Atheist Deconversion Story Series #1: Anthony Toohey

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Introduction: “Deconversion” stories are accounts of an atheist or agnostic’s odyssey from some form of Christianity to atheism or agnosticism. Since these are public (else I wouldn’t know about them in the first place), it’s reasonable to assume that they are more than merely subjective / personal matters, that have no bearing on anyone else. No; it is assumed (it seems to me) that these stories are thought to offer rationales of various sorts for others to also become atheists or to be more confirmed in their own atheism. This being the case, since they are public critiques of Christianity (hence, fair game for public criticism), as a Christian (Catholic) apologist, I have a few thoughts in counter-reply.

I am not questioning the sincerity of these persons or the truthfulness of their self-reports, or any anguish that they went through. I accept their words at face value. I’m not arguing that they are terrible, evil people (that’s a child’s game). My sole interest is in showing if and where certain portions of these deconversion stories contain fallacious or non-factual elements: where they fail to make a point against Christianity (what Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls “defeating the defeaters”), or misrepresent (usually unwittingly) Christianity as a whole, or the Bible, etc.

As always, feedback on my blog (especially from the persons critiqued) is highly encouraged, and I will contact, out of basic courtesy, everyone whose story I have critiqued. All atheists are treated with courtesy and respect on my blog. If someone doesn’t do so, I reprimand them, and ban them if they persist in their insults.

When I cite the stories themselves, the words will be in blue.

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Today, I am responding to “Real Deconversion Story #14 – Anthony Toohey” (12-5-16), hosted on Jonathan MS Pearce’s A Tippling Philosopher web page at Patheos (where my blog is also hosted).

With . . .  Duane’s promise that all of the confusing stuff I’d heard about salvation and redemption in my Catholic upbringing was wrong, that it all came down to Believe and Be Saved… Well that was enough for me. I did, and as far as I knew, I was.

Anthony stated that he went to “after-school catechism. This created a fascination in me for the bible and for the mystical/spiritual aspects of Christianity.” But we don’t know how much he actually knew about Catholicism . . . seemingly not all that much, if he could forsake it  merely because of a Bible trivia game and the usual ignorant “Chick Tract”-like anti-Catholic sermonizing. Hence, he appears to have been like many millions of insufficiently catechized Catholics: almost to a person unfamiliar with apologetics, or the reasons why Catholics believe as they do. This is a common theme running through deconversion stories: either relative or profound ignorance of one’s own Christian affiliations. If we don’t know why we believe whatever — have no reasons for it — , then obviously we are easy targets of those who would dissuade us from our shallow, non-rational beliefs.

He talks about how the Santa Cruz Christian Church (I tried to find it on Google and was unsuccessful) gave him and his fiancee advice, causing him to call off their engagement. But this is hardly grounds to blame Christianity, because one church practiced what he rightly describes as “spiritual abuse.” As so often in these stories, one extreme sect is universalized to all of Christianity, as if it is representative of that whole. Atheists reading such gory details sit there lamenting, “see what rascals and morons those damned Christians are! So glad I came to my senses and left it. Best thing I ever did . . .” They never seem to realize that one extreme and twisted version of Christianity is not the whole ball of wax. Basic category errors and logical fallacies, in other words . . . These things usually aren’t stated outright, but I would contend that they are the underlying strongly implied assumption.

Former Christian atheists often refer back to the years of “abuse” (real or alleged) that they went through. Hence, Anthony writes: “It was not until after I left the faith and went back to examine my Christian life in light of my new viewpoint, that the gravity of what I had allowed to be done to us hit me.” In this case, it was real abuse, but only from an extremist fringe sector of Christianity, which is no disproof of Christianity per se.

I bought the first pieces of my spiritual library. He and Theresa had already bought me a study bible. That day I bought a comprehensive concordance, a bible dictionary, an exhaustive cross-reference, a bible atlas, and, finally, Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties.

What?

I took Duane at his word, but inside, the title of that book put a cold shaft of fear inside me. How could God’s word have “difficulties?” What on earth was difficult about God’s revelation to mankind. I mean, he’s God, right? And we have the spirit of God.

This is shallow, unreflective thinking. I can think of a number of sound, logical reasons why such a book would exist:

 

1. The Bible is a very lengthy, multi-faceted book by many authors, from long ago, with many literary genres, and cultural assumptions that are foreign to us.

2. The Bible purports to be revelation from an infinitely intelligent God. Thus (even though God simplifies it as much as possible), for us to think that it is an easy thing to immediately grasp and figure out, and would not have any number of “difficulties” for mere human beings to work through, is naive. The Bible itself teaches that authoritative teachers are necessary to properly understand it.

3. All grand “theories” have components (“anomalies” / “difficulties”) that need to be worked out and explained. For example, scientific theories do not purport to perfectly explain everything. They often have large “mysterious” areas that have to be resolved. Think of, for example, the “missing links” in evolution. That didn’t stop people from believing in it. Folks believed in gradual Darwinian evolution even though prominent paleontologist and philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould famously noted that “gradualism was never read from the rocks.” Even Einstein’s theories weren’t totally confirmed by scientific experiment at first (later they were). That a book like the Bible would have “difficulties” to work through is perfectly obvious and unsurprising to me.

4. Most of the rationale of explaining “Bible difficulties” is not from a perspective that they are real difficulties, but rather, to show that purported difficulties really aren’t such. They are usually based on illogical thinking or unfamiliarity with biblical genre, etc. Many alleged biblical “contradictions” simply aren’t so, by the rules of logic.

5. The Foreword of the book by Kenneth S. Kantzer explains its rationale: “[T]he faith of some troubled souls is hindered by misunderstanding the Scripture. They are confused by what seems to them to be false statements or self-contradiction. We need, therefore, to clear away such false obstacles to faith.” (p. 8)

 

For these reasons, as an apologist and avid Bible student, I’ve done quite a bit of writing on alleged “Bible difficulties” myself: found in the final section of my Bible & Tradition web page, and have analyzed relentlessly shoddy, illogical, fact-challenged atheist attempts to run down the Bible, in a section of my Atheism & Agnosticism page.

When I got home, I looked through some of the topics. I’ll confess that, even then, it seemed very equivocating – sort of a wordy hand-waving.

What is plausible and what isn’t, is a very complicated matter itself. In any event, Anthony has simply talked about the book, and has not given any concrete examples that readers can judge for themselves. As such, this is simply no argument against Archer’s book, or against Christianity. All we know is that Anthony found it unconvincing. So what? Granted, accounts like this (or Christian conversion stories) can’t argue every jot and tittle. But still, it’s good to point out what is actually an argument or evidence, and what isn’t, lest anyone become confused over the nature of evidence pro or con.

Not being comforted by what I read, I usually ignored this book. Instead, I started reading about all the wrong religions.

“We are what we eat.” It looks like Anthony didn’t even read Archer’s book all the way through. He seems to have quickly judged it, and moved on. But why should anyone think that his negative judgment and dismissal is infallible?

Anthony then talks about his struggles in the Christian life. All of this is perfectly understood and familiar to Christians. St. Paul himself talks about it in Romans 7, and then gives the solution in Romans 8. But that we all fall short and fail many times, in many ways, is not some big bombshell. Nor is it any argument against Christianity, because the latter teaches us to expect this. Faith is a lifelong struggle.

I’m going to focus on the building string of doubts that led me to examine, and ultimately abandon, my faith.

Great. Let’s see if they are compelling for any reader to think likewise.

. . . my wife was determined to complete her education. After getting eligible to transfer, she decided to attend San Jose State to get an accounting degree. While she was there, she took a class in the Religious History, and possibly one more focused on Western religion. The professor was also a pastor who was, to me, very liberal. He taught about the history of the development of the doctrine of hell. He taught how the prophets were used to enable rulers to motivate their soldiers to commit atrocities they would otherwise not ever consider. He taught the very human side of religion.

. . . It brought her faith deeply into question.

And so this is the oft-heard story. Christians go to college, get confronted with skeptical or atheist professors, in a very lopsided scenario, and lose their faith, if they are insufficiently equipped (i.e., lacking in apologetics knowledge: my field) to take on skeptical challenges to it. Again, “we are what we eat.” If she sat there and took in all this rotgut from the professor, and never read a Christian refutation of it, then why should anyone be surprised that she goes the route of the professor? One must read the best proponents of both sides of major disputes: not one side only or the best proponents of one side vs. the worst on the other (which is the usual atheist game: they love to wrangle with ignorant, uninformed Christians). This is why I love to have dialogues on my blog. I present the other person’s words for my readers to see: and if not all of them, I always provide a link and urge them to read the whole article, and then see my response.

We attended a bible study. By our second or third time, she was asking more questions. I don’t remember the last question she asked, but it froze the room. You could have heard a pin drop. She got a soft-shoed answer and the pastor rushed past it as quickly as he could.

Unfortunately, many pastors and priests are as undereducated in apologetics as the laypeople.

She never went to church again. She announced she was agnostic and didn’t believe what I believed.

All we know about her story is that she heard some skeptical stuff, started asking “hard” questions that were unanswered. We don’t know whether she actually took the time to read good Christian apologetics or philosophy. Consequently, there is nothing there that should persuade any other Christian to cease being so.

It is a fact that people, to an overwhelming degree, adopt the religious tradition of their culture. To them it is accepted fact.

Sociologically, that is very true. The problem with making it an exclusively anti-Christianity argument, however, is that atheists act in largely the same way. That’s why kids lose their Christian faith in college. They’re surrounded by liberal, skeptical or atheist professors who undermine their faith and don’t give both sides of the story (i.e., they are immersed in a different “culture”, and so — unsurprisingly — adopt it). The “smart people” seem to be against Christianity in that environment, and the few informed Christians are too scared to speak out (and today are even shut up and shouted down). No one wants to be seen as the oddball or outsider, so they lose their faith: not usually because of objective intellectual inquiry and reading the best of both worldviews, but because of sheer peer pressure and being subjected to one view (propaganda) over and over. They become politically liberal for the same reason.

Atheists like to think that they arrive at their view solely through reason, while Christians soak in theirs from their mother’s milk. But atheists are just as subject to peer pressure and environmental influence as anyone else. Most worldviews (whether Christian or atheist) are arrived at far more for social (and emotional) reasons than intellectual. I can’t emphasize it enough: “we are what we eat.”

Because of this cultural indoctrination, the only way to objectively examine your faith is to take the position of an outsider from a different culture and examine your faith with the same level of skepticism you treat other religions.

Conversely, the only way to objectively examine one’s atheism is to interact with an outsider from Christianity (someone like me, willing and able to do it) and examine your axioms and premises with the same level of skepticism that one treats Christianity. I am offering Anthony and any other atheist the opportunity to do that in this very paper.

There was a point during my cycle of failure and repentance that I wondered why on earth I would rush to the writings of Paul (specifically Romans 5-8) to restore my spirit rather than to Jesus. One was an apostle, but one was actually God, as I understood it. The modern salvation transaction as we’re taught it was never all that clear in Paul’s writings, and not at all in the words attributed to Jesus.

That is, the fundamentalist Protestant version of salvation, which is out of touch with even historic Protestantism, let alone Catholicism and Orthodoxy . . . I agree that this warped version is never taught by either Jesus or St. Paul.

So I began to spend more time with the words of Jesus, thinking that if I can’t find what I need from the words of my god walking upon the earth, the words of an apostle would not help me. To shorten the story, reading the words attributed to Jesus turned me into a social liberal. The Jesus in the bible is compassionate to the poor, destitute, and irredeemable, in stark contrast to the modern Christian, who, if they follow the culture, would sooner tell the poor to get a job and wave the flag of meritocratic individualism.

Pitting Paul against Jesus is plain silly. There is no essential difference in what they taught (which is perhaps why Anthony never provides any example of such alleged divergence). They simply taught in different ways. Jesus was the storyteller: more like a pastor (therefore, much better understood by the common man), whereas Paul was systematic and more abstract: like a theologian or academic: more like philosophy. But making false dichotomies is very typical of the sort of Protestant milieu that Anthony was part of.

The next issue I faced was the issue of evolution. I was a Young Earther, but the more I read, the more I realized that the science wasn’t a conspiracy, but rather an accurate representation of the way the world actually worked. But it didn’t lead to my faith deserting me. All truth is God’s truth. I figured, therefore, that Genesis was an allegory. My theory was that as long as Christ rose from the dead, then Christianity was true. It wouldn’t matter if Genesis was an allegory or literal. Jesus = salvation. The rest is interpretation.

In the same vein, I decided the flood of Noah was also allegory, as it was scientifically impossible. Australia itself stands as a testament to the unreality of it.

This is very typical of many deconversion stories, where the person came out of fundamentalism. Anthony was a young-earther. I never was that, nor was I ever a fundamentalist or anti-science in my evangelical days (1977-1990).  But the solution to these errors is not to ditch any literalism in the Bible and go to an all-allegorical position. The solution is to recognize that the Bible contains many genres of literature, and to determine which is occurring in a particular place. That’s how normal language and literature work. The problem is that fundamentalists and skeptics alike start treating the Bible as if it isn’t subject to the normal rules of interpretation of literature. And so Anthony was knee-jerk and simplistic regarding the Bible. He went from one extreme error to another on the opposite side of the spectrum.

There are, of course, many old-earth evolutionist Christians. They simply believe that God had some hand in the process of evolution. The choice isn’t “godless, materialistic atheism vs. young-earth creationism. I denied the universality of Noah’s flood over 30 years ago, as a result of reading a Christian book about science (by Baptist scholar Bernard Ramm). Why should that cause anyone to lose their Christian faith, pray tell?

So being in this strange place, with only the resurrection of Jesus Christ to keep me in the fold, I came to a full on crisis of faith. I won’t go heavily into it now, . . . 

He can, of course, divulge whatever he wants, but the fact remains that we are given no solid, compelling, cogent reasons why he should have forsaken Christianity, or why anyone else should do so. Because he was a fundamentalist extremist, those who never were that (like myself) should also leave Christianity: even the forms of it vastly — essentially —  different from Anthony’s anti-intellectual fundamentalism?

I searched for the best apologetics book I could find, settling on Norman Geisler’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. 

I commend him for at least reading one book from the Christian perspective, against atheism. Of course, different authors have different emphases, styles, and particular philosophies. So it may have simply been a case where Geisler (a fine apologist) wasn’t a good “fit” for him.

I gave God first shot at me and read Geisler. I expected to be strengthened – steeled for my encounter with the atheist, able to find a way to keep my faith and work on my anger. Instead I took 30 pages (steno pad) of notes. I could easily formulate my wife’s answers to his arguments without even trying. I was disappointed and borderline devastated. I read Loftus’s book. Another 20 pages of notes later I set down his book and realized that 1) I didn’t know what I did believe, and 2) I was sure it wasn’t the god of the bible.

So John Loftus did the trick.

I was unmoored. I tried another apologist, thinking that maybe Geisler wasn’t the best to read. Loftus had referenced William Lane Craig, so I started reading one of his books. About 40% of the way through, I gave up. It was over. I sat at my desk and said to myself, “I’m an atheist.” And here I am today.

Craig is also a fine Christian thinker and debater. But it also depends what particular place we are at in our thinking: how much we will be influenced.

I do wonder why — if John Loftus’ atheist polemics are so compelling –, he is so extremely hyper-sensitive (and I do not exaggerate at all, believe me) to any critique of them? I have examined his “outsider test of faith” argument (ten years ago), some of his irrational criticisms of the Bible, and his story, and he went ballistic. This hardly suggests a confident atheism, willing to take on all critiques:

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Loftus is very much like the preacher that is often maligned in atheist deconversion accounts: the guy who loves to hear himself talk, unopposed, who wilts at the first counter-challenge. That has always been what John Loftus does, in my experience. And he has a colorful set of epithets and insults, too, that he sent my way for having the audacity to challenge him in his infallible wisdom. If his atheist apologetic is so unvanquishable, let him stand up and defend it like a man and honest thinker. But (at least with me) he has never done so. Thus, I am utterly unimpressed by his thinking (and demeanor). I have atheist friends who are embarrassed by him, because he conducts himself like such a rude and pompous ass. He’s not exactly a good representative or figurehead for atheism.
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In conclusion, I don’t see anything here in this deconversion story that would compel anyone else to forsake Christianity. At best it is an account that raises serious questions about extreme fundamentalist Christianity, which I fully agree with. But since that is merely one fringe element of Christianity, it is irrelevant as to the truthfulness of larger Christianity, let alone atheism as a supposedly superior and more rational and cogent alternative worldview.
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