Ten Books That Changed My Life #3: Mere Christianity

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Mere ChristianityMere Christianity
C.S. Lewis
Changed my life in October 1996

It’s probably safe to assume that some readers will simply shut the door on this blog right now because I dare to mention the “C” word, especially on a personal finance site. After all, given the political climate in America for the past twenty years, anyone who dares call themselves a Christian should be tossed in a dungeon with Pat Robertson and locked up for good for the safety of us all, right?

To address this, I’m going to make two statements. First, I’m a Christian, but in today’s political landscape, I would be hesitant to ever call myself a conservative, because I don’t agree with a whole lot of what conservative politics in America stand for today. Second, I have no interest in converting anyone to Christianity via this blog, and this is probably the only time there will be a significant discussion of a single religion on this site.

When I first read this book, I was a pretty strong atheist. I believed that the default position for comprehending the world was that there was no God at all, and I couldn’t see any sort of logical argument that would lead me to believing in a God of any kind. It was an issue that I basically thought was settled until one lazy afternoon in a college dormitory, where I was asked about my beliefs, and an astute young man named Ben asked me if I had ever read an actual solid Christian apologist. When I confessed I had not, he loaned me his copy of Mere Christianity.

At this point, my exposure to Christians had been almost wholly negative. My parents were nominally Christian, but spent a great deal of time criticizing churches and pointing out their hypocrisies. In my school days, most of the Christian children stuck together closely in their own social group that I was aware of and friendly with, but I made it clear to them I wasn’t interested in their religious views, particularly towards a few of them who were quite open and loud about their beliefs. I had also witnessed the blathering evangelists on television, most of which were preaching a Gospel that an intelligent twelve year old could punch holes through.

Anyway, I took the copy of Mere Christianity and read the whole thing in a single Saturday afternoon. I remember thinking before I started reading it that I fully expected it to be tripe. When I closed the back cover, though, I was deeply shaken, and it sent me on a long journey of figuring out who I was and what I believed. Today, I would \describe myself as a Christian, but I wouldn’t say that I was converted by this book alone (there were many factors). I would merely say that it provided the first serious exposure I had to a well thought out and intelligently described discussion of Christianity from the perspective of a follower of the faith, and to see the religion laid out in such a sensible fashion really shook my belief structures to the core.

What’s it about?

Mere Christianity is a Christian apology; in other words, it seeks to explain the belief structure of Christianity in a way palatable to both believers and nonbelievers. Thus, he focuses on only those elements of Christianity that have been part of the belief structure in almost all times and all places, and thus avoids the differences between denominations and also issues with Christian history. This book is about the foundations of Christianity, not the details.

Rather than starting off by reiterating Christian doctrine (which would cause a nonbeliever to shut the book), Lewis begins with morals and ethics. From the Wikipedia entry:

Lewis bases his case for Christian belief on the existence of a Moral Law, a “Rule about Right and Wrong” commonly known to all human beings. This “law” is like mathematical laws in being real, not just a matter of convention, contrived by humans. But it is unlike mathematically expressed laws of nature in that it can be broken or ignored by humans, who possess free will.

Using this as an underpinning, Lewis goes on to lay out the basic tenets of Christianity, including the role of Jesus and the reasons behind atonement for sins. The entire book moves in a rather logical fashion, which is often unexpected to people who have not been exposed to a strong, intelligent discussion of Christian beliefs.

How did Mere Christianity shape the person I became?

It made me respect the beliefs and belief structures of others. This book was the first one that ever thoroughly destroyed a strongly-held belief structure of mine. I basically believed that all Christians were deluded fools, and to see a rational, well-constructed argument in favor of Christianity, even if I didn’t agree with it, altered my perspective on Christians as a whole.

It sent me on my own spiritual journey. In the ten years since I first read this book, I’ve read countless books on countless religions. I’ve spent hours upon hours considering difficult questions about my own beliefs and my own place in the universe. I wound up reading a lot of works from theological schools and other sources, including a few that really altered my viewpoint on various things, but none were capable of making that fundamental shift like Mere Christianity did.

It taught me that I didn’t have to simply accept the dogma of others. After reading this book and thinking about things for a while, I began to realize that a big part of my atheistic perspective wasn’t from my own thought process. I merely bought into what everyone else was saying around me without really thinking about it too much. Many people might expect that a book that would lead me to Christianity would cause me to think less; the truth is that Mere Christianity made me think about my beliefs and ideas more. In fact, that’s a big reason why this site exists: so many people in my generation accept that money works in a certain way, when the truth of the matter is that it works entirely differently.

It started me down a path of redefining my own moral rights and wrongs. I had some seriously skewed views during my college years about what constituted right and wrong, but as time went on, I found myself listening more and more to the little voice inside me. Eventually, I began to completely trust that voice, and it hasn’t led me wrong in a very long time.

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48 thoughts on “Ten Books That Changed My Life #3: Mere Christianity

  1. Fascinating. I just found your website last night after talking with a friend about personal finance issues. I’m guessing we’re probably close to the same age, and we’ve both had a profound experience with this book. Great to hear that from someone else. Keep up the good work with the blog!

  2. Outstanding book! I read it shortly after I began taking Christianity for real and I have shared and recommended it to many people since then.

  3. I’m going to add this one to my reading list, and I might recommend it to a friend of mine who needs to be a bit more open-minded to my faith.

    Thanks for the weekly fix of books that changed your life!

  4. I’d like to echo what Lance said. Thanks for stating publicly what you believe. Christianity gets a bad wrap in this world from the crazy ‘christians’ on TV. I hope others will use this book as maybe an introduction into what Christianity is really all about.

  5. Great article. I know how hard it is to be that honest and open on that subject in this world. I too ran from the church because of my perception of “them”. I eventually came to know Christ and saw my earlier beliefs as faulted as the people who caused them. We all and always will make mistakes. I commend you for openness and bravery.
    “Its all about Jesus, and he always sets you free”

  6. I’m not a Christian, but the fact that you are will not make me stop reading your blog. If I as an American stopped consuming products produced by Christians I think I would have to stop consuming altogether.

    I understand why some Christians feel like it is a bad thing to say they are Christian, but let’s be honest. About 80% of Americans claim to be one type of Christian or another, so it’s not like you are surprising anyone. It’s like announcing that you like cheese in Wisconsin.

    Now if you announced you were Atheist and won a seat in congress I would take a second look.

    Anyway, be proud of what you believe, and keep making great blog posts and recommending great books. I added today’s to my wish list.

  7. This book does a very good job of explaining that atheism is, in and of itself a religious belief.

    If your belief, perspective, and viewpoint about God is based on other people (i.e. those “crazy Christians”), you’ll always walk away disappointed. Try listening to what God has to say for himself instead.

  8. I’ve had this book recommended to my by two of my friends. One is now an atheist like me and the other is a practicing Catholic. So I guess its an open-minded enough book that I might want to read it too.

    Although, I’d normally say that a Christian apologist hasn’t really got any business explaining atheism and I’m fighting the urge to believe that he’s got it wrong.

  9. Hey, come now. I’m an atheist and I will still continue to read your posts even though I guessed (rightly so) that you were a christian from your faith post before.
    And to echo Josh Baltzell, 80% of the US population is at least nominally christian, so it’s not that big a deal. Not as many can write well about personal finance and that is why I will continue to visit your blog.
    Plus talk of the ‘c’ word or the ‘g’ word being a four letter word is absurd, quite frankly.
    I would also add that if you want people to stop equating christianity with the crazies on tv (i.e. Pat Robertson) then it would be nice if christians would actually take the time to call him crazy in the first place. Loudly proclaim that Robertsons god is not your god. That would go a long way with some people.

    And Tim, to paraphrase what others have said, “If atheism is a religious belief, then not collecting stamps is a hobby”.

  10. While I grew up as a Christian, in college i had some major doubts. This book really helped me solidify what I believed – which isn’t the type of stuff generally associated with Christianity, as you explained.

    Thanks for writing about this book in your blog, which is probably the most powerful and real explanation of true Christianity out there.

    And to Angela (a commenter) – C.S. Lewis writes about atheism b/c he was an athiest for a good chunk of his life.

  11. Frank: I’ll take the time.

    I think Pat Robertson’s choices and actions and words are quite often crazy. I don’t think that he is crazy. I don’t know him, and I don’t think it’s fair for me to judge that, from my perspective.

    Further, to say that Robertson’s god is not my god, that would be silly. Everyone can make their own choices and deal with their own consequences. Because I disagree with someone doesn’t mean that I condemn or condone everything that they believe in. I have been on record as judging people and making open statements that I will not support some people. But, I do not just rush to those decisions and then also condemn all other beliefs that those people have.

    I think it is important to search and to learn for myself. I also think it is important for others to do the same. That’s why Mere Christianity hit home for me.

  12. After all, given the political climate in America for the past twenty years, anyone who dares call themselves a Christian should be tossed in a dungeon with Pat Robertson and locked up for good for the safety of us all, right?

    Yeah, no Christian could ever become President. Unlike all those openly atheist politicians running. It takes real courage to be openly Christian in this country.

  13. Blue Devil Knight: I’m only responding to you because I’m not entirely sure that you’re trolling. The only reason politicians pretend to be Christian is because the “average voter” is a Christian senior citizen. That’s also the same reason why none claim to be atheist. Christians vote in a disproportionate manner compared to the general populace. If you really think that Christians are taken seriously at all or treated with any modicum of respect in mainstream popular culture, you’re kidding yourself.

  14. Most telling is this: “I began to realize that a big part of my atheistic perspective wasn’t from my own thought process. I merely bought into what everyone else was saying around me without really thinking about it too much.” So this author was not really an atheist in the sense of having rationally thought about this position, considered theism analytically, and come to a conclusion pro or con. If he had, CS Lewis would certainly not have swayed him.

  15. ‘After all, given the political climate in America for the past twenty years, anyone who dares call themselves a Christian should be tossed in a dungeon with Pat Robertson and locked up for good for the safety of us all, right?’

    You would not believe the abuse Tony Dungy is taking for coming out as a Christian at the Superbowl.

    Is thee anything that can be done to help the guy?

  16. “If you really think that Christians are taken seriously at all or treated with any modicum of respect in mainstream popular culture, you’re kidding yourself”
    Trent, are you really serious? Do you really believe that? With the vast majority of the population at least nominally Christian in the United States, you really believe that Christians are not treated with any “modicum” of respect?

  17. Dungy’s being lauded because of his attitude and his status as a flag-bearer for racial equality. Those two factors are why he’s getting positive attention; the Christianity aspect is just flavor.

    As for “not thinking about religion,” of course I didn’t. Prior to reading this book, my experience with religion was negative and not worth my time even thinking about. I gave atheistic philosophies plenty of attention, but I gave no attention to theistic philosophies.

    And as for Christians getting no respect, why are magazines promoting atheists as cutting-edge and intelligent just because of their beliefs? Dawkins and some of his cohorts were given the cover of Wired just a few months ago just because they’re atheists. Do you believe a Christian will have that opportunity because of their faith?

  18. Atheists are unelectable. Look at any poll of this tpic. And it is not because only grandmothers vote. You are suffering from the delusion of Christian persecution, which is common. Indeed, if anyone is persecuted, locked outside the mainstream in this country, it is the atheist. Trendy magazine cover notwithstanding.

    I admire Harris and Dennett for fighting the marginalization of atheists.

  19. So every Christmas or ever so often when there is an expose on the Virgin Mary, or Jesus, or a special on Heaven with Barbara Walters that’s nothing?
    Rick Warren and his purpose driven life gets a ton of media. Evangelicals were also getting tons of media as well even before the Haggart scandal.
    You take a look at a couple of outliers for atheism and now Christianity is not being respected?

  20. Christians comprise about 70 to 80% of the people in this country (US). As a person who grew up in, but is NOT currently in, this demographic, I would like to also join in with the others pointing out that Christian persecution in America is self delusion which has been so pretty much since Emperor Constantine had his conversion in the 4th century.

    This would be entirely benign, were it NOT for the record of Christian persecution of other religions since that time, atrocities this view wholly perverts and fully ignores. After all, witches did not burn Christians at the stake, as recently as the 1700′s.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch-hunt#The_Burning_Times

    As a member of another closly related suppressed belief system, I am disgusted by the sentiment of Christian apologists who deny their current domination of the political and business landscape with such obvious vapid rhetorict.

    Otherwise, excellent blog though- keep up the good work ;)

  21. Only a very small portion of the population is actually Christian. A large slice of the population is nominally Christian, meaning they’ll mark it on a poll form because that’s what seems like the right thing to do.

    I encourage you to carefully re-read the first paragraph of what I wrote above, because I think a lot of the atheists commenting here (and in other threads on other blogs) are missing the point a bit. Christians are persecuted because the popular impression of a Christian is that of a person like Pat Robertson. When I tell someone I’m a Christian, the assumption is that I share a lot of beliefs with people like Pat Robertson.  The truth is that my political and social beliefs are very, very far from Pat Robertson, and to be marginalized in such a way convinces me that in fact in most political discourse, the “c” word is very bad.

  22. ‘When I tell someone I’m a Christian, the assumption is that I share a lot of beliefs with people like Pat Robertson.’

    No, I just assume you believe in talking donkeys.

  23. ‘Only a very small portion of the population is actually Christian.’

    Does this mean that most people who claim to believe in God are deluded about their own beliefs?

    Why are they not Christian? Are they like the early converts to Jesus-worship in Corinth that Paul wrote to (calling them people who have been enriched by Christ Jesus) and who scoffed at the very idea that God would choose to raise a corpse from its grave?

  24. Like many engineering/technical types, I always said, “God, if you can explain to me how all this works, I’ll believe.” Until I read Lewis’ book when I was in my mid 40′s, it had never been explained, and, I guess, I had never believed.

    One can’t be a Christian fully on the basis of some logical proof — Faith is required. However, Lewis did a masterful job of explaining to me, in simple direct language, and in a highly logical manner, why Christianity makes sense. It gave me the logic required to have and trust my Faith.

    I have shared this with a more than one of my atheist/rational friends, and it has had the same affect on them.

    It is clear, straightforward, and easily understood. Without a doubt the best and most direct book I’ve ever read on Christianty, by far.

    If Mere Christianity turns out to be too simple for you, I recommend one of Frank Sheed’s books, Theology and Sanity.

  25. Trent:

    The fact that you’re a Christian doesn’t, to me, detract from your blog–it’s an excellent blog and I’ll continue to read and recommend it.

    As I commented at franky’s blog, I don’t see how you can reasonably defend the claim that Christians are an oppressed minority in the current political climate (even given your denial that most nominal Christians are really Christians).

  26. “If you really think that Christians are taken seriously at all or treated with any modicum of respect in mainstream popular culture, you’re kidding yourself.”

    I think you must be defining “mainstream popular culture” in an unusual way (perhaps by restricting it to “what comes out of NYC and Hollywood”). The mainstream popular culture includes megachurches, bestsellers by Tim LaHaye, Christian radio and TV stations in nearly every major city, and the assumption on the part of most people that everyone they meet is a fellow believer, at least nominally.

  27. Jim: what constitutes mainstream Christian popular culture is often very intellectually weak. Intelligent, well-spoken Christians are a rarity in mass culture. Have you ever read LaHaye’s fiction (extremely predictable) or “The Purpose-Driven Life” (a very one-dimensional self-help tome)? These books encourage people to blindly follow rather than question – and in mainstream discourse, that attitude is looked at as more of a curiosity than anything.

  28. Trent: I think “mainstream popular culture” and “very intellectually weak” go along quite well together, whether or not you insert the word “Christian” before “culture.”

    I’ve read Slacktivist’s quotations from (and critique of) Left Behind, and I’d say it’s not just predictable, it’s very badly written, error-ridden, and represents poor theology.

    I see your point, but I’m not sure it’s unique to Christianity. The mass media tend to characterize all issues as a dispute between two extremes, and their typical selections for any viewpoint on religion is not likely to be the most eloquent spokesperson for a reasonable view.

    People who can successfully communicate the most abstruse and complex intellectual ideas to mass audiences are quite rare.

  29. “Atheists are unelectable. Look at any poll of this tpic.”

    Absolutely wrong. Atheists are elected all the time. Many of them hide behind the Bible and Christianity, but they are certainly NOT Christians. GWB is a Christian in name only. Hillary and Bill are Christians in name only. This list is very long. The first rule of politics is to attend church and profess Christian beliefs.

  30. This book had a great impact on me too. I have read pretty much everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, and The Chronicles of Narnia especially are very dear to me.

    I am also a non-fundamentalist Christian (an Anglican, like C.S. Lewis).

  31. Http: //www. He appraised her lover was growing gruppenspiel jugendlich rounder, she was. Perhaps.

  32. Wow, how strange to think that people would shut the door because you are Christian. Most people in this country are Christian, and people that are not Christian are not surprised when people say they are Christian. For example, I am an atheist but most everyone around me is Christian. Does that bother me? No. Surprisingly, I also consider myself conservative. I’m an old-fashioned Goldwater conservative.

  33. I see a lot of comments about giving Christianity a chance, or giving atheism a chance. Why not look at the equivalents of “Mere Christianity” or “The God Delusion” for Islam? Buddhism? Pantheistic religions?

  34. Trent, I really appreciate what you’re saying about Christianity being intellectually weak. In the middle ages, Christianity supported a lot of research and writing. The real thinkers were Christian (think Augustine, Pascal, and countless others). Now, Christianity is equated with NOT thinking. It’s sickening. No wonder the intelligensia turns away.

    An interesting book on this topic is “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” by Mark A. Noll. It’s tough reading, but he brings up some good points.

    I go to Baylor University, the only school that is striving to be both a top tier university (we have some outstanding research going on) and a CHRISTIAN university (in more than just name). And that causes a lot of friction. A lot of people say it can’t be done. But then what does that mean? That thinking and Christianity are mutually exclusive, which I refuse to believe.

  35. Hi Trent, i’m Valerio from Italy, more precisely from Rome.
    I’m not as you can think christian, i’m a staunch atheist, and in the Pope’s city i had to met a lot of intelligent christian people, and i can say that intelligent it’s not something that goes against christianity.

    In the quote you had taken from wikipedia, there is a statement that says “Lewis bases his case for Christian belief on the existence of a Moral Law, a “Rule about Right and Wrong” commonly known to all human beings.”
    This is a Kantian way of thinking, a philosophical way of thinking where morals it’s a science, but, as Kant says, there is an a priori part.
    So, it’s not science, but it’s absolute.
    To deepen that way of thinking, i suggest you to read “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals” in the translation of H.J. Paton, by Harper Torchbooks.
    In the translator’s preface, there is a discussion about that point of view, with suggested reading of Schopenhauer.
    That’s a good way to rethink about that topic ;)

    BTW, it’s a lot of time that i read your blog, and i find that’s useful and pleasant to read. Good job, and sorry for my poor english!
    Ciao! ;)

  36. Special Ed: While I agree there is plenty of evidence that George W. Bush and the Clintons tell falsehoods, there is zero evidence that any of them are atheists, and your assumption that any Christian who tells falsehoods for political gain or pragmatic reasons is therefore an atheist is wrong and a slur against atheists.

  37. I read “Mere Christianity” 2 years ago. It lifted me from a quasi-Christian agnostic to a quiet believer in Christ. (I was raised Catholic and am still recovering.) I too am turned off by Christian salesmen in various disguises. In fact, it is those kinds that typically push people in the other direction. Anyway, I think that all aspects of our lives overlap. Spirituality is definitely relevant in our financial lives; it defines our moral ethics with money, giving and values. Thank you so much for baring your soul on this one.

  38. i loved this book. because it answered a lot of my questions and helped prove that being a Christian does not mean chucking your intelligence out a window.

    thanks for the review, will recommend this post to my friends.

  39. I just finished reading the book about an hour ago and it is definitely the best description of Christianity that I have read. I especially enjoyed books 3 and 4 where Lewis discusses behaviour of Christians. However, I found his logic in books 1 and 2 to be pretty fuzzy so it hasn’t swayed me from my position as an Atheist.
    The mantra that Dawkins puts forth that “just because we want something to be true, doesn’t make it so” rang in my ears a few times while digesting Lewis as his ideas are extremely appealing. However idealistic they might be doesn’t make the premise of a personal God truer though.
    I will continue to think more on this and search out more material like your recently suggested The Reason for God by Timothy Keller as Lewis’s work raised some interesting questions:
    Is his view of Christianity the real way to be a Christian (and if so, what makes him right?) or is it just what he thinks being a Christian should mean. Despite these questions, I definitely agree with you Trent, that Mere Christianity was challenging reading.

  40. There is abundant evidence of intelligent design present throughout the universe, anyone who doesn’t see that is a fool.

    As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter. —pre-eminent scientist Max Planck

  41. I really respect you for making this public!
    I too am very interested in apologetics.
    I read CS Lewis, Ravi Zacharais, Norman Geisler and William Lane Craig. They are all great men of God!

  42. Wow, I’m totally with you. I am a Christian (a pretty fundamentalist one too), but I am appalled at the “religious right” and the right-wing politics that turn Christ into a means to an end and not an end in it of itself. I once was a believer in all the things the world taught me, and it was books like Mere Christianity which really challenged me to think for myself. Something which a large part of the religious right do not do, nor much of the other side either. A good change for me was, if something is really true, then I shouldn’t be afraid of opposing beliefs and/or investigating them, because what is ultimately true will always come out in the end.

    For instance, I purposely read the God Delusion by Dawkins to find out why he believed what he did, and to learn more about the atheist’s mindset. Although there were a few challenging points, the book, unlike Mere Christianity, relied mostly on persuasive arguments rooted in pathos and ethos, and not so much in logos (logic). But if I was afraid to think for myself and only believe what I’ve been told, I wouldn’t have dared read this book, but since I’m convinced of the truth of Christianity, I have no fear reading these books now, or any other challenging argument or belief system.

    Kudos to John, the atheist posting above, for reading this book, and I hope you give Christians more credit for their beliefs, because as C.S. Lewis said in the chapter on faith, we wouldn’t believe what we did if it wasn’t rational.

  43. I’m an atheist (or actually an agnostic, but in the Thomas Huxley manner not the modern manner), but I’m a huge fan of CS Lewis. Haven’t read Mere Christianity, but I love The Screwtape Letters – I think it’s a pretty interesting treatment of ethics. In that book he makes the argument that it’s sex without joy that’s a sin – as soon as you bring joy into the equation sex is actually pretty awesome.

    I, personally, have nothing against Christians or Christianity and indeed much of my favorite writing and art and thinking has been created by Christians.

    I find the sort of militant atheism that seems to be the modern, public face of atheism kind of unpleasant. I’m sure many Christians feel the same way about some of the farther right Evangelicals. So it goes.

  44. Mere Christianity was also my first attempt at any type of theological writing (other than the Bible). I was already a Christian at the time I read it (I was 19 or so), but through this book I was pushed through such an intense mode of self-discovery. It’s through this book that my faith was made stronger.

    Thanks for sharing this part of your life. It’s amazing to know that others have gotten as much out of Mere Christianity as I have.

    And just an overall thank you for the site, in general. Your articles have been a huge help to me, in creating a budget that works, in new ideas for savings, and in helping others. I’ve been emailing others with links to various articles of yours here. So, thanks for all you do. It’s appreciated.

  45. #37 Valerio – I’d really recommend the book “What’s So Great About Christianity?” by Dinesh D’Souza. He has a chapter on Kant and the problems with some of Kant’s logic. In fact, for any of you intellectuals out there, I’d highly recommend the book. It’s the most well-written, thoughtful, logical defense of Christianity I’ve ever read, even better than Lee Strobel’s books (although his are very good, too). Hearkens back to the early days of science when all scientists were Christians attempting to describe and unlock the keys to this wonderful and awe-inspiring universe we live in. Speaking of the universe, I’d also recommend the DVD documentary “The Privileged Planet”.

  46. Hi Trent,

    I just found your blog last week and have been enjoying your posts, as I have been actively seeking to further my financial knowledge. This post caught my eye only because I clicked on “Ten Books That Changed My Life”, and I had to comment. Mere Christianity changed my life, too! But, differently. :-) I was raised as a devout Christian, and spent a semester at seminary. This book actually deconverted me! It made me realize that, as Lewis says, either Jesus is who he said he is, or else he’s a lunatic or a liar. I’m not sure which he is, but I know which one he’s not. I’m now a very happy atheist. I enjoy your posts immensely, and I am learning a lot. Thank you.

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