On the De-conversions of “True believers”

I read a lot of blogs. Shocking, I know. However, you may be surprised to find a section on my reading list that is quite unlike the rest. This section I have labeled “Anti-theology” (yes, it comes right after the “Theology” section) and it’s filled with sites like exChristian.net, De-Conversion.com, and What God Has Made Crooked.

Why? Because I learned a long time ago that the people worth listening to the most are generally your harshest critics because their criticisms usually contain some bit of truth worth pondering.

However, one of the most recurring themes I’ve run across when listening to and reading “de-conversion testimonies” has been the notion that the person who “de-converted” was, at one time, a “true believer”.

I’ve heard this more times than I can count so, in an effort to consolidate an answer to this oft-used phrase I want to spend some time on the whole notion that someone could be a “true” or “devout” believer in Christ one day (after years, decades in some cases. I’ve even read many testimonies from former deacons, pastors, even apologists!) and a “died again” heathen the next.

So here’s my simple response to those who claim to have been true believers:

No you weren’t.

Lets back up a second and examine why you claim to have been a “true believer” in the first place.

My guess is that your beliefs weren’t based on intellectual conviction of facts. My guess is that they were shaped more by your environment and the influence of those around you more than they were by your sincere efforts to study and understand what Christianity teaches and what the alternatives are (such as the paradox of infinite regression).

Whatever it was, your beliefs probably weren’t based on facts, since facts are required for a belief to have warrant (among a few other factors). In short, this is simply an epistemological issue, not a theological one in the vein of the “no true Scotsman fallacy“.

Oh you can choose to accept or reject Christ all you want. You can even claim to have been a Christian at one point and not at another point. In fact, I claim to have been a proponent of several incompatible religious and philosophical systems at one point or another in my past. I am merely taking exception with your assertion that you were a “true believer” or that “true believers” require blind faith as opposed to evidence1.

For example, you are obviously a “true believer” now in the theory of Darwinian evolution2 and I imagine you base your belief on what you deem as credible facts and evidence, not blind faith.

Some people3 do base their beliefs on blind faith, however we wouldn’t call them “true believers” no matter what they claimed to believe. We may call them fanatics and passionate, but we all know that fanaticism and passion can only get you so far before you are forced to rationalize and harmonize your belief with the rest of your life.

“True belief” requires much more than intense feelings, a deep desire, encouragement from others, a conducive environment, etc. “True belief” can only come from evidence, argument, and clear reasoning on a subject. That’s why “true belief” endures even when everything else (environment, people, etc.) is against it.

Or, as John so eloquently put it:

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. -1 John 2:19

  1. now, whether that evidence is, itself, true is another story []
  2. Don’t get sidetracked with the mention of the topic of Darwinian evolution right now, I merely use it as an illustration. []
  3. Theist and atheist alike. []
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30 Responses to On the De-conversions of “True believers”

  1. "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. -1 John 2:19"

    You call this eloquent?

    It sounds like a high school girl saying of a couple girls who left her particular clique…

    "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us."

    Don't you think your standards for eloquence need reevaluation?

    • The eloquence I was referring to here was after a lengthy line of reasoning wherein the philosophical ideas expressed through modern epistemology are succinctly captured in a text written nearly 2,000 years ago by a Jewish fisherman.

      I am curious; Do you claim to have been a Christian at one point in your life?

      • The eloquence you actually cited was as follows.

        "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us."

        I used to hear this in high school.

        Here is my own story. http://philstilwell.wordpress.com/2008/12/07/reas

        • Thanks for the link, it helps give me a good idea of where you are coming from here.

          After reading your story I have a few questions as it relates to this post.

          1. Why did you consider yourself a believer?
          2. What was the basis for your beliefs?
          3. Were they objective and fact-based?

          If they were objective and fact-based, what defeaters did you encounter that you found to be sufficient in making belief in the Christian God unwarranted?

          I ask because of a section in your story where you seem to object to the very notion of either objective truth or the human's ability to grasp it with any degree of certainty (from this statement: "I must comment on what I feel is the greatest overlooked truth when considering knowledge and belief; human minds are not well-equipped to assess what is true.")

          I also must wonder why your view of Christianity was to begin with since you later seem to dismiss the Christian search for truth by the claim "This is in stark contrast to the tacit Christian notion that all truths that matter are immediately accessible to nearly every human without much cognitive effort."

          I must ask where you got this notion since in my studies on the subject truth (or moreover the knowledge thereof) is never portrayed as something that is easily or readily obtained "without much cognitive effort". What led you to this conclusion? Is your conclusion here based mostly on an objective teaching found within Christianity or merely your subjective experience with a small subset of Christian believers?

          Finally, what is your definition of faith and how it relates to our epistemic noetic faculties?

          For example, I happen to agree with part of your statement above in that our ability to know something with 100% Cartesian certainty is impossible insofar as we are finite beings who lack omniscience. However I believe that we can posses "sufficient warrant" (vis a vi Alvin Plantinga's case for "Warrant and Proper Function") when it comes to certain propositions to constitute knowledge even though, by virtue of not being able to obtain 100% Cartesian certainty, some degree of our knowledge is based on a conclusion we must chalk up to a degree of faith. That is, faith is a conclusion or interpretation of facts under the view I am positing here, which I also believe (along with many, many orthodox Christians far more capable than I) is the picture of faith portrayed in the Bible.

          You seem to presuppose at the outset that faith is the antithesis to reason/knowledge which makes me wonder how you handle the problem of finiteness and lack of Cartesian certainty you posited in your initial paragraphs.

          Without falling prey to the arbitrariness you seem to rightly despise when it comes to those who would operate on "blind faith" I would like to know what objective basis you have for the questions above and particularly how they fit into the first 3 questions I have about your life and beliefs when you claim you ascribed to the Christian faith.

          • Hi Wes,

            Thanks for what seems to be genuine questions. Far too often I get the response that, if I had been a real christian, I would not have left the faith.

            When I was 7 my father explained to me the gospel of Jesus Christ. I got on my knees and tearfully asked Jesus into my heart. I remember many nights before I turned 8 that I would get on my knees by my bed at night, and beg the Lord to make sure he knew that I accepted his gift of salvation. (The ironic thing is that, most of those who now claim I was never a christian would have been assuring me then that Jesus heard my prayers, and that I was forever in his arms.)

            After my 8th birthday I never doubted my salvation until I was around 33. And I lived the life of a christian. I became a youth pastor, lead several souls to the Lord, and was a virgin when I married at the age of 23.

            I was dismayed at all the disagreement among christians on doctrines, even many related to redemption, so I taught myself greek and read through the greek NT 11 times as well as the Septuagint.

            While reading the words of the NT in greek resolved several textual problems, several philosophical problem disturbed me. I began to go around to pastors from various denominations with several questions, but was surprised when none of them could resolve what seem to me to be real logical contradictions in the basic concept of redemption and the idea that we are sinners.

            Then I began to examine and compare the "godless" with what I had been told the "godless" would be like. I discovered that I had been lied to. The "godless" were not evil, and did far better than most christians on various forms of "righteousness" such as gossip, sexual normalcy and honestly. (And I was going to a really great evangelical church at the time.)

            Finally, after 2.5 years of searching for answers and finding none, I began to accept my doubt and began to explore critical thinking. I was amazed at the way and speed at which pieces of life fell neatly into explanatory place. Every day I realized with ever greater salience the degree of deception I had been in.

            I'm going to leave you with that. If you do not believe that I was a genuine believer after all I've told you, I do not wish to waste my time with you and such arrogance. On the other hand, if you believe that I genuinely place my life in the hands of a Jesus I was convinced existed as do nearly all my former christian friends believe, perhaps we can talk. Was I a genuine christian?

          • "Then I began to examine and compare the "godless" with what I had been told the "godless" would be like. I discovered that I had been lied to. The "godless" were not evil, and did far better than most christians on various forms of "righteousness" such as gossip, sexual normalcy and honestly. (And I was going to a really great evangelical church at the time.)"

            I want to begin with this because I don't think I addressed it above since it wasn't in the scope of my initial article but it is a topic that does get drug into this discussion many times.

            Like Seth McDowell said in a recent debate with James Corbett regarding whether Atheism holds a sufficient basis for morality (http://bit.ly/chgM9D), I would never make the claim that atheists are more or less moral than Christians. Even though, by virtue of holding a true belief they SHOULD, as a consequence, be more moral such historically and experientially is simply not the case.

            That being said, I believe your final question, "Was I a genuine christian?", is worth exploring from a purely epistemological standpoint since that is what I am making the case from in my initial article which ends up in the quote from James I believe is true.

            What do you think constitutes a "true Christian"? I would make the case that a "true Christian" isn't necessarily marked by an existential experience, emotional conviction, or even the degree they want to believe something is true. I would argue that the mark of a true Christian is someone who possesses a factual basis for their beliefs. That is, they first understand their beliefs to be true in an objective sense before and additional beliefs can have a suitable foundation. Anything less, I believe, would not fit what I believe is an excellent model for the description of the manufacturing of "true beliefs" in general as outlined by philosophers such as Plantinga. I also think this accords with CS Lewis's statement in Mere Christianity (http://bit.ly/9RVdx8) on how this basis for Christian belief is better able to weather the assault of our own desires when we wish what we believe weren't true.

            So, without any arrogance, I simply want to start with the few questions I posed above as a basis for your claim to have believed Christianity in the first place.

            What made you believe it was true in an objective sense and what have you since learned that you believe poses a sufficient defeater to your previously held belief?

            Additionally, I am curious how you went about finding answers and what your criteria was/is you believe sufficient answers would have to meet.

            As a bonus I am genuinely curious what philosophical problems you found to be disturbing.

            Sorry for the multitude of questions and I thank you in advance for your patience. I'm genuinely interested in and looking forward to reading your response.

          • Wes, you have not answered my conditional question. "Was I a genuine christian?" I'm far too busy engaging others who are open-minded than to deal with someone who will eventually resort to "you were never a true christian".

          • It sounds as if you've already made up your mind regarding my conclusion without regard as to the context.

            Tell me, in your mind is "open-mindedness" predicated upon my answer to your question?

  2. That's what my questions were meant to help me determine as I would like to know whether your faith in Christ was based upon historical facts that you held to be objectively true.

    I have read your story and you seem to equate faith with wishful thinking and not something that can be reconciled with rational thought so it makes me wonder how, if your faith was not based on historical and objective evidence, you could claim to have had an objectively "strong" (or even a "weak") faith.

    I have no doubt or trouble accepting that you at least thought your faith was genuine and strong, but the point I made in my initial article is that subjective and existential grounds for gauging faith simply isn't enough.

    To put it another way, a cult member could claim to have a "strong faith" in their cult's delusion and yet still lack "true faith" because "true" connotative an objective notion of absolute truth by which we can measure their beliefs so that (again, per Plantinga) while they may strongly believe a falsehood, the fact that their belief was formed in an environment that wasn't geared towards the production of true belief precludes their being able to claim to be a "true believer".

    Did you walk and talk and act like a Christian? Sure, that's not what I am arguing here (nor could I not having known you in person during the period you claim to have believed). However the real question is what you understood/understand faith to be and what your faith was built upon (which, according to your de-conversion, was later proved false).

    Finally, I have to ask: Why does it really matter to you so much? I mean, you claim to not be a believer now, correct? So why care whether you are denounced as never having believed in the first place? Is there something from your past "as a Christian" you think is worth holding on to? Why spend so much energy and get so upset when people like me fail to validate your claims of having been a Christian? What do you honestly expect people like me to believe especially given your present state?

    "Was I every bit the christian you are when I believed?"

    Depends, did you believe there were logical, scientific, philosophical, historical, biological, mathematical, etc. reasons that make belief in God far more reasonable than any other belief system in the world?

    • Then just tell me what you would have told me had you seen me on my knees before god as a 7-year-old boy when I was begging the Jesus to make sure he redeemed me with his blood on the cross.

      • The same thing I've told my 4-year-old daughter who wants to emulate her mother and I:

        "Your beliefs may be genuine and I am thrilled you are seeking this line of inquiry. But you are going to have to wait until you get older and can truly understand what it is that we believe before you get baptized and are recognized as a member of the Body of Christ."

        Actually we give her bits and pieces of the above in bite-sized chunks whenever the issue comes up (like in this episode, http://bit.ly/b5jRPf) but the thrust of what we are trying to communicate is captured in the above statement.

        This is actually an area my wife and I have spent a lot of time with and we've decided that the greatest damage we could do would be to treat our kids as if they were "true believers" merely based on an emotional commitment or strong desire to mimic what she sees us doing.

        Out of curiosity, when you were a Christian, what church/denomination were you a part of?

        • Sorry, but we do not have enough in common to have a productive discussion. The best to you. -phil

          • Out of curiosity, what do you believe we lack in order to have a productive discussion?

          • Something definably this side of the arrogant…

            "So here’s my simple response to those who claim to have been true believers: No you weren’t."

          • Arrogance is defined as the notion that one is better in terms of personal value than another person. Arrogance is not, in and of itself, merely the belief that one's beliefs are superior or more truthful than another's.

            Friend, I do not think of myself better than you and I apologize if I've given that impression in any way.

            So moving back to your statement above in response to my question from earlier in regards to what we lack to have a productive discussion. In your estimation, I would have to accept your claims of having been a "true Christian" in order for us to have a productive conversation? In other words, I would have to agree with you BEFORE we could discuss the matter?

            Is that your position or have I misunderstood you?

          • You seem to believe that I could never have known what it is to be a real christian. Is that your position?

            If it is, my time is better spent engaging those with more open minds.

            I'm sure you understand.

          • I do not know what you did know or believed or what your beliefs were based on in order to form an objective opinion either way. That was the purpose of my initial inquiry regarding the object and origin of your beliefs.

            I'm still not sure why you insist that my conclusions in regards to your claim of having been a "true Christian" show me to be close-minded.

            I'm still curious, is your criteria of open-mindedness predicated upon whether or not I agree with you or not?

            That's certainly an interesting way to argue..

          • Which of these do you believe?
            1. Phil could have never been a christian.
            2. Perhaps Phil was a christian.
            3. Phil was a christian.

          • In the absence of a sufficient defeater for my initial stated belief (which comes as a conclusion of the epistemological case I laid out above) and also given the present evidence (that is, your present state of unbelief), combined with a lack of competing evidence to substantiate a claim to the contrary. I would have to say that I find it highly unlikely that you were ever a "true Christian".

            You might (and probably did) buy into the Christian culture, however I question what your beliefs were rooted in (that is, their substance. What exactly did you believe?) and how they were formed (were they based on objective facts or on subjective experience, emotion, etc.).

            So now I'm curious, does my disagreement with your claim to have been a "true Christian" make me closed minded?

            And I'm still curious as to why this issue matters so much to you? What do you have to gain by proving that you once held a belief that you no longer hold to be true?

          • It is simply a matter of being profitably engaged in discussion with too many others that at least hold #2 above. I'll focus my attention on those more open-minded.

          • So, to sum up your position:

            1. You prefer to only hold discussions with people who are open-minded.

            and

            2. You only hold those who agree with you to be open-minded.

            Sounds rather circular and self-sustaining to me.

          • And it sound to me that you are treating open-mindedness as if it was a discrete quality rather than coming in degrees. You have demonstrated that you do not have the degree of open-mindedness that would match my self-determined goals.

          • The reason I stated your position in my own words was actually to get a better understanding of what it is you believe.

            So, your only revision to my original formula is that you believe the degree a person is open-mindedness is predicated on the degree that they agree with you?

            That still sounds rather subjective and ad-hoc.

            Or, am I missing an objective basis for your determination of open-mindedness?

          • In the absence of a sufficient defeater for my initial stated belief (which comes as a conclusion of the epistemological case I laid out above) and also given the present evidence (that is, your present state of unbelief), combined with a lack of competing evidence to substantiate a claim to the contrary. I would have to say that I find it highly unlikely that you were ever a "true Christian".

            You might (and probably did) buy into the Christian culture, however I question what your beliefs were rooted in (that is, their substance. What exactly did you believe?) and how they were formed (were they based on objective facts or on subjective experience, emotion, etc.).

            So now I'm curious, does my disagreement with your claim to have been a "true Christian" make me closed minded?

            And I'm still curious as to why this issue matters so much to you? What do you have to gain by proving that you once held a belief that you no longer hold to be true?

  3. Apply your reasoning to any other area of life, and no one can ever stop believing something that they really believed in. True belief PRECLUDES assimilating newly discovered evidence which causes re-evaluation of what you once would have given your life in defense of????

    So an Amazon tribal person who once believed that the sun revolves around the earth, who is shown through diagrams and scientific language he understands, then stops believing that and then believes that the earth revolves around the sun, DIDN'T REALLY BELIEVE IN THE FIRST PLACE THAT THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE SUN????

    It's ridiculous isn't it? And yet that is the same faulty logic you are applying to us former christians (in my case, a Th.B. from Multnomah Bible College, several years as a missionary in Europe, and 46 years as a witnessing, praying, worshipping, fervently passionate evangelical.

    If you apply your logic to all of life, no held belief can ever change, and if it does, it was never a true belief. The only infallible test of true belief is DEATH. If you can make it to the grave without ever denying a belief, then that proves it was "true". There is NO OTHER WAY to prove whether the belief was geniune, according to your test of belief.

  4. Pingback: Was I ever saved in the first place? | Reason To Stand

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