Community Conditioning

We all underestimate the extent to which our beliefs are conditioned by the communities we belong to. We’d like to think we’re driven primarily by more objective standards, whether it be by reason, by empirical evidence, or a holy book.

When I left the Christian faith, I had no intention of softening my hardline opposition to homosexuality and abortion; I didn’t defect because I was looking to loosen my morals. Over the years, however, my views on these hot-button social issues did gradually soften. I would like to think this was entirely a result of cool, rational reflection, but that would be naïve. If the great majority of freethinkers were opposed to abortion and homosexuality, it’s likely I never would have countenanced a change in my original position.

Freethinkers can be every bit every bit as vicious to those who hold conservative views as fundamentalists are to those who hold liberal ones. As a freethinker, I don’t relish the idea of being on the receiving end of this vitriol, and I can’t rule out the possibility that my thinking has been nudged in the direction of the majority of my fellow freethinkers. If I were even to contemplate coming out in opposition to gay marriage, for example, I would no longer be welcome in skeptical circles. As it turns out, I’ve come to a middle ground position that sidesteps the issue: I would prefer that our secular government get out of the marriage domain altogether. If a couple wants to marry, let their religious or family or social group recognize the marriage without the involvement of the government. The government could offer tax benefits to guardians in proportion to the number of children who live in their home more than half the year, without needing to ask the nature of the guardians’ relationship to each other or their gender.

Regarding abortion, I don’t toe the freethinking party line whereby a fetus is simply a part of the woman’s body. Yes, it’s a part of the woman’s body, but it also has its own body, with its own distinct and full set of human chromosomes, and it can feel pain starting at around 25 weeks. That doesn’t mean I think a single-celled zygote is a person in any meaningful sense, nor do I think that the 70% of embryos that spontaneously abort before the mother is even aware she’s pregnant constitute the sort of tragedy we would all perceive it to be if 70% of all cooing, dimpled children were to die sometime after birth. If anyone seriously thinks there’s any sort of equivalence between the two, I would ask why there’s so little concern and so little money expended to stem the holocaust of spontaneously aborted embryos. For religiously motivated abortion opponents, I would ask whether you think adult souls will be vastly outnumbered by human embryos that never saw the light of day, souls that never developed a personality or a thought in this world? And will you stop pretending to be opposed to abortion on the basis of the pain it causes the baby, if you have no qualms about the killing of an adult cow for your gustatory pleasure or the cutting off the foreskin of a baby boy, who feels the pain for hours or days, while a fetus aborted before 25 weeks feels none?

So in some ways I have been shaped by the freethought community I now identify with, but I’ve staked out a compromise of my own: I would prefer that neither gays nor straights be married in the eyes of the government, and out of caution I advocate that abortions be restricted after 25 weeks.

How have your views been shaped by the community to which you belong, and in what ways have you staked out more nuanced positions not held by the majority of your community?

Many freethinkers may be surprised to learn that, until a decade or so ago, a strong current of atheists, agnostics, and humanists were opposed to gay marriage, not wanting to lend support to the institution of marriage of any stripe.
Likewise, many evangelicals may be surprised that until the late 1970s, the majority of even the most conservative evangelicals were not opposed to abortion, using the Bible to support their position. Here I’ll quote from an article entitled “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception”, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-dudley/how-evangelicals-decided-that-life-begins-at-conception_b_2072716.html:

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In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention agreed, in a joint resolution: “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

Dallas Theological Seminary professors also supported the cause. Bruce Wakte [Waltke], writing in Christianity Today, drew on Exodus 21:22-24 to argue that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” His colleague Norman Geisler concurred: “The embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.”
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If you’re surprised by any of the above, whether as an atheist or as a fundamentalist or anything in between, my hope is that you’ll come to a greater understanding of just how much we are prisoners of our own communities.
I’ll close with another example of this imprisonment. Ask Saint Francis of Assisi whether Jesus condoned wealth, and you would get a definite, “No.” Ask just about any modern American evangelical the same question, and you would get a definite “Yes, as long as you keep a proper attitude and don’t allow it to turn you away from God.”

That’s not what Jesus said in the Luke.

Here’s what he said in Luke 6:24-25:

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.

There it is, in black and white (or red, depending on your Bible). But evangelicals routinely gloss over this passage (and many others like it in Luke) because it has become acceptable in the evangelical community to be rich. If a sincere young reader of Luke comes across these passages for the first time, she may initially start to think wealth is bad, only to be assured by her parents, her youth leader, or he pastor that this isn’t what the passages *really* teach. And they she goes on her merry way, satisfied that it’s only really about the state of one’s heart, and she’s no longer troubled by it. Why? Because her *community* that she *trusts* tells her it’s not the problem she thought it might be. In other words, she trusts her community over the clear teaching of the Bible, but she doesn’t realize it, because she believes her community is following the Bible, and who is she to challenge all the smart and wise people in her community who have it all figured out? What she fails to understand is that the needs and desires of the community come first, and the Bible can be made to say whatever lines up with those needs. And why doesn’t she see this? Precisely because the community claims to base its views on the Bible, and the more the community insists on its allegiance to the Bible, the harder it is to acknowledge any divergence from the Bible. We see this also in the way the Bible is used by the community in one generation to condone abortion and in the next generation to condemn it.

Imagine if Jesus has said anything as clear as this alongside Luke 6:24-25:

But woe to you who kill a baby in its mother’s womb,
for the baby is a person from the moment of conception.
Woe to you anyone who engages in sexual relations with one of the same gender,
for God intended sex to be between only a husband and his wife.

Boom! No more debate about abortion, no more debate about homosexuality for those who follow Jesus.

Do you really think it would be that easy? Not at all! Because if those who today claim to be the most faithful to the Bible can worm their way around “But woe to you who are rich,” and “He who has two tunics should give to him who has none,” and “He who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple,” and “where your treasure is, there *will* your heart be also,” then it’s possible to get around “But woe to you who kill a baby in its mother’s womb,” even if Jesus had said it. Which he didn’t.

Why do conservative believers imagine themselves to be faithful to the Bible while ignoring (or explaining away) Jesus’ clear teachings on wealth? And why do more progressive believers believe themselves to be faithful to the Bible while ignoring (or explaining away) Paul’s clear teachings on homosexuality? I can’t pretend to speak for either party as I’m no longer a believer, but it looks suspiciously as though the leanings of the community trump the teachings of the Bible they claim to follow. If homosexuality disgusts you, then the few biblical passages that condemn it are “clear” and “applicable for all time and in all circumstances.” Women wearing head coverings and wealth being condemned? Not so much. If compassion is your number one value, then Jesus’ teachings on the poor resonate with you and you’re likely to be in favor of universal health care and the distribution of wealth, while sympathizing with gays persecuted by the Pharisaical religious right. And the community you belong to reinforces your bent further, demonizing those in the other camp and preventing you from seeing any merit in them.

In summary, I contend that believers’ social and political proclivities have priority over what the scriptures teach, whether you’re pro- or anti-slavery, pro- or anti-women’s rights, pro- or anti-segregation, pro- or anti-mixed race marriages, pro- or anti-feminist, pro- or anti-war, pro- or anti-immigration, etc.

If you’re a Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants’ prescription of polygamy can be set aside when the cultural tide shifts against it, as can be the proscription of blacks in the priesthood. If you’re the Apostle Paul, you can set aside the clearly prescribed ordinances of circumcision and Sabbaths and animal sacrifice and kosher food if it lowers the bar for Gentiles to enter the Kingdom. Because, *reasons*. Yes, there are always reasons for setting aside earlier divine revelation. But how can you get any clearer than Leviticus 16:30-32 (NASB)?

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for it is on this day that [a]atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a *permanent* statute.
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My arguments here are not likely to be accepted readily by many believers. Why? Because if it’s admitted that the community of faith is unfaithful to the teachings of the Bible, then the Bible can no longer be used as a rod to prod the errant into line. By errant it is meant those who don’t share the prior proclivities of the community, whether it be in relation to male headship, wealth, civil rights, segregation, abortion, slavery, mixed marriages, war, immigration, or what have you.

Again, the illusion that a community is faithfully following the scriptures must be maintained at all costs, or the authority of the community to impose its proclivities on those within and without its ranks will be jeopardized. But an illusion it is. I have raised here only a small sampling of the passages routinely ignored or conveniently explained away by Christians of various stripes. For a much fuller discussion of more such passages, I cannot recommend highly enough the book “Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About” by Ron Roncace at http://www.amazon.com/Raw-Revelation-Bible-Never-About-ebook/dp/B00AQ6BWY6/ (see also my review of the book on the Amazon page).

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My First Attempt at Apologetics at Age Sixteen

As a sixteen-year-old, I was probably the most “on fire,” committed Christian of all my friends. Nothing was more important to me than my relationship with Jesus, and I wanted the world to know him. I had read some creationist books like The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris and had listened to a number of tapes produced by the Institute for Creation Research. Josh McDowell was my favorite apologist at the time. Armed with the knowledge I gleaned from these and other sources, I set out to pen a treatise that would show the world, once and for all, that the Christian faith demanded the assent of skeptical minds.

The result was a partially completed nine-page handwritten document I called “For Skeptics Only.” For what it’s worth, I’m attaching both the original scanned document and a transcribed version below. Apparently I aimed to address three broad topics: the existence of God, the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible. As it turns out, I ended up writing about only the first of these topics and never found a skeptic to share it with. Ironically, I would be the first skeptic to read it, a full 30 years later.

This evening I transcribed the document, reading it for the first time since I wrote it so many years ago. What waters have passed under the bridge since that time! What would I have thought back then if I had known my future self would take such a precipitous turn away from the faith of my youth? What emotions flood me this evening as I contemplate who I was and who I’ve become!

It’s impossible to describe the surreal nature of connecting again with my past self. So much has changed, and yet strangely, so much has remained the same.

Here are some points of comparison between my past self and my present self:

  • I wanted others to know what I passionately believed. I still do.
  • My writing was stilted (did I know how to write non-passive sentences?), and still is, but hopefully a little less so now. (My boss at work is making every effort to help me simplify and boil down my thoughts to the basics when I write.)
  • My handwriting style hasn’t changed much, perhaps in part because I really haven’t done much handwriting since then, thanks to the advent of word processing.
  • I thought I knew more than I really did, and I was confident in what I thought I knew. I still have this tendency, but the more I’ve read from scholars and scientists, the more I realize how paltry my knowledge is.
  • I still don’t know the answers to some of the questions I posed to skeptics back then, but I no longer feel compelled to answer them all. As Thomas Jefferson quipped, “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
  • I’ve learned a lot since then. My earlier musings were full of misunderstandings about the Big Bang and evolution. I know better now, but my knowledge is still incomplete and skewed. I now love to read and learn more about these topics, filling in some of the holes and misconceptions. I realize I’ll never have the all the answers; the process of picking up bits and pieces is like solving a giant puzzle that will never be complete in my lifetime.

Here’s the scanned copy of my handwritten document: 1985 For Skeptics Only – Ken Daniels

And here’s the transcribed copy:


For Skeptics Only

Ken Daniels, 1985

The modern thinking man may look at Christianity at a surface level and see it as merely one of many world religions. He may regard all religions as concocted myths to explain certain natural phenomena or to meet emotional needs. Admittedly many Christians do not provide sufficient intellectual reasons to convince skeptics of the uniqueness of Christianity. One may view the activities of evangelists in churches and conclude they do nothing but play on the emotions of people ignorant and susceptible enough to accept the dogma of Christianity based on the Bible.

Furthermore, the naturalist, having convinced himself that there is insufficient proof to verify any one religion, has thrown out religion from the picture. To reject religion is to reject a Supreme Being and to reject the latter is to be forced to explain the origin of the universe and of life by chance. Therefore, the theory of evolution was contrived, which has been the most widely accepted explanation for the spontaneous origin of life.

Along with the rejection of the belief in a supreme being comes the freedom from responsibility. Therefore the atheist is free to act according to what he or she believes is right in a particular situation. It is not hard therefore, to understand why the skeptic may look at the standards and beliefs of Christians with considerable disdain.

Having now briefly examined the point of view of the modern thinking man, we will now focus on the beliefs of Christians and some reasons to support them.

The Christian faith is built on 3 essential pillars: the existence of God, the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible.

While these pillars cannot be proven by sight or scientific method, the Christian may hold to what he or she believes is very strong circumstantial and historical evidence supporting his or her convictions. However, it must be noted that the one who has previously resolved not to accept the premises of Christianity will always be able to find a way to rationalize the retaining of his or her position.

Let us now examine the first pillar, the existence of God. Since the naturalist claims to be led foremostly by his or her five senses, the question of God’s existence will be dealt with in terms of that which can be seen: the universe and life.

Every rational man will agree that those things which exist came into being by chance or the act of an intelligent and all-powerful Creator. Therefore, offering evidence against one theory will give proof for the other. It may be argued here that since the creation of the cosmos by a supreme being necessitates the deviation from existing natural laws, there can be no proof against creation by using these laws. Therefor the theory which holds to a natural view of origins must rely completely on that which supports itself according to natural laws and that which can be seen. The creation theory, on the other hand, can better be supported by discrediting its counterpart, which is bound to the framework of natural laws.

The theory of natural origins is most widely explained on the basis of uniformitarianism and evolution. It is held that many billions of years ago, a small but dense particle of matter exploded and sent matter in all directions into space. In short, stars and planets were formed by the regathering of matter after a period of time. Following the formation of the earth, a single cell of life was spontaneously generated. As this organism reproduced, mutations or changes in offspring occured.

Those mutations which were harmful to the organisms caused the elimination of the latter. Those mutations which were beneficial to the survival of the organism were carried on to subsequent generations. Through this process of natural selection over millions of years, life went through the development from a simple cell to complex human beings.

At first glance, these premises may seem logical and attractive in explaining away the existence of a Creator. Further support is given to this theory by scientists who have succeeded in integrating it as a scientific fact into public and higher education and the media. It is shown that fossils found in many parts of the earth are simple in lower strata and more complex in higher strata, demonstrating the general development of evolution. Furthermore, reconstructed ape-men are depicted to give on the impression that they are links in the development of men from lower primates. The evolutionist constantly talks on the basis of millions or billions of years, time which is necessary to even consider the possibility of evolution.

However, upon further examination, one can find numerous fatal flaws in the naturalistic theory for the origin of the cosmos:

1) If all processes and laws have been the same throughout time, there is no way to account for the explosion of the original dense particle of matter, which had previously existed in a state of equilibrium for eternity past.

2) if the explosion of the original particle of matter resulted in matter being expulsed in all directions, it is not possible that some of it could lump together to form stars and planets. The matter would more likely collapse into the center where gravity was next to infinite.

3) The spontaneous generation of the first cell of life is statistically next to impossible, no matter how much time is allotted for this event.

  • Man has developed many sophisticated technologies, including X vehicles which can enter and leave space with payloads, but to date he has not been able to produce anything faintly resembling life. He has merely been able to create simple amino acids and proteins for all his efforts Therefore, the simplest form of life is more complex than say, a space shuttle. No one would argue that, given enough time, materials, and energy, a space shuttle could arise spontaneously from the earth. Yet this is more possible than the chance of life coming into existence alone.
  • The chance for the spontaneous generation for just one of many proteins in a simple cell is approximately one in 10^500. After 4 billion years and taking into consideration all the possible opportunities for the formation of proteins throughout the earth, this chance is reduced to one in 10^415, a blatant impossibility.
  • In order for life to have formed on earth, there had to have been nitrogen compounds prevalent in the atmosphere which are not found today. The evolutionist attempt to rectify this situation by suggesting that the atmosphere had no oxygen at that time and that it contained the gases necessary for the formation of life. It is said that later plants gave the oxygen to the atmosphere as it presently exists. However, this would have considerably reduced the organism’s chance for survival in that there would have not been an ozone layer compressed of oxygen in the upper atmosphere to protect life from harmful radiation of the sun.
  • In order for the first organism to have received nutrition and energy for survival, it would have needed to obtain its own energy directly from the sun. Thus, this creature must have had the incredibly complex compound of chlorophyll, which would greatly increase the odds against the spontaneous generation of life.

4) There are numerous evolutionary gaps both in the fossil and living record of life. Charles Darwin himself, the found of the modern theory of evolution, wrote, “Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, is not all nature in confusion, instead of being, as we see them, the species well-defined?”

 5) It is not possible to explain the development of new structures and organs in organisms on the basis of natural selection. For example, the development of wings on lizards to produce flying reptiles meets strong logical barriers. While the lizard was in the beginning stages of wing development, the outgrowths on its shoulders would have been useless and cumbersome, because it would not yet be able to take the the advantage of flight. Therefore, this harmful mutation would have been eliminated and evolution could not have proceeded. This principle is true also of the development of the eyes, ears, circulatory system, arms, legs, sexual reproductive system, etc.

 6) The theory of evolution is at odds in explaining the development of characteristics in man such as his taste for music and art, his ability to read and write, his sense of right and wrong, his almost universal recognition of a God or gods, and his ability to choose the direction that his life will take.The unguided force of natural selection would have no reason to select any of these characteristics in the struggle for survival, even if any of them could appear by chance.

 7) Mutations are almost always harmful. Suppose that a computer program was continually recopied from tape to tape, occasionally with small accidental changes. The changes that were harmful to the continuity of the program were discarded, and the ones that increased its complexity were kept and passed on. Needless to say, this process would not be sufficient to explain the development of a simple child-created program to one that is complex and technical, even after millions of reproductions. What order can come about by chance? The evolution of complex life forms encounters still much more difficulty. It may be argued here by the naturalist that life, unlike a computer program, can undergo small changes in reproduction without being disrupted. However, these changes are small and simply create diversity horizontally, not upward.

 8) The existence of natural laws in the universe is left unexplained without a supreme being. What caused the origin of gravity, energy, magnetism, time, etc.? Why does matter exist? It is reasonable to assume that each of these phenomena was created and controlled by a pre-existing force outside of the confines of the cosmos.

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Well-Meaning Harm

For a brief moment, it was encouraging to see our politically and religiously divided country unite in the common cause of dousing each other with ice water to raise funds for research on the debilitating and often fatal disease ALS. Alas, it wasn’t to last; before long, I started seeing warnings on Facebook against supporting the ALS Foundation because their disease research makes use of human embryo stem cell lines.

ALS research isn’t the only target of pro-life advocates; recently I read an article entitled “God Does not Support Vaccines,” warning Christians that all the childhood immunizations contain “baby parts” from aborted fetuses (see http://www.livingwhole.org/god-does-not-support-vaccines/).

I can appreciate a concern to avoid the ending of human life in the service of a “greater good.” If, as I once believed, a microscopic embryo is a person, then ending its life is murder, whether on the part of mother who sleeps around irresponsibly and doesn’t want to incur the inconvenience of bearing a baby, or on the part of a researcher seeking to cure a human scourge.

I later learned that an estimated two-thirds of all human embryos are naturally aborted as they fail to implant in the uterus and are washed out, never seeing the light of day. I began to wonder why I was so unconcerned about this holocaust that ends more human lives than all other causes of life combined, if it was really people who were dying. Maybe my pro-life stance had been rooted in black-and-white thinking that didn’t want to have to figure out where to draw a fuzzy right-to-life line somewhere between an unfeeling, microscopic embryo and a cooing, dimpled full-term baby. Maybe also I wanted to hold accountable the women who couldn’t control their sexual urges. Maybe I also feared that terminating an embryo would lead to a slippery slope culminating in rampant adult euthanasia without consent.

Over time I came to adopt a form of consequentialist morality. When considering whether a course of action is ethical, I stopped asking whether it violates sacred or traditional principles, but instead began asking, What is the practical effect of a given action on sentient beings? Does it cause suffering? Does it lead to well-being or happiness?

Sometimes religious pro-life advocates will appeal to consequentialist arguments in an attempt to bolster a position based on what is sacred. For example, we’ll hear that a fetus suffers pain when aborted, or that women who undergo abortions experience higher rates of cancer or depression, or that adult stem cell lines are more effective for disease research than are embryonic stem cell lines. These arguments seem to be to be disingenuous. An embryo can’t feel pain, nor is there any well documented link between abortion (let alone egg and sperm harvesting) and cancer. And what if embryonic stem cells really are more useful than adult stem cells in pursuing a cure for a given disease? And what if societies that permit abortion have not seen a rise in non-consensual euthanasia or murder? Can any of these arguments have an effect on way or another on a sacred position, which by definition cannot be negotiated?

An appeal to the sacred, however well meaning, can sometimes unwittingly lead to a net increase in suffering. An embryo feels no pain; those who suffer from ALS, and any children who die because of their parents’ misgivings over the “baby parts” in vaccines certainly feel pain.

I don’t pretend to know exactly where to draw the right-to-life line between an embryo and infant, but I will not allow my discomfort for ambiguity to stand in the way of research and vaccines that offer a very real chance of alleviating true human suffering. The loss of a single-celled, unfeeling, unconscious, socially unconnected zygote is simply of no consequence compared to the murder of an adult who is, for example, a friend, a spouse, a daughter, and a mother. For those of you who see an equivalence between the two, I implore you to ask whether you are needlessly causing harm, even if you mean well.

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Do husbands have to earn respect?

“Your husband doesn’t have to earn your respect.” These words, the title of an article by conservative Christian blogger Matt Walsh, raised my hackles when I first read them yesterday. A sampling of thoughts that hit me up front: Why should husbands deserve unconditional respect and not wives? Does every man deserve automatic respect (beyond the basic respect we owe all humans by virtue of their common humanity), even if he abuses his wife, sleeps around, or shirks his responsibility to provide for his family? Can a wife manufacture respect for her husband if, deep down, she doesn’t respect him?

To be fair, I proceeded to read the full blog article and found it to be more balanced and less provocative than I had feared. Walsh does make a number of valid points, for example, that no husband deserves to receive the kind of treatment he describes here:

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…[S]ome time ago, I found myself in the same vicinity as another married couple.
I certainly can’t read their minds, and I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, all I know is that the husband couldn’t seem to utter a single phrase that wouldn’t provoke exaggerated eye-rolling from his wife.

She disagreed with everything he said.

She contradicted nearly every statement.

She nagged him.

She brought up a “funny” story that made him out to be incompetent and foolish. He laughed, but he was embarrassed.

She was gutting him right in front of us. Emasculating him. Neutering him. Damaging him.

It was excruciating.

It was tragic.

It also was, or is becoming, pretty par-for-the-course.
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I’m on board with Walsh here (with the exception of his use of the sexist term “nag”, which it seems is never used for men); I’ve witnessed wives treating their husbands this way, though I’ve also witnessed the reverse in equal measure.
Walsh continues by making a case that this lack of respect for husbands is responsible at least in part for our soaring divorce rates. I would certainly agree with him that overt disrespect does nothing to improve the odds of marital success. And I am all for marital success; I’ve been happily married for 22 years, and I have every intention of remaining faithful to my wife for the rest of my life, despite our very profound religious and political differences.

Yet I’m still uncomfortable with certain aspects of Walsh’s article (as I am with many of Walsh’s other views). He asks us to take for granted that men need respect more than women do and that women need love more than men do. Perhaps that really is the case, but where is the evidence for it?

Why is Walsh inclined to believe that husbands are more in need of respect than wives are? One possibility is that his belief is a true belief, supported not just by folk wisdom but also by the data. Another possibility—and I suspect this to be the case—is that respect for a man is a necessary prerequisite for maintaining the biblical order of male headship in the home. In any organizational hierarchy, from politics to the military to the corporate world to the family, effective leadership cannot be maintained without respect for the leader.

There’s no denying that many biblical passages place the responsibility of family leadership on the husband, not on the wife. For example:

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I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2: 11-15).

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord (1 Peter 3:5-6).
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So it follows in Walsh’s biblical worldview that, even if both men and women deserve respect, a man is particularly needful of it in order to maintain his divinely appointed role in the family, as the one the wife is to obey and consider as lord.

While training to serve with Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) in the 1990s, one of my WBT-affiliated professors, Dr. Kenneth McElhanon, whose wife was serving at the time as a counselor for WBT members, asked our class to guess the number one issue driving couples to seek counseling. None of us guessed the correct answer, which turned out to be fallout from male headship in the home. In retrospect, why should it be a surprise that a woman who’s every bit as gifted as her husband might chafe when required in all things to obey her husband and call him lord?

Mark Walsh’s view that wives are to be subordinate to their husbands and that each partner is to play a complementary role in the marriage and family is referred to as “complementarianism,” in contrast to “egalitarianism,” which holds that women should not be limited to the roles or offices they can hold (including pastorship in a church) and should not be subordinate to men in a family hierarchy. Religious egalitarians like Dr. McElhanon argue that God’s long-term vision for humanity is for women to be on an equal footing with men, to be emancipated from their hierarchical subordination to men, just as it was his vision for slaves to be emancipated from their hierarchical subordination to their masters. Egalitarians acknowledge that many biblical passages do indeed uphold both slavery and male dominion, but these were simply concessions to the hardness of the people’s hearts, while God’s intent was that the Church would eventually take its cue from the following touchstone passage and emancipate both its slaves and its women from its traditional authoritarian structures:

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There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
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I was a complementarian at the time Dr. McElhanon made this argument to our class, and I objected that “being one in Christ Jesus” does not necessarily entail hierarchical egalitarianism; a wife can be subordinate to her husband, and a parishioner can be subordinate to her pastor, while still being “one in Christ Jesus.” He immediately shot back that this was precisely the same argument used by racial segregationists (“separate but equal”), nineteenth-century slave-owners, and southern evangelical pastors in response to the use of this passage by abolitionists and civil rights leaders. He then proceeded to project on the classroom screen excerpt after excerpt of sermons by southern pastors vehemently excoriating the northern liberal and progressive Christian abolitionists for their misuse of God’s word, marshaling biblical passage after biblical passage affirming slavery as a God-ordained institution and enjoining slaves to obey their masters. For example:

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Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly (Leviticus 25:42-46).

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property (Exodus 21:20). (KJV: “Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.”)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:18-21).
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It goes without saying that the above passages were not favorites of the abolitionists, while Galatians 3:28 was, just as it is for the modern-day egalitarians. But the above passages were certainly useful for pro-slavery southern pastors, just as passages like 1 Peter 3:5-6 are useful for complementarians arguing that wives are to obey their husbands. (Side note: the “Southern” in “Southern Baptist” and “Southern Methodist” stems from their split from the more liberal northern counterparts over the issue of slavery; the Southern Baptists did not apologize for their support of slavery until 1995; see http://articles.philly.com/1995-06-21/news/25690255_1_northern-baptists-slavery-southern-baptists)

Yet it seems that even the most enthusiastic complementarians of today—those that cite chapter and verse as a blunt instrument to drive the “absolute truth” into the rebellious skulls of the egalitarians—are reluctant to cite chapter and verse to resurrect the divinely sanctioned institution of slavery and require slaves to obey their masters (a directive which assumes the existence of slavery).
This is but one of many manifestations of a tendency on the part of some fundamentalists to press a biblical agenda on their opponents, claiming the mantle of biblical authority without realizing how far they fall short of following the Bible themselves.

Liberal Christians acknowledge the scriptures are profoundly influenced by the human thinking of the era in which they were composed and that they don’t all necessarily represent God’s ideals. They appeal to higher principles (e.g., “do unto others” or “one in Christ”) to bracket off the texts that violate these principles. By contrast, many fundamentalists (myself included before 2000) can admit neither that imperfections exist in the Bible nor that they routinely bracket off any of its teachings (particularly those of the New Testament).

But in fact many, no doubt most, fundamentalists bracket off more texts than they realize or care to admit, all the while castigating progressive Christians for doing the same. Few conservative believers today call for slaves to obey their masters, while insisting that wives submit to and obey their husbands. In the following paragraphs, I draw from my book for more examples of this bracketing practice.

Most American evangelicals seem not to believe Jesus’ teachings on violence and wealth. Consider Jesus’ injunction:

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But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39).
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I recall how as a missionary in Nigeria my father kept a baseball bat at his bedside to protect the household against nighttime intruders. Though he never had occasion to use it physically (other than as a threat), he was prepared to do so. Thus, he not only did not subscribe to Jesus’ clear teachings, but he violated those teachings in a deliberate, premeditated manner. Note that I am not criticizing his decision; I believe he did the right thing, as does anyone who practices self-defense when threatened. My point is to demonstrate that common sense can sometimes trump even clear biblical teachings for those who claim they subscribe to the Bible in its entirety.

If we insist that a passage such as the above has to be interpreted correctly (meaning other than at face value), then we demonstrate that we, and not the text, are the final arbiter of what is right and wrong. We decide it’s unreasonable to interpret it according to its apparent meaning, so we search for other possible texts to mitigate its implications and settle on an alternative ethic we consider to be both biblical and reasonable. But in so doing, we have violated the unambiguous teachings of Jesus; we have cherry picked the texts we prefer.

The teachings of Jesus and his followers concerning wealth are both equally clear and equally disregarded by many of his followers. Consider these passages from the Gospel of Luke:

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6:24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.

2:32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

14:33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
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Or consider Paul’s socialist ideals:

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Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they [the church in Jerusalem] need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you [the church at Corinth] need. Then there will be equality (1 Corinthians 8:13-14).
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In summary, both liberal and conservative Christians routinely pick and choose from the text what they will believe. The difference is that liberals freely admit this, while conservatives do not, using special hermeneutics to explain how Jesus didn’t mean what he really did say about wealth, violence, etc.

Given that they have a choice, why is it that conservative American evangelicals opt to focus on particular texts and particular issues while ignoring others? In other words, if as I maintain, they are picking and choosing, why are they picking male headship as an issue and not economic inequality, for example? I can only tentatively speculate, but I’ll give it a shot, acknowledging I may well be mistaken.

On average, males are physically stronger than females. In most societies throughout human history, males have held sway over females. This is true even of most traditional societies that have never come into contact with Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures. The Bible does not have a monopoly on calling for men to stand above women. Even among most mammals, the males “control the roost.” Witness the absolute control a male chimpanzee has over his harem of females, or the tendency of male lions to kill the females’ infants after defeating a rival male and taking control of his harem (bonobos, relatives of chimpanzees, are a more matriarchal exception to the general rule of male domination). If this tendency is so deep and prevalent in nature, I see it as the default position, the deeply ingrained status quo, even perhaps our instinct. Gender equality, if it is to exist in a society, must be taught; otherwise, male domination will prevail by default.

To a certain extent, the same primordial tendency may exist for polygamy (the Old Testament not only reports it but sanctions it when God informs David in 2 Samuel 12:8, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms”), for warfare (as far as I’m aware, all human societies engage in war to some degree, as do chimpanzees), for the right to possess great wealth (see Proverbs 24:3-4), for racial/tribal rivalry and inequality, for retributive justice, and for homophobia. These primordial predilections exist in the human breast, predating the Old Testament, where they all find divine sanction.

Over time, religious communities came to see the downside of some of these tendencies and began to teach against them. For example, Jesus, bracketing the Old Testament primal principle of retributive justice, taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Unfortunately the New Testament never explicitly advocated abolition from slavery or female equality, though these principles find a kernel of expression in Galatians 3:28 and in a few other passages. And over time, the Christian community after many centuries came to understand the evils of slavery and repudiated it, so that by dint of history, it’s no longer acceptable to use the Bible to promote slavery. The same process is gradually occurring with regard to gender hierarchy, though primordially ingrained tendencies don’t die without a fight. Unfortunately, its demise, like that of slavery, is retarded by the belief that it is divinely instituted and that it is a virtue, rather than a vice, to promote it.

Biblical teachings that correspond to primordial human impulses (e.g., gender hierarchy and homophobia) are more likely to persist and to be embraced by conservatives than those that run counter to our primordial instincts (e.g., the economic equality advocated by Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist, and the nonresistant pacifism taught by Jesus). As Jimmy Carter so ably expressed in his essay on women and religion, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) had a choice whether to emphasize the texts that promote gender equality or those that promote a gender hierarchy, and they chose the latter, leading to Carter’s decision to disaffiliate himself from the SBC.

Whenever I hear conservative evangelicals calling us to live and believe “biblically,” my impulse it to ask them, “Have you given up all you have to the poor? Did you support the American campaign to resist Saddam Hussein, an evil person, even though Jesus said not to resist an evil person? Do you acknowledge that the Bible sanctioned slavery and never called for its abolition, and that slaves are to obey their masters? Do you acknowledge that God approved of polygamy in the Old Testament and never outlawed it in the New Testament (save for church overseers/elders)? If you believe in predestination and eternal security, do you acknowledge there are passages that run counter to your position, and vice versa? If you believe Jesus’ death on the cross was lacking in any way, do you believe Colossians 1:24 (“I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”)? The list could go on; for every one of these issues, there are passages that suggest conflicting perspectives: Are works required for salvation? Did Jesus return in his generation? Is baptism necessary for salvation?

My view is that Mark Walsh and his allies are predisposed by nature, like the majority of men throughout history, to favor male authority, and it is fortunate for them that the Bible by and large supports their view, conferring on them what they perceive to be a divine mandate to rescue men from the emasculatory trends of our God-ignoring society. I say “fortunate for them” but not “fortunate for women.” While many complementarians treat their wives with respect and dignity and promote a happy family environment, many others, like those that came to Dr. McElhanon’s wife for counseling, have not. You might protest that this is the fault of the individual men, not the teaching, and you would be right to an extent. However, given the reality that men tend by nature to abuse women more than the other way around, it seems misguided to offer any rope to the men by which to hang their wives, so to speak. In other words, men don’t need any encouragement to place themselves above their wives; it’s already in their nature. What they need, rather, is more encouragement to see their wives as equals, to give them an equal say in every decision, to seek outside counsel if they can’t come to a mutual agreement.

Having observed both Western and African marriages, it’s my conviction that, if we were to measure the total amount of suffering imposed by one gender on another within marriage, husbands generally surpass wives in meting out suffering. I’ve seen the enormous loads of wood and water carried by women in Africa while watching their husbands chat by the watering hole. I’ve seen the women walk miles to till fields with a hand hoe, baby on back, while their husbands chat by the watering hole. I’ve been asked by African men whether I beat my wife and been greeted by surprise when I responded No. I’ve seen in pictures the fruit of the Taliban’s righteous zeal after throwing acid on an adulterous woman’s face, or on a girl who defied their ban on education. I know ordinary families in which the wife silently bears the husband’s capricious, sometimes harmful decisions in the name of biblical headship.

Again, I’m with Walsh when he calls for spouses to treat each other with outward respect, refraining from eye rolling and derogatory comments. However, calling for automatic inward respect, especially toward men, potentially opens the door to abuse. If a man knows that her wife owes her unconditional respect, he has less incentive to offer her a tolerable marriage. If a woman must respect and stand by her husband who abuses her or who lazes around on the couch by day and carouses by night, and if she is led to believe it’s sinful to call out her husband or escape from the marriage, she will be consigned to unnecessary suffering for the rest of her life, all in the name of preserving biblical manhood. Divorce is not always the greatest possible evil; indeed, employed judiciously, it can effectively serve as a safety valve against a living hell.

Righteous ideas and teachings sometimes have unintended consequences. It’s an outrage that some of the most misguided ideas, like slavery and male dominion, have persisted for so long due to their support by zealous believers thinking they are on God’s side.

I’ll close by bringing this discussion down to a more personal level. My wife and I have two teenage sons (one almost 20) and a teenage daughter. May my wife always have a husband who treats her with the utmost respect and love, and may her husband never raise a hand against her or impose his will against hers, and may he always look into her eyes and see a perfect equal, one whose abilities and talents are to be given full reign with no artificial or ideological restrictions, and may her husband always provide for and support her, never speaking ill of her. May my sons treat their women in the same way, and may their women return the favor. May my daughter find this same kind of man—one who is sufficiently secure in his masculinity not to require obedience from his wife just because the Bible says that’s the way it should be.

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Review of Mark Roncace’s “Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About”

Having recently read Mark Roncaces’ Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About, I felt compelled to review it and to promote it to as wide an audience as possible. I’ve come across few books–Christian or otherwise–as compelling as this one, even if I no longer share the author’s Christian worldview. Mark Roncace is associate professor at Wingate, a Baptist college in North Carolina.

I recently posted my review on Amazon and will include it below in its entirety:

Roncace “Gets It”, September 2, 2013

As a former evangelical turned unbeliever, I felt myself wondering how my journey away from faith might have differed had I come across this book during my “deconversion” process over 13 years ago. Would it have accelerated or put the brakes on my departure from faith? Whatever the case, I welcome this book as a searingly honest reckoning with the true nature of the Bible on the part of a scholar who has somehow managed to remain a part of the community of faith.

If there’s one theme that Roncace strives to communicate to his intended fundamentalist audience, it’s that the Bible isn’t what they think it is. Most believers haven’t taken the time to read it cover to cover, but even for those who have, there is an almost universal failure to recognize just how different the Bible is from what they believe. During my years as an evangelical, I naively considered my theology and practice to line up more or less with what the authors of scripture intended. Sure, I knew there were controversies on the margins of topics like the end times (pre-trib, post-trib, etc.) and predestination vs. free will, but by and large I considered the Bible to be straightforward enough so that honest souls like the theologians and pastors and laity of the evangelical community to which I belonged could more or less converge on a proper understanding of the Bible, given enough study, prayer, and humility.

What a surprise it was to me, then, to discover that the Bible is so much more diverse and troublesome than our neat evangelical categories had led us to believe! Those who think their fundamentalist theologies are biblical just don’t “get it.” Sure, their theology may line up with SOME of what the Bible teaches, but I have never encountered a fundamentalist who squares her beliefs with ALL or even MOST of what the Bible teaches. Modern American fundamentalism–the brand I grew up in–is a distillation of generations of theologizing that takes into account bits and pieces of the Bible it prefers and explains away the rest, without realizing the extent of its selectivity.

Those who conceive of God in the OT as an all-knowing, all-good disembodied Spirit don’t get it. Those who fancy that the Bible merely tolerated slavery but did not support it don’t get it. Those who maintain that the kind of slavery God advocated was gentle don’t get it. Those who disavow that God commanded child sacrifice in the Law don’t get it. Those who insist God merely allowed the Israelites to commit genocide (killing all the men, women, and children but keeping the virgins for themselves) don’t get the fact that God commanded it. Those who don’t find a prosperity gospel in the OT don’t get it. Those who have the impression that most of the OT authors believed in heaven and hell, Satan, and demons don’t get it. Those who think the OT condemns prostitution don’t get it. Those who maintain that God merely permitted but did not condone polygamy in the OT don’t get it (see 2 Sam. 12:8). Those who think that Daniel makes predictions about the end times (in our future) don’t get it. Those who insist that Jesus was foretold in the OT don’t get it. Those who don’t realize that God in the OT calls for the execution of rebellious children (not to mention unbelievers and Sabbath breakers) don’t get it, nor do those who overlook Jesus’ validation of this law in the NT.

Those who think Jesus would have approved of retirement accounts or wealth don’t get it. Those who insist that Jesus would have advocated resisting an evil person like Saddam Hussein don’t get it. Those who believe the Trinity is clearly taught in scripture don’t get it. Those who think the Synoptic Gospels never deny the divinity of Jesus don’t get it. Those who consider that the Synoptic Gospels and James teach salvation by faith alone and not by works don’t get it. Those who believe that all the NT authors allowed for Jesus’ return in any generation other than than that of the NT authors don’t get it. Those who think the Bible supports only their own particular views on the end times, predestination, free will, eternal security, the role of women in the church, divorce, tongues, etc., don’t get it.

In short, many fundamentalists don’t realize how diverse the Bible truly is, because they have developed clever techniques for explaining away or ignoring the inconvenient bits, and as a result they consider the Bible to be a unified whole that reflects their opinions and theology. They don’t get it, but Roncace does. And I applaud him for not sweeping the inconvenient bits under the rug (as so many pastors and apologists have done) but for boldly and relentlessly exposing them to light of day. Thank you, Roncace, for providing this immense service to the truth, delivered in such an accessible and entertaining package! And thanks for the 99 cent price tag!

Ken Daniels, author of Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary

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The problem with ideology

In reading Steven Pinker’s masterful The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, one of the significant insights I gleaned was that the lion’s share of human violence is carried out by those who believe they are morally or ideologically justified in their actions. More homicides are committed out of a sense of vigilante justice and offended moral sensibilities (e.g., retribution for adultery committed with one’s spouse) than for personal gain (e.g., burglary). Large-scale genocides are typically committed by those who believe in the Utopian righteousness of their cause, whether the cause is communism, Nazism, or religion. Fully a third of the population of Germany was destroyed in the Catholic-Protestant Thirty Years War. As a proportion of the current population of Germany (82 million), that would have corresponded to 27 million deaths in today’s Germany alone. And that was before the advent of military aircraft, automatic weapons, or gas chambers! Closer to (my American) home, we could add to the list the American settlers’ notion of Manifest Destiny that led to the displacement and slaughter of countless Native Americans or the Southern churches’ appeal to scripture to justify slavery, segregation, and the prohibition of mixed-race marriage.

The rub is that we all hold to one or more ideologies, and we all believe in the rightness of our ideology, but we almost never recognize the potential or real harm our beliefs entail. It’s easy to spot the harm in others’ ideologies while not even realizing we are beholden to our own harmful (but in our minds, righteous) stances: ”Ideology, like halitosis … is what the other person has” (Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. New York: Verso, p. 2).

Ideologically-based harm arises when adherence to the ideology is given priority over the happiness and well being of sentient beings in this world. Thus the Inquisition was more concerned with the upholding of correct doctrine (and the drive to avert the eternal damnation of souls in the hereafter) than it was with the temporal suffering of those who were punished for their heresies. Another example of religious ideology trumping the well being of others can be found in Deuteronomy 13:6-11:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

Now, perhaps the Catholic Inquisition (and its Protestant counterparts) had a good point: maybe the torturing or execution of a few poor heretical souls would result in a net reduction of suffering by setting an example to prevent a greater number of individuals from falling into heresy and subjecting themselves to eternal torment. Under this logic, any suffering in this life, no matter how intense or how widespread, can compare to the suffering of even a single eternally damned soul, so anything on earth can be justified in an effort to save at least one soul. But if any of the assumptions (e.g., the reality of eternal damnation or the effectiveness of torture in averting it) that were used to justify the practices of the Inquisition were mistaken, then the torture of heretics stands as a prime example of net harm driven by a well-meaning, righteous ideology.

Fast forward to this week in American politics and culture. Four hot-button topics are once again in the fore of our national dialogue: homosexuality, abortion, immigration, and voting rights. With plenty of ideology on all sides, principles often trump the well being of sentient beings in discussions surrounding these issues. Given that we are all ideologically motivated and we don’t often recognize our ideologies or the potential harm they can incur, it is in the interest of society for us all to examine critically the potential and real effects of what we believe and promote. Unfortunately it’s not easy for us who are already to committed do an ideology to recognize its harmful aspects.

If there is solid evidence that the widespread termination of a day-old fertilized zygote (e.g., through the drug Plan B) is likely to lead society down the slippery slope toward killing or harming of sentient beings that form a part of society, then the pro-choice crowd is guilty of contributing to the net suffering of sentient beings, and the pro-life crowd has reason to oppose such abortions. However, I am not aware of any evidence pointing in that direction; in fact homicide rates have declined significantly in America in recent decades, despite the Roe v. Wade decision.

If there is solid evidence that the abortion of a 28-week unborn baby incurs considerable conscious suffering on the part of the baby (see this article) , and if the pro-choice crowd presses to allow babies at that stage to be aborted, then the pro-choice crowd could be guilty of allowing its ideology (under the guise of women’s choice) to add to the net suffering of sentient beings. That said, if the pro-life crowd objects to 28-week (or even 20-week) abortions on the grounds that they incur fetal pain, but if they don’t show any concern for the suffering of adult cattle or poultry raised and slaughtered for their own gustatory pleasure, then the appeal to fetal pain is disingenuous, a smoke screen. An adult cow is far more social, more conscious of its living conditions and capable of experiencing pain than a 28-week-old human fetus.

I am tired of how the abortion debate is normally framed. Pro-choicers so often appeal to terms like “the right to privacy,” “the fourteenth amendment, ” “the right for a woman not to be told what to do with her own body,” etc. Sorry, pro-choicers, these terms and arguments based on them are worse than useless: they only serve to underscore what a tin ear you have in the face of the single most powerful argument of the pro-lifers, namely, that a fertilized egg is a human, and the taking of human life (especially for the sake of convenience) is murder. The fact is that, for pro-lifers, innocent human life is sacred, and there can be no justification for taking it. And pro-lifers are correct in asserting that a fertilized egg is at least in some sense human, independently bearing 46 chromosomes with the same complement of DNA shared by every member of our species, whether born an unborn. Saying that a woman has a right to do as she pleases “with her own body” is risible when she’s bearing a late-term fetus; if the fetus has a head, brain, arms, legs, heart, blood, etc., and can feel pain or pleasure, then there’s a baby in there, and it’s not just the mother’s body!

Conversely, it’s risible for pro-lifers to assert that a day-old zygote is a “person.” How is a single cell or a 16-cell blastocyst a person in any recognizable sense of the word? It’s no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree, even if the incipient form shares the same DNA as the adult form. It seems to me that pro-lifers in general recognize this, even if they will not admit it. As evidence of this, an estimated two thirds of all fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, yet I am not aware of any concerted, serious effort on the part of pro-lifers to stem the tragedy of spontaneous abortions that kill more humans than all other causes combined–including intentional abortions. By their lack of concern for these two thirds of humans that die in the womb, and by their greater concern for children and adults suffering from a variety of diseases, pro-lifers demonstrate that they really do place more value on the life of a born human than on the life of a day-old zygote.

I’m asking proponents of both sides of the abortion debate to consider dropping their ideological presuppositions. I want pro-choicers to be certain that abortion will not lead to a net increase in suffering, and I want pro-lifers to do the same. Will abortions lead to the cheapening and killing of sentient human life? Will allowing abortions deprive childless couples of the joy of child rearing? Will preventing abortions lead to emotional and economic suffering on the part of mothers who are forced to bring their babies to term? What if the baby is severely deformed? How will this affect the entire lives of the child and her parents? Even if the baby is not deformed, is it destined to live a life of neglect and poverty if the mother can’t bring herself to give it up for adoption? If the baby is given up for adoption with the result that more babies are brought into the world, how does that affect society and the environment and our planet, which has seen the human population explode in geometrical progression in recent centuries? Is there a limit to the carrying capacity of our planet while retaining a reasonable amount of biodiversity, or can we continue to double, quadruple, and multiply by 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128 times the current population for generations to come?

When it comes to homosexuality, my concern isn’t my admitted distaste for the idea of a man inserting his penis into the anus of another man. My concern is whether the views I hold and the policies I promote lead to greater or lesser pain on the part of sentient beings. If children reared in homosexual unions are significantly worse off than those reared in heterosexual (or single-parent) unions, then that would come into play in deciding whether endorsing child rearing in a homosexual environment is in the best interest of society. If studies show that children reared in a homosexual marriage are better off than those reared in a mere homosexual union, then that serves as a argument for advocating gay marriage. If the practice of homosexuality (using responsible protections) has no demonstrable ill effects on society at large, then that serves as an argument against proscribing it. Conversely, if proscribing homosexuality leads to greater a greater rate of bullying, depression, or suicide for those who are gay (whether by nature or by choice, it matters not at all), then those who would proscribe it (out of a sense of religious or personal conviction) are contributing to the net pain and suffering of humanity. In other words, their ideology is the opposite of righteousness.

Am I driven by ideology? Certainly so: for one, I want to see a reduction in the net amount of suffering on the part of sentient beings. I do have other beliefs beyond that, but it seems like a good starting point for us all.

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Reflections on my relationships with believers

It’s been nearly a year since I put my blogging on hold, so I figure it’s time to come out of hibernation if only to share a few of my recent musings. Work has been a killer, especially in the past 6 months, when I’ve been averaging nearly 70 hours a week trying to keep in operation the small software company I work for. Once I’ve put in my day’s work, I can’t even bear the thought of sitting in front of the computer again to tax my brain cells even further to craft a new blog post or to engage with others on controversial topics. Fortunately my work hours have started letting up a little recently, so I’ll give the blog a shot at least this one time and see what happens.

It wasn’t just my work hours that curtailed my blogging; it was also a general weariness with the whole battle over belief. If I only have threescore and ten or fourscore years to live, why spend my time locked in conflict with others? I know, I know–as Edmund Burke observed, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We could just as well substitute “false belief” for “evil,” since I would never call my ideological opponents evil–at least, not the ones I know and love. No doubt some New Atheists would consider my decision to pull back a failure of nerve, a cowardly capitulation to the forces of superstition, anti-science, and bigotry. On the other hand, in a sense feel I have put in my share of service to the cause of skepticism–I wrote a book, tended a blog for the better part of a year, and engaged in countless e-mail debates with those who were eager to bring me back to the fold.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just declare a truce, each of us working, raising families, attending soccer games, and generally minding our own business when it comes to our existential beliefs? I wish I could say to Muslims, Christians, Mormons, unbelievers, and the rest, “I’ll remain quiet about my views if you remain quiet about yours.” But alas, it’s just not gonna happen. There will always be groups who are ideologically committed to seeing their views become dominant  on the world stage.

Nevertheless, skepticism seems to be gaining ground, at least in my country (the USA), where the share of nonreligious individuals has nearly doubled to 20% in the past 20 years. This is a continuation of a broader trend that has occurred throughout the developed world and which shows no signs of abating. Some have argued (and it seems plausible to me; see here) that as economic security improves, religiosity tends to decline, since for many there is no longer a perceived need to call on a deity to meet their basic needs. In other words, by and large the Western move toward secularism is not due to the book-writing and blogging and speaking activities of activist atheists but to the advent of economic prosperity and security.

Even as I write, I’m having a conversation with myself, trying to get a feel for how much I really want to or ought to be involved in speaking up for skepticism and secularism. I will say it has felt good for the past year to take a break, to refrain (for the most part) from engaging with others in religious or political proselytizing–not even on Facebook! And I’ve enjoyed hiding the status updates of many of my Facebook “friends” who are constantly trying to push a religious or political agenda.

Then there’s my ambivalence toward the New Atheist and secular movements. On the one hand, I largely agree with their outlook on a broad array of philosophical and political topics, but I’ve simply never grown comfortable with the people of the movement. I’m not here intending to critique these movements; perhaps due to my past and present connections to the evangelical world, I simply don’t fit in socially with my ideological allies. In fact, I have been attending church maybe once a month or so with my wife this year, and I feel as though I fit in socially (though not philosophically) more at church than at a typical atheist conference.

As long as I’m not sparring in an ugly verbal battle with a fighting fundamentalist, I find most evangelicals (at least at the church my wife attends) to be quality, caring, sincere, and unpretentious people. No doubt there are bigoted, holier than thou, rights-denying, anti-science crusaders in the ranks of most evangelical churches, and they make easy targets for the New Atheists, who don’t lose an opportunity to paint the whole evangelical world with the same broad brush. In the times I have attended church recently, no one has gotten into my face or made me feel uncomfortable in any way. They have all been nothing but gracious to me. A cynic could argue that these churchgoers are simply trying to show kindness in an effort to win me back to the faith–and perhaps they would be right to some extent–but it doesn’t change the fact that that they are great people to be around.

Lest you think I’m yielding to what secular humanist leader Paul Kurtz called the “transcendental temptation,” don’t worry. I don’t have any expectation I’ll ever cross back over to the fence to the pastures of faith, though stranger things have happened. The church my wife attends is quite conservative, holding to a young earth and biblical inerrancy and generally adopting the political agenda of the Religious Right.  It baffles me now that I could have ever held these views in my youth, and it churns my stomach when they are promulgated from the pulpit, which mercifully is not that often, or I probably wouldn’t set foot in the church. Many of my readers must consider me to be schizophrenic, and maybe I am, but I’m just feeling my way through this unusual no-man’s land between an unbelieving intellect and believing social circle, as long as I’m connected with my believing family, from which I have no intention of severing myself. I’m certainly not prescribing any template for others to follow; each situation will be different, and I encourage my readers to find the path that works best for them.

I can’t make any promises about future blog posts at this point; things are about to become very busy on the family front, even as the work front seems to be lightening up. Our oldest son will be graduating from high school on June 5 (complete with an open house celebration, etc.). our middle son, a junior, will be going to the Naval Academy in Annapolis for a week right after that, followed by drum major camp for his band, while our daughter participates in a soccer tournament in Alabama (and maybe later in Florida), then my junior son attends a one-week NASA training program in Houston, then my graduating son starts college at Rice University. Our junior son will also plan to complete his Eagle Scout project sometime this summer while finishing up his drivers education course, all of which I’ll need to be involved with.

Thanks to all of you who’ve supported my book and my blog in the past, and I look forward to occasional posts in the future!

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Why I’m putting my blogging on hold

It’s never easy to say good-bye, whether to a loved one or to a hundreds of loyal blog readers. I want to thank all of you who’ve followed my blog, who’ve encouraged me, and who’ve stimulated me to think more deeply about what I believe.

Twelve years ago this month, our family left the country of Niger on the edge of the Sahara desert after I realized I could no longer consider the Bible to have originated in any sense from God. Later that year we resigned from Wycliffe Bible Translators, a heartbreaking time for all of us. In 2003 I wrote my online deconversion story, receiving dozens of e-mails from believers and unbelievers alike. Later I expanded this story into a full-length book, publishing the print version in 2009 and the Kindle edition and making it available for free online in 2010, receiving hundreds of responses, some of which pointed to my story as a significant factor in precipitating their break with faith. Last year I began blogging and have been encouraged, stimulated, and challenged by many of your responses. I hope I have in return at times done the same for you: encouraged, stimulated, and challenged you in your thinking as engaged believers, on-the-fencers, and former believers.

With each new blog post I write, and with each comment I respond to, I’m conscious of the time it takes from other things that I’m neglecting in my life: work (our software company is struggling), family (our oldest is a senior in high school this year and will be moving out to go to college all to soon!), and community (I used to volunteer regularly but haven’t done so in quite some time). I feel I’ve put in my time to the causes I’ve espoused in my book and in my blog, and now it’s time to move on to the tangible things that give my life full meaning. There are plenty of others out there doing what I have been doing, including  http://civil-conversations.blogspot.com/http://www.ex-christian.nethttp://clergyproject.org/http://respectfulatheist.blogspot.com/, http://www.goddiscussion.com/, and http://rachelheldevans.com/.  My book will remain available for those who’d like to read and share it, but I’ve decided to place my blogging on hold for the foreseeable future.

Again, thank you all again for participation in this blog, whether as a lurker or as a commenter who agrees or disagrees with my views. All the best to you in your respective journeys! If there’s anything I’d hope you could take with you in my absence (whether or not I eventually return to blogging), it’s the need to stay civil, to respect those with whom you disagree as members of the same human race, floating around on this little blue dot together.

So long, and all the best!

Ken

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Will the real Christianity please stand up?

In high school I entered into some lively discussions about religion with one of my best friends, a Mormon. One of these discussions centered around a thought experiment: What if a man who had never heard of Christianity ran across a Bible for the first time, say a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room? If he accepted that the Bible is of divine origin and proceeded to read it in great detail, with no access to commentaries or teachers or any other theological resources (except for historical background material supplied in the writings of contemporaries of the scriptural authors),  what kind of theology would this man develop? Would it end up resembling the theology of any of the thousands of Christian denominations of the past or present?

I grew up believing my family’s version of Christianity to be the one most faithful to the original spirit of Jesus and of the biblical authors. Certainly I knew there were unresolved questions about this or that doctrine or practice on the margins, but at the core, we were on the same page with Jesus, Paul, James, Peter, John, and the others who founded the early church. We were not like the liberals who pick and choose from the Bible what they want to believe, chucking out the rest. We recognized that any allowance for homosexuality was foreign to the text, for example. We were not like the Catholics who illegitimately read into a verse or two the infallible authority of the Pope or the transubstantiation of the eucharist into Jesus’ body and blood. We were not like the Mormons who allow the authority of the Bible to be superseded by the writings of a charlatan like Joseph Smith. We were not like the liberation theologians who substituted the gospel of Jesus Christ for a leftist political agenda. We were not like those in the African independent churches who teach that polygamy is within the bounds of God’s will. We were not like the televangelists who preach a health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. We had nothing to do with those who teach that works (even the work of baptism) are necessary for salvation or that the grace of God through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross is insufficient to secure our salvation. We upheld the reality of an eternal heaven and an eternal hell–real places where all of us would really live consciously forever. We eschewed the notion that a true believer, once saved, can  ever become “unsaved,” though we didn’t accept strict Calvinist predestination. We opposed those who would attempt to square an old earth or a merely local noachian flood with the text of Genesis. We were suspicious of Pentecostal teachings and practices, even if we didn’t consider their errors serious enough to bar their followers from God’s larger family.  We were convinced that Jesus could  return at any moment, snatching up his elect into the clouds on the day of the Rapture, and leaving behind the unbelievers (and those who subsequently became believers) to suffer seven years of intense tribulation, followed by a thousand years of Christ’s glorious reign on earth while the unbelievers are tormented in a lake of fire. We didn’t give an inch to those who admitted the possibility of any errors in the biblical text, whether on matters of salvation, of history,  or of science–or of any other matter, for that matter. Every word in the Bible was there for a reason, even if God allowed the writing style of the individual authors to be preserved in the text. We defended the Bible against liberal scholarship, higher criticism, and the denial of the supernatural (e.g., the Virigin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus). In the churches we attended, we were almost all of us pro-life, anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-women’s lib, anti-civil rights, pro-Vietnam War Republicans (that is, we were opposed to all that that the hippies from the 1960s stood for, even though I didn’t grow up in the 1960s myself). But the most important shibboleth of all was the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. It was not enough to give mental assent to the above positions; we had to invite Jesus into our heart and fellowship with him day in and day out, experiencing the reality of God’s presence in our lives.

This was my particular background, a background shared by millions of believers around the world who have been influenced by one or more strains of Baptist, dispensationalist, pietistic, Bible Church, and/or fundamentalist theology, a subset of evangelical Protestantism. Most (if not all!) of these believers assume that their particular reading of the Bible on the above questions is the one most closely aligned with the intent of the biblical authors. To be sure, not all of these beliefs are considered essential tenets of faith; a “pre-tribber” can find fellowship with a “post-tribber,” but maybe less so with an amellenialist, for example. Or one who believes in “once saved, always saved” can fellowship with someone who believes that salvation can be lost. It’s another matter when it comes to what’s required for salvation: once works are added to the mix, that’s the line in the sand that must not be crossed.

Over the years I grew somewhat more open to others’ views. For example, in college I came to admit the possibility that some Catholics might be saved after all, especially those that had a personal relationship with Jesus. Imagine the generosity of spirit that must have come across me, allowing me to admit that not all Catholics are going to spend an eternity of conscious torment in hell! And then I also began to appreciate, if not embrace, the spirit of Pentecostalism, having read many of the writings of Charles Finney and of the singer-songwriter Keith Green and having befriended some Pentecostals at the Christian college I attended. I could no longer say for certain whether I believed in a pre-trib or post-trib rapture, and I also went back and forth on the questions of predestination and the possibility of losing one’s salvation, finding texts on both sides of these issues in the Bible. After considering Matthew 25 (among other texts), in the 1980s I also began to wonder whether there might be some merit in “Lordship Salvation,” a controversial movement that  maintains it’s not enough just to believe the gospel in order to be saved; we must also demonstrate by our actions that we believe, or it’s likely we really don’t believe in the first place.

Also during college, I began to ponder the teachings of Jesus pertaining to wealth and the poor, especially in the Gospel of Luke. What I discovered ran counter to the prevailing evangelical teaching that wealth is okay as long as we don’t allow it to come between us and God. No, in Luke, as I discuss in my book, Jesus taught not only against an improper attitude toward wealth but against keeping wealth itself. Similarly, I was confronted by his teaching against violence in passages like Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” I thus felt a growing cognitive dissonance between the often pro-war, pro-wealth evangelical community of which I was a part and the teachings of Jesus I read in the Gospels.

Which brings us back to our Gideon’s Bible thought experiment. It slowly dawned on me the extent to which the particular contours of my faith had been shaped by a religious tradition that didn’t necessarily coincide as perfectly with the Bible as I had always thought it did. And if I had been oblivious to just a few of these discordances, how many more were lying outside my radar? How much of what I believed all my life conflicted in one way or another with one biblical author or another, without my even realizing it?

At this point some of my readers might wonder, What’s the big deal? Everyone knows there are differences in opinion among believers, but if we diligently seek out the intent of the original authors of the Bible, taking into consideration the historical context, using responsible hermeneutics, comparing scripture with scripture, and seeking God’s guidance, God will in fact lead us into all truth, at least into all the truth that really matters. The rest we can hold in suspense until all is revealed in the fullness of time.

It all matters because since 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?”

For those who haven’t been confronted by such a conflicting cacophony of post-mortem  voices, it’s difficult to appreciate how exasperating the experience can be. Underlying all these voices is the assumption that there can’t possibly be a problem with Christianity itself; the problem lies with Ken’s misconceptions of True Christianity. Yet the irreconcilable differences among the beliefs held by those earnestly attempting to set me straight (many of whom have studied the Bible and sought God for decades but simply can’t agree with each other) help to confirm to me that Christianity is, never has been, and never will be a reliable guiding light to the nature of reality.

Though I’ve already expressed above my frustration with some moderate or liberal believers who assume it was my fundamentalism that led to the shipwrecking of my faith, I can still appreciate that they are at least aware of the differences between their faith and that of the New Testament writers. They accept that the biblical authors were at least in part products of their time, that their various teachings can’t all be reconciled, and that there is room for growing and learning about God beyond what’s contained in the ancient scriptures.  Evangelicals and fundamentalists, by contrast, cannot accept that the biblical authors taught conflicting messages or that there’s any significant daylight between what the scriptures teach and what they themselves believe. They’ve opened that Gideon Bible, have applied the right hermeneutics, and have embraced the True New Testament doctrines. There’s  often little appreciation of the long, winding history of theological thought that led to the present Bible Church/Dispensational/(partial) Calvinist doctrinal statement posted on the church’s website or taught at Dallas Theological Seminary. Sure, there’s an awareness of church history in some quarters, but these are often matters of mere curiosity, learned without any real acknowledgement of the near absolute dependence  of one’s beliefs on ancient and modern church history outside the New Testament.

I maintain that our hypothetical Gideon Bible reader would have been mightily confused and conflicted at the end of his exercise, not being able to call on a theologian or scholar to explain all the conflicting messages. I doubt he would have come up with the Orthodox teaching of the Trinity by reading a Gideon New Testament on his own. This doctrine was hammered out in excruciating detail through debates, councils, and edicts for over three Christian centuries. He likely would have been left with the impression from all the NT writers except Paul and John that salvation requires works and not just faith.  He might think that Paul accepts the legitimacy of baptism for the dead. He certainly wouldn’t find any scriptural reason to think slavery as an institution should be abolished, but instead that slaves should obey their masters. He would find some verses in Paul and elsewhere to make him think salvation can’t be lost, and he would find others in Hebrews and 2 Peter and elsewhere to make him think that one’s salvation can indeed be forfeited. He would find verses in Paul (especially Romans 9) that lead him to think that only God chooses who will be saved (and that we don’t have a choice), while finding others that teach that God wants all to be saved, if only they would come to him like chicks coming to  their mother hen. He would find some verses teaching that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, while finding others that speak of the destruction or annihilation of the lost. He would find some verses that allow for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or desertion, while finding others that allow for no such thing. He would find some verses that speak of the eternal hereafter on planet earth, while others speak of the hereafter in Paradise or heaven. He would in no way be able to untangle the mystery of eschatology in the neat and orderly way that the dispensationalists or the preterists believe they’ve cracked that nut. I’ll cut this potentially long list very short in the interest of time.

In a sense I find that as a nonbeliever, the Bible is much clearer to me now than when I believed the Bible to be inerrant. Because the Bible had to  be inerrant, whenever two or more passages seemed to be conveying different teachings, I tended to pronounce the “clear” passage as authoritative and the “less clear” passage as needing some sort of alternate interpretation to make it fit with the “clearer” passage. For example, consider the following, which, because of prior theological commitments concerning the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice, cannot be taken at face value or must be regarded as “unclear” by many evangelicals:

“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Now that I’m no longer constrained by my prior evangelical theological commitments, I’m free to read this as it appears on  its face: there was something lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions that Paul could supply. This run so deeply counter to evangelical theology that it must be immediately dismissed as heretical, but it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion while remaining honest with the text.

Or consider 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

“11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

Verse 15 is universally considered as an “unclear” passage by evangelicals. But it’s clear enough to me as one no longer bound by inerrancy. Women are saved through childbearing, and furthermore, if they don’t continue in faith, love, and holiness, they’ll lose the shot at salvation that childbearing afforded them. Nothing could be clearer.

What I’m trying to drive home with these two small examples among many is that it’s supremely naive to think that any one group has an authoritative handle on what the biblical authors really believed or taught. At least liberals don’t even pretend their beliefs line up with the NT writers on all counts. But many conservatives mistakenly think their theology really is faithful to the Bible, allowing them (without conscious hypocrisy) to use the Bible as a weapon against all who would (in their view) play fast and loose with its teachings. This is dangerous. Unconscious hypocrisy can be more insidious than conscious hypocrisy, because conscious hypocrisy can at least sometimes be accompanied by a twinge of restraining guilt, and it’s easier to call someone out on conscious than on unconscious hypocrisy.

I was once a third (more like forth or fifth) party to a sexual abuse situation in a missionary environment. The family of the accused complained that the missionary organization that called out the accused was not following the biblical approach of having the accuser (the alleged preteen female victim of the sexual abuse, now an adult) confront the accused. I met with a couple of the family members of the accused and tried to explain how difficult it would have been for the accuser to have confronted the accused face to face, and the response was, “Well the Bible says this is how it’s to be done, and it doesn’t matter how difficult it is; we must follow the authority of the Bible in this matter.” I proceeded to read to this fairly well-to-do couple a few verses in Luke that clearly teach against the keeping of wealth, asking if they were then ready to sell everything they had and give to the poor as Jesus taught. I don’t recall their response, but it apparently didn’t make an impact. They remained unconsciously hypocritical in their insistence that the mission board follow one scriptural passage when it served their interests but were unable to acknowledge what another scriptural passage taught when it ran counter to their interests. Thus the scriptures can be used as a bludgeon to  cajole others into accepting whatever doctrines or practices one is convinced of, while at the same time overlooking any number of other inconvenient doctrines and practices.

What are your thoughts? If you’ve deconverted, have you been confronted by various well-meaning individuals who’ve assumed that if you had adopted their version of Christianity, your faith could have been preserved? If you’re a conservative believer, have you assessed the relative contributions of the Bible, church history, and the need to harmonize discordant passages as factors determining what you believe?

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In which I reconsider my position on free will

I may well have been wrong. These are words that politicians are loathe to utter, as is anyone who has any sort of voice in the public sphere. To admit you were wrong shows weakness, vulnerability, lack of leadership, and a sense that you don’t have things as fully under control as people think you should. But maybe changing one’s mind isn’t always a vice; perhaps our political and intellectual discourse could use a little more of it, particularly when newly considered lines of evidence challenge one’s previously held conceptions. Perhaps progress isn’t possible without provisionality.

In my March 25, 2012 blog post I took the position that free will is likely nothing more than an illusion. After having read Kurt Keefner’s little 99-cent e-book Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris, I’m now having second thoughts. Though Keefner, a philosophy graduate from the University of Chicago, is an atheist like Harris, he argues that we as humans aren’t simply along for the ride, driven to act entirely by factors beyond our control.

Let me make it clear that my position is still in flux and is subject to change. It may still be the case that Harris is right, that we ultimately don’t have control over our actions, but Keefner’s essay has given me some good food for thought, and perhaps even hope (if I dare call it such) that we can in fact choose path A when we might have chosen path B. Without further study, I’m not quite prepared to come down positively on one side or the other, which in itself is a shift away from my prior positive position that there’s no such thing as free will.

My reluctance to embrace Keefner’s position without hesitation is based on the following:

1) Most of us would like to think we have free will, and we often happen to end up believing what we would like to think is true, regardless of whether true or not. This doesn’t mean free will can’t be true; it just means we should be alert to the possibility that Keefner (and everyone else who accepts free will) has an underlying motive to interpret the evidence in favor of what he wants to be true, rather than what really is true.

2) It’s difficult for me to imagine a purely material mechanism that could support a truly free decision. It seems that the laws of nature will have their way, whether operating on celestial bodies or on the atoms within our brains, and there’s nothing we can do to alter their course. Even if nondeterministic quantum effects are at play in our brains, it just means our thoughts are in part random, not that they are under “our” control. Of course, just because I can’t imagine how free will could work in a material universe doesn’t mean there’s no free will. If the universe were bound by what I could imagine, it would be an impoverished universe indeed!

3) The majority of neuroscientists, i.e., those who are most familiar with the inner workings of the brain, come down on the side of determinism and against free will. Of course, this is an argument from authority and so is not dispositive, but if we don’t have extremely good reasons for our rejection of the expert consensus, chances are we’re on shaky ground.

4) I am reluctant to take a firm position on an issue on which I know so little. The more I learn, the more I come to the realization of how little I know, and I don’t want to get into the habit of taking a position one day and taking the opposition position the next after reading a little e-book challenging my original position.

But enough about me, and on to Keefner’s arguments. Ironically he accuses Harris of lending support to a form of Cartesian dualism, separating the true “me” from “my body.” As Keefner himself acknowledges, Harris wouldn’t admit to being a dualist, yet (according to Keefner) Harris’ arguments reveal himself to be one. I suspect it’s possible that Keefner is detecting dualism merely in the arguments Harris uses against the prevailing religious and cultural assumption that we possess a disembodied soul. I would like to see Harris and Keefner duke this one out so we can have a better understanding of Harris’ true position. In any case, whether or not Harris is an unwitting dualist, the point Keefner seems to want to make is that  we’re not limited to just the following two choices:

1) Because we are governed entirely by physical laws and conditions (most of which we’re not conscious of), we are not truly free to decide one way or another in any matter.

–OR–

2) We are a combination of an immaterial soul (which makes up our “true” self) and a material body.

Keefner instead argues for a third option:

3) While we are made entirely of physical substances, and while we are influenced in our decisions by external and factors and tendencies beyond our control, we can still deliberate and make free decisions that matter. Even if there are murky antecedent factors that make it more likely we’ll decide one way or another, these do not absolutely determine what we as an integrated self (mind being part of body) will decide.

The kicker that led me to conclude that we don’t enjoy free will was the finding that lab subjects are unaware of their decisions for 300 or more milliseconds prior to the time that brain scans show the subjects actually make their decisions. Keefner objects that these decisions are trivial–for example, choosing between left and right in a sort of video game. This amounts to nothing more than telling your brain to function as a sort of random number generator, something for which true deliberation is not required, unlike deciding where to go to college, for example.

But it’s not the end choice (e.g., whether to attend Harvard vs. Yale) that matters for Keefner; it’s the decision to to explore or not explore the options in front of us, to look at all the angles, to apply weights and rankings to our choices, that matters.  Things happen in the world that lie beyond our control; we’re born here and not there; we have this personality rather than that personality; we have this taste but not that taste. However, I can greet the things that happen to me or the choices that that confront me in any of the four following ways: “I can explore the world, I can react to the world, I can try to evade some fact in the world or I can relax and in a sense become one with the world (as in going to sleep, meditating or lying on the beach)” (Keefner 2012, loc 290).  In other words, I choose the extent to which I’m going to pursue the truth about any matter, and I choose to what lengths I will go to weigh the end results of different courses of possible action I might take. I could choose to choose merely on the basis of my immediate instincts whom I should marry, which car I should buy, where I should go to college, or whether global warming is truly a man-made threat. Or I could choose to make an exhaustive inventory of all the ramifications of opting for one path or another before making my choices. Or I could operate anywhere in between those two extremes. The choice is mine, even if factors beyond my control end up influencing my final decision, whether in part or in whole.

Disappointingly, Keefner does not offer much meat to those of us curious to know how our ability to “choose to choose” arises from a purely physical brain obeying all the laws of nature. He does briefly mention that emergent properties (e.g., consciousness) can be expected to arise from lower-level systems (e.g., atoms) in ways that cannot be tied to the behavior of the lower systems themselves. A classic example of an emergent property is the wetness that arises from the combination of non-wet hydrogen and oxygen gas molecules when they form H2O (water). Perhaps Keefner is right; perhaps our brains give rise to free will in ways we can’t currently explain as a product of neuronal interactions. Perhaps, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet reminded his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Perhaps Keefner is wrong and Harris is right, and perhaps we’ll never know either way. Until free will can be definitively ruled out, however, I’ll live as if I have genuine choices to make. If science can rule out free will, I will resolve myself to accept that, as I had already done before. In the meantime, to the extent that it helps me be more conscientious about my decisions, and to the extent that I (along with most of my fellow travelers on this planet) feel within me that I have a free decision to make, I will embrace my ability to choose. At the same time, though, I wish never to lose sight of the extent to which others’ actions are influenced by their genes and environment, retaining a sense of compassion for those who lose their way in this world. It’s a balancing act that I’m sure I’ll never master, but I will choose to make a conscious effort to that end.

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