My Dad came to visit for a few days this week on one of his whirlwind trips across the country. It was nice to be able spend some time with him, considering all that he’s been through these last few years. While he was here, I knew I wanted to discuss all of these things I’ve learned about the problems with Christianity and maybe even get to the real point and “come out” as an atheist to him.
You have to know a little about my dad. He was my pastor from about the time I was 14 until I left to join the Army at 18. He is on the board of the oneness pentecostal denomination (small though it is) that I grew up in. Whenever you ask how he is, his response is usually, “I’m blessed in the Lord.” EVERYTHING about his worldview is based on his “relationship” with Jesus. But at the same time, he is very resilient when it comes to any kind of personal or religious issue, and he is very accepting of others in a way I’ve almost never seen of any other person, let alone a oneness pentecostal minister. As an example, years ago when it was revealed that my brother’s fiancé was pregnant, all my dad did was hug him and tell him how much he loved him. Another example of my dad’s acceptingness of others’ differences is the interfaith minister’s group my dad attends in his hometown. He is good friends with baptist and catholic ministers, etc., and even calls them his “brothers in Christ”; not a common traits for the closed-minded, “we’re the only ones with the truth” oneness pentecostals.
So dad came in on Monday, and I wasn’t sure how he would react to “the news”, so I decided to wait. On Tuesday we worked on a project together, which took nearly all day. That night, my wife asked if I had talked with him about “important things.” She was worried about the reaction when she and the kids left for church on Wednesday night and I didn’t go with them.
So on Wednesday, Dad and I went out to breakfast. I started the conversation with a line of reasoning from John W. Loftus’ OTF. I started with the Religious Diversity Thesis in my own words. “I read that there are about 40,000 Christian denominations in the world. Many of them are mutually exclusive of one another, meaning that one group would send the other group to hell for their beliefs and vice versa- Since they can’t all be right, how do you know which one is the right one?”
His response was something about the basics of christianity and knowing in your heart that you had a relationship with god. So I set a little groundwork and explained that the reason I left the UPC church was that I realized it wasn’t biblically right (he agreed with me) and that I had been looking for the “right” church for the last six or so years through much study and research, so I could know which was the right way to worship god. After all, if god is a “jealous god” and Paul said to not fall for those who taught “other gospels” then there must be only one “right way” to worship god. And with 40,000 extant ways, many mutually exclusive, there are a lot of people who have it wrong. He said it had to do with “working out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” So I restated that it’s basically up to your own interpretation. He sort of agreed with me.
Then I shifted into John W. Loftus’ Religious Dependency Thesis. “You know that most people stick with the religion they were born into? If you were born in India, you’re probably going to be Hindu, and if you were born in Japan, you’re probably going to be Buddhist, and if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’re probably going to be a Muslim- and if you were born here, you’re probably a Christian of some sort. Most people don’t really look at the religion they were born into to see if it’s right or not.” He responded that his grandfather was a Methodist preacher until he saw the “light of Jesus’ name” (BTW, that’s oneness pentecostal code for “we reject the trinity concept and as a result, when we baptize people, we say ‘in Jesus’ name’ instead of ‘father, son, and holy spirit'”). I told him that I didn’t think that was a good analogy, since the pentecostals originated in the methodists, and they’re very similar anyway, not to mention that was a common thing at that time since that’s how the pentecostals came about. Then I told him that there are some people who do switch religions, but the majority stick with their culturally inherited one.
Then I asked, “If your version of Christianity is culturally inherited, and there is no right version because its a matter of personal interpretation, how is one ever going to figure out which is the right one? THAT doesn’t seem to make any sense at all.”
I brought up the differences in opinion of the early church that are extant in the new testament. I showed him Romans 3:28 and the surrounding verses and James 2:24 and surrounding verses where Paul said that “a man is justified by faith apart from works”, and “James” said that “a man is justified by works and not faith alone.” He said he’s have to look at his commentary to see what the original language said. So I pulled up the verses on the Blue Letter Bible website where you can get to the Greek dictionary. Sure enough, they use the exact same Greek words to express opposite versions of how one is justified. My next question was “if the men who wrote the Bible can’t even agree on how one is justified, how are we to know how to be justified?” He responded that he never had a problem with this. He said that either way, he felt that he was justified. He went on to talk about how they were really saying the same thing, and that works will follow your salvation regardless. I gave him the analogy that if Hitler was on his deathbed and “believed” with all his heart then died that Paul would say he was saved, but “James” wold not, since “faith without works is dead.” He saw my point, but didn’t necessarily agree with me.
We spoke on and off most of the afternoon. I brought in textual criticism, archaeology, and a bit of science. I could see his wheels turning with frustration, but all he could answer was that none of this had ever bothered him because he was sure in his salvation. Finally I replied with, “Well, it does bother me.” I told him that I had spoken with my (former) pastor and he couldn’t provide any answers other that to recommend a book that brought up more questions and didn’t make Christianity look very good since it used untruths to make its points. I also told him that I had been corresponding with my cousin (a pastor) who couldn’t answer any of my questions, but only define the religio-philosophical problem that I was giving examples of. I told him that I had important questions that needed to be answered, and no one seemed to be able to answer them.
Then my wife came in and asked if he was going to go to church with her and the kids. He decided to stay with me. I think that’s when it hit home. He said, “Well, I can see you’ve lost faith in the church.”
I said “Yes. And Christianity too.”
He asked if I still had faith in god. I said, “I’m still holding out for god.”
What I didn’t tell him is that I do not, in fact, believe that the god of the Christian faith exists as claimed by Christians, but I would like there to be a god, because that’s where my comfort zone is. I’ve always believed there’s a god, and that’s a hard thing to let go of. But considering the evidence, I can’t believe. It’s one of those things that you really can’t unsee.
I think this conversation will continue, but I don’t really think he will be the one to bring it up.