I have been asked by a number of Christadelphians whether I will ever return. Depending on how the question is asked, my answers have ranged from “I don’t see any path back” to “I don’t rule it out”. But I think it very unlikely that I will ever return to being a Christadelphian. Here’s why.
The simple answer is that there are many more ways for Christadelphianism to be wrong than to be right. While I was dealing with doubt, I had strong social reasons for clinging to Christadelphia: I didn’t want to burn bridges with friends and family until I was sure it was false. Since I have quit and brought it into the open, none of that applies. I would only expect to return if I genuinely thought it was true. And that’s a big ask.
I’ve talked about how my three gaps theory helped free me to investigate Christadelphian claims more thoroughly. Used in reverse, it also shows how difficult it would be for me now to conclude Christadelphian claims are true.
Gap 1: Belief in a god
At the moment, I do not know of any reason to believe in the existence of a god. I don’t completely rule it out, but I have enough confidence that I’m happy with taking the “atheist” label: it fits my beliefs and the way I live my life.
But even if some day I conclude that a god exists, much more would be needed. To be honest, I wouldn’t know what to do with that knowledge. Maybe I couldn’t even communicate with such a god (it would really depend how I discovered it). But much more would be needed to conclude that that god was actually the Christadelphian God.
Gap 2: The Christian God
At the moment, I believe that the Bible is a collection of human writings. I see far too many problems with it to conclude that it is inspired by God and recorded by humans. And I see no reason to accept the Christian God if I can’t trust the writings that supposedly reveal him.
These first two are my main reasons for unbelief nowadays, and I struggle to think what evidence might convince me that God is God of the Bible. If I did come to believe that, it would be tempting to return to the familiar Christadelphian teachings and rejoin the community I grew up in. But there would still be a lot of thought required.
Gap 3: Correctness of Christadelphian teachings
At the moment, I believe Christadelphian teachings are just one minority Bible interpretation among many. Though we thought we were the one true faith, there is nothing unique about claiming a return to the Bible, to first century Christianity, or to the hope of Israel.
That said, I didn’t think Christadelphian first principles were terrible, and I can still defend them from the Bible if I wish to. Anyone who thinks it is easy to dismiss Christadelphian teachings with a few proof texts has not properly understood those teachings. However, this raises a problem: exactly the same is true of more orthodox Christian teachings.
Both sides have verses that are challenging to explain, but both sides also have explanations for those challenging verses. Which of those sets of explanations are more credible? How would I decide? It would probably require a return to my abortive project of finding the “balance of scripture”. And that could take years.
What is clear is that numbers would not be on my side if I threw in my lot with the Christadelphians. Unless I was very sure it was true, joining a minority Christian group would feel like a gamble with very bad odds of success. The majority of Christians view us as a heretical minority.
I think we had the illusion that we were the only ones who really knew the Bible, and most of the Christian majority were just “cultural Christians” who relied on their pastor to tell them what to think. And perhaps there was some truth to this, but it wasn’t the full story.
In my work as a Bible software developer I interacted with many sincere Christians who had a much higher level of Biblical scholarship than I had. Similarly, the atheist communities I interact with today contain many experts on the Bible, some of them seminary trained. Few, if any, of those would endorse Christadelphian teachings as the true message of scripture.
How come the majority of intelligent, articulate, Bible-believing Christians are able to defend passionately a different gospel from the one we preached? Was it because they’d been brought up with a wrong understanding of the Bible and had been unable to escape their upbringing? Perhaps - but if so, how could I know it wasn’t me who was trapped into a wrong understanding of the Bible by my upbringing?
Yes, I knew the Bible well: My family were always the people you wanted to have on your side in a Bible trivia contest (though forget it if most of the questions were about pop culture). But that understanding also stretched to knowing the orthodox arguments better than many Christadelphians. I have had years of experience as a devil’s advocate (which always adds interest to a discussion group). I did this because I wanted to understand the actual arguments rather than the straw men many Christadelphians set up to knock down.
As a practical example, once upon a time I was managing responses to comments on a Christadelphian “Bible questions answered” site. Plenty of comments came from orthodox Christians challenging our beliefs. And I was able to answer most of them to my satisfaction (if not to theirs). But there were a few that I couldn’t. It’s not that I thought my beliefs were wrong, because I didn’t - it’s just that it wasn’t as easy to demonstrate them as I wished.
Ultimately, this goes back to my original point: There are so many more ways for Christadelphian teachings to be wrong than for them to be right. As it turns out, this is still true even if I accept the Bible as God’s inspired word (which I don’t). It was only unbelief that stopped me asking awkward questions about the right way to interpret the Bible. Otherwise, I might well have ending up leaving Christadelphia over one or more theological differences.
What about a mystical divine revelation?
Perhaps I’m blocking out God by being too rational. Maybe I should just open myself up and let his spirit guide me into a true knowledge of him? Well, perhaps, but I’m sure I tried this more than once during the years of doubt without receiving a response. Why should I expect a god to show signs to an atheist that he wouldn’t show to a troubled believer begging for help?
Let me share an experience: I like walking at night, and a couple of times I have seen bright flashes of light that covered the sky. They have been times when it’s been dry and there haven’t been many clouds around, so it’s not like I was in a thunderstorm. It happened again last year, and for maybe five seconds I thought “What if this is God speaking to me?” Then reason re-asserted itself. Even if it was a god speaking, I had no way of knowing what it said. At best, the mystical experience would have bridged the first gap.
Personally, I assume that there is a natural cause for it, though I don’t know what it is. At the time, I did a little Googling and failed to find anything, but I wasn’t too concerned that I was missing an important divine revelation. Surely a god that I would care about knowing would have clearer ways to communicate?
And this is why I don’t expect a mystical revelation to make me return to being a Christadelphian. How would I know that revelation came from the Christadelphian God? People in many religions talk about their personal experience with their god. Maybe the god could whisper a clear and detailed message in my ear, but even that would have a couple of problems:
- I would assume there was a natural explanation, probably that it actually came from my Christadelphian trained mind without any need for a god to be involved.
- Many Christadelphians would look at me rather oddly if I gave that as the story of why I returned. They might even consider it heretical.
I think that’s divine revelation covered. There are a few other non-rational options, such as:
- I might be touched by someone doing something brilliant because of their faith.
- I might commit some terrible crime and need religion to give me forgiveness.
- I might need a god to help me with something terrible that happened to me or my friends and family.
However, given what I know I don’t think it likely that any of these things would lead me back to religion. Even if they did, I don’t see why they would lead me back to Christadelphia.
Even if I determined Christadelphian beliefs to be true, would I want to be part of the Christadelphian movement?
I was involved in the Christadelphian world from childhood, so everything we did seemed normal. Now, after a couple of years out of the system, the whole thing just feels odd. While it might be nice seeing friends again and slipping back into a routine, I suspect that the world that once felt normal would now feel like a cage. There are plenty of problems I now see that it would be very difficult to unsee.
The reality is that, at least as we practiced it, it is a high commitment and insular religion. I’ve had enough of missing opportunities because my evening and weekend priorities were set by other Christadelphians rather than by me, and I’m particularly glad to have my weekends free.
But return to Christadelphia wouldn’t just be a big drain on my time: It would also be a return to talk of “the world” being evil and out to get us, of a conspiracy of scientists out to destroy our belief, of unrealistic expectations of Christ’s soon return, of having to pick the right side of various social issues, of a Bible verse trumping a carefully reasoned argument, and of a need to try and save those around me. Basically, a return to cognitive dissonance big time.
Even when I accepted the first principles, I had many issues with details of Christadelphian teaching and practice. I’ve already written about some of them on this blog. Most of them I put up with, either because I was used to tolerating them or because I didn’t have a choice. While I was a free thinker, I did not want to be seen as a radical, and so had to choose my battles carefully.
Would I be accepted?
Return to Christadelphia would mean I was a very different person to who I am now, so maybe everything would go OK. But the reality is that even if I determined the Christadelphians had the faith once for all delivered to the saints, I would still need to be accepted by the community. Yes, I’m sure there would be many who would be overjoyed to welcome the returned prodigal. But how many of those would later conclude that I was a devouring wolf out to lead others astray or divide the flock?
Unless I had given up acceptance of disapproved ideas like evolution or the equality of women, I’m pretty certain there would be problems. Maybe I could find an ecclesia to support me, but that would be joining a minority within a minority - hardly a good start. And my family might have more problems with me as a misbeliever leading believers astray than as a non-believer.
Maybe I could keep quiet about it all in an attempt to keep the peace. But I suspect I would feel compelled to channel part of the first century spirit in a disapproved manner:
Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. (Acts 4:19-20)
Do you hate Christadelphians?
If any Christadelphians are reading this, by this point you may just think I’m a bitter person with a personal grudge against the community and everyone in it. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was always treated well as a Christadelphian, and have friends and family who remain Christadelphians. I have many fond memories, and when I left I left very reluctantly. It’s just that I’ve moved on in ways that would make it difficult to return.
However, while it is not a matter of love or hate, it is a matter of truth and falsehood. I think Christadelphian beliefs are wrong, and that those beliefs lead sincere believers to do things that are wrong. And so long as I continue to think this I will continue to be glad that I made the difficult decision to quit and build a new life.
To return to being a Christadelphian would require me to be a different person from what I am now. In the time since I left, everything I have learned has pointed away from belief in God and the Bible, let alone the very specific Christadelphian teachings I once upheld. It is not clear to me what would have to change to reverse that direction, but surely it would have to be something significant.
It is likely that I will find more things that I am wrong about. I’ve changed my views in the face of evidence before, and hope to continue to do so as necessary. But even if you were to convince me that half my current understanding of the world is wrong, it is unlikely that what replaces that understanding supports Christadelphia. Why? Because there are so many more ways for Christadelphia to be wrong than there are for it to be right.
It’s not enough just to knock down beliefs one by one and assume that Christadelphia will be the last one standing. I would need positive reasons to accept it, and I don’t expect to ever see those reasons.