Reply to Daniel Fincke’s Analyses of His Deconversion

FinckeDaniel

Cute meme from Dr. Daniel Fincke’s “About Dan” page.

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Dr. Daniel Fincke (professor of philosophy) is a former Protestant, currently an atheist, who writes prolifically and articulately on his Patheos blog, Camels with Hammers. This is my reply to his article, “After My Deconversion: I Refuse To Let Christians Judge Me” (11-4-12). I won’t respond to absolutely everything, but rather, to the parts where I feel I have something constructive to add to the discussion. His words from his article will be in blue.

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Hi Daniel,

Nice to “meet” you. I am a professional Catholic apologist, who was also an evangelical Christian from 1977 to 1990 (I’ve been active in apologetics since 1981). I have a blog at Patheos, too, which includes very extensive web pages on atheism and Science and Philosophy. I am perpetually interested in the reasoning in deconversion stories. I’ve found your material quite well-written and thoughtful, as I heavily skimmed a lot of it today. I admire your zeal and seeming openness to discussion with those who disagree with you. I also liked a lot what you expressed in your paper, “Welcome, Theist!”: especially the following portions, with which I agree wholeheartedly:

I hope that you will give this blog a chance to be a place where you can focus on the substance of atheist views and our reasons for disagreeing with your beliefs, values, and identity, rather than on distracting personal attacks from us or upon us. 

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Ask us questions that aim to figure out where our starting common ground is and where we diverge from each other exactly. Affirm what you think is good about what we think and what our values are. Let us know you appreciate we are not monsters.

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You may also stress up front how you differ from others with similar positions from your own to establish that you’re not a robot, that you’re reasonable, that you think for yourself, that you’re willing to listen, that you might have something original to contribute, and that you have more common ground with us to start off with than we might expect.

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. . . by working on more fundamental levels of disagreement we have the most hope of progress . . .

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Want to change my mind? Bring compelling arguments, conceptual clarifications, logic, coherency, consistency, intellectual creativity, honesty, good will, and evidence.

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If you want to do more than just vent with futile rage at an atheist—if you genuinely want me to actually learn something from you and reconsider my views, then what you really need to do is look at all the arguments I laid out in the blog post you are replying to and show me where my premises or my inferences to conclusions have flaws.

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We do have a lot of common ground in several ways. I’ve written posts saying that atheists can possibly be saved, how they have some legitimate reasons to be angry at how many Christians treat them,  and a post called, New Testament on God-Rejecters vs. Open-Minded Agnostics. I believe that there can be such a thing as constructive atheist-Christian discourse. I’ve engaged in it many times, myself, though I must sadly add that it is pretty rare to find. I have “hung out” with atheist friends in person (and enjoyed it!), and once successfully gave a talk to sixteen atheists.

With that introduction and that spirit in common, I would like to offer some thoughts in reaction to your paper mentioned above. Nothing whatever is “personal.” I’m a man of ideas, as you are, and that is the level that I engage on. A person is different from his ideas. If you disagree with that last sentence, please let me know now and I won’t bother you any further, because then constructive discussion would be doomed. You wrote: “I think civil dialogue between believers and non-believers is invaluable.” Excellent! So do I!

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In true cult form, the barrier of “saved/unsaved” stood between me and every friend who wasn’t one of my church’s style evangelical Christians. 

This is very different from the Catholic outlook (or even the sector of evangelicalism that I used to be in: Francis Schaeffer / C. S. Lewis / Christianity Today / Jesus Freak non-denom Arminianism). The Catholic (along with many “non-cultic” Protestants) believe that truth is truth wherever it may be found, and we try to emulate Paul’s attitude on Mars Hill in Athens, where he commended the Athenians for their religiosity and sought common ground with them, even citing pagan poets and philosophers (Acts 17).  I would contend that any evangelism will be successful only if we (like Paul) we see some good in the people whom we are trying to reach with our message.

My underlying point here is to note that your particular form of Christianity and your experience there is not universal to all Christians. I’m sure you already know that, but we all tend to universalize our experience (especially if we have left a particular sociological group), to the whole, and that is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I already know in reading a good portion of your material today, that your experience in evangelicalism was not my own, and that my Catholic experience since 1990 is all the more so essentially different.

And out of a typically perverse Christian suspicion of my body, I loathed and feared my sexuality throughout my entire adolescence. 

Case in point. Admittedly, this is a strong tendency among many Christians (and arguably goes back to early Christianity’s understandable need to distance itself from the wild pagan sexuality of the time), but true Christian teaching does not loathe the body qua body, or sex, or physicality. God created all those things, and they are good (and like everything, can also be twisted into sinful forms). In fact, a strong theme in recent Catholicism is, precisely, the theology of the body: spearheaded in large part by Pope St. John Paul II. I was also taught a very healthy, intellectually cogent rationale for abstention from premarital sex, as an evangelical. None of it was based on thinking that my body or natural sexual urges were inherently sinful. Lust is assuredly sinful, but not the mere urge, or loneliness, or the desire to be with a woman, etc. Loathing of sex and the body, historically, derives from gnosticism and groups like the Manichaeans (Augustine’s former group) and the medieval Albigensians, not Christianity or the Bible, rightly understood.

But having it drummed in my head that I was a wretched sinner, . . . 

Christians believe that we are all sinners, based on original sin, but only a small minority (Calvinists) think we are wretched sinners through and through and nothing but evil before regeneration and justification. So again, you were in circles that taught this minority position, not mainstream historic Christianity. From where I sit, a rejection of those distortions doesn’t touch (let alone “refute”) my own Christianity at all: neither my former Arminianism nor current Catholicism.

It is little exaggeration to say that as a Christian I was like the pre-Reformation Martin Luther, perpetually obsessed with an exaggerated sense of his own sinfulness and wretchedness.

Yeah, I can see some of that in this article of yours. In Luther’s case (since you bring him up in your analogy; and I have studied him in great depth), his overscrupulosity quite arguably largely stemmed from depression, as many historical observers believe he suffered from severe cyclical episodes (more likely than not bipolar disorder, I and many others believe), and possibly other neuroses as well. He, in turn, projected his own psychological struggles onto the Apostle Paul and biblical exegesis, thus profoundly influencing future Protestantism (especially its soteriology). Many Protestants today such as N. T. Wright acknowledge this. I don’t look down, by the way, upon anyone who suffers bipolar disorder. Several in my family have. It’s almost wholly a biochemical phenomenon. I’m just saying that this sort of thing can bring about overscrupulosity, and less than ideal theologies can foster it as well.

I just really believed those noxiously misanthropic teachings of Augustine about original sin and Calvin’s extra emphasis on the total depravity of my human nature.

Exactly. The Catholic Church has condemned Augustine’s excesses, and of course, Calvin’s too. They do not (in this respect) represent all of Christianity, by a long shot. Eastern Orthodoxy even has a very different conception of original sin than western Christians do. I’ve offered many biblical critiques of total depravity on my Justification & Salvation web page and in one of my books, about salvation (where I devoted 30 pages to it). I also admire Calvinism in many ways, too, so I am not critiquing it out of any malice or animus. I simply think it has fallen into serious error regarding some major theological questions.

And I would say that theological / intellectual / philosophical error, wherever it is found, harms people and can lead them astray (which ties in to some of my analysis of your deconversion). You mention these errors. I’m wholeheartedly agreeing with you that they are serious errors, but am also making the point that they are not the mainstream Christian positions. In other words, in rejecting this form of Christianity, it doesn’t follow that you rejected all Christian options, or that there were no alternatives for you (or anyone else) in the Christian world. These aspects by no means disprove Christianity or the Bible. It’s my duty as an apologist to make note of this for the sake of my readers.

I believed so much Christian messaging about the wretchedness of my every immoral contemplation or unmarried lustful thought or deed that this extended into a general sense of depression, anxiety, self-hatred, and self-mistrust that I have never since come close to approximating as an atheist.

Here I would respectfully suggest that you substitute “Calvinist” or “fundamentalist” for your use of “Christian” above: for reasons I have been expounding upon. You experienced “psychological relief” (for lack of a better term) as an atheist. I never went through what you did in these respects, and am quite happy and content as a Catholic Christian, just as I was when I was an Arminian Protestant Christian. These aspects don’t represent Christianity as a whole. Therefore, they form no reason to reject Christianity as a whole (if indeed these are some of the reasons for your deconversion that you would assert).

And you are a callous, unconscientious liar with defective capabilities for self-criticism or church-criticism if you dare blame me for this needless, emotionally debilitating psychic torment I suffered, which had me in arrested development emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and, I would even say, spiritually.

I don’t do any of that, so I am not any of those things, thank you. :-)

Don’t even go there trying to claim this was some misunderstanding of the truth of Christianity . . . 

I’m willing to freely grant that you understood your particular brand of Christianity quite well (and consistently). But you don’t seem to have considered (at least from what I’ve read so far) that there were other far better forms of Christianity out there, too. I’ve maintained for over 35 years that Calvinism’s errors, straightforwardly acknowledged and faced up to, would lead to despair or the idea that God is a cruel tyrant, since (in my opinion), the theological system reduces to his being the author of evil. Like many, you seem to have rejected merely one portion of a worldview, thinking it was the whole. I would say, of course, that this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So far, I haven’t observed you ever making the necessary and crucial theological and ecclesiological distinctions that I am drawing.

Most of the warping neuroses in my particular psychology were directly traceable to your unbalanced, distorted, and profoundly unhealthy doctrines about human nature and excessively self-destroying practices of self-cultivation.

Yep. This is the fruit of the false doctrine of total depravity: which asserts that human nature is totally depraved. It’s not a biblical position, as I believe I have demonstrated many times in my own work. In other areas, such as masturbation, I would agree with the historic Christian position, held by all major groups, including Calvinists. You link to another paper of yours where you take on the Sermon on the Mount. I’d love to address that in due course (atheist exegesis being one of my favorite topics to take on, as a debater and avid amateur biblical exegete). I would be willing to bet a great sum that you are thoroughly misunderstanding it.

I tried every strategy I could in order to justify Christianity and to make it coherent and rational and sensible as possible. But all my most earnest and scrupulously honest efforts to salvage the intellectual plausibility of the faith failed.

It’s interesting that my experience as both a Protestant and Catholic apologist for over 35 years couldn’t be any more polar opposite to yours than it is.
I’ve only become more and more confident all the time of the truth of Christianity (particularly the Catholic version), and truly, sincerely believe that the alternatives cannot withstand scrutiny and are infinitely less plausible. I don’t deny that you sincerely believe the above. Please extend to me the same granting of my own sincerity and felt intellectual honesty (thanks, if so!).

. . . my honesty ultimately compelled me to admit that it was overwhelmingly likely to be false.

That’s your story and I am not doubting it. Adoption of various premises lead to various and sundry outcomes, and if these premises are false anywhere along the way, what follows logically from them will also be suspect (as you well know, being a philosopher). I would say you honestly followed some false premises, leading you to a false system (atheism). Such is not a moral failing, but a flaw in logic and ascertaining of facts. I hope you would say the same of me. You think I have adopted many false premises, leading me to the harmful and false system (in your eyes) of Christianity. But I feel myself to have been every bit as honest with myself and those whom I debate, as you have thought of yourself.

And my conscience over the pernicious potential effects of my false Christian beliefs played a key role in convincing me that having faith was unacceptably ethically dangerous.

. . . Just as I believe that atheism leads almost inexorably to several morally “dangerous” positions, while not necessarily having to malign those who hold such positions as “moral monsters.” I see it as intellectual error with dire consequences. I wold say that the bad fruits are all around us in our increasingly radically secular society (and able to be objectively examined through social science).

One of the best, most humane, and earnest Christians I knew was being ripped apart and pushed to suicidal despair because he internalized your baseless, bigoted, hatred of his romantic and sexual longings to be with men rather than women. And, worse, the contradictions I experienced in trying to follow your reckless advice to love him while hating his homosexuality were proving impossible in real life practice.

Here I feel compelled to resort to analogical argument, as I often do. Surely you don’t deny that we all love many people with whom we do not agree on many things: including lifestyle choices, or choices that we Christians deem to be sinful. Take, for example, persons who are guilty of “bad behavior” or wrongful actions that you and I would likely agree with, such as the wife-beater or alcoholic given to rage or drunk driving, or the racial bigot, or the greedy company president who mistreats and exploits his workers (I’m a distributist). Is it inconceivable to you that one can detest such behaviors, while at the same time not “hating” the person who commits them? If we care about them, we want to see them reform their behavior. It doesn’t follow that we hate them because we disagree with some of their positions or behaviors.

This is the traditional Christian view of homosexuals. We have no problem (in principle, anyway, if not always in practice. Many Christians have sinned greatly in this regard) loving an active homosexual, while profoundly disagreeing with their lifestyle, anymore than, for example, a parent continues to love a heroin-addicted son, or a daughter who fell into prostitution or embezzlement (substitute whatever moral infraction you like). We simply disagree on whether some things are wrong or not. But we all love people who do things we disagree with. That itself is not “reckless” or “impossible” at all. It’s the reality of life.

This topic alone is quite capable of derailing this discussion. Your choice. If you want to conclude that I am a hateful bigot simply because of my view of sexuality and marriage, then we’re done. I hope that is not the case. But it’s not possible to engage in civil discussion if we classify as a bigot and hateful moron, anyone who has a principled disagreement with us.

What reckless, destructive “love” you taught me, Christianity! What dangerous contradictory attitudes you put in me? And what good rational basis did I have for them? What good rational basis do you have for them? When I came to realize there really were none, then I had to reject faith in principle, since it meant believing without evidence and contrary to evidence, and beliefs not supported by reality and calibrated to reality can have severely dangerous consequences in reality. As an ethical matter, faith itself had to be abandoned as immoral.

Obviously, all of these grand claims wold have to be discussed one-by-one. But at this point I am “listening” to your feelings and rationales and doing my best to understand them.

. . . I felt tremendous pressure to prove that I emphatically did not leave because I just wanted to sin. I felt such pressure to prove that I left the faith because it was the most rational and moral thing to do–that it was the fulfillment of the moral commitment to the Truth that the church had taught me and not the frivolous abandonment of such commitment.

I accept your report at face value. There are people who leave Christianity because they like certain sins that Christianity condemns (we know that because they are very honest about their reasons). But there are also others who leave because they have come to believe that it is a false system. You appear to me to be in the latter group.

Today, I admit, I find it outright laughably absurd–the stuff of upside down and backwards days and Bizarro worlds–when Christians claim to be those most committed to Truth. And my head almost explodes when they go so far as to claim themselves its special possessor and guardian. Such claims are so stupefyingly un-self-aware, out of touch with reality, and false to their core, that the mind reels.

Anyone who thinks at all about worldviews and the nature of reality feels themselves to be following truth, so I don’t find it startling in the least that Christians would do so, too. As soon as we say “I believe x” we are choosing one particular truth claim over against others that contradict it. That’s simply the nature of thinking. Thanks for the colorful description, in any event. :-)

And finally my initial motivation to start this blog was to put down in my own words, so that they are entirely clear, everything that is wrong and false and distortive about the faith that used to torture me that I may help to dissuade and liberate others from it.

Sounds like a lot that I could potentially interact with, as a Christian apologist!

So, in one way or another, as much as I have overcome and moved beyond Christianity in most of my life, philosophically answering Christian objections has motivated me for 13 years.

Philosophically answering objections to Christianity has motivated me for 36 years, and is indeed my life’s work.

. . . a matter of opposing one of the world’s most powerful and dubious lies, one which requires systematic debunking that at least a billion people may think more clearly, rationally, and freely.

You feel that you have a message to get out, so people can be helped. Me, too! Another thing we have in common . . .

When I get angry with Christians it is an indignation specifically triggered by and aimed at to those who dare question my personal sincerity, integrity, or thoroughness in leaving the faith. 

I hope you’re not angry at me, because I haven’t done any of those things. I obviously think you are mistaken in some of your conclusions . . . You say far worse things about Christians and Christianity than I have ever said about atheists. So forgive me if I do observe a bit of irony here.

. . . I cannot bear to tolerate its attempt to judge my honesty, or my sincerity, or the depths of my former faith, or of the integrity of my decision to abandon it as unjustified.

Can you tolerate someone (like me) who will disagree with you on some of the premises and conclusions that you adopted in your exit from Christianity? You have said we Christians are welcome to discuss things with you. Clearly, we will disagree with you in many ways. It doesn’t follow that such disagreement is casting aspersions upon integrity or honesty or prior levels of sincere commitment. I approach these matters intellectually: debates about competing and contrary ideas. I haven’t attacked you: nor will I. I will disagree with your opinions and ideas.

We can debate as equals. You can make whatever arguments you think lead to truth. But that’s it. You don’t get to try to pick around looking for spiritual wounds or “sins”.

Precisely. I agree. And conversely, you have no right to judge me, either, as dishonest, or stupid (many many atheists think that of us) or fundamentally irrational and gullible and infantile (ditto) or as a hateful bigot, simply because I am a Christian. Goose and gander . . . Tolerance and charity go both ways.

Christians may challenge my ideas until they turn blue and pass out, and I will patiently as possibly try to return with philosophical soberness. But I will never again subject my personal integrity to the tribunal of the Christian church or its particular members for their approval. Never.

You don’t have to with me, as I have said over and over. But if you attack Christianity, surely you will expect that I (as a professional apologist and author) will defend it, if I find errors of fact and logic in your presentation, and give the “other side,” so to speak. If you are as committed to debate and a fair exchange of ideas in a civil fashion, as I am, you will welcome this opportunity.

Your Thoughts?

I gave ’em. Thanks for being curious as to what they are. Now I’d like to hear your thoughts in return, and see if we have something in this exchange worth pursuing further.

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