Cordial Dialogue with a Deconvert on Deconversion

Cordial Dialogue with a Deconvert on Deconversion October 7, 2019

Joe Omundson runs the website, Recovering from Religion: Ex-Communications. I found the article, “My Escape from the Belly of the Beast” (9-24-18) there, written by one Don R., and replied with my article, Typical Deconversion Story: False Dilemmas & Incoherence (3-28-19). Joe in turn offered comments on my article, underneath it. This is my response. His words will be in blue.

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Hi Joe,

Thanks for your eloquent and cordial reply. I really appreciate it.

I am the person who manages the blog where you pulled this story from. Just some thoughts for you:

Honestly, the impression I get from your critique is less that you disagree with Don, and more that you have deep disagreements with fundamentalism.

Yes, we all agree about fundamentalism (in its false aspects and particularly its notorious anti-intellectualism). Where I disagree is on making that essentially equivalent to Christianity per se, and then using it as a fallacious “excuse” to dismiss Christianity altogether and become an agnostic or atheist.

As an apologist, it is my duty and burden to note that this is an insufficient rationale and inadequate thinking. It proves nothing except that fundamentalism only has many flaws, and that the person who has rejected it, specifically, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

You are right that nearly all of the deconversion stories featured on ExCommunications are from people who have a history in fundamentalism. I have definitely noticed that people who are from more liberal sects do not tend to carry the same kind of religious trauma, or feel such animosity toward it after leaving, or have a great desire to share their stories.

Interesting observation, and thanks for the confirmation of a thing I have long noted.

And, personally, my issue is with fundamentalism more so than religion as a whole. I don’t really mind it if people have their personal fictions that help them get through life, 

Of course, we deny that it is a mere “fiction.” We would say that atheism provides that function. :-)

whether that’s Jesus, chakras, or Harry Potter. What I do mind is when young children are forced to believe it as absolute truth, when people want to impose their religious beliefs on the legal process, when non-believers are shunned and endangered.

I agree with you on all three points. No one should or can be forced to believe. Obviously, virtually all parents (of any stripe) raise young children in their preferred worldview, but when they are old enough to reason for themselves (Catholics regard this as “confirmation” age: about 12-14), it should be a voluntary thing.

As for law, it is inherently moral, and thus (I would argue) indirectly religious. We live in basically a secular country. What I believe in is religious freedom and toleration for all. Too often, Christian practice is prohibited or penalized in a way that I think is blatantly unconstitutional.

If you point out discrimination against atheists, I wholeheartedly agree with you that this is wrong, but go on to also point out many instances of discrimination against Christians as well.

There are a lot of little things I could reply to, but I don’t have all day, so I’ll focus on the biggest things that came to mind.

[me] 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.

I don’t think this is true at all. At least, it’s far from true in the USA (I have no idea where you’re from). A quick google search tells me that 24% of Americans believe that the bible is literally true, and that’s the lowest it’s been in the 40 year history of the poll. Belief in the literal truth of the Bible qualifies as fundamentalism to me. 

I’m from metro Detroit, Michigan. Results of polls greatly depend on how they are worded, and how people perceive them (and I majored in sociology, so I know a little bit about this). For the average person, “a literal Bible” doesn’t refer to fundamentalism, but simply to biblical inspiration / belief that the Bible is true, and God’s word.

To indicate fundamentalism, one would have to probe about things like young earth creationism, views on the relationship between reason and faith, culture and faith, and “legalistic” aspects like dancing, drinking, gambling, etc. (among other things).

The proper view of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics and exegesis), of course, is that the Bible ought to be interpreted literally, not always, but rather, when it was intended to be so, and interpreted otherwise when it is determined (through study of the Bible, ancient near eastern culture, etc., that we are dealing with a non-literal / poetic / symbolic / parabolic passage (of which there are many, in many different literary genres).

Combined with the information (from the same year) that roughly 75% of Americans identify with a Christian faith of some sort, we see that about 1/3 of all Christians in the states are fundamentalists. 

Even if one accepts this figure (I don’t), that’s still a minority, isn’t it?, and not representative of Christianity as a whole: which is precisely my point. Thanks for verifying it.

Since they are also the most vocal about their views, Christianity-related discussions are going to be centered on fundamentalism more often than not.

This I do agree with. Fundamentalists are often very vocal. But we must distinguish also between them and evangelicals (my old group). Billy Graham, for example, was an evangelical, not a fundamentalist, and in fact, the later group often despised him as a supposed theological liberal.

You’re making it sound like fundamentalism is some tiny, crazy, insignificant little cult, and people are unfairly associating that with “legitimate” Christianity. But here in the US (and especially the Bible Belt) it is quite a dominant form of the religion. And it hurts a lot of people. It’s worth fighting against.

Well, I stated exactly what I stated, which you cited: “small minority and fringe portion of evangelical Protestantism, which is one portion of Protestant Christianity, which is itself a minority of all Christians.” It is certainly unfair and inaccurate to equate it with Christianity as a whole, regardless of how prevalent or proportionate it actually is.

It’s only one form of Christianity and a sub-group of Protestantism (one of three major “branches” and by far the youngest of the three: having only begun in the 16th century rather than the first). Yes, it’s very prevalent in the South (believe me, I know, from traveling there and looking for a Mass to attend!). But the South is only one part of America, ain’t it?

So, I’m a little confused why you have a problem with stories like this one. Don is critiquing fundamentalism and so are you. You both don’t agree with it, and surely you can tell the kind of damage it does to people, so why not view it as a positive thing when stories like this are posted? I understand that you want people to remain open to less literal interpretations of the Bible and Christianity. But are you so worried about liberal Christianity being lumped in with it, that you’d rather not have people discredit fundamentalism at all?

I have no problem with critiquing the errors of fundamentalism, or any other theological errors that may be found. I did so myself, as an evangelical Protestant, and continue to do so. I correct errors of reactionary Catholicism, which is sort of our equivalent of fundamentalism (far “right” Catholicism). There are even a few Catholic geocentrists and young-earthers.

You are missing the point. We agree that some things are false, even from our diverse worldviews. I am interested in “debunking” these deconversion stories only insofar as they are seeking to bash and discredit Christianity altogether; functioning basically as apologias for atheism or agnosticism.

There is no question that they (at least in part) serve that purpose. They exist so as to encourage former Christians and to confirm them in their apostasy (make them feel less alone and culturally and socially isolated). That’s not just my Christian opinion. It is your clearly expressed viewpoint, as expressed on your blog “About” page: (presumably written by yourself):

RfR is an organization dedicated to helping people navigate the path out of religion. RfR is dedicated to helping people as they reconsider their faith and journey beyond religion.

If you are one of the millions of people who have determined that religion no longer has a place in your life, this may be the right spot for you. Many people love the social support they get from religion, but can’t deal with all the illogical ideas they are required to espouse. It can be difficult to leave a religion because family and culture put so much pressure on us to stay and pretend to believe.

If this is you, we want to help you find your way out.

I see nothing about “fundamentalism” here. What I see is an antipathy to “religion” (not even confined to Christianity in this statement). You want folks to get “beyond” it and its “illogical ideas”. You can’t have it both ways. The very name of your website is “Recovering from Religion” — not “Recovering from Fundamentalism”.

So I come along — the Christian apologist — turn the tables, and show that any given deconversion story (including one I found on your site) does not in fact provide a plausible rationale for rejecting Christianity. At best, the typical one (from the ubiquitous former fundamentalist) shows how fundamentalism is unworthy of belief. But that’s like saying that a rejection of the Detroit Lions is a rejection of the NFL or football, period.

Your blog has articles with titles like the following:

My Pastor Made Me an Atheist

Religion Holds the Mind Ransom to Irrational Beliefs

The Sky without God: Ditching the Baggage of Belief

The “agenda” is anti-Christian, not just anti-fundamentalist. So why are you now making out that it’s only or primarily the latter? This ain’t rocket science. And I’ve been around the block a few times.

You mention sometimes that the explanations given by Don (and other ex-Christians) don’t prove that Christianity is false or atheism is right. I think that’s to be expected, because it isn’t the main point of telling a deconversion story. It’s a personal experience. It’s just saying, “here’s what I went through and why I don’t believe anymore”; it isn’t saying “I can prove that I am 100% right and you should agree with me”.

I understand that, but (note very closely) it is posted in a social setting where the overall thrust and goal is to discredit Christianity. This is patently obvious. Such stories provide the backdrop and framework for those who are struggling or on the fence or doubting as Christians, to start thinking in a different way, because “we are what we eat.”

If a person hangs around atheists and agnostics and not (or less and less so) thoughtful, educated Christians, then he or she will tend to become agnostics or atheists. It’s human nature, as we are social creatures, and crave to belong to a group of like-minded individuals. But what needs to be critiqued are the underlying premises (which is where I come in, especially as a Socratic)

The deconversion story serves precisely the same “exhorting” or “confirming” function in atheist circles that the Christian testimony (we used to jokingly refer to them as “testiphonies”) does in Christian circles. We hear those (in either camp) and think, “hey, I’m not the only one who thinks and feels like that!”).

You want folks to desert Christianity (think they will be far better off), just as we want folks to leave what we regard as the “bondage” of atheism or drug or sex addiction or nihilism or whatever the case may be: things that are making them miserable and unfulfilled. You offer a “better way” precisely as we Christians offer that. Is this not patently obvious?

The primary audience of ExCommunications is not Christian apologists. The goal isn’t to provide some comprehensive logical thesis in order to persuade people like you to change your mind (there are already a lot of blogs and books and podcasts, etc., that do exactly this). The main audience of ExCommunications and Recovering from Religion is people who are going through deconversion themselves, who are looking for community, solidarity, and a sense that they’re not alone in the pain they feel. While you might read this story and find it unconvincing, a lot of people can relate to the experiences/feelings/thought processes involved here.

Exactly! I am answering as I read, so I almost precisely anticipated in my last paragraph, what you state here. This doesn’t overcome my overall point of view (or the reason I offered a critique) in the least: not one bit. The deconversion story remains one piece in the overall atheist agenda (especially in online sites like yours) to undermine and discredit Christianity as untrue and harmful.

Thus, it makes perfect sense for  the defender of Christianity to point out what we believe are the inadequacies and glaring logical and factual shortcomings of any given such story. Why should this surprise you?

Finally, I just have one more thing I want to ask. This is more of a personal curiosity rather than a response to this story, and I hope you will not find it offensive,

Not at all . . . Good questions, and I appreciate you asking them, but unfortunately it is a “large and lumpy” / huge topic, along the lines of “why do you love your wife?” My 35th anniversary was yesterday and I am very happily married. Believe me, I could write tens of thousands of words explaining why I love her so much.

but as an ex-fundamentalist it’s something I have struggled to understand. I’m wondering: what is the point of believing in a Christianity that is not literally true?

We believe it is true, or the true state of affairs. That’s different from a belief that everything is “literally” true in the Bible, which applies to types of language or literary genres — as if there is no such thing as valid non-literal truth or expression.

If the Bible is a fallible document which is not scientifically accurate or reliably true;

We believe — based on many many reasons — that it is infallible and inspired (literally, “God-breathed”) revelation, and true in what it aims to teach. It’s not a scientific treatise. It came from a pre-scientific culture (which even the ancient Greeks still were) and speaks in phenomenological terms.

Yet what it teaches is true, and it sometimes touches tangentially on scientific matters. So, for example, in reply to an atheist who was bashing the Bible as “anti-science” I showed that the principles of hygiene and proper sewage and disease control was present in the Bible in a remarkable way: that wasn’t equaled in modern science till the 19th century:

Seidensticker Folly #23: Atheist “Bible Science” Inanities, Pt. 2

See also the related paper:

Seidensticker Folly #21: Atheist “Bible Science” Absurdities

Now how could that be? I don’t know what your explanation is, but ours is that it is inspired revelation from God, Who knows all things (omniscience). That’s why these “scientific” truths contained in it are accurate.

if the Holy Spirit does not in fact unite believers and speak to them the truth… why trust any of it?

People act precisely as the Bible says they will: selfish and subject to original sin, concupiscence, and actual sin and temptation. These sins include pride and division, as one of the many besetting sins of mankind. Thus we see the division in Christianity, exactly as we would expect. But there are solid arguments to be made as to where the reliable truths of Christianity reside in their fullness, specially guided by the Holy Spirit.

I believe that is in Catholicism, and I have devoted my life to explaining why I think so, and to sharing that good news and that “pearl of great price.” Why? Well, you’d have to read many of my 2500+ online articles to see why I think so (see the many drop-down indices above). The only way I could summarize it briefly would be the following variant of how I described my view of the so-called philosophical “theistic proofs”:

My view remains what it has been for many years: nothing strictly / absolutely “proves” Christianity. But . . .

I think the belief, “Christianity is true” is exponentially more probable and plausible than atheism, based on the cumulative effect of a multitude of good and different types of (rational) arguments, and the utter implausibility, incoherence, irrationality, and unacceptable level of blind faith of alternatives.

I don’t really see the point.

The point is that God and Christianity has (at least for the more earnest and serious disciples among us, by God’s grace and mercy) transformed our lives, and given them the utmost purpose and meaning and fulfillment. We have been regenerated and redeemed by our Lord Jesus, Who is the God-Man; the incarnate God. I share this Good News with great joy as an evangelist. You and anyone else can partake in what I and many millions have found. But you have to repent and yield (ah, there’s the rub).

From the ages of 10-18 I was wrapped up in a vague “practical atheist / occult” outlook that gave me no meaning or purpose, and culminated in a hellish six-month serious clinical depression: an existential darkness and crisis. As I see it, that was the logical outcome or reduction of either atheism or a disinterested, apathetic and philosophically and personally unsatisfying agnosticism or religious nominalism. I was more or less consistent in that, and it ultimately led me to God, evangelicalism (1977), and Catholicism (1990), respectively.

Is it because I personally am not all that fascinated by mythological history, authoritarianism, tradition, fiction, unification of belief inside a community, etc.? What am I missing that makes it appealing to you?

Again, it would take tens of thousands of words to explain all that. Perhaps you might be interested in the early part of my 75-page conversion story (parts one and two), that delve into my early life and why and how I became a committed Christian at the age of 18. But (like your deconversion stories) I have no illusions that this is a full apologetic. It’s simply my own story.

My full body of apologetics provides the intellectual rationales for why I believe as I do and why I believe anyone can come to believe the same thing, with a high degree of self-consistent intellectual integrity and assurance.

Thanks for the discussion, and feel free to continue it, as you wish.

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Unfortunately, Money Trees Do Not Exist: If you have been aided in any way by my work, or think it is valuable and worthwhile, please strongly consider financially supporting it (even $10 / month — a mere 33 cents a day — would be very helpful). I have been a full-time Catholic apologist since Dec. 2001, and have been writing Christian apologetics since 1981 (see my Resume). My work has been proven (by God’s grace alone) to be fruitful, in terms of changing lives (see the tangible evidences from unsolicited “testimonies”). I have to pay my bills like all of you: and have a (homeschooling) wife and three children still at home to provide for, and a mortgage to pay.

My book royalties from three bestsellers in the field (published in 2003-2007) have been decreasing, as has my overall income, making it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.  I provide over 2500 free articles here, for the purpose of your edification and education, and have written 50 books. It’ll literally be a struggle to survive financially until Dec. 2020, when both my wife and I will start receiving Social Security. If you cannot contribute, I ask for your prayers. Thanks! See my information on how to donate (including 100% tax-deductible donations). It’s very simple to contribute to my apostolate via PayPal, if a tax deduction is not needed (my “business name” there is called “Catholic Used Book Service,” from my old bookselling days 17 or so years ago). May God abundantly bless you.

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Photo credit: roegger (12-2-14) “Light bulb implosion” [PixabayPixabay License]

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