What works in deconverting Christians?

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.

Acknowledgements
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.

This is the inaugural essay in my New Assignment series. Earlier I posted something of an introduction to the topic here.

Method
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

Another example:

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.

Other Responses

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

Conclusion

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.

Update: Atheist Blogger Adrian Hayter has a couple of posts on this essay.

41 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Christianity, New Assignment, Uncategorized

41 responses to “What works in deconverting Christians?

  1. Or, y’know, one could ask the more fundamental question of “why?”

    …or rather, why it makes sense for atheists to start engaging in the exact same tactics as the Hillsong Church and playing fundamentalist evangelist deathmatch…

  2. Bec, you didn’t even read the post.

  3. This was a truly fascinating read.

    I personally ‘deconverted’ from Paganism, rather than Christianity, but I can say that some of the same reasons apply even in my case.

    However, as you have noticed with your own research, in my case, I was always a doubter. From the first moment of being introduced to religion in school, I always found it slightly ridiculous and came to Paganism in my late teens – mostly in an attempt to feel this ‘thing’ so many religious people around me tried to convey.

    I found Paganism made slightly more sense, being an earth-based religion, than any of the Abrahamic religions, but as I said, I soon even deconverted from that and religion in it’s entirey – upon discovering atheism and philosphy.

    I now find it ridiculous when people speak of their religions.

  4. Ryan

    Bec, last sentence:

    Ultimately a person has to liberate themselves from religion, it is not for us to assume the role of atheist proselytes.

    Nice post Kieran. I have an idea for your next assignment!
    Compare and contrast British evangelical techniques (e.g. The Alpha Course, by Nicki Gumble) with American evangelical techniques (can’t think of a name off the top of my head).
    Suggest why you think that American style evangelism has taken off in Australia to a much greater extent than British. (e.g. Hillsong and other ‘Charismatic’ movements).

  5. Chris

    kudos for the xkcd reference.

  6. Thanks for the feedback Hannah. I struggle when people talk about their religions, I get the urge to explain why I think that everything they believe is wrong. But I have to restrain myself.

    Ryan, I think I’ve done enough dabbling in the worlds of conversion and deconversion to last a lifetime!

  7. Chris, if there was a god, he’d appoint Randall Munroe his prophet!

  8. Kirsten

    Kieran, and Chris, there is a God and I hope with all my heart that Randall Munroe is his prophet because damn is he cool! (How can this not be scripture?) I think God would be cool by association if Randall Munroe were his prophet…

    Anyway, I think that I am beginning to realise just how uncomfortable i can make Kieran sometimes. But boy are you good at biting your tongue boyo!!

    And to Ryan – you’d be surprised at how well ‘Brittish’ evangelical techniques are going – my Church in Melbourne offers the Alpha course (or at least used to.) But I think i see what you mean – Hillsong is growing a lot faster than i would ever have expected and they are certainly growing a lot faster than my little High Anglican Church :(

  9. I probably need to make the point that the statistics aren’t that meaningful.

    The sample is self selecting (these are the stories of people who responded to a call on a prominent atheist website to post their deconversion stories) and then I took various stabs at categorising the common themes in the stories.

    I try to make the point through out that any statistics only reliably relate to the sample itself. It is hard to generalise to the wider community with any accuracy.

  10. sara lou

    Thanks for a really interesting read Kieran, your analysis raises some interesting ideas. What is particularly interesting to me is that many of the deconvertees traced their doubts back to pre adolescence.

  11. You speak of “deconversion from” Christianity but really need to speak of “conversion to” Atheism as well. For in this pluralistic society of ours there are many paths away from Christianity, many of which lead to alternative religions instead, not Atheism. So to fully address the issue you need to discern why this and not anything else, and that’s a story of conversion.

  12. Brad

    I found that really interesting but… do you think it’s the case that people actually know what makes them change their mind?

    I think it may be too much to expect just from reading these stories to conclude that there is no mechanism by which we could encourage deconversion… and not just because of sample size.

    For example, someone who says the deconverted because they read the bible and saw how silly it was might have previously taken a class on biology, anthropology, or history which is why they were well-prepared to read the bible with a critical eye.

    If that is the case, it might suggest education is the tact we should take to encourage rational thought.

    In fact, there is a correlation between education and atheism… and maybe it’s a causal one, maybe not… I’m not aware of a study that investigates the issue. That seems to disagree with your “change comes from within” idea though.

    Then again maybe someone who didn’t have their prayer answered saw George Carlin’s performance on the topic, and that was an influence. So maybe we should expose people to more comedy.

    I think we can all agree raising a child with healthy skeptisism and an open mind has a great deal of influence. That should tell us something.

    So while I find the above interesting, I don’t agree with the conclusion. I think shaking up someone’s faith is possible, but don’t get me wrong I have no idea what the most effective method is.

    -doubtisavirtue@gmail.com

  13. My point is essentially that the door swings both ways.

    In my own journey I deconverted from agnosticism after becoming overly skeptical of skepticism. None of that “deconversion process” explains why I ultimately “converted” to Christianity and not something else, for the truth is I explored do-it-youreslf religion and western Buddhism along the way so I was quite open to alternative.

    On the flip side, and obviously of more interest to you, there are many people who are becoming disenchanted with Christianity and looking elsewhere. But that elsewhere can equally be just the sort of do-it-youreslf religion and western Buddhism I discribed above. The latter even allows for having no personal deity.

    So, in exploring why people become Atheists you need to explore what pro-actively draws them as well. If it is merely a protest against Christianity there are many alternative options. Why this option? Of course, people may not necessarily be conscious of that, but surely rationalists should be looking for a reason?

  14. Interesting, important topic. And thanks for doing the hard work on it. We definitely need to be talking about this.

    “Ultimately a person has to liberate themselves from religion, it is not for us to assume the role of atheist proselytes.”

    I definitely agree with the first part of this sentence. But depending on what you mean by “proselytes,” I’m not sure I agree with the second.

    It seems that there are enough deconverts who say that exposure to atheism or to criticism of religion was a factor in their deconversion, to make outspoken atheism still worthwhile. It’s not that we’re going to get inside people’s brains and change their minds. It’s that we can offer an alternative, show by our words and our example that there are other ways of thinking and living. Dennet talks about this in “Breaking the Spell”: religion depends on social consent for its self-protective tropes to survive, and public atheism is a refusal of that consent.

    I’ve now been told by two different people that my atheist blog was a factor in their deconversion. (And those are just the ones who’ve told me; I don’t know if there are others for whom that’s true who haven’t said anything.) Other bloggers I’ve spoken to tell me similar stories. And while my blog is reasonably widely- read, it’s far from the biggest blog in the atheosphere.

    (Also, I think it’s important for all of us to remember that people do not always have perfect insight into their own motivations, and the reasons people give for deconversion may not always be the real reasons, or the most important ones.)

  15. Jimbob

    First off, lemme just say kudos for doing this study. A while back I came across this website —

    [link]

    — and their list for why people left the faith was astoundingly long! I would have liked to do something like what you did here, but I still haven’t gotten though very many posts. Though from what I can tell, the reasons they gave are strikingly common to the ones you cited here.

    Great post!

  16. Jim

    Great article. But *please* learn how to use apostrophes. Just because a word ends in “s” it doesn’t mean you stick an apostrophe in. You made that mistake about a dozen times, it’s really distracting and gives a bad impression.

  17. Matt:

    There are many paths away from Christianity, but there is only really one path away from belief, and that’s towards disbelief.

    Brad:

    One of the key problems with my little “study” is of course that the sample is self selecting, and the “data” was self producing.

    People may not know the exact nature of the huge complex of factors that led to their deconversion, but I think that a deconvertee’s testimony is the best source on the matter that we’re going to get.

    As I was at pains to point out in the post, I didn’t see any evidence of people saying “someone shook up my faith” or “I saw the Rational Response Squad and was convinced”. But again, the sample was self selecting, maybe if I’d looked for deconversion stories at Rational Responders instead of Positive Atheism I would have come to a different conclusion.

    Matt again:

    Buddhism poses an interesting question for anti-religious atheists, it does appear to be atheistic religion. However I don’t think Buddhism is really atheistic, karma and reincarnation simply fulfill the role of god.

    You have to have faith, you have to live your life in the following way or be punished, etc etc. It may not be a creation myth, but in sociological terms, Karma is god.

    Greta:

    Yes, it does hinge of what we mean by atheist proselytes. Despite my conclusion on this post, I still blog about religion, and my about page still contains a statement to the effect of “religion must be combatted”.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that it’s important to provide a free thinking atheistic alternative if we are to support people towards deconversion. But I fear that some people are starting to see it as the role of non-believers to go out and, in the words of the Rational Response Squad, “shake up” someone’s belief. There is a difference.

    Jimbob:

    Thanks for that very interesting list. I agree, my little “study” involved a rather small sample and thus faces all the pitfalls associated with that. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    Jim,

    Me speeling gramer stuff and leaves a lot to be desired. I know that, and in theory I know how to use things like commas and apostrophes properly, it’s just that god has failed to answer my prayers for better proof reading abilities.

    I’m glad you still liked the post.

    Gret and Matt, I’ve added you’re blogs to the blogroll. :-)

  18. Another aussie atheist – Yay!

    Ehem. Great post, I came here by way of the Friendly Atheist. I am going to have to read over this post again. Some interesting points.

  19. Great post!

    You seem to have left out the % who left due to exposure to atheism, though. What is it?

  20. Brad

    “I think that a deconvertee’s testimony is the best source on the matter that we’re going to get.”

    I disagree. I think there is a large gap between what people say influenced them and what actually did.

    Ask 1000 people why they believe in god and you will get all sorts of answers… but a look at the demographics tells us religion correlates to geography and income more than anything else.

    I don’t think atheists are immune to these influences. Why is it that the percentage of atheists in the National Academy of Sciences is disproportionately high compared to te general population? (See the famous article in Nature on the topic.)

    Peronsal testimony is often the worst way to figure out why people are the way they are.

  21. Eric

    I agree with Greta here about offering an alternative, mainly because I know that my deconversion was due in part to conversations with a secular humanist – a position that I knew previously only as the straw man Christianity presented it as. Having an option to turn to when turning away from Christianity was a big part of my deconversion, and having a reasonable discussion with a calm, rational atheist (the first one I had met through the internet) made a big difference.

  22. Bruce Ramsey

    Awfully easy to attack the Bible when it’s believers usually aren’t proned to carving your head off to mind-less chants of “Jesus is Great!”

  23. Jewish Atheist:
    Exposure to scepticism, atheism, or a related philosophy appeared to be significant in 11.7% of the sample.

    Brad:
    Shaun pretty much hit it on the head. Acknowledging the problems associated with the sample material, it’s still a useful exercise.

    Eric:
    I agree that knowledge that an alternative exists is essential, I doubt many people would ever deconvert if doing so required that they develop an understanding of what the alternative could be from scratch.

    It should probably be noted that the stories I examined at Positive Atheism pretty much pre-date notions of this New Atheism online.

    Bruce:
    I’m sorry, it would be harder to attack the bible if they were prone to simply chanting? Or is it easy because that’s what church’s do?

  24. Ada

    Please assess your usage of apostrophes. They are not used in plurals, including the word thanks, and certainly not in a person’s name, e.g. Richard Dawkins. (Yikes!) Sometimes a word really does just end an s without needing an apostrophe.

    Other than that, this is a really nice piece. Way to go! :) I really do mean that, despite my apostrophe rant.

  25. Kieran

    A few comments:

    Firstly, again with this door swinging both ways, all world views involve elements of belief and disbelief.

    Ancient Christians were often accused of being “atheists” by Roman polytheists as they rightly saw embracing Jesus involved “disbelief” in a whole bunch of gods and goddesses and their idols. One might say a fairly essential feature of Christian conversion is a turn towards disbelief in all sorts of things. On the flip side, Atheism, at least in its modern manifestation, generally involves a quite firm “belief” in science. You believe there is no God because you see all the evidence available to you pointing that way. You talk about “belief” in the singular as if Atheism is somehow belief-less but no one is without a worldview of some description.

    Buddhism (at least the Theravadan kind) nicely illustrates that turning away from a belief in a personal God and a turn towards atheism is not the same thing. Buddism is better understood as pantheism. And it is worth noting that there are “godless” forms of spiritualism, Wicca and folk religion too. There is much more to a world view than whether one believes in a god or not. Therefore Atheism cannot be adequately defined just as a turning away from belief in god(s).

  26. Very interesting. Thank you for taking the time to go through all those stories and analyze them.

    It seems as if a significant number if not the entire bunch of these de-conversion stories take place within Western Christianity and/or Roman Catholicism. Would you say that is correct? If so, what do you think data might be outside of the West and/or among groups very different from Roman Catholics?

    I’ve found that generally speaking, we can have these kind of experiences with a great many things besides religion. I have rejected “religious”, “scientific”, and “philosophical” statements because I either got a stupid answer or because the answer conflicted with the evidence. For as many problems as I have with Christian dogma, doctrine, practice, or whathaveyou, which has caused me to reject a great deal of “orthodox” and even unorthodox Christianity, I have as many problems with certain areas of “scientific” analysis which causes me to reject a great many aspects of evolutionary theory. I find, for example, the idea of the infallibility of the bible (to use an anachronistic term) just as ludicrous as personality or consciousness arising in non-personal, non-conscious matter.

    And talking about simple questions asked by someone honestly and then getting just a stupid or illogical answer and being turned off by it in a major way… I still remember the utter disappointment I had when I spent a year studying evolution at a liberal state university and at the end of it realized that the only evidence I had been given the entire time to support evolution was that since one jawbone and another jawbone looked similar, this therefore proved common ancestry. That bologna made embryological recapitulation or religion look appealing. And then when I was reading and studying various religious texts, I was dumbfounded by how hard it was for various believers to show me evidence from their texts in the original languages that could prove that the texts actually said anything remotely like what their translations said they did. I mean, sure, the English says that, but how do I know someone didn’t just create that out of thin air using English? It was such a simple question and yet it was such a huge problem that elicited quite a few non-answers.

  27. Pingback: Atheist Revolution

  28. Don’t know if this was already raised by a commenter or not.
    You are ignoring the undecideds. They are the ones who might be persuaded by Atheistic argument.

  29. PS. I lied when I ticked the ‘I read the comments policy’ box.
    and whats more, I am about to do it again :)

  30. Re celtic chimp, it wasn’t within the scope of this article to discuss people who were undecided about religious matters. Obviously my sample only dealt with self selecting atheists. The stories came from a website asking atheists to describe why they are not Christians.

    To respond to slave of one, the bias in the stories I analysed is probably due to the kinds of people who would be attracted to the website I obtained the stories from. Deconvertees from the more cult like Christian traditions, or from non-Christian traditions, would probably engage with a different style of deconversion community.

    Thanks for your interest!

  31. Wow, fantastic effort sorting through these stories and compiling the statistics. In some ways it all confirms what I suspected, but it is wonderful to have this resource now to point to. No doubt this will be one of those bookmarks I’ll be dropping a lot in a variety of different places.

    To Matt – I see deconversion the same as when people get clean from drugs and alcohol, so conversion to atheism doesn’t make sense. You’re getting of of drugs, faith and dogma, and getting clean.

  32. Q the Physicist

    “I think the above people always knew in their heart of hearts that religion was absurd.”

    I wholly agree with this and then some. i would bet that the majority of your respondents fall into this category, not just the smaller group you initially mentioned. You go on to say

    “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.”

    I agree that people need to liberate themselves, but I think “assuming the role of the atheist proselyte” means that when a Christian expresses anything at all about their religion, they are open game and it is, in fact, my duty to bring all the “atheist resources to support people trapped in the religious paradigm” to bear. I intend to be active and not passive in my desire to change the world for the better.

    I’ve had a go with a few people recently, three to be exact (all in some way staunch in their thinking and each drew first blood, i.e., they attempted to tell me about Jesus or God), and each confrontation, each battle if you will, went the same way: they asked me something to the effect of did i know Jesus while I answered I had known him once in my life but due to this, this and this reason, I gave him up. Then I attacked with increasing degrees of firepower: from easy stuff like explaining where Cain’s wife came from, explain the flood (these two are easily countered by the non-literal reading of the Bible defense) to the efficacy of prayer to pulling out the big guns with the problem of the omniscience and omnipotence of God right on into the problem of evil (which I truly believed had no defense). “The Lord works in mysterious ways” is an incredible defense to break but, as I said before, I was sure that the problem of evil would break that given that everyone has personal experience where they experienced some wrongdoing and are at a loss to know why. I was sure by bringing up the problem of evil, I could at least make these people think.

    There was one defense, however, a Hail Mary (pun intended), a shield of Borgian proportions (perhaps it’s even a cloaking device?) which I was unable to penetrate: the “I’ve been touched by God (Jesus)” defense. As earlier quoted, it would seem that a large portion of the sample you tested already knew deep down that it was all a load of bollocks, if I can be so brash, but it appears that no amount of logic, cajoling, coercion, or anything else I can think of is going to dissuade these people to give up their faith. They haven’t read the Bible and don’t intend to. These people go to church as much for the social aspect of it as anything else. They are not interested in the finer points of the religious dogma (is there a purgatory or isn’t there?). No, these people have one idea and that is this: they have an interlocutor who has proven to them that he is real and indeed does “interlocute.” No amount of education, logic or anything else appears to be able to penetrate this tough exterior.

    so, real question here is: what is to be done against the “private guardian angel” defense? I mean, if one did want to support or encourage de-conversion?

  33. Bonder

    Q the Physicist:

    You make some interesting points, and I think that we should try to get people to think rationally about what they believe and why they believe it. Having said that, it seems to me that there is no way to force someone to do so, and if we approach conversations/debates as “battles”, our attacks immediately put the theists on the defensive and vice versa. Once this mentality has been set for the conversation, it becomes less about thoughtfully considering what the other person has to say as it does staunchly defending what each party involved believes.

    From this approach, it seems to me that the only thing we can hope to accomplish is to spread the knowledge that there exist alternatives to theism. This knowledge is important if it is our goal to get people to approach things with a naturalist/atheist world view. However, I think it’s highly unlikely that this tactic will convince a significant percentage of the theistic population to consider what they believe and why they believe it.

    In order to get people to examine their faith, I think we have to take an approach that is more under the radar. It’s been said already, but I think the best way to accomplish this is through education. Specifically education in topics of science, math/logic, and comparative religion. All three of these subjects provide a different tool for examining religion, and it is hard to say which one will evoke the desired examination. Science shows people that religion makes claims that don’t match with observable reality; comparative religion shows people that there exist alternatives to the religion that they believe; and math/logic gives people the necessary tools to rationally examine a belief set.

    Another under the radar tactic that I think may be a little easier to do for a single person is to make the conversation with theists all about their religion. Be (or pretend to be) interested in what they have to say. This may sound counter-intuitive, but this approach will allow you to make points and ask questions when the theist may not be so guarded as when they are “battling” an atheist. They may be more likely to consider what you have to say if they think you’re simply trying to understand what they believe and why they believe it, rather than trying to cram anti-religion down their throats.

    Just my $0.02.

    Kieran:

    Found this with StumbleUpon, giving it a “‘Thumbs up”. I’ll have to poke around the site some more. Great post.

  34. So, to summarise, if we really want to deconvert* someone, we can say pretty much anything to them… as long as we don’t engage the parts of their brain that handle rhetoric and apologetics. Once they start thinking of us as debaters or salesmen, they’ll start putting up barriers and we’ll lose them.

    Is that a sensible conclusion given the content of this (very impressive) bit of research?

    Incidentally, I’m amazed that there doesn’t seem to be much academic research on this issue. Where are the damn psychologists when you need them?

    * To satisfy any ethical qualms, let’s say the believer has cancer and their preacher is recommending they rely on faith healing instead of chemo.

  35. Q the Physicist

    Bonder:

    Yes, i know. i only “battle” those who are ready for the challenge. the venomfangX types. (if you dont know who this guy is, look him up on youtube. you won’t believe your ears!)

    after all that longwindedness in my last post, all i really wanted to point out was that most of the christians i know, family members, people i knew from church when i was kid, neighbors, whoever really, don’t really even think about religion in terms of logic; they just think” I had X problem and Y happened, which was totally unexpected, so God/Jesus must have done it. Case closed. I believe in that.”

    listening to this type of christian, hearing their side, politely pointing out stuff, making them try to understand things (like inconsistencies in the bible)i think is wasted in the face of “yeah, but Jesus saved my life when i got in that car wreck last year. there is no other explanation. i should be dead now.” pointing out other religions is also futile, not because they will staunchly defend their own faith in light of the other, but rather because they often aren’t even really concerned with the tenets of their won faith, let alone those of another religion. “What do i care about Buddhism or Jainism? Jesus touched me today in church when i started speaking in tongues. that’s all that matters to me.”

    when we talk about getting people to examine their faith, i think we as rational thinkers are missing the point. while the squeaky wheel gets the oil, i don’t think most Americans who profess a belief in God are totally fundamental and adhere to the strict word of the bible. most people, i think, go to church because they always have and/or because they like the social interaction, but when it comes to the faith itself, they are not really concerned. what they seem to be concerned about, at least the people i know, is simply the fact that there is someone there to turn to in times of trouble. a shoulder to cry on, an ear that listens.

    if we aim to make a change for the better in the world, we are going to have to address this fact. people adhere to religion not because they believe all the doctrine but rather because they believe in a personal imaginary friend who helps them in time of need. somehow we have to make them understand that the the feeling of Jesus touching them is what it is, a mental process or whatever (yeah! where in the hell are the psychologists when you need them?). i wish i knew what it was so i could tell them. but i don’t. and the feeling of the holy spirit coming down and making four or five people pass out while the preacher is preaching (i went to a black baptist church when i was a kid) is not the holy spirit come down to earth spreading its power. it is some mass hypnosis or something (again, where are the psychologists??).

    no, i don’t have the answers for what causes this phenomena but until we get to this side of it, it is going to be hard to make headway with a lot of people.

  36. Bonder

    Q the Physicist:

    I see where you are coming from now. I think a big part of the issue is a mental compartmentalization of thought processes: people use logic and reasoning to varying degrees in their lives, but when it comes to religion or something “unexplainable,” logic and reasoning go out the window and they replace it with “God/Jesus did it” or “my preacher says…”

    Part of my point about education, especially about math/logic, is that the more you use your logic “muscles”, the more you look for ways to apply them. Sort of like a “when you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” thing, but in a good way. My thought then is that the more people are exposed to a critical use of logic, the more likely they are to apply that to their belief that there is an all-knowing, all-powerful invisible man in the sky who is deeply concerned with our sex lives.

    Again, I don’t really think there’s a way to force anyone to examine what they believe through the lens of logic and reason, all we can really do is try to find what it takes to pique a person’s curiosity so he/she will take that first step. That is why I mentioned science and comparative religion as those are two things that I think lead to in inspection of one’s beliefs more often than other things.

    Being able to explain precisely what physiological processes cause people to have a religious experience would be nice, but I don’t think that it will necessarily achieve what you think it might. There’s always the response “maybe that’s how god/jesus does it”, or even “I don’t care about biology; I just know what happened.”

    When it comes right down to it, I think there’s really only so much a person can do to try to get someone to examine their ideas on faith/religion, but that someone has to be willing to make the effort. We can show them the door; they have to step through it, so to speak.

  37. An enjoyable read. I found the pervasive ‘s, used in plurals, and even to split apart the name Dawkins, more than a bit distracting, though.

  38. Bad habbits die hard, I really have to watch that. I’ve gone through the post line by line and corrected teh use of ‘s, hopefully it’s less irritating now.

  39. Ryan

    Kirsten:
    My church offered the Alpha Course too, and I have seen it advertised in Canberra.
    I don’t dispute that it can be effective, I am just curious as to why Australia responds so much better to the american razzle-dazzle style Christianity. Especially given that in general I consider our culture to be much more in step with Britain than the US.

  40. Brad,

    I think Kieran is suggesting that apart from conducting a large and expensive scientific study that testimony is the best source at hand.

    Yes we are all prone to reshaping our memory to conform to our current image of ourselves.

  41. hank

    If you’d read the final paragraph of the conclusion …

    “Ultimately a person has to liberate themselves from religion, it is not for us to assume the role of atheist proselytes.”

    … you’d realise your comment does not apply and that you missed the point of the entire article.

    NO self-respecting, atheist (or one who respects the freedom of others) should or would take it upon themselves to de-convert anybody from their faith. For me (and, I suspect, most freethinkers) the whole point is to arrive at a decision yourself through your own thought processes – you may be influenced by external materials and ideas but the ultimate decision has to be taken freely. To take the role of of a de-vangelist would be the height of hypocrisy and I would rapidly dissociate myself from any nonbeliever who did such a thing.

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