My Conversion From Christianity

Brian Holtz  Oct 2002

My Catholic Family. My parents and relatives are all Midwestern descendants of German immigrants, and are all practicing Roman Catholics. My parents raised their children as observant Catholics, attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, observing dietary restrictions during Lent, and going to confession every Easter season. Over the years my parents became steadily more involved in parish life, joining the choir and even becoming eucharistic ministers. However, in our home the only prayers said aloud were the rote ones before and after dinner, and I don't remember God or Jesus being seriously talked about as personalities actively involved in our lives. Hell was rarely discussed as a place or possible fate, and heaven was mentioned mainly as the place where relatives who had died had gone. (I don't remember any talk of those relatives really being able to observe or hear us.)  Although they had liked JFK for being the only Catholic president, my parents became increasingly conservative as the Reagan era dawned. They were conceptually pro-life, but in nothing like the fervid way of so many conservative Christians in the South, where they've lived since 1978. Like most American Catholics they didn't seem to take certain doctrines (e.g. about birth control) very seriously.

My Catholic Indoctrination. I was a baptized Catholic who attended Sunday school and even was an altar boy around age 9 and 10. I of course preferred shorter masses to longer ones, but I didn't resent having to go -- it was just an unquestioned fact of life. The depth of my Christian cultural indoctrination is indicated by the childhood spookiness of  the religious iconography in my grandmother's basement, or the emotional response still invoked when I hear The Little Drummer Boy or Linus' recital of the Lukan nativity. By 10 or 12 I developed a visceral fear of potential non-existence after death, which made the promise of an afterlife all the more comforting. In my early teens I internalized more and more of official Catholic doctrine, and I was mildly impressed by how comprehensive and absolutist that doctrine seemed. As a conservative Republican freshman in college I was attracted to Aquinas' scholasticism (as popularized by Mortimer Adler).

Doubts. However, for as far back as I could remember I had never really felt the presence or existence of God or Jesus or any such listener to my pro forma prayers.  When alone I felt that my thoughts were heard, and my actions seen, by only myself and my own conscience. I had always thought that the gospels were somehow a little too quaint, and that the Old Testament was hard to take very seriously. At some point I read Genesis and was made skeptical by the counter-intuitive Tree of Knowledge story and the use of the first person plural. My increasing knowledge and appreciation of science made the Bible seem less and less grounded in the nonfiction universe.

Conversion. But it was my investigations in philosophy that ultimately led me to reject Christianity. I admired Descartes for his methodological skepticism, but I did not buy his argument for the existence of God.  Indeed, all of the so-called proofs for God's existence seemed unconvincing, especially to one attracted to the plainspoken epistemology of a William James or Bertrand Russell. In the summer of 1986 I read Hans Kung's Does God Exist?, which by its very thickness seemed to promise a convincing affirmative answer if one were possible. I agreed with Kung that the traditional arguments for God were unconvincing, but I was unpersuaded by his argument that belief was nevertheless more advisable than disbelief. I concluded that I really was the only one who could hear my thoughts, and that people believe otherwise mainly because doing so is more comforting.

When I became an atheist, I didn't bother telling anybody about it. I kept going to Mass when home with my family, and quietly stopped attending Mass at college. Within six or nine months I had casually hinted to my parents that I no longer was a believer, but my increasingly apparent unbelief was never made into a point of contention (or means of rebellion) by me nor by them. My relationship with my parents has always been loving, and they know how appreciative I am for a childhood and upbringing that I think was quite wonderful.

Polemics. Soon after beginning grad school at the U. of Michigan in 1987, I began joining online debates on the campus BBS, and then in the summer of 1988 also on Usenet.  While most of my debating has concerned politics, history, and philosophy, I was briefly active on talk.religion.misc in 1992, and throughout the 1990s I intermittently debated Christians on an internal newsgroup at Sun Microsystems. But beginning in Jan 2001 I made an intensive effort on alt.atheism.moderated and soc.religion.christianity to test the arguments regarding atheism and Christianity that I'd synthesized for my new hypertext Human Knowledge: Foundations and Limits. My arguments seemed to hold up well, and so by late spring 2002 I wound down my debates there, and began to limit my atheism polemics to rebuttals of the better Christian apologetics web sites. As the quality of replies from those web apologists has been disappointing, I hope now to instead focus my time budget for atheism polemics toward critiques of the leading modern Christian philosophers.

Motivation. As far as my deepest introspection can tell, my motivation for affirming atheism has been simply a desire to face and understand reality. I certainly did not choose atheism because of

Nevertheless, when asked to explain my atheism, Christian apologists almost invariably answer with some variation of "pride", and I've yet to meet one (though many must exist) who could grant that my beliefs were arrived at sincerely and without improper motivation. My only pride is in my courage to open my eyes and test my beliefs. Only a few humans who have ever lived can take credit for any fundamental scientific or philosophical insights, but each of us has the challenge and opportunity of facing the evidence and choosing a defensible worldview. Given the status of the Christian worldview in intellectual circles, I would derive more pride from my intellectual courage if I defended embattled Christianity than if I merely affirmed ascendant atheism. Indeed, theism involves many other kinds of pride which are absent in atheism.

Christian apologists also tend to label me "arrogant", but I've never succeeding in coaxing one to substantiate that charge in any way, let alone explain how I could rephrase the substance of my arguments in a way that they wouldn't (arbitrarily) call "arrogant". If I'm confident that my worldview can be and has been successfully defended, then I'm only "arrogant" if that confidence is unjustified, or is used to intimidate or insult someone.  I shouldn't be considered "arrogant" simply because my confidence in my worldview is greater -- or more justified -- than is someone else's confidence in his own  worldview.

Deconversion? I doubt I will ever believe in any god(s), but I of course can't rule it out. Long after becoming an atheist I suffered the tragedy of the death of my son. While this tragedy has given me new insight into the appeal of delusions about an afterlife, it neither weakened nor strengthened my belief that no gods exist. In my book I describe the sort of empirical evidence that would convince me of the existence of god(s):

Any god could trivially inscribe or authenticate its revealed message through supernatural patterns (in cosmological or quantum phenomena) or ongoing miracles (such as prophecy or communication with a spirit world).
I also describe the two kinds of evidence that would have to surface for the divinity of Jesus to be believable: Mistake? What if I'm wrong, and one or more gods exist? In particular, what if the gods reward and punish humans based on policies significantly different from my humanistic principles?  What if they then allow me to horribly suffer -- or at least to have horrible regrets -- because I did not believe in some revelation about them? In that case, I can only hope that the gods will not have also interfered with my ability to remember and reason, so that I will at least be able reaffirm to myself my current belief that I am ethically superior to any being that would see me horribly suffer just for my sincere and prima facie reasonable beliefs.