An open letter to Rhett McLaughlin
and anyone else on the road to unbelief
Published: 12 March 2020 (GMT+10)
[To our other readers: “Rhett and Link” are a popular YouTube comedy duo.1 They were once professing Christians but have recently come out as “hopeful agnostics”. On their popular podcast, Ear Biscuits, they each spent a couple of hours detailing their walk away from the faith.2,3 This letter is in response to those podcasts. I don’t expect them to actually read this, nor to respond, but this is from my heart. Maybe some other struggling Christian can be helped by what I say.]
Rhett, I have followed you for years. You and Link have entertained me often. Even if it is over 12 years old now, the BBQ song4 is still one of my all-time favorites. After hearing from mutual friends that you and Link were Christians, I was encouraged to know that there were people like you setting a tone in the entertainment industry, even if it was only on YouTube. Even better, you both have an engineering background (I went to Georgia Tech) and were on staff with Cru (I have friends there). You grew up in a Baptist church (I attend one now) and have a ‘conservative’ background (this was not my background, but I have been around it for years now).
Yet, despite our similar backgrounds, there are some differences between us. For starters, I was, briefly, a committed evolutionist when I was younger. Second, I was not raised in a conservative church culture. So, when I started reading Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ in my late 20s, I was reading as a struggling, lukewarm Christian deeply entrenched in my PhD studies in a thoroughly evolutionary graduate program. The liberals and skeptics had reduced my faith to a skeleton. Yet, it was books like these that God used to study me back into Christianity. Unlike you, who never wanted to ask the question, “What if I am wrong?” I asked that question a lot, and it still pops up today. You talked about an internal existential crisis. I had that, but while going in the other direction. When I realized that science cannot be separated from philosophy and that we know nothing about the most important things (light, gravity, time, magnetism, subatomic particles, etc.) and yet claim to know the where and how of everything, let’s just say that my faith in the secular took a big hit.
So, when I heard about your ‘deconstruction’ videos, I had to watch them. I listened quietly. I tried not to judge. And, honestly Rhett, you brought me nearly to tears, twice. I listened to the whole thing. I listened to Link’s story as well, but I am responding to Rhett because your words hit me harder, not that what Link said was any less important.
I’m not going to cast stones. I can tell you know the Bible and that you have not come to these conclusions without a lot of soul searching and seeking other people’s counsel. I trust you when you say it was ‘real’ to you and I’m not going to say, “Well, you must never have been a Christian in the first place,” or “You only had an intellectual understanding of the Bible.” I’m also not going to blame “California Christianity” on your deconversion. Why? Because I’ve been in that place. I resonated with what you said in a big way. I understand the struggle. The struggles you have had are my struggles also. I’ve asked those same questions and wrestled with those same doubts. I hear you, man. I get this.
Yet, to date, we have ended up on different sides of a very important issue. I’ve tried to wrap my head around this, looking for that one thing I could identify as the turning point. From what you said I believe there are a couple of clues.
“I would call myself a hopeful agnostic.”
You say you still think that a belief in God and a belief in purposefulness in the universe is reasonable. OK, but you also say you’ve lost your appetite for certainty. This is something very different in me. I don’t mind uncertainty. I have never had the need to be certain. I did not need proof or a perfect argument. I like it when things are clear, in black and white, but the older I get the more I realize that there is no certainty about anything. We cannot get through this world without putting a lot of faith in something. Thus, the first thing that troubled me was your statements about evolution. It wasn’t your acceptance of evolution that bothered me so much as your earlier dismissal of it. I think the environment you were in set you up for a fall, at least in this one issue, because when you ran into the arguments for evolution you were not ready for them.
The second thing that troubled me was what you were reading as you were leaving Christianity. It kills me that you began to doubt the Christian apologists. And I see that you tried to add evolution to your faith, citing Francis Collins and C.S. Lewis (although Lewis’ views on evolution are much less clear). But I laughed when you said you were “not doing Francis Collins any favors” when you found that mixing evolution and Christianity was untenable. Thank you for making that point for us, but let’s not fall off on the wrong side of the horse. You read Coming to Peace with Science: bridging the worlds of faith and biology by Darrel Falk, saying it was a helpful book. You delved into the world of theistic evolution and you spent a lot of time on the Biologos website. You mentioned Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman. At one point, Link broke in and referenced Tim Keller’s Reason for God. We do not have reviews of two books you mentioned on creation.com: The Historical Jesus: five views by James Bielby and Why I believed: reflection of a former missionary by Kenneth W Daniels, so I cannot comment on them.
However, it does not surprise me that, given those sources, you might start doubting the resurrection, which you claim was your first point of departure. But may I ask you a serious question? This is not a ‘gotcha’ but a real, honest question:
What did you expect?
You said that the first doubts you had dealt with the historicity of the resurrection of Christ, that you were struggling with doubts about the historical Jesus and say these were more troubling than anything else you had wrestled with before.
But if the resurrection really did happen, what kind of reporting would we expect to hear? Honestly, what we read in the Gospels is pretty much exactly what I would expect. If the reports had been harmonized, I would be suspicious. But hard-to-reconcile first-hand accounts like this speak to the authenticity of those accounts. The people involved in the events did not think there were discrepancies in the reports, probably because they knew the full story, and the fact that we have four of these reports is nothing short of a historical miracle.
You claim, “The gospels are a mix of religious propaganda as well as actual history.” At this point, I am tempted to reply, “Are you kidding me?” If these things actually happened, the result would be something like the Bible. And if they happened, reporting on them, proclaiming them to the world, even dying in defense of them, are not at all unreasonable. Hence, the Bible is not propaganda. Luke, especially, is a commensurate historian for his day.
“What you believe about Jesus is paramount, but what you believe about Jesus is still based on what is presented in the Bible.”
You said, “The Bible began to make a lot more sense to me personally as a product of humans rather than God.” This led to “If I don’t have to believe that God ordered his chosen people to slaughter men women and children by the thousands, then why would I?” And other troubling questions of this nature. Essentially, ‘Why would I believe in a God like that?’
I have heard arguments like this often, especially over the last couple of years. It seems to be the ‘in’ thing to say in some circles. But this is not that hard to answer. On the one hand, if God allowed people to live for a million years before dying peacefully in their sleep, you would still be able to make the same argument. Why? Because even a million years is nothing compared to eternity. People would still be paying off an infinite penalty for sins committed over a finite period. But, on the other hand, if they lived forever there would be no punishment. So, this argument goes nowhere.
The principle of retribution comes into play here. Strangely, I learned this from none other than John Walton, whose textbook5 we use in the classes I am taking at my church. If God is who He says He is, and if there is any justice in the world, sins must be paid for. It is not strange that God visits judgement on people; it is strange that He waits so long, if God is who He says He is. Arguing from internal consistency, there is no contradiction here. Why do the wicked not get punished for their deeds? Because God is patient. Why do some people die early or suffer much? Because God is just. We are promised nothing when we enter this world. The fact that God takes some people out before they have grey hairs on their head is, in the end, a non-argument. That is, unless you accept secular humanism first.
“I no longer consider myself an evangelical Christian.”
You said your faith in both the New Testament and Old Testament was crumbling, which, unsurprisingly, led to a crisis. By the way, I loved your “sweater of faith” analogy, how by pulling at the thread a person could arrive at the point where there was nothing left. I might use that myself, if you don’t mind.
“I’m not ever going to believe that the earth is 10,000 years old, like, that car left the garage a long time ago.”
The second doubt you mentioned dealt with creationism. I want to separate this from the evolution question because you said you grew up among people who rejected evolution but were not young-earth creationists. So, you and I both first ran into YEC in college and neither you nor I had thought much about it before that.
And yet, essentially every source of information you cited is something we have written about on creation.com, including Creation and Time by Hugh Ross, The Bible, Rocks, and Time by Young and Stearley, The Language of God by Francis Collins (saying, “This is the kind of thing I lived for.”), and Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. You pointed us to the Wikipedia entries on chromosome 2 (see below) and evidence of common descent (too many creation.com articles to list). [Other readers take note: being that we have reviewed nearly all the books on this list, and on the list above, I need to emphasize that their apostasy might not have happened had they been apprised of good, solid answers to these questions. In other words, parents and pastors, please wake up, this could have been avoidable. Yes, there is a spiritual battle going on here, but this is also a battle for the mind.]
Is it true, as you said, that no matter what scientific field you are in, the evidence points overwhelmingly to a world that is very old, “billions of years, to be specific”? Is it true, as you said, that you have to dismiss a lot of evidence to be a YEC? I am unconvinced, mainly because all of those scientific fields are based, today, squarely on the philosophical assumption of methodological naturalism, which excludes the action of any God or god from day 1. If we reject that as an overarching philosophy, we are free to explore other alternatives–like divine creation. Also, the specific pieces of evidence you discuss are weak:
The chromosome 2 fusion claim. You said that chromosome fusions occur in 1/1000 births and only sometimes results in problems.
- I do not know where you got that idea and I think you are grossly incorrect, mixing apples and oranges. Maybe you just misspoke and meant ‘abnormality’ instead of ‘fusion’.
- But so what? Maybe an end-to-end chromosomal fusion happened way back in human history, like around the time of the Flood. I don’t think this is true, mind you, but the argument can go either way.
- Yet, when guys on our side examined the evidence, they found that a highly active, tightly regulated, and very important gene was sitting smack dab in the middle of the so-called fusion site,6 that the so-called deactivated centromere was decidedly human-like in its sequence, and that there were other non-centromeric places in the human genome that had a high sequence similarity to the so-called de-activated centromere.7 See also The chromosome 2 fusion model of human evolution, part 1 and part 2.
- The “chromosome 2 fusion” claim is actually a bad argument.
Humans and chimps are 99% similar.
- Dude, this idea comes from the genetic Stone Age (the 1970s) and the man who first made that claim is now a biblical creationist whom we have interviewed in Creation magazine.
- “Everybody knows that [99% similarity is true], because the human genome has been mapped.” No, everybody does not know that. In fact, anybody who has studied the issue realizes that the human and chimp genomes have millions of single-letter differences, thousands of comparative rearrangements, and a huge amount of DNA is not shared between our two species. See Is the human genome nearly identical to chimpanzee?—a reassessment of the literature.
- The real percent identity is sitting around 80–85%. Yet the number does not matter. All we need is for the differences to be greater than can be handled by drift and selection in the assumed 6.5 million years. The cutoff is up around 98–99%, which is why people are still clinging to the old claims even though they have been discredited. See Genomic monkey business—estimates of nearly identical human–chimp DNA similarity re-evaluated using omitted data and similar claims from non-creationists.8
- The “99%” claim is just plain wrong and the amount of difference cannot be explained in any evolutionary scenario I am aware of.
Retroviruses. You stated, “We share endogenous retroviruses with organisms we are closely related to.” And they are in the same place. “Why would God do that?” Link asks. Here you hit on something important. Nobody knows “why” God would do anything, but if he gave things the appearance of common ancestry, when there was no common ancestry, this would definitely raise questions about the character and nature of God. This argument has multiple facets, which is why people can be so troubled by it.
- In biology there is an old adage, “Form follows function.” That is, if some structure is present, there is probably a good reason for it being there. And, the more ‘conserved’ something is the more likely it has a strong function. So, from an engineering perspective, there is nothing wrong with God using tried-and-true functional elements in design, and the fact that these things have not been deleted in all the assumed millions of years since they got there is a really good indication that they are functional.
- If chimps did not exist, people would still be claiming common ancestry with apes. If apes did not exist, people would still be claiming common ancestry with mammals. Thus, in the end any designed similarity would be chalked up to common ancestry. Since evolution makes no prior prediction about how similar any two things should be, and neither does creation, similarity is a non-argument.
- Lots and lots of functions have been found for these virus-like sequences. In fact, they often have a gene promoter at the end, so their presence can turn genes on and their absence can silence genes. This is an important part of genomic regulation, for example in the developing mouse embryo9 and while our brain cells are differentiating.10
Transitional fossils. “I’ve been told there are no transitional fossils … Well, it turns out there’s a lot of ‘em.” This is something I have been warning other creationists about for a long time. We have to be careful with this argument.
- There have always been examples of transitional fossils, yet the specific examples tend to last about a decade (on average) before they are discarded or shelved. The track record on this subject is clear. How long will it be before the ones used today ‘go away’? Example, Tiktaalik and the footprints that preceded it.
- There are long lists of supposed transitional fossils available in many places online. These are daunting when you first come across them. Yet, nobody in the YEC community has thoroughly vetted them. It is time somebody takes up this task!
- Scrolling through the list, however, it is easy to see that the majority of examples are easily categorized within our idea of ‘variation within a kind’. The others will take more time to evaluate, but see the Tiktaalik links above.
- It is a mistake to think that the Creator was not creative. Humans like to put things into neat little boxes, hence Linnaean taxonomy. But God is not necessarily like us. He created a bewildering array of living organisms and some of these defy our classification schemes. Many of these forms are extinct, like the therapsids (formerly called the mammal-like reptiles), birds with bony tails and teeth, the multituberculate mammals, dinosaurs, etc.
- There is also a strong tendency for range extension in paleontology. That is, they keep finding things ‘earlier than they thought’. A lot of those so-called transitional fossils will end up not being transitional at all, at least in evolutionary time, and the ‘grandfather paradox’ pops up often.
“I’ve been told there really were no vestigial structures … Well, it turns out there’s lots of examples of vestigial structures.” But you give no examples.
- We have to be careful of equivocation. The definition of ‘vestigial’ has changed since Darwin’s time.
- Also, I defy you to come up with a real, clear example. The long list of things in the human body drawn up in the 1800s (I believe the list got to about 80 vestigial features) have all been answered. Take the appendix. We know of so many functions for it that we are not even certain what its primary function is. The recurrent laryngeal nerve is under severe design constraints and the supposed yolk-sac in the human embryo is rather important during early development (and has nothing to do with yolk). There are no gill slits in the human embryo, and there is no reason for them to ever be there, even under an evolutionary model. Etc. Etc.
- Then again, in a world under the curse of decay, why would we expect to find no useless leftovers of once-functional features?
Archaeology. You had been told, “The OT is always supported by the archaeological evidence.” I am sorry you were told that. And accepting the claim was a bit naïve of you, because this is never true in any field of science. There are always contravening data points that do not fit neatly in any given theory. This is why science is hard. But you then ask why there is no archaeological evidence for the Israelites in Egypt, the Exodus, or the conquest of Canaan? There is a huge amount of supporting evidence for these things, but you have to look in the right time period and ask the right people for examples. CMI is not focused on archaeology, but consider:
- If you line up the biblical chronology with standard Egyptian history, the Jews have long since left by the time of Rameses II, where most scholars try to place the Exodus. Of course there is no evidence for the Hebrews, them being slaves, or the Exodus during the Ramesside dynasty. They are long gone by then.
- A large group of people appeared in the Judean hill country prior to 1000 BC. They had the classic four-room house that we see in Syria and at Avaris in Egypt. And they did not eat pigs.11
- The Amarna letters, written by Egyptian vassal states to the ‘heretic’ pharaoh Akhenaten, describe an invasion of the ‘Habiru’. This dovetails nicely with the biblical timeframe and the geographic description of the conquest of Canaan.
- The biblical minimalists have painted themselves into a corner.
“Essentially, every criticism of evolution that I had held onto to justify my unwillingness to believe in it turned out to be a misconception or a misrepresentation of the facts.”
Excuse me? I am glad you don’t think creationists are being deliberately deceptive, but then you say, “I think that they’re so committed to their belief system they have become impervious to pretty straightforward information about this subject.” First, we don’t have to be right on all points. That’s not how science works. Second, do you not think that a secular humanist is not wedded to their belief system and might be feeling a little bit impervious to contravening information?
The geneticist, Darwinist, and Marxist professor, Dr Richard Lewontin laid it out over two decades ago. We quoted him in Creation magazine way back in 1998 (see Amazing admission):
“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
“I don’t think I can have a worldview that doesn’t embrace the reality of evolution.”
Yet, it is not that simple. As the philosopher Alvin Plantinga recently said:
“ … if you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused – as most of the world’s people believe – you won’t be able to reach that truth scientifically. Observing methodological naturalism thus hamstrings science by precluding science from reaching what would be an enormously important truth about the world. It might be that, just as a result of this constraint, even the best science in the long run will wind up with false conclusions.”12
“I understand that it is unreasonable to expect Christianity to be a set of scientifically verifiable principles. It is a faith, implying that some sort of believing without seeing is involved. And more specifically, Christianity is a relationship with Jesus … However, I don’t think it insignificant that the deeper I have dug into Christianity, with a thirst for the truth, the more difficult is has become to have faith. In fact, for me, it has become impossible.”
And I had the opposite experience.
Why are you evangelizing?
Here’s another important question: Why do you feel compelled to tell people about your spiritual state? On the one hand, I understand the desire to be real, to be relational, and to ‘gel’ with other people. On the other hand, I can’t see why baring your soul like this is important to what you are doing as an entertainer. It feels like you are still trying to pastor people, as if you feel compelled to gather a following or to encourage people in the place where they stand. Yes, you are trying to be honest, but the stakes are really high here.
The admonition, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness,” in James 3:1 comes to mind. You are playing the role of teacher in a game of uncertainty. If I am wrong, I lose nothing. If you are wrong, you lose everything, and you might take a lot of people down with you. This is the classic appeal toward reasonable people called Pascal’s wager, and even if this is not a strong argument, per se, it is still something to consider before one ascends the bully pulpit.
Nothing should exist
After much time thinking, I have been forced to conclude that nothing should exist. You can’t have an infinite regression of universes and, even with a God outside of space and time, you can’t know that there are not higher gods than Him. By definition, God is eternal in our 4-D universe, but what if He is not eternal in a 5- or 6-D universe in which He must exist? But this just brings up the infinite regression problem again.
Existence is impossible: statistically, rhetorically, philosophically, and scientifically. Yet here we are. This thought reminds me of the ending scene in Men in Black, where they zoom out to level of the entire galaxy and show that it is just a marble in a giant alien’s game. Of course, I don’t believe this, but nothing can be precluded based on what we know today, which is little. In the end, we have to trust something. I choose not to trust my own intellect. I choose not to trust methodological naturalism. I chose not to trust the physical world, as if that is all that exists. I do, however, choose to trust the God of the Bible, who opened my eyes to the raging battle around me.
This reminds me of 2 Kings 6:15–17, which no doubt you are already familiar with:
When the servant of the man of God [Elisha] rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city [Dothan]. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
My prayer for you is that you would see. That is all. It is a simple prayer, really, but one that changes people greatly.
I would like to wrap up with a story. When I am addressing churches, I often bring up a man named Charles Templeton. He was a famous evangelist and was strongly influential on the career of Billy Graham. But Charles walked away from Christianity and, by all reports, including his own, died an atheist. After I spoke to this one church in New Jersey, an old lady came up to me, pushing a walker. She had tears streaming down her face. She said, “I’m 87 years old and, wouldn’t you know it, I knew Chuck Templeton!” She then told me that she used to sing in the Billy Graham choir and that she toured with both Billy and Charles and was there the night the two of them stayed up all night, with Billy imploring Charles to “return to Jesus”. Charles didn’t. He walked away.
Rhett, you are on the cusp of this very thing. I don’t know what the reason is, not really, but we have seen this pattern repeat many times. Yet I know it is not too late, for I am an example of someone who went to the edge, looked over, and then turned back. But I had to do a lot of ‘unthinking’ in the meantime. I had to decide that certain people did not have my best interests in mind and that what they were telling me was highly slanted and strongly tainted with assumption and partial truths. That is not easy to do, but it is not impossible, my friend.
If God is not real, if Jesus did not truly come out of the grave, if the Bible is not true, then have as happy a life as you can, even though it is probably all meaningless and completely pointless in the end. I truly wish you to have a happy life. I don’t want anyone to be miserable, especially once I bare my soul to them like this. If, however, there is a spiritual battle going on, you have to acknowledge that everything might not be as it seems. The people you are reading, the things you are thinking, indeed everything, must be couched in a new framework.
Just for the fun of it, see my article We are less than dust. Also, everybody needs to watch our mini-documentary Fallout, which we filmed on college campuses while interviewing hundreds of college students who were asking these very same questions. We were able to demonstrate that those who had been exposed to answers were much more likely to remain in the faith. Readers will also want to familiarize themselves with the our best arguments, including those found in The Creation Answers Book, The Creation Survival Guide, and The Genesis Academy.
Creation is not a side issue. Education is not neutral. Parents, teachers, pastors … wake up! Rhett, Link, and anybody else who feels like they are falling away, we are holding out our hands to you in love, friendship, and support. You don’t have to go down that road.
References and notes
- See their Wikipedia page: wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhett_%26_Link. Return to text.
- Rhett’s Spiritual Deconstruction, 9 Feb 2020, youtube.com/watch?v=1qbna6t1bzw. Return to text.
- Link’s Spiritual Deconstruction, 16 Feb 2020, youtube.com/watch?v=w1AZhlyoD9s. Return to text.
- The BBQ Song - Rhett & Link, 14 July 2008, youtube.com/watch?v=6ubTQfr_tyY. Return to text.
- Hill, A. and Walton, J., A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd Edition, Zondervan, 2009. Return to text.
- Tomkins, J., Alleged human chromosome 2 “Fusion Site” encodes an active DNA binding domain inside a complex and highly expressed gene—negating fusion. Answers Research Journal 6:367–375, 2013. Return to text.
- Tomkins, J.P., Combinatorial genomic data refute the human chromosome 2 evolutionary fusion and build a model of functional design for interstitial telomeric repeats, In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism, ed. J.H. Whitmore, pp. 222–228. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Creation Science Fellowship, 2018. Return to text.
- Buggs, R., How similar are human and chimpanzee genomes? 14 July 2018; richardbuggs.com/index.php/2018/07/14/how-similar-are-human-and-chimpanzee-genomes/#more-265. Return to text.
- Tomkins, J., 2012. Transposable Elements Key in Embryo Development; icr.org/article/6928. Return to text.
- Baillie, J.K., et al., Somatic retrotransposition alters the genetic landscape of the human brain. Nature 479:534–537, 2011. Return to text.
- See Rainey, A.F. Inside, outside: where did the early Israelites come from?” Biblical Archaeology Review 34(6):45–50, 2008. See also Bates, G., Patterns of evidence: Exodus. A review, 15 Jan 2015; creation.com/patterns-of-evidence. See also Halley, K., Jericho after Joshua’s destruction: the match between the Bible and archaeology, creation.com/jericho-archaeology, March 2020. Return to text.
- Plantinga, A., Whether ID is science isn’t semantics, Science & Theology News 7 March 2006, web.archive.org/web/20060927232952/http://www.stnews.org/Commentary-2690.htm. Return to text.