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Changing Your Mind. Or Not.

Two things have happened to me this week that have made me think rather intensely about the path I’ve taken in life, and how radically it has swerved from the paths of others who were like me at the age of 20.   I emphasize “who were like me.”   The reality is that the path I was on already at 20 was (now I see) extremely weird, and to outsiders looks more than a little bizarre.   I was a hard-core evangelical Christian dedicated to ministry for the sake of the gospel.   Not exactly what most 20-year olds (including any of my many high school friends) were doing at the time.  If ever I want a conversation-stopper at a cocktail party, all I need do is say something about my past.

Still, given that as my starting point, what happened next is even more highly unusual.  And I was abruptly reminded it of it this week, twice.   First, on Monday I had a radio/podcast debate here in London on “Premier Christian Radio” (it is the leading Christian radio station in England) (not that it has a lot of competition, but it is indeed a high class operation) with another scholar of the New Testament, Peter Williams, one of the world’s experts on ancient Syriac as it relates to the Bible (both OT and NT), former professor at the University of Aberdeen and current head of Tyndale House in Cambridge: http://legacy.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/peter-williams.

I have known Pete for years; he is a committed evangelical Christian with a view of the infallibility of the Bible.  Our debate was on the question of whether the Gospels are historically reliable (a topic of frequent recurrence on this blog, obviously) (some bloggers may think “interminable” recurrence).  He thinks there is not a single mistake in the Gospels, of any kind.  I think there are.  You’ve heard this kind of debate before, so I won’t be recounting the ins and outs (although they were quite different from those you’ve seen before; still, it won’t matter for this post).

The second thing that happened is that I received a Facebook post from a former friend (I emphasize “former” since we apparently are no longer friendly) and classmate of mine from my Moody Bible Institute days (mid 70s), in which he lambasted the fellow alumni from my graduating class for holding me in any kind of esteem.   The implication of his lambast was that I’m the enemy of the truth and no one should respect me or my views.   I haven’t talked with this fellow for over 40 years, but last I knew we were friends, on the same floor in the dorm and the same basketball team.  OK, I couldn’t hit a jump shot, but still, is that reason to be upset four decades later?

In any event, these two events made me think hard about one issue in particular, one that I keep coming back to in my head, in my life, and, occasionally, on this blog:  why is it that some people are willing to change their minds about what they hold most dear and important in their lives and other people retain their same views, come hell or high water?    Why do some people explore options and think about whether they were originally “right” or not (about religion, personal ethics, social issues, politics, etc.), and other people cling tenaciously to the views they were given when they were 14 years old?  It’s an interesting question.

Because I changed my views on something near and dear to me and my then-friends, I’m a persona non grata in the circles I used to run around in.  And granted, I have zero desire (OK, far less than zero) to run around in them now.   But I don’t feel any animosity toward my former friends, or think they’re going to roast in hell because of their views, and wish that torment would begin sooner than later.  I understand why they do (toward me), but it’s sad and disheartening.

Let me be clear, my (current) scholar-friend Peter Williams and I are on very good terms (after our debate he bought me lunch and we had a lovely talk about his current research projects): there’s no animosity there or wish for me to speed the process of passing off my mortal coil, at all.   Though I bet if you press him he would regretfully inform you that I probably will be roasting in hell.  Still, that’s OK; it’s what he thinks.

What I’m more interested in is why I would have changed my mind and others like him absolutely don’t.  Even scholars.  Their views significantly deepen, become more sophisticated, more nuanced – but the views don’t change.  (My sense of my former classmates at Moody – at least the ones I hear about – is that their views don’t even deepen or grow more sophisticated; they literally think pretty much the same thing as they did when they were mid-teenagers, only now with more conviction and passion).

The reason I find the whole matter sad is almost entirely personal (I guess sadness by definition is).   My former evangelical friends and current evangelical debate partners think I’m an enemy of the truth, when I’ve spent almost my entire weird journey trying to come to the truth.  And so far as I can tell, they haven’t.   I’m not trying to be ungenerous, but it does seem to me to be the reality.

I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here:  how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right?  The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right?  The problem with these particular views (of evangelical Christianity)  is that if they are indeed right, everyone else in the known universe is wrong and going to be tormented forever because of it.

I know most Christians don’t think this: I’m just talking about this particular type of Christian.  And they don’t seem to see how strange it is that they are right because they agree with what they were taught as young children.   Yes, they don’t see it that way.  They think they are right because they agree with the Bible which comes from God so they agree with God and I (and everyone else on the planet) disagree with God.  But the reality is that this is the view they were handed as young kids.

I realize these are very old questions.  When we were evangelicals we puzzled over the question of how God could punish people for eternity for not “accepting Christ” when they had never even heard of him.   Unfortunately, we concluded that we weren’t sure how he would do that, but we were pretty sure he would.

Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous.   But what I’m puzzled by is not *that*, but by the fact that thinking human beings (as opposed to non-thinking ones) can actually still subscribe to such nonsense.  And it’s a troubling idea to me precisely because those are the roots I come from.

This is not an issue for most blog members, but possibly for some.   I have a few more reflections on it – specifically with respect to my debate – that I think I’ll reflect on in the next post.  (I’ll get back to the authorship of the letter of James!  But for now this is on my mind.)

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Is History a Four-Letter Word?
Why Was the World Created in 4004 BC?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  July 17, 2019

    I have been a member of the “Unbelievable?” Facebook group, which is the Facebook group of Premier Christian Radio, for almost 4 years now. It was being a member of that group that solidified my conviction that Christians rely on faith alone, and will use anything they can get their hands on as evidence.

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  2. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  July 17, 2019

    I’ve thought a lot about this issue too. One big reason is whether you were brought up in it from birth. The programming is there from day one. The social aspect is another. Their entire extended families are in it. Then there are the scare stories of those who leave the faith. The terrible lives they now lead. Then there’s fear of hell. That’s a powerful one. All these and more conspire together.

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    • Avatar
      The Agnostic Christian  July 17, 2019

      There is the story they all believe that life without God is meaningless. Ever listen to WLC? It’s an infantile version of reality, and Conservative scholars just get more sophisticated in their defense of it, but at base Conservative Evangelicalism is all about Daddy and big Brother taking care of me against big bad Satan and this nasty old world. The meaning-giving system must be protected at all costs.

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  3. Avatar
    mikezamjara  July 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I appreciate your story, so I bring mine and have two questions.

    I am from Mexico and my family is catholic and I was raised as one. But my family also taught me to be critical of all things and read a lot (I have a doctorate in biochemistry) so I do not believe almost anything about religion, I don´t know if I believe in god, but I think religion does a lot of good to people and my family is ok with my disbelief (or however you describe me). But my wife’s family converted to a fundamentalist evangelical religion so you can guess the problems that come with that. Firstly they tried to convert me but they know that I know a lot more of the bible and history than them (in a great part thanks to you) so now they are kind of afraid of me. It hurts me how much they fear the end of the world and money is taken from them. It worries me that their children are taken off from school and get homeschooled just because they don´t accept even the idea that homosexuals or people of other religions can be good people. It gets me angry that I am seen as an antichrist that is dooming their daughter (my wife) although I respect religions and recognize the goods religions do and I only respond when I am questioned.

    It is kind of a great mess and difficult to stay in the right position. My questions are 1. Did I bore you? If so I am sorry for that. and 2. Do your books Misquoting Jesus and Forged are to be translated soon to Spanish to be sold massively In Mexico?

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      1. Not at all! 2. I don’t know! I thought Misquoting was in Spanish, but maybe not.

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      • Avatar
        juandetobarra  July 19, 2019

        Misquoting Jesus was tranlated into spanish with the title “Jesús No Dijo Eso”. In fact it was the second Bart’s book I bougt (just behind “Cristianismos Perdidos” -Lost Christianities- I found in a second hand seller by chance and read without have ever known about the existence of mr. Ehrmann)
        I don’t know if it is avalaible in Mexico, in fact, in Spain most of them are only avalaible in used books stores.

        In spanish are also avalaible:
        – “¿Dónde está Dios? El problema del sufrimiento humano” (Gods Problem):
        – “Verdades y Mentiras del Código Da Vinci” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code)
        – “Pedro, Pablo y María Magdalena” (Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene)
        – “Jesús, el Profeta Judío Apocalíptico” (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.)
        – “El evangelio de Judas” (The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot)

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      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  July 21, 2019

        thank you Dr,

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  July 19, 2019

      It looks like some of the Ehrman oeuvre is out in Mexico:

      https://listado.mercadolibre.com.mx/bart-ehrman

      and Spanish in general:

      https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart_Ehrman#Traducidas_al_castellano

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    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  July 19, 2019

      See AstaKask’s post (below) about a book “Mistakes were made… but not by me” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Seems to me that may help your family see where a family relationship that should be kept good is going wrong? They don’t have to agree with you; but they also don’t need to try and get you to agree with them.
      They crazy thing is if a family member married someone from a completely different religion (say Hindu) they’d probably manage that better!!!
      Sincere best wishes and good luck! I hope your wife can manage the pressure.

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 17, 2019

    In the book “Mistakes were made… but not by me” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson use a triangle to illustrate how small decisions can lead to big differences. Suppose you and your friend start out at the top of the pyramid, close together. Then you come to an identical situation – say, whether to to accept that Matthew made a mistake about Abiathar the high priest or not – and make different decisions. These different decisions will affect all subsequent decisions about the infallibility of the Gospels, the truth of the Bible, etc. – because if you want to reverse your opinion, you have to accept that you were wrong before. And people don’t like admitting that. And so the two slide down the pyramid, each decision taking them farther and farther apart. At each step, they could turn back but it becomes more and more difficult, because the burden of admitting they were wrong becomes larger and larger (“I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”) And so a very minor decision lead two former friends to end up in wildly different positions.
    I probably didn’t explain that very well, but I recommend the book. It makes more sense in context.

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  5. Avatar
    godspell  July 17, 2019

    Because people want certainty, Bart. Some much more than others. You were one of them. As you say, very few people would have become that type of Christian at 20, not having been raised that way. What do you think you were looking for? Something solid, unquestionable? And you just found more questions. You’ve been asking them ever since, and maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like you’re still looking for something solid. (You got a little irritated when we were talking about Stoicism, and I questioned the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. Who was a remarkable man, but I guess all fathers have blind spots….)

    It’s a personality type. Like a relative of mine, angry at Vatican II, because “We used to have The Truth.” And be honest–if that’s what your after, questions of any kind are deadly. And the structure that you depend on to keep you going, day after day, collapses on itself.

    Some of us need that structure more than others–and will find one. Even in a world without any belief in God. They’d still find one. And they’d still look daggers at anyone who questioned it. Not just metaphorical daggers, in some cases.

    I have this co-worker, who is a truly lovely person–she’s from Italy, and I assumed she was Catholic (we work at a Catholic university). I just found out recently she’s a Jehovah’s Witness. She married one, and she got into it, and her whole family are JH’s, and deeply involved in that church. She proudly showed me photos of them at a conference. It’s her entire life, away from work. She gave me a card with the JH website addy. If I wanted to know more. I feel like I know enough. And yet my regard for her is not diminished.

    Of course, if I did join up, and then started asking questions…….

    At this stage in my life, the one thing I’m certain of is that nothing is certain. I’m not looking for systems. I’m looking for good people. And so was Jesus.

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  6. Avatar
    flcombs  July 17, 2019

    I’m sure it varies with personalities. But in general I see it across even other topics as is “seeking truth” your search to really want to know and and a search what is most likely true? Or is needed a pretty stable and predicable “truth” and you search to confirm what feels right. It is interesting to watch people work puzzles sometimes. Some people will quickly determine a piece doesn’t fit and grab another. Others will keep trying, being determined it must fit if you try long enough or even want to pound it into place.

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  7. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  July 17, 2019

    Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts/experiences. I too, have agonized over others’ inability to change their position when confronted with conflicting data.
    I have always strived to “understand the other person’s point of view.” As grandma used to say, “Ain’t no pancake made so thin it didn’t have 2 sides to it.”
    Being a science geek, of sorts, I had some long debates with young earth creationists in the 1980s.
    I was raised as a YEC but changed my mind based on the overwhelming evidences.
    My discussion opponents commonly would pride themselves on being “open-minded,” e.g. that they had at one time been an “evolutionist” (like being a gravitationalist?) but had changed their mind.
    So a useful question I found before embarking on a debate journey was to ask, “Is there any evidence I can present that would cause you to change your mind?”
    The surprising answer was usually “no.” In contrast, I am not fossilized into my belief system.
    I hopefully remain open-minded, but not so much that my brains fall out (gullibility).

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  8. Avatar
    chesterd  July 17, 2019

    Keep the faith Bart and the search for truth. In a sense you take up your own cross and maybe that is what Jesus really meant. I find it interesting you post this just as I am starting to explore the rather unknown theology of Sir Isaac Newton. So much of his religious writings were never published because many would describe him as a heretic. He was more probably a Unitarian Deist.

    See The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts by Sarah Dry and Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton by Rob Iliffe . Mr. Illiffe is is the General Editor of the online Newton Project and encouraged his wife Ms. Dry to write on the history of his papers.

    As Newton said “Plato is my friend,
    Aristotle is my friend,
    but my greatest friend is truth.”

    Sir Isaac Newton
    (MS Add.3996, 88r)
    Trinity College, Cambridge.

    1
  9. Robert
    Robert  July 17, 2019

    Unfortunately, many people are utterly unintelligent. Others are highly intelligent and make great strides in some areas but are just uninterested in questioning fundamental questions pertaining to their religion. The well-trained so-called ‘scholars’ who remain fundamentalist in their religious beliefs are the strangest of all. Some have early on adopted an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality against evil liberalism that they don’t question because it is for them a moral issue, not an intellectual one that ought to questioned. Questioning our core beliefs is hard, challenging, and can be threatening–it concerns our survival, the very existence of our essential identity. No one wants to die. If they really believed in God, they would not be afraid of thinking with an open mind. Likewise, if they could come to terms with being agnostic or atheist. What is this thing called religion that is afraid of real thought? It is a crystallized identity.

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  10. Avatar
    AndrewJenkins  July 17, 2019

    Dear Bart,

    I think that the reality is that these weird beliefs do not matter. Science (and scholarship) has clearly shown that there is no basis for belief in heaven and hell, salvation by blood, creation in seven days etc.

    What may matter, however, is that Jesus’s gospel of love (for our neighbours) may inspire us to a way of life which gives meaning to our existence. This is not the only source of inspiration, there are many others – I think Albert Camus in ‘La Peste’ (and in his life) can inspire us to find meaning through people “obscurely engaged in saving, not destroying, and this in the name of no ideology”. I find your raising money to fight poverty through your blog inspirational too and am proud to make a small contribution. In the meantime I agree we should also enjoy the many good things in life while we can.

    How so many can ignore the gospel of love and use religion to promote hate and division is still a mystery to me (although reading your analysis of the early centuries of Christianity does provide some explanation). But it does not matter – what matters is to continue to try our best, even in adversity….

    Thanks again for all the insights, for your commitment to changing your mind, when the evidence demands it, and for working to try to find and spread the truth, as far as that is possible.

    Very best wishes to you and all the others who read and contribute to the blog, Andrew.

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  11. Avatar
    ChiveMiguel  July 17, 2019

    I very much identify with this post. I grew up in the United Pentecostal Church, left it and ended up going to seminary and am now a minister in the United Methodist Church. However, now I’m preparing to leave the ministry because my search for truth has led me to the place where faith in Christianity is no longer possible. Unfortunately, simply asking questions can lead to people shunning you. I’m grateful for online communities such as these where knowledge is being sought. Thank you Dr. Ehrman for your work.

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    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  July 18, 2019

      You were a member of the UPC? I went to a UPC church back in the day.

    • Avatar
      AJ0826  July 30, 2019

      What is it that led to your walking away from the faith?

  12. Avatar
    El_Toro  July 17, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate your personal posts as they show your honesty in reflection.

    I may be what is considered an evangelical Christian (though, I guess it depends on who you ask). Now, I’m not from your part of the world so maybe this makes a difference. My experience, as an evangelical, has been one of significant change of things I was taught as a youngster (and freedom to think through these things and explore). It seems to me that most honest, deep thinking evangelicals would actually, when pressed, admit that we simply do not know what eternity will be like (even if we have beliefs that such a state exists), nor can we honestly say that there are not mistakes in scripture (even if we believe it’s inspired and want to err on the side of benefit-of-the-doubt explanations). This seems to be to be the general views of many evangelical academics (maybe not the most vocal), at least – after a few drinks on a late night at a corner table.

    Do you think part of the reason these more rhetorical / ideological statements still persist in public is more a political aspect (ie. loss of job, etc.) than anything else?

    Toro

    3
    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      I think that’s definitely the case with some of the people I debate. Their lives — work, family, friends — all depend on remaining with the same positions they’ve always had.

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  13. Avatar
    kentvw  July 17, 2019

    I wonder if it all comes down to Fear on one hand. Probably both conscience and sub-conscience fear of loss. Loss of family, friends, community, “love”, identity. I sure can’t fault them there. Maybe a part of it too is Free Will. The older I get the more I realize how little true free will I have. It seems my “I” had little to do with the fact that I have been a seeker and curious my entire life. Others? Not so much. I realize that they had as much to do with their noninterest as I did with my interest in things that really matter to me. Why do some things really matter to me? I can make good guesses about that but at the end of the day, I really have no clue other than to say it just how I came wired. “I” had nothing to do with it.

    1
  14. Avatar
    Eric  July 17, 2019

    I know Peter Williams and was reluctantly asked to participate in an informal debate with him on the same topic for the edification of my mostly-evangelical colleagues. Reluctant because I had no desire to try to talk any listener out of any article of faith they might have (and because despite Bart’s tutelage here and in print, I am a 98-pound weakling in debating someone like Peter!).

    I can vouch for Peter’s character and grace. Fine fellow.

    I wonder, Bart, to your topic here. Was Peter a staunch evangelical and textual perfectionist at 14 years old? Or did he “convert” in adulthood? If the latter, he may be your mirror image with respect to today’s topic!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      I believe he was raised in a conservative Christian family.

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  15. Avatar
    meltuck  July 17, 2019

    As another former evangelical who continues to worship in a congregation which I consider conservative, but who now identifies more closely with a theological version of Christianity which has been labelled “progressive,” I lament the attitude of those evangelicals who regard you as an enemy of the truth. While I still disagree with you on some things, I have never doubted your intellectual integrity and continue to appreciate the things I learn from you, even when we disagree.

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  16. Avatar
    dan7264  July 17, 2019

    Good question! I have often pondered the same thing. Looking forward to part ll and your attempt to answer the question because it’s a mystery to me.

  17. Avatar
    jscheller  July 17, 2019

    Do you think that maybe it is because of a subconscious fear associated with the belief in a God that holds them accountable for “right” belief, despite their disturbed consciences upon exposure to some of the realities of life that would make someone else ask the deeper questions? I.e,, They might “feel” something is not quite right at a given time, but the fear of offending God by considering alternative views prevails in their lives. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and I know it took me a long process to flush my system of such internal fear of pursuing an honest examination of the truth at the risk of being wrong in the end and then suffering divine anger. Maybe it’s that, in combination with the social environment such a one is immersed in. When any doubts start to become manifest, one is surrounded by their family and friends, who, if not experiencing such doubt at the moment themselves, will be quick to pressure one to return to “the truth” without question. Of course, I imagine with your background that nothing I’ve said is news to you. And it still comes down to the question “Why do some change and not all change?”

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      Yes, I often think that’s a large part of it for a lot of committed evangelicals.

      1
    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  July 19, 2019

      As far as the average person, I couldn’t say. As far as public figures – especially those making a living out of it, I believe it’s not subconscious – rather I think it’s conscious social fear. They have built a power base from saying things they cannot prove ARE SO. They cannot – dare not – admit they’re wrong. Many will double down on the hooey, saying the same thing without proof – just LOUDER.

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  18. Avatar
    lobe  July 17, 2019

    If a person holds the exact same positions for 30 years, they probably haven’t grown much as a person in that time period. At the very least, it means they aren’t willing to admit they’re wrong. For me, even when I was a very conservative Christian, I never got this refusal to change. I was (and am) a fallible human being. Even if God is perfect, *I* can be wrong. What’s the harm in admitting that?

    The best part is if you look at the evidence and honestly conclude you were wrong, you can just change your mind and BOOM you’re not wrong anymore. Everybody wins!

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  19. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 17, 2019

    Your are certainly not alone in thinking about this issue! The short, glib, answer would invoke brain structure and function. There is some research in this direction, however. IQ for instance is a coarse measure. Some of your ex-associates might score high but if you zoomed in on problems that require some degree of creativity, or “thinking outside the box” in order to solve a problem, they might not do so well. Sometimes I like to imagine unethical experimentation. For instance, how would the deeply religious respond to anti-psychotic meds, like thorazine? There are many others available. How would they respond to LSD? I’m not aware of any studies in psych journals that have tested “religiousity” in patients who have been treated with various psychiatric medications. And not just anti-psychotics but any of a wide array of medications that affect brain function. In my view, it should be taken as a given that every aspect of our behavior has a functional/structural correlation in the brain. And so the answers must be there, somewhere. I hope that’s not too reductionist.

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  20. epicurus
    epicurus  July 17, 2019

    I’m in the same boat. I deconverted in the mid 1990s after spending the late 80’s trying to reconcile biblical problems with, frankly, common sense. Since then I wonder why people I’ve known in the church who are like your Moody friend just can’t see any issues with the religion they were taught on mamma’s knee. And of course they are wondering why I rejected the plain truth they believe.

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