Monday, November 13, 2006

Response to the "Deconversion Story" of a Pastor's Wife

A "deconversion" is a sort of "anti-testimony" story of the odyssey from Christian faith to atheism or skepticism or agnosticism (the loss of faith in some sense). I have written papers analyzing a few of these. Unfortunately, the last time I did, it caused quite a ruckus because the person took it quite personally and lashed out, calling me many names and misinterpreted my intentions (to put it mildly). Later I even clarified some language and apologized if I was unclear (after being called a bunch of other names as a result, by another former Christian), but to no avail.

One can only do their best. I never said I was perfect. Atheists, for their part, constantly run down Christianity and Christians - too often in largely or wholly emotional or downright irrational ways, rather than logical. Surely they can't object if we (especially apologist types such as myself) simply scrutinize reasons they themselves give as to why they rejected Christianity. For the life of me, I don't see why that should be considered offensive or objectionable. But people do a lot of strange things.

Rightly-understood, such analyses as this present one are not "personal" at all. My aim in a paper like this is simply to state why I don't think that the reasons given for the deconversion are sufficient as any sort of rationale to reject Christianity. I don't question the character or integrity of the people who do this at all. I don't know them; I can't read their minds or determine the state of their souls. They have obviously been through traumatic experiences. Criticism of a deconversion (at least as I see it and do it) is not intended to minimize anyone's personal struggle or traumas or existential crises.

They may have been mistreated by any number of Christians. Join the crowd! So have I. Most of us have. People (including Christians) are sinners. This is what Christians believe. This is why we think we need a savior in the first place. But my intention is to focus on the reasons given, and to see if they hold up to scrutiny, or form any sort of justification for the rejection of Christianity. Period. No more, no less.

If someone (some influence who disenchanted or disappointed the former Christian) is a rotten example of a Christian, and a hypocrite, or child molester, that has no bearing on whether Christianity is true or not. I could see where there might be a point made (to some extent, anyway) if Christians were shown to be worse on the whole than non-Christians, ethically, but even then it would fail as a rigid philosophical disproof.

So with this disclaimer and explanation of my intent, I forge ahead. I am replying to the story, ex-pastor, ex-wife, ex-christian, by Theresa Frasch. Her words will be in blue. I begin my analysis at the portion of the story where she starts to explain the process of (or reasoning behind) her deconversion.

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After we left Hermiston we became associate pastors at a church in the Seattle area. The pastor there was physically sick and played on it as well as spiritually abusive and very manipulative. I could write a book (and will, one of these days) on the whole experience, but it was because of this situation that I started the questioning process.

This is precisely what I alluded to above. Now, on a purely human level, it is quite easy to understand that abusive and manipulative people could causes personal crises and disenchantment (they certainly do in my life; I have to deal with one this very day, as a matter of fact - long story), but if the goal is to both understand and explain why one rejects Christianity (I am presuming that it is a given that there ought to be rational reasons to do this, not simply emotional), then it falls short. There will always be sinners and folks who let us down and act immorally or unethically. They are found in every group known to mankind. But how does that automatically make the Trinity a falsehood or the Bible a pack of lies, etc.? Do you see the obvious fallacy here?

Clearly, the fact of sin does not do so. It has to be decided on other grounds. So this started the "questioning process." If Theresa hadn't run across this person, perhaps that process wouldn't have begun? Any questioning should be based on the nature of Christianity itself, not the faults of some of its professed adherents. Does this already get me into hot water with my atheist friends? I should think it were self-evident . . .

I still remember how I went through different levels of "coming out." It started because I went to counseling, and even though my counselor was a Christian, he taught me to question and to look at things in different ways.

I'm sure that's when it started, because up until then I believed, lock, stock and barrel. It was the questioning, the learning to think for myself, the introduction to NLP, the seeing I had control over my life.

Here we see another problem that led to the opposite extreme. I see this often in atheist "anti-testimonies." In a nutshell, it is seen that they espoused a form of Christianity which was insufficiently integrated in terms of a place for the mind and reasoning and apologetics (and that's where I come in: I'm trying to provide that element in folks' Christianity, that is often lacking). Theresa was not taught to "think Christianly" or to understand why she believed what she believed (this is apologetics). Therefore, she had no "template" or framework in which to exercise a thinking Christianity, and so when she started questioning, it was naturally within a skeptical framework, as if all thinking has to lead away to Christianity. It's going from one extreme to another:

Christianity = (allegedly) non-thinking fideistic acceptance of Christian truth-claims

Non-Christianity = acceptance of rational inquiry and critical thinking, which is (allegedly) inexorably opposed to Christianity, since the latter is simply blind faith
It's a false dichotomy, because Christianity does not have to be - i.e., it is not inherently or inevitably - an unthinking, irrational, blind faith proposition or lifestyle. If I thought that, I certainly wouldn't be a Christian myself; not for a second. And I would be right along with the atheists mocking such a silly worldview. Are we to believe that it is the essence of every form of Christianity: that we can never think for ourselves or control our own lives?

Of course this is untrue. It is only a warped form of Christanity-in-practice that would advocate such silly things in the first place. But just because Theresa was involved in one such form doesn't mean that all of us must throw the Christian "baby" out with the corrupt Christian "bathwater." It simply doesn't follow. That's why stories like these generally have little relevance to what anyone should believe vis-a-vis atheism or Christainity, because the reasons given are usually insufficient to cause anyone to rationally solve the "big questions" of philosophy and theology.

Then it was Spong, starting with "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism." That was an eye opener. I could still believe without taking everything so literally. Reading Spong was like a breath of fresh air.

Thanks for the confirmation of my point, Theresa: you gomfrom evangelical Christianity and not thinking at all about it, right to John Spong: perhaps the most notoriously liberal supposed Christian (but actually a rank heretic from our perspective). There is a lot of in-between that was passed over. Spong is not the only "thinking" alternative to a fideistic, mindless version of
Christianity, by any means. People follow the thought that they are exposed to. And not taking the Bible hyper-literally does not mean an automatic loss of faith. All that is, is a recognition that the Bible ought to be interpreted sensibly, just like any other literature.

I remember telling my friend (also a pastor's wife at the time) to read this book. Her husband saw it and demanded that she take it back to the store and to tell them she didn't know what she was getting. She didn't . . . she just hid it from him.

My approach is much different. If someone insisted on reading Spong, I would say that if they were truly seeking truth wherever it lies, that they should read someone who is opposed to Spong's liberal views, and see both sides of the broad argument, then make up their minds; not to just do it by reading the liberal theological slant as if it is Gospel Truth.

I still went to church after the divorce, but not to any fundamentalist bullshit church. I went to my friends' (from NLP) church. They were real people. The church was small and unobtrusive, real people offering real solutions.

I was unfamiliar with this "NLP." It stands for "Neuro-linguistic programming" [see the Wikipedia entry]. Apart from that, are we to believe that all fundamentalists and evangelical (or orthodox Catholic) Christians are not "real people" (note the use of the word "real" three times)? It is this sort of sweeping language that is not helpful to work through the issues. It implies, in the copntext of the overall deconversion story (very subtly) another false dichotomy: to be "real" is to be a liberal Christian or no Christian. To believe in actual orthodox Christianity is not quite "real." This is the usual skeptical saw about Christians being in a fantasy world; "pie-in-the-sky." Some are, indeed, but that ain't the whole ball of wax.

Then I discovered self-help beyond Christianity. Brian Tracy, he taught me to think for myself to an even further degree. He taught me that I am responsible for everything. He taught me about taking control of my life, not giving it away to someone or something else.

Who says that to be a Christian is to cease to have individuality or self-responsibility? This is a point to be disputed. We would say with St. Augustine that we were made to serve God, and it is only in doing so that we truly become ourselves. I don't deny that various "self-help" schools of thought or therapy or practices might be helpful, but I don't see why this should bring into question Christianity.

Peter McWilliams with Life 101 and Do It. Those books helped me along too. He said it didn’t matter what higher being we believed in, these books still worked, they still held truth. I am rereading Life 101 at the moment. It is still good.

They might be true to some degree; sure. Truth is truth. But the cavalier attitude to God, as if He is dispensable or optional, is the questionable premise.

Then I read The History of God and in doing so I discovered the history of man-made religion and I became disgruntled, felt like I had been sold a bill of goods. It was all man-made, a way to keep control over the masses, to lock people into a way of thinking to make their job easier. If you teach people how to think you can make them give you money.

Well, this is the Marxist, Feuerbach-type of analysis ("opiate of the masses," etc.), but since it is simply stated, not proven in any way, there is nothing here to analyze. One has to make some sort of argument to do that.

There were many others along the way and they all helped to break me free of religion in a box.
I am no longer a religious person. I am a free thinker.

But why? I haven't seen any reason here that would cause someone to question Christianity in the slightest. What I've seen are several false dichotomies, fallacies, and false premises accepted for who knows what "reason." They may be there; perhaps Theresa could provide elsewhere a more rational analysis (or has in fact done so), and that isn't her intent here. I realize that. But I'm simply showing that this particular piece offers no solid, cogent reason for rejecting Christianity.

I don't believe in a fundamental Christianity, I don't believe the Jesus-God connection, I don't believe the Bible to be true - in fact, I believe it to be a bunch of stories, compiled over the ages and bound into one book. I find it contradictory and a weapon that can be used to make any point or prove any side.

That's all fine and dandy. I look in vain for any reasons for why she thinks this way. One could cynically observe (this isn't necessarily my own view) that she simply substituted one form of blind faith for another. Neither view was particularly reasonable or grounded in evidences and factuality and solid reasons given.

I don't like reading the bible or hearing it quoted from. It makes me cringe when I hear scriptures, I've heard them misused and abused so much.

Because the Bible was abused by some, we should reject it altogether . . . makes a lot of sense . . .

I can't hear the beauty behind them. I can't see the lesson, I can't hear beyond the abuse.

Exactly. But why should Theresa think that her personal history of abuse is any sort of reason for anyone else to reject Christianity?

I don't want to hear the old fables.

Why should she think they are fables? Has she never read any of the abundant archaeological evidences in favor of the high accuracy of biblical descriptions?

It makes me feel sorry for those who believe it and stupid for having believed it. How could I have been so caught up in it all?

We Christians are all so stupid and pathetic, aren't we? It always seems to come down to that, doesn't it? We're ignoramuses and imbeciles and idiots; fed a bill of goods by unscrupulous manipulators. Yet I don't feel that way about atheists as a class at all. I simply disagree with their reasoning (or often, lack thereof, in dealing with Christianity, I should say).

I can't yet see Jesus apart from the bible banging religion. Maybe taken apart from all that there are good lessons and examples.

What does she suggest as a good non-biblical way to learn about Jesus, pray tell?

I don't believe that God talks to man or tells him what to do.

Why? On what basis did she move from believing that to ceasing to believe it?

I don't believe God listens to our prayers or has any connection with our day-to-day lives.

Why? I'm not interested (my own taste) in bald statements; I'm interested in intellectual justifications.

I don't believe in miracles, I don't believe God has a purpose for my life, I don't believe God comes down and rearranges things for us, I don't believe God saves some people (from catastrophes and from hell) and not others, I don't believe God can read my thoughts or direct my path.

What does He do? Just sit in a black hole for eternity? Is He there at all? Seems like He would have to do something, dontcha think?

I don't believe in anything like that anymore - heaven or hell, spirits, eternal life.

Yeah, I know. Why? No reason is given. Why should someone accept all this just because she said it? How is that different from the very things she has decried (blind faith, lack of critical thought, etc.)?

It was a slow and painstaking, gradual process. A lot of thought and reading went into each departure. It wasn't a blind, unthinking decision.

I believe her when she says this. I'm curious if she has actually given the reasons elsewhere. I'd love to see those.

I don't want anything to do with Christianity.

Then why write about it at all? Just ignore it.

I am not a Christian, not even an "American Christian." I live my life as an atheist.

Is it just practical atheism? In that case, the nmore accurate term is agnostic.

It seems like once I started questioning, and I questioned the church, religion, my beliefs all at the same time, I couldn't stop. One question led to another, one doubt expressed led to many more, one belief shattered rocked the foundation and more came tumbling down, one "rule" found to be untrue gave way to more.

People tend to follow whatever line of thought that they are exposed to at any given time. I've often pondered that, and its momentous consequences.

It was like I had a blanket, what I thought was a beautiful blanket, wrapped around me, protecting me from the elements. One day I noticed a loose thread and I picked and pulled at it and the blanket started unraveling. I tried to put it back, to weave it back in, but I couldn't leave it alone. I picked at it and worked at it and asked other people if they saw it and pretty soon, bit-by-bit, the blanket got smaller.

That's OK, I said, I still have this much left. So I cut off all the loose yarn and tucked in the loose end. But pretty soon the loose end worked itself out and started bugging me so I began the process again, pulling and unraveling until I got out the pieces that no longer worked for me. I cut off the excess and tucked in the loose ends for safekeeping.


Again, there is no intellectual content here to analyze or scrutinize, but I agree that this is how human beings approach things. It is usually in an all-or-nothing fashion. One extreme to another . . . once Christianity was criticized, it couldn't be that it had some good things in it; no, it had to be demonized as pure myth, stupid, fables, manipulation, etc. I don't find this to be compelling reasoning. The actual truth has a way of having far more "greys" and fuzzy lines than this black-and-white approach to reality.

Now my blanket was really small. I kept a hold of it like that for a while, but every time I'd take it out to use it that thread seemed to work itself out again. One day I couldn't stand it so I picked and pulled again, until the whole thing came apart.

I cut off a little thread and rolled it into a little ball. I kept it in my pocket for remembrance mostly. It couldn't be called a blanket anymore. It wasn't worth anything, it couldn't be made into anything, it was just there. If anybody asked I could say I have a little bit of it left, the starting piece of yarn, the foundation. But really, it was just a piece of yarn, unraveled, no meaning.

More of the same . . .

I was afraid of what people will say if I threw it all away. I was afraid to admit to myself that I wanted to throw it all away. I called it god but with little letters. I didn't use it for anything; I never took it out of my pocket. If somebody questioned me I said I've still got it. I chose to hang on to that part for awhile. I chose to believe in god for a little longer. But certainly not the GOD of before, the GOD of rules and regulations, the nosy one, the all involved one, the one who makes men weak.

Does God do that? That's news to me. I love following God. I don't find Him to be this projection of what some people are at all.

I chose to believe in a force outside of myself that kept things in motion from afar, one who set up the rules of the universe and lets us play them out. But then I saw that yarn hanging out of my pocket and I pulled out the last bit.

I thought she was an atheist? This sounds more like deism or even pantheism.

It is a wonderful place to be, free from the guilt and burdens of Christianity. I live my life fully and without question, enjoying the process of becoming who I am.

In conclusion, I see nothing whatsoever here to cause myself or any Christian who thinks about his or her faith and who integrates faith and reason, to question the truthfulness of their religion. If there is a more elaborate, reasoned version of this deconversion (as reference was made to a lot of thought put into it), I'd like to see it.

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