Following my letter exchanges with Vox Day, Mark van Steenwyk, and Tom Gilson, here is my second letter to Christian writer Tim Challies, author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. See our past letters here.
Thanks for your cordial response. I’m not at all offended by the “fool” part – I understand you’re being honest about what you believe, and I appreciate that.
But I think you’ve misunderstood me.
Your strongest reaction was to a certain paragraph, in which I explained why I converted to atheism:
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:
Some books of the NT are pseudonymous, but that doesn’t mean they are “nonsense” or that they don’t contain history. The authors who wrote letters that were later collected as “Scripture” had different theologies, but that makes the NT library diverse, not “nonsense.” Jesus and Paul had different theologies, but that doesn’t mean the NT is “nonsense,” either. Like I said, Christian scholars have known all these things for centuries and not concluded that Christianity is nonsense.
Second, I would never claim that “All thinking people acknowledge that” my statements about the Bible and early Christianity are true. There are many very smart Biblical scholars today who would reject some of the mainstream positions given above, for example N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington. And I would never echo the New Atheists in saying that Christians are generally an unthinking bunch. I read too many philosophy journals with articles by brilliant Christian academics to believe that.
Third, remember that I listed those things in the context of my personal story. Those were the reasons I initially came to doubt Christianity. Maybe some of those things are false. For example, I think it’s quite likely that Jesus was not a failed apocalyptic prophet. But still, those were the reasons I rejected Christianity at the time.
Tim, you say “Surely you see how such statements are fallacious.” It sounds like you think they constitute a fallacious argument from authority. But I made no arguments in my letter. Not a single one.
Nowhere did I say that “Most scholars believe that several NT books are pseudonymous, therefore several NT books are pseudonymous.” I never made any such argument. Moreover, even if I made arguments to back up each of the reasons I left Christianity and all those arguments somehow succeeded, it still wouldn’t mean that Christianity was nonsense, as I explained above.
I would never say that something is true just because “most scholars” think it’s true. If I wanted to argue for the truth of something, I would present the specific reasons that convinced me - for example, the textual evidence that 2 Peter was not written by Peter.
So I didn’t mean those statements to be “sweeping and antagonistic,” Tim. I’m sorry you took it that way. Remember, I was telling you my story. I was telling you the reasons why I left Christianity. You are free to deny my statements, though many Christians would not. You don’t even have to explain why you reject them. But there was nothing antagonistic about what I said.
Yup, I know that the Bible proclaims that every nonbeliever is an immoral fool. (Though to be fair, it also commands you to kill your family if they try to persuade you to switch religions, and I’m quite grateful you’re unwilling to obey the Word of God on that point!) Therefore, you believe I am an immoral fool, and that I have deliberately chosen to deny the evidence before my very eyes. I don’t know what to say in response. I guess I’m lucky my worldview doesn’t force me to accept a priori that everyone who disagrees with me is both immoral and foolish. But preaching such a doctrine is a pretty good strategy for building “us vs. them” bigotry. Muslims preach the same doctrine about unbelievers.
Frankly, I wish you could spend one minute inside my brain, and you would know that I am not willfully denying the evidence. I tried very, very hard to preserve my faith. I just couldn’t see any evidence when I looked with honest eyes. I look around me and I don’t see a world that looks anything like what an all-good, all-powerful God would create.
Certainly, such a being would not create AIDS and congenital diseases and so many poor designs. Surely such a being would not create humans to inevitably fail, and then condemn them to eternal torture for failing, and then decide to resolve this problem by sending himself to the ancient Middle East to perform a few miracles and then sacrifice himself to himself. (If your theology is different, fine, that’s just the theology I was raised with.) I look around the world with honest eyes and I see a world that looks exactly like it wasn’t designed.
What I’ve Lost
Tim, you asked me: “What have you lost? Who do you thank?”
I lost quite a bit when I left Christianity. I lost many friends. My family relationships are a bit uneasy, now. I lost my entire social community that I had at the time. I lost the comfort of knowing I would go to a nice place when I died. I lost the comfort of knowing that I was on the winning team – that I was a servant of the unquestioned Lord of the Universe. I lost the ability to feel like I was doing something by praying when there was nothing else I could do.
As for gratitude, I just don’t have an issue with that. Do you believe that everything good that happens is a gift from God, or is some of it luck? Is every lucky parking space the result of God intervening in the natural order just for you? If not, then you must think that many fortunate things happen to you for which you have no person to thank. So now when good things happen to me I thank the people who are responsible, and if there aren’t any such people, I’m just happy, and that’s it – like I am when I get a lucky parking space.
A Better Place
Tim, in my first letter I asked what you think Christians and atheists could do together to make the world a better place. After all, it seems like we have lots of common goals. Don’t we both want to improve human flourishing and reduce suffering, poverty, and oppression? Or do you think the goals of Christians and atheists are too different for us to work together on making the world a better place? I’d like to hear your thoughts.