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Letters to Luke (I)

Not too long ago I received an email from Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. He introduced himself as “a former Christian who now writes one of the most popular atheism blogs on the ‘net,” and asked if I would be interested in a brief exchange of letters. This is not the first time I’ve been asked if I would be interested in such a thing and always I’ve said, “no.” But this time I was somewhat intrigued, and especially so after Luke sent through his first missive. We have agreed to write three letters each, simply interacting about what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we got here. I hope you will find the results interesting.

You can read Luke’s first letter to me, here.

And now, here is my response.

*****

Dear Luke,

I thank you for your letter of December 15, 2009. It was interesting to read of your early days as a believer and your gradual conversion to atheism. The civility you’ve shown in this communication and ones before it have given me confidence that we can enjoy some effective back-and-forth, not always a given when a Christian and an atheist write to one another. Thank you for offering me the opportunity to respond to you.

I feel that if this series of communications is to be at all effective, we are going to have to be both careful and charitable with our premises. In your opening letter you provide a long series of statements that together effectively say, “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.” You state each of these as accepted fact of the kind that no intelligent person could possibly deny. You offer no proof for any of them, but simply list them as a long series of unfounded statements. You say:

  • that what the church had taught you about Jesus was untrue or gravely misleading.
  • that even the most conservative scholars agree that many of the New Testament letters are forgeries.
  • that the books of the New Testament are written by very different authors (a point no Christian would dispute) who have very different theologies (a point that, at the very least, requires great nuance).
  • that the gospels contradict each other all over the place.
  • that if there is any consensus about Jesus it is that he is a failed apocalyptic prophet who was convinced that the world would end in his generation.
  • that the religion of Jesus is completely different than the religion of Paul. The unmistakable conclusion is that the religion of anyone who has had their theology formed by the writings of Paul (and, presumably, the other New Testament writers) is not Christ’s Christianity at all.

Thus, only half way through your first letter, we have (presented as accepted and indisputable fact) gospels that are nonsense because they constantly and fatally contradict one another and letters that are nonsense because they are nothing more than the inventions of later religious zealots. In other words, we have no Christian faith, at least for anyone who has any ability to think for himself. So where does this leave me?

In one short paragraph you have gone from personal narrative describing your own “deconversion,” to providing a long string of statements that must immediately put me on the defensive. If all of the statements you made were true, or, at least, if I believed they were true, I would have deconverted long ago. If all of the premises you’ve listed are true and accepted as fact by any thinking person, I would have to be either hopelessly naive or terribly stupid to be a Christian. Surely you see how such statements are fallacious. You and I both know that we can appeal to scholars and experts and consensus as a means of offering proof for any statement we care to make. If these communications are to be useful, we will need to refrain from such sweeping and antagonistic statements. Otherwise we will have one side cheering, the other side jeering, and neither side learning very much about the other. If these letters are to contain civil discourse, we’ll both need to be willing to affirm that the other is intelligent and rational and has chosen his path based on the thoughtful weighing of evidence. This is true for me and, from what I’ve read on your blog, it is true of you.

Another brief point before I continue. I do not wish to cede to you the term “deconversion.” After all, if you deconverted from Christianity, I could as easily say that I deconverted from atheism (or functional agnosticism, perhaps) when I became a Christian. In either case there is the assumption of certain beliefs and premises and the letting go of others. I propose one of two things: either we both stick only to “conversion” or we each use both terms however we see fit.

My Story
You asked for the story of my faith journey, so here goes. It begins much like your own, with being raised in a Christian home. I was raised by parents who had recently deconverted and become Christians. I was raised to know the Bible, to know Christian theology and to understand that theology is more than beliefs; it is beliefs that call for action. When I was fifteen or sixteen I had something of a crisis of faith (as do so many other young people who are raised within a religious tradition). As I began to foresee my life apart from my parents, I realized that I had to think about my Christian faith to determine if it was something that I truly believed or whether it was merely something foisted upon me by my parents—something akin to family traditions or genetic traits. Was my faith like my nose, an unfortunate byproduct of being born a Challies? Or was it a gift, something that I could truly embrace? It was in this time of searching that I came to accept the Christian faith as more than tradition but as truth. I’ve often since described this as “making the faith of my parents my own.” I was no longer simply an obedient child honoring his parents by going to church and going through the motions of religion, but a committed follower of Jesus Christ who would follow him even if my parents turned away. I cannot point you to an exact moment in time when I became a Christian, but I do know that I am one today and that I have been one for almost twenty years now. For this growing desire to determine whether I was truly following Christ and for this undeniable need to follow him, I give thanks to God.

I have never seriously doubted the claims of the Bible—that God is the creator of the world, that we humans are a sinful bunch who have committed an act of cosmic treason against this Creator by rejecting him, that Christ came into this world to offer hope to sinners, that he died and rose again, and that simply by placing our faith in him we can be forgiven for our sin and can be granted the gift of eternal life. The more I come to understand the Bible and the more I come to understand life, the more I see that the Bible is startlingly accurate in its description of the way the world works, the way life works. God has given us the Bible as an amazing and a unique resource. Some people see the Bible as a collection of tales or as a book of moral fables. I understand it as a lens like the lenses in a pair of glasses. It is a means God gives us by which we can see the world through his eyes. We see him as he wishes for us to see him; we see ourselves much more clearly than we otherwise could; we see the past, the present and the future in ways we could otherwise never understand. We see the broad picture of who God is and what he is accomplishing through the world. And when I look at the world through that lens, through the lens of the Bible, I do not see pointless suffering; I do not see contradictions (though I’ll grant you a few apparent absurdities); I do not see malicious design; I am horrified by hell but when looking at my sin and God’s holiness cannot deny its necessity. In all things I see a God who has a purpose and who is carefully and sovereignly carrying it out. I know atheists are prone to portray Christians as unthinking (trust me, I’ve read Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and others), people who have made up their minds and have subjugated intellect to emotion, but I would like to believe this is not true of me. I have studied the world, I’ve studied my own heart, and I’ve seen that the Bible truly does get it right. At the very least I can’t deny that it gets right its description of me.

Who I Am
Many Christians have come to realize that if we are to understand anything of the Christian faith we need to begin in one of two places, with what we know to be true of God or with what we know to be true of humans. In my life I’ve known myself better than I’ve known God and so I’ve started with what is true of myself. And one thing that is most basically true of me is that I am not a good person—not all the time, anyway, and certainly not nearly often enough. No matter how we wish to define morality, I am not a moral person. Not consistently, anyway. Some of my earliest memories in life are memories of deliberately and joyfully hurting other people. I’m 33 years old now and, as much as I hate to admit it, I still have plenty of moral failings. I still hurt people, and often I hurt the people I love most and who love me most. I often place myself first when I should be thinking foremost of others. And those are just the things I do. Were we to catalog the things I think and desire, those crimes of the mind and heart, we would need a lot of time and a lot of paper to even begin to quantify and catalog them. Always I have known of this lack of morality within me, this desire to harm instead of help, to take instead of give. It is the Bible that has given me the words to describe it. The Bible calls it sin. It is no small thing to say, “I am a sinner.” But it is the start of a great journey, for an admission of sin is an admission of moral culpability.

Foolishness
Before I sign off from this first letter, I would like to give you something to chew on—a description of yourself from the Bible. Do allow me to be candid here. I say these things not to be arrogant or insensitive, but merely to frame things in biblical language (a habit I try to emphasize in my own life). I am not ashamed of how the Bible describes you and feel it would be a useful piece of background information. You have mentioned your dissatisfaction with philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. And, indeed, you and I could undoubtedly argue such things from now until Christ returns (or the world ends) and such arguments become moot. As far as the Bible is concerned, though, God’s existence is self-evident. The Bible expends little effort in defending the existence of God because God takes the view that his existence needs no proof beyond the very fact that we are, that the world exists. Other evidences exist, to be certain, but they are less important and less obvious than the evidence we already have available to us. We call this “common grace”—grace common to each of us that ought to be sufficient to convince us of God’e existence.

The Bible often uses the word “fool” to describe a person who either denies God’s existence or admits it but refuses to submit his life to him. “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God,” wrote a poet several thousand years ago (see Psalm 14). That is the Bible’s position. God, through the Bible, calls you a fool, Luke. This is not a judgment on your intelligence (you may be a very intelligent fool); rather, it is a moral judgment. In the book of Romans it says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them [those who deny the God of the Bible], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The biblical position is that you are without excuse before God for your denial of him. You have no right to plead ignorance. From the world around you, you are able to know that God exists and that he is powerful. And so in most cases all those long, philosophical proofs for God’s existence are not all that important. And that, I suppose, is why the Bible does not expend time making most of them. In denying that God exists you are willfully, deliberately closing your eyes and your mind to the greatest evidence he has given you. You have chosen to be a fool. That is what the Bible says.

Gratitude
You asked me to ask you some questions. So here is one I’ve got. I began thinking about this after reading Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, a book in which he describes his conversion from Christianity to agnosticism. In the book he shares a few of the things he misses most about being a professed Christian. Most notably, he misses being able to give thanks. He realizes what a great life he leads, what a “blessed” life he leads, and feels like he owes gratitude to something. And yet there is no one to whom he can give thanks. This leaves a void in his life and one he regrets. “I have such a fantastic life,” he says, “that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words. But I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it.” I admire Ehrman for this admission because I am sure there is always the temptation to deny that he has lost anything with all he feels he has gained by leaving faith behind. After reading those words—poignant and honest words—I began to wonder how other atheists who have turned from the Christian faith have dealt with the loss of God. What have you lost? Who do you thank?

Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss such things.

Tim