August 26, 2014

Scientific Deconversion: Conversion is a beginning, not an ending


I really hate running across someone who tries to tear down someone else's personal narrative. It's something that really kills me.

Today, it's a blogger taking down (or trying to) Jerry Coyne's deconversion story, and it's just...it's silly, people. It's silly.

If anyone needs a quick reference point, Coyne is a noted biologist (understatement) and a prolific author. He frequently counters the psuedoscience-facade of intelligent design and has written profusely about evolution. But even that isn't enough to make his story his own.

My problem with the assumption that questioning a narrative is simple. Everyone experiences life differently. You can't assume that you understand a narrative better than the person that lived it.

Let's dig right in shall we?


The crux of the blogger's point is that Coyne did not have a scientific conversion to atheism. He had an emotional one. Silly blogger says:
It looks like Jerry Coyne’s conversion to Atheism had nothing to do with science. Here is an excerpt from the Chicago Tribune, 1/20/2008 
One of the more colorful scientific de-conversion stories comes from Jerry Coyne, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. It happened in 1967 when Coyne, then 17, was listening for the first time to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album while lying on his parents’ couch in Alexandria, Va. 
Suddenly Coyne began to shake and sweat. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died. His casual Judaism seemed to wash away as the album played on. The crisis lasted about 30 minutes, he says, and when it was over, he had left religion behind for good. He went on to study how new species evolve, and found the Darwinian view of nature perfectly in tune with his abandonment of faith.
The blogger argues that this proves that Coyne did not, in actuality, have an scientific basis for his disbelief (and still doesn't):
That Coyne’s conversion came from listening to the Beatles also means his conversion had nothing to do with reason or evidence and instead occurred because of some sudden, intuitive insight. Yet, to this day, Coyne tries to make it sound like he is an atheist because of reason, evidence, and science.
This is simply mind-boggling.

First, the assumption that there was no scientific evidence to back his deconversion isn't supported by the narrative above. Perhaps he was musing on deep thoughts, listening to music, and came upon the realization. We can't know--because we weren't in his head.

Second, there's the assumption that a deconversion is a stopping point. That I don't understand in the slightest. Conversion (or deconversion) is a starting point--you have the realization, you build from there. For me, the process of de-converting was a long one. It took several years, before one day, the realization just...dawned. There was no god. I was an atheist.

But that was far from my last thought on the matter--and I doubt that Coyne's thoughts ended with that either. From that point, there are a million and one other questions. How do you find meaning in life? What are the answers to the big questions? What is life? What is morality? How do you express it? All of these questions must be answered a new.

To assume that conversion ends the moment that you make the connection is absurd. That argument wouldn't fly in the face of any conversion story--whether religious or not. A Christian who converts has that moment of realization--that God is real, and Christ died for their sins--but they don't stop there. They study. They learn about what they believe (or at least I would hope they do). An atheist is no different.

To build on the absurdity, the blogger continues with this final paragraph:
The most significant part of the story is that Coyne is like Dawkins and Myers – they all became atheists when they were teenagers. This means it was “adolescent logic” that led to their atheism. For example, having abandoned belief in God at 17, it’s safe to say Coyne has never given any serious, open-minded thought to God since he was 17. To this day, when he thinks about God and argues about God, he does so with the mind of a 17-year-old (or an adult trying to explain why a 17-year-old’s logic was right). And that explains why his arguments about God and religion are the arguments of an adolescent – demanding signs and magic while treating religious people, and those not hostile enough to religion, as if they are not part of the right clique.
Apparently, the moment one converts, one stops growing and maturing entirely.

I find myself wondering if the blogger would apply this same logic to Christians that convert as teenagers--do their convictions also never mature?

Again, this implication is absurd. People don't stop growing the moment they determine their worldview or belief system. They continue to grow and change.

The hostility towards religion isn't driven by some adolescent need to determine cliques--it's driven by the fact that these individuals see religion, on the grand scale, as doing complete and near irreversible harm to society. To them, it's not about not respecting personal beliefs. It's about institutions that squelch scientific progress and oppress human rights.

This is not, however, an uncommon ideal expressed about atheists--that we simply lack the maturity to understand belief...and it is wrong.

One can understand belief and still not accept it. One can understand belief and still not believe. One can understand belief, and still see the harm that belief can do.

These are not mutually exclusive.

I find myself shaking my head, so let me finish up by reiterating this point: One's deconversion is not an ending. It's a beginning. You can grow from there.

And we do.

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