An answer to the question on all your minds

Leaping the synapses of my three pounds of gray matter have been several ideas to post here: perhaps a deeper introspection into my reasons for disbelief or a “top ten” list of scriptures that I found troublesome even when I still believed. A lot of that is just intellectual masturbation, though. I might enjoy those posts, but I imagine only a few people would actually be interested in reading them. I believe there is a topic, though, that almost every reader of this blog (at least the ones I know personally) would be interested in.

I was raised as a Protestant, though I didn’t use that word. I was a preacher’s kid, in fact, before my dad left the ministry. In adulthood I converted to Catholicism and became an ad hoc lay apologist for the Catholic Church. I have always been very fervent in my study and belief, both as a Protestant and then as a Catholic.

Most of my friends and all of my family remain Protestant, and several protested quite vociferously against my conversion to Catholicism, both before and after I converted. The question I’m sure is on everyone’s mind is “What impact did my conversion to Catholicism have on my loss of faith?”

To answer that question, I need to explain my reasons for becoming Catholic. In a non-anonymous blog, I would simply link to the posts I made during and immediately after my conversion to Catholicism, but I can’t do that here because it would sacrifice my anonymity, which I’m not willing to do yet.

As anyone who lives in America knows, there are myriad Protestant churches, spanning a diverse spectrum of theology and filling a variegated tapestry of practices. You can hardly drive a mile down a city road without encountering at least three churches who all believe distinctive shades of Christian theology.  This diversity of belief is somewhat odd in a religion whose primary first century proponent, the Apostle Paul, asked Christians to “make his joy complete by…being of one spirit and of one mind.” Perhaps a brief history of Christianity is in order. Pardon the western-centric analysis that follows.

Jesus lived and died in the first century, probably around 4 BCE (ironic) until 33 CE. The Apostles and other disciples then spread throughout the world, planting and growing churches all through the Mediterranean, Africa, and Asia. During the first twelve centuries of Christianity, only four lasting schisms occurred. The first such schism occurred at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE. The Nestorians (now known as the “Assyrian Church of the East”) and Catholics split over whether Mary was the “Mother of God” or the “Mother of Christ”. In 451 CE, the churches now known as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches split because they disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon about whether Jesus had one nature or two. Later, between around 1054 and 1204, the churches now known as the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church split over a number of theological and cultural issues, not least of which was the horrific sacking of Constantinople by western crusaders.

These splits left Christianity with two major cultures (East and West) and four major theologies (Nestorian, Oriental, Eastern, and Catholic) after nearly 1200 years of existence. Even then, the theological differences were small compared to what was to come almost four centuries later: apart from historically significant but theological minor issues like whether Mary was Theotokos or Christotokos, these four churches shared the vast majority of their theology.

Then, in the sixteenth century, a German friar by the name of Martin Luther nailed some 95 complaints to the door of a church. He set off a movement, the Protestant Reformation, which produced thousands of denominations spread across a diverse spectrum of theologies far more varied than those of the four major churches that existed before the Reformation.

Why did Luther’s teaching ultimately result in such a wide variety of belief? I believe it’s because he set the “epistemic bar” of Protestantism so extremely low.  Like the sign before you ride a roller coaster saying “You must be this tall to ride”, an epistemic bar says “You must have this much evidence to believe.”  Luther claimed that a plowboy could interpret Scripture, and many did. Ultimately–and this was my experience and observation as a Protestant who took great interest in theology and theological discussions–the epistemic bar for theological claims in Protestantism is simply, “Does this claim make sense me?” Protestants read the Bible, interpret it according to their own cultural biases and context, and declare themselves to know its meaning when they’re comfortable with the theology they’ve produced. I wasn’t satisfied with that. I thought that such weighty matters of theology ought to require more evidence than “This is what I believe Scripture means.”

The ancient churches I discussed above are not so quick to generate new theology. When someone proposes a theological claim, it must not only be compatible with some individual interpretation of Scripture, but it must also be compatible with the church’s historical interpretation of Scripture: a corpus of writing and belief almost two thousand years in the making. The proposed theology must comport with the ancient practices of the church, with the writings not only of the Bible but of the Fathers and other early Christian works. In short, these ancient churches raise the epistemic bar for theological doctrines: they require more evidence before they accept or teach some doctrine as part of their faith.

So I became Catholic. I was pleased that my epistemic bar had been raised, that I could answer theological questions and defend theological claims with more than “It makes sense to me when you interpret scripture this way.” I could explain that Ignatius of Antioch defended the catholicity of the church in AD 117, or that Athanasius stood alone against the world in the fourth century, proclaiming Trinitarian doctrine. I had all the tools I’d always used (knowledge of scripture, New Testament Greek, etc.) and then some: a foundation in traditional Christianity which rooted me and my apologetic more deeply in history. While the Restoration Movement I had been raised in sought to emulate its idea of the early church, my Catholicism was a direct outgrowth of that early church, entirely consistent theologically and in practice with all the historical records we have from that time period. For a time, all was good in my theological world.

If we compare Christianity to a house, then doctrines of the faith (like sacramental baptism, the priesthood, the Trinity, etc.) are like the timbers in the framing of that house. Those timbers rest upon a foundation of historical claims: that Jesus existed, that he died and was resurrected, that he performed miracles attesting to his divinity, and so on. My conversion to Catholicism raised my epistemic bar, that is, it raised the amount of evidence I needed before I accepted some doctrine of the faith. I converted to Catholicism in large part because it did that.

But then when I turned that epistemic bar toward the foundation of historical claims upon which my house of faith rested, it became an epistemic wrecking ball. Historical claims that I accepted as a Protestant based on my lower epistemic bar simply didn’t hold up to the higher standard I’d taken up with Catholicism. The framing may have been strong, the timbers may have been sturdy, but the whole house had been built upon a foundation of sand. I had good reason to believe that historical Christianity held a belief in sacramental baptism, but I had no good reason to believe that I should hold historical Christian beliefs. Applying the same epistemic bar that increased my confidence in one aspect of my faith resulted in a dramatic loss of confidence in another aspect.

To answer the question, “Would I be an atheist today if I hadn’t converted to Catholicism five years ago?” I would have to say, “No.” Without the higher epistemic bar that Catholicism gave me, I don’t think I would ever have turned toward the historical foundation of Christianity and found it lacking. Revisiting the house metaphor, Protestantism has so much variety and so much flexibility in decorating the house of faith that I’m confident I could have spent my entire lifetime rearranging furniture, knocking down or putting up walls, moving pictures around, etc. without ever really investigating the basement. In the Catholic house, the walls are two thousand years old, the furniture is covered in plastic, and most of the pictures were hung hundreds of years ago: delving into the basement and looking at the foundation was practically inevitable. Using the epistemic sledgehammer I’d equipped myself with in my conversion to Catholicism, the foundation crumbled, and I barely escaped.

I know a few Protestants (and maybe a Mormon or two :-P) who will consider this story a victory for their faiths; evidence that the Catholic Church is an apostate church and that the truth is only to be found in their particular brand of Protestantism, but if they do, they’re missing the point. I’m actually praising Catholicism for giving me the epistemic tool that ultimately undid it; Protestantism would never have done that. If a Protestant keeps believing in God simply because he can believe in only what he really wants to believe, is that truly a victory?

My favorite aspect of Jesus was always the one that emphasized the truth. Some are drawn to him by his claim that he’s the way and the life, but his claim to be truth personified is what drew me. My favorite saying of his is “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”. I’m an atheist now for that exact same reason: because based on the evidence I possess, it’s the most likely to be true.

Pithy sayings aren’t evidence, and neither are the beliefs of others. I reread “The Case for Christ” recently, and it makes a reasonable case (with some mildly juvenile writing) that early Christians believed in the foundation of historical claims about Jesus that Christianity is based on–recall Paul’s statement to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile”–but their belief alone is not sufficient evidence to make me believe. Lots of people believe in lots of different, conflicting things: if I believed everything that some sufficient number of people believed, I’d be worse than credulous: I’d be inconsistent.

Consistency requires that I use at least as high an epistemic bar for doctrines of the faith that I use for the historical claims that undergird it, but when I do so, that historical foundation crumbles. In the contest between consistency and faith, I chose consistency.

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11 Responses to An answer to the question on all your minds

  1. Anonymous says:

    Your argument lacks credibility. Just because there is not enough proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead does not mean he didn’t. Christianity in most part is based on faith. Faith being in something we can not fully prove but believe in. No body has faith in gravity or electricity or that the world is round. We accept that there is gravity, electricity and that the world is round because we experience it and know it exists. We have knowledge of these things. Knowledge is not faith. Believing in something that can not be proven is faith. That is one of the greatest ironies of religion, that it is base on something that can not be proven. The only time we will know for sure is when we die or when Christ will come again to form the world government. At that time it will be too late if you have no faith.

    • Scott says:

      A simple walk through the insane asylum will prove to you that faith is not something to be admired.

    • Neal Harris says:

      “Just because there is not enough proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead does not mean he didn’t.”
      “Knowledge is not faith. Believing in something that can not be proven is faith.”

      -You could use this kind of reasoning to rationalize the existence of any impossible event, deity or supernatural being.

      “The only time we will know for sure is when we die or when Christ will come again to form the world government. At that time it will be too late if you have no faith.”

      – You can just as easily take Pascal’s Wager, turn it inside out, and then spend your days worrying about the possibility of frittering away your one shot at existence buying into and disseminating false hope, praying for people instead of actually doing something for them, and unnecessarily inflicting guilt on yourself and as well as others with an outdated, irrational religious morality. Let’s also not forget the possibility of having promoted a way of thinking with a tendency to inhibit scientific progress, the medical & technological benefits that can come from it and the lives such discoveries may save or lengthen.

    • Anonymous says:

      Your argument lacks credibility. Just because there is not enough proof that almighty Osiris rose from the dead does not mean he didn’t. Osirianism in most part is based on faith. Faith being in something we can not fully prove but believe in. No body has faith in gravity or electricity or that the world is round. We accept that there is gravity, electricity and that the world is round because we experience it and know it exists. We have knowledge of these things. Knowledge is not faith. Believing in something that can not be proven is faith. That is one of the greatest ironies of religion, that it is base on something that can not be proven. The only time we will know for sure is when we die or when Osiris will come again to form the world government. At that time it will be too late if you have no faith.

  2. luke says:

    We are so alike in this. Catholicism raises the epistemic bar to its breaking point, maybe beyond it. Yet epistemology is not the answer to the question; not the only path of the quest.

    Suppose an interior decorator trains to become a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, and then finally an architect. For sure his technical skill is much higher than a humble decorator. He builds a house with good foundation, framing, and aesthetics. He gets a dog, gets married, and has some kids. Now the house is crowded, the walls are banged up, and the foundation that seemed so solid is starting to shift. The laws of physics aren’t breaking – life is happening. And no matter how much he tries to repair the foundation or framing, life will keep happening. He must balance his building the house with his love for his family.

    It’s like the Protestant who converts himself to Catholicism. He has some kids and some life experiences. Now Catholicism seems every bit as suspect as any other religion. Life is happening. He tries to theologically and epistemologically construct a relationship with God, but life keeps happening.

    He should really try to balance his epistemology with spiritual pursuits.

    • I’m not trying to “theologically and epistemologically construct a relationship with God”. I’m trying to decide whether that God even exists. If God is just an imaginary friend for adults, I don’t want to have a relationship with him. So far, I don’t have enough evidence that God even exists that I could even consider having a relationship with him.

      I don’t understand how I should (or could!) “balance [my] epistemology with spiritual pursuits”. If “spiritual pursuits” consist of coming to know truths about the world, then they are by their very nature epistemological. I can no more balance epistemology and spiritual pursuits than I can balance programming and producing software: the one is an essential part of the the other.

  3. luke says:

    Only you would equate “spiritual pursuits” with “coming to know truths about the world.” Theology and epistemology attempt to know God who is the Great Unknown. Stop trying to know everything; embrace unknowing.

    Seriously, just go feed the hungry. It doesn’t matter if you think about or feel God; the experience will reveal something of God. Even if it’s just more mystery.

    • Anonymous says:

      Do you realize, Luke, that it seems like you’re suggesting this blog’s author live an uncritical and unexamined life? That he or she should just accept things that are mysterious, that he or she doesn’t know or understand? That, in effect, he or she should remain a mental child?

      If “spiritual pursuits” don’t involve truths about the universe, what good are they? Why should we even give them a single instance of our time if they’re not related to truth? Likewise, your suggestion of just feeding the hungry – of just “doing” rather than “thinking” – is preposterous because it gives us no way to understand what it is that we experience (when or if we experience anything at all), let along what kind of “God” is behind that experience, or whether a god is behind it at all. Human psychology is complex, and it creates a lot of strange feelings when we interact positively in emotionally intimate and socially beneficial ways. The fact that these feelings occur in no way proves that there is some external source to them. Yet you have simply told us to assume that there is, and to not think about it and not try and determine whether that’s actually the case.

      So do you get it? Do you understand why this blog’s author and I (and many more, I suspect) would find your suggestions so ridiculous? What we see you saying is, “Just accept that a god exists; don’t think about it; don’t question it; don’t figure it out; embrace your ignorance and then draw life-altering conclusions from it.” This is not only laughable but also extremely dangerous, and if we didn’t live in the west – if we lived, say, in an Islamic country – your advice may very well have led one of us to become a suicide-bombing martyr or a violent oppressor of women because we simply “embraced” the mystery of what our religion told us to do and decided not to analyze it, not to think about it or its implications, and simply followed the supposed “spiritual pursuits” that led us – unthinking – to horrible and deadly conclusions.

      • luke says:

        No, I don’t realize that. Because I’m not suggesting to live an unexamined life. It’s a far leap from “stop trying to know everything” to “don’t try to know anything”; it’s an astronomical warp from “just go feed the hungry” to “blow yourself up for God without asking questions about it.”

        I understand why people who see only extremes would find my suggestion as ridiculous as I find their false dichotomies.

  4. Don says:

    “I’m an atheist now for that exact same reason: because based on the evidence I possess, it’s the most likely to be true.”

    As someone who was raised without a religion, and lived much of my life as a committed atheist, I am not really sure about this.

    Recently, I watched a speech from Dan Dennett (2009, I think) which you can find by googling “good reasons for believing in God.” He states, baldly, that “intelligent, reflective people” KNOW exactly what he knows, and his audience knows: that there is no good reason to believe in God, and many good reasons not to. He then goes on to claim that “reflective” people don’t really believe, but profess belief because they think that God is necessary for some other value (social cohesion, etc). And while I was listening, I thought: that’s exactly what I think of YOU and your club. ALL of you are arguing and arguing in your heads, spinning in circles, because you DON’T really disbelieve in God. You are talking yourself into something, and it is as obvious as the nose of your Dan Dennett face. I base this on my personal experience: when I find what I think is the right answer, I tend to let go. When I don’t know, when I’m not comfortable, with my answer, I am combative and partisan.

    I spent a lot of years trying to swallow the Godless pill. I read the French existentialists, and I tended to agree with them. I tried to confront the reality that I was, incongruously, a meaning-creating creature in a meaningless universe, and that I could not escape this absurdity. I tried to accept that the world is merely physical processes, that the “self” is an illusion, that free will probably didn’t exist, that qualia may not exist, that my personal sense of my own dignity was an illusion that did not have the imprimatur of the universe.

    I can make those arguments. But when I tried to LIVE them, honestly, I found that I couldn’t. Every fiber of my being told me that there was a reality that was NOT reducible to materialism. So, for a time, I delved into Buddhism. That made more sense – for some reason we are trapped in illusion. Why, I don’t know. But there is a disconnect between the world as I experienced it, and the world as the materialist reductionist explains it that I cannot reconcile.

    And, I tried to reconcile them by telling myself that my common sense reality was wrong. I didn’t experience the universe as it is: physics tells us all sorts of things that make us uncomfortable. But physics doesn’t tell me what I am. Physics can’t tell me how to live. Neither, for that matter, can evolutionary psychology.

    Then I let go, and I told myself that the question wasn’t whether God existed or whether my self existed, but rather, if I took my experience as it was, and held it up to honest scrutiny, and asked “who am I” and “what is the best way for me to live” and forget the rest, I would find my path. And, in that, I found peace.

    Peace is a good thing. Good luck to you.

    • Ex says:

      So what I’m getting here is that you couldn’t handle the truth of a materialistic universe and so retreated into bland eastern supernaturalism, all the while insulting other materialists in your head for having the courage you lacked.

      Cool story bro.

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