During any given week, I have a number of conversations ongoing with inquisitive folks who read the blog and want either to send me encouragement or else to challenge me to reconsider my disbelief in their religion. From time to time I like to share a sample of those conversations with the rest of you so that you can get a peek into what they are like, how I respond to them, and what sorts of things will either encourage more conversations or else shut them down.
Here is one from this week with a fundamentalist pastor from Oregon. And yes, those do exist, for as you’ll frequently hear me say: Anytime you get 20 minutes outside of any major city in the U.S., you’re back in the Bible Belt again, no matter in what state you live or travel.
My wife came upon your webpage and told me about your decision to turn away from Christianity. I am a pastor in Oregon but was born and raised and lived in the deep south until moving here 10 years ago. I am curious to know the, “why,” behind you forsaking Christianity.
Please help me understand.
Bishop David [Edited]
I’m always open to discussing why I no longer believe, although I’ll go ahead and tell you that people like me quickly pick up on loaded language like “decision to turn away” and “forsaking.” Your choice of language indicates you’ve already evaluated my skepticism as a moral failing of some kind. Maybe you could correct me about that, though? Have I misunderstood?
The reasons that were convincing to me as a child are no longer persuasive to me in my adult life. That puts us on opposite sides of a large divide, which doesn’t mean we can’t have a productive conversation. But it does mean misunderstanding each other will happen very easily. So if you’re really interested in understanding why I no longer believe, I feel like the first step will require understanding that I didn’t rebel against anything, or forsake anything. No decision was made to turn away from anything. I just no longer believe what I once believed. Continuing to pretend as if I do would be dishonest from that point forward.
I’m open to discussing this, however, and I’ve written about it many times. The most recent version of my shorter explanation can be found here, if you’d like to start there:
The pastor first wrote me back to apologize, which is pretty rare.
Thank you for your response. I apologize for my poor choice of words in asking what happened. I meant no disrespect at all. The words I used are from years of being in church and words of a pastor. Christians do have their own church language, it’s hard sometimes to not use church words. I will read your link that you sent and then if I have any more questions I will respond back to you.
After reading the link I sent him, he wrote back a short reply which I suppose he felt was a decent closing argument. My second reply follows his.
Hello, I finally got the time to read your explanation of why you no longer believe. My response is this. If you are correct and I live my life praying to and trusting in a god of my imagination who doesn’t exists then when I die, I’m just dead and that’s it. However, if you are wrong, then we both know where that leaves you when you die.
I’m sure you already know that response is called “Pascal’s Wager,” and it’s fairly unpersuasive for people like me for a number of reasons. You said, “If you are wrong, then we both know where that leaves you,” but we actually don’t. If I am wrong, there are hundreds of other possibilities, but you are programmed to be impressed by only one of them. You seem to believe that if my unbelief in gods is wrong, then yours is the only alternative. We call that a “false dilemma.”
What if there isn’t just one god but hundreds? Or what if there is one but it’s not yours? Or perhaps more to the point, what if yours is the right one, but you’ve massively misunderstood his sentiments toward people like me who are unconvinced of his existence? Why are you so certain that my unbelief is the thing that dooms me…in fact why are you so convinced being “doomed” is a legitimate option at all? I know hundreds of Christians who would open the same Bible you do and find Jesus using Gehenna as a metaphor to shame the rich and the religious, a word picture which he never intended to be used as a scare tactic for people like me. Wouldn’t that be something?
I could point to Jesus’s own words that it isn’t the ones who call him “Lord” who make it into heaven but the ones who care for their fellow human beings. I do that all the time, yet you remain certain that my disbelief in deities overrides everything else.
What if you’re wrong about that? If so, you may not be doomed for hell, but you certainly would render your own evangelical effectiveness null and void. What a waste of a single lifetime that would be.
But I don’t expect to change the mind of a man of your age, least of all a man tasked with the care of a congregation. Your job description is too set, your canon of belief too ironclad to change at this point.
All that said, I always appreciate an attempt to reach outside the bubble of the church, because that’s where the overwhelming majority of people live. I still appreciate the respectful tone of your communication, which is more than many in your shoes are able to manage.
- The Christian’s Wager: Why Faith Is a Bigger Gamble
- Why I Reject Hell (and Why You Should, Too)
- Is It Loving to Warn People About Hell?
- Absolving God From Hell