How to Convert Me Back to Christianity
I have a couple good friends who happen to be Catholic. If you follow this blog, you know I'm no fan of religion, but I don't think it should be surprising that I have religious friends. As I wrote in the short entry, The Misleading Image of Bloggers, there's so much more I do in real life that I never address on this blog, so debating religion is just a small aspect of life. And I also live in the U.S. where the vast majority of people are Christian, which means most of my interactions are with Christians, and subsequently most of my friends are Christians. Granted, I don't think I could be friends with a Fred Phelps or a David Duke, but thankfully, there are many, many Christians who are far more reasonable in the way they live their lives and treat other people, and these friends of mine are definitely good people.
Well, these particular friends have led a few retreats for their church - a weekend free of distractions to discuss religious matters and help renew your faith. My wife's been considering going to one of these retreats, so she's been talking to the wife half of our friends (they're a married couple). Well, last week our friend told my wife about an upcoming retreat that her husband was going to lead, and wondered if I'd be interested in going. My wife asked her if she was serious considering that it was, well, me, and our friend thought better of it and said that maybe that wouldn't be the best idea.
To be honest, I would find such a retreat interesting, but I also think I'd be rather disruptive to their normal process. It's not that I'd be disruptive on purpose. It's that I've given this topic so much thought and researched it so much, that I know from experience talking to my Christian friends that my objections go far deeper than the average doubts that I'd imagine are typical of the normal attendees of these retreats.
So it got me to thinking. If I were to attend one of these retreats or something similar, and I went in with an open mind ready to be convinced to return to the fold, what would it take? Where could they even start? My objections to Christianity are extensive and multi-layered, so there would be a lot to cover. Below is a list of the broad areas that would have to be addressed. I tried to arrange them in some type of order in which they should be addressed, but it's only a loose ordering. I've put links to related articles I've written previously where appropriate (note that these are related articles, not necessarily a full discussion of that point).
- Evidence for a Soul - Given how much we've learned through neuroscience, it really seems that our thoughts, emotions, and personalities are controlled by the physical processes of our brains. Chemical drugs affect us. Strokes and diseases like Alzheimer's affect people's personalities and memories. Physical damage to the brain like happened to Phineas Gage drastically changed his personality. Just what role do souls play?
• Further Musings on the Soul
- Christianity vs. Other Religions - Why does Christianity bear so much resemblance to other religions? The flood story seems remarkably similar to the Mesopotamian Flood Myth (Gilgamesh is another variant). Yahweh looks to be evolved from the Canaanite pantheon of gods, having originally been a sky god or a thunder god. The earlier books in the Old Testament show multiple signs of polytheism. God's own designs for the first temple seem to copy the tripartite design common to the region. Osiris and Jesus seem to share some close similarities, as do Christianity and Mithraism. Why does it appear so strongly that Judaism and Christianity evolved out of previous religions?
• Another Similarity Between Osiris & Jesus
- Evidence for Judaism/Christianity - Aside from souls, what evidence is there for Judaism & Christianity in particular? What extra-Biblical evidence is there for any of the stories in the Bible (more than just evidence that certain cities existed - even Greek & Roman mythology reference real locations)? What evidence is there for God acting in the modern world? (I don't place a lot of weight on 'faith', because I don't know how to value one faith more than another. i.e. What makes Christian faith valid, but Muslim or Hindu faith misguided?)
• Standards of Evidence for Religion
- Bible - Reliability - I'm reading the Bible right now. It's clear that it's not a coherent, unified work, but rather a collection of different writings. And even some of those individual books show signs of being cobbled together from previous sources. Granted, all of the books deal with a similar theme, but the different books reveal different theologies, and they're even contradictory in places. If the Bible is meant to be some type of a guide to Christianity, how do you deal with its shortcomings?
• Friday Bible Blogging
- Historicity of Jesus - This is a special case of the above, but a rather important one for Christianity. Why are the only accounts of Jesus the Gospels that were written well after his supposed death. Why are there no contemporary accounts of a man that supposedly had such a huge following and such a huge impact on the politics of his region? What external evidence is there that the Biblical Jesus actually existed?
• Liar, Lunatic, or Lord ... Or Something Else
- Bible - Squaring with Reality - Some of the stories in the Bible very clearly did not happen literally - the creation stories from Genesis including Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, the Tower of Babel, etc. How do you square those stories with reality? If you're going to explain them as metaphors, how do you distinguish metaphors from actual history? Was Moses a metaphor? King David? Solomon? Jesus himself? And if they are metaphors, what do they stand for?
• Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis
- Immorality of Commandments in the Old Testament - Why is the Old Testament so full of such horrible rules? Just read through Leviticus - slavery, stonings for modest crimes, stonings for actions that shouldn't even be crimes, etc. And then there are all the actions God directed the Israelites to commit - slaughtering entire cities, including men, women, and children; killing all the men and married women, but keeping the virgin girls for themselves; etc. Why would God issue such commandments? (Note that the New Covenant doesn't really help here - even without the jot or tittle debate, God still supposedly issued these commandments at some point.)
• The Old Testament - It's a Bit Strange
- Immorality of Yahweh in the Old Testament - When he wasn't instructing the Israelites to commit atrocities, God was pretty busy himself - indiscriminate punishment of entire nations for one person's sins, killing someone who dared touch the ark to try to keep it from falling, the quail episode from Numbers 11, killing Korah's entire family because of Korah's insubordination, hardening Pharaoh's heart to extend the plagues, the indiscriminate nature of the plagues, the massacre of Noah's flood, etc. How are these horrendous acts from Yahweh justified while still trying to call him a loving god?
- Hell - This is another aspect of the immorality of Yahweh, but a Christian addition. How can eternal punishment for finite crimes be just? Here's an excerpt from an old story called The Little Shepherd Boy (it's been paraphrased numerous times).
In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.Think of that length of time. Now think of someone burning in the torment of hellfire that entire time. And like the fable says, that's only the first second of eternity. What crime could possibly merit such a horrendous punishment?
And the worst part is that most of your actions really have no effect on whether you'll face this punishment or not. No - it all comes down to one action, one choice, whether or not you accept Jesus. If Hitler had a death bed conversion, he'd be playing on his harp in the clouds, while Gandhi, heathen that he was (Hinduism), would experience an eternity of torment with the fires and the gnashing of the teeth. How is this justice?
- Purpose of the Resurrection / Sacrifice - One of the only ways the resurrection story makes sense to me is if sacrifices really do propitiate God. The Old Testament, with its emphasis on animal sacrifice, does seem to indicate this. The resurrection, then, is so powerful because it's divine blood, not just an animal. But animal sacrifice in and of itself is barbaric. What is the point of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament? How did it honor God for Solomon to consecrate the temple by "sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be numbered or counted"? How is it reasonable to transfer guilt to scape goats? Couldn't an omnipotent god have come up with a less convoluted way to forgive humanity?
(As an aside, another explanation I recently heard to explain the resurrection that makes a bit of sense is that God isn't omnipotent. Someone had to sneak into the underworld in order to free the souls trapped there. The only way to sneak into the underworld was to send his son. Jesus had to die in order to enter, but then once there, he could go about freeing everyone else.)
Really, I'd just like some coherent explanation for the resurrection.
- Is God Worthy of Worship? - This ties into the immorality aspects from above. But, if all of God's immoral actions from the Old Testament were true, what does that say about the nature of God? Would a God that horrendous even be worthy of worship?
• The Benevolent Dictator - Should We Worship the Christian God?
So, there you have it. If I was ever going to attend one of these retreats, these are my major objections that would have to be addressed. Honestly, I doubt they can be addressed effectively, or I'd still be a Christian rather than an atheist. But if somebody could answer all these questions for me, I would entertain the idea of returning to the fold*.
I do think I did my friend a favor by not going to the particular retreat he was hosting. He'd probably have thought I was a bit of a jerk if I kept on derailing the conversation.
*Honestly, I have no more desire to renew my faith and return to Christianity than I do to be won over to Hinduism or Islam. I think my other writings and the points I raised above make it clear that I don't see Christianity in a very positive light. The longer and longer I'm an atheist, the more and more comfortable I become with it. In fact, I think it's fair to say that I'm happier now than I was as a Christian. I may have lost the promise of an afterlife, but I've also been freed from the immoral dictates of the Bible, and the guilt and fear of Hell that go along with it (especially fear of Hell for other people besides myself - reading Douglas Adams' last book while I was still a Christian was really difficult - believing that this insightful, thoughtful man was suffering for eternity because of his lack of faith). This whole entry is really more of an exercise in intellectual honesty and being open to other viewpoints. I'm not saying I couldn't be convinced to return to Christianity if these issues were addressed, but I am saying that I don't have a Jesus shaped hole in my heart looking to be filled.
Update 2013-10-17: Made numerous changes - added several links to my Friday Bible Blogging series to cite some of my examples, replaced the Little Shepherd Boy translation (it was originally this one), and slightly reworded the above footnote.