Following my letter exchanges with Vox Day, Mark van Steenwyk, and Tom Gilson, here is my first letter to Christian writer Tim Challies, author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. Our discussion will be limited to three letters each.
I’m happy you accepted my invitation for a brief letter exchange. You’re a Christian and I’m an atheist, so this is an opportunity for each of us to present our worldview to the other camp and ask some illuminating questions of each other.
I think our conversation will be fruitful because we have so much in common. We both have a passion for making the world a better place, a passion for truth, and a passion for communicating with others. This will be much better than a dialogue between Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins! (In fact, I’m currently writing a book in which I carefully refute the central arguments offered by each of the New Atheists.)
I don’t want a debate or a shouting match. I’d like just like to share our views with each other and our audiences and come to some mutual understanding. In fact, one question I’d like to ask you concerns how we can work together toward mutual goals. John Hummel of the 52 Weeks, 52 Religions podcast put the question this way:
I’ve gone to each church and asked: “What are the important things people should be doing?” If I go to an Islamic service, they say “Help the poor, the sick, and the needy.” If I go to the Catholics, I get the same answer. If I go to the humanists, the same answer. I don’t think that anyone so far has told me much otherwise. But when I look at our society at large, we do a really bad job at all of those.
If everyone really believed we should be helping the homeless, we wouldn’t have any. If we really believed we should be helping the sick, I wouldn’t encounter people who have cancer and can’t pay for it.
We spend our time arguing about whether we should put the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or not, or whether gay people should get married or not. We spend so much time arguing about ourdifferences, instead of doing the things we all agree we should be doing. Why is that? And what can we do about it?
I’d also like to hear your own faith journey in a nutshell. What do you believe today, why do you believe it, and how did you get here?
Meanwhile, let me share my own story…
I grew up a non-denominational “born again” Christian in Minnesota. My father is a pastor. My mother organizes overseas missions and supports the persecuted Church around the world.
I felt the presence of God. Sometimes I would tingle and sweat with the Holy Spirit. Other times I felt led by Him to give money to a certain cause, or to pay someone a specific compliment, or to walk to the cross at the front of my church and bow before it during a worship service.
By the time I went to university I had left behind what I felt were “petty” doctrinal disputes. I just wanted to be like Jesus, and that was it.
So, I had to figure out who Jesus really was.
I studied the New Testament texts and the Historical Jesus. I discovered that much of what the church had taught me was untrue or gravely misleading. Many of the New Testament letters are known to be forgeries even by the most conservative scholars. The books of the Bible are written by very different authors with very different theologies. The gospels contradict each other all over the place. And if there’s any consensus at all about who the Historical Jesus was, it’s that he was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet; a failed one at that, since the end of the world did not come in his generation. And the religion of Jesus was quite different than the later religion about Jesus, apparently launched by Paul. Moreover, I started to wonder:
These discoveries scared me. I just wanted to erase everything I had learned and go back to being a simple Christian, confident in what I “knew” about Jesus. But I had to know the truth. So I studied more. I wanted to keep my faith, so for every critical article I read 5 articles on that subject by Christian apologists. (Not exactly fair, I know!) But it didn’t work.
I wrote to the host of an atheist radio show I had heard, in sad and angry defiance:
I was coming from a lifetime high of surrendering… my life to Jesus, releasing myself from all cares and worries, and filling myself and others with love. Then I began an investigation of the historical Jesus… and since then I’ve been absolutely miserable. I do not think I am strong enough to be an atheist. Or brave enough. I have a broken leg, and my life is much better with a crutch… I’m going to seek genuine experience with God, to commune with God, and to reinforce my faith. I am going to avoid solid atheist arguments, because they are too compelling and cause for despair. I do not WANT to live in an empty, cold, ultimately purposeless universe in which I am worthless and inherently alone.
I hope that I find a real, true God in my journey of blind faith. I do not need to convince you of that God, since you seem satisfied as an atheist. But I need to convince myself of that God.
But I couldn’t do it. I lost my faith completely. I just couldn’t find any good reasons to believe in God, not even from the most brilliant Christian philosophers. That was the most miserable time of my life.
It took me several months to learn what hundreds of millions of atheists around the world already knew – that there is plenty of hope and happiness and purpose and joy and morality without God. So now I’m living life as an enchanted naturalist seeking truth and love and beauty and morality.
I feel like I didn’t really start living until my deconversion. I was living in a bubble before then. But really, I’m glad I grew up a believer. At least now I understand where some believers are coming from. I know what it’s like to “experience” God. I know what it’s like to fall away from him and then fall back in love with him. I know what it’s like to be confused by the Trinity or why a loving Jesus would torture millions of good people but dismiss these doubts as the “mystery of God.” I know what it’s like to believe, I know what it’s like to doubt, and I know what’s it like to change my mind about some huge things. I know what it’s like to choose what I think is the truth even though every emotion and relationship is pulling me the other way.
That’s my story, Tim, and I look forward to hearing yours. Also, I hope you’ll share what you think Christians and atheists can do to work together toward our common goals for a better world.
Feel free to ask me any questions you like.
One more question I have for you is this: What things cause you the most doubt about your Christianity? Pointless suffering? Religious confusion? Doctrines about hell? Contradictions or absurdities in the Bible? Malicious design in nature? Contradictory religious experiences around the world? Anything?
Also: What do you think are some common atheist misunderstandings about Christianity that you’d like to clear up?
I look forward to hearing from you.