I was recently sent the following challenging response to a previous post regarding the deconversion of those who once claimed to be Christians:
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 EARTH????
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 genuine, according to your test of belief.
I started penning a response but it quickly grew past the size that could be comfortably included or contained within a comment field. So I’ve chosen to include my response below and post it outside of my normal post schedule. Enjoy!
You raise some interesting questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them in the following.
I think it would be a useful exercise to step back and define what we mean by terms such as belief, faith, and knowledge. Generally these terms are the concern of epidemiologists and admittedly there is not, strictly speaking, widespread consensus even among them.
Since greater men than I have been exploring this subject longer than I have been alive I must apologize in advance for any confusion I may inadvertently bring into the discussion and encourage you to, instead, seek out works by epidemiologists such as Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Flint, etc. if you seek a more academic discourse on the matter.
At any rate, I’ve written elsewhere in regards to how beliefs are formed and would like to simply cite the following from Alvin Plantinga’s “Warrant” series as the basis of how “true beliefs” are formed:
A belief has warrant (and can thus be considered true) if and only if:
1. it is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly,
2. in a cognitive environment sufficiently similar to that for which the faculties were designed,
3. according to a design plan aimed at the production of true beliefs, when
4. there is a high statistical probability of such beliefs being true
With that definition in place I would like to turn to your underlying question of objectively claiming to have held a belief or not. Specifically I would like to examine the case of the African bushman you mentioned above.
I freely accept that the bushman held a belief in the sun’s rotation around the earth and that he believed such a belief to be true. However one factor was working against him and at least one more, I believe, likely played a part in working against him which caused his resulting belief to not be true and thus not to constitute knowledge.
1.) He lacked the epistemic faculties (or access to the proper epistemic sources, rather) required to detect the truth regarding the relationship of the earth and the sun.
2.) He lacked an environment that was geared towards the production of true beliefs. That is, his culture more than likely played a role in the continuation of the belief that the sun revolved around the earth. Thus the environment he was a part of was not, strictly speaking, wholly interested in the pursuit of truth and thus not geared towards the production of true beliefs, at least in this instance.
Absent these crucial pieces we can see that there was a clear breakdown in the epistemic process which, while producing many other true beliefs, failed to obtain to the production of a true belief in this case.
Now I want to apply the same criteria to the subject of whether a person who no longer believes in Christianity (or Christ moreover) ever was a Christian in the first place.
This is a fairly complex subject and I apologize if my initial treatment of the issue failed to be as well defined as it could have been.
Let me begin by saying at the outset that not being omniscient I cannot, of course, know what epistemic warrant you or anyone else who has since renounced their once-held belief in Christianity has had access to. That is, I do not know how your belief was formed, what it was formed on, or how it was sustained for such a lengthy amount of time. However I am curious since, as a person who holds Christianity to be objectively true, if sufficient defeaters were to exist (along with sufficient positive competing explanations) for the facts Christianity is based upon (specifically the resurrection of Jesus Christ) then it would stand to reason that no one ought to be a Christian and we ought to prefer the competing explanation over the one we currently hold.
Were you a believer at one time? I believe you were, and I would further concede that your actions at least appear to back up your claims. However this does not answer the question as to what your beliefs regarding Christ were or were based on. Many times I run across even professing Christians who are unable to clearly articulate what they believe much less why. If these believers were to renounce their faith tomorrow I would be hard pressed to make a case of their ever truly having held a clear and objective belief in Christ in the first place.
Now, to switch gears slightly.
So far I’ve dealt with this issue primarily from an epistemological and philosophical standpoint. However I would like to turn to the theological standpoint since I believe it also has some bearing in this discussion. After all, Christianity is not merely about the cold acceptance of facts, but also work of a being we hold to have objectively occurred at one point in history which opens the door for a real relationship with this same being.
I’m speaking, of course, about Jesus and his work on the cross. Now I’m not sure where you’ve come from theologically, but what I am going to outline I believe is a fairly orthodox position ascribed to by most of the major creeds down through Christendom.
What saves a man?
Is it merely our mental assent to a cold hard fact? While I believe such a mental assent and acceptance of at least a bare minimum of facts is required (such as the ones outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), I do not believe that our mental assent to the facts alone is what saves us or brings us into relationship with Christ. What saves us is the righteousness imputed unto us from Christ in such a way as to be irrevocable . Such an event, I would maintain, is also an irreversible event in time in much the same way as the decision to jump off of a cliff or walk through a door.
So the question becomes: Could you have been imputed Christ’s righteousness at one point in the past and still be saved even though your current belief structure no longer affords the same degree of warrant you once held? Possibly.
You see, one of the curious things about mankind’s ability to form, change, and reform beliefs is that while we do grow in our epistemic capacity and acquisition of new beliefs (and rejection of previously held beliefs) we don’t reject ALL of our beliefs. If that were the case we would never be able to grow at all since we would merely be in a constant state of flux.
The same holds true when it comes to Christianity and it all hinges on how our beliefs in Christ were formed and what our basis was (if any) for the rejection of those beliefs.
We must also keep in mind that when 1 John 2:19 was written, there weren’t such things as cultural Christians who had grown up on the church. Believers in that day, for the most part, either accepted or rejected the claims of Christ’s objective historical actions and claims. In John’s case the people who “went out” were (according to the context of the letter) not even claiming what Paul proclaimed as a minimum criteria of one being a Christian in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and were, instead, attempting to essentially hijack the Christian religion for their own ends (and we later see from the Gnostic movement that many were unfortunaly successful in their efforts).
So, the answer to “was I ever a Christian in the first place” is a lot more complex and more often than not it cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”, even by the person asking the question. The evidence of a person’s present state of unbelief, while making it very hard to accept that the initial state of belief hard to accept, is ultimately not a question that is of no import if asked of a fellow human.
You see, the final question here must be directed at God.
It is his answer that ultimately matters and if you no longer believe that he exists then I suppose you will have to wait until you meet Him (or not) after you die in order to ask Him.