Other Worldviews

Case Study: Deconversion

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/2017

Some skills are easier caught than taught.

In my February Mentoring Letter to you, I taught you how to deal with apparently daunting charges raised against Christianity by breaking the process down into steps. This move simplifies the process, allowing you to focus on one thing at a time and deal with different parts of an issue piece by piece.

Sometimes, though, offering an actual case study of a specific set of complaints against your convictions is a good way to learn how the process works. That’s why I decided to walk you through the process using a rhetorically aggressive challenge to Christianity that I came across recently. The effort may help you by providing some answers to the specific points of the challenge, but it may also help you to absorb the process of how this is done—again, the “caught versus taught” concept.

I say “rhetorically aggressive” because I do not think the issues themselves are especially substantive. However, to a casual reader they may appear that way since they’re embedded in a “deconversion” story—an account of a Christian who became an atheist. Stories like these have a unique dynamic since they come from someone who had once been in fellowship, yet still found Christianity wanting for some reason.

A Deconversion Story

Deconversion stories are daunting. This one is especially so since it purports to tell us not just why a former Christian changed his mind, but why people like him will never be converted again. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. That sort of thing.

The story I have in mind is summed up in the article, “Why the Gospel Doesn’t Work on Deconverts,” written by Neil Carter. You can read it for yourself at patheos.com. 1 Your first time through might make you uncomfortable, though. Carter is articulate and the challenge sounds compelling. That’s where our system comes in.

If you recall, I told you to first clarify the claim, what I called “the big idea.” Get a fix on exactly what’s being charged or asserted. What’s the specific point the challenge is meant to persuade you of? Second, list the reasons the person thinks his charge against your view is legitimate. This is the “because” factor. Your friend is right and you are wrong because of something. What is that? Finally, do an assessment taking one point at a time asking if the reasons support the big idea.

That’s the system. Pretty straightforward.2

Carter uses Tim Keller’s best-selling defense of Christianity, The Reason for God, as a foil to organize his misgivings. My main concern here is not to defend Keller—he’s perfectly capable of that himself—but to assess Carter’s argument.

Now to the big idea. What does Carter want you to be convinced of—or at least be considering—once you have finished reading his story? He actually states it twice, nicely bookending his article fore and aft with the same sentiment.

In the first paragraph Carter says that even though he and other deconverts “gave our hearts and our lives entirely over to Jesus, yet in the end we still found [the evangelical] belief system lacking.” In his last line he concludes, “We left because we discovered it was the belief system itself that was broken, not we ourselves.”

That’s the big idea. Now to our second step. What are the reasons Carter thinks Christianity is “lacking”? In what ways is it “broken”?

First, Carter says, he tried Christianity and it didn’t work—“Been there; done that,” as he puts it. Second, since “everything you do is wrong” the game is subtly rigged with antiquated ideas of sin and guilt to condemn everyone, invalidating even the most moral among us. Third, the appeal to “have faith” in the midst of doubt is anti-intellectual and entails question-begging regarding the Bible’s inspiration. Finally, the advice to “join a church” is an invitation to hang with people who often act like scum because they’re constantly being told “they are scum” (point two). [emphasis mine]

According to Carter, then, Christianity is “lacking” or “broken” because of these concerns. Of course, I’m sure Carter has much more to say about his discontent with Christianity than what he’s written in this article, but I want to simply take this as a stand-alone piece since that’s how many will read it.

Negative Noise

Before I dive in, let me give you a general tip for navigating discussions like this. Discipline yourself to ignore the negative noise.

In parleys about emotionally charged issues, especially spiritual ones, it’s not unusual for disparaging, derisive, or sarcastic language to creep into the conversation. In Carter’s case, phrases like “the belief system they are trying to sell us,” and “even on our deathbeds we would have to simply trust that we weren’t sold a bill of goods” are part of the rhetorical gamesmanship meant to subtly color the discussion.

Don’t take it personally and don’t be distracted by that kind of chatter. Whether you’re reading an article or having a conversation, try to tune out the negative noise. In the long run, the rhetorical “spin” doesn’t count in the assessment. Sidestep anything that sounds snarky or snide. Let it go and focus on the substance.

“Been There; Done That”?

The mere existence of people like Neil Carter is unnerving for Christians, “like flies in the ointment of evangelical theology,” he says. Describing how “sold out” for Jesus that deconverts once were he writes, “We held back nothing and committed every fiber of our being to loving and serving Jesus. We did everything exactly the way we were supposed to.”

There is particular power to testimonies of a changed mind. Atheist Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, has his own Christian deconversion story he opens with when he debates Christians. Bart Ehrman, the bestselling author and aggressive critic of Christianity, followed a similar path. But so does atheist-turned-Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace and Lee Strobel. These testimonies cut both ways.

So, what do we say to people who try Christianity and then walk away saying it simply does not work for them? That’s a hard question to answer.

Human psychology is complex. People disagree on spiritual things for a wide variety of rationales, many that have nothing to do with reason at all. Something persuasive to one will not convince another. It’s hard for anyone—including the person himself—to sift through all the relevant factors. A whole range of rational and psychological factors are in play.

Sometimes people find Christianity wanting because of unmet expectations. A popular slogan during the Jesus Movement was, “Jesus is the answer,” which sounded fine until one wit asked, “What is the question?” In a similar way, whenever anyone asks, “Does Jesus work?” I say, “That depends. What do you expect Him to do?”

Jesus “works” for some things, but not for others. He does all He was intended to do, but He promises nothing more. Jesus will save you if you trust Him for it, but there is no promise He will save your marriage, or your children, or your business. If you count on that, you may be disappointed.

Some people are disenchanted with Christianity not because they expected too much of Jesus, but because they expected too much of themselves. They thought salvation depended on them in some sense. Instead of trusting God’s grace, they trusted their own goodness. But that will always sink their ship.

Here is what I want you to think about with deconversion stories in either direction (Christian to atheist or atheist to Christian). The issue to focus on is not how really convinced someone was in the past and how genuinely unconvinced they are now. The issue, rather, is the reasons that they think justify the change.

Instead of being distracted—and possibly discouraged—by the strength of someone’s emotions regarding his old beliefs, we need to focus on the strength of his reasons for rejecting those beliefs. In the final analysis, that’s all that matters, so let’s see how Carter’s reasons fare.

“Everything You Do Is Wrong”?

Carter writes, “Reformed folks [Calvinists, like Keller] enjoy reminding us of how faithfully they love things that ceased being cool centuries ago.” He calls it a kind of “chronological snobbery” in reverse where we inappropriately import cultural values of the past—like human depravity and the need for repentance—into the present. “The Christian faith is at bottom an anti-humanistic faith,” he writes, since it teaches that “people are fundamentally broken and...need saving from themselves.”

But it’s worse. The game is subtly “rigged” so no one can win on their own. We must repent not only of the bad stuff, but also of the good stuff we do attempting to save ourselves. This “invalidate[s] the moral fortitude of everyone alive...You can get all of the answers right and still fail the test.”

Two thoughts here.

One, it is not chronological snobbery in reverse to say something that was universally true 2000 years ago is still universally true today. The idea of something being outdated may work in the fashion industry or in technology, but it has no bearing on the issue of moral or spiritual truth. A notion may turn out to be false, but not simply because it has gone out of fashion.

Two, the real question is whether or not man is and always has been fallen—sinful and guilty, needing repentance and forgiveness. Yes, you can get all the answers right and still fail the test because getting the answers right is not the test. Salvation is not based on scoring high on a theological pop quiz or following all the rules, but rather on humbly beating your breast with the tax collector of Jesus’ parable saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Lk. 18:13).

Carter makes much about pastors making us feel guilty. It’s not the pastor’s aim, though, to make us feel lower than we are, but rather to help us take stock of what most of us already know is true—that something is morally wrong at our core. Indeed, if we were not deeply aware of our own need of forgiveness, it’s hard to imagine how the offer would be appealing to begin with. Offering water to a person who’s not thirsty is a waste of time. Yes, maybe some of our guilty feelings are fabricated. But all of them? No, pastors are not manufacturing guilt; they are pointing out blame that is already there, fault that we already know is ours.

As for the game being rigged, all systems of law require full compliance. No amount of moral fortitude atones for moral failure. There is no law in any legal system that one can break with impunity without being held responsible for the violation. And obeying most of the others doesn’t make up for the broken ones. Carter might disagree we are under such a law, fair enough. But it’s not trickery. It’s not rigging the game.

This alleged liability at the core of Christian religion, then, is the claim that, as Jesus pointed out, sinners need to be rescued (Lk. 5:31–32) since no one is good save God alone (Lk. 18:19). The question we’re faced with here is fairly simple: Was Jesus right? Are we guilty or not?

We certainly feel guilty about a lot of things—if we’re morally healthy (only psychopaths never feel guilty). True moral guilt is not based on feelings, of course. You can do bad without feeling bad (like those psychopaths). But do we have good reason to believe we are guilty, feelings aside?

Chesterton famously observed that original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved.3 One might ask why the atheists’ complaint about evil is so pervasive if humans are not in the habit of doing evil. Our belief in human depravity is not anti-humanistic, but properly realistic.

“Try Not to Think So Much”?

Carter writes, “There is nothing morally inferior about demanding that things make sense, or requiring that claims be supported by external evidence”—this in response to Keller’s appeal not to wait for every doubt to be vanquished before making an intelligent decision for Christ.

Regarding Carter’s basic point, I agree entirely. It’s proper to ask for good reasons. His application here is a bit surprising, though, considering his article is a response to Keller’s book. In The Reason for God Keller argues—as others have4—that the basic storyline of Christianity actually does make sense, on the main, and he provides abundant reasons for thinking so.

Are there unanswered questions? Of course. However, Keller’s point is that we are justified trusting God for what we do not know precisely because of the things we have good reason to believe we do know. There is nothing anti-intellectual about this. Atheism itself is famous for its own inexplicable and wildly counter-intuitive outliers—everything came from nothing, life came from non-life, consciousness came from matter, etc.5

Nevertheless, Carter claims, “This is almost certainly why the apostle Paul made it clear that the Christian message will always appear as foolishness to some—he knew good and well that what he claimed was absurd. He simply believed it anyway.”

This is simply an unfair reading of Paul. Yes, Paul warned his readers that, in Carter’s words, “They’re going to think it’s baloney, folks.” True enough. Paul readily acknowledged that Christianity would appear absurd to some.6

Paul himself did not think it absurd, though, mere nonsense simply to be believed regardless of the facts. Instead, he consistently made appeal to the evidence, famously stating that if Christians were deluded at critical points, like the resurrection, then “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). These are not words you’d expect from a man advocating leaps of blind faith.

There is more evidence of Christian thoughtlessness, though, Carter says. It has to do with the way believers (Keller, in this case) appeal to the Bible. He raises two complaints.

In response to Keller’s point that in the absence of “watertight arguments” we can still trust a “watertight person,” Carter says:

If we haven’t yet been given sufficient reason to believe that the story of Jesus is based in reality, what good would it do to encourage us to trust that Jesus wouldn’t lead us astray? How would we even know what Jesus says in the first place if not for the book that we’ve just finished telling you we haven’t been convinced tells the truth?

Here, I think, Carter has a point. If he has considered the substantial historical evidence for the life of Jesus of Nazareth and still concludes that the story is not “based in reality,” then we’re at a standstill on that point. As I said earlier, different people respond in very different ways to the very same evidence, and there’s not much we can do about that.

Carter’s second complaint, though, is misguided. He says it’s circular to appeal to Jesus for evidence of the Bible’s divine origin since one must quote the Bible to do so, thus presuming what must be proven.

After quoting Keller—“I take the whole Bible to be reliable...because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible”—Carter responds, “How do you know that Jesus subscribed to the infallibility of the Bible? Because the Bible says he did? Forgive me, but the circularity of this evokes genuine laughter.”

Laugh if you like, but it is not necessarily circular to believe the full inspiration of the Bible because Jesus in the Bible said it was inspired. There are actually two ways to make this point. Here is the circular one: The Bible is inspired by God because the Bible says so, and if God is the author of the Bible then He would not lie. Notice that this version presumes as evidence for its conclusion the very thing it needs to prove, thus making it circular. I know of no one who argues this way, however, certainly not Keller.

The second way is to approach the Gospels just like one would any other primary-source historical record of antiquity: as accounts of a person’s life—Jesus, in this case—written by mere mortals. If the history is shown to be sound, then we can have confidence of Jesus’ views about a host of things without making any presumption about divine inspiration.7

Simply put, there is no need to assume the infallibility of the Bible in order to be reasonably confident the Gospel authors accurately recorded what Jesus taught—including His views about the rest of the Bible. Using this approach, it is not circular to appeal from the Bible to determine Jesus’ views about the Bible.

“Join a Church”?

Finally, Carter thinks Keller’s advice to “join a church” is not at all helpful since recent scandals—along with personal experience—reveal “how routinely Christian community falls short.” Carter thinks “this is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy...If you keep telling people they are scum, they will conclude they aren’t capable of any better.”

This complaint completely mystifies me. It appears that Carter believes people are not fundamentally broken (his second point), but only act that way in churches because they are constantly told they are (his fourth point). This makes no sense. People who aren’t really bad, start behaving really bad, because they think they are really bad, because they’ve been told they’re really bad?

I don’t know what church Carter went to that routinely taught him he was scum, but in 43 years of church-going all over the country I have never heard such a thing. Sinners in need of repentance? Yes. Despicable, worthless filth? No. Jesus doesn’t die for scum. The price He paid was precious because that which He purchased was precious.8 If anything, the church in America leans much more towards approbation and love than towards denigration and law.

Ironically, Carter admits to finding the same evils outside the church as well (“human problems...plague every other religion and subculture on the planet, my own tribe included”), so I fail to see how this is a mark against Christianity. People are broken inside the church, and people are broken outside the church. On this I agree, but that sounds a lot like old-fashioned human depravity to me, despite Carter’s denials.

Has Carter shown that Christianity is “lacking,” “broken” in some vital sense? Ultimately you have to decide for yourself, but now you have a tool to help you do so. All it takes is three steps to make a fair assessment: Clarify the claim, list the reasons, then assess. Not that tricky.

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