Talking to Dad about (the problems with) Christianity

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.

The Butter Battle Dilemma Solved!

Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book is a metaphor for the Cold War.  The story is about two civilizations living on opposite sides of a wall who are identical except for the fact that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up and the Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down.

I took the day off from work today to take care of some things, and as is my usual fashion when not going to work, I stopped at the Waffle House for breakfast.  When they brought me my order over easy with sausage, hash browns, and raisin toast, I started eating.  When I picked up my toast, the Butter Battle Book flashed in my mind.  “They’ve figured it out!”, I thought.

You see, When Waffle house makes toast, they take it out of the toaster, and while still nice and hot they slather on some butter and put the butter sides facing each other.  So essentially, it’s a butter sandwich.  Then when you pick up the first piece of toast the butter side is down, and for the second piece the butter side is up.

So, I think if the Yooks and Zooks had a Waffle House right on the wall dividing them they might have been able to come together and break bread without argument over who is right and who is wrong.

Or maybe they would have remained closed minded they way so many of us are and turned their angst against the Libertarians at the Waffle House.

The Case for Christ

So it’s been a few months since I actively stopped going to church.  One night, My wife and I have a conversation about it.  I basically summed up my arguments as to why I could no longer go to church with “It’s all bullshit”.  She thought about it, and a few nights later she told me that she had come to grips with a lot of this when she started attending the UPC church years ago.  She basically said that she realized her baptist grandparents were saved, even though the UPC church says they’re not.  She then went on to say that she even considers her dad OK, even though he is a member of what he calls the one, true religion, “non-practicing Catholics.”  She said that he is more of a Christian, by his attitude and actions toward others than many of the active Christians she knows.  I have to agree with her.  He is one of the best people I know.

So since I’ve quit going, the music minister sent me a text asking how I was doing.  I replied that I was well.

Then two Sundays ago, I get a call from one of the men in the church, who I used to ride motorcycles with.  He left a message asking me to call him back.  I put it off until Tuesday night.  He called back and we talked for a while.  I tried my best to lay out what I had been through as quickly as I could.  He expressed his worried disapproval and finally concluded by asking me if I had ever witnessed a miracle.  Well, no.  I never have.  I’ve been told by others that they knew someone who heard someone else say they had witnesses a miracle.  For all intents and purposes, I think most situations that people call miracles are coincidences.  And I also think it’s interesting that the closer you get to the third world, the more miracles you see.  And isn’t it interesting the near lack of modern medical equipment that could confirm a miracle claim in the third world…  But I digress.  He went on to tell me about a miracle that happened to him.  Apparently his dog was hit in the head and his son said the dog was dead.  He called the pastor, who proceeded to pray for the dog, and he was healed.  I think he made my point for me without even realizing it.  But he asked if he could pray for me that I’d witness a miracle.  Sure.  What harm could that do?  I’d love to see an actual, verifiable miracle.  Wouldn’t you?

Then a couple of days later, my former pastor sends me a text asking if we could talk.  So I called him and we set up a breakfast meeting for last Saturday.  Over the course of an hour and a half, I laid out most of everything I had learned, and concluded by telling him that I no longer believed.

One of his concerns was that I had mentioned that Matthew had mined the Septuagint for his “prophecies” concerning the messiah and had misunderstood it, and therefore pictured Jesus riding two donkeys into Jerusalem simultaneously based on his misunderstanding.   My former pastor proceeded to tell me that the Septuagint wasn’t written when Matthew wrote his gospel.  OK…

Then he told me that he thought that “my searching” was a good thing, since it showed that I was looking for the truth.  In fact, I had told him several times that that was the whole reason I had started questioning Christianity in the first place: I wanted to know the truth.  I had even said that I thought it was interesting and ironic that my search for the truth had lead me out of Christianity.  But even so, I’ll grant him that my search is definitely not over.  There is always more to learn.

So he concluded by asking if I would be willing to read a book.  Sure.  I’m always open to reading a good book.  So he orders me a copy of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He also orders me a copy of The Case for a Creator, also by Strobel.  I was a little anxious to see if these books might contain that one thing that I might be able to pin my hopes on that Christianity had some sliver of hope left.  After all, he is a pastor, and he has to know something about these books and the knowledge they contain.  Maybe, just maybe, he knew something that I hadn’t looked at yet.  So we said our goodbyes and promised to meet again in a few weeks time to discuss the books.

The next day, as I was running around town doing errands, I stopped by the local bookstore.  In the religion section, they had a copy of The Case for Christ.  So I sat down and started reading.  Very quickly, my hopes dried up.  It’s written on quite a low level, and is dry: that formulaic, leading kind of dry that so many Christian books are written in.  I got about half-way through the first chapter and had to quit.  I skipped to the end of the chapter and realized there were “study questions”.  I’d been had!  This wasn’t a real book about facts and serious inquiry, it was a Christian self-help book.

So I looked up some reviews of the book online to see what others had said about it.  Not surprisingly, all the Christian reviews were glowing.  But then I came across a couple of  blog-length critical reviews of the book.  I also found one for The Case for a Creator, which I am nearly finished with reading.  It is over at the Daylight Atheism blog on Patheos.com.    Apparently, my initial assessment was correct.  These books are nothing more than self-help books trying to keep those Christians with little or mild doubt in the pews.  When you actually look at the claims made in these books, it’s easy to see that they haven’t got a leg to stand on.

Frankly, I am quite disappointed that my former pastor would recommend these books.  Either he thinks they are that good, or he doesn’t realize how tenacious and thorough I have been with studying this stuff.  Yes… I know it’s taken me a long time to finally put two and two together and realize that not only is the emperor not wearing clothes, but that there is no emperor at all, but at least I did figure it out.  Now to convince my former pastor that I’m done.

I still do intend on reading at least The Case for Christ, but I had already ordered Loftus’ The Christian Delusion.  If you have not read this book, you need to.  It puts all of it together in a way that makes it easy to comprehend, and is written by such a high level of authors that there is really no arguing against it in a meaningful way.