I’ve been thinking lately about my own de-conversion narrative — to the extent I have gathered my experiences into a coherent narrative. Through conversations with a friend, I’ve been forced to give my narrative a bit more shape than I have in the past. The problem with narrating one’s own story, however, is the tendency to edit, however unconsciously, the details and ascribe to oneself motivations that are perhaps more flattering than one’s actual motivations. For example, it’s more flattering to narrate one’s de-conversion — or conversion for that matter — as a relentless pursuit of truth, a purely intellectual process. However, our motivations are usually more complex — a mixture of intellectual and non-intellectual — and I think we ought to recognize this and be as honest as possible. The problem for the de-converted, however, is that if we attempt to be honest about our narratives, Christians will interpret that as an admission that we left the faith, not for intellectual reasons at all, but for emotional, volitional, or moral reasons. Perhaps emotional pain is standing in the way of one’s faith, perhaps one simply doesn’t want to believe, or, least flattering of all, one wants an excuse to persist in sin. These are all fairly common responses that Christians give to de-converts. Most Christians don’t want to take seriously the fact that there may be serious intellectual challenges to their own faith, otherwise they might start questioning it too, and they can’t abide that. Far better to chalk it up to non-rational factors. Also common to these responses is a kind of victim-blaming mentality. Have you heard this one: ‘If you feel far from God, guess who moved’? In the Christian’s paradigm, God can’t possibly be blamed for your loss of faith. The only one to blame is yourself. The strategy seems to be to get the de-convert back into the Christian’s wheelhouse: guilt. Then perhaps the person will realize that their loss of faith is their fault and repent.
Obviously, I don’t think much of these strategies. I mention them only to forestall any effort to distort what I’m about to say along those lines. Clearly, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you know that I do think that there are serious intellectual challenges to theism in general and Christianity in particular. These objections are not mere rationalizations of an atheism that I hold on other grounds. But even if they were, the arguments still stand on their own. That’s the beauty of rationality: it enables us to transcend our psychological frailty and get at the truth. But I’ve never claimed that my de-conversion was an exclusively rational process, any more than my original conversion to Christianity was. People tend to believe or disbelieve on the basis of more practical concerns. Does the belief ‘work’? Does it give me resources for living a fulfilled life that I wouldn’t have without it? Does it make me a better person? If you get to the heart of why most people believe or disbelieve, it will come down to questions like these.
There are also what I like to call relational considerations. I prefer the term ‘relational’ to ’emotional’ because the latter is usually chosen with the express purpose of excluding rational factors. I think this is a false dichotomy. The intellectual is never completely divorced from deep-seated relational motives. This is true of believers as well. If you ask believers why they believe, apart from intellectual considerations, they will probably say that they have a relationship with God. One of the reasons I suspect believers rationalize their doubts, as I did, is because they would hate to lose this perceived relationship through disbelief. Often, I think the ‘relationship with God’ functions as a placeholder for more concrete relationships with other people, family and friends. The cost of leaving the faith might be alienation from a community that one has been a part of throughout one’s life. So these relational considerations cannot be underestimated. De-converts sometimes leave the faith in spite of these relationships — they simply risk losing them — others leave only after these relationships have already broken down and they can ‘give themselves permission’, as it were, to leave. Either way, these relational considerations have emotional consequences, but they are not purely emotional, i.e. completely detached from intellectual considerations.
For example, the lack of a felt relationship with God, however emotionally distressing, is itself evidence against a certain type of God. If we’re talking about the Christian God who, we’re told, desires a relationship with humanity, the fact that so many people who desire a relationship with God are left without any tangible sense of God’s presence in their lives, is itself evidence that perhaps such a God doesn’t exist. Although this lack of God may be experienced emotionally, it could also be stated as an argument. As regular readers of this blog know, perhaps my favorite philosopher of religion lately is J.L. Schellenberg. More than any other contemporary philosopher, he realizes that the relational and intellectual aspects of faith, or lack thereof, are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing. This would seem to follow. If religious experience is evidence for the existence of God, why isn’t the lack of religious experience, the perceived absence and silence of God, especially in the midst of suffering, evidence against the existence of a relational God? Again, one may experience the silence of God very deeply on an emotional level, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good argument against the existence of God.
I find that well-meaning Christian friends, in an effort to understand de-converts, gather a few case studies, generalize a few conclusions, and then fit their de-converted friend, i.e. me, into a particular ready-made category. As I said above, usually this means that I’m pigeon-holed as having some emotional, volitional, or moral reason for my unbelief. Again, most Christians don’t want to credit intellectual factors at all, because then they might have to honestly question their own faith. I suspect that is why some Christians are threatened, for lack of a better term, by de-converts, especially those who used to be strong Christians, in some cases even pastors or church leaders. Perhaps their Christian friends think, ‘If it could happen to them, it might happen to me.’ They then try desperately to understand the de-convert in a way that simultaneously explains the loss of faith within their Christian paradigm, but also distances the Christian from the experience in such a way that it’s unlikely to happen to them. Maybe I’m wrong about their motivations; I’m not a psychologist, but neither are most of the believers who attempt to psycho-analyze de-converts. I would concede that major life changes, including loss of faith, are not motivated by purely intellectual reasons. But that is not to say that there aren’t any intellectual reasons whatsoever. Also, we ought to be careful about divorcing the intellectual aspects of our narrative from the relational ones. Human motivations are complex and I’m conscious of that when relating my de-conversion narrative. I’d simply ask Christians to be similarly conscious of these complexities before offering their own narrative of others’ de-conversions.