I don’t think that my story is particularly unique to the individuals posting their stories on this site. I identify with them in many ways. Long story short- raised in fundamentalist Baptist home- black sheep of the family… went to a Baptist college, did what I wanted with the perpetual cloud of religious guilt hanging over my head.
When I married I decided it was time to stop messing around and embrace the religion I “knew” was true like a grown up. I started “studying” the Bible and embracing things I never had before. It all fell apart years later- studying the Bible and attending church never really “took” with me, even though I knew deep down that was due to my own sinful failing… and that I was fighting the “free gift of Salvation.”
I saw my parents and sisters and their families living relatively blessed lives in every way, and knew that I was only a dedication away from that life. But then one sister converted to Catholicism, and then the other. Their relationship with my parents was for the first time ever, contentious and strained. I watched as my parents fought, pleaded, argued, and guilt-tripped my sisters for the first time in our lives, and was really stunned that these doctrinal differences of opinion were worth rending our family over.
It all began with a mention of the book “Jesus, Interrupted” by Bart Ehrman that I saw in an interview with a celebrity, of all things. I thought it sounded interesting so I read it, and the flood gates were opened. Suddenly everything that I had been “knowingly and rebelliously rejecting” seemed ridiculous. I don’t have to spell out the quick revelation that curious and skeptical people have upon critically examining Christianity- I’m sure you’ve all been through it. However, I kept MY opinions to myself, until recently when it was no longer possible to do so. I had to gather my thoughts and I wrote this letter to my wonderful and deeply pious father.
I have a certain kind of fondness and pity for my dear Dad, because his Christian testimony is one that, while not uncommon to the Christian community, has a certain pitiable quality in my eyes, because to this day he tears up and feels tremendous guilt over things from his youth that most of us would think of as completely harmless and normal (looking at porn, sleeping with girls, etc.). It was a relatively brief phase in his life and I can’t help but get angry at the god that still torments him over these youthful indiscretions. Believe me, I did these same things to the nth degree and never lost one night’s sleep over it.
I wrote this letter, mainly taking issue with two things- that my parents believed me to be spiritually “lost”, and that I was doing my daughter a disservice by not taking her to church and indoctrinating her in a similar fashion. Here follows my letter, I did steal some quotes I think which I didn’t reference in the moment- I think there is some Sam Harris and maybe Christopher Hitchens in there.
Hi Dad- thanks for inviting me to Bible study today. I thought I should follow up a little more with you since my last letter. I hesitated the other morning when you asked me to spend a whole evening sometime discussing the letter I previously wrote to you. I’m not sure what the intention would be and I might be wrong, but I think I have a pretty good idea.
I just want to say that I’m not sure what kind of discussion we could have- by inviting me to Bible study today, I got the impression that you felt that maybe I’m just not aware of what the Bible says, or means, or something. I assure you that I do. Like I mentioned before, I not only know the Bible well from my upbringing in church, but have recently read several in-depth books about the authorship and historicity of the Bible, which delved quite deeply into every book and part of the OT and New. I have heard all the details of your talks with Sarah and Jake a while back, when they opened that door to you that Joy and Taylor did not, and I’d rather not go through that. What they felt was it was more a one sided explanation of all the points where they were very wrong, and leading their children down the wrong path. Also they felt obliged to justify themselves to you, which couldn’t possibly satisfy on either side. You know that I am familiar with the various protestant theologies and your personal testimonies. I don’t think there is anything new you can tell me that I don’t already know inside out. It’s been a part of my entire life. I imagine I have to look forward to an evening where I have to listen to why I’m wrong and you’re right, honestly I don’t feel like I need to do that, and I don’t think you’re obliged to do it. You love and concern touch me deeply, like I said before. The importance you place on this is giving me a lot of stress, mainly because I know it is causing YOU stress on my behalf, and I feel it wholly unnecessary. I don’t think there is anything that could move me to reconsider your theologies or shed some new light on something I’ve missed in the previous 35 years. I just don’t see how an open discussion is useful at this time, seeing as how your beliefs are not open to revision- I assume you think mine are. I honestly feel like the most meaningful testimony to the value of your beliefs is just loving me the way I am. If I had to give a eulogy for Granny or Papa- from my point of view because I have a feeling that their relationship with my dear Momma is different- I would say that they lived consistently, and loved me consistently through every phase of my life. They never questioned or pressed, judged or commented. That made more of an impression of their unwavering love for me than anything else. I know you love me the same if not much much more, but that is the impression of the unconditional love they have always showed.
I’m sorry if I’m unfairly cutting you off ahead of time. I just saw the frustrations that Sarah and Jake went through by opening the door of discussion about their change in beliefs, as opposed to keeping it to themselves like Joy and Taylor did which upset you. But the outcome was that while tring to respect and honor you by listening, they felt disrespected and frustrated. And the outcome was that they learned (and so did I) that there IS no discussion, that there cannot be when things are black and white, as you say. If you aren’t open minded you can’t expect others to be.
I know very well that you truly believe that you are living the best possible life and that it is foolish to choose any other path. Your Christian life and beliefs work very well for you, so why wouldn’t they work for everyone? I know that your experiences with mission work, and even touching the lives of people like Paige and Amy reinforce your belief that everyone that is experiencing hardship is just lost spiritually and you have the answer for them. I am resigned to the idea that you would lump me in that group. That frustrates me but I know it comes from a place of deep love, of unshakeable conviction that you know the ultimate truth you want me to accept, mainly because you think I have to on pain of eternal damnation, secondly because you want me to experience the best possible life. I can deeply appreciate that. I wish you would consider this- that to Sarah and Joy we are BOTH wrong. We are outside their church, and outsider to the TRUE experience of Christianity, only acceptable because you are sincere and maybe just unaware of your error, not chosen yet, or revealed the truth- fingers crossed that one day you will be in glory. They have mentioned that one day you will “come around” once you see the truth. How does that make you feel? Doesn’t that insult you and fly in the face of all you believe and have believed for years? How arrogant and presumptuous. You have many more years of experience, of study, of personal revelation. It is not hard to see or imagine how this could make you feel. But you put yourself in that same position to judge with people who you disagree with including me. Mormons, Muslims, and probably dozens of protestant denomination also say YOU are wrong, and in your eyes they are. Everybody is on the wrong path in someone’s eyes. We are all so different.
I can understand, appreciate, and respect your faith. I just don’t share it exactly. You feel I am missing out- I don’t. I’m not saying anything to disrespect your life- you live an exceptional and frankly inimitable life. Your actions that are based in your convictions are sincere and admirable, what theoretically Christianity is meant to be. I am not trying to dishonor you or hurt you. I imagine you feel like I am rejecting something you gave to me and that makes me sad. Hurting you or my mother is that LAST thing in the world I would ever do intentionally, and that’s why this issue gives me so much stress. But I also can’t pretend something and I don’t want to. If you really want to try to see things from my point of view, I have a book or two that can shed light on it far better than I could in my own words. Remember, it has to be a GIVEN that the Bible is true, inspired and inerrant, and that is the starting point for you. If anyone believes that or is at least open to that idea, then the tenets of faith follow somewhat naturally, and to reject that is to do so willfully. But there are millions of people who do not accept that as a given, in fact might find it as equally “inspired” as the Koran and the Book of Mormon. There are millions who are equally certain of drastically different “truths” and others like me who do not claim any ultimate spiritual truth whatsover, and find that to be the only intellectually honest and tenable position.
I think you know what it is to think that good and well-meaning people must be mistaken, that what they believe and do is sincere, but sincerely wrong, or at least unnecessary. I think you know what it is to think loved ones are spending all their time and energy painting themselves into a corner away from you with laboriously imagined constructs, which sound beautiful (or not) and may have some wisdom, but are no more true in your mind than a morality tale or fable. Once you’re told they have to be taken as absolutely true, they become quaint, if not bizarre. They way you and I both see Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, etc is the way I now see all organized religion. This is not a put down- I just don’t know, and feel that deep down honestly no one does. I think faith as a value or virtue makes no one any better or wiser or anyone else who claims other truths based on faith. I think taking a look at the evidence, along with the lives of the faithful, I think it equally probable that any of these religions is true and authored by the creator of the universe, as well as that none of them are. A lot of the frustration I feel with the black/ white thinking is that absolute certainty leaves little room for difference (or humility), and only creates division. In my understanding the virtuous thing about having faith in Christianity means believing everything that is put out there as necessary to salvation and requiring no evidence whatsoever, except for some purported internal witness from the Holy Spirit. I find it offensive and condescending to say that those who are not convinced by the Holy Spirit, maybe the Holy Spirit hasn’t deigned to visit yet, Satan has confounded them, or maybe like the Pharoah God’s plan is to harden their heart. (!) Or maybe they just haven’t studied the Bible enough . That to me just seems like a way to avoid doubting yourself when you’re unable to convince others. The strange thing to me about that is millions who have had this witness (just within Christianity) use it as irrefutable support for their faith, all believe different things. Seems to me the Holy Spirit would create within believers some propositional evidence for the truth of Christianity. The Bible itself is a strange kind of evidence because why do you believe the Bible is true? Because the Bible says so. However, the oddest thing to me about faith, is that in the absence of real evidence, people mount a fortress of reasons for faith in their minds through study, prayer/ meditation, through only associating with people of the same beliefs to continuously reinforce and validate each other, to fend off any doubts even those raised as unconsciously as the fact that millions of intelligent people in the world do not believe as they do. The compounding evidence through confirmation bias over the years becomes impenetrable. I find that what I have done by critically investigating what it is exactly that I’m affirming by being physically present at a worship service is more than most people will ever do. Like Robert McKim said “We seem to have a remarkable capacity to find arguments that support positions that we antecedently hold. Reason is, to a great extent, the slave of prior commitments.” I think what is objectively true wouldn’t require such a machine of perpetual affirmation. And to be clear I don’t claim to have it all figured out. I’ve always found myself on the outside with all those beloved people in my life who make some pretty large claims about reality based solely on faith. Not just the more mainstream ones like Christianity, but friends who believe in astrology, ghosts, fringe conspiracies. I can find many ideas fascinating but without proof, I am hard wired to be skeptical of anything proposition that offers no other proof than what feelings it can produce or what emotional and psychological appeal it holds for believers.
I have tell you that I will never teach Victoria that she’s a miserable sinner destined for hell, unless she’s regenerate, chosen, or walks some aisle depending on what the denomination of the month is, any more than I would teach her to believe if she straps on dynamite and blows herself up with some infidels, I’ll see her in heaven. If we were Muslim, that would be theologically defensible. I want her to know that by sinning she is only hurting herself and others. I don’t want her to believe that there is no point in caring for our world or people in it, beyond saving their souls, because it will all be over soon to the glory of God. I don’t want her to grow callous in the belief that she is healthy and well cared for because she is favored by God and the poor souls who are not somehow deserve their fate in the grand design. I don’t want her feel moral outrage over birth control or homosexuality, and shrug off genocide, war and famine afflicting “infidels.” I hope she won’t squander her time or intellect trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or what happens to the souls of unbaptized babies (which is my harsh opinion of Taylor’s intellectual endeavors). I don’t want her to reject whatever gifts and aptitudes she has that could help the world or advance science, physics or medicine because religion has taught her first that those things have little value and some danger, and that fulfilling her potential is second only to the status of her soul and all that entails. Of all the tragic wastes- I should never have kept my mouth shut for so long while quietly raging in my mind while people like the Crawfords would ask prayer for family members interested in evolution (yes that happened), while committing another kind of abuse (my opinion) on their own daughters. And other people not encouraged to associate with other kids their own age and remained sheltered in their own family, so they’ll never question that the earth is only 6000 years old or whatever other things they could be led to question if they open their minds. I thank GOD that you and Mom never did that to me and my sisters. I don’t want Victoria to believe that is virtuous to hold fast to blind faith in the face of overwhelming evidence, than to open her mind. I don’t want her to live this life only in the service (and worry and fear of) the next, because there is no way to know what waits after this life. I want her to know that any claims to that knowledge are suspect. I want her to know that what IS true regarding spiritual experience and our universe is knowable and discoverable NOW. That there is no straight and narrow path to salvation but there are a million different experiences to be had in life that will make it unique and beautiful. I think a good and loving God who concerns himself with us, aware of the limitations of our understanding in this extraordinarily complex world we live in would be perfeclty satisfied with this. I believe that to think there is one way and one simple answer is to close your eyes to this wondrous complexity. This is not a flippant rejection- because church cramps my sinful lifestyle or I prefer to sleep in or don’t enjoy fellowship with very nice people. Integrity, morality, and treating others as I would like to be treated, sacrificing to help the needy and suffering and contributing to a moral, peaceful and civilized society is as much my ideal as anyone else’s (though if you throw in metaphysical concerns, those ideals can differ ). I just cannot pretend to myself, my child, or anyone else that I think it is good or even right to claim to know the unknowable, to encourage in-group/ out-group thinking, condemning or vilifying entire groups of fellow human beings, explaining away real injustice and suffering in mystical terms. In other words, that things are black and white . I sincerely hope you will respect my right to teach Victoria my convictions, just as you has the right to teach me. I’m not saying I think you taught me bad things, this is more about religion in general and not exclusively from any bad experience of my own- I have been extraordinarily blessed in family, health, and everything I can think of. Thankfully I have the freedom to make up my own mind. What is clear to you isn’t at all clear to me; what makes sense to you makes none to me, and I finally know without a doubt that is OK. And it is not for lack of understanding what “it” is . I don’t know whether sharing my thoughts will provoke an angry or emotional attack on me, or some understanding.
I promise you that I know your point of view- I could probably articulate it just as well as you could. I’m sure you think I’ve missed the point- that it is all about the free gift of salvation through Jesus or God’s grace and not just “religion.” I’m sure what I’ve said has raised more questions and I know you have your objections and concerns, but like I said before, I wish we could just leave it at this for now. To be perfectly honest, while I know if comes from love, I promise you my perceived apathy isn’t for lack of comprehension of the Bible or what theology you believe in. Like I said previously- I know it all and I don’t find it compelling. My relationship with you and Mom means everything to me, and I hope that this won’t change anything. That would be devastating to me. I’m the same person I’ve always been. The purpose of this is to elaborate more on my first note, respond to your invitation to Bible study and other discussions. I know I said we could be open to dialogue, but I have a sneaking suspicion that means ME being open to having you set me straight. I love you very much.
PS If you do want to know more about what I think about things like:
Morality, usefulness of religion vs the TRUTH of religion, science and religion, the “fall”, superstition, prayer, the trinity, atonement theory, free will, theodicy, historical criticism and evidence of the Bible, prophecy and biblical authority, heaven and hell, virgin birth and resurrection
I could tell you in the spirit of real dialogue. I promise I have some very definite opinions, and they are informed and not just emotional. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but just responding to your assumption that maybe I just don’t know enough. Thank you for loving me so very very much. I love you too.
Filed Under: Testimonials