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

October 30, 1999-present:

Before becoming a non-believer, I was a serious evangelical Christian. So it was fitting (and possibly inevitable) that I had a dramatic deconversion moment the way many evangelicals have dramatic conversion moments. So there was a moment, on October 30, 1999, while flipping through The Portable Nietzsche when I decisively moved from the believer column to the non-believer column.

And the first thing I did as a non-believer was go to the student union, where I happened to run into my college best friend. (I have previously described the day I met him to you.) This was a fitting coincidence, considering his role in my deconversion was by far the most important of anyone’s. For the time being I want to skip to the part about how our friendship weathered my becoming an atheist.

Having just firmly and conclusively decided that the case against Christianity was essentially irrefutable, I sat down with my college best friend and quickly into our conversation I began rattling off all the ways key Christian beliefs were untenable, unlikely, or outright contradictory. And, amusingly, though he was a believer again after going through a long and deeply dark period of doubt, as I remember it he nonetheless readily and genially nodded away and affirmed every one of my attacks on the faith. He had come to a strange peace about the rational indefensibility of the faith and was unthreatened by unabashed discussion of its failures to make sense or to stand up to rational critique. I am not even sure it quite registered with him at that moment that I was telling him I was really done believing. But it didn’t matter. Whenever he did come to understand this, it was no source of stress on our friendship. We remained close.

He had entered our time as undergraduates as a staunch, self-taught Calvinist who had rejected his nominal Catholic upbringing. By our senior year in college, he had traversed a deeply nihilistic, radically skeptical agnostic period to end up as an Anglican. He was drawn to Anglicanism in no small part because of the traditional Anglican emphasis on what is known as the “via media”.

During Thomas Cranmer’s tumultuous Reformation era term as Archbishop of Canterbury, he had to cope with severe tensions between Protestants and Roman Catholics and to be responsive to the monarchs’ abilities to change the national religion back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism. The “via media” (or “middle way”) emerged out of these tensions as Cranmer and subsequent Anglican leaders tried to develop a faith that could straddle the beliefs of both the Protestants and Catholics in England.

To this day, Anglicanism is not as inherently doctrinal and divisive as other forms of Christianity. There is much more wiggle room for individual interpretation as the standard liturgies, for example, do not force clear distinctions to be made on the subtlest points. My college best friend found this very amenable once his theological and philosophical studies had caused him to despair about the possibility of ever decisively working out clear cut, conclusive positions on matters of theological doctrine. In the last couple months of my faith, I was joining him and two other friends (one who I will also discuss below) in attending an Anglican service every Sunday. When my confidence in the propositional content of the faith was dying, I began to appreciate the liturgical rituals in its place. I had grown up with a low church approach to religion that spurned following liturgies for worship and so embracing them was novel and their power was a sort of spiritual discovery for me. I found the rituals hard to let go of for a few weeks after I renounced the faith.

Eventually, while studying theology at Oxford for his master’s, my college best friend also moved away from Anglicanism, but not from liturgical high church Christianity. Rather he came to believe that to take Christianity as true at all meant embracing the entire historical traditional Christian church as consistently divinely guided. And to him that meant becoming a Roman Catholic. (I have no idea what his views on the Eastern Orthodox option were.) After intending for some time to become a parish priest, he wound up becoming a monk.

Our friendship has never suffered on account of my being an atheist (or his remaining a Christian). Until recently we had been out of touch for quite some time, in part because he lives on the other coast and in part (I am guessing) because he is at a monastery and so prone to spending more of his life “off the grid” than the average person. But while he was at Oxford, and for years thereafter, there were memorable times when he needed to make serious personal and theological decisions and I was able to fruitfully help him by both telling him what I really thought, as an atheist, and then, for his sake, by adopting his religious assumptions and advising him alternatively within the terms of his religious worldview. I think he was especially appreciative that I would take his perspective and help him on the terms of his own beliefs. And he has, likewise, always sympathetically understood where I have been coming from and advised me within my own frames of reference.

In fact, what is most interesting about my rapport with him is that—at least at the time of my deconversion and for the few years after that while we remained in significant contact—philosophically we understood each other probably better than almost anyone else possibly could have. This was not because we agreed on our conclusions. Our positions had become drastically different. But it was because for such formational years, we had studied every step of the way together. We took more classes than I can even remember together and did so at the same times and with the same professors. We spent countless hours in conversation during our intellectually formative college years, intricately working out our philosophical and theological views together. And, bound up with all this, we had endured together various anguished stages of personal growth during that time. Some of the most monumental moments of both his and my personal development were even crucially influenced by each other.

For example, as I will explain when I tell the rest of the story of my deconversion, it was through him that I came to be a Nietzschean. And undoubtedly it was precisely his unrelenting philosophical skepticism that finally became my own and turned me into an atheist—just around the time that he was going back to the faith. Only as I write this does it really strike me that without his influence I would likely never have become a Nietzschean at all. And I quite possibly would have remained a Christian for years more at least. I doubt I would have remained one for good. But even that is possible.  

But the rest of that complicated story, whereby his doubts became my atheism, is for another time. In this post, I just want to note that when I deconverted and came out as an atheist, for several years I remained the most philosophically connected to my Christian college best friend. For me it was as though we had a philosophical language that was personal in a way and only we and a few others spoke it.

One of those few others who was another very close Christian philosopher friend, with whom I had also taken an inordinate amount of classes and with whom I had developed my views in dialectical conflict. When I deconverted, he took it basically in stride. We had gone through the same doubts together as well, as I will describe in more detail when I talk about the process of coming to disbelieve. But while i was deconverting in response to the problems we both saw in our conservative theological tradition, his solution was to latch on to somewhat radical, politically progressive, Neo-orthodox, communitarian  theologians from an elite university. He had studied with one of them in a special program in the summer between our junior and senior years and become a hardcore disciple. He would go on to graduate school in that theologian’s department.

As seniors, in our final semester at Grove City, he and I together did an independent study on Continental and postmodern philosophers. We shared a liberated sense of iconoclasm towards the theological conservatism of both our peers and some of our most influential professors. We shared a lot of radically skeptical philosophy in common. But as much as I pushed him, he resolutely refused the decisive step to atheism, trusting in his new theological mentors to provide him with solutions by which he could thread the Christian needles.

It was deeply gratifying—exhilarating even—to reconnect with him one day in the fall of 2009 and discover that by the time he finished his PhD he had become a kind of atheist too. I think he is a different sort of atheist than I am, but he is one nonetheless.

So it is worth pointing out, among the coming out stories that I want to tell, some of which are stories of struggles and alienation, that there were nonetheless two Christian friends with whom I remained very philosophically close in important ways. We had such powerful influence on each other for so many years, having forged our philosophies through endless conversations with each other and through vigorous challenges to one another. We had learned so much of what we knew simultaneously and together, in both times of serious conflict and warm concord, that our personal and intellectual bonds were too deep for our differing substantial conclusions to make us any less close philosophical brothers. With both of them individually, I have an established conversation, ready to be resumed at any point, in which so much that it would be so hard to explain to others is simply understood between us. We know precisely where each other is coming from. We know the fundamental intellectual value priorities and background knowledge that we each share. We can (or at least could in the old days) finish each other’s arguments for each other. And this did not diminish much on account of their believing and my disbelieving. It did make for some seemingly intractable arguments and I admit I never quite got how they really squared believing anymore. But for the first few years of my atheism, I felt no one did, or could, understand me as well as they did. And, honestly, that may still be the case. But I have to catch up with them to find out.

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.

  • John Morales

    Anecdotes where friendship transcends ideology are evidence that this is possible.

    (It really ain’t that hard to find stories that the other way, but)

  • http://brucegerencser.net Bruce Gerencser

    We attended an Episcopalian church on and off a few years ago. On our first visit one on the matrons of the church told us, everyone is welcome here, we don’t care what you believe. :)

    I wish my deconversion left me with a few friends. Sadly, as soon as I said, I am a _________, I was viewed as the enemy. I do not have one friendship with any of the men I considered friends while I was pastor. Now I am just a sermon illustration, a cautionary tale of what happens when you read the wrong books.:)

    I suspect with philosophy people generally are broader thinkers than my clergy friends.

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

      So sorry to hear that Bruce. I definitely had some of the sour falling outs but yeah my “brothers-in-arms” being philosophers rather than theologians made a decisive difference for the better for me.

      I don’t know if they will be the same as your actual old friends, but have you been in touch with fellow ex-clergy much?

    • John Morales

      being philosophers rather than theologians

      This jumped out at me.

  • diana

    Your account of the intellectual journey you were on with your Christian friend caused me to have a glimpse of the nature of that relationship and how exciting it can be. I have only been able to have that kind of understanding with fellow atheists, but I can hear how close and stimulating and supportive it could be. I guess the problem is that I have no Christian friends who are able to think about their beliefs from a philosophical perspective. They are too attached to being right, and too afraid of even temporarily entertaining a non-christian thought. I know very well what it means and how it feels to be Christian, but they just can’t allow themselves even to try on my point of view. When you get stuck on the very low-level fundamentals, it’s not possible to even consider or discuss higher level problems or questions. Even thinking hypothetically about those concepts scares them.

  • http://brucegerencser.net Bruce Gerencser

    Dan,

    I help with the Clergy Project and I correspond with a fair number of doubting clergy and parishoners. In these relationships I, at times, still see myself as pastor. (albeit with a very different theology). :) I have one close friend who is also a pastor turned atheist, but he moved to Arizona awhile back. I have another close friend who is a Christian. Our relationship goes back 47 years and he is indifferent to my atheism. That is it. My wife and I are closer than ever but, like any guy, I like going things with guys my age. As you know I am disabled, and the Internet has been a lifesaver for me. I have been able to forge some digital relationships that I treasure but nothing takes the place of real flesh and blood relationships.

    Last year I contacted an old pastor friend. I am 10 years older than him. I helped him many, many times when he first entered the pastorate. His response? Not a family update, not a hi, how are you? He ripped me from stem to stern. Told me I was unstable and that he pitied my family. One big load of **** to be sure. Once I pointed out this was no way for him to respond to me he ratcheted the hostility down. We ended up having a good conversation. I miss our days at the restaurant talking and debating theology.

    You are right about theology, especially in the Evangelical church. There is little tolerance for dissent or difference of opinion. (outside of the internecine wars they endlessly wage among themselves)


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