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

Following is part 2 of my two-part response response to Heather Tomlinson’s meaty critique of my book, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. See Part 1 here.


In each of the quotations below, Heather offers her thoughts as to why I might have left the faith. I in turn interleave my perspectives with hers:

He describes not being exposed to secular or atheistic ways of thinking until adulthood, and feeling afraid of reading non-evangelical authors or having his fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity questioned. Obviously, this does not help someone to really explore what they believe and why. Someone who comes from a non-Christian background such as myself, will have had exposure to all these things, and analysed them without ‘fear’. Though I think it would be better for a child to be brought up in the Christian faith, clearly there can be a downside, if they do not encounter the problems that ‘outsiders’ have with the faith, and so consider such ‘doubts’ to be more significant than they really are.

When it comes down to it, this is a suggestion that my eternal soul might have been spared had I opted for better parents, ones who weren’t afraid to inoculate me with some challenges to the faith in my formative years. I was never tested and was brittle, snapping in the face of the slightest breeze of adolescent doubt. Can you not feel the condescension inherent in this tack? Poor Ken, he may end up as a casualty of his insular religious upbringing, but at least he can serve as a cautionary tale to parents who might otherwise err on the side of shielding their fragile offspring from secular thinking.

Have you performed a study that demonstrates a negative correlation between early insulation and apostasy? If so, is that correlation greater than that between openness and apostasy? When moderate evangelist Tony Campolo’s son Bart came out as a secular humanist, one of my fundamentalist friends posted on FaceBook his opinion that it was Tony’s “liberalism” that led to the apostasy of Bart. Conflicting armchair postmortem perspectives are easy to come by, but what do the data show?

Often he described being persuaded by a book, just by reading it – whether the author was Christian or atheist. This suggests to me that he tends to take things at face value and accept them, perhaps because of his fundamentalist roots? Though he has clearly thought a lot about the subjects – his childhood non-critical acceptance of what he is told does reveal itself in the adult Kenneth. Mind you, many atheists and Christians are also like this – we all have blind spots of some kind. Lack of critical thinking is as much a problem in atheism as it is in Christianity, and Kenneth displays a lot of rigid thinking.

We all have our cognitive weaknesses. I’d like to think I’ve grown into more of a critical thinker since my deconversion, not only in metaphyscial matters, but in various other arenas, including politics (finding much to critique on both the far right and the far left), news (no Fox or MSNBC for me), and health claims (I eschew alternative medicine and support science-based medicine). Was I unduly influenced by the latest book I read, Christian or nonChristian, during my deconversion process? Absolutely! It was like a gut-wrenching game of ping pong! But I still made the right decision in the end. Jesus promised to return within the lifetime of his followers but did not. If an alternative medicine salesperson promoted a product to cure cancer but it didn’t heal cancer more than a placebo, it would require a lack of critical thinking to purchase the product. I’ve certainly been guilty of lapses in critical thinking–I’m no longer under the sway of mythicist Robert Price, for example–but anyone who don’t see a problem with Jesus’ failed prophecy cannot cast the first stone.

He does not fully understand many of the Christian arguments for God. Eg, he is confused re the moral argument, as explained above. He also doesn’t engage with a lot of good Christian arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from consciousness, and the excellent Christian challenges to atheistic naturalism, such as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

There are many moral arguments for God, for example, 1) the existence of altruism (for which it is claimed there can be no evolutionary explanation); 2) the lack of incentive naturalism provides for societies and individuals to behave; 3) the lack of grounding naturalism provides for defining how we even ought to behave; and 4) the inability of naturalism to explain why we feel a sense of moral outrage when people wrong us or others. There are no doubt others, but they mostly boil down to the questions, Why do we have a sense of (absolute) morality, and What will happen to society of we don’t have God to guide our behavior? The first of the latter two questions is the only one that bears on the truth of naturalism, as the truth of a proposition cannot be determined by the desirability of its consequences. Am I wrong about this?

I regret not having discussed the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). I had been exposed to it when reading Plantinga and Lewis, but apparently didn’t realize how popular it was when writing my book. Subsequently I’ve engaged in some long FaceBook conversations about this argument. In the interest of space, I’ll provide just a brief summary of how I process this argument. EAAN posits that, if we’re the product of natural evolutionary forces, what assurance can we have that our brains have sufficiently evolved to come to a correct conclusion regarding our origins and place in this world? Evolution is concerned with survival, not truth. My response: We can all agree that our brains have the ability to seek and find truth, or else we would not be so successful in modeling the outside world to the point where we can send people to the moon or send cat videos over our iPhones. We have our answer: We don’t have to wonder whether our brains are hopelessly incapable of finding truth, no matter how we got our brains. Are our brains perfect truth seekers? No, but they can and do find truth, given methods for truth-seeking that work and make successful predictions about our world. And when we apply these methods to our origins, we find we’ve evolved from other species of apes, etc. And why should it surprise us that evolution should select for brains that are better at modeling the truth than not, especially if survival can be enhanced via an ability to generate true maps about our environment? We can’t run like cheetahs or see like eagles or haul ourselves effortlessly through trees like other primates, but we have the feature that has led to our dominion of this planet: brains that can seek and apply truth better than any other species.

He says he had been brought up with the idea “Christian = good, non-Christian = bad”. This is so easy to refute (and begs questions of what is good, how can we label something Christian etc) that I’m not surprised he was confused.

Yes, this was a very binary way of expressing a sentiment I felt growing up, namely, that when there was a contrast between the way of Jesus (or the Bible) and the way of the world, the way of Jesus (or the Bible) was always the better way. Granted, I didn’t express this with much nuance in that short section of the book, but I was certainly in good company in seeing the contrast this way, and most of that company has remained in the faith. Why did I leave? Not because I perceived a positive contrast between Christianity and the world, most assuredly.

Regularly, he cites a potential alternative to the Christian viewpoint, as if it is a damning indictment. Perhaps again, this is a reaction to his upbringing, but to me such possibilities do not undermine my faith. Reasonable atheists and Christians acknowledge the strong points and weaknesses of their own and the other ‘side’ in terms of the rational debate. But I didn’t read Kenneth – once – acknowledging some of the very real problems with atheism and naturalism. He appears to find the unanswered questions or uncertainties of Christianity to be devastating for belief, yet doesn’t see the massive rational problems with his adopted worldview. Yet plenty of atheists are willing to acknowledge, along with Christians, that atheism has many difficulties intellectually.

As I expressed more than once in my book, I am more convinced that Christianity is untrue than I am that atheism is true. I passed through deism for a year on my way to secular humanism, and I would gladly revert to deism (or even Christianity) if I thought it had fewer problems than atheism. (For the record, at the risk of splitting hairs, I prefer the label secular humanist or atheist-leaning agnostic to atheist.) And I did not completely skate over all the problems of atheism. These excerpts show I did not naively embrace naturalism uncritically as you seem to suggest:

  • [A]theism could not account for the origin of the universe, life, or human consciousness and morality. In short, though Christianity had its difficulties, it was less difficult than the alternatives, all of which were fatally flawed. There was simply nothing better than Christianity.
  • The problem of explaining the complexity and beauty of nature without appealing to a superhuman intellect was the final barrier to my loss of faith. My confidence in the doctrines of Christianity had eroded well before I abandoned my belief in God.
  • 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.
  • I must make a point of saying that no one—neither atheistic scientists nor creationists—has any conclusive evidence concerning how the universe and the first life form began. This being the case, we must hold lightly to our theistic or naturalistic hypotheses for these questions. I will present some of the naturalistic hypotheses currently in the playing field, but I am not lending my unequivocal “you’ll-be-damned-if-you-don’t believe” support to them.
  • How did matter, the natural laws, and the Big Bang all originate? How could something have come from nothing?[42] How is it that the physical laws and their constants are all precisely fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Scientists do not have a definitive answer to the question of how everything began (if indeed it ever began), nor do I. Some speculate that ours is not the only universe—there may be an infinite number of them—which may help explain why the natural laws in our particular universe happen to be conducive to life, but this simply pushes back the question one step further. How did whatever first began begin? When theists pose this question, atheists typically retort, “Well, how did God begin?” To which theists respond, “God is not a part of the physical world, but stands outside of it by definition, so the question is irrelevant.” The arguments can go on and on, but in the end, both positions seem to raise imponderable, insoluble questions. Atheists start with nature, and theists start with God—both accept some sort of foundational reality.I am, quite frankly, unable to fathom it all. In this respect I am like those of antiquity who pondered the foundation of the earth. The earth is solid; what does it rest on?
  • However uncomfortable it is for us to accept that there are things we simply do not know, we are on surer ground to admit our ignorance than to fill the vacuum with our imaginings or with tradition; we must not pretend we know that which we do not know. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors”
  • There are certainly many things I do not know and that I may never know, and though I am always driven to learn more, I have come to accept that I don’t have to know more than that which is knowable.

To whom do we listen, and why? It’s worth examining our motives and emotions about our choices of what we read and what we believe. On what basis are we evaluating something, and how have we chosen this criteria? And why? Kenneth said: “I came to my present perspective initially against my will, and I persevere in it only because it is genuinely where I believe the evidence leads.” This begs an awful lot of questions. What kind of evidence is he talking about? Why choose that kind of evidence? Isn’t that choice culturally constructed? On atheism and naturalism, how can we trust the cognitive reasoning of our brains in any case? And, is there any such thing as a ‘choice’ as the world has to be scientifically determined? And, the biggie… to the next point

What kind of evidence am I talking about? Jesus’ failed prediction about the timing of his return, for one. There are many others throughout the book. How can we trust the congnitive reasons of our brains on naturalism? See my response to the EAAN above. My impression is that that argument is just a “gotcha” trap, but the trap is toothless. There are much better arguments against naturalism, like the fine-tuning argument, the argument from consciousness, and the First Cause argument. The EAAN and the argument from morality are very weak in comparison, IMO.

There is often a blatant inconsistency by which atheists pick holes in arguments for theism or Christianity, yet ignore the holes of the atheistic arguments. This phenomenon is well articulated by David Wood in this talk: The Skeptic’s Dilemma. This summarises what I believe Kenneth does so often in his book.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Christianity and atheism are found to be untenable. Where does that leave us? Agnosticism, deism perhaps?

It’s interesting to read your perspective on my lack of criticism of atheism. I grant you have a point. Likewise, I recently read Holly Ordway’s Not God’s Type and kept thinking to myself, She’s articulated some problems with atheism and some arguments for Christianity, but it doesn’t seem she’s seriously explored the weaknesses of Christianity. We’re all prone to such biases, and I admit it for myself. Were I to write my book again, I would certainly discuss more of the problems with naturalism.

We are not just passive accepters of faith. Unless Calvinism is true (I don’t believe so), faith requires decisions of our own making.

He seems to have picked up quite a lot of rigid assumptions, such as ‘if the Bible is not inerrant, it is worthless’ and ‘if I feel uncertain or doubtful about one area of Christian belief, all other areas are in doubt too’. Having such absolute beliefs without any notion of a ‘middle way’ may not be helpful. I can testify to the fact that it is possible to be a passionate believer, holding to the basics of faith, while still being open-minded about certain issues. Our faith shouldn’t rest on whether or not it’s possible to prove that every piece of our theological system is infallible. Surely, it should rest on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ and His love and sacrifice for us.

No, I never indicated expressed that if the Bible is not inerrant, it’s worthless. Some excerpts:

  • On August 17, 2007, I watched Bill Moyer interview liberal University of Chicago theologian Martin Marty on PBS Television. What a gentle, gracious, humble man! I do not see eye to eye with him on many matters, but if every believer were like this man, what a wonderful world it would be!
  • I recognize that many moderate and liberal believers have thoughtfully considered the foundations of their views, in many cases more thoughtfully than fundamentalists and atheists have done. I do not doubt the sophistication, sincerity, and earnestness with which moderates forge a worldview that meets their spiritual needs, but in my own journey I have come to view moderation more as a means of holding onto as much as possible of what is hoped to be true than as a raw reckoning with what is true.
  • I have presented thus far a one-sided perspective of the Bible, stemming from my admitted objective of leading my readers closer to the conclusion I have become convinced of—that the Bible is not the product of divine inspiration; it is the product of human composition, just like all other books. But I am not so jaded that I cannot recognize beauty and wisdom wherever they are to be found, be it in the Bible or any other source. One of my favorite passages in all of literature is 1 Corinthians 13, even if I fall far short of its ideals. Would that I could learn to love my wife, my children, my friends and needy individuals the world over in this way! [Then I proceed to quote the entire chapter of 1 Cor. 13]
  • Who can fail to be inspired by Jesus’ call to love our neighbors as ourselves, to do to others what we would have them do to us, to forgive others, and to be generous to the needy? The Bible contains many pearls of wisdom and beauty, as do many other religious and secular writings throughout history, yet we are not obligated to consider them all as divinely inspired in order to appreciate them.

A significant factor preventing Kenneth from rejecting Christianity was the fear of hell if it was true, and the rejection of his family (though they have not rejected him). This reveals quite a legalistic ‘faith’, once again. This kind of fear-based adherence to God can’t be a good thing. Did he really, genuinely, know that God loves him, before his deconversion? It doesn’t sound like it, sadly.

Did Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield or Martin Luther or John Wesley or Augustine take hell seriously and use its fear to nudge (or in some cases, bludgeon) their hearers to accept Jesus? Did they really know that God loved them? If you don’t believe in the hell that these leaders accepted, then you’ve come a long way, and you’re to be commended. But for those who adopt the view of a majority of Christians, hell is a problem. It was a problem for me.

Did I know that God loves me before my deconversion? This line of question merits a lengthy quotation from my book:

For many if not most evangelicals, a “personal relationship with Christ” is the primary shibboleth by which others’ inclusion in the Christian faith is evaluated. If you are a former evangelical, you have no doubt been confronted with the charge that you were never a true believer to begin with, by which it is meant you did not have this personal relationship with Jesus. Otherwise, given the benefits of this relationship, you could not possibly have turned your back on him, nor would God have let you go.

In an online forum discussing my journey away from faith, one participant provided this analysis of my situation:

There is a lesson here for Christians. Apparently this person [Ken] had head knowledge and not a personal relationship with Jesus. There are lots of people that are church goers but not really Christians. They may call themselves Christians because they go to a Christian church, but more likely they will identify themselves as Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, or other denomination rather than Christian. It is the personal relationship with the risen Christ that matters (2ndAmendment 2005).

As an aside, I predict that not long after the publication of this book, one of the most common responses will be, “This guy never had a personal relationship with Christ. He was a follower of Christianity (the religion) but not of Christ.” This conclusion will not be based on any real familiarity with my background but on a theological conviction that does not allow for the redeemed to be unredeemed. To illustrate this point, in 2004 I received a book entitled Don’t Waste Your Life (Piper 2004) from a Christian friend who wrote to me on the first page, “I believe you are still a brother in Christ.” After I read the book and responded indicating clearly where I stood, she wrote back and confessed she now believed I had never been a true Christian in the first place. What changed her assessment? Was it something new she learned about my life as believer?

No. It was a result of her preconceived theology, not an evaluation of the evidence.

It was entirely a result of her realization that I had indeed rejected Christ as the Son of God. In other words, her conclusion was based on her adherence to the theological doctrine that true believers cannot lose their faith, and not on any objective evaluation of my prior relationship with Christ. The upshot is that I could attempt to demonstrate the authenticity of my former faith until I am blue, but for many believers, my claims will fall on deaf ears—their theology bars any conclusion other than that I was only going through the motions and was a believer in name only.

I do not object to those who hold this doctrine, as long as they freely acknowledge that this and this alone is what is driving their conclusion that I was never a true believer. However, if they cannot let it rest at that, but insist on determining precisely what was deficient about my former relationship with Jesus, they are in danger of drawing successively smaller circles around the household of faith, to the point that they might find themselves nearly alone in their privileged circle. When they finally get to the bottom of what separates my former counterfeit faith from their bona fide faith, they are likely to have left out the vast majority of believers, including the most earnest of evangelicals and fundamentalists whose identity is built on their relationship with Jesus. Could it be that this circle-drawing tendency is driven by a fear of being vulnerable to apostasy? Perhaps such believers need the assurance that somethingdistinguishes their secure present faith from my insecure former faith so they can rest easy in the guarantee that they will persevere in their faith until death. They do not wish to acknowledge that someone who showed every indication of having experienced the same kind of rich, intimate relationship with Jesus as theirs could have given it up. No one in his right mind could even consider abandoning such a treasure for the empty philosophy of the world.

There is an unavoidable danger in considering oneself a member of an elite club that enjoys a “true” relationship with Jesus. It is a danger to which I sometimes—perhaps often—succumbed, despite my earnest desire to avoid it. To this day I vividly recall looking around at the other students in my high school chemistry lab, wondering how many of them were “practicing the presence of God” as I was doing—or thinking I was doing—at that moment. It was my desire to spend every waking moment of my day in communication with the Holy Spirit, thanking him for every blessing; praising him for his nature: asking him to show himself to my friends; seeking his indwelling in the furtherance of a life pleasing to him; and sharing with him every hope, frustration and longing of my life. As I engaged in this moment-by-moment tête-à-tête with God, it was difficult to suppress the thought that very few, if any, of those around me were similarly engaged in such a relationship. I was tempted to think that I was somehow a notch above the others. But as soon as that notion cropped up, I immediately recognized it was a diabolical thought that, left unchecked, would lead to runaway pride. I then asked God to grant me humility, whereupon I felt good about the way I had handled my incipient pride, which led to another opportunity for pride, and another opportunity for confession and a plea for humility, and so on without end. Many of my readers will identify with this kind of experience. I wish them the best in coming to terms with it, but it is a battle they will never stop fighting, so long as they consider that (a) the kind of relationship they have with Jesus to be the mark of a true believer and that (b) this kind of relationship remains relatively rare in the world at large, and even in the wider church.

I think back on a night during my high school years when I lay in bed, conversing with God about my Mormon friend, confessing my struggles over the whole “enterprise” of religion. As I continued pouring out my heart to God, I started experiencing the most wonderful sense of peace, slowly at first, but then working up to a flood of emotion rushing through my soul for what seemed like an hour. I was as certain as I could be certain of anything that God was invading my life, assuring me of his presence and favor. The experience was so real and so exhilarating that I vowed I would never doubt God’s ways again. This, alas, was not to be.

Few evangelicals conclude that a Hindu or a humanist who becomes a Christian was never a “true Hindu” or a “true humanist” in the first place. Christians generally welcome the news when true members of other worldviews convert to Christ, but they (especially Calvinists) often cannot acknowledge that true members of the Christian faith abandon it.

 

Very early on in his doubting, he said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, I noticed a surprising lack of discussion about Jesus – the book was much more about the religious trappings of the faith. Did he actually know and love Jesus, before he lost his faith? I suspect he would say yes, but the lack of mention does intrigue me. If he had a more Christ-centred hermeneutic to his Bible reading, would this help him to know God?

I count 343 references to Jesus in my book, nine references to “Relationship with Jesus”,  How many more would have satisfied you? Here’s one excerpt:

  • Unlike skepticism or naturalism, Christian faith is not simply an assent to propositional truths; it is a commitment to the person of Jesus. The New Testament paints Jesus as the groom and the church as the bride. This commitment is even weightier than an earthly marriage vow “’till death do us part”; marriage to Jesus is for all eternity.

Heather, I again thank you for taking the time to engage with my book. I respect your journey and your serious quest for truth. Though I don’t share your conclusions, I feel the world would be a better place if everyone gave as much thoughts to their beliefs as you do.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Response to Heather Tomlinson’s critique of Why I Believed, Part 2

  1. Hi again,

    I’m sorry you find what I said condescending, though I would say that all of us have our thinking influenced by upbringing to some extent.
    Re the EAAN – like the moral argument I think you may have missed the nub of the argument *for* theism that is inherent in the topic. For example, you say you are confident our brains can discover truth. In a nutshell, the EAAN or its variants would say, if naturalism is true, then it is not possible to be confident of this. Therefore the fact we seem to be able to grasp truth in some way is an argument for theism. In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it…
    Re hell – I think you have a point re believers in the past. For me, if I trust Jesus’ teachings (which I do) I’ve got to take the possibility of the existence of hell seriously, and the concern that anyone could end up with an afterlife without God does motivate me to share my faith and discuss these issues. However, if the fear of hell is the only determining factor in leading someone to faith, without considering the love of God, then I think it would lead to legalism,…
    Yes you mention Jesus, but I guess what I meant was… I came to faith because of who Jesus was, what he taught, what he did, the character painted in the gospels… all the other theological and doctrinal stuff was incidental to me at the time. So, the reasons I came to faith don’t seem to be discussed in your book – it’s more about peripheral areas (though I know they’re subjects that are taken very seriously by many Christians!).
    Finally… what I’m getting to towards the end of my post, is the question of what drives us towards or away from faith. I think there’s a lot more to it than rational argument, because good rational arguments can be made in both directions. Also, most people who claim it’s a rational process one way or the other, are not being particularly rational or don’t understand the issues very well. I think it’s something much more fundamental within us, I believe, that drives the decision – some would call it ‘choice’ though I think it’s a little more unconscious than that. Your book led me to ponder on what it is, which I only briefly discussed, and I’d be interested to hear your introspection on this.
    Thanks for the response!

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