Yes, free will is but an illusion. So says neurscientist Sam Harris in his new little book, Free Will. In his view, all our thoughts and actions are determined by prior events and brain states; in other words, we cannot choose to do or to think anything other than what we in fact do and think.
Christian apologist J. P. Moreland, whose book Scaling the Secular City (1990: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House) I read in my seminary apologetics class in 1991, begs to differ, quoting theologian H. P. Owen on page 90:
"Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it, I have no ground for holding that my judgement is true or false."
Busted, as my kids would say. This quote was so arresting that it has remained lodged in my mind for over twenty years since I first read it, allowing me to pull the book from my bookshelf and locate it today as a foil for Harris’ position.
I recall that after first reading Moreland’s defense of free will and his arguments against physicalism, naturalism, and determinism, I arbitrarily lifted my left pinky finger in defiance of the notion that everything I did was determined by natural laws. I didn’t have to lift a pinky finger, let alone my left one, but I did so anyway. “Take that, determinism!” Yet even then, I had a nagging thought that a determinist might wish to dismiss my act of raising my left pinky finger as nothing more than a reflexive impulse against the repugnant notion that all my actions were outside of my control.
Isn’t it self-evident that we are the author of our actions, that we are responsible for what we do (both good and bad), and that we could freely opt for action a or b when given a choice? Isn’t it built into our justice system that a man of sane mind who pulls the trigger of his gun to kill a man who seduced his wife could have instead listened to his conscience, paused, and avoided carrying out the crime? If, as Harris believes, the murderer could not have done anything other than what he ended up doing, must society then give up its mandate to hold criminals responsible for their crimes? Are we really only left to excuse the “guilty” as follows? “It wasn’t his fault; he was just driven to pull the trigger by his circumstances, his underprivileged upbringing, his exposure to violence as a way of life, his genes, his personality, the lax gun laws in his state, a chemical imbalance in his brain, yada yada yada!” Or, to use a recent example from the real world, “Sargeant Robert Bales was driven to murder 17 innocent Afghani civilians because he was stretched to the breaking point by his four deployments, the loss of fellow soldiers in his unit, injuries he suffered, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. He simply had no choice but to go take out his frustrations in the way he did.”
Harris would argue that even the most heinous and most senseless of crimes are triggered not by a free will that could have chosen to do otherwise, but instead by a series of events and brain states governed by the laws of nature, including those described by chemistry, physics, genetics, biology, and (perhaps) quantum mechanics. He rhetorically asks free-will advocates what else but the laws of nature could possibly account for our decisions. Setting aside the special case of coercion by others, if I lift my left pinky finger, it’s because I want to lift it. If I don’t want to lift it, I don’t lift it. But why do I want or not want to lift it? I don’t have control over my wants; they just appear for reasons I’m not often conscious of, reasons that arise from the laws of nature operating on my brain and on my environment.
Sometimes I sense a conflict of wants within me, and it's when choosing between two wants that I feel I'm making a free moral decision. For example, I want the thrill that comes from clicking on the link to a sexually explicit photograph, but I also want to preserve my marriage and to direct my sexual passions exclusively toward my wife. Since I think (based on the input my brain has received about the dangers of pornography) that I can’t have both, I think I have to choose between the two options, and I prefer a long-lasting, intact marriage over the thrill of the moment, so I decide not to click the link. And because I gave up something potentially thrilling in favor of fidelity to my wife, I gain a sense of satisfaction in having made the right moral decision, for which I think I am entitled some credit. But where in that decision-making process was there room for anything outside the laws of nature? Did I have any control over my upbringing, during which the dangers of pornography were instilled in me? Can I help it that my wife is a beautiful person to whom I’m helplessly attracted, a wife who faithfully loves me in return? Is it up to me whether I want her more than the pornography, or that I have been led to believe that in some sense the pornography jeopardizes my relationship with her? No, my brain controlled my wants, and I ended up doing what I wanted to do, that is, giving up the short-term thrill of the pornography for the longer-term stability of my marriage.
Now, what if I had been away from my wife on a trip without any sexual release for months and the urge to click that link had not been overcome by my desire to remain emotionally faithful to my wife, and what if I had gone ahead and clicked that link because the desire for the thrill was greater than my perceived risk of doing so? In either case, I’ve done what I wanted to do, and I can’t control my wants. If I know ahead of time I’ll be vulnerable to such temptation and wish to avoid it, then I can choose to not take that months-long trip, but my choice not to do so is also governed by my wants, over which I have no ultimate control.
As for a potential criminal who’s contemplating pulling the trigger on his wife’s seducer, what if the thought enters his mind that he might well get caught and put in prison for life or executed if he were to go through with the murder, and the fear of getting caught makes him relent? Then he relents because he wants to relent. Why does he want to relent? Because his brain (whether consciously or otherwise) weighs the various outcomes and decides it’s in his interest to hold off. In this case, the desire to relent is traceable to an external factor, though in many cases it isn’t always easy to determine where our desires come from. But one thing Harris is sure of: they don’t arise from a disembodied or supernatural soul that drives our decisions apart from who we are, apart from the sum of all the circumstances and brain states that precede our every thought and action.
Harris’ confidence in the non-existence of free will is based at least in part on the results of experiments he describes as follows:
“Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.” (From Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 159-168). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
This is incredible: brain scans reveal that our brains make decisions before we’re even aware of the decisions we make. It’s as though I’m an automaton driven by factors beyond “my” control (whatever “my” means), and the decisions I’ll make can be visible to researchers before I’m even aware I’ve made them! Only, it’s not as though I’m an automaton; the inescapable conclusion is that I really am an automaton, albeit an automaton that’s aware of its decisions and consequent actions in such a way that it feels as if it’s making free decisions unconstrained by the laws of nature.
But if we’re all just automatons that will do what we’ll do, why bother to exert any effort to do anything at all, let alone anything noble? Why even get up in the morning? To this question, Harris retorts:
“...people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like ‘If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?’ This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.” (Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 374-378). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition. )
And to the worry that we’ll not be able to hold others (or ourselves) responsible for our actions, I would add that, even if we don’t have free will, we as a society can seek to provide disincentives (like sending murderers to prison or criticizing those who act recklessly) and incentives (like medals of honor, monetary reward, or verbal praise) as a means of influencing our fellow automatons to behave in ways we perceive to be in the interest of the society in which we live.
What about Owen’s charge that determinism is self-stultifying, that if our beliefs are determined by circumstances beyond control, then even our belief in determinism is determined, and there’s no legitimate reason to think that either our belief in determinism or any other belief is grounded in reality? I am not a philosopher of epistemology (the study of how we know what we know), but as an armchair philosopher who’s open to my readers’ contrary input, my first take on this question is that our brains have evolved a certain (I use “a certain,” because it’s limited) capacity to adjust our beliefs to evidence. If there’s evidence of a poisonous snake in our path (based on visual stimuli reaching our brains), we come to the unavoidable conclusion that a snake really is there, and we decide to take measures to avoid it. It does not follow that, since our decision to believe that a snake is in our path is determined, then there are no grounds for believing it. Similarly, if our decision to accept determinism is itself determined (for example, as a result of learning that brain scans show us to be unaware of our decisions until after they’re made), that does not nullify the grounds for legitimately accepting determinism.
Why should we engage in argument to convince anyone else to adopt our point of view on any matter, if in fact the other’s point of view is already determined, and if that person is not personally responsible for holding what we think to be a mistaken view? It seems to me that there is still plenty of room for us to discuss our differing views in an effort to communicate knowledge and reasoning that will serve as input to the brains of others (this sounds so clinical, doesn’t it? Sorry about that! I can’t help it!) and thus convince them of what we discern to be true, based on the evidence to which our brains have been exposed. In the process, we might ourselves be surprised to be exposed to new evidence that changes our own position, and so knowledge based on good evidence is given a chance to thrive in more and more brains, leading to more lives lived in accordance with a truer understanding of reality.
In writing this post, don’t I run the risk of making people feel less responsible for their actions and thus more prone to live immorally? I doubt it, as long as my readers understand that if you live immorally, you’ll still reap the consequences of your actions, and those consequences are no less sufficient grounds for “deciding” to behave than is the notion of free will. In other words, a deterministic contemplation of the consequences of my actions serves to put the brakes on a reckless course of action. The best way to ensure moral living is to gain an ever more complete understanding of how our actions will impact us and those we love in the long term. This is why we educate our children, not only in the 3 “R”s (Reading w‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic), but also in m‘Rality.
Finally, why should I care about whether others adopt a realistic view of human free will, i.e., that we don’t have free will? One practical benefit is a greater sense of compassion for those caught in a trap not of their “own” making. Instead of reacting in moral outrage to those whose who are bent toward destructive actions, we can think to ourselves, “There but for good fortune go I.” It tends to pop the balloon of our smug self-righteousness and arrogant moralizing when we realize that our own accomplishments and moral rectitude aren’t due to our own free will but are a result of the legacy of the nature and nurture bequeathed to us. This doesn’t mean, as I’ve said before, that we can’t still put in place measures to encourage constructive behavior and to discourage destructive behavior in all of us, but it takes the edge off our tendency toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness when we recognize that free will is an illusion.
If you’re interested in knowing more about this topic, I would strongly encourage you to read Harris’ book, which should take no more than a couple of hours to get through, and if you buy the Kindle edition, it’s only $3.99. Having also read philosopher of science Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves (2004, Penguin), I prefer Harris’ more direct and accessible approach, but Dennett’s views are also worth reading and considering as a less hard-nosed naturalistic alternative to Harris’ characteristically pull-no-punches stance.
In last week’s blog post
, I asked whether loyalty is a virtue and concluded that truth must sometimes trump loyalty. This week I’ll try to put my money where my mouth is and explore an area where loyalty to my freethinking “in-group” is shaky.
Having spent the first 32 years of my life in an evangelical environment (including family, church, mission boarding school, college, seminary, missionary society), I have a mostly positive view of evangelicals as people. Certainly there are many exceptions, but on balance, I respect the warmth, sincerity, self-sacrifice, discipline, and love of many of the more earnest followers of Jesus. I attend my wife’s Bible church only very occasionally, perhaps three or four times a year for special occasions. One such special occasion was a recent “father-daughter desert” I went to with my thirteen-year-old daughter (and with my wife, who attended with her father). In addition to the food, there were some fun games and a talent show; a fun, wholesome time was had by all. Everyone was respectful, positive, and friendly, and there was a good mix of ages and gender (though not so much of race).
I mentally compared this experience with the one I had at a large weekend freethought convention I attended last fall. The respective goals of the two events were quite different, of course, so it’s probably unfair to compare them in any way, but I found myself struggling to identify with many of the presenters and attendees at the freethought convention. There were some families and a children’s program, but it seemed that most of the attendees were single; there were more men than women; almost everyone was white, and there were probably more middle-aged-and-above attendees than younger adults, with hardly any children. Many (not all) of the presenters made liberal use of expletives and focused a good deal of their ire on their religious competitors. We all received a complimentary condom in our welcome packet, and the evening social gatherings were centered around the hotel bar.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking out against expletives, singleness, condoms, or drinking per se. What I’m trying to get at is a little more intangible. For many evangelicals like me, coming to the conclusion that we were mistaken in our evangelical beliefs is, relatively speaking, the easy part. The harder part is that we still appreciate the general warmth, family focus, and respectfulness of the evangelical community, qualities that are harder to find (though not altogether absent) in the freethinking community.
In a recent response to one of my blog posts
, a believer referred to the following passage from John 6, suggesting there’s nowhere else to turn for those who leave Jesus:
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?...”
Incidentally, I’ve been reading a long, fascinating e-book (An Examination of the Pearl
) by Edwin Suominen, a struggling member of a tiny (about 100,000 members), little-known exclusivist Lutheran sect called Conservative Laestadianism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_Laestadianism
). According to the author, the above passage from John 6 is often used by the Laestadian leadership to deter its members from leaving the sect (see location 1984), since its members are led to see only darkness outside its walls, even in the wider “mainstream” Christian community.
Getting back to the freethinking movement, I have no doubt that the perceived and/or actual culture of the freethought movement is one of the most important barriers to believers who might otherwise contemplate leaving their faith. “To whom shall we go? Certainly not to those family-unfriendly, foul-mouthed, arrogant, fornicating, drunken atheists!”
I’ll probably catch some flack for this from some of my fellow freethinkers, but as a long-time-evangelical-turned-unbeliever, it seems to me that struggling Christians are looking for a more comfortable landing pad than the cold, hard, unfamiliar ground they often hit on the other side of faith. I’m speaking on behalf of the doubting Christians who don’t particularly have a problem with other Christians or with the evangelical lifestyle but who simply doubt the tenets of their faith. I have in mind those who have placed a premium on sexual purity as believers and those whose social lives have been lived largely in the church, free of profanity or drunkenness or “worldliness” in general. For many longstanding members of the freethought movement, Christians like those I’ve described here seem to be from another planet, and that feeling goes in both directions.
I don’t have a ready solution to the hard-landing problem. I can’t necessarily expect those from Planet Wordly to change their lifestyle radically just to provide a softer landing to those coming in from Planet Purity. But somehow someone somewhere needs to be there for each new arrival, and the greeter needs to be someone the new arrival can connect with, trust, and have something in common with. It needs to be someone who’s at least sensitive to the gap in lifestyle choices between that of the typical earnest evangelical and that of the typical unbeliever. Keep in mind that many of these recent deconverts are struggling to maintain relationships with their believing family members. It’s already bad enough that they no longer share their most cherished beliefs in common with family any more; they don’t want to exacerbate matters any more than necessary by completely changing their lifestyle at the same time. I’m simply asking those from Planet Worldly to understand the predicament that new arrivals from Planet Purity find themselves in, to get a feel for where they are, and to meet them at that place. They’ve already sacrificed enough to give up what they believe; don’t expect them to adopt your lifestyle or your differing views on politics or morality. If an Orthodox Jew leaves his faith, don’t wave a ham sandwich in his face and expect him to give up his lifelong hangup over pork. If a conservative evangelical Christian leaves her faith, don’t litter your speech with expletives and tell sexually explicit jokes or share your sexual exploits. Of course, how you relate to former believers will depend on where they are and to what extent they continue to embrace elements of their former lifestyle.
That said, I’m not sure how effective the sensitivity I’m advocating really can be. I think some sensitivity can’t hurt, but the new arrivals are probably not going to be as comfortable with a Puritan “poser” as they would be with someone else who’s from a hybrid third planet that I’ll call “Planet Purity without Belief.” This is a sparsely populated planet of those who’ve left their faith but who retain more or less a similar lifestyle to the one they embraced on “Planet Purity with Belief.” Those who’ve deconverted and still inhabit “Planet Purity without Belief” have a unique perspective and set of experiences that can and should be used to help conservative believers who are transitioning out of faith.
As a general rule (which has its exceptions, of course), it seems that freethinkers and humanists are more concerned with structural/societal justice than with personal morality, while for conservative Christians it’s the other way around. Secular humanists couldn’t care less what anyone does in their bedroom, while they generally do care about avoiding war and providing justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the minorities. Vice versa for many American evangelicals.
Week after week in church services, congregations are enjoined to eschew the acts of the flesh and to cultivate personal virtues like the fruit of the Spirit in Galations 5:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
By and large, those outside the church are not encouraged on a weekly basis to cultivate such virtues. A debate can be had as to which of the above admonitions should be heeded by us nonbelievers (I don’t know any freethinkers who engage in witchcraft, for example!), but it seems to me that we would do well to give some thought to our personal morality, just as we would like conservative evangelicals to give more thought to matters of social justice. Acts and words of kindness and patience, rather than outbursts of disdain toward those we disagree with, would go a long way to breaking down the mistrust that no doubt prevents many evangelicals from reaching out across the divide. Sensitivity to the mores of others, rather than their dismissal as “prudish,” would also no doubt help bridge that gap.
Just as religion is not monolithic (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Conservative Laestadians certainly wouldn’t get along!), neither is freethought. Though no doubt most are left of center, freethinkers are found at virtually every point along the political and moral spectrum. I don’t know whether I’ll ever feel fully comfortable in a typical freethought convention, and I’m sure I’m not the only former believer in that position. To be sure, I share much in common with the predominant freethought culture, but I also share much in common with my wife, family, and former coreligionists. It’s not a matter of which one is superior to the other; that could lead to endless debates. It’s more a matter of where we all find ourselves in this sometimes convoluted journey called life and what we can do to make the best of it, both for ourselves and for our fellow travelers in this journey. Perhaps as more and more evangelicals leave the faith for intellectual rather than for moral reasons, the population of “Planet Purity without Belief” will grow and will serve as a softer landing pad for those arriving from “Planet Purity with Belief.” I don’t envision this planet being populated with moral crusaders but with those who simply continue to feel comfortable embracing family values and cultivating personal virtue as they did during their years in the church. No doubt some on this planet will go on to migrate to Planet Wordly, and that’s fine with me (within reason), but I would hope that our numbers would be sufficient to form a community for those of us who find ourselves caught between Planet Purity (with Belief) and Planet Worldly (without Belief).
We’ve all been taught from childhood that loyalty is noble and that we ought to “have the back” of our family, friends, sports team, school, company, Boy Scout troop, country, and church. Certainly these groups benefit from our collective loyalty, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they each attempt to cultivate loyalty as a virtue. Without loyalty, it’s hard to imagine that any group could succeed in the face of obstacles and adversity.
Yet what are we to do when loyalty to a group runs counter to the long-term interests of the group? For example, there were engineers who warned their superiors of the possibility of “O” ring failure and of the dangers of cold weather leading up to the disastrous launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. However, these warnings were not passed up the chain of command, no doubt because of a culture of letting things slip and of accepting a little risk in the interest of moving the program along. There were those who did not want to make waves, to dwell on problems, or to blow the whistle, because to do so would have made them look like disloyal gadflies if they had halted the program every time there was a potential problem, no matter how minor. That is to say, the Program (with capital P) took precedence over the problems.
In the context of NASA, when truth and loyalty come into conflict, truth quite clearly trumps loyalty. In other situations it isn’t so easy to decide. Two of our three children play soccer, and it’s amazing to note how often the parents on our team feel the referee makes bad calls against our team compared to how often he makes bad calls in favor of our team. Sometimes when other parents on our team have yelled out and complained to the referee (“hey, that ball went out on the other team, not on ours!!!”), I’ve noticed that the ball really did go out on our team and I’ve occasionally tried to correct the parents, assuring them the referee in fact made the right call. That’s not a good way to stay on good terms with the other parents of our team! You’re just not supposed to be contrary; you’re supposed to be loyal to the team.
The tendency for us to see and believe what lines up with with what the other members of our in-group see and believe, and the tendency for those members to see and believe what lines up with their interests is called motivated reasoning
. See this link
for a fascinating study on Ivy league students who watched a film of a football game involving their team and another team, showing how even the brightest of students could not see what members of the other team saw when watching the same game. Our ability to discern the truth is clouded by our loyalty to the groups to which we belong.
I’ve realized it’s futile to continue being contrary when I discern that the soccer parents on our team aren’t being objective, because the stakes are low. That is to say, the value of loyalty trumps truth in this case; I’m not going to get in the face of the other parents and shout, “Can’t you see you’re operating under a cognitive bias called motivated reasoning
?!” But neither will I join them in calling out to the referee that his call was mistaken.
In other situations, loyalty trumps all other values, even truth. If I were living in Nazi Germany and my best friend were a Jew and the the Gestapo were hunting him down, I would not have a problem lying about his whereabouts in order to protect him.
What about religion and politics? If we come to suspect that the fellow members of our religious or political in-group are making pronouncements that don’t line up with reality, saying for example that scientists (referees) are making bad calls on evolution or global warming, and we come to realize that in fact the perspectives of these scientists are valid, then do we remain loyal to our in-group and join in the calls against the scientists, or do we silently agree with the scientists, or do we outright break ranks with our in-group and speak out in favor of (what we believe to be) the truth? In short, do we (1) remain fully loyal to our group, (2) withdraw in silence, or (3) speak up for the truth? Of course, the in-group would prefer (1), but if we can’t make ourselves believe what they do, then they would prefer we opt for (2) over (3), since our silence would minimize the damage to their cause.
This works in both directions. Jesus did not call for his followers to zip it up even if what they believed was in conflict with that of their family members. In fact, for him, the truth of the gospel trumps family loyalty:
Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
To sum up, loyalty can indeed be a high virtue, particularly when it comes to protecting family and friends from harm. But loyalty can also sometimes prevent us from seeing the truth, a truth than runs counter to the prevailing opinions of our in-group. Loyalty is only a conditional virtue and can be a powerful force that prevents us from taking an unpopular stand against the misguided religious or political views of our family or friends.
For those who hesitate to go against the grain to uphold the truth for fear they’ll be branded as disloyal to their in-groups, I fully understand your plight; I once was (and still am, in some ways) where you are. Yet there comes a point where silence becomes a form of complicity to that which is not true, and the internal battle begins. Should I speak up? When do I speak up? It’s going to kill me! I can’t keep this pent up within me forever, and I can’t pretend to believe what I don't believe, but neither can I bear the thought of being disloyal! Everyone who begins to question the truth of what their in-group stands for must struggle with these gut-wrenching dilemmas.
As many of you may know, over a decade ago I come out publicly against the views of my family, church, and mission board, abandoning the faith I had embraced since my earliest years. I could have played the silent soccer dad, disagreeing in my heart with the calls of my former coreligionists. But my former coreligionists continued to make their complaints, even pronouncing that those who didn’t agree with their calls were doomed to eternal damnation. As a soccer dad, I don’t mind remaining silent even when other parents on my team are making their bogus complaints, because their complaints don’t really matter; the referee’s calls will stand in the end. And besides, these soccer parents don’t think I’m going to hell if I don’t join in with them in challenging the referee, and they’re not going to stack the school boards with those who challenge the referee, nor are they going to press their mistaken views in society outside the soccer field. If only the stakes surrounding the disputes over religion, evolution, and global warming were so inconsequential! Alas, they are not; thus, the need to speak out. Whoever remains silent cedes the outcome to the other side.
May we always be loyal to physically protect and provide for those in our inner circles, but may we also be faithful to the truth, and may be have the wisdom to discern what to do when truth and loyalty come into conflict. I can only hope that those who unconditionally value loyalty above truth will not work for NASA or any other enterprise that requires integrity and the ability to be corrected under the weight of the facts. It certainly matters how we respond to good evidence that counters our interests and the views of our in-groups.
Several years ago, before I completed my book, a Christian friend challenged me, asking (rhetorically) why I should tell the whole world why I no longer believe. In response to her query, I explained my rationale in the section entitled, “My Purpose for Writing” in chapter 1 of my book
. Unless my memory fails me, no one has revisited this question since I published my book in 2009 until a couple of weeks ago, since which time no fewer than three different believers have asked me why I publicly question the Christian faith.
My readers may be acquainted with one of these three calls for me to desist in the followup discussion to Mr. Rob Robinson’s critical review of my book
Another of these calls came from a good longtime friend, responding to my post entitled, “Do all things work together for our good?
” He expressed concern that I was being overly critical of Christians and wondered why I should continue to oppose Christianity, given all the good that Christians do.
The third challenge came in an e-mail today from a friend of my father’s. This individual very gently wondered how I could continue to publicize my views without jeopardizing my relationship with my wife and family.
This spate of challenges has led me to do a little introspection. Am I out of line? Should I, as Mr. Robinson enjoined me to do, just slip away gently and avoid slandering the name of Jesus any further? Should I refrain from criticizing Christianity as my longtime friend advised me, knowing that Christians engage in many constructive acts of compassion throughout the world? Should I silence myself in the interest of preserving greater harmony with my wife and family?
I did tell my longtime friend I would aim to balance my blog posts to include less criticism of Christianity and more topics of interest to those who are struggling to live out their post-deconversion lives, which in any case is the primary reason I decided to maintain a blog. But I told him that I would not refrain from criticism of Christianity and Christians when I feel criticism is especially warranted, just as Christian leaders like Falwell, Dobson, and Colson have not refrained from criticism of secularism. Though I disagree with many of their positions, I fully recognize their prerogative to express their views, and I would hope that those who disagree with me will recognize the right of us unbelievers to express ours. Is it more honorable for Colson to critique humanism than for me to critique Christianity? What if his worldview, as sincerely as he might hold it, is fundamentally mistaken, as I believe it to be? Should all of us muzzle ourselves out of deference to the sensibilities of believers (who think themselves to be in the right), even if we think ourselves instead to be in the right? Without invoking some form of exceptionalism, I fail to see any grounds for asking unbelievers to be less vocal than believers in disseminating their views.
As for Mr. Robinson’s call for me to slip away quietly to avoid slandering Jesus any more than I’ve already done, I have responded to him as much as (or more than) I feel is productive. It is not my intent to slander anyone, but recognizing that Jesus did not return when he (or New Testament writers) said he would is not slander; it’s a simple recognition of what happened. That publicizing such a recognition should disturb anyone is regrettable, and I would prefer not to offend anyone, but this consideration should not be a reason to suppress the truth. If there are Christians who disagree with my conclusions, I’m glad to discuss these matters in a civil manner, but there’s no need to accuse me of slander until it can be demonstrated that I’m in fact guilty of it.
Of the three recent challenges I’ve received, my father’s friend’s gentle prodding about how my writing affects my family hit closest to home. I am extremely fortunate that my wife has been so accommodating to me. But not wanting to take anything for granted, I spoke with her this afternoon, assuring her that I would quit writing in a heartbeat if she felt that my activities were driving a wedge between us. I have not done anything in secret; she has read many of my posts and responses to those posts, and though she disagrees with much of what I say, she appreciates the general tone and clarity of my writing. She allows for the possibility that I’m helping some individuals to be less jaded about their experience than they might otherwise might be, so she wants me to feel free to continue. Did I mention I have a wonderful wife? However, if I had a crystal ball, and if I could see that my activities were going to drive us apart in the end, this would be my final post. Absent such a revelation, I will continue to write to support those who are passing through or have passed through the tumultuous process of deconversion. Why? Because I know how hard the process is, compounded by the well-meaning but hurtful reactions of believers who don’t understand what it’s like to want to believe but are nonetheless unable to believe. Believers, until you’re surrounded by people who think you’re worthy of hell, you cannot understand what motivates us unbelievers to speak out and oppose without flinching the doctrine of eternal damnation (which, like other religious doctrines, we consider to be man-made).
In the interest of lightening up my blog posts (which I feel have been overly heavy recently), I’ve decided to dig up some of our experiences as missionaries and to share them with my readers as a glimpse into our past lives. In this installment, I’ll include excerpts from an e-mail update we sent out to friends and family from France in the summer of 1996. We had recently completed our year of French study in Belgium in June and would have moved on to Africa immediately from there if it hadn’t been for our (well, Charlene’s) pregnancy with our second son, due in August 1996. To bridge the time over the summer, I accepted a position teaching linguistics at a Wycliffe Bible Translator-affiliated linguistic institute housed in a Bible school north of Paris. Here’s part of the e-mail update from July 8, shortly after our arrival at the Bible school, including the adventures of making a train connection from Brussels to Paris to Senlis (25 miles north of Paris) with me carrying our 18-month old son David in a pouch on my belly while Charlene was seven months pregnant with our second son:
DATE: 7/8/96 11:06 PM
Re: Daniels' Monthly Update - July 1996
THE ADVENTURESOME TRIP (Written by Charlene) I'll try to make the long story of our trip short. A friend from church drove us to the train station [in Brussels], but because we were a little late and there was a traffic jam right near the station, we only made it on the train with less than one minute to spare!!!! That was WAY too close for comfort, but we sure are thankful that someone was obviously praying for us at that time since otherwise I'm sure we would have missed it.
In Paris we had to catch another local train but had problems getting our stuff through a narrow ticketed entry-way (the elevator was out of order) and when we finally got the help of three employees, that train was about to leave as well. Ken jumped on the train with David and a few bags, but the train doors automatically closed behind him, leaving me behind with 2/3rds of the baggage!! With the help of several "angels" along the way, I was able to make it finally to our destination on another train without losing too much time [maybe 40 minutes]. I thank God that I could feel His presence and wasn't really upset by the enforced "adventure". I was, though, very glad to see Ken's face and soon after to arrive at our castle [yes, the Bible school was housed in an actual castle!] here in Lamorlaye, 20 miles north of Paris. It turned out that Ken didn’t have his ticket on the leg when he was alone with David, so he had to convince the conductors that he had actually bought one and that it had been left behind. Thankfully they eventually believed him and he didn’t have to pay a penalty!
PHONETICS CLASS (Written by Ken) With God’s help I’ve made it through my first week of teaching! It’s been three years since I’ve studied phonetics, so I have to work with another teacher to relearn each day what I’ve forgotten. With three hours of teaching daily and the rest of the working day filled with preparation, I was next to exhaustion this past week, but I’ve been able to get a lot of good rest this weekend. All the students in my class are Scandinavians--3 Norwegians, a Finn, and a Dane. Since they’re all non-native speakers of French headed for missionary work in Africa, I feel less self-conscious about my French than if they were native speakers. So far classes have gone reasonably well, apart from my first hour when I was disorganized with papers scattered everywhere!
THE PEOPLE HERE (Written by Charlene) There are some 50 students and staff and though a good number of them know English, we do speak in French almost all the time we are out of our room and it's been great! There are about 10 Francophone students, 10 other Europeans, 5 Africans, and 2 Asians. We're making friends and even found another couple who are going to Emmaus Bible Institute in Switzerland in the fall like us! God is good. We plan to be here until September 6, then we’ll spend 5 days in Belgium before heading to Switzerland September 11.
Thanks to those of you who are continuing to pray for us. If you have questions or just want to drop us a line, we’re no more than a few keyclicks away.
Ken & Char Daniels