On Identity and Personal Experience

A recent article for RELEVANT Magazine, by Mike McHargue, has prompted some interesting responses that really reveal the politics of personal identity and experience. The article in question is titled “How Being an Atheist Made Me a Better Christian.” In short, McHargue describes the lessons he learned while an atheist that are now informing his being a Christian, and he sets the stage by briefly covering his de-conversion to atheism and re-conversion to Christianity. Despite being the central point of the article, few of the responses McHargue has received address whether or not the lessons he learned while an atheist are worthy lessons for Christians. Instead, much of the feedback of the post has been to question (if not outright deny) the various identity claims McHargue makes in the article.

We’re all familiar with the fallacy of such denials (kilts, anyone?), but when it comes to people talking about identity experiences, it is very difficult to not personalize (and subsequently be bothered by) others’ experiences of your shared identities. If you feel convinced there is a god, hearing another believer share why they de-converted can be troubling. Likewise, if you also de-converted, hearing someone say they re-converted can give the impression that de-converts are just wishy-washy. To protect ourselves, we deny that this other person was ‘truly’ a de-convert or re-convert.

Hell is Other People’s Stories

One of the first responses to McHargue’s article (in fact, how I even found out McHargue’s article existed) came from Ryan Bell. Bell uses what McHargue describes as the motivating factor in his re-conversion to discuss what to make of experiences of the transcendent. Obviously, this avoids the principle content of McHargue’s article (i.e., the lessons he learned as an atheist), but that makes sense considering Bell is blogging about his year as an atheist. McHargue’s story of de-conversion and re-conversion is relevant to Bell’s project.

McHargue never claims that the cause of his re-conversion is “proof of God” or “solid evidence of God” in his article, and he makes this doubly clear in a comment on Bell’s post. However, Hännah Ettinger, writing at the Friendly Atheist, asks if his story is believable. At bottom, Ettinger wonders if he was “ever really an active atheist.” As she notes, her cause for de-conversion couldn’t be “fixed by looking at the Pacific coastline three blocks away from where I work.”

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not just atheists playing the denial game. Comments on McHargue’s article deny his claim to Christianity both before de-conversion and after re-conversion. The one thing that seems clear is that no one believe’s McHargue is really who he says he is. So much so, that McHargue posted on his own blog saying that he really was an atheist and a Christian.

There’s Only One True Scotsman and that’s Me

If I can armchair psychologize for a moment, this tendency to deny that someone is ‘really’ a part of our group comes down to securing our sense of personal identity and the salience of our worldview.  Intellectually, any atheist understands that McHargue’s story is not a metaphysical threat. It is simply his story. But, emotionally, it threatens our own stories. As Ettinger said, “looking at the Pacific coastline” doesn’t convince someone God exists. How could it convince McHargue? It surely can’t, not if he was ‘really’ an atheist.

At least, that’s the defensive maneuver we make, and let’s give it the due it deserves. We don’t live our lives flippantly. How we understand ourselves and our places in the world matter to our self-esteem, how we live our lives, and the meaning in our lives. We don’t just want our identities and worldviews respected. We want them to be correct.

Even Worse Hell is Other People Telling Our Stories

As I mentioned above, intellectually, we understand the No True Scotsman fallacy. Barring evidence of deceit, there’s not much we can muster to prove McHargue was never ‘really’ an atheist. His re-conversion due to an experience of the transcendent does not speak to the experiences of many (dare I say most) atheists. It certainly doesn’t speak to my experiences and intuitions influenced by my atheism, especially how I understand experiencing the transcendent. But, so what? I might interpret his experience differently, and I might draw different conclusions. What I cannot do is deny his experience. It is not mine to deny.

Nor would I want to deny his experience. You’ve probably heard it claimed that no atheists truly exist; they are simply fools who stubbornly ignore God’s existence.  Well, no. I do exist, and I don’t really appreciate you telling my story. And this returns us McHargue’s story.

Was McHargue really, truly an atheist? I don’t know. I have no reason to doubt him, but I can go one step further. I can offer genuine evidence that he was an atheist. Ironically, it rests in the part of his article everyone seems to ignore – the lessons he learned as an atheist. He provided three lessons: (1) Don’t let doctrine become dogma, (2) Increasing well being and reducing suffering in this life matters, (3) it is never wrong to question.

I think it is fair to say these are lessons the atheist community tries to teach. I certainly feel comfortable being associated with these lessons. Sure, it may still be the case the McHargue was never truly an atheist. That whole story may have been a conceit to justify claiming to learn the lessons first hand. But I doubt it. Even so, atheists are often misunderstood and poorly stereotyped. At least the lessons McHargue’s attributing to atheism ring true. If nothing else, that’s appreciated.



  1. Mike McHargue · August 6, 2014

    Fantastic piece! Thank you!

  2. Tom · August 6, 2014

    I met Mike during a conference over a couple of days, almost two years before the Relevant article, but not long after his “re-conversion.” He’s not a close personal friend, we owe each other nothing. For what it’s worth, I saw and heard no reason to disbelieve his experience during those two days. He authentically rejected God, and authentically changed his mind. I know it won’t matter to a lot of people, but there it is. His blog chronicles in long form the entire journey, and it was written well before he was getting the publicity he gets now as Science Mike. — By the way, this was a great article. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Bradley Grinnen · August 6, 2014

    I can truly appreciate the perspective you offer here. Thanks for your thoughts.

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