Two years after I started my blog, I bumped into an old friend at church one Sunday. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years and I asked after her family. She told me that Josh, her oldest son, had left the Christadelphian community and that he no longer believed in God. I decided to write to him to ask what had happened. After some correspondence, Josh read my blog, and responded with the following email (slightly edited):
You have meditated on “the problem of evil/suffering”, and conclude that good and evil must happen fairly randomly. (Consistent with God’s non-existence.)
You have meditated on the authorship of Matthew and seen that it’s clearly at least “fictionalized”, if not totally a literary creation; and also, that Jesus said possibly nothing at all about a ‘church.’ (Consistent with human vs divine ‘inspiration’)
You have pondered Inspiration, and are aware that most of the books show signs of ongoing editing and much human vs divine content. (ditto)
You showed that even in a bible-based, “orthodox” community, the culture is not aligned with the text. (ditto)
Going back a bit further: I’d already read that you’re aware that Evolution is pretty much “a fact”, and therefore we must figure out radically new ways to understand Gen 1-2 and the flood, as well as the implications for Adam perhaps being more literary than real.
And so on. So my question is — it seems like for every point you’ve addressed, the hypothesis that
“Like all other religions, Christianity is a man-made invention”
has as much or more explanatory power than the alternatives. And clearly, that’s the conclusion that I’ve reached.
But since you are educated, honest, and aware of all the sorts of things that became show-stoppers for me, I would LOVE to know which things stop you from slicing God out of the picture with Occam’s Razor.
As a skeptical but open-minded person, what should I look at? What should I investigate? What makes you believe (and preach!) in spite of the evidence?
Again, not looking for a debate, though happy to discuss as much or little as you’d like. If you can just toss me some links or bullet points I will happily digest.
Also, feel ENTIRELY free to do no such thing. I am just curious, and always trying to undermine my own confirmation bias.
I sat down to write to Josh, and I went to my stock list of “reasons to believe”:
- Resurrection (of Jesus)
- Environment (i.e., Creation)
- Consistency (of the biblical record)
- Health Laws
These formed the basis of the chapter “Reasons to believe” in The Way of Life and were also part of the many courses I ran, with names such as “Bible Discovery Course”, “Learn to Read the Bible Effectively” and “Getting to Know the Bible Better”. They were the reasons I fell back on when the doubts crowded in (as they often did), and they were the reasons I gave others as evidence for why they should also believe. They are easy to remember as the first letters spell the word PREACH.
Over time, each of those “reasons” had become less and less helpful as I had come to realise that they were not the strong evidence I once thought they provided. By the time I wrote to Josh, I had already given up on using the Environment, Archaeology, Consistency and Health Laws as reasons to believe. There were simply too many holes, contradictions and logical flaws to use them as evidence. At this stage I was still holding on to the first two reasons, Prophecy and Resurrection, but even there I was having doubts. I tried to construct an email using these reasons, but I kept deleting what I had written knowing that I was writing to convince myself rather than Josh.
A reluctant unbeliever
The more I wrote, the more I deleted, trying to find words that seemed assured and logical, but failing. All the words I came up with seemed so inadequate. Why did I still believe in the Bible? Did I have any good reasons left? The more I thought about it, the more my faith dissipated.
Here are a few paragraphs from what I finally managed to write to him.
I think we’ve wandered down many of the same thought roads, although we have ended up at different places (for now). Perhaps it would help if I explain something about my journey over the last couple of years.
I came to the view that evolution was probably correct more than five years ago. That didn’t bother me much, as I accepted the view that Genesis 1 was simply a creation drama, presenting God as creator, and was not meant to be taken literally.
In the last couple of years I’ve become much more conscious of how weird our community is, and how many established practices have no biblical basis. That led me to start thinking about what was biblical, and what would a biblical church look like. In the process, I started to think about inspiration, because it wasn’t clear that there was a biblical mandate for a church at all.
That led me to thinking seriously about inspiration in other areas. At first, very tentatively because I was frankly scared about where it would lead. I looked at textual criticism, contradictions that could not easily be reconciled (although I’m rather expert at resolving such things!), cultural practices that we now consider highly objectionable (e.g., the rape laws, genocide, restrictions on women, etc.), mis-use of scripture by Matthew and others, etc.
I’ve worked very slowly through all this, but have fairly recently come to the view that the Bible is a very human book, both in content, authorship, canon, and subsequent evolution. Now I’m not sure what to do with it.
You ask why I haven’t sliced God out of the picture. Perhaps I’m not there yet. I don’t know.
So where am I now? Mostly confused. I’ve thrown out a lot of theological and cultural baggage and I’m looking at what’s left and wondering if it can be put together in any kind of coherent manner that still involves God and the Bible. I really don’t know the answer to that.
Having sent the email, I kept going over and over in my mind whether I had any good reasons to believe. I lay awake at night wondering about it, praying about it. I read over what I had previously written on reasons to believe. I read what other people had written on it and the reasons they gave to believe. Nothing was convincing. The gaping holes appeared larger than they ever had before.
Within a week, I realised with a shock that I no longer had a reason to believe. I was a very reluctant unbeliever.
My first response was to cancel all speaking and other responsibilities at my own ecclesia1, to give me time to think. Did I really want to give up on religion altogether, something I had been involved with for my whole life? Perhaps this was just a phase that would pass. Maybe I should just take a back seat for a while and see what happened.
It would have been easier if I had not been so involved, but I was speaking regularly at church events, often more than once per week. I was travelling to other parts of Australia, and occasionally overseas to speak at church conferences. I had written several books that were widely used within the Christadelphian community. To suddenly take a back seat without explanation was not so easy.
Also, I still had three major interstate events that I had agreed to speak at, and I felt obliged to do them. After the second of them, I could not go on. I felt such a fraud and the hypocrisy was eating me up. Those who knew me well could see that something was seriously wrong.
Each night I would go to bed and just lie there, wide awake, and feeling so alone. Alone because I could no longer talk to the god I once believed in, and alone because I no longer felt part of the faith community that I still belonged to and around which my life had been centred. Although I was no longer speaking and teaching at church events, I kept up the pretence of attending on Sundays, not ready to give it all away, but not prepared to admit to my friends and family that I no longer believed.
Eventually my wife and I agreed that it would be better if I “came out” of the closet and told everyone. But I was worried about the effect on my family — most of whom were active participants in the Christadelphian community. So first I told my children where I was at, amidst many tears from all of us, and gave them plenty of time to adjust. After a month or two, they said they were tired of keeping my “secret” and wanted me to go public. I then travelled to see my parents and my wife’s parents, told a few close friends, gave them all a week or two to get used to the idea and ask any questions they wanted to, and finally resigned.
Thirty years of faith had come to an end.
The Christadelphian word for a local congregation. ↩︎