Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Converts to Unbelief Always Tell Subtraction Stories Out of Religious Immaturity

Monroe County

One of my favorite writers is theistic philosopher James K.A. Smith (Calvin College). Having read philosopher Charles Taylor's epic A Secular Age, Smith's book is a great follow-up: How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

Taylor has a nice take on persons who "deconvert" from Christianity to atheism because of "science." These converts to unbelief "always tell subtraction stories," and the faith they have converted from "has usually been immature." For Taylor the subtraction story of the deconverted is that one becomes "rational" and "secular" by subtracting "religion" and "superstition." (How very irrational.)This rings true in my experience of having deconverted students in my philosophy classes.

Smith writes: "If someone tells you that he or she has converted to unbelief because of science, don't believe them." I don't. Ever. Why not?

What usually captures the person is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science. Smith writes: “Even where the conclusions of science seem to be doing the work of conversion, it is very often not the detailed findings so much as the form” (Taylor, p. 362). 

Indeed, “the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality” (Taylor, p. 365)." (Smith, Kindle Locations 1673-1677)

The convert to atheism wants to "give the impression that it was the scientific evidence that was doing the work." But not so. "Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories." (Ib., 1677-1678) "Subtraction stories explain that "secular" is the subtraction of religious belief.

As I meet deconverted "freethinkers" and ask them what they left behind, they always describe something like a fundamentalist "Christianity" (hence modernist, because there's no one more modernist than a fundamentalist) that is near-completely anachronistic and, henc,e hermeneutically false. Smith writes:

"[T]he belief such persons have converted from has usually been an immature, Sunday -schoolish faith that could be easily toppled. So while such converts to unbelief tell themselves stories about “growing up” and “facing reality” — and thus paint belief as essentially immature and childish — their “testimony” betrays the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned. “If our faith has remained at the stage of the immature images, then the story that materialism equals maturity can seem plausible” (p. 365). But in fact, their conversion to unbelief was also a conversion to a new faith: “faith in science’s ability” (p. 366)." (Smith, Kindle Locations 1679-1684)

Persons who convert to atheism "because of science" are not so much convinced by data and reason but are more moved by the form of the story that comes with it; viz., rationality = maturity. 

Taylor and Smith suggest that our response to unbelief "is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. The goal of such witness would not be the minimal establishment of some vague theism but the invitation to historic, sacramental Christianity." (Ib., Kindle Locations 1687-1689)