How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

January 1997-December 1997:

The first semester of my sophomore year I took predominantly theology and philosophy classes. Simultaneously I was taking both Church History I (covering church history from the time of the early church through the middle ages and stopping just before the Reformation) and a philosophy course on Augustine and Aquinas. I was also taking Philosophy of Science.

Prior to this semester, in the spring of freshman year, I took a Philosophical Theology class devoted to sympathetically explicating presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is the Calvinistic epistemology that argued that nature makes the existence of God evident to reason. The reason non-Christians nonetheless do not believe in God is because they have been cursed by God to be unable to recognize the clear truth in nature and believe in Him unless He first decides to make them love Him and change their minds for them. This is all part of the curse of original sin that we are rendered unable to either love or acknowledge the existence of God without an act of grace that comes wholly by the initiative of God and not through our own choice at all.

Presuppositionalists essentially try to claim that the Christian worldview is unprovable to non-believers because of these reasons of the heart. Unbelievers are just hardened. But otherwise, supposedly, Christianity clearly provides the most comprehensively rational, logical, and compelling picture of the world. If only one presupposes the existence of God everything else makes so much more sense than if you do not.

Before encountering the presuppositionalists, I had already been (as a first semester freshman) deeply persuaded philosophically by David Hume that human reasoning of its own could never assure itself of the any necessary truths or principles—not even ones as basic and necessary for the rest of knowledge as that there exist necessary connections in reality. So now, accepting presuppositionalism, I became the strange hybrid of relativistic absolutist and rationalistic fideist that one commonly finds among contemporary Christian apologists.

On the one hand I was insisting, on both philosophical, Humean, skeptical grounds and on Calvinistic theological grounds, that objective knowledge was impossible and that we were all hopelessly enthralled to indefensible presuppositions. And I was opting in this context of absolute relativism to make a self-consciously fideistic gesture to believe in Christianity while granting that it was a inadequately supported choice from an external standpoint. But I did not think I was doing anything especially irrational, despite the fact that I was willfully believing beyond what rational evidence warranted, and, so, believing by faith. In my view, everyone was rationally unsupported, and so everyone was believing by faith. Naturalists included. So I did not see this as at all especially defiant of scrupulous epistemological standards.

But even though I thought the foundations for believing were (inevitably) arbitrary, I was still, as I had been since I was 14, obsessive about working out and defending to outsiders the internal consistency of my beliefs and their superiority in this regard to non-belief. In this way, I remained highly rationalistic and concerned for logical consistency. And despite the relativism about the ability to have an epistemology that could independently confirm the truth of my beliefs I still held them like an absolutist. I took them to be absolutely true and clear to anyone who simply would open their eyes to belief and accept the reality of God’s existence in the first place.

So, effectively, despite my professions about the impossibility of independently defending my beliefs to non-believers or of justifying them to myself objectively, implicitly I actually was thinking that I did have a good reason to choose my belief system over others—its supposedly superior internal consistency, which I was implicitly assuming could be measured even across different paradigms.

And it was sophomore year that I learned all about paradigms, by studying the Philosophy of Science, a course in which Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was the foundational text. Kuhn’s work famously (or infamously) explores the various ways that scientific revolutions depart from normal science. In normal science, scientists work within received basic theories that are well established by consensus and that can adjudicate disputes over facts by using shared methods, tools, and theoretical frameworks that they agree are generally truth conducive and reliable. Kuhn explores in his book the ways that during periods of great uncertainty and change in scientific history, competing theories become incommensurable. By this he meant that scientists cannot employ a common set of agreed upon, received methods, tools, and theoretical frameworks to settle their factual disagreements. Competing theories, methods, and even tools become so different that scientists dealing from rival paradigms cannot effectively have clear facts that can decide between them. This is because the theories in question determine how the facts are construed to such an extent that there is no such thing as a theory-independent fact that can settle a conflict between two rival theories. Rival theories can each make sense of the facts. Or sometimes rival theories can make sense of different facts better than each other can.

So changes in theory do not simply occur when the proponents of the dying theory see some new facts that they cannot account for and a new theory is dreamed up to account for those facts and all the proponents of the dying theory just change their theory. It is not that simple. During periods of scientific revolution, the proponents of the dying theory develop lots of strategies for accounting for the anomalous findings that seem to be undermining their theory. Multiple new rival theories emerge when a theory is encountering a number of anomalies. The new theories are not instantly vindicated. It is not simply and objectively clear in such circumstances to all scientists who just pay attention to the facts precisely which comprehensive theoretical account is superior. Some facts can be interpreted as supporting each theory. Each theory has problems, anomalies that it cannot account for. Some of those anomalies can be accounted for by rival theories which nonetheless likewise have their own anomalies to contend with.

Kuhn stressed that in these periods of scientific revolution, more than strictly empirical, fact-based thinking is necessary to settle the day. Some value judgments about what constitute a better or a worse theory have to come into play. Scientists have to weigh competing strengths of theories and sometimes ask what it is that makes a theory more worthy of being called true. They have to choose between one theory’s great explanatory power or another’s ability to predict further new discoveries or another’s ability to elegantly reduce complex phenomena to the simplest common principle of explanation, etc. Sometimes one theory has one of these strengths while a competitor has another. In such situations there is no logical algorithm for decisively determining which one is best. And unfortunately we can never fully step outside paradigms. One can only view each theory and its merits from within the theory. Neither theory can adequately criticize the other because all the theoretical frameworks are too different.

As a sophomore, I embraced Kuhn and took him to be expressing more than just the problem of scientific revolutions but a problem of competing worldviews in general. They were too incommensurate. One could not criticize Christianity from the outside, or even naturalism for that matter, since there was no “outside”. Naturalists started with the presupposition that divine explanations were impermissible, so it was no wonder they ended in atheistic conclusions and Christians started with a God and so were not going to come to atheistic conclusions.

We were all trapped within paradigms and there was no seeing things objectively. There was just the internal coherence within paradigms that ultimately proved them better or worse. But it was going to be hard to ever realize or acknowledge which one was the most internally consistent paradigm if one was thinking within one of the other, rival, worldview with all its influences on how one categorized everything in the first place.

At the same time that I was becoming a more and more sophisticated relativist, I was studying the early development of the Christian church. And few things demystify a faith or its sacred texts like learning about the haphazard historical processes by which traditions formed their beliefs, wrote their texts, and came to settle on them as authoritative. So many pieces of one’s faith which the average parishioner takes as basic and unproblematic suddenly becomes problematized for the first time. Worse yet, the more you see how your faith emerged out of a contingent historical process is the more that you can see the undeniably human fingerprints all over it.

And these sorts of realizations start to undermine the sense of the perfect internal rationality of one’s beliefs. And when you are already dubious of absolute truth, the suspicion that your beliefs are not really absolutely true but a matter of the wrong presupposition, one you adopted more as an accident of where you were born than because of any superior access to truth, the more you will begin to doubt.

And doubt I did.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • James Thompson

    I took “New Testament Survey” back in 1973 as a freshman in college. After a few weeks of finding out about the history of the New Testament I became an apa-theist.

    I finally realized that very sincere (or seemingly sincere) people could be dead wrong. All of those preachers lying about the Bible!

    I feel lucky the switch went off fast, and that I took that course.

  • John

    Are there any resources you could point us to on areas that:

    “few things demystify a faith or its sacred texts like learning about the haphazard historical processes by which traditions formed their beliefs, wrote their texts, and came to settle on them as authoritative. So many pieces of one’s faith which the average parishioner takes as basic and unproblematic suddenly becomes problematized for the first time.”

    I really am enjoying these posts about your deconversion, it’s interesting to hear a philosophers take on it, probably because I’m only now coming to appreciate philosophy after my own deconversion and struggle through reading apologetics/counter apologetics.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    I’ve noticed a lot of theists who are allegedly evidentialists, but retreat into presuppositionalism when pressed.

    • amhovgaard

      Well, obviously. “You’d understand if you didn’t have such a closed mind!” is a very common way of saying “I know I’ve lost this argument, I just won’t admit it”, used by people defending all sorts of silly ideas. But it seems weird that someone would actually openly admit that this is the best argument they have…

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

      Well, obviously. “You’d understand if you didn’t have such a closed mind!” is a very common way of saying “I know I’ve lost this argument, I just won’t admit it”, used by people defending all sorts of silly ideas. But it seems weird that someone would actually openly admit that this is the best argument they have…

      Well, when it is coupled with a visceral belief that internally their views make more sense overall than what they understand naturalists’ beliefs to be, then it is not as weak a thing to say as you’re implying.

  • M Groesbeck

    The whole issue of worldviews is part of why I find experimental physics so attractive. Sure, it’s working within a worldview — where by “working within” we mean “beating the hell out of the edges of with whatever tools are available until something breaks”. Sure, the theoretical physicists get to come up with the big, elegant, nuanced theoretical models — but the experimentalists get to take those models and pound them to bits on the anvil of reality. And if we can’t claim to have access to something we’re entirely sure is an absolute “reality”, we’ll just use the nearest hard surface — and if the hard surface breaks (as tends to happen, in this analogy, when we’re working with quantum mechanics) then we still have to change the worldview to accommodate the new break.

    (Epistemology in certain branches of the hard sciences tends to be of the pragmatic sort…we work from the assumption that there’s something out there which can be called “reality”, but that just about everything we think we know about it is probably wrong on some level.)

  • http://www.secularcafe.org/index.php davidb

    There is a post on Ed Brayton’s blog kicking shit out of some Christian who seems to me to have adopted a presuppositionalist stance.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2012/06/19/fischer-confused-about-who-can-be-reasoned-with/#comment-114100

    I wonder if you, Dan, would like to join the comments on it.

    Your posts in this series have reminded me that bright people are often led to believe dumb things, and I don’t think calling people dumb when they might have good reason to believe that they are not so dumb is a constructive way forward.

    But then again, should not ridiculous beliefs be ridiculed.

    I am an ex-cultist myself, and believed some very dumb things in my time, and reading some of your deconversion posts led me to starting this thread on Secular Cafe, concerning my perception (real or imagined) that those of us atheists who at some point took some religion very seriously tend to be kinder to the people who believe dumb things than those who never were very religious.

    It has met a mixed response, and it is clear that there are no general rules, though perhaps some sort of tendency,

    http://www.secularcafe.org/showthread.php?t=20117

    How should religious people who venture into primarily atheist discussion boards, or the comments sections of atheistic blogs, be treated?

    I try, myself, to engage them in conversation, and see if I can isolate some sticking point for them, and talk that through.

    Some theists, for example, seem to think that without an absolute morality morality becomes meaningless, a view with which I differ.

    But then again, I had the temerity to disagree with the freewill denier Jerry Coyne, since compatibilism makes sense to me.

    I’m beginning to ramble, though.

    The main question I’d like to raise is that of how religious or otherwise superstitious people should be treated on atheistic discussion boards or blogs.

    I sign with my usual internet handle

    David B

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

      Hi David, I will see if I have time to look at the Ed Brayton thread, but I’m juggling multiple things right now. In the meantime, here are my ten tips for dealing with religious people (this is a link to number 10 and it has links to the other 9 posts). I think those guidelines should be followed on the internet almost as much as in real life. Though I grant we can be more pugilistic where there is a broader audience to persuade than the believers themselves that we’re talking to (and so can risk making some arguments that might alienate them too much more than they particularly ready for, because others are watching who are ready for them) and because there is less worry about alienating someone with whom we have a personal relationship. Additionally, here are 10 reasons specifically not to call people stupid (or treat them as such). Here is my broader case against all name-calling. And last week I debated the issue with PZ Myers (midway through the interview) so you can see his replies to my views. Here’s how I answer accusations that I am being a tone troll for making these arguments.

      Thanks for seeking my input, let me know what you think of it.

  • http://www.secularcafe.org/index.php davidb

    I’ve looked through some of your links this morning, and think we are generally very much in the same ball park.

    In particular I re-read http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/10/11/i-dont-really-give-a-fuck-about-tone-per-se/

    I see that I commented on that one first time around, and on re-reading I think I’ll go and link to it on my discussion board.

    Work calls soon

    David B


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