I heard this story on “This American Life.” I want to offer it as a kind of amelioration to the many posts about religion here, because I think it needs to be added. I did my best to transcribe the story, but you can listen to it here.

David Ellis Dickerson tells the story of heading home to Tucson after six years away, having rejected the evangelical Christianity of his family. David came prepared for war, armed with new beliefs. But his family had something else in mind:


I was fully aware that I was the black sheep. I had rejected my faith and had rejected Tucson. I was sitting with my dad in a booth in a diner. It should have been just this innocent thing, where I was sitting with my dad after six years and I want to catch up but it wasn’t like that.

I was at war. I was at war with all Christians and I was just waiting for the chance to fire a shot. I was raised an Evangelical Christian—you know, a conservative, Bible-believing Christian. I loved it so much I wanted to be a Pastor. I went off and majored in religious studies at college. And in my very first scholarly class of the history of the bible my faith began to crumble, and there was nothing left. And I now had this game I could play where if you opened the bible to any page, I could find five flaws in it.

So I spent this entire time with my dad just waiting for the chance to pounce—just waiting for him to mention the virgin birth just once and I’ll tell you it’s a mistranslation from Isaiah. You know, just mention the anti-Christ, Revelations, the end times—please, please! And I have a screed set up so blistering that it would make Billy Graham feel ridiculous. I had all this ammunition and I couldn’t wait to use it. It had turned me into a bit of a jackass.

Now, what my dad didn’t know was that one of the reasons I was so excited was that I was just coming off of a victory. The previous night, I had argued my brother-in-law to a standstill. He had mentioned how proud he was about being a Christian because everything in the bible was so scientifically accurate. And I went a little nuts and I said, “Oh yeah?! Well what about this thing? What about here where it says God caused the sun to stand still during this battle? Do you believe this actually happened?”

And my brother-in-law said, “Well OK, that’s weird. I wish it weren’t in there. But if I doubt that, where do I stop?” And then I knew that that was as close I was going to get to him saying I was right and he was wrong. It was 5:00 in the morning. I had argued this one point for seven hours. I realized, this is like my job. I had just put in a full working day! Obviously, I was obsessed. At the time I was 28 years old.

I was also a virgin, because until then, I believed that that’s what God wanted from me. I had lost ten years of my life before my faith collapsed. I felt betrayed. I was furious and I didn’t know who to blame. But I knew I could help other people from having the same horrible experience. I looked at my brother-in-law and I knew I could save him.

So while I was sitting there in the diner with my dad, that whole victorious experience was still kind of humming in my head. But a brother-in-law is one thing and a dad is something else—I needed to save him. And so I said, “Dad, so what’s your life like right now?” He said, “Well, I found a new church home.” I heard the word “church” and perked up! But there wasn’t enough to argue about just going to church. But then he said, “You know, I’ve been praying about it and I think I’m going to be a missionary.”

I sat up—that struck a chord. I asked him where he was going to go, and he said, “Oh, Spain.”

I snapped! I said, “Oh, of course. Of course you’re going to go to Spain. That is so arrogant! Only an Evangelical would think they had to go to Spain because those poor benighted Spaniards have to learn about Jesus.” I went into this long rant about Evangelicals and all their beliefs and how they are just a tiny sliver of Christianity. “Oh, and dad—I guess you think you’re saving people. What do you think you’re saving them FROM? Hell? Well, ‘hell’ is just a mistranslation of…” and one and on I went. And I told him that by using hell anyway, you’re only undermining Good because a morality based on fear can never bring out the best in people. And I just rambled on like this and I knew while I was doing this, I was also assaulting his dream; you know, saying that everything he was excited about that he was sharing with me was misbegotten. But all he had to do was admit I was right and then we would be OK.

During all of this, he just quietly let me do my thing, and when I’d gotten my piece out he said, “David, I’m really proud of all you’ve done and really glad that you enjoy studying all these things and thinking all these thoughts. But I’ve got to tell you, before I became a Christian I was miserable; I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to get a divorce from your mom.”

And I remembered, suddenly, I was six years old, and I was back in the car. I remembered driving in the station wagon with my dad from South Dakota to Tucson because dad had had a nervous breakdown. He was rebuilding everything. I remember that he was holding a cigarette out the window the whole ride down—I remember it made a strong impression on me as a child. About half way through the trip he simply threw away all his cigarettes and never picked them up again. That was the conversion—the start of the change in his life.

My dad continued, “You now, when I first went to Grace Chapel (that was the church where he converted) I thought those people were crazy.” When I was 8 years old, I had gone to Grace Chapel with him. It was a charismatic church, where people speak in tongues and raise their hands and they anoint people with oil, and they pray for miracles and sometimes roll on the floor. Dad said, “I was just staring at the stuff people were doing and I thought ‘This is crazy!’ But I could not ignore the love in that room. And the care they had for each other and I kept going back, and back. And I wanted it. And I wanted it to makes sense to me, so finally one night I prayed, ‘God, if I have to cut my own head off to be happy, I will do it’. So I know you’ve gone to college and you learned all these things. Here’s what I know, David. I followed Jesus and the Lord gave me a family.”

My parents had almost gotten a divorce. I remember once I had come upon a notebook, where my mom and dad had divided everything up on paper—you know, who was going to get the TV and that kind of thing. They had gotten that close but then my dad converted and he said, No, we’re sticking this out. We’re gonna make this work. And it had.

And my brother too—he’s real conservative and I’m sure he thinks I’m going to hell. But one time when I was a student, he gave me $300 and he said, “Don’t worry about paying it back.”

I looked at my dad and had expected to argue sort of like I had with my brother-in-law –not to win, but to come to some sort of truce where we could say we’d agree to disagree, but they would say they saw my point and it was a good point. I hadn’t expected to lose completely, but you can’t argue with decency. You can’t argue with goodness.

The thing about the bible is, it’s huge. I could pick at it because I could pick out anything I wanted: talking snakes, virgin births. Eventually I came around to thinking: maybe religion doesn’t have to be consistent. Maybe you can just like it enough for it to be good. Maybe religion can be like, like, well, I’m a big Star Trek fan. If you asked me I would say I like Star Trek, but if you asked me to defend individual episodes I would be at a loss—I can’t defend everything Star Trek did; I just love the concept. Maybe religion is like that.

So what I said to my dad was, “Oh, look here comes the waitress.” We got our Cokes and our hamburgers and we looked at each other, raised the glass, had a bite, and, my dad didn’t know this but we were having communion.


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I am an atheist. Not by design or by default, but that’s just how it ended up. Religion is quite possibly the most fascinating and complex human invention there will ever be.

To think that the trillion-year dance of dust, gases, energy, gravity and luck that created and nurtured life would “evolve” us into beings capable of creating such a interesting way of explaining the unexplainable is truly amazing.


A parsdox, indeed.


Cher, one last thought occurs to me as I re-read this article. Isn’t it possible the son has just taken the first step from an immature faith to an adult one? From false belief to genuine?

It has always seemed to me that doubt and some degree of discomfort is part and parcel of the real thing. Living on that knife’s edge of uncertainty. Mystery and darkness should be as much a part of faith as comfort and security.

The son is at the threshold of realizing that the faith that can be nailed down, buttoned up, and totally comprehended is no bigger than the human who holds it. And don’t we long for something bigger than we are?

The son deserves to celebrate communion with his dad. Maybe for the first — authentic — time in his life.


To the second paragraph, I just finished reading an article from Christianity Today from someone I’ve met, who has been to my house and I to his. So while I’m not gonna pass him off as a friend, he wrote an article entitled “God of the Schizophrenic” that dealt with a lot of interesting issues.

He’s also a Democrat and it comes through a little. He goes after the conservative members of church who after listening to him for two minutes would ask if he was gay, had unconfessed sins or didn’t believe enough. Then they’d try to lay their hands on him and “fix” the schizophrenia through prayer.

He tells of a Catholic, who wore a saint medal (Dymphna? 🙂 ), the University Psychiatric professor and head of residency leaned over him, was honest about his condition; and then asked my acquaintance: “do you believe in God”



…and to that final question, though he’s struggled with his faith and wrote that he is still a Christian, he hasn’t come up with an answer to that.


I’ve always been of a mind, that if I/we had all the answers I/we wouldn’t be here, nor would I/we have the need to be.
Worse, this would seem a much more hostile place than it already is.
And having the answer to the universal question would make being here a genuine hell built on redundancy, purposelessness and constant, mind boggling contradiction.
But since I don’t have the answer…I can’t really be sure. Can I!?


Foxisms, very well said. It is the mystery we should keep in our hearts. According to the conduct of Nature, we should always be in a state of “becoming.”



1) I totally get it, the structure, comfort and inspiration religion can redirect some people’s lives in. I also loved the Star Trek Gestalt revelation.

2) But, why can’t they recognize that for them it was X religion and for another it is Y? So you’re attracted to one faith for whatever reason, you see holes in it but it doesn’t matter, it was your choice and your calling. Why must everyone else (missionary; lower case ‘judgment’) have the same epiphany?

I don’t see why 2 needs to follow 1 with so many. I wish they had been called to another tradition.

So my question is this: why is the evangelical, charismatic form (or Salafi Islam, etc) so much more appealing to those whom have lived the hardest lives until then. We’ve broached this subject before and I know some of the answers I’m likely to get, but I thought I’d go fishing for an interesting discussion.


On a personal note: I’ve just ordered replacement St. Dymphna prayer cards (each different) which I had lost-one which comes with another Dymphna medal to add to my Dymphna paraphernalia collection (I was eying a rosary or chaplet, too-one of these days I won’t be surprised if I have a cluttered shrine). I feel devoted to her in some sense-not the sense of a truly faithful person, but regardless of ones views of God or saints, I’ve imbued her with something personal regardless of proper dogma. Not that I know if she was a historical figure or myth mixed with fact or not–it’s not important. She, and her silver pendant I wear religiously (pun intended) gives me a small comfort with my demons (in it, she is, in fact, “slaying” a demon). A talisman of sorts one might say. I like the idea of her. I’m obviously not Catholic or religious in any conventional sense, but, I felt a connection to the idea of her and most importantly, what she represents. That, there may be others out there whom have chosen her for the same reason. And there you have it, an etheric community of sorts. I’ll also admit I could have never felt the same connection with a male saint, so… psychoanalyze away.

Interestingly enough, mine is not the most unconventional adoration of St. Dymphna, either.


But when I drop in on a Catholic forum to see one calling another person’s link on praying the chaplet Heretical (he said he was happy to explain and meant ‘no offense’), for linking to an Antiochian Catholic Church site, that brings me back to point #2. He thought that was heretical? Boy would he not have liked what I just wrote! Phew!


From that perspective, Khirad, you HAD to love the notion of a Christian minister going to preach the word to the heathens…..in Spain! Gives new meaning to the term “Montezuma’s Revenge” perhaps?

In the last chapter of Anna Karenina, this exact conundrum is nicely dealt with, in the character of Levin. HIs wife, Kitty, is a devout Christian, and he wants to be, but he can’t get over the fact that millions of people in Asia, the subcontinent, the Middle East, etc., are getting the same sense of meaning from THEIR faiths.
In the end, he just resolves, fuck it. He himself had a profound insight, and he is just going to go with that, not try to work it all out. He is pretty sure that God loves all those other folks too, but for him, it’s Christianity.

I think between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky every nettlesome religious question has been dealt with! 🙂


Cher, you have moderated the discussion in a thoughtful and kind way.
I think many are caught in the middle, and you have given the other side a point of reference as well.
Thanks, my friend.


I like this! Sounds like the left hemisphere and right hemisphere of David’s brain were able to make a little headway (pun intended) over this whole religion thing!


Cher, let me add my thanks for this poignant article, too.

It seems to be exactly what’s needed at the moment. Balm for souls that at times feel sun-burned raw.

The women who taught me in elementary and high school and even in college did it for zero wages. Many of them were brilliant. They could have been enormously successful in the “outside world.” But they answered to a “higher authority” and had a different set of values. At some point in their lives, they had had the sort of conversion experience this story talks about. And a radical shift –they would say for the better — happened.

The fundies in my family drive me crazy, but I have to say that before they were fundies, they were terrible parents and nearly perpetually stoned. They missed getting decent jobs because they couldn’t stay sober long enough to pass the drug tests. They dumped their children on literally anyone who would watch them so they could get wasted. They popped anti-depressants, too, since even lots of weed didn’t seem to fill the empty spaces.

Maybe they would have straightened up on their own. But they don’t believe that. They totally credit their faith. It’s not a faith that I can go with, but it’s not my job to judge them either.

I have my own faith. They don’t approve of it. But I think I and they would agree on one thing. We could both say: “I wouldn’t be the same person without my faith.”


kes, I have a problem with evangelicals of any religion. I sometimes brush the borders of it when I occasionally post ideograms from the Tao Te Ching, but I only do that for the sake of discussion.
I have always been apprehensive toward those who seek to “convert,” me. I think a person should come to their own conclusions about which faith they choose, or not choose.
I realize that at times, people speak with exuberance about their faith, and I can understand that. They want to share “the good news.” But I don’t really consider that to be evangelism. The ones I have a problem with are those that are convinced that they have to “save me,” or that I even need to be saved in the first place.


Cher thank you so much for this. It’s such a wonderful lesson in tolerance, acceptance and love. I thoroughly enjoyed it from both sides of the fence. Thanks again.


Oops. I tried to give this a 10 rating – again, great story- but I hit 9 accidentally. Sorry.


This is a greatly evocative and warm story. However, it seems much less about religion and more about a man resolving his differences with his family. Though that may be the intent. Furthermore, if I take issue with anything in the story, then I’ll come across as an ass. So, I won’t bother. 😉


Caru, If I may-
You are young. You are very intelligent, and an excellent writer.
But as much as I admire what you are now, what you don’t have yet is experience.
The person I was at 18 could never have survived my life. Few of us could/would have.
I applaud who you are now, but I will applaud and respect who you will become 🙂


I know what you mean. I was a very different person just two years ago.