A few weeks ago, Hemant Mehta hosted a guest post on his blog: “The Atheist Daughter of a Notable Christian Apologist Shares Her Story.” The post was by Rachael Slick, daughter of radio host and CARM founder Matt Slick. Viewers of our show may remember that both Matt Dillahunty and I, in two weeks running, spoke directly to Matt Slick about his pet topic, the Transcendental Argument. (Episode 592; episode 593).
I found Rachael’s story very moving, myself. As a lifelong atheist with a supportive family, I have never had to actually fight very hard for my atheism except in circumstances of my choice. Stories of deconversion are interesting to me as they recount an experience I’ve never had, and it must have been doubly challenging to shed a faith that is hammered home by a strict religious upbringing. This is an excerpt from her post.
This changed one day during a conversation with my friend Alex. I had a habit of bouncing theological questions off him, and one particular day, I asked him this: If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?
Alex had no answer — and I realized I didn’t either. Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.
I still remember sitting there in my dorm room bunk bed, staring at the cheap plywood desk, and feeling something horrible shift inside me, a vast chasm opening up beneath my identity, and I could only sit there and watch it fall away into darkness.The Bible is not infallible, logic whispered from the depths, and I had no defense against it. If it’s not infallible, you’ve been basing your life’s beliefs on the oral traditions of a Middle Eastern tribe. The Bible lied to you.
It is probably not very surprising that various bloggers in the Christian Apologetics field rushed to answer her story, and minimize its importance. Lots of digital ink was spilled by atheists when philosopher Antony Flew claimed to have become a theist, for what we thought were very bad reasons. It’s natural, when someone flips their position, to want to either bring them back, or distance yourself as effectively as possible.
I did find this reaction a little gross: “How to exploit a family falling out for the sake of ideology.” Here Glenn Peoples writes,
But wheeling out somebody because she’s the daughter of a high-profile Christian apologist, as though this somehow makes her argument more credible, is intellectually vacuous and arguably little more than a way of taunting “suck on that, we got your daughter. She won’t talk to yooooou but she talks to us! Where’s that knife, lemme give it a twist.” You’re not drawing on her intellectual case – or indeed any sort of case, you’re simply using her like a hunter showing off a kill (even when he’s not the one who made it – indeed, when it may be a case of the poor creature becoming confused and tangled in a bush!).
Classy. And here I thought I was reading Rachael Slick’s deconversion story because she came across as intelligent, thoughtful, well spoken, and had an interesting story to share, and because Hemant was offering his “Friendly Atheist” blog as a platform for someone who wouldn’t otherwise be heard. But no — apparently in Peoples’ mind, the only justification the Friendly Atheist had to post it was to score some points.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m reading a hell of a lot of crass sexism and ageism in the rest of the above post. I found Rachael’s position interesting and informative in its own right, and never did I assume that she was speaking for Hemant — or that Hemant, on his part, was telling her what to say. I’m not even sure how much of her criticisms Hemant himself might disagree with. Mr. Peoples never spoke of Rachael’s own perspective with anything but barely disguised contempt, throwing in snide little potshots at her like “Dramatise much?” and “this moment of dorm room theology banter.” Then he spent his last paragraph taunting Hemant, who wrote none of the words in Rachael’s post, demanding that he make the argument for her.
Why didn’t he just pose his questions to Rachael directly? Why characterize her as a hunter’s prey, or a poor confused creature? Why is your takeaway from her post that Hemant is scoring points against you? Because infantilizing her is a way of undercutting her points, that’s why. The final straw in Slick’s deconversion was, “If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?” Peoples sneers this off by referring to it as “a much discussed question in theological ethics” — which, no doubt it is — and then suggests it could have been easily resolved if Slick “could have added a bit of learning at this point.” Instead of discussing where that learning might be found, he, as I pointed out a moment ago, challenges the man to defend this question.
In other words, he goes into no more depth in his own post than Rachael did in hers. He just said that she could have answered her own question she weren’t such a dumb girl. I’m sure that the question is much discussed, but as far as atheists are concerned — yes, atheists who are male and old, too — that discussion happens in a fact vacuum. It is attempts to explain one part of a book using another part of a book, because “God” isn’t exactly showing up to clear things up. When people claim that he does show up and clarify matters to them, the usual effect is that religious groups splinter and you simply have more individuals believing a wider variety of “truths” about what the Big Book of Multiple Choice really meant to say.
The primary point of the post at Friendly Atheist was for Rachael to discuss her story, both what it was like growing up in a very strict fundamentalist household, and the experience she had in deconversion. We don’t know how much more she might have had to say about this one topic in another post, and Peoples didn’t bother to ask her to defend her own claims.
Instead he focused on an offhand statement she made at the end, about how her attitudes about sex changed once she became an atheist. From this Peoples dismissing everything else and smarmily concludes: “It was not critical thinking that sunk this faith. It was desire, as it so often is.”
A while back I wrote a guest post on Surly Amy’s blog at Skepchick, for her “Speaking out against hate directed at women” series. In this post I said,
When I write a blog post or express an opinion that people hate, I get vigorous disagreement, and I might even get called an idiot because of what I said. But over and over, I’ve seen totally disconnected criticism aimed at posts written by women. Like: “Well, she’s a pretty girl, so obviously she is dumb.”
This is a top notch example of that. For some people, if the speaker is a woman, then the topic is always sex, physical appearance, or emotion.
Another post picks up where Glenn left off, titled “Clear thinking about Rachael Slick’s departure from Christianity.” The author, “Wintery Knight”, references the passages I just quoted and concludes that they are very well said. So I don’t have much optimism starting out. It turns out that the main point of the post is dealing with child rearing, and how Christians can avoid the example of Matt Slick and keep their kids in the fold.
my experience with other decoverted fundamentalists has always been that they often had non-cognitive issues driving the deconversion:
- boyfriend and girlfriend issues
- popularity issues
- sexual activity / sexual orientation issues
- unrealistic expectations of a pain-free life
- unrealistic expectations of God providing financially
- unrealistic expectations of God making their foolish decisions “work out”
Now, I can’t speak to Wintery Knight’s personal experiences, as they are his own. All I can say is, I know quite a few deconverted fundamentalists myself, and almost none of them that I know personally, changed their minds due to these petty personal issues. It is such a common cliche among apologists that it has its own section of the Atheist Community of Austin’s FAQ. “Q: What kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?”
The stories I’ve heard are most frequently very similar to Rachael Slick’s — that is to say, what Rachael Slick actually wrote, and not the creative spin that Glenn Peoples decided to put on her words. People don’t abandon a religious belief they’ve held their whole lives over something as trivial as “boyfriend issues” in my experience. Over and over again, what I’ve heard is “I set out to defend my faith as well as I could, I looked for opposing points of view, and I found that the responses to the opposition weren’t satisfying. Over a period of time, I gave up on defending the faith.” This is not the answer that either Glenn Peoples or Wintery Knight wants to hear, but it’s what I hear an awful lot, and it’s what Rachael said she experienced.
So here’s my advice to parents who want to avoid this sort of rebellion.
First, don’t concentrate on the inerrancy of the Bible as much as you emphasize the good philosophical and scientific arguments for a Creator/Designer. More effort should be put on the mainstream findings of science: cosmology, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, galactic habitability, stellar habitability. The resurrection is also key, but should be defended with a minimal facts approach using mainstream historical methods – not by assuming inerrancy. The existence of God and the resurrection are the strong core of Christianity, not inerrancy. I am saying this as someone who believes in inerrancy for the autographs. It’s better to lay a foundation rather than trying to defend too much.
I’m all for this advice. One of the weakest things for an atheist to hear is “because the Bible said so.” Unless you start out with the axiom that the Bible is always right, quoting scripture doesn’t really get you anywhere. Proving that the Bible is right first and then quoting what the Bible says seems like an ass-backward way of making a case to me. If the Bible says things that are true, those statements should be verifiable in their own right, not just an appeal to authority. So, if God is to be defended, I think it ought to be accomplished through science and reason, which is the approach that Wintery Knight is advocating here.
Of course, then you do run into the problem that the purported “scientific” justifications for God’s existence are context-free philosophical speculations, not anything that can be tested, or supported by evidence. But it is, in my opinion, at least the correct avenue to pursue.
Secondly, don’t try to force children to act beyond what their worldview can bear. It is OK for you to have children and to go about doing your Christian ministry based on your convictions, without trying to demand that your kids operate at that level. Instead of telling them what to think, always try to show them both sides. Once a person sees a couple of William Lane Craig debates or Mike Licona debates, they are probably going to want to be like Craig and Licona naturally. But the main thing is that the actions have to be supported by knowledge.
Right here, this is the opposite of what I’d advise in raising children. WK seems to be suggesting that when kids are too enthusiastic about defending their faith, they are setting themselves up to fail. And, having failed, the entire worldview may be shattered. More than anything else, I think this is a hint that the Christian worldview is somewhat fragile by nature. In my model of acquiring knowledge, failures are just as important as successes. If you have a genuine weakness in your viewpoint, you should want to expose it as much as possible. The whole point being, of course, that you would then stop believing things that are faulty.
WK’s position on debaters like William Lane Craig seems to be “These people are professionals; don’t try this at home.” My view of Craig is that he’s an excellent sophist. He’s the defense attorney for a defendant who is guilty, but his job is to prove to the jury that the defendant is innocent, by any means necessary. Naturally, any argument you make is going to be fragile when you pull away the facade of slick words. For my kid, I would wish him to investigate religion, on his own, knowing that the decision that he will make in the end is his own. For a Christian, even harboring doubts is a first step down the highway to hell.
Third, don’t just rest your support or opposition to various positions on the Bible. For example your views on theism and the resurrection should be rooted in secular arguments and secular evidence. Consider it a joy when you can go outside the Bible and confirm something the Bible says with secular evidence. Especially scientific and historical evidence. Connecting the Bible to real world evidence eliminates the painful anxiety of being “separate” and “other”. Always make the data the issue, not the position. The data can be debated more easily.
This is the same as the first point, and again, I agree with it. The reasons for morality and knowledge quite rightly should be grounded in a secular understanding of the reasons. Even if I believed in God, I would greatly prefer to know the reasoning behind a moral position, rather than a straight up “thou shalt not…”
The remainder of the post is focused on teaching appropriate sexual morality through Christianity, while making the arguments appeal to secular, practical logic. I.e., don’t be gay — NOT because the Bible says so, but because of AIDS, the harm it does to children, and unstable relationships. Don’t have premarital sex — NOT because the Bible says so, but because it will cause your marriage to fail and your relationships to be less satisfying.
I don’t really want to go off into the weeds of what’s mistaken about his “scientific” reasons against this behavior; somebody who is so inclined could doubtless make an entire post responding to the topics brought up in just the last few paragraphs. I do just want to note in passing that the reasoning here in the bigger picture is deeply flawed
Look, either there are solid, practical reasons to avoid sex before marriage, or there aren’t. If “total premarital abstinence” is good advice based on demonstrable consequences, then it would seem that notions like “sin” and “God’s will” don’t actually contribute anything to the discussion. If you’re going to say “God disapproves of premarital sex, and he disapproves for reasons X, Y and Z” then it should be just as good to say “Don’t have premarital sex, because X, Y, and Z will follow” and just leave God out of the discussion.
So more to the point, then a desire for premarital sex wouldn’t be a reason to leave Christianity. It wouldn’t help. The practical issues would remain whether you believe in God or not. To claim otherwise is to make the condescending assertion that Christianity gives you some special capacity to evaluate the consequences of your actions, which atheists don’t have at all. So people are leaving the fold so they can lose this ability, and merrily sin away while no longer recognizing how they are hurting themselves. Apparently, the best reason to stay Christian is because once you give up that belief in God, you simultaneously abandon all sense of reality in the physical world.
OR — let me just float an alternative by you. Maybe the rationalizations for opposing homosexuality, or premarital sex in general, are extremely bad reasons,and not that well borne out by experience. Christian opposition to human sexuality is based on arbitrary arguments from authority, but cloaked in phony secular reasoning to give it an undeserved air of respectability. And when kids grow old enough to objectively evaluate those reasons for themselves, they find that “God’s word” alone isn’t really a very good basis for an entire moral framework, and the practical reasons provided for God’s opinions are flimsy and phony.
When they come to this realization they have a choice: either give up Christianity, or give up their own very clear observations about how the world actually works. Not everyone has the fortitude to do so, but some choose to abandon dogma and embrace reality.