The Evidential Value of Conversion/Deconversion Stories. Reviewing Mittelberg's "Confident Christianity" Part 7

I'm reviewing Mark Mittelberg's book Confident Faith. [See the "Mark Mittelberg" tag below for others].

I want to digress a bit for this post to discuss the value of personal conversion/deconversion stories. [Nomenclature: A conversion story is one which an atheist or nonbeliever becomes a Christian. A deconversion story is one in which a Christian becomes a non-believer or atheist.] In Mittelberg's book, conversion stories seem to play an important role. He discusses the apostle Paul's Damascus Road conversion experience, who was a persecutor of the church then a believer. Then there's Augustine of Hippo's conversion, from out of the pagan religion of Manichaeism. Jumping to our time he tells us of Lee Strobel, an atheist who turned evangelical, and the late Nabeel Qureshi, who was a Muslim but later became an evangelical after discussions with David Wood, who has his own shocking conversion story from atheist to evangelical Christian (which has 825K hits so far!). There is Mark Mittelberg's own story in this book, from a doubter to a confident Christian. He mentions other nonbelievers who became Christians, like Simon Greeleaf, Frank Morison (A.K.A. Albert Henry Ross), C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell. Mittelberg also exploits the late Antony Flew's story (pp. 144-145), who was an atheist philosopher but came to believe in a deistic creator of the universe (but nothing more).

Mittelberg never tells any Christian-to-atheist deconversion stories. He just tells atheist-to-Christian conversion stories (plus Antony Flew's story). Should we fault him for not telling any deconversion stories? Yes, I think so! For it means he's not offering readers any evidence to consider, but rather trying to persuade them to believe based on the conclusions others reached. His faulty line of reasoning goes this: since atheist person X became a Christian, you should too. Why should that matter? He had asked readers to follow the evidence for themselves. But by putting forth several stories of skeptic/atheist conversions to Christianity he's not actually presenting any objective evidence for the readers to consider. Instead, he's presenting the conclusions of others about the evidence, which is arguing by authority, the very thing he questions later. He had also asked readers to follow logic. But by adopting the conclusion of others just because they adopted it is not logical. Why not just present the evidence? The stories are a propaganda technique designed purposefully to persuade.

In any case, if Mittelberg considers atheist-to-Christian conversion stories as some kind of evidence, he needs to share a few Christian-to-atheist deconversion stories, or else, explain why the later deconversion stories have very little, or no evidential weight to them! If he's honest that is. If nothing else, he should provide an Endnote acknowledging this additional issue with a reference for readers to look up. But then, who said apologetics was an honest enterprise? Not me. Not from what I see.

What are these conversion stories evidence for? That people change their minds. We already knew this. But it's worse than that. For as soon as Mittelberg uses conversion stories to bolster his case, it means he has to allow atheists to use their own deconversion stories to persuade people. When he does, it will provoke a debate over which side has the advantage, and Mittelberg will lose the advantage. All by themselves then, the fact that people change their minds provides no evidential weight in and of itself. But upon considering all other relevant things, ex-Christian deconversion stories have the evidential advantage.

Deconversion Stories

There are many Christian-turned-atheist deconversion stories, like those of authors Dan Barker, Hector Avalos, David Madison, David Chumney, Bart Ehrman, Valerie Tarico, Robert Price, Richard C. Miller, Marlene Winell, Edwin Suominen, Joe E. Holman, Stephen Uhl, William Lobdell, Jason Long, Charles Templeton, Kenneth Daniels, Bruce Gerencser, and myself to name a few off the top of my head (apologies to the many others I failed to mention). To highlight one of the less conspicuous deconversions is Dustin Lawson, a former protege of Christian apologist Josh McDowell. McDowell goes around to churches telling them to try to disprove Christianity. Well, Dustin listened to him and followed his advice! Guess what happened? ;-) Here's a picture of us together, the apostates that apologists William Lane Craig and Josh McDowell would like to forget!

Here are other links to Ex-Christians and another one with testimonies by ex-Christians. Probably the most comprehensive listing can by found on Leaving Christianity.

Our stories are not just personal feel good stuffs. We have the arguments too. Richard Carrier, Graham Oppy, Keith Parsons, Kenneth Daniels and my own reasons for not being Christians can be found in the Internet Infidel section Why I Am Not a Christian.

Telling and Assessing Deconversion Stories

Books addressing deconversion stories include Edward Babinski's Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists and Beyond An Absence of Faith: Stories About the Loss of Faith and the Discovery of Self, edited by Jonathan M.S. Pearce and Tristan Vick.

Books written by Christians on deconversion stories include Dr. Ruth Tucker's, Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief, (Downers Grove: IVP), 2002. She gave a talk on her results summarized here.

As a aside, Ruth Tucker, James Sennett, Terence Penelhum and many others have struggled seriously with doubts. In one place in her book, as a seminary professor, Tucker was contemplating her own doubt and wrote, “There are moments when I doubt all. It is then that I sometimes ask myself as I’m looking out my office window, What on earth am I doing here? They’d fire me if they only knew.”(p. 133) Now that's some serious doubt! In an unpublished work James Sennett sent me, This Much I Know: A Postmodern Apologetic, Sennett confesses to have had a faith crisis. In chapter one, he wrote, “I am the one who struggles with God. I am the Reluctant Disciple.” “Once I had no doubt that God was there, but I resented him for it; now I desperately want him to be there, and am terrified that he might not be.” His faith wavered as the result of contemplating the mind-brain problem. During this crisis he said, “Sometimes I believed. Sometimes I didn’t. And it seemed to me that the latter condition was definitely on the ascendancy.” The most recent statement from former apologist Dr. James Sennett is that "It would not take much to turn me into a Buddhist -- Theravada, that is." He has since told me he now adopts the view of Christian Universalism, that in the end everyone will be saved and in heaven. So he's not doing much arguing any more but enjoying life with his wife and playing a mean guitar.

Another Christian book on deconversion stories was written by Dr. Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Baylor University Press) 2008. Since they focused on my deconversion story and dealt with the testimonies of Ed Babinski, Ken Daniels, Harry McCall, Charles Templeton, Robert M. Price, Dan Barker, Farrell Till, and others, I engaged his findings with a blog post on Why Apostates Leave the Church. McKnight and Ondrey added something none of us said was a factor in walking away from Christianity. Based on nothing but their "own intuition" they suggested “the demand put on one’s life by Jesus, by the orthodox faith and by a local church’s expectations can provoke a crisis on the part of the person who wants to go her or his own way. I am suggesting that behind some of the stories is a desire to live as one wants, to break certain moral codes that are experienced as confining, and that were either forgotten when telling the story or were an unacknowledged dimension of the experience.” Indeed, “one might summarize the entire process of leaving the faith as the quest for personal autonomy, freedom and intellectual stability." WTF?

James S. Spiegel's book, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief echoes the ignorant claim made by McKnight and Ondrey, that we become atheists because we want to live immoral lives. I will be debating Spiegel on the reasonableness of religious faith in Indianapolis, come April. Since the only evidence for this claim is the Bible, I examine Psalm 14:1, which says "The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does." Right here. As to rejecting Christianity in order to live a life of personal autonomy goes, I'll bite the bullet. Hell yeah! I reject Islam for its ignorant and barbaric views of science, democracy, racism, women, gays, and apostates, so I stand in rebellion of that god concept and its religion, although that's not the only reason. I likewise rebel against the Christian religion, although that's not the only reason. I edited a "fantastic" book on what Christianity has done and continues to do to innocent people around the globe, titled, Christianity is Not Great: How Faith Fails. There is nothing wrong with rejecting a religion or a god due to ignorant and barbaric views of science, democracy, racism, women, gays, and apostates. The problem is Christians don't see their religion honestly but as filtered through centuries of gerrymandering.

Telling and Assessing Christian Conversion Stories

One thing we can do is assess Christian conversion stories for their substance. We can ask whether the atheist was a knowledgeable atheist or not, and whether the atheist convert is merely an extension of a rebellious youthful period, such as was the case with David Wood. We can assess whether the new covert was convinced for good or bad reasons (something WE care about). So here is a small sample:

- Mark Mittleberg. I'm doing so with regard to Mittelberg's doubt-to-confident faith story. My conclusion is that he never really was honest in reassessing his faith since he never treated his faith as an outsider would, a non-believer, a non-Christian. That thought never occurred to his mind. What he did was to give way to his primary instincts to do whatever he could to confirm it.

- Antony Flew. To see a scathing indictment of how evangelicals exploited Flew, read psychologist Valerie Tarico's essay Two Liars for Jesus and an Aging Philosopher, where she argues evangelicals took advantage of Flew "by manipulating and then speaking on behalf of an elder with diminished capacity." That point never made it in Mittelberg's book though, even though the essay Tarico cites was written for the New York Times in 2007, six years before Confident Christianity was published.

- C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel (the big three) are discussed by Edward Babinski right here. I consider Ed to be the expert in conversion/deconversion testimonies, having written a fantastic chapter on the so-called Uniqueness of the Christian Experience everyone should read, and edited a book of deconversion stories titled, Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists. Of Lewis, McDowell, and Strobel he says,
I have read the conversion stories of well known Christian apologists like C. S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel which made me wonder what the value was of their proclaiming themselves to have been "atheists" prior to converting since none of them appear to have converted primarily for intellectual reasons, nor do they appear to have had much knowledge about the Bible or Christianity prior to converting (Lewis being an exception, since I'm sure he knew far more about the Bible than McDowell or Strobel prior to converting but Lewis was also never a biblical scholar so much as a lover of fantasy, as he admits), so they all strike me as relatively easy marks for apologetic salesmen and their arguments, which is probably about all that the latter two read prior to converting.
Several Factors to Consider

When assessing the evidential weight of deconversion stories over conversion stories there are several factors to consider.

1) What reasons are given for the change of mind? Christian stories lack depth for the most part. See Ruth Tucker and Scot McKnight's books on this. See also the Pew research on Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind. Mittelberg admits "the particular faith path [i.e., method] we choose can have a great bearing on what beliefs we end up embracing." (p. 148). Right that! If Mittelberg is an important intellectual and he doesn't use a good method to reasses his faith, such as the outsider test for faith as I've mentioned, and if he doesn't offer good reasons for remaining in the fold (to be seen later), what does that say about almost everyone else? Christian conversion stories are usually emotionally related with high hopes of the promise of actually walking and talking with a god! Others were raised to believe, something Mittelberg himself admits isn't a good way to come to faith. They are usually practical atheists in the same sense that everyone is a practical atheist. I mean really now, if Christians really believed people were going to an eternal conscious hell upon dying (still the dominant view) how would they behave, how hard would they work at evangelism?

2) What is the trend for these kind of stories? The trend is from conservative to moderate to liberal to agnostic to atheist. Let that sink in. It isn't in the reverse direction, and that's very significant.

3) Sheer numbers and percentages of these numbers are important. How many of these stories are there? Probably the most comprehensive listing of deconversion stories can by found at Leaving Christianity. Where is a corresponding site of avowed atheist to Christian conversion stories?

4) How much was known about that which what was rejected, when someone changed his or her mind? How many educated atheists became evangelical Christians (the aim of Mittelberg's book) compared to the many educated Christians who became atheists, like Dan Barker, Hector Avalos, David Madison, David Chumney, Bart Ehrman, Valerie Tarico, Robert Price, Richard C. Miller, Marlene Winell, Edwin Suominen, Joe E. Holman, Stephen Uhl, William Lobdell, Jason Long, Charles Templeton, Kenneth Daniels, Bruce Gerencser, Dustin Lawson, myself and so on. Where are the corresponding educated atheists who became card carrying inerrant evangelicals?

5) Who had to the most to lose if the adopted change of mind was wrong? We still live in a Christian dominated culture. There are social punishments to coming out as an atheist, loss of job opportunities, social approbation, love and marriage partnerships are limited, and so on. Furthermore, how much did the person who changed their mind have invested in the viewpoint being rejected (time, finances and reputation)? Confirmation bias is much stronger when there is more to overcome. The brain will have a much higher intolerance for considering anything that would hurt its host. Think also of hell, the cradle to grave threat. With such a high price for being wrong, people who abandon Christianity must be nearly sure they are right to do so.

The Most Significant Factor of Them All.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep, Luke 15:1-7:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The point of this parable is to say how much God cares about his sheep. He cares so much he will abandon the others to retrieve the one that got away. The evidence of so many of us who have walked away from Christianity suggests there is no such god. From my own experience and the other deconversion stories I've heard, we did not want to leave our faith. It was comfortable to believe. It felt right. We gradually went, crying nightly in anguish over the fact we were losing grip on a faith that gave us meaning and purpose, made us feel whole and complete as humans, gave us a moral foundation to live, and provided a much needed hope of seeing our loved ones again in a heavenly bliss. It was very painful to lose our grip.

Dan Barker described it like this: was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence...It was like spitting on my mother, or like throwing one of my children out a window. It was sacrilege.
It wouldn't have taken much for the same god who tells us he cares for the lost sheep to help us. But he didn't. This is especially true of those of us who are now convincing others to follow the same painful path toward the truth. Surely if there is a god who cares for the lost sheep he should've paid a little more attention to us. But he didn't even do that.


Bonus Related Links

--Five Definitive Answers When Christians Say We Never Were Christians.

--What Would Convince Atheists To Become Christians?; The Definitive Answers!


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