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Reason, Conversion, and Plausibility Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 15 April 2011

It is an odd thing to explain to other Christians why one moves from one theological tradition to another, since you know (or will eventually discover) that the reasons that seemed so compelling to you seem less than adequate to others. I believe that the reason for this is that each of us approaches these sorts of questions with a plausibility structure, about which we rarely reflect.

What do I mean by a “plausibility structure”? I mean by this those beliefs that we virtually never question but nevertheless help us to assess other beliefs that we are asked by others to entertain. That is, before we look at any controversial or contested issue – such as in politics, religion, ethics, etc. – we already have in our minds a bunch of other beliefs that we consider “obvious,” and it is those other beliefs that constitute our plausibility structure.

Consider this example:

Suppose you grow up in a family of committed atheists. Your parents tell you that God is a fairy tale and that people who believe in God are deluded. They teach you that all that exists is the material universe, and that things like souls, moral properties, and angels are pure fictions invented by weak-minded, pre-scientific, religious folks in primitive cultures. In fact, your parents send you to private primary and secondary schools committed to the inculcation and proliferation of atheist philosophy.

After graduating from the “Richard Dawkins College Preparatory School for the Gifted Who Don’t Believe in a Giver,” you go to college and while there you take a philosophy class taught by a professor who is a strong Christian believer. You soon learn that he believes in all the things that your parents and teachers claim are fictions. But according to what your parents and teachers taught you, such a professor is not supposed to exist. How do you account for this?

Well, given your atheistic plausibility structure, nurtured and honed in both home and school, you can speculate about your professor’s inner life in a variety of ways. You can, for example, maintain that, though your professor is obviously intelligent and well educated, he is deluded, uses religion as a crutch, or really does not believe it in his heart of hearts. It never occurs to you that perhaps your atheism should be doubted or, God forbid, abandoned. 

And even when your professor offers you an argument for God’s existence or against materialism that some of your classmates find plausible, you reject it out of hand since you already know that atheism and materialism are true and that these other classmates, if they are not stupid, probably suffer from at least one of the mental vices from which you think your professor may suffer. 

I think something like this goes on in the minds of those of us who are challenged when we hear of a friend, family member, or famous person moving from one Christian tradition to another. We tend to try to account for the change by appealing to something sub-rational or what we believe is tangential or inauthentic to a proper conversion. In my case, the theories for my reversion to Catholicism are plentiful, growing, and inconsistent with each other, even though they have been offered by their authors in reviews of my small memoir, Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic.

One popular Reformed Baptist online personality claims I was never really a Protestant, since I was never the sort of Protestant he is.  On the other hand, a Calvin College philosophy professor  claims I never “really” became Catholic, since I am not the sort of Catholic he would become if he chose to become Catholic. This same professor says my reversion was overly rationalistic, since I had not consulted his favorite Catholic literary figures.

On the other hand, an Evangelical writer, noting my roots in the Charismatic movement, opines that my reversion was not rational enough, since it seems to be the result of a deep spiritual yearning. And just this past November, a former professor of mine told me in private conversation that he was upset that I had returned to the Catholic Church while in the middle of my service as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), arguing that my public reversion could have harmed ETS irreparably. Because it was a matter of conscience that forced me into the confessional earlier than I had planned (My nephew had asked me to be his Confirmation sponsor), I was tempted to respond like the founder of his denomination did at the Diet of Worms, “There I stood, I could do no other.”

It’s not news that each of us approaches theological questions differently. But we rarely consider the possibility that the theological conclusions we draw, and the judgments we make, are shaped significantly by our plausibility structures. For this reason, we often see in others’ conversions what we expect to see, as the above catalog of responses shows.

But for the convert, the reverse is the case. He often sees in his new tradition something he had not expected to see before he began to entertain it as a live option. And this is often the result of the convert undergoing a change in his plausibility structure, which usually happens slowly over time with the convert not fully aware that it is happening. This was the case with me. As a cradle Catholic who had become a committed Evangelical Protestant, I could not have returned to the Church of my youth until Catholicism had again become a live option for me. 

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. Author of Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press, 2009), he blogs at Returntorome.com.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
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written by ottmar, April 15, 2011
Rod Dreher comes to mind.
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written by Grump, April 15, 2011
If spiritual life's a journey, I followed the signpost marked "Agnostics, turn here" and have never looked back except now and then to see others straying from path to path, ever wandering amid thickets of hazy philosophies.

I admire those of you who have such certitude about your faith, who seem to be unbending in your belief systems. Yet, I am cursed -- if that's the right word -- with an intelligence that wars against any sort of blind faith in the unbelievable. It's not that I have to see to believe -- Christians will tell you that by believing they see -- but rather that the world as we know it makes little sense. We live in a chaotic cosmos that is beyond understanding and I am not satisfied with Paul's "explanation" that we "see through a glass darkly." While I am here and alive on earth, I want to be able to understand life's meaning and yet I see nothing beyond the grave, which to me seems to me to be the best end and rest that anyone can hope for.

Still, I read TCT every day because it is one of the few sites where one can participate civilly without the obligatory ad hominem of other forums in which any view that does not comport with one's own is dismissed rather crudely. Here, one finds tolerance -- even for those of us who would like to call you brothers and sisters, but remain at best distant relations wandering to find their lonely kin.
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written by Bill, April 15, 2011
"Moving from one theological-Christian tradition to another". Unfortunately, these are not interchangeable as one, Roman Catholicism, is the TRUE FAITH. All other religions, with the exception of Eastern Orthodox, are man-made. As Louise knows from reading Belloc, there is no religion called "Christianity" and there never was.
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written by Devin Rose, April 15, 2011
Great analysis. I think you've hit upon the root of many frustrations we feel when someone else "just doesn't see" the thing that led to our conversion. The uncharitable but understandable response is often what you witnessed in Protestants' attitudes to your conversion: you were never really Protestant; you had some deep-seated Catholic thing-a-muh-jig; you didn't read ALL the writings of XYZ scholar.

When people tell me they left the Catholic Church for Protestantism or atheism or whatever it might be, though I try to get to what the root of the issues were, ultimately you have to respect someone's decision and not attribute ulterior motives to it. Better to give them the benefit of the doubt that they sincerely believed that their move was in the best/truest direction.

God bless!
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written by Louise, April 15, 2011
I wish Belloc were more widely published. I don't know why Ignatius Press has not picked up his canon. Maybe the book reported on here a week or two ago will light the spark. I am reading "How the Reformation Happened" for the second time, and finding it more and more applicable to our own time. His historical method can be applied to any age, and especially our own. What a mind he had!

What Mr. Grump says about this site is certainly true. (I am glad that he feels welcomed.) However, since the editors "eschew the word 'blog', we can't very well nominate it for the 'Best Catholic Blog" contest, can we. :)

God bless all the editors, essayists, and commenters of TCT, and a holiness-inspiring Passion Week to all. --L
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written by John, April 15, 2011
Nor is this the only inconvenience which the man of study suffers from a recluse life. When he meets with an opinion that pleases him, he catches it up with eagerness; looks only after such arguments as tend to his confirmation; or spares himself the trouble of discussion, and adopts it with very little proof; indulges it long without suspicion, and in time unites it to the general body of his knowledge, and treasures it up among incontestable truths: but when he comes into the world among men who, arguing upon dissimilar principles, have been led to different conclusions, and being placed in various situations, view the same object on many sides; he finds his darling position attacked, and himself in no condition to defend it: having thought always in one train, he is in the state of a man who having fenced always with the same master, is perplexed and amazed by a new posture of his antagonist; he is entangled in unexpected difficulties, he is harassed by sudden objections, he is unprovided with solutions or replies; his surprise impedes his natural powers of reasoning, his thoughts are scattered and confounded, and he gratifies the pride of airy petulance with an easy victory.

-- Samuel Johnson, Adventurer No.85, Aug. 28, 1753
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written by Judith Ginn Beauford, April 16, 2011
I get accused regularly on the internet by protestants of being a religious dilettante, having dipped my toe into many protestant pools before committing finally (and contentedly) to Catholicism. I'm going to think more about my own "plausibility structures" because I think, in fact, mine had to change, just as you say, so that I could accept Catholicism as a reasonable option. Thanks for the article, and I appreciate your rational tone.
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written by Judith Ginn Beauford, April 16, 2011
I am regularly accused on the internet by protestants of being a religious dilettante, having dipped my toe in several protestant pools before finally (and happily) committing to Catholicism. I think I had to revise my own "plausibility structure" in order to accept Catholicism as a possible option. I am going to think more on this, so thank you for your thoughts. I enjoyed the rational tone of the article. Maybe I'll read your book, too.
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written by Yvette, April 16, 2011
Thank you for a very insightful article. This makes a lot of sense to me and it explains a lot about the dialogues I have with Pentecostals who seem to have a pre-formed, set-in-stone opinion about Catholicism regardless of what logic or facts they are presented with.

Do you have any suggestions of how, other than with intense prayer, one can help lower these walls of their plausibility structure in order to be more open to Catholic teaching?
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written by Ramon A Sanchez, April 16, 2011
Interesting explanation for a very complex and mostly individual decision. If we read carefully the Gospels, most interchange between Jesus and almost anyone are in fact conversions to Him. And these conversions encompass most any creed. The Acts are the continuing story of conversions. In fact, that is what the whole Gospels are about. It would be interesting to develop a follow up each of these encounters and try a classification or organization of them. I'll begin immediately. IF anywhere soon I have something I'll share.
Just as an example, one of the first "conversions" is aimed to Nicodemus, a rich and distinguished principal of the Sanhedrin, who in fact is not attested as a convert up to the last chapters where he appears to recover , with Joseph of Arimathee, the corpse of Jesus. What a conversion I may add!
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written by Bill, April 17, 2011
Here is THE plausibility structure:
1. The Roman Church is Apostolic, i.e., It traces Its lineage through Popes and Bishops directly to the Apostles.
All Protestants sects began in 1517 or later.
2. The Church has the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ. No Protestant sect possesses this Gift.
3. The Church has the sacerdotal priesthood which possesses the charism (Gift of the Holy Spirit) which is necessary to confect the Eucharist at the Consecration during the Mass.
Today, ALL other religions are man-made.
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written by Louise, April 17, 2011
Amen, Bill. Well said.

"What do I mean by a “plausibility structure”? I mean by this those beliefs that we virtually never question but nevertheless help us to assess other beliefs that we are asked by others to entertain."

Yesterday I heard an interview on Book TV with Anna Quindlen, columnist for the NYTimes (at least at the time of the interview in 1993) . If there were ever an example of "plausibility structure" as defined above better than this, I don't know what it might be, especially when she was asked whether she gave more credibility to the testimony of Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas. I just had to smile, remembering this essay when, with the most sincere gravity, she said that, of course, she believed Anita Hill. She didn't want to accuse (now) Justice Thomas of lying, but maybe he was just confused on a few things. Of course.
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written by Sarah, April 20, 2011
Great post! In my own conversion I found my belief that the Catholic Church was an apostasy was less fixed than the seemingly obvious fact that all the extra-Biblical information we have from the early church all describes the Catholic Church, not some sort of modern Protestant conglomeration. Though I have gone from being fundamentalist to Catholic, the constant belief through it all is this: I still cannot understand how anyone can read Irenaeus or Augustine and see anything but Catholicism. However, plenty of people smarter and holier than I see anything but the Catholic Church in the early church writings.
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written by JoeMcCarthy, April 20, 2011
Great article. Many it seems come back to Catholicism. I too am a cradle Catholic, attended Church regularly. Live in cloister, studied my Latin for the Jesuit priesthood, but was not the Catholic I desired to be.
My father, the greatest, called me some time ago to view the McLaughlin(sp) Group and on the debate was Father Neuhaus. Here I thought myself as catholic and began my own journey back to the Catholic I wanted to be. Mr. Beckwith welcome back, we need more like you to be the champions of the true faith, Roman Catholicism. Sic Transit Gloria
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written by russ , April 20, 2011
When I reverted to the Church after 31 years as a committed "devout" evangelical Christian, I truly was taken aback by the uncharitable remarks and loss of friends due to my conversion. Over these past 7 years I realize there may be another force behind these reactions. I don't disagree that it has to do with our plausibility structures pre-existing, but there is a "dark one" who operates at many levels. He rejoices in confusion and fights tooth and nail against the Church Jesus started. He delights in division, and when another believer aligns once again with the church Christ started, he gets ticked. That may explain the irrational and sometimes extremely vitriolic response we receive from those who we felt were rational, devout, thinking Christians. When they here we returned to the Church, sometimes their response is not unlike the spewed pea soup from a head twisted fully round under the power of the devil, from a movie in our teen years(The Exorcist)
Yeah, some may say,
"You always be talking bout the debil" but I really have to believe there is a demonic hand in some of the responses I have seen to my conversion/reversion.


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