Religious Autobiography 1998-2002

Part 1 of this series is here: Religious Autobiography 1980-1998.

Before I left for college, I was warned by a couple of members in my home church that the church of Christ in Kirksville was not sound. You see, they had a kitchen in their basement. I was encouraged to drive to Macon, MO where there was a sound church. I didn't like the idea of driving 30 miles on a dangerous 2 lane road every time I wanted to go to church. I did visit the church in Macon once and I didn't find it to be worth the extra trouble.

So, I began attending the church Tim had gone to during his freshman year: Kirksville Church of Christ. They had a kitchen and no paid preacher. The fact that I was able to handle this level of heresy was probably an early sign to people in my home church that I was about to fall away.

Although Tim had faithfully attended the church of Christ on Sundays and Wednesdays during his freshman year, he had also been in a small group Bible study put on by Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF). CCF is associated with the Independent Christian Church. They do Sunday morning and Wednesday night worship services on campus as well as operating over 20 small group Bible studies that meet on and off campus. During my first week at Truman Tim and I went to several of CCF's activities and I signed up for a small group that met in my dormitory (where I met Sara, but that's a whole other story). We continued to go to the church of Christ through the fall semester of 1998.

After a lifetime of being taught that every other denomination is wrong, I was now experiencing friendship and fellowship with people from different religious backgrounds. These people were my age and they were passionate about what they believed. And I was able to compare that side-by-side with what I saw at the Church of Christ. One example should suffice to show the stark differences I began to perceive.

For this story I'll need to introduce Nate Curl. Nate lived next door to me in the dorm. He was also involved in CCF and we became fast friends. Nate is funny, honest, faithful and very intelligent. He graduated with a 4.0 and went on to medical school. He would become my roommate and a groomsman at my wedding. He was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, which is related to the Presbyterian Church.

I invited Nate to come to church with me one Sunday during the first semester. That happened to be the day when our Sunday school teacher was handing out copies of a book called Traditions of Men Versus the Word of God. This is a typical Church of Christ book that lists all the denominations and explains why they are wrong and the Church of Christ is the one true faith. Nate was handed a book, flipped through it and found the chapter on Presbyterians. He didn't make a big deal about it, but nobody likes to be told that they are wrong and going to hell. I was so embarrassed. I had been hearing and repeating this type of thing for years, but I'd never personally known the faith of the people I was condemning. I knew that my friend was not a heretic. I had seen his faith in action. And I began to come to terms with the fact that the faith taught by my church focused too much on bringing other people down.

I was learning things in my small group that were more useful and positive than anything I'd seen in the Church of Christ. I also skipped a few Church of Christ services and heard the preaching at CCF. I'm sure the fact that it was mostly young people played a role in my feelings about it, but I was also becoming convinced that the faith I saw there was more practical and more in line with the spirit of the ministry of Jesus than what I was seeing at the Church of Christ. Tim was having some of the same realizations, but the biggest obstacle preventing us from switching to CCF was the fact that they used instruments in worship.

So Tim and I began an in-depth study of this issue. For the first time, we consulted material from both sides of the debate. We came to the conclusion that nothing in the Bible, Church history or common sense would suggest that singing worship songs with instrumental accompaniment was a sin. (My best attempt at defending this decision is probably found in a discussion board thread where I argued for weeks with members of a random Church of Christ on the internet. The church ended up deleting the thread, but I saved it here.) When the spring semester of 1999 began, we stopped going to the Church of Christ and started going to CCF.

Over the next few years I had many discussions with family and friends about my shift in beliefs. For some of them, my decision to go to a church that worshiped with instruments was almost as bad as abandoning God altogether. (This fact would prepare me and them for the bigger shift that I would go through a few years later.) One of the books that helped me cope with this situation was Free In Christ by Cecil Hook. The book is available for free online or you can order a print copy. Hook never left the coC, but he spoke persuasively against the legalism and division that is so prevalent in many churches of Christ. I recommend the book to anyone in the church who wants to see things from another prospective and anyone outside the church who wants to see what makes this little non-denominational denomination tick.

During my junior year I took a class on music in religion. Here's my final paper for that class: The Bad Son: My Journey Away from the Definitive Church of Christ Doctrine. The title is a little melodramatic, but the paper sums up my take on the coC doctrine at that point in my life.

Even though I no longer believe in God, and suspect that my time in college might have been better spent doing other things, I still have some very positive feelings about CCF. I don't regret being a part of it. I made some very good friends there, and I'm still close with several of them. My faith grew and I developed leadership and people skills in my work there. I became a small group leader and later an intern. Interns devoted 20 hours per week to the ministry. During my time as an intern I led a prison ministry, a ministry for international students and I did some preaching.

During my junior and senior years I came to terms with and attempted to address some serious doubts I had. I always been attracted to the explanatory power of science, and I knew that religion and science give conflicting answers to important questions. I'd forgotten the importance of hearing from both sides of an issue, or perhaps I was just unwilling to consider the possibility that God did not exist. I combated my doubts by immersing myself in the field of apologetics. Francis Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias, C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, Philip Johnson and William Lane Craig became my guides. I managed to keep my faith, but I didn't totally escape disappointment and disillusionment.

At the end of my junior year I saw my favorite campus minister forced out of CCF partially because he didn't buy into the Independent Christian Church doctrine as much as expected. Then I saw how the senior campus minister responded to criticism by labeling any negative comment as an attack from the devil.

I think it was during my junior year that my religious fervor peaked and began to diminish. I had been planning to become a missionary. But not just any missionary; I wanted to live in the jungle and translate the Bible for indigenous people with no written language or knowledge of Christianity. I don't think Sara was ever excited about this plan, but we got as far as beginning to drum up financial support to enter this field. During a trip back to Adrian I met with Paul Burhart, the minister of the Independent Christian Church in town, to see if his church might help to send us overseas. He said they might, but he also asked me to consider an opening they had for a youth minister. I told him that I didn't think I was cut out for youth ministry, but that I would consider it.

In hindsight I see this as part of a pattern of backing away from religious fervor. Sara and I decided to leave the jungles and Bible translation to someone else and to spend the summer of 2001 in a youth ministry internship at the Adrian Christian Church.

I enjoyed the work, but it was still difficult and frustrating enough that I did not feel guilty about spurning missions. Paul asked us to come back and help on weekends when we could during my senior year at Truman. On September 9, 2001, ACC launched a contemporary worship service targeted at younger, unchurched families. In the months following 9/11, the church grew rapidly. We came back one or two weekends a month. Paul had also enlisted the help of some students from a Bible college in Moberly, Missouri. One of those students was Brendan Creecy.

At the end of my first senior semester I told the campus minister that I was resigning my internship. Emma was about to be born, we were frustrated with CCF and we were shifting our involvement toward the church in Adrian. Sara and I both attended CCF worship services and small groups for the remainder of the year, but for us that was a huge cutback in our involvement.

Part 3 of this series is here: Religious Autobiography 2002-2004.

Religious Autobiography 1980-1998

I know that religion is not considered a topic for polite conversation, but that's never stopped me from talking about it on this site. I've written about religion as a pastor, as a former member of a strange group and more recently as an atheist. But I haven't yet written up an overview of my history with religion and how I have arrived where I am today. Until now. This is going to be divided up into multiple parts.

My mother was raised on a dairy farm and her family went to a Baptist church in the country. My dad's parents were divorced. His mom is an atheist now (I'm not sure about back then), but he lived with his dad and stepmother. His stepmother is a Methodist and the couple also ran the local liquor store. Shortly after getting married, Dad went on a quest to find the right religion. He did a lot of reading and talking with people he knew. He was visited by the preacher from the Church of Christ in Butler, MO (about 10 miles from Adrian, where he lived). Soon Mom and Dad were members of that church and as far back as I can remember we drove to Butler every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening for services.

The Church of Christ is one of those non-denominational denominations. There is no church hierarchy outside of local congregations. Most of the churches do not use instrumental music in worship services. There are several splinter groups divided by various important theological issues such as

Can a church building have a kitchen?
Is Sunday school allowed?
Should churches send money to missionary and benevolent organizations?
Can communion be taken from multiple cups or only from one shared cup like in the Bible?
Is it ok to have a paid preacher?

My church answered those questions like this: no, yes, no, multiple, yes. Various congregations answer those questions in different ways, and they all refuse to recognize the soundness of any church that doesn't agree with their set of answers.

So, as I grew up I heard 2 sermons a week and had 2 Bible classes per week. Mixed in with the normal Christian teaching about sin and salvation (and maybe even overshadowing them) were sermons about the evils of pianos and refrigerators in church and how congregations who form organizations to help them cooperate for missionary work were headed down the path toward Catholicism.

And if they were that hard on fellow churches of Christ, just imagine how damned other denominations were. I was frequently told how most of the churches fell into apostasy not long after the New Testament was completed. The Reformation just substituted Protestant heresy for Catholic heresy (although they never seemed to mind quoting Luther, Calvin and Wesley when decrying instrumental music).

But then, as I was told, some humble preachers in America saw through all the religious confusion, left their Protestant churches and started the Restoration Movement. The true form of New Testament religion was restored at last. But all was not well in God's kingdom. Soon liberals infiltrated the one true church and they had to be ousted. The Disciples of Christ and the churches of Christ officially split in 1906. Some of the apostates had a partial change of heart and in 1926 a group of conservative Disciples of Christ split to form the Independent Christian Church. They still used instruments, but in other ways, they resembled the doctrines of the churches of Christ.

From 1906 to the present, the churches of Christ continued to divide over the issues I listed above and others. Lucky for me, the church I was raised in happened to belong to the one splinter group who was following the Bible correctly.

One of the few interchurch fellowships I had was at the Florida College Summer Camp at the Lake of the Ozarks. Kids from our type of churches of Christ from all over Missouri and Arkansas met for a week. Now I realize that most churches that do summer camps couldn't fit all of the interested youth from two states, ages 9-18 into a single week of camp. But that never occurred to me at the time. I loved it. I made some good friends there, including Tim, who plays a big role in the rest of my story.

One of the purposes of the camp is to recruit kids to go to Florida College, a junior college in the Tampa Bay area. As far as I know, it's the only Bible college that my type of churches of Christ considered sound. Several of my friends were planning on going there and Tim and I flew down for a college visit during my junior year (his senior year). I think we were both genuinely undecided at that time, but the trip was kind of disappointing. The library was pathetic, we had some strange experiences in the dorm we stayed (including one resident walking around naked with rubber mask on his face), the academics seemed weak and we knew how much it would cost. Neither of our families had a lot of money for college. My brother went to FC and was able to transfer his credits to a university, graduate and start a good career, so I don't want to sell the school short too much. But Tim and I weren't sure it was worth the cost.

Tim went to Truman State University in Kirksville, MO on a good scholarship. Several of our friends were disappointed, including me. I was still leaning toward FC even though I had doubts. I decided to apply to some in-state schools, including Truman, just to see what kind of scholarships I could get. And so that when I was ready to transfer after getting my associate's degree at FC, I would already have been approved by some schools. Truman accepted me and offered me a $4000 a year scholarship. FC accepted me and offered a $200 scholarship. Truman, with in-state public school tuition was shaping up to be a near-free education. FC would have put my parents in debt. I visited Truman and was impressed, especially by their gigantic library. After much agonizing, I reluctantly decided to part ways with the rest of my friends and join Tim at Truman.

Once again, many people I knew were disappointed in this decision. I almost talked myself out of it at my last year at camp just weeks before leaving for college. No one really pressured me, but I really questioned my decision. Some of my friendships would never be the same. Could my faith handle going to a secular school? I even called home in tears asking my mom if it was still possible to change my mind and go to FC. She told me it was my decision and they would make it work if I wanted to do it. On the last few days of camp I asked advice from a lot of people and I spent the bus ride home mulling the decision. I finally decided to stick with Truman State. It's strange to think about how different my life would have been if I had made the opposite decision.

That was a turning point in my religious life and in my life as a whole. I don't really remember if I was having doubts about my church's claim to be the the one true faith. I know that Tim told me about getting involved with a campus ministry that (gasp!) used instruments in worship. I remember being concerned but intrigued. I intended to look into this campus ministry and possibly get involved myself. So, I must have had some doubts about the CoC even before going to a state school.

Part 2: Religious Autobiography 1998-2002

Fighting the army

Fighting the Army - PBS NOW

If you're looking for ways to cut military spending, denying disability benefits to veterans with PTSD is not a good way to do it. This story follows two soldiers who fought bravely and were damaged by what they experienced in the war. The army mishandled their treatment and found excuses to kick them out and strip them of their benefits. This is a 24 minute program and you can watch video, download an mp3 or read the transcript. I urge everyone to take a look at this. How we treat these young men and women says a lot about who we are as Americans and as humans.

Who's worse, Hitler or God?

Hitler and God, BFF

It's hard to imagine anyone who is more evil than Adolf Hitler. But think for a minute about why we consider him to be so bad. The worst things he did were also done or commanded by the God of the Old Testament. I should clarify that I think that Yahweh does not actually exist outside of the imagination, so this list is an evaluation of the Biblical concept of God and a condemnation of the ancient tribe who reportedly did these evil things while claiming that their god commanded them. I hope it will cause modern Christians think twice about saying that the God of the Bible is a loving and perfectly moral being.

Evil stuff Hitler Yahweh
Advocated racial purity
Seized land that belonged to other nations
Executed homosexuals
Cruel medical and genetic experiments
Tortures people even after they're dead

(Click on the checkmarks to see relevant evidence.)

Before you rise to the defense of Yahweh, please consider this statement:

To devote one's moral reflections to constructing elaborate rationales for past genocides, human sacrifices, and the like is to invite applications of similar reasoning to future actions.

-Elizabeth Anderson (The Portable Atheist, 340)

Another view on slavery and the Bible

When I discussed slavery and the Bible a few weeks ago, I tried to deal with the various responses that I might hear from people who believe that the Bible is inerrant. Apparently there was one that I didn't think of, but I heard it today. I was talking with someone who believes that most of the Bible is the inspired word of God and I asked him what he thinks about the passages that condoned slavery. He said that he didn't see anything wrong with slavery because the Bible doesn't condemn it. I pressed him on this to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding. He confirmed that he sees nothing inherently wrong with owning another human, punishing him or her with beatings and using them for forced labor. He said that he is not racist and that he doesn't want to be a slave or own a slave now, but if the legality of slavery was put to a vote, he wouldn't bother to go to the polls to vote for or against it.

Plus one point for being consistent with his belief that the Bible is God's word. Minus one million points for moral reprehensibility.

Dean Kamen's work on prosthetics


(via Signal vs Noise)

Good quote

I came across a quote that pretty well sums up my current view of religion:

What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. - Christopher Hitchens

Which is very similar to

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. - Carl Sagan

So, if people want to accept an idea that has no proof behind it, fine, that's their right. But if they ask me why I don't accept it, I feel no obligation to attempt to disprove their idea. The burden of proof is on the person asserting something. I don't assert that there is no god, but I live my life without a belief in god. If you want to assert something with no proof, feel free, but don't expect me to take your belief seriously. I am just as likely to dismiss your belief as your are to dismiss someone's belief in fairies, astrology or unicorns. Perhaps that seems disrespectful. Why does religion deserve more respect than any other unproven idea?

To be fair, if I assert something without proof (as I'm sure do), I don't think I have a right to expect my ideas to be respected and taken seriously, either. They can be and often are dismissed. It's fun to discuss unproven ideas, but anyone asserting an unproven idea should remember that the burden of proof is on them.

Buy a car, get a free gun

US car dealer in free gun offer - That dealership is in Butler, MO, 10 miles south of here.

My garden digger

Four nights ago my garden was dug up. I looked at it in the morning and all the seeds I had planted were mixed up and it was clear that a dog had been digging in my garden. It was probably looking for one of the many moles that roams my yard. I smoothed the dirt back out, but didn't replant anything. The next night it was dug up again. And the next night. So, I borrowed an outdoor light from my dad, set up my video camera in the window and installed some motion-sensor/recording software on Sara's MacBook (EvoCam). Once I found out which of the neighborhood dogs was destroying my work, I would be able to print off a picture and take it to the owner to ask that they keep their dog out of my yard. Well, my setup worked, but the culprit was not what I expected:


That looks like a fox to me. I live in the middle of a town of about 2,000. I've seen a fox wandering the streets in the last year, but I never was able to catch it on film. Now the mystery is solved, but I don't know what I can do about it. I wonder if the local animal control office has an email address.

Is God Imaginary?

God Is Imaginary is a site that offers 50 simple proofs that the Christian God is not real. The articles are good and should give any Christian plenty to think about, but I'm not sure how I feel about their use of the word "proof." I think that many varieties of Christian faith today have been winnowed down over the years so that they're almost impossible to disprove.

Early on in the Christian myth God is someone who can walk, talk and wrestle with a human. Then he withdrew to Heaven, that place up in the sky. The story has Jesus going to Heaven by way of the clouds and promising to return by the same path. We've taken rockets beyond the clouds and the atmosphere and we don't see a gold-plated kingdom floating up there. We see only the vacuum of space. But now God and Heaven have moved to "another dimension" or "outside of space and time."

Another example of this can be found in prayer. The stories say that humans used to talk directly to God and he talked back. Then he only communicated through prophets. Early in the Christian era (and among some denominations today) it was thought that any believer could do miracles and expect answers to prayers. But today, most liberal Christians admit that they don't expect prayers to be answered as the Bible promises. Or, if they refuse to admit that, then they're quick to excuse God for not giving them what they ask for. Some go so far as to downplay prayers that ask for something in favor of seeing prayer as an act that conveys a spiritual benefit to the person praying. Early Christians and modern fundamentalists would see this as a very weak and non-Biblical view of prayer.

So, in my opinion, today's Christians can choose to divorce themselves from historical Christianity or they can divorce themselves from reality.

Prayer is something that can be tested. The Bible promises that prayers will be answered.

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
- Mark 11:24

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
- John 14:14

Yet study after study has shown that prayer has no supernatural effect. When you pray for something, it's no more likely to happen than if you didn't pray. Many Christians, aware of this fact, are careful to not pray for anything unless there's a decent chance that it will happen anyway. When it does, they rejoice in the power of prayer. When it doesn't, well, that was just God's will.

This video makes the case that prayer is just another superstition:


But what about liberal Christians who admit that the passages I quoted above are not inerrant or at the very least don't mean what they seem to mean? Perhaps they value intercessory prayer for the calming effect it has on all involved and the social connections that it creates. Knowing that others are thinking about you and praying for you can have a real subconscious effect on a person. Studies on the efficacy of prayer have to control for these factors by making sure that patients don't know whether they're being prayed for or not. Why would we want to spoil the effect by pointing out that prayer actually has no supernatural effect? Preventing stories like this one is one reason. And I think we can get all the social and psychological benefits of prayer using completely rational methods.

If you're a believer, then what convinces you that God is not imaginary? Is your belief subject to falsification? If so, what evidence would prove to you that God is not real? If not, then can you claim that your beliefs are any more rational than Islam, FSM or Scientology?

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