Saturday, June 07, 2008

Letter to Chuck Colson on "The Faith"

For a background on what to expect from this discussion, I request that regular readers of the Atheist Experience blog please visit this message before getting involved in any commentary.

Hello Chuck,

Let me introduce myself. I am a software developer in Austin, where I recently acquired a Master's Degree in Computer Engineering from UT. I am also a life long atheist, which makes me something of a rarity. The great majority of atheists I know started out religious and eventually deconverted. In my case, my parents are both physicists. My father is a staunch atheist, while my mother is somewhat more "spiritual" but still does not believe in a traditional god. I definitely take after my father in this area. Both parents come from a Jewish background as well, so I have had a variety of religious instruction including a bar mitzvah. I write for the "Atheist Experience" blog as a hobby, and I also appear regularly on a cable access TV show and an internet podcast on behalf of the Atheist Community of Austin. I am a confirmed family man, with a wonderful wife and a son who just finished kindergarten, and two stepdaughters, one teenaged and one young adult.

First of all, I want to thank you for asking me to participate in this dialogue, and for sending me a copy of The Faith. I often go out of my way to listen to and read material with which I disagree, as I find it educational to consider a variety of perspectives. The last full book I read for this purpose was Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe, about three years ago.

In order to avoid confusion, let me define some terms. I designate myself an "agnostic atheist," a term that I presume you will deny has meaning, based on my reading of chapter 2. In an anecdote, you attributed an aspect of certainty to both words: atheists are certain that God doesn't exist, and agnostics are certain that no knowledge is possible. You acknowledged this as a rhetorical "ploy," and I agree: it leaves no word available to describe my view. I do not believe in the existence of any gods (hence I am an atheist) because I do not believe that sufficient evidence has been presented to justify one. I recognize that I do not "know" in the absolute sense whether there is a god or not (hence I am an agnostic), but remain in a default state of disbelief until such time as better support for one is provided.

The above is a summary of my use of the words, and I can support them from the dictionary if you really want to spend time nitpicking about definitions. Otherwise, if you are uncomfortable with describing me as an atheist, feel free to pick whatever word you want to apply instead. "Infidel" would suit me fine, for example.

As I read your book, one major theme to which you frequently returned was your contempt for post-modernism, which you see as the philosophical rejection of objective truth. In this case, I find myself on common ground with you. Speaking as a person with a strongly held respect for science, I have on several occasions found myself arguing with post-modernists. A certain breed of armchair philosopher loves to describe science as "just another religion," implying that it is arbitrary and irrelevant, and thereby ridiculing the idea that reality is something that can be investigated and understood. So I heartily share your general opposition to post-modernism.

I was troubled, however, by your method of arriving at a conclusion about what is true. Let me give you a small example, from chapter 4, titled simply "Truth." You wrote:

"The only thing the god of tolerance hates more than Christians making truth-claims is Christians proving them. Beginning with a facility in Houston, Prison Fellowship now runs residential programs, 'spiritual boot camps,' within prisons in locations scattered across the country. This is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative — or IFI. We have, since the beginning, contended that these demonstrate the truth of the Gospel in transforming lives. University of Pennsylvania researchers reported that IFI graduates had an 8 percent re-incarceration rate versus 20 percent in a comparable control group (and 67 percent nationally). Prison officials were astounded.

"It was the first empirical evidence that this faith-based approach to corrections works -- in other words, that the Gospel is true. And that's when Barry Lynn of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State decided to sue. To prove our truth-claims proved an outrage that tolerance could not abide."

In a brief endnote, you mentioned that you actually lost that case and IFI was ordered to cease and desist. However, you didn't trouble yourself to explain why.

In fact, I had already heard about this study, but I had to go and look it up again to see if your claims were right (in an objective, factual, and decidedly not post-modern sense). What I discovered was that when you claim a re-incarceration rate of only 8 percent, you are not describing all people who took your program. Instead, you selectively defined a graduate of your program to be someone who remained with the "boot camp" until their release, and then got and held a job outside of prison. In other words, someone could go through the program, be paroled, attempt to re-enter society, and STILL not be considered in your statistics if they failed to find a job.

I sometimes say that if you take an aspirin and pray to God, then your headache will go away. But that doesn't mean that the prayer was what cured your headache. The situation that you've offered is similar: if you get a job and go through spiritual boot camp, then you'll be less likely to go to jail, leaving you free to jump to your own conclusion about which one was the cause. People who have a job and money are less likely to commit crimes -- this is true whether they take your program or not.

That doesn't mean that IFI can take credit simply for disqualifying participants without a job from the survey. It would be like writing a rule that says their graduate status is automatically revoked if they ever go back to jail. If such a rule existed, then you could claim a 0% recidivism rate among "graduates," and this would remain true even if the program accomplished nothing constructive at all.

I'm no sociologist, but I have taken a few classes on statistical methods and data analysis in my time. One of the first things that anyone should learn about citing a study is that if you taint the set of data in advance to selectively mask underlying causes, then any results you come out with are meaningless. And in this case, when you look at the whole of the study which you claimed provided "empirical evidence that this faith-based approach to corrections works," what you find is that among all people who enrolled in your program, the recidivism rate was actually worse than the control group.

(Here is a link to the original study. On page 5 it is revealed that "Among the total number of IFI participants, 24.3% were incarcerated compared to 20.3% of the comparison group during the two-year post-release period.")

This is just one example of a cavalier attitude toward the facts in evidence, and it puts a very different perspective on your pursuit of "capital T Truth." What you describe as "Truth," on many occasions I perceive as "an unwavering certainty in situations where none is warranted." Or to put it more succinctly, "faith."

The scientific method is built primarily on the principles that:
  1. There is objective truth that may be discovered through investigation, but
  2. Human perception of that truth is always subject to errors

In other words, science embodies the principle that we should always be vigilant against the possibility that we may be wrong, and be ready to recognize mistakes even in our own deeply held opinions.

I don't see this kind of acknowledgement of your own fallibility in your writing. Even though you see things in terms of the fallen nature of mankind, you feel sure that the omniscient creator of the universe wrote a book which contains the answers to everything, and that your own interpretation is always the right one. From where I sit, this looks as if you have granted yourself infallibility. As long as your beliefs are in tune with what you think God wants, no error is possible.

Yet being certain is not necessarily the same thing as being right. Several times throughout the book, you emphasize the role of Christians who fought for the abolition of slavery, an act that we both applaud. You also dismiss the role of Christians who fought for the preservation of slavery. You curtly acknowledge their existence in chapter 12 by saying "It's true that some Christians have been hypocritical about slavery, condoning it for too long. The record of the church is not without blemish."

As I do not share your inclination to defend the Bible, it's not clear to me that this is hypocrisy at all. Far from disregarding the Bible's advice, many devout 19th century Christians saw the Bible in itself as proof that slavery was an act sanctioned by God. For example, in 1856 Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Culpepper County in Virginia, wrote an essay called "Scriptural View of Slavery", which is full of passages that support his opinion, such as:

"Job himself was a great slave-holder, and, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, won no small portion of his claims to character with God and men from the manner in which he discharged his duty to his slaves."

"See Lev. xxv: 44, 45, 46; 'Thy bond-men and thy bond-maids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you: of them shall ye buy bond-men and bond-maids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land. And they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession, they shall be your bond-man forever.' I ask any candid man, if the words of this institution could be more explicit? It is from God himself; it authorizes that people, to whom he had become king and law-giver, to purchase men and women as property; to hold them and their posterity in bondage; and to will them to their children as a possession forever; and more, it allows foreign slaveholders to settle and live among them; to breed slaves and sell them."

"This, by the way, is a singular circumstance, that Jesus Christ should put a system of measures into operation, which have for their object the subjugation of all men to him as a law-giver--kings, legislators, and private citizens in all nations; at a time, too, when hereditary slavery existed in all; and after it had been incorporated for fifteen hundred years into the Jewish constitution, immediately given by God himself. I say, it is passing strange, that under such circumstances, Jesus should fail to prohibit its further existence, if it was his intention to abolish it."

"If, therefore, doing to others as we would they should do to us, means precisely what loving our neighbor as ourself means, then Jesus has added no new moral principle above those in the law of Moses, to prohibit slavery, for in his law is found this principle, and slavery also."

So you can see here that faith and conviction in the truth of the Bible were at one time used to support the continuation of slavery. I don't think that Reverend Stringfellow's faith was any less sincere than yours; even though I think, as you do, that he was wrong.

Please don't assume that this way of thinking is too old-fashioned for modern, enlightened Christians. I have engaged in many conversations with very earnest Christians who, rather than explaining away passages such as those in Leviticus which clearly prescribe slavery, worked hard to justify them. They argue that "Biblical slavery" was very different from the slavery in the American South, and that it simply wasn't such a problem for those living in ancient Israel to own slaves as long as the slaves were treated humanely. In a few extreme cases, I've even had Christians essentially tell me that having a job is no worse than being a slave, and it would therefore not be such a bad thing if "Biblical slavery" still existed.

Christians arguing for slavery? Is this the fault of post-modernism and relativism? Or is it simply an honest effort to reconcile a book which is "known" to contain absolute immutable truth? Assuming that your faith is incompatible with slavery, by what method should I choose the truth-value of your faith over the faith of Stringfellow? I could apply reason based on core values, of course. But if this is possible, as I think it is, then I would argue that "faith" is a useless contribution to the discussion altogether.

One of the main things that motivates my atheism -- beyond the simple fact that I do not see any compelling reason to believe in God -- is that I cannot regard faith as more reliable than evidence as a means to learn about truth. Sometimes I must make decisions without enough evidence to be certain. In those cases, I recognize the possibility that I may be wrong, while still choosing to believe whatever best fits the available facts; and I expect that my beliefs may change when new information is available. This is not similar to the Biblical description of "faith," which is "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1, NIV translation) It is this sense of "being certain" despite a lack of evidence that troubles me.

The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks had a tremendous amount of faith. You can say whatever unflattering things you want about their actions and their motives, and I'd certainly agree with you; but one thing you cannot accuse them of is a lack of faith. I see no reason to think that they did not sincerely believe their own doctrine which said that they would be honored as martyrs in the afterlife and awarded 72 virgins.

Was it a bad thing to do? Absolutely. Many innocent people were hurt and killed due to the faith of the hijackers, and that is a terrible thing for the victims and their families; it is also extremely sad for the rest of us, as people who have empathy and compassion. Yet if I were to speak reasonably to a fundamentalist Muslim, as I am speaking to you now, I do not think I would be able to persuade that Muslim that he was wrong. Why? Because he doesn't believe that there is any such thing as truth? Of course not -- it is because he has very concrete beliefs about the truth of his god, which cannot be proven on the basis of observation or reason, but which are confidently accepted on the grounds of faith.

Throughout your book, you lumped unbelievers in with both post-modernists and radical Islam as cooperative forces that you imagine are working to destroy our culture. From my perspective, this is a categorical error. On the contrary, I tend to think that what divides "us" from "them" is not which religion is claimed by the majority of citizens. It is our willingness to recognize that although people have different opinions, it is worth the effort to communicate with them and resolve our differences peacefully. War is an option, but a last resort. We even understand that other people might continue to believe things that are wrong, and yet strive for a solution that involves conversation rather than blowing stuff up or crashing airlines. I know you must desire this approach in some cases, because you sent me your book and asked for a dialogue, even though it is clear from your text that you believe I am your enemy.

Ultimately I reject the faith of the hijackers as insufficient grounds to claim knowledge, just as I reject yours. This leaves me free to judge their actions and yours based on the consequences, as viewed through the lens of my values and my concerns about justice. You may say that this is subjective, and perhaps it is. Unlike "the physical world," which can be observed, values are ultimately the domain of the person who possesses them and the society in which they live. You presume that your values are the same as the values of a god who is always right. But in thousands of years of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, faith and devotion have been used to defend slavery as often as condemn it; to promote unproductive wars as often as prevent them; to suppress freedom as often as to champion it.

By no means does this imply that I think all atheists are wonderful, nor that Christians are evil. Certainly not in the same sense that you seem to believe my point of view is evil. On the contrary, from reading the historical anecdotes that you highlighted in the second half of your book, I would venture to say that we admire many of the same character traits in people, and love many of the same aspects of humanity.

In practice, though, I believe that you make many clear factual mistakes due to your insistence that belief in God and Jesus can never steer you wrong. And because I am still not impressed with the arguments for the accuracy of the Bible -- which we can discuss in future correspondence, if you wish -- I ultimately don't feel that supporting your faith is worth enough to justify the extreme tolerance for error.

Thanks again for initiating this discussion, and I look forward to your reply.

Russell Glasser


  1. Excellent letter, Russell. Here's hoping ...

  2. That was excellent (it had to be for me to read so much in one sitting!).

    The only thing I'd add is with that with regards to the IFI study, regardless of the fact that the study was flawed, even if the program actually did have substantive positive benefits, that says nothing about the truthfulness of the Gospel itself.

    A placebo, for example, can be helpful to a patient, but that doesn't mean it had physical healing properties. Whether a notion is positive or negative has no bearing on whether or not it's factual.

  3. Wow, Russel. That was amazing. Especially since I have just gone round and round with a guy I work with, and he brought up those very same issues.

    I wish I had been as thoughtful and eloquent as you were.

  4. Excellent introduction Russell. Good luck!

  5. Fantastic letter - I hope he is as well-mannered and intelligent in his response.

  6. Russell, that was amazing. Keep up the good work!

  7. Yes, Russell, you cover the arguments very well. However, I fear your writing is too persuasive and logical and I'll bet that Colson never takes the time to reply. Just a hunch...

  8. More kudos from me.

    Oh, and a minor correction: according to the link you gave, Stringfellow's first name is Thornton, not Thomas.

  9. Thanks, arensb. I corrected the name in the post now.

  10. Russell,
    I have been reading your stuff for years, and over and over I continue to be impressed with your wordsmithing skills. Very well written letter.

    I'm jealous, dude.

  11. Russell, this is a good response. I was also raised in an atheist household (engineer father, mathematician mother) and was a lifelong atheist until recently. Oddly enough, I agree with much of what you say here. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Very though-provoking.

    I'm in Austin, so I'll have to check out The Atheist Experience sometime.


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