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9/18/09                                                                                       View Comments

They Overplayed Their Hand

by Larry Spencer

Winning HandImage by smlp.co.uk via Flickr

I would still be an Evangelical today were it not for Christians overplaying their hand.

About four years ago, a decision we had to make as a family forced me to get off the fence about young-earth creationism (YEC). Having been an evangelical/fundamental Christian for over 35 years, I had always rooted for the YECs. I had had my reservations (for example, the conjecture of better-developed animals seeking higher ground during the Flood [http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v1/n1/humans-and-dinosaurs] was preposterous enough, but how did the advanced plants climb the hills?), but I cheered any “evidence” that YEC was true.

But now it was time to get serious. I had always trusted creationists to present both sides of the debate. (They were Christians so I could trust them, right?) This time, I decided to let evolutionists speak for themselves. I bought the book Scientists Confront Creationism and was overwhelmed with the evidence for evolution as corroborated by completely independent disciplines. To my shock, I discovered that YECs had never mentioned much of the evidence for evolution, and what they had mentioned they had misrepresented. (No transitional fossils? Ha!) By the time I reached the final chapter, which devastatingly compared YECs to flat-earthers, I was a convinced evolutionist.

That did not damage my faith, but I felt extremely betrayed by the Christian leaders I had trusted. The YECs at the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis were PhD scientists, supposedly very spiritual, and at the top of their profession. Now I knew that their greatest competency was neither in science nor Christian character but in telling convincing lies. Perhaps they had taken Martin Luther’s famous words [http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Martin_Luther] to heart:
“What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.”

Although I held onto my faith, I felt I could no longer trust Christian leaders. To be sure, the ones I knew personally were good people. None of them would endorse Martin Luther’s idea that a lie can be acceptable to God. However, I had just learned that even good, honest people can easily ignore evidence for their entire lives, and teach others from a position of ignorance. I certainly had. What’s more the fine leaders in my life had only taught me what they had received from other people -- people who might be as bound up in falsehood as those at the top of the YEC movement.

If I felt betrayed by the Christian elite, I felt even more acute disappointment in myself. The truth about evolution had been available to me for my 35 years as a Christian, yet I had chosen to remain ignorant. I had alienated many people dear to me for the sake of a Just-So Story and had wasted years invested in a lie.

I promised myself I would no longer believe things on the basis of trusted authority. If I was going to be convinced of anything, I would have to evaluate the evidence myself.

I also promised myself that I would never again let ignorance and go-along-to-get-along replace knowledge and reason. All my Christian life, I and those around me had denigrated the “wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 3:19). We were happy to “become fools so that we might become wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18). That attitude had led me straight down a dead-end of ignorance and embarrassment.

Still, I did hope for positive evidence for the Christian faith. Just because YEC was false didn’t mean the whole thing was a lie. I was determined to find some evidence for my faith. I looked into one issue after another, and was disappointed at every turn.
  • I hoped for empirical evidence that God answers prayer. I had heard rumors of formal studies that showed he did. Turns out that God does not grant our supplications more often than we’d expect by chance [http://www.ahjonline.com/article/PIIS0002870305006496/abstract], even prayers that are in his will [http://www.geocities.com/inquisitive79/prayer.html] according to the Bible. Entire classes of worthy prayers are never answered [http://whywontgodhealamputees.com]. Furthermore, I saw that Christians who had reported on prayer studies had done so dishonestly -- reporting only the favorable portion of the results and failing to mention the rest. From one or two incomplete reports, a rumor starts and pretty soon everyone is believing it.
  • According to Romans 8:9, the Holy Spirit should cause Christians to live better lives than other people. However, according to both my anecdotal observations and systematic studies [http://www.christianbookpreviews.com/christian-book-excerpt.php?isbn01065410], born-again Christians behave no better than the rest of the population. They are just like everyone else in behaviors ranging from losing one’s temper to adultery. There are good Christians, but goodness is just as plentiful among atheists.
  • I had always thought that something as incredible as Christianity could never have gotten started if it weren’t true. But once I learned about memes [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme] I had to admit that they adequately explain the rise of miracle-doctrines such as the virgin birth and the Resurrection. They also offer a natural and convincing explanation of virulent doctrines such as hell -- far more convincing than “progressive revelation.”
  • I observed that Christians fall into logical fallacy [http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/] just as often as everyone else, if not more often. They do not seem to have any particular wisdom from God.
  • The Argument from Morality [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_morality] had always been important to me. Then one day it hit me that secular morals are just as real as prices in a free market. (See my post on Free-Market Moralty [http://exchristian.net/exchristian/2009/09/free-market-morality.html].)
  • The Christian faith is replete with doctrinal in-coherencies. In the past, I accepted these are “paradoxes” but in light of everything else I was learning I could no longer be so charitable. For example, I had always been taught that hell is necessary because God cannot dwell with evil (Psalm 5:4). So how did God-in-the-Flesh manage to get on so well with the dregs of society? I had been taught that evil is a necessary consequence of free will, without which we could not truly love God. So how will we love God in heaven, yet manage not to sin during an eternity of free will? (Demons are angels who sinned in heaven, according to Christians.)
  • The biblical accounts of the all-important Passion and Resurrection contradict [http://atheism.about.com/od/gospelcontradictions/Gospel_Contradictions_Gospels_are_Full_of_Contradictions_Errors.htm] each other. In any case, the decades between Jesus’ death and the writing of the gospels were more than enough time for wild legends to develop. Even in modern times, a faith as outlandish as Mormonism took root rapidly.
  • The formation of the biblical canon was a messy and very human process that took hundreds of years of tussling. Rarely does a biblical book give its own author, much less claim to be infallible. The Old Testament (OT) canon was not closed by the time of Jesus, yet he left us no list of what should be in it. Neither did the apostles give us a list of what should be in the New Testament. In light of all this, why does the Church claim that the Bible is infallible and includes all the right books?
To find that all the evidence pointed in the opposite direction than I had wished was bad enough, but the final straw was when I examined the Bible itself with new eyes and found that many of the atrocities I had glossed over as the acts of evil men were in fact the acts of God himself, or commanded by God.

I spoke with a friend who had been a missionary to a tribe in the Venezuelan jungle, and is now doing missionary work in New England. I asked him if he thought the Baal-worshippers of OT times were like the Venezuelan Indians of today in the sense of being more “lost” than “evil.” He thought they were and cited an example: Although members of his tribe loved their children, their superstitions were strong enough to compel them to kill their own offspring. If twins were born, the witch doctor would tell the parents which twin was evil and which was good, and the parents then had to leave the evil one to die of exposure in the jungle, his cries and death-whimpers audible to the entire tribe. (Thankfully, this practice changed when the tribe saw that both twins of a missionary couple were good!)

Realizing that the Canaanites who were wiped out at God’s command (Deuteronomy 7:1-2) were probably no worse than the Indians of Venezuela, but merely in miserable bondage to their superstitions, I looked at the biblical genocides in new light.

The final molecule of the final straw was Leviticus 21:16-23. There, God prohibits the deformed and the lame from presenting offerings to him or even approaching his altar. He says these human beings are “defective” and would “desecrate” his sanctuary. I read this passage at about the same time that someone very dear to me was diagnosed with scoliosis, her back already deformed from this congenital condition. If there is anyone whom God ought to welcome at his altar, it is this sweet, sensitive, spiritual girl. I also know a Marine who has stood firm in his faith and morals during 4 years of service to his country, in spite of temptations that have literally spanned the globe -- the finest young man anyone could hope to meet. I realized that if he were to be seriously wounded then the God of the OT would have regarded him, too, as “defective” and his presence as a “desecration.” At the thought of God turning these wonderful young people away from his altar, I was angry for days. Christians with whom I spoke offered various excuses, but they rang hollow. I was done making lame excuses for the God of the Bible. If there’s a good god out there somewhere, the God of the Bible ain’t it.

I am thankful for those young-earth creationists. If they had not overplayed their hand, I probably would have continued to trust the Christian elite. I never would have discovered how wrong I was. I would have continued in my faith-fog for the rest of my life.

Well, it’s time for a new hand. My 52nd birthday is approaching -- one year for each card in a deck. Let me now discard the old deck of misguided faith and prideful irrationality. I hope time remains to play at the table of science, logic and reason.