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

Welcome, new Patheos readers to Camels With Hammers! Welcome Camels With Hammers readers to our new home here at Patheos! Soon I will properly introduce myself to Patheos readers–including, specifically the religious believers who may be around here in slightly greater numbers than at Freethought Blogs. I also hope to share some of the many ideas I have for reimagining and reinvigorating this blog now that it has a fresh new start in a new home. But for now, I think it will be appropriate to relaunch the blog by republishing, for readers both new and old, the essay that I consider to be the most important for understanding me and how my religious background led to my atheism and informs it until today.

In “The Three Transformations of the Spirit” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra describes the human spirit as successively taking three different forms: the camel, the lion, and the child. The transformations begin with the spirit of the camel, which Nietzsche characterizes as consisting of obedient, self-sacrificing, reverential, principled, moralism. Essentially this is a religious animal, who pursues the truth at great pains to himself because it is, what we may infer to be, a religious requirement to be moral, and therefore truthful, in the utmost.

In Nietzsche’s mind such moralistic attachment to truth, though inspired by a religious and moral injunction that none shall lie, leads to the discovery of truths that undermine religion and moralism themselves—partly by showing that many religious and moral beliefs are rooted in falsehoods and partly by exposing the truth about some of the immoral and dishonest ways that religions and moralities actually propagate themselves as real world systems of domination and control.

Morality itself, in Nietzsche’s view, is deeply hypocritical according to its own standards. And any Christian who takes the commandment against lying seriously at all is going to have to leave Christianity on precisely that account.

I am like Nietzsche’s camel. While I am many miles away from morally perfect, I have been a generally conscientious person since I was a child and was devoutly, zealously, evangelically, self-sacrificially, and mildly puritanically religious until I was 21. And I am open to certain interpretations of my personality that see it as still fundamentally religious—as long as they do not confuse that for faith-based thinking or other forms of closed-mindedness, authoritarianism, or deference to unwarranted authorities of thought or practice. I think a fair accounting would acquit me of such charges, whatever the other inadequacies of my intellect and character.

What I am stressing here is something that both the faithful and the always-secular rarely seem to understand about at least some of us apostates. For some of us, our rejection of our faith is not merely the abandonment of our religious values but, at the same time, very much our fulfillment of them. It was Christianity that led me to reject Christianity.

Of course some people can reject Christianity, or any other religion, because secular values become more important than religious ones. But love of truth is not implanted, oriented, or motivated psychologically the same for everyone. While some might have that develop that love from the delight of  love of learning, others might find it grows strongest out of fury over being deceived, or others might have it take root because of curiosity, wonder, fear, or the simple satisfaction and feeling of victory in exercising natural intellectual talents. Biographically, the love of truth was preached to me religiously, as a matter of absolute importance because of the religious stakes that rode on it. It mattered that people believed the truth and that they did the good because their very salvation hung on this.

And even in the wake of my rejection of faith (and, with it, the irrationalistic dogmas and habits of thought that were major parts of my Christianity), my supreme estimation of the value of truth might still be interpreted as having a religious, zealous, unmoderated character. I revere the truth, I am willing to suffer quite a bit for it, and still viscerally reject attempts to relativize its value.

I have a hard time accepting that some other values might override the value of truth in some cases.  I do not accept easily that it is okay for some people to be deceived, or that in some people a multitude of other virtues might cover their sins of intellectual dishonesty.  But even on these scores, my love of truth itself leads me to recognize and acknowledge and understand its limited value.  The religious devotion to truth involves learning to not make an idol of truth since that would be to dishonor it.

But, nonetheless, out of concern for truth, I must admit that I am in many respects an evangelist of truthfulness. I am almost pathologically self-disclosing. I view intellectual honesty as a deeply moral matter and excellence of thought as a central human virtue and I only recognize its limits and needs to be balanced against other virtues insofar as it itself requires that I see and acknowledge this.

And, again, while there are many other routes to a love of truth which have no need of religion, ironically my love of truth was cultivated, as it has been for many others before and since me, in that den of manipulative lies that is the Christian church.

And, so, as Nietzsche thinks necessary, my “camel” spirit had to take the character of a lion’s spirit and proudly and defiantly say “no” to the false “thou shalts” of a dishonest and flawed religious value system and “no” to the false beliefs which propped it up.  This was the outgrowth of my religious, moralistic, camel’s nature reaching its logical and practical conclusions. I rejected faith-based religion religiously, at least insofar as my rejection of faith grew out of my religious struggle.

I bring all of this up for a reason. Faithful religious people do not, in my experience, seem to understand that some of us apostates are not like other atheists. We are not total outsiders. Our critique is partly an internal critique of religion, out of religiousness.  We are attacking the idols and falsehoods that are promulgated as Truth.

In practice, if no longer in belief, there is a continuity of our religiosity back to the days when it took a faith-based, God-fearing form rather than a faithless, godless one. In terms of spirit, some of us apostates, are still closer in temperament in numerous ways to our former brethren than to some of our fellow atheists. In some ways we are stillinescapably their brethren and, despite our explicit, rationally rigorous, and wholehearted rejection of the contents of their beliefs and some of their worse moral values, our rejection is what we see as the rightful conclusion of the values theythemselves have.

In other words, in some ways, we apostates want to be heard as saying that if our former brethren would themselves be true to the values we share, they would leave the faith right along with us. We sometimes want to be heard on these grounds.

Of course, we get it that we are disowned.  And we want to be–because we think the rot of false beliefs, regressive morals, and cultish practices pervert and ruin what is still intense and passionately alive about the religiosity we have from back in our faith-based days (regardless of whether we conceptualize it as “religiosity” any more now that we lack gods to worship). But we do not want our former brethren to deny that we were really among them and we really want them to get that we left not out of a failure of moral and religious seriousness but out of an abundance of it.

And maybe I speak only for me but it galls me when I see liberally minded people who were never at all religious bash apostates for attacking the religious beliefs that we ourselves once held. If such liberals are really so respectful of religion, then it would be nice if they respected the kind of religious experience that leads to apostasy.  Apostates often have too few friends and sympathizers when they are going through one of the most alienating experiences of their lives.

If all religions that are not violent or hateful are valid, then appreciate that apostasy can be just as much a sincere expression of religiosity as faithful adherence to dogma is—and maybe even a purer and more admirable form. And the liberal-minded shouldn’t always assume that an atheist is attacking something he does not care to understand or appreciate in all its manifold colors. For many of us it was something deep in our bones that we now wrestle against—not because there is any temptation left to believe its nonsense, but because it was so deep and enduring a part of our personal formation.

For many of us, this is, in “spiritual” terms, a conflict with our former brethren. It’s a family feud and as outsiders to it, the never-religious really should not take sides and tell us atheists to leave the religious alone, if they are sincere about respecting people’s religious experience. Some of our atheisms represent the culmination and the final truth and interpretation of our religious experiences. And some of our religious natures areexpressed atheistically. Some of our pieties are to truth and the objective good, at the expense of faith and even at the expense of our very families when they are wrongheaded. It’s personal to us. Our experiences are valid and they count. Institutional religion does not want to acknowledge our experiences because they call them into question. Don’t attempt to exclude our voice from the discussion. Don’t silence our sides of the religious story.

It’s not truthful. It’s not fair. It’s not even religiously tolerant.

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

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

When I Deconverted:

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

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

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

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.

  • http://blog.OklahomaAtheists.com D4M10N

    Excellent point about the never-religious. I’d extend it a bit to the never-my-kind-of-religious. Since I’ve never been Amish (to pick a sect at random) I’m hesitant to comment on what it must be like to leave that faith, or to deal with the repercussions thereafter.

    p.s. Nice to see you on Patheos!

  • Lukas Halim

    Welcome to Patheos! I just checked out your, “In Which I Answer Leah Libresco’s Moral Philosophy Concerns So You Don’t Become A Catholic Too,” but found the argument confusing. You wrote, “Just as we understand that natural “selection” can occur without an intelligent “selector(s)” so we can talk about the ways that natural beings function optimally according to their natures without their requiring any intelligence that gives them their functions deliberately.” The trouble with this is that natural selection can only happen in a well-ordered, non-chaotic, sort of universe. Have you read John Leslie’s Universes, or anything by Stephen Barr on anthropic coincidences?

    Also, further on you write, “Universals, including moral ones, are imminent in reality.” Do you mean it is imminent in people? Like, if person A and person B are arguing about whether it is wrong to cheat on an exam, they are arguing about the universal moral norm that is imminently present in person A and person B? If that’s right, then would you say the same moral norm is present in both? Because it seems to me that evolution leads to variation – so there might be some similarities in A and B, but also some important differences. Evolution leads to variation, and therefore doesn’t lead to universals. Thoughts?

    “It could even be that the winding unguided road of natural and social evolution required at various times all sorts of brutalities which proved the most efficient route to overall long term progress. Those might be harsh truths. But it is also the case that cultures can be wrong about what leads to their own optimal flourishing in power in objective terms.” I’d like to hear you explain this more, because it sounds like you are saying, “Sometimes we kill a lot of innocent people. when we do, it’s sometimes a good decision for long term flourishing and other times not a good decision. like, the Nazis just destroyed things so they’re bad, but the Mongol Hordes worked out pretty well.”

    • kft

      “The trouble with this is that natural selection can only happen in a well-ordered, non-chaotic, sort of universe.”

      No, it can happen in any locally well-ordered, non-chaotic pocket of a universe, such as a planet heated by a sun (or residual internal heat, as we have with life around deep-sea vents). Once something that can reproduce itself and change during that reproduction, natural selection will happen, as those things that reproduce better reproduce more. And there are multiple plausible mechanisms for the origin of such somethings – while it’s still an issue trying to figure out what mechanism was the most likely one, there’s nothing to my knowledge that rules out the basic idea.

  • alfaretta

    Daniel — Welcome to Patheos. As a former devout Christian, I look forward to reading your story. You have expressed here so beautifully what many of us have gone through.

  • Lukas Halim

    Ah, I found the post where you really get into it: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/02/21/examining-some-alleged-divine-attributes/. Here you write, “Why not just say that the universe itself is eternal and self-explanatory? It’s simpler. ” So, if that is correct, then it seems that evolution is quite beside the point, because even if the human race and other life had existed through all eternity than we might just say that they are a basic fact of the eternal and self-explanatory universe, without needing any recourse to evolution.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Nope. Here’s the distinction: we have evidence that supports evolution (in particular, evidence that there was once no earth, ergo, there was once no life on earth.) So we *know* life, at least on earth, has a terminating past. On the other hand, we have no such evidence for such minimal-state affairs as quantum vacuums, so as long as we are proposing that it is possible for something to exist forever, there is no good reason to say that it must be God rather than a quantum vacuum.

      That said, maybe we should take this conversation over to the appropriate post.

    • Lukas Halim

      You’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m know we have evidence that supports evolution and that life on earth has a terminating past. Rather, I’m just posing a hypothetical because I’m interested in finding out which sorts of things need an explanation or a cause and which don’t.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Lukas, please forgive a quick reply. Eric Steinhart has written some interesting stuff on the issues you’re inquiring about for Camels With Hammers. See this post and related links at the end of it.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Dan – on this note, will Eric Steinhart be guest-blogging here again now that you’re at Patheos?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Dan – on this note, will Eric Steinhart be guest-blogging here again now that you’re at Patheos?

      I’m not sure.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unreasonablefaith/ VorJack

    Well, this is a pleasant surprise! Welcome, Daniel. It’s good to have someone on the channel with a philosophical emphasis.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks VorJack! It’s a delight to join you! I have such fond memories of my first summer in the atheist blogosphere hanging around Unreasonable Faith trying desperately to drive readership to Camels With Hammers!

  • Ted Seeber

    Ok, so if you reject unwarranted authorities, why hold to such an unwarranted authority as a syphilic German madman like Nietzsche, who was clearly so insane that those who followed his philosophy created the worst genocide the world had ever seen up to that point?

    In other words, it seems to me when you left Christianity behind, you just made yourself some new Gods to replace God.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Ok, so if you reject unwarranted authorities, why hold to such an unwarranted authority as a syphilic German madman like Nietzsche,

      I hardly think Dan positions Nietzsche as an authority whose claims cannot be doubted (though he is free to correct me on that point); rather, Dan thinks Nietzsche had some useful insights, and supports those with rational argument. This is hardly accepting some unwarranted authority.

      those who followed his philosophy created the worst genocide the world had ever seen up to that point?

      You can, I presume, support this with actual evidence? (I will remind you that the consensus of historians and scholars — as is obvious from the texts- is that Nietzsche sharply criticized anti-semitism, nationalism, and Germanism.)

    • Daniel Fincke

      Ok, so if you reject unwarranted authorities, why hold to such an unwarranted authority as a syphilic German madman like Nietzsche,

      I do not give Nietzsche any unwarranted authority. I assess his ideas for their truth value for myself rather than defer to them in principle as necessarily true in all cases. That’s how one relates to a thinker rationally. It is the opposite of deferring to texts or or individuals who make claims presumed to be divinely revealed and absolutely true, when there is no good reason to hold either of those two propositions.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Oh yes and this:

      (I will remind you that the consensus of historians and scholars — as is obvious from the texts- is that Nietzsche sharply criticized anti-semitism, nationalism, and Germanism.)

    • Ryan

      “those who followed his philosophy created the worst genocide the world had ever seen up to that point?”

      Might I add that if you judge a philosopher by the worst fans of his/her philosophy, Jesus doesn’t look so good, either. Perhaps we should judge texts by thier own merits and applicability to us, and not who used them to justify evil actions.

    • Ted Seeber

      The problem with those historians, is if you take Nietzsche for what he said, you have to actually reject any morality whatsoever- and thus his criticisms mean less than nothing.

      I find his entire philosophy to be so bankrupt as to be utterly worthless- none of his points work for me at all. They all yield unworkable and unsustainable solutions.

    • Daniel Fincke

      The problem with those historians, is if you take Nietzsche for what he said, you have to actually reject any morality whatsoever- and thus his criticisms mean less than nothing.

      I find his entire philosophy to be so bankrupt as to be utterly worthless- none of his points work for me at all. They all yield unworkable and unsustainable solutions.

      That’s only if you take some of what he says and willfully ignore other remarks that add a lot of nuance. If you are interested, over time I will be explaining my interpretation of Nietzsche in various posts and may be able to write posts on questions or challenges people raise. His writings are rich with insights. Making them coherent and systematic as an overall philosophy with internal consistency and practical value and truth is a challenge, but I spent 7 years doing it when writing my dissertation and am quite happy with the results. It is easy but far less illuminating to pull out some incendiary thing he says or some prima facie contradiction between two things he says and just dismiss him as a waste of time. But that’s not a way to benefit the most from what is there. It’s a way to excuse yourself from having to deal with what is genuinely profound and challenging in his works that has made him one of the very most powerful influences on all of culture for decades (even as professional analytic philosophy has surprisingly underused him).

      If you are willing to have a constructive and openminded approach to Nietzsche, my posts should be of some value. If you are looking to have an easy way to dismiss me by shouting “Nietzsche was a Nazi!” it is only you who will miss an opportunity to learn. Not me.

  • Lukas Halim

    Thanks for the reference Daniel – I’ll read through it.

  • BjörnCarlsten

    Not that it’s my place, seeing as I’m a newcomer myself, but welcome to Patheos.

    I had actually not read anything you’d written before I learned that you were leaving FtB to come here, but now, having read several of your previous posts, I can safely say that I’ll be following your blog closely. I especially appreciated your posts on godless objective morality. Personally, I stumbled from moral nihilism to something very much resembling your position (at least as far as I can understand it!), and it’s gratifying to see it explained so thoroughly in philosophical language. I never would have imagined that Nietzsche and Aristotle could be so relevant to my own moral universe, and I thank you for dispelling my ignorance.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    Your description of a quest for truth, stemming from your religious upbringing, and culminating in atheism, really resonates with me. I think my de-conversion journey started when I first started studying Christian apologetics in high school. This led me to dabbling in Calvinism then Catholicism before rejecting faith altogether.

    BTW, I’ve recently started reading Nietzche’s Genealogy of Morals, with new eye as an atheist. I read it 5 years ago as a Catholic, but I’m appreciating Nietzche’s insights more as an unbeliever. I suppose this is because I no longer have to fear that his words will turn me into an atheist. lol

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