Why do Christians De-Convert?

February 27, 2011

In the comments section of a recent post Judge asked a number of questions regarding Christianity, which I found to be interesting enough to merit individual posts. I will combine a number of them, but a few deserve individual attention. So then following question, Judge’s first, is one of those. He asks:

  1. How do you account for people brought up in Christian families/education who then willingly and freely turn away from the religion (without being pushed by terrible personal tragedies or some such)? (Mike at the A-Unicornist is an example we both know, of course). In your opinion, what needs and desires did these people have which Christianity failed to fulfill?

I will say at the outset this has been very difficult to write on this, partly because it was not my desire to attack anyone in answering Judge’s question and also because it was easy for there to be so much here that the topic could easily become unwieldy. Since Judge specifically references Mike at the A-Unicornist, and because Mike has written himself about his de-conversion and his story is similar to many converts to atheism, I will start there. I don’t plan to speak for him because I can’t; indeed I don’t need to because he has been fairly clear about the cause of his de-conversion. So I will merely cite his own reasons for de-converting then respond to those. As far as I can tell, these are the reasons Mike gives for surrendering his faith:

1. He de-converted because he didn’t think Christian claims were substantiated:

“I deconverted because when I finally undertook that critical inquiry, I came to believe that the claims and tenets of Christianity are unsubstantiated.”

2.Because Christianity couldn’t answer certain questions like “why are there so many religions?” too his satisfaction:

“My deconversion was a gradual and emotionally trying process of disillusionment. It began with a simple question: why are there so many religions?”

3. Because the answers of Christian apologists are inadequate and easy to dismiss:

(Citing a chapter by C.S. Lewis he read) “Lewis failed to demonstrate why a “sinful soul” was a valid explanation for human behavior – he just assumes that it is. And since we cannot prove or disprove whether we have souls, I did not need to disprove his argument – merely find another plausible alternative. And if that plausible alternative is scientific, well, a scientific explanation is always more parsimonious than a supernatural one.”

He has lots of other bits and pieces where he levels criticisms of Christianity, but over all these seem to capture the essence of his reasoning. I think it could be summed up by saying he de-converted because he didn’t find Christianity to be intellectually satisfying – that appears to be the only “need or desire” it failed to fulfill in his estimation. And I think is a fairly typical description of converts (typically young men) to New Atheism. They had Christian childhood experiences of some sort, and then as young adults they chose to reject those childhood beliefs and adopt an atheistic worldview, often justifying it by their perception that Christianity is unable to meet the intellectual standards of science.

My own experience was almost the opposite of Mike’s. I was raised by a free-thinking father and a mildly religious mother. As I have detailed elsewhere I was immersed in a very secular upbringing – from the earliest age I was not only taught about the natural history of life and the earth (such as it was at the time) I was encouraged to read about it and learn it for myself. My father died when I was still a kid and so I was actually quite independent at a young age – I experienced significant povety and became increasingly street smart. By the time I was the age Mike became a Christian, I was a full blown skeptical agnostic – and I was encouraged to be so by my teachers and peers. I openly mocked the religious who I saw as backward and intellectually inferior. By the time I got to the university to study biology I wasn’t only an agnostic and skeptic I was a Marxist and anti-authoritarian. Again, this didn’t hurt my college career; it advanced it since I shared a worldview with most of my professors.

Because I was brutally honest in my materialism I didn’t pretend that I could simply ‘generate’ meaning and morals and purpose for myself. I was never a good pretender; if I believed something to be true I wanted to live like it was true – and I believed anyone who said life had meaning or purpose or claimed to have some corner on morality was pretending, even if they were an atheist. Such beliefs simply don’t comport with my wholly naturalistic viewpoint – yet even atheists desperately cling to them. And yet I still acknowledged my desire for such meaning and purpose. Though I denied the existence of morality, I had standards I wanted to maintain and yet found myself failing to do so repeatedly. Nonetheless I was a happy person, though too reflective and realistic to think happiness was all that important.

As I got older, I started turning a skeptical eye on my own beliefs. Many of the peers who shared my beliefs turned out on closer inspection to be just rich kids rebelling against their parents instead of people who had intellectual motivations for rejecting weak dogmas. I noticed knowledge didn’t stop people from being arrogant or selfish or indifferent to human suffering, including myself. Science didn’t stop wars or violence or poverty- in fact sometimes it made them much worse. As a biology major, I had many opportunities to question up close those professors who were actively researching the issues I was dealing with – and soon found that the public confidence they had in their beliefs was much less certain when examined. I was discovering that human intellect and empirical knowledge alone was never going to meet our greatest needs. I started to become skeptical of skepticism. In a sense I left materialistic skepticism for the same reason Mike left Christianity – because it was intellectually unsupportable. That is where my faith begins, not as a blind accession to certain truths but with epistemic humility, the realization that our knowledge is limited. This limitation is a product of human nature – not only our physical limitations but our temporal limitations as well as the acknowledgement that our ability to understand is effected by our own inclinations, desires and biases. No person and source of knowledge is free from human weakness though it can be checked to some extent.

Interestingly, Mike seems to have made peace with that. He admits that science is provisional, and our knowledge of reality is limited, and always will be, as I have pointed out elsewhere:

We simply cannot know anything of absolute truth – it’s beyond our capacity as human beings. I, for one, take that as a good thing. It’s not scary to admit you don’t have it all figured out – that’s how you start growing.

The difference is Mike is confident that what he knows now (primarily through popular science books) is sufficient to be confident of a materialist worldview, though he will not actually defend such a worldview. And he has faith that scientific progress will certainly continue to support such a worldview despite the acknowledgement that knowledge is constantly being revised.

So in a sense he ends up back where he he claims he left, with unanswered and possibly unanswerable questions and a faith in a something he cannot see.

So that leads us back to why he would need to reject Christianity for scientism given that those intellectual limitations haven’t been alleviated? Again, I can’t speak for Mike, but I share with Pascal the conviction that men reject God because of their passions rather than their intellect. From his own testimony, Mike seems to have gotten involved in church as an emotional experience as a young teen. It wasn’t until later he actually considered it intellectually and ‘counted the cost’ of following Christ as it were. Again this was quite different from my own experience as a young man; I had already experienced what atheism had to offer by way of intellectual satisfaction and lifestyle choices. So it does not suprise me that he found it lacking – but I don’t think that is the only reason he left. Interestingly the fact that many would walk away from their faith is anticipated by Jesus Himself. He gave three reasons why people walk away from their faith:

1. Spiritual opposition.

2. Persecution.

3. The desire for material pleasures.Mark 4:13-20

These reasons comport with observations I have made with many interactions I have had with atheist converts. They never merely reject Christianity but they always reject Christian morality as well. It’s never a case where they persist in the lifestyle Christian beliefs require (sexual purity, self-control, self-sacrificial relationships, etc) and only reject its truth claims. And it isn’t necessary for this to be so; they themselves often argue that they are equally moral to Christians. And yet they invariably adopt lifestyles that are morally antagonistic to Christianity. I think it is no coincidence that atheist converts are mostly young men whose lives are most driven by their selfish passions, and who are most willing to subvert belief to desire. If Mike were someone who had persisted in Christian morality I could say this wasn’t the case but he is no different in this regard. The ‘need and desire’ Christianity doesn’t fulfill, and can’t, is the freedom to sleep around guilt free or live a lifestyle that is gratuitously selfish. And as much as these desires drive the choices of young men they provide a strong motivation for rejecting Christianity. I also note that a lot of these guys when they get older and marry and have children are much less antagonistic. They may not return to Christianity, but they certainly don’t see it as the enemy they did of their youth. This isn’t universally true but is often the case for men I see in committed long term relationships with healthy families.

In the end I can only speak from what I observe – but as the intellectual case for materialistic atheism seems to have uncontestable weaknesses and Christianity is more than rational in it’s understanding both of the natural world and as a foundation for human flourishing, I am inclined to conclude that rejection of Christianity is more often a product fulfilling one’s passions than it is of intellectual satisfaction.

Hope this response is helpful. I am sure it will generate discussion.


Friday Fun-ness

February 25, 2011

You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! At least on TV.


Civility On Display in Wisconsin

February 17, 2011

The Left-wing version:

I don’t think there is anything angrier in the world than a liberal forced to deal with fiscal reality.


Low Hanging Fruit – The Measure of Ignorance

February 16, 2011

 

The A-Unicornist comes back with a rejoinder of  sorts to this post. I thought this claim was revealing:

 “The reason scientific knowledge is provisional is because we know that there is a great deal about which we are ignorant.”

 Remind me again, how does one measure the depth of one’s ignorance?

 And how do believers in scientism know they are less ignorant than those who don’t adhere to scientism?

 I like to think Christians are simply ignorant of one less thing than atheists.


Observations

February 16, 2011

Jerry Coyne recently on the goals of New Atheism:

” And, when I say I want religion “eradicated,” this is what I mean: I want the young folk to realize that the superstitions of their elders are silly, and to cast them aside.  Like Darwinian evolution itself, atheism progresses not by conversion of individuals, but by change between generations.”

It is difficult to see how that statement differs significantly from a proclamation by an Imam that Sharia should be the law of the land.

Fundamentalism is hardly limited to the religious.


My Greatest Valentine Gift

February 14, 2011

I don’t write much about my personal life here, partly because that is not what this blog is about, and partly because I like to provide some buffer between my family, friends and work and the occasional crazy stalker I get here threatening me and those I care about.

 Nonetheless I am a bit of a romantic deep down and Valentine’s Day affords me an opportunity to express how blessed I am to have the wife I do. She doesn’t read this blog often because she doesn’t enjoy the verbal combativeness that happens here, but she occasionally stops by to see what I have been writing about.

 For over 16 years I have been married to a beautiful woman who has given me four bright and attractive children. She is perhaps the most honest person I know, a quality I appreciate more or less depending on what she is being honest about.

 She is practically compassionate – she not only cares about people in need but she is excellent at meeting needs whether it is a person without a home or who is suffering from an illness.

She is generous to a fault often suggesting creative ways we can help others, frequently noticing needs long before I have a clue.

 And though she is exceedingly practical and frugal, she regularly encourages me to pursue dreams and interests, and never holds it over my head when they don’t turn out according to my best laid plans.

 Our marriage is perhaps the greatest fruit I have of the faith we share; I am certain it wouldn’t exist apart from our mutual relationship with Christ.

I could go on about her, but suffice it to say she is always my greatest Valentine gift.


Atheist Contradictions – Pity the Poor Christian

February 11, 2011

One more post before I head out to snowmobile for the weekend.

Atheist Contradictions is a category I have for noting those claims by atheists that are inherently or obviously contradictory. In this case I am dealing with a post over at A-Unicornist (I am really not picking on Mike here – we have just had a few exchanges recently so I notice what he writes more) dealing with his loss of faith. Now I don’t know Mike personally so I can only deal with what he writes about himself, and quite frankly his personal experiences are his own (just as mine are); but he writes something here that I think from a logical perspective is inherently contradictory, so I wanted to deal with that.

In his post ‘Kickin’ it Old School’ he writes:

It’s strange now, because when I saw the genre label “Christian” on Jar of Clay’s [A Christian group he once listened to] MySpace page, I almost felt sorry for them. To be steeped in such ignorance, to believe in such vacuous myths – and worst of all, to have their very identities defined by them. I would never try to lure someone to atheism by promising them happiness – blissful ignorance and appeals to baser emotions are the calling cards of religious faith. Nonetheless, I’m far happier as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian. I have a thirst for knowledge and a love of science that only now can I see was hopelessly impaired when I had the “God goggles” on. My sense of morality and personal responsibility has deepened, my life has become more meaningful, and I’m far more appreciative of the short time I have here.

Most of all though, I feel intellectually liberated. I had spent a tremendous amount of energy conjuring up rationalizations to defend my faith, even from my own doubts. But I now know that no idea is sacred. The walls of knowledge we have exist only to be torn down and rebuilt over and over again. We simply cannot know anything of absolute truth – it’s beyond our capacity as human beings. I, for one, take that as a good thing. It’s not scary to admit you don’t have it all figured out – that’s how you start growing.

Did you catch the contradiction there? In saying, “We simply cannot know anything of absolute truth – it’s beyond our capacity as human beings. I, for one, take that as a good thing.” Mike is making an absolute truth claim – a direct contradiction to the claim that we cannot make know anything of absolute truth. At best he can claim our intellectual capabilities are much less capable than Christians suppose, but that is hardly ‘liberating’ intellectually.

But that is a rather simple and obvious philosophical flaw with his thinking. What I find more interesting is his expression of ‘feeling sorry’ for believers because of their presumed ignorance. Now given he doesn’t think we can actually know any truths with certainty, I am not sure what it is he thinks they are ignorant of. But beside the overt condescension of the statement Mike is actually making another logically incongruous statement; that believing the claims of Christianity are worthy of pity.

This is incongruous at the first because he has no basis for claiming that any belief is necessarily better or worse to have given his claim that we are unable to certainly establish the truth of any claim.

But I will go farther than that. Suppose that what Mike suspects (but cannot in his own words know) about the universe is true – that we exist not as the result of intent and design, but that we are here as the result of incidental events and processes. If that is the case, then what we believe about the origin of the universe is somewhat irrelevant. The result of Mike beliefs and the beliefs of Christians are ultimately exactly the same – they die and what they believed during life made no difference to their future state. Even if we assume as Mike does (though he cannot know for certain) that knowledge inevitably progresses then this simply means that our current scientific knowledge will appear to future generations as ignorant and ‘mythical’ as Christian beliefs do to Mike. On this score he is no more ‘fulfilled’ intellectually than a tribal shaman.

If we fully adopt the materialist paradigm then it is even unlikely that we actually choose what we believe because our brain merely acts according to inherent electro-chemical processes and environmental inputs, of which both religious and a-religious beliefs are merely a by-product. The concept of self and will are illusory, and Mike is as duped as the most ardent fundamentalist.

As well, given that materialistically there is no objective measure of good by which to evaluate ones choices then there is really no basis to state whether it is better to believe an illusion or believe that one cannot know the truth – because ‘better’ is a mere preference in this case. Indeed there may be benefits to such illusions, and so from a purely pragmatic perspective it may actually be ‘better’ to believe illusions. There is no law or command anywhere to say that we must always believe truth, much less provisional truth. In short, no basis to say which position is more to be pitied.

Of course as a Christian I believe not only that real truth exists but that we can know it sufficiently to act on it. I believe this in part because believing so is inherently logically consistent – as well as being consistent with the idea that some ideas are ‘better’ than others to accept. I don’t feel sorry for atheists because unlike Mike I think they are capable of making real choices based on the evidence provided, and they have done so – I don’t see them as deluded or pitiful, just wrong.

But of course that statement may be too logical for some.