In the last week or so, I’ve begun a project of going through the emails, blog posts, and private journal entries I wrote throughout my deconversion from Christianity. There are a lot of them, and I may pull them together into a book project in the near future, but for now I want to comment on some thoughts they’ve provoked.
One advantage to having detailed personal records like this is that they guard against hindsight bias and retroactive interpretation. I haven’t looked at most of these writings for years, and I find, looking back, that the story I tell now about the trajectory of my deconversion isn’t entirely accurate. When I want to give the short version of my history with religion, it goes something like this: I was raised in a conservative branch of Christianity and accepted it pretty much without question for the first 25 years of my life. Around the time I was 25, I began seriously questioning my faith, and actually stopped believing in God, although I wasn’t happy about that. I was basically an atheist, though I didn’t use that word, for about a year and a half, then I found a definition of “faith” that allowed me to go back to calling myself a Christian, although never with the same kind of faith as before. Then, around my 29th birthday, the last reasons I had for clinging to Christianity fell away, and I became a full-fledged atheist.
That’s the short version, and it’s broadly accurate, but in retrospect I missed a lot of the complicated nature of that in-between time, between “Yes I am definitely a Christian” and “Yes I am definitely an atheist.” For those who have never had God-belief as an element of their psyche, it might be difficult to understand exactly what was going on there, and it certainly muddies the definitions of “belief” and “knowing” that I’ve been using in the last couple of years. So let me try to explain it.
During part 1, the Christian part of my life, I absolutely believed in God. I would have found it impossible not to. Even if someone had rationally convinced me that there was no good reason to believe in God, I’d have been nodding along and saying, “You’re right, there isn’t a good reason to believe,” and wondering the whole time what God thought of this conversation. It was not something I was consciously maintaining or defending: it was just there, in my brain, a part of the way I thought about the world. To say “I don’t believe in God” would have been a lie, even if I had wanted to disbelieve and had every rational cause for disbelief.
At this time in my life, nearly the opposite is true. If evidence for a god’s existence started springing up all over the place, that internal state of belief still wouldn’t appear in my brain, at least not immediately. I could acknowledge, “Yes, given a Bayesian probability analysis it seems overwhelmingly likely that a deity is the cause of these things we are witnessing,” but in the back of my head I’d still be thinking, “But there can’t really be a deity… let’s keep looking for other explanations!”
It’s important to note before I go further that neither of these belief-states are unchangeable: as evidenced by the fact that my first one did eventually change. I’m no neuroscientist, but my guess is that these belief-states are simply strong neural patterns, habits of thinking that can’t be changed instantly, but only worn away over time as new patterns are developed and rehearsed.
The middle state, that transitional period of 3-4 years, is where things are weird. The things that were going on in my brain at that time don’t fit into a simple category of belief and knowing. The moment that really kicked off that whole transitional phase of my life was a moment where my rock-solid, undeniable belief in God was removed: and my emotional response was anger at God for removing it.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I stopped believing in God, and I was angry at God for making me stop believing in him. Clearly, then, on some level I still believed in God, and interpreted even my unbelief through a theistic worldview. But something very significant had changed in my brain, and the best way I could put it to myself was that I had lost my belief.
This state continued, by the way, even after I reclaimed a “Christian” identity. My state of belief didn’t change very much during this time; instead I changed my definition of “faith” to give myself a way back in. My reasons for doing that belong in another post, but from the point of view of mental states of belief and knowing, I didn’t change very much during those 3-4 years.
In atheist circles there’s been a lot of buzz recently about the difference between knowledge, belief, and certainty (prompted mostly by Richard Dawkins’ “shocking” revelation that he wasn’t 100% certain that no god existed, which anyone who’s actually read The God Delusion already knew (actually, anyone who’s read the subtitle of The God Delusion should have known: the word almost is there for a reason, people)). The relevant ground has been pretty thoroughly covered (and is being added to by Shaun even as I write… we’ll see which of us posts first! (I have a parenthetical addiction, by the way; I try not to use at all, because when I start it gets hard to stop)), so all I want to add is my own experience, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the tidy “atheist/theist” “gnostic/agnostic” categories.
At no point in my life have I been 100% certain that my beliefs about God or gods were accurate. Even aside from evil genius / brain in a jar / Matrix scenarios, I recognize that my foundational assumptions about what constitutes a good basis for knowledge are just that: assumptions, that could be incorrect. I do the best I can with what I have.
I don’t use the word “know” a lot with reference to theism, just because its meaning is too ambiguous. Some people use “knowledge” synonymously with “certainty” (in which case I am an agnostic atheist), some people use it in less absolute terms (in which case I might be a gnostic atheist, depending on how severely you draw the line), and some people equivocate (in which case I’m not playing.)
Belief, now, is a harder question. I don’t think belief is a simple idea, based on my own experience. If all I’d ever experienced were those two states of initial full belief and present full unbelief, I probably would think it was simple. But my transitional phase leads me to think that there are several different strains or mechanisms of belief, which in most people (perhaps) are concordant, but which can also be conflicting. With part of my brain I believed in God, and with part of it I did not, and that was a very different mental state from the ones that came before and after.
Next up: digging a little deeper into the anatomy of that in-between time.