Psychologizing My Deconversion

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 5, 2009 in General Atheism

CalvinDude recently responded to my deconversion story in depth. His entire post is an attempt to psychoanalyze me on the basis of virtually no information at all, so as to avoid the truth – that I deconverted simply because Christianity was no longer rational to me.

Example:

I should note that small towns and [preacher's kids] do not mix very well, and it could be that this is where problems began for Luke.

And this gem, which literally made me laugh out loud:

It is clear that sexual ethics had a lot to do with Luke’s deconversion.

Ha! What? I don’t recall thinking about sex much at all during my deconversion. CalvinDude comes to this conclusion because I said I got depressed around age 19 because I wasn’t doing much with my life and watched porn alot, and because I also said that looking back, Christianity gave me “so many bad lessons about morality, thinking, and sex. So much needless guilt.”

But as it turns out, I wasn’t even watching porn any more by then. I had experienced a spiritual re-awakening before my deconversion and had gone “cold turkey” for over six months. I had also revamped the rest of my unproductive life. All this because of a spiritual encounter with “God,” by the way. Yes, I really believed.

It is a nice benefit of atheism that it doesn’t restrict you to ancient, barbaric beliefs about sexuality and thoughtcrime, but nothing could have been further from my mind as I spent months fretting about how everything I’d built my life upon was turning out to be a lie. Only much later did I start to explore what the implications of atheism were for morality or purpose or sexuality.

CalvinDude also accuses me of not looking hard for intellectual answers to my problems with Christianity, and again thinks my deconversion was all about sex:

None of that excuses Luke, however, for not having sought out those who could respond to any arguments he brought forward… he could have used the same internet he was surfing porn on to find answers to the questions he had.

Actually, during my conversion I spent lots of time online reading the very best Christian philosophical apologists – Craig, Plantinga, Swinburne, etc. – and no time watching porn. I even link to an article on Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument in my story, so I don’t know why CalvinDude thinks I didn’t read that kind of thing. In fact, for every page of atheist material I read, I consumed about 10 pages of Christian apologetics, because I desperately wanted to believe. The problem was that the atheist material made simple, plain sense, and the Christian apologetic material was intellectually contortionist.

Anyway, there you have it: yet another extreme attempt by a Christian to psychologize deconversion and do mental backflips to avoid the conclusion that some of us lose religion because we just don’t buy the arguments.

This reminds me of atheists who insist that Antony Flew – a major atheist philosopher who recently converted to deism – must be going senile. I’d like to say: Or maybe Flew converted because he was convinced by some of the arguments, as he himself claims.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Anselm April 5, 2009 at 11:33 am

Isn’t there some inconsistency between your criticism of “psychologizing” and your post “Good Reasons to Keep the Faith” back on March 18 where you appear to be psychologizing?

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Ryan April 5, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Good post. Although, I have to say I really do think Flew is not quite as sharp as he used to be. All of his old material that I read was sharp, consistent, and clear. I read his book about his conversion to Deism and was not impressed.

On the other hand, the issue is not who believes in God and who doesn’t. It is only the arguments which matter, and these I have not been impressed with, and I daresay an atheist who reads Flew’s book will feel the same.

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lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Anselm: Isn’t there some inconsistency between your criticism of “psychologizing” and your post “Good Reasons to Keep the Faith” back on March 18 where you appear to be psychologizing?

Great question, but I don’t think so. Some people convert for rational reasons, some for emotional reasons. Usually, some of both is involved. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that humans are hugely influenced by their emotions. In fact, I do some of this kind of “psychologizing” in my deconversion story, where I remember thinking that many of the gays who went to see Religulous with me probably didn’t convert because of intellectual studies.

What I think is not legitimate is to dismiss someone’s personal conversion story as an emotional reaction when they’ve taken great pains to explain their rational reasons for converting and also that emotion wasn’t a big player in their specific case.

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Danny April 5, 2009 at 4:13 pm

From what I have read, Antony Flew “converted” to deism based on his reading of intelligent design literature. Which is sad, given that ID is almost wholly without merit.

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Walter April 5, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Danny: From what I have read, Antony Flew “converted” to deism based on his reading of intelligent design literature. Which is sad, given that ID is almost wholly without merit.

It was my understanding that Flew converted to deism due to the Fine Tuning Argument.

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akakiwibear April 5, 2009 at 4:37 pm


Luke I have re-read you de-conversion story and again I reach the conclusion that it is hardly surprising, given the circumstances, that you became an atheist … plus I see parallels to my own spiritual development.

Why I am not surprised you became an atheist? Let me track this through your story – sorry this can’t be shorter!!

1) Small church roots. The theology preached and practised in many such churches is shaky to say the least. The scholarship base is not sound and oversight (peer review) is weak or absent.

Your journey into Mark’s small group illustrates the problem and adds the risks inherent in personality based groups lacking substance. His comment <i> He said he believed mostly for the “aesthetics of belief”</i> illustrates the point.

At this point I doubt you had acquired a sound theology although it sounds like you were living the message. Some refer to the difference between having Christ in your head (theology) or in your heart (love your neighbour life style). For some the “heart’ is enough, for some (you apparently) not.
Result – 1: The theology taught often does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny.
Outcome -1: Teaching which does not stand up to scrutiny, gets found out, sowing seeds of doubt or just plain disbelief.

2) <i> What I learned, even when reading Christian scholars, shocked me. The gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, by non-eyewitnesses … </i> Your being<b>shocked</b> further demonstrates the weakness of your theological foundations.

You highlight the point that you read Christian authors … this could have been a pointer to you that for many scholarly Christians what shocked you was simply “old hat”. They understood what the bible was and appreciated it’s limitations. Certainly they understood the problems with the literalistic inerrant interpretation – yet they remained Christian. For example the world’s largest church – the Catholics – do not see the bible in a literalistic inerrant light … indeed that is why some protestant groups will say that Catholics are not Christian … think about that.

Reflect on your reading of the bible before this <i>shocking</i> discovery. 4 gospels … Did you not ask yourself why not just one? You will have noticed the points of divergence between the gospels etc etc. Don’t you think those who evaluated the Gospels (during 2nd & 3rd century) and decided which to include (and which not) did not notice the inconsistencies?

Yet they put it together warts and all because it was not an historic text, nor a scientific text, it was a theological text. Yes some of the history is correct, and the science reflects the thinking of the day, but the canon was not presented as being an historically or scientifically accurate text.

You would not have been <i>shocked </i>, if you had been taught bible history and given a valid theology while you were growing up. But like you, I too was shocked when I discovered that the bible was not the literal truth.

Result – 2: Your early Christian education set you up for a big surprise.
Outcome – 2: You were <i>shocked</i> … and I bet a whole lot more, felt lied to, did not know who/what to believe … …

3) You don’t elaborate on what problems you had with a historical Jesus. Worth noting that scholarly atheists (not Harris Dawkins etc who are not theologians) like John Loftus acknowledge that Christ lived but tend to debate His status.

Without you explaining what aspects of discovering what is fact and what is fiction about Jesus were a problem for you; all I can do is surmise is that you came to the topic of the historical Jesus much as I did, thinking it was all the “gospel truth”. No it is not, but it should be understood in context – then it makes a lot of sense.

Result – 3 = Result 2

4)<i> I cried out with the words from Mark 9:24, “Lord, help my unbelief!” </i> yeah, me too. But first I had to un-believe the Sunday School theology I had carried with me for more than 30 years. Only then could I appreciate the scriptures and the life of Jesus and now my <i>unbelief</i> is being helped … but I am still on a journey.

You said <i> My dad told me I had been led astray because I was arrogant to think I could get to truth by studying </i> … say no more, my point (1). That said, there were roughly three distinct outcomes for your study
i) The bible is all true – if you start here your Dad was right, your study lead you from that “truth” … try to understand his position
ii) The bible is all lies – this is the atheist perspective. Like (i) it does not hold up to rational scrutiny.
iii) The truth lies somewhere between (i) and (ii). This is the rational position and when you really study it you don’t make comments that imply you see Islam and Christianity having different Gods.

Result – 4: You didn’t get God’s help to believe that which was not true, fai enough.
Outcome – 4: You did get launched on a journey of discovery and if you keep an open mind your prayer will be answered. You said <i> Each discovery only deepened my hunger for knowledge, but also my realization that humans know very little, and with little certainty.</i>

Start by recognising that “An unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account is the only method of preservation against the fluctuating extremes of fashionable opinion” Alfred North Whitehead

5) You say <i> I know what it’s like to think that what I believe, …. …. </i>. Yes you do and I bet you know the hurt that goes with discovering what you did.

Is it sad that so many churches set up their followers for a big fall? Is it sad that for many the path to an adult belief in God requires an atheist trip?

Result – 5: Certainly you discovered that the God of the literalistic inerrant teaching you received did not exist.
Outcome -5: You concluded therefore that there is no God, <b>did you consider that perhaps God was just different from what you had been taught?</b>

Sala kahle -peace

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Jeff H April 5, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Hey Luke, I’ve left a few comments here, but let me just say quickly that I also have had similar experiences as you. I am a recent de-convert myself, and did so in my early 20s. I also understand the incredible conflict that reason and emotion can produce – where you desperately want something to be true, but reason tells you it isn’t. This guy doesn’t seem to get that, but one thought I had when going through the process of de-conversion was how silly I had been to think that all atheists were just trying to willfully deny the truth. It’s their way of giving us a subtle insult – like we are so stupid that we would rather throw away an eternity in heaven just so we can…watch porn. I learned quite quickly that such comments are best ignored. Most of them won’t get it even if you try to explain it to them :P

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lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Jeff H: It’s their way of giving us a subtle insult – like we are so stupid that we would rather throw away an eternity in heaven just so we can…watch porn.:P

Hahaha, I know! I was a bit too busy scrambling to keep my entire universe and purpose and life plan from collapsing to think about whether or not all this would justify porn-watching. Sheesh. :)

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lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 7:37 pm

akakiwibear: Result – 5: Certainly you discovered that the God of the literalistic inerrant teaching you received did not exist. Outcome -5: You concluded therefore that there is no God, <b>did you consider that perhaps God was just different from what you had been taught?</b>

Yes, I did. For a while I was a “liberal Christian”, then a “vague theist” or maybe a deist. I read some stuff defending those options but they weren’t any better than arguments defending Biblical inerrancy or Jesus’ resurrection. So eventually I had to give those up, too.

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Anselm April 5, 2009 at 8:20 pm

You say in your post that you desperately wanted Christianity to be true.  That brings to mind a thought experiment I would be interested in getting your response to.  There is a theological position known as “post-mortem evangelization,” which posits that people will get a chance after death to choose their destiny with full knowledge–thus, “lack of evidence” is removed as an excuse for rejecting God, and “everybody gets into heaven who can stand it” (so to speak).  If you died tomorrow, discovered that Christianity was indeed true, and were presented with these two choices, which would you choose?:  (1) enter heaven to worship and praise the God of the Bible forever; or (2) be annihilated and cease to exist (we’ll assume the “annihilationist” interpretation of hell for this experiment)

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lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 8:46 pm

What concerns me about theology is that they are not at all interested in whether the predictions made by a theological theory are tested and come true, but whether or not it “feels” right to the theologian or fits with the particular verses the theologian chooses from the Bible.

Given annihilationism, my choice above is easy. I choose (2).

You do not realize how despicable and evil your concept of God is until you’ve stepped outside the brainwashing. If the Biblical Yahweh exists, he deserves not praise but contempt.

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akakiwibear April 5, 2009 at 9:46 pm

lukeprog: Yes, I did. For a while I was a “liberal Christian”, then a “vague theist” or maybe a deist. I read some stuff defending those options but they weren’t any better than arguments defending Biblical inerrancy or Jesus’ resurrection. So eventually I had to give those up, too.

Interesting – what were you reading? I found that the Catholic approach to the bible answered my questions in a very rational way, and triggered other research. Once I understood the context of the bible my criticism of it ceased – did not mean I had all the abswers, just a rational framework that withstood scrutiny.

The so called “liberal” evangelical scholars seem to remain trapped in their literalistic frame of reference (as does Loftus at DC) and as aplogetics add little to the debate other than fancy verbal gymnastics.

I find it interesting that while we asked similar questions you have end up with common sense atheism, while I got to common sense theism.

sala kahle -peace

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lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 10:27 pm

akakiwibear: Interesting – what were you reading? I found that the Catholic approach to the bible answered my questions in a very rational way

Most of the Christian apologetic arguments are actually arguments deism anyway. So I was reading Craig, Plantinga, Swinburne, etc.

How have you come to see the Bible in a way that makes Christianity rational to you?

Also, can I infer that you are a New Zealander living in South Africa?

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Anselm April 6, 2009 at 4:36 am

lukeprog: What concerns me about theology is that they are not at all interested in whether the predictions made by a theological theory are tested and come true, but whether or not it “feels” right to the theologian or fits with the particular verses the theologian chooses from the Bible.Given annihilationism, my choice above is easy. I choose (2).You do not realize how despicable and evil your concept of God is until you’ve stepped outside the brainwashing. If the Biblical Yahweh exists, he deserves not praise but contempt.

Thanks, that’s very clarifying.  I’ve always thought that many Christians spend too much time agonizing over the fate of the “lost,” when the lost wouldn’t want to be in heaven anyway.  If the door to hell is locked from the inside, they will be happy to leave it locked.

I’m curious–do you have the same contempt for the Jesus of the Gospels as you do for God as described in the Old Testament (assuming for purposes of the question that the Bible is true)?

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Democritus April 6, 2009 at 6:18 am

Luke, I’m also a recent de-convert, and I also stopped believing in the Christian God after a rational, critical analysis of many forms of Christian theology, comparing it all the time to other worldviews, mostly the metaphysical naturalism, to find Christianity lacking in logic and evidence.

The thing is, sex isn’t a factor in my deconversion, since I’m happily married to a Christian woman, and I have no intention of cheating on her, or leaving her to be with anyone else.  Quite the contrary, actually; my desire is to stay faithful to her until my last breath, because I love her, not because some God arbitrarily told me to do so.

In the same way, “sin” wasn’t a factor in my deconversion. I’m probably more ethical now than I ever was as a Christian; seeing life as a finite, “by-chance” phenomenon gives you a whole new appreciation of it. I wasn’t looking for “excuses” to sin, since, by Christian standards, I probably sin less now than I did before.

Also, my deconversion wasn’t something I desired. To be perfectly honest, I still don’t want to be an atheist. But the facts, evidences, and logic leave me no choice. I can’t be anything else now, and be true to myself, and to the critical thinking I’ve developed for years. I had no choice but to leave the faith I had, because, if I had any other choice, I would have stayed in the faith I devoted all of my life to.

What I wanted to say is: you’re not alone, and you know that these kinds of comments are not due to any “failures” on your part, but rather “wishful thinking” by those who can’t see that their faith is not rational. They have to look for some other reason, maybe to even convince themselves. I’ve been on both sides now, and I can testify that I did that myself a lot of times. Not anymore, though. ;-)

Thanks for this blog too… one of the more instructive blogs on the atheistic/secular “worldview” I’ve found so far.

All the best!

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lukeprog April 6, 2009 at 7:42 am

Anselm: If the door to hell is locked from the inside, they will be happy to leave it locked.I’m curious–do you have the same contempt for the Jesus of the Gospels as you do for God as described in the Old Testament (assuming for purposes of the question that the Bible is true)?

But in your example above there was no hell. That’s a different situation.

It’s hard to say anything about Jesus. Even if the gospels are mostly accurate, they each present a very different Jesus. In general, I’m in favor of love, simplicity, non-violence, compassion, and forgiveness. Eternal torment for those who don’t believe (which was new with Jesus), not so much. Thoughtcrime, not so much. A moral system based on the (false) belief in free will, not so much. Cutting off body parts that cause “sin”, not so much.

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lukeprog April 6, 2009 at 7:49 am

Great story; thanks for sharing it!

And thanks for the compliment. Please do comment to let me know which posts are most helpful.

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anselm April 6, 2009 at 8:04 am

lukeprog: But in your example above there was no hell. That’s a different situation.It’s hard to say anything about Jesus. Even if the gospels are mostly accurate, they each present a very different Jesus. In general, I’m in favor of love, simplicity, non-violence, compassion, and forgiveness. Eternal torment for those who don’t believe (which was new with Jesus), not so much. Thoughtcrime, not so much. A moral system based on the (false) belief in free will, not so much. Cutting off body parts that cause “sin”, not so much.

I should have specified that after the door to hell is shut, annihilation follows (at least in the thought experiment I constructed).  (Although if hell is eternal but does not mean “physical-type” torture, just separation from God, I suspect most atheists would choose that over eternal existence in the presence of a God they despise).  So it really appears that “lack of evidence” is somewhat irrelevant, since even if you had evidence sufficient in your mind to convince you that Christianity was true, you would still reject it and choose destruction instead–is that correct?

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kuri August 26, 2010 at 9:40 pm

@anselm
are your questions for the purpose of justifying the contempt you hold for non-believers?

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