems. And the more I learned about how the scriptures were canonized, the less I could believe in the “inerrancy” model that I had to espouse.

At last he finally provides some objective reason for his apostasy. The atheists can provide hundreds of supposed biblical contradictions. I’ve dealt with dozens of them, and they are uniformly unimpressive. But if one keeps reading their stuff along those lines, one will tend to start believing it. Loss of faith has to be coddled and cultivated. It’s a long process.

I’ve written about canonization, and see nothing in that process that would be a knockout punch against biblical inspiration or Christianity.

I devoured all the “christian apologetics” books that came out, and none of them answered my questions regarding the nature of god and the problems I found within the Scriptures. I found these books to be trite, dismissive, and full of pseudo science and evidence.

None of them helped in the slightest. They were complete bunk, and anti-science to boot. This is becoming ludicrous and ridiculous. It’s the refuge of the person who has few effective arguments, to make absurd generalizations of this sort.

I was fully devoted to studying the scriptures. I think I missed maybe 12 Sundays in 40 years. I had completely memorized 18 books of the bible and was reading through the bible for the 24th time when I walked away.

Yeah, we know . . . already answered.

As an adult my marriage was a sham and a constant source of pain for me. I did everything I was supposed to – marriage workshops, counseling, bible reading together, date nights every week, marriage books – but my marriage never became what I was promised it would be.

But that wasn’t Dave’s fault at all. After all, he did all he could! Much easier to blame God and one’s faith community, isn’t it?

I was raised in a hyper-fundamentalist family, and it felt good to be in a system that promised all the answer and solutions to life. The problem is, the system didn’t work. The promises were empty. The answers were lies.

Ah, now we may finally have gotten to the real root of the problem. I have long noted how so many atheist deconverts were from a fundamentalist background. They then equate fundamentalism with all of Christianity. In fact it is an anti-intellectual, stunted fringe offshoot of one portion (evangelicals) of a minority (Protestantism) of all Christianity (which also includes Catholicism and Orthodoxy). It ain’t the whole ball of wax. And I get sick and tired of folks who leave this system, pretending that it represents Christianity as a whole. It does not.

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While I was writing this — almost finished –, Dave restricted access to his Twitter account to followers only. I saw that he had mentioned that he read Greek philosophy early on and that the seeds of doubt planted “never went away.” This was exactly my point. He never fully believed in Christianity, yet he was willing to be in that system as a pastor, supported financially by those who did believe. So maybe they found out at length this two-faced, intellectually dishonest existence he had been leading, and were not pleased, and some (being flawed human beings, as we all are) acted sinfully, and maybe others simply rebuked him; but he took all of it as sinful, traitorous treatment.

And so he rejects the Christian community as a whole. It sure sounds like sour grapes: he wants to blame them and God and the Bible (and fundamentalism) for many things which were in fact his fault. I’m just going by his own report and making conclusions: admittedly speculative, but not, I don’t think, beyond possibility or plausibility.

But once again, we see nothing compelling whatsoever here to lead anyone else to believe that Christianity must be false, and that God doesn’t exist. I see a lot of griping, grumbling, blame-shifting, broad-brushing, straw men, and rationalizing self-justification. He never believed in it the entire time; hence, he wrote:The whole time hoping at some point it would click, and become true for me.”

So now he offers up atheist talking points and preaching to the atheist choir (who predictably respond with their droning, clone-like “rah-rahs”). He will get plenty of praise and adulation there, and if this is what he seeks, then he’ll be happy as a pig in mud. We all love to be admired and acclaimed, don’t we? But it’s not the lasting, inner peace and joy and fulfillment that true, full-bodied Christianity offers: Christianity that he never seems to have either understood or experienced, because he was within mere fundamentalism, and tried to do things on his own power, minus the Holy Spirit and grace, which is how God always intended it to be.

May he yet discover true Christianity and the true God by God’s grace.

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Photo credit: [Max PixelCreative Commons Zero – CC0 license]

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May 2, 2019

VicqRuiz was replying to one portion of my paper, Unanswered Questions for a Former Catholic Atheist, in the combox underneath it. His words will be in blue.

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[me] 5. Could you have passed a quiz on the basic doctrines of Christianity(say, those agreed-upon by virtually all Christians: Nicene Creed-type beliefs): let alone the more specifically, distinctively Catholic doctrines?

(Apologies if I’ve posted the comment below on your site before, I have raised this question several times on several different blogs)

I spent the first sixteen years of my life as one of the few Scandahoovian, unbelieving kids in a very Eastern European (mostly Polish and Czech), very cradle Catholic, neighborhood of Chicago.

And to the best of my recollection, most of the neighborhood kids and their parents were not particularly learned in theology. Their Catholicism seemed very much centered upon custom and ritual, rather than examination of the doctrines of the faith. In other words, they “just believed”.

That’s perfectly fine by me. I have no desire whatever to weaken the faith of those who “just believe”, and would never press the works of skeptical philosophers upon then with the insistence that unless they can read and disprove them, their faith is unsubstantiated.

I don’t think it works both ways.

It seems to me that Christian apologists, and in particular Catholics, are unwilling to accept the idea that unbelievers, whether of the cradle sort or whether “deconverted”, are entitled to “just not believe”. There is an insistence that unless the unbeliever can in detail dispense with the specific creeds and dogmas of Christianity, that his unbelief is not to be fully respected.

Again, as I have already alluded to, it’s two different things. The average Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox has a lousy, usually nonexistent knowledge of apologetics. I totally agree there. But they are not making the claim, “I believe in x because of a, b, c, . . . ”

The deconvert, on the other hand, who takes the trouble to publicly write about their reasons for leaving Christianity, is making the claim, “Christianity [and the Bible] are false because of d, e, f , . . .”

In other words, if they want to “just not believe” and go about their business and not pester Christians for their beliefs, or in effect, “preach atheism” then the question to be asked is, “why are they making this a public issue and making claims that can now be examined in the public arena of ideas and inquiry?” If they aren’t willing to engage on that stage, then why did they write their story? Just for the atheist choir?

If they write about it in public, then they are in effect implying that they are willing to engage one who disagrees. Yet when I come around and disagree, it’s 90% rank hostility for even daring to think of doing such an outrageous thing (with some of the more well-known atheists, like John Loftus, getting the most angry and out-of-control offended). It makes no sense.

If you want to be a blissfully happy atheist who can’t defend why you are one (just like most Christians can’t defend their beliefs, either: which is why I do what I do), then go do it and be silent. But if you “come out and fight,” don’t urinate your pants and moan if an apologist like me attempts to be a gadfly and puncture this bubble of reality that you have constructed.

All I’m doing as an apologist is taking a critical look at d, e, f, and any other reasons given, to see if they can stand up to scrutiny. So far, in my opinion, with over 25 or so such analyses done, I’ve yet to find a former Christian whose reasons d-f, etc. could stand up to and withstand critique. That is my experience. I can’t change it. I don’t claim that it’s universal. But it is a striking unanimity of theological ignorance and straw men.

Therefore, I conclude that the given rational reasons in these particular cases, for rejecting Christianity, fail.

In order to overcome those arguments of mine, the atheist or agnostic has to show how my counter-reasoning goes astray. So far, few if any want to do that. They go right to meta-analysis: much like you have done here. That’s fine, but it’s fundamentally different from my endeavor.

Lastly, my #5 that you cite, and my #4, dealt with catechesis (what we believe), not apologetics (why we believe what we believe). Thus, I was simply looking to see if this person could identify basic Christian beliefs in, say, a multiple-choice test.

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Photo credit:  Alberto G. (7-26-06) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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April 27, 2019

From the combox of the post: A Conversation About Deconversion, And Why People Share Their Stories (Luciano Gonzalez, 7-23-17).

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Bravo Sierra:

The question that matters to me with regard to Dave Armstrong is: Why would a person go to such trouble to pick apart a deconversion story if they know that a deconversion story is a personal narrative which is not meant to apply to all followers of Christianity ™ and will convince no one who is not already in your camp?

The answer, I suspect, is to ingratiate oneself with one’s fans. As motives go, it’s selfish and unkind.

I made quite clear what my perspective and motivation was, in the Introduction to two of my critiques (if you saw or read those at all):

Since these are public (else I wouldn’t know about them in the first place), it’s reasonable to assume that they are more than merely subjective / personal matters, that have no bearing on anyone else. No; it is assumed (it seems to me) that these stories are thought to offer rationales of various sorts for others to also become atheists or to be more confirmed in their own atheism. This being the case, since they are public critiques of Christianity (hence, fair game for public criticism), as a Christian (Catholic) apologist, I have a few thoughts in counter-reply.

I am not questioning the sincerity of these persons or the truthfulness of their self-reports, or any anguish that they went through. I accept their words at face value. I’m not arguing that they are terrible, evil people (that’s a child’s game). My sole interest is in showing if and where certain portions of these deconversion stories contain fallacious or non-factual elements: where they fail to make a point against Christianity (what Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls “defeating the defeaters”), or misrepresent (usually unwittingly) Christianity as a whole, or the Bible, etc.

Agree or disagree, that is my motivation. But rather than address that, you choose to second-guess my motives and make unfounded accusations: “The answer, I suspect, is to ingratiate oneself with one’s fans. As motives go, it’s selfish and unkind.”

As to my fans, very few Christians have any interest at all in my critiques of deconversions. This is shown by how few likes and comments these articles get when cross-posted to Facebook. They care very little about it. Thus, that makes no sense as any kind of motive. There is huge interest in the atheist community (as witnessed by this very post and several others), but of course they are not my “fans.” So that is dead-wrong.

As for “unkind”, somehow, all the main atheist figures that I have interacted with have been perfectly gracious, and have not indicated at all that I shouldn’t have done what I did. Jonathan MS Pearce just put up a post saying that he hoped I would continue. He challenged me to interact with his extensive material on the infancy narratives of the Bible, and I agreed to do so.

Dr. Daniel Fincke seemed almost ecstatic that I came around. He called my critique “very genial” and said that it was “serendipitous” that a Catholic apologist showed up at an opportune time; that this caused him to come out of a blogging hiatus. Hardly offense or antipathy or “hurt” there, as to whether I should do it at all . . . Quite the contrary!

Anthony Toohey, whose story I critiqued, has also been very friendly and we are in ongoing discussions.

So if they don’t care and don’t make these accusations, why should you? And why couldn’t you simply make your point without the attack on my motives and character? Luciano didn’t have to do that. He stated that he thought I was “honest” and felt no compulsion to attack me for merely doing some critiques.

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Jon Morgan:

For me it always felt wrong that the standard of evidence for leaving Christianity would be higher than the standard of evidence for accepting Christianity (in my case, being brought up with it would be the biggest factor). And yet there is a feel that no matter what reasons you give someone will say “You should have investigated this other thing” or “I accept that and I’m still Christian, so you should accept my rationalisation and return to Christianity”.

No deconversion story is going to be complete, and it’s certainly not going to contain the years of doubts and questions and explorations that some (including me) have followed before reaching our current point.

Likewise, nothing we ever say convinces the atheist that we have warrant for our beliefs. Works both ways.

Instead, we are constantly accused (by many but not all atheists) of being gullible, infantile, stupid, anti-science, anti-reason, etc.

If you’re confident in your beliefs, you will welcome challenges to these stories (just as I absolutely love to be challenged), and in fact, so far that has been precisely the response from two of the three that I critiqued. The third hasn’t commented on it.

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[more from the Facebook cross-posting]

Jon Curry:

Do you think the standard you have for deconversions matches the standard you have for conversions? Every conversion story I’ve heard from someone personally is not rational. In fact they have admitted as much to me. Very depressed or emotional, people turn to faith and find comfort, community, friendships. Later they might become convinced of evidence, but it’s rarely if ever an actual reason for joining.

Yes. I do what I do every day because of the lack of knowledge of the “whys” of Catholicism and Christianity, Ignorance is a scourge in every class of people.

Rejecting something and accepting something are different, however. If someone says that “x is untrue” then they need to offer serious reasons for such a claim. I analyze those, and I have found them wanting in the case of deconversions.

But the basis of the warrant or justification for accepting Christianity is vastly different than the reasoning (real or imagined) used to reject same.

You and other atheists are free to critique our reasons for being Christians. Likewise, we are free to critique yours for splitting.

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(originally 7-23-17)

Photo credit: paulsbarlow7 (5-19-15) [PixabayPixabay License]

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April 25, 2019

I think these exchanges are models of what is indeed possible, if both sides will listen a bit and stop the incessant suspicion and insults; just talk to each other. This occurred on my blog.

*****

“Illithid” I don’t usually read your blog, though some of the articles seem interesting and I may start. You seem thoughtful and polite.

Casual recollection of many atheist deconversion stories makes me suspect that I disagree with your point here, at least partially. I have read numerous accounts of atheists who left Christianity because they began to study it in depth. Who read apologetics in a sometimes desperate attempt to retain their faith… and failed. I’ve also read atheists’ comments and blog posts that recount how other atheists’ works helped them discard their faith.

I’d like to edit and expand this a bit, but I have to get to work.

Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate that.

Yeah, me too (as to your opinion expressed). But also (invariably in my experience), the reasons given are insufficient, in my opinion, to compel anyone to reject Christianity. Oftentimes, it is a matter of basic facts of error or in logic. I just finished a critique of one such deconversion story today. But my point in the post above is quite simple: atheists mostly preach to their own choirs, just as Christians preach to theirs.

Jon Morgan In my experience, no person ever gives all the reasons for rejecting Christianity (or, on your side, for accepting it). They may give arguments that they feel more compelling, they may give arguments that they think simpler to explain, they may give personal experiences which compelled them but which they know cannot compel anyone else.

I think there is also some amount of “death by a thousand cuts”. There are many things that as a believer I could defend with no trouble, and so if I now raised them as objections you would be equally entitled to say they are insufficient to compel anyone to reject Christianity. But I think the hundreds of details I now see problems with have a cumulative weight that the isolated examples lack.

I moved from a fundamentalist Christianity to a more liberal Christianity, I understood the principles of literary interpretation used, and I had plenty inviting me to move further along the spectrum. But ultimately, I didn’t consider it compelling. To me, the elephant in the room is burden of proof. There needs to be a reason to accept the Bible as God’s inspired word, and, crucially, there needs to be a reason to accept one of the hundreds of competing Biblical interpretations. I felt too many said “It is possible to interpret the Bible in this way that would remove doubt X, so therefore it must be the correct interpretation” or “The Bible is never wrong, it’s your interpretation that’s wrong”. Giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt would be consistent with an inspired book, but to me does little to prove it is an inspired book. Similarly, many of the literary characteristics discussed in less fundamentalist circles are consistent with human authorship of the book – but do they show divine inspiration of those humans?

I’m not going to go into details just because I find in such discussions neither side can do full justice to their position. But rest assured that I have probably heard most of your arguments, and you have probably heard most of mine.

Good comment. Thanks. Are you still a liberal Christian, or now an atheist?

Atheist.

Another question that came to me (which you may partially answer in your reply to Illithid above): You talk about insufficient reason to compel someone to reject Christianity. Do you think the bar should be higher for deconversion than it was for conversion? For me, my first reason for being Christian was that my parents were, and I always “knew” it was right. I didn’t make an objective assessment of all religions and choose Christianity as most likely to be right. So in principle there was no reason (other than social) for me to privilege the Christian worldview or start by assuming it was correct.

I, like you, have seen atheist testimonies where their objections or doubts seem fairly simple. But as far as I can tell they were never given much stronger reasons to believe. Is it so unreasonable? There seems a danger of viewing their oversimplistic faith as good while it lasts, then blaming it when it fails. But they’re two sides of the same coin.

Yes, I did develop a more complex faith, and a combination of social and intellectual reasons meant I wanted to be as sure as I could be before quitting. But really, I had never viewed it from any perspective other than “this must be right – let’s just figure out how it’s right”. And that’s not a good frame of mind for assessing whether it truly is right.

Sorry, my comments always seem to drag on longer than I intend…

This is a great dialogue. Thanks.

I think conversions (or adherences) either way should ultimately be based on (or at least be in harmony with) rational considerations.

Not everyone has the same intellectual capacity, of course, but in proportion as we are able to think deeply, I think we all have a responsibility and duty to pursue reason, evidence, and intellectual justification and warrant.

I’m not saying that either religious or atheist belief is solely intellectual, either. But insofar as they are, they should be deeply reflected upon from the standpoint of reason.

In my case, I would roughly describe it as “Emotional reasons caused me to re-investigate my faith. That re-investigation led me to rational 
reasons to disbelieve, and I quit because of those rational reasons.”

But I know if I mention the emotional reasons, some will critique them as if the rational reasons didn’t exist. And I’m sure emotions play a part even in the section I’d like to call “rational”.

To me it comes down to this: Just because I cannot articulate all my reasons (let alone persuade others they are good) doesn’t mean they’re not there. And that applied to my Christian belief just as much as my current atheist position. Even before rationally analysing reasons to believe, it took a long time to understand more than just a feeling there were good reasons why I was still Christian.

It’s true that not all are able to articulate reasons for some change of mind (be they good or bad reasons). I understand that.

Part one of my story is that I didn’t think much about religion as a preteen, being raised by a Methodist-raised “apatheist” father and a lapsed Catholic mother, it just wasn’t discussed. I don’t know if they had some sort of armed truce on the subject or just didn’t care that much. But I apparently absorbed enough cultural Christianity to be susceptable at age 13 to a brief conversion by a pair of suited teenagers in a mall. Ten minutes and I was in tears reciting the Sinner’s Prayer.

They probably felt a sense of accomplishment. However, as a result I started to read the Bible. At Genesis I was saying, “ummm… no.” At Job, what struck me was the offhand killing of the family and servants. But he got replacements, so no harm done, right? Then Exodus. God sends Moses “so that my name may be magnified in the land of Egypt”. Twice Pharoah (which one?) is going to release the Israelites, but God hardens his heart. So much for free will (I thought later). Then he kills all the firstborn, who had nothing to do with the situation. Monstrous.

Also, I was praying. Not for a pony or such. To be a better person. To understand. What I gradually understood was that I was talking into a dead phone. Not even a dial tone. Like writing a letter to Santa.

I didn’t know the word, but two weeks after my teary mall conversion I was an atheist.

So you think now that you were capable of understanding all the complexities of the Bible at 13, so that you were justified to become an atheist?

I’ve written about the hardening hearts issue, twice (one / two). It’s a typical example of the Hebrew / biblical “both / and” mindset.

This seems uncharitable. I did say that was “part one”. It’s not as if I thought I had it all figured out at 13 (36 years ago, by the way) and never troubled myself again about the subject.

Well, I wasn’t referring to your development since then: only to the fact that at 13 you felt you could reject the Bible in all of two weeks and move to atheism.

So I asked specifically whether you think that is plausible: to have such knowledge in two weeks at age 13. That’s what I wondered about. No one can even read the Bible in so short a time, let alone have ample reason to reject it and move to atheism.

The hardening hearts thing is just one example where you misunderstood. I wouldn’t expect a 13 yo (or most adults) to understand Hebrew both/and reasoning (because it’s very different from our Greek-derived approach). And this is my point.

I wasn’t trying to be uncharitable at all, but rather, I was appealing to fairness in judging other views, and the folly of a 13 yo thinking he can make such major decisions, and in so short a time.

I figured that you would readily agree with that much.

This is the kind of thing I was talking about, though. I’d probably agree that a few weeks study at age 13 is too short a time to categorically reject Christianity. But that cuts both ways: 10 minutes and a sinner’s prayer is far too short a time to credibly accept Christianity. Two weeks seems to me quite sufficient for recognising you have been pressured into a hasty commitment and backing away again (almost sounds like “counting the cost”…). I think this is similar to what I said earlier about burden of proof: if a person has not had a chance to evaluate all the arguments, atheism seems to me a reasonable default position. Not a form of atheism that rules out any further investigation, but a “lack of belief” form that does not preference any particular religious tradition for cultural reasons.

I agree. That’s why Catholics don’t go for this “instant salvation” nonsense. It’s not biblical, it’s not sensible, and it is foreign to most forms of Christianity throughout history.

Weren’t there mass baptisms during the conquest of Central America?

That’s regeneration in our thinking, but not necessarily assurance of final salvation (as in some Protestant views).

I suppose that’s fair. I’ll admit to having a very incomplete understanding at the time. I don’t even claim to be an expert now, and I knew a lot less then. But I had examined the subject and decided I didn’t believe the claims of Christianity. I had no belief in any gods, and was therefore an atheist.

Stick around. We are able to talk constructively. Right now I’m being pursued by about 40 atheists; more than half of them think I’m a dishonest scumbag.

Gads! Well, if it’s any consolation, I don’t think you’re a dishonest scumbag, I think you’ve been misled by an institutional con job that’s refined its methods over millennia. :-)

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(originally 7-18-17)

Photo credit: The Kingdome demolition (Seattle: 3-26-00; courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives). It had been constructed in 1976. [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]

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March 28, 2019

I have long noted as regards deconversion stories from Christian to atheist, that, very often, these accounts of an exodus out of Christianity have the following characteristics:

1) an initial fundamentalist belief, which is thought to be the sum total of Christianity (as if there are no other more thoughtful and nuanced species of it).

2) rejection of various straw men, which do not represent the most informed versions of Christianity; “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

3) highlighting of terrible, hypocritical Christians, rather than the best examples.

4) acceptance of the notion that atheism is the only alternative to rejection of (what amounts to) straw men and lousy, inadequate versions of Christianity.

I have observed these motifs in these stories over and over and over, as I have critiqued a great number of them (word-search “Deconversion” on my Atheism web page). As long as atheists keep writing their stories, and implying that they can offer profound and supposedly solid, unanswerable reasons for leaving Christianity, we Christians (especially apologists like me) can just as easily critique them and show how and why the reasoning is fallacious and unsuccessful in establishing atheism or the falsity of Christianity.

Goose and gander. Yet, I often meet with great hostility when I do so (atheist author and “debater” John Loftus being the most outrageous and hilarious example): as if it were the rudest thing in the world and essentially improper and unethical to examine a public attack on Christianity.

I ran across a deconversion story by one Don R., on the Patheos website, Recovering from Religion: Ex-Communications. It is entitled, “My Escape from the Belly of the Beast” (9-24-18). It exhibits all of these typical traits. Don’s words will be in blue. I will go right to examples of fallacious thinking, false dilemmas, needless exaggerations and category mistakes, false dichotomies, factual error, etc.

*****

[W]e were brought up in a very strict fundamental Christian household.

As so very often in these stories . . . Fundamentalism is a small minority and fringe portion of evangelical Protestantism, which is one portion of Protestant Christianity, which is  itself a minority of all Christians. Thus, to reject fundamentalism is not at all to reject all of Christianity (not even all of evangelicalism or Protestantism).

It is a rejection of what is in many respects the very worst and insubstantial and least intellectually respectable form of Christianity. Yet we’ll see that Don never seriously considers any other form of Christianity before departing. Those of us who never grew up as fundamentalists never cease to marvel at these sorts of “tunnel vision” dynamics.

You see, our father was a pedophile and was molesting my sister and I for years. Our stepmother had very little use for us, . . . 

I am very sorry to hear about this tragic situation. But this is the motif of the “lousy, hypocritical” Christians: often (in these stories) subtly implying that a huge number or even a majority or most Christians are this way (not just pedophilia, but any serious sin), which is not true. Christianity has its “bad apples” just like any large social group does.

But it’s not fair to judge a religion based on its worst practitioners, or in some cases: literal “wolves in sheep’s clothing”: folks who never were Christians at all and only claimed to be (the ones that Jesus condemned because they say “Lord, Lord” but refuse to do what He commands them to do).

Our stepmother remained very religious (to this day she is fanatical in her beliefs) . . . 

Again, if this is true fanaticism, rather than what Don thinks is fanatical simply because it is Christian, then it is an example of the extremes of Christianity. In other words, to reject true fanaticism is to reject a distortion and corruption of Christianity (which I have always done, myself), rather than the thing itself.

From early teens to mid-twenties, I still held a belief in god, but I just didn’t want to be around any of his people.

One can see why. If he had actually met some good, loving, Christlike Christians, then things might very well have been much different, right? If the terrible Christians drive one away, then it stands to reason that good examples of Christians would draw one in. Don does talk about his increasing church involvement as being “rewarding and fulfilling” and states that he “really loved the feeling of community.” So he must have found some (good) Christians that he enjoyed being around. Glad to hear it!

When people would come to me with their hard questions, I would share my process with them and help them come to “correct” answers, always based on the infallibility of the bible and the pure goodness of god. And every time I did that, there was a little voice saying “that doesn’t make sense”, which I ignored… because it felt so good to know that I was helping people be stronger in their faith.

This is rather subjective. We could simply reply that he wasn’t very good at apologetics and didn’t provide (or find in research) the best answer that could be given; therefore, he felt a nagging doubt. It doesn’t prove that there were no solid, plausible answers to be had.

I remember when I realized that even the people I believed were fully dedicated to god had their own doubts. 

Everyone has doubts and befuddlement about various doctrines and beliefs: whether concerning Christianity or anything else. The question is whether they add up to outright unbelief, or are simply areas that require further thought and study.

Eddie (not his real name) was every bit as passionate about god as I was, and we had many nights of great discussions. I knew that he was fully committed and sought god with all his heart. So, when I found out that he believed in theistic evolution (the theory that god used evolution to create the earth), I was stunned.

Why? There have been Christians who were theistic evolutionists right from the beginning of Darwin’s theory in 1859; for example, the botanist Asa Gray. Darwin wrote to Gray in 1881, “there is hardly any one in the world whose approbation I value more highly than I do yours.” Darwin conceded to Gray that his theories were “not at all necessarily atheistical.” This was also the position of Darwin’s good friend Thomas Henry Huxley: himself an agnostic, but without insisting that the only form of evolutionism must be materialistic (i.e., atheistic). Darwin, after all, had developed his theory while he was still a Christian or at least theist. That is beyond question.

You see, I believed in a literal interpretation of the bible, and to hear that someone who was as fully devoted as I was could believe in evolution was really difficult.

Exactly. This is fundamentalism. But an informed, educated approach to the Bible understands that the Bible has many literary genres and modes of expression, and is not always to be taken literally (though many times it is). To hold that it must always be interpreted literally is simply “Bible ignorance.”

I had just assumed that god made everything clear to those who diligently sought him, so how could we believe two very different things about the creation of the world?

They could and did because Christianity has enough latitude to  allow different views on the particulars of scientific matters. The Bible isn;t a scientific textbook. Good, orthodox Christians believed that the creation story was not necessarily literal (literally, six 24-hour days) at least as far back as St. Augustine (354-430).

This was the first of several times that my beliefs were shaken by things like this.

There was no need for such a crisis at all, if he had simply realized that he was in a fundamentalist fish tank and couldn’t imagine any other Christian paradigm. So because of that he gets “shaken” and this is included in his story of why he eventually forsook Christianity. It’s not an adequate reason at all.

Earlier in his story he noted how “Many evenings I would read Christian authors and study apologetics. I had 2 large bookcases filled with religious books and had read every page.” So we’re to believe that he had never encountered a good Christian or Christian book who believed (or which explained) that God used evolution as His method of creation? That’s hard to believe. What: did he only read fundamentalist apologetics?

There would be two writers that I deeply respected who held opposite beliefs on the role of women in the church. There were very different views on the “once saved always saved” or can you lose your salvation issue.

Yes, Christians differ on many issues. But disagreement doesn’t prove that no one got it right, or that there is no one correct position. If, for example, one person believes that the earth is flat and a second believes it is shaped like an egg, this doesn’t disprove that it is actually a sphere. All it proves (by strict logic) is that they can’t both be right. But they may both be wrong, with the actual truth found elsewhere.

But we can say concerning the “losing salvation” issue, that the vast majority of Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, many Arminian denominations, pentecostals, a good proportion of Baptists, etc.), have believed that one can lose salvation or fall from grace or the Christian faith.  It’s mostly Calvinists / Presbyterians and fundamentalists who disagree.

On most issues we can look to determine whether a large majority of the sum of all Christians accepts a thing, while a much smaller minority does not. And that should tell us something. But internal Christian disagreement is no compelling reason to become an atheist. All it proves is that Christians disagree and often are shortsighted (and too often, plain stupid), just as any group of people do.

Science is largely the same as theology in this “sociological” respect. Fifty years ago, things like the Big Bang Theory or plate tectonics were not as firmly established as they are today, with the vast majority of scientists agreeing. Some still disagree, but the likelihood or plausibility is that a view taken by almost all scientists will turn out to be the actual fact of the matter.

But I couldn’t understand why the deeply faithful would come to opposite decisions about the biggies. . . . I just couldn’t ever fathom why there would be such discord among the “true believers”.

For the same reason that scientists and philosophers have massive disagreements amongst themselves, and especially through time: over hundreds of years. There can be many reasons (good and bad) for why folks disagree with and contradict each other. But to add these up and conclude, “I reject the entire system as rubbish” is quite a jump and a stretch, and exceedingly difficult on an epistemological level.

One week, he began a 4 part series on the story of Noah and the flood. He came at it from a totally different perspective than I had ever heard or thought of before, and I was enthralled. On the 4th Sunday, he mentioned that there were different interpretations of the story within the church, and he brought up the fact that the flood story actually appeared in earlier writings that were not biblical at all. I was stunned. Could it be true that the bible borrowed the flood story from earlier secular writings (hint: Epic of Gilgamesh)? It was just a fable?

Huh? The reasoning here is very convoluted. How is it that simply because another culture also had a story of a massive Flood, therefore, somehow it becomes a “fable”? Isn’t it much more likely and plausible that an event of such shattering magnitude would be recorded by someone besides the Hebrews? Therefore, the mere presence of a similar story elsewhere is no disproof of the biblical account at all.

Pagan or heathen parallels or precursors do not necessarily “disprove” the biblical account. Thus, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) notes how such parallel stories of the Flood, confirm, rather than disconfirm, the historicity and trustworthiness of the Bible:

The historicity of the Biblical Flood account is confirmed by the tradition existing in all places and at all times as to the occurrence of a similar catastrophe. F. von Schwarz . . .  enumerates sixty-three such Flood stories which are in his opinion independent of the Biblical account. R. Andree . . .  discusses eighty-eight different Flood stories, and considers sixty-two of them as independent of the Chaldee and Hebrew tradition. Moreover, these stories extend through all the races of the earth excepting the African; these are excepted, not because it is certain that they do not possess any Flood traditions, but because their traditions have not as yet been sufficiently investigated. Lenormant pronounces the Flood story as the most universal tradition in the history of primitive man, and Franz Delitzsch was of opinion that we might as well consider the history of Alexander the Great a myth, as to call the Flood tradition a fable. It would, indeed, be a greater miracle than that of the Deluge itself, if the various and different conditions surrounding the several nations of the earth had produced among them a tradition substantially identical. Opposite causes would have produced the same effect.

I was deeply shaken to realize that the bible was not the historically accurate document I was always told and completely believed it was.

I don’t know why. It certainly wasn’t because of the above things mentioned, because that conclusion simply doesn’t follow.

How much was allegory? How much was literal? How much was parable? How could you tell which was which?

Obviously by searching related cross-references, studying biblical commentaries, and especially by researching biblical genre, literary types, the nature of different books (Psalms and Proverbs are poetry, etc.), and ancient near eastern culture and ways of thinking. Apparently, it never occurred to Don to do that (tons of books about these things) — otherwise he wouldn’t have asked this rhetorical question — , and this is usually the case in a fundamentalist paradigm.

Is god a god of confusion?

No, but human beings often bring about confusion by ignorance, stubbornness, pride, self-interest, etc. So we wind up with lots of disagreements. Catholicism offers one self-consistent, historically continuous view of Christianity, which is why I am a Catholic. No form of Protestantism possesses these traits.

I began to look for what set Christianity apart from all the other false religions in the world. I knew that they all had holy books, and the bible was very suspect at this point, so that wasn’t it. 

Again, nothing presented in this account proves that the Bible isn’t what it claims to be.

There were several times in my life where I KNEW that god had spoken to me. Times of deep struggle and fear that he had comforted me. Surely that must be unique to the Christian religion. Nope. People all over the world had their own profound experiences that proved their god to them. 

Why must Christian religious experience be unique? The Apostle Paul Romans 2 teaches that people can possibly be saved, who have never even heard the Christian message. Jesus talked to a pagan Roman centurion and concluded that He had rarely seen such faith in Israel. So this man had religious faith, yet wasn’t an observant Jew. Truth is truth, and God can reach men in many different ways, including religious experiences.

It’s simply silly and shallow thought, to think that because non-Christians have also had spiritual experiences, therefore our own personal spiritual experiences that we “KNEW” actually happened, somehow get nullified as pipe dreams and self-delusion. That doesn’t follow. It’s lousy “reasoning.”

Nor does atheism at all follow from this: “lots of people have had spiritual experiences; therefore there is no God”? What?! How does that follow? I must confess to being mystified as to how that “logical chain” works. If atheists think it does, then they must explain it to me.

I begged god for some kind of sign that he was real, and I really expected him to answer, because he would know that my very faith was at stake. Nothing…

Very often, God will not comply with such a request, because He knows it is a cop-out: “show me some huge miraculous sign to prove that you exist!” People know enough to believe God exists, simply by looking at His creation (as it states in Romans 1).

I had to learn I was not the complete piece of trash that my religion had taught me I was . . . 

That’s what fundamentalists and Calvinists believe (total depravity and a completely fallen, corrupt human nature), but not what the vast majority of Christians have believed (fallen, subject to concupiscence, but still capable of good and freely receiving God’s grace). So once again, Don rejected a straw man that only a tiny number of Christians believe.

If he truly wants to see a worldview that results in human “trash,” he has to look at hundreds of millions of aborted babies: killed by Christians who no longer follow the historic teachings of their own group, secularists, atheists, and all who have started to believe that an innocent, helpless human being can be utterly worthless, so as to be torn to shreds and murdered (all the way up to full term at nine months, and now even after birth) for the “sin” of existing because of someone else’s actions.

That is acomplete piece of trash”: not the biblical and Christian teaching on original sin, as taught by the great majority of Christians.

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Photo credit: ||read|| (5-28-09) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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September 13, 2018

Daniel Morgan (atheist) responded in my comments boxes, with regard to my critique of John Loftus’ deconversion story. This is my reply. His words will be in blue; my older cited words in green.

* * * * *

Hi Daniel,

Thanks much for the rational response. It’s good to know that at least one atheist who comments here has his wits about him [see, e.g., John Loftus’ astounding display of hostile non sequiturs, in “response” to my critique] . Y’all are generally a pretty sharp group.

generally this indicates a less-than-stellar foundational Christian teaching

So him being in trouble is worse than you losing faith? 

Losing faith is bad, though I really didn’t do that. I didn’t have any decent religious instruction or any informed faith to lose. I was abysmally ignorant. It was a sort of vacuum, rather than an active rejection. I was only ten years old at the time we stopped going to church. But I was still interested in spiritual things, which is precisely why I became fascinated with the occult.

But my point in context was that John’s account did not suggest to me that he had any good religious instruction or example himself. There’s always exceptions to the rule, but generally that great of a rebellion lends itself to a deficient upbringing as the cause or partial cause. Just ask about the childhood of criminals if you doubt this. Take a survey.

Seems odd to claim, esp given some Biblical characters, whose troubles were always overcome by faith, rather than vice versa.

See my last comment.

Even that won’t suffice to prevent apostasy if there are other deficiencies because the mind is only one aspect of a well-rounded faith.

Do you think that belief is not a completely mental affair?

That’s correct. Grace and faith (and the soul itself) are supernatural in character. The intellectual aspects of Christian faith are only one aspect of it.

Much philosophy can make one go astray as well, if too much skeptical and fallacious philosophy takes hold on one’s brain. But in the end it comes down to God’s grace and whether we accept it and continue to live by it, or reject it.

I can honestly say that this is why I no longer believe – atheological and philosophical arguments.

It seems you have an interesting change-up in views – before you are emphasizing the integral issue of apologia, now you are cautioning those who may want to build defenses not to allow “much philosophy” to “take hold”

Obviously in context I meant “bad philosophy”; not philosophy per se. I love philosophy. But there is plenty of it that starts from false premises and goes from there.

. . . how can a Christian interested in answering doubts and such know which philosophical ideas will “take hold”, and does this “taking hold” indicate that the philosophical arguments are actually strong?

It may or may not. If a person isn’t equipped to answer a bad (but clever and prima facie plausible) philosophical argument, then he is dead meat. There may be excellent Christian replies. But obviously they do little good if one is totally unaware of them.

If you take a relatively ignorant (in things of faith and also other subjects he is, after all, there to learn), inexperienced, idealistic, (usually) herd-mentality young person of 18-21 and throw him into an environment where it seems like the “smart” people (the professor and other smart alecky non-Christian students) mock Christianity and Christian morals, then what would you expect?

He isn’t presented with both sides, generally (I took about eight philosophy courses; I know what goes on, and psychology and sociology are the same). It is oftentimes the best atheist arguments against the worst, or caricatured Christian or theist arguments. Really fair, ain’t it?

So is it any surprise that the Christian student often loses his faith? Usually he had no apologetic background with which to counter this utterly slanted onslaught. This is why I do what I do! Lots of young kids read my stuff. I’m delighted to be able to help them through this ordeal of relentless, almost forced secularization at college.

Your answer seems to waver here as you indicate God’s grace, something that always seems difficult to flesh out from free will. Do you think God’s grace may be lessened or withdrawn if someone is reading “bad” philosophical ideas? 

If one accepts false ideas, that may counter grace, yes. But it’s complex. It would depend on how much one really knows. If he deliberately rejects a God and a Christianity that he truly knew, then the consequences for lack of grace would be worse. But if he is simply ignorant (as I was, up to age 18, in matters of theology), then I think it is a very different situation.

Do you liken such reading to going into a strip club and expecting God to protect you from it?

Any false idea has (somewhat like lust and sex, but on a totally different level) an attraction to one who is predisposed to accept it or too ignorant to counter it, or lacking a superior alternative. It should frighten all of us. Truth is oftentimes difficult to attain in our society.

The philosophical arguments are as “seductive”? Is it perhaps because they are sound and difficult to reply to?

The ideas are received in an environment which is strongly weighted against theism and faith. That’s supremely important to understand and take into consideration. We’re not all calculating rational machines. We accept things usually because everyone around us, or some respected figure does first. Some are “good” arguments as far as they go. This is why we home-school our children: not because we want to insulate them from reality, but because we refuse to leave them open to the distinct possibility of being brainwashed in the overwhelmingly secularized, literally anti-Christian public school system (as I was in the Detroit schools).

By the time they go to college they will be equipped with apologetics and solid Christian philosophy and the ability to think critically and to be able to spot false premises and ideas when they see it, with the knowledge to withstand them when necessary. I hasten to add that I don’e believe every parent must home-school. It’s impossible in some cases. But every Christian parent must provide some Christian counter-weight to the onslaught of secularism and profound anti-Christian bias in the schools.

If the student never sees any alternative, then what would you expect? On my website, I give people the alternatives. They can read both sides and decide for themselves which is more worthy of belief. I don’t just present the Christian view and ignore all the other ones. That’s why I have almost 360 dialogues posted. I’m a totally committed Socratic in method.

There is a reason many Christians lose their faith in college.

I wrote a post on this phenomenon. Do you think it possible that it is because many Christians are insulated from the most serious objections to faith, and evidence that damages their conception thereof? 

That’s part of it; absolutely. The atheist “evidence” damages only insofar as a student is unfamiliar with the best Christian replies. Christians need to know not only how to defend their own belief, but how to refute competing ideas, of varying levels of respectability. Young Christians usually have neither skill when they go to college. And the skeptical or atheist professors (the ones who deliberately — and I would say, unethically — try to undermine the faith of their students) know this full well and cynically exploit it to their advantage.

I certainly do. I think this is a huge reason for it – the whole reason for going to college is to enlarge your borders/perspectives/knowledge, but this is dangerous to any religion. 

It’s dangerous if the situation is abominably unfair and extremely biased to one side only. Very few young people, who want to be accepted by their peers and thought to be intelligent by their professors, can withstand that. It’s a stacked deck.

All religions work via identifying “us/them” and most have a protective effect (purge “them” if they infiltrate “us”).

All belief-systems whatsoever do that, I would contend. Atheists do the same exact thing. Hence, we have blogs with names like, oh, how about Debunking Christianity? LOL It looks like I may soon be banned from commenting there myself, judging by John’s current hysteria and profound hyper-sensitivity to critique. If so, then that is an atheist “purge” of the oddball Christian “them.” I mustn’t be allowed to mess with the status quo of atheist profundity and skepticism by giving cogent answers and rational alternatives to misguided atheist rhetoric (I hope I’m wrong about that, but we’ll see soon enough). I made a point somewhere about how John Loftus puts up a site like that, whose purpose is almost entirely negative. He doesn’t put up a blog called The Joys and Rewards of a Life of Atheism. Christianity at least offers some positive, constructive vision.

lest we get duped by truly stupid, utterly unnecessary dichotomies such as this “dogma vs. philosophy” or “faith vs. reason” claptrap

Responding to this adequately would take a lot of time, 

It was a very general statement.

so I would just quote Aquinas and Gregory the Great: Aquinas said, “If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections – if he has any – against faith.” 

Yep; I agree. Apologetics (particularly with atheists) is largely about the removal of “roadblocks” or obstacles. Once those are disposed of, then the apologist can defend Christian doctrines that ought to be accepted in faith, with a rational (and not at all irrational) basis, as far as reason can take one.

He admits this directly after quoting Gregory the Great, “faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience.”

St. Thomas Aquinas believes that faith and reason can be totally harmonized. I agree with him. Are you claiming that he is teaching otherwise here? You provide no reference for the sake of consulting context.

Surely you will admit that a careful handling of dogma, philosophy, faith and reason does lead to some dichotomies? Esp the problem of revelation v reason?

I meant irreconcilable dichotomies. There are different kinds of knowledge. The atheist wants to rule out that one can attain knowledge in certain ways (e.g., revelation) and that certain things can happen (miracles), or (often) that anything non-material can exist. But that is not a real dichotomy; it is an artificial one.

in the end, belief-systems must be analyzed of their own accord.

I agree, but we must keep in mind that Xianity has a particular truth claim to evaluate and analyze that involves the indwelling, sanctification, etc., of the believer. One of the few truth claims that we can evaluate just from observation.

No particular reply . . .

The fact that my wife or child may die or that my reputation is ruined, or that I go bankrupt or get a fatal disease, or become handicapped due to an assault has nothing to do with, that I can see, of whether the truth claims of Christianity are acceptable or not.

It certainly depends upon your interpretation of Xianity, doesn’t it? 

Not really. What is it about a person dying or going through problems that disproves Christianity? Nothing. Just like the problem of evil doesn’t disprove that God exists. Atheists tried for centuries and had deluded confidence in that, but now it is in shambles and they are left with far less impressive, highly subjective plausibility arguments.

Some going through such tragedies would point to the covenant nature of Xianity, and question if God was involved in another “bet” with the devil. Some would question the idea that God speaks to them at all, if they spend hours each day “communing” yet had no warning whatsoever that their child had an advanced stage of cancer and that no one knew until it was too late . . . etc., etc. Surely you can see how the question of the relationship of the believer to God falls under this category? 

Yes, but I thought we were talking about how this supposedly is a disproof of Christianity (related to John’s deconversion).

There are many teachings about the “covenant”, and so I would think you could see some falsification potential here.

One particular theology may be proven wrong and that disproves Christianity? Again, you lost me.

People know that’s not possible on merely human power alone. It contradicts everything we know about ourselves.

Ah, so you believe in Allah now?

How so?

He shows poor hermeneutical skills here.

And this is what Steve Hays would say to you. (Steve is a YEC) And AiG, and ICR, and etc., they all have their “experts” who would disagree with your interpretation of Genesis and its exegesis.

Every movement has its fringe groups. YAWN Even atheists!

That’s the view of many of us Christians, and we’re not all losing faith like John. Quite the contrary. I’ve been doing Christian apologetics for 25 years now, and I’ve never been caused to doubt my faith as a result of further study (and I’ve done tons of that). I’ve always had my faith strengthened, in defending the faith, seeing how solid it is on rational grounds, and observing the weakness of attacks upon it.

Up above, you cautioned those who would delve into “much philosophy”. Do you see how one could read your words before, and these words, and see a bit of a contradiction? 

No, because you took that completely out of its context. I meant “bad philosophy.” I have entire web pages on philosophy, and excruciatingly long debates on heavy philosophical issues with atheists and scientists. You have simply misunderstood my meaning, in your zeal to find a contradiction somewhere.

Either you can admit that there are rational grounds for rejecting Christianity or not, 

Conceivably, but I’ve yet to see one in my rounds as an apologist. The Problem of Evil is instructive. For centuries atheists strutted around like poeacocks thinking that was the Knockout Punch. Turns out it wasn’t. I suspect this is the case for all the other currently fashionable arguments too.

but you seem to admit there is some sort of grounds that people do, upon having “too much [secular] education” . . . 

They have grounds for rejecting a caricature for a seemingly plausible view in an atmosphere thoroughly hostile to Christianity. I was saying that in the context of Christian college students losing their faith. Like I said, it’s a “stacked deck” and they don’t have a chance in that situation, if they are inadequately equipped. Belief systems and reasons for adopting them are exceedingly complex. I’ve always thought that: at least as far back as my first philosophy course in 1977 as a freshman in college, if not before.

No, but they could explain how a person would be more open to thoughts of a contrary nature to Christianity, if one is going through a period when he wonders about why God might do thus-and-so, or not do this or that, and if Christians are not being particularly consoling or understanding of his crisis. We don’t develop in a vacuum.

Ah, now we’re back to the catch-all factor: God’s grace.

I don’t see that I was talking all that much about grace in this particular remark. I was talking about hostile environments that one may find oneself in. That can explain loss of faith on a personal, emotional, human level, but that doesn’t disprove Christianity. That was my point.

There is no question that this happens, and that intellectual rationales are only the merest facade for the real or far more important reasons.

Sometimes it does, just as many people merely believe out of tradition, fear or hope, and not serious rational analysis.

Exactly.

One thing to keep in mind though is that freedom does not necessitate atheism. Rejecting Christianity is just that, and it leaves one with quite a number of options for “freedom” if that is all they want – from Buddhism to Krishna to any other Eastern philosophy, then to a sort of open/loose theism or deism, then agnosticism, etc.

Of course.

Everyone wants others to think that they made these big changes in opinion based on complete rationality and objectivity.

I agree – we all want to at least THINK that we’re rational, and appear that way to others.

But any look at ourselves quickly disabuses us of that notion: at least in any pure sense.

That’s a difficult claim to back up. First, looking inward is subjective, definitionally. Now, we all act irrationally at times, and often in retrospect we can even see it and admit it. But to say what you’ve said, bereft of argument, is, well, just another assertion.

Okay; so I am to view you as this perfectly rational, objective thinking machine, immune from all human influences, emotions, biases, pressures of friends and admired ones, family, any number of possible false premises, possible unsavory motivations, pride, jealousy, etc., etc., etc.? I dont think so.

I wonder if he still does, and if not, why atheism would change a respect for the rights of the most defenseless and innocent of human beings? It seems to me that the pro-life position is almost self-evidently right and moral, without the necessity of any theological basis.

I will admit you will find some sympathies with me, esp regarding late-terms. However, in the end, it comes down to a question of value – what makes human what they are, what gives them rights, and what rights does one have over their own body?

A male child is not the same body as his mother, unless you want to argue that females possess male sex organs. Nor is a female baby, for that matter, because she has an entirely different DNA. A human being is the offspring of two other human beings. This ain’t rocket science! It is what it is, genetically, from the moment of conception. A preborn child has rights from simply existing, according to every system of human ethics there is, if it is regarded as a person and a human being (that’s what it boils down to).

There is no good argument that would deny personhood to a preborn human being. What you are now began at the time you were conceived, and cannot possibly have any other logical starting-point. Anything after it is arbitrary; anything before is senseless since the DNA that you possess was not in its present combination. This stuff has to be argued with a graduate student in chemistry? It’s practically self-evident.

I choose to place someone’s legal right to decide whether they will abort a 2-3 month old fetus above any presumed “rights” of something which can rightly be described as less complex, less value-laden in the biological and psychological sense, than a mouse. 

Then you have adopted absurd and monstrous ethics, to regard something you can’t rationally argue is not a human being as of less value than a mouse. This is what atheist (as well as liberal Christian) ethics usually amounts to in practice: animals considered more valuable than human beings. We can’t kill a protected species without penalty, but we can legally slaughter a human being and be patted on the back for it by people like you.

I wanted to know if John changed his mind on abortion, and if so, why? He knows what goes on in abortion, if he used to oppose it.

I think the difficulty in separating this from theology lies in the concept of value – Xians believe the soul itself is an embuement of value.

And atheists believe it is perfectly just to deprive this human being being slaughtered in its mother’s womb of the only life it will ever have. This is the same mentality that ruled the Nazi Holocaust: the notion that there is such a thing as a human life unworthy to be lived, due to inconvenience, or someone else’s lousy science and even more atrocious and selfish ethics.

It did? Not if it doesn’t exist!

He certainly should’ve stated this (and the next statement) otherwise here. The only way to make sense of it, in light of his perspective now, is to inject, “What I thought of as…”

A bad habit of speaking; a remnant of his past fantasies?

But Christianity (rightly understood) is the remedy of that, not its cause.

Hardly. Christianity creates guilt for normal and biological urges and behaviors. It is a source of much guilt where there is no moral argument contrariwise, especially with respect to doubt, sex, self-interest-first behavior, etc.

Not going down that huge rabbit trail . . .

Want a speculation? I’ll bet it’s because there are far fewer “true Christians” than you’d want to believe, and most just go through the motions out of tradition, to keep up appearances, and because of family. Just a speculation.

It depends on how you are defining “Christian” and “true Christian.” The first can be defined doctrinally and discussed in an objective manner. The second: who really is a Christian (really eschatologically saved, or of the elect, etc.), — apart from doctrinal considerations — cannot be determined with any certainty by human beings, only God. But that there are many “wolves in sheep’s clothing” is undeniable. The Bible clearly teaches that.

Does John give far less to charity than he used to, because he is free from guilt?

Speaking for me only, I now see the huge waste in tithing that could be going to real charities –

I wasn’t talking about tithing, but about charity in general. I think it was a good and fair and relevant question, given his rhetoric about guilt. Lots of people give money at church out of guilt or dead, begrudging obligation, not with joy.

places that use >90% of their resources to actually help people, rather than provide infrastructure and etc. for their organizations.

Like pro-life groups? They help real little people . . . to live and be allowed to have a life in the first place.

I see. So the more we can sin, the less guilt we feel? That couldn’t be more opposite of the truth than it is.

Perhaps the better way to see this is, “Why adopt ridiculous notions of perfection that don’t comport with reality, which induces guilt, rather than building an ethical system that actually comes into contact with real life, and living by it, so that you don’t have to deal with guilt?”

Guilt (and the related conscience) is a necessary part of any ethical system and any normal human being. To attempt to get rid of it simply because one has an extreme, distorted sense of guilt (and false attribution of this to God) is as foolish and irrational as trying to get rid of all automobiles because the one you had didn’t run properly.

I’d lay my “sins” on the table next to anyone else’s, any time. I’m a quite transparent kind of guy. People know when I feel bad, and I am a terrible liar.

That’s how I (admittedly, probably cynically) read this. So he has simply gone from overscrupulosity (one extreme, and a distortion of Christianity and discipleship), to another (a marvelously “guilt-free” existence: so he says, anyway). But I don’t believe it. I believe guilt is there, down deep, and knowledge of God is there too (buried and suppressed).

You believe that, and maybe you’re right, although you have no evidence, but you also should consider that people are the products of their environment, and John was a minister for a very very long time. You don’t “shake off” deep-seated convictions overnight, nor the guilt response you’ve held since you were 18. [assuming you’re right]

That’s true, too. But I am saying that he had an incorrect notion of the place and function of guilt as a Christian. He rejected (in that respect) a gross caricature of the proper Christian view and went to the other extreme.

Two considerations:

1) Do we justify Jesus’ words that it is the same to hate someone as to murder? Was this merely a metaphor to point out that bad thoughts are bad? Ditto with adultery/lust?

The thought is that the interior disposition precedes the act and is the essence of the bad act. To murder, one must have a motive, and that motive is immoral and unethical. The hatred is the key to the act.

2) His point is that overscrupulosity can be avoided by saying, “How silly is it to think that we can control our thoughts!”

Of course we can control our thoughts, with God’s help. This is the whole point. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s a perpetual struggle. But it is possible. When I fall into lust or jealousy or greed or pride or any number of sinful thoughts and feelings, it’s me; it ain’t God doing that. We cultivate and coddle sin when we fall prey to it. The proper response to lust (something I’ve struggled with a lot through the years, as have most men) is to run, as Joseph did from Potiphar’s wife.

That’s the only thing that works. Run! Otherwise we can quickly become consumed by it. But it’s our free will. The response to jealousy is to recognize that we are no better than anyone else under God, and to rejoice if someone else has some blessing we don’t have; not to dwell on ourselves and what we don’t have, etc.

All these things are cultivated by force of habit. Jealousy and slander and malice develop in group gossip situations. It’s obvious how lust is fostered everywhere in our culture. Greed flows from the excessive materialism of our society, and the selfishness that we all must fight constantly. But to just throw in the towel and think that we are at sea with regard to our wills and controlling decadent and immoral habits: that’s asinine and absurd. It’s no more true within an atheist ethical framework than a Christian.

But I have never doubted the fact that God loves me and that He is merciful and all-loving.

Never doubted that, eh? 

That’s what I said. And the Christian believes this is only possible itself by God’s grace, not our own power.

I guess some of us can believe easier than others. I always had doubts, and fears of going to hell, ESP as a devout Christian.

I think a lot of that has to do with our innate temperaments, as I alluded to in my critique. A worrier by nature will obviously worry about matters of faith, or worry that he is good enough, etc. There are many different temperaments. The trick for us is to understand when some objection or feeling we have flows from that rather than the nature or necessity of our belief system.

My temperament is very even keel, easy-going, not moody at all (though I did suffer a serious six-month depression as a one-time event in my life, so I understand that firsthand). It obviously grates upon someone like John, who has a different temperament, and so he has to call me names. But we need to learn to live with and accept (without senseless knee-jerk reactions) human beings who are different from us in gender, age, temperament, culture, politics, religion, worldview, IQ level, class, body type, etc. . . .

Nor do we see even a trace in this in someone like the Apostle Paul, who has a confident, almost boasting faith.

The least of the apostles? The guy who appealed to people he knew in order to make his case that he was authoritative in knowing what God wanted?

The guy who said he was “a Pharisee of the Pharisees” and killed Christians earlier in his life?

Exactly. He was very confident as a Jew and again as a Christian.

Perhaps he just wasn’t as well-endowed (conscience-wise) as some of us, huh?

Before his regeneration, certainly not. But this is what we teach, so no big deal.

So this becomes a major factor. Personal elements that made John feel this excessive guilt and inability to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness, are neither Christianity’s nor God’s fault.

I’ll agree with you on this – guilt and community should have very little to do with our analysis of Christianity.

Good.

Personal elements aren’t determined or caused by God? 

I would say they are largely caused by genes and early upbringing.

So the density of one’s conscience (a cultural and mental phenomenon) has nothing to do with God? How sovereign is your God?

Conscience is only one aspect of temperament of self-aware personhood. We can cultivate conscience just like anything else or gradually cause ourselves to be dead to it. We all have it originally, but it can clearly be abused.

***

(originally 10-16-06)

Photo credit: Demolition of the Sydenham Heritage Church (New Zealand) in February 2011 (Bob Hall) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license]

***

August 24, 2018

[see Anne Rice’s website and Wikipedia entry]. According to the latter: “On April 14, 2013, Rice stated in a Facebook post that she was a secular humanist. On July 28, 2014, Rice stated in a Facebook post that Christ is still central to her life, but not in the way he is presented by organized religion.” So we’re not talking about atheism, but rather, a strong rejection of Catholicism and institutional and doctrinal Christianity (using some of the arguments that atheists habitually use).]

*****

I don’t read fiction and so this isn’t “personal” to me at all, in terms of reaction or disappointment, etc. Anne Rice was as unknown to me as the man in the moon. I think I had heard her name before, but that’s about it. But I note that her “reasoning” for her move fits the usual sad template all down the line.

It is important to learn from these instances of deconversion from Christianity, so that we can prevent it from happening to others, and ourselves. The one who doesn’t learn from history (and biography) is doomed to repeat it. When a famous person ditches Christianity (or Catholicism in particular) in public and gives “reasons” for it, then Christians need to show how and why they are not valid reasons, and speak up for our faith that is being dragged through the mud on grossly unfair and unjust grounds.

There are serious lessons to be learned here: along the lines of having an informed, reasonable faith (complete with apologetic knowledge as necessary), and of yielding up our private judgment and personal inclinations to a God and a Church much higher than ourselves. Faith comes ultimately by God’s grace and His grace alone: not our own semi-understandings. Christianity is not “blind faith”; it is a reasonable faith. But there is such a thing as allegiance and obedience to Christian authority, too.

When reason is separated from faith or (on a personal level) never was part of it, “faith” (or the unreasonable facsimile thereof) is empty and open to Satanic and cultural attack, and we are tossed to and fro by the winds and the waves: a cork on the ocean of our decadent, corrupt, increasingly secularist and hedonistic culture. Here is Anne Rice’s own announcements, from her Facebook page:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten …years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else. (7-28-10)

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of …Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen. (7-28-10)

1) She came back to the Catholic faith in a sort of fideistic way, rather than reasoning it through and using her mind, and exercising a more balanced, reasoned faith. Without the rational backdrop and understanding of why she believed and returned, she was on a foundation of sand. This is why apologetics is important. If we don’t know why we believe what we believe, then later on there may be no reason not to cease believing, since reason had nothing to do with it from the start. If there is no rational reason to believe something, then there can be an ostensibly rational reason to reject the same thing that had no conscious reason for being believed in the first place. Hence, her own fideistic, entirely subjective report of her return to Catholicism in 1996, after having broken with the Church “violently and totally” at age 18:

In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept me from [God] for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point. No social paradox, no historic disaster, no hideous record of injustice or misery should keep me from Him. No question of Scriptural integrity, no torment over the fate of this or that atheist or gay friend, no worry for those condemned and ostracized by my church or any other church should stand between me and Him. The reason? It was magnificently simple: He knew how or why everything happened; He knew the disposition of every single soul. He wasn’t going to let anything happen by accident! Nobody was going to go to Hell by mistake. (Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, p. 183)

2) She obviously was a dissident all along, on many of the social / sexual issues (pro-abortion, homosexual “marriage”, feminism, contraception, female priests). Like many libertarians and sexual liberals, then, she placed that allegiance higher than the Church, since she refused to accept and submit herself to Church teaching (which is part of the package and meaning of being a Catholic in the first place: we have an authoritative Church). There are millions like her out there. There is an old saying that “all heresy begins below the belt.” She openly explains all this in her own words:

[citing the ELCA’s decision to ordain noncelibate homosexuals] More good news in the story of rights for all gays worldwide. (7-26-10)

Her views will not please all of the devout. Rice favors gay marriage. She believes the church position regarding birth control is a grievous error that is not supported by Scripture. She repudiates what she sees as intolerant, “sex-obsessed” church leaders [Dave: this coming from a former hippie and author of porn and erotica!?], and says she does not find support in the message of Jesus for their focus on sexual orientation or abortion. She argues for a more inclusive church.

“Think of how the church bells would ring and the pews would fill if women could become priests and priests could marry. It would be the great resurgence of the Catholic Church in this country,” Rice said recently, . . .

“He doesn’t say anything about abortion,” Rice said. “He doesn’t say anything about gays. I abhor abortion too. But to make Christianity rise and fall on these issues is a great distortion of Christ’s message.” . . .

As Rice immerses herself in Scripture, many of the things she finds there do not jibe with the dictates of the Vatican or conservative Christians. Like many modern scholars of the Koran, Rice is pointing to her religion’s holy book itself to criticize what she views as its misuse to justify long-held cultural practices.

For example, she said, there is no biblical dictate forbidding women to use birth control.

“I think that’s a mistaken notion,” she said. “There’s a lack of vision about how much better the world would be if women could control their reproductive rights. We have all these street children in underdeveloped countries. We have to bring these countries into the modern era. I think the church has been sex-obsessed too long.” . . .

As a child, Rice said, “I felt the love of God. I wanted to be a priest. When I found out that being a girl meant I couldn’t be, I was so disappointed. I didn’t understand why.” . . .

Rice also viewed church dictates on sin to be harsher to women, though “I have never taken misogyny personally,” she added briskly. “Most people hate women, including women. There are reasons: Fear of women, of the power to give birth.” . . .

. . . her studies of the Scripture have convinced her that many church dictates were created by mortals, not God. . . . She believes the Vatican’s birth-control ban too is a patriarchal anachronism. “It was an obvious advantage for men for women to be passive with regards to procreation,” she said. . . .

Rice believes that conservative Christian politicians are distorting Christ’s message by politicizing such issues as abortion. While abortion is “tragic,” Rice said, “Millions of women are having abortions. They have control of their reproductive powers, and they do not want to relinquish that control. Abortion is at the heart of that, because it’s at the core of women having control of who they are. I think it’s killing. But I think it’s a woman’s choice.”

Gay marriage, she said, “is another classic example. It can only strengthen our society to have gay people in committed relationships rather than going to bars.” (Anne-Marie O’Connor, “Twists of Faith: Anne Rice’s vision of Christianity is reflected in her new book,” Los Angeles Times, 26 December 2005)

3) She was a child of the sexual revolution: even being part of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in San Francisco. This affects one. So does years of being an atheist. When one thinks in a certain fashion for many years, it is very difficult to unlearn that and to be “deprogrammed.” It takes a lot of repentance and grace. And so with a few difficult events or doubts, we can lose faith altogether:

When bestselling novelist Anne Rice was a good Catholic girl growing up in New Orleans, she dreamed of becoming a leader of the church. Instead, she abandoned Catholicism at 18 and stopped believing in God. She joined the Haight-Ashbury hippie milieu and evolved into the bestselling author who elevated the sexually ambiguous vampire Lestat to cult status. She wrote pornography under one pen name and erotica under another. . . .

When Rice went away to Texas Woman’s University in 1959, she found that the church’s rigid doctrine was at odds with the growing complexities of her new life. “My background was so sheltered it didn’t seem to sit with the modern world,” Rice said. “I felt I had to deal with my faith and reconcile it with the world around me. My childhood was very sex-obsessed and repressed. I felt when I accepted a world without God, I accepted reality, and stopped believing in illusion.” . . .

Instead, she became fascinated with the existentialists, reading Sartre and Camus. She met Stan Rice, a poet, artist and atheist, and they married in 1961.

Rice’s husband, who was on his way to becoming an acclaimed poet, enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he would eventually chair the creative writing department. They moved to the Haight-Ashbury, but when their apartment filled with hippies, “I was the square. All around me people were taking acid. I had no intention of ever taking it.” (O’Connor, ibid.)

4) She wants to be a Christian in some sense (or so it seems: she is sending mixed signals) but not part of Christianity. This is an insult to other Christians, as if they are not worthy enough to hang around anymore. It’s typical American individualism and refusal to be part of a community; anti-institutionalism. But it is also the uncharitable “holier than thou” / we know better” schismatic, ultra-sectarian and rigorist attitude seen through history in groups like the Donatists and Montanists:

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become. (7-29-10)

5) Note that it is not enough for her to cease being a Catholic. She is ditching any other form of communal, denominational Christianity, too. The examples of people expressing actual overt hatred or purported hatred that she cites are not Catholic ones (they are mostly Baptists). There are several liberal denominations where her liberal views would fit right in. But human nature seems to be given to extremes, so she ditches everything, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The only good thing in this that I can see is that she is being honest and calling a spade a spade: she doesn’t accept what the Catholic Church teaches, so she shouldn’t be a Catholic, in that sense. She never was truly one in the first place, because she didn’t accept the binding and obligatory nature of Catholic doctrines and dogmas:

“People are always going to misuse things. And some Christians are going to misuse Christianity. They are going to use Christianity to hit someone over the head because they frighten them or threaten them,” she said. “We Christians have to get back to our roots as a people of love. Now we’re associated with a religion of intolerance and hate. We have to come forward and speak about love.” (O’Connor, ibid.)

Since some of you mentioned the Westboro Baptist Church in comments below, I thought I’d publish this recent news story about them [describing how they picket soldiers’ funerals and tell parents their children went to hell]. This is chilling. I wish I could say this is inexplicable. But it’s not. That’s the horror. Given the history of Christianity, this is not inexplicable at all. (7-27-10)

6) She cites some expressions of hatred towards homosexuals as a reason to cease being Christian, as if this is representative of one-hundredth of all Christians. Throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is clearly an irrational, emotional move. Her son (novelist Christopher Rice) is a homosexual activist. He has stated:

Since then, “people have come up to me to express their sympathies and condolences, because they assume it goes hand in hand with homophobia, and I’m gay,” he said, with evident amusement. But “in Leviticus, Jesus himself didn’t say anything about homosexuality.” [Jesus in Leviticus? Hmmm] . . .

“What people don’t seem to understand is she explored the darker side of the spiritual realm because she thought there might be some truth there, not to hurt people. Even in her erotica, she says she went there to explore whether there was a spiritual dimension in the flesh. It’s part of the same search.” (O’Connor, ibid.)

That plays into this, too. It’s a straw man:

A) “Christians are the folks who hate homosexuals.”
B) Hating homosexuals is wrong and I want no part of it.
C) Therefore, I have to cease being a Christian (or at least one in any institutional, communitarian sense).
But the false premise in #1 is the problem. Very few Christians of any stripe that I have ever met (and I’ve moved in many different Christian circles for 33 years) “hate” homosexuals or anyone else. So to use this as a pretext for abandoning Christianity is a cop-out. She is abandoning what she falsely thinks is Christianity / Catholicism:

The religious attacks on gays, to Rice, get to the heart of the flaws she sees in modern religion: the scapegoating of those deemed “sinners.” Jerry Falwell’s statement blaming gays, lesbians, abortion providers and feminists for the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, “was a dreadful thing to say. It’s so crazy to say God will punish our enemies.” (O’Connor, ibid.)

This shocking link [about some group that wants to execute homosexuals] was provided by a poster below. No wonder people despise us, Christians, and think we are an ignorant and violent lot. I don’t blame them. This kind of thing makes me weep. Maybe commitment to Christ means not being a Christian. (7-27-10)

7) She rejects divisiveness and acrimony in the Christian community by being as divisive and acrimonious as she can: splitting altogether, publicly, with disgust, as if Catholicism and larger Christianity are all these caricatured things that she seems to think they are. She doesn’t like divisive people and so she will divide from them. She dislikes intolerance, so she will be quite intolerant and dismissive and prejudiced towards some two billion Christians. This is the attitude of private judgment and sectarianism that is precisely opposed by the Catholic Church, and the very reason why we value doctrinal unity so much. It leads to communitarian unity as well when folks believe the same thing: just as the NT always envisioned the Church to be. But Anne Rice knows better, writing on 7-27-10:

Gandhi famously said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When does a word (Christian) become unusable? When does it become so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy?

So her “reasoning” is: “Christians are terrible people. I’m much better than they are, so I need to separate institutionally from all of them, and no longer call myself by their name, so that I am not stained by their ignorance and hatred any longer, and can be an example of loving, truly Christian tolerance towards all people.”

Makes a whole lot of sense, doesn’t it?

***

I’m not saying that apologetics will be just the thing now. Probably not. Nor am I denying the non-rational components of the faith (I never have at any time). What I am saying was that knowing some apologetics could have prevented a lot of the silly, unfactual things she is saying now. She clearly doesn’t know what she is talking about. If she understood and accepted, e.g., the rationale behind the ban on contraception, then she wouldn’t say the ridiculous things she says about it.

But if one refuses to ever learn the Church’s side on these issues, then it is open season on them by cultural liberalism (sexual and political). I want to make it clear what I claim for apologetics and how it fits in with everything else, because this is often misunderstood. It’s just one tiny area of the faith, but I do think it is a highly important and widely misunderstood one.

I don’t think I have speculated all that much. She has laid out the reasons herself. I’m entitled, as an orthodox Catholic and apologist, to analyze what she has said, and why it doesn’t fly and doesn’t make much sense.

Isn’t it odd how some folks seem to think that any reason to leave Catholicism or larger Christianity is good and profound, but any criticism of same must be judgmental and presumptuous? That’s assuming what it is trying to prove, of course . . . that being a Christian is somehow a “bad” thing, so that leaving it is good.

***

My post was mentioned on Anne Rice’s website. She stated there, about it (on 8-8-10): “Here’s a rather critical, and well written discussion of my leaving organized religion for Christ.”

I commend her for reading my post, noting it, making the link, and even complimenting my writing (I am humbled by that, coming from such a well-known novelist). That was classy, given how critical I was.

For my part, I want to stress that this is nothing personal whatsoever against her. It is a principled disagreement about a public declaration that has widespread consequences (and therefore is worthy of a critique). I would enjoy corresponding or even talking to her in person, I think. It doesn’t have to be a personal, acrimonious thing. I reject the notion of thinking that because we strongly disagree with someone, somehow we must despise or even hate them. This is simply not true, and self-evidently so. And I believe I prove this in hundreds of my own dialogues with people I disagree with.

But some folks don’t seem to be able to comprehend that, and so in the name of tolerance and lovey-dovey ersatz “togetherness,” I am now being trashed up and down for expressing my Catholic views. I am supposedly intolerant (which is untrue) and so I must be treated with the utmost contempt and intolerance. Somethin’ just ain’t right there, is it?

I’m not supposed to do give any counter-opinion. I’m supposed to just lay down and die and wither at the sight of a critique of not only Catholicism but all institutionalized religion. If I don’t don’t crawl in a hole and “shut up,” it proves (beyond any doubt) that I am an intolerant jerk who has no charity or grace . . . See how it works? We Christians must never get too uppity.

And again I hasten to add that these thoughts are not coming from Anne Rice (though some things she says may be seen as implying them to some extent, in a broad fashion, insofar as she extrapolates from extreme fringe types to all organized Christianity), but rather, from a lot of those who are defending her decision.

***

[the following is my response to an avalanche of hyper-critical, insulting rhetoric against me from defenders of Anne Rice on her page]

The comments received thus far are remarkable and astounding insofar as they are almost completely irrational and devoid of any counter-point reasoning whatever. It’s all personal attack and sanctimonious lecturing and/or subjective, relativistic mush. In my opinion this confirms (if not proves) my point all the more — rather spectacularly so –: she seems to have reverted to Catholicism in a fideistic, irrational fashion. She left the faith in the same fashion, and those who defend it exhibit the same irrational mindset. It’s all of a piece.

Also quite striking and ironic is the fact that all of a sudden, her followers now savage me when I am simply defending the Church that Anne Rice herself gave public allegiance to as recently as two weeks ago. How is it, I wonder, that all these “followers” can switch on a dime and now attack the Catholic Church with such vigor? It seems to me that they have more allegiance to Anne Rice than they do to Christianity itself.

If she stops on a dime and changes direction, they do, too, right along with her: both blissfully free of sufficient reasoning to do so. This is akin to the behavior of those in brainwashing religious cults, not rational free agents who ponder deeply the most important things in life (spiritual matters). Indeed, one of her followers, Alice B. Toklas, states this outright (in replying to my paper):

I think your reasons are valid, and justified. I would also support you completely if tomorrow you said to everyone, “I’m returning to Christianity.” Just like I supported you before you left. Unconditional means unconditional.

First, we saw some replies on my own blog, of folks who want to defend Anne Rice, and who came over here after reading about my post on her site (comments of mine below will be in blue, and bracketed):

Jason Until The Church changes more people will be following in her footsteps, especially where civil – not religious – gay marriage is concerned. The Church could take some lessons from Anne. [it is precisely the fact that we don’t follow whims and fashions and popular trends, that we have a credible claim of presenting unchanging moral truths] 

Eastiopians You are so judgmental [and of course he isn’t], and could use more Christ and less religion in your beliefs as well. Why are you so threatened by her desire to stick with Christ but walk away from organized religion [why is every mere difference of opinion so often immediately “psychologized” these days?] Why does that make you feel weak and need to fight for this organization at the expense of her character as a person and a believer? If you truly believe in what you are doing and where you are, then you don’t need to knock others down to show your support for what you are doing. Where is your grace?

Greg Gibbs . . . You lack understanding, humility, humbleness [is there a difference between the last two things?] and are all too quick to judge. I am not here to remind you what is sin and what is not…I am telling you that when people are trying to illegalize what they (and God?) perceive as ‘sin’..they are taking “God-Given Free Will’ away from others…not a very Christian thing to do. Can you love those who are not putting change in your pocket or persecute you? Having what you perceive as an all divine relationship with God almighty does not constitute you having ‘Love for mankind’ by constantly feeling the need to wash the blood of others off your hands.’ How important you must be ;) Your article is well written, kudos on that. It ‘lacks’ non-biased judgement for all too like-minded persuasive ears. Come before your Christ as a child. Sadly, these days most pulpits are nothing more than ‘meal-tickets’ for hot heads who feel ‘the calling.’ God love the ‘Religious Narcissists’ lol (don’t expect to see this posted without a few typical arguments in which I am prepared for, if it’s even posted at all) [surprise! Here it is again

Jason at least was civil (kudos). Now let’s look at many of the 83 comments (as of this writing) over on Anne Rice’s Facebook page (see if you can locate any cogent reasoning, in-between all the cogent attacks).

Susan Roberts What a ass that guy is. I personally don’t believe in hell, but that we can create our own hell here on earth. I also believe that we choose the life we live before we are born for the benefit of raising our souls awareness, it is the only way I can justify all the pain and suffering in the world throughout our history. I also believe that the Bible is a book written by men not God. Organised religion is just another form of slavery. [and disorganized religion is just another form of modern mindless silliness]

Alice B Toklas I tried to read this before starting my paperwork, but I don’t really want to hear all that. I started hearing Charlie Browns teacher in my head,. ” Brahh, Blah, bla, baaa..”

Liz Hughes Wiley . . . the argument….yeah, well-thought-out within a very narrow sphere. It becomes a rant after a while, to me. Too much picking on your Bay Area background (horreur!), your hotsy early writings (ScanDAL!! What sensuality from…a woman!!) [see my comment one entry below] It’s a case where the person is using you to represent something that you probably don’t even resemble — says more about the writer — but then, writing usually does, doesn’t it?

Troy Hawkins I thought this was absolute bilge, It starts out that no possible reason could be valid for leaving the church, He accuses Ms Rice of bing dismissive but that is a pretty dismissive statement, She never said that all Christians hate homosexuals. . . . As for writing about her erotica writings etc, That was pure character assassination. The whole article was nasty [I actually wrote only one short sentence about that, and didn’t (technically) condemn it. It was noted that Rice thought the Church was “sex-obsessed”. I made one sharp, ironic, turn-the-tables retort: “this coming from a former hippie and author of porn and erotica!?” I didn’t even initially describe it as “porn.” That was the word used in other articles. I know nothing about her writings; having never read them. But for one who has written erotica and “porn” to carp on about Catholics being “sex-obsessed” was far too precious and humorous and utterly beyond whatever powers I possess, to resist . . . ]

Kevin Higgs If I had to believe to suit and please this Right-Wing idiot who wrote these comments about you, I would leave the Christian Faith, too. Thank God he doesn’t speak for me. I am a follower of Jesus… I would have nothing to do with any thing that man is affiliated with.

MaryEllen O’Brien I’m suspicious of anyone who proudly states “I don’t read fiction” [I didn’t “proudly” state it at all. I simply stated it. In fact, many times, I have stated that this non-interest in fiction is an admitted deficiency of mine. Therefore, I could hardly be “proud” of it] to lead off a discussion of a writer’s faith, about whom he knows nothing [it is irrelevant how much of Rice’s writing I know, in critiquing her own stated reasons for no longer being a Catholic]. Except apparently just enough to fully judge the writer as anti-intellectual. Wow! [I never said she was “anti-intellectual”; I argued that in matters of faith she did not sufficiently apply reason to it; in other words, she was a fideist] Fiction is the source of great inspiration and is more truthful than much non-fiction. And arguably, much of the Bible is in truth, fictional, albeit to make a truth point. [I totally agree that fiction is a great thing. Just because I don’t read it doesn’t nullify that point. I never ever implied such a silly thing. My two favorite writers: C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton wrote much fiction. But I prefer their non-fiction] Everything starts with a story, as Joseph Campbell said. If the blogger believes all the dogma and doctrine passing forth from the throne of Peter (Peter would be appalled at that language) he is indeed a reader of fiction. And can’t seem to separate the two. [Right. Great non-argument . . . ] Sit him next to someone who proudly and with superiority [really?] also says, “I don’t watch t.v.,” and let them pontificate amongst themselves while the rest of us go read some darn good stories. [I get stories through the medium of film, which is based on stories. If not for film, I’m sure I would read fiction. But since film is here, I prefer that medium (with profuse apologies to MaryEllen for my shortcomings). Different strokes. I’m not judging anyone who likes fiction. But I sure am being judged, ain’t I? It’s all perfectly irrelevant to the dispute at hand] Jesus, I recall, was a master storyteller. And the parables were, ahem, fictionalized accounts intended to portray a truth. [absolutely, but so what? I never denied this (nor would I ever), so it is a non sequitur]

D Craig Graham First of all….”Biblical Evidence”….and this is backed up how? [by the Bible, of course! Duh! . . .] A bunch of guys writing their version? Men are disappointing…and (sadly) I believe when we die…the moment our eyes shut…we realize, “Well….it was all fluff….so long.”

Bea Westrate The author seems to think we need to learn something and he’s the only one who can teach us. [no evidence presented for this extraordinarily judgmental conclusion . . .] Fortunately we also know many things about these matters. He also claims to know Anne’s process of returning to and leaving the church. [no; I only claim to know her stated reasons, and I do draw what I believe are fairly plausible deductions from her own remarks] Unfortunately he ignores the only evidence that matters — Anne’s own thoughtful, reasoned comments. [that’s exactly what I have examined, so I have no idea what this statement means] Not only that, the author acts like his beliefs and definitions are the only correct ones. I’ve known many people like that; every one of them was unsure of themselves. [more pop pseudo-psychoanalysis . . .] I found the title amusing. There is no Biblical evidence for any of the Christian denominations, including the Baptist church I grew up in. Faith is always independent of church attendance. [right; “always” huh?] When it comes to matters of faith we answer to the Goddess (or who/what you believe in). [if there is a God, surely He is a Goddess . . . who could doubt it?] Thank you Anne for your honesty about this. It clearly resonated with many people.

Ian Robert Soule I couldn’t read that entire article. He sounds like my [secular university] philosophy textbook. [I’ll take that as a compliment. Thanks! But of course, no rational interaction is found here, either . . .]

Michael Medicine Crow Iott Hmmm. Well written. But again I must apply Occam’s Razor. [Occam’s Razor included biblical revelation as well, according to Occam himself. What he actually wrote was: “For nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident (literally, known through itself) or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture.” Right from the horse’s mouth . . .] If one accepts the writer’s assumptions about faith and spirituality his arguments make perfect sense. But do not accept his assumptions. So, it does not. [I was writing for those who are Christians, anyway, so this is irrelevant] And I am not inclined to debate it with him (having spent a lot of time and energy doing so in the past and now I’m content to let these guys live in their bubble). [he’s not alone, obviously . . .]

Carrie Hyman I can’t call an article that full of faulty logic well written. [no rational argument given as to why she thinks this, of course]

Micah J Brubaker To be honest I think that whole bit on having to “defend your faith” is complete BS. Especially if the religion is Christianity. I was raised in a Christian family, and even though I do not consider myself one, I am pretty sure I have plenty of knowledge of it. [he’s off to a bad start proving that to us, since the Bible has quite a bit about the duty of proclaiming and defending the faith] In regards to being a Christian, the religion centers its self on faith in God, the belief that Jesus is his only begotten son and died on the cross for us, having a “personal relationship” with Jesus.(In some cases being God,) and Abstinence. No were in the Bible have I ever read that you need to defend your faith. All you need to do is believe that Jesus is your savior and your set… but thats a broad statement… [it’s good to admit one’s ignorance]

Gene Rhim What I noticed about the writer is his definition of Christianity is limited to the known apologetic logic which requires a unilaterally reasoned argument based on theological groups. [really? I must have missed my own alleged definition] The problems with this sort of theology (IMHO) are:

1.) the exclusion of other possible definitions of Christianity which may still be far more encompassing (and less judgmental) of others. [Catholicism has a long accepted definition and nature. Mrs. Rice claims to have adopted the Catholic faith]

2.) It also (seems to me) to be an arrogant stance because the logic assumes that it knows the Will of God by His Word. Who can by socratic argument know the Infinite will of God? Or for that matter can anyone of us know anything truly about another person’s will by what is written? If you read a book by Anne Rice do you know Anne Rice? Or what she has planned for her next book? I think not.[melodramatic, irrelevant silliness; extreme caricature of an opposing position] . . .

4.) If arguments are the basis of faith then what about the presence of the Holy Spirit? Are we to forsake that? [the usual irrational pitting of faith against reason, as if they are antithetical] If we feel moved to pick up our things, go somewhere because the Holy Spirit moves us and speak what we are meant to speak, to give witness to God’s love, and it is not in line with what is considered apologetically sound then are we to refrain? Isn’t this a repeat of the same issues that Christ faced when he was criticized by the community for healing on a Sabbath? [to argue that the Bible speaks nowhere of a Church and of obedience to some ecclesiastical authority, is an extreme position of cluelessness as to what the Bible teaches. Christians disagree on the nature of the Church (ecclesiology) but they rarely express an opinion that there is no church at all, as if we are all lone rangers under God] So I bristle whenever someone gives a “good” argument based on “sound” apologetic discourse. It strikes me as too similar to the same issues faced by Christ and the pharisees: white washed coffins who have all the answers but not the spirit which is the living truth. [pseudo-pietistic nonsense . . . ] . . . Apologetics dwells on words written in the past. [okay, let’s toss the Bible, too, then] Unfortunately, that leads one to become enslaved by reasoned arguments based on interpretations of the living truth. [more false dichotomies] . . . Sorry for the babbling. [admitting a fault is the first step to recovery . . .]

Linda Jones His arguments were well-reasoned, but they made me squirm. He doesn’t account for the human heart, the wanting to belong or the spiritual journey. [this makes the false assumption that because something wasn’t mentioned in one context, it is therefore disbelieved in all] I understand why you came back to Catholicism and why you left. [perhaps she can explain this to all of us then] . . . I think this author cannot fathom that many of us reject the institutions of Christianity because they are bastardizations of Christ’s teachings. [in other words, God is too weak to sustain and establish even one Church (or even a creed or confession) that can truly preserve His teachings] His use of apologetics strains credulity. 

Mylene Masangkay I guess you were being polite when you said that this article is well written. It’s just a pointless, narrow-minded excuse for an analysis. But that’s Catholicism for you, expecting you to never contest anything said by the Powers That Be.

Emily Savidge I couldn’t even finish reading it. He was so smug; the page just oozed the stuff. Ugh. After reading through too many personal digs, I just stopped reading. He is clearly afraid of something because it sounds like a thinly-veiled personal attack And cowards attack when they can’t get you to think their way. Who cares what he thinks? [who cares about making rational counter-replies anymore? Let’s just do the personal attack thing and preach to the choir . . . that’s how “discussion” proceeds nowadays in most Internet venues. True dialogue is as dead as a doornail and as understood as Sanskrit] I hope Anne doesn’t.

Jen Redman Have to say I missed the discussion portion of the article. All I saw was him taking your quotes and contemptuously using air quotes, rolling eyes and sarcastic hmmmms. He didn’t issue a valid argument as to why he thinks your decision to leave Christianity is wrong. He never addressed abortion, gay marriage, mysogyny, or any of your problems with Christianity.

Melissa Lucey Teel I think one of those people who is uncomfortable with uncertainty and needs everything in its proper place and structure

There has to be some way to fight against revelation and saving faith, so personal attacks and character judgments are enlisted. There are time-honored stereotypes of Christian believers. Sadly, true examples can be found, but extrapolating to the entire mass of Christians and making some pseudo-principle out of it is ludicrous.

***

(originally 7-30-10 and 8-9-10)

Photo credit: Anne Rice in 2006 [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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August 23, 2018

This exchange took place on the ExChristian.Net site, in response to my critique of the webmaster Dave Van Allen’s “anti-testimony.” Dr. Arvo’s words will be in blue. My older cited words will be in green. Dave Van Allen’s words will be in brown.
* * * * *

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

You start by responding to Dave’s comment “None of this proves or disproves Christianity…” with the statement “If such stories give no reason whatsoever to reject Christianity then (not to be insulting), I humbly submit: what good are they at all?”

You erroneously equate lack of “proof” with “no reason whatsoever to reject Christianity”. That is a gross misinterpretation. Dave is acknowledging what is manifestly true–that neither side can be PROVEN absolutely. However, proofs are not what we employ when deciding upon empirical matters; we marshal evidence. I submit to you (not to be insulting) that the difference is enormous, and that the weight of evidence is not on the side of Christianity.

That’s a good point, and it did cross my mind. However, in light of Dave’s later comments, I think I was justified in reading it the way I did, and not in the more technical epistemological sense you suggested. For example, Dave claims in the combox:

My mind was opened to reality, and is continuing to be opened to reality, as the myths and gods of my youth are abandoned to be replaced by reason.

Also: he describes Christianity as “primitive imaginings” and a “phony cult” that “enslave[s] the mind.” It is supposedly anti-science and (most ridiculous of all) allegedly “caused the Dark Ages.” To me this implies that somewhere along the line he assumes Christianity has been rationally disproven, or at least so discredited that he has justification to speak in such insulting and derogatory terms.

And that gets back to my point: either he thinks his deconversion story offers some of the reasons why he thinks Christianity is false or it doesn’t. If it does, where are they? I saw none as I examined it. If it doesn’t (as I interpreted), then what good is it? Frankly, who cares about horror stories of the ignorant, anti-intellectual fundamentalists he mostly associated with? It may tickle the fancy of former Christians who love to hear these things, but it doesn’t advance the discussion at all. It is merely anecdotes about fools.

And I would add that if he couldn’t extricate himself from such know-nothingism for 30 years, what does that say about his intellectual discernment? Does he mean to imply that he couldn’t find a single Christian congregation anywhere for 30 years, that respected the mind and science and philosophy, and had a thought-out view of culture, politics, the arts, etc.? I find that astounding. Catholicism (my group) certainly offers all that. And many Protestant groups and congregations do. I’ve been in them myself (as a former Protestant evangelical). But it doesn’t reflect well on his own judgment as a Christian.

In response to Dave’s story about asking difficult questions as a child, DA responded “I would ask the child back: ‘why do you presume to question God’s purposes for doing anything, or act as if we would or could or should understand everything that God does, in the first place?'”

What a terrible answer. You are, in effect, saying that the child must simply accept the story as given, without testing it against their own experience or their own notion of justice and compassion. While the latter ought not be the ultimate yard stick, it should certainly sound an alarm if a religious teaching proclaims compassion yet appears to lack it in its most basic teaching. I should think it far better to explain why we should accept that god’s actions appear less charitable than the child’s own would have been, and why the child should continue to seriously question actions that appear unkind or downright devious.

I didn’t say all that. You read that into what I said. My point was simply to note that we shouldn’t expect to know all about God’s deepest purposes, by the very nature of the case (or Being). Later I made analogies to the many deep mysteries of science (origins of life, DNA, why gravity acts as it does, etc.). I’m contending that if we can acknowledge mystery in science, why not also in theology? In that context I was presupposing belief in God. If you grant that, then given the traditional theistic / Jewish / Christian concept of a transcendent, monotheistic, omniscient, omnipotent God, it is foolish to think that we can figure all that out, since clearly such a Being is many magnitudes greater in thinking ability.

That was my point: not that one should render blind faith, or be a fideist. I have always opposed that. I would never urge that on anyone. Now, if people in your past or Dave’s taught that they were wrong, and I fully agree with your general critique of their mentality.

“…many atheists collapse Christianity into know-nothing fundamentalism, so that it can be dismissed as ‘anti-intellectual’ and ‘anti-science’…”

I don’t know who the “many” are that you speak of.

Isn’t it obvious even in this combox? For example:

rd:

. . . the total fallacy of religions is anyway? Your longing for a belief in the after life that you are willing to deny the obvious? The obvious truth being, that it’s all a lie.

Anytime you need faith in order to believe something, you are expected to go beyond your own intellectual honesty and accentually lie to yourself knowing full well deep down inside it could not possibly be true.

Kill the old self and lie to the new self, step beyond reality into mental delusions of psuedo [sic] grandeur.

. . . incredable [sic] imbecilic nonsense . . .

It was clear in Dave’s deconversion as well. Such rhetoric is very common among atheists / agnostics / skeptics / “freethinkers”. Look at Dawkins and Hitchens, for heaven’s sake. There are exceptions (you seem to be one of them and I know others personally from the Internet and in “real life”) but I stand by my generalization, based on many years of experience of debates and discussions. I used the word “many”; not “most” or “almost all.”

At exchristian.net there are hundreds of Christian visitors who zealously place themselves into this category by refusing to examine any of their beliefs and by attempting to discredit science in the large with childishly simplistic and fallacious arguments. We, as a rule, do not use such visitors as an excuse to dismiss anything (which is what you are apparently suggesting).

Why deal with them at all? If thinking Christians and ex-Christians agree that they shouldn’t be dealt with seriously, then why the obsession with them? It’s because (in my humble opinion) that is the easiest way for an ex-Christian to live with his or her decision to leave Christianity. It’s in their interest to caricature Christianity into the silly anti-intellectual wing of it, so it can be rejected (because even a Christian like myself would readily reject the same things insofar as they are stupid and mindless). You take the very worst, fringe aspects of something in order to reject it.

In fact, some sites, like Debunking Christianity, openly state as a matter of emphasis and policy that they are interested mainly if not solely, in dealing with fundamentalist Christianity. 95% or so of the remaining sectors of Christianity are ignored (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, more sophisticated brands of Presbyterianism and Calvinism in general: folks like Alvin Plantinga, Anglo-Catholicism, Methodism, etc.).

Serious analysis of a competing view will deal with the most respectable form of it, not the dumbest and least respectable.

However, they do get dismissed because they contribute nothing.

And then a serious Christian who comes along gets to deal with all their baggage and the latent hostile attitudes, as if they represented the sum of Christianity . . .

“…what makes him [Dave] think that he knows better than scholars who have studied these things for years? This is a common motif in atheist deconversions. They know better than everyone else.”

Tell me, which scholar should we all listen to?

I wasn’t talking about any particular one, but all of them as a class. Again, if one is to rationally dismiss a point of view, shouldn’t he at least seek out some of the better representatives of it?

Yes, of course. Do you imply that people here have not done that?

My replies had to do with Dave Van Allen, not all 473 skeptics at ExChristian.Net.

That was my point. I kept wondering if Dave had even tried to do that, or if he would ask a question of some pastor who wouldn’t have a clue, and then just give up, as if no Christian on the face of the earth could offer the slightest reply to his probing questions.

Many made a desperate effort to rescue their waning beliefs by pursuing a wide spectrum of apologetics, looking for something well-founded. The Webmaster himself went though this. 

If so, there was no indication of it whatsoever in his anti-testimony.

It sounds as though you chastise them for not having settled upon your particular brand of Christianity. Each sect could take the same stand (and to a degree, that’s what they do). 

My reply had nothing whatsoever to do with Catholic distinctives over against other brands of Christianity. I never defend Catholicism when debating atheists, but Christianity in general.

Not everybody thinks Catholicism is the most rational branch of Christianity–I’m sure you are aware of that. (To the regulars here: Please pardon my understatement.)

No kidding? I’m so shocked I think I’ll faint.

You know as well as I that 1) what some scholars have to say is not worthy of the name “scholarship”, and 2) there are legitimate scholars on both sides of practically any issue.

Sure, but that was irrelevant to my point, clarified above.

In the end, each of us must decide which line of reasoning is most coherent and has the greater force of evidence (thanks, in part, to the efforts of legitimate scholars).

Indeed. That’s what I’m saying: read the best of both sides, in any given debate, not the best of one and worst of the other, or only one side.

That’s what I’ve done for close to thirty years. Do you claim to have read the best on both sides?

I try to familiarize myself with the best arguments, yes (money- and time-permitting). I prefer one-on-one discussion with informed advocates, but it is rare to find such people.

* * *

Do I know better than everyone else? No, I don’t believe so, and I don’t claim to. But I have a well-thought-out position–one that is coherent, and has benefited from exposure to nimble minds on both sides (Plantinga, who you mention, is among them).

Good for you. I would say exactly the same about my own view. Looks like you and I, then, may be able to engage in some excellent, fruitful dialogue. It’s the love of truth and reason and dialogue that allows that to take place.

Bottom line: don’t dismiss all atheists as simply thinking they are smarter than anybody else.

Many clearly do think so. Again, I appeal to the rhetoric commonly seen here and in similar places, about how “imbecilic” and “obviously false” Christianity is. That is the language of condescension and a “know-it-all” mentality. You are an exception, apparently, but exceptions don’t disprove the rule, as they say.

Instead, I encourage you to address their arguments with the same dedication that they put into forming them.

I did my best with Dave’s anti-testimony, and am doing so presently. Thanks again for your thoughts. I enjoyed the discussion.

***

(originally 9-28-07)

Photo credit: WenPhotos (1-24-15) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]

***

August 23, 2018

If one dares to critique an atheist’s “deconversion” from Christianity to atheism one will prove oneself (in the eyes of some – dunno how many) atheists, to be evil incarnate, the scum of the earth, and a most unsavory personage. “RubySera Martin”, a former Christian herself, leaves no stone unturned in savaging my person for this outlandishly evil sin that I have committed. The link to her post is now defunct, but I cited it in its entirety.

RubySera’s words will be in blue, John Loftus’s in green, and my older cited words in brown.

*****

John Loftus’s “reply” to my critique of his deconversion was ridiculous enough (“He doesn’t think I was sincere. I’m probably not even a person to him. . . . You’re a joke. I’m surprised you have an audience. . . . To think you could pompously proclaim you are better than me is beyond me when you don’t know me. It’s a defensive mechanism you have with people like me. . . . damned psychobabble . . . drivel . . . It’s called respecting people as people, and Dave’s Christianity does not do that with people who don’t agree with him. . . . self-assured arrogant idiots out there, like Dave, who prefer to proclaim off of my personal experience that they are better than I”), but this goes beyond merely ridiculous, to surreal and hysterical. And the sad thing is that it is again based on a massive misunderstanding that doesn’t follow from the words and arguments I used.

So now, rather than rationally discuss the issues at hand, I have to prove I’m not the devil. See how it works? I wish I could just ignore this, but it is so absurd that I just don’t have it in me. It’s one thing to honestly disagree, but when a person has to literally demonize someone because she is unable to properly understand what they are arguing, then someone must speak out against that. It’s a true shame, that here we are again with atheists who want to resort to personal attack and insult.

Once again, we’ll see that context was utterly butchered, and little attempt was made to grant good faith to me, because, after all, I am a Christian, and I committed the unpardonable sin of critiquing an atheist’s deconversion story. I didn’t know it was the unpardonable sin according to atheists till I did it. Now I know.

Spiritual Predators

The following was said by a Christian about a person [John Loftus] who deconverted from Christianity:

So he grew up being “taught to believe in the Christian faith” yet this is how he ended the later years of his youth? Doesn’t sound like a very compelling Christian upbringing to me. Something was deficient there somewhere. On the other hand, I was a very nominal Methodist growing up, and even stopped going to Church at age 10 (because my parents also did) and was almost a practical agnostic; at the very least exceedingly secular in outlook (though never an atheist). Yet I never remotely got into this much trouble (pursuing the occult was about the extent of it).

That can be about the most scathing thing seekers face. They make themselves vulnerable, they bare their souls, hoping for understanding. Instead of understanding they are mocked for being the way they are.

The author, Dave Armstrong, claims elsewhere that he was only critiquing. No, he was not critiquing. He was being skeptical of another human being’s honesty regarding that person’s own personal experience of life. In other words, he was being skeptical about another person’s interpretation of his own life experience.

This is a complete distortion of what I was trying to do, and my interior disposition. I was not mocking at all. This is implied in the fact that I concluded my own not very stellar example of religious background. My point was that there was likely some deficiency in how John was taught the Christian faith, because, as a rule, those who are taught it properly, don’t get into all the trouble that he did (“I had dropped out of High School, and was arrested six different times for offenses like running away, theft, and battery. I had also hitchhiked around the country with a friend. I was heavily into drugs, alcohol, sex, fast cars, and the party scene”). This was all prior to age 18. I used myself as an analogy; in effect, arguing: if I wasn’t properly taught religious things and got into relatively little trouble, it stands to reason that John probably wasn’t, either, since he got into a load of trouble.”

This doesn’t involve my allegedly “being skeptical of another human being’s honesty regarding that person’s own personal experience of life.” Not at all. And that is because the statement, “I grew up being taught to believe in the Christian faith” is capable of including within it many possibilities as to factual variables: possible deficiencies in doctrine, in ethics, in bad example from those teaching it, in hypocrisy of those teaching it, etc. It is a subjective statement. I only had so much information to go by and responded accordingly.

It’s true that I am skeptical of the nature of this faith that he was taught. I highly suspect that there was something wrong there (in the teaching, not with him as a supposedly rotten, evil person), that led him to go astray in his youth. Most people who see a young person go so far astray will immediately look at the parents and what they have been doing. But this doesn’t entail some unsavory claim that John is not honest, or that he is deliberately misrepresenting his past. That simply doesn’t follow. It was a very general statement.

What I am skeptical of is whether he was properly taught Christianity. Perhaps he was. I assumed he would clarify that later, since, after all, he asked me to critique his deconversion in the first place, and we were getting along fine (so I thought) until I did so. He could easily have done so, but instead we had an explosion of irrational and emotional invective.

RubySera says I was “being skeptical about another person’s interpretation of his own life experience.” Again, this is not true. The above observation doesn’t require this sort of reading at all. I was simply reacting to the general statement that he was raised in the Christian faith, combined with his own report of his mischief and lawbreaking, and stating aloud that something doesn’t connect there. I don’t place that in his sincerity, but in problems in what he was taught, or something along these lines.

I do see, however, that there were two things I could have expressed in a better way: the use of the phrase, “on the other hand,” which can (I see now) be taken to imply that I was contrasting myself (by this phrase) as (an inherently) “good kid” over against John as a “bad kid” (and then using this presumption of his “badness” to dismiss his reasoning thereafter). But that was not my intention at all. I intended the phrase to contrast the two following things, by reverse analogy:

1. John: good Christian upbringing — wild youth.

2. Dave: nominal Christian upbringing — relatively docile, trouble-free youth.

My reasoning (I grant that it is not totally clear) was that good religious teaching usually corresponds to kids getting into less trouble. So if John got into a lot, I was saying that maybe the teaching or the environment in which it was presented wasn’t that great. He may have sincerely thought that it was. But reasonable people can differ on that.

RubySera herself was brought up as a very conservative Mennonite (she describes it as a “horse and buggy Mennonite community”). She now thinks it was a terrible thing. So why is it unspeakably evil for me to simply question whether there were deficiencies in John’s upbringing, too? It’s only permissible for atheists to critique such things, but Christians dare not, on pain of being publicly savaged and demonized as wicked scoundrels? Atheists can critique errors in practice of Christians, but Christians cannot?

The second thing was my use of the word “deficient.” I meant it strictly to imply to the teaching he received. But I can see how, grammatically, it is possible to think that I was referring to John as a person. I was not. Even if I were, this would make little sense in the context of a Christian understanding, because we say that everyone is subject to original sin, and everyone actually sins (except for Mary in Catholic theology and the unfallen angels). We’re all sinners in need of a savior. I might make judgments that a person is lacking in this or that quality, if it is repeatedly manifest.

But I can’t imagine saying “x is a deficient person.” I don’t think I’ve ever said since I have been a serious Christian (almost 30 years): “I’m better than that person.” That’s just not the way I talk or approach people, so it wasn’t what I meant here. It’s completely foreign to my worldview and thinking processes. I would say (and have, many many times), “we’re all sinners; myself foremost; Exhibit #1.” But I recognize that it could legitimately have been misunderstood here, and to that extent I accept my share of the responsibility and even offer an apology for the poor wording, leaving myself open to be misunderstood.

But even that, in my opinion, doesn’t excuse how RubySera has responded to me. She has the choice of whether or not to believe my report of my intentions, just as she is protesting against my imaginary doubting of John’s personal report. So stay tuned for that. It’ll be very interesting either way.

Before we proceed further, let’s look at the context of my remark. This is easy, because there is only one additional paragraph, right after what was cited, before moving onto other sub-topics. Here it is. Note the information that gives a quite different impression from the one RubySera drew from the isolated paragraph. It’s a classic study in quoting out of context:

I’m not questioning John’s sincerity; only saying that something was missing for this sort of rebellion to have occurred. It could still occur even in a profoundly Christian home (e.g., Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who later straightened up and became a minister), because we all have free will, but generally this indicates a less-than-stellar foundational Christian teaching. And that, in turn, influences one’s thoughts and opinions, which has relevance to a “deconversion” and sad descent into atheism.

First of all, one observes my making very clear that I am not questioning John’s sincerity (first five words). The choice, then, is to either believe my report of my interior disposition and opinion of John or not. I am being chided for supposedly not granting this charity and benefit of the doubt to John. But ironically, now I find myself being subject to the same thing I am being falsely accused of. We’re supposed to believe that atheists are sincere in their stories, but Christians are not in their critiques? If not, why does RubySera continue?:

That is outside the boundaries of anyone except for the individual who has the experience. Telling a person that he did not experience things that way is like telling someone, “No you are not cold when you are cold.” It denigrates a human being’s perception. We must protect ourselves against that kind of person. They are destructive in all their ways.

But I didn’t do this! I just stated that I don’t question John’s sincerity! I even granted that there are exceptions to the rule of the “kid gone astray” (thus, John’s case may have been one itself). There is no question that youth go astray overwhelmingly when there is some serious deficiency in the home. This could be either from teaching or disciplinary chaos or lack of one parent or drug use. It could be any number of things. But it is completely rational to suspect that something seriously wrong (i.e., from the parents) went on.

If anyone doubts this, go interview juvenile delinquents or adult criminals and ask them about their childhoods. Only a fool could deny the connection. I don’t know more particulars about John’s childhood unless he decides to let me in on them. But it was entirely rational and reasonable (and, I say, not unethical or uncharitable) to suspect what I did, based on the information I had.

Secondly, one phrase makes it clear that I was concentrating on the Christian teaching (or lack thereof) when I referred to something being “deficient”: “generally this [rebellion] indicates a less-than-stellar foundational Christian teaching.” I think this easily explains my use of that word, in context. But by omitting the second paragraph, RubySera could have a field day in distorting my intentions, and then moving on to “argue” (based on this false premise) about what wicked, evil — indeed, even “dangerous” — person I allegedly am. I think it also explains the intent of my phrase “on the other hand.”

Nevertheless, I’m happy to acknowledge that one might misinterpret those words; particularly because it is an emotional and personal topic, etc. That often causes lapses in logic and reading comprehension. If John (and/or RubySera) immediately got angry with my first paragraph, then they read the rest of the paper in that fog of misguided anger. I’m saying that it was ultimately unjustified. It certainly is now, at any rate, after my elaborate explanations. But if they insist on having an axe to grind against me, on a groundless basis, all of this won’t amount to a hill of beans.

In our search for what is right for us we need clear-headed, honest people to help us understand ourselves. People who talk in the tone of voice Dave Armstrong talks are among the most dangerous people to listen to. The problem with not listening to them is that they will get emotionally vicious. They will make personal attacks. They will threaten that bad things will happen. Those are a few of the things they will say.

I did none of these things whatsoever. I just didn’t. It’s amusing to me that she talks about “tone of voice” when that is precisely the thing that is lacking in written material. Anyone who has met me would never say this nonsense. I appeal to those who know me in person, just as John has done. Even two fellow atheists in the very thread discussing my critique recognized that I was not intending to attack John personally.

Matthew Green, for example, wrote on John’s own blog: “. . . the tone of Dave’s critique is a bit pleasant and not really nasty, . . . At least Dave Armstrong seems a likeable kind of a guy, . . .” And “whizler” wrote: “I don’t believe Dave Armstrong’s response was directed at you personally.” So this personal interpretation is often wildly subjective. These are four atheists all looking at the same exact thing. John and RubySera go nuts and start attacking me personally, whereas Matthew and whizler make rational comments and form a very different impression.

Moreover, I made it very clear in my comments underneath the critique on my blog, that I do not hold the unsavory opinions about John, that have been falsely attributed to me:

Dave, as I read this I thought to myself, he doesn’t think of me as an equal. 

Quite the contrary; we’re all sinners. No one is any better, at bottom, than anyone else. Whatever good is in us is because of God’s grace, not our inherent superiority to someone else. 

He looks down his nose at me. 

Not at all. I simply disagree with your positions and your denigration of Christianity. Your position is not you. If you write about such things publicly, then do you not expect that Christians will respond to them? You actually encouraged me to respond to your deconversion, so I did.

As I’m writing he looks for loopholes. He doesn’t think I was sincere. 

Really? That’s news to me. I never remotely implied such a thing; nor do I believe it. Your problem (at least insofar as this version of your story suggests) is intellectual, not a matter of dishonesty. 

Bad premises lead to bad conclusions. I didn’t see anything that would bring any Christian doctrine into question at all. Sorry, that’s my honest opinion. Or am I dishonest?

I’m probably not even a person to him. 

Wow. Well, I know one thing: you are extremely sensitive to Christian critiques, even when done respectfully and not attacking you as a person or immoral scoundrel, etc. I can understand that, but it has the effect of alienating those (such as myself) who simply don’t have the attitudes you are attributing to them. 

I understand that many Christians have treated you rottenly. I’ve seen some recent things that shocked me and were terrible witnesses to Christianity. That’s contemptible. But I am not among them. I don’t share their attitudes. I never said you were especially evil (more than any other sinner, of whom I am foremost) or damned, etc. Catholics (to their credit, and we have many faults, believe me) generally don’t do that. We leave those judgments up to God.

[Of, course the net is impersonal anyway so some of this is excusable]. 

This is true. But I take great pains not to fall into the common shortcomings of Internet discourse. You think I’ve attacked your person? Good grief. You should see the amazing things that are written about me. And the worst comes from fellow Christians (some of them even Catholics). 

I dare say Dave that if YOU were to write about your CONVERSION story I could pick it apart no matter how much you write too IF I DIDN’T CONSIDER YOU TO BE A SINCERE AND HONEST AND THOUGHTFUL PERSON. 

Now get this straight, John (in big capital letters): 

I *****DO***** CONSIDER YOU TO BE A SINCERE AND HONEST AND THOUGHTFUL PERSON. 

Got that? Now if you say I am lying, then obviously all discourse is over. But it wasn’t because of me. God is my witness for that, and also (since you think He doesn’t exist) all who have read our exchanges.

RubySera could easily have read that, if she is so interested in figuring out exactly what my intentions, opinions, and interior dispositions were. Instead, we get her ludicrous attack. It ends with this ultra-absurd rant:

I call them spiritual predators because that is exactly what they are. They attack, maim, and torture. Only when they have their victim completely within their power to do release the pressure. It is possible to escape even then, but it is extremely difficult and dangerous.

Further comment on this paragraph would obviously be superfluous and futile and would be an insult to my readers.

There is nothing to these charges. But if it floats RubySera’s boat to falsely demonize me based on no evidence at all that I hold these alleged opinions (and much flatly stated evidence to the contrary), what can I do about it? All I can do is use reason, as I have, and hope that fair-minded atheists will try to persuade this woman that she is only hurting herself and the cause of atheism by this sort of groundless attack.

***

(originally 10-28-06)

Photo credit: werner22brigitte  (12-24-12) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]

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August 23, 2018

Joe E. Holman used to be a preacher in the fundamentalist Church of Christ denomination. He wrote about the reasons why he rejected Christianity and became an atheist in his story: “From Gospel Preacher to Good Atheist”. [the link is now defunct; see several references to Joe on the Debunking Christianity website]. I want to deal with one particular aspect of it, in order to illustrate how fallacious reasoning on one point can lead to adoption of further errors — the cumulative effect of which may lead to a person’s rejecting of Christianity on inadequate grounds.

I’ve often noted how people tend to go from one extreme to another, or that they “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Atheists always seem to be carping about “fundamentalism.” There is a good reason for that. Fundamentalism is the least intellectually respectable form of Christianity. Many atheists or agnostics who were formerly Christians were part of this environment. Oftentimes, it didn’t seem to occur to them that their own brand of Christianity left much to be desired, and that larger Christianity usually offered much, much more.

In other words, there were intelligent, reasonable alternative choices available within Christianity. It wasn’t a matter of a dichotomy between “the worst sorts of Christianity and rejection of Christianity” (as if anti-intellectual fundamentalism equals Christianity). How about considering the range and scope of the Christian options available before deciding to reject Christianity altogether? The refusal to consider such a path is the sort of “either/or” shallow thinking that plagues Mr. Holman’s deconversion story. I shall now look at part of it (his words will be in blue).

*****

Before I knew it, the summer of 2000 had rolled around. I was at my third preaching work now and the work of God in the local church went on as normal. It was a hot night in August as a guest speaker addressed my congregation in regard to his missionary work that we were supporting overseas. I had been fighting away my doubts successfully up until this point, but this was about to change. Behind him was the screen where he showed us a video of the work that the brethren were doing in India. The pagans were pulling apart a bull in a town square in honor of a pagan god. “It is unfortunate that this sort of pagan worship goes on in the world today, but it does, and we must remember as Christians that these souls are lost without the gospel. If people can be saved without it, then we are wasting our time and money trying to save souls.” It was as though time stopped for me at that moment. The speaker’s words made my heart race like never before, even though I had preached and heard the same message a thousand times before. Now, I was actually thinking of the implications of what I believed! According to my God, these ignorant, bull-slaughtering, heathens were going to be condemned to eternal fire to burn forever, and yet so many of them had lived and died under their own wrong pagan ways and laws for countless generations. It wasn’t right for God to put them in Hell for simply living in ignorance as they had been taught. I felt like a twerp with my no-other-way-to- salvation gospel, futilely trying to convert a people who already had a belief system and a culture to direct their lives. My heart began pounding and I began to sweat. I was beginning to think for myself and not just sweep every lost person into a secret compartment in my mind, never to be thought about again (as I had been doing).

I feel like a mosquito on a nude beach: where to begin with so many fallacies evident here? First of all, I would point out that being “lost without the gospel” is not the same thing as “being necessarily and inevitably lost if one never hears the gospel.” One can be saved by something even if one is unaware of what it was he was saved by. To make a physical analogy (as the Bible often does with regard to salvation): suppose my four-year-old daughter and I are floating on an air mattress in a deep lake. She falls asleep, and in due course, starts to roll over. I see that she will fall off, and so I reach over and stop her from rolling over, and thus prevent her from falling into the water and possibly drowning. So I “saved” her but she remained completely unaware of it.

Likewise, the gospel and God can save people even if they remain unaware about the particulars of the gospel or even of God Himself. They can be saved according to what they know. Why do I believe this? Well, first and foremost, because it is more or less explicitly stated in the Bible (in fact, in an entire chapter):

Romans 2 (RSV):

1: Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
2: We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.
3: Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
4: Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
5: But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
6: For he will render to every man according to his works:
7: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
8: but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
9: There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,

10: but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
11: For God shows no partiality.
12: All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
13: For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
14: When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 
15: They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 
16: on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
17: But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God
18: and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law,
19: and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,
20: a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth –
21: you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?
22: You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
23: You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?
24: For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25: Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.
26: So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
27: Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
28: For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.
29: He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.

Now the relationship of law to grace or the gospel (essentially also the question of the Old vs. the New Covenants) is a complex one, fit for a long discussion in and of itself. Suffice it to say here, however, for our purposes, that the Law for the Jew functioned practically in this specific regard, as the gospel functions for Christians. We think we are saved by the gospel; they thought they were saved by the Law. Even that is putting it very broadly (arguably too much so), but I must necessarily simplify so as not to get sidetracked.

But the Apostle Paul takes it much deeper than that, by making the argument that the Law itself or status as a Jew or “chosen race” (analogous to the Christian — particularly Calvinist — notion of the “elect”) is not enough to save one. One must also do good works and show that the Law (by analogy, grace) is active in him as a transformational and motivational force.

But not only that; Paul also makes it clear that even those who haven’t heard the Law (again, analogously, the gospel) can still be saved because their conscience makes clear to them the requirements of the Law, which fact can “perhaps excuse them” at the Judgment (thus meaning that they are saved, if so). This is not apart from the Law itself, but rather, apart from a conscience awareness of the particulars of the Law, or the revelation that any observant Jew was aware of.

So it is quite clear that the Bible does not teach that God sends to hell all people who have not literally heard the gospel. He does not “put” anyone in hell simply for “living in ignorance,” as Mr. Holman vainly imagines. That is a rather monstrous tradition of men that got smuggled into many Protestant sects (but by no means do even the majority of Protestant denominations teach this).

It was part of Mr. Holman’s fundamentalist Church of Christ tradition, so when he figured out that it was untrue and unjust, he didn’t (so it seems from his account) bother to check whether the Bible (which that sect ostensibly claims to be following more closely than any other form of Christianity) teaches against his own false tradition of men, or whether all other Christians believed the same thing. No; he simply concluded that if “Christianity” teaches this notion, then “Christianity” must be false. Anyone can readily see the fallacious nature of this equation. It’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Nor does this teaching of Paul in Romans 2 mean that Christians should cease evangelizing. That is as unreasonable as saying that “primitive stone age tribes in the jungle may be able to be saved from certain sicknesses by means of their own herbal remedies, so we won’t try to introduce modern medicine to them.” We don’t conclude that they already have some semblance of cure for sicknesses; therefore, we won’t inform them of any advances in medical care.

Likewise, the fact that someone may theoretically be saved without hearing the gospel is no reason whatsoever not to preach it to them, because that knowledge opens up far more possibility for blessing and Christian understanding, as well as spiritual power. Most Christians believe exactly the same thing about the benefits of availability of sacraments (such as baptism) versus not having them available. The existence of “loopholes” do not imply the absence of routine and the status quo. Christians preach the gospel because God wants them to be involved in the sharing of His message of Good News.

I felt like a twerp with my no-other-way-to-salvation gospel, futilely trying to convert a people who already had a belief system and a culture to direct their lives. 

His brand of salvation should have made him feel that way, because it wasn’t altogether biblically based, but again, this is no reason to go to the other extreme and let people live without the gospel, if you believe they would be further benefited by actually hearing the message of the Good News of Christ.

My heart began pounding and I began to sweat. I was beginning to think for myself and not just sweep every lost person into a secret compartment in my mind, never to be thought about again (as I had been doing). 

Yeah, it was pretty stupid, I agree. But how is that relevant to Christianity as a whole, is the question? I’ve been doing the work of evangelism for 25 years and I have never approached the task in this fashion (and that includes being both an evangelical Protestant and a Catholic).

This Hell idea I had been preaching was starting to seem like a terrible thing. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, I never could harmonize the concept of hell with the concept of a merciful God, especially when God could easily rehabilitate sinners or just blot them out of existence.

Of course, if one starts with this fallacious notion that God sends people to hell for completely unjust reasons, I could see how it would be repulsive and revolting. I don’t believe God acts that way, either, but it doesn’t cause me to reject Christianity, does it? And that is because there are many more ways to approach the question of hell and election and salvation than the fundamentalist or specifically Church of Christ or extreme supralapsarian Calvinist fashion.

After all, you get rid of a sick dog, you don’t torture it, right? But this posed a dilemma: if God could choose to save some lost souls without the gospel, then he must do the same for everyone lest he be branded a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35), in which case, his word would not always be true (John 10:35). 

But this again incorporates the false dichotomy highlighted above. God doesn’t save anyone without the gospel. Whoever is saved, is saved by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross on their behalf. But they don’t necessarily have to consciously be aware of that fact of the means of salvation in order to be saved. Therefore, the “dilemma” proposed above collapses.

Or, if it is as the bible says, and literally no one can be saved without the gospel, then you have the uncomfortable and unjust position of making God a tyrant who condemns helpless and ignorant pagans who never heard of Jews or Jesus or the Christian Church (Luke 12:4-5; Mark 16:16; Matthew 7:21-23; John 14:6). 

Nope. One must incorporate the data of Romans 2 to have an accurate, adequate understanding of the full Bible teaching on potential salvation of the pagan or heathen. Since Mr. Holman didn’t do that: then or now, he was forced to accept a false dichotomy, so that he had to reject what he falsely thought was (the sum total of) “Christianity,” since the “straw box” that he had forced it into reduced it to moral absurdity with a capricious, amoral “god.”

There is no way to answer this dilemma and maintain both the soundness of God’s word and the mercy of God. 

No?! That’s news to me. I just did it.

I used to be content explaining this by saying that since God himself was the only immutable standard of morality, then he could do whatever he wanted with souls and his will would be “good” and ours would be “bad,” but this no longer resolved the problem in my mind. 

That may be true of Allah, in Islamic thought, but it is not the Christian conception of God, where God is Love and cannot do evil. He will always do good.

Now the idea of eternal torment started to seem like the truly malicious thing it was. God was running a “little shop of horrors” all his own! The more I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to serve a monster capable of such cruelty. 

Again, if one believes in false notions of how people end up in hell, that would follow. But if hell is regarded as a free choice of creatures who wish to reject God, then it is quite different. God gives them that freedom, and we also believe that He gives all men enough grace to accept His freely-offered and completely God-enabled salvation. Calvinists don’t accept that, because they believe in limited atonement and don’t think that Jesus died for all men and made it theoretically possible for all men to be saved. But Calvinism is not the whole of Christianity. There is Arminian Protestantism, and Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, all of which groups reject this soteriology.

Other aspects of Mr. Holman’s deconversion story fall prey to the same shallow thinking. He figured out that the earth was not six thousand years old. Good for him! Only a tiny fraction of Christians believe such a silly thing, but that didn’t stop him from using this newfound knowledge of his to reject “Christianity.” He acts as if the theory of evolution is somehow fundamentally hostile to Christianity, too, but there are millions of Christians who are theistic evolutionists. He pretends that similarity of certain elements of other religions to those in Christianity somehow casts doubt on Christianity. I don’t see how (yet this is a common motif in atheist / agnostic polemics).

My knowledge pool was filling and my worldview that was kept so small before and full of intolerance and scientific illiteracy, was now growing, and with this knowledge came peace like the bible only claimed to give me.

So he was particularly ignorant of science, gets up to speed, and figures out that more knowledge of science means less acceptance of Christianity, as if it were a zero-sum game? Yet this kind of thinking is considered impressive in the circles he now moves in? This mentality leads him to utter inane, puerile platitudes such as: if I can explain design by means of evolution, then I don’t need a god” and “Science had been replacing the god notion for centuries.”

I look back now and wonder how I could ever have believed in an angry tyrant of a god who brought unimaginable guilt and fear of eternal torture on his children.

Yeah, it is amazing, isn’t it?: that anyone would and could believe in such a ridiculous “God.” If I thought “God” acted in such a manner I wouldn’t be a Christian for one minute, either.

But when I defended my decision to leave, I quickly became the flaming heretic without hope of saving: “You are evil!!” “Do you worship the devil now, Joe?” “Joe, you have no morality!” “Will you beat me and take my wallet now that you’re an atheist, Joe?” They called me not knowing what they were in for. It was almost funny to listen as they got upset and tried to get off the phone as quickly as possible!

People act in all sorts of ways when deep emotions and commitments are involved. I don’t have any need or compulsion myself to jump to such conclusions. And if humor is brought into the mix, I can find lots of hilarious atheist rantings, too. That’s neither here nor there in the end, though.

As far as I can see, Mr. Holman’s deconversion was due (at least in the above explanations) to flimsy, sloppy, illogical thinking and the common human tendency to adopt false dichotomies and to move from one extreme to another. I believe that can be corrected, and that is why I wrote this paper, so that others will not fall into this same trap of building houses upon the sand of utterly fallacious premises or foundations.

I realize that I haven’t dealt with all aspects of the paper; rather, what I have done is to show that these particular reasons for rejecting Christianity do not stand up to the test of rational scrutiny. These “reasons” are not good or solid ones. And these are commonly-used rationales given in such cases. Simply repeating them because they play well in the atheist / agnostic sub-community (i.e., “preaching to the choir” or the cheerleading club) does not cause them to cease to be lousy reasons, insofar as they can truly be called “reasons” at all, seeing that they are so unreasonable and irrational.

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(originally 10-2-06)

Photo credit: A_Different_Perspective (9-3-16) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]

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