Ask Richard: Should an Atheist Try to Change His Church from the Inside, Or Get Out? November 3, 2009

Ask Richard: Should an Atheist Try to Change His Church from the Inside, Or Get Out?

Bill wrote a long letter that I have edited for space reasons. My paraphrasing is indicated by parentheses. For privacy, I have given him a different name.

Dear Richard,

I’m in a bit of a bind, and I have come to the conclusion that I need to seek out advice from people who lack the religious prejudices that I’ve been indoctrinated with. I appreciate any thoughts you have regarding the following situation.

I’ve been gradually losing my faith over the last couple of years. I was raised in and still attend services at what I would call a hyperconservative church in Tennessee. While I do not believe, I continue to attend out of respect for my wife’s devotion. When we got married, we were both sincere believers, and she still is. As my faith has eroded, I’ve begun to be more vocal in publicly disagreeing with the elders, who are considered the authoritative leaders on all things, at church services. During the past few months, there has been a class studying Genesis through Deuteronomy. I have never studied these books from the perspective of skepticism before.

For example, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 discusses Israelite laws addressing a daughter’s virginity. (These verses relate how if a young husband accuses his young bride of not being a virgin, it must be investigated by her father and the city elders. If she is found to be a virgin, the husband must be fined, whipped and must remain married to her for life, but if she is found to not be a virgin, she must be killed by stoning.)

The teacher and elders said we should teach our daughters to not have sex before marriage because god hates it and he demanded death for it in the past. They said that a few deaths for fornication would solve a lot of our problems with premarital sex in this country.

After hearing the tirade continue for about 5 minutes, I asked the teacher if he would kill his daughter if she sat down with him and told him she had premarital sex. His exact words were “I sure would like to kill her if that happened.” I responded that no sane parent in this day and time would kill their child, and in fact, no one in the room would do it. A parent may be upset, angry, frustrated, or feel any number of emotions, but they would not kill their own just because of a supposed biblical fatwa in the Old Testament. Furthermore, how is it just that the man only gets a fine and a beating if he is wrong, but the woman gets stoned? Should we adopt the ancient Near Eastern practice of viewing women as property?

Needless to say, my comments didn’t go over well with the teacher. He informed me that human logic doesn’t apply, and God said it, he believes it, and that settles it. This is really the church’s way of saying “You called me out, I have no answer, and therefore, I conclude that you are a douchebag.” This is just a sample of what I argue against on a weekly basis.

Is it ethical for me to continue to attend this church and publicly disagree with the leaders on these sorts of issues? Should I just come out and walk away, or should I continue to try and inject some critical thinking into the indoctrination/teaching process? I guess what I’m really asking is whether or not it is appropriate to take the fight against religious fundamentalism into the sacred sepulcher and challenge cherished beliefs in the pews instead of the public sphere. I imagine that you’re very busy, and I appreciate the time and thought you put into responding to emails like this. Thanks for your consideration.


Dear Bill,

This would be a simpler problem if your wife was not involved. Without her on the scene, the only ethical problem would arise when someone in the church asked you point blank if you believe in God. Then you’d have to weigh the ethics of honesty vs. your desire to make things better.

Aside from the honesty issue, absent your wife, the rest would be a matter of weighing cost versus benefit. In other words, will you really be able to change others’ beliefs or social attitudes from the inside as a church member, and what will it cost you?

The teacher was courteous enough to tell you what you’re up against. He said “that human logic doesn’t apply, and God said it, he believes it, and that settles it.” Will your rational arguments, enhanced by your passionate outrage be enough to break through pious mulishness like that? Will your logic at least plant seeds that might sprout in a few of the more fertile minds, or will it bounce off like a BB off a battleship? I don’t know. Maybe you’re really good at it.

Remember what it is like inside the fortified mind-set from which you freed yourself. Faith, often a euphemism for unquestioning credence, is taught to be a moral virtue. Doubt and skepticism are taught to be moral vices. Merely questioning the Bible is seen as rude at best, and heresy at worst. Education is looked upon with suspicion. Science is often called the work of the devil. Here, ignorance is not merely the passive lack of knowledge. Here, it is active, robust, aggressively self-defending and self-replicating. Here, ignorance is alive.

Also remember that you’re up against men who make money by convincing people to abdicate their ability to think for themselves. Your church isn’t just a social and book discussion club. It’s a business that sells dogged intellectual conformity. Threaten the leaders’ livelihood, and it won’t be long before you’re told to quite literally get the hell out.

Because they are founded on absolute claims lacking evidence, most churches tend to be very intolerant of dissent, disagreement and dispute. They’re brittle. Dissenters don’t usually get to stay inside and work to change things for very long. More often they’re pushed out and they start their own church with their own angle on things, trying to take some of the like-minded congregation with them. This is why there are thousands of sub-sects. They multiply by dividing, like amoebas.

Bill, if it were just you alone, I’d say hey, if you like fighting single-handedly against a gang of armor-plated automatons, then go for it! I admire your valor and your pluck. Sometimes David vs. Goliath stories turn out well. Maybe you’ll turn the whole thing around, or maybe you’ll at least get them to soften their stances on certain social issues. I’d also suggest that you wear a helmet in church, and don’t walk down any dark streets.

But you’re not alone.

I cannot be sure from your letter whether or not your wife knows of your loss of faith, and what that would mean between the two of you. That is a first priority issue that would affect your other decisions.

Your wife is still a devoted believer and member of the church and a sincere believer. You said that you continue to attend out of respect for her devotion. So her feelings are important to you. It might be that nothing unpleasant will happen, but churches have well-earned reputations for penalizing people for their association with others who are seen as troublemakers, especially family members. Your actions could seriously affect her relationships with others in the congregation, and your actions could seriously affect her relationship with you.

This is your primary ethical dilemma: You must weigh your desire to do battle against what you see as a harmful influence in your community, versus the risk of collateral damage that may be suffered by your loved one. Whatever hits you take as a result of your struggle are part your choice, but someone else taking hits from that is another matter entirely.

I suggest that you talk this over thoroughly with your wife. You should at least hear what her concerns would be. To deliberate this carefully you need more information, and since you clearly think that women should be treated as persons instead of property, then she should have some input into your decision.

I see three different questions that you should consider:

  1. If you stay in the church, will you be able to make any change from the inside to their beliefs or social attitudes, and what will be the effect on your wife?
  2. If you leave the church with a public declaration of your atheism, will you be able to make any change from the outside to their beliefs or social attitudes, and what will be the effect on your wife?
  3. If you leave the church quietly, just stop coming, will you be able to make any change from the outside to their beliefs or social attitudes, and what will be the effect on your wife?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I can only urge you to be very judicious in your decision. The consequences could range from good, to unremarkable, to very painful.


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  • I have sympathy for his dilemma, and I think this is an excellent response, Richard, I want to address one thing that the “teacher” included in the response on what he would do if he found out that his daughter had engaged in premarital sex:

    “I sure would want to kill her.” In Matthew 5:26 Jesus basically says that thinking a thing is as much of a sin as actually carrying it out, and we are as guilty of a crime whether we commit it or consider it. By his own standards he would be as guilty as his daughter, yet he wouldn’t be as willing to give her forgiveness as he would beg from Jesus on Judgment Day, would he?

  • I was in a somewhat similar situation. My wife, kids, and I were attending an evangelical church. My rational for going was two-part. 1. My going was important to my wife. 2. Not having “been churched” I was curious what all the fuss was about. We went for two years and was part of a small group also attended by some of the church elders so I got a pretty good feel for how they all thought. Although I would not openly challenge them on church doctrine, I would nibble away at the edges during small group. I probably directed many discussions in directions where they had never gone before. I was always trying to decide whether or not to be more bold during small group. Eventually, I decided that change really happens from raising the next generation, not from changing the older generation, so I stopped going. The rest of my family followed suit although my wife will occasionally still go to a small group meeting. Some of the other small group families have atheists in their extended family so it is not unheard of. Interestingly, the pastor wanted a kind of “exit interview” with me and ended up confiding that he preaches a bit to the right of his own beliefs to pacify the congregation but a bit to the left of the congregation to try to slowly effect some change.

    I would agree with Richard, though, in that protecting the relationship with your wife should be your primary concern.

  • Miko

    @Mike H: Why would he be guilty of anything? If he doesn’t think that actually killing her would be sinful (since sin is defined as defying God’s law and killing her would be in accordance with God’s law), he certainly wouldn’t think that thinking about killing her under those circumstances would be sinful.

  • keddaw

    Changing a church is an unbelievably slow process. You could end up feeling incredibly demoralised by your lack of progress as well as an outcast from other church-goers. If you try to change too much too fast then you will be booted out the church.

    However, I think you should continue as there are doubtless some other people in the congregation who do believe but are uncomfortable with what the elders are saying and having you to voice what they would like to say is a good thing. They may not have the logical or empathetic tools you do due to their indoctrination, so for you to put the other side to the argument, to give voice to their concerns is a work of greater charity than anything the elders have ever said or done.

  • Luther

    Are there children involved?

    If Bill has or plans children that should be a major consideration. His example will effect their lives:

    If he stays in the church and does not come out to his wife – then he will start the children on the path of believing there are no alternatives – when it eventually comes out to them then he will have set an example of living a lie.

    My recommendation if there are children involved, would be to come out to his wife, quietly leave the church and explain his lack of belief and that their are choices available for his children that they should make at the appropriate time, considering all the choices – explained in an age appropriate manner.

    I just don’t see fighting from within the church as setting that great an example.

    If there are no children yet, I would recommending coming out to his wife and settling the issue of raising children upfront.

  • No-one should attend a church that encourages that sort of clumsy, graceless, and abusive approach to Christianity. Period. If that were the view of “faith” that I suffered through every week, I’d have left years ago. I say this as a Christian pastor.

    Staying and fighting is going to be pointless, particularly if he doesn’t feel grounded enough in Christianity now to provide an alternative vision of the faith. He’ll just be demonized as “one a them Ay-theests”, and then cast out.

    Before he leaves, he needs to have a gentle and open talk with his wife about why he can no longer attend. That, quite frankly, is the relationship that matters most here. It’s not going to be an easy conversation, but if he approaches it with openness to what is positive in her faith, she may understand.

    It’s a tough one.

  • JulietEcho

    The relationship with his wife certainly complicates the situation, so it’s hard to say which advice he should follow without more information. I think Richard did a good job presenting some possibilities.

    I don’t know how long I could hold out in a situation like that, even if I was, in a sense, fighting to combat dangerous beliefs and encourage other dissenters to speak their minds. It’s noble, in a way, and I don’t think such churches ever change without inside forces pushing members to challenge the status quo.

    Still, speaking from my own experience as a de-convert from a very fundamentalist church, I think it would wear me down emotionally (and frustrate the hell out of me) to keep going back. There likely won’t be any quick results, and the possibility of being verbally assaulted by people who passionately believe scary things seems high.

  • Naug

    If lying about your lack of belief isn’t a problem, changing churches to a more benign one is always a possibility, isn’t it?

    The passage about how to treat the virginity of ones daughter ought to get any 21st century woman riled up, you’re wife should be upset about such comments too (and consequently want to change church?).

  • Peregrine

    I have a certain, shall we say, understanding, or even appreciation for those who feel committed enough to their faith, or former faith, as the case may be, to want to stick with it, and work within the system to influence their church to become the benefit to society they claim to be. Perhaps they see something of value. Perhaps they see something salvageable, or at least worth trying to salvage.

    Sometimes I wonder if that’s the only reason many people are still involved with their church. Aside from the fear of loosing familial ties, that is. Holding out on some hope or vague promise of progress may be the only thing keeping some of them from coming over to our side.

    We need allies and sympathizers within religious communities who are willing to work with us for mutual benefit, and that of society, and to encourage others to do the same.

    But change from within many religious organizations, particularly strictly conservative groups, is glacial at best. Anyone who can stick it out for the years or decades it takes for any minuscule amount of change must have the patience of a saint.

    But when change isn’t forthcoming, I can’t blame any of them one iota for voting with their feet. Indeed, sometimes that may be the only way to influence change.

    That’s the easy part. Where his wife and family are involved, Bill knows her better than any of us do. He’s got to gauge for himself where she stands, or how best to find out where she stands before deciding whether or not to make his position known to her, or what to do next.

    Familial ties, and the threat of loosing them are the most complicated aspect, and probably the one he hasn’t figured out yet, and is looking for advice on.

    Families, particularly spouses, under ideal circumstances, ought to be supportive and understanding of each other on these sorts of things, even if they don’t necessarily agree. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

    But at the end of the day, each of us is left to decide how best to proceed on our own. I wish I had some better advice, but every family is different, and we all need to navigate that mine field in our own way.

  • Emanuel Goldstein

    I definitely think you should get out if you don’t believe.

    There are too many who don’t but stay and help smear Christianity.

    Thank God guys like Barker and Loftus left…think of the damage they could have done if they stayed!

    So, get out now! The Christian church is in the shape it is because of phonies who pretend.

  • Richard has hit the nail on the head with this one. The big issue is definitely the wife. I can only speculate here, but the fact that she’s fundamental enough to want to continue going to that church makes me think she doesn’t know about his deconversion, or he’d be writing to Richard with a very different set of problems. Taking care of things with his wife should be his first priority.

    That aside, as a deconvert from a fundamentalist church, myself, I can say that if it wasn’t for the skeptical questions of some of the others in my small group, my own journey of skepticism would have been much slower… and might not have started at all. He shouldn’t expect to change his church, but if he stays and continues to ask the hard questions, he will definitely have an effect on SOME of his fellow churchgoers.

  • By staying, he might soften the stance of a few attendees by continuing to question (politely) the tenets of this church. Best case, it leads to a wave of people leaving the church for a church with less hardcore tenets, setting the example that extremism shouldn’t be tolerated. Worst case, he AND his wife are ostracized.

    In either case, I admire his willingness to speak out. I’m still afraid to put anything but the most obscure atheism symbol (an IPU emblem) on my car because I’m afraid of having my car vandalized because of it, though I’m “out” amongst family, friends and online.

  • BlueRidgeLady (Formerly Anonymouse)

    I would suggest going to another church and see if your wife is up to the idea, IF you want to stick with church at all. Christianity hasn’t evolved much so I don’t see you changing these peoples’ minds, especially if they think it’s ok to say they’d want to kill their own children.
    (PS- If only girls are supposed to not have sex before marriage..who are the boys having sex with?)

    There is going to have to be a talk with your wife involved, whether it’s “I’m not happy with this church” or “I do not have x belief system” is up to you. If you love each other, it’s possible you can make it work.

    Good luck. I know that’s difficult!

  • Siamang

    I’d like to know what his wife’s opinion of that daughter-stoning conversation was.

    Is she with him, or with the church on questions like that?

    It may carry clues to the future of the relationship. If she’s right along with the “stone the infidel” mindset…. where can you go from there?

    Also, yes, just quit that church, as Beloved Spear says, you don’t have the grounds to challenge them that they would accept anyway.

  • Arix

    Well, what this guy cited is a problem with Evangelical Fundamentalist churches, not all churches. Perhaps he – and a few other de-converts here – might change their minds if they went to other denominations’ churches.


    what you says works for an atheist. But no christian denomination – even the most benign one – will accept the argument of allowing a child to choose a religion after having choices explained in an “age-appropriate manner”.

    Firstly, what is an age-appropriate manner? Secondly, what are your credentials to decide what is the age-appropriate manner to discuss each religion, when, as an atheist who dismisses religion outright, you don’t even bother to study exactly what each religion teaches except from the most stereotyped perspective? Thirdly, what exactly informs the child in his/her pre-mature religio-spiritual-moral vacuum? (the vacuum must theoretically exist since you are not supposed to permit yourself to indoctrinate your own children with your own views, or else you are involved in the special-pleading fallacy for your own views.)


    well, understandably it would rile people up given the prevalence of feminists today. And even more given that this particular pastor follows the “God say, Humans do” creed, and neglects his job of explaining the doctrine properly.

    But in a way this is like the apparently-condoned slaughter of the medianites. Unlike today’s human rights activists, God doesn’t seek to force a mode of action on anybody; even the Ten Commandments are not 100% binding. Therefore, He makes concessions to man. The command to stone the non-virgin in this case would be an example; the “massacre” of the medianite children is another. The key here is that there would have been a much worse fate than death for both these parties if they were allowed to live, and this fate would continue even if God mandated a more-lenient punishment, due to human nature. That is, the fate would be in addition to the lenient punishment. As an analogy, think of the wife-abuse cases in India, and apply that to the story of Romeo and Juliet: think of Paris being furious with Juliet for running away with Romeo, and so proceeding by spending an hour every day pouring scalding water over her skin. You get the picture, don’t you?

    God is accommodating a society that oppresses women in order to provide for free will to operate. The minor fine for the man is to accommodate the society in which man’s political role requires him – and his progeny – to preserve face. Yes, the system is unjust, and no, God doesn’t approve of it, but an over-interventionist God disrupts the operation of free will.

    Therefore, one could say that God adheres to the Minimum Necessary Change concept in order to permit the largest space for the operation of free will.

  • Colin

    Great response, Richard, and great comments so far.

    Maybe I’m a bit of a coward, but having lived in the region, I would fear for your safety if you were too vocally out or opposed to this church. I wouldn’t worry about trying to change the church at all. I think the ONLY issue here is the relationship with the wife. It’s a very complicated issue, but I do think sooner or later you will need to come clean with her. Maybe you can come to some sort of compromise, going to a less conservative church or having her continue to go to the conservative church while you stay home.

  • Joffan

    If that bible teacher seriously said he would kill his daughter for having premarital sex, he should be reported to the authorities. Any child of his is not safe. Even if you think he would change his mind if the situation actually arose, he should still be on a watch.

    If you really want a ruckus, you could tell him that you’d reported him. None of which is much in line with Richard’s good advice, but it would definitely provoke a serious (or perhaps just heated) discussion within the church and within your marriage. And might just save a young girl’s life.

    Sooner or later, though, you are going to have to talk to your wife about the status of your belief. I suppose you could potentially re-enact your loss of faith more publicly to make it a gradual transition for her; or just step up and take your lumps in one revelation. Either way, the kind of incident you’re telling us about would be a good time to express your disagreement to your wife with at least the more savage parts of the bible and your church. Personally I’d say that you could walk out of that church on the strength of that one incident alone.

  • Stephen P

    Just a couple of thoughts to add to what has already been said.

    It may be worth continuing to argue your corner if you can do so in a reasonably detached fashion. You might just change one or two minds. If however every discussion leaves you feeling badly stressed, with pulse racing and blood-pressure raised, then you’d be much better off leaving.

    And if you do leave, I suggest not giving as the reason that you have lost your faith (which will make it very easy for them to ignore you totally) but that you consider them to be teaching an immoral caricature of Christianity, or words to that effect (which, again, might just possibly have an effect on one or two people).

  • again great advice.

    but from my experience, prepare for battle! Inside your home and outside. If you have the strength to question, you should have the strength to endure.

  • “Bill”

    I appreciate all of your comments, especially Richard and Hemant. About two months have passed since I originally sent the email to Richard, so I thought I would give a little update.

    About a month ago, I wrote a letter to the church notifying them that I no longer considered myself a member because I did not share their beliefs. I expressed my doubts about a number of things and shared my frustration of being surrounded by anti-science attitudes since I am a licensed, professional civil engineer. I also noted that I felt their portrayal of morality was innappropriate when it comes to such topics as genocide and slavery. I even quoted a song that they sing often about the walls falling down at Jericho, and noted how I couldn’t sing it because all I could think about was innocent children being slaughtered. I asked for their continued friendship and let them know that my wife wished to remain a member for the time being. As such, I expected them to treat her with the utmost respect as Jesus would surely exhort them to do this. I also made myself available to meet with anyone who had any questions.

    My wife was very upset during the week leading up to the letter, but has since been adjusting as best she can. Rather than talking about it in one huge session, we’ve been discussing it a step at a time with each topic that comes up. I asked her to start coming to all the classes I am in so she can be with me when these things are said (she was teaching the baby class and wasn’t in the room for the incident mentioned in my letter, but she was horrified by what was said). She is starting to question some of the behavior and things said in church as well, so that seems to be a good start. We have a two year old little boy so that further complicates things. We have agreed that we will present both of our ideas to him and focus on teaching him to be a good, ethical person. I’m not opposed to pulling some good things out of the Bible to teach lessons about how we live, such as the Golden Rule. And yes I know that the Golden Rule did not originate in the Bible, but that’s not the point. The point is we’re trying to focus on common things we agree with and how we would like our son to behave when he is an adult.

    We’re still working through issues like prayer, heaven, etc. and that will just take some time. She still considers herself a devoted believer, but is alright with me publicly expressing my dissent. Sometimes she even agrees with me. She doesn’t like a lot of attention, but she wants me to be honest with people. I’ve told her that if it gets to a point where she feels it has crossed a line and she needs me to stop that I will do that. Right now, I believe she is afraid more than anything else. She hasn’t been able to bring herself to admit that she and I both have led secular lives since we’ve been married. We’ve never really prayed together, we rarely study the Bible outside of church unless it’s for one of my debunking sessions, and we generally don’t consult the Bible or it’s teachings when we make decisions. We lead a secular life while mostly playing at being religious. I hope that I can get her to realize that. I’m hopeful that the combination of time, love, and patience will help work things out. As far as collateral damage to her goes, it appears that the admonition in the letter has worked pretty well. She has been treated well by everyone with the exception of one close former friend. This friend has completely shunned us, and this has been a difficult thing for my wife. I have apologized for causing the loss of her friend, but also pointed out that she hadn’t done anything to deserve this treatment and real friends, regardless of their belief system or lack thereof, don’t act like that. That one made a big impression on her. I am aware of the potential impacts to both my wife and son. Hopefully I can maintain a respectful balance, but if push comes to shove, I’m going to choose my wife and keep my mouth shut.

    As far as the letter and the overall dissent goes, I have had three threats veiled in the disguise of humor. An example would be when one of the elders told me that in the old days, they had special nine irons to deal with people like me (all of this is done with a wink and an elbow nudge). I have found the best response to this so far has been to simply say that I cannot distinguish whether or not they are joking, and if they don’t apologize and let me know that they weren’t seriously threatening me, then I would have to report their statement as a threat to the authorities. In each instance so far, this has triggered an immediate apology and caused them to back down.

    The teacher mentioned in the original letter continues to teach and I continue to use his words against him. Many members express doubt about what he says, but are too afraid to object. That’s why I still continue to go and dissent even though I’m no longer a member. If I start the questioning process for some of these people, several of whom I’ve been close friends with for a number of years, then I think that I’ve given them something worthwhile.

    Part of my overall exit strategy was to renounce my membership before the church leadership could ‘mark’ me. Marking is simply being publicly called out as sinful and ordering the members to withdraw fellowship from a person. If that happened, members could only talk to me about repentence. If the topic turns to football or anything else, they have to walk away or it is a sin. By quitting without being marked, I am able to still attend and participate in discussions. I’m not a member, so the church leaders have no authority over me, they can’t mark me because I’m not a member, and they can’t kick me out because that would be uncharitable and inhospitable. They know this, and the best they can do is disagree with me. This has prompted a number of interesting responses from the church. I started a blog to air my doubts and discuss these things. Almost every time I post something, either the preacher or elders post an article trying to address it. During a private discussion about the evidence for evolution from Lenski’s experiments, an elder finally relented and admitted that evolution probably happened. This prompted the church to bring in additional speakers for the planned 2010 spring gospel meeting to address the ‘falsehoods’ of evolution. I have had about a dozen or so members express thanks privately for what I am doing and that it helps them to hear someone challenging authority in the church. I’m not sure how long I can continue this because it can be frustrating at times, but when I see comments such as “Thank God Barker and Loftus left, think of all the damage they could have done”, it makes me think I’m doing a good thing. I hope that I can work something out to attempt a debate with the anti-evolution speakers in the spring. From my experience so far, evolution seems to be the key. So many people are so heavily indoctrinated against it, that when they actually see the evidence calmly and reasonably presented by someone they personally know is a good person, it creates massive cognitive dissonance. Massive cognitive dissonance sets the stage for doubt, and doubt leads to more questions. It won’t work for everyone, but it does seem to create an opening.

    I appreciate the comments and the thoughts put forward today. This has been and continues to be both a difficult change and also a thrilling time in my life, and I’m trying to move forward as best I can. It’s nice not to feel alone for a change. If anybody has additional questions or advice, I’d be glad to hear it. I no longer pretend to have all the answers, and at the end of the day, I’m just trying to be a good person. Thanks again.

    – “Bill”

  • Arix


    apparently I am getting the cold shoulder here but I shall try my best anyway.

    1) That was a brave thing to do, although note that your church doesn’t represent Christianity as a whole. As for Jericho, “walls” refer to the city walls, not to the walls of people’s houses. Most likely, children would not be out on the city walls, so that there would be no innocent children dying as a result of the city walls falling. Incidentally, archaeology done at Jericho has revealed that Jericho mostly submitted without a fight, so that there were very few casualties.

    3) Well, it is encouraging that you can work things out with your wife, and hopefully that will reflect well on your child. Still, I wonder, is your son baptized yet? He would be, right?

    The Golden Rule did not originate in the Bible, but the point about the Bible is that it originates from God, so everything in it, including the Golden Rule, originates from God. That’s the Christian belief, at least.

    4) Good for your wife. I would guess she treasures your relationship with her more than anything else. Still though, the last I heard marriage is supposed to involve sacrifice on both sides of the fence; in this instance, what are you sacrificing?

    Incidentally, have you ever thought that the reason both of you lead “secular lives” is because she is trying to accommodate you? What to you is “playing religious” to her might be a genuine expression of belief in constrained circumstances.

    5) The wink and the nudge should have indicated to you that they were joking. You were being hypersensitive in threatening to report them to the authorities.

    I find it ironic: if it were the reverse situation, no doubt there would be another letter complaining about “hypersensitive” theists. Double standard much?

    6) Well, just because you start people questioning, doesn’t mean that they will abandon the faith.

    7) “marking” is certainly un-christian behaviour, and not something Christ would approve of. Although a suggestion: you might want to endorse Theistic Evolution, which uses a thematic reading to Genesis 1 as opposed to a chronological reading. Most likely, what your elder was really reacting against was your (implicit or maybe explicit) assertion that evolution disproves the existence of God.

    8) Good luck with your life, and stay firm. And since I am a Christian, God bless you even if you don’t believe in Him.

    your friendly neighbourhood Theist

  • Arix,

    The story in Joshua 6 is revolting not because of the casualties suffered due to those physically crushed by the material of the walls that came down, but because of the subsequent slaughter (supposedly commanded by God) of all men, women, young and old, cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. Nothing was to be spared except for the silver, gold, bronze, and iron. The church gets those things.

    Then apparently (as told in Joshua 7), someone kept a little treasure for themselves (against God’s commandment). The entire family was gathered up and slaughtered (including the sons and daughters). This supposedly appeased a very angry God. Lovely.

    I remember discussing this story in small group and the study guide using it as an example of God’s love in helping to bring the walls down. When I brought up that the story was disgusting, they were astonished that I would think so. When I told them it was disgusting because genocide is considered bad, they looked at me with disbelief. Their minds simply couldn’t consider that God commanding to kill every living person (and animal) as being anything bad. “If God said to do it, it is good by definition (no matter what it is).”


  • Richard Wade

    I’m impressed by your courage, patience, your strategic skill, and your sheer energy. I think you have your priorities in order with your wife, and you are handling your relationship with her very well.

    Your response to the “joking” threats was exactly correct. Given the context, it is not “hypersensitive” for you to look them right in the eye and call their bluff. Being couched as a joke makes no difference. This is exactly the kind of smug, I-have-God’s-permission-to-do-whatever-I-want attitude that you have been challenging, just like the reprehensible statement by the teacher that he’d like to kill his daughter. The leaders of that church would love to take us all back to the iron age and have their vicious fantasies be the law of the land, decreed capriciously by them. Joking or not, that kind of authoritarianism should be challenged toe-to-toe every time, otherwise it grows and spreads. Bullies are cowards who crumble when you turn to face them, especially bullies who think their Goon in the sky is going to do their fighting for them.

    I wish you well in your struggle. I expect you’ll help a few people to start having more sane attitudes about social issues, and maybe even pose some hard questions of their own to those Little Caesars of God. A large number of apostates coming from the congregation is probably not likely, and I don’t get the impression that that is actually your intention. I think you would be happy to simply see more humane attitudes in that church, and so would the rest of us.

  • Stephen P

    I’m not a member, so the church leaders have no authority over me, they can’t mark me because I’m not a member, and they can’t kick me out because that would be uncharitable and inhospitable.

    A fascinating situation. I suspect a lot of churches would kick you out anyway, so apparently yours has a certain degree of integrity. That deserves respect.

    Many members express doubt about what he says, but are too afraid to object.

    I have had about a dozen or so members express thanks privately for what I am doing and that it helps them to hear someone challenging authority in the church.

    The best possible reason for carrying on. Good luck.

  • lotusboy63

    I’ve been gradually losing my faith over the last couple of years. I was raised in and still attend services at what I would call a hyperconservative church in Tennessee. While I do not believe, I continue to attend out of respect for my wife’s devotion. When we got married, we were both sincere believers, and she still is.

    With just a few minor edits (my “last couple of years” are more like eight), I could have written this paragraph. Though I don’t personally “number myself among the atheists” (rather as more agnostic with pantheist sympathies), I understand completely having to reconcile a change of beliefs with the social costs that acting on them would incur.

    It’s highly unlikely that an ultra-conservative church will move away from what it considers to be “core doctrine” at any other than glacial speed. You and your family will thus have to determine how well the three of you and the church can co-exist. Would migrating to another church or denomination be feasible, or is there external pressure on either of you to retain the “faith of your fathers”? I would also imagine that, however abhorrent the church’s doctrinal line might be, bonds of community and deep friendships have built up that would be traumatic to abandon and still more daunting to rebuild elsewhere. All this has factored into my decision to stay where I am (like yourself, becoming a gadfly in group discussions, though I haven’t encountered anything resembling the hostility that you’ve faced). Everyone’s journey through this thicket is unique, though, and there’s likely lots of painful negotiation and sleepless nights ahead. For myself, disagreements over metaphysics are no match for the primacy of my family’s unity, and I suspect that you’re seeing things the same way.

    Incidentally, does this church happen to be a Church of Christ? I noticed many of its artifacts – the “gospel meeting”, the overarching authority of “the elders”, the echoes of “disfellowshipping” in your “marking” – in your account. If so, well, turns out we’ve got even more in common. If in addition you happen to live around Memphis – a meet-up over an adult beverage or two might be in order. Wonderful as online community is (me, I’m all about the lurkage), we still have to function in a real world – one we now suddenly view in fundamentally different terms then those among whom we live and move and have our being. Liberating as this may be, it’s still a lonely place.

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