Atheist Deconversion: Dialogue #2: Jonathan MS Pearce

Atheist Deconversion: Dialogue #2: Jonathan MS Pearce July 20, 2017

Debate5

Image by “mary1826” (January 2017) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]

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Jonathan MS Pearce runs the blog called A Tippling Philosopher. He  is co-editor of a book that collects deconversion stories, entitled, Beyond an Absence of Faith. He also hosts deconversion stories on his own site. Thus far, I have critiqued two of them, and plan on doing so for many more. He replied to my critique of Anthony Toohey’s account. His civil, substantive post is melodramatically called, “Patheos Catholic-Atheist War: It’s On! Respectfully Speaking…” (7-18-17).

It stands in striking contrast to the avalanche of insults sent my way (most having to do with my strict moderating policy on my blog of no insults and no nonsense) in the combox underneath it (now up to 266 comments). Like any other human group, atheists have their calm, confident, amiable thinkers (whom I’ve found to be extremely interesting and challenging in my many exchanges with them through the years) and their fanatical, insulting fools (who are as boorish and obnoxious as they come). These latter traits unfortunately become exponentially magnified on the Internet. Jonathan’s words will be in blue.

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Of course, detailing the entirety of one’s deconversion in a small account like this will always be a summary of some of the poignant aspects, not a comprehensive version of events.

I freely grant that (Christian conversion stories are often of the same nature); however, as a public critique of Christianity and an ostensible account of reasons why one left Christianity, it is open to criticism, just as anything else is. Dr. Daniel Fincke, whose story I also critiqued, wrote along these lines in his reply:

My motive in doing so is primarily to give expression to the experience of deconverts whose journeys were like mine. They need resources they can identify with and which help them understand they are not alone. And their grateful e-mails to me are one of the most gratifying fruits of this blog for me. I also wrote the deconversion series because I think it’s valuable to show doubting Christians how it is possible to make it through to the other side.

That’s all well and good, and it’s equally sensible and perfectly to be expected for Christian apologists like myself to offer our critical thoughts about such enterprises. Dr. Fincke was very gracious in reply, even seeming to enthusiastically welcome my critique. I can only hope that at least some other atheists whose stories I critique will do the same. If they love dialogue and a free and open exchange of competing ideas as much as I do, surely they will.

So, what are Armstrong’s main points of beef? [he cites me]

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.

This has hallmarks of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. Whilst we might not know the finer details of why and what Toohey originally believed (this wasn’t, after all, the point of the piece), it seems perhaps disingenuous to present what might arguably be a huge straw man of Toohey’s Christian belief.

It’s not a straw man at all to note Toohey’s own description of how little he knew about Catholicism. Readers can see how readily he left Catholicism, and what little intellectual basis he had to do so. I dealt with the erroneous “No True Scotsman” charge in a comment I made yesterday:

Pointing out that extreme forms of Christianity are not all of Christianity (common sense) and that such an equation has to do with the fallacy of baby/bathwater or the straw man is not “no true Scotsman” at all. Wikipedia states about “straw man”:

The typical straw man argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and the subsequent refutation of that false argument (“knock down a straw man”) instead of the opponent’s proposition.

Anyone with an IQ above that of a pencil eraser understands that legalistic fundamentalist sects do not represent all of Christianity. That’s not even arguable. It’s perfectly self-evident.

In my critique of Lorna’s story, I chided her for seemingly equating the despotic form of Christianity she was raised in, with larger Christianity. In another paper, she was more nuanced, and I praised her for it (she wrote: “I didn’t blame Jesus or Christianity for the actions of these angry Christians”).

That’s all I’m calling for: rudimentary fairness in defining a thing and critiquing it, rather than the straw man fallacy.

But Jonathan concedes perhaps my main point (just as Dr. Fincke also did yesterday):

There is a good point in amongst this critique, though, as summed up here:

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.

This is certainly true. One can reject a particular sect or church because they might have more egregious views, and, as such, reject the whole of Christianity as a worldview.

Fair enough. I’m delighted to see that one of the major emphases of my three critiques thus far has been freely accepted by two major webmasters in the atheist world.

But this works both ways. Let’s take Armstrong’s supposedly correct view of Christianity, X. Now, compared to the hardcore fundamentalist version, one might see X as being liberal and wonderful and correct. But to the atheist, or to any next person, there might still be aspects of X that are egregious.

Without question. This wasn’t my argument. Rather, Toohey’s story (at least what he has shared with us) shows no signs whatever that he either fully understood what his early Catholic views were, let alone had reasons for why he believed them. In that respect, his childhood Catholicism was rather like my own childhood nominal, ignorant Methodism. One must, after all, understand a thing in the first place in order to rationally reject it. What he did get exposed to and better understood was an extreme fundamentalist form of Christianity. So he did not get exposed — by a long shot — to anywhere near the best that Christianity has to offer. There are many far better forms of Protestantism out there, too, as well as Eastern Orthodoxy.

Homosexuality, for most Catholics (for example) and for most Christians (using “biblical evidence”) is a sin, in some manner. And so rejecting that and thus rejecting Christianity, you could move to, say, an even more liberal version, or reject it outright. But one could still accuse someone of rejecting X, and Christianity outright, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

That’s right: if it is warranted. There are people who fully understand a position and reject it (for either — arguably — sufficient or insufficient reasons). And there are people who do not understand a position very well, and thus wind up rejecting a caricature of it, which is precisely a straw man, and not logically compelling to anyone else. What I’m saying is that Toohey’s story didn’t give sufficient reason for his own departure from Christianity; therefore it can’t provide much rationale for anyone else to do so, either.

When I left Protestantism for Catholicism in 1990, I fully understood what it is I left, and which portion of it I was rejecting (not all, by any stretch, but only certain aspects), and was prepared to defend my change of mind to all challengers. Almost all of my Protestant friends took a pass, because they knew full well that I knew my stuff. I had been an apologist and missionary in those circles, so I knew the teachings inside and out.

Jonathan’s own book of deconversion stories (noted at the top) actually downplays the rational aspects of deconversion (which are not all that is entailed in any major change of mind; I fully agree). Jeremy Beahan, in the Foreword, states:

[H]uman beings are not, and have never been, purely rational animals. We adopt beliefs and reject them for reasons that are relevant to our own circumstances — reasons that are deeply emotional and experiential as well as intellectual.

I couldn’t agree more. This is exactly right, and I have made similar points several times over the last several days. The high irony, however, is that “deeply emotional and experiential” reasons that Christians give for their faith are roundly mocked and belittled by atheists (especially online), every day. We’re told that only empirical evidence is objective enough to provide any relevant rationale in proof of anything. I just went through this discussion with two atheists in the last few days, too (discussion abridged a bit for space’ sake; see it all here):

Atheist: Mythology is cool, and fun to study, and can have some good lessons. You should never let it rule your life. Physical Evidence: bring it to me. I’ll wait.

Me: Why do you think that evidence is confined to empirical, physical evidence? From whence did you adopt that presupposition?

Atheist: From reality.

Me:: That’s not an argument. Put up or shut up. Where does this notion come from that the only evidence is physical?

Atheist: I asked first: you put up or shut up. Ball’s already in your court.

Me: You refuse to answer. What else is new? This is what almost all atheists do when asked hard questions about their axioms (that we all have; it’s only a question of whether we acknowledge them or not).

You asked me about “physical evidence”. Like Socrates would do, I questioned your unexamined premise, and wondered where you got this odd idea from that evidence is confined to physicality (empiricism). And you refuse to answer.

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A second atheist claimed in replying to my question, “there are no known ways to obtain objective knowledge other than empirical”. I replied:

1. Why should I believe the statement you just made, since it is not empirical evidence; therefore, by the criterion you just expressed, not objective (merely subjective), and thus, can be summarily dismissed as irrelevant to anyone else but yourself?

2. On what (not immediately logically self-defeating) basis can you assert that only empirical evidence is “objective”?

He refused to answer as well, and so I concluded: “Until you demonstrate why I should believe your premise, the discussion is stalled. I can’t skip over what to me is a crucial point of the whole discussion.”

Thus, in effect, in my critiques of these deconversion stories — granting that human beings are never  “purely rational animals” — are giving to atheists a dose of their own medicine: what they constantly give to Christians. It’s still worthwhile to point out that the reasons given for deconversion are at least objectively insufficient. They can hardly apply to anyone else unless they are objective reasons that apply to all. If they are merely subjective, then why share them? Well, it is to give moral support to other atheists, as I have also opined recently. An atheist (Neil Carter) said that apologetics preaches to the choir, and I came back with a retort that atheists do precisely the same thing: and deconversion stories are a big part of that.

There is a sense, then, that the stories on both sides have many similar components or traits, even though the content is wildly divergent. As an old sociology major I can readily see that. And there is also an analogical sense that if atheist deconversion stories are regarded as self-evidently valid and important, even though they are mostly (even admittedly) subjective, then why not also Christian conversion stories, which also usually consist of more subjective, non-rational elements?

There is a danger of inoculating Christianity from ever being able to be rejected like the con-artist’s shell game, forever moving those cups. 

Yes, I grant that many Christians (of unsophisticated epistemology) do that, but I have not. I’m simply calling for the rejection to be of something that I recognize as mainstream Christianity, with some compelling reasons given for ding that; as opposed to rejecting fringe, extreme elements of Christianity that do not represent the whole. The first three deconversion stories I have critiqued were all of this nature, and I am already tiring of seeing the same baby / bathwater / straw man fallacy applied over and over. Sorry that I think logically, and value reason and philosophy and epistemology. I guess it’s a fault of mine.

And everybody thinks that their own version of Christianity is the correct one, as Armstrong naturally will do here.

Yes, of course they do, just as everyone who thinks much about their own worldview thinks it is true in some exclusive sense. Each has to be defended on its own merits. My 2000+ online papers and 48 books of apologetics and theology do that. But that’s not central to my argument. I’m not saying that Catholicism is the only mainstream Christian choice. The three stories I have looked at thus far didn’t even consider mainstream Protestant alternatives, let alone Orthodoxy (before we ever get to even remotely considering Catholicism).

Of course, the core points of rejection are what are worth dealing with.

Toohey looks briefly at biblical exegesis, and biblical contradictions in particular. Armstrong then attacks him for a “shallow” position, before presenting reasons why there might be contradictions in light of a Christian god.

Jonathan then (somewhat oddly) presents his own truncated version of the five points I gave (rather than simply citing mine). I don;t claim that he was trying to deliberately distort what I wrote (not at all), but this has the danger of overly simplifying an opponent’s argument. I urge folks to go read my own five points in my paper. It’s the only indented section and is easy to spot. Moreover, I was not (technically) responding to “why there might be contradictions” in the Bible. Rather, I was replying to Toohey’s contention that “How could God’s word have ‘difficulties?’ What on earth was difficult about God’s revelation to mankind. I mean, he’s God, right?” This goes beyond mere purported contradictions, to questions of interpretation, and why Christians differ on those. Why couldn’t an omnipotent God make things simpler? , etc. That is a much larger point and far more complex discussion, if one really delves into it.

I’ll look at this from a philosophical point of view. If an OmniGod can’t think up a way to deliver a perfect revelation, then he’s a bit of a dunce.

I’d like to cite John Henry Cardinal Newman: the Christian thinker whom I admire the most, and who played a key role in my conversion to Catholicism. J. Derek Holmes, in a book about Newman’s view of Scripture, summarizes his ideas on the perspicuity (i.e., “clearness”) of the Bible (a doctrine held dear by historic Protestantism):

In 1845 . . . Newman pointed out some other limitations of the Scriptures . . . The mere letter of the Bible could not contain the fulness of revelation; Scripture itself could not solve the questions of canonicity or inspiration; its style was indirect and its structure was unsystematic so that even definitions of the Church depended on obscure sentences . . . The inspiration of Scripture was as difficult to establish from the text of the Bible as the doctrine of apostolic succession . . .

The Bible did not contain a complete secular history, and there was no reason why it should contain a complete account of religious truth. It was unreasonable to demand an adequate scriptural foundation for Church doctrines, if the impression gained from the Bible was of writers who took solemn and sacred truths for granted and who did not give a complete or full treatment of the sense of revelation . . . Scripture did not interpret itself, often startling facts were narrated simply, needing the understanding of the Church, and even essential truths were not made clear . . .

Newman, it must be emphasized, held a ‘one-source theory’ of revelation. He believed that the Church and Tradition taught the truth, while Scripture verified, vindicated or proved that teaching. The Bible and Tradition made up the joint rule of faith, antiquity strengthened the faint but real intimations of doctrine given in Scripture, the Bible was interpreted by Tradition which was verified by Scripture . . . The Bible was never intended to teach doctrine to the majority of Christians, but was written for those already instructed in doctrine . . .

It might be possible for an individual Christian to gain the whole truth from the Bible, but the chances were ‘very seriously against a given individual’ doing so in practice. (in J. Derek Holmes & Robert Murray, On the Inspiration of Scripture, Washington, D. C.: Corpus Books, 1967, 7-8, 10-11, 15-16)

Surely then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation . . . The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility. (Ibid., 111-112; Newman’s essay On the Inspiration of Scripture, 1884)

For further related reading, see what Cardinal Newman as an Anglican (in 1833-1838) thought on the same general topic.

It’s not just the Catholic (and/or Anglican) Newman who writes of expected  complexities in Scripture. Protestant Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer has also made similar observations at length:

 

Such a variety of differing and mutually exclusive interpretations arose – all appealing to the same Scripture – that serious people began to wonder whether an all-pervasive . . . influence of subjectivism in the understanding of Scripture is not the cause of the plurality of confessions in the church. Do not all people read Scripture from their own current perspectives and presuppositions . . . with all kinds of conscious or subconscious preferences? . . . Is it indeed possible for us to read Scripture with free, unbiased, and listening attention? . . . We should never minimize the seriousness of these questions . . . ‘Pre-understanding’ cannot be eliminated. The part which subjectivity plays in the process of understanding must be recognized . . . The interpreter . . . does not approach the text of Scripture with a clean slate. (Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975, translated from Dutch ed. of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, 106-107, 119)
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An attempt has often been made to solve this problem by referring to the ‘objective’ clarity of Scripture, so that every incomplete understanding and insight of Scripture is said to be due to the blinding of human eyes that could not observe the true light shining from it . . .  In considering this seemingly simple solution . . . we will soon discover that not all questions are answered by it . . . An incomplete understanding or a total misunderstanding of Scripture cannot simply be explained by blindness. Certain obstacles to understanding may also be related to Scripture’s concrete form of human language conditioned by history . . . Scripture . . . is tied to historical situations and circumstances in so many ways that not every word we read is immediately clear in itself . . . Therefore, it will not surprise us that many questions have been raised in the course of history about the perspicuity of Scripture . . . Some wondered whether this confession of clarity was indeed a true confession . . . The church has frequently been aware of a certain ‘inaccessibility.’ According to Bavinck . . . it may not be overlooked that, according to Rome . . . Scripture is not regarded as a completely obscure and inaccessible book, written, so to speak, in secret language . . . Instead, Rome is convinced that an understanding of Scripture is possible – a clear understanding. But Rome is at the same time deeply impressed by the dangers involved in reading the Bible. Their desire is to protect Scripture against all arbitrary and individualistic exegesis . . . It is indeed one of the most moving and difficult aspects of the confession of Scripture’s clarity that it does not automatically lead to a total uniformity of perception, disposing of any problems. We are confronted with important differences and forked roads . . . and all parties normally appeal to Scripture and its perspicuity. The heretics did not disregard the authority of Scripture but made an appeal to it and to its clear witness with the subjective conviction of seeing the truth in the words of Scripture. (Ibid., 268-271, 286)

 

Take slavery: God knew that the Bible would be, through his countenancing of slavery and lack of clarity about its moral value, used to justify slavery for almost 2000 years. This is poor revelation and poor foresight. As I have said many times before, God missed a trick in not outlawing slavery in the Ten Commandments. Instead, with an air of self-obsession, he gives out a load of often shoddy rules.

Of course, this is far too complex a topic to deal with (as a sort of footnote) even in a summary way, in the current context of my already too-lengthy reply (as Jonathan would agree, I think). Thankfully, I have collected much good material and resources on the topic for those who truly wish to understand the biblical and Christian understanding of slavery, and to not simply use it as a whipping-stick to bash Christians. It’s easy to toss out the objection to the Bible or Christianity (that requires three seconds); it takes infinitely more work to carefully explain and defend Christianity.That’s just how it is, in defending Christianity or any other complex belief-system.

If atheists want to toss out such objections (often dozens at a time!), I hope they’ll grant us the courtesy and time spent in reading how intelligent, informed Christians actually reply to the garden-variety objections. I have provided those resources, for those interested, so they can deepen their knowledge beyond the quick sound bite mentality. I’m not saying that Jonathan is doing all this; I’m speaking generally of slavery as a “gotcha” topic that is often brought up by atheists and even theologically liberal Christians who want to run down the Bible.

I think contradictions are a real problem. In order to harmonise them, one has to be able to study the issues, the source texts, often understanding the original language, form and textual techniques and so on. This is such an elitist approach to entering into a solid and warranted relationship with God. Only people who can withstand the rigours of such intellectual analysis can have a justified belief in God, contradiction free.

I think they are not that big of a problem at all. Some minor things have crept into the manuscripts through the centuries (contradictions of numbers, etc.). I offer many resources for those truly interested in pursuing the topic and seeing what Christian apologists and theologians have to say about it:

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A great many alleged biblical contradictions actually are not at all, simply according to the rules of logic:

Review of The Book of Non-Contradiction (Phillip Campbell)
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Alleged “Bible Contradictions”: Most Are Actually Not So

I don’t buy it.

I don’t buy the harmonisations to the many contradictions, at least in a good many cases. There are real problems here, and ones which, even I (if I created a holy book from scratch) could contrive not to manifest.

I don’t buy that the “problems” suggested are nearly as serious as atheists and Bible skeptics make out, or problems at all (in many cases), and accordingly I have engaged in many debates with atheists who (so I demonstrate) have little clue how to properly interpret the Bible. They show themselves to be woefully ignorant (even laughably, pitifully ignorant) time and again. That’s what happens when people make no actual study of any topic, and think they know far more than they really do (I’ve studied the Bible intensely for 40 years, and have been involved in apologetics for 36). I have collected these dialogues with atheists on the Bible in the section near the end of my Atheism web page, entitled, ” ‘The Butcher and the Hog’: The Atheist Approach to the Bible.” Read for yourself . . .

If “[T]he faith of some troubled souls is hindered by misunderstanding the Scripture” then I’m afraid you have a problem with the Scripture.

No, we have a problem with understanding, which could occur with regard to any complex document of belief-system whatever. Knowledge is power, and unnecessary ignorance leads souls astray. There are fields of knowledge known as hermeneutics, exegesis, and Bible commentary, as well as scholarly aids about biblical languages, cultural differences, idiom, genre, Hebrew ways of thinking, etc.

If I write an instruction manual for anything, and it presents confusion in the reader, then I have not written my instruction manual effectively.

I’ll guarantee that some human beings will misunderstand or misapply any instruction whatever: in proportion to how lengthy and sophisticated and subtle it is. The Bible is no different. It still has to be properly understood and interpreted. For example, to take just one issue among hundreds: the ancient Hebrews had a very different conception of time, which ties into the Genesis creation accounts. I recently engaged in a dialogue with an atheist, where we got into these fascinating aspects. I was willing to learn (and I learned a ton in my research); he, alas, was not.

It appears that Armstrong thinks he has cracked the contradictions issue (he has “analyzed relentlessly shoddy, illogical, fact-challenged atheist attempts to run down the Bible”..), 

I haven’t fully resolved or “cracked” anything, but I have indeed exposed shoddy atheist so-called “exegesis” of the Bible, dozens of times. That’s simply a fact. The papers are there for all to see.

but from personal experience and a lot of reading on these subjects (and having written a book on the blatant contradictions of the Nativity accounts), I can assure you these are far from being harmonised. Far from.

Atheists will always have their handy lists of scores and scores of alleged contradictions. They love ’em! But (sorry to ruin the party) mere lists prove nothing. Each charge has to be argued on its own merits. Of course, we have our defenses of the nativity accounts as well (here’s one example), and many books on the historical reliability of the Bible (example).

Thanks to Jonathan for the good debate and opportunity for me to discuss many things about Christian positions.

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