After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

In a series of posts, I have been describing my former Christian life and beliefs, the stage by stage process of my deconversion from Christianity, and the ways that my predominantly Christian friends and family and I each took my deconversion. I am not done with all those stories yet, but because of other posts I intend to write soon, I want to skip ahead to the first of my stories about the process I went through in piecing together a coherent, constructive positive philosophy, post-Christianity. I eventually will go back and resume my “Before I Deconverted”, “How I Deconverted”, and “When I Deconverted” narratives, but for now let’s start talking about what went down “After I Deconverted”.

Both before and after I initially deconverted, my thinking was irrationalistic, not rationalistic. Or at least I did not understand myself as a rationalist explicitly even though in some ways I always really was one.

Due to the influences of David HumeThomas Kuhn, and Calvinistic presuppositionalist theology I had become pessimistic about reason’s potential for explaining the world satisfactorily. This caused me great intellectual strain that I first attempted to relieve by embracing what I took to be the fideism of Søren Kierkegaard.

But about a year and a half year later, I absorbed myself in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. He had had such a profound and terrible influence on a close friend that I felt I needed to confront him fearlessly and exhaustively for myself if I was to know my faith could withstand all the most serious skeptical challenges. I had come to see the choice between Christianity and atheism as essentially the choice between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—both of whom I took to be profound critics of rationalism.

And when I read Nietzsche’s writings in May and October of 1999 their philosophical power and the allure of his confident and intricate counter-picture of the world to the Christian one overwhelmed me in a way I had never expected and which I barely understood. I spent the next ten years in graduate school trying to understand it rationally and coherently.

The final death knell Nietzsche struck to my faith (after a long process I will detail more in the future) came in convincing me that faith was intellectually dishonest. I came to realize that my commitment to truth, though seeded in me by Christianity was a deeper and more rightfully decisive part of me than even that faith which had inspired it in me and by which my entire identity had hitherto been constructed. But not only did I feel led by conscience to abandon my faith in Christianity, but I was also convinced I had to reject what I took to be unjustified faith in Truth itself and become a radical philosophical skeptic and nihilist.

I felt like reason and truth ironically demanded such vigorous challenges to the scope and possibility of reason and truthfulness themselves that we had to say hopelessly paradoxical (or maybe even incoherent) things like the “truth is that there is no truth”. I was resolved to live in that paradox (or incoherence) for as long as I needed to.

At that point, I was resolved to be like Descartes and not believe anything until I could not but believe in it. And I was going to actively pull apart every inadequate belief that I could for its flaws. Nothing would be taken on faith. Nothing would be taken to be knowledge even based on reasonable confidence alone.

I would provisionally accept the truth of the world of daily experience—but only for practical reasons and in practical ways. I would commit myself philosophically to nothing more robust than what was minimally and unavoidably necessary to believe in in order to get by pragmatically. I accepted the sensible world because we all have to. But I was skeptical that our human categories described fundamental truths about it rather than convenient “all-too-human” fictions for living. Scientific formulations of the world were extraordinarily powerful and to be accepted pragmatically—but not taken to be revealing any kinds of absolute truths about the natures of things.

Both sophisticated science and common sense empirical everyday experience provided access to the world that was thousands of times truer than completely fabricated theological posits of course. But they were still, technically, ultimately “false” in my mind because they were human constructs and not absolute truths.

When it came to ethics I was what I shall call an optimistic emotivist. Back in October 1998, long before even the mere possibility of actually becoming an atheist had ever seriously taken hold of me, I had had a debate with my best friend while he was in a bout of despairing nihilism related to his Nietzsche readings. At that time he expressed to me that he imagined accepting nihilistic conclusions about epistemology and metaphysics and having these lead him to believe life was utterly pointless. He would imagine waking up one morning and simply not moving. His mother might come in and try to cajole him into getting up and getting on with the day, but with no greater truth or purpose to life, he would have no reason to do anything and without any such reason he would simply stop doing anything.

That moment had been one of the biggest “gut checks” in my life. Because even though at the time becoming an atheist was only a totally abstract and philosophical consideration in my mind, and quite far away from being anything remotely like a real possibility to me emotionally, I nonetheless speculated (accurately) that even were I to believe there was no God or “ultimate meaning” or “ultimate purpose” I would still be emotionally attached to those whom I loved and to those values that I loved. My love needed no external stamp of approval from God or “the universe” in order to motivate my action or to give my life personal meaning. That love was core to who I was and did not require any abstract philosophical or theological belief to exist.

And when I became an atheist this proved true. While, intellectually speaking, one could say that I had “despaired” of ever having epistemological, metaphysical, or moral truths, I nonetheless had not lost even a bit of my fervent love of life, nor any of my fervor for love itself. After Nietzsche caused me incredible emotional turmoil on my way out of Christianity, he overwhelmed me anew—this time as a source of incredible inspiration who would send me endlessly contemplating new possibilities for valuing all sorts of things in exciting and satisfying ways.

Similarly Foucault powerfully enlivened my sense of our abilities to proactively create new institutions and relationships. I remember flipping through Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 1),  reading parts of it in a bookstore as a newly deconverted atheist and spring semester senior. In that book I read interviews where he talked about the ways that our culture made us relationally impoverished and incapable of genuine pleasure.

In those freewheeling interviews with gay magazines, which were collected as part of the volume, Foucault talked so inspiringly about the possibilities for creating new, less limiting and more transformative relationships and experiencing pleasure in richer, less intellectualized, suffocated, repressed, and guilt-ridden ways. Even though I wasn’t gay, I saw the broader applications of his attitude and mindset and it reinforced what Nietzsche was saying with his futuristic and transhumanistic calls for drastic values reassessment post-Christianity. This was what Nietzsche called “the revaluation (or ‘transvaluation’) of all values”. So I spent a lot of time reading Foucault for the next year and initially planned on making both of them central to my eventual dissertation.

This made me something of a hedonist in practical and philosophical terms and generally reinforced the life-loving, optimistic side of me which had already been very strong but which now did not need to constantly wrestle with the endlessly negative, guilt-inducing Christian messaging that I had deeply internalized and that had had me always beating myself up over my supposed “sinfulness” and slogging through periods of self-loathing and depression on its account. My Nietzschean, Foucaultian atheism may have been abstractly nihilistic and disorienting with respect to abstract value judgments, but in practical terms it was deeply liberating, mind-opening, and a catalyst for personal growth.

My primary obstacles to maturity in a number of areas were no longer infantilizing and self-sabotaging Christian ideologies but now just some of those Christian habits of behavior and comfortability (and behavior avoidance and correlate uncomfortability) that required some retraining. Thinking differently does not always translate immediately into acting differently or into feeling differently. A short time ago, a Fordham professor with whom I am now good friends told me that when she met me, within a year of my deconversion I think, apparently based simply on how I carried myself or spoke she took me for one of the Evangelical Christian students (of which there are many) in the philosophy program.

At this time in my life, rationalism was a dirty word for me. It would remain so for the first nine years of my atheism. I was deeply committed to being philosophically and personally truthful and to being rigorously intellectually honest, but at the time of my deconversion, I became the sort of nominalistic, anti-realist, immoralist emotivist that I excoriated in my post yesterday on Leah Libresco’s conversion to Catholicism.

Soon I will talk about my experience studying philosophy at a Jesuit university as an outspoken atheist and how through that I came to appreciate, learn from, and plunder Thomas Aquinas without making the grievous intellectual error of actually becoming a Catholic. This will explain some of my sympathies and appreciation for Catholic philosophy and also what I see as their limits. This foray into intellectual autobiography will also explain the roles that Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, John Davenport, and Eric Steinhart played in making me a rationalist and a curious species of moral realist.

But you can already read statements of the philosophical arguments that came to convince me on these matters and reverse my nihilism by reading the following non-biographical posts: On God as the Source of Being But Not of Evil which systematically explains what I agree with and disagree with in key points of Thomistic philosophy. You can also read a bit of how I think we can bootstrap philosophically out of anti-realism into a form of realism in epistemology and metaphysics in the post Mostly True, Not Mostly False.

And just a few key statements of my moral realism are found in the posts:

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Natural Functions

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

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:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • John Morales

    At that time he expressed to me that he imagined accepting nihilistic conclusions about epistemology and metaphysics and having these lead him to believe life was utterly pointless. He would imagine waking up one morning and simply not moving. His mother might come in and try to cajole him into getting up and getting on with the day, but with no greater truth or purpose to life, he would have no reason to do anything and without any such reason he would simply stop doing anything.

    Among other things, the pressure in his bladder would have suggested to him a good reason for moving, in due course.

  • Jesse

    OK you’ve convinced me either I am too dumb to ever understand philosophy or there’s something really rotten in Denmark.

    Here’s the thing: I would have stayed a moral nihilist and probably still am — or maybe some odd variety of pragmatist.

    I read your post on the philosophical defense of God (cf. Aquinas) and the Mostly True post. And here’s what I can’t seem to get past:

    Does it smack you in the head? (At least metaphorically)

    I mean, the whole Catholic philosophy rests on assuming God exists, at least as you’ve described it. All the words and verbiage can’t alter that fact. But physically speaking there isn’t any reason to assume God exists. The whole universe is structure precisely to erase everything you are, everything I am, everything. A few trillion years from now NOTHING will exist, except the occasional lepton or particle. (Look up “Big Rip”).

    In the face of that brute, raw physical fact how does anything in Catholic philosophy make the slightest sense? The whole thing you describe seems like hand-waving of the highest order. All that stuff about the problem of evil, given that God evidently created the universe the way He did, seems to destroy the whole edifice — rendering everything a Catholic philosopher says meaningless.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your deconversion stories, by the way. I guess in your position I would have stayed a nihilist. I believe in what I can see, measure, what has a physical effect and what would be the same even if you were an alien from Xantar, a chimp or a whale. I trust that. And no, I would not say any of my moral beliefs is the least bit consistent or as well thought out as yours probably are. But I muddle along with something akin to the Golden/Silver Rule. My old Toyota wasn’t the high performing Beemer, but it got me to point B from point A. It works, you know? (Or did work. Eventually it died :-) ).

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

      Nothing in this world is the worst possible thing. Hope that provides some perspective.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, there is no need to assume God exists to posit that there are recurrent functional patterns within reality, worth calling “universals” or “forms” and grounding ethics in.

    • jesse

      Daniel — I was thinking of the “God as the source of all being” post. It seems to me to rest on, (if you are a Catholic and if I understand you) that God made things in the universe and that reaching some kind of potential as a person is what He wants. That evil is an absence, right? But the whole universe is constructed precisely so that everything is absent, eventually. The whole thing is designed, by its physical laws, from the very start, to disappear into nothing.

      Now, taking Aquinas at face value, it seems to me that simple physical test (of which Aquinas could not have been aware) throws the whole thing out the window. Rendering the problem of evil (at least from a theological/Catholic philosophy perspective) moot. Because, by Aquinas’ own definition — at least if I am understanding your post correctly — God created an evil universe.

      This is why after reading your essay I feel like Aquinas makes even less sense than when I first read him years back, unless Catholics think God really digs elementary particles.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    At that point, I was resolved to be like Descartes and not believe anything until I could not but believe in it. And I was going to actively pull apart every inadequate belief that I could for its flaws. Nothing would be taken on faith. Nothing would be taken to be knowledge even based on reasonable confidence alone.

    Ah, so you misread Descartes’ philosophical project. He himself, if I’m getting it right, wasn’t aiming at just tearing beliefs down, but instead at aiming to tear them down so that he could build them back up. He wanted to get down to the things he was certain of and then move from them back up until, ultimately, everything that he thought he knew he really, really did know. Tearing it all down was just the first step, not the conclusion.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Don’t condescend to me, I didn’t misread Descartes. Had the beliefs been impossible to build back up theoretically he would have had to stop there. I was not in principle opposed to finding workable positive beliefs but I didn’t know what they might be and without them felt compelled to stick by the difficult conclusions I had out of honesty. Now, there are three things we know in fact: (1) Descartes only made his written pretense at truly doubting everything while he knew exactly what reasoning process he was going to use to salvage everything so he was never threatening himself with genuine nihilism. (2) His attempts to doubt everything were actually weak tea as he smuggled in numerous unexamined assumptions in order to solve the problem he had set for himself. (3) Descartes’s universal doubt was methodological, a means of scrutinizing beliefs systematically so that each one’s firmness is established before it can stand to guarantee any others or be used to imply any others. He was not going to actually live like a radical skeptic, he would just play one for the sake of a thought experiment.

      OR maybe we do not know those things and maybe one of my professors is right and Descartes actually was a skeptic and knew his arguments would fail in patently obvious ways and that was his goal all along. The only way to be the kind of skeptic he was in his time was to do things that way, perhaps.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      My intention was certainly not to condescend to you — it was mostly intended to be a bit of a joke — although I do think that you were misreading his project. You say, for example:

      Had the beliefs been impossible to build back up theoretically he would have had to stop there.

      Or, alternatively, reject his method of justification, and weaken it so that it didn’t require that much doubt and that much certainty. As far as I can remember, he definitely considered getting the justifications a critical part of his project, so much so that instead of staying as a skeptic if he couldn’t build it back up it is quite likely that he would have started over and reduced his standards than remain in that state of uncertainty. As you say, he thought he had found a way to do that, and so never had to face it, but the field of epistemology did, in fact, find that the way didn’t work and so has had to face that. They did not reject knowledge, but instead used notions of “reliabilism” instead to ground knowledge without having to have deductive certainty. I think Descartes might well have made that move as well if he had accepted the problem.

      And your third point is basically what I’m saying:

      (3) Descartes’s universal doubt was methodological, a means of scrutinizing beliefs systematically so that each one’s firmness is established before it can stand to guarantee any others or be used to imply any others.

      It was a methodology: tear it down to build it back up. If the methodology didn’t let him build it back up, then chances are he would have taken a different methodology, not actually lived as a skeptic. Sure, we could be wrong about that, but if you were left as a skeptic at the end of Descartes if he was using that as a methodology it would seem more reasonable to say that the methodology didn’t work than that skepticism wins.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      It’s hard to put 20th Century epistemologist mindsets into Descartes’s head. Yeah, maybe he would have conceded the failure of epistemic internalism and become an externalist with the majority, but it is anachronistic to go imagine internalism was not the true defining feature of his way of thinking and not just a strategy. There are some who remain skeptics rather than lower that standard. I’m not sure at all we know Descartes would not have been one of them.

      In my caes, it took me another 6 years to actually be exposed to reliabilism and then three more years to finally concede it.

    • John Morales

      [meta]

      Um, this is 2012 — the 21st century.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Ha, I know. But the reliablists emerged in the 20th Century.

  • Arturos

    After getting my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, I’m probably still stuck in the “optimistic emotivist” phase. I’m hitting a brick wall trying to break out of it. Hopefully, following your intellectual journey will help.

  • Mercy Mee

    AFTER READING YOUR ARTICLE AND ALL THE COMMENTS FROM THE SAME PEAPLE OF LIKE MINDSET, I HAVE COME TO REALIZE THAT YOU ALL HAVE WASTED YOUR MONEY IN A UNIVERSITY EDUCATION. SPECIALLY THE POST-GRADUATE. YOU ALL SOUND LIKE LITTLE CHILDREN. “IF I CAN NOT HAVE MY WAY I WILL CHANGE THE RULES. I WILL PUT GOD IN A LITTLE BOX OR MAKE HIM DISAPPEAR OR SAY IN MY HEART THAT HE NEVER EXISTED AND THAT WAY I CAN BE AT PEACE WITH MYSELF WHEN I DO WHAT EVER I WANT.” YOU ARE THE CLAY WHO QUESTION THE POTTER. “WHY DID YOU MAKE ME SO?” . PLEASE GO TO THE BOOK OF JOB IN THE BIBLE WHERE IT IS DECLARED IN CHAPTER 26,VERSE 7, “HE HANGS THE EARTH ON NOTHING “. THIS INTELLIGENT STATEMENT WAS THERE WAY BEFORE OUR “INTELLIGENT ACADEMIA TRAINED SCIENTIST” CAME TO DISCOVER IT. READ CHAPTER 38 AND PREPARE TO BE HUMBLED. MAY THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE OPEN YOUR EYES AND MIND BEFORE IS TOO LATE.


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