Browsing Archives for Journey to Atheism

For part of my ‘Holy Week’ observance, I went to hear Bart Ehrman debate Craig Evans in Overland Park, Kansas.  Dr. Erhman is the author of the best selling book, Misquoting Jesus. He wrote the book as a result of thirty years of biblical scholarship which began when he became an evangelical Christian as a teenager in Lawrence, Kansas, took him to the Moody Bible Institute where he studied the bible in it’s original languages moved onto Wheaton College for his undergraduate degree, and eventually earned a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Ehrman is now a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  I read Misquoting Jesus on Easter Sunday a few days after the debate.  It is an interesting and easy book to read despite it’s heady material. 

Both the book and the debate centered on the ‘textual variants’ in the bible.  ’Textual variants’ is a fancy phrase for mistakes in ancient biblical manuscripts.  Due to a severe lack of copy machines in ancient Rome the books and letters in the New Testament were hand copied.  The scribes made mistakes.  They skipped lines. They were occasionally lazy or incompetent and sometimes they even made changes in the texts of the bible to fulfill a personal agenda.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of textual variants among the hundreds of ancient biblical manuscripts still in existence and no one has ever found an original copy of any of the books in the bible.  

One of the most striking examples of textual variants as told in Ehrman’s  Misquoting Jesus is the story of the woman caught in adultery.  This story contains the famous line of Jesus “whosoever among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone”.  Virtually all textual scholars of the bible agree that the riveting story of the adulterous woman being drug in front of  Jesus where he utters the famous line and finally intones – ‘go your way and sin no more’ was added to John long after the gospel had been in circulation.  Why do biblical scholars think this?  The story’s word usage and phrasing is very different from rest of the book as if it were written by a different author and the story doesn’t appear in the earliest copies of John that are still in existence.  

Another gut wrenching textual variant or mistake in the bible includes the last twelve verses of the gospel of Mark.  This passage contains the verses describing Christ’s followers as being able to ‘cast our demons, speak in tongues, handle snakes, and drink poison without harm’.  Without these final verses the gospel of Mark ends strangely and abruptly, yet it is obvious to textual critics that these twelve verses were added at a later date.  


The debate took place in a massive church called First Family in Overland Park, Kansas. Despite it’s name, I don’t think this church has anything to do with Michelle and Barack Obama. Overland Park is located in Johnson County  which comes in third in the amount of disposable income per capita in the US.  By the look of the church, much of that disposable income is getting dumped into the offering plate at First Family.  In fact, the ushers at First Family passed the plate twice during the debate, once before and once after and it wasn’t even a plate!  It was a velvet bag with wooden handles (retails for $49.99 ).  Right before the debate began, the audience was instructed to try and remain seated throughout the debate as it was being filmed by three huge cameras on fifteen foot pivoting booms.  Several burly men stood around the perimeter of the church throughout the service, guarding the doors.  This directive and the guarded doors made me feel strangely panicky.   

The debate began.  Erhman answered each of the seven questions first, allowing Dr. Craig Evans, his opponent to tidily sweep up the sticky problems he presented among the various ancient manuscripts as well as among the four gospels.  Evans, a Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College of Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada did his job heroically often receiveing resounding applause after he assured the crowd that yes –  there might be a few problems in the ancient texts of the New Testament, but nothing that changes the major points of Christianity.  

Ehrman countered again and again saying that if the bible has clearly been added to, subtracted from, and edited throughout it’s first thousand years, can it really be called the inerrant word of God?  And if there is clear indication that the bible has been manipulated for a variety of reasons including everything from incompetent scribes to political maneuvering – should it really be treated as holy writ and have such a massive influence on society today? Should it influence public policy and school text books?  Should it determine who is a sinner and who isn’t?  And should it be used to deny certain individual rights based on one’s gender or sexual preferences? 

Ultimately, I suppose it depends on what a person considers to be a critical variant (or mistake) in the bible.  

If the bible is inerrant – is even one textual variant enough to make it scarily questionable?

What about two textual variants?

What about 200,000 textual variants?  

What if some of these variants concern the doctrine of the trinity?

What if they don’t agree about the details of Christ’s birth?

What if they don’t agree about the details of Christ’s death?

What if they don’t agree about his resurrection?

At what point do these textual variants become so problematic as to make Christianity just one more myth on the mountain of religious myths that have long plagued humankind?


Here are a few photos from the debate…

Just one small wing of the massive church.




On my way to the sanctuary, I walked by an indoor ‘play place’ and two coffee shops!




The man in the striped tie is Dr. Craig.  Standing beside him is the pastor’s son who is currently studying something very holy-ish that involves staring in awe at ancient copies of the bible at Oxford.  





Bart Erhman is the one with the water bottle.  The pastor and his son are at the plexiglass podium.




Whenever Dr. Ehrman was speaking, the pastor and his son tended to look like they wanted to beat him up.


Smile boys!  You asked him to come!


At the end of the debate, the pastor and his son and Dr.Craig gathered a few of their buddies on stage and had a little bible love fest.  

Dr. Ehrman stood off to one side of the stage and hung his head.  He was kind of the Christ figure in this particular story.  

And the pastor and his cronies were kind of like the thugs who clamored for Jesus’s death.


There’s Bart… I mean Jesus.. I mean Bart - islolated, alone and alienated from the religious bigwigs who claim to have special knowledge about who God is and how his instruction manual should read.



See how Jesus… I mean Bart seems to know that he is doomed?



Finally, Jesus… I mean Bart was escorted off the stage by some of those burly usher types and the love fest continued without him.

The men on stage had a lot of patching up to do to make sure that the congregation understood that Erhman’s arguments were full of holes and that they could all be explained away in a few upcoming talks.


I was hoping to purchase an autographed copy of one of Dr. Ehrman’s books after the event.  I hunted around the huge church for a while looking for a table full of books and a line of autograph seekers.  I saw one young man carrying around a copy of Misquoting Jesus and I followed him to a room off the sanctuary.  The door to the room was being guarded by one of the burly usher types.  A few of us waited outside the room, but after ten minutes, it didn’t seem that Ehrman was going to come out and since I didn’t have a book to autograph and there didn’t seem to be any available,  I left.  

I guess I can see why a church would not allow an author to sell a book in their massive lobby that questions their entire belief system, but it was kind of parsimonious not to allow a few fans to get an autograph from a best-selling author. Perhaps they could have arranged a meet-up for the fans of Ehrman at a nearby bar?  

Or maybe that is asking a bit too much.

Then again…

I would think a church with it’s own play place and TWO coffee shops would not be afraid of the occasional obtuse absurdity.

Judge for yourself.
The Ehrman/Craig Debate at First Family


Happy Pills

April 14th, 2010


Happy pills (or selective seratonin re-uptake inhibitors) and my mom’s orange polyester evening gown with fabulous contrasting belt and jacket is how I am getting along these days.

So tell me internet.

What gets you through?

And if you say Jesus…

I will slap you.


A photo of Nate Phelps with some random crazy blogger.

On Saturday, I had the privilege of seeing both Nate Phelps, the estranged atheist son of Fred Phelps give a talk in his home town of Topeka and David Sedaris world renowned, hilarious, best selling author, who just happens to be a homosexual.  The fact that these two men were speaking at two engagements in my state only twenty miles apart was somewhat cataclysmic.  As strange as it may seem, the horrible protests of the Phelps family have probably done more good for the gay community as their disturbing signs often catapult people to the side of those who are being vicitimized and David Sedaris, with his honest and frequently hilarious stories about growing up gay in America is yet another potent force for opening people’s minds to the obvious humanity of the gay community.  

I am going to give the highlights of Nate’s talk. Or maybe they are more like low lights – since Nate’s story is painful and demoralizing. Still, I must say that Nate is an excellent, uplifting speaker who managed to find both humor and light in the telling of his brutal tale.

 But first I need to tell you briefly of my personal experience with the Phelps protesters.  

A few months ago, our family went to see Brian Regan, a comedian, at the Topeka Performing Arts Center and as usual, the Phelp’s family was there with their signs.  I took a few photos of the protesters at which point one of the Phelp’s grandchildren (her name I have since learned is Jael) said,”I wish you would ask us some questions.”

So I asked her what the sign she was holding meant.  The sign said ‘bitch burger’ and showed a baby inside of two hamburger buns.

‘It means that America is going to eat it’s babies’. she explained.

“What?” I asked.

“We are going to eat our babies!” She said again and then she launched into a long rambling spiel about abortion and medical research and it just got so weird that my brain clicked into nebulous mode and I started seeing Colin Firth climbing out of a pond in front of a large stone estate taking long strides towards me in black boots across a vast lawn while his sodden poet’s blouse clung to his broad chest when out of nowhere…

Jael paused in her baby eating speech…

“Do you have any kids?”  I asked her.

“Not yet.” she said.

A look of pain and regret flickered momentarily across her face. I imagined how hard it must be for a young Phelps woman to get a date.  I found myself feeling empathy for this girl.  I found myself wondering if she ever watched Colin Firth climb out of a pond and stride up to his glorious mansion while she waited for him on the stone verandah.  So I looked her over.

It didn’t seem completely impossible to me that she would have these thoughts.

Our conversation continued for a while longer - 

She was all like – blah blah blah – your are doomed.

I was all like – blah blah blah – you are deluded.

Her dad was all like – blah blah blah – you are going to hell.

I was all like – blah blah blah – there is no such thing as hell.

We bickered back and forth a while longer until the futility of it all began to wear on me. Finally, I walked back towards the theater and as I climbed the steps, I stumbled a bit and Jael called out in a voice full of sarcasm, “Don’t hurt yourself!”

This ended my exchange with god’s chosen people – The Phelp’s family.


Just a few weeks later, I got a completely unrelated e-mail from Nate Phelps.  He had read about my apology post on one of the many web sites where it is posted.  Yes, I am a little famous on the internet for being the ‘former christian shit head“.  It’s a real honor, but I try to keep myself humble.   Nate e-mailed  to wish me luck on my new journey.  

I emailed him back asking him if he was the ‘real Nate Phelps’ as I had just learned that Fred Phelps had an atheist son named Nate.

Nate responded that he was indeed the ‘real Nate Phelps’ and we had a brief e-mail conversation during which I learned that he was coming to Topeka for the first time in thirty years to talk about his childhood with Fred Phelps.  I marked my calendar and planned to attend.

When I arrived at TPAC, I assumed that the Phelps family would be outside protesting their brother’s talk.  There were signs posted outside of the theater that prohibited unruly noise during the event.  Evidently TPAC was prepared for the worst, but the Phelps clan was nowhere in sight. 

Shirley Phelps, Nate’s sister has said on many occasions that the child abuse of which Nate speaks is a lie and she has also told her brother that he should not speak of ‘private family matters’.  It seems that she can’t decide which tact to take in dealing with Nate’s story which has legal documentation to back it up.  The evidence for the beatings that both Nate and Mark Phelps (as well as their mother) received have been medically documented as well.

So Shirley really has no ‘axe’ to grind.  Or make that no ‘axe handle’, as that was Fred’s preferred ‘rod’ which he certainly did not spare to prevent his children from being spoiled according to biblical mandate.  He thrashed his children’s back and legs, pausing to let the bruises rise and then resuming the beating when it would be even more painful.  He also beat his wife, threw her down the stairs and chopped off her hair.



This is Nate receiving one of two long standing ovations from the crowd in Topeka.


This is when Nate held up a ‘mattock handle’ similar to the one his father used to beat him and his siblings after the razor strap became too frayed.  


Here are some of the highlights of Nate’s speech.  

- He began with reciting the books of the bible and told the audience that as a child if he or his siblings stumbled in their recitation of the sixty six books of the bible his father would say, “Somebody smack that kid.”

- Nine of the thirteen Phelps children remain involved in the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). 

- Even the KKK has denied any involvement with the WBC. 

- Fred Phelps and his church members are primitive baptists (emphasis on primitive).  They believe in absolute pre-destination meaning that nothing they (or anyone) says, does or thinks has any impact whatsoever on their eternal destination.  They believe that god pre-ordained who and who would not get into heaven.  In a desperate attempt to remind this random tyrannical god of their worthiness they choose to behave very similarly to the mad Old Testament prophets making a public spectacle of themselves with their despicable protests in order to appease their god.  

Here are the basic beliefs of John Calvin’s primitive baptists…

Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
Unconditional Election 
Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)

- To read further about the primitive Baptist belief system – click here.  

- The Westboro Baptist church does not regard their demonstrations as attempts to ‘save’ people or to proselytize, but rather as an act of obedience to the invisible angry tyrant who lives in the sky.  

- The Westboro Baptist church regards women as second class citizens.  This is based on the New Testament book of First Corinthians Chapter 11 where Paul teaches women that their long hair is a covering and that they should cover their heads as an act of submission both to men and to god.  When Fred savagely cut off his wife’s hair during one of his abusive tirades, he was essentially sending his wife to hell.  

- In 1970, Fred Phelps became obsessed with running and in typical fashion made his kids run too.  They ran up to ten miles everyday after school and that summer he entered his family into a marathon in Columbia Missouri.  It took seven year old Timothy seven hours to run the marathon and his eight year old sister Elizabeth, finished in eight hours.  None of the children even considered quitting the race.  No one would want to face their father with that failure.  The story of the Phelps family running this marathon made national headlines.  

- Fred believed that children were a blessing from god.  Nate Phelps left the family when he was eighteen and was sure that his decision would condemn him to eternity in hell.  Thus when he became a father himself, he was extremely confused.  How was it that god would bless him with a child (eventually three children) when he had not only married a divorcee’ but abandoned the only true way to follow god?  Nate’s faith took years to dissolve – even after he left his father’s house.

- As his children got older, Fred decreed that they would all become lawyers.  When one son announced that he wanted to be a history teacher instead, he was severely beaten.  Many of Fred’s children did eventually become lawyers and most practice in Topeka.  One daughter – no longer associated with the Phelps family – practices in Topeka as well, but has changed her name so that no one can identify her as belonging to the Phelps family.  

- Fred Phelps also decided that none of his kids could leave home until they ‘cleaved unto a wife’.  He therefore was able to maintain control of his children even after they reached adulthood.  The unmarried children of Fred still live in the family compound, but then again, so do the married children unless like Nate, they managed to break away.  

- Nate believes that as much as 30% of the income of the members of the WBC is given to the church.  This is how they fund all their various travels to protest all over the country.  

- The WBC truly believe that Obama is the anti-christ. This seems to be a belief they share with a wide range of conservative Americans. 

- A current belief in the WBC is that in July of 2012 – the world is going to end.  They believe that like Enoch and Elijah, no one in that church is going to experience an actual physical death.  Instead they will be taken up bodily into heaven.  Fred Phelp’s wife Margie is 85 years old.  Fred is probably a little older.  He is rarely seen in public these days and closely monitored by his family when he speaks.  

- Nate believes that the Westboro Baptist Church has probably done more to promote civil rights for the LBGT community than any other group in history.  Their protests frequently cause people to react in the exact opposite manner of Fred and his family making them less likely to have hateful attitudes that echo the Phelps family.

- You can listen to a similar talk from Nate Phelps in segments on you tube.  


When the talk was over, I waited outside TPAC to meet Nate.  He is a big teddy bear of a man with kindness and humor written on his face in spite of his horrible childhood.  Ahead of me in line were some of his former classmates.  They had a little reunion and it was very touching that they came out to see Nate.  I told Nate that I was the person who wrote the “Apology for being a Christian Shit Head”.  He nodded and we both laughed.  I asked him if he was finished with his book.  He said he was and that it would be out soon.  I told him that I was looking forward to reading it, “It will be fun!”  I said and then I realized how stupid that sounded so I said, “I mean it will be horrible!”  And then I realized how bad that sounded so I said, “I look forward to reading it!”  

I felt like a total idiot – but Nate just nodded and laughed.  He seemed to understand what I meant.  

If you want to read a much more in-depth story about the history of the Phelps family – click here.

To visit Nate’s blog – click here.

Enough for today!  I will post my idiotic conversation with David Sedaris soon.

Nate Phelps on Atheism 

I thought that some of my readers would want to know what Nate Phelps had to say about atheism and belief in general.  Overall, he was very open in his approach.  The audience was filled with members from both sides of the fence.  About half of the audience would clap when he was critical of religion, but when he made a remark in religion’s defense, the other half of the audience would clap.  The event was sponsored by the Topeka Metropolitan Church and also by Topeka’s Recovering From Religion – so it was a ‘bi-partisan’ event.  

Nate is an ‘out’ atheist, but when asked during the question session what he thought about religion in general – her referred to it as a primary agent for good in our culture.  Still, he strongly stated that the same bible that created the monstrous beliefs of his father – beliefs that allowed him to beat his children, abuse his wife, regard women with derision, hate homosexuals, and view everyone outside his church as sub-human come from the same bible that so many people use as a source for love, charity and hope.  It’s all in there.  The bible has all of it.  Nate is far too aware of the sickening parts of the bible.  He knows them by heart.  He was immersed in them his entire childhood.  Christians that prefer to ignore those passages – or to say that they no longer apply – try telling that to a kid who has a dad like Fred Phelps.