Sunday, April 17, 2016

The "Mistakes of Apostates"

Last fall over on Triablogue, Steve Hays posted yet another blog entry maligning the character of “apostates” – i.e., former adherents of the Christian worldview. I suggest that everyone read Hays’ blog entry before reading what I have to say in response to it. Even more, as an exercise in critical thinking, form your own response to what Hays has to say before reading what I have to say below. Then come and read what I say and let me know what I’ve overlooked.

My first observation is that believers often find it necessary to disparage those who have left the faith, for such persons have to varying degrees insider familiarity of what happens to an individual’s mind when immersed in Christian teachings. So it’s crucial to poison the well, as it were, to tarnish the reputation of anyone who escapes Christianity’s clutches in order to discredit any warnings they might bring to the outside world about the dismal void that Christianity carves into a man’s spirit. “They were never true believers” goes the predictable narrative, otherwise they wouldn’t have left.

This is most ironic, for when we “apostates” were yet fellow believers, we were treated as “brethren” and beloved as those who were joined in an unbreakable spiritual yoke. And yet, simply because we no longer believe in the fantasies that distinguish Christianity as a worldview, we former believers are now the lowest of the low for whom the deepest pits of hell are exclusively reserved.

It’s also ironic for, as we saw in my blog entry The Hideous Rigors of Christian Salvation Doubt, the only measurable “evidence” that the bible itself gives of genuine salvation is whether or not one “endures to the end” (cf. Mt. 24:13). We “apostates” didn’t “endure to the end” – we abandoned the faith before our “time” had come. As such, we who were once Christians but who have since left serve as a constant reminder that those who are believers today may themselves leave the faith at some point in the future. Naturally this is emotionally uncomfortable for believers, for they themselves have not yet “endured to the end” and thus must face the possibility that some day, perhaps a year or 10 years from now, they too will depart from the faith. The thinking seems to be that, if they just pour their venomous spite in the direction of those who have left the faith ( “apostates”), that will somehow neutralize any potential that they too might leave in the future. The online Christian reaction to Professor Michael Sudduth’s departure from Christianity in favor of some form of eastern mysticism, indicates that none of those remaining in the faith today expected such a towering authority of theology and apologetics to lose faith (if that’s what Sudduth’s abandonment of Christianity could be called). But if it could happen to Sudduth, couldn’t it happen to any one of them?

In his blog post, Hays says that “many apostates make a common mistake,” and characterizes this alleged “common mistake” as “an elementary mistake.” (Yes, we’re all so stupid… but only after we leave Christianity…)

Now here, Hays is making a rather broad generalization. Throughout his short list of accusations, he cites no statistics or studies or any kind of survey of the “many apostates” he has in mind which show that former Christians in fact do commit the “common mistake” he has in mind. But maybe we’re wrong to suppose that facts are important. In that case, readers are presumably expected to “just believe” Hays’ claims merely on his own say-so.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that some individual “apostates” here and there have committed the mistakes Hays identifies. In a sea of fish, you’re bound to find one that fits a certain profile. But to translate the hypothetical one-off into “many” may simply be the result of eager hyperbole typical of an adolescent. Indeed, how many is “many”? And why does it matter in the first place? After all, upon their self-discharge from religious hysteria, “apostates” often begin a process of intellectual sobering, a process which has been poorly mapped and is most often a journey one makes alone without proper guidance and against much adversity (such as reactions among peers and “loved ones”). A child who escapes his kidnappers can’t be expected to automatically know his way to safety. The problem which “apostates” face is far worse: their minds have to varying degrees been mutilated by primitive mysticism wielded deliberately against them by crafty witch doctors who have set all kinds of psychological booby-traps in the minds of their victims in order to break their spirits and hold them in submission.

Hays characterizes these “many apostates” as follows:
Typically, they were raised in a Bible-believing church. Then they took high school biology, or college Biology 101, or read a book by Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne. That sort of thing. And they lose their faith.
So, in broad terms, these apostates start out in surroundings in which they are indoctrinated in religious teachings (a full-dose mixture of “thou shalt not,””you’re a despicable little sinner,” “Noah built an ark,” “believe or else,” etc.) and then later began to catch glimpses of enlightenment. As a consequence of being enlightened, they departed from the primitive mysticism of their parents and set off on a course of thinking with their own minds (one would hope, anyway). After having their minds marinated in the tales of a terrifying storybook that would give any conscientious child nightmares, intellectually malnourished youngsters may very well experience a state of shock upon being exposed to science for the first time. Indeed, discovering that truth can be founded on and derived from facts that we discover in the world by looking outward - as opposed to supposing that truth is derived by looking inward to one’s imaginative and emotional reactions to fantasy fiction, or that it is acquired by blindly believing someone who has claimed to find truth in such a manner – may very well be all one needs to recognize that religion is the intellectual dead-end that it in fact is.

But Hays thinks there’s a fundamental mistake in all this. He opines:
The rudimentary mistake is to compare two things that operate at different levels. They are comparing the Bible to science, or comparing theology to science. But these aren't directly comparable. There's an obvious sense in which a few pages of Scripture are no match for hundreds of pages of textbook evolutionary biology. Scripture wasn't designed to engage the issue at that level. Same thing with systematic theology.
In other words: “Oh no! They’re ‘comparing the Bible to science’! That’s not fair!”

I highly doubt that what irks Hays is the potential that young people raised in the faith will compare science texts to the storybook of “Scripture,” but rather the potential that said young people might learn truths about the world which stand in stark contrast to what they are encouraged to believe by churchmen. This includes not only specific facts about the concretes we find in the world (e.g., the age of the earth, the nature of biological development, the genetic dependence of today’s species on those of the past, the biological nature of consciousness, etc.), but also – and more importantly – the methodology of science as a systematic application of reason to things that we find in the world by looking outward (rather than huddling in fear of fantasies about imaginary beings). To borrow a biblical analogy, this is the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish: a man who learns how to reason will find no need to rest his convictions on faith and hopes.

That said, there is some truth underlying Hays’ complaint, but he has distorted it in order to obscure the true lesson of value here. Science and religious fantasy (like “the Bible”) do in fact “operate at different levels” – or rather, along fundamentally opposite orientations to reality, the mind, the self. Let’s hash this out.

On the one hand, we have science. Science operates on the orientation which takes reason seriously as man’s only means of knowledge. It takes facts that we discover in the world by looking outward and identify systematically as absolutes, integrating them into the sum of our knowledge in accordance with the laws of identity and causality, and in accordance with the fundamental recognition that existence exists and is what it is independent of conscious activity (e.g., wishing doesn’t make it so). That is the nature of science: the systematic application of reason to some specialized area of study. (Cf. my Glossary of Terms)

On the other hand, we have religious faith. Religious faith is informed by ancient legends and fables (for example, those found in the biblical storybook) which put great emphasis on the imagination and emotions of the adherent, for it is through these that the stories contained therein “seem real” and thus interpreted as some kind of supernatural truth. Underlying these stories is the presumption of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics (cf. “wishing makes it so,” “it’s true because it is written,” etc.) and a tacit discarding of reason as one’s means of discovering and validating knowledge. Instead of looking outward at the world of facts as the source of our knowledge, religious teachings (including the biblical storybook) begin with imaginative notions (cf. a god which we can only imagine wished the world into existence, thus granting metaphysical primacy to consciousness at the very outset) and works on cornering the believer into the confines of a labyrinth of fear, guilt and doubt (see here). It has nothing to do with facts, with science, with discovering truths by the guidance of reason, with securing one’s understanding of the world, of oneself, of knowledge on objective grounds (since it grants metaphysical primacy to wishing, commanding, “the Word,” “God’s wrath,” etc., all expressions of the primacy of consciousness).

Here’s the test for this: if you don’t buy into the BS of the bible, believers will scold you, condemn you, curse you to hell, etc. In other words, they attack non-believers personally, like middle-schoolers trying to drum up a whirlwind of overwhelming peer pressure, accusing non-believers of all kinds of moral deficiencies and slurring non-believers as “just so stupid,” all of which constitutes a tacit admission that rational argument is not on their side. As Ayn Rand put it:
Intellectually, to rest one’s case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one’s enemies—that one has no rational arguments to offer. (“Conservatism: An Obituary,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 196)
It’s not only what we do find in science texts which distinguish them positively from religious texts, it’s also what we don’t find in science texts that is conspicuous. For example, in science texts we don’t find talking snakes and sassy donkeys; we don’t find staves turning into serpents; we don’t find people wishing water into wine; we don’t find dead people obediently responding to commands to “rise!”; we don’t find knowledge coming to men’s minds through visions and dreams; we don’t find reality conforming to wishing, and we don’t find the universe springing into existence as a product of an act of will.

So, on objective grounds, it’s certainly true that “a few pages of Scripture are no match for hundreds of pages of textbook evolutionary biology” – in fact, no amount of “pages of Scripture” will ever be a match for the power of reason. Similarly, if one’s goal is to master the art of rational inference, a Harry Potter novel will be no match to a text on logic.

But Hays still thinks it’s a mistake to set systematic rational methodology (i.e., science) on a par with the mysticism of primitive witch doctors. And to this, we can say: Yes, it sure is a mistake! Facts do not belong in the same epistemological category as fantasies.

But curiously, the comparison which Hays prefers involves keeping the bible out of the picture altogether:
The proper comparison would be to read two or more science books from opposing viewpoints. Those operate on the same plane. They address the same issues, at the same level of detail or technicality. They adduce prima facie scientific evidence for their respective positions. That's the relevant level of direct comparison and contrast.
Can we actually take for granted that two books which represent “opposing viewpoints” also “operate on the same plane”? Take for instance a science text on biology and compare it to a text on “Dianetics” or a text on astrology. Do these all “operate on the same plane”? Perhaps Hays thinks so, but I would advise extreme caution here. Such equity cannot be taken for granted. It’s not even a given that all books claimed to be scientific in their approach “operate on the same plane.”

The fundamental issue boils down to the general metaphysical approach assumed in the text: does the text in question treat its subject matter in a manner that’s entirely consistent with the primacy of existence, or does it allow some form of “wishing makes it so” into the mix?

Certain elementary questions can be raised to tease this out. For example, do the facts of reality hold metaphysical primacy over our thinking, or does someone’s wishing, imagining, pretending, hoping, believing, praying, etc. hold metaphysical primacy over the facts we discover in reality? Do we discover truth by looking outward at the facts we find and identify in the world by rational methods, or by looking inward into the content of imagination, wishing, hoping, faith, fear (cf. Prov. 1:7)? Is reason the epistemological standard, or is faith in invisible magic beings? Is knowledge the product of an objective process which thinkers perform firsthand using their own minds, or is knowledge something “revealed” to us by a supernatural consciousness whose will creates existence and controls what happens in the universe? Etc.

Now it is quite possible for a thinker to have abandoned objectivity and rationality in his views and attempt a semblance of these standards in order to promote an agenda that is in fact wholly opposed to rationality and objectivity. But typically such thinkers take the issue of metaphysical primacy completely for granted, being careful not to draw attention to this fundamental question and acting as if it were of no concern. Thus we need to exercise rational discretion here, and we certainly will not find that modeled in any “pages of Scripture,” which is why Hays prefers that “apostates” exclude the bible from any comparisons they make with enlightened literature and instead set genuine science against highly camouflaged variants of pseudoscience (e.g., “creation science,” “intelligent design,” etc.). Indeed, those who do not have a good grasp of objectivity and reason may very well be prone to confusing pseudoscience with genuine science. This is precisely what today’s religionists are hoping for.

Hays cites another mistake, but it’s essentially an elaboration on the allegation that he just outlined:
ii) It's also striking that apostates like this are often so lop-sided. Having dipped into the evolutionary literature, they refuse to read the opposing literature. They have no intellectual patience for the other side of the argument.
How exactly does Hays have all this inside familiarity with what “apostates” do? The irony here is bursting the seams: “apostates” are those who were once insiders who have subsequently broken away from religious indoctrination, and yet Hays, who is not an “apostate,” supposedly has all this inside familiarity with what “apostates” do. Has Hays mounted surveillance cameras in the private chambers of “apostates” and documented their actions? I’m supposing that Hays can at best only go on what he has observed, but he’s so busy writing new blog entries – when does he get time to go out and observe how “apostates” conduct themselves, let alone familiarize himself with the literature they’re actually reading?

From what I have observed in my experience (which is in no-wise exhaustive), “apostates” who explore the theory of evolution and defend it publicly against the mysticism of religion’s witch doctors are quite familiar with what the witch doctors have been promoting. Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of religionists thrusting themselves in the public eye in order to champion their particular version of religious mysticism. And many non-believers (whether or not they’re “apostates”) have been willing to confront them. In February 2014, for example, we had the highly celebrated Ham-Nye debate. Now, I watched this debate quite closely (I think a total of three times), and although I have many misgivings about Nye’s particular philosophical bent (in particular his sympathies for aggressive statist intervention), the science was overwhelmingly on his side. And Ham… well, not much could be said on his behalf.

But, given that maturity entails knowing when to stop, this raises another question: Suppose I read ten books by apologists attempting to make their case on behalf of Christianity, and I find that I am still not persuaded that Christianity is true. Should I still need to read an eleventh? Suppose I read fifty such books and still come away convinced that religion is simply primitive superstition dressed up to look like something more intellectually respectable than it is. Should I go on to read yet another? Why? To appease the witch doctors? Why do that? Are we supposed to fear the witch doctors accusing us of being “biased” or “stupid”? Indeed, if I’m “biased” towards reason and against confusing the imaginary with the real, is that really a vice that should be avoided? And if not accepting what mystics assert on their mere say-so constitutes “stupidity” in their minds, should I be concerned?

In the Ham-Nye debate referenced above, Ken Ham mentioned how both believers and non-believers have worked together to produce things like the Hubble Telescope and a Mars rover. Where they disagree, he says, is in “interpreting” the data which are obtained by both. My question at this point would be: When they were building the instruments in question, such as the telescope and the rover, were both parties in practical agreement in terms of the issue of metaphysical primacy? In other words, did they both agree, at least implicitly, that wishing would not magically produce the instruments they were erecting, that hoping would not solve the challenges they encountered, that working with materials in accordance with their nature was key to producing the mechanisms they had designed? Or, did they disagree on these points, some grasping the concept of objectivity while others held steadfast to subjective notions such as “wishing makes it so” and “if only we had enough faith we could force reality to conform to our preferences”?

I’m guessing they were in agreement, which at minimum would mean that the self-identified Christians involved in such endeavors compartmentalized their worldview’s metaphysics and operated on a metaphysic that is fundamentally at odds with Christianity’s subjective hocus-pocus.

In that debate, Ham says:
Actually, we all have the same evidences. It’s not the evidences that are different. It’s a battle over the same evidence in regards to how we interpret the past. And you know why that is? Because it’s really a battle over worldviews and starting points. It’s a battle over philosophical worldviews and starting points, but the same evidence. Now I admit my starting point is that God is the ultimate authority. But if someone doesn’t accept that, then man has to be the ultimate authority. And that’s really the difference when it comes down to it.
And here we can agree. For instance, if one’s philosophical starting point is something along the lines of “wishing makes it so” (e.g., a supernatural consciousness willed the entire universe into existence and governs whatever happens in the universe according to its will), then clearly he’s going to think of any facts he must contend with as products of conscious activity (whether they’re products of his own consciousness or of a consciousness which he enshrines in his imagination).

Or, if his philosophical starting point is the recognition that existence exists independent of conscious activity, that things are what they are regardless of what any consciousness thinks, wishes, hopes, prefers, emotes, fantasizes, imagines, etc., he is more likely to allow facts to speak for themselves, identify facts according to what he actually discovers in them, and thus recognize the fact (which he also discovers on such a view) that no one’s emotions, wishes, preferences, imagination, commandments, etc., have any causal relevance on the matter.

Such contention boils down to the issue of metaphysical primacy: the primacy of consciousness (i.e., the primacy of imagination, wishing, hoping, preference, emotion, will, etc., over reality) vs. the primacy of existence (i.e., existence exists and is what it is independent of anyone’s conscious activity). Or, to put it another way, objectivity vs. subjectivism.

Does Ken Ham affirm philosophical allegiance to the primacy of existence? Of course, he does not, and this should not surprise us. Rather, if his worldview can be assessed in terms of the issue of metaphysical primacy, it’s clearly the primacy of consciousness which he assumes as his starting point from the outset, since he clearly grants metaphysical primacy to the consciousness of a supernatural will which is accessible to the human mind only by means of imagination (i.e., looking inward), not by reason (i.e., looking outward). In this very way, the content of his position and his method seem quite consistent with each other, since they are both subjective in nature.

When it comes to theistic defenses, if I examine Christianity’s arguments and find that, in every case, I still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence is said to be thereby established by means of some “proof” that all along smacks of sophistry and subterfuge, should I ignore this and “believe” anyway?

Moreover, if one has already discovered that religious positions are in fact nothing more than fantastical chicanery, why suppose that he has some obligation to invest any more energy into exploring their defenses?

Hays cites another “mistake of apostates” as follows:
iii) In addition, they cut evolutionary theory lots of slack while they cut creationism no slack. They make many allowances for evolutionary theory. They don't let the difficulties in evolutionary theory faze them. They have faith that if we're just patient, if we wait it out, these challenges will be resolved. Or, if not, that in principle, they must be consistent with evolution. But they don't show the same deference to creationism.
Hays sure seems rather sore about all this. But is it true that “apostates” are guilty of exercising critical thought when it comes to examining and evaluating religious hysteria while setting critical thought aside when it comes to the theory of evolution?

How does he know this? Did he learn this in a dream or through some other “revelatory” mode of cognition (e.g., “visions”)? Or can he actually document that this is in fact a wide-spread practice on the part of “apostates”? How does Hays know that “apostates… don’t let the difficulties in evolutionary theory faze them”? What exactly does this mean anyway? Again, from my experience, scientists are excited to explore scientific difficulties.

Hays seems content to ignore the fact that scientists submit their discoveries, methods and conclusions for peer review, precisely for the purpose of inviting other informed thinkers to examine those discoveries, methods and conclusions so that any errors can be detected and identified. Such a process is wholly unwelcome to the religious mind: we don’t find the Apostle Paul, for example, explaining how he received “revelations” from “the risen Lord” and soliciting peer review of his claims. Rather, his readers are expected to accept what he claims unquestioningly on his mere say-so on the presumption that what he claims in fact comes from a divinely authoritative source that can and will damn people for all eternity if they have their own mind about things.

Hays also mischaracterizes how science operates. Scientific questions are not “resolved” by simply “waiting” and “having faith.” These are the tokens of the religious view of the world. Rather, scientific discovery requires painstaking, reason-guided labor. And, as pointed out, the process is open to scrutiny by other minds. Moreover, disputes in science are welcome, for they tend to attract attention to areas that require further specialized study. Most scientists are specialists in specific areas, so they often know when it’s time to defer a particular problem to another category of specialists; a scientist specializing in one area may make a discovery that requires the specialty of scientists specializing in another area to investigate it further, and such a process will no doubt require a lot of time and effort, which does not happen automatically. In fact, it might take decades. Or it might be overlooked and forgotten altogether. If thinkers choose simply to “wait,” then they have only themselves to blame when further discoveries aren’t made.

Hays complains that scientists “don't show the same deference to creationism.” But if “creationism” is essentially nothing more than a fantasy, why should they give it any attention whatsoever? This is like expecting astrophysicists to include astrological readings in their calculation of orbital velocities. If witch doctors find it inconvenient that the men of reason and science do not take their fantasies seriously, whose problem is that? Writing more blog entries complaining about scientists and maligning their methods won’t change the facts.

Hays concludes as follows:
iv) They ask questions until they arrive at evolution. They come to rest with evolution. At that point they stop asking questions. Evolution is unquestionable. They no longer feel the need to keep posing pesky questions and demanding answers. At best, all questions and answers must now take place within the evolutionary paradigm. Ironically, that's the mirror image of many creationists, whom they disdain.
Hays’ complaint here comes across as personal angst against the discovery of facts as such. At some point, facts which we discover and continue to verify no longer need to be treated as tentative hypotheses, but can be moved into the category of established fact, even if some people, motivated by emotional investment in confessional commitments, disapprove. For example, since it’s a fact that human beings don’t breathe water, it doesn’t make any rational sense to continue putting this finding to the test as though, perhaps just one more experiment will finally prove once and for all that human beings do in fact breathe water.

The key to untangling Hays’ frustration here is two-fold:
1) the question of starting point, and  
2) the question of one’s methodology.
In regard to 1), we must ask: Does reality exist independent of conscious activity, or is reality a product of conscious activity? Do we begin with the facts that we discover in the world by looking outward, or do we begin by looking inward at the content of our wishing, our imagination, our hopes and fears, our fantasies and dreaming? If we begin with the facts that we discover in the world by looking outward, how would we ever come to the conclusion that the world was created by an act of consciousness, or that there is a consciousness which can create matter by means of wishing? What evidence do we find in the world when we look outward which suggests the existence of such a consciousness and/or which suggests that any material we find in the world is the product of conscious activity? I concede that I can imagine such things, but I am not aware of any facts that I can discover by looking outward which suggests that what I know I’m imagining is real. I know that imagining something doesn’t make it so just as wishing doesn’t make it so, and for the same reason: existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness (even if we don’t like it).

In regard to 2), we must ask: is our methodology consistent with the primacy of existence (i.e., reason), or do we adopt some “methodology” which assumes the primacy of consciousness – that wishing makes it so, that some emotion (e.g., fear, cf. Prov. 1:7) is the basis of our knowledge, that knowledge comes to man through “revelations” (as with dreams, “visions” or hallucinations and the like), that “just believing” something makes it so, that reality conforms to the will of a being which we can only imagine, etc.?

A related point is the consistency or compatibility of one’s methodology with his starting point (a question which is at the root of Dawson’s Razor). For example, in the case of scientists of different persuasions, some theistic and others non-theistic, working together to build the Hubble Telescope, which metaphysical orientation governed their methodology? Did they operate on the basis of the recognition, however implicit, that reality does not conform to conscious activity, or did they approach their task on the assumption that reality does conform to conscious activity? If an individual acknowledges that wishing doesn’t make it so, how willing is he to govern his thinking exclusively by reason?

At least Hays allows that scientists “arrive at evolution,” thus conceding that evolution is not their starting point. And this concession draws our attention to a crucial distinction between religion (cf. “creationism”) and science: while religious believers begin with their religious dogma as their guiding assumptions (cf. “presuppositions”), including the notion of an invisible magic consciousness which creates the entire universe essentially by an act of wishing (thereby granting metaphysical primacy to wishing and other types of conscious activity at the very outset), science proceeds on the basis of the very opposite starting point, namely the recognition that existence exists independent of conscious activity, that reality does not conform to wishing, imagination, fears and other emotions, that the proper use of consciousness is to perceive and discover facts by looking outward in accordance with logical principles (as opposed to “divine commands,” tales of miracles, mystical dreams, faith in imaginary spirits, etc.).

This radical difference in approaches can be summarized as follows: science is objective, and religion is subjective. Hence their fundamental incompatibility.

That Hays detects a “mirror image” of the methods of creationists in his characterization of the methods of evolutionary theorists, is in fact a result of Hays’ own distorting projections: he has deliberately misrepresented the general methodology by which scientists have come to conclude that the species we observe today evolved from biological predecessors in order to make it resemble a “mirror image” of the confessional investment characteristic of religious devotion. Either he has done this out of ignorance for how science operates, or in spite of such understanding in order deliberately to malign an area of scientific discovery which brings the conflict between faith and reason into sharp focus. (Does Hays also think we should abandon cell theory, bio-chemistry, seismology, metallurgy and the rest of science?)

Now, I have to make a point here, since Hays is attempting to characterize “many apostates,” and given the fact that I myself am a former Christian, readers might very well assume that I follow the distorted model that he presents. In fact, however, what he has presented here does not at all describe my own personal account.

For one, I was not “raised in a Bible-believing church.” My parents were never joiners to begin with, and whether because of this or other factors, I’ve never been much of a joiner at all myself. I tend to view groupism of any sort with suspicion and dubiousness. But in spite of this, we were more or less what some might call “cultural Christians”: my parents professed belief in the Christian god; when I was quite young, my father would pray before I went to sleep; we even tried to do our own bible study at home for about a year or so when I was about nine or ten years old. But we were not members of a church, and the only occasions in which I had stepped into a church was on visits to far-away family members who were deeply religious. They probably thought I was as strange as I thought they were. And while they obviously thought I was some kind of hell-bound spawn of devils, I certainly did not find their privacy-deficient and herd-like lifestyle at all attractive. I’ve always been fiercely independent.

Now, I did take Bio-Science in 7th grade, which explored various areas of science, including cell theory, basic chemistry, anatomy, and the like. But this did not cause me to question the existence of any god. I frankly didn’t give it much thought since I didn’t find much of it very interesting, and the incompatibility between faith and reason was never raised in any explicit manner.

As a youngster, it had always struck me that, if there’s a god controlling everything (as I had been taught from time to time to believe), then there’s nothing I can really do one way or another that could possibly have any consequence. The nihilism implicit in religion’s inherent fatalism was something I always sensed, but never identified explicitly. It was, however, wholly clear to me at a fairly young age that on religion’s terms, man is always the loser. It certainly was not something that I found attractive, and I was always put off by people who did find it attractive. But in spite of this, I had my own form of god-belief since it was positively impressed on me across a wide variety of social milieus – both in and out of the home – and never knew any better. Not giving the matter much thought, the adage “you can’t have design without a designer” was enough to settle the matter for me psychologically, though it was far from intellectually satisfying. Then again, it was never meant to be intellectually satisfying. Rather, the purpose of such platitudes is to stop the mind from inquiring further, and in my philosophically defenseless youth, it certainly was successful.

This is to say that, while I was not a church-going Christian in my childhood and teenage years, I did immerse myself in a variety of forms of mysticism, mostly influenced by Christianity generally, before I took the plunge into the deep end of Christian delusion in my mid-twenties. Prior to this, I had had my share of study in biology and other sciences, but unfortunately the courses I had on science did not focus at any point on the philosophical underpinnings of science, which could have helped to prevent me from descending into Christianity and other forms of mysticism. Rather, dissecting frogs and going on geological site visits, all of which and more I had done in my high school and early college years, were not sufficient to bring home the fundamentals which divide the scientific orientation to reality from the religious orientation.

To protect myself from the seduction of mysticism, I needed a more explicit understanding of elementary philosophy, specifically those principles having to do with the subject-object relationship, the biological nature of consciousness, the role of reason in the quest for knowledge as well as in the framing of a genuinely rational morality, the objective nature of values, etc. But none of this was to be found in grade school or even in a well-rounded college education. Thus, in spite of all that I had learned in educational institutions, I was still philosophically vulnerable to anti-rational worldviews and consequently dove head-first into Christian death-worship as though it held some secret key to the alleged mysteries of reality and man’s nature.

In fact, far from being dissuaded from religion as a result of my high school or college education, it was while I was in the thick of Christian indoctrination that I discovered just how reprehensible Christianity is as a worldview. I learned this as an insider, not as an outsider. From the outside, Christianity already appeared fatalistic, nihilistic, hopeless. But lacking a philosophical defense, I was irresistibly drawn to it. And once I got inside, the hideous nature of Christianity was driven home in a way I never thought possible. Christianity required me to be a perpetual loser; there was no way I could win, for nothing I truly valued could ever be allowed to prevail. Whatever I valued ended up being contrary to what the Christian god wanted for my life, including especially any form of happiness and personal fulfillment. If anything I valued were to prevail or show promise of prevailing, that would be evidence of “self getting in God’s way.” And even though this was driven home over and over and over again in every aspect of Christian teaching, it never seemed to make sense: how could puny little insignificant me get in the way of an omnipotent being which created the universe and had laid out all of human history according to its “divine plan”? Really, who’s in control here? I was told that God not only created the universe, but also that its will was unstoppable, that its “plan” for human history was inevitable. But on the other hand, I was being told that my simply not having enough faith or not sacrificing myself enough was sufficient to throw a massive wrench in God’s doings. The weight of the world was to press on my shoulders as the guilt complex of the Christian devotional program was being worked into every crevice of my psychology. But if I were “saved and sanctified” and “a new creature in Christ,” as I was urged to believe by pastors, deacons and a community of “brothers and sisters” who all claimed to love me, how could this be?

Questions of this sort kept popping up, but I never received any satisfying answers. Rather, instead of answers, I was systematically discouraged from asking such questions or expecting answers that I could understand (“lean not unto thine own understanding,” I was constantly told – cf. Prov. 3:5). It was becoming increasingly difficult to shake the impression that I had been bamboozled all along, but this impression itself was supposed to be interpreted as evidence of “the devil” causing mischief in my mind. But over time it had become clear that all the talk of joy and rest and “peace that passeth understanding” was utterly false advertising, a simple bait and switch, for nothing of the sort could be had as a Christian. I had been suckered, and so had everyone else around me. And for those who had fed into the delusion for an extended period over their lives, it would have been too hard – for they had invested themselves too deeply in Christianity’s false hopes – to back out now. They egged themselves on for a pay-off that would never come, and they allowed themselves to be conned into the false belief that there was no alternative to the soul-sucking self-implosion that is the Christian walk.

But while everyone else in my church community could apparently tolerate such strenuous self-dishonesty, I could not. I knew fully well that I had allowed a fantasy to intrude on my understanding of reality and guide my choices and actions. I knew that Christianity had turned my imagination against me so that nothing in reality seemed as it was, like a man fearing his own shadow, something I could never outrun for my ability to revert to imagining could never leave me. And no matter how hard my “brothers in Christ” tried to characterize what I knew to be imaginary as though it were real, I knew that I would be deceiving myself if I pretended that the imaginary was real. In other words, I knew that I was lying to myself, and I realized that I was being encouraged to deceive myself by those who claimed to “love” me.

Isn’t it ironic that as soon as I departed from the faith, those same “brothers” dropped me like a scalding hot rock? They no longer wanted me in their midst, and I certainly did not need their deceiving ways. I had finally escaped my captors.

The result of the unquenchable fires of internal psychological conflicts that are fanned by the devotional program in fact put me into Christianity’s notorious deep despair, throttled by the clutches of devouring fear, guilt and doubt, the surefire recipe that sends millions of believers into inescapable depression (see for example here and here). It was surely not the joy and peace that was advertised in Christianity’s outward-facing marketing ploys. The climax of all this turmoil building within me indicated quite forcefully that I had a fundamental choice to make: either be honest to myself and acknowledge once and for all that Christianity was mercilessly preying on my imagination, or continue trying like a fool to make a failed worldview succeed in spite of my knowing better. I chose the former – to be honest and come clean about the whole matter. I figured that if I were honest and allowed reality to be what it is in spite of my imagination, wishing, preferences, fears, unearned guilt and self-doubts, I would at least be on solid moral grounds, for I have always sensed that a true morality demands unrelenting and uncompromising self-honesty.

It was not difficult at this point to conclude that if Christianity in fact requires an individual to be so dishonest to himself as to commit himself to the imaginary in preference over reality and to pretend that the former is real and that the latter is simply a mirage of sorts, it is not a worldview worthy of adopting for one’s life.

But what Hays overlooks I think the most in his little diatribe against people who have escaped the Christian faith, is the fact that it is because human beings can make mistakes that we need reason in the first place. Yes, we do make mistakes. Everyone does. Even Steve Hays. But this is precisely why we need a rational epistemological standard which reliably guides us away from error and towards accurate identification. Any attempt to strike a compromise between reason and faith, between rationality and mysticism, will only sabotage one’s mind.

Does Hays point to reason as the proper solution for the tendency to make mistakes? Not that I have seen. Is that an accident? Actually, I’d say it’s a natural consequence of his acceptance of a mystical worldview. Mysticism in any of its variants constitutes an all-out rejection of reason from its very foundations, beginning with its ‘wishing makes it so’ metaphysics. The foundation of reason is the primacy of existence, and yet Christianity rejects the primacy of existence by its assumption of the primacy of consciousness. On Christianity, wishing ultimately makes it so because cosmic wishing ultimately makes it so. Christianity and reason are thus philosophically incompatible.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes apostates ever made in their lives was allowing themselves to be ensnared by Christianity’s mystical fantasies in the first place.

by Dawson Bethrick


Joe said...

Hi Dawson,
This is a very thoughtful post.This is the best I have read describing this inner tension experienced by those who leave Christianity. Indeed, it is the inner psychological tension created by a conflict between faith and reality that forces one to leave behind the faith of their youth.Keep up the good postings. Congratulations on another year.

Ydemoc said...


Thanks for another excellent blog entry! And "... soul-sucking self-implosion that is the Christian walk" - great!


Ydemoc said...


I posted a short comment over on Hays' blog. Here it is:
Hello Steve et al.,

Dawson responds:

And, Steve? I'm aware of the past interactions between the two of you, so there's no need to fill me in regarding that.




95BSharpshooter said...

Another feeding of my addiction!!! :-)

Anonymous said...

Religion is horribly poisonous to the mind and character. There I was as a kid, terrified because I had doubts about how just it was for people to go to hell because they grew up indoctrinated to believe in the wrong "God." Terrified because "God" was watching me having those doubts! He would burn me for defying his wisdom! Forever! Nightmares after nightmares, me trying to stop my own mind from thinking those sinful thoughts, lest "God" find me unworthy and burn me forever.

That's definitely child abuse. A kid silencing his own reason out of fear for a monster who can see and hear anything and everything you do and think.

Christianity definitely requires an individual to be dishonest to himself. There's no "if."