Raised to think critically, Jordan Monge began to question her own atheism at Harvard University when she was intellectually challenged to investigate the grounding of her worldview.
Resources recommended from this episode:
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument) (https://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Lewis-Signature-Classic-2016-04-07/dp/B0161T0VVQ/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=C.S.+Lewis%2C+Mere+Christianity&qid=1605194057&sr=8-4)
Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Podcast, where we listen to the other side. Each podcast, we listen to someone who’s been an atheist and has also been a Christian. Through listening to their story, we listen to both perspectives from someone who has thought and lived on the other side.
There’s something inside of us that we all seem to know, that is undeniable, and more than that, unavoidable. There’s that something that reminds us that our thoughts and our actions are sometimes good and sometimes not so good. If we take God off the table to find our moral freedom to determine what is good for ourselves, that comes with a cost. With atheism, there is no real good or bad, no real right or wrong. Those are merely feelings we socially construct to survive in life. The moral choice, then, becomes an oxymoron. There is no real choice. There is no real chooser. According to Richard Dawkins, we are just DNA dancing to its music. Nothing done or said is inherently bad, so there is no moral culpability. If we can’t even control our own thoughts or actions and they’re determined for us, there is no moral responsibility, but it begs the question, why are we constantly judging ourselves and others if good and bad are not real moral issues, but rather it just is the way that it is? Why do we complain about something we think is bad in the world, in others, and in ourselves, if things just are the way they are?
If we accept a godless reality, we also deny the reality of our own dignity, our free choices, the things that make us human. We give up any real standards of good or evil.
That was the dilemma confronting today’s podcast guest. A very intelligent, thoughtful atheist, Jordan Monge also held to a strong moral understanding of herself and the world. The problem was she didn’t have a way to make sense of her own moral judgments within her own atheistic worldview. How did she resolve this problem? I hope you’ll come along with me to see.
Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Jordan. It’s great to have you today.
Thanks for hosting me. I’m excited to be chatting with you.
As we’re getting started, so the listener can have a sense of who you are, Jordan, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and maybe where you live. A little bit about your family.
Yeah. So I’m originally from Irvine, California, and I graduated and went to Harvard University, where I studied philosophy, and after that, I worked for a couple of years, and then I pursued my Master’s in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, which I completed a couple of years ago, and I finished it right before I became a mom, so I’m married now, and I have a 2-year-old daughter and I have a little 3-week-old here with me right now, so if you hear any noises in the background, you might hear him chime in just a little bit, and my husband and I, now we live in northern California, so that’s where we’re currently based, and I split my time between taking care of our two small children, and I do some tutoring on the side as well.
Wonderful, wonderful. Well thank you that you’re here with us and that your new little baby is, too. Wow. Just appreciate you taking time out as a new mom. I know that’s not easy.
It’s a nice mental break.
Ah, yes, yes. Yes. As a mom, although I’m long past that season, I’m now an empty nester. I’m in a very different season, but I appreciate those days a long time ago and welcome those little noises if they do occur. So let’s get started with your story. you said you’re from Irvine, California. Why don’t you take us back to when you were a little girl and the context in which you grew up, perhaps your family and your community. Where did you grow up and was there any sense of God or religion or faith in your world?
So my grandparents were Christian and Catholic, but my parents themselves didn’t hold any faith, so my mom just didn’t believe in God or in the Bible, but she’s not quite as adamant about it. My dad is actually a philosophy professor. He teaches at a couple of the community colleges in Orange County, California, and he has a very strong sense of what he believes and why, and his joke is that his parents sent him to 14 years of Catholic school and it was so good that he realized it was all false. That the education was so good.
But he, from a young age, had questioned what they were teaching him in his Catholic school, and so, when I was growing up, my dad was actually getting his master’s in philosophy from UC Irvine, and so I would go with him to classes and I would sit in the back of the classes that he was teaching, and I continued to do that through elementary school, and so I was familiar with a lot of the arguments for and against God. And my parents felt very firmly that they didn’t want to raise me to be an atheist. They wanted to raise me to question things and to come to my own beliefs and perspective. But what’s sort of interesting about that is, from a young age, you pick up things differently being raised in an environment where your parents don’t believe, so one of the stories that my parents told me about happened when I was just four years old, actually. And we were at a party, and my mom came out to hear me arguing with one of the other little girls, and she didn’t catch the whole conversation, but the other little girl was six, and I was four, and she just heard me say, “But how do you know what the Bible says is true?”
Oh, my word! At four and six years old.
At four years old, yeah. So what assume she’d walked into was me kind of questioning this 6-year-old girl who was raised to be Christian, kind of noticing, “Well, if you say you believe something because the Bible says so, well why do you believe the Bible?” Right? And it would be easy to look at that and say, like, “Oh, you’re almost raised with atheist propaganda,” or raised in that way, but I think kids at that age, we always ask why, right? And so saying, “But how do you know what the Bible says is true?” is just a way of saying, “Well, why do you believe in the Bible,” and of course, the 6-year-old girl didn’t really have the best answer, and I wasn’t compelled. And what I found with a lot of Christians, even now, talking to them as adults, often they’ll have circular reasoning for why they believe in the Bible, when it comes to, like, “Well, I believe in the Bible because I think that God wrote it,” and it’s like, “Well, why do you believe in God?” “Well, it talks about him in the Bible,” and you’re like, “That is a circular argument.”
And so I think it’s very natural for kids, even at a young age, to start questioning, and I think, in the classical tradition, seven is considered the age of reason, and maybe having a philosophy professor as a father, you learn to reason a little bit younger.
Yes, yes, I would imagine so. I can’t imagine what your dinner conversations must have been like. I’m sure he fostered that inquisitive nature in you. Obviously, it was a very natural thing if you’re talking about it at a birthday party, you know, if you’re asking questions. It was just part of who you were and I’m sure the way that you thought.
And that you were trained to think logically.
And my parents always, they very firmly, they always tried to answer when I asked the question, “Why?” And I think a lot of parents feel challenged by questions, and my parents just were never that way, and they always tried to encourage me in asking questions, and I think that’s sort of the funny thing I’ve discovered as I’ve gone through adult life and gone through a couple of different types of jobs, and I realize that’s probably my greatest strength is asking the right questions.
And so I think that’s something that, even though my husband and I raised our children differently with respect to what we believe, that spirit of questioning is something that I still believe in very strongly and I think should be encouraged in children, because the beautiful thing about Christianity is that, if you dig deeply enough, you start to find answers. But that first-level questioning that happens as a child—sometimes you don’t get good answers to that, so I remember the next thing I think about in my childhood, when I think about my relationship with God, my great grandfather passed away when I was six years old, and because they were Catholic, they had a Funeral Mass, and I remember going to see him at the wake, and there were prayer cards, and I cringe now. I kind of treated them like Pokemon cards, like I wanted to collect them all. Dad was like, “You can only get more cards like these if somebody passes away,” like, “You don’t want that to happen, right?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s true.”
But then afterwards, the prayer cards did talk about God, and so it’s funny. My parents, they never said, “Don’t pray,” or something like that, but I remember, after he passed away, I went home, and I started praying to God. And I kind of hid it because—again, they never said, “Don’t do this,” but I kind of sensed that they wouldn’t be behind it, you know? And so I kind of secretly started praying to myself before I went to bed. And after about three weeks of praying, I kind of thought about it, and I realized my grandfather had lived a long and decent life and passed away—actually, you know, I was six. I don’t even remember how old he was, but to me, he seemed ancient. And his body had started to deteriorate, so I realized… I thought, “If we lived forever, we would just get older and older and more decrepit, and that wouldn’t really be good, either, so there is kind of a natural time where we need to pass,” like it’s not a bad thing. And when I realized that, it sort of felt silly to ask God to stop that or to extend the life. It felt like, “Well, you should just accept that that’s the natural way that things go,” in that sense, the idea of God kind of lost His power. You don’t really need Him to overcome death, per say. At least that’s how I thought about it at six. And so that was kind of the last time, until I really was seriously considering conversion, that I had ever prayed, after the passing of my great grandfather.
Yes. That’s an interesting example because it does, I think, demonstrate your intuitiveness, your wisdom, and your maturity, really, at age six, to have that kind of conception to look at the logical outworking of your prayer and what it would mean to live for a long time in this physical body. That’s quite—it shows how bright you were, I think, at that time.
In certain respects, yeah. I think also it shows sort of a lack of imagination as well, that perhaps there could be some type of eternal life better than what we would ask for or imagine.
So, looking back, I can see, but I think that’s sort of—we all go through levels of questioning, and a lot of people think that questioning is the mature phase, and I think of questioning as the sophomoric phase. Like you’ve progressed past your freshman, and now you’re starting to question things, but after you question, you have to rebuild your own framework and decide what you believe. Because it’s always easy to be tearing down other people’s things. At some point, you have to start constructing your own belief system.
And so I did start doing that as I got older, and when I was 12 or 13, I remember there was a big debate about whether the words “under God” should be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, and since I was an atheist, I said, “Yeah, I shouldn’t be made to say ‘under God,'” so I stopped saying “under God” when I did the Pledge of Allegiance and things like that. And it ended up being in our school newspaper in middle school. There was a debate section, and I didn’t actually write the article. I had another kid write it, and I edited it, but I ended up getting kind of into a fight of sorts with the—an argument, not a physical fist fight or something—with some of the boys in my class, and one of them actually threatened to come to my house and to shoot all of the atheists.
Oh my! Okay.
Yeah. So definitely an example of Christian charity.
Yeah, I was going to say that’s not an example of Christian love for sure!
So it was sort of a curiosity in that sense, because a lot of the people around me had been raised going to church or at least believing in God, and so there was some hostility there, and of course, I think I told my teacher, and they took care of it, and it wasn’t an actual… It’s funny, I wonder, 20 years later, if it would’ve been taking more seriously, him threatening something with a gun, than it was back then, but it was resolved reasonably well, but that sort of galvanized me a bit, and in high school, I would get into some arguments with friends, and actually, at one point, I brought a Bible to school with Post-it Notes in it where I had flagged the different contradictions, and I said, “What do you make of this?” And of course none of my particularly great answers because it wasn’t something that they had really studied or devoted themselves to, even if they were themselves religious or deeply religious.
And so I went through high school—being an atheist was a pretty significant part of my identity, and I was always open to debate. In fact, some of them tried to debate me about creationism, and I even went and I found a book written by a creationist, and I read through the whole thing. I said, “I’ll debate you. I’ll give you a fair shot as I think about this.” And at the end of the day, I read it, and I just didn’t find it academically compelling, in terms of its arguments.
And so then I ended up leaving and going to Harvard, and it was only when I went to Harvard that I finally met somebody who could start answering some of the questions that I was asking.
So you really were pushing back. You were pushing back against Christianity but also, in a sense, were you justifying your own atheism in any regard? I know at a young age you were thinking logically about logical conclusions of the outworking of your worldview. Through high school, I know, because you were galvanized kind of against religion, and for good reason, really, were you looking more closely at your own atheism in terms of its own grounding? Like you said a minute ago, where it’s easy to kind of tear but it’s harder to build up or formulate your own belief system. I imagine, with your father being a philosophy professor—did you have these kind of discussions with him about what is atheism really? What does it mean to be an atheist? What are the logical implications of this worldview? For different things.
Yeah. So we talked about it a little bit, and like I said, I would go with him to his classes, where he would review the different arguments for and against God, and he always had a lot of books that I would peek into and things like that. For me, I think the central sort of philosophical question that I had was less about God per se but more like what does it mean to be a good person? And what is morality? And that was the real sort of focus that I had in high school, trying to figure that out. And I was actually quite upset by it.
I remember I read some of Ayn Rand’s work, and I found a lot of her material appealing in the sense that I had a strong belief that there was an objective right and wrong, but then I really felt that her philosophy didn’t hold together particularly well, and I was quite disturbed by this, and in school, we had to read things like Camus and Sartre, and I remember distinctly that one of the quotes was, “One of the greatest philosophical questions is, ‘Why not suicide?'” And I felt like Rand didn’t really give a good answer to that. And I even went to a talk that was put on by the Ayn Rand Institute, which is located in Irvine, of all places, and the guys just looked at me like I had two heads when I posed this question to them. But it was really deeply troubling me, and so I was doing a lot of reading on it, and I ended up deciding to shelve the question. I realized it was just consuming so much of my time, and I was like, “I want to get into a good college, and I want to hopefully get some scholarships, and so I’m going to bracket this question. I believe that there is such a thing as goodness, and I believe that there’s something intrinsically beautiful about what it means to be human,” and it’s funny, because I think I would have said that I believed those things, but I actually had a kind of mystical experience that convinced me of this. But there was no sense of God in that experience, just of a sort of almost divine beauty in human beings.
And so I said, “I really firmly believe that, but I can’t justify it now. I’ll save it until college. Once I get into college, then I’ll devote myself more firmly to pursuing the question.” And so I think that’s part of the reason why, when somebody started arguing with me about morality and God and things like that, I was open to it, because I had said, “Okay, I’m going to bracket this so I can get into a good college and then I’ll think about it.” And the strategy ultimately worked. Because I got into Harvard.
And so I think in that sense I was open to it, but for me, the morality—what is good and why should we be good—those were the things that I really was wrestling with. Because I believed it to be true. I just couldn’t account for why. And so that was actually the first point that the person, Joseph Porter, that I was arguing with, who was a fellow student with me, that was the point that he started pressing me on. He said, “You believe very strongly in being good, but what does being good even mean to you? And if there’s no God, how do you have a sense of objective morality?
Yeah. It’s so funny. As I go through it also, there are so many other points that I think about. Like I actually had a teacher in high school who I had been discussing some of this stuff with, and the teacher wouldn’t tell me his own beliefs, but he kind of said, “You’ve got two systems. You either believe that there’s an objective morality and that it’s given by God, or you think that morality exists because there’s some type of human consensus on it,” and he said, “If you want to talk to somebody who believes in it because of the human consensus, go talk to this other teacher,” and I was close to the other teacher as well, because I was in Amnesty International, a club that he ran, and so I was very close to him, and I said, “I don’t believe that. How could something be objective if it’s just what this group of people agrees on. What if the people change their minds?” So that was unappealing to me. But I also didn’t want to say that objective morality only existed because of God, and so I kind of was stuck. And he said, “Here’s this dilemma,” and I was like, “Oh, I’m really stuck. I can’t accept either horn of it,” and later, I ended up following up with that teacher. He had to be careful as we had conversations because, as a public school teacher, you’re not really supposed to proselytize your students, and so I think he walked a fine line. But now we’re actually good friends, and we still stay in touch. And so he was helpful to me in that way, sort of framing the problem that way, and so then I kind of had to go and figure out, “Okay, what is the objective grounding for this?” But as I studied more philosophy, I couldn’t find a way to ground an objective morality.
Jordan, before we move on with this fabulous story, for those people listening who might be just curious or maybe pushing back against the idea of thinking atheists can be good without God. Or, “I can know what’s good and bad without God. I don’t need God,” can you clarify what that complaint might be against what you’re talking about, which is perhaps not knowledge but grounding for good and evil or objective morality, really?
Christians also often answer this question quite badly. So I talk to a lot of Christians, and what they would say is, “Well, I try to do good things because I want to go to heaven.” Well, if you only do good things because you want to go to heaven, that’s not really good, you know?
I mean, it’s not terrible, but your motivation is selfish, right? And the person who does good just because they think it’s what they ought to do ostensibly is better than the person who does it because they think that they’re going to gain some benefit out of it. And so I like, in theology, there’s the concept of perfect contrition or imperfect contrition. A person who regrets something that they’ve done only because they’re afraid of the effects. That’s an imperfect contrition. You want to have regret for the action of itself, for the failure, not because you’re afraid of the consequences, and in the same way, when you think about heaven, you want to be doing good because you value the good as goodness itself, not just because you want a good outcome. And I think that’s true… In that sense, that’s true whether your an atheist or a Christian, that it’s important that you’re pursuing the good not just because you want to gain from it.
So yeah. So it’s hard to know exactly what is good, who determines what’s good, what is good. Like you were saying, is it just social consensus? Is it anything more than that? Is it just for survival of ourselves and our family? This whole concept of goodness, it’s wrapped up in a lot of different deep questions, and it sounds like, though, you’re a deep questioner. But you were being challenged on these issues at Harvard. Who was doing this challenging? Was it a Christian who was actually informed with regard to these deeper philosophical issues?
Yeah. So basically it was a friend of a friend, and we had started discussing politics, and that quickly transformed into talking about morality. And so it was a Christian, Joseph Porter, who had studied more philosophy, and he was also a philosophy major. I actually originally hadn’t studied philosophy, and I switched majors after I became a Christian. But he basically just started pressing me on some of these things, like, “Okay, you say that you believe in goodness, but how do you define it? Where does it come from?” And as he questioned me, I realized, like I said, it’s easy to ask the questions, but it’s hard to build up a framework, and so I tried to mount some defenses, but ultimately, I realized that his questions were good questions, and I struggled to construct a view in which we really were… You know, you think about it what it means to be human from an atheist perspective.
Well, it just happens that the universe came into existence maybe just because it’s one of many different universes, and human beings just happened to evolve, and now we’re collections of molecules and atoms that travel throughout this little dot in space that circles around the sun. In some sense, if that’s just the account of what it means to be human, then it’s quite hard to articulate why we should strive to be good. It just means that it’s a different set of atoms colliding with another set of atoms, and as an atheist, I found it very hard to sort of construct any type of goodness or argument for why we should try to be good that was well grounded, and so he really pushed me on that point.
And then he also pushed me on other points about God, and so he pushed me on, “How did the universe come into existence?” And there are certain qualities about our universe, so my understanding—and I’m not a physicist, so I’m far from an expert on this. My understanding is that there are certain laws of nature which have particular properties, and if the laws of nature were tweaked even just a little bit, the universe would not be able to exist, and human beings would never come into being, and so you sort of have to give an account for, “Well, how do you think that the universe came into existence?” and, “How do you think that something could come from nothing?” And there are other responses. Some atheists believe in the multiverse, that there are many different universes and ours just happens to be the one that we came to evolve into, but then you still have to ask, “Well, where did the multiverse come from?”
And basically we started arguing about the cosmological argument, this concept that there are all of these contingent things. “I exist because my parents existed, and their parents existed, and they exist because at some point, an amoeba evolved into something greater, and that happened because….” You know, you can draw this line back and back and back, but all of those things are contingent, and it seems like you need something that’s not contingent to start it all. And after sort of mulling this over for a while, I found this argument compelling. I said, “Okay, I’ll admit there’s this type of necessary, rather than contingent, being that must have been the start of the universe.” The way that I have heard it framed as well is you imagine you’ve got a building, right? And each floor rests on the previous floor, but at a certain point, for the building to stand, there has to be a foundation. It has to be a story that’s not like the other stories.
And so I said, “Okay, sure. I believe in this foundation. I believe in this necessary being,” and he’s like, “Well, if you believe in that, you believe in God.” I’m like, “Hold up! There’s a lot of other things Christians talk about when they talk about God.” I’m like, “Okay, fine. If you want to call that God, you can call that God. Fine.” So I stopped being an atheist and I started being a deist, and I had the most minimal view of God that you could possibly have.
Just a first cause, basically.
Basically, yeah. And so, from there, then we started arguing about, “Okay, are miracles possible?” And I said, “Of course, miracles aren’t possible. There are these laws and all these things,” and it’s like, “Well, if you admit that there’s this entity.” We haven’t even agreed that the entity has intelligence or persona, right? But if you agree that there’s this entity that’s somehow responsible for the starting of this whole thing, why couldn’t the entity affect the laws, right? If the entity is the one that created the laws, why do they have to hold in all places and at all times?
And I realized that one of the features of science is that we look at the world, and we extrapolate, and we measure things. Like we go and we measure gravity, right? And we say, “Gravity is part of the laws of nature.” But that’s just an observation. And, in fact, the funny thing is, if we observe exceptions, we assume that we’ve made the mistake, right? So I think about… In my physics class, we attempted to measure gravity, and of course, we didn’t quite get to 9.8. We ended up getting 9.6 or ten point something, and our physics teacher is like, “Your timers aren’t very precise, and your hands were off,” but it’s funny, because in one sense, when he sees an observation that doesn’t match with the law, he says that the observation is flawed. Now that makes sense in this particular case, for gravity, and he’s correct that our instruments aren’t good, and we probably weren’t as precise as we could be.
He wasn’t wrong in that case, but it sort of shifts the way that you think about the laws if you start to recognize that the laws are extrapolations. We assume that they’re holding in all places. And there are parts of physics that it does become problematic, so one area that physics still struggles to account for, in my understanding. Again, I’m not a physicist, but there’s debate about what happens at the center of a black hole because we have two different models for what happens in physics. We have things that are modeled when they’re very small, with quantum mechanics, and we have things modeled when they’re very large, with the theory of relativity and gravity and all of these things, but we can’t quite figure out, in the center of black hole, where both should start to hold, we don’t know what that looks like, and the laws may be very different there.
And so, in starting to think about that, I was like, “Well, if there was a miracle, that’s sort of the funny thing about it. In one sense, you would view it as an exception to the laws of nature, or you would assume that it was mistake. What I started to realize is, if you’re assuming that it’s mistaken, you’re taking your philosophy, your secular philosophy that there is no such thing as a miracle, and you’re applying it to the observation. Any time you observe a miracle, you’re going to disbelieve that miracle, and so, after we kind of debated the philosophy of that, I realized, “Okay, I can admit that, if there’s this entity that created the universe, then it’s possible that miracles could occur. Theoretically.”
And so, from there, then you have to start arguing about any individual miracle, and I will say that I’m still a skeptic. There are a lot of people that will claim miraculous things, and there are a lot of circumstances that emerge in our lives and that I’ve seen emerge in my life since becoming a Christian, that seem ordinarily miraculous. Maybe that’s a funny term to say. But the sort of things that could happen by circumstance without God’s existence but that Christians might attribute to God, you know? “I said a prayer that my child would be healed, and they got better,” right? You could think, “Well, there’s some natural explanation. We just don’t know what it is yet, right?” You could sort of look at it that way. And I think that there are a lot of cases like that, where we should be rightfully skeptical of people that claim miracles have occurred.
But then, you know, we started looking at some of the heavier-duty miracles, and particularly the miracle that we started arguing about was Jesus’s resurrection. And did that miracle actually happen. And we also had been arguing about the Bible in general. Is it reliable? And there were a couple of things that really shifted my perspective on the reliability of the Bible, so one of the things, I think one of the common misconceptions about the Bible is that there’s this game of telephone that was played, and there’s just been so many manuscripts and copyists who could introduce errors, and one of the interesting things as I studied further was that was something commonly said about the Bible, and for a long time, the oldest manuscript that we had was dated to about 950 AD, and when they discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, they actually got copies of scripture that were dating back to around 200 BC, and they found that, in that 1100-year period, the number of changes was pretty minor.
So I’m thinking there’s one chapter of Isaiah where there were I want to say ten differences, and a bunch of them were spelling, and basically the only real difference was the addition of one word, “light,” which didn’t change the meaning of the passage in any way. And so what I realized is that, although there are these minor discrepancies, like spelling or typos or things like that, that can be found in these manuscripts, the overall message has been remarkably consistent, and for me as a philosopher, there’s this concept in philosophy of a proposition. So you can make a statement, right? Like, “The sky is blue,” and you could make the statement in French. Oh, gosh. Now I’m blanking because my French isn’t very good. I forget if it’s le or la, but “Le ciel est bleu,” would be the French, and the two sentences, the two statements, are different, right? The word is is different in both languages, but the proposition that they represent is the same. Because they’re both conveying the same piece of information about reality. They’re just doing it in different languages. And so I realized what was sort of remarkable to me is that the central proposition of scripture had remained remarkably consistent, even if, as you go through, there are these subtle changes in the manuscripts, slight typos and things like that, and for me, that made it feel more human but no less… Well, I didn’t think it was divine to begin with, but in one sense, it actually felt like it had been well preserved, kind of well preserved more than any other document, in such a way that made me able to see God’s hand in the process, and I think it’s funny because you can look at it, and you can see, “Okay, this has been transmitted with 99% accuracy,” and you could be astonished that it’s been transmitted so well; 99%, that’s like A plus territory. And you can look at it and be so disappointed about the 1%.
There was an interesting example in Biblical studies. One of the most famous scholars today is Bart Ehrman, who’s a skeptic, and he trained under Bruce Metzger, who was a believer, and Metzger looked at it, and he looked at the 99% and thought it was very impressive, and Ehrman had been raised in an evangelical community where he believed that every jot and tittle in scripture had to be consistent, and so for him, the 1% was astonishing and intolerable, and as a result, after he finished his studies, or through the process of doing his studies, he stopped believing in God, and now he’s probably the most notable secular biblical scholar in the United States, but really, for me, I took Metzger’s position. Because I had grown up thinking, “Look, there are all these contradictions. There are all these problems in it,” and seeing that it had been translated accurately was quite astonishing to me. And so it almost feels like part of what happened was how we were raised to believe in scripture shaped how we interpreted this reality about how well it had been transmitted.
I also went through and was looking up the contradictions in scripture, and I came to view some of them as making it more believable. So there’s one example of how Judas died, and so in one part of scripture, it says he hung himself, and in the other part, it says he fell and his guts spilled out, more or less, and some people will say, “Well, maybe he hung himself and then fell down, and his guts spilled out, or something like that.” And there’s a way that you can do that. But for me, the fact that there are different accounts, because they come from different people, it started to make it seem more believable. In the same way that, if you had two eyewitnesses testifying in a court, and if they agreed on every detail, you’d start to become a little suspicious. You’d start to be thinking, “Well, maybe they sat down beforehand to get their story together. Because otherwise how do they have every single thing… How could they possibly remember it the exact same?” And in the same way with scripture, I think the fact that it’s written by different people and there are these minor differences between them, that to me makes it more compelling, because essentially the central proposition, these claims about who Jesus was, these are the same and consistent, and those minor details that don’t matter, they add, in my mind, to the reliability of the witness without detracting from the overall inspiration of the central proposition, which is about God’s relationship to mankind.
You obviously went through a very intentional, thoughtful process as you were going through all of these issues, beginning with the moral argument, what is goodness? Where does that come from? Moving towards how did the universe get here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Looking more from a philosophical perspective and scientific, and you were looking at how scientific philosophy, methodological naturalism informs really the method that excludes the possibility of God, really, and you were realizing these things, and so I think it’s almost like you’re going down a little bit of a breadcrumb trail, and you’re opening one door, and you’re looking in there and seeing, “Now, how does that make sense?” and then very thoughtfully pursuing all of these different steps, the Bible, Jesus’s resurrection, and it’s moving you further along the way. Even though you were still somewhat a skeptic, you weren’t so closed off. You were open towards seeing where the evidence leads you, and it was leading you along this road, albeit reluctantly, it seems like, at times.
But nevertheless because you were very intellectual and a questioner and you had to be true to yourself, you couldn’t ignore what you were finding or discovering or realizing, in a sense, so almost against your own… It was like driven by your nature but almost against your own nature. Now you were moving along this road. I wondered if you knew, if you could tell where this was taking you?
Yeah. You know, I definitely could, and I saw this transition happening in myself, and I think, for me, what was significant and what was helpful in going through that process was, like you said, you’re sort of picking up these breadcrumbs one by one. I think a lot of people, when they have doubts, they can feel really overwhelming. If I had sat down at the beginning, and I had said, “Well, I don’t believe all of these things about Christianity, it would be like, “Well, I’ll never become convinced,” right? But if you sort of isolate the questions one by one and analyze them separately. In some sense there are dependencies there, asking, “Is the miracle of the resurrection possible?” depends on whether miracles are possible in general, but it’s important that you break down what each question is and take them one by one, because otherwise it’s too overwhelming, and you’re going to have foggy thinking. And so instead, if you can split out what your questions are, that allows you to pursue them deeply enough, to the point where you can feel more confident in the answers that you find, and so that was sort of what happened to me slowly over time.
As I started going through this process, once I became a deist, which was probably about halfway through, I started going to church as well, mostly just to find out more. And it was something I hadn’t really… You know, I had occasionally gone to Catholic Mass with my grandmother and things like that, but it was the first time I’d ever really gone on my own, with an eye toward understanding and learning. Not that I agreed with everything, but just to kind of see what this whole thing’s about. And so I started going through that process. And I also started doing a Bible study with some women. And at the same time that I was having the sort of philosophical questions with my friend, Joseph, I was having some personal questioning with these women as well. For me, like I said, I had always viewed myself primarily as a good person, and you can hear my newborn is starting to wake up. If there’s anything that makes you think you’re a good person, once you have children, you realize how wrong you were.
Any parent will appreciate that. And connect with that for sure.
Yeah. But basically, as I started talking with these women, I started realizing that Christianity had a higher standard than I had been made to believe. And I read through the Sermon on the Mount, and I realized Jesus has a very high standard. He says not just that you can’t murder people but you can’t even be angry, and it’s not enough to not commit adultery, but you can’t even lust after people, because that’s adultery in your heart. And when I started realizing that, I realized that, deep down, there was a lot of anger in me, and there was a lot of… I think every family has their sins, but I think in particular I’ve noticed that, in my family, we can hold a grudge, you know? And realizing that I wasn’t a very forgiving person, I started realizing, if this is the standard that God has for goodness, then by any stretch, I’m not good. And shifting from thinking that, roughly, we’re all good people, like most people will probably will get to heaven if it’s for good people, because we’re not, like, going out and… Again, we’re not murdering people. Most people aren’t getting into fights and things like that.
Shifting from that perspective to the perspective of, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” was pretty dramatic. And realizing I’m not as good as I like to think myself. Developing a sense of that humility was significant for me.
So, as someone who has really walked both sides, and you took a very judicious journey, journeying from atheism to Christianity and even a judicious journey even into your and through your Christianity, which I so appreciate, what would you say to perhaps someone who might be listening who’s curious, who’s an atheist, maybe an agnostic, or for someone who really hasn’t considered God or Christianity very thoughtfully but perhaps might be open to it, what would you say to someone like that?
Yeah. I think that, first of all, it’s great that you have that openness, and I would say continue to be open to God, whoever you meet, wherever you end up. I think the first step, like I said… Read through the New Testament yourself. Encounter Jesus in the gospels. And then try to live out these teachings that you see there. I think a great place to start is always the Sermon on the Mount. And then the other thing I would say, from my own experience, was you have to live out the truth, and you have to take the steps of commitment that that entails. So getting baptized. If you’ve already been baptized, getting confirmed. If you’ve already done those things, you know, getting back involved in a church community. And I would also say be conscientious as you enter a church community. I think one of the things I struggled the most with as a new believer was finding a good church community, and I went through several churches that had their varying problems, and a quote that always sticks with me is, “If a church were perfect, then I’d have no place in it.” Because I’m not perfect, right?
Right. None of us are.
Yeah. But try to find a community that’s strong and healthy, that seems to be living out these teachings as best you understand them. And don’t let others spiritually steamroll you. Ask questions and try to find a place that seems like they’re doing their best to follow the teachings. You know, there are a lot of churches today that reject certain parts of scripture, whether that’s rejecting the parts about sexual morality or whether that’s rejecting the parts that are talking about caring for the poor or whether that’s just the parts that talk about idolatry and God’s kingdom coming first. In America, we have a common heresy of thinking that America is the end-all, be-all, and there are a lot of churches where voting for Trump is more important than living out your faith in other ways, and so, knowing that a vote does not a Christian make. There are many other things that are involved. So finding a place that seems to be very holistic in their approach to Christianity, I think, is important.
That’s good advice. And to those who are Christians who might be listening to this podcast and want to be able to engage meaningfully with those who don’t believe but may be apprehensive or perhaps may need some encouragement or even counsel as to the way that they embody Christianity, what would you say to Christians who might be listening?
Yeah. I think a couple of things. One is that fear can sometimes be a good thing. Sometimes you’re afraid because you actually don’t know enough, and so if you’re afraid because you don’t know what you would say or you feel like you just don’t understand things well enough, then go study the faith. St. Peter advises that you need to have an answer to the questions that people are asking you. Well, if you haven’t studied it yourself, how would you have an answer? So go and study these things. And see, is that the source of your fear? Or is the fear coming from some other place of timidity? Of a spirit that’s afraid to stand for what you believe in, in which case it’s really a lack of courage. And if it’s a lack of courage, take heart and practice and start small.
I think a lot of people are afraid… There are certain people that get into the habit of debating to win, rather than debating to find truth, and if you are that type of person, it can be helpful to, rather than think of it as a debate, just try to ask good questions, and that’s what I saw Joseph do with me. He asked, “Well, what does good mean to you?” and, “How can objective morality exist if you don’t have a God to ground it in?” In one sense, you could think about asking that in an argumentative way. “How could you believe in the good without God?” right? But there’s a friendly way to ask it, and so what I’ve found is, in general, if you talk to people about their religious beliefs and you ask questions in an open-ended and non-accusatory way, very few people react badly, and so think about and practice ways to ask those questions less confrontationally. Because I think when you do that then you have nothing to fear. You’re just asking people about their deeply held beliefs, and most people are glad to explore those.
And finally I would say please, please do not argue with people about creationism. That’s the one thing that I look back and I just think, you know, I had multiple Christian friends in high school who wanted to talk about creationism, and that did not resonate with me. I still don’t believe in young earth or old earth creationism. I believe in a God that guided evolution, and most of the denominations in the United States leave that explicitly in their mission statements, that you can believe in evolution. And so I just look back, and I think, “What a shame. These Christians were very fervent and faithful believers, but they spent their time arguing with me about something that was never going to… It never ended, right? I still believe what I believed from the beginning, with the exception that I believe God guided the process now, rather than believing it was purely naturalistic. But in all that time, they never stopped to talk to me about who Jesus was, what He taught, why He taught it. It’s mind boggling to me that I grew up in the United States, in Orange County, which is moderate in general. There are a lot of liberals there. There are a lot of conservatives there. And I had never heard the gospel until was 18 and in college because every time I had ended up talking to people—and what I found in Orange County when I’ve gone back is that you will meet Christians there who will be sleeping with their boyfriend, getting drunk every weekend, and they’ll think that they’re a good Christian because they believe in creationism, and that’s really missing the picture, and you’ve got bigger fish to fry than that.
So I don’t judge people that are creationists. I have a lot of respect for various ones. And if that’s what you believe, by all means you’re free to go ahead and believe it, and I still welcome you as a brother or sister in Christ, but I just ask that you not make that the central thing that you argue with atheists about because it’s very rare that it will work and if it does and somebody later comes to change their mind and not believe creationism anymore, then you’ve undermined the central part of their faith, and I think that’s also really not fair. The faith needs to be grounded on the rock that is Jesus. And not on some other philosophy or some other belief system.
I’m so glad that you brought this, Jordan, to the center, which is Jesus and His question, “Who do you say that I am?” because, as you say, we oftentimes get distracted, whether we’re atheists or Christians or whatever, about secondary or really nonessential issues and end up going down rabbit trails instead of really looking at keeping the main thing the main thing. Mere Christianity, who is Jesus? Was He resurrected? Was He the Son of God He claimed to be? Those big, big questions regarding truth. Because He claimed to be truth, not just that He knows truth or that He tells truth, that He is the truth, so thank you for bringing that back around front and central.
And also, Jordan, I really appreciate your story. I love it because it’s just so incredibly thoughtful. And for those who think that Christians aren’t thinking people or intellectual people, I mean, you’re Ivy League educated. You really moved through this process from one strong ideology to another in a very careful, diligent way, and no one can fault you for that, and I just appreciate the way in which you did it. The intellectual integrity in which you did it, as well as, like you say, adopting another worldview is more than just an intellectual journeying. You really looked at it in terms of where these ideas lead. They mean something. They are embodied sensibility of the truth. So thank you for the really full and holistic way in which you told us about your journey and the way that you live as a Christian now. So thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me, and thank you for giving me extra time. I will say, you can ask my family, I have never been accused of under thinking things.
Yes. That’s really wonderful. Thank you again, Jordan.
Thanks for tuning into the Side B Podcast to hear Jordan’s story. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoyed it, subscribe and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll be listening to the other side.