Why do Christians deconvert? How can we support or encourage them to do so? This has been the subject of some debate in the Atheist community. To answer these questions I’ve sat down and considered one of the largest archives of deconversion stories on the internet.
There appeared to be several broad and recurring factors among the deconversion stories. In this essay I will consider the broad reasons for deconversion, how common they appeared to be amongst my sample, and what it might mean in terms of tactics for those wanting to support of encourage deconversion.
Update: At least bother to read the conclusion before laying into me, you might find that my point of view is a little different from what you first assume.
Thanks to David Jackmonson and Hemant Mehta for the topic, Ryan and Kay for acting as sounding boards, and Positive Atheism for compiling the Deconversion stories.
I read 117 Deconversion Stories at Positive Atheism, only 94 allowed for the identification of a cause of the deconversion; only those stories were used in calculating the statistics. Most of the stories that I didn’t consider were discounted because the author was raised an atheist and was never religious in any significant way. I should note that Positive Atheism has thirteen pages of deconversion stories, unfortunately I didn’t have the time to review all of them, so instead I only read every second page.
So why do Christians deconvert? Sometimes it’s the little things…
Answer the damn question Mr Priest!
It was the most common reason cited for deconversion amongst the sample (14.89%). Dissatisfaction with the answers to simple questions proffered by the religion is a big cause of doubt. Priests, prosletyers, Sunday school teachers, and religious parents are one of the most common triggers for deconversion. When a figure representing the religion (in the mind of the person asking a question), offers an absurd answer to that question, the asker starts to doubt.
Children ask questions, and many deconvertees spoke of their first doubts arising when they were children asking simple questions, and getting stupid answers. They can be mind numbingly simple questions about everyday issues, as we see in this story:
“At 6 I was in church playgroup and I asked why they never shut the church door. The answer was a burglar would never steal for God because God will make him pay. I said but some one will steal I know this. They ignored me, so I asked and asked again. I realised they were telling lies and I simply thought this is all rubbish and never went back.” – Original Deconversion Stories, third response
Or they can be the sorts of questions that Dawkins himself would be proud of:
“Where the universe came from?”
The teacher responded: God.
I then stated: Where did God come from?
She responded. “We just have to accept that he was always here, and not question it.”
I am now 37 years old, but I can remember clearly my feelings about this comment. Utter disappointment. It seemed to me, even at only 9, to be a statement that violated logic. Why couldn’t she answer such a simple question? – Look! More De-Conversion Stories, third response
Unsatisfactory answers in defence of a religious belief can be offered by practically anyone in order to raise doubts in the mind of people likely to reject religion in this way:
I was arguing with about eight to nine Christians in the library and I asked, “If God created the world in seven days, why are there dinosaur fossils?” They all had different answers; the worst was when one guy said that people made up fossils to discredit religion. – They Finally Posted More Deconversion Stories, twenty first response
So what could this mean for promoting or supporting deconversion? In every deconversion story I encountered that cited the inability of a religion to answer a question satisfactorily, the question arose from that individuals involvement with the religion. They asked an innocent question of a preacher, or a parent, or a sunday school teacher, and recieved an incoherant or illogical answer.
The questions were not put to them by atheists. Access to resources from a skeptical, scientific or atheistic standpoint that addressed these sorts of questions aided in deconversion. There does seem to be a role for supporting deconversion in this instance, but the doubt that leads a person to seek out information that was not authorised by the religion arose from these young individuals own natural encounters with the religion. Only one of the deconversion stories of this nature spoke of encountering an atheist who put questions about religion into their mind.
It’s not surprising really. Religions would cease to exist if they did not develop defence mechanisms when encountering people attempting to engender disbelief in the religion. An atheist seeking out a religious person to deconvert them would be the most obtuse trigger of these defence mechanisms.
But it’s not just questions about dinosaurs, or the world outside the religious paradigm that can provoke doubt.
Logical Problems with the Dogma
Many deconverted Christians spoke about realising the contradictions within the dogma itself. Deconversion stories that spoke of a realisation that the religious dogma was internally incoherent amounts to 12.76% of the sample. The most common cause of these doubts appeared to be when the religious dogma contradicted “religious” values (the reason for using scare quotes here will become apparent later).
This example shows conflict between a child’s own belief they have done nothing wrong (sin requires wrongful action), and the idea of original sin:
“When a boy 10 years old in Catholic school Priest pointed at the Cross and said “You put him there. He died for your sins,” I did not accept that statement. I was not old enough to have sinned!” – Still More De-conversion Stories, response 22
Here a deconvertee notes how as a young person she noticed the contradiction between a god who required constant praise, with the idea of an all powerful, all seeing, all caring god:
Around the age of 12, though, I had seriously starting doubting the existence of an entity such as God, who had such a big ego to be praised with zillions of chants — in spite of being omnipotent — and whose only desire was to get all to pray and accept his dominion, to be hapless before him. You needed to pray to deserve a happy life. Far from strength, I started seeing a marked weakness added to the contradictions in the mythology. – What!? More De-conversion Stories, response six
God was petty, and petty was not perfect. The doubt in the mind of this individual was sown.
Another person highlights the conflict between original sin and personal values concerning innocence:
We had religious instruction for two hours every day. At one point we were covering Purgatory. The nun explained that babies who were not baptised could not enter heaven, they carried the eternal sin and had to stay in Purgatory. I found that so very unjust that it started me questioning everything. I quit going to church. – Look! More Deconversion Stories, second response
I couldn’t accept that homosexuality was inherently evil. I was not prepared to believe that a two-day-old foetus was somehow sentient and thus had a soul. I did not really accept any longer that people who dabble in the occult are possessed by demons and so on. – They Finally Posted More De-Conversion Stories, response eleven
Religionists may contend that we get our values from the bible, or from their dogma. But what these deconversion stories demonstrate is that values and morals are socially derived. These people encountered their first doubts about religion when the moral consequences of the religious dogma clashed with their socially derived values. There is the child who held that babies could not be guilty of anything clashed with the notion of original sin, and the adult whose gut instinct was that all people were worthy of respect, even if they were gay. These people faced the choice of either modify their values to suit the church, or reject the church.
What does this mean for promoting deconversion? Again, these people encountered these conflicts within the Church. The absurdity of the church’s beliefs was not pointed out to them by some atheist proselytiser, but inadvertently by the church itself.
The Bible Killed My Faith
Billboards exhort us to “read your bible”, and perhaps it’s a good idea. For 10.63% of people in the sample, reading the bible was significant in ending their faith. For some deconvertees the bible demonstrated how little their present religion had to do with the holy text that it supposedly revered.
Consider one persons experience when quite young:
I had to fill out a worksheet about what the teen-age Jesus did after he woke up in the morning, rolled up his mat (like a good fundamentalist child) and went out to help his father in the carpenter’s shop. When I went back to the bible and saw that no one knows what happened [in those years of Jesus' life]. – Still More De-Conversion Stories, 19th response
A simple “learning” activity prompted the above Christian to question their faith. If the church was feeding them simple lies about the life of Jesus, what else could it be lying about? The very nature of biblical morality perhaps? Christians often promote the idea of the morality of our society being derived from the bible, and the ten commandments in particular. But this is the response one Christian had upon reading the old testament:
I had never read the Old Testament before this. Where was the loving God I had been brought up with? Why did these great prophets seem like nothing more than raving street corner lunatics? What was up with this racial supremacy? – They Finally Posted More De-Conversion Stories, response 19
Again this person was forced to doubt their beliefs, when they realised that their church’s teachings were not derived from god, or some holy book, but were instead socially and historically constructed.
The road signs, the evangelists and the preachers encourage people to “read your bible” to “hear the good news”, but what this leading cause of deconversion demonstrates is that if for some reason a person wanders into the bible unguided, they might uncover some uncomfortable truths about their religion. There was no evidence in the deconversion stories to indicate that atheists, or people promoting deconversion led people to read the bible without their christianity tinted glasses.
The Hypocritical Churches
As an atheist looking into the world of Christian deconversion, I expected to see more tales of people deconverting after they realise how hypocritical churchs are. In fact I barely expected any other cause, perhaps aside from exposure to science. I thought that Christians who read the bible did so through the lens of the preachers words and were thus immune from realising its faults, and that religions would have all the answers to the really simple questions down pat. I mean, surely children have been asking the church “what about dinosaurs” since dinosaurs entered the popular imagination.
But paedophile priests, churchs blowing money on yachts and a luxurious lifestyle, or the existence of something like the Vatican bank, surely these were the things that would shake people’s faith in large numbers. Only 8.51% of people in the sample attributed their deconversion to the hypocrisy of the church.
Personal experience highlighted the hypocrisy of religion to this person:
I began immediately to see hypocrisy in both the organizations and the individuals with whom I associated. I married a man in seminary studying for the ministry but I knew from the outset that his heart was not in what he was doing and he was just there because his minister father had pushed him into it. I am still married to this man after 35 years and I still love him but I noticed a great unhappiness in him. – Actually, Two Files of De-Conversion Stories, response 4
And here’s another person who discovered religious hypocrisy through personal experience:
The thing that confused me the most, was the fact that since my family did not go to church, they were considered more evil than my friend’s parents who beat the tar out of him when my friend didn’t clean his room. – They Finally Posted More De-Conversion Stories, response 2
Both the unexpectedly low number of people who cited church hypocrisy as their reason for deconverting, and the fact that personal experience of hypocrisy was a common thread amongst those people, lead me to a theory. Churchs seem vulnerable to simple questions about the nature of the universe or reality, stating “it’s a faith matter” is not a strong defence when matters of doctrine contradict clearly observable reality. However Churchs appear to have developed strong defences to charges of hypocrisy. Claims of “we’re being persecuted by outsiders” are a strong way of countering worries about church practice from among the faithful. That is of course, unless a religious person sees the hypocrisy with their own eyes.
Where I was surprised at how rare stories of religious hypocrisy were among the deconversion stories, I didn’t even expect the following cause of deconversion.
The Problem of Other Religions
Other religions exist. Other religions have existed and competed for followers for the entire history of religion, but this seems to be something that some religious deconvertees reported being shocked at. They had been taught by their faith how special and how singular they and their beliefs were, and as a result, stumbling across the realisation that many religions were just like theirs caused deep doubts for 8.5% of the sample.
Consider the following examples:
in English class we were reading a book about ancient mythology. I thought to myself, “If everyone thinks of these people’s beliefs as a crock now, I wonder how our society’s beliefs will look to people in 2 or 3 thousand years. Hmmm.” – Still More De-Conversion Stories, first response
I studied Sociology in college, and I began to realise that the Christian Religious tradition was not in any way different from any other religion. All the “Pagan” religions that we were taught were not the true way to heaven were exactly the same as Christianity – Still More De-Conversion Stories, eleventh response
The revelation happened while reading the “Upanishads” on a bus to work. I realised that the Hindu religion made as much sense and was just as convincing (or unconvincing) as Christianity was. So why choose Christianity? The answer is, you don’t. It is foisted on one by social pressure. – Look! More De-Conversion Stories, 12th response
it seems that if churchs want to keep pushing the exclusive, remarkable, or otherwise special nature of their beliefs before the beliefs of all others, they will need to continue making efforts to dissuade followers from examining the beliefs of other religions. The risk is not just that they might convert, but that they might realise that one is as valid as another. If they are as valid as another, then they are not special, exclusive or remarkable, and are thus discredited.
But again these stories are about people who found out about other religions incidentally. They didn’t have their religiously trained guard up, because have no doubt that religions teach their followers to reject other ideas out of hand, as the second story indicates.
Exposure to another idea was the second greatest cause of deconversions in the sample.
Stand Back, I’m going to try SCIENCE!
Religious fundamentalists wage war against science with good reason. The realisation that religious dogma contradicted observable reality was
the second most a common reason for deconversion cited within the sample (at 14.89%).
Update: This reason actually tied with insufficient response to questions (Answer the damn question Mr Priest) for most common theme in the sample. Thanks to Hermant Mehta for the correction.
But as the following examples highlight, rarely was it Richard Dawkins ramming evolution down someones throat with something like The God Delusion that resulted in someones deconversion. Deconversion appeared to occur when people didn’t have their religiously trained defenses up. And again, it could happen at a young age:
When I was in 8th grade, I was studying my cousin’s biology book, which happened to teach evolution. I remember hearing things about how evolution was “incorrect” according to the sometimes Christian media. I did not completely dismiss the idea of god at this time, but it caused me to invalidate the idea of an actual organized religion because they were inelastic and unable to accept change or new ideas because their “holy” scripture was infallible. This was the beginning of my deconversion to atheism. – Actually, Two Files of De-Conversion Stories, 9th response
Simple facts, and simple doubts. It didn’t even need to be evolution, something as simple as a scouting trip can provoke doubt:
I heard that the the world was only 10,000 years old, and that dinosaurs and people used to frollick together (probably mostly people running away from dinosaurs!), and how God intentionally (deceptively) made the fossil record to look like it was millions of years old so as to make blind faith necessary. Maybe the average Fundamentalist might have accepted this at face value, but I had always had a healthy respect for knowledge obtained through science. So, this was a bit of a tall order … I went to a big backwoods summer camp in New Mexico, called Philmont Scout Ranch, with my Scout troop. There, I learned about the Tooth of Time, an igneous mountain which dated back several millions of years. – Actually, Two Files of De-Conversion Stories, 13th response
And for the above deconvertee, doubt set in. Science engenders a different way of looking at things, using observable reality and deduction instead of blind faith. It’s not just the hard sciences either, this story relates how a person deciding to look at religion ever so briefly, through the lense of sociology, led to an epiphany:
The change came because of humanities class. We had to do experience logs, and one option was to visit a church and do a report. I wondered, what it would be like for someone doing that assignment and attending my church for the first time. So, one mass, I sat there, and did not participate. I immediately noticed how hard it was to do that. My mouth almost moved by itself to say the prayers along with everyone. And that’s when I realized how close to chanting everyone sounded. Nothing has scared me that much sense that moment when I realised I was the member of a cult. – What!? More De-Conversion Stories, response 9
Science led these people to doubt their religion, they came to realise their religion contradicted reality, one of the two had to be false. The next section is different, exposure to another kind of idea led these people to realise what I think they always new.
Exposure to *drumroll* ATHEISM!
Well, not just atheism, I grouped in this category people who credited atheism, philosophy or skeptical ideas to their deconversion. As the following example indicates, I think these people already doubted god, but the realisation that atheism was an alternative to belief gave them the strength to free themselves.
In a few moments I found myself looking at the “Freedom From Religion” web site. I read, with hypnotic amazement, a portion of Dan Barker’s testimony of de-conversion. I began to search out other web sites. … Now, several months later, I find it almost impossible to believe that I was a christian. – Original De-Conversion Stories, 15th response
This individual states it explicitly:
Then, as a result of switching my major from Secondary Education to Math, I found Bertrand Russell. I realized that all my life, I’ve been an atheist putting on the facade of something else in order to make up for inadequacies that don’t exist. – Look! More De-Conversion Stories, first response
It can be the simplest thing that lets people know that there are people out there who don’t take religion seriously:
An internet cartoon on newgrounds dot com. I stumbled upon a humorous one made by some body at http://www.no-god.com it was Jesus being nailed to the cross and speaking bible verses. They were humorous and sparked a hint of disbelief in me. – Look! More De-Conversion Stories, 17th response
One day, when I was four or five years old, I got to stay home from church while my mother and four siblings went to church. I was able to spend some quality time with my father. I asked him a question about god and heaven, and was astonished by his reply: some people do not believe in god and heaven! – Actually, Two Files of De-Conversion Stories, 14th response
The following story makes me want to buy a Richard Dawkins t-shirt, just to let people know that atheists exist:
I realized even as a child that all that religion stuff was rather strange but just assumed it was something we all had to live with. I was just a lemming going through the motions, never challenging it at all. Then, after high school I met someone who said her family were atheists. “Atheists, what’s that I said”, “People who believe there is no God”. Bam! Like a sledgehammer to the head, it finally dawned on me (what I’d really always known) that I had never believed all that mumbo-jumbo about god, angels, devils, and heaven or hell. – Actually, Two Files of De-Conversion Stories, 5th response
But for those like the Rational Response Squad, who seem to believe that we can go around shaking up religious belief in the true believers, I’ll throw you a bone. Here’s the only story I found among the one hundred and seventeen I examined that credited deconversion to the specific intervention of an atheist:
I ran into a very good friend and told him the story of my conversion. He was not critical, but kept asking questions about why I took to this religion and specifically required that I put things in my own words instead of mouthing what I had been told. He made me think! and that’s all it took. – Still More De-Conversion Stories, second entry
I think the above people always knew in their heart of hearts that religion was absurd. The following category concerns people who may have known that, but their story is a bit different…
Where are you Jesus?!
As an atheist it always surprises me that people seriously believe that god really will answer their prayers. Perhaps it’s something you have to be religious in order to comprehend. But some people pray, and pray, and pray, until:
“One day, I was praying and suddenly it struck me that I was talking to myself.” – Another Set of De-Conversion Stories, first responce
The following examples are from the 8.51% of stories in which people tried to speak to god, and they now credit god’s lack of an answer for their deconversion.
“Being very eager to please, I would often beg Jesus to save me. Expecting trumpets and angels, or at the very least a pat on the head, and getting nothing, I think I just eventually realised god wasn’t going to answer.” – Original De-Conversion Stories, fourth response
For some the experience of god failing to answer their prayers as promised was a highly distressing experience:
In high school, I gradually started to question more, but did not get satisfactory answers. My prayers for clarity and a stronger faith went unanswered. Why would God let my faith slip? That was the question that haunted me for years. – They Finally Posted More De-Conversion Stories, 18th response
Others simply felt ridiculous:
I got older, I realized that I was supposed to be getting more out of it. Or some people, apparently, were. So, I tried praying on my own. At no point did I ever feel anything other than stupid for doing that — the way a person might feel if they attempted to hold a conversation with a doorknob! – Look! More De-Conversion Stories, 13th response
Or perhaps disappointed:
I remember when I was very young and I heard for the first time that “whatsoever ye ask for, ye shall receive” line. I prayed really long and hard one night for a pony. I awoke and looked out my bedroom window, fully expecting to see a pony waiting for me in the yard. That was my first “clue.” – Still More De-Conversion Stories, 21st response
Religionists will make all form of excuses for the failure of prayer, but the fact is that a religion that centres around talking to god makes the implicit promise that god is listening. Prayer is important to many Christians, and undermining it might seem tempting to many activist atheists. But once again it seems that people who came to these sorts of realisations did so on their own accord.
It is surprising that so many of the deconversion stories identified common themes that proved so easy to identify as having similar causes. One or two deconversion stories spoke about more interesting reasons for deconverting.
When religions go around condemning things as the work of the devil, they run a risk. This deconvertee simply credits his deconversion to his religions rejection of his choice in music:
Around when I was in seventh grade I started getting into music in the genre of metal and then punk rock the next year. – Actually, Two Files of De-Conversion Stories, 7th response
Religions association with violence as a reason for deconversion only came up in two stories, this rather straight forward one:
The first time I realized that religion breeds hate and intolerance was the Omagh bombing over in Northern Ireland, it was the first time I realized that the ‘troubles’ weren’t anything to do with Northern Ireland staying British or joining up with Southern Ireland, It was really about religion, British Protestants against Irish Catholics. – What!? More De-Conversion Stories, first response
And this really interesting one (I could write a whole essay on this one short comment…):
Being in the Military, I started to see a similarity between reading the Bible and reading the regulation. When I retired from the Army, I realized that I didn’t have to live according to the regulation. Somehow, I figured out that the “other regulation” no longer applied to me well. – They Finally Posted More De-Conversion Stories, fourth response
When I started out I said I was analysing deconversion stories with an eye towards answering a rather simple question about tactics. How can we promote and support deconversion? I think these stories have shown that there are a number of ways of supporting Christians who make steps towards deconversion, but in every single case it appears that the doubt that led to deconversion came from within the individual.
We can tell people that there are alternatives to Christianity, and for many people who chafe at the stupidity of religion yet are unable to properly express it, this is liberating. We can raise questions about the dogma, hypocrisy, or illogic of religion, but most people who cited these as factors, raised the questions themselves.
I think we can see from these examples that fundamentalist Christians are correct in waging a war on science. They have correctly identified that their beliefs either need to accommodate a rational understanding of reality, or they have to destroy or discredit rational identity in the eyes of their followers. It follows from this that if we want to support the deconversion of Christians, we must defend science and rationalism from attacks, especially in education.
As atheists we can provide the resources to support people trapped in the religious paradigm, but I think we delude ourselves if we think that we have some kind of role in “shaking up” peoples faith. Ultimately a person has to liberate themselves from religion, it is not for us to assume the role of atheist proselytes.