Recently I got an email from a concerned believer, regarding the interview I gave last summer on the Unbelievable? UK Christian radio program. Periodically I’ll get an email response from someone who’s heard the show — usually such emails consist of: “you were never a true Christian!” or “repent!” or “I feel sorry for you.” This last email I received intrigued me enough to write a lengthy response — if you’re curious, I’ll include it below:
Thanks for your email. You certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I’m glad what I had to say on the podcast caused you to think/reflect so much.
I suppose more than anything, your email inspired a lot of questions – which probably isn’t all that surprising, is it? I guess the best way to respond to your letter would be for me to quote parts of it that stood out, and then ask you some clarifying questions about what you’ve said or implied. Let’s start:
In one of the first parts of your letter you wrote: I’ve been in through the same sort of intellectual and emotional affliction you described and I think the tears were a mix of empathy and tragedy.
- What is an ‘intellectual affliction?’ I understand when people talk about being emotionally afflicted, but I’ve never heard knowledge or intellect described in such a way. What does it mean to you?
- I suppose I’m curious about what I revealed about myself that is tragic to you. If anything, I find myself much happier since rejecting the confines of faith – is the tragic element of my story more of a projection of how you think you would feel if you were no longer a Christian? I’m thinking back to the podcast, and the only regret or sadness I can remember talking about is the rejection I’ve felt from my family over my apostasy.
Later in the letter you spoke of the notion of being a prodigal – which is, admittedly, a powerful metaphor in the Gospels. Here’s what stood out to me in that particular section: Sons aren’t the only ones tempted to prodigality, though. Daughters and all their sophisticated erudition can have such tendencies, too. And prodigality can also mean taking the spiritual and intellectual gifts and inheritance the Father has given you and squandering them for the “principles of this world”, it’s not just money we’re tempted to waste in foreign lands.
I’m curious about:
- Your notion of “Daughters and all their sophisticated erudition” — I’m wondering what you mean by this particular description. Part of me thinks there may be a bit of a pretentious edge to what you are meaning by education here. Am I misreading?
- Not only that, but what is the correlation between education and ‘prodigality?’ Does one lead to the other? And if that’s the case, what is at fault – the education or the faith system that is unable to stand up to expanded knowledge?
- I’m familiar with the parable of the prodigal son, and it seems like you’re drawing a parallel between that story and my own. What’s interesting is that I don’t see myself as a prodigal. I’m not suffering in a pigsty somewhere, longing to return “home.” If anything, I’m much more content since leaving the faith than I was when I was within its restraints.
- When you talk about “squandering [your intellectual gifts] for the ‘principles of this world’”, what do you mean? I’m always curious when these seemingly anti-intellectual statements creep up in discussions of faith (I’m not necessarily painting you as such, but that sentence looks to be leaning in that direction).
In your letter you shared the story of another woman in your church who looks to be facing many of the struggles I’ve had – you wrote: I have some dear friends at my own church who have a daughter very much like you, although she’s not yet abandoned the Christian faith, I know she’s been tempted. Very thoughtful, very bright, a musical genius, but someone who has questions few Christians, aside from her mom, are willing to discuss.
- This, to me, is a “tragedy.” I have indeed ‘been there, done that,’ and I hold the silencing and dismissive believers accountable for any hurts this young woman may be receiving in her quest for truth and understanding.
- There are many young women and men who are in similar situations in the church, which is one reason why organized religion is in such dire straits today.
- There was a study released last year that predicted religion could potentially go extinct in the next 50 years in several Western countries – including Canada. The fastest growing “religious group” in North America is the “nones” (no religious affiliation). The reason why? Religion is losing its relevance and its openness to encourage questioning – and that’s in addition to not being able to provide satisfactory answers to those asking the questions.
- My response to this is again: who’s at fault here? The young woman with the questions, or the church’s inability to satisfactorily sate her inquiries?
My response to your letter wouldn’t be complete without me tackling some of what you wrote about Satan: Permit me to get a bit medieval for a moment, but I do strongly discern the “voice” to whom you’ve ultimately been listening has not been your own, but that of the enemy of souls. He’s taken your faith, Rebekah, sifting you like wheat, positing the premise that Christianity as it stands is not intellectually satisfying.
- Do you think there is an actual being of Satan? Not as in ‘the Satan’ (as in the adversary), but a supernatural being who’s keen on tempting humans?
- Are you saying that there’s a Satanic edge to my desire to have intellectually satisfying answers to my questions about Christianity?
- Beyond the religious boogieman of a Satan character, part of me resents that you view my journey out of faith as me being a hapless victim who’s been deceived, like Eve.
- Oh, but if we’re going to talk about Eve, what are the implications of having knowledge be forbidden? (on a fun side-note) Is God guilty of ‘contributory negligence’ for putting that tree in the garden in the first place? If I put a dangerous item in the reach of my 5 year old, and strictly forbid her from touching it, but she does so any way, wouldn’t I be guilty of putting such a danger within her reach?
As you heard in the podcast, the problem of evil is a big factor in why I rejected Christianity. You made this analogy in your letter: And if you revisit [Satan’s] efforts to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, you’ll see a few other commonalities to what I thought I heard you allude in your story regarding evil. If God exists, then surely he would do X, wouldn’t he? But since he doesn’t do X, then it would seem that he does not exist.” Did the fact that Jesus did not turn stones into bread or throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple prove He was not the Son of God?
- Are you implying that my desire to have a decent theodicy is akin to Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness? I’m not sure how this works – can you explain? I’m always up for theodices.
- Do you mean that for God to do any more good than what he already does, is serving Satan?
- And this is again assuming that the story in the bible is legit. Are you using the bible to prove that Jesus is God?
Almost done here – hopefully you’re still with me.
You ended your letter by writing these statements: But I do think Jesus still loves you very much, considers you His child and longs for your return, but you are not presently willing. And Rebekah, your heart is not too heavy, you’re not too far to come home.
- Do you think I’m not ‘presently willing’ to accept Christianity? I would like to think that I’m open to evidence – and I think I said as much in the podcast.
- And, once again, my heart isn’t heavy. I am home. As someone who’s rejected the oppressive dogmas of Christianity, I’m now free to:
- Freely question, without dismissal or rejection
- Not settle for answers that aren’t satisfying
- No longer excuse discriminatory dogmas that hurt people (ie., resistance to same-sex marriage)
- I no longer have to defend a (at times, contradictory) faith that isn’t relevant or necessary in our world today
- Embrace my world today, and not a world to come – which adds an immediacy and preciousness that I didn’t have when I had an eternity to look forward to.
- To name just a few!
My final thoughts – while I appreciated most of your letter to me, by the end I was dismayed by your earnestness to dismiss my quest for knowledge in light of the supposed ineffable and “incomprehensible” love of a Savior – who, presumably, has no obligation or desire to sate my ‘god-given’ (irony intended) drive to better understand the world around me.
I suppose I’m no longer willing to canonize what I regard as willful ignorance. It’s not enough for me to swallow these concerns and inquiries in light of a faith and a God that I’m not sure is even there.
You quoted Milton and Dickinson to me in your letter – and while I’ve never been a Milton fan, Dickinson is someone who has always spoke to me (as you can tell in this letter, I’m a fan of the dash – !). You knew that she was an agnostic, right?
I’ll end my long response by quoting her back to you:
“Faith” is a fine invention, when gentlemen can see / But microscopes are prudent, in an emergency.
That’s where I’m at. I don’t mind faith, for others – but squashing the pursuit of knowledge is something that I find unique to religion. I think religion is the one part of human existence that resists expanding the world beyond what we currently know – because it’s deemed dangerous.
And I’m not willing to be part of such a system anymore.
content atheist, at home.
What’s interesting for me is that these kinds of responses are getting easier and easier to write. I have thought through why I am who I am, and I’m happy to share, should I be given the chance. (thing is, I’m finding less people who are willing to give me such chances these days)
What did you think of my response?