A Time to Speak

You don’t often meet many Canadian Reformed people who grow up to reject the faith altogether and become atheists. But apparently it does happen, and one of them decided to make a public statement about it. Mr. Chuck Eelhart wrote a piece over at exchristian.net, a site devoted to “encouraging de-converting and former Christians.” His article is called “Why I left the Canadian Reformed Church,” and is an example of the sort of thinking that characterizes the New Atheist movement today. This thinking has reason, objectivity, and the material world as the bases for its worldview, and disparages faith as a crutch for the weak-minded. It praises itself as being neutral and humble, for avoiding authoritative assertions of truth. The trouble is that many Christians buy into this, and many atheists today were once Christians. The questions they raise are not always easy to answer, and most Christians who attend university, especially in Humanities programs, will be confronted with them. I know that I was, and many of the convictions I have today are the result of wrestling with those questions. I’d imagine that I’m not alone in having dealt with them; when I see that they’ve claimed at least one Canadian Reformer, I feel compelled to respond.

What Eelhart explains for the most part is his journey from being a somewhat content, although questioning, Christian, to being a more content, but still questioning, atheist. He describes many of the benefits of growing up in the Canadian Reformed Community, benefits which those of us who belong to it are readily thankful for, but he also describes the problems. He claims that our church discourages critical thinking, forbids reading secular literature, and that Christians in general are lazy thinkers who are happy to have their lives controlled by others. As he grew older, his questions became more intense and he turned to classic literature to find answers. He writes, “A new world opened up to me. It had been there all along but I had been unaware of the possibilities. I devoured literature. Starting with Hemingway, Michener, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Dumas, Poe, Tolstoy, Homer many of the classics as well as current writers, beat writers, comedy, science even some philosophy” (All bad punctuation his). When he began to think critically about the world, he found that his religion could not stand.

I do believe in meeting people on their own terms. Since Eelhart establishes his rejection of Christ on the grounds of critical thinking, then it is upon those grounds that he should be met. We should think critically about his arguments, and see whether or not the arguments he levels against Christians are not, in fact, more appropriate when leveled at him. Here are three of his claims: the world is not as black and white as Christians say it is; Christians, particularly CanReffers, discourage engagement with Western culture; and Christians are Christians largely because of lazy thinking.

First, Eelhart makes claims that I, and probably most Christians, would have no difficulty accepting. He says that “the world is not … black and white, right and wrong [but] made up of many grey areas. We do not know the answers to many things but we are seeking them.” This discovery came about because he “had stumbled upon the principle of Critical Thinking.” This is all fine, and I believe that reading good books equips your mind to think imaginatively about these things.

I, too, have read Dickens, Poe, Hemingway, and Homer, along with a number of the other Western classics. And although Eelhart is wrong when he says that none of these books are pro- or anti-religious, it is true that most of them are not. But there’s a reason that these books, out of the millions that have been written in Western history, stand out above all the others. Roger Scruton, a contemporary English philosopher, says that these “chosen authors have had something to give to all who have studied them, that their words, thoughts, and images have a proven capacity to illuminate the problems and experiences of every age and to present the human world in all its real and enduring complexity.” The fruit of studying these writers, and studying them well, is a mature imagination, one that is broad, deep, and well-equipped to think carefully and creatively.

But alas, after trumpeting his belief that the world isn’t “black and white, right and wrong,” Eelhart proceeds to affirm that the world is, indeed, black and white, right and wrong. He asserts that “there is no heaven or hell. No amount of praying changes anything. Blasphemy is a victimless crime. Christian education is an oxymoron.” And just like that, too, a staccato-style thumping-over-your-head of his beliefs. Further, randomly stringing together a series of unconnected statements does not constitute critical thinking, despite what they’re teaching in Atheism 101 these days.

Secondly, Eelhart was discouraged by his elders to read secular literature, and was warned that it was dangerous. As a result, he gives the impression that the whole church is opposed to cultural engagement. I can sympathize with people who have had less-than-savoury experiences either in our church or in any church. Churches are populated exclusively by sinners. So I can understand if some people who have had particularly bad experiences come to characterize the whole church according to those experiences. This is unreasonable, but it’s understandable. But since he claims that “reason and logic are valid ways of thinking,” why did he not apply reason and logic to his own situation in the Canadian Reformed Church? Had he thought reasonably and logically about the Church, and had he cast the most flippant glance in the direction of empirical evidence, he would have realized that forbidding secular literature was simply the hobby horse of a few members, and in no way representative of the Church’s general position. I have never encountered one member who forbade secular literature; nowhere in our written statements of belief is this even implied. In addition, our cultural and theological heritage has been one of very robust engagement with the world’s thought, of reading widely and reading well.

Finally, Eelhart says that “religion took a lot of energy,” which is odd, because he accuses Christians of being too lazy to think for themselves. But Eelhart, in fact, is the lazy one. What he truly desires is not reason, logic, or empirical evidence, but autonomy. He writes of Lord’s Day 1, “the audacity that one does not belong to one’s self is so absolutely absurd to me and of course as I knew is also the first step used by any person or force that wants to dominate someone.” This is the core of his belief system, of all atheistic belief systems, and his much-vaunted discovery of critical thinking was nothing more than the discovery of a cheap justification for his personal rebellion. The root of his rejection of religion turns out to be a religious one: he believes in himself. Belief in oneself is, in fact, the laziest and shallowest religion known to man; it is the path of least resistance.

So his world turns out to be as black and white as he claims the Christian world is, and he is as uncritical in his dealing with Canadian Reformed culture as he claims we are in dealing with Western culture. Further, he makes use of lazy thinking to criticize lazy thinking. Indeed, he is guilty of the very faults that he accuses Christians of having. If he truly has discovered critical thinking, I wonder why he uses it so sparingly. People have made thoughtful, well-reasoned, and nuanced arguments against Christianity, arguments to which the Church ought to devote the same thoughtfulness and care in refuting. They may be wrong arguments, but at least they are sincerely wrong. Eelhart, however, seems to have resorted to reciting the catechism of contemporary pop atheism in place of laying out a carefully reasoned argument. If he truly desires to be a reasonable, logical, and good man, which no doubt he does, he’ll have to drop his unreasonable antagonism to Christianity, leave his lazy thinking behind, and once again take up the hard but joyful work of living a life of thankful obedience to the King who died for his rebellion.

(I won’t be approving any new comments on these posts. Judging from the ones that have been made so far, I can’t see this going in any sort of fruitful direction.)

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29 thoughts on “A Time to Speak

  1. As another Canadian-Reformed-turned-atheist, I have to admit I’m loving this. It seems that a month or so since Mr. Eelhart posted his story, it has started making the rounds throughout the Canadian Reformed circles. Those of us who come from that background know how personally people in that circle take any story that challenges the status quo of the “chosen people” and which might make waves in the carefully crafted group-think that has been cultivated there for generations. I can only sit and watch with a strange sort of glee and watch how the personal account shared on an exChristian website now needs to be dissected by people who see it as their duty to defend the faith because dissent, especially such personal dissent, is dangerous. It is the above barely-veiled-threats of punishment for “rebellion to the King” that make me so glad for the freedom I found when I was finally able to leave this choke-hold of a church. Not all of us who leave become atheists, but I know we all feel similarly in our criticisms of this church.

    • Now that you’ve got that off your chest, would you care to respond to what I’ve actually written? I at least had the decency to engage with what Mr. Eelhart said, and to publish the response under my real name. You, however, have done nothing intelligent or thoughtful here except to chirp from behind a wall of snide anonymity.

      • I apologize for my necessary anonymity, and perhaps I should have curbed my snide remarks slightly, but I disagree that you’ve engaged with Mr. Eelhart. You’ve used your own blog as your soapbox instead of engaging on the forum that Chuck has chosen, a forum intended as a place for people to share their views on leaving religion. You have every right to do so, and I’m sure the readership of this blog will appreciate your religious viewpoints, and your wisdom in turning Chuck’s comments on their head. You’re not even wrong. Anyway, aside from more chirping on my end, I just wanted to explain why I feel the need to be anonymous. For one, most of my family is not aware of my atheism, and I have long ago learned it’s much easier to keep silent about it, rather than be disowned by more family than just my parents. Secondly, since atheists are the least trusted minority of people (yes, right alongside rapists), it is not wise to put our names where they can easily be googled by potential employers, for example. Let it suffice that I’m from a Canadian Reformed background, and so have heard enough of the self-righteousness to allow me some snide remarks in regards to yours.

    • I thought I found myself agreeing a little with your subjective response until you said one word: glee. If the CanRefers are so wrong, then to twist a well known saying, ‘ All it takes for group think to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.’ Even if there’s “A Few Good Men.” (sorry for the use of the male generic pronoun too).

      • I’ll be honest here and suggest my use of the word “glee” is not really an accurate description of my emotions when writing. As a person who found very little support and answers for my severe doubts and my issues regarding the modern topics not addressed in hundreds of year old creeds, and who could literally think of nobody to talk to in regards to my loss of faith, it is just really refreshing to see I wasn’t alone after all. That means there are probably more like me. More people like Chuck. Also more people who might not have lost their faith completely, but do not feel altogether comfortable in a Church that has chosen to take a traditionalist and conservative view on almost every issue, but aren’t sure where to turn with dissenting views. I’ve heard that leaving is the “easy way out”, but if you ask anyone that’s ever left, they would tell you it’s probably the most difficult thing they’ve ever done. The Canadian Reformed Church isn’t just a place people go on Sundays. It is a place where their families have gone for generations. It is a place where parents have spent fortunes putting their children through the denominational schools. It is a place that people depend on for their careers; for everything. It angers me when people think leaving or dissent is the easy or lazy way out. From my perspective, whether you agree with the chosen path or not, being true to oneself is one of the most courageous things one can do.

        I am happy to see that there have been some additional comments from people that show true concern for the question as to why people leave. I think we all know that all Christian Churches are dealing with an exodus of people, and the Canadian Reformed Church has been mostly sheltered from it, making it easy to assume problems don’t exist. I think they do exist, but probably more so as internal struggles.

  2. Hello Jeremy,
    I agree with what you’ve written. Atheism is often a position of intellectual laziness as well as arrogance. You did a nice job exposing some of the problems in Chuck’s diatribe. I hope and pray (how galling that must be for Chuck) that God would lead this man to a renewed faith.

    • Rev. Schouten,

      I hope he does see the weaknesses in his argument, despite atheists not being fond of critical self-reflection. Or any criticism at all, as is evident over at the comments section of his article.

  3. Lovingthis, thank you for a more civil response.

    First, with regards to responding to Mr. Eelhart with my blog, it’s pretty normal for bloggers to do this. Should anyone wish to respond to this blog post on their own blog, it would be entirely appropriate. Yes, it’s a soapbox, but I guess that’s one of the perks of having your own blog.

    Secondly, I sincerely hope that atheism is not the final stop on your journey. I hope that there are still burning questions in your heart, and that you hold out the possibility that Christ may be the answer to those questions. I’d love to chat about this further, if you’re open to it. My email is sixteenseasons@gmail.com, and it goes without saying that any correspondence would be entirely confidential.

  4. After reading both the original article and the blog, I wonder if the bigger question for those left in the CanRefChurch is “how did we fail those who left?” Did we take time to explore the questions they had without brushing it off with a quick off-hand answer? Did we correct a flippant comment that came out wrong? Did we try see past hurt and discouragement, and try see what their real struggles were? Did we reach out when they had different thought patterns, asked “weird” questions? Did we take the time? If we are supposed to reflect Christ in our lives, we pray that those around us see His image when they look at us. I think we need to take a good think and pray about it…is this what Chuck saw? If not, what do we need to change?

    • I would just like to add a hearty….”I agree” to Sarah’s comments. While Jeremy and I will have all week at school to discuss this article, I’d like to maybe add a few thoughts here.
      When I first read the article by Chuck Eelhart I was struck by the fact that many of the struggles that he faced within our federation are struggles that continue to go on today. Some of the questions and struggles that he raised, were issues that I too struggled with as I grew up within our federation of churches. While it is easy to pick apart Chuck’s article and defend our Christian values, are we also willing to examine closely our Christian values to see how we could better reflect Christ? Nobody likes to have their religion, or specifically their church, called out and questioned. On the other hand, are we also willing to humbly look in the mirror and see where we have fallen short. Are we willing to reflect on how we deal with members who leave? Does our attitude towards those who have withdrawn continue to be one that reflects Christ? Do we have some members who stay because they are “afraid” to leave? Are we continuing to aspire to becoming the warm, loving, and truly Christian body of believers that we ought to be? Are we a place where people from the community would feel welcomed and embraced? Sometimes, we like to point to criticism as an “isolated incident”, but I wonder if Chuck’s comments may be indicative of a broader problem. I noticed this evening that there is a “support” blog for leaving the Canadian Reformed Church. Our church is meant to reflect Christ, to bring glory to Him, and if these “isolated incidents” are not as “isolated”, then we need to do some serious personal reflection as to how we can reach out and better support our fellow parishioners. Will we deal with them in love when they ask difficult questions? Do we only want to work with those who march in-step, or are we willing to walk along with those whose path is not so easy.
      I appreciate the article and you raise many good points, but as one who also aspires to serve as pastor within this federation, I hope we are truly willing to consider whether these comments are representative of an attitude that is only held by a few “rogue” dissidents. In my personal experience (and I don’t believe i’m an “isolated” case) I feel the issue may be larger than we like to allow.

      • Hi Hilmer,
        That is well stated, and I certainly agree with you and Sarah (but you already knew that)…I hope that you and Jeremy let us know the outcome of your discussion at school 🙂 Chuck was a close friend of my father in law, in fact the two were partners in business at one time so his and Jeremy’s articles hit close to home.

        I know of at least 15 people who have left the CanRC. Almost all of them cite similar reasons to Chuck for leaving, most have not become atheists however. About 10-12 years ago, I too almost left the CanRC (although not to become an atheist) because of similar concerns. I soon learned that discontent is rooted in me and not in the church I belong to. So we stayed by the grace of God. There are issues in our churches, as in any church, and we do need to address them. So I decided to be the change I wanted to see, I prayed and acted, and became outspoken about not only the bad things, but also the good things about our churches. We are called to be continually reforming so let’s keep the good and reform the bad. I have prayed long and hard for our churches, and I have witnessed a change in the hearts of the people in our churches, a reformation taking place and this is the holy spirit at work. I also pray that those who have left the faith would be called back and restored by our faithful Lord and savior.

    • Well said Sarah. And not only should we be asking these questions regarding those who leave the Can Ref church in favour of un-belief, we should also ask those questions when members choose another denomination with whom we don’t share ecclesiastical fellowship. A lot of your above questions are equally applicable in those cases. If Mr. Eelhart were to read this, I would hope that he would understand that the Can Ref church is full of sinful members, and that his experience does not accurately reflect all members.

  5. To some degree, I can agree with Sarah and Nicole. Self-reflection and humility are critical Christian virtues into which we must all grow. However, this doesn’t mean that the departure of someone from the path of faith is sure evidence that we have failed that person. People leave spiritually weak and diseased churches; they also leave healthy and vibrant ones. I guess what Sarah and Nicole are saying is that we should ensure that the only obstacle in the church is the inescapable offence of the gospel and not our failures to live it out. We need to all be singing the song which our Master taught us.

  6. I only recently read Chuck’s article and all these comments in response to it. I was so saddened while reading the article. I have friends who have had/are having the same fight (lack of faith or faith stuggle) and it has come out at some point in time as a resentment towards the church. Opinions on the Canadian Reformed Church, and statements of what the Canadian Reformed Church stands for and believes are always stemmed from negative experiences with one or few people, or else a negative feeling that may have come to life from their own self-conscience. These statements are frustrating to hear because it so often is not what a church may stand for, but rather an assumption from a personal response or position.
    After struggling with trying to ‘find things to say’ and ways to ‘win them back’, I found myself realizing that we truly are nothing without Jesus. I have no power at all to ‘convince’ someone to stay members of a church federation or even to stay/ become a believer. This faith is truly not in these peoples’ hearts or has started to leave their hearts. Thank God for Jesus who made it even possible for me to be forgiven and for the Holy Spirit to work faith in my heart because without it, we are nothing. We would be constantly searching (even if claiming to be free) and once the Devil took a full hold we would be used to work against the faith that used to be inside….what better people for the devil to try win over those walking with Christ, then ones who ‘were there’ themselves.
    Sarah and Hilmer, constant self-reflection is a necessary key to keeping love alive within the church of believers. We can not be angry at the people who have fallen away, but sad. I don’t believe we need to ‘beat ourselves up’ and take full blame for every persons lack of faith or choice to leave a church community, but it is positive to reflect on our interactions, and consider our responses. We can be angry at this broken world, but may also know that we do not deserve this Grace anymore then Chuck and those who follow him. May we, as a church community, continue to pray and show our love to those around us by being Christ-like and not acting on our own accord, but acting in ways that were taught us in His word.
    Lord, may you work in us to always strive to be Christ-like and show out love for You by the way we respond to others. Please work in Chuck and all those who have fallen away from You, soften their hearts, work the Holy Spirit in them and give them true peace.

    • I believe I’m probably “one of the friends” you mention. Thanks for the thoughtful and caring way you have responded here, and in real life as well. We all have our reasons for leaving, and I don’t think it’s ever an easy decision for people to make, and it upsets me when people sometimes see those of us who leave as taking the easy way out. It should be obvious from these discussions that it is usually a very painful and difficult process. I actually have to say that despite our fears, we have not been shunned from the community. This alone has eased a lot of the resentment we felt while we felt trapped in a church that didn’t feel like home for us, and for us at least, that has been very healthy. I think discussions like these are an important way for us all to be self-reflective, and I’m happy that we’re having this conversation.

  7. I have now followed you to your site Mr. DeHaan. I have read the posting you made and the replies to date. I am considering how best to respond .

      • I have sent a letter to your gmail account as my response. It is up to you Jeremy to post to your blog if you wish as it seems i am unable to post it here. Maybe this site does not allow me to cut and paste my own letter to you in this forum? I am not very computer savvy.
        Thanks Chuck Eelhart

    • Praying for you Chuck. When you were driving the bus and my son got hit…you yourself said you could see there was a God. Think back Chuck!

      • Sorry Chuck! My mistake! And it wasn’t you I was accusing of hitting my child (nor your brother). However, fond memories of you and will continue to pray for you!

  8. One thing that struck me after reading Chuck’s article about leaving the Canadian Reformed Church was the way he focused on the sinners that made up the Church. He never showed how God and His promise failed him, but how people failed him. It was sad to see Chuck’s reasons for leaving the church, but those weren’t the problem. The problem was he never experienced God’s grace. So of course the Church failed Chuck, because Church isn’t about Chuck but about Christ: and that was what Chuck missed out on.

  9. I officially left the CanRC when I was in my early 20’s however I had mentally left when I was a teenager sometime around the time the principal at the private Christian high school I attended, told me I didn’t belong in his school because I was from a poor family and then reminded me of how out of the “charity” of the church could I attend that school. unlike many of the people who have spoken out I never became an atheist I still believe in God, and read my bible BUT I will never step inside a church to worship ever again.

    • No one can make you feel inferior without your permission. Leaving church is certainly a move I appreciate but why do you still believe god?

    • Hi Dorothy,

      Thanks for your comment.

      It is true that the church is full of imperfect people, even terribly imperfect people, even complete hypocrites. And we will all have to answer to the same God. But it is also true that the grace of God vastly outshines human darkness, even the worst of it, and that grace was given to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Christ God forgives anyone who seeks him, including me, you, and your high school principal.

      I’m thankful that you continue to hold to God and to his Word, and encourage you to continue in that. I also hope that you one day find your way back to the communion of saints, that you may experience the joy of fellowship and the true pleasures of grace that can be had there.

      Jeremy

      • Hi Jeremy.
        I was a member of the Canadian Reformed church till I left when I was 20. The harsh aggressiveness of the church members and hierarchy was only a small part of why I left. I came to the realization that there is no god through study and logic and multiple discussions with members of many different faiths, from pastors to druids. Every religious person should investigate and know what they form their whole life around. Don’t just read books because they are all biased unless it has facts that they can back up. Investigate your religion! Don’t be a sheep. Just ask your pastor or religious leader this question. ” where does evil come from and who created it?”. Another good question is ” why are only a select few people allowed in heaven. You know the elect. The believers. If god has so much grace and love and power why is he damning billions of people to hell”?
        Research the making of the bible. Please do this. Also check out ancient religions before Christianity. You will be amazed at the similarities. Get uncomfortable and stop living in a clouded, indoctrinated state of mind. You are your own person. Don’t be scared about what your family and friends may say or think. Always know what you are doing and you can’t do that without an open mind.

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