Saturday, June 17, 2006

It's a simple message and I'm leaving out the whistles and bells

The news

For everyone I haven't told yet; and also for those I have told, but haven't the foggiest idea what the hell has happened to me:

After a lifetime of atheism, almost entirely devoid of any exposure whatsoever to religious practices; after cofounding a secular humanist club in undergrad; after spending way too much time picking apart really bad arguments for the existence of God; after declaring a few times (before witnesses) that I was an "incorrigible" atheist, probably the last atheist who would ever, ever convert to Christianity--after all that, I've converted to Christianity.

(What really tears me up about all this is that I proved myself wrong. I hate that.)

No, it's true. It happened a couple of weeks ago. I committed myself to God and accepted Jesus Christ as my saviour.

Yes, I'm serious.

No, really, I'm serious.

No, I'm not crazy. (Or, if I am, it's the same kind of crazy I've always been, and not some new, extra-scary kind of crazy.)

And no, I can't explain why, because there is no explanation. I converted, and there was no reason for my conversion. None. Really, none.

(But, to adapt a bit of Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, remark 289), to act without reason does not mean to act without right.)

Let me be a bit more explicit as to what I mean when I say I converted without reason. I received no visions, heard no voices, had no hallucinations of any sort (a pity, since I'm rather fond of hallucinations, though I doubt they're any sort of basis for faith). I was not convinced of God's existence by some amazingly clever philosophical argument I'd never considered before. I did not feel that I was at the end of my rope and needed some supernatural force to get my life back on track. I didn't feel a deep psychological need that only religion could fill. I felt no deep sadness, no sense of lack, no sense of despair. No arguments, no needs, no wants, no motivations were responsible for my conversion.

I found myself in a position where I faced an incomprehensible choice to either commit to God, or not, with no basis whatsoever for choosing one over the other--and I chose to commit. It was that simple (that difficult, that bizarre). I know next to nothing about existentialism, but I get the feeling this was some hardcore kinda existentialist moment.

I chose the title for this blog, based on PI 217, before my conversion, but it fits remarkably well here.
If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
Except in this particular case, I start out at bedrock. I start out without the ability to offer any justification for my conversion. I had none at the time, and I can't think of any now.

Anyway, there were no reasons for my conversion, but there is a bit of a narrative. The process of conversion itself took a few days, and was preceded and attended by a series of highfalutin intellectual developments. I'll try to cough up that narrative over the next few days, for anyone who's interested.

I'm still me

First, though, I'd like to do what I can to reassure friends and family that I'm still me.

My philosophical, moral, political, and scientific beliefs remain basically unchanged.

I still think the universe is however many billions of years old the astrophysicists are saying it is this week. I still think we are highly evolved pond scum.

I still think dualism is bad metaphysics--in fact, I still think metaphysical inquiry is mostly a waste of time (in philosophy, of course, and I think probably in theology as well). I still think arguments for the existence of God are (each and every one of them) bad arguments. (Arguments for the existence of God played no role whatsoever in my conversion, and have nothing to do with my faith.)

I'm still a political leftist. Far, far, far leftist. I still want to eat the rich. I still think LGBTQs should be allowed to marry each other (in whatever combination), and I still have a great deal of difficulty understanding why so many people are so opposed to that idea. I'm still pro-choice.

I still hate Bush.

I still think that state and religion need to be cleanly and thoroughly separated--in fact, this is infinitely more important to me now than it was when I was an atheist, because politicization is even more poisonous to religion than Goddification is to politics.

My taste in entertainment, music, humour, and etiquette remain the same. Kurosawa and Kubrick still compete for status as my all-time favourite director. I still think D&D is a lot of fun. I still like angry music, including music that's angry at religion. I still make really tasteless jokes. I still make jokes about the Baby Jesus.

My nascent theology

Ooh, I've got some work to do here. I have figured out almost nothing as of yet.

In general principle, if not in detail, the sort of Christianity I now find personally valuable is the sort represented by this story, or by the Slacktivist (whose blog struck me as way cool long before the possibility of conversion became a thinkable thought).

I'm not sure what sort of Christian I am. I've been trying to construct a label for myself; at the moment I'm tentatively inclined to say that I'm a Wittgensteinian-Kierkegaardian, anti-metaphysical, errantist, theologically liberal Christian. But that's pretty long-winded; for most purposes "miscellaneous Christian" would do just as well. (Technically, I'm also a "born-again". I like that label because of its happy connotations.)

I do know that I don't believe in the rapture. Well, actually, I don't much care what people think about the rapture. I do believe that many Christians think about it way, way too much--so much so that it has become a way of forgetting what it means to be a Christian.

I don't believe in hell, and I've suspended judgment about heaven. In general, I don't much care about the concept of the afterlife--I don't live there. The only issues I really care about are practical (in some very broad sense of 'practical'). I think the concepts of sin and salvation are important, but I don't really care about any role they might have to play in sorting people into a possible heaven or a possible hell. I'm more concerned with what they (and the Christian story of salvation through Christ) say about the possibilities of human existence, here and now, in this messy mortal world populated by various forms of highly evolved pond scum.

I'm pretty sure that being a good Christian involves, most crucially, (a) being committed to God and (b) being committed to alleviating the suffering of others, such that these become somehow inseparable. I'm pretty sure I have a long way to go on both counts. (Yes, having just (b) is good in itself. In fact, Matthew 25:31ff makes it pretty clear that (b) alone is enough to make the Baby Jesus dance a happy little jig. Nevertheless, adding (a) to the mix is important.)

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

You strike me as someone who was never really an "atheist" to begin with. Playing a rebel is more fun than living as one, huh?

Toby said...

I'm going to have trouble being an authentic Christian if I couldn't even be an authentic atheist. (I've been led to understand that Christianity actually has requirements.)

So, I'd like to think I was an authentic atheist. But no doubt you know me far better than I know me, whoever you are.

MisterEff said...

I'm blown away.

I admire that kind of - hmmmm for the lack of a better word - spiritual courage. Kudoes. Just be aware that when us atheists take over, I'm gonna have to feed you to a lion.


Now, you have me worried that my spiritual beliefs might someday just dramatically change sans argument. But I'll choose Islam, cuz they've got a cooler aesthetic sensibility. Although neither have it rocking too much in the music department, Scott's latest post notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...

It's easier to join the herd than not. I understand this. Your "reasons" seem to be aligned with Martin Gardner (a believer whom I respect, btw... so quit being so defensive): he calls himself a "fideist," or someone who believes because it makes him feel better. That's fine.

Going from atheism (which requires that one not look at the world in simplistic terms, and that "God" is not always the answer that must supplant mystery) to Christianity (why not Islam?? Or Hinduism??) is simply backpedaling.

I understand what you say when you say your reasons are "Kierkegaardian" -- the fact is, your "explanation" is not.

scott said...

Good on you. I'm really looking forward to reading more about this.

Do you go to church now and everything?

Toby said...

eff: I'm pretty sure I'm not in it for the aesthetics. Though [The] Danielson [Famile/Family] is fricken amazing.

scott: I went to church for the first time today. I spent most of the time worrying about how bad the music was, and how I generally disagreed with the pastor's theological perspective. On the other hand, there were one or two moments that seemed positive to me, though I don't remember the content of those moments.

Toby said...

anonymous:

a) Christianity doesn't make me feel better. (Incidentally, that's not what fideism is about, as I understand it.) I feel pretty much the same as I've always felt. Well, maybe a bit more confused, but that's about it.

b) You evidently have no clue what my herd is like. My family isn't the least bit religious. I'm a grad student in philosophy, and the vast majority of my friends have been made through philosophy classes, or the aforementioned secular humanist club. (FYI, the community of philosophers and philosophy students is overwhelmingly atheistic.) In my social world the atheists outnumber the theists many many times over.

c) The world doesn't seem more simplistic or less mysterious to me now than it did before my conversion. I'm not sure why you think it would. (It might help you to know that I think it's generally inappropriate to use God as an explanation for otherwise unexplained phenomena.)

d) I didn't say my reasons are Kierkegaardian. I said I had no reasons. I also said I had no explanation.

e) Could you give us all a name? I hate calling people "anonymous", it seems awfully rude.

MisterEff said...

No ruder than someone using the name anonymous to try to philosophically criticize your new found world view.

"Anonymous" needs to learn something about respect.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say you seem to possess the quixotic nature of fideistic belief. Are your reasons grounded in faith alone or do you have some evidence to share with us?

My undergrad/graduate work is in philosophy as well, so I'm pretty familiar with your "herd." It would quite a stretch to say we philosophy students are "overwhelmingly" atheistic. In my experience, it's split pretty much down the center.

Given the fact you've added a metaphysical answer ("God") to a question you've been struggling with means yes, you absolutely have simplified your world. I keep hearing your insistence that you've somehow not changed ("I'm still me!")... the fact is, you have changed. If you hadn't, why bother telling anyone about your "conversion?"

Like it or not, there is a part of your brain that must shut down when you posit a metaphysical answer to the physical plane. Only a madman looks at the world and sees "God." It takes strength to live a life without God... strength you apparently do not possess.

Toby said...

anonymous:

"Are your reasons grounded in faith alone or do you have some evidence to share with us?"

I don't think evidence has anything to do with faith one way or the other. (I came to this conclusion some time ago, when I was still an atheist.)

As for reasons--like I've said and repeated, I have no reasons for my faith. Reasons have nothing to do with it.

"Given the fact you've added a metaphysical answer ("God") to a question you've been struggling with means yes, you absolutely have simplified your world."

I've been struggling with a question? What question is that? I'd like to know.


OK. To recap, anon, so far you have revealed to us all that I've converted because I'm weak, because I'm crazy, because part of my brain shut down, because I wanted an easy answer to an as-yet-unidentified question, because I wanted to fit into the herd (not the herd I actually live in, but some other herd that I know nothing about), because religion makes me feel better, because I wanted to simplify my understanding of the world and make it seem less mysterious to me... does that about sum it up?

You seem to possess an inordinate amount of insight into the innermost workings of my soul. I am impressed, and somewhat jealous. I would greatly like to learn how you came by this knowledge.

And come on, seriously, will you tell us all your name already?

Do I know you?

Anonymous said...

No, you don't know me.

Believing is hard. Not believing is harder. Just as us atheists are psychoanalyzed every waking moment of our lives, so should believers. You must know this by now.

Here's hoping you don't end up psychoanalyzing and criticizing us atheists just as vigorously as you criticized believers (and don't say you haven't done this... no one "co-founds" a humanist movement in college without walking in that particular path).

Good luck.

Toby said...

anonymous,

I don't understand why you think atheists and theists must be so antagonistic towards each other, to the point of performing absurd "psychoanalytic" attacks on random internet people based on blog posts. (Incidentally, I have studied a bit about psychoanalysis, and these studies played a role in my conversion. I have a great deal of respect for the practice, and I rather object to your characterization of your comments here as psychoanalytic in nature.)

In any case, thanks for the conversation. I hope you stick around for the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

I'm not attacking you, so don't get so defensive. As a believer, you'll have plenty of time for that...LOL.

If you never criticized believers as an atheist, you're a bigger man than I. Some of us aren't perfect.

Cygnus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cygnus said...

I do not know what happened to you... but I am saddened to see that you have checked what I once considered a brilliant brain at the door. I thought you smarter than this and I, for one, am gravely disappointed at your willingness to don the sheep outfit. That is what you have done, toby. You simply suspended logic and reason for faith.

I have never encountered the "I just felt like it" argument for Christianity and it makes me seriously wonder if a) you are on hard drugs that you need to stop, or b) if you have suffered a blow to the head, or c) that you have had some sort of tragedy occur in your life and... well... went weak.

No matter... you are most certainly not the FRP that I have long-known and that is a shame. I liked that guy for his insights, his level-headedness, his clear thinking. I see none of that now.

Here's to a swift recovery from whatever malady has brought on this wrong-thinking. Good luck.

Janet said...

Could I recommend C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy to you? He recounts his journey from atheism to theism to Christianity in it and manages to make a good read of it while he does. While he doesn't appear to have followed the same path as you have, you should find at least parts of it resonating.

Anonymous said...

Yes CS Lewis is a good read, and of course try The Bible....you never know.....

Mark Daniels said...

I underwent a similar conversion thirty years ago. Like you, I never felt that a definitive argument for God's existence has been presented. (Although I like Lewis's discussion in 'Mere Christianity.') Yet, I came to believe. I found Christ irresistible.

Your post is well-written, by the way.

Blessings to you.

Mark Daniels

Micah said...

Wow, I was fascinated by this... largely because I think the Wittgensteinian/Kierkegaardian "fideist" approach to faith qua act is substantially correct, at the "bedrock." Your statement "I found myself in a position where I faced an incomprehensible choice to either commit to God, or not, with no basis whatsoever for choosing one over the other--and I chose to commit" rings like a bell in this sense.

On your statement that the academic philosophical community is "overwhelmingly atheistic," that's not the story I've heard. See Quentin Smith, who bitterly laments in this paper -- http://www.qsmithwmu.com/metaphilosophy_of_naturalism.htm -- the fact that, based on very consistent anecdotal evidence, "between one quarter and one third" of philosophers in academia today are theists.

The Real Deal said...

Well, man, you've probably lost your mind; but you could have lost it to worse things. I look forward to reading the rest of your "story." Cheers.

Eric V. Kirk said...

My philosophical, moral, political, and scientific beliefs remain basically unchanged.

For now, but you will find all of that challenged. I've been down the road you're on. I didn't stay a Christian however. I prayed and prayed to have all those doubts, politics, moral, and scientific beliefs to be taken from me, and went through quite the existential crisis. When the smoke was cleared, I was left with what I'd begun with - uncertainty.