Response to Heather Tomlinson’s critique of Why I Believed, Part 1

In January 2016, blogger/author Heather Tomlinson posted a meaty critique of my book, one which I felt merited a response. Below is Part 1 of my response:

Thank you, Heather, for taking significant time to read and interact with my book. Yours has been be the most thorough and thoughtful I’ve received so far from Christian perspective.

I’ll include excerpts from your review in bold/italic font, followed by my responses.

Though he says at various points that he is not trying to persuade believers to doubt, this doesn’t tally with his rather sinister invitation at the end of the book: “Consider taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightening…”

This is a fair criticism; I was indeed inconsistent in stating at one point that it wasn’t my goal to make atheists out of my readers and then later encouraging them to try taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. Perhaps I can clarify my intent with some direct snippets from my book:

• my aim is to ask my readers to reconsider at least a few of their convictions

• Incidentally, arguing for atheism is not the focus of this book. If I can convince some of my readers to relax their hold on fundamentalist Christianity in favor of some form of simple theism, deism or agnosticism, or even a more moderate form of Christianity, I will not consider my effort to be in vain.

• As I mentioned earlier, my focus in writing this book is not to convince my readers to become atheists. Though I presently do not believe the evidence warrants belief in God, I am far more open to the possibility of God’s existence than I am to the idea that the Almighty inspired the collection of books known as the Bible or that God displaced his wrath for us by sovereignly orchestrating the murder of his god-man son Jesus. It is not simply a small step between accepting God’s existence and embracing the tenets of a conservative Christian faith; a gaping canyon remains between the two.

• Though I will not seek to make an extensive case against God’s existence, as a nontheist I feel an obligation to present at least an outline of a response to those who demand to know how I might account for the universe and life without God. Keep in mind that if my case remains unsatisfactory to my readers, this provides no particular warrant for the truth of Christianity or for any of the thousands of other supernatural worldviews on the market.

• Most believers are not prepared to travel as far as I have from my former position as a fundamentalist believer. I implore such readers to consider a middle ground, one that acknowledges both the virtues and vices of the scriptures, as millions of moderate and liberal believers already do. While it is unrealistic to expect a large percentage of Muslims to abandon their faith, most of us can agree that the world would be a better place if Muslim fundamentalists moderated their rigid commitment to every precept of the Qur’an as the divine word of Allah, especially those that call for the destruction of infidels and apostates. Likewise, the world would be a better place if fundamentalist Christians could frankly acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly in their own scriptural tradition, whether or not they end up abandoning their faith outright.

• If you have reservations about your faith but lack confidence to act on your doubts, I would encourage you to start by placing your toe in what from the outside looks like an icy pool of disbelief…. As your entire foot enters the water, followed by your legs, consider taking a little swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightning (or, at least your chances will be no greater than for anyone else), and, if your experience is like mine, you’ll find nothing—from sunrise to sundown, from sundown to sunup, from north to south and east to west, from the past to the present—nothing that will invalidate your new perspective that the Christian god resides only in the imagination of those who accept him.

In retrospect, I would have done better to omit the invitation to test the waters of unbelief, given my multiple assurances that it wasn’t my aim to make atheists out of my readers. Yet note that my “pool” invitation was made only to those already having reservations about their faith, and it was a call to test their faith incrementally and see where the process leads. If it stops at a less fundamentalist version of Christianity, I would see that as a positive development, even if it doesn’t lead them all the way to my irreligion. I do not view this as a sinister invitation, though I can understand how you might view it as such, given Jesus’ millstone warnings against those who would lead believers astray.

But, bottom line, you did catch me in an inconsistency, and I do acknowledge and regret it.

I’d like to respond to a few statements in your review that could be misconstrued by your readers to paint a subtly inaccurate view of my story:

[Kenneth] began to have doubts while at university, which did not go away. Not an unusual story, as university is where we start to think independently from our parents.

True enough, though I should clarify that the school I attended, LeTourneau University, is a thoroughgoing evangelical institution. Also, it was nothing in the courses I took that precipitated my doubts; instead, it was in my private daily devotional reading of the Old Testament that my questions about the Bible began.

It’s worth pointing out that his doubts existed before he went to Wycliffe

True, I did have a bout or two of doubt in my college years up to around 1990, but I did seek counsel and was able to keep those doubts at bay until 1999. Nine years was a significant period, during which I attended evangelical seminary in 1991-92, married a believing wife in 1992 (we’ve now been happily married 26+ years), and joined Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1993, started language school in Europe in 1995, began work in Africa in 1997, and had three babies. For whatever it’s worth, I wanted to clarify to your readers that these intervening years should not be overlooked.

[H]e claims throughout the book that he didn’t want to lose his faith

The use of the word “claims” suggests I was perhaps a bit disingenuous in stating that I didn’t want to lose my faith. What was your reason for using the word “claims” here? Certainly, after I concluded that my prior faith was misplaced, I did proceed to set aside my faith and to defend that move, but it wasn’t as if I woke up one day and said to myself, “Ken I don’t like my faith; I want to lose it.” No, in the words of Lewis, I lost my faith “kicking and screaming.” Would you appreciate it if I wrote about Lewis, “He claims he didn’t want to give up his atheism, but look at the way he argues against atheism in his writings.”

I do not see this careful ‘weighing’ in his book

What is the purpose of placing ‘weighing’ within quotes? Was it not enough to state your view plainly that I did not weigh the evidence carefully; did you also need to compound your accusation with the use of quotes?

He seems to me, to be trying to convince himself that God’s not real

See my discussion of the words “claims” and “weighing” above; the same applies here.

I think this is a good prayer to pray. But was it honest? What choices did he make along the way that reflect his heart in the matter?

By asking the question, “But was it honest?” it feels as though you are impugning my integrity, much as in your use of the words “claims” and “weighing” above. Is this necessary? Do you know my heart better than I do? The following excerpt from the “Focus on the flaws of the foes of the faith” section my book anticipated this tack:

“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. Focusing on the character of one’s opponents is especially effective for those whose theology holds that God will eternally judge nonbelievers.”


He also appears to be arguing against a particular kind of Christianity – fundamentalist, creationist etc – rather than the Christianity that I know, which is evangelical, but thoughtful and open.

Somewhat surprisingly, this seems to have been the most common criticism I’ve received from Christian readers of my book. And in not one of these cases does the critic acknowledge my section entitled “Moderation Inoculation,” where I anticipate and respond to this criticism.

For more on how I see this sort of criticism, here’s an excerpt of a related post from my now-dormant blog site:

[S]ince the time my doubts about Christianity came to a head, I have been confronted more times that I can count by well-meaning individuals who have said, “If you only had subscribed to this version (invariably meaning the version held to by the one confronting me) of Christianity, you might not have gone down this path.” I’ve been told my former evangelical faith was not conservative enough or not Calvinistic enough, but more often I’ve been told my former faith was too fundamentalistic and that it would have endured if it had been more flexible, more broad, less legalistic. Well, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a say in the religious background in which I grew up, nor has anyone really. When I hear these post-mortem assessments, they come across as a more than a bit condescending: “Well, well, you were like a protected tree that grew up in a climate-controlled greenhouse supported with a lattice of pre-packaged answers, but when you were let out into the big bad world, the first hailstorm pummeled your tender, flaccid twigs and chewed you up. Pity, really.” Or from a Calvinist, “Well, you never grasped or embraced the sovereignty of God.” Or from a Pentecostal, “Well, you never drank in the power of the Spirit.” Or from a peitistic evangelical, “Well, you never experienced a genuine personal relationship with Jesus” (even though there’s no discernable difference between my experience and theirs). Or from a Catholic, “Did you really ever experience traces of grace?”


Why does this [evidence for evolution] make anyone doubt the existence of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and died for us? Why does that lead one to think that the material world is all there is? … I’m at a loss to understand how this [evidence for evolution] could have damaged his faith, it just doesn’t seem logical to me…. I came to faith with the presumption that evolution was entirely true – it didn’t stop me believing in Christ.

You’re right: Evidence for evolution in itself shouldn’t cause anyone to lose their faith wholesale. As you know, I’m an American, and most American evangelicals (unlike British evangelicals) reject evolution, almost or even actually as a nonnegotiable. I didn’t have a say into which culture I was born, nor am I a cyborg perfectly immune from its effects, so evolution inevitably caused some cognitive dissonance. Would I have responded in the same way if I had been exposed to Francis Collins’ “The Language of God”, which offers a compelling case for evolution from an evangelical perspective? It’s hard to say.

To correct the implication in your question, I continued believing in God without reserve for at least a year after I accepted the reality of biological evolution in 2000.

For more context, this 1999 doubting episode lasted for only about a month. I sought counsel from a respected professor with Wycliffe Bible Translators and was able to allay further deep doubts for about another year until I left Christianity (but not my belief in God) in 2000. The 1999 episode was accompanied by remembrances of doubts about the Bible from nine years.

In the section of my book entitled “From deism to agnosticism” (which I encourage your audience to read in full, as it dispels the simple notion that a whiff of evolution was all it took to bring down the entirety of my faith), I expressed that I didn’t consider theism to be incompatible with evolution:

“Though I never saw theism and naturalistic science as mutually exclusive, the more I reflected on the nature of evolution, the more troubled I became about its theological implications.[16]”

“[16] Though most of my fundamentalist and conservative evangelical readers may (as I did) see evolution as being somewhat at odds with their faith, moderate readers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Here is how my thinking proceeded:

Creationism *may* be true with or without phenomenon x, but without phenomenon x, evolution could *not* have happened. For example, creationism may be true whether the earth is young or old, but without an old earth, large-scale evolution would be impossible. Or creationism may be true if apparent homologies like five-fingered whales and five-fingered land mammals exist, but evolution would be untenable if there were no apparent homologies in nature. When enough of these phenomena built up in my mind, the scales began to tip in favor of evolution. I was especially concerned that to continue clinging to special creation in the face of these phenomena that supported evolution was to attribute deception to God, which I could not entertain. I then applied this same line of reasoning to the truth of Christianity and later to the existence of God. Though theism *may* be true with or without evolution, naturalism *cannot* hold without evolution (or something like it).”

I’ll now respond to the clangers you called out in my book:

Clanger 1: [Morality]

I suppose we simply disagree on this. Ideas and practices that are bad for the greater number or that inflict greater suffering than benefits (communism, Nazism, theocracies, cannibalism, murder, slavery, etc.), though they may have a long reign, have been progressively recognized as harmful by the world at large (both by the religious and the irreligious) and are now marginalized, even if they do continue to crop up. Much could be debated about why things are getting better, but most measures of societal health and well-being (per-capita rates of war deaths, homicides, poverty, education, longevity, infant mortality, happiness, etc.), the world is better off than it was decades, centuries, and millennia ago. Many books have been written on these trends, the most recent of which I’m aware of is Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling.

I’m aware of the problem of establishing absolute morality under naturalism. I don’t believe absolute morality exists in the way Christians often use the term. But that doesn’t prevent any of us from encouraging and aspiring to behaviors that benefit others, nor does it prevent us from condemning actions that harm others. This is especially true if we want to live in a world in which a random individual (like me) is more likely to be helped than hurt by others. I cannot ask others to behave responsibly if I egregiously fail to do so myself. But will everyone else play the same game? No, but we can agree to make laws and praise people who play the game and critique those who don’t. Does this solve all problems for a naturalist morality? No, but that fact doesn’t bear on the question of whether naturalism is true.

Clanger 2: [Prophecy]

(Incidental point: You consider it a clanger that I recommended a two-hundred-year-old book, yet you did not offer a rejoinder to the contents of the book itself. That strikes me as a case of what C.S. termed “chronological snobbery.” Was the author, Thomas Payne, without error? No, but I recommended the book because it raised some astute criticisms of the use of fulfilled prophecies for apologetic ends.)

You criticize me for relying on the secular assumptions of an article written by Bruce Metzger in the Oxford Companion to the Bible. Yet it was Lee Strobel who called on Metzger as an expert witness in defense of biblical authority in The Case for Christ. And you failed to mention my quotation of John Goldingay’s similar view in the Word Biblical Commentary, published by stalwart evangelical publishing house Thomas Nelson. I’ll end this subject with an excerpt from page 113 of N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God, not exactly filled with secular assumptions: “Verses 36–45 [of Daniel 11] then describes the final boasting and sudden fall of Antiochus, the earlier verses (36–9) staying close to what we know as actual events, and the later ones (40–45) diverging—at the point, we assume, where the writer’s own time is to be located.” It is not only the enemies of the faith who place Daniel’s writing in the second century BCE, after the time of the events he correctly prophesied. Are you aware of how much agreement there is on this view, even among many evangelical scholars? Or do you side with fundamentalists on this point?

You write that I barely mention prophecies like Isaiah 53 (your point is well taken), though I did say a bit more that what you quoted. I’ll include here for your readers the rest of what I wrote related to Isaiah 53:

Perhaps the most famous of these passages, Isaiah 53, was not presented primarily as a prophecy but as a series of past events. Isaiah 44:28-45:3 would sound messianic if the name had not been made explicit: Cyrus, emperor of Persia. There are many references to “servant” in Isaiah, the most common being to Jacob/Israel (a simple computer text search can be used to confirm this), but also to Eliakim (22:20-25, which also has a messianic ring to it) and others. The problem is that most of the prophecies Christians consider to be messianic were not labeled as such when written.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses prophesied the return of Jesus in 1874 and again in 1914. When his return failed to materialize on these dates, the Witnesses saved face by claiming he returned only “spiritually.” The “prophecy” of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 seems amazing for those who accept the Christian assumptions about the purpose of Jesus’ death, but most of what it refers to is spiritual in nature, so it was possible to apply it to Jesus or to any other righteous person who was unjustly executed.

There are a few physical references in the passage, most notably to the servant’s being pierced (which could mean on a cross or with a sword or spear; being pierced has been a common enough method of execution throughout history) but also to his being “crushed.” It is not legitimate to focus literally on “pierced” as a miraculous prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion while viewing “crushed” in a more figurative sense. Those who wish to employ the literal meaning of the first to posit a fulfilled prophecy must, in order to be consistent, accept the second as a failed prophecy, since John 20:36 testifies that “not one of his bones was broken.”

I didn’t mention this in my book, but (following Ehrman) one of the reasons I’m confident that Jesus existed (contrary to the Mythicists) is that we have no Jewish writings provably penned before the time of Jesus that suggest the future messiah was expected to be killed. For anyone to make up the story that Jesus was crucified would have run counter to all Jewish expectation. The Jews before Jesus did not interpret Isaiah 53 as messianic.

Clanger 3: [Quoting from my book]: “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.” As Kenneth’s book was written three years later than Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the eyewitnesses’, the claim there is ‘no evidence’ was, and is, patently incorrect.

You’re correct that I was unaware of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses before I wrote my book, nor have I read his book since then, though I listened to a spirited (and highly recommended) exchange between him and Ehrman on Unbelievable. (By the way, I love the Unbelievable! podcasts; Justin does a great job selecting guests and moderating them.) Correct me if I’m wrong, but Bauckham himself doesn’t claim that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, only that the authors had access to eyewitnesses. At minute 26:14 in that exchange, Bauckham states, “I’m not attributing any of the Gospels to a Palestinian Jew, with two exceptions: one is Mark, and the other is the author of John’s Gospel, both of whom came from fairly elite aristocratic circles in Jerusalem” (this is not a description of Jesus’ disciples). In his followup exchange with Ehrman, Bauckham avers not that eyewitnesses themselves wrote the Gospels but that “the eyewitness testimony lies very close behind all of the Gospels” (minute 7:30-7:52).

N.T. Wright’s view in this video is the same as mine: “I don’t know who the Gospel writers were and nor does anyone else.” I know Wright endorsed Bauckham’s book, but does Wright now believe that the disciple Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, for example? If so, I’d be interested in a citation. In any case, I don’t think even Bauckham would dispute my claim that “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.”

In context, the point I was trying to make in my book was that the Gospels don’t generally provide independent testimony of the events they narrated. In that, I now know I was mistaken. In the passages where Matthew and Luke copy from Mark, I was correct to conclude that they were not independent (and incidentally, why would Matthew need to copy nearly verbatim from Mark, himself not an eyewitness, if Matthew had been an eyewitness of these events?). However, I should have known to point out that scholars (even unbelieving ones like Ehrman) do see independent sources within Matthew and Luke, namely M, L, and Q (not to mention John, which constitutes another independent set of sources).

I’m afraid this is all I have time for today but will plan to respond to more of your article as I’m able.



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2 responses to “Response to Heather Tomlinson’s critique of Why I Believed, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Response to Heather Tomlinson’s critique of Why I Believed, Part 2 | The Deconversion Oasis

  2. Hi there, Heather here, just responding quickly…

    Kenneth seems a little annoyed by my putting his statements in quote marks and so on. That’s a journalists’ habit, unproven assertions are usually marked as so using these means, at least in the UK. No I don’t know what’s going on in Kenneth’s heart, but I think it’s reasonable given the subject matter to speculate.
    Kenneth’s response that others have said ‘if only’ he’d had a better theology he wouldn’t have lost his faith… that wasn’t really my point. My point is that most of his arguments (and incidentally, therefore the reasons he cites for losing his faith) are only relevant for fundamentalist Christianity. Whether or not that was significant for his own loss of faith, I don’t know.
    Regarding the clangers – I think he’s dodging the issue on morality… and that’s the point I was making in the original post. The other points I think I’ll leave readers to pick apart if they’re interested!

    Thanks for the response

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