As an unbeliever at this time of year, I often struggle to know how to interact with those who expect our focus to be directed heavenward during the holiday season. During this Thanksgiving week, to whom am I to be thankful? If there is no personal, benevolent being to whom we owe our gratitude, should I just treat Thanksgiving like any other day of the year and move on without a thought? That's one possibility, and I don't have anything against secularists who take this approach. For my part, however, I'd like to use this occasion to express my gratitude to people who have made my life as full as it is. If God exists, and if he is omnipotent, what virtue is there in his making creatures like us, supplying our needs and granting our desires? In other words, where is there any sweat, any effort on God's part, in the things he has done that typically elicit praise and thanksgiving? In creating us? It couldn't have been any more difficult than for us to pick up a toothpick. In giving us families, safety, health, and enjoyment? Again, a piece of cake.
Christians do lay claim to one act of sacrifice on God's part, namely the sacrifice of his son Jesus. If the atonement was indeed necessary in order to displace God's wrath from us to his son, then this could be seen as a sacrifice worthy of our thanksgiving, a gift that (unlike creation) did require sweat. Yet Christians have been divided since the advent of Christianity as to why this sacrifice was necessary and what it actually accomplished. Outsiders like me are puzzled how God can be considered omnipotent if he was unable simply to forgive us (as he enjoins us to forgive each other) without orchestrating the murder of his innocent son.
But I digress. We don't know whether God exists, let alone whether he's done anything that required sacrifice worthy of our thanksgiving. But people do exist, and the sacrifices made by many of them are worthy of our thanks. I am thankful for my mother and father who selflessly changed my diapers at the cost of their time and olfactory bliss. I am thankful for the financial sacrifices they made to feed, house, clothe and educate me. I am thankful that they trained me to work and to be respectful and kind. I am thankful for their patience and affection toward me, even when I was unlovable. I am thankful for my devoted wife, who has remained faithful to me and cherished me even after I abandoned the faith in God we once shared. I am thankful for all her sacrifices to make our house a home and to provide opportunities for our children to flourish. I am thankful that my three children choose to relate to wife and me the joys and struggles of their teenage existence.
I am thankful to my childrens' teachers, who take a lower salary that what they could earn in the corporate world to educate the next generation. I'm grateful to my children's soccer coaches, who devote countless hours to improve the skills of their players while accepting little or no monetary compensation.
I am thankful for the perseverance and insight of Alexander Fleming, who discovered the miracle of penicillin, without which I would most likely not have survived my bout with double pneumonia in 2001. The same goes for Chinese Dr. Tu Youyou, who in 1972 discovered artemisin in the leaves of the annual wormwood plant, without which I might not have lived past my three infections of malaria as a missionary in Africa. I am thankful for all the scientists and inventors who, through much sweat, tears, and bursts of insight, persevered to bequeath to the world all manner of devices and procedures to make life better: air conditioning, mass farming, refrigeration, automobiles, airplanes, computers, cell phones, microwave ovens, hot showers, pain relievers, drugs, surgery, the Internet, and much, much more.
And I am thankful for the Enlightenment founders of our great country--men like Paine, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison, who launched a bold experiment to found a nation based not on the divine right of kings, nor on the authority of a church, but on the rights of humans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am thankful for those--believers and unbelievers alike--who fought to extend these rights to all who live in our country--to all races, to slaves, and to women. I am thankful to those who have sacrificed life and limb to defend our freedoms over the centuries--to those who have fought against tyranny, oppression, and naked aggression. I am even thankful for those in government office who maintain the public order, who put away criminals, who uphold justice for the oppressed, and who provide a safety net for those who fall on hard times or who are unable through no fault of their own to provide for themselves. And I am thankful for charities and churches who contribute to this same cause. In sum, thanks to all who sacrifice to make this world a better place!
Why does God allow so much pain, suffering, and evil in the world? When confronted with this question, the most common response I hear from Christian apologists is that God wants people to have free will, so he allows them to do what they want, even if it means that other people get hurt. God delays calling us to account for our actions until the afterlife or in the age to come. This "free will" defense is followed closely in popularity by another defense: God's ways are higher than our ways, and we cannot always discern his purposes in this life.
In this blog post I'll focus only on the "free will" defense. This reasoning satisfied me for the most part while I was a firm believer, but eventually I came to realize that its greatest failing is that it doesn't account for natural suffering uncaused by humans: tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, diseases, starvation, parasites, physical ailments, predation, accidents, animal suffering, etc.
Some apologists seek to downplay the extent of natural suffering and to turn it all back to humans as free moral agents. For example, there's plenty of food to go around, so there would be no need for anyone to starve if we weren't so selfish and wasteful with our food, or if evil despots didn't sell food for arms. As a Christian, my favorite author was Philip Yancey (and I still do respect him more than many Christian writers, even if I disagree with him.) He points out that most of the diseases we experience in the West are brought about by our own lifestyle choices: "heart disease and hypertension related to stress, cancers associated with a toxic environment, AIDS contracted through drug use and sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, emphysema and lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking, fetal damage resulting from maternal alcohol and drug abuse, diabetes and other diet-related disorders, violent crime, automobile accidents involving alcohol" (Philip Yancey, "Rumors of Another World," 2003, p. 131.)
We can all acknowledge that much suffering in the world is caused by human choices. But even if 90% of all suffering were human induced, how does that solve the problem of the 10% that's not related to free will? (I do not for a moment think that anywhere 90% of our physical suffering is caused by people, but I'll use this figure for the sake of argument.) What about that chimpanzee living 5,000 years ago in the forests of central Africa, dying of rasping parasites and starvation? What about that French child dying of smallpox in the Middle Ages while her parents pleaded to God to spare her life, to no avail? What about that contemporary American man whose back is constantly racked with pain that's beyond the reach of surgery? What about the family burned alive in an automobile accident after swerving to miss a deer on the road and then being struck from behind by a truck? What about the young adult who died of Cystic Fibrosis after his lungs filled up with mucous? As long as there remain any sources of suffering not linked to human free will, the "free will" defense fails. Utterly.
In the wake of the recent Penn State sexual abuse scandal, there has been an outcry against not only the perpetrator of these unspeakable acts, but also against those who knew what happened yet failed to report it to the police. Coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed one of the incidents, is being blamed for failing to take immediate action to break it up. We all would like to think we would have been more courageous than McQueary. Yet if we can blame McQueary—someone subject to real human fears and limitations—for failing to intervene, then why do theists not blame God for watching as countless millions of humans and animals suffer daily, even though he has limitless resources at his disposal to act and put an end the suffering, both natural and human-induced? And if McQueary had intervened, would he not have been interfering with God's plan to allow human free will—that of Sandusky—to be fully exercised? If God wants human free will to run its course and therefore refrains from intervening, how is McQueary guilty for following God's example of inaction?
Eleven years after my deconversion from Christianity while serving as an evangelical missionary on the edge of the Sahara Desert, I still recall the pain of abandoning all I held dear as if it were yesterday. It's my hope that this blog will serve to support those who are currently facing a similar crisis of faith, which can certainly feel like wandering along in a desert. If you're still actively involved in full-time ministry and don't have any other means to support yourself or your family, and if you want to remain strictly anonymous, I heartily recommend visiting The Clergy Project
I envision this blog not only as a support for those coming out of faith but as a starting point for discussions on theology, biblical criticism, morality, meaning, apologetics, science, evolution--in short, any subject that a former or struggling believer is likely to grapple with. There are already plenty of good blogs dealing with these topics, but each has its own flavor that resonates with certain readers more than others. I respect and appreciate the need for various approaches and flavors. My particular flavor is oriented to former evangelical believers, since I'm a former evangelical myself. And my approach is to treat everyone respectfully, even when I strongly disagree with their beliefs.
Comments are more than welcome, but I request that you refrain from profanity and ad hominem attacks--in short, anything ugly.
I'll start my first post with excerpts from a discussion I had on Facebook last month, and I welcome your feedback:
From 1 Timothy 2:12-15:
12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
It's probably no surprise to those who know me that I consider the passage troubling. It's not just that the author (Paul, according to most evangelicals, or a forger, according to virtually all critical scholars--but that's beside the point) limits the role and status of women vis-à-vis men, but it's the rationale behind this limitation (i.e., the order of creation and the actions of Eve) that makes the passage difficult for many today to accept, believers and nonbelievers alike.
No context is provided: women are not to teach or have authority over men, period. Most contemporary believers, including supporters of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, don't fully subscribe to the author's teachings today, let alone the reason for his teachings. It's common to hear from egalitarian or complementarian believers that the Bible accords equal status to men and women, based on a few exceptional passages that place them on a favorable footing with men. However, I can draw no other conclusion than that the author of 1 Timothy was a sexist and in no way regarded men and women as being equals.
I've never heard a modern evangelical man or pastor (even one who forbids women from becoming a pastor) focus on the reason for which women are not to teach or to have authority over men, namely, because Adam was created first and Eve sinned first. I sense most believers today--even somewhat chauvinist ones--are embarrassed by this passage. But if they believe this passage is true and inspired by God, why not trumpet it? Why make excuses for it or point to mitigating passages written by other authors, without accepting the full weight of this particular author's teachings? Let's let the author of 1 Timothy speak for himself. Do you accept his proscriptions and his reasons for them, or do you not? Do you embrace the notion that the actions of one woman thousands of years ago should have anything to do with how women should be viewed, treated, or limited today? For my part, all women deserve better than this demeaning view.
As for the final verse of the passage I quoted, its meaning is hotly contested and unclear in evangelical circles. But once one is no longer under the obligation to harmonize with other passages of the Bible, the teaching becomes much less murky: based on the immediate context, the author really did believe salvation for women was wrapped up in fulfilling their marital and maternal duties. It's interesting how passages that once seemed unclear when one was committed to the principle of biblical inerrancy suddently make sense once one is freed from those shackles.