My thanks to Lydia McGrew for making me aware of a recent piece she wrote on deconversions away from Christianity. Reading it it does sound a little bit like a reply to my post where I explained my own deconversion from Christianity (‘My journey away from Christianity’). This reply will make more sense if you read Lydia’s piece first so here’s the link:
Now I’m obviously not going to defend every deconversion story (I don’t know them all for starters) or even all the ones Lydia had in mind but I will respond to what seems to apply to my own story.
Lydia explains why she does not like the excuse (if it really is such a thing) that a person might say they didn’t want to deconvert but they ended up doing so after struggling with their faith and God did not meet their expectations in some way since it is making God to blame.
I’m not sure what to make of that. I can honestly say I don’t think I’m blaming a being I don’t believe exists (that really would be quite irrational and require more help from a psychologist than a theologian). I became convinced, and still am, that the New Testament (NT) suggests some genuine degree of companionship between God and a follower of his not just in the afterlife but in this life also. Numerous Christian theologians of late have emphasized this by drawing attention to Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven sayings of Jesus (eg. N.T. Wright). I also explained why I thought this was so due to what the NT seems to suggest about the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Even as a Christian I was always a strong believer that God is not our slave and not bound by our orders or whims. Yet, at the same time, I believed in the companionship of God. But as days became weeks and weeks became months and months became years there came a point where I had to admit that I had absolutely no companionship with God at all. And I want to be clear it wasn’t just the experience of that that caused the deconversion. It was reflecting and thinking about it that caused that. I could not reconcile many NT passages with my own experiences. I could not understand the value of a God who is willing to die for us and yet appears to play hide and seek when we need him the most. What good is his presence in heaven where there will be no suffering? The time for it is in this life. And even if God would keep it from us for some mysterious greater good then I think he is asking us to be fideistic about our faith.
So, in brief, I cannot believe in a God who essentially requires us to believe in him in only some academic, rational way and who denies us genuine experiential companionship in this life.
Now, I know, this will leads many Christians to reply that I am requiring God to meet a standard he does not have to. Fair enough. So I am accepting that the fault is mine if that is the case. I’m not blaming God. If it turns out my requirement of God was wrong then I’ll take that on the chin when the time comes. I’m okay with that. I don’t want to be with, or worship, a being who claims to love us and yet who cannot (or will not) be with us in our sufferings. Being with someone like that would not be heaven to me – that would be hell. So, if the Christian God does turn out to be real he will not be punishing me by denying me heaven. He will be saving me from being in the presence of a being whom I hate with all my being. So, if Christianity does turn out to be true, I will not be uttering Bertrand Russell’s immortal words but rather choose my own. I’m not sure I need say anything in fact. God isn’t to blame I just don’t want to be anywhere near him if that’s the God who turns out to exist.
Now, even though I have huge respect for Lydia and the form of Christianity she adheres to, I do take some offense at the charge that my deconversion story is due to having too “childish” a view of the Christian God (as if I’m describing some parody of God Christians really don’t believe in). I am annoyed at that charge because I have spent enough time in churches, Bible Colleges, study groups, talking to top Christian theologians and philosophers, and reading Christian literature to get my criticism spot on. Even though in recent years my church experience had been in charismatic churches most of my years were in non-charismatic, and even anti-charismatic, circles. Even then, the VAST majority of Christians gave testimony to their experiences of God in their lives and how they could see him at work. They talked about God teaching them, comforting them, answering their prayers, and guiding them. Christianity is soaked with such accounts of God at work. A God who is active in the world is the bog standard view of God in Christianity and is not some childish parody. Even in the (almost Plymouth) Brethren church I grew up in talk of God in action in people’s lives was the default view. Now if this view of God is faulty then it appears Christianity is in a very bad position since most of its adherents have misunderstood their own religion and if that is the case that has serious implications for how badly God communicated himself in the Bible.
I know that Lydia would be the first to reject any charge of sounding fidestic in her response and she even says as much. But I think her response is open to that criticism. As Christians are generally quite prone to doing we get offered the God whose thoughts are above our thoughts and whose ways are above our ways. When God doesn’t make sense we have to put it down to our human reasoning limitations. This really does look like fideism is sneaking in through the back door here.
This is not in response to Lydia but, in the last 18 months, I have become interested in how disturbing some Christians find deconversion. This is something they clearly feel they cannot be fideist about. They must explain it. Most opt for the “You’ve not understood my God!” charge (see comments underneath Lydia’s post) which is interesting not least because Christianity has so many differing versions of what God is like for starters. I guess these Christians probably think most Christians throughout history were not real Christians but only the ones in their own little sect. Then you might get the ad hominem charge that your faith was never a genuine one. I laugh at that one. Or you get the ‘poor theology’ charge. This one usually comes from a Christian who has read less theology than Benny Hinn. I like asking such people what the most recent systematic theology is that they’ve read. (They’re unlikely to even know what a systematic theology book looks like!) Some of them haven’t even read the whole of the Bible either! I would suggest Christians get so uppity about deconversions because it resonates with the fact that they themselves have their own doubts and they spend a great deal of time trying not to think about them too much. That someone could have genuinely been a Christian, studied Christian theology deeply, and spent decades in church listening carefully yet walked away from it all bothers them profoundly. Yet, in this case, the fideistic wall filler isn’t enough. Instead we get a barrage of pretty flimsy responses ranging from logical fallacies through to plain old insults. This is why I won’t bother engaging with most Christians in comments sections anymore.
My thanks to Lydia for her piece.
My apologies for not making my reply more sequential. I started that way but it all end up in the mixer!! (Writing it at 3am probably didn’t help either!)