Category Archives: Deconversion

FED UP WITH CHRISTIANITY? REMEMBERING WHAT MATTERS

These days we find a growing number of people deconstructing their Christian faith, while others say they no longer believe or have deconverted. The former lops off things that are deemed excess baggage to the true faith, while the latter is a full-fledged leaving of the Christian faith. We could debate whether those deconstructing are also deconverting, but that is not the purpose of this piece. Rather, my desire is to call us to remember what we seem to have forgotten. We Christians need to make a few things mainstays of our faith lest we keep losing our way.

I have my own frustrations with the American church, but I prefer to remain within the historic Christian faith among a community of thoughtful friends. Loyal and wise friends are indispensable to a healthy walk with God.

I often jest that I am a serial doubter, but it is hardly a joke. Doubts about certain teachings of the Christian faith have nagged me for four decades. My first book on the Christian understanding of hell was borne out of a personal struggle. Though I wrote that book nearly thirty years ago, my struggle with hell persists. I assume it and other questions will continue to plague me until the day I die. I take encouragement from Christian, the lead character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not only did Christian get waylaid by Doubting Castle, but at the end of his life this true believer’s last steps were fraught with terror. Christian and his friend Hopeful are crossing the final river before entering the Celestial City (=heaven). Christian is struggling with all kinds of doubt about whether he will make it across the river. Ironically, Christian is confident Hopeful is going to make it safely to the other side because Hopeful always had a sure and steady faith. Things are different for Christian. He is convinced that he will drown. Hopeful seeks to encourage Christian by saying that the river’s bottom can be “felt and that it is firm.” That is not immediately apparent to Christian, but he finally finds the river is indeed “shallow and solid.” With indescribable joy, but quite different experiences, the two friends arrive safely on the shores of heaven.

To put it crudely, just because you are a true Christian does not mean that you will die with a smile on your face. Heaven is yours, but you just may go through one final trial to get there. Not easy words to hear, but true ones. Anyone who has been around for the last days of a Christian’s life knows that there can be intense suffering both physically and sometimes even spiritually.

I believe in eternal security, but that does not necessarily mean that one’s pilgrimage here on earth will be free of struggles, fears, or even doubts. I am encouraged that my God promises to hold me regardless of the doubts that at times assail my sanity and stability.

Again, my motivation in writing this piece is not to describe the dynamics per se of deconstruction and deconversion. Plenty of ink has already been spilled in that regard, and even if you have not read about these things, you probably have a family member or friend who is a poignant testimony to this growing trend. My purpose in writing is to remind us of some things that are not getting the attention they deserve.

In keeping with the theme of sanity and stability, it is good to remember that there is a difference between Christianity and what Christians will say the Christian faith entails. This is especially acute since many “Bible-believing” Christians (as all the polling data shows) have minimal engagement with the Bible. Biblical illiteracy among those who tout their high view of Scripture is something I have witnessed in several places over nearly four decades of ministry. It is stunning when self-professed Christians mix a toxic brew of ignorance and arrogance. They may not know much, but some of these folks still demand that you listen to them. I am old enough to know I need not listen to such nonsense.

Here then are four areas that I believe we Christians must remember to take seriously. The erosion of all four is found broadly in places that name the name of Christ. All four of the following areas offer a powerful prophylactic against the temptation to deconstruct and/or deconvert. All four of these are also indispensable for the rest of us!

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CHRISTIAN EDUCATION?

In a podcast interview for my most recent book (Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians), the host asked if I was finding it easier these days to persuade Christians about the importance of learning. The host thought my need to persuade others might not be as great these days because all the present challenges both in and out of the church are so obvious and alarming. Perhaps I was seeing greater eagerness to learn about the Christian faith. Sadly, I responded that my need to persuade Christians to learn is as great as ever. Instead of the present challenges making Christians more eager to learn, I am finding that many are content to stay in their safe silos where one can supposedly be protected from the complex challenges of our day. The promise of pseudo safety trumps the embarrassment of being superficial. Fear trumps the risk of learning. And true learning is risky because you will find out how much you don’t know. When our youngest son taught philosophy, he told me that his number one priority was to convince his students how little they knew. Such exposure is embarrassing, so it is easier to hunker down in echo chambers where learning is limited.

I have asked different Christian groups whether anyone can give me the biblical texts that describe the proper boundaries of “faith, hope, and love.” In other words, what are the Bible verses that describe the difference between biblical faith and presumption, hope and wish-fulfillment, love, and a secular version of therapeutic well-being. Other than my wife, I have found most admit that they can’t do it. If the biblical boundaries of “faith, hope, and love” are not clearly understood, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know how pervasive the ignorance must be on other important Christian teachings.

The late J.I. Packer “mourned the eclipse” of Christian education (he used the word catechesis). Packer believed that its low priority was a main contributor to “the deepest root of immaturity that is so widespread in evangelical circles…” I agree. I believe our downplaying its importance makes people vulnerable to leaving the Christian faith for poor, but understandable reasons.

There are several factors that may lead to deconversion, but there is one that has not sobered enough Christian parents. I’ve seen it up close in a Christian school context, in parachurch ministry, and in pastoral work. It is a surefire recipe for disheartening your children about the Christian faith. They may still walk with God, but parents can make things more difficult for their children by failing to address an all-too-common problem.

It is not uncommon to find parents who desperately desire their children to be grounded in the Christian faith, but they themselves are apathetic. Years ago, while I was teaching at a Christian school, two high school seniors complained about their parent’s lackluster approach in following Jesus. One asked, “Mr. Moore, my father wants me to love Jesus first and foremost, but he is consumed with his brand-new BMW. What should I do?” The other said, “When I come home my mom makes it clear that I need to get studying Latin, but she is reading Glamour magazine.”

By the grace of God, children may still walk with God despite their parents’ hypocrisy. On the other side of things, I know parents who continue to grow in the “grace and knowledge of the Lord” despite having spiritually wayward children. These parents inspire me.

The late Dallas Willard used to say that he had a tough time finding churches who were committed to building disciples or apprentices of Jesus. People of all ages need to be formed in a more serious and comprehensive ministry of Christian education. Most of the Sunday school classes I have observed don’t come close to doing the job. Neither do the small groups I have observed. The research on small groups by the eminent sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, confirms my own observations. Focused attention must be given to equipping Christians to be lifelong disciples or learners. Church leaders need to provide an atmosphere where this sort of expectation is the normative path for all Christians. It must be an environment where everyone has the freedom to pose their most difficult or troubling questions. This assumes that churches have qualified leaders in both training and temperament.

I recently saw a quote being retweeted by those who heartily agreed with it. The quote came from a pastor I hold in esteem. He said, “The vast majority of Christians are educated past their level of obedience. If you would just do what you already knew, your life would change.” This pastor (and those who retweeted his quote) believes the answer to the spiritual doldrums is to stop putting such an emphasis on learning. What is needed is to get off one’s spiritual duff and go do something with what one already “knows.”

It’s a popular sentiment that I have heard a number of times before, but it misses some critical truths. For one, most American Christians don’t really have a good understanding of their faith. Again, the polling data shows this and my own varied experience over nearly forty years of teaching confirms it. In addition, the Bible makes clear that true knowledge of God leads to love. Finally, we should promote obedience but obedience that honors God is fueled by a maturing knowledge of God. The best love for God (and for human beings) is borne out of a deep understanding of who it is we are loving.

Consider the rigorous preparation of an NFL football player or of someone in the military who is headed to the front lines of battle. Why should we Christians settle for so much less in our own preparation?

MANY CHRISTIANS ARE NOT DESPERATE

I have read several books that seek to motivate Christians to read the Bible. What I believe is the biggest impediment to being an avid reader/student of the Bible has never been mentioned in any of these books. I am waiting to see it. It is this: if you are not putting yourself in situations where you need the resources of God or else you are keenly aware you will sink, you are not going to be an active learner of the Christian faith. You may be in that small percent that likes to learn for learning’s sake, but true Christian learning is meant to be lived and shared. Let me give one example.

If you share your faith on a regular basis, you will come across non-Christians wanting to know all kinds of things like why we Christians only honor the books that are in our Bibles. Why are these books so special? Didn’t powerful bishops in the fourth century use their power to ramrod the books of the Bible they wanted for inclusion in the canon? I have found few Christians able to give an answer to this question. Why is this? It’s quite simple and it is not because you must be a scholar to have a satisfactory answer. Rather, there is no urgent need to know this sort of thing if you steer clear of talking about Jesus with non-Christians. The engagement I find most common among Christians who do read their Bibles is to gain personal inspiration for the decidedly private faith that they are interested in living.

Christians have admitted to me that they avoid ministry opportunities to bear witness due to fear that they will not have a good answer to a non-Christian’s question. Nobody likes to be stumped, especially over a subject where good answers can be found.

I have various areas of disagreement with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), but I am indebted to how this ministry instilled the importance of putting yourself in places outside your “circle of confidence.” Early on, I was talking to people from different religions and cults. It motivated me to find better answers which then served as a catalyst to go out witness again. I was desperate to find better answers. Again, too many claiming the name of Christ aren’t desperate for better answers because they are not putting themselves in situations where they must bear testimony to why they believe what they believe.

I have some ideas for how churches could create a greater sense of desperation, but space limits me. Suffice it to say, pastors and church leaders would find it time well spent to brainstorm ideas for helping those under their care have more of a sense of desperation. They must first assess how desperate they are themselves.

Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert saw an abundance of Christians seeking to live supernaturally. Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert observed many Christians saying no to American consumerism and individualism. Instead, these Christians were eager to trust God in faith-stretching endeavors all while displaying an attractive joy and confidence in the truth. I believe it would make those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert reconsider what they might lose by doing so.

MAKE CHRISTIANITY BEAUTIFUL AGAIN

Another thing I jest about, but it too is deadly serious, is that if I had to believe everything I hear on Christian radio, I would have to bail on the faith. Fortunately, I do not have to believe these things. Fortunate too that there remains some great music and lyrics on Christian radio, but buyer beware!

Other examples of “Christian art” too easily fall under the category of kitsch. Whether fiction, art, or music, too much is sentimental, superficial, and sloppy.

In the areas of biblical studies and theology, we have lots of competent people doing excellent work. I am grateful for these faithful Christians. Our large library bears testimony to the value my wife and I place on such scholarship. In general, I would give high marks to these scholars and the rest of us “conservative” Protestants when it comes to describing and defending the Christian faith. However, I would not give us high marks on how well we Christians demonstrate the beauty of biblical truth.

My favorite writers of the past, people like Augustine, Pascal, Bunyan, Chesterton, Lewis, and Edwards, appreciated both the truth and beauty of God. We need to learn from them. Showcasing the beauty of the Christian faith along with its truthfulness would make people less tempted to deconstruct or deconvert.

Along with the need for more robust learning/discipleship and being in touch with our desperate need to grow, beauty provides a gracious power that addresses needs that we are not always aware we have. All three of these things are critical, but none have any lasting value if we fail to remember that Jesus is central to everything.

WHERE DID JESUS GO? LOVING FADS, LOSING JESUS

A few years back I went to the graduation ceremony for those who completed a rigorous drug rehabilitation program. The testimonies of the graduates were stunning tributes to a great and gracious God. When the ceremony was over, I asked the founder a few questions about the program. He said people did not have to be Christians to participate. They did need to commit to be in a small group where members slowly read and discussed the gospels. What he next told me is one of the best things I have ever heard about Jesus. He said, “They are not always convinced that Jesus is who he claimed to be, but they want him to be.” Seeing how Jesus treated people with dignity and respect was compelling for these addicts. The beautiful compassion of Jesus captivated them.

In Tim Larson’s fascinating book, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, he mentions various Christians (including pastors living in the Victorian era) who deconverted from the Christian faith. Several did so due to the attacks on the Bible by the “higher critics.” That part of the story has already been told by A.N. Wilson in his influential book, God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. What had not been well known is that a number of these deconverts came back to the Christian faith due to a fresh engagement with the Bible. They found that the Bible has a thicker, more realistic view on reality than the views promulgated by the skeptics. Several reconverted after finding the Christian faith described life more accurately than the descriptions of the most ferocious critics.

It is far past the time for American Christians to settle for a faith that could easily be gathered from a collection of pithy quotes on bumper stickers. Jesus and the faith that centers on him is true, compelling, worth giving our life for, and beautiful.

If you pay careful attention to the conversations of American Christians, you may start to wonder what happened to Jesus. Jesus supposedly undergirds and empowers all that we do, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to what most of us talk about. He is assumed to be central to everything, but our conversations seem to be animated by ministry strategy and leadership principles along with a host of other things. Things like ministry strategy and leadership principles have their place, but if we are not “growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus” we are in deep waters. We might end up being unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. We may be drowning, and we may be unaware of the danger.

A few months back, my own pastor preached a terrific sermon from Colossians. Peter made it crystal clear that Jesus is central to everything. He winsomely teased out some important implications that flow from this reality. Preaching that reminds us of the central place of Jesus is always critical. I’m afraid that it is not common these days. Alan Jacobs said pastors could legitimately warn their congregations every week about the dangers of technology. In the same vein, pastors should regularly make it clear that Jesus is central to everything. If the person, work, and yes, beauty of Jesus are not clearly brought before the body of Christ on a regular basis, we should not wonder why so many wander (I Cor. 14:8).

As Rev. 2:4 tells us, we need to remember from where we have fallen and “go back and do the things we once did.” Repentance that leads to remembering what really matters is the answer for all of us, whether we be the person who is deconstructing our faith or the larger amount of us who still sit dutifully in church pews but are increasingly not sure why we remain.

David George Moore is the author of the recently released Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: David George Moore, Carl Trueman: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books

I am grateful to David Campbell who read an earlier version of this post. Several of David’s suggestions made it a better piece. Any errors in judgment and/or style are mine alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAVID MOORE AND DECONVERT, BRANDON WITHROW, IN CONVERSATION

I am grateful to Brandon Withrow for his willingness to engage in this conversation.

WITHROW: First, just a little about my background. I’m a pastor’s kid. I was raised in the church. I went to Christian schools to earn my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. I taught the history of Christianity (and other courses) at a divinity school, a seminary, and in a religious studies program at a local university. I published several books with Christian publishers. Essentially, my job and faith were intertwined. When I left Christianity, I left my seminary faculty position, which I felt was the only right thing to do. (I wrote about that at The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Guardian.)

I now consider myself a secular humanist. It is my preferred moniker over “atheist,” simply because it is about affirming something positive, rather than identifying just with the negative statement of “there is no God.”

Why did I leave Christianity? The short version is to say that it no longer made sense to me and I had to be honest with myself about that.

There are, however, any number of reasons—complex and simple—that cause someone to reject a faith. I believe that motivated reasoning plays a larger role in faith commitments than most of us recognize—at least, I know it did with me. Part of my deconversion story begins with putting my own motivations under the microscope, to realize that when you want something badly enough you’ll make all sorts of room for it, even when it no longer makes sense.

Motivated reasoning is the creation of an argument to reach a desired conclusion. This takes advantage of our unconscious biases, many of which are supplied to us by nature as short-cuts for decision-making, but which also cloud our perspective(s) and lead to blind spots. I frequently see this happening in the hurdles one might have to take to embrace the Bible—at least, as it was the case for me.

So, for example, it is not a new thing that there are parts of the Bible that seem to contradict each other, or that its record of history that doesn’t connect with what we know, or that descriptions of the universe that don’t represent the scientific evidence, etc. Ancient Christians recognized some of these difficulties and the list of difficulties for a modern Christian is even larger now than it was in the early Church. Many have seen these as being reason enough to part with the Bible entirely.

Even the responses to these problems related to the Bible run along a spectrum and aren’t necessarily new.

One response might be an inerrantist approach, rejecting the validity of scientific or historical facts out of a deep love and devotion to Scripture. A flawed Bible, after all, would not be inspired by a perfect God, according to this type of view. Others might say that the Bible speaks according to the language and understanding of the day—likened to baby talk—a concept not rare among ancient Christians (e.g., Origen). God, in other words, is incarnational in his approach to humanity, communicating within our flawed limitations on science, history, and morality at the time of composition.

Others might say that the Bible is not so much divinely inspired in the details, as it is in the “how to live” category, or even that the Bible is just one record (among many) of humans seeking God or the transcendent (like the Vedas or Quran), and therefore contains errors that are expected from ancient human beings. And in all of these approaches, when the details don’t line up—when the Bible doesn’t seem to make sense—theologians might employ a final appeal to “mystery.” In other words, it might be said that since God is bigger than all of us, so be humble and submit to mystery when things don’t make sense.

In all these approaches, and every shade between, readers craft responses to the Bible that enable them to keep it as divine or sacred.

I believe these responses to difficulties with the Bible are essentially genuine responses, and not consciously trying to overlook the issues or be deceptive. I don’t deny that those who use them have a genuine feeling that the problem has been resolved through re-entrenchment or an adjustment to one’s epistemology, or just “a better theology”—which I now see as translating as “a theology that they feel good about.” But, in all of this, I don’t question their sincerity in trying to be theologically creative. I don’t do this because I know that I was sincerely seeking understanding when I found inerrancy no longer satisfying and when mystery appeared to be a handy solution.

So, I think that we do get in our own way. Having a creative solution is not the same as having the right or a better perspective. When we are faced with conclusions that do not match the evidence we’re faced with, we find ourselves in cognitive dissonance, and the only way to move forward is to have dissonance reduction. And that reduction comes through creative theological thinking, which isn’t necessarily about discarding the bad ideas, but finding a way to live with them by reframing the problem as needing a better theology. 

And this is where we need to ask ourselves—where I asked myself—how are we doing that? What is the motivated reasoning driving our conclusions? Cognitive biases—like confirmation and disconfirmation bias, or bias blind spot—allow us to avoid an inevitable conclusion we find uncomfortable. But this isn’t a process that announces itself; we don’t usually know it’s happening.

For my story, I found that for every hole I stumbled on in the Bible, and every difficulty I had with how the writer’s treat ethical/moral issues related to human rights (e.g., slaves and women, for example), I looked for a new way to understand it so I wouldn’t have to leave the Bible for good. I rotated my definition of what it means for the Bible to be God’s revelation, making it a moving target.

After all, maybe the Bible feels like such a human book because God was just speaking in the language of the day or maybe it isn’t God speaking, but humans seeking, etc., and now it needs to be reimagined within a modern context.

One has to eventually ask (I think) the question: at what point, after fixing every potential problem only to discover a new one, am I willing to say that the Bible isn’t what I think it is? What if this book only made sense of my world because I found theological ways to help it along? I wondered why do we keep making exceptions for the Bible.

There was a day, for example, when humans discovered Mercury’s retrograde orbit and they had to craft any number of reasons for it. Given geocentrism, it made little sense to see a planet go backwards in the sky. People frequently saw that deviant behavior as an omen, believing that when in retrograde, bad things were going to happen here on Earth. Of course, now we know that retrograde is the result of an optical illusion. Mercury doesn’t actually change direction.

With the original reason for retrograde—its very foundation—as demonstrably just an optical illusion, surely that meant that astrologers would give up the idea of bad luck attached to it, right? No. As one astrologer put it, retrograde may not be a “scientific fact,” but it is a metaphor and an “astrological fact” (which is not a thing). There is, therefore, a spiritual retrograde—dissonance resolved.

And I know that there are any number of evangelicals who would argue that there is no reason to accept astrology, and especially this idea of retrograde, and that if the facts do not back it up, then the idea should die. I would agree with that. And yet, this is where I think similar exceptions are made for the Bible. 

The Bible may regularly miss the mark on scientific and historical evidence and human rights, and Christians may (like I did) regularly change their approach to reading and interpreting it. But when all of the evidence points to a human book—even though an interesting one—the desire to keep it divine and sacred means (as it did for me) finding a new way to talk around the difficulties.

I find that many Christians may not give the same leeway to other ideas or faiths which face similar difficulties. For many, a critical view of the Quran or other sacred texts would lead to seeing it only as a human book and rejecting it. But if the Bible has similar flaws, should it be given an exemption just because it’s a beloved Christian text?

I eventually came to see this as bias blind spot on my part and ended my own exemptions.

I get why one’s love for the Bible as holy may not see this as I do, so I’m not surprised if there are immediate theological responses to this perspective. I get it because I was once there. Over time, I noticed that I moved from faith seeking understanding to faith seeking rationalization and dissonance reduction. If my take is one in which the Bible is eventually indiscernible from a human text, maybe Ockham’s razor entails that it is just that. Given this sort of thing, I came to the conclusion that it was no longer for me. It was a long process, but an inevitable one on my part.

MOORE: My own confidence in the reliability of Scripture is due to many things.  Space here does not permit me to enumerate them, but let me mention one thing that may be helpful.  Lesslie Newbigin wrote a terrific book called Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship.  In it he describes how so-called liberal and so-called conservative Christians look to the Enlightenment understanding of truth in determining how confident one can be about the Christian faith.  Liberals think that there is no way you can have a high degree of confidence in the Bible’s reliability, so therefore conclude that the Christian faith has little rational basis.  Conservative Christians tend to think it is fairly “obvious” that the claims of the faith are true, and so conclude that you can have a high degree of confidence in the Bible’s reliability.  According to Newbigin, and I would agree, both have missed the reality of “faith seeking understanding.”  Christians who have come from the conservative side of things can be unwittingly set up for doubts when they begin to realize that there are challenging and difficult things to understand.  As one who has experienced heart-rending doubts I gain my footing by knowing that God already made it clear that not all would be clear (Deut. 29:29: Isa. 55:8,9: II Cor. 13:12: II Pet. 3:16).  My earlier quest for certitude was a fool’s errand.

WITHROW:  There are any number of other discussions one can have about what constitutes as evidence for the Bible as divine or for Christianity as the one true religion. As one person once put it to me, “Jesus changes lives and that’s how I know he’s God.” I believe that many things Jesus teaches are potentially life changing. For example, loving one’s enemies may help avoid war. I also know Christians who became very different people after their conversions, but I don’t think this is necessarily evidence of the truthfulness of one’s faith over another’s.

There are those who became Buddhists or Muslims and found relief from violence or alcoholism or any number of problems. If change for the better is evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity, it would have to be so for these faiths too.

But I don’t see this sort of thing as necessarily consistent evidence. I’ve known many Christians who were also terrible people and who hold terrible views. Presumably, these bad actors would be contrary evidence, though what I normally see as a response to these situations is the “not a true Christian,” claim or “God is not finished with me yet.”

So what I’ve seen is that sometimes people who are struggling to be better individuals find what they need to motivate them to better behavior, whether it is through Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, secularity, or group therapy. And I see bad actors as frequently converting to faith to find a divine sanction on their ideas or as an opportunity for power. There is a spectrum between, as, for example, where decent people under the influence of bad actors can perform bad actions.

In other words, as the Bible looks and appears human to me in what it says, the behavior of others within a faith is also very human—that is, people are frequently following what they are already inclined to do. If Christianity were a pharmaceutical, therefore, I’m not sure I’d see enough evidence of a higher spiritual transformation to take it over other options. But if religion is a human construct, I expect it to have good and bad ideas; I expect it to attract people of all motivations.

I should add something here. People have asked me if someone “did something bad to me” to push me to reject the faith? I recognize that good ideas can have bad people attached to them. Brilliant people have also been known to be horrid people. So, it is not a case of “I’m hurt, therefore I’m leaving,” but rather what does this behavior tell me about humanity and the real draw of religion. It is to say that when I see how people behave in a faith, I just see it as reflective of being human regardless of which world religion one belongs to, where people find the tools they need for whatever conscious or unconscious motivation they have, good or bad.

MOORE: What constitutes bona fide change can be a bit slippery.  How much change needs to occur for it to count?  Much more challenging is how can we assess someone’s motives for change?  I’ve known some people who made significant changes for the better without any religious motivation.   I’ve also met many who said their lives were dramatically changed by Jesus.  I’ve also seen changes in my own life that I am quite confident could not come from sheer dint of will.  I’m quite aware how weak my will is.  As to the former, I will briefly mention former drug addicts who deeply fell in love with the Jesus revealed in the gospels.  In fact, many of these drug addicts did not believe in Jesus before going into rehab, but became attracted to the ways Jesus treated the marginalized.  Later, many of them embraced Jesus’s claims to be true. 

Downplaying or dismissing sinful behavior is clearly wrong.  However, the perversion of a truth does not make the truth any less true.  Richard Bauckham has described how Christianity has unique, built in resources to correct abuse.  Christianity has a founder whose own self-sacrifice and cries against injustice point His followers in the direction they should go.  Granted, some who call on Christ do not follow well, but that would not undermine the truthfulness of the Christian faith.

WITHROW:  I’ve also been asked, if someone did not accept Christianity, couldn’t they still accept the idea of God or embrace another religion? Yes, they could, and regularly do. I also considered other faiths and approaches.

But—and it is really too big to explain it all here—I landed on the idea that the religious drive is a human default provided by our evolutionary story. I think there is a growing case made for this among (religious and non-religious) cognitive scientists studying religion, though I recognize that—unlike the evidence behind general relativity, for example—there is significantly more work to be done in that area and there are experimental limitations.

Because I find the argument compelling enough that religion is an evolutionary byproduct, and because I haven’t seen real evidence for a divine being, I’ve decided to move on from the idea of a God. That is not to say I wouldn’t be open to evidence, but that I have not found a convincing case.

Lastly—and I can’t put too fine a point on this—I’m not of the opinion that someone in a faith is somehow less intelligent than a nonbeliever, or that bias infects only the religious, or that believers are automatically bad people. There are many secular humanists, like myself, who work with people of faith in shared efforts to bring social change to our communities. I would rather have a good Christian as a friend than a terrible atheist, and vice versa.

So when I endeavor to understand religion, I am frequently seeking an understanding of human nature and what it does for us as a species. We are a complicated, wonderful, and terrible species. We are also an immensely creative species, and religion is an impressive example of that. 

MOORE: Appeals to “science” need clarification since scientific discoveries are hardly static.  Thomas Kuhn described it well in his seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Furthermore, science is not devoid of faith.  Michael Polanyi has well described this dynamic.  Why does a scientist go with a certain hunch or not in conducting her experiment?  Why do certain scientists continue to believe certain things when the evidence remains inconclusive?  Science involves both faith and reason, just as the Christian faith entails both.

Pascal said there are two excesses: “to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”  In similar fashion, Chesterton added, “The poet [think of less “rational” more imaginative types] only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician [Mr. or Mrs. Rationalist] who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits…The madman is not the person who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who lost everything except his reason.”

Several years back I corresponded with the well-known New Testament scholar and deconvert, Bart Ehrman. He graciously exchanged several emails with me. My first note to him posed this question:

Hi Bart, I recently saw your latest book [Misquoting Jesus] and had a question that continues to nag. You well know that scholars like Gerald Hawthorne [one of Bart’s teachers at Wheaton] and Bruce Metzger [Bart’s main teacher at Princeton for Ph.D. studies] are familiar with the same manuscripts, history of transmission, etc. as you. But they come to very different conclusions. I am curious as to how you would explain this phenomenon. Thanks so much for you time! Dave

Bart wrote this in response:

I guess it’s rooted in different religious proclivities. I think it’s not a matter of    knowledge, but of what one makes of the knowledge.

“Bart [Ehrman] was, like a lot of people who were converted to fundamental evangelicalism, converted to the certainty of it all, of having all the answers,” added Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and a friend of three decades. “When he found out they were lying to him, he just didn’t want anything to do with it.”  

I’ve seen too many bail on Christianity because they concluded that honestly bringing their struggles to God was antithetical to having integrity in living out one’s faith.  I believe otherwise.

Thanks Brandon!  Though our conversation is just a starter, I greatly appreciate your willingness to have this exchange.