Questioning the Questioner – Part 1

As many who’ve followed me from “Why I No Longer Believe” to here at the No Faith Zone will know, I have two primary purposes for maintaining this blog and indulging in discussion.

1.) I still have a need to vent and air out my thoughts on the faith and the impact it had on my life.

2.) I crave dialogue on the matter between reasonable people, whether in agreement or not.

My wife would probably rephrase #2 as, “I’m an argumentative bastard who craves confrontation.” She may be right.

Regardless, a number of months ago I shared a tightly distilled version of my (overlong) deconversion with A Tippling Philosopher, a page at Patheos written by Jonathan MS Pearce, whose writing I quite enjoy.

When it was first published in December, there were a few comments and that was it. But just a few days ago Johno sent me an IM while I was on my way to several days of travel to Baja on business. A Catholic blogger on Patheos, Dave Armstrong, published a rebuttal of my deconverstion story. Jonathan has posted a partial response already, but I’ll be doing my own, partially because I think Dave has made a number of natural and common mistakes regarding both my motivation for deconverting and the theology involved.

My story is already long, which makes Dave’s rebuttal long, which, of course, threatens to make this response approach War and Peace dimensions. So I’ll split this response into two or three parts to accomodate reasonable reading times.

As an overview, one of the dangers of telling a story in less time than it took to live it is that the reader will take your account for a sum total of your experience, rather than a representative snapshot or reductive example. Dave makes this mistake right up front and furthermore takes my desire to be brief to also be extremely shallow. It’s hard not to be insulted by what almost seems patronization on his part, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

To Dave’s comments:

Anthony stated that he went to “after-school catechism. This created a fascination in me for the bible and for the mystical/spiritual aspects of Christianity.” But we don’t know how much he actually knew about Catholicism . . . seemingly not all that much, if he could forsake it  merely because of a Bible trivia game and the usual ignorant “Chick Tract”-like anti-Catholic sermonizing. Hence, he appears to have been like many millions of insufficiently catechized Catholics: almost to a person unfamiliar with apologetics, or the reasons why Catholics believe as they do. This is a common theme running through deconversion stories: either relative or profound ignorance of one’s own Christian affiliations. If we don’t know why we believe whatever — have no reasons for it — , then obviously we are easy targets of those who would dissuade us from our shallow, non-rational beliefs.

In his rebuttal to this, Jonathan points out that this is basically a wordy “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It carries the conceit that no “sufficiently catechized Catholic” would be in danger of falling away. It’s sort of an attempt to dismiss the rational examination of Christianity even in its “shared” forms, that is, in the way in which most or nearly all denominations agree, by asserting that such examination can only come from a position of ignorance. The true fact of the matter is that sufficiently catechized Catholics deconvert on a regular basis, including ordained church professionals like priests, nuns, and so on, in much the same way that dedicated, learned Protestant scholars defect and deconvert despite almost encylopedic knowledge and holistic commitment to God and the scriptures.

He talks about how the Santa Cruz Christian Church (I tried to find it on Google and was unsuccessful) gave him and his fiancee advice, causing him to call off their engagement. But this is hardly grounds to blame Christianity, because one church practiced what he rightly describes as “spiritual abuse.” As so often in these stories, one extreme sect is universalized to all of Christianity, as if it is representative of that whole. Atheists reading such gory details sit there lamenting, “see what rascals and morons those damned Christians are! So glad I came to my senses and left it. Best thing I ever did . . .” They never seem to realize that one extreme and twisted version of Christianity is not the whole ball of wax. Basic category errors and logical fallacies, in other words . . . These things usually aren’t stated outright, but I would contend that they are the underlying strongly implied assumption.

Former Christian atheists often refer back to the years of “abuse” (real or alleged) that they went through. Hence, Anthony writes: “It was not until after I left the faith and went back to examine my Christian life in light of my new viewpoint, that the gravity of what I had allowed to be done to us hit me.” In this case, it was real abuse, but only from an extremist fringe sector of Christianity, which is no disproof of Christianity per se.

There are a couple of key things to unpack here. The first is the grossly fallacious assertion that the brand of Christianity I belonged to was some extreme fringe sector of Christianity. I’m not sure if Dave is ignorant of the size, scope, and culture of Evangelical Christianity, but I can assure him and the reader that there is nothing fringe about our experience. Evangelical churches, which make up the most strict and dogmatic/literalist group among Christians accounts for between 26-28% of Christians, the largest segment of American Christians, compared to 22-24% of Christians who identify as Catholic.

Furthermore, this group of Evangelical churches adhere to the brand of Christianity taught across the country at the most prominent theological institutions, such as Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, *koff*Liberty Baptist University*koff*, Fuller Theological Seminary, and so on. This is the brand of Christianity that fills stadiums all over the world with “Promise Keepers,” or whatever the latest Christian fad is nowadays. This is the brand of Christianity that Billy Graham was selling, a torch that his abhorrent son Franklin has since taken up.

Dave would have his reader believe that we were in some fringe cult, which was very much not the case. I think that the behavior is rather ugly, so that he projected what he would like to believe rather than what is. Or perhaps he’s ignorant of the nature of Evangelical culture.

But putting that error aside, Dave desperately misses the point of this account. He makes the common mistake of thinking that people like me left Christianity because such things happened to us. That is not the case. It is things like this that left scars and doubts, and these doubts at some point led us later to examine whether Christianity was a valid belief system that accurately reflected reality.

Moreso, I share this early account not to give reasons I stopped believing, but to relate the level of our commitment and the nature of the Evangelical culture. I mean, I remained a committed, believing Christian for TWENTY-FOUR more years after these events I relate, so to pretend that I’m using them as an excuse to deconvert is simply lazy analysis on Dave’s part.

I took Duane at his word, but inside, the title of that book put a cold shaft of fear inside me. How could God’s word have “difficulties?” What on earth was difficult about God’s revelation to mankind. I mean, he’s God, right? And we have the spirit of God.

This is shallow, unreflective thinking. I can think of a number of sound, logical reasons why such a book would exist:

1. The Bible is a very lengthy, multi-faceted book by many authors, from long ago, with many literary genres, and cultural assumptions that are foreign to us.

2. The Bible purports to be revelation from an infinitely intelligent God. Thus (even though God simplifies it as much as possible), for us to think that it is an easy thing to immediately grasp and figure out, and would not have any number of “difficulties” for mere human beings to work through, is naive. The Bible itself teaches that authoritative teachers are necessary to properly understand it.

This is hand-waving, and takes the very human and convoluted nature of the scriptures as evidence that it is perfect, rather than the much more reasonable conclusion that it is simply a human document. This is a common sleight-of-hand for apologists. A perfect, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god would have no problem making itself perfectly clear to all people if revelation leading to salvation was actually the goal. The biblical god claims not to be a “God of confusion,” (1 Cor. 14:33) yet his scripture is the literal source of centuries of disagreement leading to over 3,000 denominations. Now Dave is going to go on about the primacy of the Catholic faith, etc., but that doesn’t address any of the actual textual issues that led to the continual fracturing of Christianity.

3. All grand “theories” have components (“anomalies” / “difficulties”) that need to be worked out and explained. For example, scientific theories do not purport to perfectly explain everything. They often have large “mysterious” areas that have to be resolved. Think of, for example, the “missing links” in evolution. That didn’t stop people from believing in it. Folks believed in gradual Darwinian evolution even though prominent paleontologist and philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould famously noted that “gradualism was never read from the rocks.” Even Einstein’s theories weren’t totally confirmed by scientific experiment at first (later they were). That a book like the Bible would have “difficulties” to work through is perfectly obvious and unsurprising to me.

With apologies to Dave, I find this ridiculous. Comparing the supposed perfectly inspired Word of God with the gradual discovery and development of scientific theory is specious at best. First off, this is not scripture we have “discovered” and pieced together letter by letter without intervention, to hear the theists tell it. God himself is supposed to have inspired his writers. Reasonable clarity should be the result. Examining scripture is almost nothing like observing the world for which we’re given zero explanation and having to sort out the evidence of what we find.

4. Most of the rationale of explaining “Bible difficulties” is not from a perspective that they are real difficulties, but rather, to show that purported difficulties really aren’t such. They are usually based on illogical thinking or unfamiliarity with biblical genre, etc. Many alleged biblical “contradictions” simply aren’t so, by the rules of logic.

This is also rather specious because it is the explanations offered from which Dave makes this assertion that are, in the end, logically unacceptable. The link provided will take you to another post of Dave’s which is itself an exercise in hand-waving, source-dumping, then gloating because his “adversary” took a powder. The example at hand is a poor one because, once again, none of the folks in his fictional account are actually being inspired by the Living God to accurately portray the his nature for centuries of believers. How people behave or relate items outside the context of divine inspiration is largely irrelevant to the question of the veracity of purportedly inspired communications.

5. The Foreword of the book by Kenneth S. Kantzer explains its rationale: “[T]he faith of some troubled souls is hindered by misunderstanding the Scripture. They are confused by what seems to them to be false statements or self-contradiction. We need, therefore, to clear away such false obstacles to faith.” (p. 8)

More hand-waving. Misunderstanding = Not agreeing with the offered convolutions with which apologists attempt to deflect criticism.

For these reasons, as an apologist and avid Bible student, I’ve done quite a bit of writing on alleged “Bible difficulties” myself: found in the final section of my Bible & Tradition web page, and have analyzed relentlessly shoddy, illogical, fact-challenged atheist attempts to run down the Bible, in a section of my Atheism & Agnosticismpage.

When I got home, I looked through some of the topics. I’ll confess that, even then, it seemed very equivocating – sort of a wordy hand-waving.

What is plausible and what isn’t, is a very complicated matter itself. In any event, Anthony has simply talked about the book, and has not given any concrete examples that readers can judge for themselves. As such, this is simply no argument against Archer’s book, or against Christianity. All we know is that Anthony found it unconvincing. So what? Granted, accounts like this (or Christian conversion stories) can’t argue every jot and tittle. But still, it’s good to point out what is actually an argument or evidence, and what isn’t, lest anyone become confused over the nature of evidence pro or con.

This is Dave not respecting the severely abbreviated nature of my account. You would think he believes this is literally the only source available. You would also think that he believes this account contains the sum total of my thoughts on the matter. He applies a standard to my account that in the same breath he derides others to take on any of his work or on the scripture itself. He seems to be fond of source-dumping, yet he judges my account solely on this version of it. Based on his criteria for argument and methodology, I’ll take his examination of my account seriously when he has gone and read through my entire story and the entirety of my writings on the subject at Why I No Longer Believe.

Not being comforted by what I read, I usually ignored this book. Instead, I started reading about all the wrong religions.

“We are what we eat.” It looks like Anthony didn’t even read Archer’s book all the way through. He seems to have quickly judged it, and moved on. But why should anyone think that his negative judgment and dismissal is infallible?

It looks like Dave didn’t even read Archer’s book at all. He seems to have assumed the nature of it. Had he read it, he would find that it is topical and encyclopedic in nature and not offered in a narrative structure like some other apologetics tomes. And he still makes the same mistake of assuming that the amount of information offered in this account somehow reflects exactly amount of interaction I had with the book.

I wonder if this is not a general Christian failing. One is taught not to look beyond the single written and approved source of information to find the “Truth,” therefore any account one reads, one does with the habit of not looking beyond it for anything further.

It’s rather insulting and poorly rendered, really, this whole chain of “reasoning.”

Anthony then talks about his struggles in the Christian life. All of this is perfectly understood and familiar to Christians. St. Paul himself talks about it in Romans 7, and then gives the solution in Romans 8. But that we all fall short and fail many times, in many ways, is not some big bombshell. Nor is it any argument against Christianity, because the latter teaches us to expect this. Faith is a lifelong struggle.

I’m going to focus on the building string of doubts that led me to examine, and ultimately abandon, my faith.

Great. Let’s see if they are compelling for any reader to think likewise.

We’ll end Part One on this cliffhanger and get to some more interesting stuff in Part Two, coming soon.

 

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