I spent an evening this week listening to a young man’s testimony, but not of the usual sort. This one was a detailed recounting of his own DE-conversion experience. He traced in detail his own descent into unbelief.
I’ve never heard anything like it. What went wrong? What were the warning signs he missed? How could this happen? I listened with rapt attention, took notes, and have been mulling his words over ever since, intent on gleaning wisdom from this tragic, but unfinished, story.
This young 20-something fellow grew up in church, a Pentecostal church. He and his family were regulars there and he was an eager beaver for boys club and all things church. By his own profession he ‘accepted’ Jesus into his heart at one such meeting. And as a young teen he experienced the requisite ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ with the evidence of tongues (and falling to the floor). He was a well-churched lad. He towed the line. His relationship with Jesus seemed intact. He learned to hear His voice. He had visions. He had never actually read the Bible through himself, but He experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in church, and he knew what it felt like when God was speaking to him.
He grew into a young man quite confident in his faith, or at least in his own righteousness. He was an intensely religious fellow, even thought maybe he should be a missionary, but his natural aptitudes were more along the lines of ‘techie’ stuff—maybe he could design a computer game that would win the world to Christ?! What did God want him to do with his life anyway?
He became obsessed with prayer as a means of figuring out God’s will and making his life work. Well, at first he prayed for others, but the answers seemed so hit and miss. He got burned one too many times when he really believed something was going to happen–but it didn’t. His focus turned toward himself and his own experience of God in prayer. Visual images became the most frequent way God communicated with him. He learned to trust theses images because he knew what God’s presence felt like based on his experience at church. He learned to rely on God to show him what to say, what to do. And it worked. Granted, he didn’t have many friends, and definitely no girlfriends, but he was getting good grades…
His strategy worked flawlessly, he said, until his junior year. He began to fail in a class. Re-doubling his energies and his devotion to ‘prayer’, i.e. listening for the voice and the images, made no difference. Nothing was working. Suddenly he felt lost; God’s will seemed hidden. The only time he could still hear God guiding him was in his Internet dialogs with atheists. Speaking with atheists became his obsession…. He was confident this was God’s mission for his life.
You get the drift of where this story is heading. This lost young man used the technical term “graceful degradation” to describe how one by one his reasons to believe disintegrated. Graceful degradation refers to the property that enables a system to continue operating properly despite the failure of some of its components. Even as his belief in prayer failed, other components of his belief system were being called into question.
Ethics class in college was unnerving. So, if everybody is good and wants to do what’s right, then it’s just about collectively deciding what’s best… We don’t need God for that. Maybe morality is in fact man made. We just need to figure out the rules for ourselves. Maybe there really is morality apart from God…
Somewhere along the line this young man found a book that was ‘clearly’ God’s way of revealing to him how science and the Bible fit together. There was no need to doubt Darwin. Other ‘problems’ too could be explained away. No one need be an atheist any longer if he could just show them that the Bible was really not at odds with evolutionary science.
And then he met ‘the professor’. It was an unlikely place to meet– over an Amazon review the young man had written for a new edition of the Bible. Hostile remarks about the Bible’s obvious ‘errors’ precipitated the meeting, and shook the young man’s beliefs like never before. And soon he and the professor were in regular dialog, for the young man said, “It was clear to me that God was bringing me knowledge through this man.” The sage old professor sized up his prey early on, for he too had once had faith, back in his happier golden twenties… He warned the young man to stop asking questions, to stop pursuing this ‘knowledge’ that would surely destroy his faith. But when the young man persisted the professor persuaded him that since there was no way he was old enough to know all the things he didn’t know, and since he most assuredly couldn’t understand God at his age, he should sit back, relax and listen to what the professor had to say, and stop trying to argue! And so he did.
The professor broke the news to him that over all the years of history, academia had yet to find any reason to believe that ‘god’ was anything more than a concept… He cited books, and psychological explanations, and obscure ‘proven’ knowledge. He appealed to the young man’s arrogance and his appetite for ‘truth’. And the young man was confident God had led him to this ‘former Christian’ to strengthen his own journey…
Meanwhile the young man had begun to read the Bible, but from a vantage point of skepticism. What he could not understand fueled his doubts, fed his unbelief and destroyed his confidence in the Bible as a trustworthy guide to truth…
The process of ‘graceful degradation’ had now reached critical mass. All the things that had once confirmed his belief in God were disintegrating. Prayer, the existence of morality, the Bible, the testimony of others, scientific credibility. This new way of seeing ‘just made too much sense’. The logic of it was irresistible. Resistance seemed futile. He knew he was at a crisis point and decided to call his parents.
“What would you do, Dad, if someone showed you that what you believed was wrong?”
His dad brushed it off with a hapless response: “I wouldn’t listen to him.”
“But Dad, what if it was true?”
Angered (and likely exasperated at his own inability to reason with his son) the Dad lashed out: “Jesus didn’t come to give us the TRUTH… He came to…”
His Dad uttered the word ‘truth’ with a contempt that stunned the faltering son, for whom ‘truth’ had become the quest of his life. As he put it: “Truth was more important to me than God” (as though the two were at odds!).
The young thinker had already concluded from his experience
—that connecting with God had required him to disconnect with the natural world around him,
–that connecting with God had led him to poor mental health,
–that connecting with God was a kind of unreality…. and so following this final clincher of conversation with his parents, he turned his back on his faith in God holding only to what he felt was his ‘unwavering commitment to find the truth’.
His story turns dark at this point. He describes his new world as ominous and dark. He becomes delusional, borderline schizophrenic for a short time, as he rearranges the perceptions his soul has held dear and makes room for deception… Pantheism becomes a prospect and he begins to ‘see how evil God was…’ By this time in his story I have listened for hours. Incredulous. Sad. Troubled. I do not wish to hear any more details. It is all beginning to sound like rubbish—fool’s gold. He has embraced a whirlwind of swirling confusion while feeling confident that he has set his sails to find ‘truth’.
He continues to go to church because that is his only social network. He doesn’t talk about his unbelief there, not much anyway. Noone would understand. No one cares to think with him about truth. He observes that noone seems to notice the change he has undergone–so much for people who claim to communicate with an omniscient God. They don’t really seem to know much… The professor has suggested he view them as ‘deluded automatons’, afraid of science, ‘more often fueled by emotion than a serious search for truth’. This appeals to the young man’s arrogance. He really must be on a different rational level than all these church folk and now he concurs with the professor: “Religion doesn’t serve people like us.”
It’s bedtime at my house by the time I hear this young man out. He’s a perfect stranger to me, but quite an articulate one. I’ve stumbled upon his story on the Internet, at a site apparently dedicated to promoting skepticism.* But the telling, and the listening have reinforced in my mind my commitment to a faith that is grounded in reality, backed by the inerrant Word of God, and not subject to change with every wind of doctrine or wave of emotion. I am eternally grateful for such a hope.
When this young man has exhausted his intellect with the investigation of every man-made alternative to God, the question will remain:
What will you do with Jesus Christ?
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Cor.1:20-25)
I must leave off without further commentary tonight; this is long enough! Perhaps next time? In the meantime I commend to you Ephesians 4 as it lays out God’s design for our maturing and protection from the wild winds and waves of deception…
“…And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ…” (Eph.4:11-15)
I welcome your feedback. What is your perception of this man’s story?
* a series of YouTube videos features this young man’s testimony, “Why I am No Longer a Christian” at: http://www.youtube.com/user/Evid3nc3
Update: 2/16/12 A well-stated blog analyzing this man’s testimony in light of the Bible is found at: http://caffeinatedtheology.com/atheist-chris-redford-i-am-smarter-than-god-and-i-have-higher-moral-standards/