Deconversion: Evolution vs. Revolution

Deconversion is not a uniform process. Some happen in matter of days, others over the course of decades. Some pass through several phases on their way to atheism, others jump straight from strong belief to strong disbelief. Some can be likened to game of Jenga, in which one belief after another can be removed without affecting others until finally the tower just collapses, others to a game of dominoes, in which the fall of one very basic belief results in the fall of all the others. Of course, most deconversions are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between gradual change, i.e., evolution, and rapid change, i.e, revolution.

My deconversion certainly falls on the revolution end of the spectrum. Once I became a devout believer in junior high school until my apostasy over a decade later, my status as a religious conservative never changed. At no point was I ever a liberal or even moderate Catholic; I never at all openly questioned any dogma the church taught until I doubted and then rejected all of them at once. I think this is because of how I learned from apologetics to defend my belief from Protestant arguments against Catholicism.

According to Karl Keating in his Catholicism & Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”, which was the very first apologetic book I ever read, Catholics can justify their religion with the following “spiral logic,” which contrasts with invalid circular logic of fundamentalist Protestants who begin with the unquestioned assumption that the bible is inspired: First, one reads the gospels without assuming they're perfect or inspired, merely historically reliable (!), and one concludes that Jesus must have been divine. Next, one reads in the gospels that Jesus established Peter as a permanent, infallible religious authority, and since the pope is the successor of Peter, he is also an infallible religious authority. Finally, the pope says the bible is divinely inspired, so we can believe it. I realize now, of course, this argument is incredibly weak, but I was only about thirteen years old when I encountered it, and I already believed the conclusion for non-rational reasons. This was my first real exposure to any justification for my religion, and I grabbed onto it tightly. I later learned to rely on alleged miracles throughout the history of the church as confirmation to quell my doubts, but I never forgot that without papal authority, I had no reason to believe almost anything else in my religion. For example, I couldn't know whether the whole of the bible was true without an authority telling me so, and I couldn't trust my own interpretation of it, which necessarily conflicted with that of other Christians. Within this paradigm, faith was not belief without or in spite of evidence; it was trust in papal authority, which I believed was established by logic and evidence. It didn't matter whether there was any biblical, historical or scientific evidence for any teaching since the pope's approval itself was sufficient evidence. Belief in papal authority was thus the rock on which I built my justification for my religion. For the record, I want to clear that I'm not saying this is an entirely accurate portrayal of actual Catholic doctrine, just my own understanding of it when I was a believer.

My belief structure was mostly rational, in a sense, even if badly mistaken, and I dismissed every other kind of faith as blind and irrational. This brought my views into conflict with other Catholics, especially liberal Catholics. Liberals accept some church teachings (e.g., heaven exists) while rejecting others (e.g., fornication is sinful), but if they reject anything, they must reject its basis, papal authority, and therefore have no reason to accept anything else except on blind faith. The church itself doesn't really care why one believes the easy doctrines, even if it laments and preaches against disbelief in the difficult doctrines, but as for me, I felt not only little connection with liberal believers but even with conservative believers who just happened to accept all the church's teachings without directly and explicitly connecting it to papal authority and instead citing mystical faith. Returning to the point of the story, it explains why I never passed through moderate or liberal phases on the road to apostasy.

Over the years, the very same doubts which drive evolution-type deconverts to moderate and then liberal positions also arose in my mind, but I responded to them either by invoking papal authority if they related to the church's teaching or by simply suppressing them due to my intense fear of hell if they related to the basis for papal authority, such as the divinity of Jesus or even the very existence of God. When I finally sat down and examined these doubts, everything hinged on the original argument as forwarded by Keating, held together by the glue of belief in Catholic miracles. There was no way I could reject belief in hell, which had caused me so much agony over the previous five years, without rejecting everything else. The arguments against religion had to overcome everything all at once, but after a few months of intense research and reflection, that's exactly what happened. In the end, I still had to make an emotional effort to admit that it was all over and finally discontinue attending church, but I always knew I couldn't simply return as a weak believer once I faced my doubts. I had gone from believing everything the church taught to believing nothing. The revolution had ended, and reason had triumphed over superstition.

I would guess the evolution-type deconversion is more common among Catholics and mainline Protestants because most never structure their faith on one core belief, and that the revolution-type is more common among fundamentalist Protestants who often do. In a sense, I was a fundamentalist Catholic; because of my background, my fundamental belief just happened to be papal authority rather than scriptural inerrancy. I wonder whether I would have become an atheist in my teenage years if I had never been convinced of the centrality of papal authority and nothing more than blind faith was offered as justification, which I would almost certainly have rejected more quickly. I'm just happy I'm an atheist now.