Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Deconversion Story – in which the Hammer Drops

In High School I took a speech class. I remember very little about it, except we had to do speeches in various categories. The only two I recall were “Informative Speeches” (solely providing information) and “Persuasive Speeches” (just like it sounds.)

In Law, all we do are “Persuasive Speeches.” We attempt to persuade our clients to take certain actions. We try to convince the Judges to rule in our favor on motions. We cajole the opposing side as to why it would be better for them to see it our way. We endeavor to win over the jury to view our position as the correct one.

We argue. A lot. Among all that debating, we recognize what is convincing and what is not. What will be compelling, and what will not. If my client has made 50 payments on time, but one payment late—whatever excuse I give for that one payment will be persuasive, due to the history. If my client has never made a payment on time, but claims the next one will be—whatever argument I make will not. Statements such as “Honest, THIS time you have my attention” will only make the Judge angrier. (It is telling the Judge you were not taking him/her serious before. Not the brightest move.)

In my review, I was seeing some poor argumentation. Arguments insufficient to persuade a judge or jury. It was troubling. How could Christianity be so poorly defended?

Historicity of Jesus Christ-mythers? People who claim Jesus never even existed? Sure, I was aware of people who said Jesus was just a good man; but no god. Or people who questioned the accuracy of the Bible to events such as the resurrection. But to claim it was 100% fabrication; completely made up? Seemed pretty far-fetched to me!

And in reviewing their arguments, while I have never been convinced of a complete Christ Myth, they do raise some interesting issues as to how to determine what is historical, and what is not within the Bible, regarding Jesus. They raise the key question—“By what method do we separate fact from myth when it comes to Jesus?”

Where are the non-Christian historical records of Jesus? The only thing coming close is the contested Testimonium Flavianum. Nothing else. (Tacitus and Pliny the Younger indicated Christianity exists. No one is questioning whether Christianity exists; the question is whether Christ exists.) The defense is the historians of the time would not be interested in writing on Jesus, due to this author’s emphasis, or that author’s prejudice.

See, this is one of those arguments that would never sell in a courtroom. “Sure, Judge, we claim this religion took off like a bat out of hell. 3000 converts in one day! The founder of the religion was feeding 1000’s of people at a time, healing every imaginable disease, disrupting the entire Temple, and had the ability to raise the dead. His followers grew so powerful; their shadow passing over people would heal them!

“The local churches immediately persecuted them both locally, and in foreign countries, even to the point that Caesar himself was blaming them for burning Rome! But, see my client, the historian of that period, was not interested in recording these events. It was not the focus of his work.”

Is that believable? Worse, I reviewed the debates over archeological findings not supporting Exodus. What I saw were Christians willing to compromise the literal claims of Exodus (“Maybe it was not 2 Million, but only a few thousand.” “Maybe it happened at a different time.” “Maybe it was a different people.”) based upon external evidence. Why not the same treatment for literal claims about Jesus?

And then we have the first Christian writings—Paul. Who writes very little about Jesus the person. Again, the argument is made Paul’s emphasis was elsewhere. Again, this argument would not be persuasive. Paul argues the Mosaic commandments can be summed up in “Love your neighbor” but fails to mention Jesus saying the same thing? Paul has to argue over whether there is a resurrection, completely missing all of Jesus’ statements regarding the same? Not to mention raising people from the dead!

Never a miracle or parable or saying of Jesus to support Paul’s argument? A simple premise is to argue with your strongest evidence. If I have the President of the opposing Company admitting a fact—why go through circumstantial evidence, implication and nuance to prove the same thing? Why would Paul go through lengthy arguments on propositions, rather than simply state, “Hey, Jesus said it; that’s my support.”?

Paul demonstrates almost a complete lack of knowledge regarding the events of the Gospels, and when he does give facts, some contradict the Gospel accounts.

Then Mark is written. One year in the life of Christ. No Birth; no Resurrection (albeit both are implied.) A Secret Messiah who has difficultly performing miracles. A Gospel written in the fashion of Greek Novels, and deliberate reliance upon the Tanakh. Matthew and Luke utilize Mark in writing their own Gospels. Where Mark is silent (birth and resurrection) Matthew and Luke punch in their own stories. Which conflict with each other.

Then the Gospel of John is written. By this point, Christians recognize the authors are putting distinct spin in each Gospel. We see words like “Higher Christology” referring to John. The author is painting Christ as God. No more Secret Messiah. No more difficulty with miracles. We have gone from a one year ministry of a man with God-like abilities to a three-year ministry of a God with human form.

We then have the Gospel of Peter. Since the other four did not specifically cover what actually happened at the moment of resurrection, this Gospel fills in the Details. The Gospel of Mary provides us with more interactions between Jesus and his female followers, as compared to just the Male Disciples. The Gospel of James gives us Mary’s background, and more facts surrounding the actual birth of Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas provides us with the information previously missing regarding Jesus’ first twelve years.

The Gospels of Thomas and Judas tell us of other sayings of Jesus, previously unrecorded. The Acts of Pilate tell us of when Jesus was seen by over 500 after his resurrection, and gives us more details regarding the Trial of Jesus. We learn of “Veronica.”

I realized ALL Christians believe myths were written about Jesus. Many simply choose to limit it to those after the canonical four. Why? If we are in agreement some facts are written about Jesus, and some myth—what measuring stick do we use to make this determination?

It was here I saw too much “begging the question” or “circular reasoning.” It is making a method with the specific intention of a foregone conclusion. We hear things like, “it was written ‘too late.’” What is “too late.”? The Tanakh contains stories written 1000’s of years (at least) after the event, and is accepted. But when it comes to the New Testament, 100 years after the event is “too late”?

Or it was what was accepted by “Early Church Fathers.” Again, which fathers? And how do we know what are the correct ones?

As lawyers we are constantly “framing the argument.” We are claiming the crux of the matter turns on a certain question, in which we happen to have the “correct” answer. Imagine I am representing a person charged with speeding. I could argue they were taking their child to the hospital, justifying going over the speed limit. The prosecutor would argue the law is the law; it is why we have ambulances. I would argue the question is “Is it important to receive prompt medical treatment?” The prosecutor argues the question is: “Does a person have to follow the law?”

Do you see how each of us is hoping the judge will rest on our method, will claim our question is the correct one, in order for us to win? If the Judge is convinced human need supercedes the law—I win! If I convinced her that was the question of the case, then I had the right answer.

This was what I was seeing regarding Jesus’ historicity. People were “framing the question” in terms of “Was it written within 70 years?” Then they win. But if the question was, “Was it written within 20 years?” We would be stuck with Paul’s writings. Or “Was it written within 50 years?” we could lose the Gospel of John.

Why is 20, 50, or 70 the “correct” number? As I reviewed the methods proposed for determining what was historical about Jesus, I saw people developing arbitrary methods to ONLY obtain the results desired. And even then, it was inconsistent.

Canon of the Bible This led directly to reviewing why we have the books we have. It is a simple question—given a string of words, what method do we use to determine those words qualify for “divine writing.”? (Whatever that may mean.)

Again, I saw claims of requiring “apostolic authorship.” Mark and Luke (not apostles) qualified by being “associated” with apostles. What about Hebrews? That was conveniently ignored. Jude got in by being Jesus’ brother. Yet I saw no reason 1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas could not equally be included in the canon. Any method utilized to exclude them would likewise exclude Hebrews. It would be difficult to stay consistent. The only way to do so is come up with a method specifically derived to have a foregone conclusion.

One may as well say, “my method is to use the book on my coffee table to say what is divine and what is not.” At least it will come up with the desired solution of the Bible every time.

Here, for the first time, I learned of questioned authorship. Paul didn’t write the Pastorals? Ephesians has always been my favorite epistle. And now it wasn’t even Pauline. Peter didn’t write his epistles, either? Using Apostlisitc authorship as a requirement would make a much shorter New Testament!

The arguments for the canon I held were so much question-begging. A consistent method could never obtain the Bible I had.

Inerrancy The Hammer.

I entered a thread discussing inerrancy in general and Judas’ death in particular. An Oldie, but Goodie. It progressed as these threads do. The Christians (myself included) arguing for giving written materials the “benefit of the doubt” and offering possible solutions. I did not expect these solutions to be convincing to skeptics, necessarily, but they seemed plausible enough to me.

Then something happened. I was reading my co-Christian’s responses, and thinking, “That’s not right. That is not convincing.” Culminating in (yet another) Christian claim it was a person’s presuppositions which dictated their bias either for or against scripture being inerrant. The inevitable phrase came out, “innocent until proven guilty.”

See, that is a common incorrect rendition of the phrase. It is actually, “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” In the law we have presumptions all the time. We have a term, ”prima facia” which means “on its face.” If nothing is provided to the contrary—we win. A criminal defendant is presumed innocent. If the prosecutor provides no further proof—the defendant wins. However, as we all know from reading the papers and watching TV, “presumed innocent” does NOT necessarily entail, “found innocent.” We overcome presumptions and prima facia cases every day without thought.

The Christian was declaring, “Because you presume it is guilty, regardless of the proof, you will always find it guilty.” I recognized how untrue this was. We have all presumed something to be true, even been quite convinced of it, and upon new information changed our mind. Have any of you had to say “I’m Sorry” because you made a decision about a person which ended up to be totally incorrect? There you go. Had a presumption, learned something, and changed your mind.

The Christian was not addressing the problem of the contradiction, the Christian was retreating to framing the question in a way in which he could justify a “win” in his mind. I know arguments. I know retreat. I know framing the question. He wanted the argument to be, “What do you presuppose?” rather than “Is there a contradiction?” Because in the former, he could rationalize ignoring the skeptics’ claims, since they held the “wrong” presupposition.

Christianity (I thought) should be BETTER than that! We held truth. We have God. We have his declared written book, with the Holy Spirit helping us interpret it. We should smash through presuppositions like tissue paper, confidently stating, “regardless of what you initial presuppose, or presume or think—this evidence is sufficient to overcome such presuppositions.”

Why were we retreating as if…as if…dare I say…our God was not sufficient? Why were we treating this as if it was a debate between two mere humans; without God involvement? Was God’s truth inadequate to overcome the other person’s arguably justified belief humans make mistakes? We think nothing of attempting to overcome presumptions in a court of law—how come it is too much for God?

I sat back from my computer screen—reeling. Why are we, as Christians, making excuses? Why are we running away? Why are we retreating? Why are we treating these debates as if it was two humans discussing? Where was the divinity? Why could God not do, what I did every day?

And then one skeptic poster made a comment: “I didn’t tell my girlfriend what we have been discussing. I showed her the account from Matthew regarding Judas’ death, and the account from Acts. She has no religious interest. I asked what she thought, and she told me they clearly contradicted.” Of course, the Christian began to sputter that he had failed to explain context, and “scripture interpreting scripture” and social norms, etc.

But to me—this was a bolt of enlightening. An epiphany. This, THIS is what I do—have neutral people make determination on disputed issues. All those previous discussions, previous research on other issues came together in a thunderclap. The reason I was troubled and getting up at 2 in the morning was my brain telling me this would never sell to a neutral jury.

It was as if someone dropped a hammer on the mirror of my belief. Those hairline, almost invisible cracks forming for the past few months immediately separated, causing the mirror to shatter along their lines. Paul did not include Jesus’ parables and sayings because Paul did not know them. They didn’t exist yet. A neutral jury would see that. Exodus is not supported by archeology because it is a legend. A neutral jury would see that, too.

My Christianity was based upon half-truths and suppositions. A jury would piercingly see that.

I entered the thread as a Christian; by the last post I was barely a theist. For the first time, at 2 in the morning, I started to pray to a God that was not exclusively Christian in some way. I started praying to whatever God existed, whether it was Christian, or Muslim, or Mormon, or Deist or Hindu or…well…whatever.

‘Cause the God I had for so, so long was in pieces on the floor. No matter how much I tried to put those pieces together, the cracks and spaces and gaps would reveal it for what it was—a broken belief.

Chapter 12


  1. On your previous article, you had a link to one of your old articles - why not dying for a lie would not fly. That was my hammer that fell. We just *assumed* based on ??who knows what?? that all the Gospel writers died for their beliefs. After assuming the historicity of the crucifiction of Peter, then reading the account from the Acts of Peter, along with the rest of that obviously unhistorical book was the final straw.

    There were hundreds of steps that led up to that, but finally getting through my thick head that nobody died for any lie was the limit for me.

  2. Powerful. I just recommended this series to my ex-fundy support group yesterday. It's easily one of the best-written and most comprehensive deconversion stories I've read, and I've read quite a few.

    I'd like to see it get a wider audience at some point. Do you have any thoughts about doing that, DagoodS?

  3. HeIsSailing,

    The hardest part of a deconversion story is explaining it was NOT just “one thing.” There was no “magic bullet” in which one moment we were Christians, someone showed us a rock that was 100 Million years old, and we said, “Really? I believe you, so I must not be a Christian any more.”

    I could have listed more topics I studied, but this is getting long enough as it is. I didn’t touch on the Problem of Evil, or Euthyphro, or Abraham’s offering.

    Although I have to admit a hint of jealousy it was “Die for a Lie” causing your head to snap back. Judas’ death as a contradiction seems so…well…stupid and obvious. What a dumb thing to get the point through my thick skull. I had reviewed some threads on it. Mostly Christians making the claims, and skeptics demanding to see the source for those claims.

    Karen, I just talk a lot. Frankly, I hadn’t planned on writing this at all, but the concept of what the right Christianity to deconvert from is, coupled with Dave Armstrong desiring to critique my story (a peculiar notion) got me typing.

    People who I care about, as well as some new people I have met during its posting are reading it. I am glad for that much of an audience. If it never gets wider—this was plenty sufficient. I am not writing a book.

  4. The hardest part of a deconversion story is explaining it was NOT just “one thing.”

    Of course, this fact also leaves us wide-open to the tired dismissal, “Oh, so your heart had been gradually been turning away/hardening against the Lord for some time, then.” :) …however that’s supposed to explain things…

    Although I have to admit a hint of jealousy it was “Die for a Lie” causing your head to snap back. Judas’ death as a contradiction seems so…well…stupid and obvious.

    Hey it beats mine (the Centurion’s servant story). Judas’ death was already starting to stink to me, but it wasn't the “final nail”. Which is funny, considering Judas is a sort of “glaring” contradiction, while the Centurian thing is nitpicky (while still unresolvable). Maybe it was because you had the cop-out that one Judas story was what the Bible directly said happened, whereas the other story was the Bible saying what someone else (Peter) had said (which could be infallible). At least, that’s how I remember resolving it… I didn't ever really buy the “both stories could be true” fudged arguments, though.

    I am not writing a book.

    You should—you really, really should. I’d sure as hell read it. Lulu.com, anybody?

  5. DagoodS, I've been greatly enjoying this series on your de-conversion story.

    Question: It seems that your legal background has played a huge, if not fundamental, role. Do you know of any other legal professionals who examine their theistic beliefs in the same manner in which they assess a case?


  6. whizler,

    No question my legal background has a significant impact on how I think. We are faced with “he said/she said” situations all the time in which we eventually will need to make a determination as to which one is more likely.

    It is a convenient tool in attempting to remove one’s own personal bias (which we all have) as well as deriving the answer to “what happened?” as best we can with the knowledge we have.

    I am not aware of any other lawyers who review their theistic views as they view a case—either believer or non-believer. Ten Minas Ministries, who is a link on my blogroll, is a Conservative Christian trial lawyer. I would not want to speak for him, as to how much his legal-thinking crosses over to the theistic-thinking.