Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kirsten Powers conversion story makes me sad.

As someone who doesn’t watch Fox News regularly I had never heard of Kirsten Powers. However, I ran across an article on Christian Post today. Detailing this former atheist’s conversion to Christianity. I’m pretty comfortable with my atheism and haven’t heard any arguments in favor of any form of theism that rank anywhere in the vicinity of rationally convincing so I’m always interested in hearing what managed to convert a fellow atheist to theism. I have, to date, always been supremely disappointed in the strength of the arguments and evidence they felt were convincing, and usually find their conversion had a lot more to do with emotions than reason.

Powers’ story is no different, it is not a tale of someone who was convinced by clear logical argumentation, but a story of someone who appears to have been emotionally manipulated by another person and then fell prey to questionable inferences based on scant evidence. Why? Perhaps her reasons for being atheist were emotional to begin with, or perhaps she was just ignorant of both the Christian apologetics and the secular response to them. Of course I could be wrong, I’m only basing my conclusion on what was written in the article, but it was Christian Post article so I think I can assume they tried to portray her conversion in as favorable a light as possible, and she still came out poorly.

It seems her conversion started when she started dating a Christian. She said she had previously stated she would not date a religious person, but she does not explain why she made an exception for this person. She shouldn’t have, in my opinion, because the person she was dating seemed to be a bit of a jerk.

After they dated a few months, her boyfriend called to say he had something important to discuss. When he came over to her New York apartment he looked at her intently and asked, "Do you believe Jesus is your Savior?"

Her heart sank when she heard the question. She thought he might be slightly crazy. "No," she replied.

"Do you think you could ever believe it?" he asked. Then he told Powers he wanted to get married and felt that she might be the one, but he couldn't marry a non-believer.

A small bit of dating advice, if a person you are dating tells you they are willing to make a long term commitment but only if you change some massive part of your personality they you should seriously consider telling this person to fuck off. This isn’t to say that people don’t have a right to have standards about what kind of person they want. I have all sorts of standards, including an unwillingness to date religious zealots. What I would not do is start dating someone who is religious and then try to argue them out of their religion in the midst of the relationship. I’ve had religious people show interest in me in the past and I’ve turned them down. However, this guy went further than that, he essentially set an ultimatum for her, convert or we break up. He didn’t put it in such stark terms but that was what he said. From the details we have here, what he did was emotionally manipulative and he should be ashamed of himself.

The emotional manipulation continued and he got her to attend church. She was “shocked and repelled” by the praise music and lax liturgy but loved the pastor because his sermon was intellectually interesting, speaking of art, history and philosophy.  I feel as if this speaks less of the church she went to and says more about the people she was friends with. I have deep intellectual conversations with non-theists all the time. In any case, the fact that the pastor was intelligent doesn’t mean his religious conclusions are the right ones.

The article continues:

As Keller propounded the case for Christ, she began to question her atheism. "He expertly exposed the intellectual weaknesses of a purely secular worldview. I came to realize that even if Christianity wasn't the real thing, neither was atheism."

She does not give any examples of the arguments he used to criticize a secular worldview so I can’t actually analyze anything to see if I find his arguments compelling. I don’t find any theistic arguments convincing, though some are better than others so I can’t really conclude whether or not I think this pastor was wrong or REALLY wrong. The way the statement is phrased it makes me think he was probably using various rational sounding arguments like the Cosmological argument, or the Ontological argument. Many of these arguments sound really reasonable to people without a background in philosophy, but have actually have serious problems. The one thing that really bothers me is that she never once mentions any kind of balanced examination of atheist arguments or rebuttals to this pastor’s statements. Did she go out looking for rebuttals to the pastors arguments but then found the rebuttals lacking or did she just accept the pastors arguments? If she picked the latter path then that was intellectually lazy on her part.

Again, I suspect that some of her willingness to accept these arguments stemmed from her desire maintain the romantic relationship she had. I could be wrong about that of course, but the fact that she went to church in the first place lends my interpretation credence. In any case she clearly wants convince us that her conversion happened on intellectual grounds but that argument completely falls apart when we get to her actual conversion.

Then something very unusual happened to Powers on a trip to Taiwan in 2006.

"I woke up in what felt like a strange cross between a dream and reality. Jesus came to me and said, 'Here I am.'

"It felt so real. I didn't know what to make of it," she recalls.  She called her boyfriend the next day, but before she could tell him what happened, he said he had been praying the night before and felt they were supposed to break up.

While she was upset by the break up, she was more "traumatized" by the mystical, mysterious visitation by Jesus. "I tried to write off the experience as misfiring synapses, but I couldn't shake it," she notes.

She had a dream and then her boyfriend broke up with her. She says the dream was troubling to her before the break up, but I’ve had dreams that troubled me and then I forgot about them in a day or two. If it hadn’t been for the break up happening at the same time would she still have attributed the same amount of importance to the dream? There is no conclusive way for us, or even for her, to know. I will say two things, making huge life changing choices based on a dream is not logical, and making huge life changing decisions right after a traumatic event like a break up is usually a bad idea. The first should be obvious; the second I have personal experience with.

There is a phenomenon that psychologists have noted when people try to deal with potential cognitive dissonance from their choices.. Say you are in the market to buy a house and you have to pick between two. Once you have picked one, because of the expense and effort that went into the choice, you have a motivation to convince yourself that the one you chose was the better of the options. You will find faults with the other house and ignore or dismiss faults with yours because to acknowledge that your choice might have been wrong is unsettling.

Events like a break up can be emotionally jarring and you will make choices that seem rational in the moment while not actually being rational. If those choices have long term consequences (like changing religious beliefs) you are going to be living with those choices for a long time. The problem is that most of us think of ourselves and fundamentally rational people, so if we make an emotionally motivated choice this conflicts with how we perceive ourselves. (cognitive dissonance) Our reasoning only sees two ways out, acknowledge that we are not fundamentally rational or come up with rationalizations about why our choice was actually rational after all. The second option is obviously the more palatable one, and is made more tempting if the choice you made is still having an effect on your life. A more reasonable approach would be to acknowledge that your psyche contains both rational and emotional aspects, and that, given the right circumstances, emotions can override reason. However, this requires careful analysis of ones own motivations, and that can be difficult, and even emotionally painful.

Powers had already been told he would not marry an unbeliever, and when he broke up with her it is entirely possible that she rationalized a conviction in Christianity because part of her believed this could get them back together. She doesn’t mention whether or not they actually did get back together, but it would hardly matter. Once the choice was made she (like nearly anyone else) would rationalize away the inconsistencies, convincing herself that it was perfectly rational to make major changes to her beliefs due to a dream. This is only my supposition of course, no one, including her quite probably, is capable of knowing exactly what the cognitive path to her belief was. However, In my own personal experiences I had a break up several years ago with a person who was, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly not good for me. I actually did something quite similar to what Powers may have done. I attempted to fix the relationship by promising to make changes to myself to fit what the other person wanted. Those changes would have eventually involved giving up things that were important to me, but I would have done it in the emotional state I was in at the time. It didn’t matter because the other person wasn’t willing to discuss concessions, which in the end was probably for the best.

On her own conversion powers had this to say:

It's true. It's completely true. The world looked entirely different, like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy.

What I find a bit humorous about this is that sans the part about having no doubt (which I actually think is unhealthy) I could say very much the same thing about my conversion away from Christianity. When I realized that Christianity was most likely not true I was much happier. When I study science, and philosophy, when I make an effort to understand the world around me as it actually is I feel excited. The world looks like a wonderful place that I’m happy to be in. I have no need of overwrought mythologies about original sin and substitutionary atonement to make this world worth living in. The veil has already been lifted off and the world looks great just as it is. I need no fairies at the bottom to see that the garden is beautiful. This is why stories of conversions like the one Powers offers make me sad, because if she had never felt such joy without religion then the secular community she was part of clearly failed her.

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