On the Logical Impossibility of No Longer Identifying as Christian
“I no longer identify as Christian.” This is what I tell people when they ask me about my personal biography. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian family, but now “I no longer identify as Christian.” Unfortunately, I find that many of those who do identify as Christian can’t really understand what I’m saying. For them, I might as well say “I believe in square circles.” They simply can’t wrap their heads around the idea that “I no longer identify as Christian.” For them, it is nonsense or oxymoronic. And the problem is that if one accepts their ontology, they’re right.
Of course, some Baptists might not be able to understand such a claim because, from their perspective, “once saved, always saved.” For them, you can’t go from being a Christian to not being a Christian. But this is not what I’m talking about.
Other conservative evangelicals, the ones who don’t believe “once saved, always saved,” can’t understand understand this idea because they have a completely different ontology than I do, and, in their ontology, having a Christian “identity” doesn’t really make sense. For them, one is or is not a Christian, depending on whether one has Jesus in one’s heart. For them, one could no longer be a Christian only if one had at one point “accepted Jesus” into one’s heart and then, at a later time, turned away from Jesus.
But as an atheist, I don’t think it is possible to accept a supernatural being “into one’s heart”; nor is is possible to turn one out. So I cannot say “I am no longer a Christian” and mean what they mean.
What do I mean, then, when I say “I no longer identify as Christian”?
As a nominalist, I believe that identities are merely human products; humans create labels or categories through which they order themselves into different groups. These identities or labels are constantly shifting, depending on historical circumstances and the interests of one’s groups. New Orleans was once labeled as a French territory; after the Louisiana Purchase, it was then labeled as American territory. The ontological nature of New Orleans didn’t change–just its label.
So, if I “identify” someone as a Christian, I’m not committing myself to the suparnatural claim that an invisible yet powerful being has entered that person’s heart. I simply mean that I attach the label “Christian” to them.
I once believed that I had an invisible supernatural being named Jesus in my heart, but as I am presently an atheist and a nominalist I can only say: “at that time I identified as Christian; now I no longer identify as Christian.”
The reason this is nonsensical for some conservative evangelicals is that, for them, merely identifying as Christian doesn’t make one a Christian. For them, one is a Christian only if one has Jesus in one’s heart. If I only “identified” as a Christian, that is, if I never truly had Jesus’ spirit in my heart, than I never was a Christian. If I never was a Christian, then it makes no sense to say I’m “no longer” a Christian. Therefore “I no longer identify as Christian” is practically self-contradictory.
Does any of this matter? At the very least it is important because it screws with the idea of scholarly objectivity. Is it objectively true that “I am no longer a Christian”? Any answer to this question would hang on one’s ontology and one’s theory of language. And it turns out that these are fairly controversial and contentious issues, a fact that scholars usually ignore.