"This country was founded on the principle of Christianity. The moral fiber of this country is in trouble, and I will stand and honor the Ten Commandments, I always will and I will never be apologetic for it" (Craig James, candidate for U.S. Senator from Texas in a televised debate on April 13, 2012). As a Texas resident (I can't say I'm a true Texan because I wasn't born here, even though I've lived here longer than in any other state), I wasn't surprised to hear these words while watching part of this recent senatorial debate, in which four candidates sought to outdo each other in wooing conservative religious voters. James' sentiments certainly would have resonated with me prior to my deconversion; after all, the U.S. was founded on Christian principles, including the Ten Commandments, was it not?
No. So says atheist neuroscientist and author Sam Harris in his tiny little book, Lying. Say what? Atheists aren't supposed to have any legitimate moral foundation! On what basis can Harris go even farther than many Christians and preach against telling your friend she doesn't look fat in that dress?
I confess I'm not always a fan of Harris' manners; I can certainly see how some might be put off by his direct, blunt, and sometimes smug pronouncements. Yet he does have an effective way with words, and sometimes it can't hurt to receive a jolt from the likes of Harris to help us see our failings and steer us in a less self-destructive direction. His e-book is so short and inexpensive ($1.99) and so chock full of nuggets that it would be worth your while just to read it yourself than to read any attempt of mine to summarize it. Perhaps a couple of anecdotes from the book would suffice to whet your appetite for more:
A friend of mine recently asked me whether I thought he was overweight. In fact, he probably was just asking for reassurance: It was the beginning of summer, and we were sitting with our wives by the side of his pool. However, I’m more comfortable relying on the words that actually come out of a person’s mouth, rather than on my powers of telepathy, to know what he is asking. So I answered my friend’s question very directly: “No one would ever call you ‘fat,’ but I think you could probably lose twenty-five pounds.” That was two months ago, and he is now fifteen pounds lighter. Neither of us knew that he was ready to go on a diet until I declined the opportunity to lie about how he looked in a bathing suit.
Harris, Sam (2011-09-13). Lying (Kindle Single) (Kindle Locations 184-190). Kindle Edition.
Jessica recently overheard her friend Lucy telling a white lie: Lucy had a social obligation she wanted to get free of, and Jessica heard her leave a voicemail message for another friend, explaining why their meeting would have to be rescheduled. Lucy’s excuse was entirely fictitious—something involving her child’s getting sick—but she lied so effortlessly and persuasively that Jessica was left wondering if she had ever been duped by Lucy in the past. Now, whenever Lucy cancels a plan, Jessica suspects she might not be telling the truth. These tiny erosions of trust are especially insidious because they are almost never remedied. Lucy has no reason to think that Jessica has a grievance with her—because she doesn’t. She simply does not her as much as she used to, having heard her lie without compunction to another friend. Of course, if the problem (or the relationship) were deeper, perhaps Jessica would say something—but, as it happens, she feels there is no point in admonishing Lucy about her ethics. The net result is that a single voicemail message, left for a third party, has subtly undermined a friendship (Harris 2011, loc. 252-261).
Harris has been criticized by believers and unbelievers alike for his insistence that objective moral values can be constructed from a naturalistic, consequentialist foundation. Perhaps some moral questions aren't as cut and dried as Harris's critics contend he makes them out to be, but I confess I'm drawn to the simplicity of one of Harris' prescriptions for an uncomplicated life: unless someone's life is on the line, always tell the truth. If you do, then others will know they can trust what you say, and when you praise them, it will be genuine and well deserved. These are conclusions that can be drawn by observing the fruit of people's interactions, and they are conclusions that can be drawn whether or not a higher power prescribes them.
For those who are in the throes of deconversion, a gut-wrenching question you'll be confronted with is how and whether and when to "come out" to those who think you're still a believer. Part of what makes it difficult is that the line between belief and unbelief is somewhat fuzzy, and if you're like me, you'll cross the line back and forth several times before you realize you really don't believe and aren't likely to cross back over the line to faith. In the meantime, especially if you're in Christian ministry, but even if you're just a committed lay Christian, other believers will continue to expect to see and hear ongoing affirmations of your faith: praying before meals, chiming in agreement with pronouncements on biblical theology, preaching sermons and leading worship music (in the case of clergy who've lost their faith), etc. The longer it takes you to “come out,” the longer you will be putting on an act, in other words, deceiving those who think you're a Christian when you're not. Harris maintains that “to lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” (Harris 2011, loc 46-47).
Though I hadn't read Harris before I left the mission field, there came a point when I knew that to continue working as a Bible translator would be to intentionally mislead my mission board and my financial supporters who had the right to expect honest communication regarding my loss of faith. My wife and family also deserved to know. Sure, I could have continued on in the ministry I was being paid to perform, putting on a pious face and pretending to believe what I no longer knew in my heart to be true, but I realized a day of reckoning would have to come at some point, and there was nothing to be gained—only further trust to be lost—by delaying that day. I was in a precarious situation; I did not know how I could find gainful employment and support my family after having spent the previous 7+ years in the mission organization. It nearly ripped me apart, but I could not lie: I no longer believed, and I owed it to everyone who thought I believed to tell them the truth. As it turned out, our family survived, and we didn't end up on the streets. I would have been willing to work minimum wage at McDonald's if necessary to avoid a lie.
Yet I know some individuals who remain in the ministry today, understandably fearful of coming out of the closet during these difficult financial times. Any act of apostasy is an affront to a believing community, but the betrayal must be even more acute if and when it's learned that the apostate continued putting on an act for months or years after deconverting. My heart goes out to those caught in a situation like this—I remember it all too well myself as if it were yesterday—but to them I say, What's the worst that can happen if you come out? It's not likely you'll die; you may have to depend for a time on charity or government assistance, but at least you'll have your integrity intact and you can keep your head held high, and you won't have betrayed the trust of your former fellow believers more than was necessary.
Following the publication of my book, in which I related an incident that came as close to being inexplicably miraculous as anything else in my experience, I've heard from at least three readers challenging me to follow up on it and to determine what really happened. As a result of their prompting, I did what I should have done before including the story in my book: I contacted the church I attended two decades ago to learn more details about the fellow member who experienced the miracle.
Before I tell you "the rest of the story," I'll include below the account as I related it in my book:
Yes, free will is but an illusion. So says neurscientist Sam Harris in his new little book, Free Will. In his view, all our thoughts and actions are determined by prior events and brain states; in other words, we cannot choose to do or to think anything other than what we in fact do and think.
Christian apologist J. P. Moreland, whose book Scaling the Secular City (1990: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House) I read in my seminary apologetics class in 1991, begs to differ, quoting theologian H. P. Owen on page 90:
"Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it, I have no ground for holding that my judgement is true or false."
Busted, as my kids would say. This quote was so arresting that it has remained lodged in my mind for over twenty years since I first read it, allowing me to pull the book from my bookshelf and locate it today as a foil for Harris’ position.
I recall that after first reading Moreland’s defense of free will and his arguments against physicalism, naturalism, and determinism, I arbitrarily lifted my left pinky finger in defiance of the notion that everything I did was determined by natural laws. I didn’t have to lift a pinky finger, let alone my left one, but I did so anyway. “Take that, determinism!” Yet even then, I had a nagging thought that a determinist might wish to dismiss my act of raising my left pinky finger as nothing more than a reflexive impulse against the repugnant notion that all my actions were outside of my control.
Isn’t it self-evident that we are the author of our actions, that we are responsible for what we do (both good and bad), and that we could freely opt for action a or b when given a choice? Isn’t it built into our justice system that a man of sane mind who pulls the trigger of his gun to kill a man who seduced his wife could have instead listened to his conscience, paused, and avoided carrying out the crime? If, as Harris believes, the murderer could not have done anything other than what he ended up doing, must society then give up its mandate to hold criminals responsible for their crimes? Are we really only left to excuse the “guilty” as follows? “It wasn’t his fault; he was just driven to pull the trigger by his circumstances, his underprivileged upbringing, his exposure to violence as a way of life, his genes, his personality, the lax gun laws in his state, a chemical imbalance in his brain, yada yada yada!” Or, to use a recent example from the real world, “Sargeant Robert Bales was driven to murder 17 innocent Afghani civilians because he was stretched to the breaking point by his four deployments, the loss of fellow soldiers in his unit, injuries he suffered, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. He simply had no choice but to go take out his frustrations in the way he did.”
Harris would argue that even the most heinous and most senseless of crimes are triggered not by a free will that could have chosen to do otherwise, but instead by a series of events and brain states governed by the laws of nature, including those described by chemistry, physics, genetics, biology, and (perhaps) quantum mechanics. He rhetorically asks free-will advocates what else but the laws of nature could possibly account for our decisions. Setting aside the special case of coercion by others, if I lift my left pinky finger, it’s because I want to lift it. If I don’t want to lift it, I don’t lift it. But why do I want or not want to lift it? I don’t have control over my wants; they just appear for reasons I’m not often conscious of, reasons that arise from the laws of nature operating on my brain and on my environment.
Sometimes I sense a conflict of wants within me, and it's when choosing between two wants that I feel I'm making a free moral decision. For example, I want the thrill that comes from clicking on the link to a sexually explicit photograph, but I also want to preserve my marriage and to direct my sexual passions exclusively toward my wife. Since I think (based on the input my brain has received about the dangers of pornography) that I can’t have both, I think I have to choose between the two options, and I prefer a long-lasting, intact marriage over the thrill of the moment, so I decide not to click the link. And because I gave up something potentially thrilling in favor of fidelity to my wife, I gain a sense of satisfaction in having made the right moral decision, for which I think I am entitled some credit. But where in that decision-making process was there room for anything outside the laws of nature? Did I have any control over my upbringing, during which the dangers of pornography were instilled in me? Can I help it that my wife is a beautiful person to whom I’m helplessly attracted, a wife who faithfully loves me in return? Is it up to me whether I want her more than the pornography, or that I have been led to believe that in some sense the pornography jeopardizes my relationship with her? No, my brain controlled my wants, and I ended up doing what I wanted to do, that is, giving up the short-term thrill of the pornography for the longer-term stability of my marriage.
Now, what if I had been away from my wife on a trip without any sexual release for months and the urge to click that link had not been overcome by my desire to remain emotionally faithful to my wife, and what if I had gone ahead and clicked that link because the desire for the thrill was greater than my perceived risk of doing so? In either case, I’ve done what I wanted to do, and I can’t control my wants. If I know ahead of time I’ll be vulnerable to such temptation and wish to avoid it, then I can choose to not take that months-long trip, but my choice not to do so is also governed by my wants, over which I have no ultimate control.
As for a potential criminal who’s contemplating pulling the trigger on his wife’s seducer, what if the thought enters his mind that he might well get caught and put in prison for life or executed if he were to go through with the murder, and the fear of getting caught makes him relent? Then he relents because he wants to relent. Why does he want to relent? Because his brain (whether consciously or otherwise) weighs the various outcomes and decides it’s in his interest to hold off. In this case, the desire to relent is traceable to an external factor, though in many cases it isn’t always easy to determine where our desires come from. But one thing Harris is sure of: they don’t arise from a disembodied or supernatural soul that drives our decisions apart from who we are, apart from the sum of all the circumstances and brain states that precede our every thought and action.
Harris’ confidence in the non-existence of free will is based at least in part on the results of experiments he describes as follows:
“Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.” (From Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 159-168). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
This is incredible: brain scans reveal that our brains make decisions before we’re even aware of the decisions we make. It’s as though I’m an automaton driven by factors beyond “my” control (whatever “my” means), and the decisions I’ll make can be visible to researchers before I’m even aware I’ve made them! Only, it’s not as though I’m an automaton; the inescapable conclusion is that I really am an automaton, albeit an automaton that’s aware of its decisions and consequent actions in such a way that it feels as if it’s making free decisions unconstrained by the laws of nature.
But if we’re all just automatons that will do what we’ll do, why bother to exert any effort to do anything at all, let alone anything noble? Why even get up in the morning? To this question, Harris retorts:
“...people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like ‘If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?’ This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.” (Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 374-378). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition. )
And to the worry that we’ll not be able to hold others (or ourselves) responsible for our actions, I would add that, even if we don’t have free will, we as a society can seek to provide disincentives (like sending murderers to prison or criticizing those who act recklessly) and incentives (like medals of honor, monetary reward, or verbal praise) as a means of influencing our fellow automatons to behave in ways we perceive to be in the interest of the society in which we live.
What about Owen’s charge that determinism is self-stultifying, that if our beliefs are determined by circumstances beyond control, then even our belief in determinism is determined, and there’s no legitimate reason to think that either our belief in determinism or any other belief is grounded in reality? I am not a philosopher of epistemology (the study of how we know what we know), but as an armchair philosopher who’s open to my readers’ contrary input, my first take on this question is that our brains have evolved a certain (I use “a certain,” because it’s limited) capacity to adjust our beliefs to evidence. If there’s evidence of a poisonous snake in our path (based on visual stimuli reaching our brains), we come to the unavoidable conclusion that a snake really is there, and we decide to take measures to avoid it. It does not follow that, since our decision to believe that a snake is in our path is determined, then there are no grounds for believing it. Similarly, if our decision to accept determinism is itself determined (for example, as a result of learning that brain scans show us to be unaware of our decisions until after they’re made), that does not nullify the grounds for legitimately accepting determinism.
Why should we engage in argument to convince anyone else to adopt our point of view on any matter, if in fact the other’s point of view is already determined, and if that person is not personally responsible for holding what we think to be a mistaken view? It seems to me that there is still plenty of room for us to discuss our differing views in an effort to communicate knowledge and reasoning that will serve as input to the brains of others (this sounds so clinical, doesn’t it? Sorry about that! I can’t help it!) and thus convince them of what we discern to be true, based on the evidence to which our brains have been exposed. In the process, we might ourselves be surprised to be exposed to new evidence that changes our own position, and so knowledge based on good evidence is given a chance to thrive in more and more brains, leading to more lives lived in accordance with a truer understanding of reality.
In writing this post, don’t I run the risk of making people feel less responsible for their actions and thus more prone to live immorally? I doubt it, as long as my readers understand that if you live immorally, you’ll still reap the consequences of your actions, and those consequences are no less sufficient grounds for “deciding” to behave than is the notion of free will. In other words, a deterministic contemplation of the consequences of my actions serves to put the brakes on a reckless course of action. The best way to ensure moral living is to gain an ever more complete understanding of how our actions will impact us and those we love in the long term. This is why we educate our children, not only in the 3 “R”s (Reading w‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic), but also in m‘Rality.
Finally, why should I care about whether others adopt a realistic view of human free will, i.e., that we don’t have free will? One practical benefit is a greater sense of compassion for those caught in a trap not of their “own” making. Instead of reacting in moral outrage to those whose who are bent toward destructive actions, we can think to ourselves, “There but for good fortune go I.” It tends to pop the balloon of our smug self-righteousness and arrogant moralizing when we realize that our own accomplishments and moral rectitude aren’t due to our own free will but are a result of the legacy of the nature and nurture bequeathed to us. This doesn’t mean, as I’ve said before, that we can’t still put in place measures to encourage constructive behavior and to discourage destructive behavior in all of us, but it takes the edge off our tendency toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness when we recognize that free will is an illusion.
If you’re interested in knowing more about this topic, I would strongly encourage you to read Harris’ book, which should take no more than a couple of hours to get through, and if you buy the Kindle edition, it’s only $3.99. Having also read philosopher of science Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves (2004, Penguin), I prefer Harris’ more direct and accessible approach, but Dennett’s views are also worth reading and considering as a less hard-nosed naturalistic alternative to Harris’ characteristically pull-no-punches stance.
In last week’s blog post, I asked whether loyalty is a virtue and concluded that truth must sometimes trump loyalty. This week I’ll try to put my money where my mouth is and explore an area where loyalty to my freethinking “in-group” is shaky.
Having spent the first 32 years of my life in an evangelical environment (including family, church, mission boarding school, college, seminary, missionary society), I have a mostly positive view of evangelicals as people. Certainly there are many exceptions, but on balance, I respect the warmth, sincerity, self-sacrifice, discipline, and love of many of the more earnest followers of Jesus. I attend my wife’s Bible church only very occasionally, perhaps three or four times a year for special occasions. One such special occasion was a recent “father-daughter desert” I went to with my thirteen-year-old daughter (and with my wife, who attended with her father). In addition to the food, there were some fun games and a talent show; a fun, wholesome time was had by all. Everyone was respectful, positive, and friendly, and there was a good mix of ages and gender (though not so much of race).
I mentally compared this experience with the one I had at a large weekend freethought convention I attended last fall. The respective goals of the two events were quite different, of course, so it’s probably unfair to compare them in any way, but I found myself struggling to identify with many of the presenters and attendees at the freethought convention. There were some families and a children’s program, but it seemed that most of the attendees were single; there were more men than women; almost everyone was white, and there were probably more middle-aged-and-above attendees than younger adults, with hardly any children. Many (not all) of the presenters made liberal use of expletives and focused a good deal of their ire on their religious competitors. We all received a complimentary condom in our welcome packet, and the evening social gatherings were centered around the hotel bar.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking out against expletives, singleness, condoms, or drinking per se. What I’m trying to get at is a little more intangible. For many evangelicals like me, coming to the conclusion that we were mistaken in our evangelical beliefs is, relatively speaking, the easy part. The harder part is that we still appreciate the general warmth, family focus, and respectfulness of the evangelical community, qualities that are harder to find (though not altogether absent) in the freethinking community.
In a recent response to one of my blog posts, a believer referred to the following passage from John 6, suggesting there’s nowhere else to turn for those who leave Jesus:
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?...”
Incidentally, I’ve been reading a long, fascinating e-book (An Examination of the Pearl) by Edwin Suominen, a struggling member of a tiny (about 100,000 members), little-known exclusivist Lutheran sect called Conservative Laestadianism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_Laestadianism). According to the author, the above passage from John 6 is often used by the Laestadian leadership to deter its members from leaving the sect (see location 1984), since its members are led to see only darkness outside its walls, even in the wider “mainstream” Christian community.
Getting back to the freethinking movement, I have no doubt that the perceived and/or actual culture of the freethought movement is one of the most important barriers to believers who might otherwise contemplate leaving their faith. “To whom shall we go? Certainly not to those family-unfriendly, foul-mouthed, arrogant, fornicating, drunken atheists!”
I’ll probably catch some flack for this from some of my fellow freethinkers, but as a long-time-evangelical-turned-unbeliever, it seems to me that struggling Christians are looking for a more comfortable landing pad than the cold, hard, unfamiliar ground they often hit on the other side of faith. I’m speaking on behalf of the doubting Christians who don’t particularly have a problem with other Christians or with the evangelical lifestyle but who simply doubt the tenets of their faith. I have in mind those who have placed a premium on sexual purity as believers and those whose social lives have been lived largely in the church, free of profanity or drunkenness or “worldliness” in general. For many longstanding members of the freethought movement, Christians like those I’ve described here seem to be from another planet, and that feeling goes in both directions.
I don’t have a ready solution to the hard-landing problem. I can’t necessarily expect those from Planet Wordly to change their lifestyle radically just to provide a softer landing to those coming in from Planet Purity. But somehow someone somewhere needs to be there for each new arrival, and the greeter needs to be someone the new arrival can connect with, trust, and have something in common with. It needs to be someone who’s at least sensitive to the gap in lifestyle choices between that of the typical earnest evangelical and that of the typical unbeliever. Keep in mind that many of these recent deconverts are struggling to maintain relationships with their believing family members. It’s already bad enough that they no longer share their most cherished beliefs in common with family any more; they don’t want to exacerbate matters any more than necessary by completely changing their lifestyle at the same time. I’m simply asking those from Planet Worldly to understand the predicament that new arrivals from Planet Purity find themselves in, to get a feel for where they are, and to meet them at that place. They’ve already sacrificed enough to give up what they believe; don’t expect them to adopt your lifestyle or your differing views on politics or morality. If an Orthodox Jew leaves his faith, don’t wave a ham sandwich in his face and expect him to give up his lifelong hangup over pork. If a conservative evangelical Christian leaves her faith, don’t litter your speech with expletives and tell sexually explicit jokes or share your sexual exploits. Of course, how you relate to former believers will depend on where they are and to what extent they continue to embrace elements of their former lifestyle.
That said, I’m not sure how effective the sensitivity I’m advocating really can be. I think some sensitivity can’t hurt, but the new arrivals are probably not going to be as comfortable with a Puritan “poser” as they would be with someone else who’s from a hybrid third planet that I’ll call “Planet Purity without Belief.” This is a sparsely populated planet of those who’ve left their faith but who retain more or less a similar lifestyle to the one they embraced on “Planet Purity with Belief.” Those who’ve deconverted and still inhabit “Planet Purity without Belief” have a unique perspective and set of experiences that can and should be used to help conservative believers who are transitioning out of faith.
As a general rule (which has its exceptions, of course), it seems that freethinkers and humanists are more concerned with structural/societal justice than with personal morality, while for conservative Christians it’s the other way around. Secular humanists couldn’t care less what anyone does in their bedroom, while they generally do care about avoiding war and providing justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the minorities. Vice versa for many American evangelicals.
Week after week in church services, congregations are enjoined to eschew the acts of the flesh and to cultivate personal virtues like the fruit of the Spirit in Galations 5:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
By and large, those outside the church are not encouraged on a weekly basis to cultivate such virtues. A debate can be had as to which of the above admonitions should be heeded by us nonbelievers (I don’t know any freethinkers who engage in witchcraft, for example!), but it seems to me that we would do well to give some thought to our personal morality, just as we would like conservative evangelicals to give more thought to matters of social justice. Acts and words of kindness and patience, rather than outbursts of disdain toward those we disagree with, would go a long way to breaking down the mistrust that no doubt prevents many evangelicals from reaching out across the divide. Sensitivity to the mores of others, rather than their dismissal as “prudish,” would also no doubt help bridge that gap.
Just as religion is not monolithic (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Conservative Laestadians certainly wouldn’t get along!), neither is freethought. Though no doubt most are left of center, freethinkers are found at virtually every point along the political and moral spectrum. I don’t know whether I’ll ever feel fully comfortable in a typical freethought convention, and I’m sure I’m not the only former believer in that position. To be sure, I share much in common with the predominant freethought culture, but I also share much in common with my wife, family, and former coreligionists. It’s not a matter of which one is superior to the other; that could lead to endless debates. It’s more a matter of where we all find ourselves in this sometimes convoluted journey called life and what we can do to make the best of it, both for ourselves and for our fellow travelers in this journey. Perhaps as more and more evangelicals leave the faith for intellectual rather than for moral reasons, the population of “Planet Purity without Belief” will grow and will serve as a softer landing pad for those arriving from “Planet Purity with Belief.” I don’t envision this planet being populated with moral crusaders but with those who simply continue to feel comfortable embracing family values and cultivating personal virtue as they did during their years in the church. No doubt some on this planet will go on to migrate to Planet Wordly, and that’s fine with me (within reason), but I would hope that our numbers would be sufficient to form a community for those of us who find ourselves caught between Planet Purity (with Belief) and Planet Worldly (without Belief).
We’ve all been taught from childhood that loyalty is noble and that we ought to “have the back” of our family, friends, sports team, school, company, Boy Scout troop, country, and church. Certainly these groups benefit from our collective loyalty, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they each attempt to cultivate loyalty as a virtue. Without loyalty, it’s hard to imagine that any group could succeed in the face of obstacles and adversity.
Yet what are we to do when loyalty to a group runs counter to the long-term interests of the group? For example, there were engineers who warned their superiors of the possibility of “O” ring failure and of the dangers of cold weather leading up to the disastrous launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. However, these warnings were not passed up the chain of command, no doubt because of a culture of letting things slip and of accepting a little risk in the interest of moving the program along. There were those who did not want to make waves, to dwell on problems, or to blow the whistle, because to do so would have made them look like disloyal gadflies if they had halted the program every time there was a potential problem, no matter how minor. That is to say, the Program (with capital P) took precedence over the problems.
In the context of NASA, when truth and loyalty come into conflict, truth quite clearly trumps loyalty. In other situations it isn’t so easy to decide. Two of our three children play soccer, and it’s amazing to note how often the parents on our team feel the referee makes bad calls against our team compared to how often he makes bad calls in favor of our team. Sometimes when other parents on our team have yelled out and complained to the referee (“hey, that ball went out on the other team, not on ours!!!”), I’ve noticed that the ball really did go out on our team and I’ve occasionally tried to correct the parents, assuring them the referee in fact made the right call. That’s not a good way to stay on good terms with the other parents of our team! You’re just not supposed to be contrary; you’re supposed to be loyal to the team.
The tendency for us to see and believe what lines up with with what the other members of our in-group see and believe, and the tendency for those members to see and believe what lines up with their interests is called motivated reasoning. See this link for a fascinating study on Ivy league students who watched a film of a football game involving their team and another team, showing how even the brightest of students could not see what members of the other team saw when watching the same game. Our ability to discern the truth is clouded by our loyalty to the groups to which we belong.
I’ve realized it’s futile to continue being contrary when I discern that the soccer parents on our team aren’t being objective, because the stakes are low. That is to say, the value of loyalty trumps truth in this case; I’m not going to get in the face of the other parents and shout, “Can’t you see you’re operating under a cognitive bias called motivated reasoning?!” But neither will I join them in calling out to the referee that his call was mistaken.
In other situations, loyalty trumps all other values, even truth. If I were living in Nazi Germany and my best friend were a Jew and the the Gestapo were hunting him down, I would not have a problem lying about his whereabouts in order to protect him.
What about religion and politics? If we come to suspect that the fellow members of our religious or political in-group are making pronouncements that don’t line up with reality, saying for example that scientists (referees) are making bad calls on evolution or global warming, and we come to realize that in fact the perspectives of these scientists are valid, then do we remain loyal to our in-group and join in the calls against the scientists, or do we silently agree with the scientists, or do we outright break ranks with our in-group and speak out in favor of (what we believe to be) the truth? In short, do we (1) remain fully loyal to our group, (2) withdraw in silence, or (3) speak up for the truth? Of course, the in-group would prefer (1), but if we can’t make ourselves believe what they do, then they would prefer we opt for (2) over (3), since our silence would minimize the damage to their cause.
This works in both directions. Jesus did not call for his followers to zip it up even if what they believed was in conflict with that of their family members. In fact, for him, the truth of the gospel trumps family loyalty:
Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
To sum up, loyalty can indeed be a high virtue, particularly when it comes to protecting family and friends from harm. But loyalty can also sometimes prevent us from seeing the truth, a truth than runs counter to the prevailing opinions of our in-group. Loyalty is only a conditional virtue and can be a powerful force that prevents us from taking an unpopular stand against the misguided religious or political views of our family or friends.
For those who hesitate to go against the grain to uphold the truth for fear they’ll be branded as disloyal to their in-groups, I fully understand your plight; I once was (and still am, in some ways) where you are. Yet there comes a point where silence becomes a form of complicity to that which is not true, and the internal battle begins. Should I speak up? When do I speak up? It’s going to kill me! I can’t keep this pent up within me forever, and I can’t pretend to believe what I don't believe, but neither can I bear the thought of being disloyal! Everyone who begins to question the truth of what their in-group stands for must struggle with these gut-wrenching dilemmas.
As many of you may know, over a decade ago I come out publicly against the views of my family, church, and mission board, abandoning the faith I had embraced since my earliest years. I could have played the silent soccer dad, disagreeing in my heart with the calls of my former coreligionists. But my former coreligionists continued to make their complaints, even pronouncing that those who didn’t agree with their calls were doomed to eternal damnation. As a soccer dad, I don’t mind remaining silent even when other parents on my team are making their bogus complaints, because their complaints don’t really matter; the referee’s calls will stand in the end. And besides, these soccer parents don’t think I’m going to hell if I don’t join in with them in challenging the referee, and they’re not going to stack the school boards with those who challenge the referee, nor are they going to press their mistaken views in society outside the soccer field. If only the stakes surrounding the disputes over religion, evolution, and global warming were so inconsequential! Alas, they are not; thus, the need to speak out. Whoever remains silent cedes the outcome to the other side.
May we always be loyal to physically protect and provide for those in our inner circles, but may we also be faithful to the truth, and may be have the wisdom to discern what to do when truth and loyalty come into conflict. I can only hope that those who unconditionally value loyalty above truth will not work for NASA or any other enterprise that requires integrity and the ability to be corrected under the weight of the facts. It certainly matters how we respond to good evidence that counters our interests and the views of our in-groups.
Several years ago, before I completed my book, a Christian friend challenged me, asking (rhetorically) why I should tell the whole world why I no longer believe. In response to her query, I explained my rationale in the section entitled, “My Purpose for Writing” in chapter 1 of my book. Unless my memory fails me, no one has revisited this question since I published my book in 2009 until a couple of weeks ago, since which time no fewer than three different believers have asked me why I publicly question the Christian faith.
My readers may be acquainted with one of these three calls for me to desist in the followup discussion to Mr. Rob Robinson’s critical review of my book.
Another of these calls came from a good longtime friend, responding to my post entitled, “Do all things work together for our good?” He expressed concern that I was being overly critical of Christians and wondered why I should continue to oppose Christianity, given all the good that Christians do.
The third challenge came in an e-mail today from a friend of my father’s. This individual very gently wondered how I could continue to publicize my views without jeopardizing my relationship with my wife and family.
This spate of challenges has led me to do a little introspection. Am I out of line? Should I, as Mr. Robinson enjoined me to do, just slip away gently and avoid slandering the name of Jesus any further? Should I refrain from criticizing Christianity as my longtime friend advised me, knowing that Christians engage in many constructive acts of compassion throughout the world? Should I silence myself in the interest of preserving greater harmony with my wife and family?
I did tell my longtime friend I would aim to balance my blog posts to include less criticism of Christianity and more topics of interest to those who are struggling to live out their post-deconversion lives, which in any case is the primary reason I decided to maintain a blog. But I told him that I would not refrain from criticism of Christianity and Christians when I feel criticism is especially warranted, just as Christian leaders like Falwell, Dobson, and Colson have not refrained from criticism of secularism. Though I disagree with many of their positions, I fully recognize their prerogative to express their views, and I would hope that those who disagree with me will recognize the right of us unbelievers to express ours. Is it more honorable for Colson to critique humanism than for me to critique Christianity? What if his worldview, as sincerely as he might hold it, is fundamentally mistaken, as I believe it to be? Should all of us muzzle ourselves out of deference to the sensibilities of believers (who think themselves to be in the right), even if we think ourselves instead to be in the right? Without invoking some form of exceptionalism, I fail to see any grounds for asking unbelievers to be less vocal than believers in disseminating their views.
As for Mr. Robinson’s call for me to slip away quietly to avoid slandering Jesus any more than I’ve already done, I have responded to him as much as (or more than) I feel is productive. It is not my intent to slander anyone, but recognizing that Jesus did not return when he (or New Testament writers) said he would is not slander; it’s a simple recognition of what happened. That publicizing such a recognition should disturb anyone is regrettable, and I would prefer not to offend anyone, but this consideration should not be a reason to suppress the truth. If there are Christians who disagree with my conclusions, I’m glad to discuss these matters in a civil manner, but there’s no need to accuse me of slander until it can be demonstrated that I’m in fact guilty of it.
Of the three recent challenges I’ve received, my father’s friend’s gentle prodding about how my writing affects my family hit closest to home. I am extremely fortunate that my wife has been so accommodating to me. But not wanting to take anything for granted, I spoke with her this afternoon, assuring her that I would quit writing in a heartbeat if she felt that my activities were driving a wedge between us. I have not done anything in secret; she has read many of my posts and responses to those posts, and though she disagrees with much of what I say, she appreciates the general tone and clarity of my writing. She allows for the possibility that I’m helping some individuals to be less jaded about their experience than they might otherwise might be, so she wants me to feel free to continue. Did I mention I have a wonderful wife? However, if I had a crystal ball, and if I could see that my activities were going to drive us apart in the end, this would be my final post. Absent such a revelation, I will continue to write to support those who are passing through or have passed through the tumultuous process of deconversion. Why? Because I know how hard the process is, compounded by the well-meaning but hurtful reactions of believers who don’t understand what it’s like to want to believe but are nonetheless unable to believe. Believers, until you’re surrounded by people who think you’re worthy of hell, you cannot understand what motivates us unbelievers to speak out and oppose without flinching the doctrine of eternal damnation (which, like other religious doctrines, we consider to be man-made).
In the interest of lightening up my blog posts (which I feel have been overly heavy recently), I’ve decided to dig up some of our experiences as missionaries and to share them with my readers as a glimpse into our past lives. In this installment, I’ll include excerpts from an e-mail update we sent out to friends and family from France in the summer of 1996. We had recently completed our year of French study in Belgium in June and would have moved on to Africa immediately from there if it hadn’t been for our (well, Charlene’s) pregnancy with our second son, due in August 1996. To bridge the time over the summer, I accepted a position teaching linguistics at a Wycliffe Bible Translator-affiliated linguistic institute housed in a Bible school north of Paris. Here’s part of the e-mail update from July 8, shortly after our arrival at the Bible school, including the adventures of making a train connection from Brussels to Paris to Senlis (25 miles north of Paris) with me carrying our 18-month old son David in a pouch on my belly while Charlene was seven months pregnant with our second son:
DATE: 7/8/96 11:06 PM
Re: Daniels' Monthly Update - July 1996
THE ADVENTURESOME TRIP (Written by Charlene) I'll try to make the long story of our trip short. A friend from church drove us to the train station [in Brussels], but because we were a little late and there was a traffic jam right near the station, we only made it on the train with less than one minute to spare!!!! That was WAY too close for comfort, but we sure are thankful that someone was obviously praying for us at that time since otherwise I'm sure we would have missed it.
In Paris we had to catch another local train but had problems getting our stuff through a narrow ticketed entry-way (the elevator was out of order) and when we finally got the help of three employees, that train was about to leave as well. Ken jumped on the train with David and a few bags, but the train doors automatically closed behind him, leaving me behind with 2/3rds of the baggage!! With the help of several "angels" along the way, I was able to make it finally to our destination on another train without losing too much time [maybe 40 minutes]. I thank God that I could feel His presence and wasn't really upset by the enforced "adventure". I was, though, very glad to see Ken's face and soon after to arrive at our castle [yes, the Bible school was housed in an actual castle!] here in Lamorlaye, 20 miles north of Paris. It turned out that Ken didn’t have his ticket on the leg when he was alone with David, so he had to convince the conductors that he had actually bought one and that it had been left behind. Thankfully they eventually believed him and he didn’t have to pay a penalty!
PHONETICS CLASS (Written by Ken) With God’s help I’ve made it through my first week of teaching! It’s been three years since I’ve studied phonetics, so I have to work with another teacher to relearn each day what I’ve forgotten. With three hours of teaching daily and the rest of the working day filled with preparation, I was next to exhaustion this past week, but I’ve been able to get a lot of good rest this weekend. All the students in my class are Scandinavians--3 Norwegians, a Finn, and a Dane. Since they’re all non-native speakers of French headed for missionary work in Africa, I feel less self-conscious about my French than if they were native speakers. So far classes have gone reasonably well, apart from my first hour when I was disorganized with papers scattered everywhere!
THE PEOPLE HERE (Written by Charlene) There are some 50 students and staff and though a good number of them know English, we do speak in French almost all the time we are out of our room and it's been great! There are about 10 Francophone students, 10 other Europeans, 5 Africans, and 2 Asians. We're making friends and even found another couple who are going to Emmaus Bible Institute in Switzerland in the fall like us! God is good. We plan to be here until September 6, then we’ll spend 5 days in Belgium before heading to Switzerland September 11.
Thanks to those of you who are continuing to pray for us. If you have questions or just want to drop us a line, we’re no more than a few keyclicks away.
Ken & Char Daniels
Recently Mr. Rob Robinson of Prophecy Update posted a critical review of my book, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. Since my response to his review is longer than what Amazon will accept, I've decided to turn it into a blog post:
Thank you, Mr. Robinson, for taking the time to review my book. See my responses interspersed with the text of your review below:
[Mr. Robinson] I recently finished "Why I Believed" and found it a most interesting read that really confirmed why I have been a believer for more than 36 years. Most of the authors arguments are based on his feelings about Christianity and his feelings that the Bible is not reliable.
[Ken] While it’s true that any decision related to faith, whether to accept it or reject it, involves feelings and emotions and personal experiences, and while I did include a number of these in my book, it would be unfair to suggest that “most” of what I wrote was based on personal feelings rather than on evidence-based argumentation. I drew many of my arguments from the findings of science, history, archaeology, and the cross-comparison of biblical passages. While you may not find these arguments convincing, that’s a different matter from asserting that “most” of my arguments are based on my feelings. It would seem you have chosen to dismiss as a “feeling” any argument that you don’t agree with.
It’s not just my feeling that Jesus did not return in his generation. If there’s no evidence that he returned in that generation, it’s more than a feeling to suggest that he did not. It’s also more than a feeling that Jesus and the NT writers proclaimed that Jesus would return in the generation of those then living: there are many passages that teach just that, as I discussed at some length in by book. It’s not my feeling that the Bible endorsed slavery, even what we today would consider oppressive slavery, the kind of slavery the Civil War was fought to abolish. See Leviticus 25:42-46 and Exodus 21:20. It’s in the text and is not just a feeling.
[Mr. Robinson] It was clear throughout the course of this book that the arguments made by the author are lacking evidence. For example: in the section regarding "Fulfilled Prophecy" and "The Resurrection of Jesus Christ", the author simply states how these important facts of Christianity were compelling to him when he was a believer. I expected some refutation of the fact that Jesus perfectly fulfilled over 300 old testament prophecies, and the odds of any one man in all of history being able to accomplish this, was beyond the possibility of chance.
[Ken] In my chapter 10 on biblical prophecies, I did examine several of the 300 messianic prophecies you mentioned, but while doing so I presented six general criteria for determining whether a given fulfilled prophecy requires a supernatural explanation. I would encourage you to consider each of these principles and indicate why or why not they are rooted merely in my personal feelings. If they are purely subjective or invalid, please explain which alternate criteria you would use to exclude alleged prophecies from other religious traditions (e.g., those of Joseph Smith, some of whose prophecies I dismiss using these same criteria).
1) It can be proven that the event happened after the prophecy. I acknowledged that all the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible were presented before the advent of Jesus, so this criterion does not disqualify any of those prophecies.
2) It can be proven that the event that was said to have been fulfilled actually happened. This criterion presents a problem for many of the messianic prophecies, since there’s no reliable way to prove that the Gospel writers did not fabricate any of the events claimed to have fulfilled OT prophecy. It is not the skeptic that bears the burden of proof; it is the one insisting that no naturalistic explanation is possible who must eliminate the possibility that a given prophetic fulfilment was fabricated. I provided some examples of events that have all the appearance of being fabricated by the Gospel writers (see especially my discussion on Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem), but even if you are not satisfied that they are fabricated, you would still need to prove that they *could not* have been fabricated in order to maintain they require a supernatural explanation. Can you prove historically that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or that soldiers cast lots for his garments? I was conditioned as a believer never to question the integrity of the biblical authors; for decades it was just not a possibility I could entertain. But once you realize how common fabrication was in the religious context of first and second century Palestine (for example, in the many pseudepigraphal writings and infant narratives of the era), it becomes less unthinkable that the Gospel writers should be immune from embellishment and outright fabrication.
3) The prophecy must be presented explicitly as a prophecy, not simply as a historical event that has some incidental parallels with a later historical event. See my book for a discussion of this criterion as it relates to some of the fulfilled prophecies in Matthew, especially the “slaughter of the innocents” incident in Matthew 2:13-15.
4) The object and circumstances of the prophecy must be clearly identified in such a way that there can be no mistake as to its precise fulfillment. See my book for a discussion of how this relates to Isaiah 53.
5) Every part of the prophecy must be fulfilled. See my book how this relates to the Micah 5:2 prophecy of a leader to be born in Bethlehem.
6) The prophecy must have a literal fulfillment, not just an imagined spiritual fulfillment. See my book for a discussion of this criterion as it relates to Isaiah 53.
Mr. Robinson, you stated that you expected me to provide “some refutation of the fact that Jesus perfectly fulfilled over 300 old testament prophecies,” but you did not acknowledge the arguments I made above that show how a number of representative messianic prophecies fail these tests and thus do not require a supernatural explanation. To establish that these 300 prophecies are miraculous, you would need to explain either how they pass these six tests or how the tests are flawed. Instead of doing either of these two things, you chose to assert that I made no “refutation of the fact that Jesus perfectly fulfilled over 300 old testament prophecies.” Granted, I did not examine all 300 prophecies, but I examined a representative sample and ended my section on messianic prophecies as follows:
“I could go through many of the remaining messianic prophecies and find one or more conditions they fail to meet, but Thomas Paine (‘An Examination of the Passages in the New Testament, Quoted from the Old, and Called Prophecies of the Coming of Jesus Christ’) has already demonstrated the spuriousness of a great number of them. Furthermore, the onus is on the believer to demonstrate that they pass all the tests, not on the unbeliever to demonstrate that they fail.”
If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to read Thomas Paine’s work, especially since you’re involved in a ministry whose focus is on biblical prophecies, if for no other reason but to understand the perspective of those who take the opposing position.
[Mr. Robinson] I expected some historical argument for the fact that Jesus did not rise from the dead.
[Ken] I grant that my chapter on Jesus’ resurrection is thinner than it could be, though I did make some serious arguments that you have not acknowledged or refuted, and I did point my readers to other resources that treat this topic in much greater detail. If you have a solution to the fundamental question of where Jesus first appeared to his disciplines after his resurrection--Galilee (according to Mark and Matthew) or the environs of Jerusalem (according to Luke and John)--then I invite you to put your solution forward, without at the same time insisting that I have not made any historical arguments against Jesus’ resurrection. Again, whether or not you agree with my arguments is not what I am concerned with here; I am concerned with your misrepresentation that I have not made any historical arguments on this topic when in fact I have.
My focus on the location of Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to his disciples is more than just an ancillary detail or a minor alleged discrepancy to be swept under the rug. It’s important because it goes to heart of the trustworthiness and integrity of (at least some of) the Gospel writers, which in turn is important for determining to what extent we can trust those writers in anything else they assert. I demonstrated in my book how Luke, while consulting Mark’s story of the resurrection, apparently purposefully altered Jesus’ words to favor a Jerusalem appearance over a Galilee appearance. If this suggestion sounds unthinkable or offensive to you, why? Was Luke not a human capable of misrepresentation like anyone else? What should be astounding in the least if that’s the case? It’s certainly more consistent with what we know about human nature and the physical laws of nature to think that Luke could have distorted the record than that Jesus rose physically from the dead, unless you have an a priori commitment that Luke could not lie or that Jesus had to have risen from the dead. And if Luke could have misrepresented the story, then why not Matthew too? And Mark?
Finally, I made several other arguments in my chapter on Jesus’ resurrection, but if you do not consider my discussion of the location of Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to be an argument, then neither will you consider my other arguments to be so either. But that does not make them non-arguments, just arguments you consider to be without merit. I have engaged respectfully with a number of believers, and though I’ve often disagreed with them or considered their arguments invalid, I do not recall dismissing their arguments as mere feelings.
[Mr. Robinson] I expected that the author would refute the eyewitness testimony of those who recorded the miracle Jesus performed, such as raise Lazarus from the dead by simply commanding him to do so.
[Ken] I argued in my book that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses of the accounts they described. Even evangelical scholar Greg Boyd acknowledges that the Gospels are anonymous. The texts themselves include no indication that any of them were written by Jesus’ disciples. It’s only the later tradition (of second century men) that ascribes them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. How can you prove that John was an eyewitness to Lazaras’ being raised from the dead, other than invoking the traditions of men? What historical argument do you have for this?
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I am guessing you’re a Protestant who doesn’t accept every eyewitness miracle story you hear from other religious traditions, including Catholicism. Do you believe that on June 24, 1981, six children reported an appearance of the Virgin [Mary] at a hilltop near the town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina? Do you believe that she has continued appearing regularly to these individuals since that time, and that millions of others have made their pilgrimages to the site to experience visions, healings, and other supernatural events? If you don’t readily accept these or other miracle stories reported by eyewitnesses in other religious traditions, then why is it incumbent upon skeptics to refute the miracle stores of the New Testament, including Lazarus’ rising from the dead? Is not the onus on the one who believes in an extraordinary event to prove that it happened, rather than on the skeptic to prove that it didn’t? In short, why am I the bad guy for not automatically believing it happened as reported?
[Mr. Robinson] There was no evidence given for any of the preeminent reasons to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, the entire book is about the authors feelings, that he just could not believe any longer.
[Ken] Now your position on my book has progressed from “most of the author’s arguments are based on his feelings” to “the entire book is about the author’s feelings.” Again, I understand you don’t agree with my arguments. Call them invalid arguments if you will, but please at least accord me the respect of acknowledging I’ve made some arguments, and address the substance of my arguments rather than making blanket statements like this.
[Mr. Robinson] One of the author's arguments that first threw him off course from believing in Jesus or the Bible, was the "young earth" theory put forth by theologians. Of course, no one really knows how old the earth is. I myself do not subscribe to the old earth theory. I believe that the book of Genesis records the fact that God created the heavens and the earth perhaps billions of years ago. In verse 2 of Genesis, something happened that caused the earth to become formless and void. The time span between the original creation of earth and the heavens, and the re-creative state of earth, is unknown. Beginning in Genesis 1, verse 3, the record of the re-creative days of earth being restored and man being created on the earth. The Bible no where states that the earth is just 6,000 or 10,000 years old. Men have stated this as their belief for many decades, but they are clearly wrong.
To allow the unfounded opinions of men to persuade a young man to question the entirety of God's word, is preposterous. The Bible stands alone as it's own commentary and needs no help from men.
[Ken] This is a serious misrepresentation of what I wrote in my book. While I grew up as a young-earth creationist, I came to accept the antiquity of the earth while I was attending a Christian college. Coming to this conclusion was not responsible for my departure from the faith, as I plainly stated near the beginning of the section on the age of the earth in my book:
“As recounted in chapter 2, I embraced old earth creationism for the final decade of my life as a Christian. As an unbeliever I still do not consider Christianity to be incompatible with an old earth. Though Western Christianity largely came to terms with the antiquity of the earth in the nineteenth century, a revival of young-earth creationism (YEC) and Flood geology starting in the mid-twentieth century has resulted in its becoming the majority view of American evangelicals today. Were it not for the continued widespread embrace of this belief, I would ignore it in favor of more important concerns. Those who already accept the great antiquity of the earth are encouraged to skip on to the next section.”
You stated, “To allow the unfounded opinions of men [regarding the age of the earth] to persuade a young man to question the entirety of God's word, is preposterous.” Rather, what I find preposterous is your lack of care in representing my stated reasons for leaving the faith. All of my many other arguments for no longer accepting Christianity you dismiss as mere “feelings,” but you’ve homed in on this one issue (which I explicitly stated is compatible with Christianity) and made it sound as if this is responsible for my wholesale rejection of the Bible. That simply was not the case.
[Mr. Robinson] Without the Bible, we do not have a clear explanation for all of the present conditions that we find on the earth, and in human life.
1. Origin of the universe The Book of Genesis stands alone in accounting for the actual creation of the basic space-mass-time continuum which constitutes our physical universe. Genesis 1:1 is unique in all literature, science, and philosophy. Every other system of cosmogony, whether in ancient religious myths or modern scientific models, starts with eternal matter or energy in some form, from which other entities were supposedly gradually derived by some process. Only the Book of Genesis even attempts to account for the ultimate origin of matter, space, and time; and it does so uniquely in terms of special creation.
2. Origin of order and complexity Man's universal observation, both in his personal experience and in his formal study of physical and biological systems, is that orderly and complex things tend naturally to decay into disorder and simplicity. Order and complexity never arise spontaneously--they are always generated by a prior cause programmed to produce such order. The Primeval Programmer and His programmed purposes are found only in Genesis.
3. Origin of the solar system The earth, as well as the sun and moon, and even the planets and all the stars of heaven, were likewise brought into existence by the Creator, as told in Genesis. It is small wonder that modern scientific cosmogonists have been so notably unsuccessful in attempting to devise naturalistic theories of the origin of the universe and the solar system.
4. Origin of the atmosphere and hydrosphere The earth is uniquely equipped with a great body of liquid water and an extensive blanket of an oxygen-nitrogen gaseous mixture, both of which are necessary for life. These have never "developed" on other planets, and are accounted for only by special creation.
5. Origin of life How living systems could have come into being from nonliving chemicals is, and will undoubtedly continue to be, a total mystery to materialistic philosophers. The marvels of the reproductive process, and the almost-infinite complexity programmed into the genetic systems of plants and animals, are inexplicable except by special creation, at least if the laws of thermodynamics and probability mean anything at all. The account of the creation of "living creatures" in Genesis is the only rational explanation.
6. Origin of man Man is the most highly organized and complex entity in the universe, so far as we know, possessing not only innumerable intricate physico-chemical structures, and the marvelous capacities of life and reproduction, but also a nature which contemplates the abstract entities of beauty and love and worship, and which is capable of philosophizing about its own meaning. Man's imaginary evolutionary descent from animal ancestors is altogether illusory. The true record of his origin is given only in Genesis.
7. Origin of marriage The remarkably universal and stable institution of marriage and the home, in a monogamous, patriarchal social culture, is likewise described in Genesis as having been ordained by the Creator. Polygamy, infanticide, matriarchy, promiscuity, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and other corruptions all developed later.
8. Origin of evil Cause-and-effect reasoning accounts for the origin of the concepts of goodness, truth, beauty, love, and such things as fundamental attributes of the Creator Himself. The origin of physical and moral evils in the universe is explained in Genesis as a temporary intrusion into God's perfect world, allowed by Him as a concession to the principle of human freedom and responsibility, and also to manifest Himself as Redeemer as well as Creator.
9. Origin of language The gulf between the chatterings of animals and the intelligent, abstract, symbolic communication systems of man is completely unbridgeable by any evolutionary process. The Book of Genesis not only accounts for the origin of language in general, but also for the various national languages in particular.
10. Origin of government The development of organized systems of human government is described in Genesis, with man responsible not only for his own actions, but also for the maintenance of orderly social structures through systems of laws and punishments.
11. Origin of culture The Book of Genesis also describes the beginning of the main entities which we now associate with civilized cultures--such things as urbanization, metallurgy, music, agriculture, animal husbandry, writing, education, navigation, textiles, and ceramics.
12. Origin of nations All scholars today accept the essential unity of the human race. The problem, then, is how distinct nations and races could develop if all men originally were of one race and one language. Only the Book of Genesis gives an adequate answer.
13. Origin of religion There are many different religions among men, but all share the consciousness that there must be some ultimate truth and meaning toward which men should strive. Many religions take the form of an organized system of worship and conduct. The origin of this unique characteristic of man's consciousness, as well as the origin of true worship of the true God, is given in Genesis.
14. Origin of the chosen people The enigma of the Israelites--the unique nation that was without a homeland for nineteen hundred years, which gave to the world the Bible and the knowledge of the true God, through which came Christianity and which yet rejects Christianity, a nation which has contributed signally to the world's art, music, science, finance, and other products of the human mind, and which is nevertheless despised by great numbers of people--is answered only in terms of the unique origin of Israel as set forth in the Book of Genesis. (Text fro Dr Morris)
There is no other source that credibly and logically explains the origin of all these important facts. The Bible is alone in it's correct view of man, sin, death, and the condition of the human heart.
[Ken] I found the 14 items above listed in the book The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, originally published in 1976 by Dr. Henry Morris (one of those men who influenced me to embrace young-earth creationism, which you characterized as an “unfounded opinion of men”). In the context of this response, I would prefer to answer your own points in your own words relating directly to my book, not the copied-in text from another author. I won’t attempt a point-by-point response, but I do want to address a couple of items, having already addressed some of the others in chapter 6 of my book:
Morris states, “The earth is uniquely equipped with a great body of liquid water and an extensive blanket of an oxygen-nitrogen gaseous mixture.” At the time he wrote his book in 1976, he could not have been expected to know about planets in other solar systems. Not until 1994 was the first extra-solar planet confirmed in our galaxy. Since then, an increasing number of planets have been discovered each year, and recently the first water-filled planet was identified. Based on the rate of discovery, there are likely billions of planets in our galaxy alone, and probably trillions in other galaxies. Can we say with confidence that none of them have an extensive oxygen-nitrogen gaseous mixture? If there are trillions of planets out there, I would certainly not bet against it.
Having studied historical linguistics at a sister institute of Wycliffe Bible Translators, I learned there is a consensus among linguists that all modern languages evolved historically from ancestral languages. For example, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romansh all evolved from Latin; no one seriously disputes this. The same sorts of processes have been going on for millennia, adequately explaining the great diversity of languages on earth today. Dr. Morris suggests that “The Book of Genesis not only accounts for the origin of language in general, but also for the various national languages in particular,” apparently referring to the breakup of languages at the time of the Tower of Babel. But since we already have a perfectly adequate explanation for how language splits up and evolves, the Tower of Babel story is not needed to explain how it happened. This is an argument based on evidence, by the way, not a feeling.
[Mr. Robinson] "Why I Believed", is a classic example of how no amount of evidence can persuade a heart that really does not want to believe.
[Ken] It seems you’re projecting your view of human nature into my situation, rather than accepting my statement in chapter 1 of my book, as though you know me better than I know myself:
“If I could patch things up by forcing myself to believe again, I would do so in a heartbeat. Unfortunately I have tried that several times, only to be besieged again by doubt, and have come to the conclusion that attempting to will myself to believe that which in my heart I do not believe is futile. In this struggle I am not alone; millions of others have passed through the valley of the shadow of doubt, finding themselves unable to return to the pastures of faith, despite repeated appeals to God to restore their faith. We have prayed more times than we can count, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24)”
[Mr. Robinson] In the end, human beings are experts at making excuses for why they both do and do not do certain things in their life. Facts do not persuade anyone to do anything, if they have an inner desire to not believe.
There is no revelation in this book that would ever persuade anyone who has genuinely examined all the evidence; studied the Bible in it's entirety, and examined the historical record of Jesus Christ's birth, life, death, and resurrection.
The attraction of sin in the world is sometimes greater to some individuals, than is the attraction to God. This is the reason that Jesus came and offered His life for all men. We are hopelessly lost and have no chance of ever redeeming ourselves from the total depravity and darkness of our own heart.
Bible Prophecy Update
[Ken] It was not an attraction to sin that led me from my faith, but rather a growing realization that what I believed was probably untrue. Is there a particular sin or sins (other than the sin of unbelief) that you would accuse me of? It’s unfortunate that the Christian religion, which for many promotes good will and peace among men, is being used in your hands as a tool to impute the worst of motives, intentions, and actions on the millions of us who have left the faith after a wrenching struggle, wanting desperately to believe but not being able to reconcile our faith with reality. This is in keeping with the following observation from chapter 4 of my book:
“The bottom line is this: those whose beliefs are nonnegotiable will do whatever it takes to discredit those who challenge the Christian faith. Whatever it takes. Often the easiest way to do this is to impugn their character—they are arrogant, self-absorbed, immoral, willfully self-deceived, or unscrupulous.”
Again I thank you for taking time to read my book and to write your review. Though we fundamentally disagree, I wish you the best.
As a Christian I believed that “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB). No matter how difficult or tragic the circumstances, I believed there was always a silver lining that could justify whatever happened to us, whether or not we could discern God’s purposes. An illness might help me take a break from my busy life and draw closer to God. A stubborn root in the ditch I was digging was a chance to develop my muscles, gain some exercise, or nurture a strong work ethic. The death of a loved one meant that the loved one would have a better life in heaven in God’s presence. A persistent backache presented an opportunity to develop my character, to strengthen my ability to depend on God. to exhibit grace in the midst of my pain, and to relate to and console others experiencing similar hardships. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 1:4, God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
As a secular humanist, I no longer believe there’s an omnipoent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being watching out for me and orchestrating every event to ensure it works out for my ultimate good. This means I can no longer look at everything that happens to me as good; there really are some bad things that come my way, things I wish hadn’t happened, things that have no silver lining, no redeemable value. This doesn’t mean I can’t seek to make the best of a difficult situation, to “turn lemons into lemonade,” so to speak. It doesn’t mean I can’t use my experiences of adversity to comfort others who are going through similar adversity. It doesn’t mean I can’t allow hardships to soften my pride and sharpen my character. It just means I can accept the reality that life would have been better if certain things hadn’t happened or that some things just suck, end of story.
On the downside of this secular realism, I can no longer take emotional comfort in the certainty that every difficulty I face has a reason that will make it worthwhile in the end--indeed, that will make it so that life will be ultimately better when anything unimaginably awful happens than if it had never happened.
On the upside of this secular realism, I have more of an impetus to redress wrongs in this life. We have some Christian friends whose twenty-something son died several days after the mast of his sailboat struck a 14,000-volt power line above a Minnesota lake, necessitating the amputation of his legs before he eventually succumbed to the effects of electrocution. As a father, I can’t imagine anything worse happening than to lose my son in his prime like this. If this were to happen to me as an unbeliever, I would see it as purely and utterly bad, and I would not seek any silver lining in the incident; rather, I would investigate why a 14,000-volt power line was hanging so low over a lake where sailboats roam, and I would sue to the maximum extent of the law whoever was responsible for it--not to profit financially but to help prevent such an unmitigated tragedy from ever happening again. I would not be able to bring back my son from the grave, and I wouldn’t have the comfort of knowing I could see him again in glory, but the least I could do would be to take measures to see that this couldn’t happen to anyone else. I would not allow Christian meekness, forgiveness, or the desire to be a good Christian example to get in the way of my pursuing like a bulldog as much justice in this matter as the law permits.
Several years ago I was discussing with a Christian the issue of slavery in the Bible. Unlike some disingenuous apologists who deny that the Bible supports slavery (see, for example, Exodus 21:20, Leviticus 25:42-46), this individual acknowledged it but reasoned that this life is so short that, despite the hardships of slavery, it’s like a drop in the bucket compared to eternity, which is really what matters in the end. I can’t think of a better example than this of the downside of seeing a silver lining in everything: it dulls our sense of justice, potentially opening the door for us to accept as God’s will all manner of carelessness, inhumanity, or injustice, or at least to give us less incentive to fight for redress.
I can’t say for sure, but I wonder if this “all things work together for good in the end” outlook is at least partly responsible for the historical tendency of fundamentalists to be more concerned with doctrine and evangelism than with social justice. Note that I don’t have this view of all believers; moderate and liberal Christians (and, to be fair, some fundamentalists) have championed the rights of slaves, women, and racial and other minorities, but historically it was the fundamentalists who fought to keep slavery in the South, to prevent women from voting or from working outside the home, to fight environmental protections, and to maintain the status quo of racial segregation and economic inequality, all the while championing fundamentalist doctrine, evangelism, and the inerrancy of the Bible. But if this life is the only one we have, and if this earth is our only home, and there’s no supernatural being to make everything work out in the end, then we are responsible in this life for seeking justice, for redressing wrongs, and for preserving this planet for our posterity, knowing there is no “new heaven and new earth” coming to wipe our mess clean.
No, not everything works together for our good--neither for believers not for unbelievers--but I hope we can all agree for the need to work together to improve the world we share, to reduce the things that don’t work for our good and to increase the things that do.
In Part 1 of my blog post entitled, “Is abortion wrong?”, I reviewed some reasons I opposed abortion when I was a believer and concluded that all but one of them were weak. Let me summarize the strongest argument that contributed to my pro-life stance:
1) It is wrong to kill an innocent human being (I include “innocent” here to sidestep the questions of capital punishment for criminals and the killing of enemy combatants in warfare.)
2) Unborn babies are innocent.
3) Unborn babies are human beings (i.e., there is no important difference between a baby one minute before it leaves the womb and the same baby one minute after it leaves the womb).
4) Therefore, it is wrong to kill an unborn baby (or, in other terms, abort a fetus).
During the process of my deconversion, I never really gave the issue of abortion a thought; it wasn’t something that related to the truth or falsehood of religion, which for me was the central question at hand. But once I had come to the conclusion that my former faith was without warrant, I began to think about the implications of having abandoned the dictates of the Bible and Christian tradition. I had to think through the three premises above leading to the conclusion that it’s wrong to abort a fetus. I instinctively wanted abortion to be wrong; it’s a conviction I had held all my life. But as a secular humanist, could I justify my desire for it to be wrong and to outlaw it in civil society?
The bottom line is: can the three premises above be grounded in a secular perspective? I don’t know of anyone who would maintain that unborn babies are guilty enough to deserve death for crimes they’ve committed, so premise #2 is safe. That leaves premises #1 and #3, which I’ll treat together since they hang on the definition of human being.
I’m a computer science engineer by training. One of my favorite classes in college was digital electronics. Maybe that’s because I like the concept of binary logic: everything is either on (“1”) or off (“0”). It’s much less messy than analog logic, where values can fall into an unlimited number of gradations. I suspect it’s our affinity for binary logic, for everything to be black or white, 1 or 0, that makes personhood and abortion such thorny issues. If we can point to a moment (usually the moment of conception), a discreet point in time marking the transition from non-person or non-human to person, then there’s no sliding scale, no shades of grey that make it tricky to determine when or whether it is or is not appropriate to end a life. As Dr. Suess would say, “A person’s a person (1, not 0), no matter how small.”
Though a microscopic fertilized egg at the moment of conception has a full complement of human DNA, it bears no resemblance to an adult or even to a newborn baby--not in its form, in its ability to think, in its ability to feel pain. There is no brain, no blood, no heart, no limbs, no head, nothing but a little microscopic blob. If we were not committed to the convenience of binary on/off, 1/0, black/white logic, we could readily acknowledge that this is a very different entity from a newborn baby, or even a twenty-five week old fetus, which by that time has taken on the form of a human and which can feel pain. We would realize that being human doesn’t lend itself to a convenient definition, that there are only degrees between a non-person and a person. If someone were to show me a fertilized egg under a microscope and tell me, “That’s a person,” my response would be, “Are you kidding me?”, and I would tend to think they were driven more by their ideology than by any concern to align their beliefs with reality. Now if they were to show me a twenty-eight week old fetus with a head, arms, and legs that can feel pain, and if they told me that was a person, I wouldn’t be nearly so skeptical. True, a fetus at that stage likely lacks many of the traits we associate with personhood, chief among them self-awareness (which begin in children at around 14-18 months; see page 725 of this link), but at least such a fetus bears a much greater resemblance to a prototypical human than does a microscopic egg. The point is that personhood, whether we like it or not, is more analog than digital, more a point along a sliding scale than an on/off, true/false, black/white proposition.
The problem is that, once we adopt a sliding scale definition of personhood, then the definition of person is only in the eye of the beholder, and each beholder could come to a different conclusion. But then even in raising this problem, we’ve slipped back into binary thinking. What if, instead of wringing our hands over what separates a person from a non-person, we were to admit degrees of personhood? I can acknowledge that a fertilized egg has elements of personhood while also maintaining that it’s not a person. And an embryo at two weeks exhibits a few more elements of personhood while still not being a full person. For that matter, a newborn baby, even though much more like a person than an embroyo, is not a prototypical person and lacks many of the congnitive abilities of an adult chimpanzee, including self-awareness, the ability to consider the future, and verbal communication. It’s not comfortable for us to think of personhood in terms of a sliding scale, but it seems a martian observer would have no problem studying us and coming to see us in this light.
But if personhood is a sliding scale, at what point along the scale does it become wrong to abort a proto-human? What if a father wants to kill his newborn baby or his two-year-old toddler out of convenience, arguing that these young ones have not reached the status of full personhood? The fear is that the sliding scale will become a slippery slope, and before you know it, we’ll have lost all reverence for the sanctity of human life and we as a society begin killing anyone with disabilities, with cognitive impairments, with limited prospects for a full and prosperous life, etc. For me the “slippery slope” argument is one of the strongest theoretical arguments against abortion from a secular perspective. I recall back in the 1980s during my high school and college years hearing Dr. Francis Schaeffer lament that European nations like the Netherlands were beginning to legalize euthanasia, and that before long this would lead them down the slippery slope of doctors killing their patients without the consent of the patients. The ensuing lack of reference for the sanctity of human life would lead to escalating rates of murder, infanticide, and all manner of violence and social decay. Yet several decades have passed since that time, and the rates of violence have only declined, and there is no mass abuse of euthanasia or infanticide or any such thing. So even if the “slippery slope” can be seen as a strong theoretical argument against abortion, in practice it has shown itself to have little to no merit.
It’s not just pro-choice advocates that subscribe to the sliding scale view of personhood. In practice, pro-life advocates do too. How do I know this? It’s estimated that more than two-thirds of all fertilized eggs fail to come to term; in other words, they’re spontaneously aborted, usually unbeknownst to the mother. So if these eggs are fully human, then fully two-thirds of all humans perish in a dark, pre-natal holocaust. Spontaneous abortion It is by far the single leading cause of human death, eclipsing heart disease, cancer, accidents, warfare, homicide, human-induced abortion, and suicide--indeed, all forms of post-natal death combined. Where are the concerned pro-lifers soliciting funds for research to put to rest this horrendous scourge, this mother of all killers? If they really subscribed to on/off, black/white personhood, would they not display more compassion and more activism for the billions of victims of spontaneous abortion? As far as I can recall, I have not heard a single pro-life advocate express the slightest concern over this tragedy. I can only conclude that they couldn’t care less. Why couldn’t they care less? Either they’re unaware of this holocaust or they don’t really believe in the personhood of fertilized eggs, or a combination of the two. Surely there are some who know about it and fail to sound the alarm. In any case, I really don’t think they believe in the equality of all human life, or they would put their money where their mouth is.
So am I an eager pro-abortion advocate? Far from it! I regret any unnecessary loss of life. I lament the loss of some kinds of life than others; it’s only natural for us feel more acutely the death of family and friends closest to us than that of unknown individuals halfway around the world, the death of those in their prime more than that of the elderly, the accidental death of a teenager more than the early miscarriage of a baby, the death of a beloved pet dog more than the death of a fertilized human egg, the death of a mother cat than that of one of its many kittens, the death of a kitten than that of a butterfly, or the death of a butterfly than that of a dandelion.
From a naturalistic perspective, we live in an interconnected web of life, all with varying degrees of closeness to us and to our interests and affections, with varying degrees of sentience and intelligence and capacity for feeling pleasure and pain. Though we instinctively place our own species in a category of its own--qualitatively different from all other forms of life--the gulf is not as wide as many, particularly those in conservative religious traditions, often imagine. It’s common to hear a complaint, “Those liberals care more about beached whales than unborn human babies!” But is it really that difficult to understand why a secular humanist like me would be more concerned about the slow, painful, dehydration of an adult whale--a whale that’s part of a social network, perhaps the mother of a calf or two, the matriarch of a pod, an animal that has all the same nerve endings and capacity for pain that we have--than the harvesting of an unconscious, unfeeling human embryo to be used for medical research with the goal of developing a cure for diseases that have plagued us for as long as we can remember?
I thank Sam and Holly for their thoughtful responses to my first post on this topic. I too am only reluctantly pro-choice, as Sam so adeptly put it. I wish we lived in world where all the answers were easy, where death was not a reality, where we never had to make trade-offs between life and liberty, where populations of all species (including humans) could grow geometrically over thousands or millions or billions of years with no ill effects on the sustainability or quality of life on our planet. But we don’t live in such a world, and sometimes hard choices have to be made.
It’s interesting that both Sam and Holly raised the question of what we eat, because I’m a vegan wannabe myself. I deplore the inhumane treatment of animals so prevalent in the poultry, dairy, cattle, and fish farms that feed our society’s insatiable appetite for meat and dairy products. In the past couple of years I’ve significantly increased my consumption of beans and lentils, but I have not gone fully vegan as it wouldn’t be practical at this point in my family and social environment. I tell myself that by eating less meat, I’m doing my small part to reduce animal suffering just a little bit. The thing is, as a believer, I had no such concern for the welfare of these sentient beings; they were made for our benefit, and there was such a quantum dividing line between humans and animals that the welfare of animals, while not to be disregarded entirely, paled in significance to our responsibility to our own kind, even if packaged as an unfeeling microscopic cell. I’d like to think my perspective has become more reasonable, even if still not fully consistent. I would still not hesitate to shoot a starving wolf threatening a newborn human infant. I suppose we’ll never be able to shed what humanist ethicist Peter Singer calls specieism (as an analog to racism). For the record, as a human I do not advocate treating humans and animals equally in every context when the interests of both come into conflict, but we can certainly afford to give greater attention to their capacity for pain and the role we can play in minimizing it (or at least in not increasing it), just as we can recognize a common interest in reducing the number of abortions, particularly those after the 25th week of pregnancy when the fetus begins to feel pain.
It was surprising for me to learn recently that the rates of abortion (expressed as a ratio of abortions per 1000 women of childbearing age) has been on the decline around the world in the past several decades. The rate of decline has slowed since 2003, coinciding with a slowdown in the rate of birth control distribution. If our concern is to reduce the number of abortions, the most effective way to do so is to make contraception more widely available.
I’ll leave you with one other interesting morsel: abortion has effectively taken the place of infanticide, which was widespread in all cultures before the modern era (again, read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined). The rates of abortion are essentially no higher than the rates of infanticide in previous generations, and abortion itself, along with violence of all kinds, is on the decline, as I’ve discussed in a couple of other recent blog posts. Those of us who are reluctant pro-choicers, along with pro-lifers, can look forward to the day when abortion becomes becomes rare.
Well, I could go on and on, but these are my thoughts as they currently stand, and I look forward to more good feedback from readers.
Kenneth W. Daniels (1968-), son of evangelical missionaries, is the author of Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. He grew up in Africa and returned as an adult to serve with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Niger on the edge of the Sahara Desert. While studying the Bible on the mission field, he came to doubt the message he had traveled across the world to bring to a nomadic camel-herding ethnic group. Though he lost his faith and as a result left Africa in 2000, he remains part of a conservative Christian family. He currently resides with his wife and three children in suburban Dallas, TX, where he works as a software developer.