I’m writing a series of posts about my Christian upbringing and the philosophical and personal road to my deconversion. Often it is easy for atheists, especially for those who never were serious religious believers, to not understand how religious thinking works from the inside.
What counts as evidence for or against theological propositions when you are willing in principle (and often in practice) to believe by faith in things that have no evidence in the first place? How do you decide which totally unsupported beliefs are worth believing and which ones not in such a situation?
It is helpful to understand how religious people actually do reason within the terms of their own belief systems and how they reason when in contact with differing theological viewpoints. Atheists hopefully can learn from this what kinds of weaknesses in their beliefs lead believers to moderate or (ideally) abandon their positions.
In that spirit, I offer you the story of my struggles with Calvinism during college:
September 1996-May 1999: As I’ve chronicled before, when I was a teenager in high school, on relatively secular Long Island, I had few fellow devout evangelical friends outside of church. And, fairly or not, I didn’t feel like many (if any) of the friends I did have at church were as serious as I was about the faith. So when I headed off to one of the most self consciously evangelical Christian colleges in the nation, I was enthused at the prospect of finally living and studying with like-minded, seriously committed Christians.
So the first day, literally within only an hour or two of my mother and brother dropping me off at college for the first time, I found myself in my brand new room talking about theology with a fellow incoming freshman. He was extremely straight laced, conservatively dressed, theologically articulate, exquisitely pleasantly mannered, had a large serious face, and was charismatic in the most soothing and polite way. He was going to study Philosophy. I had declared Christian Thought as my major but I was batting around whether to switch to English or possibly Philosophy.
So, I related to him a story about the week before when my aunt and mother were talking about some incident in which a small human child had fallen into some sort of non-human primate’s area at a zoo and the primate handed the child back to the mother. My aunt and mother had agreed, “That’s GOD!” “Yes, THAT’S GOD!” I was pointing out to my new interlocutor that I found their judgment on this superficial and contradictory. We cannot go around crediting God for the time the child is spared harm unless we are going to blame God for all the awful things that happen too. God had to be a hands off kind of God lest He suddenly be morally responsible for not intervening in some cases, while he does in others.
But my new friend did not except this distinction or this concern at all. All things which happened were God’s will. God determined the whole of history through providence. This was outrageous to me. What about free will? How could God punish anyone if He determined everything that happened? And so my friend, who had literally read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion as a high school student by his own self-motivation and internally converted to Calvinistic Christianity from his mother’s Catholicism, proceeded to explain to me that God freely decided, in advance of the creation of the universe, who those were whom he would save by his grace and who those were whom he intended to never be saved (the “reprobates” as Calvinists call them).
This was dumbfounding to me. The most I had ever heard of John Calvin was a brief mention in my high school history class sophomore year. I thought his ideas were a long obsolete 16th Century curiosity. I had no idea that they were a powerful influence on Christianity for centuries, straight on through to the present. And this was really the first time in my life I encountered someone my own age who knew more theology than I did. Which, admittedly, was easy to do—all you had to know was anything not written by C.S. Lewis. But still! This was troubling to run up against this strange and awful theology being presented by someone who knew far more than I did about the subjects in the debate we were having.
Other incoming freshmen came wandering through and I would explain the issues I was debating with this intractable fellow and they would back him up and speak this strange Calvinistic language fluently. Our R.A., a breezily laid back, skinny, bespeckled, hipsterish junior, majoring in Philosophy, came by and he laid down the Calvin like it was the Gospel and common sense all rolled into one.
I felt incredibly frustrated. Here I had longed to be in a place with like-minded people finally and they all had this dark and counter-intuitive, immoral theology that I could not understand how anyone would believe. And they started pointing to all these difficult Scriptures and I had no idea how to counter their interpretations. Finally, I talked to another freshman on the hall and asked him first thing, “What do you think about predestination.” And he, possibly observing my exasperation, replied, “I don’t think it’s worth losing friends over.” And we became close friends (and eventual roommates).
The next morning my original interlocutor and I went to the church service for incoming freshmen together. Afterwards, we were back debating Calvinism. I reared back and gave my free will based view of things the best and most thorough and logical defense I could. And finally, he said, “Ohhhhh, so that’s what you mean!” And I was, like, “Yes, I have finally made the clarity and correctness of my position clear.” And then he said, “That view was held by a monk named Pelagius…” Very good! There was precedence for my views! “…Pelagianism has been damned as heretical by more church councils than any other doctrine.” (9 years later I would learn from George Lucas he was also a Sith Lord!)
I was so indignant and upset that my new friend had essentially equated my views with the greatest of all possible heresies, that I conveniently lost him in the lunch room while we were split up getting our food. We nonetheless went on to become best friends.
My whole freshman year at Grove City College, which, as I quickly was learning, was explicitly Calvinistic in orientation, was spent agonizing over these questions. I wrote no less than three term papers on it. The first was spent replying to Calvin himself for the general requirement philosophy and theology course I was taking. The second paper, which was supposed to be focused on narrow biblical textual exegesis, was spent trying to stretch 2 Peter 3:9 (which says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”) into a theological case refuting numerous pro-predestination texts.
My second semester freshman year I took an upper level philosophy class called Philosophical Theology. In it we studied modern Calvinistic presuppositionalism. This epistemology essentially asserts that since everyone has presuppositions inevitably, simply assuming the existence of the Christian God and the divine authority of the Bible was no less arbitrary than, say, assuming a naturalistic worldview. And presuppositionalists argue that the (Calvinistic) Christian worldview was so much more internally coherent than the naturalistic worldview that even though you could not persuade non-believers of Christianity if they didn’t just presuppose it, if only one assumed the basic premises of Christianity it was far more rational than naturalism. Presuppositionalists argue that there is sufficient evidence in nature for God’s existence but that proving the existence of God rationally to non-believers is a futile endeavor because (according to their reading of Romans 1) God had, as part of the curse of original sin, deliberately darkened human minds so that they simply cannot see the evidence of God in nature unless He chooses to save them and open their minds for them such that they see it clearly.
Now, even though I was strongly resisting Calvinism, I also was buying this junk presuppositionalist epistemology hook, line, and sinker. And I was buying the Calvinist emphases on the absolute importance of God’s sovereignty and His absolute right to punish. And, yet, I wanted to hold onto the notion of free will. So, I tried to defend presuppositionalism and God’s merciless judgment in a way that was compatible with people freely choosing to believe or not. So, I wrote a paper called “Repent or Die: An Arminian Presuppositionalist Approach to Apologetics”.
A bit perversely, I was trying to appeal to the Calvinists’ fetishization of a harshly damning God who coldly condemns reprobates with no hope of salvation by showing how even the free will view of conversion that allowed a human role could be cast in such a way that it was vicious and damning too. Rather than it being a matter of autonomous humans’ abilities to dictate to God whether or not they would love him (which to the totalitarian Calvinist conception of God gives them an abhorrent amount of control over God and their own salvation), free will instead was the only opening for a desperate and begging human to be mercifully spared the absolute display of unmitigated sovereign power. I converted what other free will focused believers like to conceive of as “freedom to accept God’s free offer to choose Him” into the stark, coerced non-choice of “Repent or Die!” so that it could fit the choice-hating, despot-worshiping Calvinists’ general sense of theological and moral priorities.
There was a little precedence for my approval of this authoritarian theology. In Grove City autonomy was a dirty word. It essentially was interpreted with suspicion as man’s presumption to rule himself. And I remember in our first semester mass lecture freshman Civ 101 course (which was such an appalling exercise in flagrantly revisionistic history that even at the time I recognized it was lazy brainwashing and was disgusted and outraged by the whole thing), I wrote a paper with another title that makes me cringe it so opposes my eventual values: “Autonomy Fails And We Know It.” In it I argued that we all deep down wanted to be ruled and that given our own freedom, we would choose what we want. Given a strong hand to obey, we will gladly follow. I argued (selectively) from polling every time a general was mentioned as a presidential candidate and received high percentages of prospective votes that Americans essentially wanted a strong military figure to lead. Even though they voted for the Democrat Bill Clinton given no other stronger leader, they would have chosen Republicans like Norman Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell, against what I took to be the country’s leftist mainstream values, because they were dominant leader figures. I reasoned, this was human nature, ultimately it wants to be led because it knows it should be led (by God).
Eventually, in the spring of my sophomore year, I would come to finally find a way to embrace the full horrible unconditional reprobation doctrine. I was begrudgingly, increasingly convinced that it was the only logical conclusion of my belief in God’s absolute responsibility for all of reality. And that it was the only way to accept the inerrant truth of the Bible and be faithful to its literal words. There was no getting around chapter 9 of the book of Romans for me here. The curious way I found of dealing with the ethical problem of God creating people He intended all along to mercilessly condemn to eternal torture was by accepting Calvinism only as fused with Kierkegaardian ideas.
During Christmas break of sophomore year, in response to the beginning of my serious crisis of faith that would eventually lead to my deconversion, I had turned in desperation to the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Though free will is obviously integral to Kierkegaard’s philosophy (as a proto-existentialist), he had also stressed that God was “infinitely qualitatively distinct” and had a strong emphasis on just how little sense Christianity could make to human reason. I took this to mean that God was fundamentally unknowable and inconceivable in His essence to humans. I read Kierkegaard as essentially arguing that God was beyond logic, beyond rationality, and essentially beyond our ability to morally assess. For some mysterious reason beyond our understanding, God’s eternal choice to damn the reprobates was fair. And, keeping with my remaining presuppositionalism, Christianity could only make sense from the inside so it was not a problem that those who relied only on reason would never get it. It did make more sense, but you had to repent first and give up your god-hatred to understand how.
So I accepted this uneasy, morally dubious proposition for as long as my duct-tape-and-bubblegum-stop-gap-philosophical-theology could hold back my reason from capitulating to the increasingly clear philosophical and atheological evidence against my cherished faith which was endlessly mounting up the more philosophy and theology courses I took. Basically the Kierkegaardian/Calvinistic synthesis lasted for about sixteen months until I decided to take Nietzsche on full blast. But that’s a story for another time.
For my present day, atheistic rejection of all notions that it is morally approvable to affirm the existence and moral rectitude of a god who offends our moral reasoning see my dialogue on God and Goodness or my piece showing the incoherence and superfluity of divine command theory. For my favorite paean to autonomy and denunciation of authoritarianism that I have written, please read “But Why MUST I?” Kant’s Ironic Formulation of Liberty as Duty.
Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: