Earlier today, I explained why I enjoy participating in predominantly faith-friendly forums, as an opportunity to represent atheists to a wider audience. In response, the atheist Dan Linford, informed me that he will be giving a presentation to the 2013 Society of Christian Philosophers Eastern Regional Meeting on “Theistic Metaphysics and Naturalism”. And all of a sudden I remembered a conference presentation at a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting that played a key role in my deconversion.
It was at Wheaton College in 1998. I am pretty sure it was in the spring but Googling I was unable to confirm the date. I just vividly remember discussing the presentation afterwards with a specific woman I had a crush on during that period. The presenter was some sort of non-theist and I remember after his presentation the conference organizers enjoying the irony that they had given the last word of this whole Christian philosophy conference to this non-believer, facetiously and maybe a little ruefully congratulating themselves on their charity. I remember it felt like they were trying to save face after he leveled some devastating criticisms of faith-based believing. I remember him as very clean cut, professional, serious, youngish (’30s?), and politely matter-of-fact. And I remember that I found his presentation clearer, less cluttered, more direct, more conclusive, and more cutting than any others presented that weekend. I saved the handout and still have it buried in my papers somewhere. He made arguments defending something along the lines of an evidentialist epistemology coupled with a moral argument against faith-based believing. And I remember finding him uncomfortably convincing.
And then I remember, as a young starry eyed evangelical Christian aspiring philosopher, relishing the question and answer session as one Chrisitian philosophy professor after another, many of whom had presented throughout the weekend and a few of whom I knew by reputation, stood up to throw their creative and unpredictable philosophical counterpunches. I remember them coming from a variety of angles but only a few really landing. My favorite came, I think, from Paul Moser, who stressed William James’s idea that the point was not whether one loved truth but how one loved it–whether as a devotion to avoiding ever believing a false thing by carefully avoiding believing too much, or as a fervent hope to not miss out on anything true that is willing to err on the side of accidentally believing some false things. I seized onto that way of framing a response and remember arguing it to my friend after I replayed the agnostic’s arguments to her.
The analogy I like to use to explain this concept to my students is in the case of suspected infidelity. Say you have highly inconclusive but nonetheless plausible circumstantial reasons to suspect that a fiancé you deeply love and admire and want to spend your life with might just be sleeping with someone else against your will and behind your back. Say you consider this a betrayal worth ending a relationship over. Say, that you honestly feel completely uncertain about what to infer about the truth of the matter even after you confront your partner and (s)he insists that there has been no such affair. As far as you’re concerned the odds are 50/50. You have a choice to believe them (or at least live like one who believes) by marrying them or to disbelieve them and break up. James thinks that when it comes to believing and not believing we don’t want to be fools and that this plays a significant component in our motivations to have the truth. In a case like this, you might decide to break up just in case they’re guilty, so that you don’t risk being a fool continuing to love and sleep with and soon marry someone who is betraying you. But if you do that, James’s reasoning goes, you still risk being a fool since you’re risking throwing away a relationship with someone you deeply love, admire, and want to spend your life with over something that they didn’t actually do. The point is that by trying to avoid believing a lie you risk miss out on believing a truth. Either way you can go wrong and in either case you’re made a fool of. In principle, there’s no better way to be a fool.
Another way I put it to students is this. Let’s say that there are 100 propositions. In the case of about 50 of them there is something close to certainty. The other 50 have arguments that can be made for them that could persuade rational different rationally capable people either way. Let’s say the “agnostic” opts not to neither affirm nor deny the other 50 propositions. The “affirmer/denier” opts to affirm or deny each of the 50, with each affirmation or denial counting as a “belief” in the broad sense that includes explicit disbelief distinct from mere “lack of belief”. It turns out that the affirmer/denier gets half of her judgments correct. This leaves the affirmer/denier with 75 true beliefs and 25 false beliefs. Meanwhile the agnostic has 50 true beliefs, 25 failures to believe what’s true, and 25 cases of having refrained from believing something false. Is it preferable to be the agnostic or the affirmer/denier? Why or why not? Is one more rational than the other? Would you deal with the case of potential infidelity differently than you would cases involving questions of religious belief? Would you use the same rule for assessing all beliefs or a different one for religious ones than other kinds? What would you say?
It was about a year later that I wound up coming down firmly on the side of the non-theist presenter that it is better in principle to miss out on believing what happens to be truth because it is insufficiently supported and knowable by evidence, if need be, than to risk believing a falsehood because one wants it to be true. Just how influential was that one particular presentation from that one particular non-theist who gave the only talk at a Christian conference whose topic I even remember all these years later? It is impossible to calculate exactly. But I suspect it was significant enough to have been worth his time and effort.
This post was written as part of a blogathon I am doing 8am-8pm both Saturday and Sunday of this weekend in order to squeeze a lot of belated writing into a small window of time I have available to blog uninterruptedly. If you are a grateful fan of the blog and want to see me able to post more regularly, please consider donating to support my efforts. I work numerous jobs. The more money that I can make from blogging, the less other jobs I need, and the more I can write for you. Donations can be made via paypal to dfincke at aol dot com. All amounts are deeply appreciated. $100 earns you the right to pick a blog post topic for me (one that I could reasonably be expected to have something halfway intelligent to say about).
Before becoming an atheist I was a devout Evangelical Christian. I am slowly telling the story of my former life as a believer, how I came to deconvert and become an atheist, what it all meant and where I went from there personally and intellectually. Below are links to all the pieces I have written so far. While they all contribute to an overall narrative, each installment is self-contained and can valuably be read on its own without the others. So feel free to read starting anywhere, according to your interest.
Before I Deconverted:Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion: