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.
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