What Was Your Pivot Point? Tom Flynn, Editor of Free Inquiry Wants to Know

At the request of my friend Fellow Feather, and with Tom Flynn's permission, I'm sharing the entire text of Tom’s recent Op-Ed to Free Inquiry readers. It contains a very interesting challenge, which might be the subject of a lot of discussion in the years ahead. I've asked people for the issues that initially caused them to doubt, which are multifaceted since there are so many reasons to begin doubting. In this new pivot challenge the request is to share the pivot moment when you decided to walk away from your faith. In his Op-Ed Flynn shares his own pivot point along with those of two others, Dale O'Neal and Bart Erhman. Fellow Feather shared with me still more stories, from Robert Ingersoll at the age of 7, from Howard Van Till, who was forced to wake up to a drastically different God, and from Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. Share your own pivot points in the comments if you wish.
What Was Your Pivot Point? by Tom Flynn

“If I had more time, I would have written less.” —Mark Twain

Were you brought up in a traditional religion that you subsequently left? If so, you’re like most Free Inquiry readers. Research also suggests you’re like most unbelieving Americans born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1980s. Among these cohorts (the Boomers and Gen X-ers, if one goes in for such labels), explicit unbelief—atheism, agnosticism, or humanism—was relatively rare. The only way religious disaffection could grow as rapidly among members of these cohorts as it did in the later twentieth century was for many who’d been previously religious to abandon their faiths. (Among Millennials and the so-called Gen Z, as I’ve noted in my “Chasm” editorials, religious unbelief is common enough that personal deconversion is a less significant phenomenon.)

For most Free Inquiry readers, stories of the “Faith I Left Behind (FILB)”—let’s call them FILBerts—are endlessly fascinating. It seems that they are also endlessly available.

This magazine first invited readers to share their own deconversion accounts in 2013. The result was “The Faith I Left Behind,” a landmark special feature that ran in four successive issues starting with February/March 2014 that later became a book of the same title from Inquiry Press. Finally, “The Faith I Left Behind” became one of Free Inquiry’s most popular departments, appearing some twenty-six times (and counting) since its debut in the February/March 2015 issue.

These FILBerts typically run between one and two thousand words. They are usually heartfelt but also idiosyncratic. Some writers describe a pulling-away from belief that unfolded over a few weeks. For others, the process lasted years or even decades. Of course, the scope, tone, and level of detail vary with each writer.

As a group, then, FILBerts are compelling but a little scattershot. They’d be a nightmare to quantify if a researcher cared to study them in search of common themes or underlying mechanisms. Another obstacle to research is that FILBerts aren’t all that numerous. Even after half a dozen years, we’ve published fewer than a hundred of them.

What if it were possible to develop a far greater number of deconversion accounts in a shorter and more consistent form? That was the challenge posed in a recent email by the mysterious person FI readers know only as Fellow Feather. (He’s a retired direct-mail executive who since 2013 has run more than two dozen no-frills philosophical advertisements in Free Inquiry, and in the August/September 2019 issue sponsored an eight-page insert setting forth an optimized refutation of Christianity.) In contrast to the breadth and variability of FILBerts, Fellow Feather asked, “What were the pivot points? The sudden insights that set [doubters] on a new path?...Epiphanies seem to come at strange and unexpected times and places—a reason for an ongoing simplified effort to a huge audience.” He concluded, “Would it not be interesting and useful to ask your readers to present in the most abbreviated form how they came to see the light?”

This strikes me as a challenge eminently worth taking up. By condensing sometimes amorphous deconversion stories into bare-bones tellings of that moment when faith’s center ceased to hold, the stories might become shorter and more focused. And that might make it possible for a much larger number of readers to respond. If this exercise were carried out, I realized, it might make for more than electrifying reading. Just maybe, it might give rise to a data set large enough—and internally consistent enough—to be of aid to researchers studying the social and psychological phenomenon of renouncing childhood beliefs.

Fellow Feather supplied two examples.

He summarized an essay written by former Christian clergyman-scholar Dale O’Neal that noteworthy skeptic John W. Loftus recently reproduced on his website. For O’Neal, the breaking point came as he and his wife contemplated the prospect of having a child—remember, at this moment he was still an evangelical. His pivot point, Fellow Feather explained, “was the realization that if he and his wife had the child they wanted, that innocent might well go to hell.”

Fellow Feather’s second example was a famous anecdote about the best-selling Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who over some fifteen years journeyed from evangelical fundamentalism, through liberal Christianity, to an endpoint that’s been called “agnostic atheism.” In that protracted voyage, what was his pivot point? “It was reciting the Lord’s Prayer at Thanksgiving dinner,” Fellow Feather reminded me, “and reflecting on giving thanks for the bounty they were receiving—but then, why not for millions of others?”

Finally, here’s mine.

Many FI readers have some acquaintance with my own FILBert tale: over seven years, I went from being a cocksure Catholic looking for proof that all those other Christian denominations were false to being a non-Catholic Christian … a non-Christian seeker … and, finally, a confident atheist. (Those who must know more are directed to the autobiographical second chapter of my 1993 polemic, The Trouble with Christmas.)

Well and good, but what was my pivot point?

It came one morning. Literally.

For about two years, I’d been intellectually satisfied that arguments for atheism were irrefutable. But emotionally I could not progress. I huddled frozen in place, terrified of what it would entail if I finally admitted to myself that no one was in charge of life and the cosmos—and, especially, that my life had no meaning on any scale greater than itself. One night I went to bed fretting about how terrifying it would be to embrace the matter-of-fact nihilism that living consistently as an atheist would require.* The next morning, I awoke suddenly aware that I had broken through. If cosmic meaning was not something reality was handing out, forsaking it held no further terror for me.

Fellow Feather’s challenge made me understand this crucial instant in a new light. Yes, my odyssey away from faith was a seven-year process. Yes, it was progressive in nature—insert here the cliché of your choice about peeling back the layers of an onion or whatever. But even that process centered on a moment of crisis. An instant when everything fell into a new configuration. Yes, a pivot point.

(By the way, I hope the pivot-point story you write will be shorter than mine. See Mark Twain’s comment above. Which lets the cat out of the bag: Yes, I want you to share the story of your own pivot-point experience.)

The Challenge. Science-fiction master Robert Silverberg once quoted Edgar Allen Poe—how accurately, I cannot say—that “In a short story, one thing happens.” In the short story at the heart of your deconversion story, what one thing happened? That’s your pivot point.

I invite Free Inquiry readers to share their brief, highly focused accounts. Arbitrarily, I impose a maximum of five hundred words. I’ll be interested to see who can say what needs to be said in the fewest words.

I confidently predict that the results will make compelling reading in a future issue of FI. (Maybe several future issues.) I hope this reader challenge will serve as a pilot for a larger project that solicits pivot-point stories from across the unbeliever community. And I dream that the results of that project might, just might, form a data set of sufficient size and internal consistency to be of use to future researchers.

Your next pivot point? May it be your decision to sit down and write.

How to Share Your Pivot-Point Moment.

As briefly as possible, write about the pivotal moment on the way to your current worldview—no minimum length, maximum length 500 words—and email it to FI Editor Tom Flynn at tflynn@centerforinquiry.org. Include the words “Pivot Point” in the subject line. Send your text in the body of an email or as an attached Microsoft Word or rich text format (.rtf) file. No PDF files, please. Or you can send a hard copy via postal mail to Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226-0664 USA.
All submissions become the property of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry. Include your name and contact information (email or postal mail) and indicate whether or not you wish to be credited by that name if your writing is published. If you want to be credited pseudonymously, just say so.


*In my June/July 2007 op-ed “The Big M” (https://secularhumanism.org/2007/06/the-big-m/), I compared traditional religion to an opiate such as heroin. Its false claim that each of us is supremely meaningful to the author of the universe creates a dependence on a sense of cosmic-level meaning that lifelong atheists don’t have to wrestle with and often have difficulty understanding.

Tom Flynn
Free Inquiry, Volume 40, No. 2
February / March 2020

Robert Ingersoll, at the age of 7:

“The first sermon he heard that made any deep impression on him was at the age of seven. A Freewill Baptist preacher gave such a graphic and frightful description of hell that ‘it left a mark like a scar’ on his mind forever. The preacher did full justice to his subject painting an unforgettable picture of the two men (The Rich Man and Lazarus) in life and in death against the background of hell and its eternal torments."

“The eloquence of this itinerant evangelist brought home to Robert Ingersoll the true meaning of the dogma of eternal punishment- awakened his imagination to the ‘height and depth of Christian horror.'"

"From that moment he told himself: ‘It is a lie, and I hate your religion!’"

“From that moment, for him, the flames of hell were quenched, and he passionately hated every orthodox creed. This Free Will sermon marked the turning point in Ingersoll’s intellectual life.” [Ingersoll’s grandaughter, Eva Ingersoll Wakefield, ed. The Letters of Robert Ingersoll, published in 1951, pages 8-9.


Howard Van Till, of Calvin College:

More than 350 years after the inquisition hounded Galileo over charges of heresy, physicist Howard Van Till, of Calvin College in Michigan, confronted a little inquisition of his own. Van Till roused a small but fervent pack of enemies at the conservative college with his book, "The Fourth Day," in which he argued that the stories of the Bible and science's account of evolution could both be true. His critics on the school's board of trustees had no interest in reconciling the religious account of creation with a naturalist explanation of how life and the universe have evolved over the ages. For years after the book's release in 1986, Van Till reported to a monthly interrogation where he struggled to reassure college officials that his scientific teachings fit within their creed.

Van Till's career survived the ordeal, but his Calvinist faith did not. Over the next two decades, he became the heretic his critics had suspected.

Maybe the inquisitors were right to see contradictions between his science and their religion, he thought. Their beliefs demanded a God of absolute power who intervened constantly in the history of life and in human affairs. But Van Till found that picture increasingly at odds with his conviction that everything from stars to starfish has evolved according to natural laws. The college inquiry, he says now, "shook me awake."

He could have dropped all faith in God, in the long tradition of scientific atheists, whose most recent champion is British biologist Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion."

Instead, Van Till tried to adapt his religious views.

He rejected the idea of God as a supernatural being who took care to design every galaxy and blade of grass. The God he sought couldn't have designed everything at the outset, because the universe that science reveals is always unfolding, always changing. He began to think of God as a silent presence within nature, the source of the nameless awe he felt when studying the genesis of solar systems and the life of our endlessly fertile planet.

"If your faith requires supernaturalism, or a God who wields overpowering control over nature, then yes, evolution will challenge that," says Van Till, who took early retirement from Calvin College in 1999."The key is to correct your portrait of God," he says. [From THE NEW THEOLOGY, by Jeremy Manier for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

Jerry Coyne:

One of the more colorful scientific de-conversion stories comes from Jerry Coyne, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. It happened in 1967 when Coyne, then 17, was listening for the first time to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album while lying on his parents' couch in Alexandria, Va.

Suddenly Coyne began to shake and sweat. For reasons he still doesn't understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn't going anywhere when he died. His casual Judaism seemed to wash away as the album played on. The crisis lasted about 30 minutes, he says, and when it was over, he had left religion behind for good. He went on to study how new species evolve, and found the Darwinian view of nature perfectly in tune with his abandonment of faith.

"Scientists in general tend to be more atheistic, and particularly evolutionists," Coyne says. "That's because we're dealing with a subject that was previously known to be a product of God's intervention, and now we know it's not."

"The only kind of theism that's reconcilable with evolution is one in which everything happened without any supernatural intervention," says Jerry Coyne of the U. of C. "You strip the specialness of human beings out of it, you strip the origin of life out of it, the soul." For Coyne, the only God worth believing in is one whom modern science has rendered implausible. [From THE NEW THEOLOGY, by Jeremy Manier for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

Richard Dawkins:

Evolution played an even more central role in torpedoing Dawkins' Anglican faith when he was 15. Dawkins says he had always assumed that the intricacy of living things meant God must have designed them, just as the English philosopher William Paley argued in his 1802 book "Natural Theology."

Then Dawkins began to learn about evolution, and he realized that biology could explain life's apparent design without the need for a deity. "So finally it was Darwinism that did it for my religious faith," Dawkins said. [From THE NEW THEOLOGY, by Jeremy Manier for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE.