Editor’s Note: This former minister, now well versed in criticizing Christian thinking, applies his expertise to a fund-raising letter he received from the seminary where he received his Master’s degree. It makes me wonder how many of these kinds of letters are falling into the hands of clergy who no longer believe. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Paul Adams
I received a remarkably honest five-page letter from my alma mater, Luther Seminary. The letter cites widely known statistics about the decline of religious identity and participation in the United States. It also provides forecast data implying the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will be effectively dead by 2041.
These types of letters from the “Office of the President” are typically sent by schools to solicit donations. (You may have received and recycled such letters in the past.) This one doesn’t explicitly ask for money, but gives some analysis of the situation and what the seminary proposes to do in response. Their conclusion?
“…we’ve done considerable research into this trend by listening deeply to the church, and the core challenge that’s emerged is this: too many of our congregations struggle to help members form deep Christian identity, practice, and faith.”
What? THAT is the problem? That explains the decline of religion in the United States over the last 50+ years?
I appreciate honesty and good research methods and data analysis. The letter shows some of each of these, which is admirable. But here is the core problem: a seminary, by definition, exists to train religious leaders. The religion itself can never be called into question. Sure, the methods a religion uses to achieve its aims can be scrutinized, but the religion itself? Never.
And this is the fundamental problem with their analysis. They cannot consider the most obvious and likely cause of the decline of religion:
Why can’t they consider this as a possibility?
A hundred years ago, they might have funded a push into evangelism – to convince people to convert through the power of personal testimony. If an evangelism strategy worked, this letter would certainly mention it! But it never comes up. Why? Personal testimony doesn’t work in a world in which it is ridiculously easy to access resources that teach people about what truth is and how to discover it.
Just one YouTube video channel, The Atheist Experience, has over 80 million video views as of the middle of 2019. This channel focuses on teaching people how to think – the basic processes of good logic and rational thinking. Once you know just a little bit about how to think rationally, any personal religious testimony is incredibly simple to dismiss for its logical fallacies and broken methods that, by definition, lead to false conclusions.
And this is just one single YouTube channel. There are thousands and thousands of free, accessible resources for the public – videos, podcasts, social media accounts, blogs, Meet up groups, and more. (There’s even this thing called The Clergy Project I happen to know something about that recently celebrated having over 1,000 former religious leaders join its ranks.)
Lines of religious argument that used to take years of intensive study to argue against can now be revealed as bullshit in seconds. So, if people can no longer believe religious claims because they find them to be fundamentally false, the letter’s analysis and conclusions become comically absurd.
The letter’s argument begins with, and I quote:
“We live in a culture that makes it hard for people to imagine and be led by God…”
Allow me to use some basic logic I learned from watching YouTube on my phone and deconstruct just the first line by asking some important questions:
- Which god, specifically, are you talking about? Why did you choose to talk about this god instead of the thousands of other gods available to talk about.
- Why do you believe that particular god exists?
- If you are monotheistic, how did you determine that other possible gods do not exist?
- If you are polytheistic, why should I care what your god thinks or does as opposed to the other gods?
- If your god is all-powerful, why is something as petty as culture strong enough to stop your god?
- If your god isn’t all-powerful and something as petty as culture can defeat him, why should I give a damn what your god thinks or does? Why do you even call him a god?
- Why do you imply that non-religious people lack imagination? Is this conclusion objectively demonstrable? If you believe this to be true, and I am non-religious, why should I care what you say? If you deny this is the case, why have you used such language in the very first sentence of your argument?
- What tangible and measurable negative impacts come from not being led by the god you claim exists?
- For all questions above, please provide good, objective evidence to support your conclusion. Links to a double-blind study conducted by a reputable, independent research organization (or better yet, multiple organizations) would be especially helpful.
- In the absence of actual evidence or studies, please provide the conceptual framework that would allow an objective analysis to test each hypothesis for its veracity in the future.
I would love to get satisfactory answers to my questions, and I’m open to the possibility that someone could do so. But my experience so far with these types of conversations makes me skeptical.
And this is just the first line of their argument in their letter. It only gets more absurd as it goes along.
Asking questions of another person to get them to defend their truth claims – the Socratic method I’ve used above – is SO EASY TO DO. My graduate degree from this seminary was undone in minutes by watching a few videos on my phone. Anybody that is interested in learning how to think can do so.
So, the next time someone makes a claim about the world, don’t just accept it. Remember that the claim itself has no truth-value until it has been demonstrated to be true. And if an organization makes truth claims they can’t support, for God’s sake, stop giving them your hard earned money. Better yet, do it for yourself. Your wallet – and your brain – will thank you.
Bio: Paul Adams converted to Christianity as an adult as a way to seek truth in the universe before finally coming to the conclusion that he was looking in the wrong place. He is a seminary graduate who worked in a number of church leadership roles for many years. Today, he happily works in non-profit leadership, and gratefully applies the lessons of his past to his current work.