From Fundamentalist to Freethinker: It All Began with Santa (2007)
[This essay was originally presented as a talk at the 2004 annual conference of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists.]
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
In some ways I'm glad that I was brought up as a Christian fundamentalist. Not because fundamentalism gave me moral values that I cherish. On the contrary, many of the values I hold most dear were developed in contradistinction to those found in the Bible. My burning sense of justice, for example, arose out of abhorrence at the behavior of the Old Testament God, and revulsion at the doctrine of hellfire preached by Jesus in the New Testament. And my strong sense of compassion grew for those who have suffered in this life and who, if Christian doctrine were true, would suffer even more in the next life for the simple sin of nonbelief.
Why then? Because the fundamentalist beliefs of my early years gave me something tough to chew on, something to cut my teeth on intellectually. The gummy mouthings of liberal preachers, dishonestly clothing the wolf of fundamentalism in the softer semantics of liberal theology, was not for me. Their evasive, obfuscatory language could never satisfy my passion for truth. At least the fundamentalist sect in which I grew up knew what it stood for: that the Bible was the word of God, that mankind needed to be saved, that God had provided salvation through belief in the "Lord Jesus Christ," that we'd go to Hell if we didn't believe, and so on.
What I discovered, as my critical powers matured, was that the fundamentalist beliefs of my family and forebears were almost totally without warrant in reason or experience. As I put it when I was about 31 years old, in my first public debate (with a Catholic priest), I eventually came to the conclusion that many of their beliefs--beliefs central to traditional Christianity--were both "morally obnoxious" and "intellectually pernicious."
Strong words, those. So I'll say more to justify them in a while. For the present, it is enough to say that I doubt whether I would have come so readily to these conclusions had my starting point been that of an unchallenged, and unchallenging, churchgoer in a more liberal tradition.
My starting point, I have said, was that of a Christian fundamentalist. To be more specific, it was that of an earnest young Baptist. I was the firstborn in a family of ardent Baptists, with a maternal grandfather--Guy D. Thornton--who was a much-revered Baptist minister and evangelist, with a set of forebears on his side of the family that stretched back to such Christian notables as Robert and Mary Moffat, parents-in-law of the renowned David Livingstone.
One of my earliest memories is of an event that helped shape my childhood. It was Wednesday, 13 June, 1934. I was just over three-and-a-half years old. My parents had been summoned to the deathbed of my grandfather, and I of course went with them.
For twenty years he had suffered grievously from a tropical disease, chronic bacillary dysentery. Contracted soon after he became the first chaplain of the Anzacs in Cairo in 1914, it was caused by one of those creations--the Shigella bacillus--that God, according to the book of Genesis, thought to be "very good." Now it was taking its final toll. My grandmother, however, explained it differently in her biography of her late husband:
a loving Father was not willing that His child should suffer more, nor was He "willing that he should be so far from Him any longer."
Before he departed, the good reverend found time to pronounce a benediction over both his grandchildren--my younger cousin Sibyl and me--expressing the hope that we might, if it were the will of God,
tread the dark places of the earth to carry to those who sit in darkness the light that was lighting his own feet through the valley of the shadow.
He concluded, in my case, by saying that he was "casting [his] mantle over me."
So it was that I felt destined to follow in my grandfather's footsteps. And follow I did. In keeping with the Baptist belief in full immersion, I took the plunge, engaging wholeheartedly in scriptural and theological studies and church activities. My mind was filled with reflections on the foundations of my faith. And my teenage years were filled with church activities: Baptist Harriers (cross-country running) on Saturday afternoons and the Young People's Social on Saturday night; then, next day, Sunday School or Christian Endeavour before the morning service at 11; back for Bible Class at 2; evening service at 7; and the hours in between discussing theological problems on street corners with a handful of friends who also took their faith seriously.
Nor did my holidays afford a break. There were Bible Class camps at various "retreats" around Auckland at which I competed in, and won, several sermonette contests. I'm told that I even "won" several souls for Christ. There were annual Christian Crusader camps out on Ponui Island, during which Dr. Sam Martin preached about the sin of "self-abuse," a sin which (by innuendo) he identified with the sin against the Holy Ghost: the sin that will not be forgiven "neither in this world, nor in that which is to come" (Matthew 12:52). And there were the monthly meetings at the Bible Training Institute of the Young People's Missionary Fellowship, which I had helped found. Even my days at Mt. Albert Grammar School were infused by religion, especially when, at age 15, I became Secretary of the Christian Crusaders, the junior version of the Evangelical Union.
So how did I manage to struggle out of the dark waters of the Baptist belief system and emerge as a freethinker? Basically because I asked questions and wasn't satisfied with evasive answers or spurious reasonings. That's a simple way of explaining it. But I can fairly say that from very early on I displayed many of the dispositions that later characterized my career as an academic philosopher. Among other things, I had a desire for conceptual clarity and a nose for the implications of beliefs, and for any inconsistencies between them.
My atheism was, so to speak, home grown, not a function of having been seduced away by other doubters. I knew little of the writings of agnostics or atheists until my fifties, some thirty-odd years after I'd staked out my own independent rejection of Christianity and all other forms of religion. I was seemingly born with an inability to accept beliefs on faith, an ineluctable determination--of the kind that David Hume extolled--to proportion the strength of my beliefs to the strength of the evidence for them.
The Demand for Evidence
For me, there was no escape from the demand for evidence. "Have faith," I was told. "But faith in what?" I wanted to know. "Why have faith in this rather than that unless there's stronger evidence for this rather than that?" "Why should I be a Baptist rather than a Catholic, a Christian rather than a Jew or a Muslim?" These were questions that came to me in early childhood when I first became aware of the diversity of religious faiths and the diversity of sects within each. They couldn't be answered in terms of faith alone. They required an examination of the credentials of each of the rival faiths and of the beliefs of those who embraced no faith at all.
"But," some would object, "if you turn from theism to atheism, haven't you abandoned one "ism" for another, one faith for another?"
No. My belief that there is no God, like my belief that there are no fairies, is based on a combination of good reasons: the absence of good evidence for the existence of such entities, together with an abundance of compelling evidence for their nonexistence. I am, as it were, an atheist--not a mere agnostic--about both. Indeed, I'm an atheist about both for many of the same reasons that Christians are atheists--not agnostics--about the whole panoply of heathen gods: Baal, Zeus, Isis, Osiris, and the more than 200 other gods you'll find listed in a good book on comparative religion.
My Atheism Not an Intransigent Belief
My belief that no such supernatural entities exist, however, isn't an intransigent belief. If the heavens were to open tomorrow and remain open with God revealing himself to us daily by speaking to all humans and exercising his much vaunted powers and goodness by putting an immediate end to disease, warfare. injustice, and the whole realm of human and animal suffering, I'd consider revising my beliefs.
Woody Allen, I'm told, would be content if God would reveal himself by making a large deposit in Woody's bank account. I'd want a lot more evidence than that: a clear and unambiguous display of the supernatural powers that the theist's God is supposed to have--something like the instant transformation of Earth into the Heaven that he could have created in the first place. Maybe then I'd embrace theism once more.
But not before I'd gotten him to answer some pretty tough questions. Which theists' God was he? The Judaic God, Yahweh, for whom Moses was chief prophet and Jesus an impostor? The Christian God who supposedly revealed himself two thousand years ago to a handful of people in a minor province of the Roman Empire? The Allah of Islam for whom Mohammed was chief prophet?
And if he declared himself the God of the Christians, I'd want to know his doctrinal affiliations. Had I gotten it right in supposing him to be the God of the Baptists? If so, why hadn't he made it unequivocally clear to rival Christian sects that we were indeed the true believers? Or was he, in fact, the God of one of these other sects?
I'd want to ask him: "Why did you wait so long to make your existence indisputable, to display your awesome powers, and to deal definitively with the problems of disease, disaster, and suffering--the solution of which compassionate mortals have dedicated their lives throughout the centuries?" More importantly, I'd want to ask him: "Why did you create such a mess in the first place when you obviously could have placed us immediately in a heavenly world?" And most important of all, I'd want to ask him: "What are you going to do about all those people who never heard the name of your son, Jesus, or who--having heard--found no good reason to believe him to be your son? What are you going to do with apostates like me who, according to your son, are doomed to spend eternity suffering the tortures of the damned?"
I can't conceive of any satisfactory answers. He might, perhaps, urge me to have faith in his wisdom, justice, and mercy. But these three qualities, together with faith itself, are precisely what I am calling into question. "Have faith" is the last resort of those who have no rational answers.
To be sure, religionists often speak of faith as some sort of third way of knowing, recourse to which can lead one to truths beyond the reach of human experience and reason. But faith, I came to realize, is nothing more than firm or confident belief. And religious faith is usually intransigent belief: close-minded belief, resolutely impervious to evidence of any kind. That sort of faith compromises intellectual and moral integrity. I wanted nothing to do with it.
My Pilgrim's Progress
In order to tell the story of how I became an atheist, I will depict my early years as ones in which I undertook a journey along a difficult and sometimes daunting path. And I will now revisit certain of its more salient vantage points, commenting on the incidents and episodes that occurred along the way, and pausing to reflect on the vistas that opened up as I journeyed onward. You may, if you wish, think of my journey as a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress," though one that took a different direction from Paul Bunyan's hero.
Childhood: A Period of Questioning
It all began with Santa. In hindsight, I see that it was questions about him that primed the pump of critical inquiry for me. Up until the age of 6 or 7, I believed in Santa just as fervently as I believed in Jesus and the nativity stories, in Heaven as a place from which my grandfather--along with God--watched my every move, and in Hell as a place where the bad people go.
If anything, my belief in Santa was even more vivid, and more compelling, than these other beliefs. After all, I'd actually seen and talked to Santa every Christmas when we went to the Farmers Trading Company on Hobson Street. And sometimes I'd seen him, half an hour later, in Milne and Choyce on Queen Street.
But soon I started asking questions. How many Santas were there? If--as my parents explained--the Hobson Street Santa and the Queen Street Santa were only "pretend" Santas, where was the real Santa? Was there, in fact, a real Santa as well as the pretend ones? If so, where did he live? How did he manage to visit all of the children in the world on the very same night? How did he get down our chimney without getting covered with soot, or visit my bedroom without leaving visible footprints? It seemed to me that his ability to do all these extraordinary things made him something of a miracle-worker, a bit like Moses and Jesus.
More worrying were some ethical questions. Why did Santa discriminate so blatantly by giving rich kids things like bicycles when my stocking contained trinkets like lead soldiers, a bag of lollies, and a few pieces of fruit? Why did he reward some of the nasty kids that I knew more than he rewarded good little boys like me?
I was troubled even more when I discovered that some of the kids at school didn't believe in Santa anymore. They said it was my parents who'd filled my stocking.
When finally confronted with the whole package of my perplexities, my parents confessed that Santa stories were just pleasant make-believe. But that, too, troubled me. They had lied, I insisted. So how could I trust the other stories that they told me? And how could I trust my own beliefs if in this instance they had proved to be false? How much of what I believed was myth? How much was based in reality? I resolved never again to believe just on the basis of someone else's say-so. Many of my questions about Santa later found clear parallels in questions about religious matters.
Many Santas, Many Religions
My questions about how many Santas there were, and which, if any, was the real one, found an echo in problems about the diversity of religious sects and the question of which, if any, was the true one.
This first thrust itself upon me when I was 8 and wanted to play with the Kelly kids who lived just opposite. My mother objected vehemently. They were Roman Catholics, she explained, followers of "the whore of Rome." But, I objected, didn't they believe in Jesus? Weren't they Christians, too? Yes, she replied: they believed in Jesus, and they were Christians alright, but they weren't true Christians.
But if there were true religions and false religions, I reflected, how could I be sure that my one was the true one? If I'd been brought up as one of the Kelly kids, wouldn't I have been a Catholic too? Did I share the beliefs of my parents and grandparents only because I'd been brought up as a Baptist? Might not all the religions I'd heard of be fakes like the different Santas I'd seen in the shops? Was there in fact a true religion at all? Might not the Bible stories be just pleasant make-believe, like stories about Santa?
Religious Experiences: Genuine or Spurious?
My childhood reflections on the rivalry between religions had other implications. We born-again Baptists believed we had a special relationship with God. We spoke to him in prayer, and he spoke to us in return, sometimes providing vivid experiences of his presence in our lives. We believed that we were doing God's will. Yet sincere believers of contrary faiths also believed that they were doing God's will. They had religious experiences different from, and sometimes contrary to, ours. I was almost envious, for a time, of the Kelly kids' claim to see visions of the Virgin Mary. Why didn't God reveal himself to Protestants that way? Why were the miracles of Lourdes reserved for Catholics? Were they deluding themselves? Might I not have been deluding myself when, aged 14, I was immersed into the baptismal waters and felt the "indwelling of the Holy Spirit"? What with the church choir singing, "Where he leads me I will follow" in tones of deepest solemnity, it was all very moving.
Then I learned how, throughout history, competing armies--often fired up by religious conviction--would both claim to be fighting "in the name of God." And I heard, during World War II, that many German Christians believed God was fighting on their side, not ours. It seemed to me that only the most churlish believers could claim that their own religious experiences alone were genuine. Could it be that none were?
I came to question the status of religious experiences for other reasons as well. Evangelical crusades sometimes took place in the Auckland Town Hall, and I would be there in the midst of the massed choir arrayed behind the evangelist, the massive pipe organ reverberating through our bodies. Each night I saw the newly converted--often in paroxysms of guilt and grief--as they "gave themselves to Jesus" and were shepherded off into the wings for counseling. I could hardly doubt their sincerity. Or could I? What was I to think when some reappeared the next night, to be converted again, and sometimes still a third time? How much store could be placed in the intensity of such religious enthusiasm? I was embarrassed; then uneasy; then skeptical of the evidential worth of subjective experiences like these, including my own.
One of the consequences of my parents' religious exclusivism, combined with our moving house every 2 or 3 years, was that I spent most of my early years up to the age of 12 as a relatively solitary child. There weren't enough "suitable" children for me to play with. So I spent much of my spare time reading. And most of the books I read were religious ones.
One of the earliest was Bible Stories for Children. It retold, in simple terms, stories from both the Old and New Testaments. Adam and Eve, Noah and the great flood, Moses and the wicked Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Mary and Joseph going down to Egypt, the three Wise Men, the Nativity, scenes from the life of Jesus, St. Paul's shipwreck; they all featured in the text, and many in the colorful pictures. It sparked my desire to know more.
That's one reason why I turned to the Holy Bible itself: the unvarnished and unexpurgated King James version. Another reason was that my parents had enrolled me in both the Auckland Sunday School Union and the Scripture Union, both organizations whose examinations on selected biblical passages I sat successfully at frequent intervals, thereby accumulating quite a nice little library of novels by approved Christian authors.
One of my book prizes, Ten Brave Boys (whose author I don't remember) left a special mark on me. It was filled with adventure. But, some of the stories conspired with the sense of mission spawned by my grandfather's deathbed consecration to make me feel that I was indeed one of God's chosen, like some of the brave boys who had dedicated their lives to His service.
Another book that left its mark, one from my parents' library rather than chosen from the Scripture Union Bookshop, was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. I struggled with the difficult prose, and found its archaic worldview difficult to understand. But it encouraged me to think that, no matter what difficulties I might be encountering in understanding my faith, I--with help from on high--would win through in the end. I certainly did not envisage that my own intellectual pilgrimage would lead me away from "the faith of my fathers" rather than towards its reaffirmation.
My acquaintance with nonreligious literature was limited. But I took special pleasure from Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia, spending countless hours poring over its contents.
I turned, also, to my own grandfather's writings and my grandmother's posthumous biography of his life. Guy Thornton wrote several books: The Wowser (a semiautobiographical novel drawing upon his experiences among the loggers in the center of the North Island), Out to Win (a book on soul-winning), and the autobiographical With the Anzacs in Cairo. All three were effusions of the evangelical certitude that had characterized most of his adult life. It wasn't until I read my grandmother's biography of her late husband that I made as salutary discovery: at one point he had struggled with the notion that God could send people to Hell, and had even gone so far as to avow atheism, albeit only briefly.
Much of my reading had consequences that my parents surely did not intend. From Bible Stories for Children I garnered the impression that these stories were akin to the stories of Hans Christian Anderson and various other fairy tales. The illustrations looked similar. There was an air of fantasy about them; and they differed, it seemed to me, only insofar as I was told that the Bible stories were supposedly true, while the others were not.
My studies of the Holy Bible itself sowed the seeds of a different disquiet. For I didn't confine myself to the sanitized selections that had been prescribed for examination. I would read on, and on, often until late at night. And what I found was often deeply disturbing.
If God was a god of love, why did he punish Adam and Eve and all their descendants so severely? Why did he drown everyone except Noah and his family in apparent violation of his own commandment not to kill? Why did he "harden" the Pharaoh's heart every time that the Pharaoh relented and wanted to let the children of Israel go? Hundreds of questions. I wanted answers but received none other than words to the effect that "God knows best."
The so-called "problem of evil" began to rear its head, in various guises. Why did a perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God create a world full of so many natural disasters and suffering? Why did he knowingly create humans like Adam and Eve--or the Devil, for that matter--knowing that they would sin? And--worse still--why was the Bible full of stories of his own evil deeds, ranging from repeated genocide to sending unbelievers to suffer eternally in hellfire? The problem of divine evil troubled me even more than the problems of natural and moral evil.
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress posed another sort of problem. I found his personification of various abstract concepts in such figures as those of Mr. Obstinate, Mr. Pliable, and Mr. Legality, troubling, even though I came to understand their role as a literary device in his allegory. I started to become suspicious of what philosophers call reification: treating the name of an abstraction as if it were the name of some real entity. This suspicion subsequently rendered much of Plato's philosophy foreign to my own way of thinking and came to fruition when, in my later years as an academic philosopher, I eventually got around to thinking carefully about abstract nouns such as "the mind," "intelligence," "consciousness," and the like, and came to the conclusion that they aren't names of substantial entities that we possess in addition to our physical bodies. Rather, they refer to properties of living organisms. My mind, intelligence, or consciousness can no more be detached from, or survive, the death of my body than can the smile of the Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat once his body has disappeared. To think otherwise is to indulge in the fallacy of reification and live in the fantasy land of Alice. So much, I eventually concluded, for the soul and the prospects of its immortality.
Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia opened my eyes to a vast domain of information. Starting with religious subjects, I eventually branched out into other areas. It was then, I think, that my passion for knowledge commenced. I was fascinated by the grand sweep of human history, by accounts of ancient civilizations, and by the discoveries that then-modern science was making about the structure of the universe. Much of what I learned fell outside, and was clearly incompatible with, the worldview encompassed by the Bible and the time it envisaged as having passed since the Creation in about 4004 B.C.
Historical Questions Unanswered
I wanted to put the Bible stories into historical perspective. When exactly did Moses live? I knew something of the history of Egypt and the scores of pharaohs who'd ruled that ancient land. They were usually referred to by name. But the books of Genesis and Exodus simply talked about "Pharaoh." Which one, I asked. No one seemed to know.
Again, I wanted to know more about the life and times of Jesus. When exactly did he live? And what else was going on at the time? No answers were forthcoming. Precise dates were given for countless other historical figures such as Julius Caesar. But, strangely, not for the Son of God.
It began to dawn on me that most biblical events were recounted in a curiously ahistorical way. Why? The question stuck with me and was reawakened years later, in my early teens, when I came across George Bernard Shaw's preface to his Androcles and the Lion and then Albert Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus. Only then did I realize that there was a serious issue here: one of which I'd had still earlier inklings when I'd thought of the tales in Bible Stories for Children as somehow akin to fairy stories, or--at the very least--to the ahistorical tales of King Arthur, for whom also I could find no dates.
Until then, I had shared the standard assumption that Jesus had been born at the beginning of 1 A.D. For wasn't that the year in which the whole of human history was supposed (by us in the West, anyway) to be the turning point of human history: the year in which God came down to Earth? It took me years to discover just how questionable this presupposition is.
Around about the same time--when I was 10 or 11--I was starting to discern other deep difficulties lurking within my Christian faith. One night, after being tucked into bed and saying my prayers, I asked my mother what Heaven was really like. I simply wanted a concrete understanding of all the Heaven-talk to which I was accustomed. Where was Heaven located? Since Jesus had ascended to it, in which direction did he go? And how fast? What would its streets look like when we got there? What would we eat, and do all day? She didn't know, of course, or even pretend to. We would just have to wait until we got there.
Stymied on that one, I ventured to ask what God himself was like. I got the standard answer about the divine attributes. God could do anything, she began. God also knew everything. And...
God's Foreknowledge and Predestination
We didn't proceed further, to God's perfect goodness, because the concept of omniscience seized my attention. What exactly did his knowledge include? Did he know where my father had been all day? Did he know what I had been doing all day? "Yes, dear: God knows all that," she answered. At that point my mind kicked into gear. If God knew all that, did he also know what I would do tomorrow? "Yes dear, he knows all that." My head spun. If he knew what I was going to do tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that... then surely I couldn't do anything tomorrow or at any other time, other than what he already knew I would do.
I had tried to flesh out, in concrete detail, exactly what it means to say that God knows everything. And the implications, when I thought about them, were profoundly disturbing. I checked on the Bible and found again passages such as Romans 8:29: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate..." I had hit upon the theological problem of free will, God's foreknowledge, predestination--a problem which, in its more philosophical guise of free will and determinism, I was eventually to address in my Ph.D. thesis.
At the time, however, the impact of this "discovery" about God's nature was visceral as well as intellectual. For weeks afterwards I wandered about like a zombie, feeling as if I were a mere puppet, or at least God's plaything.
It was the problem of predestination that first prompted me--when 11 or 12 years old--to start reading the three-volume work that grandfather Thornton had bequeathed to me: A. H. Strong's Systematic Theology (published in 1907). One of the foundational works of fundamentalist Christianity, I consulted it frequently over the ensuing years. Yet it opened my mind to still more problems.
I discovered, for instance, that the prevailing Christology (theory about Christ's nature) among the early Christians, commencing in about 70 A.D. and continuing for a hundred years or so, was that of the Docetists. They claimed that Christ was a mere apparition, not a person of flesh and blood. It was Docetism--I subsequently learned--that prevailed prior to both the composition and circulation of the incarnation stories of the Gospels, and prior by nearly four centuries to the orthodox doctrine eventually promulgated at Chalcedon in 451. I wondered how the Docetists could have thought Jesus to be a ghostly apparition if he had indeed walked and talked among them. And I wondered why it took so long for the supposedly "correct" doctrine to prevail. Why couldn't God have made the "true" doctrine so indisputably clear at the outset that none of the heresies that tore the Church apart for several centuries could have arisen?
I discovered, too, that there were several rival accounts of what it meant to say that the Bible was the "word of God," and read with increasing skepticism Strong's defense of the doctrine that in all matters to do with science, history, and morality, the Bible is inerrant. It didn't require much logical acumen on my part to discern the circularity of Strong's argument that the scriptures must be without error since they report that Jesus himself had accepted them as true.
As for Strong's attempts to explain away any apparent errors by providing face-saving interpretations, I wondered why God would leave so much room for contrary construals of his words. Didn't he mean what he had so clearly said? Or didn't he know how to say what he really did mean? I could not help but wonder at the presumptuousness of those who put their own words into God's mouth, as if he couldn't speak for himself. For it seemed to me that here laid the source of most of the doctrinal rivalry that had bedeviled the history of Christianity.
Predestination and Free Will
As for the doctrine of predestination, I pored over Strong's unsuccessful attempt to reconcile it with the concept of free will, underlining over a hundred passages and writing 20-odd comments in the margin of Volume I, Chapter 3, on "The Decrees of God." Twice, I was so outraged by his arguments that I simply wrote the expletive, "Bosh!"
Worse still, when I turned to the Bible itself, I found not a trace of the idea that human beings--as opposed to God himself--possessed genuine free will. Rather, it was God himself who took responsibility for assigning each of us to one or other of two camps: that of the elect who would, by virtue of his grace (and not of anything in ourselves), join him in Heaven; and on the other hand, that of the reprobates who were foreordained to damnation in Hell. And the Westminster Confession, which Strong himself (strangely) endorsed, put it clearly enough: "God did from all eternity, by the most just and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass." No obfuscatory mincing of words there.
Teenage Years: Doubts, Dissent, and Final Freedom
Until near the end of my 12th year most of my doubts churned within the confines of my own mind. Only occasionally did I venture to voice them to anyone else: my mother. Hers was a fairly simple and unsophisticated faith, certainly not versed in the theological doctrines that I was wrestling with. Sadly, in the close confines of our kitchen, and because of pressure from my persistence, our exchanges grew increasingly disputatious and confrontational.
The Search for Understanding
But then we moved house twice more, first to one part of Mt. Albert then to another, and I found a wider arena for discussion. A handful of friends attending Bible Class with me at the Mt. Albert Baptist Church were also interested in my quest for understanding. Like me, they thought that St. Augustine's motto "Faith in search of understanding" put the cart before the horse. For us, understanding was a prerequisite of faith. We wanted to understand, for instance, what sort of experience counted as being "born again." If one had been born again, could one subsequently fall from grace and be damned? What of the comforting doctrine "Once saved, always saved"? What was the point of being a minister or missionary if everyone to whom you preach is already predestined to either salvation or damnation?
Our deliberations took place in Bible Class, on street corners, and in my closest friend's basement bedroom. They were delicious days in which we experienced the exhilaration of thinking for ourselves outside of the boundaries of orthodox dogma.
But the path of free inquiry seldom runs smooth. News of the difficult questions I, and my closest friends, were raising in Bible Class had consequences. My parents wanted higher authorities to deal with my friends and me lest our heretical tendencies spread to others.
The church set up a monthly "Brains Trust." We'd submit questions, and they'd reply without granting an opportunity for subsequent debate. A couple of us soon learned to preempt their puerile answers by couching our questions in more complex form. One that I remember submitting--in writing--went something like this:
My question is Q. You might want to answer A, or perhaps B, or perhaps even C. But if you answer A then you've got to deal with problems 1, 2, and 3. And if you answer B, then you're faced with problems 4 and 5. While if you answer C, then...
And so on. They rejected the last question I had sent to them. It was over 3-and-a-half pages long. Our Brains Trust sessions soon came to an end.
Next I was referred to a couple of "experts" for counseling. My parents had long insisted that there were Christian believers aplenty who were much cleverer than I. And I could not but agree.
First, I spent an evening with the President of the Baptist Theological College, but he gave up before 9 P.M. Then came a day in the Titirangi home of the redoubtable Dr. E. M. Blaiklock, Professor and Head of Classics at the University of Auckland, a friend of my father, "Uncle Ted" to me from childhood, and an occasional lay preacher at the church. As a youth of 15, I held him in awe, so prepared thoughtfully for the occasion.
Blaiklock on the Historicity of Jesus
Our daylong discussions ranged over a host of topics. One had to do with the historicity of Jesus. He had recently delivered a sermon in which he had brought the full weight of his classical scholarship to bear on an attempt to prove that Jesus had in fact lived about 2,000 years ago. Most of the congregation was incensed. Why belabor the obvious, the unquestionable presupposition of our faith? But I had been fascinated. And so I took up the question again.
By that time my own little quest for the historical Jesus had yielded a seeming inconsistency in the Gospels' accounts of the date of his birth. Matthew 2:1 said that he was born "in the days of Herod the king." And since Herod had died in 4 B.C., that meant that my old assumption of a birth at the beginning of 1 A.D. had to be wrong.
Worse was to come. For Luke 2:1-2 said that he was born "when Cyrenius [otherwise known as Quirinius] was governor of Syria." But that, so far as I could discover, was in 6 A.D. Blaiklock's proposed solution was to claim that Cyrenius had been governor once before, during the period 6-4 B.C. That seemed good enough at the time, so we moved on to other matters.
Only decades later did I discover the truth.
First, I discovered that Blaiklock's proposed reconciliation of the two Gospel accounts was spurious. Both he and I had failed to take account of Luke 2:1. For there we find that the governorship of Cyrenius during which Jesus was born was concurrent with the period during which Augustus Caesar issued a decree "that all the world should be taxed." But that was during Cyrenius's second term, i.e., during or after 6 A.D. The inconsistency with Matthew 2:1 is every bit as real as I had first thought it to be. So the Gospel accounts certainly can't be relied upon.
Second, I learned that independent historical evidence of Jesus' very existence, let alone his alleged date of birth, simply does not exist. In his book Man or Myth (1983), Blaiklock confessed that "Jesus is authenticated in no other way, outside the gospels, save by Josephus and a sentence in a Roman historian."
But he didn't do justice to the fact that most New Testament scholars regard the passages in Josephus as interpolations originating in the 4th century. Many scholars think that they came from the hand of Bishop Eusebius, who is also suspected of forging a purported letter from Jesus to someone named Abgarus. At all events, the passages were unknown to earlier Christian apologists, such as Origen, who had chided Josephus for not mentioning Jesus.
As for the Roman historian, Tacitus, it should be noted that the "one sentence" Blaiklock refers to was written in the early part of the 2nd century and that, in the view of many scholars, it amounts only to a report of what was being said by Christian missionaries at that time.
Little wonder that when, in Appendix 2 of his book, the good professor gave a list of important dates of the period, he was able to be specific about many other figures, but not about Jesus. 5 B.C., he said, was the year in which Seneca was born. But it was only the "presumed" date of the nativity. And, further betraying his uncertainty, he described 29 A.D. as the "presumed date of the crucifixion." He could confidently give dates of publication for many of the most important writings of the first century, but none for the Gospels.
So when, if at all, did the incarnation occur? The Gospels, full of inconsistencies, absurdities, factual error, and evangelizing propaganda, are historically unreliable. And secular history of the time knows nothing of such a supposedly momentous event, or of others reported in the Gospels. The fact is that Blaiklock didn't know, and neither does anyone else know for certain, when--or even if--God (or the Holy Ghost or Jesus the Christ) visited this insignificant planet of ours (all in order, supposedly, to save a few of the "elect" from his own unseemly vengeance).
Blaiklock on Evil, Free Will, and Responsibility
We spent most of the day, however, on the issues that troubled me most: the problems of moral and natural evil; the problem of hellfire and damnation; the problem of particularity (why God would announce his plan for universal salvation to only a handful of people, at only one time and place); questions about the doctrine of salvation and why God would demand the blood-sacrifice of his son in order to atone for the sins of his creatures; questions about how creatures created without flaw--Satan, Adam and Eve--could fall from grace; why, according to the doctrine of original sin, God would impute sin to all of Adam and Eve's descendants; and so on.
Questions about free will and responsibility predominated. Not only in connection with the doctrine of predestination, but in other contexts as well. It had become clear to me by then that, although there was some sense in which I did in fact sometimes act "of my own free will" and was responsible for the actions I then performed, there was also some "deeper" sense in which I was neither free nor responsible. I couldn't see why the buck should stop with me. After all, I didn't choose who I was going to be: who my parents were, for example, or what kind of soul I had (if I had one). How then could I be ultimately responsible for what I was, and therefore did? It was this deeper sense of both concepts that was threatened by predestination, of course, for--according to that doctrine--it was God who was ultimately responsible for my free acts and for my final fate.
My own ultimate responsibility for my free acts was also threatened, I thought, by other considerations having little to do with theological doctrine. World War II was raging, and it was all Hitler's fault. Or so we all believed. A curious question haunted me: "What if I had been Hitler?" Then, I thought, I would have done what Hitler had done; and it would all have been my fault. I wasn't asking merely, "What if I'd been born in the same circumstances as Hitler?" Rather it was a question about identity, personal identity in particular: "What if I were identical with Hitler?" He didn't choose his identity--who he was--any more than did I. So was he really at fault for the acts that had flowed from the person he was?
I'm not too sure to this day how to answer the question, or even whether it makes logical sense. It is even more puzzling, perhaps, than the question posed decades later by the philosopher, Thomas Nagel, who asked: "What is it like to be a bat?" But it did set me thinking about how lucky I was that I was in fact Ray Bradley, not Adolph Hitler. Was it just the luck of the draw, as it were? Translating my perplexity, and sense of good fortune, back into the theological context, I felt the force of the saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Was Hitler ultimately responsible? Was anyone--other than God, of course--responsible? Blaiklock said that it was all a mystery for which God would one day reveal the answer.
Hitler's name came up again in connection with the problem of moral evil. I wanted to know why God would permit his creatures, like Hitler, to commit so many morally evil deeds? Blaiklock's answer, in keeping with that of other Christian apologists, then and now, was that God has given us the gift of free will and couldn't take it away without transforming us into zombies.
But surely, I objected, there was a third alternative. God could allow Hitler, for example, to freely choose his policies but then, by means of a timely miracle, ensure that Hitler's intentions were frustrated. Why couldn't he strike him down with a heart attack or ensure that there was a mechanical failure in the aircraft in which he was flying? Why couldn't he intervene in some such way every time anyone formed an evil intent? That wouldn't take away our free will. On the contrary, we'd soon learn not even to try to translate evil thought into evil action. And we would no more be zombies than are the millions of people around the world who are "struck down" by disease or mishap every year.
Blaiklock invoked the biblically spurious belief in free will, again, in order to answer my questions about natural evil: Why did God create a world rife with disease and disaster, fire, flood, famine, and the rest? 'Blame it on the Devil' was Blaiklock's answer. God's original creation, he claimed, was perfect, and God had very correctly surveyed it and said that it was "very good." It was the Devil, Satan, who'd messed it up. God, I was supposed to believe, had given Satan, too, the gift of free will--a gift that he had abused by spoiling God's good work, at our cost.
But that wouldn't do, I objected. Since God was supposed to be all-powerful, he could easily at any time--and preferably sooner rather than later--deprive Satan of his awesome powers, rendering impotent his evil intent. According to the Book of Revelation, God would eventually bind Satan in chains forever. So why didn't God do it now? Why hadn't he done it in the first place, the moment Satan began his evil career? Again, all was mystery.
Blaiklock did his best. But it wasn't good enough. Calling it all a deep mystery simply heightened my desire to penetrate mystery's inner workings by exposing the contradictions and rejecting indefensible doctrines. Only reason could do that. Faith merely locked the door on mystery and tried to hide the key.
At the end of a day that tested my intellectual stamina beyond anything I'd experienced before, he had a simple confession: "Ray, I can't answer your questions. All I can do is ask you to go to the Bible Training Institute Bookroom and buy the following books.... Read and pray." He wrote out a substantial check. I purchased the books, one of them being C.S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain. I read. I prayed. But the heavens were closed.
About 20 years later (in 1965 or 66, as I remember it), Professor Blaiklock and I crossed swords again, but on a more even footing. By then I had been appointed as the Professor and Head of Philosophy at the University of Auckland and was asked to engage my "Uncle Ted" in a series of 10 lunch hour debates. Our final session went on for over 2 hours in the presence of nearly 1,000 students. His eloquence was unmatchable: he was, after all, University Orator. But my arguments were unanswered. In many ways we simply talked passed each other.
The previous year, I'd had a similar series of 10 debates with Professor Val Chapman of the Botany Department, at the end of which I was told that the president of the Student Christian Movement had lost his faith and didn't get it back again until they'd worked on him for 3 weeks. That's why one of the campus chaplains recruited Professor Blaiklock in the hope that he would prove a more worthy opponent--which he did.
Other Milestones on the Way to Apostasy
But back to my teenage years. It is worth mentioning a few other milestones in my attempts to pursue truth wherever it might be found.
The year before my Titirangi talks with Blaiklock, our Fourth Form English and History teacher, Maurice Hutchings, decided that we should learn the art of debating. The topic chosen was "Creation versus Evolution." I volunteered, along with a Seventh-Day Adventist acquaintance, to take up the cudgels on behalf of creation. I began researching all the antievolutionist literature that was heaped on me once my mission was known.
The Evolution Debate
Some three weeks later, the debate occurred. That night I had to report on its outcome to my parents. They detected my reluctance to elaborate on the simple statement that we had won by a vote or two. Only under pressure did I confess that, in spite of winning, I could no longer believe that for which I had argued.
In my view, the antievolutionist literature that I'd read was full of spurious arguments against crude caricatures of what evolutionists had actually said. And I'd thought that the opposition's arguments for evolutionary theory were pretty convincing. Besides, I pointed out, there was a difference between believing in creation (that the universe owed its existence to a creator-god) and believing in creationism (that the world was created in the way depicted in Genesis, complete with species that reproduced only "according to their kind").
My parents were outraged. I was, they said, "possessed by the Devil." No assurances to the contrary had any calming effect. I finished up spending most of a frosty night shivering in a concrete shelter among the sheep in the crater of Mt. Albert. But I never did recant.
Then a year later, in 1945, the very same teacher, Maurice Hutchings, spotted me wearing my Christian Crusader badge. He asked me if I knew much of the history of the Crusades and suggested that I might want to find out more. I did the research. And I threw away my badge.
The following year, when I was in the Sixth Form, I won an essay competition and selected The Life of the Buddha as my prize. The ethics of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, I discovered, had anticipated most of the much-vaunted Sermon on the Mount, by about 6 centuries. And Siddhartha himself came across as rather more wise and virtuous than Jesus. I couldn't buy into the doctrine of samara, the wheel of reincarnation. But the idea of karma, the fruits of one's actions (in this world at least), made sense. And his notion of nirvana, a state of nothingness where there are neither sensations nor ideas, and in which all personal identity is lost, seemed both more plausible and more pleasant than the Christian prospect of an eternity in Heaven, for a few, or in Hell, for most.
I did flirt with Madame Blatavsky's Theosophy--one of Buddhism's 19th-century spin-offs--for a month or so, but rapidly came to the conclusion that it was mainly mumbo-jumbo.
By the time I was 17, attending Auckland Teachers College by day while commencing a part-time degree at the university by night, I'd pretty much given up on Christianity and all other forms of revealed religion.
Yet I thought for a while that some form of deism might be defensible, deism being the belief in some sort of Supreme Being who created the world and then left it to its own devices. I tried out the standard philosophical arguments--the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the ontological argument--in the senior sermonette contest at a Bible Class camp in Orewa. I tied for first place with one of the students from the Baptist Theological College but was criticized for being "less evangelical" than my rival. Actually, I was surprised at having been ranked so high, for the arguments I'd propounded had seemed to me unsound despite my best attempts to give them a positive spin. That was the last time I really thought I might find a rational basis for belief in any sort of religion: theism, or even deism.
Nevertheless, I did preserve--for a while--the liberal Christian idea that the Jesus myth was worth preserving for the moral values it enshrined. But then the doctrine of hellfire got to me again, and I came to the same conclusion as Mark Twain. As he had put it, "the palm for malignity must be granted to Jesus, the inventor of hell..."
As for agnosticism, that seemed to me a refuge for the timid and spineless, for those who couldn't see, or wouldn't face up to, the implications of the fact that they were atheists, not agnostics, about Santa Claus. So, by the age of 18, I was an atheist about all gods and other creatures of imagination, myth, and superstition. First, a self-avowed "atheist"; then, a bit later, an unabashed one. No longer in fear of the Devil, I saw no need to cower before that unfashionable word.
Given what I've told you of my story so far, you could be forgiven for supposing that my struggles to free myself from the bondage of Baptist beliefs occurred in an atmosphere of sweetness and light. How about the darker side that we normally associate with the term "fundamentalism"? Condemnation of films, dancing, immodest clothing, lipstick, alcohol, and the like? Prohibitions against work--even homework--on the Lord's Day? Blasphemy charges? Book-burnings? Beating those who dared to differ? Sad to say, I experienced all these at the hands of those who most sincerely sought to save my soul from perdition: my parents.
The book-burnings occurred when my biology teacher, Peter Ohms, lent me a textbook outlining evolutionary theory and a novel depicting St. Paul as a misogynist who occasionally sought relief in the warm flesh of a woman of the night. Both books disappeared mysteriously from my shelves. It was only when questioned that my parents revealed the fate of both. They had been thrown into a bonfire along with "other garbage." My teacher was magnanimous. But that didn't erase my shame and outrage.
The beatings, in particular, left their mark on me--not least in a broken nose inflicted after the Evolution debate, before I'd fled to the mountaintop. They had begun, when I was 10 or 11, with the kitchen confrontations with my mother over issues to do with God's foreknowledge. They continued, with increasing severity, as my apostasy became more evident and fears for my soul grew more intense. And they ended only when our closest neighbor, Balfour Joseph, intervened and threatened to call the police were they to occur again.
I shan't dwell on these ugly, but all-too-common, manifestations of fundamentalism. Instead, I'd like to finish with a little bouquet of aphorisms to carry with you as you reflect on my story:
And finally (mimicking the sexual innuendo found in female Christian mystics like St. Teresa of Avila):
Copyright ©2004 Raymond D. Bradley. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Raymond D. Bradley. All rights reserved.
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