Cover of "A Secular Age"If you’re reading this blog, chances are you know someone who has de-converted from Christianity or lost their faith in some way. It’s also pretty likely that this person has cited science as a catalyst for that rejection: they finally had a serious encounter with Darwin in college, started reading Richard Dawkins, or some such experience that forced them to accept that what we know about the natural world makes Christian belief impossible.

If you do know such a person or if that person happens to be you, I hope what follows—some fragments from my reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, illustrated with my own religio-biography—will urge you to pick up the doorstop of a book that we’ve referenced several times on this blog, and which will only by superhuman effort be surpassed as the most significant contribution to philosophy of religion in the 21st century. I will be cutting and pasting and crudely lopping off corners to serve my purposes, but hopefully it can still provide a taste.

Toward the end of the book, Taylor attempts a textured, multidimensional account of why so many Westerners increasingly see “closed-world structures”—worldviews that posit nothing beyond the natural world—as unquestionable, established matters of fact, as “the way things are.” His argument in the preceding pages has been that there is nothing in our modern scientific understanding of the world that gives us definitive answers about whether there is anything “out there.” Both belief and unbelief are “construals” of how and why we are on this planet. Taylor wants to understand how the closed-world “spin” on the facts has, particularly among the Western educated and élite, become virtually unrecognizable as one explanation among others as opposed to the supreme, unquestioned one.

Taylor argues that our “immanent frame”—our “disenchanted” modern understanding of ourselves in a world operating by natural processes without magic or divinity—does push us toward denying any “beyond” to our universe. Absorbed in the narrative of materialist progress from birth, many Westerners consider themselves rational agents who know, thanks to the “facts” discovered by natural science, that myths and religion are obsolete:

…the central idea seems to be that the whole thrust of modern science has been to establish materialism. For the people who cling to this idea, the second order of conditions, the contemporary moral predicament, is unnecessary or merely secondary. Science alone can explain why belief is no longer possible … This is a view can be held by people on all levels; from the most sophisticated: “We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities,” to the most direct and simple: Madonna’s “material girl, living in a material world.” … Religion or spirituality involves substituting wrong and mythical explanations, explaining by “demons.” At bottom it’s just a matter of facing the obvious truth. (8893/561) [1]

This view, according to Taylor, does not follow from the evidence provided by natural science, which is inconclusive on questions like “Does God exist?” or “What is good?”[2] Nevertheless, many people who live in a materialist worldview believe that science has, for example, “disproven” that God exists. And around this construal of the situation has grown up a powerful story about why other people continue to believe in gods despite the overwhelming “evidence,” and why even some hardened materialists are prone to have moments of doubt: we want to make up myths about reality to give ourselves the illusion of meaning and purpose in human life. But on this view, which goes back as far as the Victorian era, it is our duty to “put away the childish things” of religion and face the pitiless reality that “God is dead.” Mature adults have the courage to live without the illusions of religion, and to “affirm human worth, and the human good, without false illusion or consolation” (8905). This story is so dominant in some parts of society that no one who believes it sees it as a story about reality that is, as Taylor puts it, “shot through with values” and “leaps of faith.” Even former religious believers tend to take it up as the reality that’s left when the illusions of religion are subtracted; countless loss-of-faith stories follow the familiar path of an earnest believer agonizing with the realities of science and concluding he must grow up and give up his childish religious illusions.

This is the story I would have told about myself at a certain point: I grew up in an environment where not believing in God was unimaginable; plenty of people weren’t “right with God,” but they still knew he was judging them. I had a primary education most people would consider fundamentalist (Darwinism was a hoax, Columbus was a God-ordained missionary to the savages, the American founders were Biblical literalists, liberal elites were trying to set up a “one-world government,” etc.) though, thanks to Francis Schaeffer, it fatefully included Greek philosophy and existentialist literature. At some point during and after college, I became aware the extent to which conservative evangelicals made up facts to support their predetermined beliefs, many of which had little basis in scripture or church tradition. I became aware of the difficult theological questions that never got satisfying answers, like why a loving, omniscient God would set humankind up to plunge itself into unimaginable tragedy. I experienced the power of alternative answers to the deepest questions in films and novels; books on history, anthropology and natural science convinced me that the only religious belief possible was a weak, theologically empty one whose pointlessness was almost immediately obvious. I was an accidental materialist, a believer overwhelmed by the facts.

The problem with this, in Taylor’s account, is that it’s only one side of the story, the side that gets privileged in our “theory-oriented” enlightened culture, where we “live in our heads, trusting disengaged understandings of experience” (8792). People who have given up Christianity because of science often feel they have simply surrendered to obvious facts, which in a sense means they have. But only in a sense, because our construals of how and why the world is meaningful are “anticipatory,” meaning they run ahead of our rational explanations. The background world of what makes sense to us shifts ahead of us having theoretical reasons for why we changed our mind. So the poor Christian victims of Darwin are not in fact forced to abandon their faith because “science disproved the Bible”—it didn’t. Natural science is, in Taylor’s view, neutral on the God question. We feel a change in our pre- or sub-theoretical understanding of the world (which may have at least something to do with intellectual engagement), and the story about why that happened comes afterward [3].

Several years and some graduate school after my “deconversion,” I began to realize the story I had told myself of a systematic changing of my beliefs through argument was about as accurate as most movies that claim to be “based on true events.” In one sense, that theoretical story was true: intellectual advances I made during high school and college and after continually forced me to rethink my faith, and factual information and rational arguments played a significant role in undermining it. But my experience of the world also dramatically expanded during that time (through moves and travel), and my milieu changed significantly several times on the path from a tiny, homogenous conservative Christian town to an enormous, multicultural secular-progressive city. I experienced more places, people, art and information in a period of a few years than in my previous life combined, which shattered many of the stereotypes, prejudices and preconceived notions that made up the environment where my faith had once made sense. My “world”—in the Heideggerian sense of our “lived experience,” the non-theoretical background way things make sense to us—shifted to the extent that things I previously believed would eventually come to seem unimaginable.

But this did not happen primarily on an explicit, theoretically-engaged level; it happened “in the background,” in routines of daily life. Religious critics suggested as much—that I was sliding away from “the truth” only because of my environment, because I wanted to be “cool.” I strenuously objected that all this was, on the contrary, the product of Serious Reading and Good, Solid Intellectual Arguments. Most of us like to believe we have well-grounded, dispassionate reasons for our behavior and beliefs. But Taylor, following Heidegger, says this doesn’t really get at why we slide around the belief scale; rational explanations “give too much place to changes in belief, as against those in experience and sensibility” (9092). My critics were correct that something else besides just theories and arguments was driving the shift [4]. The intellectual dimension was a real, but it was pulled along by massive changes in experience, and my changing sense of what kind of person I wanted to become.

Another of Taylor’s observations is that people like me don’t just convert out of Christianity, we convert into something else, usually an “exclusive humanist” worldview. It’s not a matter of coming out of the cave into the daylight, it’s a matter of a new, more or less equally faith-based story eclipsing the old one’s explanatory power:

What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession. On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.

What I converted to was not, as I understood it at the time, some sort of objective “view from nowhere” outlook that only had beliefs to the extent their truth could be demonstrated empirically. It was rather, as Taylor puts it, “a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the package we could call ‘atheist humanism,’ or exclusive humanism” (9034), or, as we could perhaps even better call it, “dull, platitudinous liberalism.” It’s amusing now how little this new philosophy intrinsically had to do with the materialism I’d become convinced of. Nothing about individual liberty, human rights, or civilizational progress follow automatically from the fact that “God is dead.” The new picture is “shot through with values” (8869), however insistently it takes itself to “emerge out of careful, objective, presuppositionless scrutiny” (8890). There are as many value judgements in liberal humanism as there are in its parent religion, and many people who come to the point of unbelief are happy to accept them despite objecting to the similar ungroundedness of Christianity. It has a certain noble appeal: we’re good Westerners who can no longer believe in God, but are still heirs of a great civilization who can press on, being as reasonable and dispassionate as possible, for the sake of humanity. It explains why we used to believe the myths and shrouds our disenchantment in courage and moral duty; it’s no surprise a great number of homeless ex-believers end up there.

The point is not to insult liberal humanism; after all, there are far worse things. The point is to remind us that it is a construal in a culture where it tends to assert itself as natural and uncontroversial, to all sorts of cultural and political detriment that I can’t get into here. I hope, if possible, people who have had the privilege of going between, of actually feeling the persuasive power of different kinds of construals that co-exist in our culture, can elevate the conversation above the crude Doug Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens-type spectacle that is so clickable. I think reading Taylor is an excellent tonic; even a few chapters of A Secular Age will do those hovering between belief and unbelief far more good than the collected works of “Ditchkins.” Ending up in a “cross-pressured” no-man’s land—torn between immanence and transcendence—may feel inconclusive, but it’s creatively productive, and is certainly better than exchanging one half-baked ideology for another [5]. One needn’t remain religious to admit potential harm in the lack of self-awareness in certain secular construals of the world, and to be able to see religious belief, with a kind humility and respect, as a construal that can be equally as plausible as our own. And one that is to be studied carefully, especially by philosophy and politics, for its crucial insights about human be-ing.

For those who inhabit a religious construal, and are perhaps working to deepen, enrich, and preserve it, there are also important lessons to be found in Taylor (who is, after all, on your side). I’ll address one to evangelical Protestantism, since I know it best: the unqualified disaster of apologetics that have focused on rational-empirical argumentation as a means of persuasion, intensifying the already-problematic tendency of Protestantism to be in one’s head than in the practices of one’s body. The thrust of “resurgent” evangelical activity in my lifetime has been mostly to embrace and even radicalize the most harmful features of the modern obsession with rational control. If you can begin to pull your religion out of that abyss, there’s no telling what a powerful countercurrent it might become.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

1. Citations are from the digital edition, which unfortunately doesn’t include original page numbers.

2. Where Taylor might be critiqued is in his account of contemporary natural science; I think many people working in the rapidly-progressing and mind-bending scientific disciplines would very much dispute his insistence that they do no particular damage to a religious construal of the world. Of course they do, and I say that as someone prepared to keep a pretty tight rein on what science is allowed to be said to “explain.” Contemporary science is so mind-boggling that it’s driving even Continental philosophers, so recently (in)famous for being the deconstructors of scientific hubris, to bow to it. It may not tell us anything in particular about how to leave meaningfully or ethically, but it can make it virtually impossible to believe we can know anything in particular about some real divine being, much less communicate with it. But Taylor’s probably got me again here: I’m not doing those experiments myself, I’m taking scientists’ word for them, I’m taking massive leaps of faith, believing a story I’ve chosen to believe. Science may make it virtually impossible to believe for a person like me living the kind of life I live, but that’s not the same for everyone in my own country or even my own family.

3. This parallels somewhat Jonathan Haidt’s argument in The Righteous Mind that we make moral decisions based on intuition, and work out reasons for those judgements afterward.

4. A version of this same dynamic played out in the recent dust-up over the pastor Tim Keller’s reported comment that a major hindrance to Christian revival was the fact that a majority of young believers are having premarital sex, and his reference to a pastor friend who said there was usually a connection between young evangelicals’ “sexual sin” and the emergence of religious doubt. It’s always struck me that evangelical leaders are so eager to attribute questioning to “sin” or “worldliness” or desire to fit in, perhaps to avoid having to give serious answers. But on the Taylorian view I’m presenting here, something like having premarital sex against the teachings of your religion could in fact lead to a “shift in experience and sensibility,” and thus spark new intellectual activity.

5. There’s really nothing quite as pathetic. See, for example: David Mamet, Frank Schaeffer, and on and on.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

42 Responses to What Really Happens When People Lose Their Religion?

  1. Steve says:

    Thank you. I always find it fascinating that many intelligent, learned people are so reluctant to examine, much less challenge, the simple assumptions that undergird their beliefs. For Christians it usually seems to be the Bible and for atheists it usually seems to be materialism or rationalism (when I a Christian who claims to espouse all of the above, I start to feel a little crazy, but that’s another story). It’s as if there’s an emotional connection to the underlying assumptions, making them part of the person’s identity.

    This the most thoughtful, well-written article that I’ve read on this subject (or any other) for a very long time. Somebody should have paid you a lot of money for this.

  2. Brittany Havens says:

    This is such a good article, that I have sent it over to my Church’s pastor.

  3. Brittany Havens says:

    Have you read Heaven is for real by Todd Burpo? His son went to Heaven and came back. When he came back, every time his parents saw a picture of Jesus, they asked him if that was what Jesus looked like. Eventually, they find a painting done by an eight year old girl at the time, named Akaine Kramarik, who’s been having visions, and both claim that’s what Jesus looked like. After you read this, why would you think Evolution is true. I’m not saying you weren’t right in trying to examine which one is better. I’m giving you another reason to think about this.

  4. AC says:

    I knew you had it in ya David –

    Also do you notice how everything that we deem good , especially if we indulge, always comes with unintended consequences – premarital sex, food/drink consumption, success/riches, power/prestige/adoration – even somebody very well-grounded is ripe to succumb to abuses & undesired/unforseen results.

    Been reading up on recent genome studies – seems no matter how skewed the test samples the results move further away scientific presuppositions -leaving more questions than answers.

    You got your zinger in at the end – would love to hear more specifics on that –

    “I’ll address one to evangelical Protestantism, since I know it best: the unqualified disaster of apologetics that have focused on rational-empirical argumentation as a means of persuasion, intensifying the already-problematic tendency of Protestantism to be in one’s head than in the practices of one’s body. The thrust of “resurgent” evangelical activity in my lifetime has been mostly to embrace and even radicalize the most harmful features of the modern obsession with rational control. If you can begin to pull your religion out of that abyss, there’s no telling what a powerful countercurrent it might become.”

    God Bless,


  5. This is an incredible article. Thanks for sharing your experience and for helping unpack Taylor for those of us who don’t quite have the time to read through the doorstop.

    I especially appreciated your last paragraph, because few things have come to irk me more than the hubris displayed by various “apologetics” ministries. It’s a difficult line to walk– on one hand, almost all thoughtful Christians have a variety of historical and philosophical lines of reasoning that have helped to reinforce their faith or that helped draw them to faith in the first place. Some of these lines of reasoning hold up better than others. On the other hand, it is by definition impossible to build faith claims around various proofs and usually you end up sounding like an asshole when you ride a quasi-empirical horse as hard as you can.

    Re: science– from someone who’s read some of the papers, I think you can rest assured that while we have made some incredible advances in neuroscience, we are still far, far away from any scientific understanding that undermines metaphysics.

    Two questions in response:

    1. Would it be fair to say that everyone pretty much ends up believing in whatever they most want to believe in?

    2. Since there is certainly no moral authority in the scientific consensus, what moral authority is there within liberal humanism? If there is a moral authority, is there a requisite evangelism? (e.g. if gay marriage ought to be a right available to all Americans, is it immoral to allow religious conservatives to ban it or should they be converted to liberal humanism?)

    • David Sessions says:

      Thanks so much, Matthew. Sorry I’ve taken so long respond; I lost my long almost-finished comment and hadn’t had time to rewrite it.

      These are hard questions, and I’ll probably only reveal my ignorance trying to answer them. But here’s a sketch of something like what I understand the answers to be at this point.

      1. I know what you mean, but I’m not sure I’d phrase it that way. If you said something like, “everyone’s construal of reality takes things on faith,” or “we all believe things that are radically oversimplified in order to be comprehended or spoken of,” then I would agree. But I’m not sure everyone “believes what they want”; I may very much want to believe some sort of religious faith, but find that the information I know makes it impossible.

      I also thing saying “everybody believes what they want” is a way of letting weaker beliefs off the hook; I’m not prepared to surrender to absolute relativism and say there’s no ground solid ground to believe anything in particular. I mostly talked about natural science in this post, but there are also things social sciences have discovered, such as the basic reasons why religions arise, the conditions that make religious belief more or less likely, the psychological and social needs they serve, etc. We know that most religious claims are made about things that cannot be documented or verified. Philosophically, we know there is no valid claim a religion can make that its “revelation” should have more credibility than another religion, which significantly weakens the case for literal belief in any religion’s specific content. (For a much better articulation of all this, see this excellent essay by Columbia philosopher Philip Kitcher.) So I would say that skepticism about the literal content of religious beliefs is more consistent with the information we have than literal belief in them.

      2. I suppose you realize philosophers have devoted entire careers to trying to find answers to this. Part of my point in this post was that liberal humanism in its shallower forms presents itself as having some sort of natural or “nature-based” authority that is in fact no more grounded than religious morality. I think most liberal atheists would say something like, humanism doesn’t have to have any kind of “ground’ to have authority—it just works. I would agree, it begins to have problems when it has to compete with internal opponents or external religious fundamentalism, which is what we’re seeing around the world now.

      As for the evangelism question; the only way to have absolute uniformity of thought is some kind of totalitarianism, and even there it’s difficult. Obviously, I think trying to force anyone to believe anything is just practically a ridiculous idea, and I guess I have some Lumières influence down there somewhere, since I tend to assume freedom of conscience is sacred. The compromise of liberal democracy is that you’re going to have citizens who are illiberal and who are going to fight against rights and justice of certain others. I guess the thing you take on faith is that if something is important enough, a majority of the citizens will be able to be persuaded to “do the right thing.” This is obviously wrong, because there are a great many terrible injustices that the majority is completely apathetic about and have become permanent features of liberal democracies. Liberals would say that’s better than nothing, and radical critics would say only a rotten system could accept XYZ as normal. I tend to think both are right on different days.

      • David,

        Thanks so much for responding (no worries about the time, hopefully 3 days isn’t too long for my own response!)

        1. I certainly agree with everything you’re saying, but I would still like to insist that that people will believe what they want– by which I mostly mean “what is most existentially satisfying to them” (That may border on being a tautology.) That is, you may want to believe, but your desire to satisfy what you know about sociological research is more compelling to you (just an example, of course it’s more complex than that.) My desire to believe in God and know that everything works out in the end outweighs the unease I experience when I read about the slaughter of the Canaanites or see someone get Jesus-juked.

        I certainly don’t want to let weaker beliefs off the hook; mostly I just want to dig into why two people exposed to essentially the same information would choose different belief systems. I look at the sociology of religion and think, “look at how humans structure their lives around finding revelation! Good thing there’s a revelation that explains humanity’s problems with some nuance and tells us how we might escape.” You look at it and say, “look at how humans structure their lives around finding revelation! It’s a shame all those smart Christians are playing into that primitive logic.”

        2. I was particularly interested in your answer to the question. : )

        Unsurprisingly, this is one of the more compelling parts of Christianity to me– not even so much that there is a philosophically grounded eternal law that our morality ought to reflect (’cause how can we prove that shit, anyway?) or even that there’s a clear way of interacting with society (culture war forever!), but rather that the preferential option for the poor is a real thing whether we like it or not and that everything sad will become untrue.

    • Patrick Sawyer says:


      Just a brief response to your questions recognizing a lot more could (and should) be said.

      #1. Yes, everyone believes in what they most want to believe in. Existentially it is impossible to do otherwise. The regenerate heart freely believes in what it wants (things in the direction of being consistent with the true God) and the unregenerate heart freely believes in what it wants (things in the direction of not being consistent with the true God). At times there is an apparent tension in the soul as when the father with the tormented son cried out “Lord I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9), but even here we have an ultimate desire expressed flowing from what appears to be a position of authentic faith.

      #2. If there is NO God there is NO moral grounding that can be legitimately viewed and understood as a working standard (in and of itself) that all should follow. Notwithstanding the sad and weakly argued fantasy of such purblind perspectives (such as Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape) that protest otherwise.

      Liberal humanism has no INTRINSIC moral authority because it is situated in the whims of mutable Men. If there is NO God, (Wo)Man is the highest being in the known universe and (Wo)Man is woefully inconsistent in how he(she) prioritizes values and applies them. One person will not steal to get what he(she) needs, another person steals freely. One person will not murder to get what he(she) wants, another person murders freely. If there is NO God, 7 billion people can each rightly claim to be the highest individual arbitrator of right and wrong and no one has the intrinsic moral right to displace another’s views on the merits of the views alone. It merely comes down to power; who has it and who can determine, by force if necessary, what the proverbial law of the land will be.

      Moreover, if there is NO God, there is no good, no evil, no standard, no sub-standard, etc. There is only RANDOM masquerading as order. If there is NO God, there is only chaos, and yet there is not even chaos, because chaos presupposes the existence of order, and without God there is no order.

      And to your question, given that all is random in a universe devoid of a transcendent, sovereign God, there is zero basis for the notion of a morality that has INTRINSIC properties of right and wrong for which all can be legitimately held accountable.

      I would also mention that 1John 2:19 gives some insight as to why some seem to “lose their religion”.

      • nillionaire says:

        I’m the rare athiest who would agree with you that it is impossible, or, at best, extremely difficult and limited ala Neitszche, to have a grounded morality in a secular materialist worldview. But it’s strange to me that you seem to think this is an argument for theism (and if you aren’t actually going there yourself, many others do). It’s not. Its an argument for “wouldn’t it be nice if there was a god.” And man, I agree with you–it would be really nice. An afterlife, cosmic justice, meaning handed down from the creator of the universe.. all sounds great to me. But contra your first point, wishing just isn’t enough for me. Perhaps if I were raised in a religion, it would be in the sense of if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, but when you’re coming at it from a relatively blank slate, you need something more that wishful thinking.

        • nillionaire says:

          and while we’re on the subject, the only false note in this piece is the common misinterpretation of old Fred. The madman with the lantern wasn’t urging us to “face the pitiless reality that God is dead.” It wasn’t a call to action at all–it was a crime report.

  6. AC says:

    Very good questions Matt, of course I want to believe in Jesus – and it’s easy to to plug the holes of reasoning with the miraculous, but here’s my response to #1 based on some recent exchanges I’ve had with atheists –

    Most atheists I speak to are terrified

    I attempt to calmly stand my ground & offer that im open to contrary evidence that would prove a Jesus fallacy – whereas they often squirm & whither & hang on for dear life terrified that their way will be uprooted, that they will have to come to grips with the way they’ve chosen for themselves & that God is real & they will have to face Him – it is all too much for them to bear & they will often turn desperate & hostile…. It usually become a highly uncomfortable thing to witness –

    I think that’s why their is such a movement to eradicate all remnants of Christian truth & reality because they can’t bear to be reminded of it. – it’s more than a mere aversion to all things ‘anti-intellectual’ and there has been much pain & suffering applied by the godless, the heathen, the communist – this runs much deeper – Jesus Himself understood the nature of man , how they hate him & will hate those who follow – this is plain truth, no matter how we try to confound it

  7. Thanks for this fine piece. I was recently reading Maryilynne Robinson’s essay “Darwinism” in her book “The Death of Adam” pondering how most of the atheist, materialists I know mindlessly assume so many beliefs inherited from Christendom while my Christian friends carry around much ugly baggage of materialism. It’s refreshing to have a piece as honest as this one. pvk

  8. Joshua Keel says:

    David, it’s funny, I’ve followed Patrol and your writing for years, most of which time I was a Christian. As of last June I have also de-converted. Probably for somewhat different reasons than you did (more emotional than rational), but I identify with a lot of what you express here.

    In my circles, there seems to be a lot of criticism of Hitchens, Dawkins, materialism, etc., most of it coming from the non-religious. I kind of got sucked into embracing atheism as an ideology almost as religiously as I used to embrace Christianity. This piece has helped me continue to shift away from that way of thinking and towards a more realistic notion of how I got from Christianity to atheism and how subjective our ideas of truth really are.

  9. Steve A says:

    Enjoyed your article immensely.

    “the unqualified disaster of apologetics that have focused on rational-empirical argumentation as a means of persuasion, intensifying the already-problematic tendency of Protestantism to be in one’s head than in the practices of one’s body.”

    That hit home in several ways. I come from an insular group that historically emphasized the rational-empirical above all else. And the arguments are tight and for many convincing. But when any of the bricks constructing the doctrinal ediface are removed, the whole building comes down. For example, notable skeptics Michael Shermer and John Loftus come from that tradition. And then a touchy feely guy like Max Lucado comes along and he is criticized and ignored by the old guard.

    My whole adult life has been a struggle at finding the right intellectually acceptable path between the religious and skeptical poles. The writings about Emergence from the scientific, philosophical, and religious angles have been a big help to me this past decade. I tried getting into the Secular Age but Charles meanders and takes so long to get to his points. Lot of good insight there I admit. Should probably jump back in.

  10. AC says:

    David, you probably won’t respond to a self-proclaimed right-wing-nut-job but I’d like to isolate your quote, I believe the existence, descriptions & teachings of Jesus trump everything you said.

    So my questions would be – do you believe in the existence of Jesus? Have you checked out strong unbiased sources on the historical validity of Jesus? Have you explored legit sources on the integrity & validity of Scriptures & many of the counter-cultural yet historically verifiable info presented? Have you considered any archeological finds that coincides with Biblical presentation of events?

    Do you accept an portions of scripture as valid & trustworthy? Why or why not? Where do you draw the line as to what is rationally acceptable & what is not so?

    Until you’ve done some due diligence on these points you are not a trustworthy source of Criticism but merely a journalist with an agenda & a platform

    God Bless, AC

    I also thing saying “everybody believes what they want” is a way of letting weaker beliefs off the hook; I’m not prepared to surrender to absolute relativism and say there’s no ground solid ground to believe anything in particular. I mostly talked about natural science in this post, but there are also things social sciences have discovered, such as the basic reasons why religions arise, the conditions that make religious belief more or less likely, the psychological and social needs they serve, etc. We know that most religious claims are made about things that cannot be documented or verified. Philosophically, we know there is no valid claim a religion can make that its “revelation” should have more credibility than another religion, which significantly weakens the case for literal belief in any religion’s specific content. (For a much better articulation of all this, see this excellent essay by Columbia philosopher Philip Kitcher.) So I would say that skepticism about the literal content of religious beliefs is more consistent with the information we have than literal belief in them.

    • AC, I don’t think you’re a nut-job because you’re conservative, but because you can’t seem to keep a conversation on track. That said, you seem like a nice enough guy, and I am happy to respond as long as we’re on the topic of the thread.

      I do know a fair bit about the “historical Jesus”; I understand that the scholarly consensus is that he did in fact exist and many of the things described by the New Testament were historical events. (Bart Ehrman, for example, acknowledges this, but Christopher Hitchens always idiotically insisted there was “no evidence” Jesus ever lived.) But the fact that Jesus existed or parts of the NT are historically accurate has ultimately little to do with my outlook; no one is ever going to prove he healed the sick rose from the dead. And the bigger issue is comparative: no historical evidence can tell us why “Jesus is God’s son” is true and “Muhammad is the prophet of Allah” is false. If you start giving all these reasons Muhammad was an impostor and he “made up” Islam, the same things are true of Jesus and Paul. The only way you can say one has some privileged status of truth is by revelation, which basically concedes that other people’s revelation also doesn’t have to be supported by demonstrable facts and is therefore equally valid.

      I know there are plenty of Christians who think all this is beside the point, and next to none of it has to be “historically true” to make sense to them. Which is fine, but it’s difficult for me to understand at that point what they get out of it, i.e. what kind of “fullness” (in Taylor’s sense) an ahistorical, mystical Christianity gives them that a sensuous secular materialism couldn’t.

      • AC says:


        Ok, thanks for the response!

        I don’t agree but I will try to respect the comment section.

        God Bless David! I will offer up a prayer for you & for myself while I’m at it!


  11. Justan athist says:

    I saw a question from a worried Christian at Yahoo answers the other day & the post pointed to a recent uploaded video on youtube called
    Thank God Americans are losing their religion

    I believe Americans are losing their religion, rapidly, and although the video is a bit crazy looking, what he/the devil says makes sense.
    One of the points made, if all the atheists join together what a force they will be in politics.
    Maybe Americans will end up Godless!

  12. Man, great article. I’ve not read A Secular Age yet, but I just got through an early lecture of Taylor’s on modernity and was certainly impressed. Need to add this to the reading list.

    Finally, though I never underwent your deconversion (I’m an aspiring Episcopal priest), it struck me how much our experiences have dovetailed. You and I seem to have come from similar backgrounds: conservative, Christian, and (at least for me) homeschooled. And like you, I had received the mixed bag of becoming acquainted with guys like Aristotle and Sartre (a good thing), but only within the paradigm of “worldviews” (not so good). And if there’s one thing that has become clear to me over the last several years, it is that the extent to which I’ve grown as a thinker has been the extent to which I’ve disengaged the apologetics paradigm. It severely handicapped the impact my minor in philosophy might have had, because rather than just learning what Kant and Nietzsche and Benjamin actually said, I was too busy trying to clear that bar and discern their “worldview”.

    Looking back, I shudder.

    Thanks, again for a great post.

    • Caleb, thanks so much. I was homeschooled as well, and very much within a “worldview” paradigm. I think I was always fascinated by the fact that there were other worldviews besides mine, and tended to let them capture my imagination a little more than maybe James Sire intended.

      I think what’s so striking about what Taylor is saying, and is certainly born out in my experience, is how much it could go either way and maybe even how little difference there is in the outcomes. Meaning, coming from a similar experience, one person becomes mostly non-religious and another becomes a priest. And I bet if we talked there wouldn’t be a huge difference in what we thought about most things, or what we thought makes life meaningful. It’s just a small gap between which construal makes sense to us. And if we’re honest about that, it doesn’t leave us with much room for “partisanship” about which side we fall on; both Christian fundamentalists and Ditchkins look like, as one of my friends put it, they “deserve each other.”

  13. I think you’re right about there being perhaps a smaller distance between our respective destinations than would be assumed.

    One more thought about your article that hit me after I left my computer. It’s not directly related, but Taylor’s talk of the predominant construal of the secular age reminded me of one of the main thrusts of former Yale philosopher Louis Dupre’s book “Passage to Modernity.” Basically, he argues that the attempts of modern critics of modernity which seek only to employ premodern ways of thinking are dead on arrival because, quite simply, modernity happened. Reality really did change after the advent of the modern age and the world is no longer the same place. If that’s the case, then those of us who still maintain a faith birthed prior to modernity must account not only for the change in the construals of “those secular humanists” but also for the change of construal in which we find ourselves inextricably located.

  14. Gaylord says:

    The ultimate Cool Story Bro!

  15. […] at 12:45 on May 5, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan David Sessions grapples with how it happened to him: Several years and some graduate school after my “deconversion,” I […]

  16. Michael Dedmon says:

    I found this piece very insightful. I think you write about these sorts of issues very elegantly and I find your ability to do so very encouraging – it’s not only a difficult issue to discuss, but this type personal transformation is often very difficult to truthfully appraise.

    I’ve seen as much in my own experience – it’s not easy to admit that there is often much more to a repudiation of a previously held worldview than just an honest evaluation of the facts. A broader set of experiences often shifts the frame of reference while the “facts” are still catching up. I’ve also found the Heideggerian notion of “being-in-the-world” to be useful here as well, even more so in trying to evaluate the post-Christian life. I feel that distance from the deconversion moment/period helps give one the perspective to realize that leaving the faith does not, as the simplified story goes, remove the christian tradition from one’s life-world. The moment that you stop believing in the Christian story as the most compelling narrative of human existence doesn’t take you to a world where that story just doesn’t matter anymore.

    I think changing this story will go a long way to help philosophy contribute more meaningfully in a post – post-structuralist way to discussions about the meaning of life. These conversations are obviously often very uncomfortable for humanists, materialists etc to have.

    I think though that how this complication translates to the political is really interesting, particularly relative to the absence, at least since ’89, of a recognizable political project like that given us in Marxism. I think of David Wiggins’ idea that it’s not that we’re uninterested in the grand , metaphysical ideas anymore, only that we’re “more resistant than 18th or 19th centuries knew how to be…” to messianic or metaphysical ideas of the purpose of human life. Derrida takes up this idea briefly in his political writings.. I’m quite sure at least in “Spectres of Marx” if not also in “The Politics of Friendship,” claiming the importance of leaving behind the classical Marxist view of the end of Man, but not in doing so leave behind our desire for emancipation and progress. I think this is obviously a difficult line to walk, but clearly vitally important that we learn how to.

  17. Jacob Corwin says:

    Hey buddy. I’m in over my head on the philosophy but the writing was excellent and the experience intrigued me. My experience has led my Faith in God to strengthen while my faith in “Christians” and the church has dwindled. While I believe in Christ – his Divinity and teachings- most modern interpretations of them remind me of the way the original message changes as it passes down the line in the party game ‘telephone.’ This pains and frankly embarrasses me but its all part of existing in what you and I grew up being told is a broken world. Given that our backgrounds are very similar I found our different paths noteworthy if nothing else.

    Good Writing,

  18. AC says:

    Hello Jacob, You’ve touched on a lucid point!

    It’s frustrating when the so-called Body of Christ is filled with hypocrites, legalists, sin sniffers, and health & wealth prosperity advocates – Jesus stood for/promised none of those things. And when the church feels itself thrusted into a culture war they are placed at a major disadvantage because early Christianity was such a counter-culture movement (during the Biblical-era) that we now find ourselves in strange middle-ground territory with not much precedent outside the fact that in early America an outward form of morality was commonplace among the people. So, #1 man will always disappoint (and this even goes for the sincere believer that often in times of weakness becomes self-reliant/motivated as well for the counterfeit Christian who are ultimately poor representatives of the Christian faith.

    So I think I see where David is coming from – I’m an opposite case, I was a nominal Catholic who discovered Biblical Orthodoxy in my young adult-hood and have been blessed by God’s Word & the preaching of some flawed yet sanctified servants of The Lord

    God Bless,


  19. AC says:

    – just like to add, that I guess a point can be made that we once again are swiftly representing a counter-culture, but to be able to create another awakening/spiritually enlightened movement? that will have to wait to be seen – unfortunately we do not have the physical presence of Jesus to unite us and lead us in absolute wisdom and truth – but we still have His word

  20. Mohammed Hashim says:

    I never understood these “leaving religion” stories. So, you saw the world and you discovered that people are actually really nice everywhere and you somehow find that incompatible with a belief in God? I don’t think you ever really knew what it means to be a Christian in the first place (and this is coming from a Muslim).

    • I’m always interested to hear how these stories sound to people outside Christianity. It seems to me that Jews, Muslims, and to a lesser extent even Catholics have a difficult time understanding why it’s so big a deal for Protestants to say whether they’re “in” or “out,” and why they take deconversion to be such a big deal. Those outside Protestantism don’t always seem to understand why no longer believing in God means you’ve “lost your religion”; to them, it’s not really something you lose.

      This is a very interesting topic, particularly for Protestants who want to prevent deconversions from happening. I basically agree with the (by now not original) idea that Protestantism has unbelief built into it; it’s a Cartesian, propositional, rational faith that tends mostly to the beliefs in your head and neglects the rest. Growing up in a fundamentalist strain of Protestantism only makes this more accute; the emphasis on reason, evidence, and the “provability” of every detail of the Bible hammers in the notion that, if it can’t be scientifically proved, it must be false. Once you lose that, you’ve lost everything; there is no tradition or aesthetics or ritual to hold you in. (Even if those exist in Protestantism, you’re likely to be cut off from them in the U.S.) There is so much emphasis on believing the correct things through genuine conviction that when you no longer believe them, you feel a sort of duty or obligation – a call of conscience – to make it clear.

      Of course, many, many Christians (especially Catholics) would agree with you that someone in that paradigm never really knew what it meant to be a Christian in the first place. And I agree! I often wonder what it would have been like to grow up Catholic. But religions aren’t really some abstract thing “out there” that you have to get a correct understanding of; they are the way they are put into practice. And you can’t really take that back after you’ve lived it.

  21. etseq says:

    You must be a grad student in the humanities – the only people who take Charles Taylor seriously are the psuedo-intellectuals over at SSRC’s “Immanent Frame” blog. Real historians have challenged his enlightenment revisionism as a not too subtle form of postmodern apologetics.

    It is telling that you enlist another muddled, centism uber alles academic, Jonathan Haidt, to demote “reason” in favor “intuition” based on very dubious social, some would say pseudo-science. Strikingly, what Taylor, Haidt, and you share is a very sentimental approach in your outlook – all of your writings combine a confessional style that blends the personal with the political. I can’t fault you for that but it reveals the problems with the sort of anti-foundationalist skepticism you appear to embrace. I am sure you characterize it more as a generous pluralism but to many it just another smug attempt to have it both ways and condescend to both the religious and the atheist. The media love it, however, so I’m sure you will do fine – Haidt basically has given up any pretense of academic work after he decamped to NYU’s business school.

    • Etseq: We can use/admire Taylor and A Secular Age without being uncritical. I’m not at all uncritical of ASE in a scholarly context, though I do think it’s a major achievement. This is a blog post with a particular goal in mind, not a piece of scholarship. (I don’t use a “confessional style” in my academic work.) I admit at the top I’m using Taylor somewhat out of context to try to understand a personal experience.

      I also don’t take Haidt seriously, except as a popular curiosity and a writer non-academic readers are perhaps aware of. I do think it’s necessary and important to link scholarly work to popular writers who get a lot of attention, whether to correct them or just make a link to something non-specialists might have read.

      I take the “pseudo-intellectual” epithet fairly seriously because there are so many people who actually deserve the label, and most of the people who write for The Immanent Frame (in my experience as a very occasional reader) do not.

    • etseq – I am not sure what exactly a “real historian” is, or of the appropriateness of holding Taylor to that particular standard, but it seems to me that many professional historians today take seriously the question of revisionism and openly consider its place in historical thinking. For instance:

    • JM says:

      I think Haidt’s argument about people reverse-engineering arguments to match their intuitions is pretty valid? seems obvious to me anyway

  22. Simon says:

    I think this all misses one really important point. IF you wanted to believe in religion, and have been to church (catholic/anglican/prebyterian/latter days saint/evangelical and even er, a church of Scientology), read the bible (and the koran) and still feel totally uninterested and lacking the faith, it’s not a belief in science as the truth that’s the issue. Its religion lacking a credible truth that is my issue. I came to the conclusion (without Dawkins) that it’s most likely a story that has been talked up over the years, until it becomes a dogma that cannot be challenged. Well up until the inquisition ended and Henry VIII said ENOUGH!. My own personal prediction is that 500 years from now religion won’t exist. But there will still be groups of people forming together to do good things, more than they can achieve alone. And that is really what it is I’m seeking – not something supernatural. But instead cause and effect. I do something to help people and their lives get better because of my actions, and I do it not because I expect some reward in the afterlife, but because I have spare time and I think its best used in this way rather than watching the Kardashians or Osbournes “fake up” their lives. My challenge to religious leaders would be to motivate the masses without the use of religion into making better use of their lives.

    • Patrick Sawyer says:


      I would say respectfully that if there is no transcendent, omnipotent God than it is not intrinsically more right or an intrinsically better use of one’s time to help someone than to watch the Kardashians or Osbournes. If human beings are the highest entities in the universe, than WHATEVER a human being decides to do is philosophically legitimate and unchallengeable.

      But there is a God and you are correct that it is generally better to be helping someone than watching shows like the Kardashians and Osbournes.

      For me the fact that there IS right and wrong PROVES that God exists. There is a standard of right and wrong that 99% of us can sense, feel, hold others accountable to, and attempt to live by on some level (no matter how feebly or inconsistently) that we traffic in and tether our lives to whether we know and can identify its source or not. That standard obviously does not proceed from mutable men and women who are not only capable but in fact do the most heinous and evil things imaginable.

      And briefly, for those that say they have given Christ and biblical Christianity a serious look but remain uninterested, I would first say that most that claim this have in fact NOT actually given Christ and biblical Christianity a serious look. But for those where this may actually be the case, I am reminded of my friend who hates chocolate chess pie. At dinner parties the rest of us who are enjoying the chocolate chess pie (with vigor I might add) realize the problem is with our friend and not with the gloriously delicious pie. And although he doesn’t see it, he IS in fact missing out on something fantastically awesome.

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  24. Logan says:

    David, thank you for this. The clarity and sincerity of your search for truth shines through, and is instructive whether the reader agrees with you or not. As a Christian, I read this piece and am reminded of I Peter 3:15 and my call to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” You have elucidated beautiful, difficult questions well worth wrestling with. Well done, friend.

  25. lancelot lamar says:

    I appreciate this article for its honesty and insight. As a Christian I realized in college, while watching the Frances Schafer films that were so popular for awhile, that this was nonsense; that no intelligent non-Christian was going to be persuaded by these “arguments.” After all, Christians believe faith itself is a gift of God, given by grace, and we should not try to argue people into it. Better to live an “embodied” life of love, hospitality and respect for others, sharing God’s love and, if asked, what the Triune God has meant and shown to you. And trust God for the salvation of others, which salvation, as also for oneself, can only come by God’s grace and mercy.

  26. John Cicchino says:

    Great essay David, but you’ve made me feel guilty: I have Taylor’s tome just behind me on my bookshelf, safely unread 3 years after I finally purchased it! One of the strange omissions of A Secular Age (I did quickly skim through it and look at the index) is the failure to address Gianni Vattimo’s work on the resurgence of religion and the ways we narrativize the process of secularization. I would like to recommend Vattimo’s two (short) books which directly and innovatively explore the theme of the weakening of being through the generalization of hermeneutics, the notion that interpretation is constitutive of our very being-in-the-world. He then explores how this weakening of our understanding of being, truth, God, etc. and the ways in which this “emptying” of self-evident transcendent Truth into a weakened, provisional, interpretive appropriation of our tradition and how this co-responds to a Christian understanding of kenosis. The first is “Beyond Interpretation” (especially chapter 1, The Nihilistic Vocation of Hermeneutics) and his autobiographical “Belief” which explores Vattimo’s own religious commitments in the face of his professional commitments to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the legacy of the weakening of ontological foundations of Western Europe as the destiny of Christianity. He argues that it is the incarnation itself which initiates the de-divinization of nature and society and inaugurates the secularization process as the destiny of Christianity itself. I think you’ll find it fascinating work.

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