"I find that hard to believe"

Again today, belief.net. This is a followup to what I responded to yesterday, and again got me thinking about what’s truly at the heart of the “you were never a REAL” whatever responses to people who claim to have shared our position before but now don’t.

What’s really at the heart of it is the challenge to one’s manner of thinking. To the religious, a former religious person who now is an atheist poses a challenge to the value of faith. To the atheist, encountering a person who’s religious but says she once was an atheist is a challenge to the value of reason and evidence.

Far too many times I’ve seen Christians attack former Christians with the accusation that they were never a real Christian. My guess is that it’s simply unfathomable to a person of faith to accept someone giving up their faith, so they rationalize that the person couldn’t possibly have had true faith. Also, as we’ve seen from letters from Mother Theresa, even the most famously devout question their faith, and witnessing someone who did and subsequently jumped ship must be frightening to a believer. It must be truly difficult in a modern age where reason and evidence are exalted and which govern virtually every other facet of a believer’s life outside of their faith to continue to keep it outside. I think it’s far easier for the faithful to accept that the de-converted simply were never truly faithful, or else they’d have to admit to themselves that their faith is similarly vulnerable.

For anyone who decided to allow the rational thinking which governs most of their lives into their thoughts of faith and subsequently abandoned that faith, the idea that someone could go the other way must equally be disturbing. How can that be possible? Indeed, if one is to give up faith because it doesn’t hold up to rational scrutiny, then it has to be unfathomable to accept that someone who was rational could see faith trumping rationality; therefore, the only thing they can think of is that the converted couldn’t possibly have been truly rational.

Similar, but not quite the same, is the atheist who never embraced faith. They too embrace rationality, but never had to expunge a faith element from their minds. As this is my category, I don’t have to guess. I can say that I’ve mostly been dismissive of those who decide to choose faith over rationality, to any degree. Clearly faith is an inadequate means to know anything, and cannot provide anyone with the ability to make good decisions (imagine if people relied on faith alone when mulling over what to do in response to a Nigerian Prince’s email promising great wealth in exchange for a little help or merely to know if it’s safe to cross the street); therefore, if I were to meet someone who claimed they used to be an atheist, my reaction would be dismissive like Geek Squad Guy, and say, “no you weren’t”, or that you weren’t a real atheist. It simply is unfathomable to me that someone would choose to abandon what works for what doesn’t.

What all of us need to understand is that it actually is possible for someone to have been in one camp and decided to move to the other, and that’s because it’s entirely possible for someone to embrace one way of thinking over another. The believer could one day turn their critical eye inward on their faith and find faith wanting. Likewise, the rational could one day decide to forego their rationality and try to embrace faith. The reason why it’s unfathomable to either side to accept someone could go to the other is we can’t fathom how, if holding to our way of thinking, that’s possible, but that’s just it, the way of thinking isn’t being held. THAT is what makes the transitions possible.

Probably the best response for any of us to give to someone who claims they used to think like us is to simply say, “I find that hard to believe”, which really is what we mean anyway when we say, “then you weren’t a real (insert position)”, for we simply can’t fathom how, if you think like us, you could make such a move, but the move is actually in how one thinks, not which side to be on.

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26 Responses to “"I find that hard to believe"”

  1. Since I was raised a Mormon, I have often received the response from theists “ah… But you should try ‘Christianity’ instead”. The unspoken subtext here is – “well no wonder you went atheist; you discovered you were stuck in a batshit crazy religion. If you had been in the ‘right’ one, this never would have happened”.

    The problem with that is that when I left the Mormon church at about 18 or 19, I did it primarily through the use of reason and went on for some time to be open to the religious claims of others, only to shut them down one by one under the continued critical light of rationality. So I did give other versions of Christianity (and Buddhism) a chance. It’s just that my young mind finally turned toward the greater question of Faith, and once that happened it was over for all manifestations.

    I think you are probably right. There are two ways of thinking. People are capable of deciding to use either of them (or BOTH of them – situationally). If an atheist chooses to shut down some of his critical thinking processes due to the fact that he knows religion can promise him something he won’t find anywhere else, he can do it. It can’t be easy and, in fact, it’s astounding to me but I really think it’s possible.

    Interesting study – how many people were religious and became atheist/agnostic and how many people were atheist/agnostic and turned to religions. I predict at least a 10 to 1 ratio in favor of the first group. It’s easier to wake up than to fall asleep.

  2. Sort of like that guy in The Matrix who sold out the crew in exchange for being put back into the Matrix with a sweet existence. In the scene where he made the deal, he was eating a steak and said he knew it wasn’t real but he just didn’t care. I can’t fathom doing that, but to each his own.

    Before our lovable scamp cl pops in citing this as supporting his ‘thinking you need demonstrable evidence is just an opinion’ assertion, no, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Imagine you’re on the rooftop of a building and you want to go talk to someone you see on the street. Yes, you have the choice of taking the stairs or jumping, but to suggest it’s mere opinion as to what’s warranted is preposterous.

    Want a real world example? The Boxer Rebellion. Bullets trump belief.

  3. What about giving the claims of the faithful a test though? Heck, if you believe hard enough, perhaps you can fly like tinkerbell, maybe you can hear God talking or maybe the holy spirit will guide your every move! Hey, the human mind is very impressionable, every night when you go to bed your mind creates a whole reality that is only really present in your own conscious mind (these visions, or dreams are blocked out during your waking hours though).

    What I think the religious tend to do is focus their consciousness into their subconscious minds, and then they are overwhelmed and don’t necessarily understand what is going on when they pray or chant or meditate, etc. There is plenty of brainwashing that goes on and there is plenty of things about our brains and minds that science, much less individuals, have yet to fully comprehend, manipulate, and recreate.

    Thus, somebody who doesn’t believe in religion, then has some sort of unexplainable mind experience thereby might conclude that religion is true. As for me, naturalism should explain all things that exist though. I think science can explain readily easily what love and hate are, what causes abnormal experiences or sensations, etc, but other things just haven’t been explained and thereby allows for a gap in knowledge for religion to cling to.

    Then, it makes no difference whether science has explained some phenomina if the person whom experiences them isn’t educated about it. Maybe somebody will conclude there is a god that is mad if they get boils from eating rat shit, maybe they make a false connection to some other event that went on earlier in the week, etc. Impressionability is the reason why the mind is susceptible to religion.

  4. Many moons ago, someone told me about a book they read which theorized that much of early man’s visions and voices from gods were actually due to some absence of or fault in the connections between brain hemispheres. Thus, the right brain maybe comes up with something and the left brain is like, “who said that? Do what to my son?”

    I think the theory has been discredited, but still, it’s an amusing thought. Hell, maybe most of religion’s early prophets were just schizophrenics.

  5. I think almost every religion exploits the “unexplainable mind experience” through prayer, mediation, fasting, etc.

    Like John, I too grew up Mormon, and even stayed in it long enough to go through the temple and go on a mission (to convert others). So I am very familiar with the techniques they used on me and that I used on others to manipulate them into having just such an experience, which was then identified as the “Holy Spirit” witnessing to them (or to me) that everything that was said was true, despite it being totally unprovable.

    Brainwashing, emotional manipulation, emotional vulnerability, lack of knowledge and loss (or lack) of rationality are the tools religion uses to convince people of the most ridiculous things.

    But also like John, after leaving Mormonism, I critically examined other religions/spiritual communities, and came to the conclusion that I was an atheist.

    I understand why people are religious, and why people choose religion, and I can understand why some people might be drawn into religion from atheism when they’re in an incredibly difficult situation. But I do think it is probably very rare for someone who was an atheist the way we think of it, and for rational reasons to become a theist or even a deist.

  6. Well, you don’t necessarily need to be a theist to fling shit around and then to laugh about it, merely being evolved relatives of apes and chimps suffices. Religion was the invention of other poop flingers to stop all the stupidity. Unfortunately, it backfired on everybody.

  7. I like your response, “I find that hard to believe.” It invites the theist to explain herself rather than dismissing her claim outright.

  8. Philly said: “who said that? Do what to my son?”


  9. Yeah, so Philly, what was that voice in your head saying?

  10. [kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] – you have my sincerest sympathies. I started have big doubts right about “mission time”. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky.

    Funny story – one of the guys who actually kind of got me into critical thinking ended up going on a mission to Germany! Right when I thought I was catching up to him in rational thought he told me he had been “called” and was going. I tried desperately to talk him back off the edge. You could see he felt really silly, but he just kept sticking to it without being able to articulate WHY. It was the first time in our lives that I felt I was intellectually ahead of him.

  11. I went on a mission to Germany too, about 6 years ago. The main reason I went was because of social pressure and fear of my parents’ reaction, not because I really wanted to or because I believed in it, though at the time I convinced myself I did.

    But I think that going on a mission was one of the main experiences that helped me leave the church a couple years later. I saw that people were perfectly happy without any kind of religion, and I learnt to respect other cultures (and became fluent in German). Those were both major components of my doubting after the mission, and probably one of the reasons I decided to leave Mormonism (along with the main reason of being gay).

  12. It’s easier to wake up than to fall asleep.

    Easier, but I can see the appeal of being asleep (though the actual falling asleep process seems like it’d be hellish and literally crazy-making). Like being wound up in soft, fluffy cotton, where there’s no loud noises, and someone strong always loves and cares about you. . . .

    Yeah, I can see the appeal, but, having woken up I don’t understand the desire going any further than occasional wishful thinking.

    The guy in The Matrix wanted to go back, but he stipulated that he not remember any of his life outside of the Matrix once he was back inside.

    Being asleep feels wonderful, when you don’t realize you are, and have no wakefulness to compare it to. But once you’ve been awake, without some sort of localized amnesia–or massive powers of disassociation/ compartmentalization, sleeping . . . should be impossible.


  13. And I suppose those who’ve never slept are tempted to sleep, perchance to dream.

    That reminds me of a short story I read in high school about people who were genetically altered to not need sleep. Quite surprising all the ramifications of that, not the least of which being the fear, hatred and resentment by the regular folk for those who didn’t sleep.

  14. lol….Who needs genetics when there’s crack for that!?

  15. [kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] -

    Gay Mormon?! You have double my sympathy. Are you “OK” with your parents now?

    So, did you spend much time on the Kurfürstendamm? :)

    I remember my “mission buddy” actually had his mailing address on Kurfürstendamm. For some reason, I always thought that was the coolest name.

    This was back in ’72.

  16. Your title would be my response to Joan with the additional “could you please explain how”.

    I have not yet seen any evidence nor read any argument that convinces me of the existence of any of the gods described in humanity’s history.

    Do you know if Joan actually describes her conversion anywhere?

  17. Sean,

    I believe she has a book coming out and I’m actually tempted to get it. In the comments of my last post she stopped by and said that she couldn’t imagine trying to give a rational argument for her new belief, so yeah, it would be interesting to hear her story.

  18. So one than assumes that it might be based on emotion or personal experience?


  19. Philly: “And I suppose those who’ve never slept are tempted to sleep, perchance to dream.” Odd. I’ve lived my whole life in a non-religious (smattering of church attendences (I still love Christmas Eve midnight Mass (for the theater of it))) and non-theist household. I relish being awake, and really am not tempted to sleep. I like being awake. And aware.

    My closest brush with sleep came with my first girlfriend (raised RC, became Baptist), but I could never understand the pull of ‘faith.’ Maybe that’s my problem. I try to understand.

    My guess (and this is a wild pull-it-out-of-my-arse guess) is that atheists who either enter or return to the fold are beguiled by the idea of feeling something without any need for understanding, understanding without any need for thought, thought without any need for evidence, and evidence without having to rely on physical senses.

    Sorry for the long post.

  20. Well, I’ve spoken about it before, but atheism is both exhilarating and a drag – for me.

    I won’t bother explaining the exhilaration here! But the drag is that it isn’t easy or pleasant to be rational when we live in a world with so much wrong. Reality bites.

    I suppose someone like me (but slightly different) might subconsciously say “FUCK this” and and go for some soothing relief in the form of ignorance and enchantments.

    Guess I’m a bit of masochist. :)

  21. Not all atheists are intellectuals, not all intellectuals are atheists.

    However, all “intellectual atheists” are intellectuals and atheists.

    Also, all Objectivist Freethinkers are “Intellectual Atheists” but not all “Intellectual Atheists” are Objectivist Freethinkers. Objectivism means that there are two criteria to be met in order for belief….(1) there is sufficient objective evidence for supporting the claim and (2) there is derivation of rigorous logical proof. Intellectual atheism only requires the latter criteria, which is flimsy because the argument amounts to a logical proof whereby the initial terms can be defined independent of natural processes.

    In short, somebody could define a logical proof for the existance or nonexistance of god, assuming that the definitions of the terms are phrased appropriately and thereby the intellectual would be satisfied (variations of Godel’s Theorems can be used either way depending on how the term “sets” are defined as per the supernatural and natural sets or by defining God as being “greater than the sum of the net intelligence in the universe” or etc).

    However, the objectivist is not satisfied by pure logic, but requires naturalistic evidence to warrant the terms provided.

  22. Well said Quantum Flux.

    @John Evo
    No, my parents (or extended family on my dad’s side) aren’t ok with any of it at all.

    And the Kurfürstendamm is in Berlin. I was in Frankfurt (well the surrounding cities actually). But the street the mission office in Frankfurt was on is called Kurfürstenstraße. Kurfürsten = “Crown Prince”.

  23. I almost responded to your post on this the other day, but I wanted to think through it a little more thoroughly first.

    I think that part of the impulse behind the “you were never a true ____” is the very powerful trend to follow by example. For much of our history, we’ve tended to act more like flocks of sheep than the rational beings we have the potential to be. If a former Christian loses his faith or a former atheist conjures some, we want to know why. “It must have been a good reason if they’d make such a momentous decision based upon it,” is the unspoken rationale. I suspect what follows next is the psychological need to show both ourselves and our peers that we wouldn’t have been so easily duped.

  24. Many moons ago, someone told me about a book they read which theorized that much of early man’s visions and voices from gods were actually due to some absence of or fault in the connections between brain hemispheres.

    I think you’re referring to “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes. And IIRC it’s not so much that the idea has been disproven, so much as that it’s batshit crazy, but Jaynes manages to present it in such a way that you wonder for a while whether it might really be true.

  25. In my experience, people who used to be atheists and converted to religion didn’t do so for rational reasons (e.g., Francis Collins, who saw a waterfall split in three, and took that to be a sign of the trinity), and/or don’t give good reasons why they used to consider themselves atheists (e.g., Lee Strobel).

    Basically, it’s not a question of what you believe, so much as why. If you’re an atheist because you and your friends think it’s cool, it’s understandable that you might later convert and join a church full of friendly people. That’s understandable, but it’s not a good reason.

    What I have yet to see, though, is someone who converted because of objective empirical evidence.

  26. Yeah, I’d like to see that, too

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