Deconversion: Mini-Debates with Several Zealous Atheists

Deconversion: Mini-Debates with Several Zealous Atheists July 19, 2017


Photograph by “stevepb” (7-12-16) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce made a response to my critique of an atheist deconversion story that he hosted on his site. The combox then went wild in questioning me (with not a few of the usual obligatory rank insults). I  spent many hours replying to lots of the comments (mostly late last night), but at length wrote: “Obviously, I can’t argue with 40 atheists about 120 topics at once (though it appears to be assumed that I would be able to do so). I’ve done my best to reply to the major points.” Well, here are some of the highlights. Opponents’ words will be in blue (my replies in regular black):


Damn, straight to the ‘no true Christian’ defense – maybe he should confront the deconverter with Pascal’s wager.
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.

Geoff Benson Atheists come in all shapes and sizes but, ignoring any extreme positions, I never see the case put that the apologist doesn’t understand the case being made. Every single variation of religious belief that we are told we don’t understand, can be rejected in exactly the same way; lack of evidence. There’s no reliable evidence to support miracle stories. All bible stories have the ring of folk lore to them. The gospel authors are unknown. The texts are wildly inconsistent and implausible. There’s not even certainty as to the historical Jesus. And many, many more. 

I can only sensibly discuss particulars. Do you think it is actually possible to “reply” to a wildly broad and “100-topic” sort of post like this? Only a fool would attempt to do so.

It’s the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, to simply throw out 100 different topics (none proven; none even properly explicated) and then to assume a seemingly smug faux-posture of intellectual superiority: since, after all, there are so many problems with the view being critiqued. Your second-to-last paragraph contains an amazing seven sentences in a row with as many large-and-lumpy topics in them. That may impress the choir, but it is not a rational argument for anything. It’s one bald assertion after another.

Nos482 Now what did Jesus say about the unity of xtianity? The simple fact that there are ‘extreme and twisted version[s] of Christianity’ disproves the whole shebang… at least the bible tells me so.

How is it that you think counterfeits prove that there is no genuine thing? The Bible teaches precisely that there will be sects claiming to be followers of Jesus that are not in fact so, and it condemns sectarianism and divisiveness. This is a major reason why I am a Catholic. You never heard of “wolves in sheeps’ clothing” either?

Sastra What constitutes an “insult” varies from group to group. For example, I wouldn’t count the statement “all atheists are going to hell” as uncivil; it’s theological and not a personal attack. A discussion rule against gratuitous insults then shouldn’t include it (or its atheist equivalent) — unless it does due to a personal choice of the authority, who has that right. But it’s not an obvious violation. Most sites would not only allow it, but wouldn’t even see it as walking particularly close to the edge.

I’m glad you have highlighted the example of “all atheists are going to hell” as something I ban for (because it will be understood here). That is extremely uncharitable, it simply can’t be stated, according to consistent Christian theology (which holds that we have no knowledge of anyone going to hell or not, save the devil and his demons), and it immediately crushes any hope of Christian-atheist discussion.

If I allow that sort of garbage, then visiting atheists who see it will get a wrong impression of my approach and what I am trying to achieve. They themselves write about how offensive and absurd such sweeping statements are. I agree! I’ve written posts about legitimate atheist anger at how many dim-witted, uncharitable Christians treat them. So it can’t be allowed. Conversely, atheists saying that all Christians are stupid, infantile, or intellectually dishonest, are not allowed. Both attitudes kill mutually respectful discussion. Since that is always my goal, I simply can’t allow either.

Ian Cooper The problem with David Armstrong’s ban hammer is that it seems to be triggered by statements as mild as “The Catholic Church is wrong”. . . . preventing them from defending themselves from such attacks is the act of a coward and a bully. A decent, fair and honest person does not pick a fight with someone he’s bound and gagged first. If David Armstrong doesn’t want atheists to respond, maybe he shouldn’t be attacking us in the first place. 

How many were banned is irrelevant, unless we look at the specifics as to why they were banned. It’s merely the ad populum fallacy.

What I do know for sure is that many online atheists are extremely insulting towards Christians, so we would fully expect that people like that would be banned from Christian sites, just as insulting, stupid Christians are banned from atheist sites (though not as much, because atheists love to interact with dumb Christians: it confirms to them that they were right in rejecting Christianity — baby-bathwater stuff, but still . . .).

Atheists have a vested interest in thinking that Christianity is stupid and that Christians are imbeciles. And I’m the first to admit that Christians often have the same unsavory attitude towards atheists. Both are wrong, and I’ve always condemned both attitudes.

Satanic_Panic Dave hates stridency.

Dave loves true dialogue and is utterly contemptuous of pseudo-dialogue, talking past each other, and the despising of free and open, mutually respectful and amiable, truth-seeking exchanges.

He seems not to understand the basic structure, pattern, and orientation of thoughts behind the process of moving from one worldview to the other. He seems to expect that it would be a matter of :


1) Comparing one’s current worldview in total to a pre-established, competing worldview in total.
2) Determining that the latter is, in aggregate, superior to the former, in aggregate.
3) Abandoning the former in favor of the latter.

It’s less like moving from one house to another, and more like gradually building a new house out from the inside of your old house brick by brick, using a combination of old house parts and the fruits of 500 $40-or-less trips to Home Depot.

I agree with you that conversion processes are extraordinarily complex. I don’t question that aspect in my recent critiques, and confine myself mainly to the question of, “is the reasoning in these stories sufficient to compel one to abandon Christianity?” Since that is the realm of ideas only, and not experience and social milieu and Kuhnian transformations, and all the rest, I can do one thing without disagreeing with you on the complexity of conversion processes. I’ve been through them myself, so I know firsthand.

[he cites my words] “But since that is merely one fringe element of Christianity, it is irrelevant as to the truthfulness of larger Christianity, let alone atheism as a supposedly superior and more rational and cogent alternative worldview.”

What is it that made you think the deconverter was considering the truth of an entire alternative worldview at the time of deconversion? Is that something he/she said? Was this just intended to add emphasis to your point rather than communicate something about the deconverter?

It struck me as a very unusual thing to expect of a person going through a deconversion/conversion process.

He or she probably wasn’t. That’s the sad thing. I’m merely objecting to writing entire pieces about extreme, fundamentalist versions of Christianity (all three stories I have recently critiqued were of this same nature), and then implying again and again that these represented “Christianity” period. That’s the logical fallacy, and is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

What struck me is how they ditched that and then went right to atheism, as if there weren’t any alternative forms of Christianity that weren’t simple-minded, or abusive, or whatever. It seems to me that if someone is committed to Christianity in the first place, and finds that the brand they are in falls short, that they look for other better forms, before tossing the whole thing.

I can’t sit here as an apologist and let these stories go out uncritiqued, when they unfairly portray Christianity in such an unfavorable light, by equating it with its worst extremes.

It would be like me saying, “I rejected atheism because of Stalin and Mao.” You will certainly say, “hey! That’s not what atheism is about!”

Understood. In that respect, I think we’re basically on the same page.

Thanks for getting back to me and taking the time to explain :-)

Do you also question whether they had sufficient (intellectual) grounds to be Christians in the first place?

I often delve into the fact that most of these people (indeed most Christians, period), don’t study apologetics, so as to know why they believe what they believe. Lacking that, they are then left wide open to rational criticisms. Since they can’t explain their Christian beliefs upon the first bit of questioning from non-Christians, they can easily be dissuaded from them — especially in environments that are hostile. And so we see exactly that happening on college campuses.

This is a major reason why I am an apologist. I try to help Christians synthesize reason and faith, so they don’t get taken in by fallacious and insufficient reasoning and intellectually inferior alternative worldviews.

There might be some common characteristics of deconversion stories, but typically deconversion stories are personal. Their intent is not to apply to other people or religions or sects, and there’s not much sense in pretending they should.

I address that reply in my standard introductions, anticipating exactly what you bring up. If they are not intended to not apply to anyone else, why make them public at all? Why write one’s story for others to read?

I think they are quite obviously intended for moral support within the community and for preaching to the choir (at least in part). Atheists read ’em and they feel confirmed; feel good about themselves and their choices (precisely as Christians feel warm all over when they read Christian testimonies and conversion stories).

Both sets of conversion stories seem to fill the same social function in each social group. As an old sociology major, I readily observe that.

I think that the criticism you’re launching at these personal stories would be considered a personal attack if done in a similar way in the comment section of your own blog, and thus be worthy of banning under your own rules.

Through your own logic, it’s unnecessary and rude, and the only people likely to be convinced by you are people in your own cheering section.

There’s nothing whatever wrong with it. It is a public, respectful critique of public material that directly takes on a major world religion, of which I am an apologist.

The only objection to it would be from a postmodernist subjective (virtually relativist) viewpoint, whereby no one is allowed to criticize anyone else’s views at all because that is fallaciously thought to be a “personal attack.”

A person is not his or her views.

If I had a talking point and it was disputed. I would want to know how unsound my thinking was. It would be a weakness if I was unwilling to consider counter points.
This is precisely why I am critiquing the deconversion stories: to show that there are critiques to be made and weaknesses to be pointed out. I should be thanked for offering such a service, per your reasoning. :-)


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