How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

December 1997-May 1999

On December 8, 1997, my two closest philosophy major friends and I found ourselves utterly dismantling our Christian beliefs. As we went over all the possible reasons to doubt the faith, we found we simply did not have it in us to spin things favorably that night. We saw immense problems with rationally justifying what we believed and we gave full vent to our doubts and took no rationalizations for answers.

At this point we had gone too far to ever go back to the kind of narrow Evangelical Christianity with which we had started. We parted for Christmas break and each of us went a distinctly different direction. One of us turned to Friedrich Nietzsche, the other read Karl Barth (who is behind most of the contemporary Christian existentialism I expounded upon recently), and I embraced to Søren Kierkegaard.

Before my doubts had gotten this severe, even someone like Kierkegaard, who is beloved–and even clung to–by many evangelicals, was someone I had considered too “out there”, someone likely to be too philosophically unorthodox to be properly Christian. He was a possible influence worth reading only suspiciously. I had a very narrow and mistrusting view of who was theologically acceptable enough to even consider reading with an open mind. But I was running out of good reasons to believe and so I said to myself that I would give Kierkegaard “the benefit of the faith” and see if his conception of Christianity as a leap of faith could solve my existential quandary.

I spent that Christmas break immersed in an anthology of Kierkegaard’s writings which spanned his whole career. (You can still read the Amazon review I wrote of that book almost 12 years ago.) From then on, all I could talk about was Kierkegaard. I started collecting and reading his full books. Sophisticated, philosophically well educated Kierkegaardians I meet today recoil in dismay at the fideism that I took away from him. Apparently I was reading him shallowly. But that is irrelevant for our purposes, this is the narrative of his influence on me, not a careful exposition of his best reading.

I embraced a brand of Kierkegaardianism that involved, incoherently, attacking reason itself. God was “infinitely qualitatively distinct” from humans, as one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms once wrote. He was too far beyond our minds to comprehend. Reason was a limited tool for getting at the truth of a being who was so far beyond us. Reason, as I had come to believe, led to relativistic impasses because of what I took to be the power of paradigms to inevitably prejudice us. There was no objectivity, there was no way the human mind could attain absolute truth. By faith we had to embrace the inscrutable.

But curiously, even as I was explicitly attacking reason itself, and even doing so to the point of being on the surface an outright misologist (a hater of reason), I still felt insecure about the position and sought validation that this was at least coherent. Was it coherently possible to say that the law of non-contradiction was merely a human construct? I remember querying my brilliant mathematician-philosopher friend on this. I knew it was possible to conceive of mathematics in anti-realist terms, as not about fundamental truths of reality but as merely a human construct. Might it be defensible to say the same of logic too so that I could relativize it and allow God to be totally beyond it? That’s what I wanted to know. That’s what I wanted to believe.

As I have mentioned before, my turn to Kierkegaard and fideism allowed me to finally make peace with the horribly immoral Calvinist doctrine of unconditional reprobation. According to that doctrine, God creates people who He curses to be incapable of doing good or of ever repenting. He condemns them due to the Original Sin (which was not their fault but Adam’s and which God also predetermined must be committed anyway). God goes on to send them to eternal suffering despite never giving them a legitimate chance to be saved. In a year and a half of Calvinist theology classes and friendships with Calvinists, I had resigned myself that this morally unconscionable doctrine was unavoidably biblical. I was now able to square it by judging that since God was infinitely qualitatively distinct from us, there was some way that for God this was moral even though we little-brained humans could never figure it out.

This kind of abdication of moral rationality, and with it a certain kind of moral responsibility, was a dangerous and foolish plan with potentially grave consequences that I was lucky to be spared by the year’s end.

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.

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    Your account is fascinating. Thanks for sharing it.

    In retrospect, are you ever really incredulous at your own credulity? Do you ever think “Why was an intelligent, curious, analytical guy like me so distracted by baseless assertion and special pleading for so long?” Because I have to wonder. It just seems like such a long and needless trip around the barn to get to a place so many others find directly and intuitively. Is this a lesson in the extreme difficulty of undoing a Christian brain-washing, because I think if I were you and had to go through all this mental chemo just to become a plain, emprically grounded rationalist without supernatural fantasies, I’d be very resentful at the end.

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

      Thanks, Bruce. (Also thanks for the book encouragement!)

      Partially I do aim to show people the complexities involved in breaking free from a religious belief. You will see that things will get even messier and if I tell the story far enough into my post-Christian years will show it took some time to fully get the religion out of my system.

      I used to be more incredulous that I ever believed but in retrospect I can see that, really, when you look at it, by my second semester of college, being exposed to actual philosophical education and not just theological apologetics, I was already shifting to a presuppositional outlook that was conceding the indefensibility of the faith and looking for rationalizations to salvage it under those conditions. I had concentrated help from my professor (who was an authority to me) in making the connections I was. My general irrationalism and epistemic relativism were buttressed by perfectly daunting philosophers like Hume and Kuhn who make many an atheist into a nominalist and irrationalist too. So, some defensible philosophical worries about the possibilities for objectivity were woven in there and reinforcing my irrationalism. In fact, out of commitment to what I considered an austere standard of truth, I remained deeply suspicious of reason for many more years as an atheist before finally being persuaded of rationalism and a sort of pragmatic realism.

      So, in short, I was exposed to philosophical reasons to despair over reason’s conclusiveness and theological guidance that helped me use that to spin my faith favorably. And even with all that, halfway through only my sophomore year things started to unravel and two years later I was out of the faith for good by only 21 years old. I don’t think it was that bad in retrospect. I also remind you that by the time I was 9 I had strong emotional evidence that Christianity was vindicated as the best way of life ever. By 14 my skeptical mind was being weekly dealt with by a youth minister who gave all my questions concentrated one on one attention and guidance. I was reading C.S. Lewis shortly after and he is very compelling to a young mind with little other philosophical background. Add to all of this a conscientious desire to be good and a huge ego to save the world (which Christianity exploits to tell you you can save its souls).

      It makes sense psychologically that I was so bound up in the faith and think, under the circumstances, I didn’t do that bad in getting out after just 3 years of academic philosophical study. Could have been better and it is bizarre to remember I actually believed so much of what I believed, but it could have been much worse.

    • plutosdad

      “Bruce S. Springsteens”
      when you wrote:
      “so many others find directly or intuitively?”

      If that were true, religion would have died out thousands of years ago.

      For one, yes, being brainwashed every single day of your life until you are 16 or so definitely takes almost as many years to recover from. I think no one not raised in religion has any conception of how difficult it is, based on the articles by them that I’ve read.

      Not to mention, if Dawkins is correct and there are genes for credulity and religion, then we should be even less incredulous at other people’s credulity*. They can’t help being credulous, any more than another person can’t help questioning.

      Even now that I no longer believe, I have to fight hard as hell not to engage in tribalism and credulously accepting claims by people who I like/look up to/agree with. Even if those people are now Neil DeGrasse Tyson that doesn’t make it right. Even he says “don’t believe it only because I say it” but many of us still do. In some ways, it’s hard not to merely swap one authority for another.

      *say that 10 times fast!

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    BTW, I think this needs to become a book.

  • Contrarian

    I think that there should exist a pragmatic epistemology in which “logic” is a human construct rather than some fundamental truth of the universe. “Logic” is a thing we use because it provides a useful way of making predictions, rather than because it’s somehow fundamentally “true” and must be presupposed before any other knowledge is possible.

    (Note that this pragmatic epistemology would probably reject the very idea of unknowable truth, so it probably couldn’t be used for misology.)

    • Albert Bakker

      It seems to me to be the opposite of pragmatism to abandon things because of their usefulness.

    • skepticalmath

      I think there is. In my experience as a mathematician, there is a significant subset of mathematicians/logicians who believe precisely this: that logic and mathematics are human inventions, which often mirror the real world simply because the basic assumptions we start with are inferred from observation of our universe (we have the law of non-contradiction, for example, because that seems true in our universe — of course, if we existed on the quantum level, or in some stranger universe, we might not.)

    • Albert Bakker

      Suppose for example the law of non contradiction were in some exceptional case allowed to be violated. Then this very possibility would be incoherent in a system where there is also the law of identity. Something could conceivably be validly inferred to not be identical with itself. I do no think an appeal to quantum phenomena could save you then.

    • Contrarian

      Albert: What would be abandoned because of its usefulness?

      skepticalmath: That’s what I’m drawing from.

    • Albert Bakker

      Maybe I am confused about what you really mean by the opposition between “human construct” and “fundamental truth of the Universe”. Whether it was about a metaphysics of logic or about metalogic. If the last then logic is presupposed in order to establish whether systems of logic are sound by criteria of consistency, decidability and completeness.) Logic is just a tool, specifically when used in a formal system to make explicit what is already implicit in what you feed into it. In this sense it is a human construct, but nevertheless necessarily true to the extent these criteria guarantee. Mathematicians will know that basic axioms need not be necessarily true.

      If you’d press me whether I can conceive of a Universe where a different logic applies, I cannot. This for sure extends to the quantum realm in this Universe. But I can fairly easily conceive of a Universe with different geometries, different numbers of dimensions, different values for the constants and other things that are real properties of some possible Universes, however short-lived.

      But okay, the power of my imagination is not the measure of these things, so I am curious.

    • Contrarian

      Well, I’m not really sure what I mean. Seems to me that logic is somehow grounded in linguistics. Here’s a story that might help illustrate what’s happening in my head. First we observe. Then we create language: that is, we create symbols which represent observations. Then we observe that if certain patterns of symbols are present, and we experience the observations to which those symbols refer, we always experience observations referred to by other related symbols.

      We call these patterns “logic.” This is kind of what I mean when I say that logic is created: they are how (we observe) functioning models work, so we, on the basis of these observations, decide that as a prerequisite for a model to correctly describe the universe it must obey these rules.

      I know I’m not being very precise here, and believe me, it’s bugging me as much as it’s bugging you.

      Examples of universes which are “illogical”: Possibly Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Discworld …

    • Contrarian

      That is, “logic” as a law of propositions is not true in the same sense that “physics” as a collection of descriptive models is true. Physics is true because it corresponds to natural observations. Logic does not correspond to natural observations, it corresponds to observations of systems which describe observations. It’s sort of a “second order truth”, as opposed to scientific “first order truth”?

    • Contrarian

      I really have no idea what I’m talking about. :)

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    I think it is entirely plausible that the mental rigors you had to go through, to extract yourself from the Christian mindset, have made you sharper and more candidly introspective than if you’d never had this experience, more than many who haven’t had to go through that cleansing and tuning of their mental equipment. You know what it is to really take apart your beliefs, no matter the emotional discomfort, and reassemble them with honesty. Indeed a silver lining emerging from a cloud of darkness.

    This may be why I find you, among the various advocates for critical thought, one of the few good examples of self-directed skepticism, of someone who is using the tools of skepticism not primarily as a bludgeon tp beat own others, or a shield to ward off outside stupidities, but as a program of personal mental hygiene — the first and most important problem. As Feymnan pointed out, foolng yourself is the hardest thing to avoid, and the central problem addressed by science. Keep up the good work and brave example!

    I do think your whole account of this journey might do well between the covers of a book. Properly titled and marketed, there are lots of bright young people who might find inspiration in it, and those of us who never were in the believer’s mindset could gain some much-needed insight into the condition and its cure.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen

      s/b “to beat down others” above. Regret never taking that typing class forty years ago. .

    • Albert Bakker

      “..and those of us who never were in the believer’s mindset could gain some much-needed insight into the condition and its cure.”

      As one of those fortunate enough I guess to never have been (put) in the believer’s mindset, I have to wonder whether I would have the intellectual capacity, curiosity and integrity to have been able to draw the inevitable conclusions and wrestle myself out of it. This is why I find these stories, and this one is extremely well structured (and book worthy indeed) to be very interesting and even though I do not share any of those experiences to a certain level relatable.

  • John M

    My fascination with the great debates echoes the brainwashing experiences one reads so much about. I shake my head at the nonsense I stood for. “How could I?” is such a binding meme for we ex-believers. Some wit has just put out a line about how he cured himself of brain cancer – threw away the Bible.

    Once a human gets it into his head the profoundly immoral nature of Abrahamic religion’s Divine Command Morality, how it equates to all secular totalitarian murder, it’s like the wooden stake through the heart of the vampire.
    I go on the TOL website arguing this point. Its entertaining is a perverse way to see intelligent persons squirm under the heat. Or maybe I am still trying to save the world. Or play to the gallery. Or exorcise myself completely.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen

      So many dwell on the intellectual failings of faith, as commonly practiced, when the more salient issue to present to believers — at least those in the big monotheisms — is the moral hypocrisy and obscenity at the core of things. Average folks hold to their faith because they really do want a kinder, more just world. There’s a lot to admire and to leverage in that. Pointing out how blatantly cruel and unjust schemes of eternal reward and punishment for temporal, human error are goes right to the center of what keeps people in religious thrall. Most believers I meet really are deeply desirous of the good and the fair, if not so much the true, and have just been maneuvered into not noticing how morally horrific their received beliefs are. Often, direct appeals to basic decency can accomplish what lectures on epistemology cannot.

  • http://www.fester60613.wordpress.com fester60613

    My high school principal (a private “Christian” school) was a Calvinist. The idea that millions would perish and suffer (eternity) in hell – with “divine purpose” – and there was nothing anyone could do about it was extremely appalling to me.
    His exegesis on the subject may have been the first indication to me that this whole God / Salvation thing is all hogswallop. If not the first indication, it was certainly an important nail in the coffin of my disbelief.

  • mnb0

    My thought: thanks to Kierkegaard I realized that having faith and not having faith are of equal value from a philosophical point. One can decide not to take that jump of faith. So I did. Only later I learned that Feuerbach already had written something like that.
    The nice thing is that I don’t have to prove anything anymore. I have two arguments for my atheism; yes, one of them is scientific, so not conclusive (Heisenberg) and the other (theodicy) is subjective and in its core emotional. So what? They are good enough for me.

  • 2believeornot2believe

    I am interested in this phenomenon that most “deconversions” take much time, energy and effort while the “conversion” stories I hear of people becoming Christians are almost instantaneous. A quote un-quote 180 degree turn or so I hear. The instantaneous conversions almost resemble a resetting (re-gaining of faith) rather than a long purging process like those of the deconversion stories. Is the real brainwashing ocuring in our childhood when we are taught about God and right and wrong (ideas so intuitive and familiar that as children we have no trouble whatsover believing them), or is the brainwashing ocurring when we start the “deconversion” process where we objectify the reality and begin to doubt our reasons for ever having believed things without objective proof? I cant help but think we are losing something of what it means to be human if we do away with this innateness. Or am I being too subjective in my thinking for even believing this phenomenon could shed light on the “truth”? I want some opinions. thanks!

  • Mogg

    This is not complete answer to your question by any means, but I think a major factor is the perception of acceptance and safety. A person converting to Christianity is told that they will have a community that will love and accept them, and that God will love and accept them. A person deconverting is facing leaving what is often the only community they have ever known, and told that they are leaving safety, risking death and damnation, and will no longer be acceptable to even their closest friends and family because believers should not be “yoked with unbelievers”. That kind of message of rejection is extremely psychologically powerful, and it often takes a long time to get yourself to the point where being an outcast seems preferable to being a silent hypocrite.

    In addition, doubt is seen in Christian circles as either something which can be worked through or something which immediately puts you in the circle of unbelievers, depending on which texts you emphasise and how fundamentalist and simplistic the particular brand of Christianity is. If you’re in a more moderate environment, you’ll be encouraged to pray and read and reflect and so forth and so delay any leaving, and if you’re in a more fundamentalist circle you may risk becoming an outcast simply by expressing a doubt, and so suppress the necessary reflection which might strengthen your doubts and second thoughts. Either way, the process of leaving is delayed or stalled, sometimes indefinitely. There is no such delay, generally, with becoming a Christian. Pressure can and often is put on to get a person who has come to a few church meetings or a single evangelistic tent rally to commit, whether through an altar call or one-on-one with a pastoral counsellor, so the process may be speeded up, even pressured.

  • Ku

    “I made a kierkegaardian leap of faith.”
    What makes atheistic faith more credible that theistic faith?

  • Ku

    (I apologize for the error)

    “I made a kierkegaardian leap of faith.”

    What makes atheistic faith more credible than theistic faith?


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