How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

When I was a devoutly Evangelical Christian high school student there was a morning I woke up and felt anxious that I had not fully explored all the possible objections to my faith that I could. I resolved I needed to hear out the other side, I needed to radically scrutinize all my beliefs carefully and systematically to make sure they were true. I looked up at my bookshelf, well stocked with books my dad thought I should read, and one of them was called The God Within. I figured this sounded like a sufficiently heretical place to begin my extensive exploration of challenges to my faith. But on the first page of the book, in some sort of preface, the author talked about places where he realized his views were imperfect and had been incisively criticized and required future thought. And I decided, “well if this guy does not even think he is right why do I need to read this?” And thus ended my first major foray into systematically criticizing my beliefs and I went on with my life. The project of actually extensively doubting all my beliefs was just too overwhelmingly enormous to contemplate. I had no idea where to start, so I just didn’t.

Until college.

Throughout the year of 1997 I had become increasingly relativistic, through the influence of presuppositionalist epistemology, Humean skepticism, and Kuhnian narratives about the supposed incommensurability of paradigms. And studying the history of the Christian church, my beliefs were relativized to the historical contexts and arbitrary circumstances from which they had initially emerged and been formed.

And while I used relativism as an excuse for defending the rational inconclusiveness of the case for the truth of Christianity by arguing that all accounts—whether scientific, philosophical, or theological—were at least as rationally inconclusive as my faith was, nonetheless, the faith’s internal contradictions and its lack of an absolute support for the absolute commitment it demanded began to cause serious doubts about its truth.

I remember over Thanksgiving of my sophomore year going home and visiting with my mom and going to my old church. I remember getting together with a woman in the church with whom I had been very close and with her entire family, with whom I was also close. I remember at the end of the day she drove me home and we sat in the driveway and I expressed my doubts at some length. I remember her somewhat sternly putting her foot down after awhile that I just had to beat back such doubts.

One of the ways that I had been regularly beating back my doubts was by referencing my other close philosophy major friends’ beliefs. I told myself, “well if John believes, then this cannot be entirely irrational. It must just be me.”

In December the semester was ending and our term papers were due. I had to write four ten page papers from scratch in two weeks. For our Augustine and Aquinas class, our professor had us buy a text, Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals: Porphyry, Boethius, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham, which we never used. It contained readings from late medieval thinkers. The readings were, to me, impenetrable. Over centuries, through numerous complex philosophical debates, the medievals had built up a great deal of technical jargon that makes them typically inaccessible to those not intimately experienced with their discourse or (at least) with the Aristotelian categories it is all built upon. In class, we never touched these thinkers. We only covered Augustine and Aquinas.

But my two closest philosophy major friends and I were curious and wanted to challenge ourselves. So we resolved to write our papers on these late medieval thinkers even if it meant teaching them to ourselves. Our library had hardly any secondary texts to help us. So we opted to travel to our rival, Slippery Rock University, to see what texts they had. I don’t know quite how it started, but on the trip back to Grove City, one of us started talking about some problem justifying the truth of Christianity. Then another chimed in with another problem. And then we were commiserating about another, and another, and another. Next thing we knew, by the time we had arrived back at campus, we had inadvertently and disquietingly torn the whole rational case for our faith apart. That really was not how our philosophical, theological conversations were supposed to end and we did not feel like leaving things there.

So we decided not part but to keep talking. We went to the library and tried to work out the issues there. But by the time the library was closing and we had to leave, things had gotten no better. We were still doubting and still shooting down every constructive suggestion for defending the faith anyone would weakly put forward. And we really couldn’t leave things like that.

So we found a classroom in Calderwood, which housed the philosophy department and most of our philosophy and theology classes. And until what must have been 4 in the morning we continued to dismantle the faith, wreck every apologetic argument we knew, and vent all our frustrations and doubts freely. There was a bit of relief in getting all these problems off our chests. But there was a lot of distress in realizing that each one of us had to some extent been reassuring himself of the rationality of the faith by having confidence in the other two of us to have good reasons to believe. And here we were, to a man, out of good reasons to believe and in possession of a lot of reasons not to believe.

Finally we went back to the housing group where they lived. We stood in the snow outside. Still bashing the faith. Not knowing how to stop. Not knowing how to end this. Ironically, in retrospect, it was I who finally suggested we really should at least pray before we split off. Quite reluctantly they went along with me.

I would much later learn that an another philosophy major and close friend of ours was laying awake listening intently to us from his nearby window as we trashed the faith. He had been trying to believe with all his might in order to fit in at Grove City. He loved emotional acceptance the school offered him. He associated being a Christian as a precondition of that full participation in the community he wanted. I think at some point he may have genuinely believed, but not for long. But at the time we all thought he believed. He later told me this night influenced him towards his disbelief.

We parted that night with nothing resolved. There were no simple answers. There were only deep doubts. I remember getting back to my dorm room and finally pulling off my utterly soaked, soggy, and freezing shoes and socks. I wrapped my comforter four times around my cold dry feet and it felt so good as they warmed. The heat was so hot in our dorm room that I had to open a window, and I enjoyed the slight chill as I wrapped my whole body and my glowing warm feet against it, and went to sleep.

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

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

    Did you consider going to a professor or pastor and seeing if they had good explanations or were you pretty convinced it was intractable by the time the night was out?

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

      The next post in this series will explain where we each turned next for solutions. Our professors and pastors were going to be inadequate, we knew that much.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    What was that book?

    And who were those medieval guys?

  • http://thorgolucky.com/ thorgolucky

    Inquisitiveness is delightfully corrosive to faith. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • http://maybeweagree.blogspot.com Jack

    its lack of an absolute support for the absolute commitment it demanded