Like many children, I thought church was extraordinarily boring. Unlike many children, I was compelled to be at church several times a week. That being the case, I couldn’t help absorbing the dogma that was reiterated in both church and home, ad nauseum. I was not raised in a complete bubble, but it was about as close as it could get short of being home-schooled. As an adult – even as a Salvation Army officer – I resolved never to let my life, or the lives of my children, become completely absorbed in evangelical Christian and – especially – Salvation Army bubbles. In hindsight, I think that resolution probably sealed my fate.
I was about 12 when I first learned that there were people who didn’t believe in god. Until then, I’d had no idea that no-god-belief was even an option. As far as I knew, everyone believed in god, and everyone I knew personally believed in god, or said they did. The medium through which I learned about atheism and agnosticism was a TV show called All in the Family and the first “out” nonbeliever I encountered, via the boob tube, was Mike Stivic, Archie Bunker’s agnostic son-in-law. All I figured out at that time was that agnostics professed not to know whether god existed, and atheists did not believe in god. I didn’t know of any way to find out more about nonbelief, so I just tucked those little bits of information into some corner of my mind. I didn’t love god. I didn’t want to “do god’s will.” And I certainly didn’t want to go to church as often as I did, but I wasn’t in a position to change that circumstance anytime soon. So, I got on with my life as best I could.
I was about 14 when we studied Greek mythology in 9th grade English class. I was greatly amused by those randy gods who couldn’t resist having sex with all those beautiful mortal women. One day, I had a weird thought: What’s the difference between those gods and dolls, and god and Mary? Wow! Stunning idea! An idea I quickly dismissed by rationalizing that god didn’t actually have sex with Mary, so it wasn’t the same thing at all.
But…that Virgin Birth thing never really sat well with me; I had a feeling there was more to that story than I was being told. I believed in god, Jesus, the whole evangelical schtick as far as I knew it, but I still didn’t love god or Jesus, and I still didn’t want to “do god’s will.” I just labeled myself a rebel and got on with my life.
I was in my mid-teens when I “got my heart right with god,” and, after graduating from high school, I attended a Christian college. Needless to say, the indoctrination process there was thorough, and I graduated completely convinced that Christianity was the True Religion, and evangelicalism was the right way to do it.
Fast forward to my mid-thirties. I’m the oldest person in my graduate school History of Education class. I’m also the only former minister. One day, as we’re examining Martin Luther’s writings on education, a student asks: What’s he talking about when he keeps saying that the devil is tempting him? I wait for the prof to field the question, then jump in when he shrugs his shoulders. I explain that all indications were that Luther believed that Satan was a real being – a spirit being, but a real entity nonetheless – who worked evil in the world and in people’s lives. She looks astonished that any adult would believe such a thing. The prof looks abashed, but doesn’t say anything. I just shrug my shoulders and think, “Yeah, it does sound pretty silly, doesn’t it.” That was the day I stopped believing in Satan.
There were other signposts along my de-conversion trail – points at which I stopped, caught my breath, and wondered whether the path I was following led anywhere at all. I’ve written about some of them before but there’s more to tell. In good cliffhanger fashion, I’ll save those stories for another day.
— the chaplain
Young people aren’t walking away from the church—they’re sprinting. According to a recent study by Ranier Research, 70 percent of youth leave church by the time they are 22 years old. Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29 years old. Unlike earlier generations of church dropouts, these “leavers” are unlikely to seek out alternative forms of Christian community such as home churches and small groups. When they leave church, many leave the faith as well.
Thus opens the publicity blurb for a book entitled, Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Church and How to Bring Them Back. In an interview published by Christianity Today, author Drew Dyck made this observation:
No two “leavers” are exactly the same, but some patterns did emerge. “Postmodern” leavers reject Christianity because of its exclusive truth claims and moral absolutes. For them, Christian faith is just too narrow. “Recoilers” leave because they were hurt in the church. They suffered some form of abuse at the hands of someone they saw as a spiritual authority. God was guilty by association. “Modernists” completely reject supernatural claims. God is a delusion. Any truth beyond science is dismissed as superstition. “Neo-pagans” are those who left for earth-based religions such as Wicca. Not all of these actually cast spells or perform pagan rituals, but they deny a transcendent God, and see earth as the locus of true spirituality. Spiritual “Rebels” flee the faith to indulge in behavior that was incompatible with their faith. They also value autonomy and don’t want anyone—especially a superintending deity—telling them what to do. “Drifters” do not suffer intellectual crises or consciously leave the faith; they simply drift away. Over time God becomes less and less important until one day he’s no longer part of their lives.
These groupings were not meant to be scientifically precise; their value was diagnostic and utilitarian. I wanted to help people understand why young people abandon the faith and equip Christians to engage leavers in meaningful conversations about God.
I’ll list Dyck’s categories below to facilitate my consideration of them:
I don’t think much needs to be said about the “Postmodern” category, as Dyck appears to have described that mindset adequately. I am offended, however, by his glib dismissal of the “Recoilers:” people failed and God was blamed unfairly. Uh, no, Drew – people failed and God did not do what he was reasonably expected to do, either
a) protect the victims who were hurt, or
b) prevent the perpetrators from hurting them.
In other words, Drew, God reneged on two of his key responsibilities: delivering people from evil (which is doubly evil when it’s done at the hands of so-called “godly” people or, even worse, in the name, and on behalf, of a god), and enabling his followers to be good, kind and honest, rather than nasty, brutish and devious. I consider divine protection and divine prevention (or intervention) reasonable expectations because both of those functions are ascribed to the Christian god in the Bible and in church doctrine. Therefore, when a god does not perform as promised, it’s reasonable to wonder if he/she/it does anything at all, including merely existing, and to reject a god that doesn’t live up to its billing.
Dyck’s characterization of “Modernist” church-leavers renders that category as little more than a stick-figure. Since his book is an example of social scientific research, one would presume that his concept of “science” goes beyond the “hard,” physical sciences that often come to mind when the term “science” is used in casual conversation. Readers who understand Dyck’s use of the term in that narrow sense may miss the fact that many, if not most, Modernist atheists are informed by insights gained through the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. We are not geeks with our eyes glued to microscopes, and pens and calculators sagging in our shirt pockets. We are multi-faceted people with multi-faceted interests who think in multi-faceted ways, characteristics that Dyck’s categorization appears to miss, or dismiss, completely.
The author’s final two categories seem adequate. I went through a period of spiritual rebellion as a teen, and I’ll admit that his description captures quite accurately the attitude I had then. And many of us can probably think of people who are Drifters.
I briefly considered getting Dyck’s book, just for shits and giggles, but I’ve decided to keep my money in my wallet. The bottom line is, I’m not going to waste my time reading a book that
…equips and inspires parents, church leaders, and everyday Christians to reawaken the prodigal’s desire for God and set him or her back on the road to a dynamic faith…. identifies six different kinds of leavers…and offers practical advice for how to connect with each type. Shrewd tips also intersperse the chapters alerting readers to opportunities for engagement, and to hidden landmines they must sidestep to effectively reach leavers.
The reason I’m not interested in reading this book is that Dyck has misidentified the problem at hand. His view is that people who leave churches are problems. I don’t agree with him. In my view, the people who leave churches are not problems. Rather, churches themselves are problems. The problem is not that so many people are leaving the church. The problem is that too many of them are staying.
— the chaplain
I finally read Richard Dawkins’The Greatest Show on Earth last week. As I read the chapter on embryology a couple of nights ago, I couldn’t help marveling at how amazing life is in all its forms. Religionists often claim that their views enhance the value of life, particularly human life, because all of it has been ordained and designed by the hand(s) of god(s). It seems to me, however, that religious views actually cheapen the value of life. I want to point out three ways in which this occurs.
First, the creation of life forms is not a particularly significant accomplishment for a deity or deities that are capable of doing all sorts of spectacular things. A galaxy here and a supernova there, a parasite here and a mammal there – just another mundane day in the deity office. Ho hum; now it’s time to rest. Big deal.
Second, religious believers frequently assert that earthly life is second-rate compared to what’s ahead in the next life (or lives). Life on earth in the here and now is a trial run, a testing ground, the primary significance of which is to prepare people (or allow people to prepare themselves, or for people to allow god(s) to prepare them – there are many variations on this theme) for the hereafter. If you think this life is great, just wait till you get to heaven; you haven’t seen anything yet. Or, if you think this life sucks, just wait till you get to heaven; god(s) will reward your patience and faithfulness with something much better.
Third, there are religious believers who teach that humankind is the pinnacle of creation. Think about this a moment. As marvelous as human life is, it takes real hubris to believe that humanity is the apex of creation. Bertrand Russell put this idea well when he said, “If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as my final accomplishment.” Human life is remarkable, but to consider it the best thing going (outside of heaven) is tragically impoverished…
I know this news is several days old and, therefore, ancient by today’s standards. Moreover, other bloggers have scooped me on this, but I’ll touch on it anyway. Some of the conservatives at conservapedia have launched the Conservative Bible Project, an effort to rid the Bible of its alleged current liberal biases and restore its original conservative bent. Apparently, the Bible, translated and interpreted correctly, lines up perfectly with contemporary American right-wing Republicanism. Who would have guessed?
Generally speaking, I could care less what Christians do with their holy book. I should think, however, that Christians would care deeply about the matter. At least one conservative Christian commenter at the Washington Post agrees with me:
Does anyone other than me find it ironic that the Conservative Bible Project hijacks a supposedly sacred text and manipulates it for political purposes? Then again, it’s not like that’s never happened before. Still, this strikes me as a disrespectful way to treat one’s holy book. Is it too much to ask conservative Christians to recognize that the Bible is a collection of religious writings? It’s not a science book, or a history book, or a psychology book, or a sociology text, or a political platform. It’s a collection of religious reflections – many of which referred to scientific, historic and other ideas as they were understood at the time – on humankind’s place in the cosmos. Some of those reflections still have value for contemporary humans, others – not so much.
One of the most interesting reinterpretations offered on the Washington Post comment thread was this:
If that commenter’s right, then my guess is that Caesar would have gotten along well with George W. Bush. Hmm. Maybe the Bible is a conservative political text after all.
— the chaplain
Discussions between religious believers and nonbelievers frequently come to a point at which one participant asks the other(s), “What would it take to convince you that there is/is not a god?”
My current answer to that question is this:
All I’d need to believe in to believe in god would be a direct, unequivocal, simultaneous revelation of him/her/itself to all humankind.
Sacred writings are insufficient – we already have plenty of those; they are only persuasive to those who, for psychological, emotional and sociological reasons are predisposed to believe them. Moreover, many of them contradict each other and there are no standardized criteria by which humanity can separate the wheat from the chaff.
Personal testimonies are insufficient – we already have plenty of those; they are totally subjective events, which can be described to, but not experienced by, others. Therefore, differing interpretations of the events are not easily resolved.
Traditions and creeds are insufficient – we already have plenty of those; many of them continue to be useful at the current time, and others have been discarded for more effective or humane alternatives.
Miracles are insufficient – we already have plenty of purported miracles that have, eventually, been explained as natural phenomena. Even if one grants that some events have not been explained – yet – as natural phenomena, the odds are that natural explanations for these events will be discovered eventually. Moreover, even if an event could only be explained as miraculous, then that explanation would raise a plethora of questions about the being that performed the miraculous act: its identity; its character; its intentions toward humankind…
Max knows that he will be dead before the end of the year – probably no later than October. That’s about the time that doctors expect his cancer-riddled body to lose the fight for life. Max, who is not a Christian, is the manager at the branch office of a Christian business. His boss, Mr. Stanley is deeply concerned about the fate of Max’s eternal soul. In addition to soliciting prayers for Max (particularly his soul) from other employees, Mr. Stanley sometimes visits Max at his office. They chat about business, life in general and, eventually, Max’s “need for salvation.” Last week, Mr. Stanley took a chaplain, a fellow named Raymond, along with him to visit Max.
Max shared with me a few things about last week’s pastoral visit. He began by saying, “I love Raymond. He’s a really great guy. So is Mr. Stanley. But, sometimes I don’t hold my tongue very well when they start talking about religion. I just don’t want to talk about it. And Mr. Stanley doesn’t always hold his tongue very well, either, so our conversations can get heated.”
After we chatted some more, Max said, “Mr. Stanley wants me to fly out west to spend time with my sister. I said I’d take a couple of days for that. Mr. Stanley said, ‘No, I want you to really take time and be with your sister.’ I don’t want to do that. I haven’t told her how bad my condition is because she’ll get on the religious stuff even worse than Mr. Stanley and Raymond. A couple of days of it is all I’ll be able to stand…”
I came across an interesting post written by a thoughtful Christian who has moved beyond a literalist, fundamentalist mindset regarding the Bible as the inspired, revealed word of God. Here are some highlights (although you probably should read the whole post, in order to understand the context from which these bits are excerpted – the comments are worth reading too):
The question of whether the Bible is God’s word is not a new one…. There are certainly a number of things which seem “wrong” if we are to take a literal understanding….Yes, genetics has confirmed that we are all related through mitochondrial DNA – but this does not mean one person; it means one small group of people (who were located somewhere in Africa). It also assumes that humanity is hundreds of thousands of years old, which means we need to accept, at least in part, the theory of evolution….
Suddenly, we find ourselves in the position of looking at the Bible and deciding which parts are to be taken literally, which parts are to be taken allegorically, and which parts are to be understood as no longer applying to us because they have “been fulfilled in Christ.” This is a very dangerous thing to do. Once we start doing that, what difference is there between Christianity and any other man-made religion?
…the Bible has been used to say whatever man wants it to say…and so justify anything we want it to.