Yesterday Frank Schaeffer published a post that’s already going viral accusing the moneymakers atop the Evangelical Christian world of not really buying what they’re selling:
Let’s be honest. Sure some smart young people who “come to Christ” are deeply sincere. Then life happens to them and they come to see that nothing is quite as true as it was cracked up to be that night they got “saved.” Then they have a choice: stick with the program, because that’s how they earn their living and/or they now are known as “Christians” so backing down is hard since their identity is on the line– or bail.
What the self-doubting (and often self-loathing) smarter and older evangelicals can’t deal with are their own real questions: for instance how can anyone sane actually believe what the Bible says? Who really believes that gay men and women chose that “lifestyle” rather than being born that way? How can anyone honest look at the evangelical establishment, from the Billy Graham Association to the big publishing companies, to the media empires, to the big colleges and high schools, and really think any of the leaders of this incestuous highly-profitable club would be recognized by Jesus as on the path of the simple way, taking up a cross or following him as he reached out and touched the untouchables?
Let’s face it, there’s an army of evangelical leaders and followers out there that in their deepest inner selves know they have more or less wasted their lives while selling the Americanized “GOD” and “JESUS” as virtually trademarked products. They are about as open to questioning the basic facts of their pitch as the cigarette companies were to admitting that smoking is addictive. When they’re assailed by their inevitable doubts they ignore them and plow on because they cannot face losing face, friends, family and above all — for the legion of “professional Christians” — the money.
The last thing the evangelical establishment wants is an honest debate. So they’re into censorship on a huge scale. To questioner is to be written off–avoided. Just try sending a manuscript to an evangelical publisher that questions the very basis of the existence of the religion they earn their living selling one over-priced book at a time. If they believed their schtick was true they would welcome debate. Try submitting an opinion piece like this one to any evangelical magazine.
Read more. He goes on to lay out his case for their insincerity in more interesting detail and with more polemical flair. I’m curious about how he assesses the deep seated heart and motives of his father, who was a powerfully influential Evangelical Christian leader. I imagine he has addressed this. Does anyone know where he’s subjected his father to this particular brand of cynical suspicion?
I have always worn my true beliefs on my sleeve. Hypocrisy is deeply painful to me. I couldn’t live lying about what I really thought about things. I am almost pathologically forthcoming and confessional a good amount of the time. When I was a Christian I was a true believer and I told everyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t). When I stopped believing, I started updating everyone that I was no longer a Christian right away, with no hesitation and possibly a bit of deconverting zeal, in keeping with my Evangelical upbringing. (Also, in keeping with my Evangelical enculturation, I also had a pair of deconversion moments.) And now when the topic comes up, even sometimes when it’s socially painful for me, I just can’t shut up about being an atheist.
Even when I was in the middle zone, dealing with severe doubts while still earnestly living a Christian life in Christian community and actively engaged in spreading the Gospel and trying to create a fire for Jesus in young Christians, I built my evangelism right on my doubts. From at least 14 years old I approached everything in counter-apologetic terms, constantly sensitized to the sources of resistance to my faith. And when my doubts accelerated in college, as I learned philosophy and theology in depth, and reached their zenith when I binge read the entire Portable Nietzsche in the week and a half between the end of my junior year and a summer spent as a Christian counselor, my conversations always orbited around dealing with the hardest objections to the faith that I knew and I doggedly made the most honest, philosophically careful, and valiant efforts I could to refute them.
I showed up at camp in the summer of 1999 terrified I might be turning into an atheist. I couldn’t believe that it was actually a live prospect to me. Never had I imagined my doubts could go that far. I hoped spending orientation for camp counselors with an incredibly talented and spiritually intense group of people would do the trick and restore my faith but I remember distinctly the first day campers were showing up feeling desperate. I still feared I might be an atheist.
Even in that place, contractually and religiously obligated to carry through with my duties and be a camp counselor, I didn’t hide my doubts. I made them front and center. A bit amusing in retrospect, the first night of camp, for my 13 and 14 year old campers, I took the “evening devotional” time to give them the most rigorous and sophisticated case for believing in God that I could. I risked shooting way over their heads. But I was driven by the need to demonstrate I understood the reasons to doubt and would always honor them; I would never just skip over them and just assume my faith was true and expect anyone to believe that way. And that night I imagine I needed to prove to myself that I had reasons to believe before I said another word.
And I carried on like that the whole summer. Piece by piece, from technical metaphysical philosophy all the way to the finer points of Calvinist theology, I worked out as sophisticated and defensible account of our faith for my campers as I could. I always worked cognizant that there were objections to be answered; doubts to be dispelled. And nothing short of the best formulated understanding of the meaning of our faith mattered. I wouldn’t even skimp on the details and simplify it all for my teenage campers.
There was still an element of dishonesty in all this anyway. In my 10 years between my baptism at 11 and my two deconversion moments at 21, I was always rationalizing trying to rationalize my faith. That’s how faith, i.e., a willful commitment to believe in things either under supported by evidence or refuted by evidence, corrupts reason so badly. It teaches you to accept a tradition’s beliefs as true no matter what, as a matter of identity and morality, and allows doubting and reasoning (even highly sophisticated forms) to only operate as part of an entire spiritual life ultimately only interested in defending and developing the initial commitments. While, people thinking within faiths can sometimes be creative in spite of this, the whole faith-based approach to reasoning is, in its basic structure, fundamentally antithetical to precisely those rigors of science and philosophy that make corrections of basic false beliefs possible. Faith is a deliberate commitment to rationalize rather than rationally criticize when it comes to your core beliefs. Religious faith is not just a matter even of ordinary susceptibility to confirmation bias, it goes much further and perversely makes willful rationalization a moral ideal.
So even as I was endlessly philosophically ambitious, creative, clever, and, even, cocky, and could make even the worst beliefs about as palatable and plausible as they could get, I was still ultimately working within a fundamentally dishonest paradigm. And that last summer, I distinctly felt duty-bound to restore and defend my now beleaguered faith, so I had a non-intellectual, social reason to continue advocating for the faith as my conviction was slipping.
And working out all those arguments actually restored my convictions—temporarily. I remember being amused when I got into a detailed argument defending some highly specific Calvinistic theological points against a camper. I was struck at how just two months earlier I was spending all my time with Nietzsche and becoming ready to light the pyre and burn my faith to ashes and just 9 weeks earlier I was desperate even to feel like I could in good conscience talk about God being real the first night of camp, and now here I was with the minutiae of partisan theology mattering viscerally enough to me that I would dig in, passionately defending it, against a recalcitrant 16 year old.
But that mixture of dishonestly rationalizing while at least being honest enough to never stop fixating on all the legitimate sources of doubt that elicited all the rationalization in the first place was ultimately unstable. And as soon as I no longer had campers of my own, and began working as a “rover” who filled in as a temporary counselor with other people’s tribes with mostly just babysitting responsibilities and few teaching ones, and also working with the 6 year olds now who even I would never try to dump sophisticated philosophy and theology on, my faith almost evaporated.
I remember distinctly sitting on a bench, lost in contemplation on a hot and lazy afternoon one day that week, the last of the summer, when a middle schooler sat down next to me and in the course of our conversation asked what I studied in college. I told him I was a philosophy major. He asked if I believed in God and, for the first time I remember saying it aloud, I admitted I didn’t know.
Two and a half months later I would realize I really didn’t.
(For another account of that summer as a Christian camp counselor, read this post.)
And ever since deconverting, I have always been reflexively inclined to believe the best about Christians’ sincerity. I know intimately what it is like to believe wholeheartedly even as one’s mental processes are fundamentally in active denial and desperately trying to stave off a million reasonable doubts. And I knew I carried through as faithfully as I could on my beliefs; committing my life course to the pursuit of theology out of a genuine belief that Christianity was vital to the salvation of souls, proselytizing my every non-Christian friend throughout high school, making sacrificial ethical choices like to wait for marriage to have sex as I believed God wanted, going off to live with fellow believers immersed in a Christian way of life for college, spending my summers and school weeknights trying to reach kids with the Gospel, worshipping, praying, and all around loving God with all my heart, strength, soul, and mind. And I could rattle off the names of dozens of Christians doing any variation of the above or other things to prove their true belief that their reward is not in this world but in the one to come. And none of them were motivated by rewards at all (as many trivializing cynics assume). They were just bananas for Jesus.
So, given all this, I have tended to balk when people accuse any Evangelical Christians of being insincere or having a successful ministry for the sake of the money. Even the most flagrant fleecers, I default to giving the benefit of the doubt to that they are deluding themselves too.
It is only recently dawning on me that this has long been a prejudice on my part.
I am doing two things that make me much too charitable towards believers.
First, I am projecting myself onto them and naively expecting everyone to be motivated by the kind of existential obsession with knowing the true and the good that I have. Second, and interestingly interconnected with the first, I have been taking attacks on the sincerity of Evangelical Christians as attacks on my own former sincerity.
And as I have explained before, I have, since leaving the faith, been more defensive of the sincerity of my former beliefs than almost anything else. Why? Because when I left a faith that had brainwashed me into believing it was the True and the Good, it was wrenchingly difficult psychologically to be perceived as abandoning the True and the Good. When you leave a cult, the programming can kick in in new ways and emotionally you feel yourself as a traitor. In the months after leaving the faith, I had multiple nightmares in which I murdered people and afterward suffered overwhelming guilt and a terror of having done something irrevocable.
And yet, I knew cognitively and would adamantly–sometimes even lividly–defend the fact that I had left as an act of intellectual and moral conscience. There I stood. I could do no other. And, most ironically, I knew it was precisely my Christian commitment to the True that led me to admit, against everything within me which had fought for a decade, that Christianity was at its core a rotten old lie. And like a good Protestant, I had a practically Luther-like obsession with justification. Knowing one is justified is everything. And if I could no longer be justified by my faith, I was now going to be justified by my truthfulness. I felt the urgent need to prove to Christians I was justified in leaving the faith, that I did so out of true loyalty to the values we shared rather than out of a flippant desire to abandon them. It was, my commitment to what Christianity ingrained in me that led me to overcome it.
Accusations I did not genuinely (or properly) believe are not only false and offensive (especially from the maddeningly dogmatic Calvinists, who diagnose that I never really believed simply because of a theological precept that no true believer ever leaves, which they let override the full evidence of my former life and psychology and that of millions of other apostates, erasing all our spiritual anguish from their contorted little minds) but they rob me of the most difficult act of intellectual conscience and personal liberation I ever managed. If my former beliefs were insincere, then my deconversion was no act of virtue at all.
And so it makes sense to me that I have been so tethered to believing in the sincerity of other believers. It’s part and parcel with affirming my own former sincerity as a believer, which is core to my sense of pride, my identity, and my case that I was really justified in leaving the faith (since I did so with no incentives and desperately wanting to stay).
But I should not be so naive as to think everyone is like me. In fact, I should have learned from the high profile Christian leader on my own campus who was one of my best friends and who revealed his hidden atheism to me after I apostasized–and chewed me out for daring to mess with the faiths of those he deemed needed it.
And I probably always should have made a connection I long avoided.
I have always assumed that had things gone a little differently, and had I not had the immersive exposure to enough philosophy, biblical history, and scathingly skeptical peers to create a strong enough deluge to actually drown and kill my faith, that I would have remained a believer. I would effectively look at my peers who stayed faithful and think some atheistic equivalent of “there but for the grace of God go I” (which, come to think of it, can be recast in non-Christian stoic terms easily enough–“there but for different provisions of nature and personal circumstances go I”). I have always thought I could have been them, I could have remained in the faith.
I have even thought that there is some possible scenario where I would have studied philosophy and theology so much and still hung in there and wound up a preacher or a theologian.
But I am starting to think that’s just not the case. Because I really don’t see how I could have continued to educate myself, continue to grow into adulthood, and still do the dishonest things intellectually necessary to say Christianity is true. I would inevitably have come across certain arguments I now know, only later, even if it took a longer time for the cumulative effect of them wearing me down to happen. But so long as I remained on the path of thinking about theology and philosophy, I cannot see it leading me to anywhere but atheism. There’s a conceivable world where I just never dove in with all my mind into the subjects in the first place. I could have gone the route of psychology instead. But even there, I think I would have seen through the smoke and mirrors of the faith. Only were I unable to go to school could I imagine not studying enough about how the world works to possibly avoid becoming an atheist.
But for so long as I was going to pursue the Christian God, I was going to come up empty.
It really is the only honest option.
I really can’t see my scrupulously earnest and honest self winding up with a different conclusion. I am having a harder and harder time seeing myself in adult believers. I am starting to realize it matters decisively, not just incidentally, that I did not grow up to become one of them. They are not my alternate universe selves. They are still believers precisely because they’re different than me. They have different values and make fundamentally different choices.
A good number of adequately informed and mentally matured Christians may really not be nearly as sincere as I have always wanted to credit them with being. There may really be more outright deception than just self-deception and delusion in their errors. Maybe some are knowing noble liars in ways I could never be. Maybe some live whole careers perpetually stuck where I was as a 21 year old dutiful rationalizer, too far committed to be honest about what they really know. Maybe for some that summer of preaching to the kids while trying to convince themselves just never ends. And maybe many of those with the massive evangelistic platforms are not “me had I stayed” but just the morally questionable set that are left when all the more scrupulous believers have decided not to go that far.
And the true believers? Their active willfulness to engage in intellectually unscrupulous modes of belief formation, precisely when dealing with the most important questions, gives too much reason suspect their moral character. And their functional hypocrisies likely say more about what they really, effectively and truly, believe or disbelieve than their explicit confessions, even when they have convinced themselves they’re sincere.
I am not going to lie, I find this hard to believe emotionally, after so many years spent reflexively defensive of my former brethren on behalf of my former self.
For much more about my years believing, how I left the faith and what’s happened since, read any of the episodic posts in my deconversion series. For a similar experience of disillusioning, in which I realized while blogging that Christians by no means necessarily have the same values I did when I was a believer read about my reaction to the Christian right’s piggish attitudes towards women that would have been anathema to me when I believed. That’s in the post, Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed In Equality Between The Sexes.
The current full table of links in my deconversion series:
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:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
Since I Deconverted: I’ve Been in Denial About Christian Insincerity