Questioning the Questioner – Part 2

Two years ago (ZOMG, really?) I had the opportunity to share a distilled version of my deconversion testimony with the esteemed Jonathan MS Pearce at A Tippling Philosopher.

A Catholic apologist, Dave Armstrong, who frequents JMSP’s page wrote a response to my deconversion. I responded to the first part of this article shortly thereafter, but as often happens, the busyness of life took over and I never got around to completing my response.

One of my buddies, Don, happened in and noticed that I’d left the thread hanging, commenting on it, wondering if perhaps my journey had gone in a different direction. It hasn’t, it’s just continued on its course. So I thought I’d take a look at the rest and see where it goes.

In the next session he starts in on my wife’s part in the story.

. . . my wife […} took a class in the Religious History, and possibly one more focused on Western religion. The professor was also a pastor who was, to me, very liberal. He taught about the history of the development of the doctrine of hell. He taught how the prophets were used to enable rulers to motivate their soldiers to commit atrocities they would otherwise not ever consider. He taught the very human side of religion.

. . . It brought her faith deeply into question.

And so this is the oft-heard story. Christians go to college, get confronted with skeptical or atheist professors, in a very lopsided scenario, and lose their faith, if they are insufficiently equipped (i.e., lacking in apologetics knowledge: my field) to take on skeptical challenges to it.

Rereading this, it might be that I left off because Armstrong exposes himself a rather a blowhard through this next section, if the previous section wasn’t enough. Later on he’ll go on a literally irrelevant screed about John Loftus and how “hypersensitive” he is. I think Dave might want to look at his own puerile, dismissive mode of argument before pissing and moaning about others’ responses.

That aside, he stays true to form and assumes any details left out for brevity in a light most conducive to his own predisposition. His wholly unmerited and unflattering characterization of my wife’s capacity aside, he ignorantly assumes that she (and I, for that matter) was not an engaged and knowledgeable believer.

Again, “we are what we eat.” If she sat there and took in all this rotgut from the professor, and never read a Christian refutation of it, then why should anyone be surprised that she goes the route of the professor?

This “rotgut” from the professor is a survey of verfiable historical fact from Professor Brent Walters, a historian, theologian, lecturer, for six years host of the weekly show “God Talk” on KGO San Francisco, currently the Scholar in Residence at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose, CA, and recognized expert on early church history. Not, for example, some self-educated Catholic schlemiel with a blog.

And she was weekly inundated with Christian refutation. Dave hammers on as if we were pew-warming Catholics rather than committed Bible believers fervently studying and learning. If anything, she had received the Christian version for years and was only now getting a rational refutation of her indoctrination. I wonder Christians always think they should get extra chances to make their case?

One must read the best proponents of both sides of major disputes: not one side only or the best proponents of one side vs. the worst on the other (which is the usual atheist game: they love to wrangle with ignorant, uninformed Christians).

A sad and desperate mischaracterization of atheists. Unless, of course, he counts himself among the ignorant uninformed? Hmmm…

And it makes one wonder too, why the God who claims he is not a God of “confusion” or “disorder” would need someone running after you with a basket full of books of better authorities and refutations. You’d think an omniscient god would be a bit better at getting his message home.

We attended a bible study. By our second or third time, she was asking more questions. I don’t remember the last question she asked, but it froze the room. You could have heard a pin drop. She got a soft-shoed answer and the pastor rushed past it as quickly as he could.

Unfortunately, many pastors and priests are as undereducated in apologetics as the laypeople.

It’s times like this that I wish I could remember the specific questions she asked, because I’m fully confident we’d also get some pabulary hand-waving answer from Dave too.

I do think at least one of them related to the doctrine of Hell, its absence in the Old Testament, and its Hellenistic origins, but it’s been awhile…

She never went to church again. She announced she was agnostic and didn’t believe what I believed.

All we know about her story is that she heard some skeptical stuff, started asking “hard” questions that were unanswered. We don’t know whether she actually took the time to read good Christian apologetics or philosophy. Consequently, there is nothing there that should persuade any other Christian to cease being so.

I’ve answered this, but maybe this is also because it’s not her testimony. Jesus, this guy majors in all the minors. It really borders on some cousin to a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, and in assuming the worst possible scenario, he displays his desperate predisposition to what amounts to an ad hominem attack – make the person, my wife, in this case, out to be ignorant, to avoid the fact that there were serious, untenable problems with Christian doctrine that went unanswered by multiple Christian “authorities” and led her to actively and rationally abandon Christianity.

Next he jumps to the Outsider Test for Faith.

It is a fact that people, to an overwhelming degree, adopt the religious tradition of their culture. To them it is accepted fact.

Sociologically, that is very true. The problem with making it an exclusively anti-Christianity argument, however, is that atheists act in largely the same way. That’s why kids lose their Christian faith in college. They’re surrounded by liberal, skeptical or atheist professors who undermine their faith and don’t give both sides of the story (i.e., they are immersed in a different “culture”, and so — unsurprisingly — adopt it). The “smart people” seem to be against Christianity in that environment, and the few informed Christians are too scared to speak out (and today are even shut up and shouted down). No one wants to be seen as the oddball or outsider, so they lose their faith: not usually because of objective intellectual inquiry and reading the best of both worldviews, but because of sheer peer pressure and being subjected to one view (propaganda) over and over. They become politically liberal for the same reason.

Holy smoke… where to start? Welcome to Whataboutism 101. First, this puerile (there’s that word again) screed crawls from the same gutter as the tired Christian fantasy that brings us the fake and cloying “Christian student shuts down Atheist professor” memes we’re so familiar with today. Universities, their students and professors are as diverse, individual, inquisitive, and downright different in myriad of ways. This mischaracterization of teaching staff as a monolithic anti-Christian conspiracy is worthless and beneath discussion.

And nevermind that it’s wholly irrelevant to the story at hand, which is mine, which has nothing to do with:

  1. College: I wasn’t in college at the time of my deconversion, and in fact had one college age kid at the time.
  2. Community: During my deconversion (again – the topic at hand) I was entrenched in a staunch Christian community as my primary circle of influence. And even for my wife, at the time of her education, she was commuting 40 miles each way to attend class and come home to her family and kid and church. Peer pressure played literally zero role for either of us. In fact, our peer pressure was opposed to our conclusions, heavily, and with serious potential social and personal cost.
  3. Reality: WTAF does this have to do with the Outsider Test for Faith? Atheism is the rejection of a proposition, in Dave’s case, the Catholic proposition. There isn’t anything to view as an “Outsider,” because there isn’t a positive assertion being made. If you have a hard atheist who insists they can prove there is no god of any kind, well, that’s on them. For the rest of us, we are atheist because, of all the gods so far on offer, they are found wanting in the light of rational inquiry.

Atheists like to think that they arrive at their view solely through reason, while Christians soak in theirs from their mother’s milk. But atheists are just as subject to peer pressure and environmental influence as anyone else. Most worldviews (whether Christian or atheist) are arrived at far more for social (and emotional) reasons than intellectual. I can’t emphasize it enough: “we are what we eat.”

I thought about truncating this whole section, but it’s worth seeing this irrelevant and simply dead wrong passage in its entirety, because it says a lot about Dave’s ability to address the matter and his tendency to deflect to run off on rabbit trails that aren’t relevant but that he apparently hopes will cloud any serious test of his particular faith.

And again, he’s simply wrong about peer pressure and environmental influence. In fact, it’s stunning to me he can begin to say that if he takes any time at all to read and review deconversion accounts. Most of them are filled with social conflict and personal detriment because the person in question eschewed the peer pressure to toe the line and examined the faith without allowing those fears to get in the way or their inquiry.

Because of this cultural indoctrination, the only way to objectively examine your faith is to take the position of an outsider from a different culture and examine your faith with the same level of skepticism you treat other religions.

Conversely, the only way to objectively examine one’s atheism is to interact with an outsider from Christianity (someone like me, willing and able to do it) and examine your axioms and premises with the same level of skepticism that one treats Christianity. I am offering Anthony and any other atheist the opportunity to do that in this very paper.

LOL… No. The axioms and methodologies around examination of any set of claims are the same regardless of the claim. When and if I claim a proposition that I want Dave to believe, then will Dave have a basis to skeptically examine that claim with the same scrutiny that I assert he should examine any and every religion, especially his own. Dave belabors this tired fallacy that somehow atheism is a systematic belief system with a testable set of assertions and tenets.

There was a point during my cycle of failure and repentance that I wondered why on earth I would rush to the writings of Paul (specifically Romans 5-8) to restore my spirit rather than to Jesus. One was an apostle, but one was actually God, as I understood it. The modern salvation transaction as we’re taught it was never all that clear in Paul’s writings, and not at all in the words attributed to Jesus.

That is, the fundamentalist Protestant version of salvation, which is out of touch with even historic Protestantism, let alone Catholicism and Orthodoxy . . . I agree that this warped version is never taught by either Jesus or St. Paul.

I mean, I’m glad we agree, but this is no different than me poring through comparative religion tracts that use Christianity as the yardstick for truth or fallacy.

So I began to spend more time with the words of Jesus, thinking that if I can’t find what I need from the words of my god walking upon the earth, the words of an apostle would not help me. To shorten the story, reading the words attributed to Jesus turned me into a social liberal. The Jesus in the bible is compassionate to the poor, destitute, and irredeemable, in stark contrast to the modern Christian, who, if they follow the culture, would sooner tell the poor to get a job and wave the flag of meritocratic individualism.

Pitting Paul against Jesus is plain silly. There is no essential difference in what they taught (which is perhaps why Anthony never provides any example of such alleged divergence). They simply taught in different ways. Jesus was the storyteller: more like a pastor (therefore, much better understood by the common man), whereas Paul was systematic and more abstract: like a theologian or academic: more like philosophy. But making false dichotomies is very typical of the sort of Protestant milieu that Anthony was part of.

Once again Dave mistakes brevity for absence, when this isn’t the case. The dichotomy (as in not false) between the teachings of Paul and Jesus is a well known and worn conundrum, and is the source of a number of books and articles. The concept that Paul is actually the founder of Christianity and not Jesus is also well-covered and much has been written about it. Dave shows either his own ignorance or his own denial – it matters little which it is, the outcome is the same.

Closer to my point, is that the sort of assurance and sin/body/soul relationship that is expounded in Romans 5 – 8 is different, or better said, absent from the supposed teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. I, and I know from my interactions with others that I’m not alone, could not find the solace in my struggles in the gospels that I could from Paul’s words. Compared the Christianity you find both in my old Protestant circles and in Dave’s Catholic cirlces, there is a tremendous amount of theology and tradition that is wholly absent the words of Jesus as they’re allegedly reported in the Gospels. Also amusing is that Dave is a Catholic, which has a HUGE truckload of additive, extra-biblical tradition that it calls theology.

If Jesus truly was God, just his words, absent of everything else, should be enough. But instead it is the epistles of Paul (and whomever else was writing in his name) where we get much of our salvation, justification, and sanctification doctrines, among many other thigns. It’s disingenuous for Dave to wave his hands like this dichotomy doesn’t exist just because I didn’t take the time expounding on it.

If Dave would take more time addressing what I actually wrote rather than what he wishes existed in what I didn’t write, we’d get much further.

He responds to mention of rejecting Young Earth Creationism and a Global Flood.

…But the solution to these errors is not to ditch any literalism in the Bible and go to an all-allegorical position. The solution is to recognize that the Bible contains many genres of literature, and to determine which is occurring in a particular place. That’s how normal language and literature work. The problem is that fundamentalists and skeptics alike start treating the Bible as if it isn’t subject to the normal rules of interpretation of literature. And so Anthony was knee-jerk and simplistic regarding the Bible. He went from one extreme error to another on the opposite side of the spectrum.

“Knee jerk and simplistic.” The temptation to simply tell Dave to go fuck himself reaches its peak right about here. And he wonders why Loftus and others react poorly to him. Hey, Dave – it’s you, not us.

That said, I’ll simply point out that as soon as you can start dithering with scripture and decide something ridiculous can just be called allegory, well, then it all goes out the window. Special Creation, a Global Flood, giant Nephilim, talking snakes, talking donkeys, the sun stopping for 24 hours, the parting of the Red Sea, the Virgin Birth, the resurrection of Lazarus, the Transfiguration, the resurrection of Christ – these are all so ridiculously impossible that, using Dave’s methodology, we are free to relegate them to analogy to the point that the whole of Christianity can be seen as a construct of fantasy that has no real bearing on the lives of actual people other than perhaps an encouragement to not be a jerk.

So being in this strange place, with only the resurrection of Jesus Christ to keep me in the fold, I came to a full on crisis of faith. I won’t go heavily into it now, . . . 

He can, of course, divulge whatever he wants, but the fact remains that we are given no solid, compelling, cogent reasons why he should have forsaken Christianity, or why anyone else should do so. Because he was a fundamentalist extremist, those who never were that (like myself) should also leave Christianity: even the forms of it vastly — essentially —  different from Anthony’s anti-intellectual fundamentalism?

Here Dave is just being the aforementioned jerk. I do go into more detail on my blog (linked near the beginning of the article,) but that account is twelve articles long, and I wouldn’t insist anyone read it except for the pedantic individual who once again wants to fill in gaps with their own imagination rather than address what’s written.

I searched for the best apologetics book I could find, settling on Norman Geisler’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. 

I commend him for at least reading one book from the Christian perspective, against atheism. Of course, different authors have different emphases, styles, and particular philosophies. So it may have simply been a case where Geisler (a fine apologist) wasn’t a good “fit” for him.

Christ-on-a-pogo-stick… This is after a quarter century of indoctrination and study. I picked a book from literally one of the world’s most respected apologists, actually, two of them, as I recall that this particular book was co-written by Frank Turek. But allow me to stuff a small sampling of the some of the titles I’ve perused both before and after my deconversion:

XtianBookLibrary

I couldn’t jam all these together with all the titles, but these are just on Kindle and don’t include my paper library.

Suffice to say that Dave’s continual attempts to paint both my wife and I as undereducated simpletons is egregious, offensive, and wholly unsurprising. He clearly has a habit of inserting the worst assumptions into every gap he can find rather than make an honest attempt to address potential issues with any sort of respect or reasonable dialogue.

I gave God first shot at me and read Geisler. I expected to be strengthened – steeled for my encounter with the atheist, able to find a way to keep my faith and work on my anger. Instead I took 30 pages (steno pad) of notes. I could easily formulate my wife’s answers to his arguments without even trying. I was disappointed and borderline devastated. I read Loftus’s book. Another 20 pages of notes later I set down his book and realized that 1) I didn’t know what I did believe, and 2) I was sure it wasn’t the god of the bible.

So John Loftus did the trick.

I was unmoored. I tried another apologist, thinking that maybe Geisler wasn’t the best to read. Loftus had referenced William Lane Craig, so I started reading one of his books. About 40% of the way through, I gave up. It was over. I sat at my desk and said to myself, “I’m an atheist.” And here I am today.

Craig is also a fine Christian thinker and debater. But it also depends what particular place we are at in our thinking: how much we will be influenced.

Here he goes off on a screed about John Loftus, who wrote the pivotal (but not only) book that helped me free myself from religious delusion. Having perused (more than skimmed but less than thoroughly read) Dave’s linked articles, I don’t blame Loftus for pissing on him the way he did. I don’t think John would deny that he can be quick on the trigger when offended. The sad part is Dave’s absolute mystifcation as to why. But the same pattern of awful assumptions and placing his arguments in the gaps rather than in the substance is very much on display there.

To finish off my story, all he says is:

In conclusion, I don’t see anything here in this deconversion story that would compel anyone else to forsake Christianity. At best it is an account that raises serious questions about extreme fundamentalist Christianity, which I fully agree with. But since that is merely one fringe element of Christianity, it is irrelevant as to the truthfulness of larger Christianity, let alone atheism as a supposedly superior and more rational and cogent alternative worldview.

Suffice to say, I’m deeply unimpressed with Dave’s rebuttal, and especially with his offensive and puerile tactics of belittling the writer because of what he imagines in the spaces rather than respond to what he actually reads in the words. I think it would behoove Dave to assume the best in the gaps. Provide the (ironically named) benefit of the doubt to your interlocutor, because responding in that nature will either strengthen your arguments or show you why you should abandon them.

But I’m guessing this belittling trick has been working for him for too long to give it up now.

On a final note, Dave had already responded to Part 1 of this response when we were first interacting. I read it then, but have wholly forgotten it. I didn’t want to reread it and have any possible backtracking (of which I’m expecting little, but at least some) color my direct response to the rest of his initial post.

PS: Finally, regarding Loftus, I’ll leave his links and comments before, because I think they’re very telling to Dave’s dishonesty and even more illustrative of his tactics of sticking his assumptions into the gaps and using those moments to insult his subject, before pretending to be naive and innocent.

The main takeaway is that Dave is reading a deconversion story, and is mystified that in 2,701 words he can’t find a book full of arguments as to why Christianity is not to be believed. And he trashes John for it. John calls him stupid. I don’t think he’s far from the mark there, if we’re being honest. John’s challenge is for Dave to put his money where his mouth is and actually read the damn book. Dave won’t. Guaranteed. If I were to be like Dave, I would use this gap of information as to why he won’t and insert “cowardice.” Goose, gander, innit.

Cheers,

Links regarding Loftus:

I do wonder why — if John Loftus’ atheist polemics are so compelling –, he is so extremely hyper-sensitive (and I do not exaggerate at all, believe me) to any critique of them? I have examined his “outsider test of faith” argument (ten years ago), some of his irrational criticisms of the Bible, and his story, and he went ballistic. This hardly suggests a confident atheism, willing to take on all critiques:

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Loftus is very much like the preacher that is often maligned in atheist deconversion accounts: the guy who loves to hear himself talk, unopposed, who wilts at the first counter-challenge. That has always been what John Loftus does, in my experience. And he has a colorful set of epithets and insults, too, that he sent my way for having the audacity to challenge him in his infallible wisdom. If his atheist apologetic is so unvanquishable, let him stand up and defend it like a man and honest thinker. But (at least with me) he has never done so. Thus, I am utterly unimpressed by his thinking (and demeanor). I have atheist friends who are embarrassed by him, because he conducts himself like such a rude and pompous ass. He’s not exactly a good representative or figurehead for atheism.
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7 thoughts on “Questioning the Questioner – Part 2

  1. I loved ‘puerile,’ at least 3 times. I was impressed that you worked ‘aforementioned’ in, but was most awed with ‘pabulary.’ I thought that I knew its meaning from its base, but had to look it up to be sure. One dictionary site didn’t even include it. I am a word-nut.
    These posts are well-constructed, and your comments/refutations are sound. Sadly Apologetics like Dave read what they want, to believe that they and their religion are attacked, and to formulate rebuttals.
    I recently suggested “The greatest good, for the greatest number,” that personal morality was best sought on an individual basis, and suggested that assigning Christian sin and guilt to women considering abortion, only made a difficult decision harder.
    I got back a snippy response questioning why I mocked and ridiculed Christianity, but didn’t do so for Islam. Had I been trained to do so? “Deflect, deflect, deflect” 😯

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha – thanks! You’re very kind. I love words, and I love finding a really precise word rather than just an okay one 🙂 I think it’s your second point that makes me sometimes blow it off and not play the game. But in this, and my previous blog (linked in the article) I’ve met really great people who also want to connect with others like us who’ve been through the ringer, so it’s worth keeping it up from time to time. Really glad you read and commented. Followed your page back and look forward to more 🙂 Cheers.

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  2. Reblogged this on Why I No Longer Believe and commented:

    For the sake of readers who may be following this page but not my updated No Faith Zone page, I’m putting the latest post regarding an apologist’s take on my deconversion testimony right here. Cheers, and thanks for reading.

    Like

  3. I have replied here:

    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2019/06/reply-to-anthony-toohey-re-his-deconversion-part-ii.html

    Here is one favorite highlight of mine:

    YOU: “The main takeaway is that Dave is reading a deconversion story, and is mystified that in 2,701 words he can’t find a book full of arguments as to why Christianity is not to be believed. And he trashes John [Loftus] for it. John calls him stupid. I don’t think he’s far from the mark there, if we’re being honest. John’s challenge is for Dave to put his money where his mouth is and actually read the damn book. Dave won’t. . . . If I were to be like Dave, I would use this gap of information as to why he won’t and insert “cowardice.” Goose, gander, innit.”

    ME, responding to John Loftus in past installments of this series: “I have already long since taken up your “challenge.” I said many weeks ago that if you sent me your book in an e-file for free, I’d be more than happy to critique it. I won’t buy it, and I refuse to type long portions of it when it is possible to cut-and-paste. That is an important factor since my methodology is Socratic and point-by-point. I actually try to comprehensively answer opposing arguments, not just talk about them or do a mutual monologue. You railed against that, saying that it was a “handout.” I responded that you could have any of my (14 completed) books in e-book form for free.”

    ME, responding to your charges: “[T]his is based on a lie about me: that I was supposedly unwilling to read his book. My offer stands to this day: if he sends me a free e-book copy, I will refute the “damn book” point-by-point. Loftus would sooner crawl on his hands and bare knees across a whole football field over burning broken glass before he’d ever do that. He made that crystal clear back in 2006, and I highly doubt that he has had any change of mind. If he has, then he can send it along (emboldened by your rapturous encouragement, no doubt). My email is . . .”

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