Friday, June 11, 2010

Deconversion testimonies and testimonial evidence

Apostates assure us that testimonial evidence is unreliable. You can’t trust the eyewitness testimony preserved in the Gospels. You can’t trust the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. And so on and so forth.

On the other hand, the very same apostates treat us to deconversion testimonies. Bart Ehrman, Dan Barker, Robert Price, and John Loftus make a big deal about their deconversion testimonies. Ed Babinski edited a book of deconversion testimonies. You have whole websites like devoted to deconversion testimonies. It’s become a rite of passage in apostate circles–like a hazing ritual.

In these deconversion testimonies, apostates bear witness to their religious upbringing. To their childhood and adolescence. To what they saw and heard. To what they said and did. To what others said and did.

Usually there’s no corroboration. No multiple-attestation. And, of course, their accounts are hardly unbiased. They are using their deconversion testimonies as a polemical tool to rationalize their apostasy.

On the one hand, if the Bible contains testimonial evidence, that’s incredible. Only a credulous believer, with his blind faith, could accept that at face value.

On the other hand, if an apostate gives a detailed account of his religious upbringing, or crisis conversion, along with a blow-by-blow account of what experiences led him to lose his faith, then his claims are entitled to our implicit, unquestioning faith. Just take his word of it.

So this generates an awkward dilemma. If testimonial evidence is good enough for deconversion testimonies, then it’s good enough for Scripture. But if testimonial evidence is unreliable, then we should discount every deconversion testimony we see or read.


  1. Only you would think of this! =)

  2. Hi Steve,

    You left out that not all apostates become atheists.

    In LEAVING THE FOLD: TESTIMONIES OF FORMER FUNDAMENTALISTS a third of the nearly three dozen contributors remained Christians. Some remained Evangelical Christians but more moderate and inclusive yet still relatively conservative when it came to basic doctrines. Other Christian contributors grew yet more moderate and/or liberal, some joined other religions, some became agnostics or atheists.

    The only position they all hold in common now is their relative distance from their conservative Christian past.

    The testimonies also include arguments in both the text and endnotes, arguments concerning the Bible, history, human psychology, etc.

    I am also aware that testimonies are merely one type of dialogue/data. They augment a discussion with personal details to which others can relate.

    Of course if testimonies lack the ability to convince people of the truth of a particular point of view (I never said they had that ability), even rational arguments lack the ability to convince others. Many arguments about the big questions lack universally accepted answers in religion, philosophy and history.

    Also I've read not just the stories of people who left the fold, but also the stories of those who have entered it. Google THE UNIQUENESS OF THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE since it mentions a few of the many stories I've read over the years. First person stories of all types, concerning all religions continue to interest me.

    It should also be noted that there is no universal agreement as to just how close to "first person" the stories are of Jesus in the Gospels. In fact the majority view remains that the earliest Gospel was Mark and that Matthew and Luke are literary redactions of Mark, and John contains still later literary additions and redactions, i.e., not "four separate eyewitness accounts."

    So the Bible contains what one might call "anecdotes of anecdotes" (except for some statements in Paul's letters in which he unfortunately supplied no first person details of his conversion experience except to say that "the Lord appeared to me"--that's all the first person detail we receive from Paul himself).

    Also, all life stories are those of individuals. Where else can one begin? (If only we had a first person document composed by Jesus himself.) Each of us is an individual with a personal history of growing up somewhere, learning something, reading something, gaining experience and knowledge. Those stories are interesting in and of themselves because they feature details to which others can relate. I allowed each contributor in LTF to explain how and why their views changed. As one reviewer noted there was no comparable collection though there have been a number of such collections since mine, as noted in this listmania list at amazon:

    Learning from the experiences of others is part of being human. Reading books, novels, meeting people with diverse views and experiences (or just reading about such people).

  3. Also, keep in mind that if anecdotes provide no decisive evidence of the truth claims of a person's beliefs, what evidence IS decisive? What arguments ARE universally accepted?

    Christians certainly appear to have done more debunking than skeptics, i.e., debunking the conversion stories, miracle stories, and interpretations of the Bible of rival Christian groups.

    Just among Evangelicals the debunking continues concerning one Evangelical's interpretation of the inerrant Word of God versus the others interpretation -- as seen in the "view points" and "perspectives" series by Zondervan, Baker and other Christian publishing houses:

    Add to all the Evangelical discussion the views of emergent, social Gospel, and liberal Christians, not to mention the views of Jewish scholars, deists, and secular biblical scholars.

    I encourage people to read as widely as possible, and (if in dialogue with one another) to give conversations another try when misunderstandings occur (perhaps the greatest illusion being the belief held by either side that communication has indeed occurred when it has not really done so, at least not to the depth either side may have presumed it had).

    There's a type of forgiveness in dialogue as in life that involves starting over from scratch, and trying to avoid more volatile language and accusations, going from heated to a cooler profile, hoping some communication may result. There are ups and down in dialogues as in life.

    Neither do I expect people to convert, though I do hope that sometimes minds may be stretched, not even specifically by what I have written but as a result of the process itself. (I say this because it's easy to fool one's self into imagining that it's easy to convert others, when the real difficulty lay in converting ones' self, during the quiet times when one is alone pondering on one's own.) I also suspect strongly that a mind once stretched by a new question (or new way of viewing an old question) does not snap completely back to its original dimensions, not completely. That's been my personal experience, even among Evangelicals I've met over the years whose views grew slightly more inclusive after continued dialogue with others, and reading widely.

    I also have enjoyed reading the blogs of moderate Evangelical and liberal biblical scholars, the bibliobloggers as they are called, who contribute to "Biblical Studies Carnival" on the web, a monthly collection of biblical studies blog entries. Some of them are inerrantists though they employ a pretty wide definition of inerrancy compared with say, young-earth creationists. Others are moderates, and some are liberals and a few are atheist biblical studies scholars. Some interesting interviews with them can be found at

    Also, I suspect that no dialogue ever really ends. It continues with a thesis, and the other side (there's always another side) suggests an anti-thesis and sometimes a bit of a synthesis is constructed out of that dialogue which then becomes the new thesis upon which further dialogue continues, starting the process over at a hopefully more well informed level as each side studies and reads more. Reading widely is also similar to dialoging with multiple individuals. I have a list of five favorite books that I am currently suggesting to Christian thinkers:

  4. Dear Steve, I wonder a bit about the context of what you are calling "testimonial evidence". It feels like a court case, where some dead body is around and everyone is sharing what they have seen and heard as a kind of proof about how the murderer is. But I think that testimonies of those who have left Evangelical Christianity are more about sharing their process, about what doubts they struggled with, what their experience really taught them, what feelings that they might have felt the need to repress because of the pressure from a peer group or an external authority, and what they might have finally learned from their own experience about what is real and what is not real for them. I do not think that people leave Evangelical Christianity because of "evidence" being on trial and found wanting. It is more a complex process than this. It has to do with the heart, getting in touch with how one really feels, and finally owning what feels true from one's own personal experience, and choosing to live this inner truth. The thing is that most of those people got convinced that Evangelical Christianity was true because of some arguments and some experiences. There is a point where the experiences are understood better and the arguments no longer feel as convincing. These people did not suddenly decide to turn against their religion and set about disproving it. They, for whatever reason, already believed and gradually changed their views. The testimonies are relevant, because many are undergoing a similar process of doubting and not being satisfied with the answers that they got. It is more of an outgrowing of something than of switching positions in a debate. Sometimes those who cease to be Evangelicals seem to go through a phase which could be considered a kind of "reverse evangelism" but it does not last. Eventually it is accepted that people have their different journeys and some feel okay with their commitment to their evangelical faith. I can share what I learned from my journey into and out of this club. It may or may not convince anyone. I do not feel a need to convince anyone at all. The word itself "convince" means "with conquest" (same root as "invincible" or not able to be conquered). This feels violent to me. I do not think a deep change comes by this kind of argument, especially when it comes to religious truth. It is something that a person must decide for themselves in their heart of hearts and live. I do feel that this process requires our intelligence, our self examination, and our self honesty. In terms of my own journey, no one ever wrote and said, "Your testimony was proof that convinced me my religion was false." But a few did write and say, "I understand what you went through, my own journey went through a lot of similar places and had a lot of similar doubts." It did make it feel like the process was a natural one. It was good, too, to know you are not alone. I have helped a lot of people move through the process. I could tell they were going through it because they had a stricken look on their faces, a kind of agony, they did not want to feel their doubts. They would have rather just believed, but were increasingly unable to do this. Their own experience was teaching them something different. Sometimes just knowing others had gone through is enough to give one the courage to complete the process. Blessings, Will

  5. Will said:
    The thing is that most of those people got convinced that Evangelical Christianity was true because of some arguments and some experiences.

    I gotta disagree with you on this. Most "Christians" (scare quotes on purpose) that I've met have never bothered to examine a single argument about Christianity, nor have they generally-speaking had any religious "experiences" so to speak. They are Christians because of family tradition or some such, which explains why A) they live no differently than the pagan world and B) they "fall away" at the first challenge to their "faith" and then become "experts" used by Loftus & Co. to "debunk" Christianity.

    There are very few apostates who could even begin to articulate the Gospel. What you get is, like Ed Babinski (for example), a mix of pseudo-Christian pop culture references and proverbs from Poor Richard's Almanac dressed up as if it were the Bible. That's why atheists nearly always read the Bible more "fundamentalistically" than any Christian does.

    The fact is that there are very few people who have actually studied Christianity in-depth who have become apostates (by which I mean they were believers and then fell away, not that they were non-believers to begin with and weren't convinced even after careful study). And indeed, when such Christians do become apostates, it's almost always because of some sort of sin (usually sexual in nature) that they prefer over upholding Christian standards. In other words, the vast majority of apostates are not intellectual students of Christianity, and those few that have actually studied the faith have demonstrable moral failings that they do not wish to repent of (and I should note that many of the non-intellectual apostates ALSO have the same moral failings precipitating their denial of Christianity).