Letter to a Christian Grandma October 14, 2009

Letter to a Christian Grandma

And you thought your atheism led to family drama?!

Josh recently got a 33-page letter from his Christian grandma. It was prompted by Josh’s parents telling her he was an atheist.

You can read it here, here, and here (PDFs).

That’s just the first half.

… She wrote me an epic letter with a dismissal of evolution on theological grounds and tried to scare me back into the fold by talking about how powerful Satan is. Well, I decided to take the time to respond, so I sat down and typed and typed. I finished the letter this afternoon.

You can read the draft of Josh’s letter here (PDF).

He doesn’t intend to be mean at all — he just wants to lay out the facts and explain why he believes what he does. He even ends it in a respectful way:

… I was only able to touch upon a few [of the subjects], and even then I’m sure I could have given more thought to my presentation of them. I expect you to agree with a few points and to firmly disagree with others (I do expect that you will respond), but above all I expect that nothing I have said changes our relationship or the interest we both take in approaching these usually sensitive subjects. I love you! Thanks for reaching out to me and thank you for spending time to understand where I am and how I got here.

Love,
Josh

Do you have any feedback for him? He’d love some advice before sending it out to her.

I’d be impressed if she read the entire letter and I’m curious what her response would be. Usually, in these situations (in my experience), the Christians just go back to their standard arguments without even acknowledging what the other person has said.

I hope it works out for Josh’s sake, though.


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  • Angie

    Josh has made a wonderful case for his nonbelief, and I appreciate how he tries to show his grandmother that nonbelievers have rational grounds for their ideas. His letter was firm but tactful, and his arguments were well-thought out.

    However, I find it frustrating that we nonbelievers frequently have to justify our stance to Christians. Why do we constantly have to defend ourselves? Why can’t Christians let us live our lives? I’m sure that Josh doesn’t go around asking Christians to justify their belief system, so why should he have to justify his?

  • Jeremy

    I fear that this letter reads more like a term paper, and will lead to his grandmother not reading half of it. While the paper was well thought-out and researched, deeply religious people hardly care about things like “facts”. My advice would be to scrap almost the entire letter, and compose a much simpler “thanks, but no thanks” and save the letter for another, more research required, occasion.

  • Polly

    Why can’t Christians let us live our lives?

    HELL.

  • David W.

    I don’t know, Jeremy. I think there’s merit in sending a fully written response like this, even if Josh’s grandmother won’t read all of it.

    She obviously spent a lot of time and effort into writing her 33 page dissertation — she needs to know that Josh did not simply dismiss her letter, and has put an equal amount of time and effort into responding with his own ideas. Beyond the merits of just responding, for him to write an equally committed letter tells her that he has thought as much about his beliefs as she has about hers. They’re now on level ground if they go forward with this discussion.

    A “thanks, but no thanks” letter would be much too dismissive in response to as much effort as Josh’s grandmother put in her letter. It would convey a sense of disdain, a lack of respect for her feelings and beliefs, and an unwillingness to continue discussing the matter, which is critical for maintaining a healthy relationship.

  • As a Christian I must say that both of them have done a commendable job at stating their beliefs and communicating to each other.

    I can tell by Josh’s final words that he understands the love that his grandmother is showing him by writing such a long letter to him on Salvation, and I hope that she can see that he has seriously weighed the facts through his own response.

    I wish them the best of luck! Hope that the discussion continues, and keep us updated, Hemant!

  • She obviously spent a lot of time and effort into writing her 33 page dissertation — she needs to know that Josh did not simply dismiss her letter, and has put an equal amount of time and effort into responding with his own ideas. Beyond the merits of just responding, for him to write an equally committed letter tells her that he has thought as much about his beliefs as she has about hers.

    I agree. Otherwise he might just be seen by her as a “kid” who doesn’t want to be encumbered by the “rules” of religion, which is often the mistaken notion people have of atheists.

  • Valdyr

    and tried to scare me back into the fold by talking about how powerful Satan is.

    Man, Christians are always telling me how powerful this Satan guy is! It seems like he can do pretty much whatever he wants, and God is powerless to do anything but Biblically threaten to throw him into some lake of fire… which, if Christians are to be believed, is where he already lives anyway.

    Plus I hear a lot of titillating rumors about magic spells and kinky-sex orgies! Our pastor never gave us anything like that. Where can I sign up for this Satan dude’s newsletter? Does he have a Facebook group?

  • His response starts well and ends well. The core of it, though, becomes too clinical, and too deeply couched in the language of academic discourse and formal debate. You’re putting charts, graphs, and copious footnotes into a letter to your Mama Murphy? Really?

    Given the subsection on memetics during the “essay,” I wish it would have occurred to him that in order to effectively communicate, you need to use the same language. Her primary framework for understanding the world is clearly the Bible, so most of what’s being presented will end up being functionally meaningless to her.

    If being respectful to her and maintaining the relationship is important, he should take another swing at it.

    He needs to reduce it to two pages, and focus on two things: 1) that he has made this decision and 2) that he still loves her and appreciates her. That’s really all that needs to be said.

    That, and he should consider going to visit.

  • CatBallou

    I agree that the letter was much too technical and the language in which he presented his arguments was too complex, unless his grandmother is actually a highly educated woman with a large vocabulary.
    However, I really liked the frank and respectful tone he took at the beginning of the letter.
    And the reference to a “rising flood” of evidence struck me as funny. There’s something about a great flood in the Bible, isn’t there?

  • Valdyr said:

    Man, Christians are always telling me how powerful this Satan guy is! It seems like he can do pretty much whatever he wants, and God is powerless to do anything but Biblically threaten to throw him into some lake of fire… which, if Christians are to be believed, is where he already lives anyway.

    Oddly enough, Satan apparently needs God’s permission to have power over people. In the book of Job, Satan can’t do anything to test Job’s faith until God gives him the authority to do so. So far as I know, until Revelations, Satan never really does anything else; his opposition to God is just referenced by calling him the Adversary.

    It kind of puts the lie to the idea of Satan influencing people to doubt all the time. That would mean that God was giving Satan permission to make people doubt… which again isn’t the sort of God I think would be worthy of worship.

    By the way, though Christians typically believe that Satan lives in hell, this idea is never actually stated in the Bible. Instead, it says that he lives on earth (Luke 10:18), where he, “as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The whole “Satan is in hell” idea is almost certainly a meme made popular today by Dante’s Inferno (and earlier by apocryphal Biblical texts), where he resides in a lake of ice kept frozen by the wind from the beating of his wings.

  • Shawn

    The core of it, though, becomes too clinical, and too deeply couched in the language of academic discourse and formal debate.

    I agree that the letter was much too technical and the language in which he presented his arguments was too complex, unless his grandmother is actually a highly educated woman with a large vocabulary.

    Page 7, footnote 31 indicates she has a Master’s in Biology. That make my brain asplode.

  • The grandmother’s letter (the first half anyway) seems to have the following arguments.
    1. She claims that the bible is true, therefore it should be believed.
    2. God demands adoration and recognition for his creation (or there may be hell to pay)
    3. One should prefer absolute answers about life and since scientific explanations have changed over time, one should reject science and accept “inerrant” biblical explanations instead.
    4. There is a devil and the devil will deceive you into giving up your soul.

    If it were my grandmother, I would respond that
    (1) I simply believe the bible to be a literary work by people stating what they believed. It is true in the sense that the bible accurately states what some people believed but one shouldn’t confuse beliefs with what is actually true.
    (2) The assumption that God desires worship is only human projection. People are self-absorbed, insecure, and vane. But that doesn’t mean that a supreme creator has these same psychological weaknesses.
    (3) One doesn’t have to have absolute answers (or cop-out answers) to everything. One can live a good life with certain fundamental questions left unanswered or with answers in a state of continuing refinement.
    (4) Many people think the notion of a devil and Hell are quite silly and were invented by clergy merely to drive up church attendance.

    It always strikes me when reading Christian thoughts, that Christians are themselves better than the God they worship. I think this Grandmother wouldn’t throw her grandson into an eternal lake of fire (for being an atheist), but she believes with all her heart that the God she worships will. People seem to tolerate a lot in their gods.

  • Rob

    the letter was much too technical and the language in which he presented his arguments was too complex, unless his grandmother is actually a highly educated woman with a large vocabulary.

    I’m wondering if Josh has any background in philosophy or some sort of religious studies – I am an avid devourer of atheist literature and this is more technical and better stated than many, many tracts I’ve read.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I disagree that the language is too technical. His grandmother presented her argument, all 33 pages of it, and he is responding with his reasoning and justification for his contrary position. If these arguments are really his justification for not believing in God and believing that evolution is true, then he should present them this way.

    His grandmother should spend the time needed to understand this stuff, or ask questions if she doesn’t understand. She is questioning his views, and he should defend them to the fullest extent. It’s her responsibility to be able to deal with arguments presented, since she started the exchange in the first place. If she wants to discuss evolution, don’t dilute the arguments, it only makes them sound weaker.

    I don’t think Josh’s primary goal is to change her beliefs, it is to defend his own. He has no obligation to water down his letter.

  • Peregrine

    I think it’s completely pointless. A grandmother writes a deeply personal, handwritten, impassioned plea to her adult grandchild to return to the faith, and the atheist grandchild responds with an essay that reads like an article from a pier-reviewed journal complete with footnots. To the point that on two pages the footnotes comprise of over half the page.

    Even I’m inclined to respond tl;dr.

    To some believers, deeply fundamentalist believers anyway, it’s more about perception than cold hard facts. How do you think they’re going to perceive that? It’s exactly what they’d expect of us. It’s cliche to the point of stereotype. You can’t just throw a bunch of facts at them, and expect them to read all the way through.

    All of my grandparents are deceased, so I can’t imagine having to face this situation. And I’d probably respond differently today than I would have back then. But I wouldn’t reply to a grandparent the way I’d reply to one of my professors. It’s a completely different relationship dynamic.

    I’d reply in a more personal, “heart to heart” kind of way. I’d find a way to let them know that I’m an adult now, and I need to find my own way, or something like that. Live and let live, kind of sappy stuff. Something they’d understand, even if they don’t necessarily accept it.

  • Richard P

    My suggestion is to take this in little steps. Many shorter letters, centering on one subject at a time. Something easy to read and short enough to digest. Also give enough time to ponder between each response.

    Change happens instantly, the process to get there is slow.

  • Beelzebub

    Scrap the whole letter. Simply ignore it.

    I have been in the exact same situation. Look, life is short. Your grandma is going to die soon, probably within 5-10 years.

    Who are you trying to convince with this ridiculous letter. Footnotes? Come on.

    You want to make your grandma happy? Ask her about her life, about what her grandma was like, about her first boyfriend.

    Thank me later.

  • Josh Sullivan

    Hi everyone,

    I’m the author of the letter. Thanks for the valuable feedback. A few of you have mentioned that it’s an inappropriate type of reply to a grandmother’s “deeply personal, handwritten, impassioned plea”.

    Well, I see some truth in this. I’m now considering enclosing a brief, one-page handwritten letter with my longer letter that basically thanks her for her thoughtful letter, her concern, and that, while I don’t share her beliefs I still love her and see no need for our relationship to change.

    That way, if she wants to dive in deeper she can read the longer letter. If she chooses not to, she still has my short personal reply.

    Any thoughts on this approach?

  • McBloggenstein

    …awaiting epic Mama reponse…

    “I’ll pray for you”

    This is to Josh. I’m not on Reddit, but hopefully he will come by here and read everyones thoughts.

    I hope she thoughtfully responds to your ridiculously well thought out letter. I say “ridiculously well” for I am imagining responding to my own southern baptist grandmother if she had learned of my atheism before her passing, and how she wouldn’t have been so learned in the first place to write such a letter as your grandmother. (Not to demean my g-mother. It’s just a fact.) That being said, having a southern baptist grandmother of my own, I’m going to assume you know her well enough to know that you haven’t gone overboard with the extensivity of your letter (graphs, charts, latin naming of ants and all) and believe that it’s concepts are not “over the head” of said type of person.

    All in all your ideas are laid out beautifully. There is only one thing that bothered be. Notice this has nothing to do necessarily with whether or not I feel that its change would have any effect on your letter’s impact, it is just something that I feel you failed to address, yet I feel is a major point that plagues the discord between believers and non-believers.

    She said:

    “Your Mom and Dad have shared with Paa and me that you are standing at a crossroad of your life – weighing one belief system against another and choosing with which to align your present and your future.”

    Many people, including atheists, might argue that atheism, despite the fact that its definition is merely a “lack of belief”, is in fact a belief system of its own. While this is a point that could be argued separately, I’ll just make my point by saying that many atheists carry various beliefs, but atheism carries none. I feel as though a believers failure to realize this becomes a roadblock for their path to at least understanding where atheists are coming from, which could in turn open the typical theists mind to considering rational debate as relevant and perhaps even allowing skepticism in. Evidence to the roadblock I speak of is your grandmother’s bringing up of the idea of evolution (especially not distinguishing it from abiogenesis or cosmogenesis). While we would be hardpressed to find an atheist that does not accept evolution, I feel the fact that an example such as this that is always categorized under the label that is atheism as “part of ones beliefs” is where believers often remain short sighted in their attempts to rationalize a way of seeing the world without God. You do reveal some of your opinions on subjects through response to her assumptions that you have certain “beliefs” by mere fact that you are a member of a group that she has placed you in, however it could have been made more clear that your empiricism and acceptance of widely known scientific theory is not necessarily linked to your non-belief in God. In other words, the fact that you side with many of the same theories that believers often disagree with does not automatically place those “beliefs” into a category that is only meant to be in direct contrast with theistic belief (although admittedly it often is).

    In my opinion, I feel as though you did not address this problem, and possibly could have made a problem I have addressed worse, with your conclusion:

    “I have put my beliefs on the table, subject to a fair look. […] More importantly, my beliefs remain on the table, always subject to criticism and re-evaluation. […] Let’s put our beliefs on the table. […] …to face the probability that some of my beliefs were invalid.

    I won’t presume to know whether or not you don’t believe in god, or that you believe there is no god. Perhaps you don’t think there is a difference. Either way, I feel as though I would have worded the conclusion in a way that made your stance on belief, or lack thereof, more clear. Actually, I would have perhaps addressed this topic at the beginning, as she did just the same in the quote of hers I included above which was in her first paragraph.

    Excellent work though! I’m looking forward to her response.

  • Josh, I think that is a good approach. She will appreciate a shorter hand-written letter that is more personal and has a conversational tone. You can refer her to the longer typed letter only if she is interested in diving into more details about the subject matter. This will let her know that you think of her first but also let her know that you have thought a lot about the subject matter. I guess you could strip out the personal stuff from the longer letter and have it just be for background information purposes.

  • Peregrine

    My handwriting sucks, and I had the luxury of being able to drive across town to visit my grandparents. So I probably wouldn’t have needed a letter. But that sounds like a reasonable compromise.

    To be honest, I’m at work. so I haven’t had a chance to do more than skim the original letter, and can’t offer any specific suggestions.

    Just keep in mind that text is a limiting medium. You may think you’re writing in a loving, understanding, compassionate tone, but that’s not necessarily how the reader will read it. Perhaps consider framing your choice in your beliefs as a culmination of your personal journey, or something like that.

  • I’ve never believed it the “wait until they die” theory of solving disputes. It is merely avoidance. People that have respect for each other should be able to discuss intellectual and spiritual matters. I take my hat off to both Josh and his grandmother for being open and honest with each other. His letter was great. His grandmother might read it, she might not, but it will be her choice. If she doesn’t understand aspects of it, it appears, from her original letter, that she has the ability to ask for clarification. She will at least see that he put thought and respect into it.

  • McBloggenstein

    Hmm.. Beelzebub makes a good point. I would agree with it except for two reasons:

    1. If she had just written a page or two, I could easily see myself chuking the idea of a lengthy response out the window in order to avoid her thinking her grandson is completely lost and hellbound, but she wrote 33 pages!

    2. It’s already written. What the hell, just give it to her. See what happens!

  • Rick

    You should send the letter pretty much as is. She may not read it. She may read it and not understand it. She may understand some of it. In any case, she will understand that you read her letter, and you thought about it, and you care enough to reply, and that your reply is based on a huge amount of other people’s thoughts and investigations. She cannot agree with you; it would destroy her world. You are saying: this is me; I still love you and I hope you still love me.

  • McBloggenstein

    I’m now considering enclosing a brief, one-page handwritten letter with my longer letter that basically thanks her for her thoughtful letter, her concern, and that, while I don’t share her beliefs I still love her and see no need for our relationship to change.

    Excellent idea.

  • Rick

    and, may I add, that a letter, followed at a later time by a personal visit, is much better than just a personal visit. A letter has the advantage that you organize your thoughts and choose your words carefully. A letter can’t be interrupted and thrown off course by the reader. A letter can be reread. You were sent a letter; the reply must be in kind.

  • joe agnost

    Since Josh (the letter’s author and grandson of Mama Murphy) is reading this blog I’d like to ask him:

    What will your grandmother think if/when she finds out that her letter to you is being read by so many people? Will she mind – or understand?

    **

    I think your comment (above) about including a hand written note is a good one btw…

  • I think Josh’s response is excellent. And considering he said she has a degree in biology, I shouldn’t think she should have any problem understanding what he’s written.

  • joe agnost

    I’ve just finished mama’s letter – and it appears you left the more ‘personal’ stuff out (the last 15 or so pages). I guess that’ll keep mama murphy from freaking out too much! 😉

  • CatBallou

    Ahh, there was no way I was going to read her 33-page letter, and then his entire response. I didn’t know about her Master’s.

  • anonymouse

    While I think the response letter is unusual, I think a 33 page letter is unusual as well.

    I have no doubt that the grandmother will have no trouble following the letter.

    I hope we find out how this all turns out!

  • Mike Ashe

    Nice letter, Josh. I wrote a similar “treatise” to my family and friends on why I am an atheist, but I was much too harsh in my tone. A Christian friend recommend Hemant’s “Sold my Soul on eBay” as having a much more positive tone, and here I’ve been for a couple years now.

    It is not easy for true true true believers to even entertain the possibility that their beliefs are the ones on sand. Good luck with Grandma….

  • Becky

    I, too, would like a follow-up post.

  • Josh Sullivan

    joe agnost said:

    “Since Josh (the letter’s author and grandson of Mama Murphy) is reading this blog I’d like to ask him:

    What will your grandmother think if/when she finds out that her letter to you is being read by so many people? Will she mind – or understand?”

    Well, as you said in a later comment, I left out the remaining 15 pages or so when she wrote about things that I doubt she would be comfortable having the world reading.

    The portion that I did post, however, is standard fare for her and is something I’m sure she is happy to communicate to anyone.

    Additionally, most of the feedback on her letter, aside from the obvious disagreements over her content, are very positive. Everyone seems to recognize that she put serious thought into her letter.

    I plan on telling her about this, but later.

    McBloggenstein said:

    Many atheists carry various beliefs, but atheism carries none.

    I agree wholeheartedly, and included this distinction in an earlier draft of my letter, only to remove it later for one reason: I know already that the letter’s going to be a lot to digest. I can hold some points (like the one you made) until a later discussion with her. Good point, though, and an important distinction.

  • Beelzebub

    What is the point of the reply letter? Really, what is the point?

    If you think this letter will change your grandmother’s mind about you, well, you are correct. But it probably won’t be for the positive.

    If you are trying to win some argument, well, you already lost. Anytime you have to say “but I still love you” – you lose.

    My guess is that the real motivation is to get some respect, love and acceptance. Because that is what everyone wants, especially from a person you call Mama.

    If you want her respect then volunteer at a animal shelter and excel in your profession. If you want her love then visit her, write her birthday cards and send her pictures of your family. If you want her acceptance then accept her for who she is and find a common bond. But for fucks sake, don’t send that letter. And you better hope she never finds this online.

    Thank me later.

  • pete

    Angie Says:”However, I find it frustrating that we nonbelievers frequently have to justify our stance to Christians. Why do we constantly have to defend ourselves? Why can’t Christians let us live our lives? I’m sure that Josh doesn’t go around asking Christians to justify their belief system, so why should he have to justify his?”

    Yeah really sucks Angie.What ever happend to the golden rule?..Got faithfully mutilated until it became.Expect what you wish from all others and they must abide by it, but they need to remember they have absolutely no right to expect any of the same in return.

    Josh wish you all the best in your quest with Grandma

  • sailor

    Unfortunately it would not be possible for him to exchange his grandmother for mine, who has been dead for half a century. She like him thought religion was total nonsense, and demanded that there be no ritualistic nonsense at her funeral. One daughter was Catholic, the rest indifferent. The indifferent let the Catholics have their rituals, I cannot fault their reasoning. Their mother was dead, she had made her wishes and died in that knowledge. Nothing that happened after would affect her. The Catholic daughter really believed her mother would go to hell if not last-rited. So if it gave that daughter comfort let her do it.

  • Josh:

    Wow, just wow. I’m not afraid to admit that I was tearing up at the end, Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech always gets to me.

    I am impressed with your easy to read writing style, although I did have to look up a few big words (glossolalia?!, who knew it meant “Speaking in Tongues”?) The educational tone you’ve taken makes sense after reading your grandmother’s letter, she pointed to numerous scientists and theories, and the fact you indicated she has a Major in Biology.

    Your grandmother’s letter was also an interesting read, a bit preachy in spots I’ll grant you. Still, unlike most other preachy writings, I didn’t mind reading hers because she was showing obvious respect for you and it was clear that she knew some of the material she was debating, I guess it helps having a science background! 😉

    What impresses me most however was that you put that together in a week! If this is what you could do in a week, I’d love to see what you’d do in a month, a year! In fact, if you have as much material you wish to cover as you say, I would encourage you to take this idea and expand upon it to write a full fledged book.

    How’s “Choosing Reason: Explaining my Atheism to Mama Murphy” sound. 😉

    Pete…

  • JulietEcho

    The best part of all of this, IMO, is the open atmosphere of sharing and love. She makes it absolutely clear that, while she thinks you’re wrong (and maybe going to hell for it), she loves you. And the real rarity: she doesn’t attempt to use guilt, even covertly, as a means to bring you back into the fold.

    She doesn’t write about how you’re being “hurtful” or “breaking her heart” or any of the guilt-trips that many religious parents and grandparents attempt to spring on their atheist children and grandchildren. In her letter, she treated you as a mature, adult colleague – not as a whiny kid who’s rebelling or hurting her.

    I love your answering letter, and I think that including a hand-written letter as a sort of introduction to it would solidify it as a perfect response.

  • Steven

    The trouble with coming late to the party is that all the best comments are taken…
    I agree that a more personal response is crucial. Responding to an emotional plea with bar graphs is not the best approach. In fact, it underlines one of the reasons why grandma Murphy may be so strong in her faith despite a degree in biology. Josh’s response engages the mind but religion is all about, for want of a better word, the heart. Although Josh’s response is articulate, factual, and well-written, the passion seems watered-down. I sincerely hope that Josh and his grandparents will take the opportunity to discuss his atheism and what it means in person. I never had the chance to do so with my grandparents, which might not be a bad thing as they would have been both puzzled and really upset.

  • Anyone who thinks he needs to water down his letter or simply respond as a “heart to heart” needs to rethink this. Josh has no obligation to bend or even be kind when his views questioned by someone with an uninformed opinion, regardless of who it is that’s questioning him.

    I still love my grandma, but I lost all respect and have no need to talk to her after she said she couldn’t accept my brothers sexuality. Just because it’s your grandma doesn’t mean you have to tolerate anything.

  • Stomper

    Josh makes the mistake of letting his grandmother equate belief in the literal truth of the Bible with belief in the existence of a deity. They are not the same.

    There is ample evidence disproving the literal truth of the Bible, but there is no logical or empirical way to disprove the existence of a deity, precisely because there is no evidence either way. That’s why most atheists deny belief in a deity rather than deny the existence of a deity.

  • basketcasey

    I LOVED this reply letter so much (maybe it’s my background in Psychology?), even despite its journal-esque setup. It was incredibly well-reasoned, well-researched, and easy to read, and it also put into words some of my own thoughts and feelings that I’ve always had trouble explaining clearly to theists. I’m also excited to check out some of the books you mentioned in your footnotes!

    However, I’ve got a couple of minute edits for you:

    1) Page 14, footnote 52, 4th line down–you need a space between “little” and “phenomenon.”

    2) Unless you live in Great Britain, periods and commas at the end of quotations always go inside quotation marks, not after them. This rule applies even if the quotation is taken from the middle of its original sentence. Thus, for example, the end of the quotation on page 3, footnote 7, line 6 should read, “‘before the time of Adam.'” If the quotation ends with a question mark, it is not necessary to follow with a period, such as on page 4, footnote 17. It’s customary to let the question mark end the sentence.

    I realize that you’re not actually submitting this letter to a journal (though it’s definitely worth being published!), but I can’t help being a grammar Nazi. It’s in my blood.

    Again, amazing work. I think that if more people questioned their faith like you did, the world would be a much better place, even if they eventually decided they still believed in God. At least then they would know why.

    If you end up talking to your grandma at length about her faith, I’d love to know how she was able to get her Masters in Biology without compromising her beliefs.

  • muggle

    I look forward to the day my grandson gets old enough to really debate with me. (He’s not entirely above it now; you should have seen him plead against the death penalty for an ant I was going to kill in the kitchen once.) My daughter dreads this as much as I look forward to it.

    But this is ridiculous.

    If I were silly enough to write him a 33 page letter on anything, I certainly hope he’d give it right back to me. I’d be proud of him for doing so! And I’m willing to bet Grandma may be heartbroken he’s not saved but delighted he thinks enough of her to take the trouble for a lengthy reply.

    I certainly hope if my grandson ever is “saved” we can discuss it. Even if I can’t see myself writing this long a letter, I can see myself recommending certain books and arguing apologetics with him…

  • Gareth

    I think it’s an excellent reply, well constructed and considered and while some have worried that the tone and vocabulary might make it incomprehensible to grandma, i think it shows a real respect to treat her as an intellectual equal. I think there is a real danger of atheists and free-thinkers appearing to condesent to those of belief, however ridiculous their beliefs are. We must, with dilligence and thoughtfulness, point out their errors of fact and thought irrespective of how they respond.

    Really enjoyed reading it Josh. Congrats. The only thing I would change is the footnotes. It’s not an academic paper and I don’t think you need to go into so much detail but if you want to allow your grandmother to have access to your sources, maybe you could put them at the end, I think it would read better that way.

    Gareth

  • Josh,

    I finally found the time to read your letter in detail and in full. I just wanted to say that I was impressed. I think you should definitely send it along with a separate hand-written shorter more personal letter. It might be a good idea as others have said to place the footnotes all at the end so they do not interrupt the flow of reading the letter.

    I find de-conversion stories very interesting (I myself never believed to start with). I would like to hear more from you. I’m sure others would too.

    Jeff

  • Laura

    I really liked your letter Josh, good job. I don’t know your grandma but I’ve yet to meet any Christian who is willing to take the take the time to understand why I follow another path than they do. It doesn’t seem to matter how thoughtfully I lay out the argument, at the end of the day they still think some catalyst or tragedy occurred that made me “lose my faith” (as if it was waiting to be returned). One other thing I would be curious about is do you think your grandma would have responded this way 20 – 30 years ago? Is she realizing her own mortality and reacting from that? It seems the closer Christians get to death, the more they scramble to get everyone on the “Peace Train.” Please do keep us posted as to her response.

  • Josh Sullivan

    Hi everyone,

    Thank you so much for your feedback. It’s exactly what I was after. Basketcasey, great suggestions. I’m making those adjustments now.

    As for the footnotes, I tried moving them to the end of the letter and you are all right. The letter reads more smoothly that way.

    I think the letter is ready to send off, so I’m sticking it in an envelope now. Off it goes to Texas. I will certainly post an update as soon as I get one.

    Again, thank you all. I’m proud to be a part of this supportive community.

    -Josh

  • Glenn

    I just happened on this website and blogs and found the letters fascinating, if exhausting. Excellent job of the bloggers on critiquing the effort and being helpful. It’s so nice to see constructive blogging as opposed to the nonsense and venom that comes forth if there is any political agenda.

    I vote for the long letter and don’t see that a shorter version is useful. The grandmother seems to want to pull out all the stops, and so Josh has appropriately replied to most of them. It is a worthy effort even if not completely read or appreciated by the main antagonist, as so many others have read it and enjoyed it.

    The letter is technical and examining the references is going to be too much work to expect it to be done. But using references reinforces the effort even if only a single one is checked for veracity.

    I was raised a catholic and my older family members are irrationally religious. However my own and succeeding generations have diverged markedly from this idiom, and we understand the value of logic and the unsettlingness of contradiction.

    I was most impressed with Josh’s closing words about how unimportant our (human) situation really is (or appears to be). This has been my precise stand for years.

    If there is a God as christians seem to have it, (IT, or place desired gender here) must be external to the physical universe and thus outside time and universal laws as we understand them. Hence this God is not accessible by our science, and questions are moot. But belief in the inaccessible is preferable to belief in the impossible or the contradicted. Thus there is nothing useful in the bible about God, though it has quite a few compelling human interest stories.

    Glenn (a scientist)

  • > Usually, in these situations (in my
    > experience), the Christians just go back
    > to their standard arguments without even
    > acknowledging what the other person has
    > said

    It’s unknowable how our words and actions will affect others. The effects may come in the future, and they may come in ways that we never know. While it’s useful to be aware of feedback, it’s ultimately necessary to do our best to be helpful, recognizing that we can only try, without knowing for sure if we succeed.

    > Why can’t Christians let us live our
    > lives?

    I have personally known many many Christians who desire to live their lives according to their own beliefs and values, without interference from others. Some are happy to leave others alone; others try to persuade non-believers, but would never dream of using force.

    I have personally known many many Lefties who strive to use the force of government to impose their supposedly superior morality on Christians and others.

    The essential matter isn’t what someone believes or disbelieves. It’s whether one acts according to live-and-let-live principles.

  • In many professional offices, every man wears a tie. What’s that about? It’s completely unnecessary, non-functional. The meaning behind it is… by doing this silly unnecessary thing, dressing this way, everyone is confirming that they’re “on the same team.” The tie represents this, precisely because there’s no rational reason for it.

    It’s the same with family dynamics. It’s not as if we really care what the others believe. Deep down, we all know that life’s a mystery, and our beliefs are guesses. But by outwardly conforming or professing membership in a belief-system with no rational basis… we’re symbolicly showing that we’re in this together.

    Not that I do this with my own family. I’m just sayin’.

    Point is that Josh clearly re-affirms his connection to Grandma. It’s quite possible that this is far more important than anything else.

    One more point that I think is very important, and perhaps even connected to the above:

    Stipulate that it’s true that if I profess belief in Jesus, I’ll spend an eternity in heaven, while billions of other people suffer in hell. This is not a good result. This is the furthest thing from “Good News.”

    If this is the truth, then it’s much much better that I go to hell. That way, at least I’ll have some chance to help all those suffering beings.

    I mean, she’s a grandmother, ferchristsake. Josh: is it possible, on some level, that she’d understand this?

  • Josh Sullivan

    Stuart said: “I mean, she’s a grandmother, ferchristsake. Josh: is it possible, on some level, that she’d understand this?”

    Stuart,

    We’ll see soon. I stuck the letter in the mail yesterday. stand by…

  • McBloggenstein

    Heard anything yet?