Thoughts on a live debate over the existence of God…

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.32.16 PM I attended a debate on Friday put on by the Secular Student Alliance at Boise State entitled “Does God Exist?” To my surprise, the room was packed, with about three hundred people in attendance. The debaters were Dan Barker, a former evangelical pastor and founder of Freedom from Religion, and Bill Pubols, a director of Athletes in Action, a “community striving to see Christ-followers on every team, every sport, every nation.” I’ve never attended a debate like this before, but I’ve heard about Dan Barker for some time and wanted to see the type of arguments each side trotted out.

I will say up front that Pubols (who valiantly came in as a last minute replacement for Matt Slick) was inexperienced and outmatched by the veteran Barker. However, the arguments he brought forth were similar to those of more experienced debaters, albeit not deployed as skillfully or confidently. For his part, Barker was not as charitable as I would have liked in his characterization of Christians, though I agreed with nearly all of his points.

While the constructing and dismantling of arguments was interesting, I noticed a distinct change in tactics on Pubols’ part over the course of the debate. He began with the Kalam cosmological argument, made arguments from universal moral principles, and contended for the validity of the New Testament based on its historical accuracy. Barker in turn dismissed the cosmological argument for making a category error (assuming that the universe itself obeys the same laws of things within the universe), denied that morality had to be universal to be valuable, and suggested a number of irreconcilable contradictions in the Biblical text.

As the debate continued though, Barker retained the same approach while Pubols shifted from making arguments to using anecdotal evidence and making emotional appeals. I recognized both the rhetoric and the tone of his altered argument from time spent listening to innumerable sermons on Sunday mornings.

I sensed that Pubols was more comfortable with anecdotes and emotional appeals than philosophical arguments, and rightly so. Christianity situates the individual within a narrative that spans both time and eternity. Seen from within, this narrative creates purpose and meaning, but as Jean-Francois Lyotard notes in The Postmodern Condition, this grand narrative is incompatible with scientific knowledge. Lyotard concludes that “it is…impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge or vice versa: the relevant criteria are different” (26). The two epistemologies speak a different language, and this became apparent during the debate.

(One might argue then, as many have, that religion and science just occupy mutually exclusive registers of reality. But Lyotard’s point is that narratival justification is no longer possible in the postmodern world, and the best we can do is little narratives that make no claim at universality. In a sense we know too much for the grand narratives to continue to function. And if it were true that religious or scientific beliefs were held in a vacuum, their potential conflict would be inconsequential. In our world, though, they vie for position in politics and culture. This is one reason I can’t buy the argument that freethinkers should just leave believers alone if their belief gives them comfort. It’s not that simple.)

Both men made appeals to scientific knowledge, and I’m curious to know whether a scientific argument is appealing to other folks when arguing over religion. Pubols told of the unimaginable improbability of the universe being constructed so as to support life–which for him points to a knowing creator–but Barker was well-versed in scientific jargon to support other examples in the universe of order coming from chaos. Those arguments did little to convince me on either side. It may be because my deconversion was initiated from a more practical and social standpoint. I was more convinced by the arguments from morality and the problem of evil.

The case of morality is particularly interesting because the believer is sincerely convinced that life is not meaningful without ultimate purpose (think Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Life here), and the freethinker is just as sincerely convinced that life can (and must) be meaningful without ultimate purpose because there is none. This suggests that understanding how individuals pass from one paradigm to another is critically important to understand.

The problem of evil is much more straightforward, and it remains difficult to understand how one can employ notions of the goodness of God, or divine love, in the face of the human condition. As Barker noted, if God is whimsical or bad, he would be more convinced of his existence, but the insistence that God is good in the face of good and bad acts in the world requires a redefinition of linguistic terms that is only possible when one starts with the answer. To use a crude but applicable example, if a friend or partner beats you and then tells you he loves you, others would recognize it as manipulation or abuse. On the global scale and when talking about the divine, many religious folk are comfortable with calling it love.

In the end, although the arguments Pubols first employed were attempts to justify his belief on the basis of philosophy or science, they weren’t the foundation for his belief, nor are they (I think) for most Christians. They certainly weren’t for me as a believer. Christianity was true because I was part of a narrative, one that plotted me in the course of human history and guaranteed my righteousness for eternity. Thus, when his attempts at reasonable justification were thwarted, Pubols resorted to the familiar tactic of narrative, the means by which he and others have been sincerely convinced. He referred to, among other things, the “knowledge” of the heart, the “Truth” of Jesus’ statements such as “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the felt “need” we all have for ultimate meaning.

According to the anonymous entrance poll, the majority of audience members were Christian, and there was about a four percent shift toward the nonexistence of God by the exit poll. I came away entertained but wondering if the debate format was worth the effort if the aim is to sway the opposition. Changing the question from the existence of God to the validity of faith would likely have improved the discussion, but lessened the draw to the debate. Overall, it seemed akin to the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Hamm (which I didn’t see). One commenter summed it up by saying that the only thing that would change Nye’s mind is evidence, and the only thing that would change Hamm’s mind is…nothing. But people do change, somehow. If I could only figure out how…


It’s Never too Early to Talk to Your Kids About…

For a couple years I’ve been dreading having a conversation with my son about (me) no longer being a Christian. Well, maybe not dreading, but it was a big unknown. How would he react? What would he think? I was looking forward to any questions he might ask, but concerned not to upset him unnecessarily. As I’ve noted before, his main contact with Christianity in the last four years (beyond extended family members and its general cultural prevalence, which is no small amount) is through the “prayers” we say together at night. They were prayers, originally, and gradually morphed, at least for me, into general statements of thankfulness, reflection on the day, and hopes for the future. My wife and I dropped the opening greeting to God or Jesus long ago, but made no fuss that my son maintained a “Dear Jesus.” Given this ritual, I wasn’t sure if he would be angry, disappointed, etc., thinking that these statements of thankfulness he had been addressing to a special deity were invalidated.

My fears were unfounded and the conversation was anticlimactic, to put it mildly. Since Christmas is coming, Harland has just turned eleven, and he seemed to be ready to handle the conversation, I decided to have it out. He hates “talks,” because they usually happen when we want to admonish him or a potentially embarrassing subject is going to be discussed. He protested loudly when I asked if we could talk until I assured him it was not about puberty, a topic about which he claims he has learned all he needs to know in school. The “conversation” followed in roughly this form:

Me: Do you remember when we used to go to church at the school when we were in Santa Barbara?

Him: We don’t have to start going to church again, do we?

Me: No. Did you ever wonder why we stopped going there?

Him: Well, we started going to that house, and I’d go in the other room and watch TV while you guys talked.

(This was a group my friend and I called “Exiting Christianity” and consisted of weekly readings ranging from Nietzsche to Thich Nhat Han deconstructing Christian thought with fellow ex-Christians and sympathizers. I never thought about it, but he just figured it was a different form of church.)

Me: Well, we actually stopped going because I don’t really believe in God or Jesus anymore. I kind of stopped being a Christian.

Him: Does that mean we can’t call ourselves Christian anymore?

Me: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me whether we call ourselves Christian. I just wanted you to know that I don’t think that there is some God up in the sky watching over us.

Him: Okay. Can we just have the conversation?

Me: We are having the conversation. I wanted to let you know what I think and see what you think about it.

Him: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me because we don’t do any of that stuff.

Me: Well, it’s important for me that you know. I just thought I should talk to you because we pray every night and that’s why your mom and I don’t say “Dear Jesus” or “Dear God” at the beginning of our prayers anymore.

Him: That’s what I was giving you a hard time about. (He had been on my case to use the “correct” address in my prayers.)

Me: I know. I think that God is something that people use to try to explain things they don’t understand. You know how when you miss a bunch of basketball shots you joke around and say something like “God doesn’t want me to win?”

Him: Yeah.

Me: It’s like that. People use God when they can’t figure something out, but I think we should look at evidence instead, like testing a hypothesis.

Him: So people are incredulous? (New vocabulary word from school)

Me: Yeah, kinda like that. We have a hard time not knowing things.

Him: Okay. Are we done with the conversation?

Me: Sure. We can be done.

And…he went back to watching basketball. In the week or so since then, I have been the object of his jabs about religion since he knows I’m a “religious studies” guy. At one point, he exclaimed “Thank you God!” about something and then looked at me and said, “Oh, sorry dad” with a smirk on his face.

I guess I was worried about the conversation because for a year or so after we de-Christianized, I figured that although Christianity was no longer acceptable for me, it was probably still good for my son. This may have been a way for me to avoid a difficult conversation. I know that there are many adults who feel the same way, who maintain some sort of nominal religious affiliation, in part because it’s “good for the kids?” But why would it be good for children if it’s not good enough for you? I just didn’t think I knew how to teach  any other way.

Since I had learned whatever morality I have in the context of Christianity, it took some time to separate the idea of morality from Christianity, though it seems so obvious to me now. This is a prime example of belief without evidence. I had believed for so long that I was (or tried to be) a good person because I was a Christian. Despite the evidence of millions of good people around the world without Christianity, as well as those good people who are without any religion at all, I was told and took on faith that Christianity produced my goodness, or any hope I had of goodness. There is no way to prove this claim, and it flies in the face of the bodily evidence of millions of people, as well as the counter-evidence of plenty of “bad” Christians. Sure, there are lots of ways to explain away any deviation from the belief taken as fact that Christianity makes you good, but all evidence shows that morality is not contingent on religion.  It’s comforting to me to know that my son, and people more generally, can be and are “good without God.”


Missions and Margaritas

I went on several mission trips to Mexico in my teens and twenties. During each, I experienced something of a culture shock as I saw firsthand the comparative poverty of the areas we visited. The “mission,” of course, was to convert people to Christianity through a variety of means, ranging from building projects to children’s workshops to passion plays, which dramatized the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The last trip I participated in was in 2003, and rather than drive over the border, we flew into Central Mexico. We spent most of our time in Tepic in the state of Nayarit. After we spent a week or so there, we had the opportunity to spend a night in a resort in Puerto Vallarta before returning home. A couple friends and I decided to leave the resort and go to dinner in town at a place that was recommended to us. On the way there, it began to pour. It seemed like the water was coming down in sheets and it continued to rain all night. It took some trouble to find the restaurant, and it was on a block so steep that the cab had to take multiple tries to get up the hill to it.

450px-Blended_MargaritaIt was worth it though. We entered the second-story restaurant soaked, but had an excellent meal out on a covered balcony overlooking the city with live music playing in the background and margaritas that grow in size each time I tell the story. (They are currently the size of fish bowls.) We had the restaurant call us another cab to return to the resort, and this time as the cab driver was winding through the dark, drenched streets to get us back, we somehow got around to the topic of religion.

The poor cab driver didn’t know what he was in for when he asked us what we were doing in Mexico. He was fairly open about his religious beliefs once we explained our trip, which probably involved phrases like “sharing the love of Jesus.” He told us he had a Bible on the shelf at home but never really read it. His mother was religious but it didn’t hold a lot of interest for him. He was busy trying to provide for his family. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I know that my friends and I spent the remainder of the trip back, slightly buzzed, trying to convince him how great Jesus was. Despite our efforts, the ride was too short for us to change his mind and we arrived back at our hotel.

I was, in retrospect, disappointed by the exchange, thinking if I had only said the right things, we might have effected the man’s (re?)conversion to Christianity right then and there. I was acutely aware of how many people don’t “know God,” and how sad their day-to-day lives had to be. In part, that was just the mode that I was in, having spent a week evangelizing the “unsaved,” and it probably involved some guilt at partaking in the typical American resort vacation, tucked away from day-to-day life in Mexico. But there was always a tinge of sadness that mixed with the earnestness when we returned, because it was much harder to evangelize at home.

For church groups, particularly of teens and young adults, taking missions trips to Mexico is fairly popular for a variety of reasons. It’s close and relatively easy to get over the border. But there is also some time-tested institutional logic involved.

If the primary directive of Christianity is the Great Commission—to convert as many people as possible so as to usher in the end of time—as many evangelicals think it is, why do most spend so little time trying to complete this task? Why instead do they venture out mostly in large groups to faraway places rather than evangelize in their immediate surroundings? I think that it is in part because they base a vibrant spiritual connection on evidence in socio-economic well being. We went to Mexico because the poor are more vulnerable, and consequently more open to the Christian message. It helped also that we believed there was a connection between their state of poverty and their spiritual status.

This preference for “vacation evangelization” is not unconnected to our marginalization of the homeless in the United States. Most comments I have heard about the homeless reflect the belief that they are ultimately responsible, not only for getting themselves into the situation they are in, but in wanting to stay there, because surely if they wanted to get a job, they could. Similarly, middle-class Christians often tend to think that physical poverty is a reflection of spiritual poverty, and an improvement in the latter will effect an improvement in the former. In addition, the proximity of homeless in our own communities is unsettling and more important to rationalize than the existence of poverty elsewhere.

I didn’t often think about this connection as a Christian. My motivations were out of pity, although it did cross my mind that we didn’t focus as much attention on the poor in our own community. But why the poor? Why not evangelize those of our own socio-economic background? Perhaps because without a socio-economic disparity, there is no justification for convincing someone that their life would be better off with Jesus. There is no metric of measurement to justify religious belief among our peers.

The lack of urgency to evangelize one’s peers is a reflection of a level of disbelief that “they” are actually better off than “we” are. It is easy to go elsewhere and observe living conditions that would be terrible to experience. The knowledge that you have it better off in social and economic domains  transfers readily to a spiritual domain. After all, Christians understand that their good position in life should be attributed to God. And if someone nearby is experiencing a tragedy, it is easier to step in, assuming—aside from a genuine desire to help—that his/her situation would be more manageable with religious belief. But how do you convince someone for whom life is going well that they are actually not well at all? One might do as Nietzsche suggested Christians do, make others sick in order to make them well. I, like many, convinced myself that others must be more unhappy than they seem in order to justify my worldview. But few have the heart to seriously act on that conviction, to find out if that’s really the case. And if not, it might be beneficial to consider whether Christians are actually better off, and by what standard—other than a Christian one—that might be measured.

Am I suggesting that Christians be more evangelistic with all of their peers? In terms of consistency, absolutely. In my last years as a Christian, the rhetoric of evangelization seemed hollow and hypocritical. I wasn’t shooting for conversions, but I did think it the Christian’s imperative to make a positive impact in his/her communities. So part of me wishes evangelicals were more consistent in application of their beliefs. But I’d rather that Christians realize there is no necessary connection between theological belief and socio-economic position. A reliance on social or economic indicators to prove or evidence divine favor would only prove an arbitrary an cruel deity who caused many to suffer in order that a few might enjoy relative comfort.


Even the Bravest…

1888 was Friedrich Nietzsche’s last year as a writer, and was his most productive. He suffered a mental breakdown on January 3, 1889, while attempting to stop a man who was beating his horse. He is said to have collapsed with his arms around the horse’s neck and he never returned to his former self, though he lived on for another decade.

If I had to choose one source that precipitated my departure from religion more than any other, it would be the writings of Nietzsche. I am not alone; many throughout the last century have found Nietzsche as the catalyst for their departure from traditional forms of religion. (It is also important to note that many, past and present, have used Nietzsche to attempt to reform Christianity from within. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen recently published an intriguing book that documents the history of Nietzsche reception in America.) He is a writer I have returned to repeatedly for the simplicity with which he expresses the contingency of modern belief, specifically the problems of Christianity’s role in European culture. If before I thought of Christianity as a largely exclusive sphere within Western culture, it was Nietzsche’s writing that exposed the proliferation of Christian ideology and morality far beyond its bounds into political and cultural spheres where Christians and secularists misrecognize it.

Nietzsche-munchNietzsche wrote Twilight of the Idols in this last year, just before the more well-known Antichrist. The former, relatively short work is written in the short aphoristic style for which he is famous. The second aphorism in the text has become a motto of sorts for me: “Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage to face what he already knows.” The short statement expresses how reluctant we are to challenge the “truths” that we hold closely, even when part of us “knows” that they are contingent, based only on our own particular context and not on any universal truth. As Nietzsche expressed elsewhere, there is only a perspective “knowing,” so the “already know[ing]” he talks about is not another universal, but instead recognizing the limitations of ourcontingent knowledge

I’ve had this quote listed as the subtitle of this blog, but the reason I’m bringing it up now is that I am retitling my blog “Even the Bravest…,” and wanted to (briefly) explain why. The decision is largely a political one, the ramifications of which I will be able to explain in much greater detail in the coming months. In short, though, although I thoroughly enjoy the title “Exiting Christianity,” and although it expresses the continuing nature of my own experience studying the tradition that I grew up in, it may give the wrong impression to casual readers. My goal is not to deride all that is associated with the Christian tradition; as I’ve mentioned before, I remain intrigued by the history of Christianity and the extent of its effect on present culture

There exists a certain amount of duplicity in the non-sectarian study of religion. The constitution of Religious Studies as a field is dependent on an unbiased approach. Religious Studies is not theology, in other words, because it does not assume the truth of any religious practice or belief. In its purest forms, it is supposed merely to document and compare religious traditions. People do not usually study religion, however, as one studies the objects in a museum. In my experience many people involved in the study of religion hold particular stancesregarding the traditions they study, whether for or against them, yet they separate those from their scholarship. While this increases the potential reach of their work, it is what we might call withholding information relevant to the case. The “objectivity” inherent to scholarship is uniquely problematic to the field of religion because religion assumes complete adherence, whereas fields such as history or psychology do not. For me, the discord between personal and professional approaches to Christianity was untenable, forcing an eventual reckoning.

All that is to say that I want to be as forthright as possible in my approach to religion, but I also want people to interrogate religion more deeply than they have, particularly those who have grown up in the Christian tradition. To prevent people from making a hasty dismissal of my assessments and critiques from the title of my blog alone, I’ll make it slightly more difficult to nail me down (but not too much).

In short, nothing much has changed. However, I’ll have more to say about Nietzsche in the future.


Bringin’ One In

Reaching eighteen and graduating high school is important for many reasons, most of which involve the “What am I going to do with my life?” question. Within the church, the implied question within the question was, “What is going to be your mission field?” That was the insider way of asking in what venue you were going to serve God and tell people about Jesus. Our church put a heavy emphasis on joining YWAM (Youth With a Mission). Many teens involved in the church, including myself, had gone on several short-term mission trips in high school; YWAM was a much longer commitment, usually at least a year or two. We frequently had young people return to the church and talk about the great things that were going on in the far-flung regions of the world. I was jealous in some ways, mostly the part about being in Africa or Ireland or Thailand. Due to my circumstances (getting married, going to school), it never worked out for me to go on a mission, and I was fine with that. I didn’t really want to, but I felt like I should.

I could never fully buy the implication that you serve God wherever you are. It seemed clear to me that some jobs, like being a minister or missionary, were more about serving God than others. Since I didn’t really want to be a missionary, I had to find some other direct way to serve God and convert people.

I should be clear that I don’t think people ever used the word “convert” in a verbal form in my Christian context. I use it because it is more neutral and accessible than “giving your heart to God” or “coming to Jesus” or “coming into the Kingdom,” among many other euphemisms. Besides, the rhetoric was that God converted people; we were just there when it happened.

Anyway, I found an outlet for sharing my Christianity through music. Though I’d only sung in choirs and church concerts growing up, I took up the bass guitar, and then acoustic guitar, in order to play music in church. I was only ever good enough to barely play worship music, but it’s not that difficult to play. However, I also began to play (a few years later) in a Christian band outside of church as well. I’ll talk more about that another time, as there are many good stories from those years. I bring it up now to discuss the only opportunity I can remember of praying with someone to convert, to “receive Christ.”

As I’ve noted, it was disheartening to me that even after my entire life as a Christian, I’d failed at my job. Throughout my twenties, this was a recurrent theme in my thoughts. While playing a gig in Portland, OR, though, I finally got my chance. My band and several others were playing a free concert in Pioneer Square in the downtown area. I can’t remember the details of our set, but I usually ended our last song by saying that the bandwould love to talk to or pray with people after the show.


Usually, we just chatted it up with people that liked our music or wanted to buy a CD. In any case, a guy came up to talk to me afterward. I could tell he was bothered by something. We walked out of the crowd and began to talk. He told me that he was from the East Coast, but that his girlfriend worked in the Portland area. He had flown out because she had gotten pregnant with their child and he had encouraged her to get an abortion. She was uncertain, so he flew out and went with her to the procedure. When he came to Pioneer Square, he was on his way back out of town. He felt conflicted about what had happened and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either.

My mind was racing because I knew abortion was wrong. (I don’t think the issue is so black-and-white now, but I did then.) It wouldn’t do any good to berate him about that, though. Instead, I just asked him if he wanted to receive forgiveness. To my great astonishment, he said yes. I led him through a simple prayer to become a Christian. Sadly, I remember very little else, but I know I failed to do much else. I’m sure I got his name, gave him a hug and some encouragement, and sent him on his way.

From a distance of over a decade since, the episode is extremely interesting to me. From an inside perspective, it was abundantly clear that the event was arranged by God. What other possible explanation could there have been for that chain of events that led him to me? Everything had to have an explanation. I feel no need now to give an explanation for how/why it happened. The guy was at a low point in his life, feeling conflicted about his course of action, both in the face of contradictory versions of reality telling him what to do and certainly the emotions of his girlfriend through what must have been a trying situation.

What would I do now in that situation? I suppose I wouldn’t be in that situation in the first place. All the bands who played in those concerts loved music, and we knew that it has a powerful effect on the emotions. It’s amazing, really. If you’ve been to a club or a concert or a church service, you know that people can get “interesting” when the music is pumping. Though it certainly wasn’t with malicious intent, we used the power of music to influence people with a particular message.

If, despite the contingencies, I was in that situation now, I would just listen. If I knew the person, I would make a point to check in withhim again. If not, I would try to connect him to someone local who he would be able to continue to talk with. The difference is the solution. I had one then, I don’t have one now. I could tell him that he’s simply anxious over the dizzying array of choices he must make in this existence that is a constituent part of his humanity, but it would mean little to him. Christianity was a solution for any problem, but it was a solution for me, not necessarily for him.

I wonder what happened to the guy. I’m sure he had a down time, and then he got through it and moved on. Is he still with his girlfriend? Are they married? Does he remember the day like I do? Is he a Christian? Unless he surrounded himself by Christians, it’s unlikely. You have to be trained to communicate with God. I’ll never know.

Conversion (and deconversion) is a complicated thing. The web of social and personal influences, known and unknown, that we are involved in is complex. But is no simple answer that lasts without consistent reinforcement.