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A Family Letter

fellowHumanBeing ~

This is “the letter” that I sent to my parents recently, perhaps some of it might be useful to someone here on Thanks to those who’ve expanded my insight through their posts. To those struggling, know that while faith is a powerful thing, it is not the only thing, and certainly not the best. PII has been replaced by -----. -fHB

Hi mom and dad.

Thank you for sending me the movie “The Case for Faith” by Lee Strobel. I watched it because I love you both.

I was not going to reply, because I know you’re worried about me and I didn’t want to cause any additional anguish in your life through any sort of confrontation. But as I watched the movie, I realized that you really do love me and want the best for me, and that if I didn’t reply, I would be increasing both the separation between us and your resulting anguish.

And separating people and bringing them anguish is not love.

I know, because I’ve caused a lot of separation and brought a lot of anguish to people. I finally saw that I had to understand why so I could stop it. The truth is that I’ve hurt a lot of people, people I believed that I loved. But if love hurts people, is it really love?

It’s got to be tough to see your youngest post something like that on facebook. I know your faith means so much to both of you, and you feel that you’ve failed in raising me, because I’ve turned against God. And I will go to hell forever because of it. I know that this hurts both of you.

The movie opened with beautiful letters reading “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, a conviction of things not seen.”

About 20 minutes in, Mr. Strobel says,
“Among the world’s religions, the Christian doctrine of grace is absolutely unique. You see, grace means that there’s nothing we can do ourselves that qualifies us for salvation.”
Except to believe.

Isn’t that why I do not qualify for salvation? Isn’t that why you suffer in anguish?

When my salvation is dependent upon me doing something, is that really grace?

Mr. Strobel continues,
 “Outstanding behavior, a lifetime of good works: they’re not going to get the job done. That’s why God’s forgiveness is a gift.”
A gift that only costs… what’s that requirement again?

When someone points out a conflict in our beliefs, why do we feel attacked? I certainly felt attacked the first time I heard that guy read Robert Wright’s book. I know from your many pages of heartfelt notes that you did, too. We feel attacked because someone is calling into question a thing that we hold very dear, something that has great meaning to us: because “he saved me from my sins”, because I “want a closer walk”, because “he gets me to heaven” or “not hell”.

Faith requires us to be self-seeking. And that is the case against faith.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” What was that between “not dishonor” and “not easily angered”?

When Mr. Strobel talked about outstanding behavior and a lifetime of good works, what was that job that needed doing?

I felt attacked, too when I listened to Christopher Hitchens read his book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”. That was after I heard Robert Wright’s work through a few times. The religious conditioning all three of us have received is really powerful stuff: even after I had come to terms with the fact that the bible utterly contradicts itself, hearing it explained by Hitchens still triggered defensive responses.

So writing this is really difficult. And yet, it needs to be written.

Faith causes real harm to real people in this world: the Crusades; the Inquisition; the Salem Witch Trials; the justification of slavery in America; a desperate guy in -----, trying to do the right thing, justifying an affair and a divorce that almost resulted in a fragile girl from ----- ending her life; the anguish between parents and a scared little man who nearly ended his life, too, from the cognitive dissonance.

I’m not trying to scare you, I’m demonstrating the very real problem that is faith, here in a world of 7,000,000,000 people who just want an opportunity to pursue their own path to their, and their offspring’s, long-term well-being. People like you, and like me.

In the movie (34 mins), Gregory Koukl, who is the Founder and President of a group called “Stand To Reason”, states that, “Every human being walking the face of this earth is aware of evil in the world and everybody has to, from their perspective, from their world-view, offer a solution to it. The real question is ‘Who has got the best answer, in the context of their world-view; which world-view has the best resources, to help deal with this problem?’ And here, I think, the biblical world-view excels.”

No, Greg, everyone does not need to offer their perspective of a solution, and we do not need to consider who has the best resources: we need to find the answer. Truth does not depend upon any world-view, truth depends on what is true. Faith, which is based upon a self-seeking motive, can force us to twist our logic to the extent that truth becomes relative, as Greg demonstrates.

And it is necessary to mention that the biblical world-view does not excel. There is no prohibition against slavery, for example. Indeed in 1856, the Reverend Thomas Stringfellow was reassuring his flock in Virginia that "Jesus Christ recognized this (i.e. slavery) institution as one that was lawful among men, and regulated its relative duties. ... I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command; and second, I affirm, he has introduced no new moral principle which can work its destruction."

And theologically, he is right.

I pointed this out in a facebook conversation with a high-school acquaintance recently, and among the replies I found this: “Being a black person this might shock you... I have no issue with biblical slavery... Slavery as done in the bible is not the slavery that was done in america...” This in an age when Frederick Douglass is easily searchable: “Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.” He goes on to mention the Reformed Methodist Church.

And we Lutherans aren’t any better. When Martin Luther was 60, he wrote a little-known book called “On the Jews and Their Lies”. He introduces his work thus:
“I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them. I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jews into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself. However, the devil is the god of the world, and wherever God's word is absent he has an easy task, not only with the weak but also with the strong. May God help us. Amen.”
Hitler listed Martin Luther as one of the greatest reformers in Mein Kampf. I hope grandpa really didn’t have to bomb people during the war. That would’ve been hard on him. And on them.

It doesn’t take an excessively twisted person to bring harm and hurt to others through faith, either. In the previously mentioned facebook conversation, I pointed to biblical examples of god acting in unloving ways to the humans he created “in our image, in our likeness”. The faithful rallied to god’s defense by arguing that things like anger, jealousy, and fear, which arise only when I am considering myself, can be part of a loving relationship. How many of us have had wedges driven into our relationships, or been hurt psychologically or physically, from people basing their actions on anger, jealousy, or fear? I was saddened to see that I knew the ones making these arguments: I grew up with them, and I know they’re good people. They’re just being forced by their faith to use theology.

When I use theology, I am taking direction from ancient ideas to justify and protect my faith while I ignore the interests of others. The bible contains a continuum of moral directives to guide me, ranging from Mark 7:24-30, where Jesus calls foreigners “dogs” and performs a miracle for a foreign woman only because she acknowledges the metaphor, all the way down to Numbers 31:17:
"Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known a man intimately, spare for yourselves.” 
That used to just be called raping and pillaging. We now call it Crimes Against Humanity. Which was the point of Robert Wright’s book, as I explained on the ski lift at ----- that day. I hope you didn’t miss out on the last three disks, the author makes a pretty good argument for the existence of divinity (of sorts), and gives us plenty to think about regarding how we interact with the faithful descendants of Ishmael.

If we can put aside our interests and just look at what the bible itself says, we can see that these types of instructions might be expected from our more ancient ancestors as they were trying to figure out this crazy world: If the Tree of Knowledge brought death, and the Tree of Life brought life, what was the original plan for Adam and Eve? Remember, sometime before Google Earth, people actually had faith in the notion that our planet had edges, and four corners, and stood on pillars so that, according to Psalms, “it can never be moved”. I’m not making fun of my bronze- and iron-age ancestors, they were honestly trying to figure it all out: and to them, a moody anthropomorphic god that fights an undefined evil seemed a completely reasonable explanation for the unexplainable. Unfortunately, they were wrong about more than just the structure of the solar system when they said things like “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.

They also couldn’t agree on their facts. Did god divide the light from the darkness on the first day, or the fourth? Was Ahaziah 22 or 42 when he began to reign? Did Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stay in Bethlehem 40 days for Mary’s purification according to the laws of Moses, or did they flee to Egypt under duress? Were Jesus’ last words on the cross “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”, “It is finished”, or something else? Which women went to visit Jesus’ tomb: Was it just Mary Magdalene; or Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James; or Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome; or Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some others? There can be only one answer to each of these questions.

Even the Gospel of Matthew gets Isaiah 7:14 wrong when it says “"The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel": the translation of Isaiah from the original Hebrew to the Greek Septuagint that Matthew used got “almah” wrong - it doesn’t mean “virgin” or “maiden”, just “young woman”. And besides, King Ahaz ended up losing the battle that the prophecy clearly refers to anyway.

This calls the very divinity of Jesus into question. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ mom is so surprised by his actions. I mean, wasn’t she visited by angels, alone among all women in having a virgin birth, and simply a mother to her son?

The problems continue if we’re willing to put aside our faith-driven interests and just look at the actual codices themselves. Please do your son, who did so well in catechism that he got to skip out for football, a favor: google “Pericope Adulterae” some evening and spend a little time reading. I like the first option from wikipedia, since it has both pictures of the documents and clickable links to relevant and related things.

J.P. Moreland, Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, states the case against faith succinctly toward the end of the movie: “If you only lived this life four score and ten and you died and that was the end of it, the kind of hostilities and hurts that we have in this life would be writ-large: their significance would be stunning, indeed. But from the vantage-point of ‘life forever with God in Heaven’, the harms and hurts that happen in this life, though still real and still important, are shown to be so insignificant compared to the glories and the joys we are going to experience in the after-life that from the vantage-point of that perspective they are well, well, worth it.” So hostilities and hurts like the genocide of the Nazi Final Solution and the terror of groups like Joseph Kony’s “Lord’s Resistance Army”, pictures of which appeared on my screen as the movie emphasized how terrible I am for being me, are “insignificant” and “well, well worth it”? I would like to see Dr. Moreland tell that directly to some of those people, or perhaps their parents, just before they died: I imagine some of them may have had a different vantage-point. And this from a man who teaches our college kids.

“To such heights of evil are men driven by religion”, said the pre-Christian Roman philosopher Lucretius. Yet the bible isn’t all bad. St. Paul hits upon a really good idea when he’s chastising those tongue-speaking Christians in Corinth, so good that I’ll repeat it:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
The fact that the biblical god sentences a person like me, who is using the brain that was given him and trying to be intellectually honest, to eternal suffering for refusing to accept a “gift” is simply the most extreme form of record keeping. And when he says he is a jealous god, he is demonstrating envy. I could go on but it is not necessary: I am forced to conclude that biblical-god is not love, and 1 John 4:8 is contradicted.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed. What is this, page five of the abuse? If you’re not able to see what I’m getting at, I imagine you’re feeling really attacked. That’s normal, it’s what the human brain has to do to protect its interests, its sense of “me”. It’s been a problem for us for a long time, because the idea of “the me” is a natural result of the thought process.

When I go to work, I have a motive, which is to earn money. Indeed I have to earn money, because that is the most effective way in twenty-first century America to get food, clothes, and shelter. So I work. And working is beneficial in other ways to my long-term well-being: I get to travel by helicopter and play with fire in some of the most amazing ecosystems in the world, and you know how I like nature. I must work, yet working cannot be love because it is by nature a self-seeking thing. So what is love, then, if it is not biblical-god or working? Let’s continue to examine things to find out: Is anger, which arises when I’ve perceived that someone has “failed me”, love? It can’t be, because it results from me considering my own interests while ignoring those of another person who is trying to work toward their own long-term well-being, just like me. Yet I remember hearing something in the bible about god being angry.

When we see the reality that faith, defined at the beginning of the movie as “being sure of what we hope for, a conviction of things not seen”, is a synonym for self-delusion and that it’s completely different from love, we can drop it. And when we drop it, we are free to serve others and be happy for no other reason than the world is a better place for all of us when we do. And I think even St. Paul might agree that doing something for everyone without the consideration of “my whatever” is love.

Spring has sprung in -----. The trees in the valley are leafing out, and water’s running everywhere in the neighborhood. Except down my driveway, which pleases me whenever I use it. I think I might be able to finish it this summer. I’m thinking of putting in a shed by the water tank. But I need to replace the Ranger, and that’s not going to be cheap if I’m going to get something that will last for a while. So maybe I’ll just move a lot of top soil and gravel this summer and try to save some money. Guess we’ll see how busy fire season is. But we’re not there yet because the hummingbirds aren’t back. They should be here in the next couple of weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing them, they’re fascinating little creatures.

I’m going camping this weekend down in the desert. Our seasonal firefighters start on Monday, and I’d really like to spend some time there again before we get busy. Maybe we can go camping in the desert sometime together. It’s an amazing place, and I’d be happy to show you around. Once it was so dark, dry, and calm, that I actually saw the curvature of the galaxy as the I looked toward the enormous black hole at its center in Sagittarius. The universe is truly a spectacular place. I’m awe-struck when I consider that all of us get to be a conscious part of it, if only for a while.

I love you both.