Typical Deconversion Story: False Dilemmas & Incoherence

Typical Deconversion Story: False Dilemmas & Incoherence March 28, 2019

I have long noted as regards deconversion stories from Christian to atheist, that, very often, these accounts of an exodus out of Christianity have the following characteristics:

1) an initial fundamentalist belief, which is thought to be the sum total of Christianity (as if there are no other more thoughtful and nuanced species of it).

2) rejection of various straw men, which do not represent the most informed versions of Christianity; “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

3) highlighting of terrible, hypocritical Christians, rather than the best examples.

4) acceptance of the notion that atheism is the only alternative to rejection of (what amounts to) straw men and lousy, inadequate versions of Christianity.

I have observed these motifs in these stories over and over and over, as I have critiqued a great number of them (word-search “Deconversion” on my Atheism web page). As long as atheists keep writing their stories, and implying that they can offer profound and supposedly solid, unanswerable reasons for leaving Christianity, we Christians (especially apologists like me) can just as easily critique them and show how and why the reasoning is fallacious and unsuccessful in establishing atheism or the falsity of Christianity.

Goose and gander. Yet, I often meet with great hostility when I do so (atheist author and “debater” John Loftus being the most outrageous and hilarious example): as if it were the rudest thing in the world and essentially improper and unethical to examine a public attack on Christianity.

I ran across a deconversion story by one Don R., on the Patheos website, Recovering from Religion: Ex-Communications. It is entitled, “My Escape from the Belly of the Beast” (9-24-18). It exhibits all of these typical traits. Don’s words will be in blue. I will go right to examples of fallacious thinking, false dilemmas, needless exaggerations and category mistakes, false dichotomies, factual error, etc.

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[W]e were brought up in a very strict fundamental Christian household.

As so very often in these stories . . . Fundamentalism is a small minority and fringe portion of evangelical Protestantism, which is one portion of Protestant Christianity, which is  itself a minority of all Christians. Thus, to reject fundamentalism is not at all to reject all of Christianity (not even all of evangelicalism or Protestantism).

It is a rejection of what is in many respects the very worst and insubstantial and least intellectually respectable form of Christianity. Yet we’ll see that Don never seriously considers any other form of Christianity before departing. Those of us who never grew up as fundamentalists never cease to marvel at these sorts of “tunnel vision” dynamics.

You see, our father was a pedophile and was molesting my sister and I for years. Our stepmother had very little use for us, . . . 

I am very sorry to hear about this tragic situation. But this is the motif of the “lousy, hypocritical” Christians: often (in these stories) subtly implying that a huge number or even a majority or most Christians are this way (not just pedophilia, but any serious sin), which is not true. Christianity has its “bad apples” just like any large social group does.

But it’s not fair to judge a religion based on its worst practitioners, or in some cases: literal “wolves in sheep’s clothing”: folks who never were Christians at all and only claimed to be (the ones that Jesus condemned because they say “Lord, Lord” but refuse to do what He commands them to do).

Our stepmother remained very religious (to this day she is fanatical in her beliefs) . . . 

Again, if this is true fanaticism, rather than what Don thinks is fanatical simply because it is Christian, then it is an example of the extremes of Christianity. In other words, to reject true fanaticism is to reject a distortion and corruption of Christianity (which I have always done, myself), rather than the thing itself.

From early teens to mid-twenties, I still held a belief in god, but I just didn’t want to be around any of his people.

One can see why. If he had actually met some good, loving, Christlike Christians, then things might very well have been much different, right? If the terrible Christians drive one away, then it stands to reason that good examples of Christians would draw one in. Don does talk about his increasing church involvement as being “rewarding and fulfilling” and states that he “really loved the feeling of community.” So he must have found some (good) Christians that he enjoyed being around. Glad to hear it!

When people would come to me with their hard questions, I would share my process with them and help them come to “correct” answers, always based on the infallibility of the bible and the pure goodness of god. And every time I did that, there was a little voice saying “that doesn’t make sense”, which I ignored… because it felt so good to know that I was helping people be stronger in their faith.

This is rather subjective. We could simply reply that he wasn’t very good at apologetics and didn’t provide (or find in research) the best answer that could be given; therefore, he felt a nagging doubt. It doesn’t prove that there were no solid, plausible answers to be had.

I remember when I realized that even the people I believed were fully dedicated to god had their own doubts. 

Everyone has doubts and befuddlement about various doctrines and beliefs: whether concerning Christianity or anything else. The question is whether they add up to outright unbelief, or are simply areas that require further thought and study.

Eddie (not his real name) was every bit as passionate about god as I was, and we had many nights of great discussions. I knew that he was fully committed and sought god with all his heart. So, when I found out that he believed in theistic evolution (the theory that god used evolution to create the earth), I was stunned.

Why? There have been Christians who were theistic evolutionists right from the beginning of Darwin’s theory in 1859; for example, the botanist Asa Gray. Darwin wrote to Gray in 1881, “there is hardly any one in the world whose approbation I value more highly than I do yours.” Darwin conceded to Gray that his theories were “not at all necessarily atheistical.” This was also the position of Darwin’s good friend Thomas Henry Huxley: himself an agnostic, but without insisting that the only form of evolutionism must be materialistic (i.e., atheistic). Darwin, after all, had developed his theory while he was still a Christian or at least theist. That is beyond question.

You see, I believed in a literal interpretation of the bible, and to hear that someone who was as fully devoted as I was could believe in evolution was really difficult.

Exactly. This is fundamentalism. But an informed, educated approach to the Bible understands that the Bible has many literary genres and modes of expression, and is not always to be taken literally (though many times it is). To hold that it must always be interpreted literally is simply “Bible ignorance.”

I had just assumed that god made everything clear to those who diligently sought him, so how could we believe two very different things about the creation of the world?

They could and did because Christianity has enough latitude to  allow different views on the particulars of scientific matters. The Bible isn;t a scientific textbook. Good, orthodox Christians believed that the creation story was not necessarily literal (literally, six 24-hour days) at least as far back as St. Augustine (354-430).

This was the first of several times that my beliefs were shaken by things like this.

There was no need for such a crisis at all, if he had simply realized that he was in a fundamentalist fish tank and couldn’t imagine any other Christian paradigm. So because of that he gets “shaken” and this is included in his story of why he eventually forsook Christianity. It’s not an adequate reason at all.

Earlier in his story he noted how “Many evenings I would read Christian authors and study apologetics. I had 2 large bookcases filled with religious books and had read every page.” So we’re to believe that he had never encountered a good Christian or Christian book who believed (or which explained) that God used evolution as His method of creation? That’s hard to believe. What: did he only read fundamentalist apologetics?

There would be two writers that I deeply respected who held opposite beliefs on the role of women in the church. There were very different views on the “once saved always saved” or can you lose your salvation issue.

Yes, Christians differ on many issues. But disagreement doesn’t prove that no one got it right, or that there is no one correct position. If, for example, one person believes that the earth is flat and a second believes it is shaped like an egg, this doesn’t disprove that it is actually a sphere. All it proves (by strict logic) is that they can’t both be right. But they may both be wrong, with the actual truth found elsewhere.

But we can say concerning the “losing salvation” issue, that the vast majority of Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, many Arminian denominations, pentecostals, a good proportion of Baptists, etc.), have believed that one can lose salvation or fall from grace or the Christian faith.  It’s mostly Calvinists / Presbyterians and fundamentalists who disagree.

On most issues we can look to determine whether a large majority of the sum of all Christians accepts a thing, while a much smaller minority does not. And that should tell us something. But internal Christian disagreement is no compelling reason to become an atheist. All it proves is that Christians disagree and often are shortsighted (and too often, plain stupid), just as any group of people do.

Science is largely the same as theology in this “sociological” respect. Fifty years ago, things like the Big Bang Theory or plate tectonics were not as firmly established as they are today, with the vast majority of scientists agreeing. Some still disagree, but the likelihood or plausibility is that a view taken by almost all scientists will turn out to be the actual fact of the matter.

But I couldn’t understand why the deeply faithful would come to opposite decisions about the biggies. . . . I just couldn’t ever fathom why there would be such discord among the “true believers”.

For the same reason that scientists and philosophers have massive disagreements amongst themselves, and especially through time: over hundreds of years. There can be many reasons (good and bad) for why folks disagree with and contradict each other. But to add these up and conclude, “I reject the entire system as rubbish” is quite a jump and a stretch, and exceedingly difficult on an epistemological level.

One week, he began a 4 part series on the story of Noah and the flood. He came at it from a totally different perspective than I had ever heard or thought of before, and I was enthralled. On the 4th Sunday, he mentioned that there were different interpretations of the story within the church, and he brought up the fact that the flood story actually appeared in earlier writings that were not biblical at all. I was stunned. Could it be true that the bible borrowed the flood story from earlier secular writings (hint: Epic of Gilgamesh)? It was just a fable?

Huh? The reasoning here is very convoluted. How is it that simply because another culture also had a story of a massive Flood, therefore, somehow it becomes a “fable”? Isn’t it much more likely and plausible that an event of such shattering magnitude would be recorded by someone besides the Hebrews? Therefore, the mere presence of a similar story elsewhere is no disproof of the biblical account at all.

Pagan or heathen parallels or precursors do not necessarily “disprove” the biblical account. Thus, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) notes how such parallel stories of the Flood, confirm, rather than disconfirm, the historicity and trustworthiness of the Bible:

The historicity of the Biblical Flood account is confirmed by the tradition existing in all places and at all times as to the occurrence of a similar catastrophe. F. von Schwarz . . .  enumerates sixty-three such Flood stories which are in his opinion independent of the Biblical account. R. Andree . . .  discusses eighty-eight different Flood stories, and considers sixty-two of them as independent of the Chaldee and Hebrew tradition. Moreover, these stories extend through all the races of the earth excepting the African; these are excepted, not because it is certain that they do not possess any Flood traditions, but because their traditions have not as yet been sufficiently investigated. Lenormant pronounces the Flood story as the most universal tradition in the history of primitive man, and Franz Delitzsch was of opinion that we might as well consider the history of Alexander the Great a myth, as to call the Flood tradition a fable. It would, indeed, be a greater miracle than that of the Deluge itself, if the various and different conditions surrounding the several nations of the earth had produced among them a tradition substantially identical. Opposite causes would have produced the same effect.

I was deeply shaken to realize that the bible was not the historically accurate document I was always told and completely believed it was.

I don’t know why. It certainly wasn’t because of the above things mentioned, because that conclusion simply doesn’t follow.

How much was allegory? How much was literal? How much was parable? How could you tell which was which?

Obviously by searching related cross-references, studying biblical commentaries, and especially by researching biblical genre, literary types, the nature of different books (Psalms and Proverbs are poetry, etc.), and ancient near eastern culture and ways of thinking. Apparently, it never occurred to Don to do that (tons of books about these things) — otherwise he wouldn’t have asked this rhetorical question — , and this is usually the case in a fundamentalist paradigm.

Is god a god of confusion?

No, but human beings often bring about confusion by ignorance, stubbornness, pride, self-interest, etc. So we wind up with lots of disagreements. Catholicism offers one self-consistent, historically continuous view of Christianity, which is why I am a Catholic. No form of Protestantism possesses these traits.

I began to look for what set Christianity apart from all the other false religions in the world. I knew that they all had holy books, and the bible was very suspect at this point, so that wasn’t it. 

Again, nothing presented in this account proves that the Bible isn’t what it claims to be.

There were several times in my life where I KNEW that god had spoken to me. Times of deep struggle and fear that he had comforted me. Surely that must be unique to the Christian religion. Nope. People all over the world had their own profound experiences that proved their god to them. 

Why must Christian religious experience be unique? The Apostle Paul Romans 2 teaches that people can possibly be saved, who have never even heard the Christian message. Jesus talked to a pagan Roman centurion and concluded that He had rarely seen such faith in Israel. So this man had religious faith, yet wasn’t an observant Jew. Truth is truth, and God can reach men in many different ways, including religious experiences.

It’s simply silly and shallow thought, to think that because non-Christians have also had spiritual experiences, therefore our own personal spiritual experiences that we “KNEW” actually happened, somehow get nullified as pipe dreams and self-delusion. That doesn’t follow. It’s lousy “reasoning.”

Nor does atheism at all follow from this: “lots of people have had spiritual experiences; therefore there is no God”? What?! How does that follow? I must confess to being mystified as to how that “logical chain” works. If atheists think it does, then they must explain it to me.

I begged god for some kind of sign that he was real, and I really expected him to answer, because he would know that my very faith was at stake. Nothing…

Very often, God will not comply with such a request, because He knows it is a cop-out: “show me some huge miraculous sign to prove that you exist!” People know enough to believe God exists, simply by looking at His creation (as it states in Romans 1).

I had to learn I was not the complete piece of trash that my religion had taught me I was . . . 

That’s what fundamentalists and Calvinists believe (total depravity and a completely fallen, corrupt human nature), but not what the vast majority of Christians have believed (fallen, subject to concupiscence, but still capable of good and freely receiving God’s grace). So once again, Don rejected a straw man that only a tiny number of Christians believe.

If he truly wants to see a worldview that results in human “trash,” he has to look at hundreds of millions of aborted babies: killed by Christians who no longer follow the historic teachings of their own group, secularists, atheists, and all who have started to believe that an innocent, helpless human being can be utterly worthless, so as to be torn to shreds and murdered (all the way up to full term at nine months, and now even after birth) for the “sin” of existing because of someone else’s actions.

That is acomplete piece of trash”: not the biblical and Christian teaching on original sin, as taught by the great majority of Christians.

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Photo credit: ||read|| (5-28-09) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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