Answering a Pastor’s Challenge February 15, 2010

Answering a Pastor’s Challenge

Debbie Skomer runs the San Diego Coalition of Reason and recently attended a church at the urging of a friend — hey, why not?

While at the church, Pastor David Hoffman made a challenge to his congregation: He dared them to find anyone who was a Christian for a significant amount of time and only in their old age decided to lose their faith.

Debbie took him up on it. She felt confident there were many atheists in that position out there. Surely, at least one.

Through email correspondence, Hoffman laid out the specifics of the challenge (edited here for clarity)

  • Find someone who has lived for Jesus Christ for a significant amount of time (40-50 yrs) and is older (70+).
  • That person would say that as they look back on their life they regretted their decision to trust Jesus.
  • That person would tell young people to not trust Jesus because he doesn’t come through.

Hoffman added (and I quote here):

Believe me Debbie this is going to be a challenge because Jesus is faithful to those who put their trust in him.

Is it a fair challenge? Maybe. There are plenty of atheists who were deeply and sincerely Christian for a majority of their life before coming to their senses. Were they 70? None come to mind. But 40s? That’s easy to find. Still, I have no doubt we can meet this challenge.

Someone else who came to mind was Dan Barker — he wasn’t “just” a Christian, he was a preacher for the majority of two decades. I know two decades isn’t the same as forty years and Dan’s not exactly in his 70s, but it’s still a pretty damn long amount of time. And if you’ve ever heard Dan speak about it, you can tell how much he regrets it. Does he not count, Pastor Hoffman?

If you think you or someone you know fits the bill, you can write to the pastor here. Please don’t send him anything nasty. And please let us know (in the comments) what you write!

Let’s overwhelm him with positive responses from atheists who were “real” Christians for a significant amount of time and came to atheism much later in life.

Let’s see how he responds.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • You should check out this, and someone could give it to the pastor:

  • Stephanie

    He needs to look no further than his preachers/ministers/priests who are now secret unbelievers but still hold jobs within a church. Dan Barker speaks about them in his book. They have contacted him for support (since Dan went through what they are going through). Also, Dan Dennett and another woman is doing a study with 6 of them who volunteered secretly without their families or congregations knowing. See video here where he discusses the study

    I think it’s very arrogant of this guy to even do this challenge when so many of his fellow colleagues are unbelievers.

  • Valhar2000

    I think it’s very arrogant of this guy to even do this challenge when so many of his fellow colleagues are unbelievers.

    Maybe he honestly believes what he says, and he really doesn’t know about this sort of thing. And maybe his church happens to be free of old atheist priests who are to old to get a real job.

  • Christophe Thill

    My comment is that this pastor has the annoying tendency to confuse atheists with people who hate Jesus. Even Dawkins doesn’t.

  • Claudia

    Well Youtuber tenneral is not a spring chicken and is not only a recent deconvert but an outspoken one:

    His profile says he’s 65, so technically he might not count.

    The terms of the challenge do seem a little unfair. There is a requirement of a lifetime of faith and then only a narrow window to lose it (it doesn’t count if you were 40, 50, 60 when you deconverted) and moreover you need to be “out” to a member of a church no less.

  • Bill

    A lot of people I know in the UK couldhave fit into that category- they, however, usually had a life of attending church with a vague sense of unease,and then when older just decided ‘bugger this – THIS is nonsense’. I’mnot sure any of them spent years ‘trusting Christ’ so much as just going along with a cultural norm and then becoming old and ornery enough to not care anymore. My mum for instance.

  • I don’t have any examples of someone becoming an atheist when they are over 70. I do think, though, that the general trend of becoming more religious as you grow older is sumarized up here in my most recent comic.

  • I am curious regarding the test’s specific parameters. Why “40-50 years” and “70+ years old?” Why would a person be disqualified if they were a Christian for 39 years, and deconverted at 69 3/4? What makes those magic numbers? Is the Pastor’s God obligated to give salvation (like a cheap gold retirement watch) after someone has logged so much time? Where did he come up with those numbers?

    Further, to eliminate the possibility of it being a human condition (and not some God’s reaction)—shouldn’t we look to other beliefs held for similar periods and see how many deconverted from them? How many 70+ Hindus who practiced Hinduism for 40-50 years convert to Christianity? Or Muslims? Or Buddhists? Or Republicans? Or Vegans? Etc.

    The second parameter—“regret”—is equally troublesome. Some of this has to do with personality. Some people don’t regret. We look back, realize we made the decisions with the knowledge we had at the time, and move on. Sure, if we had the knowledge now we had then, we would have done things differently. We would have invested in Apple more and GM less, too.

  • Emily

    “The terms of the challenge do seem a little unfair. There is a requirement of a lifetime of faith and then only a narrow window to lose it (it doesn’t count if you were 40, 50, 60 when you deconverted) and moreover you need to be “out” to a member of a church no less.”

    I agree. This seems (sort of) like an example of the “goalpost moving” that so many Christians engage in. We know several athiests in their 40s or 50s who deconverted after 20+ years, but apparently that’s not enough.

    You have to have been in the faith for 40+ years to be a “true Christian”. You have to be over age 70, when the average life expectancy of a person born in 1940 is less than 70 years. Plus the fact that many people, especially older people, do what they’ve always done out of habit or fear.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible…there may be plenty such people out there. But I think it would be pretty tough to find an older person who is open and out about their athiesm after a lifetime of faith.

  • I’d pass on the challenge. It proves absolutely nothing either way. You probably can’t find many ex-Muslims who fit this description either.

  • gski

    I think some of you are missing a very important point. Hemant quotes Hoffman as saying “Believe me Debbie this is going to be a challenge because Jesus is faithful to those who put their trust in him.”

    Note that Hoffman is testing that jesus is faithful to his followers. It seems Hoffman believes that if you put in enough years following jesus he won’t abandon you, and so you can’t lose your christian faith.

    Those that have lost faith as per Hoffman’s stipulations prove that jesus abandons his followers.

  • Guy G

    Believe me Debbie this is going to be a challenge because Jesus is faithful to those who put their trust in him.

    Actually, this is going to be a challenge because very few people who have 40-50 years of belief in something (anything) are unlikely to go back on it. Plus more importantly, as Secular Planet says, it shows nothing either way.

  • @gski: You can’t be abandoned by someone that doesn’t exist.

    The pastor set this challenge deliberately to be nearly unachievable. The numbers are so strict you will find very few, which he can claim are just aberrations. It’s a scam, just like all religious challenges, questions and arguments.

    If he wants examples of true believers that deconverted there are millions, Matt Dillahunty is a prime example, and the paster can ask Matt himself for his reasons why. Asking for ridiculously restrictive numbers is just the typical theist moving-the-goalpost tactics.

  • No, I completely disagree. It’s a bunch of crap, ask someone who believes in ANYTHING for 40 years to change their mind and speak out about it. The longer people go holding onto any belief, the harder it is for them to admit it is wrong. Especially when they have preached something and spouted it for so many years.

    It also proves absolutely nothing. You will always find someone, somewhere. To think that there are none, is simply ignorance. Even if you find 10, he’ll turn around and say, that’s a small group of people, it doesn’t really count. What about the thousands of others.

    Ask him, how many people who have been die hard Buddhists for 40 years, converted to Christianity… Same horrible logic.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Over 70? As in the case of Antony Flew, Christians seem eager to associate their cause with cognitive senescence.

    Believe me Debbie this is going to be a challenge because Jesus is faithful to those who put their trust in him.

    Believe me pastor, there are other reasons why meeting the specifics of this challenge might be difficult, even if Jesus didn’t exist or wasn’t divine. People over 70 are mostly retired, and no longer at their physical, mental and monetary peak. They are more dependent than younger folk on the support network of family and friends – which they may lose if they make their unbelief public. It would also mean admitting that a big chunk of their life was rather a waste of effort. From the small pool of candidates fitting your requirement, there may not be many with the intellectual gumption to admit they were so wrong for so long.

  • Mike Wagner

    This is a no-win situation.

    Even if you manage to find someone that broke the bonds of indoctrination that late in life, their numbers will be few – simply because we tend to become set in our ways as we age.

    And those few can be paraded as examples for the religious to say “Look how rare this is. They weren’t of true faith anyway.”

    The game is rigged.

  • Nicky

    My Grandmother was Catholic for many, many years. She was married to someone who, isn’t genetically my Grandfather, but he filled much the same role, I’ve never actually met my real Grandfather. Anyway, the point is, he was, and still is, the God fearing sort that is full of absolute hypocrisy and all sorts of bullshit. He’d take credit for things that were entirely my Grandmother’s doing while all the time praising Jebus and crap like that. When they finally got divorced he managed to get almost everything, mostly because she just wanted him gone.
    I think it was when my Grandmother was in my 60s that she started to turn to Buddhism, one of the key things she said she particularly liked about it was the fact that it asked you to question, rather than follow blindly, like Catholicism. I don’t know what her exact opinion of Jesus was, but she was an intelligent woman. As far as I can tell, even if she still believed he existed or whatever she found the whole notion of Catholicism highly unimpressive, given it could turn out total dicks like my psuedo-Grandfather. This theory is supported by the fact that there were occasionals rant about this.

    Turns out she just squeaks in with the 70+ rule, she died of a brain tumour a couple of years back at the age of 71. Wonder why Jebus didn’t fix her?

  • Nicky

    When she was in *her* 60s. Typing fail.

  • Humanistdad

    To the Pastor:

    “Your challenge to find people who de-converted after 40-50 years of being a Christian speaks not to how ‘right’ Christianity is but to how strongly these believers have been indoctrinated into the cult. Today, young people have access to the ideas that their parents and religious leaders once attempted to shelter them from and they are leaving ‘the faith’ in droves.”

  • His challenge proves nothing. I am sure there are people out there who fit his parameters, but the points many of you made are so true.

    I am sure there is an old widow/widower out there that lost their faith after their spouse passed away or after looking back on a regrettable life. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack though. Many of our senior citizens count on their religious community for help, food and support. So even if they no longer believed, speaking out and being open about it may be a stupid thing to do.

    I am sure I have put in more hours at church than many ‘faithful’ Christian followers who are in their 40’s or 50’s. Just because I am 4 decades shy of 70 doesn’t make my journey any less proof that someone who trusted Jesus for a long period of time could walk away.

    Is he trying to imply that Atheism is a folly of youth? I think it’s just proof that the longer someone is brainwashed, the harder it is for them to see the truth.

  • mcbender

    My grandmother was a very religious Jew for most of her life, and as a result she and my atheist grandfather had a very antagonistic relationship (although it seemed they were happiest that way for some reason). Trying to remember back now, she definitely talked like a religious person, it was clear that she believed in God, and she used to go to synagogue every morning (although some of that was an excuse to see her friends, I think).

    I’ve had a few conversations with her recently, though, where she’s admitted to me that she doesn’t really believe in any of it but that wishful thinking comforts her (if I had to call her anything, I’d probably call her a theistic agnostic). The interesting thing is that she’s told me she definitely doesn’t believe in an afterlife (what she “wants to believe in” is that something bigger cares about her), despite the fact that the afterlife idea would probably offer her more comfort than anything else (since the primary cause of her depression seems to have been my grandfather’s death).

    I don’t think she works as an example for this pastor, even though she meets his age criteria, because she was never a Christian. Regardless, though, I still think it’s an interesting case…

    * Side note: If we’re really desperate for examples, maybe we should look into Dan Barker’s parents. He mentioned them in his book… (although obviously there’s no need for examples since previous commenters have exposed the fatuity of the ‘challenge’, it might be good to provide some anyway).

  • What do you supposed is the chance of the following response if the challenge is met?

    “A person that loses their faith, even late in life, never really had faith to begin with and therefore doesn’t fit the criteria.”?

  • penn

    Can we adopt a sliding scale for this? It would be relatively easy to find Christians of 20-30 years who are 50+ and deconverted. We could probably find a number of volunteers who could list the number of years they were a Christian and the age at which they deconverted.

    Many people have already pointed out the difficulties with this challenge that have nothing to do with Jesus. People over 70 are far less likely to question lifelong beliefs. Those that do are far less likely to proclaim their unbelief publicly because the church is often the primary source of social interaction for seniors.

    But, it would be great if we could spread the word. I’m sure we can find a lot of people who meet the spirit of the challenge (long time Christians who now regret it) and at least a few who meet the specific requirements.

  • jen

    I am curious regarding the test’s specific parameters. Why “40-50 years” and “70+ years old?”

    Why those particular parameters? Call me cynical, but I’d say that it’s because if you’ve put THAT MUCH of your life into a belief system, chances are you’ve made choices that you would regret if you let go of that belief system.

    Whether it’s that you harassed your children for not staying within the belief system, or that you drifted away from your siblings (and never reconciled before their deaths), or that all of your friendships are based on being a member of that church – it’s HARD for a person who has spent 30 or 40 years in ANY system to admit that the time there was wasted and life might have been better outside that system.

    That’s part of why $cientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others use shunning as a discipline. Turning your back on the faith means you literally have to start a new life.

    And how many people are willing to start questioning their choices, and starting a new life, at that age? Some, sure – but often those who were never entirely sold. Those who truly were hard-core believers are less likely to be truly honest with themselves about whether it’s been a force for good in their lives.

    There’s also the issue that many of those who find “Jesus doesn’t come through” left the church LONG before they turned 70.

  • J. Allen

    Oh yea, well find me a christian over 100 who’s been an atheist over 90 years!

  • I have a friend who is in his 50’s/60’s, who used to be a preacher. He is now an outspoken atheist.

  • Ron in Houston

    Oh crap – even if you find someone they’ll still say they don’t count since they must never have been a “real Christian.”

  • Angie

    Ron in Houston makes a good point. I suspect that even if folks found examples of lifelong Christians who deconverted after 70, Hoffman would just move the goalposts. I’ve seen Christians do so too many times before.

  • Well, I guess I don’t count: I was a Christian for only 28 years, ending in my 40s (and really, I was probably Hoffman’s kind of Christian for no more than half that, ending by age 30). The guy’s already set the bar ridiculously high, and if he gets an example that meets his criteria I bet he’ll just resort to the No True Scotsman move.

    I say this challenge is just as phoney as Kent Hovind’s “Prove evolution” challenge.

  • Thegoodman

    This is interesting but I bet it will be difficult to find a person who fits the criteria for a number of reasons.
    1. Social groups – many elderly (70+) spend time with other old folks. These other old folks are most undoubtedly primarily religious so to stand up and say you are not could possibly remove what small joys you still have in your rather old and painful life.

    2. Lack of interest – if you followed Jesus for 40 years and suddenly don’t care anymore, why bother? Its nearly the end anyway and at this point if you are in question, you will likely choose the “safe” route and just act like you are not questioning anything. Its not that they don’t care, there just isnt anything they can do about it. They cant change the past and regretting the past 50 years won’t really make them feel good about their legacy. Even if they did regret it, they would likely suppress these feelings and just avoid them all together.

    3. The internet – where would you find such an individual? The internet of course! Which demographics use the internet the least? Those under 4 and those over 70. Good luck finding a 70 year old atheists who peruses atheists blogs all day. I am sure they are out there, but they are likely difficult to find.

    I feel like this is the equivalent of asking “find me a smoker who has been smoking cigarettes for 50+ years who has stopped and is over the age of 70”. If you are already 70 yrs old and have been smoking for half a decade, why bother stopping now?

    I apologize to all of the geriatrics who are offended by the ageism in my post. I shamefully prescribe to ageism based on the mismanagement of the US by a rather senile senate (US Senate average age is 63).

  • Midwest Doc

    ME!! christian for more than 50 years; now an enlightened atheist.

  • jemand

    the person doesn’t have to have deconverted after 70, assuming that you can start counting at 10, they just needed to deconvert between 50 and 60, which is relatively more easy to find, and to have done so between 10 and 20 years ago. There has to be someone fitting those criteria, right?

  • Too bad he didn’t include people who were religious all their lives and deconverted (practically) on their deathbeds.

    My friend was in her 60’s, devout Catholic, when she survived lung cancer. A year later she developed another primary cancer in a breast. An aggressive type of cancer and all they could do for her was keep her comfortable. About 2 weeks before she died, she told me “I know the lights are just going out and my ashes will fertilize a tree. That’s enough for me”

    It was not a ‘hopeless’ statement. She was serene when she made it and it didn’t frighten her in the way you’d expect it to.

  • Charles

    The challenge posed is unfair. By the time someone has put 40-50 years into anything they are so deeply invested that it is near impossible to give it up. Going through the transition from deeply religious to irreligious is incredibly difficult, and the longer one spends lying to him/herself about religion, the more a person will believe the lie.

  • Ed-words

    What difference IF he’s right?

    Religion is often a lifelong addiction.

    Jesus gets the credit, Satan the blame.
    The deck is stacked!

  • Just because someone is comfortable in thier faith doesn’t make it true. The challenge is indeed unfair and misleading. Millions go to their graves with a strong faith in many religions, but would you say that is because Krishna, Allah or Shiva “came through” for them? That’s ridiculous.

  • Revyloution

    Good on ya Midwest Doc. Did you send a note to the Pastor?

  • Jonas

    Freethought Today is full of stories of non-Christian faith members abandoning their faith for atheism. Is the pastor holding his brand of Christianity out as the “O.T.F. ?”

    What of Jews (or members of jewish culture) who don’t believe in a biblical old/new testament God. – Are they to be considered Jewish, or Atheist.(up to them actually)

    And again since when is atheist necessarily ‘Anti-Theist?’

  • Jim

    I see the goalposts moving too. He’ll say they weren’t “true believers”.

  • Jim [different Jim]

    This pastor could be a good insurance salesman, if he was selling insurance against volcanoes in Nebraska.

  • cc

    I think the most difficult part of the challenge is proving the individual “trusted Jesus” or “lived through Jesus”.

    (1) The decade or two (whatever age this pastor thinks is old enough to convert) before being saved/born-again/etc probably doesn’t count.

    (2) The time you spent doubting religion before officially breaking contact probably won’t count.

    (3) Any years you spent not following this pastor’s idea of trusting Jesus won’t count. (i.e. not going to church or volunteering, voting for the wrong political party, not praying daily for guidance, having activities/opinions you know that church doesn’t like, etc)

    Given all of that, I’m not surprised the man thinks only a 70-year-old could be both an atheist and have 40-50 years of religious life.

  • A blogger friend of mine might fit that description. He’s an ordained southern baptist minister who is now agnostic. He deconverted only a few years ago.

  • When I worked in the nursing home, I met a few people who sort of deconverted. I don’t think they would call themselves atheists, but they were lonely and miserable enough that they no longer believed that Christianity provided the peace and comfort it promised, either, so maybe middle of the road: No longer “on fire for God” but not really atheist, either. I think the saddest people were the ones who did still believe; you could see them praying and not understanding why they were there. I made it a point not to discuss religion with them unless they brought it up, so I don’t have a concrete example, but I do know that they exist. Many of them went to the services offered just for something to do.

  • capt’n john

    I am not sure that I qualify for the conditions that you specified with regard to a senior citizen who is an atheist now but spent a significant part of my life as a Christian. I will be 72 on my next birthday. From before my sixth birthday (1944) I was taken to church or sent there every Sunday. I was a member of the Sunday School, the junior choir and, once my voice changed, the senior choir. In 1950, Easter, I became a member of the church. During my teen years I became quite devoted to the Christian cause and seriously considered the ministry for my vocation. One year in a residence devoted to Divinity students was enough to convince me that if these people were to be my colleagues in my adult life I wanted no part of the ministry. The bigotry alone was sufficient to turn any sane person away from Christianity. As I started questioning whether or not I wanted to be in the ministry, I also started questioning my belief, my faith. By the time I was 23 I had come to the conclusion that neither the ministry nor Christianity were for me. I had determined that the part of the ministry that had appealed to me was the idea of having ideas and thoughts that could be designed to help others learn about the world. I became a teacher and a school administrator, and by the time I was 30 I had decided in my own mind that I was not only ambivalent about my beliefs in a god, but that I was an atheist. To my everlasting shame, even though I had stopped attending church, I did not “come out” (as the expression is) until I retired at age 55. My freedom from sin dates from about 1968 along with my accepting responsibility for my own actions. In reality it has increased both beauty and wonder within my life and it has allowed me to gaze in awe at the wonderous delights of the world around me

    John Donaldson.

  • Greg Peterson

    I don’t fit the criteria–I come closer to Dan Barker’s experience. I was a serious, committed believer for 20 years, got a degree in biblical studies from a conservative evangelical college and planned to become a pastor, but instead went into communications and did marketing and other kinds of writing for church and parachurch organizations (including a stint at Bill Graham’s organization) and have now been an atheist for going on 15 years or so. My point in writing this, though, was to question one criterion in particular: I don’t regret my decision to “follow Jesus.” Some of the best times I’ve had in my life and some of the best friends I’ve made were from that period. And I’m not sure what use regret is, anyway…except, I suppose, as a learning tool. OK, I won’t make the mistake of having an imaginary friend as a middle-aged man. But if I had to say I truly regret having been a devout, happy “follower of Jesus,” I could not do it with integrity. That requirement seems to be loading the dice somehow. In fact, the whole challenge seems freighted in unfair ways. I can easily imagine the deconversions of the aged being called some form of senile dementia by the faithful. Just as they are in so many cases unable to admit that a person who once believed is capable of reasoning her way out of a mistaken commitment to an unsupportable view.

  • I wonder how the minister considers “Catholic church membership lists” (if they actually exist) where once you are on the list, you are on the list. Presumably, a person can “get on the list” early in life, de-convert in mid-life, and not bother to get officially removed from the list until after 70. Would that count? 🙂

  • CatBallou

    No one has stated this explicitly, but isn’t he just looking for the parallel to a “deathbed conversion”? Wanting desperately to believe in god and an afterlife when you’re near death is not even remotely similar to regretting that you’ve spent your life trusting Jesus.

  • Jim G

    This challenge is something of a stacked deck: possible, but very unlikely. As several others here have said, there are lots of societal pressures that make it harder for older people to abandon faith. If you’ve spent 40 years in a church, to walk away is tantamount to admitting that you’ve wasted half your life chasing a delusion. That takes a lot of fortitude.

    The father of my best friend is in that situation. He privately admits that he doesn’t really believe the church’s rigamarole, but he’s married to a committed fanatic and he’s socially bound to the church. It’s become the center of his life, and now that he’s over 70, what chance does he see to start anew? Admitting his unbelief would probably destroy his half-century marriage and make him an outcast in his small Southern town.

    Then there’s Isaac Asimov’s father. He was largely irreligious for most of his life, but once he was retired in Florida (according to Asimov’s autobiography), he started going to synagogue again just to have something to do, and have companionship. Yet this would no doubt be seen by our challenging preacher as a “reawakening of faith.”

  • Anyone who has been a “true believer” that long either hasn’t the intelligence to question his beliefs, or has but is ashamed to admit he was a sucker for so long.

  • Just send him a link to Richard Dawkin’s Converts Corner, just a cursory look at the last page gave me this one:

    Still, daily for more than 30 years I knelt and prayed – a simple prayer, “Father, please enter my heart and take me to your service and your will.”

    I’m sure there are plenty more.

  • Here’s another,page2#850:

    It was almost 46 years later, to the day, when I finally broke the spell of ‘belief’.

    I regret only that I did not escape this mental and emotional slavery at an earlier age.

  • I also agree that this game is rigged for the reasons already stated by others.

    Ed-words Says:

    Religion is often a lifelong addiction.

    I want a bumper sticker that says that.

  • I think there’s a problem with this challenge in that it doesn’t take into account that as people get older they may become more set in their ways and find change difficult, especially change about the way they see the world. I’m not saying it’s for sure, but when I look at my own grandparents, the idea of believing anything besides Hindhuism at this age is just not thinkable. I can imagine my grandmother’s reaction to being asked to thing about religion and atheism would solicit a lot of disninterest and confusion. As it is she is what I would call a traditional religious person. A lot of her religion is mixed up with her culture and lifestyle so removing one would be like turning her world upside down at age 73. I imagine it might be like this for many older people.

  • lonborghini

    Dear pastor Dave, I am happy to report that I can meet all of the requirements of your challenge except the age requirement. Alas, I am only sixty years old and hopefully have a decade or three to share the truth that christianity is nothing more than a rather enduring mythology. I certainly have many regrets regarding my life long indoctrination into the foolishness of faith. Not only was I a believer for four decades, but I was also a pastor for several of the last years of my christian life. I now consider all religion to be not only untrue but also destructive and immoral to its core. I would happily encourage young and old to discard their religion and find renewal in rationalism. I’ve never happier and more confident in my beliefs and would welcome an invitation to share my journey with young people in any venue. Thank you for making the challenge.

  • Derek

    “Anyone who has been a ‘true believer’ that long either hasn’t the intelligence to question his beliefs, or has but is ashamed to admit he was a sucker for so long.”

    I’m not quite sure a correlation has been drawn between level of intelligence and atheism, but even so “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” remains a logical fallacy.

    The challenge, as many others have said, isn’t really a valid one.

    Cheers and Excelsior!

  • Siamang

    Ness said: “I think there’s a problem with this challenge in that it doesn’t take into account that as people get older they may become more set in their ways and find change difficult,”

    I would counter that not only did the pastor take this into account, it’s what he’s counting on in issuing the challenge.

  • Deepak Shetty

    As others have pointed out this is a wasted challenge (By the same token neither Mohammed nor Krishna nor Buddha abandon their followers). Even worse, if you could list out thousands of folks, the preacher would probably come out with some excuse and then continue with business as usual.

    Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith is an example. (Though even here the religious will spin it into their favor)

  • Hi…I’m the one that sent the challenge to Hemant. Thank you all for responding. I hope to have a chance to speak with Pastor Hoffman and share your comments. Those of you who question the reasonableness of the challenge are correct. It is a very unreasonable challenge…purposefully created to be almost impossible. Furthermore, meeting the challenge does not guarantee that we will not be dismissed for some other reason that was not stated earlier. However…my purpose was to meet the challenge. I was hoping that through Hemant’s many contacts I would find at least one person that fit the bill, and I have found two so far. The Pastor might dismiss these former Christians, but, he’ll know that we answered the challenge! Thanks for your help.

  • Dear Pastor Hoffmann,

    I guess I would not quite meet the terms of your challenge. I am presently approaching my 69th birthday, and I was a committed Christian for a mere 27 years, from age 20 to 47. However, I think the intensity of my commitment should be considered. At the age of 36 I enrolled in a full 4-year seminary program to become a pastor in my conservative denomination, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. I had a wife and two children, and I put myself through seminary using my savings, an inheritance from my parents and the money I could earn by preaching in churches with a pastoral vacancy.

    It was in fact seminary and the few years following in the ministry that put me on the track to de-conversion. Although I had read the entire Bible through a couple of times, I had obviously managed to read some of the more gruesome passages in the Old Testament with glazed eye and numbed mind. When I had to study the Bible in detail, parts of it in the original languages, the barbaric genocidal passages began to leap out at me. Surely you’ve come across them, where God, nobody else, commands the Israelites to kill all of the people they are at war with, including women and children, sometimes even babies. I cite just one of dozens, Numbers 31:1-17, where in the last verse the Israelites are commanded to kill “all the boys [including infants] and every woman who has slept with a man” but are graciously permitted to “save for yourselves [i.e., keep as sex slaves] every girl who has never slept with a man. (NIV) One other problem arose starting in seminary and worsening as I worked in the ministry. My wife, to whom I had been married since age 23 and whom I still deeply loved, had been a very enthusiastic member of our church and had encouraged me to go into the ministry. However, friction developed between us in seminary and intensified once I was in the ministry. I prayed long and hard for healing in my marriage and took every practical step I could think of to bring it about, including seeking counseling from a number of people. It just got worse. We eventually separated and then divorced. Of course clergy are supposed to have perfect marriages, aren’t they? Obviously there’s a lot more to my dropping my religious beliefs, and if you are interested, you can find a fuller version of my story on the Friendly Atheist Forum at .

    I left the ministry and stopped attending church in 1988. I called myself an agnostic for about 20 years, mainly because the sense of awe I have at the beauty of the natural world predisposed me to believe that there was some “Ground of Being” though I would not use the word “God” as I had conceived an intense dislike for the shabby figure portrayed under that name in the Bible. A few years ago, I switched over to calling myself an atheist because the more I study evolution, the clearer it becomes that living organisms cannot have resulted from intelligent design. Beautiful as animals are, they, and we humans, have bodies that are often weirdly designed and inefficient, just what you would expect to be thrown up by the operation of random forces.

    With respect to your two questions, do I regret my decision to “trust Jesus”? Well, I don’t regret every minute of the 27 years. I had some good times and I had some good friends in the church. However, on the whole, yes I do regret my decisions that were influenced by Christian belief. I regret wasting so much time reading the Bible and praying; I seriously regret all that money which I gave to the church and also which I spent on seminary, as I really could use it now to have a more comfortable retirement and also to give more to worthwhile charities; and finally I regret most of all the detour in my career path from which I never recovered—I ended up doing simple low-wage jobs for the last 20 years of my working life. However, I don’t hold this against Jesus since he’s dead and gone, and I don’t hold it against God since he never existed. Surely the answer to the other question (Would I tell young people not to trust Jesus?) is implicit in all that I have said so far.

    Sincerely yours,

    PS Some of you guys commenting are way too ageist. The mental faculties do not dry up in a person’s 60’s.

    BTW, there are a couple of people who might meet Hoffmann’s criteria. As I recall, Dan Barker said his parents de-converted after he did.

  • Tom Rafferty

    I just submitted the following to the Pastor:

    Dear Pastor,

    In response to your challenge to your congregation “daring them to find anyone who was a Christian for a significant amount of time and only in their old age decided to lose their faith.”

    I am a 65 year old atheist who was a devote Catholic until I was in my late 50’s. I always considered myself a skeptic in all areas of my life except “faith”. I gradually realized that “faith” and “reason” are not really compatible and finally had to reject “faith” to remove the cognitive dissonance that this incompatibility was causing within me.

    I am now a happy person with a consistent worldview. I find reality more interesting and spiritual than myth and lement that I didn’t have this peace much earlier in my life.

    Thank you for the opportunity to “witness” to you.

  • Here’s the response I just sent:


    At the Friendly Atheist blog, I read about your challenge to your congregation. I would like to respond with my testimony.

    I was raised by dedicated Christian parents and as I grew up, I became a serious Christian myself. When I was in college, I began to learn about and participate in the charismatic movement of the late 1960’s. I was an active member of a charismatic house church (as well as a number of other churches) from 1971 until 2002.

    During those years I served my churches in a variety of roles, especially teaching classes and leading home study groups. As I read the Bible and many other Christian books, prayed, and listened to sermons, I gradually developed my own theology in an attempt to clarify what I felt God was teaching me about how to live. I wrote several pages of a document that I wanted to give to my sons as a way to share what I had learned over my lifetime. It was generally orthodox in theology, but emphasized social concerns while contradicting some common doctrines.

    Like most couples, my wife and I had difficulties in our relationship, and the counselors we saw encouraged my natural introspective examination of my life. As I worked on this in the fall of 2002, I realized that in my zeal to live for God, I was trying to control (“help”) my wife and other people. I repented of that and discovered a freedom that I had never found from trusting Jesus to forgive my sins. When I realized that the core doctrine of Christianity was not important to me, I began to reconsider my theology. Over the next couple of weeks, my religious faith fell apart, and I grew increasingly convinced that there is nothing supernatural.

    During the seven years since then, my relationship with my wife has been markedly better than during the many years when I was a Christian. She acknowledges that, while still grieving the loss of her Christian husband. In 2001 she received her Masters degree in Christian Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is now in private practice as a counselor. Meanwhile, I have become active in the Brights movement (, corresponding with prisoners who are not religious, and writing notes like this one to help remove some of the common misconceptions about non-religious people.

    You stated to Debbie Skomer that your challenge wouldn’t be easy “because Jesus is faithful to those who put their trust in him.” I agree that it’s rare to find someone who abandons religion after many years, but it seems to me that there are other possible reasons than the one you gave. What kept me from questioning my beliefs for so many years was my immersion in an evangelical Christian culture. Not only did my churches and the books I read constantly buttress my faith, but I enjoyed the acceptance, respect and love from my Christian family and friends. I had little incentive to consider that I and all the loving people around me might be mistaken in our beliefs.

    Thanks for listening. More of my story is at, and I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.

    Joel Justiss

  • Claire

    Late to the party, but I think my grandfather fits the bill. He was raised Catholic, and retained those beliefs far enough into adulthood for my mother and uncles to also be raised Catholic. Now though, at the age of 68, he’s an outright atheist. Fortunately my grandmother – a Catholic, but one of the inoffensive live-and-let-live types – seems to consider this trivial compared to his many other perceived faults…

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