Logan’s Note: With permission, this post is derived from a letter Dennis Augustine wrote to Sean Faircloth thanking him for guiding him to The Clergy Project. Dennis describes how he left the faith via emotion, not reason. My comments follow his letter.
An open letter to Sean Faircloth (and message to Dawkins, Dennett, Krauss and the Atheist community)
It’s been a few months since you put me in contact with a screener from The Clergy Project and my official coming out as an atheist. I want to thank you for the role that TCP and you and your colleagues play in helping to create a community of folks like me. It’s so very comforting to understand that there are people who go through the same deep personal, emotional, psychological, practical and social issues that I did and continue to face. I suspect that what follows in this letter this is more of a therapeutic exercise for me rather than anything revelatory for you and thank you for your time in advance.
I’ve spent the last few months in a concerted effort to rebuild my life and psyche from the ground up; teaching myself that I am not a degenerate, worthless sinner whose only salvation comes from believing the unbelievable. I have a sister who blamed the Church for the anguish that contributed to her bipolar disorder which, in turn, contributed to a postpartum psychotic episode she suffered a few years ago. During that episode she killed both of her children–one was five years old, the other just two months. I helped raise those children and the pain of their loss was a big factor in my decision to come out and be genuine about my disbelief. My journey hasn’t been easy; I was indoctrinated from childhood by parents who were also ministers; the shame of sin runs deep and learning to truly love oneself without prior experience is something that’s not easy for a 44 year old man.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I can not only make amends for promulgating the falsehoods that I did as a minister, but also how to best use my natural love for people, and the love for the truth that drove me away from the faith, to help prevent the kind of psychological abuse that I endured. To that end I’ve started making inquiries with regards to starting up a Recovering from Religion group here in Toronto (I was surprised not to find one listed on the organizations website) and I’ve started designing memes, which I hope to eventually run as ad, and I’ve begun writing anti-apologetic material targeted towards believers.
All this has been very much inspired by the types of conversations that I’ve had with religions folk (conservative evangelical Christians in particular), over the last few months. Those conversations have been very enlightening and very frustrating. I’m sure that I don’t have to remind you that it’s pretty pointless trying to reason with a believer. It is futile to try to reason a man out of a belief that he wasn’t reasoned into. It’s also very difficult to get a believer to listen to anything that threatens their faith and as a result most efforts end up being simply ‘preaching to the choir.’ I’m sure you’re painfully aware of that challenge already.
In an effort to understand how to help those I left behind I began asking myself “How did I manage to break free? What really was the catalyst?” The answers to that question came to me very lucidly recently and I’d like to share it with you and make a humble suggestion as to how skeptics may be more effective when reaching people like my former self.
After watching two poignant videos this past month—a documentary entitled Kumare (http://kumaremovie.com/) and a serious of deconversion videos posted on You Tube by a former minister —I’m convinced that reason, while having great prophylactic value for the unindoctrinated, is pretty ineffective against the armour-plated defenses that shield believers from reason: the shame of sin, the terror of isolation and a fear of death (the ultimate isolation). If you haven’t seen the videos I mentioned then you’d do the cause a favour by watching them. What’s really been driven home to me was that it was my inability to overcome the shame of sin despite my best efforts that drove me to a tipping point. Once I realized that I admitted the impotence of faith to cleanse me of these feelings and accepted defeat I began a slow painful journey towards rebelling against the idea that I was a worthless degenerate and started to embrace my own self-worth. What a revelation for me!
I’m writing this to you now in part because I recently became aware that Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss would be in town for a fundraising brunch for CFI Toronto and felt the urge to go there and hope for a moment to tell them that they’re doing it all wrong when it comes to believers. I think that it’s easy for people who are so steeped in a scientific environment dominated by the intellect to think that evidence and reason will make the difference; they can but only after one breaks through the walls around someone’s heart.
Yeah, it’s mostly my naiveté and zeal as a freshly out atheist that’s got me so riled up but I do hope that perhaps my voice will underscore what you already know and feel: that the way to reach believers is to make them value themselves, to let them know that they need not be ashamed of being human and to let them know that they’ll not be alone if they make one of the scariest decisions I can imagine any human being would have to make.
Since I’ll probably not have the opportunity to do it personally I’d very much appreciate it if you would please pass along my sentiments re the above, my warmest regards, and my sincerest gratitude for the fortification that their work provides me to Richard, Lawrence and Dan Dennett. I do hope that this message will, at least, inspire you all, in some small measure, to continue your valuable work and remind you that the way to a believer’s mind is through his heart. I’d say “God bless you for your work”, but that’d just be the leftover god-talk speaking.
I appreciate Dennis’ letter. It has caused me to reflect on my own experience as well as that of Renee’s. I’ve asked myself: did I reason myself out of faith? Or was there an emotional element involved?
I concluded that while reason was very much the primary instrument in my deconversion, emotion was a helpful catalyst. For those of us who had an emotional experience that led us into our religion, emotional events can be a helpful impetus that cause us to reflect and give careful thought to our beliefs and worldview.
I hesitate to share my personal life experiences, because believers who will read this will tend to discount… no, they will completely dismiss the critical thinking and logical reasoning that lay at the foundation of a person’s lost faith. Fundamentalists almost always disregard any cogent argument that contradicts the Biblical message, and instead they latch onto a person’s emotional story which they believe is the sole reason for lost faith, because doing so allows the believer to hold fast to their rationalizations about religion.
I also hesitate to share my personal experiences because they are so personal. But like Dennis, they are relevant.
I’ve written before about how my son’s deconversion served as a catalyst for my journey
. In regard to my son, I originally made wrong conclusions and held misconceptions about my oldest son’s loss of faith. My son’s experience did serve as an emotional event in my life that played a role.
A second experience also involved my oldest son. Nearly a year ago, I learned that he had been raped as a young boy by a youth pastor at a well regarded Baptist church during a field trip. Long ago, we didn’t understand why he came home from that trip in tears. He was inconsolable and unable to explain what was wrong or why he couldn’t stop crying. We didn’t learn the truth for a very long time. He suppressed that horrific memory until his psyche was ready to deal with it some sixteen years later. My whole being hurt and cried out when I learned of what had happened. I wanted to take vengeance. It still pains me greatly to even share this. But I do acknowledge the role it played as a trigger or catalyst to give careful thought to my Biblical worldview. To put it bluntly, my young vulnerable son was placed into the “loving care” of a Christian church for a Bible drill quiz field trip, and his God-fearing / Bible believing parents prayed for his safety and care, but instead he was gagged, restrained with rope, and brutally sodomized by a youth minister.
Christians might say, “but God works in mysterious ways” and “perhaps God allowed this because He knew your son could reach out to other victims later on”, to which I say, fuck that
. That is grotesque nonsense. And yet under the delusion of Christianity, I did hold such a view for a while. When you’re a Christian, you become well-practiced at rationalizing away the insanity. You rationalize away the fact that over 7,000 children die of hunger every day, in-spite of the anguished prayers of their parents. Meanwhile, Americans believe that God answers their prayers for a better parking spot or for help while playing football. When we’re Christians, we rationalize and dismiss the fact that amputees are NEVER healed
by God. We dismiss the fact that while the Bible promises answered prayers to believers who have faith the size of a mustard seed, we ignore the reality that any prayer given to something that is impossible (e.g., restored limbs) is never answered. And then we rationalize away the reason.
Readers might draw one of a few different conclusions in reading my post. Those who are open to rational, logical thought are likely to think, “yes, I understand and I can relate and/or sympathize”. However, Christians are likely to dismiss my faith journey
and the disturbing things in the Bible
and instead, decide that I just hate god because of what happened. I honestly don’t hate god. I can’t hate that which I don’t believe in. But let me be clear. If new sound, scientific evidence reveals there is a god who created the universe, I would be happy to pursue that evidence. But what I know for certain is that the god of the Bible (Yahweh) does not exist. That is truly a fictional character written long ago by uneducated desert people from the Bronze age who believed the earth was flat, and who would have viewed the wheelbarrow as amazing emerging technology.