Thursday, July 10, 2008

King Heathen's Call to the Deconverted

I am ashamed to admit this but recently I have become addicted to You Tube. And a few days ago I got the idea to search that video library for testimonies of people that have left the Christian faith. I found one video posted by a young man calling himself "King Heathen" who was calling for deconversion stories. I then started watching some of those.

There were a few general trends that I saw in the first dozen or so (these were the only ones I watched of 92 videos). Every person is different, of course, but generally the reasons for deconversion fell into one, or more, of the following categories (perhaps among others):

1. I had a bad experience with the people from my church.
2. I read the Bible.
3. I had some questions that nobody would (or could?) answer so then I decided, eventually, there were no answers so it, religion, must be false.
4. Belief in God is analogous to belief in Santa Claus. We outgrow the latter and we ought to, in turn, outgrow the former as well.
5. I did not know there was anything else to believe. What about them in this life? What about them in the afterlife?

Before addressing these concerns I must say that for some of the people, their deconversion was apparently a fairly traumatic experience. I in no way intend my thoughts on the above reasons to be attacking them individually or collectively. My heart goes out to anybody suffering emotional pain. There is one woman in particular, from the You Tube videos, that I feel especial concern for. Furthermore, I take the struggle with doubt very seriously. I myself have struggled with, and sometimes still do, struggle with doubts. It seems to me to be a good thing to reflect upon the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of one's faith but that can be a stressful exercise to go through. I know from personal experience how hard struggling with doubt and critical examination of one's own faith can be. I therefore do not wish to belittle or make fun of anybody else that has shared in either or both of these trials.

Let us begin, now, an analysis of the videos from my own personal perspective. The five reasons listed above were the main reasons and, I must say, I find them very unpersuasive reasons (except perhaps psychologically persuasive on the subjective level of each individual exreligionist). Let us look at these reasons one by one.

1. Sometimes professing Christians do not act as they should. To say that that fact makes Christian doctrine false does not logically follow in any way. This is a common fallacy of logical reasoning. Namely, the genetic fallacy and/or the ad hominem fallacy. The inference that Christianity is false on this basis is, in a word, a non sequitur.

2. The idea here is that supposedly the Bible is riddled with contradictory material or obviously false stories. I have been studying the Bible for years and came to the opposite conclusion. A common example given was that Genesis teaches there was no evolution and science contradicts that. However, when one reads Genesis one nowhere sees an explicit denial of evolution. There are two places that one might construe as an implicit denial but I see no reason to so construe them. The first place (actually several places) is where the Bible speaks of God creating biological life. But nothing could be more obvious that the method of His creating may have been, for all Genesis says, through biological evolution. But, you may object, He is said to create from the dust of the earth. Isn't that exactly the same thing that is said to have happened with chemical evolution (which is thought to have started biological evolutionary processes, I understand)? The second place is when the various creatures are said to reproduce after their kinds. Ask an evolutionary biologist, "do cats give birth to cats, dogs to dogs, and so on?" What do you think s/he will tell you? He will say, "of course!" And this is neither more nor less than what we read in a certain part of Genesis.

You see, there is a real problem that the beginning Bible reader does not seem to be aware of. Ignoring this problem leads to charges of biblical contradictions ad infinitum. However, once the problem is recognised, and taken seriously, the alleged contradictions tend to evaporate. The problem is that the interpretation of the Bible is a complex science. I am not trying to say that only enlightened proponents of orthodoxy such as my self may understand it correctly. Please do not accuse me of special pleading. The Bible is not unique in this. The Koran (which I reject as being a revelation of God) also holds special problems with respect to hermeneutics. As do the writings of Aristotle, Herodotus, and any number of books. The Bible was written over a long period of time by many different people. This fact alone presents special hermeneutical problems. It was written in three different languages, none of which are English, which fact presents further problems. It was addressed to cultures vastly different from our own which further complicates the issue. I am not saying that it is impossible to correctly understand the Bible or that all the experts agree on the interpretation. Rather, I am trying to say that if a twelve year old (as many of the deconverted I saw on You Tube seemed to be when they started reading the Bible for themselves), who is new to the Bible, starts reading it we should not be surprised if s/he immediately has no resolution for all apparent conflicts. How many 12 year olds do you know that have a detailed understanding of ancient near eastern history, language, etc?

3. This seemed to be by far the most common reason unfortunately. I say it is unfortunate because there are good answers to the good questions people ask of Christianity. I can remember in my own life when I was in the upper grades of high school struggling with doubts. I would go to pastor after pastor, and mature Christian mentor after mature Christian mentor, and it became very frustrating. There common method of dealing with my doubts was to pray. I am a firm believer in the power of prayer and I do not deny that it helped me in this case too. However, why didn't they give me, in addition to prayer support, the wealth of very good philosophical and other arguments that Christian apologists have for the faith? People have been questioning and attacking Christianity from day one and many intelligent believers have been developing good arguments against the arguments of the "cultured despisers" and in favor of Christianity. The fact that good people suffer did not suddenly fall in Bart Ehrman's lap only recently. No, Christians and everybody else have always had to deal with the problem of evil in some way or other. Christians have had 2000 years to deal with it and there are good answers to this good question. A partial answer is that God cannot prevent us from doing evil things to each other without taking away our freedom. I don't know about you but I do not like the idea of being a robot. I enjoy my freedom. A lot more could be said but let us move on to the next item.

4. This is an objection one runs into not infrequently though I am not sure why. I mean, it is a blatant false use of analogy. I see nothing remotely similar in the two things being matched together. In some cases we start believing in Santa because our parents tell us he is real then stop believing in him because our parents tell us that. We know, as parents, that we are just playing a game with our children (though they don't know it is a game until they become older) when we tell them about Santa. I do not think there are any sane adults who believe there really is a Santa. The only reason anybody would believe in Santa is because they are a child and were taught about him by adults. As soon as the children are out of the room or to bed for the night the self-same adults look at one another and say, "oh yes, Santa is real. You know what I mean. Wink wink. Nudge nudge. No what I mean." On the other hand, many of the smartest people throughout history have believed in God. Socrates,Plato, and Aristotle define ancient philosophy. They all believed in God. Most of the Church Fathers used philosophy to defend their faith in God. One common argument for acceptance of Christians in Rome (to not become lion food, say) was that the Christians, like the pagan Romans, also believed in a God. Aquinas who defined philosophy in the middle ages attempted to prove God's existence (and succeeded?). Today, the president of the American Philosophical Association is an evangelical Christian. He certainly believes in God. He has given over two dozen arguments for the existence of God from philosophy. Antony Flew was an atheist but converted to deism on the basis of the new school teleological argument. Alister McGrath is a professor of historical theology at Oxford University. He converted from atheism to Christianity on the basis of argumentation. Are there any philosophical argument for the existence of Santa. The best I can think of is, "he is a logically possible being so it may be the case that he exists though we have no good reason to suppose he actually does." Again, there is no analogy whatsoever between Santa and God or at best only a ridiculously weak analogy.

5. When we are young I suppose it is only natural to think that everyone believes whatever our parents tell us is true. As we get older we do learn about other perspectives. How do we know we have the right view? Perhaps, we may not know that, immediately, but I think it is too radical to say that because there are many views, none of them are true. This is the case whether the view under consideration is with respect to religion or otherwise. They cannot all be right but one of them just might happen to be. I have found Christianity to be that. I was not raised in what could be called a Christian home, either. But you don't have to take my word for it. There is plenty of good evidence that you can examine for yourself if you have not already done so. At any rate, what about these other faiths? Are they wrong? Well, according to the law of non-contradiction they cannot all be right since they contradict each other. While only one, at most, may be right, that is not to say that the others are all totally wrong in every aspect. As a Christian I believe that Christ is the only way to Heaven. I have to admit, therefore, that a Jehovah's Witness, say, will go to Hell when they die because they do not have Jesus (not the biblical Jesus anyway). Is this fair? We all deserve Hell but God has gracefully granted us a way of escaping what we deserve. His name is Jesus Christ. If one rejects that way of escape it is one's own fault, not the fault of God. As I just said, it is what we deserve, therefore it is eminently fair. Is it good? No. God Himself has said in the Bible that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He also says there that He is not willing that any person should perish. Like any loving human being, God does not want you to end up in Hell. He has gone out of His way to provide against that inevitability. He pleads with you and I plead with you to come to Christ today. There is no other escape. What about those who have never heard? What about those born into a different faith community from Christianity? I'd be more concerned about myself if I were you. Still, it is a legitimate question. I am not quite sure how to answer it yet though I shall continue to give it thought.

What are we to conclude from this examination? It seems to me that the people who deconverted, whose videos I just finished watching, may very well have been sincere in their faith prior to leaving it but I do not see were they had good reason to deconvert. I really don't. It may be that they were speaking in generalities, and that if they had got into specifics they would have had sufficient reason, but based on what they said in the videos, they were rationally unjustified, so far as I can tell, to deconvert. On the other side of the coin, one could perhaps say that they were also rationally unjustified in becoming religious in the first place. "My parents made me go and I thought everyone believed it," was the main reason. While there is a place for authoritarianism, though I hate to use the word, in Christian faith, I saw little, if any, rational justification for the religious belief explicated in the videos. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I think it goes without saying that if one begins their faith non-rationally then later obtains rational reasons for faith in the other direction-namely, atheism-it only stands to show deconversion would take place. At least that seems to be the case to my way of thinking. But all of this only serves to underscore the very very important need for good apologetics in the Church today. In reality, from an apologist's point of view, we have every good reason to believe, and no good reason to lack belief, or totally believe against, Christianity. I would much like to hear from people who posted one of those videos we've been analyzing or another person who has deconverted from a religion. Please let me know your takes on what I've said here.


kingheathen said...

This was brought to my attention recently. While I can appreciate your demeanor and approach, you completely missed the point of each and every position you tried to respond to. Not to mention your persistent appeal to authority and special pleading to go along with over simplification of the arguments.

You watched a few videos, almost all under 10 minutes of someone's LIFE STORY, and you think you can fully grasp their situation?

Again, I can appreciate the respectful tone you attempted to carry; but in the end, you displayed typical Christian arrogance. You didn't directly respond to any of the ACTUAL points and instead scratched the surface of only the most superficial parts leaving the real discussion untouched.

I also found it humorous that you included yourself in the realm of people with strong Biblical knowledge, but didn't understand why a book with genealogies that supposedly date the beginning of man to a mere 6000 years ago would contradiction evolutionary biology. Or how the description of a literal 6 day creation would do the same. Or how plants were created before our sun.

Perhaps, you should spend a bit more time reading the FULL counterarguments to your beliefs so that you avoid looking as though you were attempting a straw man argument. I do think you were sincere in your approach. You just didn't understand well enough. I hope the past year has helped you to understand why your summation of the deconversion stories was lacking. If not, I hope you will consider my response.

evangelical said...

kingheathen, thanks for your comment! A few thoughts in response.

First, appeal to authority is, in certain contexts, wholly appropriate. There is nothing wrong with that. I do not think I did any special pleading. If I over-simplified, I am sorry.

You are very right when you say that a 10 minus minutes video can't give a full account of somebodies entire life. However, when somebody explicitly states, "I used to be a Christian but not any more because there were hypocrits in my church," they are clearly using fallacious thinking. I was merely pointing out the non sequitur.

Next, there are many different ways to interpret Genesis. The interpretation you give is one of many. That intepretation does contradict the contemporary scientific account but there are other interpretations which do not. This is not re-reading the Bible in the light of modern science but letting the Bible speak for itself. For example, Augustine, long before Darwin came on the scene, said the text itself says something quite different from what Ken Ham (who obviously was not yet alive yet either) says it does.

Finally, it was not my intention to sound arrogant or prideful of my limited knowledge of the Bible. If I came off that way, I sincerely apologise. Again, thanks for responding (and being so cordial, in the process).