How deconversion of true believers is like cataract removal

How deconversion of true believers is like cataract removal September 19, 2019

I am fascinated that when former believers describe their deconversion experiences, they often recall an almost literal sense of dense cataracts being surgically removed from their eyes.

religious deconversion atheism faith
Sign at 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. (Jennifer Boyle, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

I read about such a deconversion today in a first-person account by Luke Douglas — “From Young Earth Creationist to Full-Time Humanist” — in the latest edition of the American Humanist Association’s The Humanist magazine.

Douglas’ deconversion presumably traveled a much longer path than others’. He started out as a Bible-thumping, creationism-believing, Tea Party ideologue and ended up not only a member but executive director of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix (Arizona).

His reverse epiphany came when watching a TV debate on the scientific legitimacy of creationism between Bill Nye (of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” television program) and Ken Ham (the creationism popularizer who also built “The Ark” theme park in Kentucky with a “full-scale” replica of his vision of Noah’s ark in the Bible). Douglas even organized a debate-watch party at his college:

“[I] ordered pizza, and livestreamed the whole thing, excited to watch creationism rise to a new level of legitimacy in media and culture. And I watched Ken Ham, my childhood icon, get taken apart before my very eyes.”

The thing is, Douglas now admits, before the debate he hadn’t even thought about creationism since adolescence. He had just uncritically incorporated into all his thinking “the foundational truth claims of the Bible being an inerrant historical source and science textbook.”

Busy for years with Christian Right conservative advocacy and activism, he said, he had zero time left over “to revisit the underlying worldview.”

But when he did find time, his cataracts quickly evaporated, and he was stunned to come face to face with his own gaping ignorance about reality. However, he experienced this reversal as a clarion call — and this is both instructive and common among challenged faithful — not to gain provable knowledge about the cosmos and our small place in it, but to learn how to counter secular scientific arguments far better than Ham hadn’t.

Ironically, the moment that pushed him over the edge into atheism occurred the summer of 2016 at a Chic-fil-A in Texas, while he listened to subtle, insinuating Christian Musak tunes playing over the restaurant’s sound system and read a copy of medieval Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s book about the utterly remote God of deism. Tormented by religious doubt at the time, he was still hoping via Spinoza’s philosophy to “salvage the core” of his fast-fading faith.

Alas, it had the opposite effect.

“Spinoza’s God, indistinguishable from the universe itself, was exactly the validation I’d been looking for,” Douglas writes, “and when I found it, I realized it was completely meaningless. It made no sense compared to honesty.”

He went into the bathroom and “bawled my eyes out for an hour and a half,” painfully realizing the compelling logic of atheism.

“Everything that my old worldview had made clear to me about my place in the universe and the purpose of my life was gone,” he recalls.

Like an ex-smoker who gains 15 pounds by substituting food, Douglas replaced his purposefully jettisoned supernatural faith with a fulsom  new commitment to spreading humanist concepts.

Instead of endless souls to save, he now sees “a nation full of empty churches and former fundamentalists ready to take humanism to a scale that will change the world.”

Apparently, you can take Christians out of Christianity but you can’t necessarily take Christianity’s universalist impulses out of even ex-Christians.

At least with their cataracts of faith removed, though, the new heretics may see forever more clearly.

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