exapologist's de-conversion story

About my background and de-conversion: I should preface what follows by saying that, given the context, I’m going to focus almost exclusively on the intellectual side of my Christian life, although of course it was integrated with a significant emotional and spiritual life.

I converted to Christianity in my late teens, but evangelism led to questions, questions led to doubts and wanting answers, and these in turn led to apologetics. The apologetics thing lasted longer than expected -- 15 years (i.e., the whole span of my Christian life) and grad school pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy. I felt that my calling was to “be a witness” in academia by becoming a philosophy professor at a local university.

Given the likely audience of my testimony, I should probably belabor the extent to which I was an “apologetics nerd”. Within the span of my life as a Christian, I read just about anything worth reading (and not worth reading) in apologetics – aside from books that argued against theism and Christianity, probably about 120 or so books and who knows how many chapters and articles on philosophical, historical, and scientific apologetics, starting with McDowell and ending with Plantinga, Swinburne, and Alston (and “the new kids on the block” in philosophy of religion, such as Michael Rea, Dean Zimmerman and Michael J. Murray). For many years, I’d listen religiously to Greg Koukl’s “Stand to Reason” apologetics radio show on the weekends. I was an acolyte of William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland. I read and internalized all their books. I read just about all of Craig’s debates, and attended a couple of them. I would drive for hours to attend weekend apologetics seminars when either of these two was going to be there. I even ordered virtually all of the J.P. Moreland tapes out there, and listened to them over and over until they were worn out. I used their arguments in papers for undergraduate philosophy courses. My dream was to study and get an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics under J.P. Moreland at Talbot. I partially fulfilled that dream by attending Talbot for a year (however, since Talbot doesn’t have fellowships or TA-ships for their graduate students, I couldn’t afford it for very long, and so I transferred to a “secular” university to finish my graduate studies). I was a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and read their journals (Faith and Philosophy and Philosophia Christi) religiously for several years. I would even spend many a beautiful day in musty library basements reading past issues of philosophy of religion journals.

Ok, now that I’ve bored you with the extent of my nerdiness, I should get back to the point of this exercise: my de-conversion. I must say that the experience was very similar to Thomas Kuhn’s account of the causes of paradigm shifts in the sciences. Over the years, I had internalized and mulled over the overall case for Christian theism. But over these same years, there were questions for which either the apologetic answers had prima facie but ephemeral persuasiveness, or otherwise were never satisfactorily addressed at all. The slow cumulative effect of the problems reached critical mass and hit me like a ton of bricks about the time of last Christmas break. I was absorbed in grad school, and so I hadn't noticed the implications of previous things I gradually accepted:

1. First, I realized that all of the deductive arguments from natural theology that I had accepted at one time or another had significant shortcomings (e.g. invalid; valid, but had at least one dubious premise; valid, and maybe sound, but it doesn't get us all the way to theism).

This was a major blow, because I had a common practice of "modus tollens-ing" any serious objection to theism in general or Christianity in particular by appealing to the soundness of such arguments: "If objection x is sound, then theism (or Christianity) is false. But theism (or Christianity) isn't false (because sound deductive arguments A1-An show otherwise); so, objection x must not be sound." With the realization that I no longer accepted *any* of the deductive arguments, I saw the objections in a new light.

2. This put pressure on me to reconsider the "cumulative case" approach to the arguments, and to construe them as inductive arguments, or as clues to an abductive inference to the best explanation. The problem, though, is that once you construe all the evidence as inductive or abductive, then *all* the evidence, pro and con -- must be put into the "pot" -- and the posterior probability (when construed inductively) or what constitutes the best explanation (when construed abductively) rises or falls with each piece of data. So, for example, suppose we construe the cumulative case inductively, and take the "theistic” clues to be the contingency and apparent fine-tuning of the universe, religious experience, beauty, and the irreducibility of mental properties. Well, this evidence by itself may get us a probability of around .5 or .6 – or to be generous, say .9. Unfortunately, you can't do the final calculation – i.e., you can’t determine the posterior probability of theism (or Christian theism in particular) until you throw in the contrary evidence – e.g., problems of religious diversity, religious ambiguity, the evidential problem of evil, etc. But when you do that, it sees to me that the posterior probability goes well below one-half.

3. That was enough to put me in spiritual limbo. But the straw that broke the camel's back was when I read several of the "Third Questers" of the historical Jesus, of which the apologists are currently (and, I was to find, opportunistically) speaking of favorably – indeed, some of them are “Questers” themselves (e.g., Wright and Witherington). Of course, I had no illusions that these folks accepted the total conservative evangelical picture of Jesus, but I was told that they were supposed to show that the extremes of the Jesus Seminar on the one hand, and the earlier form and redaction critics on the other, were way off on Jesus, and that on the contrary, once we put Jesus in his context of 1st century Palestine, we can see that a lot of the material in the Gospels makes sense, and is thus probably authentic. These guys are "mainstream", and their conclusions are careful and judicious.

Now prior to this, I had read a bunch of the historical apologetics literature (Blomberg, Craig, Habermas, Boyd, Marshall, etc.), and had internalized their case for the reliability of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus. But nothing they wrote prepared me for what I was about to read. It turns out that the normal, mainstream view about Jesus, for at least the last century or so, is that Jesus is some sort of failed eschatological prophet, on a par with John the Baptist. And there’s a good reason for why it’s mainstream: their case is very careful, judicious, beyond persuasive -- I think anyone who reads their arguments yet remains unpersuaded is either not very bright or resisting the evidence to the point of cognitive dissonance. Such an interpretation follows even if you take the New Testament documents largely at face value. E.g. (i) Jesus repeated prediction of “the end” in his generation, (ii) the successive watering down and back-pedaling re: this prediction, and of Jesus' obvious eschatological message of repenting in light of the kingdom being "at hand", in subsequent Gospels and the epistles, as the years went by and the end didn’t come; (iii) the fact that Jesus hung out with John the Baptist and accepted his baptism of repentance in light of "the coming wrath" indicates that he accepted John's eschatological message (as opposed to the message of the Pharisees and the Saducees), (iv) the fact that the earliest church believed that Jesus taught an immanent apocalyptic end; (v) the fact that the bulk of Jesus' parables are fundamentally about an eschatological kingdom (interesting how John's gospel, written much later, drops the predictions, the kingdom-of-God language, etc., which would make sense if the first generation had died, and the message was morphing into a non-eschatological one); and on and on.

The message was as obvious as anything, but I tried to look for answers. I read up on the responses from all the theological camps, from the conservatives (Blomberg, Marshall, McKnight, Wright, Witherington) to moderates (Meyer, Brown) to the Jesus Seminar. This only intensified the problem. The conservatives gave either dismissive or implausible responses; the moderates admitted the problem but denied that theses passages are authentic; ditto with the Jesus Seminar.

And suddenly, my faith was gone. As much as I wanted to, I just could not believe anymore. Anyway, that’s my basic story. If anyone likes, they may email me to talk more about it.