Thursday, December 27, 2007

Guest Post By BrianC

The following is a guest post by BrianC, who has been posting comments on a previous post from an atheist perspective. I have invited him to tell us about his personal voyage of self-discovery:

Mark has very graciously suggested that a number of posts explaining how I got from bible believing Christian to my current state of apostasy, might by instructive, or at the very least serve as a terrible warning of what to avoid, for the true believer. It’s a longish story, but I hope sufficiently novel to keep most readers engaged. I grew up in the republic of Ireland in the 1960’s and 70’s, running the entire obligatory catholic obstacle course, of communion, confirmation and lectures on the specific and exquisite methods of torture, God had in mind for the non, or wayward roman catholic. This left me with a fairly clear idea of where I stood in relation to God. He was THE BOSS and I was in his absolute and total power. Disobedience was not merely a dangerous idea, but the very definition of insanity, given the potential downside. Even as a callow youth, I could see the logic of Pascal’s Wager:-), and I remain sympathetic to the compelling logic of the worldview, which embraces the idea of eternal rewards and punishments.As a twelve year old, I moved to South Africa. Quite a shocking change of climate, culture and religious milieu for a young Irish lad, and it gave me an opportunity afforded very few. I was suddenly forced to switch perspectives, from being the citizen of a small country suffering some low key oppression at the hands of an overbearing neighbour (the UK), to becoming part of a ruling minority (the whites) participating in the markedly more robust oppression of a powerless majority. I was also exposed to my first real brush with protestant Christian sects, and frankly, I rather liked it.The emphasis on salvation through the acceptance of Jesus, as opposed to the catholic obsession with penance, categories of sin and more than a hint of real world mortification of the flesh, struck me as a far more palatable and internally consistent message. Yes we were all sinners, but Jesus had taken that sin on our behalf. Plus, there were no priests, and I had always considered these grotesque elderly virgins rather creepy. Some kind of sixth sense I suppose.During the next 5 years or so, I went through, what for this audience is I expect, a fairly familiar evangelical cycle of salvation and backsliding. Often my returns to the fold were followed by speaking in tongues, periods of intensely emotional joy, laughing in the spirit and the like. Sometimes there was nothing, my re-dedications were followed by little more than an intellectual sense of having put things back in order, and that on totting up the balance sheet, I was once again, out of the red. Those catholic habits die hard:-) Other than an aggressive attempt by a Mormon friend to recruit me (I simply found the book of Mormon too silly, even then), and a bit of a close call with 7th day Adventists (I found their intense attention to detail rather compelling), things rolled along fairly smoothly. I was largely at peace with my faith, and seriously considering the ministry. At the age of 18 I finished school, worked for about a year as computer operator in Johannesburg, and then began my two year stint of national service in the South African Defence Force, sometime in 1984. After a fairly grueling 3 months of basic training, I was stationed in a grim, dusty little support battalion, 7th South African Infantry, in Palaborwa. Palaborwa was reputed to have two seasons, summer and hell. It was too close to the equator, much too close to Mozambique and in practical terms, as far from the real world (air conditioning, the opposite sex and beer) as the dark side of the moon. The career military in Palaborwa had little but contempt for conscripts like myself, thousands of flabby, wide eyed innocents, all harbouring in their lethal little breasts, a one in one thousand chance of loosing an eye, a hand or worse still, a whole staff sergeant to the statistical certainty of training accidents to come. To the further disgust of the professionals, almost all of whom were Afrikaners, most of us weren’t even South Africans, but force naturalized colonials. An imaginative government attempt to beef up the, even then, rapidly shrinking white demographic, had resulted in the conscription of thousands of pale English speaking foreigners. Plenty of whom could barely squeak out so much as a “Hoe gaan dit?” in Afrikaans. You get the picture;-)After school, in the run up to my 2 years in the SADF, and intermittently when I had leave from the army, I attended a mega church in Johannesburg called “Christian City”. You know the type. High energy speakers, tithes (expected but not obligatory), the prosperity gospel, lots of bible courses (for a fee), speaking in tongues, slaying in the spirit, a pretty good Christian bookshop where I recall buying and being so impressed by Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict”, that I later splashed out on the rather unimaginatively named sequel “More Evidence that Demands a Verdict”. They also had really well organized home churches and study groups. This church and my experience with the narrow slice of protestant Christendom I had been exposed to, left me with a real sense of how chosen “we” were. At this time by “we” I meant people who explicitly had been born again, baptized in the Holy Spirit (with signs mind you) and who harboured a sympathetic contempt for anyone that hadn’t. Happily, my time in the SADF changed that rather bigoted view.I had the incredible good luck (I considered it divine intervention at the time) to be assigned as a chaplains clerk. This was a very cushy number which required no dangerous shooting, throwing of grenades or any of that very unpleasant, “running while being shot at”. Basically, my duties were to keep the office tidy, carry hymn books, furniture and religious accoutrement back and forth to services, in short to be the chaplains general dogs body in all things. The chaplain was a Dominee (the Afrikaans term for pastor) of the Dutch Reformed Church. A rather austere denomination, very heavy on the Calvin, light on the "Jesus Loves you" and lumbered with the weird, disquieting and quite logical doctrine of predestination. However the Dominee himself was a wonderful man, a great Christian and it showed. He may not have had the fireworks of the spirit that I had come to expect from all true believers, but he certainly had the fruits in abundance. This, I suspect, is where it all began to go off the rails. Ironic really, that the witness of such a humble Christian gentleman would sow the seeds of “destruction”. The thing was that I could see the fruits of the spirit, love, patience etc. the really good stuff, in all sorts of Christians. Even Christians that my pastor back in Christian City suggested were lost. I had been fed a fairly exclusive message for years, told that the embrace of that message should show in some tangible way, but reality was not stacking up like that. In fact, I began to see the simplistic “believe and receive” Christians of my old church as superficial and shallow, downright materialistic, when contrasted with the Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics I had spent the last rather grueling two years with.My stint in the SADF had also left me searching for a lot of philosophical answers on the subject of justice. Apartheid was alive and well in the SA of 1984, and the ideological incompatibility with the words of Jesus simply became more starkly obvious during my military service. My religious convictions although still strong and integral to my person at the time, were struggling to understand how an overwhelmingly Christian nation could endorse, justify and actively champion the cruelties being visited upon the majority black population, who were also Christians.While chewing on these inconsistencies, I was drawn to the idea that true Christians appeared in all denominations, and that the specific dogma was secondary. Simply “accepting Jesus as your saviour” wasn’t producing noticeably better Christians, and I was bumping into a steady stream of people who had never “been born again” in any kind of ostentatious way, yet even with long term and intimate exposure to them (the army will do that!) they still seemed objectively “better” people. There had to be something else, something indefinable in the mix, not reducible to some cold scriptural formula. In the late 80’s I left South Africa and returned to Europe, specifically the UK. I still had in the back of my mind that ministry was what I wanted to do, and after about a year I made contact with a Christian group I had first seen in school in SA in the early 80’s. The group was Covenant Players (, their explicitly stated mission was to communicate the Lord Jesus Christ through the medium of drama. This may well have been the best 4 years of my life. I was assigned to Germany where I quickly picked up the language, and within 2 years was running my own unit. People loved us, our message and the medium. I was good at the drama, as well as the business side of things and my unit became one of the first to use a computer. A ludicrous IBM 286 with an absurdly small amount of RAM, and a 10 MB hard “card”. I used to lug this beast around with me in a suitcase, but all of our correspondence was done on time, and we kept in such regular contact with our “customers”, that we had a steady stream of bookings generated by these mass mailing contacts alone. I met my wife in Covenant Players, and when my daughter was born, the unit in Ireland drove us home from the hospital in their van. Although both of us have now rejected theism generally, and Christianity in specific, we both look back very fondly on our time in ministry, and the many wonderful Christians we met.All through this period, my continued disappointment with simplistic evangelical Christianity, interaction with every Christian denomination under the sun, as well as positive interactions with Mormons, JW and even the occasional Muslim, deepened my conviction that God must accept all monotheists on whatever cultural terms the context of their upbringing provides. If “accepting Jesus” was the critical formula, did it really stand to reason, that someone born in Utah or Teheran had exactly the same chance at salvation as someone born into the family of a Baptist minister? This seemed absurd, the more so given the terrible penalty of making the wrong choice.It gradually seeped into my consciousness, that Pascal’s Wager was not a binary proposition at all, that given the thousands of confident religions, sects and cults worldwide, the choices were in fact functionally infinite. I wrestled with the idea that there had to be some way of giving everyone an equal shot at salvation, so to speak. Either that or the penalty couldn’t possibly be as severe as alleged. The concept, “accept Jesus as your saviour” had been (re-?) formulated during the reformation, with the very narrow horizon of European civilization in mind, and as a counterpoint to the Catholic Churches focus on sin. When I examined this dogma against the broader sweep of history and geography, it simply seemed vacuous, even cruel, and the attempts to explain this clear injustice were uniformly inadequate. I considered the thousands of years of Chinese history for example, utterly untouched by Christianity until perhaps two hundred years ago, or the South and North American civilizations that have risen and fallen in the last 2000 years, collectively, billions of people that lived and died without ever hearing a single solitary syllable about Jesus. That is assuming you don’t accept the book of Mormon.A particularly important fork in the road, was the thought that every theist on the planet makes very similar claims, appeals and arguments, just for a different set of speculations. They are frequently certain they have evidence, reason and of course God on their side. To me, they all began to look very, very similar, including my own Christian convictions. How could the different perspectives, dogmas and claims be objectively evaluated? Not by reason, all the faiths and sects have what they consider excellent reasons for what they believe, and consider everyone else’s reasons insufficient. If you think I’m exaggerating, try arguing with a Muslim (they are all over the internet) about the inerrancy of the Quran or with a 7th Day Adventist, Mormon of Jehovah’s Witness regarding some of their more curious doctrinal claims.Not by personal experience, people from all faiths and sects tell a steady stream of anecdotes about their interaction with the transcendent, miraculous and indefinable. I have a few such stories myself! To this day, the adherents of Hindu gurus will tell breathlessly of healings, resurrections and the occasional virgin birth. If I dismiss these claims without a thought today, what am I to make of similar claims of a far more illiterate, credulous and above all, distant age?Not by example, all faiths have a history of angels and demons in their ranks. How then? How could one be certain that a particular set of religious Dogma was the correct one? My changing world view, the recognition that people were people everywhere eventually overwhelmed the capacity of my religious convictions to adapt. No matter how you examined it, either religious dogma was overtly unjust, and frequently absurd, or so denuded as to be worthless. This thought process percolated in the background for a few years, and then along came the Iraq war. My sense of injustice was ignited by the in your face lies and the outrage that this war embodies, and that George Bush personifies. His cynical duping of the religious right in the US, made me think anew about the state of my own religious life. I began to aggressively investigate the details of my faith; I read books on comparative religion, church history, cosmology and evolution. I read Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, the unholy trinity of Atheism. I basically took a wrecking ball to the superstructure of ignorance that my faith depended on, and the whole thing came crashing down. Worse still, I realized I’d been duped as well, betrayed by people I expected to be honest with me. Especially that idiot Josh McDowell ( , I had genuinely thought that his books had informed me; when all they had done was to crudely inoculate me against actual knowledge.The deep dishonesty of some Christian apologists, for example the cynical, relentless, and decades long conflation of the scientific definition of “theory” (, with that of it’s everyday common usage, simply reinforced my sense that religions were run and directed, for the most part, by charlatans and confidence tricksters. In defense, I developed a method for assessing the truth (with a lower case t) probability of any given assertion. In it’s simplest form, what proportion of relevant experts endorse assertion X? For example, scientific disciplines accept particular facts as given, only when a broad majority in the relevant discipline accepts them as such. Thus I weigh the position of astronomers vis a vis the ability of stars to predict future events, as of vastly greater value than the literally billions of people around the world that continue to give astrology credence. Ministers may be the relevant experts on theology or church history, but they are absolutely the wrong people to listen to on biology, cosmology and the like.I embraced the reality, that I can’t know everything, about everything, but I can, and have a responsibility to, inform myself about the consensus amongst the experts. In a world awash in information, opinion and bald faced lies, it is vital to have a methodology to make sense of it all. This works for me, but it has side effects that have proven lethal for my religious faith. In brief, the experts in all the scientific disciplines that have any bearing on the question “Where did we come from?”, uniformly dismiss the literalist interpretations of all the major religions as nonsense, grouping them under the dismissive heading of “not even wrong”. A small minority (some 10%) of the world’s most prestigious scientists ( ) do have a recognizable religious faith, but it’s generally a pretty ephemeral thing. For balance,, I include someone who seems to manage this feat, but they do appear to be a minority. That’s how I got here, through decades long contact with lots of good Christians, followed by a 5 year force feeding of GWB’s criminal policies. GWB is possibly to the Christian faith what cholesterol is to the heart, it won’t kill you overnight, but it’ll get you in the end:-)

Comments are most certainly welcome here.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

From the best Andy Griffith show ever, and the best rendition of "Away In The Manger" I ever heard as well: