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.