Real Deconversion Story #7 – Phil Stilwell
Here is another account in my series of real-life deconversion stories. They are often painful, psychological affairs, as you can see from the various accounts. Phil Stilwell, someone whom I came across on facebook (The Unbelievable page). It is a few years old now, but well worth the read. Happy reading. The previous accounts can be found here:
I have recently been asked by several individuals to detail the reasons behind my deconversion from Christianity to my current position of agnosticism. As a preface to this, I’d like to state my general disposition towards Christianity.
I spent over 25 years as a Christian, and for most of those years I was quite happy. I forged many significant relationships, and learned much while within a Christian community. I do not feel, as do some non-believers who have never been on the inside, that Christians are, as a whole, evil people intent on forcing their agenda on others. I do, however, believe that most Christians are uninterested in an honest inquiry into what is true due to vested interests of various emotions. I will detail these emotions later.
First, I must comment on what I feel is the greatest overlooked truth when considering knowledge and belief; human minds are not well-equipped to assess what is true. This is in stark contrast to the tacit Christian notion that all truths that matter are immediately accessible to nearly every human without much cognitive effort. Let me elaborate.
Religious sects all around the world subscribe to a set of beliefs that set them apart from other sects. They then claim that these “truths” within their faith are either accessible through common sense, common rationality, or divine revelation. This forces them to conclude that persons in all other sects are self-delusional, and rebelling against the truth that is apparent either through reason or divine revelation. It is assumed that these persons feel some sort of guilt stemming from their rebellion or rejection of truth.
However, this assumption is testable. If Christians were to befriend Muslims, they would discover that this is not true. The Muslims do not possess this sense of guilt, and instead possess the same deep confidence in the tenets of their faith as do Christians. Persons who have spent time among persons of another faith normally do not find people who are evil, bitter and guilty, but rather persons who possess a faith that constructs a society of familial and social warmth without the guilt stemming from rejecting the “true” god.
So there exists this game played among religious sects in which they refuse to examine the minds of others, and instead assume that they know better. They assume this because their respective religious texts have told them it is true. This is just one of many assumptions that I’ll discuss later that religionists accept on blind faith.
When someone discovers that this assumption of guilt and general malevolence in others is false, there is only one other conclusion; the human capacity to assess what is true and false is dysfunctional and deficient. The human mind has no natural ability to correctly assess truths that extend very far outside our local daily lives. What is intuitive does not well-correlate with what is true.
This can be very easily seen in the way humans assess risks. We fear flying, but have no problem with a cholesterol-laden diet that is far more likely to kill. We have to ponder carefully even the simplest of syllogisms, and are often still in error.
However, most religions, including Christianity affirm the notion that we are fully capable of assessing intuitively, or with souls that directly interface with some spiritual realm, which god if any is real without considerable training in critical thinking. This is simply not true. Our own ability is essentially identical to the ability of persons belonging to sects that we claim are clearly wrong. There is no evil rebellion against the truth of god, only a lamentable cognitive inadequacy of humans.
To claim otherwise as a mature adult who should have by now identified this inherent flaw in faith-based assertions is to reveal one’s own xenophobic inexperience and arrogance. This arrogance is a hallmark of extant religions. Human cognition is inherently weak. This notion is not very palatable to many since it implies that truth is best assessed by those who have been trained in reasoning. Nonetheless, it is demonstrably true.
Because successful religions must appeal to the masses, these religions all possess scriptures that invert this notion. The wise become foolish, and the foolish wise. This is one of the most powerful lies of religion; you can intuit truth. This unduly credits human cognition with enormous power. Human cognition is never questioned when assessing truth.
Coupled with this is an over-reliance on the emotion of confidence. We “feel” that something is true, and therefore it is true. The hidden assumption here is that this sense of confidence is god-given. God gives us this confidence to bear witness that we are sons of god. Once again, many Christians arrogantly assume that this same emotion of confidence cannot exist in the hearts of Muslims, and that they are knowingly in rebellion to the truth. After all, that’s what the bible tells us, does it not?
This now brings us to faith. Faith is not a virtue. The concept of faith as something noble is incoherent. Christians decry the faith of Muslims, but praise their own. However, the emotions are identical. Much like the concept of intercessory prayer, the concept of faith is defined differently even by persons within the same congregation and morphs evasively whenever it is questioned.
I’ve even corresponded with a quite notable apologist on the definition of faith never to receive a clear answer. Yet, it is positioned as the cornerstone of many religions. When asking 50 Christians “where does evidence end, and faith begin?” there will be 50 answers. So also with their interpretations of Hebrews 11:1. It is a stop-gap that allows the “faithful” to smugly fall back on when the evidence for their faith thins under scrutiny.
Faith has no virtue. Holding a belief in Santa as a little child is cute as best, and becomes pitiful if held past adolescence. Yet, such faith is encouraged in respect to the local god. And children with their under-developed rationality end up accepting the god of their parents with nearly no exceptions. If there were a god giving special revelation to the “foolish”, this would not be true. A number of children in Saudi Arabia would reject the god of their parents to accept the “true” god of Christianity on account of special revelation. This does not happen.
So I’ve discussed the fragility of human cognition, and the myth of the virtue of faith. There remains one more important question. Why do so many people believe in a personal god?
Nearly all religions posit a “god-size” hole of the psyche that only their respective god can fill. However, a careful examination of this hole reveals it to be merely a natural human disposition to have certain emotions that scream for attention and resolution. I’ll try to address the most important.
An aversion to not knowing.
We have an intense drive to explain our world. This emotional intensity causes many to assume that there are answers and that they deserve access to those answers. These conclusions do not follow. Simply having the ability to ask a question does not in any way require that there is an answer and that you have the ability to discover and comprehend the answer. However, religionists assume that they must have access to any question that appears meaningful to them. This does not follow. It may be that we may never have answers to questions that disturb us. This is anathema to many religionists.
Need for significance.
We are all born with the need for significance. This is, however, an emotion, and it does not follow that personal significance exists simply because we feel it must. Successful religions offer significance by typically positioning the believer in a privileged relationship with a god. This emotion, however, does not in anyway validate the existence of a god that bestows significance. The truth may be that we have no significance. We must start our inquiry into truth without the assumption of an objective personal significance. As an added note, this sense of a grand cosmological significance is exhibited as arrogance equally among faiths. If you suppose you are in constant communion with god, it is not at all difficult to become condescending to infidels whom you know must be in rebellion against god.
Need for justice.
We emotionally react to what we perceive as inequalities and injustices in the world around us. This makes the notion of a vengeful god very attractive to us. We do not want to live in an unjust world, and are often willing to accept the notion of god simply to mitigate this emotion. But the emotion lends no weight to the truth of such a god’s existence and of justice. Emotion contributes nothing to a rational and objective approach to these questions. It may well be that there exists no justice. It would be intellectually dishonest to start with an assumption that there is.
Need for affection.
Though this emotional need can often be met though social relations, the concept of an unconditional love from an omnipotent god carries enough emotional clout to cause many humans to accept the gods of various faiths without sufficient evidence. There is also the attractive notion of a divine love that transcends all human type of love. This adds to the emotional drive to affirm the existence of a god without sufficient evidence. This emotion adds nothing to the argument for god. There is no reason why the yearning for a god’s love makes that god real.
Need for identity.
A religious community can provide a powerful sense of identity that is reason enough for some to accept the notion of a god. It is unbearable to many to legitimately doubt the existence of their particular god since severing ties with the community of believers would be too alienating. Though this type of isolation is undesirable, it does not legitimate blind faith in the god of that community.
Humans have a well-developed sense of guilt. This emotion has been co-opted by many religions to correspond to their particular mores. Islamic women feel guilty when they have no head covering in public. Some Christians feel guilty drinking wine. Guilt has no single standard to which it corresponds. There is no evidence that the notion of “sin” is any thing more than a fabrication employed by religionists to control behavior. Their scriptures are full of proclamations of commandments that must be followed as well as verses designed to make the rule-breaker feel exceedingly sinful. “Sin” is then declared to be worthy of damnation, all without evidence. But evidence is not needed if the psychological weight of one’s emotions, co-opted by religion, makes the rejection of that religion unbearable.
These are some of the major emotions that all successful religions co-opt to their advantage. The average human assumes that the emotion has a real correlate; guilt means you are guilty, a yearning for justice means there is justice, and so on. Emotions in no way demonstrate the existence of their correlates.
So we can see that there is first an enormous deficiency in human cognition coupled with a propensity to rely on emotions to construct our belief system. This is demonstrated by the ubiquity in religious belief around the world and the diversity of belief. I hope I have also established that faith holds no intrinsic virtue.
Now let me move on to the issue of dogmatism. Consider the proper way for a person to choose a presidential candidate. Voting along party lines is not considered to be very intelligent, and claiming faith in the party would rightfully make you the object of scorn. A proper evaluation involves exploring all the sources you have to your disposal to assess the knowledge, experience, convictions, competency and character of each candidate. The accumulation of this information is linear; it generally accumulates in a steady manner until you reach a point where you are able to make a decision. It should make sense then that the degree of certainty should also be linear. Instead of suddenly stating that one candidate is wonderful while the other is evil, one should be making statements such as “based on the evidence so far, X appears 20% more competent than Y. But few of us seldom do this due to our propensity for dogmatism. While facilitating action, this dogmatism is a detriment when attempting to find objective truth. The polar ends of the god question are over-weighted with atheists and theists in my opinion. I am an agnostic. While I can state that there is a very low probability of a personal god for reasons I’ll discuss later, I am less certain when considering an Einsteinian god. And I do not feel compelled to choose a side without sufficient evidence. However, this probabilistic attitude towards questions is not natural to me. It had to be learned. I started out quite dogmatic as some of you may recall.
Christianity encourages dogmatism. Certainty is a goal in most religions. This distorts ones epistemology into polarized categories of true and false while disregarding the accumulative nature of evidence. If one begins with the notion that certainty is a goal, then holding insufficient evidence for a long time as might be expected with complex questions is emotionally uncomfortable. Religionists too easily default to dogmatism citing “faith” as something that legitimately picks up the slack. Faith does not legitimize a defaulting to an emotional certainty.
I hope I have adequately described our inherent weaknesses in cognition, emotions and dogmatism. Perhaps I can now continue with some of the reasons why I dismiss the notion of a personal god.
First, much of the ontology of Christianity is dependent on the Bible. The veracity of the Bible must be established before notions such as Heaven, Hell and sin can even be submitted for evaluation. Do not quote the Bible to “prove” to me the existence of these entities. I reject the Bible as “god’s word” for several reasons. As I list these reasons, Christians will contend that I am taking things out of context, yet I have spent years begging to see some objective, consistent and reliable standard of hermeneutics being practiced among Christians. None has emerged. This is the beauty of the “scriptures” of all successful religions; they are all ambiguous enough to provide deniabilty when backed into a exegetical corner. This lack of unity in exegesis I’ll introduce later as a failure of the Holy Spirit.
1) Moral ambiguity.
Polygamy, incest, rape and slavery are just a few of the practices condoned or encouraged in the Bible. Extravagant and elaborate apologetic arguments are employed, and usually track back to the incoherent notion that “God’s ways are not our ways”.
2) Philosophical dilemma
Persons who have not heard of Jesus are, nonetheless, eternally condemned for what the Bible claims is a clear manifestation of his eternal power and godhead in nature. In addition, a finite number of sins committed by a soul who had no choice but to be born sinful are given infinite punishment.
3) Internal textual discrepancies
While a bit over-ambitious, the sitehttp://skepticsannotatedbible.com/ is a good source. I was so intent on finding truth in the “word of god” when I was younger that I learned Greek and read the Greek NT through eleven times. I will not spend time on the alleged discrepancies here.
4) False claims of fulfilled prophecy
Having read Josh McDowell extensively when I was young, I was dismayed to realize his misuse of probability theory, and the selection bias endemic to apologists in general. There have been so many historical events that an omniscient and omnipotent god could have unequivocally and clearly stated in scripture rather than playing silly games with vague terms.
5) Canonization and textual criticism
Unlike I was led to believe when I was young, there was not the unanimity often claimed when it came to the canonization of the Bible, nor is there the consistency claimed across manuscripts from which the Bible was compiled.
6) Dependence on prior mythology
Several mythical religious characters preceding Jesus closely parallel the Gospels account of Jesus to a suspicious degree. (The under-substantiated Zeitgeist movie is not a valid source in my opinion.) Seehttp://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jcpa5.htm
7) Disagreement with and hindrance to science
I’ve written a paper on this you can find athttp://d2or.com/~ps/methodologicalnaturalism.pdf.
8) Falsehoods about a “godless” life
When I was in Christianity, I was told that those without Christ were hedonistic perverted beasts that walk after their own lusts. Imagine my surprise when I discovered atheists who were happily married, involved in charity organizations, and giving back to society to a degree not common to Christians. I was told that, should I ever leave Christianity, I would be unhappy, and have no purpose. I remember during my first year in the philosophy program at the University of Kansas, I asked a guest speaker why so many philosophers committed suicide. I got blank stares and felt embarrassed after getting to know the happy philosophers in my department. And many of them went out of their way to assist students financially, emotionally and academically, all without the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
9) Unfulfilled promises
- Intercessory prayer
There are several verses that promise something about prayer, but when asked for what can be expected of god, Christians redefine answered prayer into the entire set of possible outcomes. Christians have no criteria to distinguish what event is answered prayer and what is merely natural cause and effect. God does not heal amputees, and there exists statistical evidence to dispute the notion that intercessory prayer is effectual. See also the following promises concerning prayer.
Matthew 17:20 & 21:21; Mark 11:24; John 14:12-14; James 5:15-16
Though there were many miracle that god gave to demonstrate his might 2 to 3 thousand years ago, the closer alleged miracles come to scientific scrutiny, the fewer miracles there are. Why this inverse relationship?
- Unity of the spirit
There exist no more unity among Christian churches than among secular organizations.
- The Holy Spirit and truth
Christians exhibit actually less valid logic in their arguments, exhibit no more world knowledge than non-believers, and radically disagree on what many of them consider critical doctrines.
- Power over sin
This is a bit personal. I struggled many years with sexual impulses, and spent hours on my knees begging for god to give me victory. In spite of my sincerity and submission to god that many would vouch for, I repeatedly failed to gain control. It was not until I left Christianity that I finally overcame this. The problem was that I was depending entirely on god and the Bible, and did not spend time assessing who I was sexually. My Christian upbringing supplied the overwhelming sense of guilt that often results in sexual deviation by those immersed in religion. I have since come to a satisfying sense of my sexual self, and have very healthy relationships now in stark contrast to those in my Christian past.
To extend this notion, it is informative to examine rates of incarceration and divorce among Christian nations such as America and non-Christian nations such as Japan or Sweden. The statistics you’ll find on the Web.
Other indicators of the power of god over sins of the flesh might include rates of obesity among Christians as opposed to non-Christians. Based on my observations, there is no power of god at work in this respect, but a statistical study is needed to confirm this.
Let me address one further pertinent issue. Cognitive scientists have been recently more focused on this phenomenon we call religious experience in which an inexplicable sense of well-being and euphoria, often translated into “the joy of the lord”, bears witness with the individual that they are indeed experiencing the presence of god. These scientists have produced identical feelings by stimulating various parts of the brain in the lab. Before we can properly assess god, we need to assess our ability to objectively assess! If we have a predisposition to believe, we must invest time and focus on setting aside our subjective emotions, and develop an objectivity that includes essential skills such as logic and critical thinking. This is not innate. There are no shortcuts such as a plug-and-play “faith”.
Let me conclude by restating my current disposition towards religion and the possibility of a god.
I’m a bit annoyed at the Christianity that exudes arrogance and condescension. A subset of Christians glory in their blind faith and pompous proclamations of their monopoly on truth. I have no problem assuming an equal arrogance in stating how wrong they are.
However, most Christians are no different than I was. I still believe they are in error, but many of them are good benevolent people. As someone who espouses the beauty of an altruistic lifestyle, I admire them. While the kindness of some Christians is based on less-than-noble incentives such as god’s anger or god’s approval, some Christians seem to really enjoy helping others as I do. However, I would be happier if they found the satisfaction and intellectual integrity that exists in a “godless” life that is based on reality.
I’m still open-minded, so if any of you have arguments for god you think I’ve overlooked, please state them. And I hope you have read my arguments with equal open-mindedness.
Update on August 25, 2009: The following is an extract from an email exchange I had with a relative about my emotional disposition during the 3+ years I was leaving Christianity. It takes a stronger tone.
Yes, sadly, I believed the verses such as “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” This is the reason I floundered so long, certain that there must be some truth to the bible’s promise of power over “sin”. Once I left the myth of christianity and learned that I was not prone to “sin”, I stopped “sinning”.
The bible has some nice promises, but they’re impotent.
You suggested that some of the more theological/philosophical issues I’ve introduced were post-deconversion. Perhaps some of you think I deconverted overnight. Not the case. It took me 3 years during which time I was going around to pastors of various denominations around [city] hoping to find coherent responses to my questions. I was quite disappointed. But it was not the fault of the pastors. The bible has no coherent answer for its absurdities.
During these 3 years I was also on my knees begging any god that did exist to reveal himself to me. There was no response. I was really hoping for something, partly out of fear of the possibility of hell perhaps, plus because of all the vested interest I had in Christianity. Jehovah was the “god of my fathers” as [another christian] states. Jehovah unfortunately just happens to be a fairy tale of enormous proportions.
I guess it was my 2nd year at [university] that my eyes began to really open to who I was. A big step was understanding the frailty of my human brain and its propensity to delusion. Another step was to acknowledge that I was completely unskilled in honest argumentation. Christians are led to believe that truth comes rather intuitively to those who rely on the Lord. Sorry. In most cases of reasoning by christians, logic is employed within a small box surrounded by outrageous assumptions.
And these were but just a couple steps in my understanding of self and reality that began to snowball into an immensely joyous process where pieces of knowledge more and more rapidly snapped into place as I began to relinquished all the false christian assumptions I had held.
Is life perfect now? No. Am I happy now? You have no idea! But my euphoria may be largely a function of my personality. But it sure beats the state of guilt I was in all the while I was begging Jesus for deliverance.
I have no guilt. I am not a sinner, and neither are any of you. We all have the capacity to live altruistic lives without the need for god or morality. I think that, after the fear of hell, it is the fear of the loss of god and morality that entraps the most people within christianity.
So I’m not running around filling up my godless life with sin. There are so many interesting and amazing things to do and learn in a godless life, that debauchery is rather unappealing.
I imagine the godless you see around you are a bad advertisement for disbelief. I would suggest most of them still believe in god, and are only “sinning” in line with their concept of their “sinful” selves. Being bad is not the default state of humans. It is being generally altruistic. My godless friends in Tokyo, who don’t subscribe to the notion of a sin nature, go way out of their way to help the homeless here and to offer help of all sorts without expectation of recompense. This is not a christian behavior. It is a human behavior.
So yeah, I have no qualms about showing my anger and disdain for christianity. It is based on lies that only prevent my friends and family from living lives with a satisfaction that cannot be perceived within the small world of the Jesus and Jehovah myth. Is it a sin to honestly consider whether Jesus and Jehovah might be a product of a mind frailer and more gullible than you want to admit? If so, I hope desperately that you fall into this sin, with the hope that Jesus, Jehovah as well as sin all go the way of Santa.
But to those of you who are still committed to propagating such lies that I am so glad to have escaped, I offer the deepest disdain. Your ignorance of the joys you’re preventing and the sorrow you’re causing is no excuse.