struggle, spirituality, absurdity

A Response to Rachael Slick on ‘The Friendly Atheist’

Yes, that’s the best title I could come up with.

Rachael Slick, daughter of the founder of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, recently wrote a guest post on “The Friendly Atheist.” In it, she shared what it was like to grow up in a household that obsessed over apologetics (defending the Christian faith). She writes courageously, and, as I post my thoughts, I don’t want to take that away from her.  Growing up in the shadow of CARM sounds like it was absolutely bonkers, and I sense that her writing comes from a place of pain and struggle.

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry

One part of her story particularly caught my attention: She explained that her breaking point with faith in Jesus came from a question that she was unable to answer. This makes sense, because when you emphasize apologetics to the exclusion of almost everything else, an unanswerable question quickly becomes a proverbial nail in a coffin. She was raised to have all the answers in order to “prove” the Christian faith, and when she didn’t, her system fell apart. That is, unfortunately, a very common story.

Rachael Slick

She writes (warning – heady, philosophical concepts up ahead):

“If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?”

She then continued:

“Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.

She approached faith in an extremely absolute, black and white way, as she was taught. Put more simply, she asks, “If God’s requirements for humanity are absolute (reflecting God’s own righteous ‘absoluteness’), and violating those requirements is sin, then why do the requirements change in the New Testament? Is God changing the rules, and, therefore, himself (which isn’t allowed, by definition)?”

If we read the Bible as though it were written by modern, western Americans, then yes: there is no way to satisfactorily answer her question – simply stating that “Jesus died for it” doesn’t explain everything. But the Bible wasn’t written by Americans. It’s a distinctly Jewish collection of writings, even (and especially) the New Testament. The point of the “Old Testament” laws, about which I assume she means the laws described in Torah (the food laws, laws about hair and clothes, etc.), isn’t morality. We do see moral laws, such as don’t murder, but most of the regulations are ceremonial and cultic in nature.

Why have these laws? There are two facets that are important. First, it separated Israel from everyone else. The laws formed a dividing line, so everyone would know that the people of Israel were different from all other people. This was a way to enact and live out the fact that God had chosen them specifically and specially, because they even looked different, acted differently, ate different foods, etc.

Second, as time went on, many Jewish people (now after the return from exile beginning in 538 BC) also saw that the history of their people was heading in a certain direction. God would vindicate his people, right the wrongs, and establish his kingdom on earth. Often this was seen as the role of the Messiah, but some viewed this as the thing God was going to do on “The Last Day,” the day of Resurrection. These two ideas also overlapped, but an explanation would take way too long for a single article.

In the wake of this anticipation, the writers of the New Testament came to realize that when Jesus took on the mantle of priest and king (as Messiah), went to his death, and then was vindicated when God raised him from the dead, all of those ancient laws, ceremonies, and cultic practices were actually signposts which looked ahead to the day that God himself would fulfill them.

Or, to get at the question raised above, it isn’t that Jesus’ sacrifice cancels them out. Rather, Jesus took on the task of being Israel throughout his life, faithfully following and interpreting Torah, and he fulfilled the role of Israel’s king and priest. In Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant, God deems the covenant fulfilled. And Jesus, being the representative of Israel, actually represents the nation who was supposed to be the representatives of all humanity. Jesus’ faithfulness to the covenant (all those “Old Testament Laws,” if you will) implies our faithfulness, so long as we are in him.

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

(Photo: Public Domain)

The “problem” raised by the writer isn’t with God changing the nature of morality, but, rather, she has forgotten that the Bible isn’t to be read like a math textbook. The Bible has a narrative arc, meaning it moves in a certain direction within history and has a goal. When Jesus (the goal) hits the scene, we then can look back and reinterpret the story because we now know where the story has been heading.

Once we step out of the Bible-as-set-of-axiomatic-principles and God-as-fundamental-properties world that we have inherited from modernity, and once we step into the world of the Bible, all sorts of things that didn’t make sense actually fit together quite well. And, *spoiler alert*, it begins and ends with Jesus.

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to answer the question, but I believe that Miss Slick’s problems are deeper than this logical question. One wonders, from the comment she made in her journal, whether or not she had mistaken salvation in Christ for an intellectual assent. What I also see is that she left her parents and chose to enter a place of competition with her parents, and that has an effect.

    One wonders why she did not seek out any counsel regarding this question other than her friend? She states that “everyone says this”, but you and I and everyone who has read the Bible and understands the narrative understands the difference between ceremonial and moral law. I would certainly expect the man who founded CARM to as well.

    I believe that this “logical question” is something that allowed her to justify what she already wanted to do. Whether this was partially influenced by her desire to have sexual relations with her boyfriend (she stated that she feared of Hell because of it), the desire to please a teacher (who she is affectionate for, even though she says she disagrees), or some other motivation we do not know.

    However, coming out in a public way as an atheist seems to be a dig at both her family (whom she acknowledges as heartbroken), especially her father. I feel that there is the real problem.

    In any case, all we can do is pray for her now, and pray for the family, for this will not be the last time that they are ridiculed and disrespected in public.

  2. E. Walter Robinson

    July 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    I completely agree that the issue is never purely logical. However, I didn’t really want to psychoanalyze her or make judgments because I didn’t really sense that it was my place to.

    That said, it was an opportunity to talk about the Bible and clear up some misconceptions, which I practically live for…

  3. Let’s also remember that we have the Holy Spirit, but ancient Jews didn’t. That the reason they requiered strict and well defined laws.

    Now, we have access theough the Holy spirit to God’s purpose and laws, and we have been redeemed, so we don’t have to be perfect, but do the best we can.

  4. E. Walter Robinson

    July 21, 2013 at 5:41 am

    This might be a moot point, but they did have the Holy Spirit in the sense that God’s presence dwelled with them in the Temple in Jerusalem. Also called the Shekhinah, we must not forget that the analog of modern Christians saying that ‘the Holy Spirit dwells in us’ and ‘our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’ is, in fact, God’s manifest presence in the Temple.

  5. “I completely agree that the issue is never purely logical. However, I didn’t really want to psychoanalyze her or make judgments because I didn’t really sense that it was my place to.”

    Thank you. It’s really refreshing to have someone refute my article in an objective and non-judgmental way. Although I disagree (and will be writing more on this in the future), I really respect and appreciate your gracious viewpoint.

  6. E. Walter Robinson

    August 2, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    Wow, assuming this is the real Rachael (which it appears to be), thanks for reading! I look forward to reading what you write, and hopefully we can engage in some civil, constructive dialog – which is sorely missing in public discourse.

  7. Having been familiar with Matt Slick , CARM and his particular bent, his critical thinking is not so much critical thinking but hypocritical thinking. The his Anti-Cult MO of attacking every belief that doesn’t align with his own cultish form of Christianity surely backfired here..

    The very reasoning techniques he uses to attack Mormons and others that he taught his daughter Rachel would naturally lead her into a quandary of either living a duplicitous and hypocritical life as her father does OR apply that critical thinking to the Bible and Christianity which in turn ends up not fairing any better than the so-called cults Matt and his fellows at CARM devote so much effort attacking..

    Lesson for Matt and others like him, when you engage in a practice of tearing down the faith of others.. don’t be surprised if your own looses faith.

  8. Actually, the thing that really pained me about reading Rachael Slick’s article was the graceless vision of Christianity she described.

    Of course, I agree with your two main points, Walter. There is something very dangerous, and frankly sub-Christian, about teaching people that their faith in Jesus should rest on their ability to defeat the objections of others. I’m prone to that particular error, and I have to remind myself that it sounds more like faith in me than faith in Christ. I rather thought that the starting point for all Christian faith was the recognition that I am wrong and he is right.

    And you’re right too that, to my mind at least, the question that ultimately defeated Rachael is eminently answerable (actually, I thought some of the other ‘classic’ questions she included in her article were much more troubling.) From at least the apostle Paul, Christian theologians have understood some of the Old Testament Law to be what Oliver O’Donovan terms ‘arbitrary’ (Rachael, if you happen to read this, you could do worse than to read Resurrection and Moral Order – if you haven’t already, that is). And, of course, you’re also right that we have no place judging Rachael’s heart-motivations, especially when our only access to them is Rachael’s own article!

    But like I said, what got me was the gracelessness of her experience of religion (whether actual or perceived, I don’t know. It scarcely matters). Actually, that’s what’s struck me about some of the responses to her article I’ve seen as well. The thought that my son would ever be given a ‘most godly child’ award makes me want to weep; what it would do to his little heart, I can only imagine. And no Sunday School teacher will ever get near to giving him one on my watch! The essence of Rachael’s perception of her upbringing seemed to be captured in that carefully-chosen photo – O-B-E-Y.

    And that’s a tragedy. Because two things I know: I’m not a Christian because I’ve got all the answers, and no one, anywhere, is a Christian because they obey. Heaven preserve us from any Christianity that says otherwise!

  9. My impression from the CARM website is that Matt is a Bible fundamentalist. Unfortunately Bible fundamentalism does not work. Young Earth Creationists are laughed at. Science clearly shows that the universe is a few billion years old. The Bible was never meant to be the “Pillar and foundation of truth.”, the Church is. The Holy Spirit descended on the Church.

    When we are children we believe what our parents tell us and that is chilish faith but when we grow up we have to work it out for ourselves and believe because we ourselves have experienced and do experience God in our lives. That is a natural process.

    Science is not the enemy of faith, science is truth and should help us to understand God better. Whether God evolved us into existence or started the human race with Adam and Eve is not really that important. We should use common sense when reading Scripture and the 4 Gospels are the important part.

  10. Rachel, I wonder what your sisters did after all this? They were exposed to the same critical thinking “lessons” that you were. Did they also see the error of your dad’s ways?

  11. I think the first comment on here really addresses my primary thoughts and questions for Rachel.

    Rachel, if you read this, it sounds like to me you wanted to be free to sleep with your boyfriend and that you threw off the “shackles” of religion to do so. Your question is very answerable and I believe you should have pursued an answer instead of rejecting your faith so quickly.

    I pray that you find reconciliation with your Father (earthly and heavenly) and turn from you sin to the Lord Jesus. True freedom is found in Christ.

    2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

    Galatians 5 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

    Sin is seductive. It is even pleasurable. But it is temporary and fleeting. The joy that comes from true freedom in Christ and a relationship with him is far better than the temporary pursuit of self pleasure.

    Your story reminds me of Aldous Huxley who said: ‘I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.’‘I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.’

    So my challenge to you would be to look at your motive for casting off religion. It is purely intellectual or is it because you desired the freedom to do as you pleased? Because that is not freedom. That is enslavement to your sinful desires, although I am sure you don’t want to call them sinful but normal and natural desires. I’d agree that they are natural desires, but we are naturally sinful.

    I’d invite you to reexamine Christ. Read the Gospel of John. Jesus truly and definitively is the Son of God. He came to give life and life abundantly.

    I am truly sorry if you did not grow up feeling love and grace, alongside the truth you were taught. But from your article it sounds like your Dad loves you deeply and I am sure he would be so happy to talk to you even if you still don’t believe what he does.

  12. @John,
    You said to Rachael, “I am truly sorry if you did not grow up feeling love and grace, alongside the truth you were taught.”

    I’m sure her parents “were” very loving but when Christian parents sadly believe they must spank their child for every infraction, how does that show love and grace to “the least of these?” How does that not confuse a child and “provoke them to anger?”

    I was a good kid, very well-behaved and really didn’t have a desire to be bad or disobey and was rarely spanked, but when I got older and realized how twisted it was that my parents actually “believed” they needed to spank me and that so many other Christian parents believe the same, my faith took a big dive until I realized that the concept of spanking isn’t actually biblical…what a relief that was for me to realize that dark and twisted practice was “not” taught by the God I loved!

    I love my parents very much, but I sometimes struggle with issues towards them for not questioning something that was unnecessary and harmful to their child (Why didn’t they research this? Why did they just believe what they were told in church? Did they lack true compassion for me?), whereas before I came to these realizations in my 20s, I always felt very close to, supported and loved by my parents. The spankings were more emotionally painful than physically painful and have hurt me even more as an adult than they did as a child. Taking off the glasses of denial can sometimes be painful.

    As Rachel said,
    “…Obedience was paramount — if we did not respond immediately to being called, we were spanked ten to fifteen times with a strip of leather cut from the stuff they used to make shoe soles. Bad attitudes, lying, or slow obedience usually warranted the same…”

    Her parents probably had the best of intentions, as did mine, and for Rachael’s sake, I hope she can one day forgive them (if needed) but do you think this is a good way to show love and grace to a child? Shouldn’t Christians be rethinking how we’ve been “taught” to raise children? This backwards thinking has got to stop.

  13. Rachael Slick, if you see this there are people who believe you and understand where you are coming from.
    Those who attack Rachael for wanting to “sin” as a reason for becoming Atheist is ludicrous. There is so much I could say on that.
    I was abused by my ex parents, not for religious purposes like happened to Rachael, but the reasoning behind the abuse was the same. Matt Slick is a bully hiding behind his religion, and his hate for others who do not believe like he does has bitten him in the behind. He is intolerant of everything that is not Matt Slick.
    Good luck Rachael.

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  16. What….a…..load….of Rubbish. This article is obviously trying to answer Rachael’s question in a way that will keep the faithful in line – and failing miserably.
    To whom ever is censoring this message, making sure that an inconvenient word doesn’t make it onto your website, think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s just another dishonest move by Christians who claim to have the moral high ground – who claim that morals are objective even, but feel they can decide for themselves anyway. We need a special word for the type of Hypocrisy that the religious practice and for the lies that prop up your delusions, or do we have one already: Apologetics.

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  18. Dear @MNinthegap – Why don’t you try not infantilizing someone who disagrees with you? She goes into detail why she’s an atheist but, for some reason, you go, “Naw, that can’t be it, she must be rebellious!” Here’s a newsflash, people do things for their own reasons and if you feel insecure knowing that someone logically came to the conclusion it’s unlikely there is a god to the point that she feels comfortable identifying as an atheist maybe you should give her that. Your post is seeping with insecurity. She’s explains why she’s an atheist and it has nothing to do with your pontifications.

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