27 June 2014

Randal Rauser on the 'three wheeled car'

I still read Randal Rauser's blog, despite the fact I've opted to avoid directly interacting with him in the comments sections. I feel that on virtually every occasion, our conversations — to use Randal's words — have "generated more heat than light". He still writes some content I think is worth engaging though, in this case his recent article Three wheel Christianity.

In the post, Randal imagines someone named Oliver who is fed up with three-wheeled cars because they keep tipping over, and goes on to swear off cars entirely.
So Oliver has rejected cars based on his experience with the Reliant Robin, a three-wheeled economy car that was popular in 1970s Britain and which was famous for its fuel economy … and its penchant for tipping over in moderate cornering.
Randal's analogy here is that people seem to reject Christianity because of fundamentalist or literalist positions in their church:
Some other common catalysts for rejecting Christianity include biblical inerrancy, Calvinism, hell as eternal conscious torment, anti-environmentalism, political conservatism, and so on.
In each case the rejection of Christianity based on the reason given is like rejecting cars based on the three-wheeled Reliant Robin.
His point is that just as cars are not defined by the Reliant Robin, Christianity is not defined by fundamentalism, political conservatism, anti-intellectualism, or any of the myriad other reasons that frequently trigger people's deconversions.

However, I think that while Randal is certainly correct, he's not fully understanding the process of deconversion. I should qualify that I'm speaking wholly anecdotally here — from the perspective of my own deconversion and from innumerable conversations with fellow apostates.

While it's true that some specific issue may trigger doubt or skepticism, it's unlikely that any one such issue will be enough to completely dismantle one's faith. At first this may seem counter-intuitive; I've remarked that my deconversion began with the innocuous question, "Why are there so many religions?" Another deconverted friend of mine was spurred into skepticism because she couldn't see what the point of prayer is, perhaps in a nod to George Carlin's excellent satire of the practice:
  
But, as the Youtuber 'Evid3nc3' observed in one of his videos, religious beliefs work something like a computer network, comprised of many different 'nodes'. Network security is designed so that one, or even several, of the nodes can fail and the network can still remain intact. For a Christian, the 'nodes' could include:
  • Community 
  • Theological academia (the presence of intelligent, educated believers)
  • Biblical history
  • Apologetic arguments
  • Witnessing purportedly supernatural experiences
  • Experiencing purportedly supernatural events first-hand
  • A strong conviction, feeling or intuition that their god exists (see Plantinga's 'sensus divinitus')
And many more. Now, a devout Christian may find themselves cornered in an apologetic argument with an atheist. But they can easily take comfort in the fact that there are very smart, educated people like Alister McGrath, Francis Collins and William Lane Craig who are devout believers and, they might reason, could probably answer the atheist's arguments.

A Christian could likewise spend years believing they were possessed by a demon, had a near-death experience, or witnessed a miraculous healing — only to come to believe later on that a more parsimonious natural explanation is more likely. However, their confidence in the truth of the Bible, the reinforcement of their beliefs provided by their community, and their knowledge of philosophical arguments for God's existence could easily preserve their faith even as those other 'nodes' break down.

Even Randal, in his book on Heaven, avoids directly answering the question of whether Christians could really be in 'Heaven' if they were mourning the loss of their loved ones to eternal damnation or separation from God. But while (at least in the book) he seems to be content to leave the question unanswered, that in no way has undermined the broader network of his beliefs. 

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In my experience, what generally happens in deconversion is that several of the nodes have already been weakened; I can't tell you how many times a recent deconvert has told me something like, "Oh yeah, I had doubts about all kinds of things for years!" The shattering of one node leads to a sort of domino effect, in which the other already-weakened nodes crumble and the network of belief is shattered.

This means that — and again, I must qualify that I can only speak anecdotally here — not only is the process of deconversion more complex that Randal is giving it credit for, but many deconverts dabbled in liberal theology before deconverting. Heck, given my own experience, I've often half-joked that liberal theology is a gateway drug for atheism. I was raised in moderate Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, went full-blown evangelical, and then spent a couple of years steeped in more liberal theology before it became clear that Christianity not only didn't make sense to me, but that I was investing an extraordinary amount of intellectual energy trying to rationalize it. The day I realized I didn't owe my beliefs anything was a liberating awakening indeed.

I should mention, too — and this is again an experience I've heard echoed from many other deconverts — that I spent a great deal of time studying other religions. Ed Brayton has quipped that studying other religions is one of the best ways to lose your faith in the religion you were raised with, and I think he's right. Comparative religion had powerful effect on me, allowing me to divorce myself from my ethnocentric viewpoint and treat my own beliefs as though they were no more special than any other. So it's not just that many apostates have considered more liberal Christian theologies — in many cases they've considered other religions entirely.

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A truism about Christianity is that, as a religion encompassing two billion living followers and spanning two millennia, it is an umbrella under which a staggering diversity of opinions can be found. One could spend their entire adult life reading all the popular and academic literature espousing multitudes of interpretations of Christianity and still only capture the tip of the iceberg. A frequent point of impasse between Randal and I was his contention that I am ignorant of sophisticated academic theology, which if I read would presumably answer my questions and criticisms before I even raised them. But my position is that it's simply unreasonable to expect anyone to read the multitude of differing viewpoints on the myriad subjects encompassed by one religion; one could easily devote a similar amount of time to studying the purportedly sophisticated academic theology of Islam or Hinduism as well. It's my belief that in any conversation, the interlocutors ought to be able to concisely articulate their own opinions, as no matter how well-read one pretentiously believes themselves to be it cannot be denied that the volume of unread material on all subjects will always be vastly greater than any of us can comprehend. At some point, you have to learn to think for yourself, lest you remain a perpetual agnostic in the most literal sense of the term.

This is why, I think, many deconverts refer to themselves as 'freethinkers'. It bears pointing out that only religion has coined a term for dissension from established doctrine: heresy. In my conversation with other deconverts, I've often found common ground in the fact that doubt was treated not as an integral component of rational inquiry and reasoned thought, but as an obstacle to be overcome because, in the end, the preservation of the faith — even if done with near-total credulity — is to be valued above all else. (I'm reminded of William Lane Craig's admonishment of a curious reader in which he laments that premature exposure to secular material is "potentially destructive".)

In my experience, most deconverts — even those from fundamentalist churches — are fully aware of more liberal schools of theological discourse. But when the core concepts underpinning one's faith have been fatally undermined, it doesn't matter; in fact, liberal theology just begins to appear like what it is: a convoluted exercise in post hoc rationalizations for untenable beliefs. The problem is not so much with the beliefs per se, but rather the method by which one arrives at them. Speaking personally, after spending some eight or nine years as a self-described 'theistic agnostic', it occurred to me that I could, with enough convoluted rationalization, make any belief I desired fit to the world. I could believe virtually whatever I wanted to about the nature of God, and nobody could demonstrate I was wrong. It's for precisely that reason that I frequently encourage Christians, usually with little or no success, to take the viewpoint of a Rational Agnostic — one with no prior commitment or assumptions about the truth or falsity of any religious claim. When one begins from the bottom up, following the evidence where it leads, it becomes much harder to arrive at theistic belief through reason alone. 

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The process of deconversion is usually long and complicated. It's not as simple as just picking a belief, like anti-evolutionism, and deciding that the entirety of religion fails because of the doctrine and dogma of a single church. Rather, singular issues like that create a cascade in which the nodes which combine to form the network of belief are dismantled, and a newer outlook is brought into play. One of the exercises I used to challenged myself in my religious days was to entertain the secular explanation, just to see where the assumption led me. In every case, I found that the universe looks precisely as we should expect it to if there is no God, no design, no transcendent purpose, no transcendent objective morality, no One True Faith. Once I had seen the elegant parsimony of such a view, no amount of liberal theology could bring me back. Moreover, and perhaps just as importantly, it was clear that I didn't need religion. A rich, purposeful, moral, and fulfilling life is mine to live, and not only did I come to believe that religion was unnecessary, but that it was ultimately antithetical to such a life. A life well-lived, I believe, is more easily attained when one is unshackled from the dogmas and doctrines of religious piety. As Carl Sagan said, it is better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, no matter how satisfying or reassuring.

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