Introduction: “Deconversion” stories are accounts of an atheist or agnostic’s odyssey from some form of Christianity to atheism or agnosticism. Since these are public (else I wouldn’t know about them in the first place), it’s reasonable to assume that they are more than merely subjective / personal matters, that have no bearing on anyone else. No; it is assumed (it seems to me) that these stories are thought to offer rationales of various sorts for others to also become atheists or to be more confirmed in their own atheism. This being the case, since they are public critiques of Christianity (hence, fair game for public criticism), as a Christian (Catholic) apologist, I have a few thoughts in counter-reply.
I am not questioning the sincerity of these persons or the truthfulness of their self-reports, or any anguish that they went through. I accept their words at face value. I’m not arguing that they are terrible, evil people (that’s a child’s game). My sole interest is in showing if and where certain portions of these deconversion stories contain fallacious or non-factual elements: where they fail to make a point against Christianity (what Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls “defeating the defeaters”), or misrepresent (usually unwittingly) Christianity as a whole, or the Bible, etc.
As always, feedback on my blog (especially from the persons critiqued) is highly encouraged, and I will contact, out of basic courtesy, everyone whose story I have critiqued. All atheists are treated with courtesy and respect on my blog. If someone doesn’t do so, I reprimand them, and ban them if they persist in their insults.
When I cite the stories themselves, the words will be in blue.
I was brought up in what I now refer to as the fundie bubble, where I was raised to be completely unaware of how the real world worked.
And of course this will have a harmful effect: being exposed to a fringe, extreme, anti-intellectual species of Christianity. This is now the third straight deconversion story I have critiqued in the last few days, where this was the case. One starts to detect a certain pattern. Most of what an atheist will say in critique of fundamentalism, the vast majority of non-fundamentalist Christians will readily agree with.
Lorna has great fun mocking the fundamentalist aversion to “evil forces” but, all joking aside, certainly we can all agree that there are bad (evil?) people and bad belief-systems out there (e.g., ISIS and neo-Nazis and child molesters or rapists).
Their [her parents] prime objective as Christian parents was to keep the world out of our home.
And that makes perfect sense. All parents seek to insulate their children against harmful influences. Some may do it in dumb, extreme ways, and we may disagree on which harmful influences to exclude, but the principle itself is a general one.
Lorna’s struggle with masturbation simply highlights the Christian assertion that sin is addicting. It’s powerful. It’s enticing. That’s why we must try to avoid it at all costs. It’s much easier to never begin such practices. There is a rational argument (even a secular one) that can be made against masturbation, but this is not the place to do that. Of course, the atheist and “sexually liberated” person simply says that because masturbation is a powerful urge, therefore, it must be perfectly natural and therefore okay. That doesn’t follow at all.
Virtually every married man (to give one example) has been attracted to a woman not his wife. If that were purely and solely natural, therefore, good, then infidelity would then become good. But there is a consensus (still, even today), that cheating on your spouse is a bad thing. Therefore, this is an analogous example of an urge that society (atheist and Christian alike) stigmatizes as something that should not be done. The child molester has strong “natural” urges to molest children. Society (and I would say, natural law and common ethical sense) says that is wrong. We also still think it’s wrong for a parent and child to have sex, or for a man to rape a woman.
All of those things feel “natural” to those who have those urges. Christianity simply holds that a wider group of sexual practices fall under this same sort of thing. And we have plenty of reasons for believing so: that can be backed up by studies from social science, as to effects on individuals and families and marriages of certain practices.
Of course, I couldn’t stop — and according to what I learned it was a spiritually dangerous addiction. ‘Knowing’ this did a number on my self-esteem because I deeply and genuinely believed that God was disappointed in me all of the time and I couldn’t stop no matter how hard I tried. I asked for forgiveness nightly, but it got to the point where I was even ashamed to mention the subject in prayer.
Lorna’s in good company. Paul the Apostle wrote about very similar struggles (that we all go through in one way or another):
Romans 7:15-24 (RSV) I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.  So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,  but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
His solution was given in the next chapter, where he talked about the powerful help of the Holy Spirit and grace, to overcome sin.
. . . the darker elements of the Christian mindset that were present both in my home in the church certainly latched onto personality weaknesses and perpetuated them, even more so as time went on.
That is, the fundamentalist (not general “Christian”) mindset . . .
The point of homeschooling, both my parents’ and seemingly the chosen curriculum’s, was not to educate and prepare me for life but rather to keep sin aka reality far out of reach. As a result, when I actually did face the real world, I did so naively and unprepared.
That has not been our own experience at all. We have homeschooled all four of our children, and they are doing wonderfully in life (now at ages 26, 24, 20, and 15: our oldest is autistic as well). All are rock-solid Catholics. So once again, the big bad boogie man is neither Christianity nor homeschooling, but rather, extreme, unrealistic versions of both. I agree with the excesses Lorna condemns in this regard (there are good and bad homeschoolers, just as with anything else), but I don’t see how they constitute any reason for deconversion and adoption of atheism. Lorna seems to think they do (since they are in her deconversion story). I don’t see how, meself.
As a result of her desperate need to control combined with her belief that there was only one correct path that I was straying from, I was made to quit my job, have the cellphone that I bought and paid for (on time every month to prove responsibility) taken away from me (so that I couldn’t communicate with Daniel as freely), and forbidden from actually dating him.. . . which is, of course, silly and extreme, since nothing bad was known about the boyfriend. All this proves is that Lorna had a controlling, legalistic, fundamentalist mom. It proves nothing against the truthfulness of Christianity. We know that when parents are too strict, the kids rebel (duh!). And I think atheism can be tied into that phenomenon. It’s going from one extreme to another.
On top of what I now consider harassment from the church, I was also dealing with angry letters from my mom about how my selfishness and chosen lifestyle were hurting family. Never mind how I was emotionally ostracized, manipulated and black-mailed for wanting to make some of my own choices. Somehow, the blame was all on me. I even received a letter from an uncle, who rarely said a word to me prior to this, in which he explained in great detail that God could very well punish my sinful rebellion with cancer. The fear tactics in that letter were so blatant that it was actually sickening, even for my naive mind. This combined with the new-found freedom to think outside of the bubble is what eventually led me out of religion all together. Unfortunately, I clung to the love of Jesus for as long as I could. When I finally began to let go of even Jesus, Daniel and I began to drift as well.
I see nothing here that is a reason to reject Christianity: only a reason to object to controlling behaviors and fundamentalism. She gives no reason at all for why she “let go of even Jesus.” I guess she started to think that He would supposedly act like her despotic mother and uncle? Or did she commit intellectual suicide and start thinking that He never existed?
. . . having both escaped the Christian mindset.
I see this tendency repeatedly in atheist deconversion stories: a conflation of the extreme, fringe Christians elements with “Christianity.” This is not honest (I must say). It’s false advertising. The atheist is the first to vocally object if we point out that the usual raging, angry anti-theists who are rampant online represent the average, mainstream atheist. I agree that they don’t (I’ve written about that several times). I ask for the same courtesy from atheists to distinguish between ignorant fanatic Christians and those who are not so.
This is a big problem that I see in deconversion stories. Atheists read them and say (or so I speculate), “That is Christianity, and I want no part of it; glad I left that nonsense.” I read the same thing and think, “That is despicable fundamentalist foolishness, that has never been part of my Christianity, or most Christians’ faith, and I detest it as well, but see no reason to reject Christianity itself because some people have a lousy, stupid, mindless application of Christianity in their lives.”
I could go on to critique much more of this story, but it is mostly variations on the same theme, so what I have written will suffice. There is nothing whatsoever here that I see, that would compel anyone to reject all forms of Christianity. The story would certainly, however, form a good reason to reject reality-denying fundamentalism. Since lots of Christians do that, it can hardly be an unanswerable reason to reject Christianity altogether.
Lastly, there are intelligent, sensible, non-controlling ways to teach abstinence before marriage. My children have all lived that out. One is now very happily married, another has a steady girlfriend. They are all wonderful Christian human beings, and they’re not out there condemning homeschooling and talking about how terrible my wife and I were in bringing them up. Quite the opposite. My wife and I also waited till marriage, and are fabulously happy, with almost 33 years of marriage.
So the idea that Christianity is all this garbage that Lorna went through or that there is no conceivable way to intelligently, rationally, sensibly teach abstinence before marriage is nonsense. There is a balance between extreme puritan-like legalism and prudishness and extreme sexual “anything goes” license. Christians can even agree with atheists on much (if not all) of that.
In the combox, Lorna wrote: “I will link you to my transition story from a blog that I no longer update, in case you’re interested. [link provided] It offers a little more detail as to how I got from fundamental Christianity to agnosticism/atheism. It was by no means an angry, thoughtless jump.”
Since I’m interested in precisely that, I’ll give a few thoughts on this additional material, too.
. . . this transition of mine consists of what I can separate into three phases: liberal Christianity, spirituality (where I believed in God, but thought that organized religion was pointless -this led to a slight interest in certain aspects of far eastern religions) and finally agnosticism (where I had concluded that no one can know anything for sure and that there is probably a bit of truth in every view).
Okay, I’ll keep reading.
More recently, thanks to the experience and emotional support from my partner as well as my own interest in psychology, I have become more and more certain that god must simply be an idea to help fill in the gaps. I’ve come to learn that our mind craving for something god makes perfect sense; but it doesn’t justify dedicating your life to a fear-soothing fantasy. I think religion, or any idea of god, gods, or a greater power for that matter is only for emotional comfort. The unknown tends to be uncomfortable, unsettling, and even frightening to some.
This is simply an assertion of what Lorna has come to believe, and no argument; therefore, there is nothing to dispute. It’s merely subjective mush. Of course, this is a variation of the usual tired atheist schtick that religion is the equivalent of belief in Santa Claus or leprechauns or the tooth fairy and suchlike (alas, some asinine atheist slogans never change).
My attempt at a more liberal version of Christianity after a childhood of the conservative brand lasted for a couple of years, or less. I’d decided that most Christians were bad representatives, but that Jesus was perfect and that I should strive to be like him; loving, non-judgmental, understanding … all the things my mother, as well as various other influential authority figures in my life were not. I wasn’t ready to leave what I had known all my life behind, but I knew she and the others were going about it the wrong way.
Many Christians on the way to atheism or agnosticism stop by liberal Christianity as a halfway house because it is much closer to atheism in many ways. But the liberals didn’t satisfy Lorna, either. She still hasn’t explained exactly why, though. This additional post gives no rational reasons that could be critiqued. From what I can tell, Lorna’s main reason for conversion to agnosticism seems to be personal and sexual freedom. But she does link to a third paper:
I didn’t blame Jesus or Christianity for the actions of these angry Christians.
Good. It’s refreshing to see these basic distinctions made. She goes on to talk about conversations with someone she regarded as “a mature, loving Christian to talk to . . . very understanding.” This provides a nuance missing from the first deconversion story.
Unfortunately, this was “Part 1” and just when it started to get interesting (from where I sit), there seems to have been no further writing on the topic.
Therefore, I still see no reason why anyone should leave Christianity because of Lorna’s testimony. All it proves it that there are some judgmental, legalistic Christians out there, which we all knew already: just as there are some judgmental, condescending atheists out there, too! Crappy examples and role models can be found in any human group whatever. It’s about as revelatory as saying that there are people in Group X that like baseball, and some like fishing, and some like to talk! Likewise, there are the folks in any given group that are embarrassing and don’t properly represent the whole. We’re all blessed by them.
This is basically Lorna’s ongoing point, and it is no reason whatever to reject Jesus or the Bible or Christianity. That’s why I wanted so much to see why and how Lorna rejected Jesus. But I guess it’s not to be.