I’ve described how my search for certainty about the existence of God led me away from traditional apologetics to atheism, most recently when talking about the three gaps theory.
However, there was a time when I actively preferred faith to evidence or argument, because it told me so much more about God. At that time you could reasonably have called me a fundamentalist Bible basher, and yet I already knew many of the nuances that would later lead me away from faith.
Who cares about the first cause?
The first time I remember noticing this was as a teenager in an Adventist secondary school. In years 7 - 10 we had been served a fairly standard Bible study class. In years 11 & 12, we switched to the government approved Texts & Traditions, which discussed more of the scholarly and cultural background behind interpreting the religious text. One of the sections was “philosophical proofs for God”. I only remember covering two of them: the cosmological argument and Pascal’s Wager (both of which I’ve already discussed here)
They were interesting arguments, but left me confused why people would bother. The cosmological argument seemed particularly useless: Why bother affirming that some god somewhere had created the universe? How did that convince anyone? And what was I supposed to do with that knowledge? I already knew God.
So what was different about the teenage me? The biggest difference was that I didn’t just believe God existed: I knew he existed. As far as I can recall, it wasn’t a question I even asked, so it probably confused me why people would even consider that God didn’t exist.
Some atheists like to say “Atheism is the default position, so everyone starts off as an atheist”. This may be true, but if so I had lost that default position before I even remember. And, in fairness, I didn’t really have a reason to doubt God’s existence: As a teenager, all of my family, fellow students, and fellow members of the ecclesia believed in God. Why would I question it? It was just an accepted part of life.
But it didn’t stop with knowing God’s existence, like the cosmological argument does. I knew exactly how to learn everything I need to know about him: read the Bible, interpret it correctly, and there you are. I knew I was fortunate to be one of the chosen few, with the wisdom of God and his commandments all available to me.
At that stage in my life, the three gaps I have talked about didn’t exist: I already knew that God existed, knew how he revealed himself, and knew how to correctly interpret that revelation.
Pascal’s Wager was a different matter: Though I wasn’t completely confident I was ready for the coming judgement, I knew there was reward and punishment waiting. Since Pascal’s Wager relies on these pre-existing assumptions it probably made perfect sense to me.
The flaw with arguments for belief
While I hadn’t come across intellectual arguments for belief in God, my denomination did present reasons to believe the Bible. They were included in courses with catchy titles like Learn to Read the Bible Effectively (LTRTBE) and Getting to Know the Bible Better (GTKTBB), and covered areas like prophecy, archaeology, the resurrection, and health laws.
I liked learning more about these areas. They were fascinating, particularly archaeology, and there were plenty of books which showed the history which supported the Bible (and, whether accidentally or deliberately, hid most of the rest). But I’m not sure that my belief ever relied on these arguments. Instead, the arguments and evidence merely confirmed what I already knew to be right.
However, while that was fine for me, it was a real problem for the outreach we were doing with these courses. I think I recognised even then what I discussed in my last post: they weren’t sufficient to establish the complete truth of the entire Bible, let alone to convince an outsider that our Christadelphian beliefs were correct and everyone else was wrong.
If a Jew came along, would they not say that most of our evidences supported their scriptures too? If a Christian came along, we could help them read the Bible, but would it lead them to our beliefs? Obviously we hoped it would, but sincere belief that we were correct could only help us, not them.
The fundamentalist revealed
It’s difficult to completely reconstruct a past mind-set, particularly given at any one time I held multiple contradictory ideas and influences. However, I think there must have been a time when I semi-consciously doubled down on faith. I do remember accepting the “fundamentalist” label with pride. It may have been intended to be derogatory, but why should I be ashamed of accepting the Bible as God’s word and letting it rule my life?
I wanted certainty, the same certainty I had had in my teenage years. Faith was attractive, because it gave me both certainty and simplicity. Why would I want anything else? As we occasionally said about controversial areas like young earth creationism, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s that.”
This benefited our congregations, too, since it gave us a shared starting point. Rather than starting from scratch and re-hashing the God argument every time, we could just pick up the Bible and preach truth from it. It may be circular, but it was much easier when establishing the authority of the Bible to say “The Bible is the inspired word of God - and I know that because it says so”. So long as everyone in the group did it, these assumptions felt as natural as breathing.
Non-Christian faiths are wrong! (the Bible says so)
Once I was assigned to lecture on “Non-Christian Faiths are wrong!” (complete with exclamation mark for effect). This was notable because it showed how confident I was that this was true, but also showed that I saw some of the problems inherent in trying to convince others that it was so.
In fact, I remember discussing with a (non-Christian) co-worker how unproductive I thought the title was. We were theoretically trying to attract the man off the street. However, the only firm basis we had for declaring other religions wrong was our particular religious text. Why should our hypothetical man off the street accept that text? (I doubt my colleague would have).
The approach I took was to hand-wave enough to slip in that assumption. Once the talk had been reset to “The Bible says non-Christian faiths are wrong”, I was on familiar ground and could rove the Bible freely to present the message of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and what that meant for other religions.
Here’s the switch (and note the evidence I was using to support the Bible):
For this talk, we will judge how right other faiths are using the Bible, which is the basis for our religion and which we believe to be a revelation to man from God, written down by men but inspired by God and useful for guiding your life. It might seem strange to use the basis of our religion to prove other religions wrong. However, we do think that there is evidence that the Bible is both an accurate historical record and is truly the word of God, such as detailed prophecies that have been fulfilled, archaeology, and very accurate health laws, though we won’t have time to look at these today. So what we have to look at today is the view of the Bible on non-Christian faiths, which we believe to be the view of God.
I was firm in my faith, but was more uncomfortable with this particular proclamation of my faith than the text suggests.
Reading through those talk notes, I also found an interesting message on the importance of religion being true, not just useful:
I don’t know about anyone else, but I want to know that what I believe in is right. If you say you believe in a God (or a collection of gods), surely it matters whether they actually exist or not? If you are promised that certain things will happen, whether it is that your God will protect you through life or that you will be reincarnated by a higher form of life or that you will live in peace in some future afterlife, surely you want to be sure that these things are true and actually do happen? Surely you would want to see some evidence of this God working, actually doing something? If you are going to be required by your faith to change the way you do things, and to do certain things and not do other things, surely you would want to know that there is some purpose behind doing these things other than just “Because that’s what I do”?
This section is the one part of the message that I would still agree with: I want to believe in what is right, no matter what the consequences. But it also shows how much my beliefs mattered to me. I was sincere in considering them real, and so I wanted others to learn about them. God’s purpose and his plan of salvation through Jesus Christ could change their life.
It may sound like I was living in my own bubble (and I was), but it wasn’t a completely insulated bubble. Though it had many similarities, I don’t think it was the “blind faith” some deride. I believed I had good reasons to believe, whether or not those reasons were justified. For sure, faith was helping plug many more of the gaps in those reasons than I knew, but it wasn’t just faith.
Exposure to competing canons
Though I was a fundamentalist by conviction, I was also very curious and tried to be widely read. As a result, I came across arguments that many other Christadelphians wouldn’t have. I may have hidden them away in a corner of my mind or rejected them, but I still heard about them.
In particular, I followed Christian blogs which approached the Bible in a more scholarly way than most Christadelphians. I was also involved in Bible software development, which brought me into contact with a group of committed Christians who were very different from me.
Take for example the canon of scripture. As I’ve said, I fundamentally relied on the Protestant 66 books being God’s inspired words and the only source of salvation. And yet as a Bible software developer I came to realise that there were many other denominations recognising different books as canonical. I could have faith, but none of the evidences I presented for the Bible would allow me to provide evidence for each of the 66 books, let alone evidence that other books should be rejected. I’d heard occasional dismissive comments from Christadelphians about the value of certain apocryphal books - but what if those comments could be just as easily made against some of our 66 books? For example, it’s difficult to reject the implausible fish related story of Tobit while accepting the implausible fish related story of Jonah.
In the software world, one well meaning comment about the difficulty of displaying texts from different versifications in parallel got me this response:
Do realize that the Protestant canon, which does not have that verse, is only in use by a TINY minority of Christians compared to those who use the Catholic, Orthodox and other versifications.
I don’t think this changed my support for the Protestant canon: It just made me more cautious how and where I expressed my views on it. There were distinct areas of my life where “Just have faith” became “It’s easier to be silent and avoid controversy”. But this experience also made me more aware that I accepted it by faith rather than as an unquestionable fact.
As well as accepting more books in the canon, I learned that scholars cast doubt on the traditional authorship of some of the books in my canon. For example, I can remember coming across references to the seven genuine letters of Paul (suggesting the others aren’t) and to Ecclesiastes not being written by Solomon. Though many Christians accept these things, they do strike against the traditional, faith-filled Christadelphian approach of taking the Bible at its word. As a result, I think I explored the ideas for a while, then went back to taking it on faith and treating all (my) scripture as inspired.
But there was another way faith plugged the gap here: I was confident that there was an explanation out there somewhere - I just had to trust it was there and hope to find it some day. Yes, I wanted answers to these conundrums. But I still preferred the faith that the answers were there somewhere to the realisation that maybe they weren’t.
The importance of community
The Christadelphian community normalised my beliefs: I wasn’t the only one who was using faith to accept the Bible as inspired by God. But it also put a check on how far I could safely explore while remaining a member of the community. It wasn’t just childhood beliefs: it was also friends and family.
I realised that some of what I had learned would not be viewed positively by most Christadelphians, and so I either ignored it or de-prioritised investigating it. And if I was just able to have faith that the standard interpretations fit, everything would be much easier.
For some, liberal Christianity is the answer. Relax as many traditional Christian teachings as it takes to accept modern facts and ideas, but still hold to Christianity. I’m sure I did get more moderate in my beliefs over the years, and was proud of having a more nuanced understanding than other simplistic faith-filled believers.
But I don’t think I really accepted liberal Christianity as a way-point in the same way as many former believers do. While I was perfectly able to defend more liberal Christian ideas held by others, I was never really convinced. For example, I never accepted theistic evolution, nor did I significantly relax my standards on the inerrancy of scripture.
Though those who held liberal interpretations pointed out (correctly) some problems with traditional interpretations, to me it felt like they twisted the text too much after having started from a pre-determined position. And if that meant I needed to take more on faith, so be it. As above, I also knew that being more liberal would have risked my position in the community (I still don’t know which would have upset my family more: adopting a really liberal brand of Christianity, or adopting atheism).
Perhaps I did retain a more fundamentalist approach even while I was leaving the religion - but it was not due to a lack of awareness of liberal approaches.
The seeds of my downfall
One of the things that fascinates me about this journey is how the same ideas look different with and without faith. There were many things that I explored in order to learn about, promote, and defend my religion. And yet they later contributed to my decision to reject that religion.
Nothing could be further from the common Christian accusation that “you just left because you didn’t have enough faith” or “you just wanted to sin”. It was because of the strength of my faith and my commitment to truth that I eventually discovered how ill-founded my faith was. It would have been much easier to “just have faith” and not ask too many questions (except for the cognitive dissonance, of course).
When I was confident God existed and he had inspired the Bible, faith could plug any gap that was necessary. Intellectual arguments and evidence were interesting, but they could not give me the level of certainty I already had. When I began to doubt God’s existence, I slowly discovered that there were more gaps than I had realised. Some of them were gaping chasms that I could no longer bridge, and after a while I lost even the desire to bridge them.