Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Convenience and Self-flattery of Apostasy

I suspect that the very existence apostates might be a bit of an inconvenience for Christians. Not all apostates obviously. Many fit the preferred narrative quite well. These are the folks raised in the church who "go astray" some time around adolescence. It's easy to pick on these folks because their departure often coincides with a time in their lives when they begin questioning the legitimacy of the authority figures around them and rebelling. This also happens to be a time when their hormones begin strongly leading them to engage in thoughts and behaviors that are deemed "immoral" by most Christians. They make easy targets for dismissal.

I'm sure many of these teens really do just want to cast off the shackles of moral standards and do as they please. But there are doubtless others that sincerely wrestle with and reject the faith they were raised in because they realize how intellectually untenable it is. Once their access to things like the Internet become unfettered and they begin having contact with divergent views, this process is likely accelerated. For many their rejection of Christianity is a combination of factors and not merely a simplistic desire to "fornicate with impunity."

Those that reject Christianity in college are typically saddled with much of the preceding perceptions of moral failing, with the added bonus of also having been exposed to that dastardly arch-nemesis of insecure conservative evangelicals across this land of ours. I'm referring, of course, to the godless liberal professor and his relentless desire to strip those innocent little lambs in his care of their belief in Jesus. Mwuhahahaha! If only they had been better prepared by their youth minister or perhaps gone to a religious institution where the professors sign statements of faith. But alas, they do not. Faced with such an onslaught and ill-equipped to deal with it, they cave.

These categories of apostates are fairly easy for Christians to incorporate into their existing narrative. They're used to them and they don't really present much of a problem. Their stories will still elicit a certain level of hand-wringing about how to better prepare youth to guard against these things, but when it happens, it's not much of a threat to the overall narrative. When you get beyond these instances, however, things get a bit more threatening because coming up with an explanation that fits the expectation is much more difficult. When it comes to explaining away grown adults with families and years of faithful service in the church, well, then you have to get creative...or just try to forget they exist.

Still, the excuse of moral and spiritual lapse is bound to persist. Take, for example this excerpt from a Q&A by professional apologist William Lane Craig:
“I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures.”
So, in spite of what we say, the real reason people leave Christianity is, of course, due to moral and spiritual failure. Finding the claims of Christianity to be simply no longer believable on intellectual grounds is just a convenient and self-flattering excuse. It's the same old song, just a different arrangement. Christians like Craig just can't seem to take apostates at their word because they don't particularly care for the idea that people really do leave the faith on the basis of intellectual honesty.

I find this notion of apostatizing for convenience quite humorous. I've poked fun at the idea that people become atheists simply because they don't want to be accountable to God before. The ridiculousness of this notion should be obvious. In our culture, it's simply far easier to believe that God thinks like I do than to admit lack of belief in God. After all, a god created in one's own image is far more convenient than no god at all.

Moral failure aside, the idea that I would use deconverting on intellectual grounds as a self-flattering excuse is similarly humorous to me. Craig doesn't seem to appreciate the almost daily experience of being reminded of some sort of batshit crazy thing I actually believed as a grown adult and just how humiliating that experience is. People who left the faith in their youth can blame it on indoctrination and not knowing any better. Like belief in Santa Claus, it eventually faded with time when they grew up and realized reality doesn't work that way.

People like me don't have this excuse. I mean, as my own Bizzaro-testimony shows, I was a grown, college-educated individual in my thirties and still believed in talking animals, giant floating arks, millions of people wandering the desert, etc. What's my excuse? I have none, other than the list of tricks our brains play on all of us. I have to admit I was basically delusional and that every time I thought I was speaking to the creator of the universe, I was really just talking to myself. That's not a source of pride, Dr Craig. It's a source of humiliation. It's probably why I'm sometimes uneasy around "forever atheists" who will mercilessly skewer some of the more ridiculous aspects of conservative Christianity on a daily basis. Far from being a source of self-flattery, this is a source of shame. Rest assured, when I make fun of this stuff it's with the full realization that I'm poking fun at things I used to sincerely believe.

Nearly every time I pick up the Bible and read a passage, I have to confront the reality that I read the thing multiple times and didn't manage to pick up on blatantly obvious things that should've raised all kinds of questions. These things were staring me in the face for years and even persisted after I had been armed with the tools of critical thinking. I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person, but few exercises remind me of just how gullible I can be like reading a Bible passage, considering its claims, and remembering that I used to believe it was the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of a deity. Furthermore, I often think about how if circumstances had been slightly different or if I had been smart enough to be able to embrace some sort of rationalization for the intellectual difficulties I was facing, I may well still be believing that nonsense. Indeed I must admit that, there, but for the grace of random chance go I.

Craig's accusations of convenience and self-flattery might work with college kids or high school age apostates. For people like me, however, the words "convenient" and "self-flattering" are hardly ones I would use to describe my deconversion experience. Believe me. It was neither. As for people like Dr. Craig, they can feel free to continue to ignore what I say about myself; they're going to anyway.

10 comments:

  1. As an apostate myself, I really appreciate your blog. I grew up in an extremely religious home and my father is a retired pastor. I wouldn't use convenient or self-flattering to describe my deconversion either. If anything, it is definitely not convenient as it makes family functions sometimes very trying as I try to keep my atheism under my hat in order to make sure those things go smoothly. I finally became comfortable with describing myself an atheist after the Newtown massacre and I heard some of the monstrous things being said in public by members of my former denomination. My eyes were finally opened to the preposterous failings of the Father/children analogy of the Christian mythology. I did more research on my once denomination's stances on major issues like slavery, science, and so forth, I was disgusted by the ignorance and moral cowardice. How could I accept the 'mystery of God's ways' defense when, if I behaved towards my children the way the Christian god behaves towards his children, I would be locked up and rightly treated like a monster? Dr. Craig might consider this some kind of self-flattery, that I'm patting myself on the back for being more moral than the Christian god, but I certainly don't feel that way. I certainly don't feel good about it, knowing that so many people I considered good when I believed are actually pretty horrible people. It's not self-flattering. It's frustrating to metaphorically have people come to your house and say that your exasperation at them for declaring that there's a real unicorn in my living room is because the unicorn has written itself on my heart and I'm upset because deep down I know this and I'm actively rebelling against this reality. No, it's just frustration because there IS NO UNICORN but I have to pretend like there is or I'm the bad guy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In WLC's quote, he is stating he believes moral and spiritual causes to be the "principle cause" behind apostasy. I think this leaves open the possibility for an intellectual cause. Though I will say that I'm finding this blog very interesting. My parents took me to church as a kid, but it was utilized as a social event. We never prayed, read the bible, or did any religious activities beyond once-a-week church attendance. I always liked going to eat the donuts. As I grew into adulthood, and after some shallow debating with a well-versed atheist friend, I watched what spiritual foundation I had crumble under the weight of intellectual thought and evidence. I could no longer keep faith and remain intellectually honest with myself.

    It's interesting though... apparently God wasn't done with me yet, as I later came back to faith after a protracted period of skeptical analysis of the bible. All the contradictions, scientific impossibilities, and moral entanglements that had prior precluded my belief, were systematically answered. Time after time I saw these things proved right, and my notions shown in error. At some point, I could no longer deny that there had to be an explanation.

    Faith has proven to be a very intellectual journey for me. It's interesting to see how your intellectual journey has led you away from it, but me toward it. How is that possible? Maybe that's just the way God planned it to be...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not sure how suggesting that moral and spiritual lapses are the causes of apostasy which are the main, primary, and first in order of importance meaningfully alters anything about what I said in response, especially since he dismisses intellectual doubt as a convenient and self-flattering excuse. I'm pointing out that in my case in particular it was neither. Frankly, I think for Craig to suggest this is convenient and self-flattering for him, but that's another story.

      I'm not entirely unfamiliar with stories similar to yours. As a matter of fact, I encountered one such person who was raised nominally Christian only to later abandon the faith in adolescence. By the time we met, he was a self-described agnostic. I used a bit of FRANgelism on him. After several lunch meetings and with the help of some Thomistic arguments I got him leaning toward theism. I followed that with a bit of evidentialist razzle dazzle to support the resurrection of Jesus Christ and viola! I had a bona fide convert under my belt.

      Last I heard he was involved in a Pentecostal church. Unfortunately he moved out of my social circles shortly after. With a surname that is even more popular than yours and ten years of separation I have no easy way to get in touch with him and tell him just how wrong I was.

      Here's the thing, though. I find your claim that "All the contradictions, scientific impossibilities, and moral entanglements that had prior precluded my belief, were systematically answered" to be very difficult to believe. All of them? Really? Are you sure you're not overstating things just a bit? I guess I'm just doing it wrong.

      And believe me, I know all about "intellectual faith." The way I practiced Christianity was hardly intellectually shallow. However, I am bit puzzled by your suggestion that the way God planned it to be was for you to think your way into whatever version of Christianity it is that you believe and for me to think my way out. If that's true, it seems rather unfortunate for my situation. It seems in that scenario I'd have been better off with a higher degree of intellectual impairment. If that's indeed the way God planned it to be, it sure sucks to be me.

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eric's edited comment at his request:
      My interpretation of his comment is that those who indeed leave the faith for moral or spiritual lapses may justify their leaving by claiming objection on intellectual grounds, rather than come to terms with the actual cause of their departure. This still would not preclude a departure with its impetus rooted in perceived intellectual objection.

      It is not surprising to me to hear that you could intellectually convert someone back into faith. I see this as indicative of the nature of the Will within a dualistic framework: namely, the mind and the will. The mind finds itself often in subjugation to the will (You DO know that cookie is not good for you, right? - pardon the banal example), but certainly the opposite can be true. Thus I would surmise that your friend may have had a moment of intellectual difficulty with his faith that you subsequently helped him overcome - but the essence of his being (the will) was foundationally unchanged. Christians would naturally conclude this person was already regenerate, but merely in a backslidden state. I realize this is wonderfully convenient for the Christian, and accept that a naturalistic materialism view would posit that the Will is merely a projection of the physical Mind. Thus from your perspective your friend was merely intellectually unsound (weak?) to accept your now-proclaimed faulty reasonings.

      I realize we have to be careful in discussions like these. They can quickly fall into platitudes and generalizations that skim the surface of the intellect without unearthing the roots of truth. In that way we play intellectual strawman and hurl insults and the like until we all grow so weary of the game. Such is the common progression that we must be on guard against. In that vein, let me recant my use of the phrase "All the contradictions..." as that certainly isn't the root of truth. Let me instead say that I experienced *many* of my "principle causes" of doubt in theistic belief as presented in the bible be satisfactorily answered. So many, in fact, that at some point my logical mind could only conclude that the belief was true.

      If a biblical worldview is true, then Providentially nothing is an accident. Within the limitations of human understanding, we all fall victim to the complexities of the butterfly effect. As you're certainly familiar, Christians call this the mystery of God. Mystery of God smacks of "god of the gaps" - a concept I steadfastly reject. It's more a marvel to me that God, in His power and intelligence, set our universe in motion with such precision that He need NOT supernaturally intervene into the present. That's not to say that He hasn't done so - I do believe that miracles happen. (Miracle being defined as a supernatural imposition from God upon reality.) But rather, we just are more likely to find a natural cause behind events. From my perspective, it's entirely possible that at some point you may come back to faith, and God is using this time merely as a stepping stone to a deeper knowledge and love for Him. Or, it may be that God will use your site to test or strengthen the faith of others. Or certainly, there could be any number of other cause-effect reverberations that I can’t now imagine. If instead, your view is correct - that God does not exist - then this is all of no consequence to you anyway. In order to claim "it sucks to be you", you'd need to sit in God's lap to slap His face - as Frank Turek once put it.

      To close (pardon the lengthy reply), the more I read your site, the more I feel a strong sense of irreverence - and dare I say bitterness - towards theism from you. Perhaps it is unavoidable... you are human after all! And if you have truly felt conned and tricked by theism, and Christianity specifically, then I can’t say I blame you too much. But I will say the more it comes out in your writings, the more difficult I find it to sift through your arguments without throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

      Delete
    2. This still would not preclude a departure with its impetus rooted in perceived intellectual objection.

      Right, perceived intellectual objection. That interpretation changes nothing about my response.

      Christians would naturally conclude this person was already regenerate, but merely in a backslidden state.

      I think you should speak for yourself ;-) Most of the Christians I know would typically assert that he was probably not regenerate prior to that time. “No True Christian” and all that. Your take is refreshingly novel. It admits that people who are raised with god-belief can later declare themselves atheists for whatever reason, but then “get saved,” with the understanding that those people never were really atheists after all. Usually it’s atheists if find trying to make that case.

      Thus from your perspective your friend was merely intellectually unsound (weak?) to accept your now-proclaimed faulty reasonings.

      Eh, I don’t know if I’d call him intellectually weak. He’s got a master’s degree. I do agree that I gave him the intellectual excuses he was looking for, though. I think at least a part of him wanted to be conned. I suspect he was drawn more by the relational, social and experiential aspects. That’s probably why he ended up in a Pentecostal church, despite my efforts to persuade him of the cessationist position.

      Let me instead say that I experienced *many* of my "principle causes" of doubt in theistic belief as presented in the bible be satisfactorily answered. So many, in fact, that at some point my logical mind could only conclude that the belief was true.

      I can accept that you reached a point in which you felt you had enough warrant for your belief.

      If a biblical worldview is true, then Providentially nothing is an accident.

      That’s what was puzzling to me. You seemed to be putting it out there like it was a suggestion. “Maybe…” It’s not really a suggestion, though. It’s a necessary consequence of your understanding that there is an omnipotent mind with definite intentions behind all of existence.

      From my perspective, it's entirely possible that at some point you may come back to faith, and God is using this time merely as a stepping stone to a deeper knowledge and love for Him.

      The writer of Hebrews does not seem to share your perspective. He indicates that such a thing is “impossible.”

      [comment continued below]

      Delete
    3. In order to claim "it sucks to be you", you'd need to sit in God's lap to slap His face - as Frank Turek once put it.

      Frank Turek’s cheap rhetorical point missed the mark entirely, but that’s a whole other ball of wax. I can still make value judgments about fictional characters, particularly when considering hypotheticals that involve my being condemned to eternal conscious torment. The Bible doesn’t even skirt this point. It pronounces woe unto me and suggests it would’ve been better for me if I had never been born. In other words, it sucks to be me.

      the more I read your site, the more I feel a strong sense of irreverence - and dare I say bitterness - towards theism from you.

      I can accept the charge of irreverence. I treat things that I perceived to be silly as silly. I will generally ridicule notions I find ridiculous. I try to separate ideas from people when I do that, but I’m sure sometimes I slip. I feel no bitterness. The people that perpetuated false ideas about reality onto me did so largely unaware of what they were doing. I don’t blame them.

      the more it comes out in your writings, the more difficult I find it to sift through your arguments without throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

      That’s unfortunate, but I’m not likely to change my tone. I write primarily for myself, secondarily for those who have left Christianity or are exploring a departure from Christianity, and tertiarily in an effort to create some cognitive dissonance for those in fundamentalist expressions of Christianity in the hopes that it might just get the wheels turning a bit.

      Delete
  4. I think you should speak for yourself ;-) Most of the Christians I know would typically assert that he was probably not regenerate prior to that time. “No True Christian” and all that. Your take is refreshingly novel. It admits that people who are raised with god-belief can later declare themselves atheists for whatever reason, but then “get saved,” with the understanding that those people never were really atheists after all. Usually it’s atheists if find trying to make that case.

    If we are to look at Peter and his renunciation and subsequent recommitment to Jesus, I think the biblical case can be made that a believer can certainly fall away and be restored to faith. The prodigal son is another example of this. In that story, the father / son / family relationship is used to illustrate the relationship between God and believers (I say this for your readers - I’m sure you are quite familiar). One may say that the son who effectively wished his father dead by asking for his inheritance prior to the father’s death was “never in the family”. Or, perhaps this is me taking an allegorical story too far in application. Though, if nothing else can be said, it would be this: redemption and restoration are so heavily presented throughout the entirety of the bible, that if I were to err on a side between redemption or lost-ness, I would side on the former. CS Lewis once said that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. I think this dovetails well with the concept of the “unpardonable sin” – which essentially equates to the only sin that can’t be forgiven, is the sin of not wanting forgiveness.

    That’s what was puzzling to me. You seemed to be putting it out there like it was a suggestion. “Maybe…” It’s not really a suggestion, though. It’s a necessary consequence of your understanding that there is an omnipotent mind with definite intentions behind all of existence.

    My statement of “..if a biblical worldview is true” is merely a hypothetical presented for arguments sake. I absolutely accept it to be true, and accept the logical consequences you ascribe here.

    The writer of Hebrews does not seem to share your perspective. He indicates that such a thing is “impossible.”

    This is a very interesting passage. It’s one that I have thought about at length. I would first point out there are four prerequisites for the conclusion of impossibility that is mentioned here: “…and…and…and…” Are all four of these being fully met in any given circumstance? I think it would be difficult to conclusively say. Though I think the take-away here for a believer would be to treat this matter with the respect and seriousness it deserves.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I can still make value judgments about fictional characters, particularly when considering hypotheticals that involve my being condemned to eternal conscious torment. The Bible doesn’t even skirt this point. It pronounces woe unto me and suggests it would’ve been better for me if I had never been born. In other words, it sucks to be me.

    This point may all be an issue of semantics. I guess I am just hung up on the “it sucks to be me” statement. Maybe if you said “it would suck to be me if that were true, but it’s not, so it doesn’t suck”, then I would better understand. For illustration: a 3 year old comes up to you with a nerf gun announcing, “Im gonna kill you!” Alternatively, a jealous ex-boyfriend comes up to you holding a very real gun and announcing the same. Which do you take seriously? Only the latter of course, as they have the means and the motive to carry out their threat. I suppose you could judge the 3 year old, but it seems like a waste of time. Pat him on the head and send him on his way, right? From your perspective, isn’t God an impotent creature of fantasy? Do you have a dragon blog as well? :) (is it too early to joke like that? :) )

    That’s unfortunate, but I’m not likely to change my tone. I write primarily for myself, secondarily for those who have left Christianity or are exploring a departure from Christianity, and tertiarily in an effort to create some cognitive dissonance for those in fundamentalist expressions of Christianity in the hopes that it might just get the wheels turning a bit.

    Well, even as a third-class citizen I still appreciate your blog. I certainly think you have come to the wrong conclusions, but I appreciate you saying that you attempt to keep your points logically framed, and to shoot the message and not the messenger. I think they call that class.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm going to reserve my comments on the restoration of apostates for a later blog post. The character limit and the lack of editorial ability on blogger makes it difficult to address subjects with complexity and nuance in the comments, as I'm sure you are finding out.

      As far as my "it sucks to be me" statement goes, you'll note that in my original comment above I preceded it with the conditional, "If that's indeed the way God planned it to be..." In my subsequent comment I referred to it as a hypothetical. I think you might be reading too much into my ability to view things from a Christian perspective. I do not, in fact, think that it sucks to be me. All things being considered, I think being me has actually been a pretty sweet deal so far.

      Your analogy involving a child threatening to kill me is an interesting one, but I think perhaps it needs elaboration. What if this child actually believes he can indeed kill me with his weapon and expresses a sincere desire to do me harm? He has no ability, obviously, but he believes he does. That might be a bit alarming for me. Not because it's an existential threat to my well-being, but because of what it might indicate about this child's perception of reality, consequences, and his socialization. One might even say it would be irresponsible of me in certain contexts to simply pat him on his head and send him on his way. I may want him to seriously consider some things and getting him to do that may entail at least some pretense on my part, for a time at least.

      Alternately, I would not respond to a jealous ex-boyfriend holding a real gun up to me with the same level of nonchalance as would be expressed in a line like "sucks to be me." I would most likely begin channeling Lynyrd Skynyrd.

      I'm glad to hear you can still appreciate my blog. It's important to be reminded that people who disagree with me do actually read it from time to time.

      Delete