I’ve been aware for a while that my criticisms of the more ideological incarnations of liberal rationalism have an undeniable resonance with conservative religious arguments. That was confirmed last weekend when this post I wrote last year, analyzing the liberal humanism I adopted after I left my former conservative evangelicalism, went viral in a certain religious corner of the blogosphere.

Rod Dreher very generously summarized my post and then juxtaposed it with an essay by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, the “former lesbian” who has recently become a minor celebrity among conservative evangelicals for her memoir of leaving her life as a radical, queer English professor and becoming a conservative Christian pastor’s wife. Dreher saw an overlap between my argument that my personal beliefs had changed more because of my life experience than because of reason, science, or any of the usual things taken to be the impetus for deconversion, and Butterfield’s contention that she had to “obey” God before she could understand why her happy, committed homosexual relationship was a sin.

Thankfully Dreher draws only modest conclusions from this comparison; he notes the central role experience played in my deconversion and Butterfield’s conversion, and notes how “epistemologically humbling” that process is. Which he’s absolutely right about; I think that going from one “side” to the other has helped me be more critical of my own views. But the comparison of these two experiences serves as an illustration of a certain way that skepticism of things like objectivity and absolute truth are often co-opted by religious people who have very different motives for pushing back against reason and science. This is worth pointing out not just because I dislike the way Butterfield has been feted by the religious right, but also because there are lots of “postmodernism”-hating rationalist trolls out there who are always quick to accuse me of being in cahoots with religion.

Put simply, my religious readers often want to take my arguments against rationalism—defined very roughly as a view that human reason logically/empirically accesses ultimate truth—further than they are intended to go. When I argue, for example, that American liberal humanism is a quasi-religion much less supported by “science facts” than it realizes, I don’t mean that all rational-scientific claims are therefore ideological or just somebody’s opinion. Because I question Western culture’s overweening reverence for scientific evidence doesn’t mean we’re free to disregard rigorously produced scholarship and believe whatever myths we like instead. I’ve always been clear that scientific and theological claims are not “lifestyle choices” from which you pick according to your taste. Nevertheless, some religious readers hear me as being more relativistic about science and reason than I actually am, because they like to hear a smart, non-religious person argue against the forces that have so deeply undermined religious belief in Western culture.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is a good example of this search for allies. She came out of nowhere to become a conservative evangelical celebrity because she provided a desperately-needed narrative to fuel their opposition to homosexuality after even the best intellectual arguments had failed. Dreher, for example, seems to like Butterfield’s story because she sided with his political view even when there is no rational reason she should have done so. He quotes this passage from her Christianity Today essay:

I was a thinker. I was paid to read books and write about them. I expected that in all areas of life, understanding came before obedience. And I wanted God to show me, on my terms, why homosexuality was a sin. I wanted to be the judge, not one being judged.

But the verse promised understanding after obedience. I wrestled with the question: Did I really want to understand homosexuality from God’s point of view, or did I just want to argue with him? I prayed that night that God would give me the willingness to obey before I understood.

This is something much different than what I meant to say while channeling Charles Taylor. There is a superficial similarity in the sense that Butterfield and I both had experiences that changed us before we had a full explanation or argument for what happened. What Butterfield describes in this passage is essentially her embrace of obscurantism, a “truth” that either defies or ignores well-established scholarship—and even her own previous experience—on human sexual orientation. But the fact that experience drives intellectual transformation is not a license to abandon intellectual rigor. For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative? Why does she think Christianity requires her to obey it before she understands? What if Christians disagree about what that view is, or think that view is something that’s obviously misinformed? Does it make sense that a Christian God would want a convert to break up a happy family? For a former scholar, Butterfield shows remarkably little philosophical skepticism; she also seems to cast aside her training in how to review and evaluate the available evidence to determine if these views she’s been introduced to are reasonable or even widely considered to be Christian.

In fact, it’s her theological incuriosity that’s perhaps most surprising. As Patrol’s Kenneth Sheppard wrote, analyzing the problems with Butterfield’s conversion narrative: “the question of how to read the Bible, how to determine what it teaches on subjects such as sin (or if it is in fact univocal on such questions), and how to embody that teaching, never seems to arise; this is a rather glaring omission for someone who used to be a literature professor.”

My point about my own journey was to say that I was led toward deconversion by something besides and in addition to intellectual change, not by a deliberate rejection of evidence, logic, and argument. I may have initially overstated to myself how big a role intellect played, but it still played a very large role. I didn’t stop believing simply because I moved far away from religious community and wanted to be cool; I also learned that the earth is billions of years old, that human authors wrote the Bible, that most Christian theodicy is circular and unsatisfying, that philosophical arguments for any God as described by a particular religious tradition are weak, etc. My initial reasons for my agnosticism were undertheorized and led me to too-strong and often ideological value judgements, but they were beginning to grapple with serious intellectual problems. Butterfield, on the other hand, has explicitly rejected the possibility of being persuaded by argument and demonstrated that the only way to reach the conservative Christian view of sexuality is by leaping into it blindly.

It often happens that intellectually-inclined people have emotional conversion experiences that overwhelm their intellect, but later become aware of how much solid evidence and persuasive argument they had to ignore to get there. I’m absolutely not saying that it’s impossible to be an intellectually rigorous believer, or even to be led into faith by the searching of one’s own mind. But I’m skeptical of converts who suddenly embrace radically different worldviews without a plausible explanation, especially an experienced scholar who seems to have abandoned her intellectual rigor.

While my first commitment is to intellectual integrity and to remaining aware that obscurantist ideology can come from anywhere, I’m not entirely deaf to secular critics who argue it’s politically destructive to undermine the credibility of reason. In an age when rational reflection and empirical observation have made it much harder to be a religious person and especially to argue for antiquated views of human sexual morality, there is an enormous incentive for religious conservatives to take advantage of any weapon they can deploy against the findings of secular inquiry. It’s not for nothing that Butterfield has been promoted by, to name only a few, John Piper, The Gospel Coalition, Patrick Henry College, and the Family Research Council. She is a powerful political tool not because she’s given stronger arguments for conservative positions, but precisely because she rejects the need for them.

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.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

    I get what you’re saying– there is always something icky about using a personal story (especially one of conversion) to aggressively serve a political purpose, though this is the world that lionizing “narrative” has created. However, I do think that it is important to continue to undermine the philosophically juvenile forms of scientism that reign in pop-science articles; you and I have both seen embarassingly misused “facts” from both conservative religious and liberal secular cultural warriors (usually something about brain structure or fMRI, which I’m now convinced can be used to support any ideological claim.)

    It’s also important, I think, to recognize that in between you and Dr. Butterfield are many, many people who encounter the same facts and gaps as you both did and either change their religious outlook or don’t based on both good and bad reasoning. There are some common conversion/deconversion themes, but in general the human mind is so good at sorting the relative value of empirical facts to fit its own byzantine judgments that it’s hard to give too much creedence to any one bundle of facts.

    Finally, like I said last year when Dr. Sheppard wrote his article… did you read her book? It doesn’t cover these topics to the exhaustive degree that I think would satisfy you, but it explores them far more than her articles have. Some of the public Q&As that have been posted also answer some of your questions (because you are, fortunately, not the only one asking them!)

    • David Sessions

      Right, I wasn’t saying *at all* that I think scientism and pop science should be spared criticism; I think they’re at least as threatening, if not more threatening, than religion. I just want to be clear that I take that concern seriously and am not giving cover to people who want to use relativism as a political tool.

  • wmrharris

    In contrast to the Butterfield conversion, there are others, the most interesting being that of Sara Miles (Take this Bread). Her story is the opposite of being wooed, more that of being hit over head with a two-by-four. The radical lesbian does not quite being a radical lesbian, instead she becomes something more.

  • John

    David,

    To immediately reject the intellectual integrity of “belief/obedience before understanding” is to also reject the intellectual integrity of Augustin/Anselm/Aquinas. That’s their philosophical grounding for knowledge and Butterfield actually very deftly channels that tradition with simplicity (though not simplistically). You may, in the end, reject the conclusions about Christianity and the world of Augustine/Anselm/Aquinas, but you cannot so easily dismiss their project as not having intellectual integrity. To do so would be intellectually dishonest.

    • David Sessions

      John, I wouldn’t say I rejected its intellectual integrity; I rejected the fact that it was asserted rather than argued or explained. Why would someone trained in modern philosophy accept “obedience” as an unproblematic criterion? I’m not saying it can’t be explained, just that she didn’t.

      • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

        did her discussion in the book help your understanding of how she came to her conclusions?

  • gubbish

    Rod Dreher’s TAC colleague Noah Millman writes his thoughts on your piece here.

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/millman/we-will-do-and-we-will-hear-and-the-primacy-of-experience/

  • AC700

    My thing is …. Am I biased, Am I convicted, Am I wounded Am I compelled…. To believe, well yes….. Did I grow up in a repressive-Christian home? No…..

    But beside all that…Are there solid evidences? Or plausible alternatives?

    http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/castellitto/140210

    • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

      just when we thought you had maxed out the WTF meter, you’re back with more, AC!

      • AC700

        What can I say? These guys are Harvard…. I’m Scranton….and I got an F in philosophy

        Who you gonna follow Matt? Hollywood Jews, Gay Radicals, Depraved Elitists….or Jesus?

        There’s your WTF :)

        • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

          One can follow Jesus and leave germane comments. You appear to be creating a dichotomy between the two.

          • AC700

            Mr. Germane, stop the smarter than thou BS …. I’m gonna have my say regardless if u find my knowledge & intellect offensive

          • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

            lol, “smarter than thou BS.” you’re the one who thinks being right excuses poor spelling, grammar, and applicability..

          • AC700

            Matt, he holds to the religion of secular humanism which is a drastic perversion of Christian truth…. A Christless one…. It’s all relative baby….

            PS. I find you less threatening, even intellectually, looking at the photo next to your name :p

          • AC700

            Matt…. Explain why David does not divorce universal adherence(obedience) to many/certain aspects of the moral law? How & why does he draw a line or make a distinction?

          • AC700

            Maybe you can tell me the point David is making if my comments are so irrelevant…. I’m just getting to the crux of the matter…. He’s dropping terms like rational, reason, empirical , observation…. And creating a false dichotomy between scriptural truth & natural order/law & experiential realities

          • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

            You are so bad at communicating that I don’t even understand your questions well enough to respond.

          • AC700

            Alright, now your starting to sound like my wife…. Now stop playing freakin footsie with Sessions & ask him how he doesn’t see that all his liberal buddies & gay activists are the antethesis of Godly obedience but rather rely on death threats, blackmail & manipulation to harass God fearing conservatives….. Which is what happens when you no longer have a belief in the Almighty & a moral standard….

            Got it?

          • AC700

            Sorry, I’m talkin about his buddies in the White House & the liberal media ….

  • anthony van dalen

    I never understood this idea that we need other routes to truth than reason any more than somebody claiming we needed to expand our liquids consumption to include dish soap and battery acid.

  • AC700

    It’s not for nothing that Butterfield has been promoted by, to name only a few, John Piper, The Gospel Coalition, Patrick Henry College, and the Family Research Council. She is a powerful political tool not because she’s given stronger arguments for conservative positions, but precisely because she rejects the need for them.

    Here’s my attempt : http://barbwire.com/2014/03/16/political-lament-christian-conservative/

    Also, I have a very important announcement!!!

    I want the state to recognize my right to marry my sister!!

    I want to marry my sister, I love her and I want everyone to know we love each other & we are married, we don’t want deformed children so we will adopt…. But we are in love & deserve to be treated equally – this is about civil rights & has nothing to do with you….. So don’t try & stand in our way!

    * Leave truth / Believe lies