Fish that Wriggle

God, but there is a lot of noise out there.

The internet and blogosphere are littered with so many voices, each claiming a supremacy over the attentions of their dear readers. Echo chambers are on offer for any view. As people, just trying to live our lives, we pilot toward these safe harbors and find the affirmation that our souls crave. Our aged tribal impulses are nourished on the village chants uttered from the pulpits, from Fox News, from the New York Times, and from the Academy. Most of our positions are inherited from friends or ancestry – the common property of our communities. We back our sports teams and we back the Bible with equally ardent and unthought loyalties.

But as the tribes sit round their village tables, lapping up communal pablum from silvered urns, the vessels are at intervals shaken to spillage by disquieting questions. These inquiries are voiced by seekers, dissidents, and apostates. Doubt is mustered – that lurking menace which stalks the confidence so painstakingly erected by our rousing battle cries and stadium chants. Communities are organisms in their own right, and inquiries that would atrophy group loyalty are a threat. Doubt shrinks the numbers. Questions disquiet the members. They put static on the loudspeakers of affirmation. They waken the dreamers from their harbor sleep. We must sing together, or not all.

Village of the Church

This all bodes poorly if the village in question is a church. It bodes poorly because religion ostensibly sells a product of truth, by which one may obtain a higher knowledge and a salvation. The definitions vary, of course, but religion in general exists to impart enlightenment and deliverance. Who am I? Why am I here? How can I find immortality? Deliverance and enlightenment and truth.

How often did my Christian friends and I speak of the primacy of Truth? Jesus himself claimed to be the embodiment of truth, if one believes the gospel purportedly written by St. John (14:6). The truth was to be sought, and the truth would set us free (John 8:32). Yet at this juncture we come to a curious dissonance. One would assume that the quest for truth and knowledge and enlightenment would best be served by inquiry. Seeking and finding, knocking and answering. All that.

Motion for Dismissal

Every deconvert well knows that such noble sentiments prove (under challenge) to be but the most superficial of bluffs. Believers unwittingly betray the true locus of their priorities, which turns out to be rather sideshifted from a strict overlap with the truth.

Some flatly refuse to engage in discussion at all.

Others defer to a proxy – handing apologetics books to the inquirer – whether they have read such books themselves or not.

Some bandy the words of a pet scholar who believes.

Many point to the seeker himself, and locate the blame on a heart condition.

Others simply shake their head and conclude that this is what the devil does to people foolish enough to read sources from over the fenceline.

Every deconvert knows the dance. We bring objective facts about the text, about history, & about science to the table. In return, we get to watch the stage show of myriad dance steps and dodges, as our good-faith attempts to find answers go unreciprocated. On occasion, one finds a serious interlocutor that genuinely wishes to engage. But the most oft-employed response remains the motion for dismissal.

Fish that Wriggle

To take but a recent example, I received a textbook email from a biblical inerrantist friend in response to my Easter Infographic. The motion for dismissal was rather transparent, attempting as he did to both change the subject and to find some rationale for dismissing the messenger. He asked whether we had been hurt by someone at our church. He questioned my motives and agenda. And finally, it alluded to the pressing non-crisis of how an agnostic expects to be reconciled to god… The discerning reader may note here a dislocation between such questions and the factual content of the Easter Infographic. But the questions, you see, have nothing whatever to do with truth.

This is how an ichthus of Faith wriggles against the net of Fact – by deploying a trifecta of questions concerning personal history, inner motive, and eternal jeopardy.

But the particulars matter little, because as I gently told him in my response, he was reciting the standard script by the numbers. At this point, I have seen so many different ways that people attempt to dismiss the facts. Despite the many creative variants, the key scenes of the time-worn play remain unaltered. And these gyrations prove the real priority: to dodge honest engagement and move for dismissal on some contrived grounds. Once the messenger can be dismissed, untroubled dreams may be resumed.

Never mind the facts: truth must be defended from questioners. Never mind that this particular inquirer cites scores of references. Never mind that he made his eventual decision against faith from reluctance and at great personal cost. Never mind that he came to his conclusion from integrity as a professional researcher.

Never you mind, say the faithful, because never we mind.

Sympathy and Reality

I am sympathetic with fish that want only the harbor; those who take a watery village shelter from the incessant cacophony. God, but there really is a lot of noise out there. I empathize with the fear that I see register in the eyes of my friends when the questions are spoken aloud. And I believe that we all want to do right. My friends are good people, though some may no longer share that view of me.

Yet my sympathy and empathy must come to a terminus where the conflict really lies. Christianity is not about truth. Christians defend quite a different mountaintop than this. Christianity is about our centrality in the cosmos, our eternal significance, and our hope for immortality. Christianity is about belief apart from evidence: blessed are they that have not seen, yet believe (John 20:29). It is a village viewpoint, and like the other tribalisms craving affirmation, it cannot tolerate tremors that spill the creedal pablum. Yet because it sounds more credible to do so, the village view is varnished from head to toe as truth: absolute and final.

No?

Yes. Were it legitimately about truth, inquiry would be welcome. Study would include all relevant facts, not the incessant pursuit of apologists and one-sided “cases” to support our view. Reading from the other side of the fence line would be commendable. Evidence would be paramount. Attempts by scattered individuals to sidestep legitimate questions would meet group revulsion. And those that brought institutional rug-sweeping to light would be held as heroic.

Venture no Bluffs

Call your beliefs as beliefs, dear dreamers. Sing the village chants, imbibe the pablum & embrace the harbor calm. But do so recognizing that we deconverts have made a better study of all of this than most believers have, and that such study is often the proximate cause for our departure.

Disconfirmed tales of the supernatural are simply mythology.

Fears regarding ancient afterlife conjectures are simply superstition.

We deconverts have paid steeply to purchase a humbler self-image and an uncluttered conscience. So venture no bluffs about truth, for you cannot buy that name on the cheap. And you may expect stiff resistance from us if you try.

~

Comments

  1. I think “hope for immorality” is a type for “hope for immortality”

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  2. Another marvelous piece of prose.

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  3. Supremely well written, Matt. A pleasure to read.

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    • Thanks much John. 🙂

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      • I just read your post on FB, about the plight of evangelicals. That’s heartwarming!

        Hey Matt, i have a dark spot in my knowledge of the early church. The Acts Seminar concluded there was never a church in Jerusalem (or Palestine, for that matter), which means it was all in Syria, and maybe Turkey. Pauls letters deal with these, but i’ve never really focused on the actual physical churches. You got a reference to where these churches were, and when they were founded?

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  4. Matt — this is a masterpiece.

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  5. Matt, I will concur with everyone that this is a well-written piece, but the Christianity you caricature is no different from many caricatures of atheism. All worldviews claim truth, cling to dogma, provide a well of pablum. For example, look at the slew of disgustingly simplistic atheist memes out there. They get reposted on FB and people laugh and shake their fists. The anti-intellectualism you condemn is on both sides. Humans will claw for the superior position of morality and rationality in addition to feeling comfortable, loving these so much that they will get intellectually lazy or fall into hubris. This results in caricatures, tribalism, propaganda, etc. Anything but an honest engagement with the best arguments and being as generous as possible to the other worldview. Heaven forbid the humility in saying maybe I shouldn’t be so certain about this whole thing.

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    • Brandon,

      Caricatures are a problem only when they fail to overlap their purported targets.

      I wrote this piece with the intention of describing the majority of those with whom I have personally interacted, and the types of responses they generally give. Legitimate engagement has perhaps come from 3-5 percent of those folks.

      If you wish to think that your position is the more common one, and that it does not fit what you think of as a caricature, that’s fine. Can’t stop that. But if you are proposing that my description is somehow an inaccurate representation of how the faithful often respond, I would say that perhaps your view is the caricature.

      You seem to (somehow) forget that I spent 3.5 decades as an ardent believer, which always seems weird. But if it helps, I think you wriggle pretty well too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Matt, sorry I said that you were caricaturing when you are addressing typical responses you have gotten. I’ve been thinking about doctrine and interpretations, and I realized I’m a fairly unique among Christians here in Texas. I might even line up more with the critics on certain issues. What a weird position to be in!

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  6. I personally LOVE this type of writing. It’s so ALIVE, so PROFOUND, so INTENSE!

    But I wonder how many of the “villagers” to whom it is directed will take the time to read and absorb its powerful message. One thing is for certain, few (if any) will agree with it.

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  7. Excellent post.

    I’ve often thought it’s such a shame that we all seem to feel the need to choose sides over these issues when it comes time to discuss them. It’s natural, but I wish it wasn’t. When I first started bringing up these questions to my family and friends, I had hoped (though didn’t quite expect) that they would engage in the search with me. Not take up a position against mine — just listen to the question and help me research it. I had hoped that they would be equal partners in discovering if these were true problems in the Bible or if they could be answered. But very, very few took an approach anything like that.

    And since they feel the need to take up the role of “defender,” it makes it almost impossible for them to back down from their position, even when their defenses start to wither away. It’s a bit like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, always denying that they’ve sustained any wounds whatsoever.

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    • Nate,

      Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been working on a longer piece that includes a retrospective of people’s responses. That’s been pretty depressing actually. To this day I’m still sort of surprised: I thought we all really valued the truth, and that’s why we were in our faith. Its really strange to find out that somewhere under it all, your motivations for involvement weren’t the same as your friends… that they are in it for different reasons, and you’d always assumed more overlap. Its all kinda strange.

      But as you said, perhaps its a matter of how people initially assume “roles” and then can’t back out of them. I was afraid that could happen, so in the beginning I really and truly tried to approach it in a manner that prevented that from happening. Didn’t work, of course. I think we tend to blame ourselves, but that’s probably not fair. I don’t think there likely is a way to approach it that is both (1) honest and (2) unlikely to result in people jumping into defender-role.

      Python – I cited that exact scene the other day in a debate on Facebook. 🙂

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      • Python – I cited that exact scene the other day in a debate on Facebook.

        Ha! That’s funny! 🙂

        I agree that there’s probably not much we could have done differently to affect how people view this kind of thing. I’ve thought about that a good bit as well. I think it probably comes down to where each individual is in his or her faith. If they’ve never had cause to question it before, or never been bothered by certain aspects of it, I think it makes it much more difficult for them to process the deluge of information we’re hitting them with.

        I’ve been struck lately at how many people in my family still, 4 years later, don’t really understand why my wife and I left.

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        • We’re at the 1-year mark. Many close to us just don’t want to talk about it, so extrapolating forward, I suppose they won’t understand any better three years from now than they do today. Its unfortunate.

          The problem is, of course, that they often feel that understanding would be corrosive to their own faith. There is a fear factor there, I think. Well, not I think – I know there is. Remarks have been passed, and I’ve seen the fear behind many eyes during conversations. Its hard to be considered a sort of mental/spiritual carcinogen. 🙂

          But my daughter’s hospitalization continues to be brought up. I’m writing a long series on that now. And I’ll tell family and friends… maybe there is a window there, since it is clearly a deep concern. I mention her on my Retrospective page, incidentally.

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          • Jodi B. says:

            So funny story: Steve and I were sitting watching some pablum on TV and a commercial for American Ninja Warrior came on. I said to Steve, “You know who should try out for that? Matt Barsotti,” and we had a good laugh (although we still thinking you could probably do the course). Which got me thinking about you guys and I not-so-idly wondered if maybe you ever started a blog. So I googled and…wow, have you ever! Has it really been almost two years since we’ve seen you? And has all this really happened in such a relatively short amount of time? You gave no inkling when we last saw y’all, so I don’t really know.

            I’ve hesitated typing this up and pushing post, but as someone who just found your blog a couple of days ago and still has that fresh “punched in the gut” feeling that comes when something like this happens and someone(s) you care about goes a way you not only didn’t expect but perhaps you think is the “wrong” way, I was reminded of conversations we had the last time we saw you all in person and your in-laws had just converted to a different denomination. If you can remember how you felt during that time and the conversations we had about how their conversion made y’all feel, I think it’s easier, maybe, to put yourself in the place of family and friends who may have gone somewhat silent on the issue.

            For me, personally, I think less than fear, I feel sort of silly after reading all of your blog, especially the newer stuff which is not just you guys leaving Christianity but more of an active anti-theism. I think of the late night theological conversations the four of us had that I really, really treasured, and I feel silly thinking of what you must think of those now (if y’all do think of them — that is the narcissist in me assuming you would!). It is hard for me to have a conversation with someone who I know feels like I am deluded or nonsensical or won’t listen to reason. So, maybe, again, that’s where some of the lack of discussion comes from. Obviously since I’m not very good at keeping up with friends other than FB, I have no real idea what you’ve been through with most friends and relatives.

            If this comment is too personal in nature, feel free to delete (or to respond through another medium such as email or FB) but I couldn’t help but respond to your comment here in particular. I probably won’t stick around to read too much more here, as much as it sucks me in, because while I can read atheist blogs all day long from people I don’t know (patheos is a huge time sink for me), somehow it is harder to read yours. I do appreciate reading your journey with the blood, sweat and tears that must’ve gone into writing it (unsettling though it is) and we wish nothing but the best for your family.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hey Jodi – wow, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think you’re the first really close friend to comment on the blog in any way, so I very much appreciate it. I don’t recall exactly when we saw you last reference to all of this. The first book that began the avalanche was in June 2012. The investigation took a full (and rather quiet) year, and I left the church in June 2013.

              I’m guessing you’ve looked at the Journey pages based on your comment. Yes, since then I’ve become more of an activist about all of this. But it took time to decide whether to go that way or not. I had seriously considered shuttering Jericho after the transition was over. Too many tears from friends for that.

              Indeed I do recall the feeling of gut-punch. I was kicked and hammered for about a year when seriously studying, and then the walk out led to more of the same. Not the most relaxing avocation. 🙂

              But no – I don’t consider you or any of our good friends silly. I believed it for 35 years. I do honestly think that we have been trying to think clearly on insufficient information, and some disinformation. It took a great deal of work to figure out who was being dishonest between the apologists and the skeptics. A lot of work. Like trying to stare to the bottom of a Texas river.

              I’ll shoot you an email. I think you have my main one already, and then there is the Jericho email at top right.

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  8. Your problem with understanding how your family and (former church) friends feel is similar to something (in the other direction) I ran into a few years back. A co-worker of mine grew up as the daughter of Protestant missionaries down in Mexico. She was commenting one day at lunch how she could not understand why the local people who were not part of the missionary church they were running didn’t like them and treated them like monsters. Now, even though I walked away from Catholicism many years ago, I still have a pretty good understanding of how Catholics, especially Latin American ones think and feel. I tried to explain to her about how the local people who had not joined their church considered them evil tools of the devil who were tempting their kinsmen and friends away from salvation and into eternal damnation for leaving the Church (capitalization on purpose but tongue in cheek as well) She couldn’t grasp the idea. Catholics are not only brainwashed against non-Christian religions but also against all the heretical pseudo-Christian ones as well (read that Protestant). To take up with one of these false religions and abandon the One True Church (I don’t seem to have italics) is to deny Christ and choose Satan. I think one of your family’s problems is that they see you and your wife and children as having dumped Jesus and God’s Holy Word leaving you no where to go but Hell. Worse, if they listen to you, they will burn forever as well. Question God’s Word? What’s that smell of sulfur?

    It makes the whole problem even sadder, I’m sorry to say. Following your heart and mind is not easy no matter which road they lead you on. On the bright side, none of those roads lead to Hell (a nasty way to remember a Goddess, Hel)

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Catholics are not only brainwashed against non-Christian religions but also against all the heretical pseudo-Christian ones as well (read that Protestant). To take up with one of these false religions and abandon the One True Church (I don’t seem to have italics) is to deny Christ and choose Satan.”

      Mariah, this was the way I was raised. I live in the U.S. Both sides of my family are Catholics and have been for generations. I don’t ever recall my parents telling me that, but the RCC did — and often, starting at an early age, attending CCD classes, mass and Catholic schools. As an empathic child, this really messed with my head. They have mastered the art of putting the fear of god in you. Protestant evangelicals learned from the “best”, how to Other. But the RCC’s days are numbered as are most male dominated, authoritarian denominations and religions.

      Oh, and I should note that not long ago my mother left the Catholic church. I never thought I’d see the day.

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      • Mariah and Victoria,

        My dad was raised Catholic before going protestant. My wife’s dad was the same. Since I was a kid, I had seen what the sectarian religious wars and fears did to people who moved to the other side of the fence. So many tears.

        I now know what “account” to which those tears should be written up. Religion – all forms being false – has so very much to answer for. Just in my own small life, I have seen untallied amounts of grief from it. Yet people will say that without faith they would have no hope. They honestly cannot see the invisible cost.

        But this is one of the reasons that I determined in the end to take an activist posture and campaign against it. It has stolen irreparably from everyone I know. And it steals today.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “So many tears.”

          Matt, It’s taken me years and many tears to talk about it openly on a personal level, and only within this past year have I been able to do so on my blog. Like you, I take an activist posture, campaigning against it. I truly appreciate everything you bring to the table on your blog. It’s incredibly educational.

          “Yet people will say that without faith they would have no hope. They honestly cannot see the invisible cost.”

          I’ve shared this quote before, but it’s worth sharing again, as it compliments your comment.

          “Religion: It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” ~Jon Stewart

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