Friday, May 23, 2014

Losing Your Religion In College

Jennifer Misner write something on why she stopped being a Christian. She is not alone. There is a problem with Evangelical Christianity. It does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny the way Catholicism does. Sadly she ends up rejecting all of Christianity. She even agrees that that is sad. 
During my master’s degree program, my plan of going on to do a Ph.D. gradually dissolved — Exhibit A: me working full time at BuzzFeed, hi! — but something else materialized: a swelling doubt about the faith I’d set out to preserve, which hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God. As I learned ancient Greek and Hebrew and pored over the biblical text in its original languages, and read it in larger quantities than I’d ever read it at church, its discrepancies began to shine a hot and uncomfortable spotlight on my personal religious views. Pieces of the gospels contradicted each other, I realized. Greek words, like the ones we’ve translated 2,000 years later to mean “homosexuality,” didn’t quite mean what modern evangelicals wanted them to mean. Early Christians disagreed up to the fifth century on which portions of texts should even be in the biblical canon. 
More and more, I realized that the Bible was a flawed, messy, deeply human book — and that in treating it as an unimpeachable guidebook for life in the 21st century, many conservative Christians were basing their entire worldviews on a text that, in my opinion, wasn’t that much different from any other historical collection of letters and stories. I was forced to confront the fact that I’d converted into a pre-fab worldview: one hatched largely in recent American history from Jonathan Edwards and the theology of the Great Awakening, and one that “family values” politics has buoyed through modern decades.
Notice her own summary. Her faith "hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God." Now she has gone to Yale and pulled herself and her bible out of her Christian community. It does not work. There are a bunch of questions that have no answers. She goes through 3 basic categories:

  1. There are questions of interpretation. It is messier than her youth pastor made it seem. When you get into all the language issues and the culture issues it is hard to see much certainty.
  2. There is the cannon question. Which books belong in the bible and how do we know? When, as an Evangelical, you try and deny the role the Catholic church played in that process the answers get very unsatisfying. Certainly nothing close to the conscience-binding certainty such a central question seems to demand.
  3. There is the historical question. You see the connection between what you believe and the history of your particular Christian community. Why should the truth about God depend on which denomination you ended up in?

These are precisely the questions that have driven many protestants to convert to Catholicism. It shows why we should be grateful for their conversion. Many more protestants are wrestling with this question and concluding the whole Christian story is a sham. Take a look at some numbers.

Much of this gets meshed in with politics. We saw a surge during the Reagan years. Sine he left office we have seen a pretty steady decline and it has been more pronounced among the youth. I think a lot of it has to do with social media. Youth especially are asking Jennifer's 3 questions. They are not being satisfied with the answers. 

Atheists are very active online. At least initially I think the most serious questions come from other Evangelicals. Atheists are listened to because they have struggled with question #1 and #3 even when they only listen to other Christians. Question #2 is more brought up by atheists. 

I wonder if we are getting to a point where Evangelicalism is unsustainable. It is not intellectually robust enough to satisfy highly educated people. If you lose those then you will lose the masses over the longer term. People are just not going to accept a religion when all the opinion leaders are rejecting it. 

Catholicism solves the intellectual issues. It has been scrutinized and it stands up to the toughest critics. I've read enough conversion stories to know it can attract very smart people in almost any discipline.

The trouble is that Catholicism lacks something Evangelicals have. They know how to get people to convert. They build community. They talk about sin and forgiveness. They challenge people to make real commitments. As Catholics we have gotten very bad at that. 

So what we need is the best of both worlds. We need a church that can reach out to a 16 year old Jennifer Misner and bring her to Jesus. We need that same church to stand up to the questions of the 22 year old Jennifer Misner. How do we get there? We need a miracle. The good news is that God is real and He really does miracles. 


  1. Randy,

    While I agree with your overall point, I don't think this woman's specific reasons for disbelieving the Bible to be the literal word of God are fair, but rather they are so typical of the way Liberal scholarship says doctrine X is false and so the student blindly accept it.

    Jennifer gives specific examples: "Pieces of the gospels contradicted each other, I realized. Greek words, like the ones we’ve translated 2,000 years later to mean “homosexuality,” didn’t quite mean what modern evangelicals wanted them to mean. Early Christians disagreed up to the fifth century on which portions of texts should even be in the biblical canon."

    To say 'pieces of the Gospels contradict each other' isn't a fair because the typical examples of 'contradiction' given are ones in which Liberal scholars have dogmatically claimed contradiction and refused to look at plausible coherent solutions. And to say Greek words referring to homosexual behavior didn't end up meaning homosexual behavior is also quite a curious statement, considering the two chief texts: Romans 1 speaks of men 'giving up natural relations with women and instead commited shameless acts with men', which isn't hard to understand what Paul means, and 1 Corinthians 6:9, which uses the Greek word "arsenokoites" - a compound word formed by combining 'male' and 'bed' (koites, i.e. coitus), clearly referring to taking a male to bed for sex. But Liberal scholars would want this twisted rather than examined objectively. As for the Canon of Scripture, even though there were questions here and there up through the fifth century, the fact is the canon was largely recognized and embraced from the earliest times.

    The only way this woman could have been shaken so badly is if she was presented bad information from Liberal scholars. And her very testimony shows this is what happened. She wasn't educated in the proper sense, but rather tricked and embraced error. The first two issues she states do not in any way go against taking the Bible to be the literal Word of God.

    1. Thanks Nick.

      She does not give a lot of details on contradictions so it is hard to be sure. The bible does have contradictions if you assert that it is technically accurate in every historical detail. Many fundamentalists do that. They do it to limit the role of interpretation. If we can disagree even on what inerrancy means then an inerrant scripture becomes more obviously inadequate as a basis for your faith.

      I don't think the liberal scholars have to win the argument. All they have to do is create an argument. If there is one then it is hard to say with any certainty who is right. You might be 90% certain but that is hardly enough to base life changing decisions on. How do you get near absolute certainty? You can when you are in community with like-minded people. Once you leave and live among very smart, very secular people like you will find at Yale then it is not going to happen by reason alone.