How I Deconverted: I Saw An Agnostic Speak At A Christian Philosophy Conference

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.

Spring 1998

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.

Your Thoughts?

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

Before I Deconverted: My Parents Divorced

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: I Saw An Agnostic Speak At A Christian Conference

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: I Experienced Something Like A Spiritual Break Up

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

When I Deconverted: I Sure Could Have Used The Secular Student Alliance

When I Deconverted: I Came Out To My Family

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

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

After I Deconverted:

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

After I Deconverted: I Was Deeply Ambivalent; What Was I to Make of Sex, Love, Alcohol, Bisexuality, Abortion, 9/11, Religious Violence, Marxism, or the Yankees?

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

After I Deconverted: I Started Blogging


Why I Write About My Deconversion

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

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


Why I Write About My Deconversion

Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
“The History of Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Suicide”
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.

  • pdhickey

    I think it is more valuable to believe that a 50/50 proposition is 50% likely than to affirm it and be right by chance. So this is a non issue to me. Just craft a new proposition: “Proposition X is 50/50,” affirm that, and have all your affirmations be true. Then laugh at those other guys.

    Professionally, if I went around affirming 50/50 propositions, I’d be ruined. So it’s hard for me to take this seriously.

    • Chris

      In the engagement scenario, you’re forced to make a choice. A non-decision is functionally equivalent to the decision to believe he/she is still faithful to you. Essentially, the argument is that if you are forced to be a fool (or right by chance), which sort of fool would you rather be?

    • pdhickey

      No. You’re forced into a binary choice on how to behave, not in what to believe. This is a massively important distinction that demonstrates that the puzzle presented isn’t even epistemological.

    • 3lemenope

      In what sense could a person be said to believe something if that belief does not track that person’s behavior over the same period they claim to hold the belief?

    • pdhickey

      I don’t understand the confusion.

      Remember the story of the lady and the tiger? The guy in the story has a binary choice. But that doesn’t mean his beliefs have to be binary. He could choose one option, but do so with trepidation. People do that all the time, and doing so is perfectly consistent epistemologically.

    • 3lemenope

      The actual belief states can be as fuzzy as one likes, but their external entailments are bounded by the results they can produce; if there are only two possible actions, then every fuzzy belief collapses into a discrete binary value as it is acted upon; either one acts as though one’s spouse is faithful, or one acts as though they aren’t, and any attempt at “fidelity agnosticism” ultimately ends with the same result as the person is inevitably faced with a situation requiring them to adopt a presumption.

    • pdhickey

      No, that’s objectively wrong. The belief doesn’t collapse into anything. It remains a belief. That belief may result in an action that is binary, but the belief remains.

      It is trivially obvious that an uncertain person can nevertheless “make a call” and pick an action without ceasing to be uncertain.

    • 3lemenope

      What distinguishes a belief from an idea is that it motivates actions be taken that, absent the belief, would not be or constrains actions that, absent the belief, would be. This nexus between belief and action allows a typology of beliefs according to their produced outcomes; all the beliefs that lead to the same action-product are formally equivalent for the purposes of the object of the belief. Given that, the point is not that beliefs can’t be fuzzy, it’s that their fuzziness never matters because they always cash out in discrete actions.

      It is trivially obvious that an uncertain person can nevertheless “make a call” and pick an action without ceasing to be uncertain.

      And so…? Their certainly or lack thereof does not matter. All that matters is that they possess a belief, and that acting according to that belief produces a discrete outcome. Absent something truly wonky (and unlikely) like metaphysical free will, the epiphenomenal sensations of ‘centainty’ or ‘uncertainty’ are not causally efficacious and can be disregarded.

    • pdhickey

      Things don’t “matter” or “not matter” in some kind of objective platonic sense. Whether something matters depends on why you care. In the conversation above, the question was about whether someone was making wise or foolish decisions. Their reasons for making those decisions matter to the conversation at hand.

      “All that matters is that they possess a belief, and that acting according to that belief produces a discrete outcome.”

      Can you see why that statement wouldn’t make sense if you were having a conversation about what beliefs are or are not justified?

      “Absent something truly wonky (and unlikely) like metaphysical free will, the epiphenomenal sensations of ‘centainty’ or ‘uncertainty’ are not causally efficacious and can be disregarded.”

      You are trying to decide whether to accept or reject the proposition, “It is better for my needs that I should buy Car A than Car B.” You have decided to accept this proposition. Then you discover that a new article from a reputed auto reviewer that provides an incredibly extensive comparison between Car A and Car B. And in fact, it even reviews a car you had never heard of which just came out: Car C!

      The fact that at least some human beings in your hypothetical shoes would read the article is made true only because uncertainty does, in fact, have causal efficacy.

  • MarnieMacLean

    While I understand that the question is trying to be different, I can’t get past the fact that this is basically just pascal’s wager. It assumes that the christian god is the only possibility you have to accept. But the reality is that the argument requires you to embrace every religion to avoid not believing in something that could maybe be true. And if you believe in all religions you are immediately failing at any religion that demands fidelity to it and rejection of all others.

    By that logic, if we apply it to relationship, it’s not just that you have to accept that your partner might be cheating on you or might not be cheating on you, you also have to consider that your partner might be a lizard person or a member of the illuminati or a former student of hogwarts, or a secret scientologist or whatever. To say that you may not reject a position because, despite a complete lack of evidence, it might still be true, means that you must accept any and all premises, not just the one the person hopes you’ll accept.

    We can’t live like that. We must decide what evidence is sufficient for us. I don’t care how emphatically you tell me that if I walk out a second story window, I will not drop straight to the ground, if you can’t convince me of it with some evidence I find acceptable, the thrill and wonder that might be associated with the idea of self propelled flight is simply not reward enough for me to accept the fantasy.

  • John Kruger

    It seems like it can be a real mistake to assume that believing or disbelieving is a binary operation that always has to be preformed. Far better, I think, to let truly unknown propositions hang in the unknown so that we can have a better chance of investigating and evaluating new evidence without having invested ourselves in one decision or the other.

    Admit you do not know if your fiancee has been unfaithful, it will help you consider new information without having to defend the notion that you were foolish in your initial assessment, whichever way that happens to be.

    If you care about having beliefs that are true, a false belief held to be true can lead to many more false beliefs, whereas a true belief held to be false will simply hold up progress until more compelling evidence can be acquired.