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De-Conversions as Apologetic Tools

apostle paul road to damascusApparently Christians aren’t the only ones who use de-conversions to bolster their faith. You know,

  • Person A was a lifelong adherent to Belief A.
  • Person A is converted to Belief B.
  • Belief B now touts convert as evidence of Belief A’s inferiority.
  • Belief B touts convert as evidence of Belief B’s superiority.

Christians are often guilty of this. One need only look at the amount of “celebrity believers” — academics, intellectuals, musicians, movie stars — who, after a seeming conversion, are rushed into the spotlight as apologetic proof of our viability.

But does ones conversion from Belief A to Belief B prove anything about either belief?

In Evangelical Testimony and Christian Apologetics, Patrol Magazine’s Kenneth Sheppard answers with an emphatic “no.” In this instance, Sheppard bases his conclusions on the case of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. Butterfield chronicled her conversion from militant feminism, lesbianism, and atheism, to Christianity in her recent book Confessions of an Unlikely Convert. (You can read my review of Butterfield’s book HERE.) Sheppard describes the book as having “a fairly predictable trajectory,” one that “embodies the bête noire of recent American evangelicalism: homosexuality, Marxism, and the liberal-radical secular academy.”

The fact that she begins her story by describing herself as dismissive of Christians and their intellectual capacities only adds another layer of contrast to what will become the rhetorical pivot upon which her story centres – not only does she find that Christians can think critically (huzza!), they can also do so without being overtly judgmental.

Sheppard’s takeaway from Butterfield’s testimony, and the subsequent embrace of her from the evangelical community, is that “neither today’s evangelicals nor those of the future are likely to be well served by a conventional story reaffirming cherished assumptions.”

…there are serious problems for a Christianity which allows an all-too-human elision of testimony into an apologia, particularly where the story of conversion becomes little more than a platform for certain moral, social, or political views.

But turning “testimony into an apologia,” especially as it relatesreaffirming cherished assumptions,” works both ways.

Take for instance the recent de-conversion story of the daughter of a prominent evangelical apologist. In The Atheist Daughter of a Notable Christian Apologist Shares Her Story, which recently ran at The Friendly Atheist blog, Rachael Slick chronicled the intellectual disintegration of her “Christian faith” and her estrangement from, what appeared to be, a model evangelical family.

As my knowledge of Christianity grew, so did my questions — many of them the “classic” kind. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, why did He create a race He knew was destined for Hell? How did evil exist if all of Creation was sustained by the mind of God? Why didn’t I feel His presence when I prayed?

Slick frames her de-conversion as one of intellectual honesty. Having been taught to be a critical thinker (her father is the founder of CARM, a  popular Christian apologetics site), Slick eventually came to the shocking realization that she “had been schooled in a sham.”

I had a habit of bouncing theological questions off [Alex], 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.

Everything I was, everything I knew, the structure of my reality, my society, and my sense of self suddenly crumbled away, and I was left naked.

I was no longer a Christian.

As interesting as it is reading Slick’s testimony, I couldn’t help but see it as the very type of “apologia” that Christians are accused of using to reaffirm their “cherished assumptions.” The comment thread is heading towards 3,000, many of which are atheists in “I told you so” mode. In the same way that Sheppard derides Butterfield’s de-conversion as having “a fairly predictable trajectory,” the same could be applied to Slick’s. Hers “embodies the bête noire of recent American [atheism],” in this case, evangelicalism’s perceived anti-intellectualism, primitive moral rigidity, and basic religious nuttery.

So how is evangelicalism’s use of Rosario Butterfield’s de-conversion any different than  atheism’s use of Rachael Slick’s de-conversion?

Truth is, de-conversion testimonials are weak apologetic tools.

For one thing, reverse conversion stories are often accepted or rejected based on ones prejudices. We tend to value testimonials that support our own worldview. Sure, personal testimony carries weight. But de-conversions can be found to and from every religion. Just because someone converted from atheism to Christianity has about as much apologetic weight as does someone converting from Christianity to atheism.

So it works both ways: If atheists or religious progressives are going to pan the use of de-conversion testimonies which bolster a Christian worldview, they must also approach “Christian de-conversions” to atheism as similarly suspect.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) July 19, 2013, 7:27 AM

    I never thought about conversion stories that way. Thank you for giving me another way to think about things.

  • StuartB July 19, 2013, 7:44 AM

    My standard for a solid Christian believer who is famous is and will always be Bono. I don’t trust the rest of them for the most part (Zachary Levi gets a pass, Adam Baldwin needs to quit confusing christianity with politics, that other Baldwin is insane, etc).

    But that question she asked above is a good one, one I’ve never heard before. And sadly, it seems to much of it depends on what “truth” was taught to her. When believers can’t even be honest that they are Calvinist or Arminian, Dispensational or Covenant, YEC or Old Earth, inerrant or not, etc, but simply say “this is truth/biblical”, there will always be problems. What is truth? What you choose to agree with more often than not.

    Just be honest, leaders. And those of us lay folk who know the differences.

  • StuartB July 19, 2013, 7:47 AM

    The simple answer is that they weren’t really sins in the OT. They were commands to a specific people at a specific time to live a certain way, and breaking them breaks community and brings harm. But they weren’t “sins”.

    • R.J. Anderson July 19, 2013, 2:28 PM

      They were sins in that they were contrary to God’s revealed will for His people under the covenant He had made with Israel, and so breaking those laws was showing rebellion and disrespect for God and for His covenant. But we see that before the Law of Moses was given, many or most of those laws were not in effect, and people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not judged as sinners for failing to keep them. And those who are not part of the nation of Israel under the Law of Moses (i.e. most people who call themselves Christians in this day and age) were never obligated to keep them in the first place. Christ and the apostles reiterated in the New Testament which parts of the commandments and the laws reflected God’s moral standards and purpose for His children; other parts were directly superceded by further revelation (i.e. “Arise, Peter, kill and eat”).

      I don’t know anything about Rachael Slick, and would be presumptuous to surmise what exactly led her to reject Christianity. But I find it difficult to believe that she came to the conclusion that the Bible was false and discarded her faith solely on the basis that the Christians around her weren’t able to satisfactorily answer her question about ceremonial vs. moral law.

    • Mike Duran July 19, 2013, 3:01 PM

      Stuart, initially this post was written to answer Slick’s question, “why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?” I was actually surprised that that was so problematic for her. But the more I thought about her post, and why it’s receiving the reception it has, the more I came to the conclusion that answering that question would just lead the endless apologetic go-rounds we’re used to. There’s reasonable answers on both sides. What stood out to me is that atheists have no problem using de-conversions to prove their point, and decry them when they don’t.

      • Matthew Sample II July 19, 2013, 6:09 PM

        Yes, her conclusion about OT and NT sin can be argued against from a number of different perspectives. She didn’t have to come to the conclusion she came to on that particular point.

        Sometimes it just takes pulling a very small thread, and the quilt that has been passed down to us from ages past seems to unravel before our horrified eyes.

  • Matthew Sample II July 19, 2013, 7:58 AM

    I can totally relate to Rachael Slick’s story. I find it interesting that most people who deconvert do not find the experience pleasant, but describe it in negative words, like being robbed of something. That was my case.

    However, I have to disagree with the point being made in the article.

    1. We like stories. Humans relate to narratives. Christian conversion stories can be especially compelling. If we don’t believe them, we at least long for them to be true. (Or are glad that they have had this experience.)

    2. In a pluralistic, consumer culture, platforms are important. Everything is being sold, and you must make sure you keep your game face on to be viable in the shifting trends. Christianity, though, is not a pluralistic culture. It proclaims itself as exclusive truth. We must be careful that even as we try to make sure we translate our message for our culture, that we do not compromise the truth of that message. In other words, though we live in a pluralistic, consumer culture, we must remember that our truth is not merely one competing belief system: it is the eternal truth of God.

    3. Even though I have a deconversion story, I usually find them more disturbing than compelling. As in this case, it seems to be based more on a perceived construct of what the Bible presents than being really based on the Bible.

    Just some thoughts. I’m glad to be back on the right side of faith. God has been gracious to me.

  • Paul July 19, 2013, 10:14 AM

    You make a good point. In our pursuit of truth, we will always be disappointed by our fellow humans who never completely reflect what is good and true. They err. And we prefer quick and neat explanations and answers and proofs.

    For that very reason, we do well to delve deeper into such conversions and see if there are not, in fact, significant differences and distinct lessons. I see Rosaria’s conversion as being very different from some of the stereotypes you apply.

    Rosaria Butterfield wasn’t “rushed into the spotlight,” nor did she seek it. I’ll have to reread the book, but at least 10 years went by before she wrote the book, and even then she chose a small publisher with a narrow market.

    Her testimony hasn’t chiefly been used as outreach or apologetic to seek the conversion of others. Rather, it has chiefly served as a challenge to the church about its treatment of those outside, and a challenge to the popularly held theory of once-gay, always gay. As evidence that Christians aren’t using her book as a hammer, read the hundreds of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads along with various blogs. If a story is convicting Christians that they need to do better in demonstrating their own beliefs about grace, is it fair to focus on a use of her story that has been tertiary?

    Rosaria’s book and testimony don’t ask people to use her story as proof of truth. She doesn’t encourage people to believe the Bible because she does. Note that she didn’t believe the Bible was true because of Ken Smith or his story or his persuasiveness. She believed the Bible because she read it 5 times within a couple of years and recognized the power of God in its pages and in her life, much to her surprise.

    Interestingly, I see that as a red flag in what you might call Rachael Slick’s de-conversion. She doesn’t mention her devotional study of the Bible or her father’s example of a vibrant application of the truth in his life. Rather, she focuses on being required to memorize apologetic principles and the pervasiveness of parental discipline. Can one be de-converted if they’ve never been converted? I read in her testimony someone who simply discovered that they’ve never been a Christian. As a previous commenter said, her objections seem “to be based more on a perceived construct of what the Bible presents than really being based on the Bible.” The perceived incongruities that were transformative in her “de-conversion” are issues that seem, to many, to have very clear and compelling solutions in the Bible. I pray for her that she would one day pick up the Bible and study it on its own merits and find a relationship with the Author behind it.

  • Jill July 19, 2013, 12:33 PM

    Why is it that people who pretend to be logical are so illogical? As somebody said in an above comment, she based her views of the Bible on what people told her the Bible said rather than what the book itself said. And you’re right. Conversion stories are personal and experiential. They don’t make a religion or belief system true or false.

    • C.L. Dyck July 20, 2013, 9:30 AM

      Yes. In fact, my biggest struggle in coming to Christianity from an atheist/agnostic family background has been against other Christians’ tendency both to believe and to assert the authority of a community-consensus form of religion. My twenty-year career as a North American Christian has pretty much revolved around getting in trouble with church folk for pointing out what the Bible actually says.

      I don’t find that to be true on the international stage, though. Only inside the carefully-guarded comfort bubble. Among missions folk and those who’ve come here to minister from other countries, there’s a perspective of openness to God’s revealed will and a desire to test out and put into application what the Scripture says.

      Paul said: “Can one be de-converted if they’ve never been converted? I read in her testimony someone who simply discovered that they’ve never been a Christian.”

      Me too. I can only wish her the best in a paradigm of greater personal honesty. There’s no point holding on to a false life.

  • Jodie B. July 20, 2013, 8:52 AM

    There’s a recent article by Christianity Today that somewhat talks over the whole Old Testament/New Testament law thing that confounded Slick. I found the link online for anyone who is interested. It is called “Learning to Love Leviticus” by Christopher J.H. Wright and is here http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/july-august/learning-to-love-leviticus.html

    Fair use quote from the article: “Some laws are just plain puzzling. But asking questions about them leads us to a much broader and deeper grasp of what Old Testament laws were all about.”

    My thoughts on Old Testament laws (these were not addressed in the article, if I remember correctly). I’ve never really had much of a problem with them.

    The food laws concerning unclean animals; well, we know now that these animals, birds, and sea creatures were often bottom feeders who ate things like animal droppings and dead things and other gross detritus. Only understandable God would prefer his people eat “clean” animals.

    The cleanliness laws: well, we now know about something called germs, and why it is good to be clean. I remember reading an article about a monk who, in the Middle Ages and during the plague, instituted the Old Testament cleanliness laws in a certain region, and it cut back on the disease dramatically. I think he also might have had them get rid of rats (unclean animals who also helped spread the plague) too?

    My husband (a pastor) has his own thoughts on the whole “calf boiled in its mother’s milk” thing too. That one seems more symbolic. Here, you have a nursing infant being killed, and boiled in the very thing that should have given it life. This creepy juxtaposition of death and life … I can understand how this idea would offend God.

    Also related somewhat: the law about not eating blood. Well, life is in the blood, and, in a similar fashion, you would be drinking that which should have been giving the animal life. Of course, I think there is more to it than that, with the importance of blood sacrifice (especially Jesus’ sacrifice), but you get the idea.

    All of the laws, in essence, boil down to these two from Matthew 22: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, an with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

    So, love God and love your neighbor. Take the ten commandments. The first four really deal with loving God. You worship God because you love God, you don’t worship other gods because you love God, you spend time with God (Sabbath) because you spend time with those you love, right?, you respect God’s name because you love God, and the last deal with other people, you honor your parents because you love them, and you don’t murder people, you don’t commit adultery, you don’t steal, bear false witness, or covet what someone else has all because you love your neighbor. So basically Christians are to follow, ultimately, the law of love. As Jesus said: “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” What are the “whole Law and the Prophets”? Seems to me to be the Old Testament!

  • Jodie B. July 20, 2013, 9:18 AM

    Clarification to above: I looked at the Christianity Today article again. The author does discuss the twin commands of “love for God and neighbor.”

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