Why I Don’t Believe: Unconvincing Conversions

This is the first in a series of posts about why I don’t believe in Christianity.  You can check out all posts in this series here.

If I am not personally convinced by apologetic arguments for Christianity or if I concede that it is impossible to be converted purely through intellectual arguments, as Kevin has argued in the comments here before, there remains the testimony of converts.  Ought I be moved by the shifts of former atheists and skeptics like Francis Collins?  There are three ways in which the testimony of former atheists could be convincing, but currently I am unmoved by all of them.

1. Converts cause me to update my Bayesian priors

Plenty of converts are former atheists, people who ostensibly share similar world views with me.  If they found evidence compelling, shouldn’t I be shaken by their change of heart?

For the most part, these types of arguments aren’t particularly persuasive to me.  It’s hard for me to judge how much I had in common with former atheists prior to their conversion (arguments with relativist atheists and postmodernist atheists have certainly taught me that mere disbelief in God is no guarantee of shared principles).  If we weren’t mostly in agreement to begin with, then their changes of heart may stem from a point we already disagreed on.

2. Converts offer a new intellectual argument

Essentially this is no different than an intellectual argument I could find in an apologetic work by any author, so I’m not going to dwell on this idea.  The only bonus for an argument offered by a convert is that I know it has previously been convincing to other non-Christians, but as I discussed in point one, the set of non-Christians is still diverse enough that it may have no particular relevance to me.

3. Converts offer experiential evidence

Converts frequently claim to have experienced some personal confirmation of God’s existence, and I don’t believe that most converts are deliberately deceiving; they seem to sincerely believe what they say.  So how do I evaluate their claims?

Let’s start by looking at two fairly standard conversion stories.  (Both are short, so feel free to click through).  The first is excerpted from Joan Ball’s memoir Flirting with Faith.

The minute I found myself in the privacy of the car, a wave of intense emotion came over me. It was like a dam had broken, a flood of pent-up pressure released behind it in the form of sobbing and hysterical crying. Somewhere in the midst of all this, the pain in my chest lifted and there I was—generally a model of rigid self-control and modern accomplishment—crying ugly and repeating over and over again, “It is all true, all of it, it is all true.” In that moment I knew I was not having a heart attack. Instead, despite lifelong skepticism and outright animosity toward traditional religion, without asking or seeking, this skeptical atheist turned churchgoing agnostic had somehow been struck Christian.

The second story is from an essay titled “One Mormon’s Conversion” that was published on Patheos.

In those days it was customary for missionaries to ask investigators not to take the Sacrament. The missionaries told my parents, but no one thought to tell me. For the Disciples, it is a point of doctrine that everyone takes Communion. So, after the bread was blessed and when it was passed to our row, I took a piece of bread and put it in my mouth.

Suddenly I was overcome from head to toe. The Spirit moved me and told me that the Church is true in a way that I could not and cannot deny. I knew it. That is the only honest way to describe the result of my experience: I had new knowledge, knowledge that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ’s church. Though I was no Paul, neither in my previous opposition nor in the power of this experience, I knew something about what Paul’s experience was like. The decision to be baptized was no longer mine; it had become something I had to do.

Both are powerful personal narratives that profoundly changed the lives of the authors.  Should I be moved?  These two stories are inherently contradictory.  How am to choose between them?

I’ll admit that it is possible that both stories could be true, if the God that touched Joan and Jim was a deist God and wasn’t anywhere near as picky about where either of them attended Church or what they believed as they though, but this is in direct contradiction with their experience of highly specific visitations.  Not to mention, from my point of view, the God of generalities that this approach would point to would be well nigh impossible to obey.

So at least one of the two must be sincerely mistaken.   Or, rather, their twinned stories are proof positive that people can have sincerely felt conversion experiences which are false.  To show that there are experiences that are true, I would expect a Christian or a Mormon or anyone else to show me a heuristic that could differentiate between the true experiences and the false ones.

I’m not asking for a perfect algorithm that can sort out every experience, no matter how vaguely described, but I am still looking for a logical sieve that lists some markers that point to a genuine experience and some that make such an experience unlikely.  And, of course, when applied, the criteria ought to primarily ‘pass’ experiences within only one religious faith.

If that’s an impossible task, the contradiction isn’t a disproof of the existence of God or even a disproof of a non-deistically generic God, but it does raise some questions about such a God’s justice.  If humans cannot reasonably be expected to differentiate between true and false conversion experiences and if there is a true church with God’s special favor, then God allows a great many people to be deceived and excluded from salvation through no fault of their own.

Or, of course, it might be that humans, for whatever reason, are prone to experiences that are so overwhelming that they feel supernatural.  There could be a biochemical mechanism unrelated to any God (indeed, neuroscientist Michael Persinger claims to be able to induce religious visions with electromagnetic radiation).  It could be that a feeling of overwhelming awe is a pretty reasonable reaction to the incredible world we live in, even if the appropriate emotions normally need to be tamped down to make us capable of functioning.  After all, atheists can be swept away by purely secular awe as well.

Unless believers can explain to me why the conversion experiences felt by their converts are closer to truth than the experiences of everybody else’s converts, I find their testimony to be a wash when read charitably, and evidence against a god of a particular religious tradition when read critically.


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  • Anonymous

    Hey there – First off, I really REALLY enjoy your blog. I am a Christian; not a Catholic, but a Christian of the evangelical variety. I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person and sincere person, though not as intelligent as you (!), and the search for truth is incredibly important to me. I respect and value the gracious and sincere tone of your blog.As far as this question, it's one I've thought about a lot because the tradition I was raised in is often quick to discredit other traditions (Catholicism included). Here's where I am now…While there are certain beliefs/traditions/sects that are truer and more closely aligned with God's revealed will, in His graciousness and His desire to love us, He just doesn't require 100% perfect knowledge. Therefore, He works within many traditions, and we are called to move from one stage of understanding to another with humility. If we are truly following Christ, humility will be one of the primary changes that God works in us – and ONLY humility will lead us to better and better understanding/knowledge. I don't think it's so surprising that we start at different points of understanding (Catholic vs. Evangelical vs. Mormon, etc;) because our understanding is so foreign to the things of God anyway – it takes time to get closer to a knowledge of God's mind and will. I'm not trying to convince you – this is question that seriously undermines my own faith at times. It's just what I have been thinking as I ponder this question myself.

  • Anonymous

    As an atheist-turned-Catholic, I do not pretend to have all of the answers, but I would say that we may be oversimplifying the way God operates. It seems like it would be extremely unjust of God to allow someone to think that they'd found His True Church when, actually…oops, nope, they didn't. But, obviously, if a Catholic and a Mormon can both say that they experienced this, then it has to be the case, if we assume that God exists. One of those experiences has to be a great deception and therefore a work of evil. It seems unjust that God should just let someone be deceived. But there are plenty of other outrageous things that happen that we might say God shouldn't allow–the mass genocide of small children, for instance. In fact, if Christianity is true, you could say that He shouldn't have let the crucifixion happen–it was certainly unjust. Deicide is certainly the most horrendous thing to have ever occurred. Yet, it's the main event of our faith. If this is the God Who exists, He not only allowed deicide, but sent His Son here for the express purpose of undergoing it. This is a pretty weird God we're dealing with here. I mean, Christians hang pictures of a dying, bleeding guy on their walls, and that's who we try to emulate. It's WEIRD. So, I don't think the fact that it seems like a really bad, weird idea to us means much. Because, if Christianity is true, not only was the crucifixion not a bad idea, it was actually the most inexpressibly beautiful event to ever occur. Christians believe that God brings good out of evil–and the more evil there is, the more good He can bring out of it; the more darkness seems to have won, the less it has won.So, again, both the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church cannot be the True Church. There's been a deception in one of those cases. A deception so great that it actually looks like it's coming from God, which can only be said to be meant to undermine the trust in that most basic relationship–the one between you and God–when you see that you've been deceived. It breeds skepticism and closed-mindedness. But, if in an effort to avoid being deceived, you become skeptical and distrustful, you're actually playing right into the hands of the one who deceived you. On one level, if you are someone of profound faith, it's much easier to deceive you than it is someone who is intensely critical, just like it's easier to hurt someone who is intensely loving than it is someone who has closed off his heart. But that's the risk that's necessarily entailed in faith and love and everything else worth having. That’s the cross–loving and trusting without bounds and then getting tortured to death. If you run away from the cross and close yourself off, you're actually playing right into the hands of evil. It wants for you to get scared. If the Christian God exists, both the Catholic and the Mormon who genuinely believed in their conversion experiences and subsequently converted and tried their very best to follow all of the precepts of their faiths are extremely blessed and beautiful in the eyes of God. They both thought that they heard His call and joined their subsequent churches out of love for Him. They didn't give into the fear that they might be wrong. Being genuinely mistaken as a result of your own openness is not sinful. It actually draws you closer to God, strangely enough. The more impressionable you are, the less critical you are, the more you depend on Him to show you the way. And the more you depend on Him to show you the way, the more He WILL show you the way. The person who tries to arrive at the Truth by relying on himself might be less likely to be deceived, yes; but he’s also less likely to ever find the Truth because the Truth isn’t something you find. It finds you. We must be willing to take a risk.

  • Anonymous

    I would also say that you'll know the truth of a conversion by its fruits. The point isn't that single "I JUST KNOW" moment. The point is the transformation of your whole person and the coming-together of all of the puzzle pieces of the mystery of your own existence. If that doesn't happen, I'd say that your journey isn't finished yet.

  • Why does blogger always eat comments when they are long, and never the quick ones? I will try and quickly re-write what I tried to post a minute ago:First my disclaimer, I am an atheist investigating Catholicism as you are, but perhaps trying to see it from a much more sympathetic perspective for a change.Basically folks like Aquinas would tell you that there is an aspect to religious experience that requires faith, that can't be seen with reason. This aspect however should never contradict reason, and if it does either your faith is wrong/misunderstood, or your reasoning is not sound.There are several ways to view the differences in faiths, here are some:A) One is true, the rest are not/lies/evil/etc. This one may be atheism or one of the exclusive faiths.B) all have some truth and some falsehoods due to man being fallible.C) All are compatible, however since God is inifinite, etc, and we are not we simply can't understand how they reconcile in this world.D) God reveals himself in different ways to different folks, since different people/cultures require different tools to reach salvation, he will reconcile them in the end.E) There is one 'true' faith. However since Christ is ever present etc… there is truth to be found in all cultures/systems/faiths, and that truth is both useful and from god. Perhaps reaching salvation with the true faith is like assembling an IKEA desk with the instructions, it can be done without but its A LOT harder.You seem to assume A must be the case. I can tell you the Catholic church is more like E (cf. Lumen Gentium). Far be it from me to tell you which is the right answer.As for manipulating the body with EM or chemicals to induce spiritual experiences, I would assume a believer would remind you that the soul and body are not separate physical THINGS, that the soul is not physical and is inextricably connected through the body, only acting through it, etc… so it makes sense that it can be manipulated via the physical body. Whether this makes those experiences more or less authentic is not for me to say.

  • "If humans cannot reasonably be expected to differentiate between true and false conversion experiences and if there is a true church with God's special favor, then God allows a great many people to be deceived and excluded from salvation through no fault of their own."You have Experimental Theology on your blogroll, so I'm going to point you in that direction. Look at what Beck says about Universalism (vs. Calvinism vs. Arminianism). That is, you can have a very specific conception of God without these concerns about justice, as there is no necessary reason for a Christian to believe in eternal damnation, other than that it has historically been popular.Also, the following bit of information won't be convincing to you, but it's not meant to be. I merely think it's interesting. Anyway, did you know that Persinger converted to Christianity as a result of stimulating his own brain that way? It seemed odd to me that someone who quite obviously knew the neuromechanics behind it was still convinced by it. It's not internally contradictory to say, "These brain areas induce religious visions, which can be true," but it seems to be an unlikely conversion.

  • Anonymous

    Quite frankly, Mormons have an answer to that: those two conversion stories aren't contradictory: there is no "and the other is entirely untrue" attached on the end of either. God will testify of His truth wherever it may occur, and there is some truth in most, if not all, faith traditions – and there's a good bit of it in all of Christianity! We simply believe that there aren't many with the whole truth – and they wouldn't realize it, for they don't have exposure to anything else. Someone can know, for example, that Jesus Christ is their Savior without knowing every detail about Him.

  • I'm an atheist-turned-Catholic; just found your blog and I like what I've seen so far. I understand your concern about apparently contradictory religious experiences. I would even say you're softballing the impact by restricting it to dramatic conversion experiences. I've often wondered, if Catholicism is true, then why do members of religion xyz have religious experiences during prayer? Here I'm just talking about general feelings of uplift or whatever. But, as I've thought about it, I'm not sure there's actually a conflict. If, as Catholicism teaches, there really is a God with whom humans can communicate by an act of will (more to it, a God who greatly desires such communication), then that communication need not be restricted to Catholics. The fact that a Muslim feels good while praying to God does not imply that Islamic doctrine is correct. It could be explained either as communion with God despite points of incorrect doctrine. Generally speaking, the Catholic church calls these religious experiences "consolation", whether they occur during day-by-day prayer, or in a sudden spiritual epiphany like the stories you provided. And it's been careful to point out that consolation is a spiritual gift that does not necessarily say anything about the person receiving (or not receiving) the gift. Consider St John of the Cross and his "Dark Night of the Soul". "If humans cannot reasonably be expected to differentiate between true and false conversion experiences and if there is a true church with God's special favor, then God allows a great many people to be deceived and excluded from salvation through no fault of their own."This is not true according to Catholic teaching. One only goes to hell for unrepented mortal sin, and mortal sin by definition cannot occur "through no fault of their own". In other words, nobody is damned for an honest mistake. As for Persinger's experiments – if there is a section of the brain which, when stimulated, creates a sense of the supernatural, this seems to me to be evidence for the reality of the supernatural, not evidence against. I mean, if you stimulate one part of my brain, it triggers a memory of my mother; this doesn't imply that my mother doesn't exist, does it? At best, it's a wash. Having said all that, I actually agree with your main point. Conversion experiences are insufficient to select a particular religion.

  • There is a simple answer, though not an obvious one. From Kreeft, paraphrased: If someone is better spiritually fed through a schismatic communion or a sect than through the local parish, then God is moving them closer to the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. If it seems that they are moving farther away, then know that, as Kreeft says, they did not know Christ where they were and, like the prodigal son or St. Augustine, move away so that they may come back.

  • This post is by Colin. I'm putting it up because Blogger is behaving badly, so the ideas expressed are hisBefore I add my two cents, I'd like to grovel a bit (this being my first comment) and mention how I've come more and more to enjoy this blog, in spite of my initial resistance. You really do run an excellent site, here. Thank youExtra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Outside the Church there lies no salvation.This is an essential aspect of Catholic doctrine, relating to the claim that the Church is the one true faith, established by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit.That said, it is readily acknowledged that Christ is capable of working without and, infact, does work without the visible confines of the Church. Pope Benedict (then Fr. Ratzinger) spoke of this in a lecture (which has been criticized on one hand by what most would call the 'liberal' wing of the Church for being to exclusive, and on the other by various groups of sedevecantists for being too inclusive and purportedly reversing doctrine) given in 1969, saying:"In this state of things [the posited numerical decline of Catholicism in the future], one should no longer be concerned with the salvation of 'the others,' who for some time now have become 'our brothers.' Above all, the central question is to have an intuition of theChurch's position and mission in History under a positive new point-of-view. This newpoint-of-view should allow one to believe in the universal offer of the grace of salvationas well as the essential part that the Church plays in this. Therefore, in this sense theproblem changed…"Anyone familiar with Karl Rahner has read about his concept of the "Anonymous Christian"(also criticized, predictably, by the two aforementioned sects), which was emerging atroughly the same time Fr. Ratzinger was formulating the views contained in the excerptabove.Anyway, I bring up these examples only to show that is it an accepted view (one could almost call it a qualification) with regards to a basic doctrine of the Church, Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.It is also important to note, and I know this is a trope oft repeated, it is "impossible to know the mind of God." Here, I mean this to communicate that although I believe Catholicismto be the one true faith, I readily accept that other religions can offer both truth andgoodness to the world. So while it is obviously possible for God to bring about a conversion to Catholicism one way or another, I understand that in some cases it may involve violating the free will of the subject. This is, for several reasons, something that God will not do. I am content, also, to recognize, as I said earlier, that I cannot "know the mind of God," and that there may be a myriad of reasons why a person does not convert to Catholicism, and I may be even able to accept in some limited circumstances that God does not desire the conversion of a certain person to Catholicism.Additionally, I would not rule out the influence of Satan. It perhaps sounds rather extreme, and certainly I am expecting to be excorciated as a tea china loving, residential dragon seeing, FSM apostatizing, fairy tale believing child of the most gullible type by some of the more aggressive elements of the atheist bloc on this blog. I've found that nothing brings out the stunned disbelief, "this is the 21st century," "reality based community" like the mention of demons or fallen angels working havoc in our world. Regardless, I would not preclude the Deceiver from any possible discussion involving the either the purpose or destination of the conversion. I see that someone has already mentioned Matt. 7-16, and this too is a good criterion that can be used for judging the integrity (is it real?), origination (who sowed the seed?), and destination (the Church, or any other possible vehicle of Christ) of the conversion.

  • These beliefs have always been present in the Church. Doctrinally, Catholicism has always been a unique combination of orthodoxy and orthopraxy (in contrast, perhaps, with Protestantism on one end and some forms of Taoism on the other). Throughout history the focus may have swung from one end to the other, usually as a result of heresy or schism, but the unique order has been maintained. In part due to Vatican II, we have seen in the latter half of the last century and are still seeing in this one a reemphasis of the true concept of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. One that takes into account God's ability to work both inside and outside the visible structure of the Church. We are free to believe that all are saved, and, indeed, we are required to hope that they are. So when, as in your example, you observe two completely sincere persons, one converting to Catholicism, and the other to the Church of Latter Day Saints, know that according to the Church there is no inherent contradiction. Whether or not this will satisfy your desire for a resolution of the conflict (i.e. the conflict of two seemingly sincere converts to different, apparently mutually exclusive religions), I cannot say, myself being, in general, of a simple nature endowed with a predilection for religious belief. Remember, God writes straight with crooked lines.(This was the end — it wouldn't fit)

  • Hi Leah, I wish you well.
    Do you remember writing this?
    “There are three ways in which the testimony of former atheists could be convincing, but currently I am unmoved by all of them.”
    I am still unmoved by them.