Lee Salisbury – From Faith to Critical Thinking

September 19, 2011

Lee Salisbury was at one time an up-and-coming Charismatic Christian pastor, even a healer! Then how did he wind up actively involved in the ranks of Minnesota Atheists?

Often successful Christian activists simply cannot allow themselves to entertain doubts as to the worthiness of their enterprise, but Lee had a dangerous yearning for critical thought. It caused him to look back on all he had said and done and to wonder if perhaps he had been kidding himself and others. He left it all behind and turned instead to a new gospel, that of intellectual honesty and responsibility for one’s own beliefs.

He is the founder of a number of Critical Thinking Clubs in the Minneapolis area in addition to his involvement in the work of Minnesota Atheists. Listen to his remarkable story as Robert Price puts him on the spot in another exciting installment of Point of Inquiry.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, September 19th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Robert Price point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. Lee Salisbury was a successful, charismatic Christian minister and healer, yet now he’s an active member of a thriving Minnesota atheists organization. He has found that a chain of critical thinking clubs in the Minneapolis area. How did he make this rather astonishing transition? It is one thing to depart fundamentalism disappointed, quite another to succeed in it, and then to see through it welcomed a point of inquiry. Lee Salsbury. 

Good afternoon. Good to talk to you. 

Lee, I know you were once a successful minister, though not of a conventional church. Would you describe your congregation and its beliefs and you know your approach, anything? 

Well, we were I suppose we would have fit in very well with a Pat Robertson type. We were products of the charismatic movement back in the early 70s and so charismatic being. 

We were into the gifts of the spirit, speaking in tongues and praying for healing and, you know, in prophecy and word and knowledge and those kinds of things. And that was a demonstration of the presence of God in our congregation. 

And we started basically from scratch and grew to a congregation of Veterano, probably 400 or so, something like that could have been a big megachurch about it. Just had my brains about me. I’d be driving around a Mercedes today with a private Lear jet. 

But I just I just kind of got disillusioned. After a while, I took a sabbatical leave. That was 1986. I had the church for 10 years. 

And so and then in addition to the church, I spoke at various Christian conferences around the United States and Canada and trip to Malawi, Africa, I had three trips to England and two trips to former Yugoslavia. 

And so. 

I was a you know, I wasn’t a Helen Damnation kind of preacher, my my introduction to Christianity was a strong emphasis upon grace and love and forgiveness. 

And so that was my emphasis. And I never I never really could, you know, I never really got into the Helen damnation or threat kind of thing. And. But definitely, you know, believe the Bible was the word of God. If there were questions about it, well, then we look for spiritual meaning rather than, you know, literal meaning. So it wasn’t the. Typical. You know, everything is literal. 

But anyway, you know, it is it’s interesting with with faith. You know, you you you make things. It’s a marvelous thing. You can look. I mean, I look at this as a metaphor for faces. You look at a circle. But if you want to make it a square, why you just confess it? Well, that’s a square. 

Even though it looks like a circle, you know, and you kind of develop your own reality. 

And I think that’s probably why, you know, we got two thousand different Christian denominations because everybody has got their own little concepts in various interpretations. 

And our truth is a little more tours than your truth, you know. So that’s why we divide and separate. 

So in any case. Yeah. We’ve where we started from scratch and build a congregation that was people from all levels of. Oh, educationally. 

Well, I wouldn’t say educationally, I’d say for the most part, we have some people who were college graduates and engineer types and that kind of thing. And then this people, executives with some local manufacturing companies. And then we had other people who were janitors and we had everything in between. 

Well, what was your own educational and professional background? Had you studied for the ministry? 

Yeah, no, my background is in commercial real estate. And I had done extraordinarily well in commercial real estate, doing debt and equity financing for commercial properties. I had a degree from the University of Florida and real estate graduated from there in 1963. 

So I had several years of. 

Doing real estate deals and, you know, I know and dealing with institutional investors, I was, you know, exercising critical thinking skills in terms of analyzing various, say, a shopping center or warehouse buildings or apartment buildings and and making presentations. 

And so I had that I had that kind of thinking in the back of my mind that you had to provide evidence and it had to be reasonable and logical. 

And but when I got into introduced to Christianity, it was something quite unique. And I really had a very profound Born-Again experience back in October 1970. And one thing led to another. And eventually I got involved with the church as a business manager. I left my real estate business and. And that particular church had a two year Bible school for people, young people and young people being 18 to 20, 22, something like that. And one thing led to another. And I began. They asked me to teach. And since I’d been teaching in various home meetings, I began teaching in this Bible school. And I did that for four years. 

And that was pretty much my you know, education was teaching every day and counseling with all these young people and then conducting home meetings and one thing led to another. And finally, God called me to start a church. 

And so I began this church in the east side of St. Paul and we started from virtually scratch in and anyway, build it up to a sizable congregation, had chairs in the aisles and the way and all we had. It was filled. And I think the church seated 300 or so people. 

So I just have to ask, how did you wind up building up the membership as you go door to door or advertiser was? 

Well, we were very aggressive, you know, on, you know, outside evangelism, passing out tracks and getting people to talk to their friends and neighbors. 

And there was a lot of back then, a lot of there was a lot of excitement and the charismatic movement and we had probably a dozen or maybe 20 different charismatic churches here in the Twin Cities, churches that were, you know, pastored by former Baptist or Lutheran or Catholic clergy. 

And. And so there was several of us that were that had these churches. And then we’d get the the the pastors of these different churches would get together on a week or, you know, once a month and talk together and pray together and whatever. 

But so the movement was growing and there was a certain enthusiasm and and excitement. And that’s how we kind of grew. 

That’s all I have been a church pastor myself provide presiding over a church, a very old church in its death throes. And I just cannot take for granted the the amazing work and talent that must go in to the kind of thing you did. I mean, even as an atheist now, I got as you know, I have respect for that energy and savvy. You actually had healings occur, didn’t you? I mean, I had quotes around, actually. 

Yeah. Oh, yes. Now we did. Yeah. Well, in back in those days, Bob. 

One of the very unique and interesting things is we used to have people sit in an upright chair and they’d speak their legs out and I’d check to see if their legs were the same length, you know. And we’d pray. And I was very conscious. I didn’t want to cheat. I didn’t help anybody move their leg or anything like that. And we pray over people with bad backs and things like that. One leg was short, maybe a quarter of an inch or half inch. They’d sit there and sure enough, that leg would come out. You know, we’d commanded in the name of Jesus. Like, grow out. And then we had other situations with people with or young one young man from a fine family that he had a curvature of the spine. And the x rays confirm that. At least that’s what I was told. 

And he came forward for prayer one Sunday and I prayed over him. 

And his mother came up to me next week later and said they’d been to the doctor and the doctor did x rays and he was all healed. 

What do you make of this stuff now? 

Well, you know, I mean, there are certain things that are psychological. You know, I don’t know. I you know, I can’t explain all those kinds of things there. You know, I don’t I don’t think we had a. Batting and, you know, a success rate. That was. 

Any better than if you have, you know, gone to a doctor for sure. 

But, you know, when you when people get enthused about things they want to believe, they’ll, you know. 

And they’ll believe whether the results are quite real or not, you know. 

Well, you know, you mentioned how evidence was important to you. I know that it would be almost irresistible for most ministers in this position not to think they had all the evidence they could want about the truth of their faith if they. Things happen. How did you turn around and think better of it and see through it? 

Well, by 1986, I just decided that I needed to step aside and my sons were about getting ready for college age. And I decided it was time to take a sabbatical leave. And so I kind of got away from the church life, you know, and attending meetings all the time and praying for people and counseling people and getting out. I got back into the real estate business. And as I began to ponder, you know, the things that I had thoughts and what I believed and what I understood the Bible to say, I began to ponder those things and I began to think, you know, there’s certain things that don’t quite make sense. You know, they don’t they’re not they don’t line up like they should, you know. You know, all in the back of my mind. I know for years I had this question about the Nativity, you know, when I nobody ever challenged me about it. There were contradictions in the Bible in all my years in the ministry. 

And so I never even thought about contradictions in the Bible, but always had this question. But because you see, you know, as you well know and Matthew, you know, Joseph and Mary, Jesus was born and the threat of Herod is there. And so the angel appears to Joseph. And in that very night when Jesus is born, Joseph obeys the angel and they flee to Egypt. And so here’s Joseph and Mary and Jesus are fleeing to Egypt. 

And yet, in the book of Luke, you know, Jesus is born and they wait for Mary’s rites of purification, which are 40 days. 

And. And there is no threat of anything but Herod. 

And so they never flee. There’s no concern. And they go on to Jerusalem and the prophet and prophets, Anna and Simeon, I think it was they pray over them and everybody’s celebrating. And then they go off to Nazareth and moeny here where Joseph, Mary and Jesus, one out of them in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Nazareth and the other one has them in Egypt. You can’t be in two places at the same time. I mean, maybe Jesus could show that he was giving up, but not Joseph and Mary. But, you know, I had the hardest time articulating that argument because there’s something about religion that once you get in, you know, once you get taken up with that way of thinking and believing the Bible is the word of God is very difficult to to really deal with or even recognize such obvious contradictions. And it was probably four or five years after I stepped aside from the ministry, before I began to realize that, you know, this comes down to a matter of personal integrity. And am I going to believe that, which is why am I going to place integrity and truthfulness and honesty over contradictions or am I going to go ahead and just allow the contradictions to rule in my way of thinking? 

And I finally, you know, after I began to recognize one or two contradictions, I began to see several others. And I happened to stumble across a book that was written back in, I think eighteen hundreds by a guy named Cursi Graves, the Bible of Bibles. And I opened that literally. I can still remember opening with real fear and trepidation of, you know, because here’s a book that’s probably an inch thick and it’s loaded with contradictions. And as I began to go through it, I began to realize this just can’t be true. What am I doing? How if I gotten taken up with this thing. 

And eventually I in all, I suppose I kind of move very, very gradually from a fervent believer to a lukewarm believer to agnostic. 

And finally, I just had to say, you know, I’m sorry, but I just don’t see any I mean, I’m talking to myself. I don’t see any evidence for God. And so, I mean, I camp if there is a God, he’s got to be honest and truthful. And the God of the Bible is anything but honest and truthful. 

Well, how did your did you ever have to explain this to your parishioners? Well, what they say if you did. 

Well, no. I’d been out of the ministry for several years by this time. 

And although what happened was that I attended a few picnics because the local Minnesota atheist chapter here, they had they would have these TV shows and once in a while I’d catch them on TV and I’d watch them and think, you know, these people aren’t so bad. 

And I’d never met an atheist, frankly. And finally, I went to one of their picnics and. And I got talking to them and they said, well, you know, gee, you’ve been in the ministry. 

And even though you weren’t you were not an atheist. You know, you you do see some contradictions in the Bible wanted to come. And we’ll talk about them on one of our interviews on cable TV. So I said, all right. So what? I did it never, never, never suspecting that anybody of my former congregation would happen to see it on. 

It would tune into the a cable TV show. 

And sure enough, a couple people saw it and the word got out. This is probably about nineteen ninety three or four, something like that. Well boy, I was really um. My name was Mud from that point on, you know. 

Yeah. You really become public enemy number one because nothing can so undermine their of their faith. Cheese. This guy. 

Yeah. Exactly. 

Year two thousand I. Well, I’ve given them just kind of continue the story I got involved, Minnesota Atheists. 

But at the time there was somebody, a woman was leading the group and I just had a hard time with her. 

She was a very bright, very brilliant, very articulate. But I mean, she was such a hardcore atheist that I kind of came to a conclusion. I mean, she’s about as hardcore as an atheist as any Baptist is a hardcore Baptist. And finally, I had to pull away from that group. 

And anyway, about the year 1999, I was like almost an epiphany experience. 

I was really frustrated over my you know, here I am way on on the left and I’m on the right and, you know, believer nonbeliever. And it just dawned on me one time, it’s not what you think. It’s how you think. And that’s when I got together with a couple of friends and we started our critical thinking club in St. Paul. And that just kind of really exploded, took off. We had monthly meetings and later on started other clubs in other areas of the Twin Cities. We now have three of them. 

And so I’ve been you know, I mean, the point are ideally we would have people who attend these meetings will have any number of different topics. It could be politics or philosophy or diet or, you know, whatever. 


Although I have to say a little disappointed, we don’t get more conservative types or believer types. We get a few, but not too many. And an ideal meeting will have, oh, 20 to 40 people. And we’ll have a presentation on different topics. I recently did a debate a few months ago with a regional director of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. And the topic was, is faith in Jesus Christ consistent with critical thinking? And he being having a master’s degree in apologetics from from a local university. Bethel College. He was arguing that faith was consistent with critical thinking and the course I was taking the other side and it just was amazing to me as this thing unfolded. I mean, it hadn’t really I hadn’t really focused on this aspect of thinking because, I mean, faith is a state of mind, but really, in fact, it’s a state of passively or you don’t you don’t have you don’t weigh things. You don’t look for evidence. You don’t look for reason or logic. You just believe what you’re told, the belief. And in his mind, that was critical thinking. But in my mind and as the debate went on, why we thought we had the obvious, quite obvious differences. 

You know, Martin Luther, of course, said that we he has said he referred of the whore reason. 

Well, that’s in fact. Yeah, he’s right, because this apologist wind up being very clever people, but they they wind up prostituting reason to rationalize conclusions they’ve already come to through a simple emotion. 

It’s disgraceful that critical thinking has to involve remaining open to new evidence. And that ain’t gonna happen if you’re right, it dries. 

Yeah, well, I finally with this during this debate, I finally came to my conclusion and I, I said to my opponents who might say he’s a friend of mine. But I said, you know, it’s amazing to me. Here’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and there’s Campus Crusade for Christ. And there’s Billy Graham and James Dobson and Tony Perkins. And on and on the list goes Pat Robertson. You know, I said, have you ever considered thinking of James Madison? You know, he’s the author of the Constitution. And Christians, for the most part, think they’re really fervent Americans. And here is the author of The Constitution. And in June 20th, 1785, he makes a statement. He says, During almost 15th centuries, has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial? 

What have been its fruits? More or less in all places. Pride and indolence in the clergy. Ignorance and civility in the laity, in both superstition, bigotry and persecution. 

When I said, you really think you’re better informed than James Madison? And of course he had nothing to say. 

Now, by that is the truth. 

What a record I was watching. I don’t know if you happen to see it, but on C-SPAN this past Sunday on C-SPAN two. Ann Colter is on there with her book called The Mendham Soledad. 

And I plumb forgot. 

Well, she’s really into this thing. You know, all these terrible liberals and they’re just destroying America and they’re really into groupthink, you know, and they all think alike. 

And I’m thinking to myself, I you know, I sure would like to get into a conversation with her because what could be more groupthink than Christiane, her religion, you know? 

Well, in one of her books, she has a chapter trying to refute the theory of evolution. 

I just could not believe when I saw that, I thought, but you’re just living down to the stereotype. What do you think you do when they believe you believe they shut up about it? 

Yeah, well, I’d say others. 

It’s wonderful to be free of that, you know, bondage to group think or you have to believe things. 

And when you begin. When I begin to, you know, debating this friend of mine, I began to realize, you know, when you think about it, I mean, the things that Christians believe. I mean, for instance, take the Trinity. You know, here’s the son of God and he’s indivisible from the Holy Spirit. 

And yet they’re two separate persons. 

You can’t explain this or you can’t understand it, but if you follow the logic of it, you follow it out to its rational end. Then if the Holy Spirit was, you know, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, in effect, you follow that line of. Reasoning out, that means Jesus had an incestuous relationship with his own mother. 

Yeah, it’s it’s so utterly bizarre that puts. Where did Kane get his wife? In the shade. 

Oh, man. Oh. 

I mean, all I’m just pointing out is that faith is a way of thinking which is so extremely preoccupied with its own self that it can’t reason. That doesn’t look for evidence. It just accepts whatever it’s told to accept. And, you know, most Christians, they all believe in the Trinity. But, I mean, it’s it’s utterly irrational. And course, it caused great conflict in the church. And, of course, still does today. 

A friend of mine once said, you know what the Trinity means? The meaning of the Trinity is this. Sit down and shut up, because it’s it’s just a way of squelching fought like you’ll never be able to understand it. So why don’t you just leave the thinking to us? Yes, sir. It’s so insidious. What is your. Are you possibly thinking of spreading out the critical thinking clubs? Because I think that would really be a great movement. 

Well, I think it’d be great. And anybody who would like to follow our very simple format is more than welcome to do so. Obviously, it’d be great if I mean, the Toastmasters of eighty thousand clubs around the world. I think it’d be wonderful if we eighty thousand critical theme clubs. 

We’ve got a very simple format and and so it generates lots of conversation and gets people involved and you know, in questioning various presentations and all of our presentations come from people who are members. 

So we’re not looking for outside speakers. So. 

Huh. Yeah. By the way, I heard a rumor that you’re a ZUS worshiper. Is that true? 

Oh, absolutely. He is really terrific. You know, for parking spaces. 

Jim Underdown especially if he got an electric car, I guess. 

Well, I’ve had Nemr. I’ve got serious back problems. And so I have a little handicap thing that I hang on my rearview mirror when I go to park some place. But so a lot of times if I go someplace and need a parking space, if it’s really crowded and actually this started off as a joke when we were in Barcelona, Spain, several years ago, we were trying to find a parking space. Streets are very narrow and parking spaces are very rare. And my wife and I are in the car and we’re driving around. And finally I just started saying Zus in the name of God. 

And anyway, lo and behold, we drove right up to the front of this museum and there is a parking space. 

So now I say my journey was Zus. 

So I actually have a license as my license plates zus dash. 

One number one disciple. 

I get a lot of laughs out of that, as reminds me of the time anal. I mean, now Oral Roberts once looked at the camera, said, our God is so great. God, he could even find parking spaces. 

By a little slow on the uptake in feeding starving children in Somalia. But those parking spaces for born again Christians is great at that. 

A man brought a God’s got to look out for the Christians. 

Hallelujah. I think we’re out of time, unfortunately. All right. 

Thank you so much for being with us. Leigh, I really appreciate it. 

Thanks. Good to talk to you, Bob. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join the online discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. 

And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winner Michael Wayland. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Robert Price. 

Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Robert Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-ActsDeconstructing JesusThe Incredible Shrinking Son of ManThe Da Vinci FraudThe Reason-Driven LifeThe Pre-Nicene New TestamentJesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He served as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.