Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Six)

Day Five

Today will be my last day at Soul Survivor. Having witnessed the main meetings at this festival, with their cheering, praying and orgies of guitar-led worship, I’ve decided I don’t need to see tonight’s – and perhaps I’d enjoy the Where’s Wally-themed party if I’d come with friends, but as it is I’d likely end up a wallflower. My train is booked to leave in late afternoon, but not before I’ve heard one and a half more seminars.

At half past two I file into the first one, rucksack and all. The half hour process of emptying my tent and packing it with its contents into a backpack has somehow been cathartic, and I listen with refreshed attention; the speaker is Andrew Smith, an evangelical but also founder of a Christian-Muslim interfaith group, The Feast. He mentions in the course of the talk that he was previously a Christian youth worker in schools, and there are certain oneliners that seem overly rehearsed and might be read as condescending, but from the off I like the guy. Some other speakers here have an air of polish, but Andrew seems genuine and unassuming, so when he invites us at the start to tweet him our comments, I decide I will.

The seminar’s title is ‘What does God think of other faiths?’ and Andrew opens by asking what we think the Bible says. My mind runs to John 14:6 (‘I am the way and the truth and the life’) and ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’; it was always my position as a churchgoer that Jesus-belief was necessary to get into Heaven, and that still seems to me the best reading of scripture. So when Andrew notes that non-Jews in the Old Testament experience God’s miracles too, I’m rather surprised, and the ex-Christian in me considers changing his mind. This is the first time at Soul Survivor that I’ve rethought my stance on something, and I’m grateful to the speaker for making me think, though when he says that ‘God so loved the world’ implies other belief groups can also be saved – because it doesn’t just say ‘God so loved Christians’ – his exegesis seems tenuous.

Other things are unsatisfying, too. I’m pleased to hear him tear down the silly idea, too often voiced, that secular society has its own ‘gods’ in football and expensive cars, but then frustrated when he says a god is something we turn to for hope – like, to quote his examples, family, pensions, government handouts, alcohol and drugs. (A god is a deity. It’s that simple.) Andrew claims God ‘hates child sacrifice’ as practiced by non-Jews in the Old Testament, and once again I want to bring up Jephthah, who exchanges his virgin daughter via burnt offering for God’s help killing the neighbouring Ammonites. Since it’s been suggested people never exposed to the Bible might be able to enter Heaven, and since Andrew has stated the current ‘spiritual battle’ is not with other faiths ‘drawing people away from God’ but with secularity, I ask in the Q&A if God’s gates will be open to those who encounter scripture but find it unconvincing.

If you ‘reject it’ you won’t be there, he says, but why would you want to be? Spending all eternity with Jesus surely isn’t very appealing to atheists or skeptics. It’s a response which makes me smile – I have to give him credit, as an interfaith worker, for understanding my perspective. But if we won’t be in Heaven, where will we be? Either in Hell or annihilated, depending on your theology, which regardless of our preference is construed quite clearly in the Bible as a punishment. That doesn’t seem fair. And why say ‘reject’, as if I can believe at will that Jesus died for me? My doubting that is no more a choice than my doubting Bigfoot, and surely an omniscient creator of Christian scripture would have known that? There are other things Andrew says that I think are flawed, which given he’s a theist seems unavoidable, but I get the sense I’d enjoy talking to him more, and I’m sad to leave the session without doing so.

Seminar number two, the last one at the festival, is Andy Croft again on why we should trust the Bible. As with his last talk, I feel as if I’m watching a professional apologist; his delivery is confident, replete with academic references and intellectual smoke and mirrors. He begins by saying we need the Bible as something to ‘live off’, and that its authoritative source makes it important – an emotional appeal and a circular argument, respectively – and tells us he’ll defend the Bible (a) from the charge of being inaccurate and (b) from the charge of being immoral, with its comments about slavery and women (he doesn’t mention people who aren’t straight) divisive at best. I decide I’ll leave half way through, since I have a train to catch and the latter is irrelevant to how trustworthy the book’s claims are.

It turns out it’s only the gospels’ reliability Andy’s going to defend, because since Jesus clearly believed the Old Testament’s statements, he does too. Note that this already requires you see Jesus as infallible, an incarnation of the god from Genesis, so again the logic’s circular: the Old Testament must be reliable because Jesus said so, and Jesus was the god we know about from the Old Testament.

Some arguments are offered for the books being accurate historically, though none of them establish Jesus as divine. (They also sound like they may have been lifted from Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.)

  1. The gospels were written too early to be false: people mentioned in them, like Simon of Cyrene’s sons, would have still have been around to contradict false accounts. As with the 500 witnesses to the risen Jesus Paul claims, what is there to suggest these are more than characters? I’d point out, too, that this happens in propagandistic medieval writings – Anglo-Saxon accounts of saints, for example – which we readily accept as fictionalised. (Moreover, this could be applied to lots of accounts Christians see as legend.)
  2. The gospels were too counterproductive to be false, since Jesus doesn’t weigh in on disputes the church fathers had e.g. about circumcision. This suggests the Jesus story isn’t fictional without exception, or fabricated ex nihilo by spin doctors in the church; it doesn’t suggest it’s true without exception or should be deemed ‘trustworthy’ as Andy suggests. It’s entirely plausible the gospels had some basis in fact, but that events like Jesus meeting the adulteress are embellishments.
  3. The gospels have been copied too much, and too consistently, to have been tampered withIs this evidence our versions of the gospel today are fairly true to the originals? Yes. It certainly makes Da Vinci Code conspiracy theories hard to believe. But is it evidence the originals are wholly accurate? No. One doesn’t have to believe the first four books of the New Testament were doctored and re-engineered for centuries to think they sometimes claim unevidenced things.
  4. The gospels are too consistent with history to be false: archaeologists have found Nazareth’s remains, historians know Pontius Pilate existed, etc etc. This might be true, but to say it proves their detailed claims about Jesus and his life is a non-sequitur. In the recent series of Doctor Who, it’s been established the title character had sex with Elizabeth I; this contradicts nothing we know about her life or early modern England, but that doesn’t mean it’s a reality.

As I hitch up my rucksack and leave to catch my train mid-seminar, I realise how uncomfortable I’ve felt throughout this talk. I might question Mike P.’s methods, but that he generally speaks plainly is admirable, and I positively liked listening to Andrew Smith and Patrick Regan, even though I thought both of them were wrong. The cultivated rhetoric of Andy’s arguments is, by comparison, slippery.

My time at Soul Survivor has come to an end for better or worse, and on my way out, I’m surprised at how forcefully I tear the wristband from my arm.

Day Seven

@AlexGabriel #GoingSoulo

August 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Skeptic News | 9 Comments »

9 Responses

  1. Giles says:

    Good write up mate. Enjoyed reading this :)

  2. Beggars Belief says:

    Have been hooked on your blogs this week- thank you for putting yourself through it!
    (P.S. Don’t know if you particularly care, but you used US ‘practiced’ over UK ‘practised’ re child sacrifice.)

  3. Sheena says:

    ‘people mentioned in them, like Simon of Cyrene’s sons, would have still have been around to contradict false accounts.’
    - this made me think of all the myths about famous people and the urban legends that do the rounds now, and are believed. I was wondering why people make up this stuff.

    You can tell a story as fiction, or you can tell it as something that happened. The latter makes it more interesting and also more socially acceptable – it’s odd to just start telling a story you made up but anecdotes are fine.

    I was wondering if this is how a lot of urban legends start off, and if it’s how a lot of religious stories began, too. Just the desire to say something that other people will listen to.

  4. Jan Ashton says:

    Hi Alex, thanks for going and writing. It’s good to see an event through the eyes of another. I was impressed by your fairness and honesty and integrity.

    I was particularly struck by how lonely it all was if you hadn’t gone with a group.

  5. Chris says:

    Alex, I was also at Soul Survivor whilst you were. I am a Christian but often find my self uncomfortable with certain things that happen there. I believe in the ‘Big Bang’ and evolution. I do not think that the Bible is without errors or mistranslations. I think that what is written will contain each individual author’s opinions and bias. For this reason I have no problem with homosexuality or women leaders because these are two issues that Jesus never mentions. Only Paul in his letters.
    I also believe that I have a relationship with God and I do not think that it is an abusive one. Mike’s analogy of a dog licking its master’s hand is not a helpful one. I see it more as the relationship between a parent and a child. A good parent will offer their child advice and instruction that is in the best interest of the child. This advice can be heeded or ignored. Even when the advice is ignored, the parent will not punish or disinherit them but will wait patiently for the child to realise for themselves that they could be living in a better way and will then welcome them back with open arms.
    If God is as powerful as Christians believe then by restraining from forcing us to live as He wants he shows us how un-abusive He is.
    This is why we say we will follow Him with all our lives, we have simply realised that He did know best after all.

  6. Forbidden Snowflake says:

    Chris: if all of the available facts regarding women’s leadership and homosexuality were the same, but the Bible did mention Jesus saying something against them, would you then be against them?

    • Chris says:

      That would be a very difficult situation to be in! But what I would say is that I do not follow all of Jesus’ teachings because I am a Christian, but that I am a Christian because I believe that his teaching is worth following.

  7. Hannah says:

    Just an FYI re: women in leadership, Soul Survivor as an organisation and a church is very supportive of women and equality.

    http://www.soulsurvivor.com/uk/events/equal/index.html

    I wasn’t sure whether readers might be aware of that.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Hannah, I didn’t mean to imply that they were against female leadership, I was just trying to highlight that not all Christians are as narrow minded as some might think. x