Writing one’s memoirs is like taking a trip through an emotional time machine. So this past week as I have been devoting the bulk of my blogging energies to talking all about what it was like when I deconverted from Christianity, a lot of emotions have flooded back. Events from 13 years ago suddenly feel fresh and recent again. And in particular, this has me remembering more vividly than usual, what a painful, alienating, angering, disorienting, and confusing experience it was to be a devoutly religious college kid losing his faith.
It is hard to develop a worldview from scratch. This is one of the reasons that so many people ferociously, almost instinctually, cling to their religious identities and philosophical frameworks even as their religious traditions’ inadequacies, absurdities, and moral failings are so easily detectable. When we put any single one of our beliefs, attitudes, values, or theoretical frameworks into question we can usually only do so by holding nearly all of the others firm for the time being. Only standing on firm ground can we stabilize ourselves to push things without falling over.
Only within a general perspective of some kind, which has a number of limitations of viewpoint, can we investigate anything. Ideal thinking acknowledges and accepts this reality and so alternates perspectives. For the time being we hold most of our views constant, isolate a variable and test it, either scientifically or philosophically. And when we understand it better we can use that increased understanding to help us when we put something else into question. Unfortunately, when we have certain master beliefs, they can be very difficult to ever adequately question since they so determine the content of so many other of our beliefs, and then those beliefs predispose us to reinforce the master beliefs in return. And, worse, if we lose certain master beliefs other beliefs in a wide number of areas lose their support or their structure and collapse, resulting in a whole lot of confusion and uncertainty.
This is a large part of why as bad as the cognitive dissonances countless contemporary religious people experience are—living as modern people with modern knowledge and modern political and moral values while simultaneously affirming outdated nonsense beliefs and regressive values in religious contexts—they feel strongly averse to just becoming atheists. Intermixed with all the junk beliefs are deeply engrained metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political, and social prejudices and so much of their basic sense of identity which they have little clue how to do without. They fear losing themselves and losing many ancillary beliefs that not only structure the world itself for them but which they take to be common sense obvious. Remember, just as most contemporary Western religious people get it that miracles are strange, many also think the existence of God and of a soul are intuitively clear. They erroneously think that a God-based understanding of right and wrong is the only possible kind. If the cost of holding to their overall worldview in all these sorts of matters requires believing a few strange things on faith and disbelieving some scientitific, philosophical, or other naturalistic conclusions on issues that do not matter to their identities and happiness, then sobeit. Who they are and the nature of the world itself and of right and wrong themselves are all at stake. They are not going to try to construct those beliefs with the scientific method.
And this is why atheists need good, rational, constructive, well-rounded philosophies related to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, politics, and personal identity. And this is why we need good solid communities which offer people the possibility of a robust relational identity and a set of role models and peers.
When I deconverted, I was lucky in that I was a philosopher and so had both a natural knack and a lot of valuable training working out a lot of these issues for myself. And my closest friends were philosophers so whether they remained Christian or became atheists, I had people I stayed close to who (in most cases—more about that in a moment) would not only still love and support me but be invaluable aids in helping me sort through the myriad puzzle pieces I had to put together if I was going to get on with living a good life based on good understanding.
But even with all their help and with all my philosophy classes, I was still very much confused and made huge philosophical errors and some embarrassing and shameful personal ones. What I needed was good atheist role models with developed constructive atheistic worldviews so that I did not have to wander in the wilderness before I figured out an enormous amount of things the hard way, on my own, which could have been taught to me much more rapidly and productively by attentive and informed peers and teachers. I worked out a whole lot by myself and it was seriously not the most efficient way to do things. If only my school had a Secular Student Alliance, I would have had a world of resources and a group of people at my disposal. Not having such an organization, or an atheist internet community, or even any awareness of the constructive good Unitarian churches offer unapologetic atheists, I struggled for many more years than I should have had to in order to finally feel and think in some vitally necessary, constructive ways again.
And were there a Secular Student Alliance, quite possibly my closeted atheist friend who clung to religious organizations and people so desperately for the love they offered, would have found an accepting community that did not require him to be a liar.
I could have also learned what atheists were really like and been disabused of all the negative stereotypes I had absorbed as an evangelical before I actually was an atheist. It would have made me a much better person if I understood what an atheistic ideal for being a good person even was in either practical or theoretical terms. Some fundamentalists like I was have some warped views on things and can become bad people when certain premises that are persuading them be good are removed. In my case, I don’t mean, fear of God’s punishment made me good. But rather it was believing in a certain picture of what a flourishing life entailed that made me strive earnestly and conscientiously to good according to that picture. When that picture was shown false, my problem was not that I suddenly wanted to be bad, it was that I did not really have a clear picture of how else to be good, of what kind of ideal to strive for. All I had was my principled honesty. But how should I conceive of any of the number of situations and relationships that had always been framed with very particular religious beliefs informing them? This was not just “obvious” and “natural”. That’s why there are cultures and ethical institutions. And in our culture, it’s subcultures and families, etc. which need to do this work. And that’s why there needs to be a robust atheistic subculture which is proactive about developing good values in irreligious people.
Their whole lives growing up, young people are exposed to teachers who must (for good reasons) bite their tongues about religion, on the one hand, and, on the other hand and churches/mosques/synagogues/temples that both indoctrinate them and train them to exacerbate their natural tendencies towards cognitive errors wherever that is their best shot at staying within their faith. The vast majority of adults in our culture avoid meddling with other people’s kids’ heads and so hold their tongues quite often around them too. In college, religion is discussed and criticisms of beliefs are offered on occasion, but (again for good reasons) rarely does anyone get a fire-breathing atheistic professor really interested in being confrontational. Religious beliefs are sometimes debunked but usually it is pretty dispassionately and respectfully and, wherever intellectually valid, with religious proponents’ views represented at least.
There is hardly anywhere in our culture that a young person is deliberately and unavoidably exposed to atheists or our points of view. Within institutions, not only are people’s rights to religious beliefs (correctly) protected, they are also shielded from most vigorous criticism of the content of those beliefs. And any criticism they receive pales in force, repetition, and systematicity compared to the lifetime of active, controlled, institutional religious indoctrination their parents often make sure they get.
Unless they come from irreligious families, it is usually only by doing science or philosophy or by reading the books of the great literary freethinkers or of the popularizers of atheism and science, and by encountering atheistic peers that they have any real external challenges to their faiths. And this vital role in nourishing the mind and in providing some modicum of balance against religions’ institutional advantages, is another reason the SSA is so important.
Finally, the SSA is so important because many kids who are unbelieving simply by default need someone out there who is willing to take them in and open them up to the philosophical issues atheists care about before they get grabbed by the Campus Crusade for Christ or some other evangelistic organization down the road. The Christians leave no stone unturned in looking for potential converts and they take every opportunity they can to pack believers’ heads with their views. They do not just passively expect people to get it by themselves. They do not say to themselves, “Why give sermons to people who already believe? Isn’t that just preaching to the converted?” They understand that you preach to the converted because that’s what keeps them converted.
Atheists need to learn a whole lot from the religious about ingraining a worldview in people’s heads and keeping them accepting it. We should never stoop to all the brainwashing and authoritarianism. Quite the contrary. We need vigorous, proactive institutions that train people in critical thinking skills, give them substantive resources to develop coherent positions on important existential, moral, and metaphysical issues, and make them proud of their identity as people who put reason before faith.
One of our most vital, strategically shrewd, and rapidly successful such institutions is the Secular Student Alliance. This is a big a fundraising week for the organization. Please contribute to the cause if you care about all those kids going through the angst of doubt while surrounded by believing friends and families and campus communities. Please contribute if you care about solidifying the secular world views of the passively secular kids who might otherwise become susceptible to faith-based lures. Please contribute to pay the salaries of the dedicated workers who will both plant the seeds and tend the garden of a rationalistic, humanistic culture of the future.
More about when I deconverted:
More about before I deconverted: