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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Patrick Arnold reviews The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith by Rosaria Butterfield.

Patrick Arnold is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, interested primarily in moral psychology and philosophy of religion. A skeptic of Pyrrhonian inclinations, Patrick’s favorite authors range from Sextus Empiricus to Pierre Bayle, though he has a soft spot for dystopian writers like Margaret Atwood.

Conversion Confusion

a book review by Patrick Arnold

Secret Thoughts is a conversion narrative getting wide and overwhelmingly positive reviews in Christian popular media. It is not hard to see why: besides being outright moving and beautifully written, Rosaria Butterfield’s memoir of her journey from atheism to Reformed Christianity is as unlikely as one could imagine. A successful liberal, lesbian and feminist professor of English at a major university who hates Christianity becoming convinced of its truth through a humble conservative pastor—eventually becoming a pastor’s wife and homeschooling mom—it is the sort of unlikely conversion that Christians love to hear.

What makes the book fascinating is that Rosaria’s conversion is, as she describes it, as much a self-conscious change in “worldviews” as it was a change in lifestyles. What caused this conversion? Was there decisive evidence against her atheistic worldview and for Reformed Christian theology? Of course, the narrative is not meant to be a complete apologetic but a memoir for a wide audience. Yet it is Rosaria that paints it as the collapse of one “worldview” and triumph of another: “In the normal course of life questions emerged that exceeded my secular feminist worldview” (11).

What exactly was Rosaria’s long-held “worldview”? Unfortunately, beyond vague labels she never tells us. Rosaria was a professor of English and Woman’s Studies at Syracuse University, “working from a historical materialist worldview,” and a lesbian activist involved in her community in every way, from AIDS and disability activism to sexual abuse counseling (16). Yet we are also told she was a “postmodernist who didn’t believe in objectivity,” with no explanation of what that means, or how or whether being a materialist conflicted with not believing in objectivity (22). Perhaps the picture we are to get is of someone who had a promising academic life but lacked a worked-out worldview, and questions began to arise that she could not answer.

So what were these “life questions” that exceeded her secular and feminist philosophy? We are never quite told what objections she faced and could not answer. Rosaria’s conversion began with a project on the Religious Right in America and their view of women. Coming into contact with a humble conservative Reformed pastor, she struck an immediate and lasting friendship that increasingly challenged her beliefs as the years progressed. The friendship not only called into question her assumption that Christians are anti-intellectual and judgmental, but prompted her to rethink her disbelief in God, driving her to intensively study the Bible.

The conversation that seems to play the most pivotal role comes a few years after the beginning of her friendship with the pastor. Why not, he asks, let him speak to some of her classes about why the Bible is a foundation piece of literature? Rosaria dismisses the idea, but is intrigued enough to hear his case herself. She is impressed with his sophisticated understanding of the interconnected themes throughout the books of the Bible, but not yet convinced this says much, if anything, about whether it is trustworthy. “So it all comes down to how and why you claim that the Bible is true,” she replied, and they agreed that “next time he would tell me how and why the Bible is true” (21). One might well think this is a—if not the—key conversation Rosaria and the pastor have (though others, such as what actually convinced her that God—and the God of Christianity in particular—exist, are surely important as well). But the explanation ends there as she moves on to the reaction her friends (and lesbian partner) were having to her increasing openness to the religion she once ridiculed and, shortly after, narrates her conversion and then membership into the Reformed and Presbyterian Church of North America.

Rosaria would later embrace the doctrine of sola scriptura—as she puts it, “the belief that the Bible is authoritative, complete, perfect, and sufficient” (91). The significance of this belief in the inerrancy of the Bible cannot be underestimated in her narrative, since it is the only justification Rosaria apparently has for her many new beliefs, from her eventual rejection of homosexuality to her acceptance of submission to male authority. It is strange, then, that this key debate with the pastor ends with his agreement to tell Rosaria “how and why the Bible is true.” We never get a glimpse of these reasons, just like we are never quite told what her former worldview was, nor any other crucial step in her intellectual transformation—all the things one would think would be behind an intellectual conversion involving a conscious rejection of one worldview for another.

Without these details it is hard to know why Rosaria became a Reformed Christian (and stays one) as opposed to a convert of some other theological tradition, or a different religion altogether. While the narrative is fascinating, it is, in this respect at least, disappointing given that much of the early setup in the book prepares the reader for a battle of worldviews. END

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  1. arjun says:

    Her “conversion” sounds as credible and authentic as that of Michael Glatze. She was obviously not a real atheist to begin with, and i predict that she will “reconvert” when she reconnects with her real self.

    • David S says:

      I find it interesting that you would say “she wasn’t a real atheist to begin with”, because I sometimes hear the opposite indictment from Christians about one of their number who falls from grace. In the case of Christianity, there is a supposed supernatural conversion process tecuhat is believed to be one-way (expressed as “once saved, always saved” or the “eternal security of the believer”), so if someone “falls off the wagon” they must have never been truly converted.

      So I’m curious: What criteria does one use to assess the validity of an atheist’s beliefs or conversion? Personally, I’ve always thought that a “true atheist” (more properly anti-theist in the case of prominent New Atheists such as Dawkins or Hitchens) was a formerly religious person with a beef against the Almighty for some perceived slight or unfairness. The true unbeliever who has “connected with his/her real self” as you put it would have to be an agnostic, because a person who is intellectual honest without any emotional biases would have to concede that the presence or absence of the supernatural is unknown and likely unknowable. In my view, it takes a really arrogant, self-deluded, myopic person to be a “true atheist.”

      • Pablo says:

        Hi, David. Regarding your closing lines, you can say the exact same thing of a believer. And you opening question is also perfectly valid to ask to a believer. On and on it goes… This tipe of conversions only proves that human beings can change their minds, for good or bad reasons, using good or bad reasons. Nothing more. I happen to be an atheist and, furthermore, and antiteist. And i keep my thanking with Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. Valid arguments, logic and common sense to me. Pathetic, bovine, ill define wishful thinking… No, thank you.

      • Urietsin says:

        Yeah, I always get a little perturbed when I hear people defining atheism. Perhaps it’s my own arrogance that flares up when the definition differs from mine, but I do agree that the anti-theist definition seems a bit presumptuous.

        It’s not that I think we should give any credence to the argument, “well, you can’t prove it isn’t true, so…” Absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence, but it isn’t evidence of presence either. I’m of the opinion that atheism should most generally describe the lack of a belief in the existence of a god or gods rather than exclusively describe the presence of a belief that no god or gods exist.

        Let me be clear. I’m not hedging here. I’m a scientist by philosophy, if not by profession, and the job of science is to tell us what IS true about the universe, not what isn’t. I concede that it is technically possible, though ridiculously improbable, that Bertrand Russell’s teapot, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and even god (or gods) could exist, but the clear lack of objective, independently-verifiable evidence makes belief in these things baffling at best.

        I also don’t think it’s constructive to openly ridicule and categorically dismiss people who have religious or any other supernatural beliefs. I would hope that all atheists wish for a world where everyone’s beliefs are based on evidence rather than faith, but taunting and bullying people who will just feel pious and righteous by ignoring or fighting back against such behavior isn’t the way to make that world a reality.

  2. Michael S says:

    I hope she didn’t wreck, and continue to wreck, too many people on her train of conversion…as those with new shiny beliefs are wont to do.

  3. Fred Kohler says:

    Regarding “Conversion” in my life experience more conversions take place through the vagina than the mind. Pardon me, Feminists. At 93 I can afford not being politically correct.

  4. Keith says:

    To be human sometimes you have to be an idiot, this women clearly is and to right a book about how this came about is not something I have the patience for, I can do that without the help of anybody else.

  5. arjun says:

    Sorry for not being precise. By “true atheist,” i meant someone who has examined the evidence (or lack thereof) and realized that there is no basis for believing in some spiritual being watching our every move.

    BTW, I’ve never met another atheist who became one because they “had a beef with the Almighty.” This is only a strawman erected by fundamentalist Christians.

    It seems we need a new term, since so many Christians object to “atheist.” It’s like saying a drawing on a piece of paper is a circle, when in fact it can only be a good approximation. IOW, what can you call an agnostic so close to being an atheist that for all practical pusposes that person IS an atheist? Calling that person an “agnostic” leads some people to believe that chances for a conversion are good, when they’re not.

    • John Długosz says:

      Interesting. I take it she wasn’t a-theist because it is a subset of rationalism, but because “the” church hates people like her, and she wasn’t exposed to any alternatives. I mean, not a scientist and intentional atheist, but a specific Belief in the same manner as any irrational belief (I mean the believing without evidence or logic is irrational; the thing may in fact be true).

  6. Julie R Butler says:

    I wonder: if she were to read Reza Aslan’s book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” might learning of the lack of historical factualness in the Bible cause her to rethink her position?

    If she wants to persuade me that she is truly convinced that the Bible is authoritative, complete, perfect, and sufficient, then she needs to put her belief to the test by reading this book, which explains in detail what Jerusalem was like during the time that a guy named Jesus, the one from Nazareth, was walking around calling himself a “messiah” and why stories were invented after died to explain why this “messiah,” who couldn’t actually be one because he failed to usher in the Kingdom of God on Earth, wasn’t really speaking in literal terms about that “Kingdom of God” stuff and was born in the place where the messiah was supposed to have been born and all the other Christian mythology.

    Aslan doesn’t actually argue that the Bible (or the Quran or any other holy scripture) has no value and that, because the stories in it are not factual, Christianity is “wrong” or fraudulent. Rather, he is outing the stories as myths, which have their own spiritual power.

    I am an atheist who promotes tolerance, and having always found it baffling when intelligent people hold a belief in an all-powerful being who incarnated/replicated/procreated(?) himself on Earth to die for our sins, I have found Aslan’s work to be a wonderful way of explaining how religious truths are different from historical truths – and it is a mistake to conflate the two, whether it be an atheist dismissing the validity of the Christian faith or a Christian failing to see the unreasonableness of assuming that everything in the Bible must be authoritative, complete, perfect, and sufficient.

  7. Steven Burton says:

    She might have never even existed, there’s skepticism for ya. It could be a complete work of fiction strewn together by some Christian for, I suppose evangelical purpose, as that’s what it always boils down to. as for the athiest thing, I identify as an athiest because I certainly lack belief in a deity for many logical reasons yet don’t feel that identifying as agnostic is good enough for some reason despite that seems to be a more accurate definition of all of us athiests.

  8. T Paine says:

    A liberal white lesbian atheist…..
    Her pre-conversion persona was almost perfectly far, far left.
    If only she had also been a lawyer and black.
    Now that would have been something to write a book about!

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