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.