[Editor’s note: It has been a somber time, seeing old friends fall away from the Christian faith. Something happened during that time we had together, and it left us all asking some very difficult questions. For me, it almost left me without faith. But here I am, holding to mine. I believe this interaction will be helpful for seeing just where we have gone, and where these paths lead. Know that this conversation is not over; it is my prayer that it is just beginning. I’ve written this response more specifically to Kaleb’s circulating letter, which describes his reasons for leaving Christian church, reproduced below my response, both publicly posted with his permission.]
April 5, 2016
My old Lynchburg friend. Thank you for sharing you story. It is honest, and your openness is truly appreciated. As I reply, your story and mine merge yet again. I believe it was meant to be, even from the foundation of the earth. My hope is that this letter will bring about belief, just as the power of God, through the truth, can bring resurrection from the dead.
It appears we missed opportunities, back then when we were close, to commiserate deeply as friends. I am sorry for the despair and the hurt, the travail and the tumult, which you endured alone. I was hurting back then, too. I believe a number of us men and women of Grace Assembly were struggling with our faith. As our doubting pastor stepped down from leadership, I remember – I was steeped in Kierkegaard and Derrida, on a downward spiral of darkness. I had no answers, and as my faith was attacked, I felt only silence. You, in many ways, seemed stronger than I. You were a dependable figure in our community, with a budding family, established friends (all who seemed to have you as their best man at the wedding), and everyone’s esteem. But apparently neither of us had answers. When you said,
I was being dragged kicking and screaming out of [faith], unable to ignore the increasingly obvious intellectual problems and unsatisfactory answers
I was there with you. Truly. I remember asking myself how in the world if the invisible and intangible realm was not something I could probe, how could I trust the Bible? I had no answers, but in pain I returned again and again to Isaiah 59, putting it into the first person: “justice is far from me, and righteousness does not overtake me; I hope for light, but look, darkness, and for brightness, but I walk in gloom. I grope for the wall like the blind; I grope like those who have no eyes; I stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigor I am like a dead man.” I felt dead. After a break-up with the woman I was going to marry, who deceived and hurt me more deeply than I could have ever imagined, and after finishing my degree and having no answers for what I was to do with my life, and after being completely consumed by my lusts and fears so that I locked myself in solitude for months on end without any outside connection but a crumbling church, I felt dead. What was life if it had no transcendent purpose? Could I, as a finite worm, approach the word “transcendence” without laughing, or crying? I cried. And I laughed, too. And then I read Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, or I tried to get up and fix my problems, and I cried and laughed some more.
But although we shared this despair, and a longing for answers, we found a different way, a different path, and another story. That’s what I want to talk about.
I began meeting with pastors, mentors, friends- telling them I was struggling deeply with questions. This was almost inevitably how each discussion ended- a concession to the difficulty of the questions and a dismissal of the question by discrediting your mind, logic, rationality, or empiricism as means to discover truth. It ultimately came back to presuppositionalism- one must simply believe it’s true no matter what the evidence- and take every objection or contrary thought and take it captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5).
Yes, let’s start with ultimate things. We can agree, you and I, that the answer is not presuppositionalism. Well, at least not the way you’ve defined it. Allow me to attempt a redefinition. Cornelius Van Til, the father of presuppositionalism, though he didn’t create the title (and it isn’t a good one!), was an apologetics professor at my school, Westminster Theological Seminary. In his legacy, one of my professors, David Powlison, put it well: “Christian truth is about the facts of life. It is pointedly not a leap of faith in the face of the facts, despite the facts, and damn the facts.” You might notice Powlison is referencing Kiekegaard, or Kant looming behind him, in speaking of a “leap of faith”. Christianity is not what Kierkegaard or Kant have made it into. I think of Ignatius, martyred under Roman Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117), who wrote that Jesus “was from the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who was truly born, who both ate and drank; who was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who was truly crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, was truly raised from the dead when his Father raised him up.” Christianity is in every way concerned with truth – with the facts. While “presuppositionalism” does seem to sound like, “You have your presuppositions and I have mine, and that’s it, despite the facts”, that isn’t the position Van Til or his students hold. Rather, I think you will find our approach clear after I show it to you. After all, it is easy to knock-down a straw man, as you have done. But I would like you to engage with the “truly” of Christianity, for it is really and truly in accordance with the facts.
Let me show you. Let’s look at your ultimate answer – your conclusion:
I finally concluded there’s nothing I’ve ever witnessed that can’t be explained naturally.
Nothing? Can you explain this:
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Where does evil reside in the heart, Kaleb? Is evil in the left ventricle, and good in the right? Where is the natural-physical reality you just spoke about? Tell me, in your wisdom, how you can reconcile this – that there is nothing you can’t explain naturally, and yet you assume all kinds of answers that are non-physical. Let’s even say you find depression or anxiety in the brain – what makes depression an evil, and not a good? At every corner you are faced with the metaphysical, and you are faced with your ultimate presuppositions, and you are faced with your own gross inconsistencies, each one pointing to unfounded presuppositions, since your naturalistic presuppositions cannot uphold your beliefs in good and evil. At best, good and evil are social constructs, which are just as relative to their contexts as truth. And let’s push it further and say you accept Darwinianism. What makes you think your “scientific” search for truth is actually a search for reality, and not just a survival mechanism, which is actually your highest value? You are not working according to naturalistic presuppositions, but you are borrowing Christian values; in this case, the Christian truth that all men, save Christ alone, is a mixture of good and evil since the fall. This is what is meant by “presuppositionalism” – not that we all have presuppositions, but whether those presuppositions align with our other beliefs, and cohere within a whole system. Yours patently do not.
Let me show you, again.
I decided to stop being afraid. I decided I would no longer allow shame, guilt, or fear dictate my beliefs, and I would seek the truth fearlessly, entertain any argument, read any book or discuss with any person and yes, rely on my mind to discriminate truth and error. After all, if my mind was untrustworthy how could I trust it to judge the validity of my current position? It’s all I’ve got.
What is your ultimate presupposition here? Ironically, it is that your mind is the ultimate standard and judge of truth, because “It’s all I’ve got.” You actually have quite a strong faith in the metaphysical, don’t you? You have lied to yourself, thinking you can explain everything naturally. You have, with contrary evidence, even, believed and presupposed that your mind is the sufficient rule for truth – where is your natural evidence for that, and on what basis should it be accepted? Ultimately you end up in a circle of your own making. And did you not say the heart bore good and evil in it? Is that same heart wholly divided from the mind’s investigations? If not, you have again shown your utter inconsistency, and the bankruptcy of your humanism and naturalism, and have stuck yourself in a spiraling morass of mere opinion. When you accept yourself as the rule of truth you become Pontius Pilate, saying “What is truth?”, putting to shame the Lord of glory, who you know in your heart to be the King of Kings. But you say, “NO, I know my own heart!” And how do you know that you know your own heart, unless you presuppose that your mind is without fault? And what natural reason do you have for saying so? Your presuppositions fail you, because you begin at the wrong place. And yet, you do know certain things – but you don’t know how you know, and I would like to talk about that next.
Before I go on speaking about presuppositions and such, let me address your use of scripture. For all your evangelical accolades, please consider this – you have a very impoverished understanding of the scriptures. And at the very least, I would have thought the Calvinistic church which we shared would have pulled you out of such basic errors. I was wrong. I will correct a few of your misapprehensions, but they are so thorough, I cannot address them all.
So I’m 16… and I realize that every single person I pass on the street is (from the time perspective of eternity) seconds away from an unchangeable fate, for the great majority -an eternity in hell, but I have the secret that can change their eternal destiny.
“I have the secret that can change their eternal destiny.” This is not a proper understanding of what the scriptures teach. First, your view throughout your letter is that people are basically good, that they think clearly, and that they just happen to find themselves in eternal torment because they weren’t historically put in the way of acquiring knowledge of Christ. I’d ask that you humbly consider this is not at all what the scriptures teach. Quite the contrary. In Romans 1 Paul teaches that all men, by nature, “suppress the truth… For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but… exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” God and his salvation are not a secret to mankind, as you’ve written, but the scriptures teach that men reject God because of evil, endemic to the human heart since Adam’s fall. So then, men are liable for knowing God and rejecting him, because God has shown himself in everything that exists; therefore their rejection is inexcusable, just as yours is inexcusable. People don’t find themselves in hell because they are frolicking along ignorant of god, but because, rejecting God in the manifest ways he reveals himself to us (in every fact of the created universe, including the fact of one’s own psychology), He is rejected out of the wickedness of the human heart, which in order to follow its own lusts, willingly tumbles headlong into destruction. In this way, everyone has the “presupposition” of God built into who they are as creatures made in his image. You don’t go around actually believing you have to prove naturalistically that your language is sufficient to communicate to others, that your love or pain is real, or that your reasoning can be reliable –you presuppose these things because you actually know God, who has made us to be this way, in the deepest recesses of your being. You would have no basis for presupposing these things in a naturalistic world. For example, while I was in Cambodia, I met a man who was in the sex-trade “industry”, who openly confessed to selling girls as commodities. He told me that if Darwin was right, people have no intrinsic value in themselves. But we don’t live that way, and we believe it to be completely wrong, because we are made to know that. We are made to be in relationship with God – and so we are. I, therefore, do not tell him, “Well, that’s just your opinion, and I have my own presuppositions.” I tell him, “You are rebellion against the God you know by your violent rage against people made in his image, and you will be held accountable. Repent and believe in Christ to be saved.” I also would have turned him over to the police, if I had the power; I did see him arrested. But the point is that there is an active suppression of the truth in all unbelieving systems, and you are also actively suppressing that truth by fighting against Him, and by extension His anointed One, as your arguments show.
Let me show you, again.
I pondered these things and a little thought experiment occurred to me: What if out of say 10 world religions I would be randomly born into any one of them but there was only 1 true religion, Christianity (which I would not be born into). What mindset, what disposition would make my chances of discovering the truth the greatest? Suddenly every social mechanism for corralling my belief was not virtuous but a blockade to truth. Skepticism vs dogmatism. Open-mindedness vs strong belief. Maximum exposure vs censorship. Embrace every question without shame, fear, or guilt. The truth tested will stand stronger. And to hell with presuppositionalism- that all but guarantees I’ll just be whatever religion I’m born into.
Here again you make the grave mistake of thinking that through one’s own use of logic and reason, they make their way to God. As I have just argued, God has made his way to us, evidencing Himself in everything that has been created, so that it is immediately evident to all He is God. Further, the radical slavery of the human heart means that everyone is born into slavery, and everyone is born a stranger to the salvation of Christ. No one is born a Christian. So this assumption of a tabula rasa does not stand. On that note, a second and equally grave mistake you’ve made is believing you actually are embracing “every question without shame, fear, or guilt.” You have this unbelievable unproved metaphysical commitment to the reliability of your own self. Again, if your heart or mind is at all faulty, what makes you able to answer any question reliably, or even know the right questions to ask? I wonder if ever you were a follower of Christ, since your love of self has come to the foreground. If you are such a valiant skeptic, why have you not been skeptical of your skepticism? All your beliefs are self-defeating, as any untrue faith is. All men have faith, and you have placed yours in the wrong place.
I know that I have spoken sharply, but it is only in hopes that you see the foolishness that you have dived headlong into. How can this trust of self be addressed? What is the answer? I tell you, that only by submitting to the God who made you, who has revealed Himself in the self-authenticating scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, revealed by His holy prophets, who stood as witnesses in all ages, can you be forgiven of your treason against God, and can you rely on an answer more sure (our mind is not “all we’ve got” as an ultimate presupposition). Your boldfaced assertions, despite your gross misunderstandings of the atonement, hell, and God’s morality (as if you had the right to judge Him!), these assertions must be placed at the foot of the cross, so that they may die with your rebellion. Only then, through the sacrifice of Christ, can your sins be forgiven, that you may see clearly, and be saved from this blindness and inane circularity. “Do no harm”, your unproved metaphysical commitment, you have violated with pride – you have epistemologically placed the name of the LORD on the same level as the dirt and false gods, taking it in vain, and encouraged others to do so by claiming this is the “truth”, as if you knew truth in itself. You should be ashamed. Jesus the Christ, has really and truly raised from the dead, as a historical fact. He is the only answer for our life from the dead, so I can say you to, “Repent and believe, and you will be saved.”
Say to God, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Not, “I trust my own light.”
Say to Him, “Your son really and truly died, and really and truly lives forevermore. I want to live with him, since I know nothing but death apart from him.”
You have rejected Christ because of epistemology, and yet yours is fundamentally faulty. You have rejected Christ based on the “psychology of belief”, and yet you yourself have no explanation for your faulty psychology. You have rejected Christ because of the “moral repugnance of the Bible”, and yet you don’t know the Bible, nor do you have categories for morality without assuming Christian presuppositions.
Kaleb, you have rejected Christ for no good reason. I have shown you a better way, which is the good news of Christ.
Our two stories converge, and we needn’t commiserate any longer, but if you will die to yourself, I will die with you, and we will both die with Christ, in order that we may share the only true path, eternal resurrection life. For all falsehoods will fall headlong into destruction, and I plead with you to embrace the only foundation for reason, for love, for goodness, for kindness, for life – Jesus the Christ.
November 7, 2015.
I wrote this about a year and a half ago on a rainy Sunday while I stayed home from church (which really upset my wife) to document some of my thought processes that led to my loss of faith while it was still fresh. Alot more water has gone under the bridge, alot has changed, and I’d probably write this somewhat differently now, but I just re-read it and it accurately describes much of the early part of my journey. I’ve added a brief postscript, and if anyone has any further interest or questions let’s discuss in person.
I come from a large conservative home-schooled christian family. Think Duggers, Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, patriarchal, quiverfull, purity culture etc. At 15 years old I encountered the teachings of Ray Comfort (of the Way of the Master TV series w/Kirk Cameron), a street evangelist with serious passion for saving the lost. His teachings resonated strongly with me and under his influence I became very serious about my faith. I was very burdened for the lost and couldn’t believe the apathy of almost everyone who claimed to be Christian around me. The entire existence of humanity- a blip on the radar of eternity. My life- a blip on that blip. Seventy years, a blink of an eye, poof. Gone. But what happens during that blip for every human determines the eternal destiny for each of them- the outcome being either eternal bliss in heaven or eternal conscious torture and torment in a fiery hell. Which end is determined in the blip. So I’m 16 years into my blip, and I realize that every single person I pass on the street is (from the time perspective of eternity) seconds away from an unchangeable fate, for the great majority -an eternity in hell, but I have the secret that can change their eternal destiny. Repent and believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved from the wrath to come! How could I not warn them? How could I not spend every last second of my waking existence shouting from the rooftops, running from person to person shaking them to wake them up to the gravity of this dire situation? I was baffled and appalled at the Christians around me who appeared to me to be firemen holding a water hose just watching a house burning down with sleeping children inside unwilling to turn it on because the owner of the house might get upset you spilled water on his carpet. It was with this sense of urgency & desire to seek and save the lost that I started doing evangelism. As soon as I got my drivers license I began driving to the area malls, parades, universities, festivals, downtown events- anywhere people gathered- to pass out tracts, share the gospel & preach in the open-air. Warning everyone I could of the wrath to come and telling them of the love of God in providing a way of escape through repentance & belief in Jesus. I was incredibly burdened for all these lost people, if only they knew what I did! I spent thousands of dollars on tracts, studied apologetics, theology & world religions, took classes and went to evangelism conferences to hone in my ability to communicate the gospel. I memorized entire books of the bible. I cried & prayed with desperation that God would purify me, take away anything & everything in my life that might hinder me or decrease my ability to be a messenger of the gospel to the world for his glory. For about 7 years I did street evangelism every week- debating one on one with hundreds of people of wildly varying beliefs in the streets or preaching in the open air. The people I met and the conversations I had! Fascinating people. I had countless funny or amazing interactions, but I was also no stranger to persecution. I was mocked, threatened and cussed out more times than I could count, kicked out of places and even arrested. I started an evangelism group and for years we had a group of 10-30 people who would hit the streets every week preaching the gospel. I always hated, dreaded, going out but the euphoric presence of God we felt when we’d all gather back together to share the stories of the people we talked to, to pray for their souls and the seeds that were planted, to sing hymns and praise God together- the feelings were intensely emotional and made me happier than I’ve ever been in my life. The feeling of being so happy you feel like you’ll explode! While most Christians were lukewarm, distracted by worldly desires, how blissful it was to be part of the faithful remnant minority even within Christianity, to be obedient, sold-out, rock-solid, on-fire for God. There’s little I can compare it to even to this day.
Today I’m an agnostic humanist. I am no longer a Christian. Looking back it just keeps getting stranger and stranger like some dream of a previous life but the feelings were no less real. I was not hurt by the church, I am not angry with god, Christianity, or Christians. I don’t think Christians (or Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or people believing in any other religion for that matter) are stupid. I don’t share the hostility towards religion that seems so pronounced among many of my fellow apostates. People love to mock the belief sets they don’t subscribe to. Having experienced firsthand the astounding power of religious belief gives me a sympathy for even the most extreme religious groups (e.g. radical violent Islam, Westboro Baptist Church). “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him”-Dostoevsky. The guys in ISIS, WBC, Nazi Germany- most of them are/were genuinely not ill-intentioned, they were simply doing what’s normal to them- what they believe is best for their God, their country, their family- just like everyone else. We look on from the outside or from the perspective of history and are horrified at the things these people would believe and do, but we forget we are also products of our upbringings. We sit in church listening in horror to the missionary’s tales of some exotic cannibalistic superstitious tribe sacrificing their children to some false god while dancing and singing around a campfire. Then we sing a hymn and begin our cannibalistic ritual of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the human sacrifice that was made to appease the wrath of our angry god while chanting in unison music praising the beauty of the dripping blood from that human sacrifice. “Why yes grandma, it is a beautiful Sunday, thanks for asking.” We are products of our environment, and horrific things are often accepted without second thought because it’s ‘normal’ to us. The banality of evil described by Hannah Arendt. Every day now my previous religious life becomes stranger and stranger to me, and I’d like to share how that process began.
I used to describe my conversion to Christianity as more of a process than an event, and so it has been with my deconversion. My days of radical evangelism slowly dwindled as the introduction of the responsibilities of a career, marriage, and age began eroding my youthful zeal. My lack of ministry bothered me, and I vacillated between calling it inexcusable laziness and maturation from the crude evangelistic methods of a zealous youth. In either case I was losing my will to do it- which was a far cry from the teenager who had a hard time justifying going to two years of college because it would be wasting time in books while people around me were dying and going to hell. I slowly became a normal Christian, going to church, attending bible studies, just like all my friends and family. I began reading alot more- political philosophy, social psychology, Austrian economics, history and philosophy were all of particular interest to me. I became involved in contemporary politics and worked on a few campaigns. As my understanding of current events and politics deepened I began to find myself embarrassed by the Christian right on more and more issues. I was amazed at how much religion influenced politics- particularly in foreign affairs. The religious narrative of a cosmic fight clearly polarized between good and evil lends itself handily to opportunistic politicians trying to gain support for whatever cause. This overly simplistic worldview combined with the blind nationalism & pro-war/militarism tendencies of the religious right made me sympathetic with Netanyahu’s (Prime Minister of Israel) sentiments of the American Christians as “useful idiots”. I couldn’t understand how the American church guided by the prince of peace of seemed much more eager to send soldiers than missionaries to the ends of the earth. I frequently thought of Solzhenitsyn’s quote- “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” This basic understanding of human nature seemed absent among both Christians and almost every military of the world- we’re always the angels of all things good and beautiful, they are always the embodiment of evil. The psychology of enmity. I began reading about propaganda and social psychology, reading Bernay’s, Arendt, Milgrim, Zimbardo, and alot of others who have pondered how decent people can be brought to believe absurd things and commit atrocities. Religion was uncomfortably often a major part of the equation. This is just one wedge that began to cause me to increasingly distance myself from my religious upbringing.
About this time I had my first daughter. I was quite excited to be able to experience fatherhood and experience the profoundness of a father’s love for his child- believing this would give me a new glimpse into god’s love for us as his children. One night my beautiful little daughter was throwing a fit at 3am as infants tend to do. In my frustration and exhaustion (and looming 5am alarm) I began to think- under what circumstance would I be willing to physically inflict torture on my daughter? I couldn’t remotely imagine any circumstance that would justify me taking a spike and driving it into my daughter’s spine for even 3 seconds. Then I began to think of our christian eschatology (end time studies), about hell and eternity. One of the things that always reassured me when I thought about the god and atrocities of the Old Testament was the idea of the incarnation. This doctrine teaches us that though we cannot see god, we can see in Jesus ‘the fullness of the godhead bodily’- i.e. through the life of Jesus we can see and know what god is like. All that O.T. stuff made me uncomfortable, but I liked Jesus, and I consoled myself that god had to be at least as nice as Jesus. But then I thought- what if god was to reincarnate himself again today in our world in bodily form, but this time he came to execute his promised future wrath on the wicked? This would be no less biblical than his last visit fulfilling redemptive history through his death/resurrection. But what would it look like? Based on what I believed, the great majority of those currently inhabiting the planet would be going to hell. But lets say he just chose one person. Jesus takes one person, pronounces him a sinner worthy of hell, lights up a fire and starts roasting this guy alive like a pig over a burning pit. As the guy screams in agony with his flesh & hair slowly burning- how many of us watching Jesus slowly turning this human rotisserie could stomach the character of god displayed in fullness in front of us at that moment? And this for all of eternity for the great majority of humanity who have ever existed. Looking down at my daughter fussing in her crib and pondering what I would think of god’s character were I to witness him executing his promised future wrath presently caused a nagging thought I was ashamed to even admit… I would think him an atrocious monster. But how was this hypothetical thought experiment any different than what I already believed? My hopes for fatherhood giving me a glimpse into god’s love ironically turned into the beginnings of my loss of belief in him.
Once I allowed myself to explicitly admit my disconcertion with one issue, the questions began to quickly pile up. Soon I was having a full fledged crisis of faith. It’s interesting to think about now- it’s not as if my awareness of those issues was absent before- I was confronted and had as a christian argued apologetically every imaginable explanation of most of these questions in the street with atheists many times before- but it hadn’t ever really phased me because I just knew I was right, and I could easily dismiss any counter-argument with the Psalm-writer “LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.” I was right, and if I didn’t understand it I had to be humble enough to simply trust god and lean not on my own understanding. It’s a very subliminal self-censorship- a mechanism that allowed me to avoid confrontation with even the most fantastical claims of my religion. I began meeting with pastors, mentors, friends- telling them I was struggling deeply with questions. This was almost inevitably how each discussion ended- a concession to the difficulty of the questions and a dismissal of the question by discrediting your mind, logic, rationality, or empiricism as means to discover truth. It ultimately came back to presuppositionalism- one must simply believe it’s true no matter what the evidence- and take every objection or contrary thought and take it captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5).
This began to bother me. It seemed highly anti-intellectual. It began to feel like censorship. I became much more acutely aware of my own psychological instincts. Questioning anything made me feel guilty, and I would often block questions out of my mind in shame that I was even thinking them. I was fearful of being exposed to bad influences that might lead me astray in my beliefs. I was fearful of reading anything that didn’t support my view. One person even told me I shouldn’t read so much since it could damage my faith. So my faith was dependent on ignorance for survival? This floored me. I became increasingly aware of the social mechanisms that corral belief. Censorship. Shame. Guilt. A once-Christian friend of mine became an atheist, and my church expelled him and forbade us from associating with him to protect us from his evil influence on our weak minds. Ostracization. Why the heck was that? I decided I wasn’t going to comply. Why the need to ostracise someone because they believed differently? The only conclusion I could come to is that ostracisation is for censorship and as a warning of the social consequences of not conforming in your beliefs to the remaining faithful. I might be able to understand the need for distinctive belief-set criteria for participation in a group with specific objectives- but to cut them out of your life completely? What are we afraid of? Was my truth so weak that it will crumble if exposed to any opposition? It reminded me of Asch’s conformity experiments where one-truth teller has the effect of the little kid calling out the emperor’s lack of clothes- was that what we were afraid of? The domino effect of disbelief? What if someone believed the world were flat? Would I need to limit my exposure to that person to prevent my weak mind from being deceived into believing such stupidity? If my mind were so weak and deceptive that I had to censure and protect it from any unsanctioned thought how could I trust that what it currently believed was in fact correct? I didn’t think I would need to censor a man who believed the world was flat because that stupid belief was no threat to me- so what about religious thoughts were different? I began to realize that you only need rely on censorship when the belief you currently hold is in some way in doubt and you fear it would not stand if tested. That strength of belief (glorified as a virtue in Christendom) was often simply my unwillingness to ever question myself.
I pondered these things and a little thought experiment occurred to me: What if out of say 10 world religions I would be randomly born into any one of them but there was only 1 true religion, Christianity (which I would not be born into). What mindset, what disposition would make my chances of discovering the truth the greatest? Suddenly every social mechanism for corralling my belief was not virtuous but a blockade to truth. Skepticism vs dogmatism. Open-mindedness vs strong belief. Maximum exposure vs censorship. Embrace every question without shame, fear, or guilt. The truth tested will stand stronger. And to hell with presuppositionalism- that all but guarantees I’ll just be whatever religion I’m born into. Becoming conscious of the ubiquity of these psychological tools for conformity of belief brought me to what was retrospectively a tipping point in my faith: I decided to stop being afraid. I decided I would no longer allow shame, guilt, or fear dictate my beliefs, and I would seek the truth fearlessly, entertain any argument, read any book or discuss with any person and yes, rely on my mind to discriminate truth and error. After all, if my mind was untrustworthy how could I trust it to judge the validity of my current position? It’s all I’ve got. In a Pascal’s-wager-of-the-mind of sorts I fell back on Jefferson sentiment to “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” And with that the floodgates opened. I knew the bible well, I had memorized whole books of it. I knew the difficulties well, I had argued with atheists for many many years. But it was like all of the sudden I finally actually considered them. The questions were all so familiar but it was almost as if I was encountering them for the first time with an odd sense of deja vu.
I hated the fact that I was struggling with my faith. Religion has a way of being so consuming, so wrapped up in every part of your identity that to question it is to question the rationale for your entire existence. I think this is why doubt is so strongly eschewed- the consequences of the question being answered differently then the status quo are so great it’s easier just to simply avoid the question. But I felt liberated. More free than I ever have in my life. I no longer had to justify god. I no longer had to justify his designing of a world system where the great majority of the human race that has ever existed would suffer eternity in conscious unending unspeakable torment for not meeting a standard god purposefully set too high just to show them how insufficient they were, then threw them all in eternal hell for not believing in the human sacrifice of his son that appeased his wrath likely simply because (if you believe in free will) they lost the sperm lottery and were born into the wrong demographic with it’s own social pressures for it’s own belief sets. As a reformed Christian, they had no choice anyway, they were either designed for heaven or for hell. I could finally just admit that seemed pretty messed up and I didn’t have to justify it. I didn’t have to justify god commanding the genocide in Canaan, the slaughter of innocent children, the captors killing off everyone except the virgins who they’d keep as sex slaves (how’d they figure out who was virgin or not?). I didn’t have to justify a raped women having to marry and spend the rest of her life with the disgusting sicko who raped her (if he paid off her father to buy her). I didn’t have to justify slavery, or polygamy, or chauvinism, sexism, nationalism, racism (what else do you call the indiscriminate murder of any man women or child not of the Jewish race in Canaan?). I didn’t have to justify god commanding Abraham to kill his own kid, or Jephthah offering his own daughter as a human sacrifice to god. I didn’t have to justify the Christians around me who had never heard a proposed bombing of a foreign country they didn’t support (until Obama starting warmongering- the cognitive dissonance that induced!). It was ok to acknowledge that I felt like smashing little kids heads against rocks isn’t a happy thing (Psalm 137:9). It was ok to feel like many of these things are (of course asterisked by my limited understanding) pretty freakin screwed up. The questions piled up, and the justifications became bizarre. In my later stages of deconversion people would ask about where I would derive my morality if it wasn’t from god and the bible, but then I’d hear the same people justifying every atrocity above because- god and the bible. I began to rely more on my political ethic- do no harm- which I later found out was closely aligned with humanism. Does happily smashing babies heads into rocks align with the flourishing of humanity? The ethics of Christians began to seem more and more immoral, and the loss of those ethics became less frightening and the embracing of humanistic ethics more and more appealing.
Around this time I met with one of the one pastors I’ve been close to. Having met with him nearly weekly for years we knew each other fairly well. He had recently resigned his position as pastor due to his own wrestling with doubts. One of the big questions I had was whether or not to be transparent with my wife about these struggles. At this time I hated the struggles I had and wouldn’t wish them on anyone. They were devastating, depressing, and isolating. My wife had a simplicity of faith I envied. I wished I could have just accepted things and lived my little life without having to encounter such world-shattering struggles. I desperately wanted to protect her and avoid dragging her into struggles she wasn’t having. But it was quite evident in the ways that I wasn’t leading her spiritually like she would have liked. I no longer read the bible with her or prayed together. I think much of this was due to my dislike for hypocrisy, and I hated going through the motions of religious rituals while feeling like I was being a fake. So I didn’t do them, and that was hard on her. She had married a deeply religious man, and now she was married to a deeply struggling man. We had dozens of conversations about this, but they were always limited to the acknowledgement that I was wrestling deeply with faith, and the question of whether it’d be wise to drag her into the particulars or to protect her and keep it to myself (or strategically find someone who could fix me). I stubbornly resisted her desire to at least talk about it so she could know where I was at, fearful that it would damage her faith as well. She persistently insisted that that was a risk she was willing to take if it was required for religious intimacy, so at least she’d know where I’m at. My pastor at this time recommended I be explicitly honest with her, otherwise in five years we might find ourselves in radically different places and that would be more destructive (to the relationship) than communicating honestly, no matter the risks and difficulties. So I took his advice and we began to discuss openly my struggles with my wife. She was shocked and we spent many nights with her in tears, terrified of who the man she had committed her life to was becoming religiously. She had married a fundamentalist street preacher, and now he was an agnostic questioning even the very existence of god. Her first fears were what her family would think, and what morally I’d become. If her family found out it could be devastating. And without any moral compass, what would prevent me from becoming a sexual deviant who would just cheat & sleep around on her? Her first fear simply confirmed to me the power of social pressure to conform belief. I thought about how I’d respond if my beautiful little daughter became an atheist. I’ve witnessed countless times, especially in my more dogmatically fundamentalist homeschool circles, how any variance in belief about the metaphysical by a child from their parents had destroyed their relationship. Then I began to think about how destructive this was.
I began talking with a philosophy teacher who specialized in epistemology. How could we know what was true about the metaphysical? The invisible. Things we cannot perceive empirically. Was it even knowable? How could people be so dogmatic about the truth of things no-one can see or perceive? Is there an angel or demon sitting beside me in this room right now? Are you willing to bet your life on your answer? Are you willing to cut off your child based on your answer? If we can’t be sure about it how can we be so dogmatic about it? Even if we all agreed 100% that there is objective truth, and that that was expressed absolutely in the Authorized 1687 version of the King James Version bible, and we put it on the table in a room of 10 Protestant Christians… how many different interpretations of every single issue would we come up with? The only person I agree 100% with is myself, and even that’s in question. So what are the chances that in all of history, in all of Christendom, in all of Protestant Christendom, in all of Baptist Protestant Christendom, in all of reformed Baptist protestant Christendom, with the millions of differing opinions in this narrow scope, that I was the one with the monopoly on truth? That when we stood at the pearly’s every other person, even if they made it in, would be corrected by god on many points in their theology, but when my turn came he said- enter in, you got everything right son! Yet I saw many families behave as if this were the case, and cut off anyone who disagreed on tiny nuances of theology, even cutting off their own children for such offenses. Pondering these things gave me an epistemic humility that helped me let go and not care so much about someone’s metaphysical beliefs, which inevitably led me to kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was a Danish Christian existentialist philosopher. I still have no firm grasp of what he was all about but many people pointed me to him as the man to go to rescue you from faith crises. At this time I had many people around me abandoning Christianity, even one of my close friends I had met doing street evangelism had become atheist. There was no debating or answer I could give him he hadn’t already heard or used himself while witnessing in the streets. I could only ask him to tell his story. And since I wasn’t about to censor him he became the truth-teller from Asch’s conformity experiment. His deconversion rocked my own faith and played no small part in my own deconversion. Having experienced that I understand now why Christians desiring to remain faithful would ostracize and censor apostates like him. A little leaven does seem to leaven the whole lump. Back to Kierkegaard. The way I understand Kierkegaard is that he (unlike many Christians) fully acknowledges that faith is in some sense ridiculous. That faith begins where reason ends. That there can be no such thing as provable faith. That one can only make a leap into the dark by faith. This was refreshing and I could see how honest concession in this way could allow me to hang onto faith while acknowledging it to be ‘foolish’ in a worldly sense. Also instead of defining who’s in and who’s out by the belief set one subscribes to, he claimed we would know someone by their fruits, by their works of love, their love for one another. I quickly adopted this view but it created it’s own heretical theological implications. What about the Buddhist who spent his entire life relentlessly and selflessly denying himself to pursue the truth he called god? Versus the American teenager who once gave mental assent to 3 metaphysical beliefs and said a prayer in youth group and then spent the rest of his life living however he wanted? Would the buddhist spend eternity in hell but the youth group teenager an eternity in heaven based on 3 doctrines they respectively gave mental assent to? Where’s the justice in that? It seemed more based on the luck of the sperm lottery and which religion you were born into than anything else. So Kiierkegaard’s existentialism appealed to me. Much less weight was given to the belief sets subscribed to and much more was given to the fruits displayed by the individual, namely- do they love one another? At this point I was becoming pretty theologically heretical from the perspective of my religious roots. The more I let go of the more questions I became willing to entertain, and Kiierkegaard, rather than saving my dying faith, became a stepping stone into disbelief.
The more I freely explored the questions, the less the canned answers satisfied. Every answer ultimately came back to a suspension of reason, whether that was through censorship of the question or Kierkegaardian fideism. In either case simply asking “If I was a Muslim, would this answer lead me out of (the obviously false) Islam into the (obviously true) Christianity?” Invariably if I responded the same way as I a Muslim I’d have remained a Muslim, no matter the evidence. Slowly I began to realize I simply didn’t know the answers and that the bible and Christianity began to appear just as peculiar as the superstitions of Islam or Buddhism or any other dogmatic belief about the metaphysical invisible world. I began to examine whether there were any empirical events in my life and world I could point to that pointed to the invisible supernatural world. But everything could be explained and understood perfectly naturally. For all the years I spent praying- on the random chance circumstantial events would line up we’d freak out and cling to it as direct answer to prayer. Most of the time we just prayed vaguely to avoid it being actually subject to test. Worst case it was completely unanswered and then it obviously just wasn’t God’s will. It was unfalsifiable. I’ve never witnessed a bona fide miracle, nobody has ever been healed of an amputated limb, miracles either happened 2000 years ago or in 3rd world countries where camera phones don’t exist. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between miraculous events and the ability to document them. I finally concluded there’s nothing I’ve ever witnessed that can’t be explained naturally. I finally realized I was a skeptical agnostic who doesn’t have a clue what I believe about the metaphysical unseen world, and that’s ok.
At this point I’ve told very few people. I talk very openly with my wife about it and she’s fairly devastated. We love each other, have a beautiful daughter together, and have thus far had a very rich and incredibly easy life together with no real problems besides this religious issue. I continuously apologize that I’ve put her through this, and I feel incredibly bad for her. She married a fundamentalist street preacher and now is married to an agnostic who has little desire to participate in many things religious. I understand how difficult it is, sympathise deeply and don’t hold it against her. She has been incredibly patient and tried hard to endure our discussions, but even just discussing it is painful for her. Had she not married me I don’t think she’d have ever had to wrestle through these issues, but now that she is I can’t imagine the status quo continuing. As I talk to her she’s begun to have her own doubts, but I want to respect her and I have no goals of deconverting her. It may be a false dilemma but I feel like if she continues to discuss with me I will influence her and lead her astray from her faith (which she fearfully suspects as well) meaning at this point she may be faced with the pre-emptive decision- her faith or me. Jesus says unless your love for your spouse is like hate compared to your love for him you’re not worthy to be his disciple. This is a hard issue and brings frequent tears in our discussions. But having read some of the horror stories of others coming out, I am very grateful for her gracious response. I wouldn’t wish the situation on anyone.
Other than that my perspective is quite optimistic. I’ve finally come to the point where I am grateful to have gone through this. For the first time in my life I can interpret the world based on how I see it. The cognitive dissonance and mental gymnastics required to fit evidence into a presupposed conclusion are gone. I am reading a ton and find the world more beautiful and fascinating than ever before. The world is not all evil and my life is not consumed with preparing for the next world cause this one’s all gonna burn. I have no idea what happens after death and though that can be scary it invests every minute of my life with extra meaning. My ethic is free to be humanistic, I don’t have to justify genocide and I am free to embrace an ethic of minimizing harm and maximizing human flourishing. For meaning and purpose I have the most incredible career that I find deeply meaningful and believe it to be incredibly contributory to the good of humanity, I couldn’t think of anything more meaningful for me at this point. I have a beautiful wife, an incredibly charming daughter, a bright future, and some hard times ahead when/if people find out. My family and those around me will be devastated I’m sure. But it’s bound to happen and we’ll roll with the punches as they come. As for my philosophy and purpose in life now- I find it best summed up in Lester’s final dialogue at the end of the film American Beauty-
“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined my street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday. ”
This seems like ages ago. So much water has gone under the bridge. I’ve since either ‘come out’ or been ‘discovered’ (the fact that it’s a scandal to not have certainty about metaphysical, invisible, untestable, allegedly ‘not subject to logic or reason’ beliefs is strange in itself) by almost everyone I love or care about. I’ve lost friends (either through direct biblical excommunication or simply by no longer having religion in common, which was the basis for many relationships), had many very painful, tear filled conversations, become a scandal to some family and former friend circles, submitted to church discipline etc. It’s a brutal process to lose faith… when anyone (usually in confidence) tells me they’re also beginning to have their own doubts it simply makes me want to cry for them. I became incredibly depressed, isolated, some days I couldn’t even get out of bed- it was like watching everything I’d ever built my whole life upon crumble before my eyes. Five years ago had I known where I would be today I would have shot myself to save myself (I say that only to illustrate my level of sincerity & commitment at the time). But the more I read, studied, learned, pursued relationships with Christian PHD philosophers, PHD apologists, pastors, mentors (many of whom I can call friends today) the more I felt like my faith was being ripped from me against my will, I was being dragged kicking and screaming out of it, unable to ignore the increasingly obvious intellectual problems and unsatisfactory answers. Today I can honestly say it was the worst thing I’ve ever been through (had a pretty easy life) but the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Truth is a gauntlet but an incredible reward worth pursuing. There is so much I could say, but I’ll leave that to coffee conversations for anyone interested (yes, that’s an invitation [to family and friends anyway]). I was asked by one of my sisters “If you now believe Christianity is false, how could you just let your family & friends continue believing what you think is a lie without saying anything?” It’s a fair question, and one I’m quite conflicted about.I think I at least owe it to those I care about to explain myself and offer the opportunity to discuss further if anyone’s interested, and that’s why I’m sharing this with you today. Looking back with the perspective of time I’d say my loss of faith can be attributed to 3 things primarily (in order of importance):
- Epistemology. Faith is a poor epistemology. If I could have only one reason, this is it.
- The Psychology of Belief. Our deceptive minds can be incredibly misleading.
- The moral repugnance of the bible. Google that yourself, I have no suggestion.
The above three points are the most concise explanation I can give for why I am no longer a Christian. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I understand even explaining myself is relationally risky from a Christian worldview and I have no desire to further jeopardize our relationship, so for most of you this will probably be the end of our religious discussion. That said, if any of you would like to discuss further I’m an open book.