I have gotten a few bits of feedback on my deconversion series that made me realize that I should explain my reasons for writing it. Some have been perplexed as to why an atheist would bother providing a narrative that might look comparable to a “born again” Christian’s account of how they were “saved”. On the other hand, a couple of Christians have responded to my deconversion series as an attempt to disprove theism or Christianity.
So, why amI writing this narrative?
If I look at myself and my motives with a psychologist’s eye, I would guess that having grown up as an evangelical Christian, narratives about conversion had a very powerful influence on me and on my expectations. Constructing and offering conversion narratives functioned as core practices of personal understanding, identity formation, and community building in the church. They were also testimonial in nature. They were offered as proofs of personal sincerity of belief and of the practical efficacy of the faith to improve one’s life. They also functioned to try to sway hearers to believe the truth of the faith–but this function I reject as fallacious and so is not my intention.
Religious people use their testimonies as evangelizing tools. The arguments they reference as persuading them are always taken to be perfectly compelling. Those listening or reading about how they affected the convert are being emotionally and rationally encouraged to feel and think along with the convert’s former self as the narrative goes along and end up having the same emotional and rational conclusions and, so, converting. Such stories are designed to give the nonbeliever (or give those of merely lukewarm faith or a different faith) a model that they are subtly being encouraged to follow.
But I am not doing that. Or at least I’m not doing it intentionally. I think that it is better to persuade people about matters of truth primarily with rational arguments and not stories about the emotional effect that those arguments had on you as a person–as though that was relevant to their truth value. Religions need narratives, identity, emotional appeals, and community benefits in order to make converts because their belief content is, intellectually speaking, ludicrous. I am a philosopher and an atheist, I can (and prefer to) make my case for disbelief purely on philosophical and scientific grounds. So I am not trying to prove very much philosophically with these stories. I do mean to offer insights, emotional appeals, and community benefits to others who independently see the rational reasons for disbelief and so are either already deconverts or in the process of deconverting but yet unable to cope emotionally and socially with what they are seeing intellectually. To all such people, I offer emotional support against all the emotional pressures and manipulations they have to (or had to) endure from religious influences.
Since I was a nearly lifelong devout evangelical Christian when I deconverted, I became an atheist in the ways a devout evangelical Christian would. One can only leave Christianity as a Christian. As I put it in a seminal post, “I rejected faith-based religion religiously, at least insofar as my rejection of faith grew out of my religious struggle.” In my case this meant aspects of conversion narrative construction and telling are important to how I think and communicate.
For one, I was too committed a Christian to simply “slip away” from the faith imperceptibly. If there was going to be a day when I said to myself “I am not a Christian”, it would be one that noticeably, memorably, and irrevocably fissured my identity with far reaching consequences for my whole life, my whole sense of self, my whole philosophy, and my relationships to everyone close to me. And it was exactly this.
Growing up, I never had a very good “testimony” since I had never been either an unbeliever or only a casually committed Christian. I had had no real conversion to Christianity. When asked how I became a Christian, the story I would tell was the entertaining tale about how my mom became disaffected with the Catholic Church and then my brother converted to evangelical Protestantism, leading to my mom and me becoming such Christians too as a consequence. I just wasn’t myself a convert or someone who had come to believe or commit through as a difficult process. I bought in to Christianity as an elementary school child.
The irony was that I would wind up deconverting and, in true evangelical form, I came away with a “testimony”! One replete with a pair of dramatic deconversion moments, in true evangelical form. As with other evangelicals, my story of deconversion is in part about proving the sincerity of my unbelief. I aim to make clear to Christians that I was one of them, that all my life was willingly committed to their God and that all my emotions were on the side of their God when my intellect was dissuaded against my will. I was not, as much as they want to assume, looking to leave Christianity, biased against Christianity, unable or unwilling to dutifully follow the rules of Christianity, disposed against the God of Christianity, unfamiliar with the most sophisticated philosophical or theological versions of Christianity, or unfamiliar with how wonderful Christians or Christian community could be. I had been there, done that, and despite wanting nothing more than to believe, I had found that I could no longer believe–either rationally or ethically. The best arguments for the faith had failed. The best arguments against it were overwhelming. And as a matter of intellectual and moral conscience, I could no longer believe fantastic claims that had the preponderance of rational evidence stacked overwhelmingly against them. I deconverted against my will.
There are two ways that my story serves as an argument against Christianity, but they are far from decisive disproofs. I offer those in properly philosophical posts.
The first small bit of evidence against the truth of Christianity is epistemological. My story, and countless others like mine, show that someone can be completely prejudiced in favor of Christianity and still be dissuaded, rather than only come to disbelieve out of prejudices against believing. Of course, our conclusions could be all wrong for reasons other than prejudice. Our arguments against theism and Christianity must be judged on their rational and evidential merits themselves. But when presuppositionalist apologists for Christianity and others try to claim that all non-believers don’t believe because they hate God and are prejudiced against believing, they are flatly psychologically empirically deluding themselves and rationalizing to themselves. I know they have theological reasons that the Calvinists have to tell themselves we deconverts were never “true” believers. But we know our minds well enough to know that that belief is falsified, and we have no doubts in our minds on that point. If we know nothing else we know how earnestly and pureheartedly we wanted to believe and at one point did believe and how personally traumatizing it was at first not to believe.
When Christians try to ignore or deny these facts when talking to me, they put themselves at a disadvantage by insulting me, making me feel contempt for their arrogant presumptions, and making clear to me that they are simply psychologically ignorant people. Christians need to start by accepting the reality of sincerely convinced former believers and working within that reality if they hope to make any strides in understanding or dissuading us.
My deconversion narrative’s second bit of philosophically relevant evidence for arguments about the truth of Christianity is its testimonies about the damaging ways that Christianity arrested my emotional, intellectual, social, ethical, and psychosexual development. Christianity led to some harmful attitudes about myself and created morally bad barriers between me and other people. I might in future posts talk more about that than I already have even. Christianity didn’t only make me immature and corrupt me morally and intellectually, of course. As I have also explained (and could explain more), there were some extraordinarily good virtues that I either acquired through Christianity or, at least, had effectively cultivated for me by Christian practices and paradigms. They could have been developed without Christianity, but in my case Christianity gave them their original forms.
In this way, my story is not a simplistic warning tale that Christianity only harms. But to the extent that you would think that a perfectly good and omnipotent God should be able to keep his most conscientiously devoted followers from being directly harmed by the very words of His Scripture and His church’s most powerfully influential theologians, this serves as a piece of evidence that either such a God does not exist or, at least, He is not the one believers in the Bible claim is out there. You would also think that those who commit their formative intellectual years to proving the philosophical and theological merits of believing in Him would not come away (so very often) completely disillusioned and convinced that Christianity is intellectually bankrupt. But here we are.
Rationalize it however you can, less philosophically and theologically educated Christians. Hug close your framed pictures of William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga and repeat over and over to yourselves “smart people believe in Christianity so it must be true”. But the cold hard fact is that over 83% of trained philosophers–those specialists most expert in the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical issues relevant to proving or disproving Christianity philosophically–are not theists. It is wholly unlikely taht this is just because they (and the 50% disbelieving scientists) are all coincidentally far greater God haters than the general population, which is both more philosophically ignorant and (coincidentally?!) more theistic.
But I digress.
Mostly I write my narrative not for believers but for my fellow atheists and for those believers who are in the process of deconverting. I am very, very heartened and gratified by all the atheists who tell me about how much my story resonates with their own experience. I do not write as someone trying to emotionally sway anyone to disbelief through narrative. I write as an escapee of a cult so massive that it is treated with not only credibility but a disturbing amount of unwarranted moral and intellectual deference both culturally and politically. And when we escapees criticize our former cult, not only do we suffer social and emotional consequences from that majority of our beloved families, friends, and fellow citizens who remain in the cult we even get rebukes or puzzled condescension from people who were never part of our cult at all but think it too unseemly, gauche, petty, or plebeian to deign to criticize such “harmless silliness”!
So I share my story of gaining mental freedom after having been brainwashed by Christianity because it’s a largely marginalized story, one that strikes too many as strange, though it is in actuality very common. Growing up, the former Christians I knew of were for the most part respectfully silent. When I became an atheist I had no living atheist role models. I had no one to take me under their wing. I had no prominent cultural figures with whom to identify. No one plugged me in to atheist literature. I remember going to the bookstore and seeing a lone book on atheism and marveling at it. What would someone write a whole book about atheism about? The prospect of books on atheism was exciting. I was flying blind here. I had profound abstract dead philosophers who were atheists that I could read but I didn’t have anything like a living, breathing community of people who had gone through what I had and could understand me. I knew most contemporary philosophers were not theists but the philosophy programs I attended were first evangelical (for undergrad) and then Catholic (for graduate studies).
I was alone and alienated and left to my own defenses to piece together my picture of the world. I had a friend who deconverted with me but he reverted to belief shortly after. I had another closeted atheist friend but, at first, he only excoriated and rejected me for proclaiming my non-belief and arguing with believers.
I had a rough time. I am proud of course that I was able to sift through a lot of stuff on my own and work out my post-Christian identity essentially by myself, with help only from philosophers like Nietzsche and Foucault. But I would have been a lot better off if I had had a community that could have helped me make sense of things and give me constructive resources. And I remember feeling finally understood when I discovered Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in 2007. Finally I had found contemporary writers expressing and defending my own explicitly and unequivocally anti-faith viewpoints. My heart was set afire and my consciousness began rising.
Finally, I write for personal reasons. This was one of the most decisive and formative moments in my life and will always be important to understand if I am to understand myself or if anyone else is to understand me. Though I have changed a lot since and will continue to change in ways that may make many people unable even to imagine me as a believer, no one ever fully escapes where they come from or its influence upon who they are. As William Falkner put it in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Or, as Paul Thomas Anderson put it in his film Magnolia, “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”
Both my Christian days and my deconversion matter to who I am today and it is important to me to express who I am and to contextualize who I am for myself and for others. As I explained in my previous post, this experience so profoundly impacted me that it shaped my dissertation. On the surface, of course, the dissertation is impersonal and academic. It is an exercise in Nietzsche scholarship and, at the end, an exercise in moral philosophy. But Nietzsche himself said in Beyond Good and Evil, section 6, that every great philosophy was “the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” and that “the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.” Nietzsche did not deny that this reality was even at work in his own case and he did not see it as antithetical to being a scrupulous lover of knowledge and a philosopher who conveys truth. In the preface to The Genealogy of Morals he describes his own work with a parallel horticultural metaphor:
…the ideas themselves are older. They were already in essentials the same ideas that I take up again in the present treatises—let us hope the long interval has done them good, that they have become riper, clearer, stronger, more perfect! That I still cleave to them today, however, that they have become in the meantime intertwined and interlaced with one another, strengthens my joyful assurance that they might have arisen in me from the first not as isolated, capricious, or sporadic things but from a common root, from a fundamental will of knowledge, pointing imperiously into the depths, speaking more and more precisely, demanding greater and greater precision. For this alone is fitting for a philosopher. We have no right to isolated acts of any kind: we may not make isolated errors or hit upon isolated truths. Rather do our ideas, our values, our yeas and nays, our ifs and buts, grow out of us with the necessity with which a tree bears fruit—related and each with an affinity to each, and evidence of one will, one health, one soil, one sun.
My fundamental grasp of certain key truths about epistemology and ethics was acquired through the kinds of experiences through which I got access to them. To the extent that Nietzsche is onto something, inevitably a philosopher will be a bit different than the impersonal scientist. When I am able to present a reasonably coherent, comprehensive, and systematic philosophical account of numerous features found in experience, part of my skill is going to come from my abilities for filtering and making sense of my own diffuse experience of the world. Again, a philosopher’s biography proves nothing true or false. You will have to assess the ideas I argue for on their own merits. But it would be dishonest of me to try to erase the biographical and psychological details of how they got into my head as matters of irrelevance. (But I also warn you that my views from when I was a college senior are not the whole memoir and so do not tell the whole story of my current philosophical views. So keep reading as I write posts about my intellectual journey post-deconversion or, better, just read my actual philosophical and theological arguments I regularly post on the blog and judge them on their own merits.)
Even though my dissertation is ostensibly (and I hope defensibly!) a scholarly interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, when I read it it doubles as a very satisfying memoir of the first 32 years of my life. It evokes to me all the experiences that got me thinking or which sensitized me to one aspect of reality or another and which clued me in specifically to what Nietzsche might mean in all his cryptic, contradictory complexity. It also didn’t hurt that Nietzsche played such a pivotal role in my life. Reading my painstaking interpretation of the intricacies of his philosophy I see a systematic explication and clarification of what was going on in me intellectually and emotionally for more than ten years. And then reading my critical departures from him and my attempts to gratefully move beyond him at last, in the final chapter, I am reading about my late twenties and early thirties.
I was self-aware about all of this throughout. In fact, I remember my first meeting with my initial dissertation adviser. I sat down and told her that before we talked at all about the project I wanted to undertake I needed to tell her about where I was coming from. I proceeded to explain all about my deconversion. I don’t think she had the foggiest idea the importance of this and cut me off before I could finish, telling me simply that I should talk to her husband, implying we’d had some similar theological struggles in the past and might be able to relate to each other. What she didn’t get was that I was telling her about what, on a certain level, my dissertation was going to be about. (Though she started to come around when I cited what Nietzsche had to say about philosophy as memoir. She then recommended I use The Antichrist 50, the text I read in the second of my two deconversion moments, as an epigram for the dissertation.)
So, while usually on this blog I argue for against Christianity and against theism abstractly–and while those arguments stand or fall on their own wholly independent of my own biography–I have periodically over the last year taken time to write this memoir in order to make sense of what it all meant to me personally in the past and what it means to me now. And I do it most of all for those deconverting, so they know they’re not alone and they can make it out okay, for the already deconverted so they find their experience expressed for them, and for the believers that they may understand their deconverted former brethren better and start treating us like the people we actually are and not like the caricatures other Christians have dreamed up.
To read my deconversion narrative, use the following links as a guide.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: