How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed To Find Reality In Abstractions

September 1999-October 1999: 

I did an independent study on Heidegger and Nietzsche the first semester of my senior year. And for the first month and a half of it, I read Heidegger’s Being and Time with utter fascination. Almost every one of the first 364 pages in my copy of the book is heavily underlined from that read-through. What made Heidegger so mesmerizing for me was the meticulous abstract ways that he could describe what it is to be in the world and to exist as a temporal being. Whereas a traditional poet might dazzle through evoking the sensual character of life to make striking conceptual connections, Heidegger had a true gift for enriching my experience of experience itself by conceiving of it as relentlessly abstractly as seemed possible. It frequently set my heart aflame to find every feature of the structure of experience itself pregnant with meaningful implications just waiting to be explicated and related to all of the others.

My doubts at the time were not just about the existence of God or the truth of Christianity but about the human ability to grasp reality itself and to attain to any genuine knowledge at all. There was something profoundly therapeutic and encouraging for me about Heidegger’s way of infusing the experiential structures of the world with so much sense and meaning. Of course, one could argue that all he was doing was describing in loving detail our human, all too human ways of structuring and experiencing the world and little about the world in itself. He may not have been getting us out of the prison of language and concepts but rather describing its bars and walls and structures with enough panache to convince one they were the outside world itself–and its most beautiful part at that. (Or as others are prone to put the point, less tastefully but no less colorfully, perhaps he is just the ring leader of a circle jerk of mental masturbation. I like to think not.)

Under the spell of Heidegger’s evocative phenomenological descriptions of the world, my doubts felt somewhat soothed. I even was seriously contemplating working for the Coalition for Christian Outreach after graduating, even attending some sort of information weekend with a friend who worked for them. She also worked at Ligonier, the camp where I had been a camp counselor the summer before. Her father ran the camp and so she grew up on the grounds and was the head of the wilderness/adventure program. I admired her intensely. I would have married her on the spot if she ever asked–but she was never going to, so I was just content that at least she loved my poetry and reread it regularly. Also some very likable and influential campus ministers at Grove City, including some Resident Directors (who managed the RAs at Grove City) were cool twenty somethings from CCO. I distinctly remember reading Heidegger at the CCO information weekend as I enjoyed the crisp cooled weather of early autumn and felt and savored the reality of the world around me.

And then in mid-October it came time for me to do the Nietzsche portion of my independent study. I hadn’t touched his writings since reading The Portable Nietzsche rattled my faith in May. But now I spent two weeks reading both The Gay Science and On the Genealogy of Morals entirely through. And my faith was sunk. The picture of the world spelled out in The Gay Science sections 103-126 in particular came to color all my thinking for the next nine years. In those sections, Nietzsche paints a picture of the basic realities of the world as being in a constant flux in which nothing can ever remain itself long enough to be anything. All our perceptions and our words distort reality by giving us the illusions that there are recurring things which are the same when in truth all there can possibly be are radical particulars. Logic, depending as it does on recurring identities, about which generalizations can be made and between which logical associations can be found and argued from, was itself built on a lie since there were no two beings that could ever be said to actually be identical to each other (or even to themselves). I was, essentially, embracing radical Heracliteanism and a thoroughgoing nominalism that, if taken (ironically) to its logical conclusion, paralyzes reason itself.  I would spend the end of the semester arguing vocally in my philosophy of language class for this anti-realist take on language and for concepts Nietzsche spelled out in those sections of The Gay Science, and by November I had drafted a paper on the subject which I was using to apply to graduate schools.

During this time I was also suffering from the latest of a long string of foolishly chosen crushes. I had, as was my wont, fallen for a friend who was not interested in me (this one a fellow camp counselor I had met during the summer) and was agonizing over her on through the fall. And, in keeping with another unhealthy pattern, I had idealized her unrealistically and had strained our friendship as I tried to squeeze whatever I could out of her in terms of time and attention and affection, while she tried to both placate me and assert her boundaries as politely as possible. She agreed to visit me “as a friend” at Grove City but only after we were weeks into the semester (though she studied a short drive away at a nearby university) and she planned to have to leave after just a brief couple hour visit to be on time for other plans. Emotionally, I had invested in her some of my last desperate hopes for faith. I ridiculously and condescendingly romanticized what I supposed to be the simplicity of her faith and envied it and wanted somehow to salvage my faith through hers. When her scheduling priorities made her rejection decisively clear to me, I lost one more incentive and ability to hang on against my reason to my faith.

Then on Friday, October 29, 1999, I remember sitting at lunch with a few people, including the secretary of the philosophy club of which I was president. She was smart, inquisitive, warmly outgoing, gorgeous, and, though not a philosophy major, a serious philosophy enthusiast who was dating the philosophically intense vice president of our club (with whom my long journey to disbelief had begun almost two years prior). She loved to endlessly probe us with philosophical questions. In this conversation though, the subject was my doubts, and she was going down an extensive informal checklist of things I should be doing about them. Had I considered this, had I considered that, was I doing this, was I doing that. I remember feeling exasperated, I had thought through every intellectual possibility and had tried everything I was supposed to spiritually.

When she asked me if I was letting sin into my life, I remember noting privately to myself that I had not so much as masturbated for months, I was being that conscientious and pure. Atop that I was a willing virgin, who had the misfortune of not having even kissed a girl in the last four years. I had devoted every ounce of myself that I could to studying the Bible and making sense of Christian theology and to defending the faith philosophically. Since I was 12 years old I had done everything I could think of to try to bring my friends to Christ and to spread the Gospel to others. My studies, my emotional life, my friendships, family relationships, my music choices, my politics, my hopes, my aspirations, my ideals, my morality, my entire intellectual life, my chastened sexuality, my very identity itself–everything in my life revolved around my commitment to God. I had explored and tried vigorously to defend every argument for believing that I could come up with. I had tried to be as holy and as scrupulously conscientious as possible. But I was at the end of my rope.

When she stalled in coming up with more things to ask about, I finally said aloud, “I have tried everything,” and in my mind I thought, “and I have tried so hard.” And then the fateful thought popped into my head for the first time: “Maybe it is time to stop trying.”

That afternoon I masturbated. And, for the first time, I didn’t feel guilty or ashamed about it. And I never have since.

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.

  • http://www.darwinharmless.com darwinharmless

    It astonishes me that mainstream religions all seem to see masturbation as a sin. It’s our only safe sex. Safe in every way. Totally safe. Harmless. Healthy. Where did this perversion come from, and why are people so willing to buy into it? Masturbation should be taught in school, along with other health instruction like brushing your teeth or washing your hands. I’m so happy to hear that it played a part in your deconversion. The shaming of masturbation is a chain and a shackle that is so good to cast off.

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

    The shaming of masturbation is a chain and a shackle that is so good to cast off.

    Agreed, that’s part of why I decided to bring it up.


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