What convinces non-believers to reject religion and embrace non-belief?
A couple weeks back, I took a survey here in this blog, asking, “If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?”
I found the answers fascinating: touching, funny, heartbreaking, thoughtful. (Thanks so much to everyone who contributed!) And I think they provide, not only a window into the process of deconversion… but a game plan for those of us who want to help the process along. Whether you’re actively trying to help deconvert people and increase the amount of atheism in the world — or are simply trying to create a more atheist- friendly world where people who are doubting their faith feel safer becoming atheists if that’s what’s right for them — knowing how and why people deconvert is useful information to have.
I do realize that this isn’t really a statistically useful sampling, btw. It’s too small, and it’s too skewed. (“People who read Greta Christina’s Blog” is not necessarily representative of all non-believers, as much as I would like it to be.) I’d love to see a really good, large study of non-believers and how they got that way. But as a place to start, and in tandem with other atheist blogs who are doing similar polls, it’ll do for now.
FYI, I got 43 deconversion stories in this survey, including my own. But many people listed more than one cause for their non-belief. Hence, the total number of causes is going to add up to a lot more than 43.
Out of 43 deconversion stories, here’s what people gave as the main causes for their loss of belief.
Just thinking about it: 30.
Talking to atheists/ skeptics, or reading atheist/ skeptical writing: 24.
Talking to religious leaders and teachers (pastors, priests, etc.) — or reading apologetics — and finding atrocities, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, absurdities, hypocrisies, sloppy thinking, and/or unacceptable moral views: 14. (This includes asking questions of religious leaders and teachers, and not getting satisfactory answers.)
Reading the Bible — or whatever the sacred text is of their religion — and finding atrocities, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, absurdities, hypocrisies, sloppy thinking, and/or unacceptable moral views: 9.
I want to take a moment to break down “just thinking about it” in a little more detail. It’s the biggest category by a fair amount. And the thinking processes that people describe are ideas I see in the atheosphere all the time… which makes me think we need to keep on getting those ideas out into the world.
So here is a quick- and- dirty summary of the “just thinking about it” ideas that made people begin, or end up, leaving their religion. (Again, because many people listed more than one idea, the total will add up to a lot more than 30.)
Historical/ scientific inaccuracy, internal inconsistency, or just plain absurdity, of religious beliefs: 16
Immorality, unfairness, or other troubling aspects of religious beliefs: 14
Dishonest, hypocritical, or other bad behavior by religious believers or leaders: 11
Not seeing good evidence/ arguments for religion, and/or seeing it as improbable: 10
Science as a better explanation for X (consciousness, life, religious experiences, whatever) than religion: 10
Emotional experience — simply didn’t feel the faith: 5
Seeing religion as a human creation: 4
Seeing bad things happening, not consistent with belief in a good God: 4
Seeing harm done by religion: 4
Diversity of religious beliefs; different faiths with incompatible views: 4
Insufficiency of religion to offer comfort or other things it promises: 3
Realizing that “I only believed because it’s what I was taught”: 2
Rejection of religious authority: 2
And I want to break down the “talking to atheists” one as well… since it’s sort of the Big Question on the table. Because it turns out that there are lots of different ways that encounters with atheists and atheist ideas can help believers leave their belief behind. (Again, some people mentioned more than one cause, so the sum of the parts will add up to more than the whole).
Specific atheist arguments or ideas: 16
Exposure to general skepticism, critical thinking, and/or the scientific method: 11
Simply knowing, or being exposed to, atheists or other non- believers; realizing that non-belief was an option: 7
Encountering atheism or other non-belief and realizing, “Yes, that’s me”: 5
Seeing that atheists not only exist, but can be happy people with moral/ meaningful/ non- guilt- ridden lives: 3
Seeing terms such as “atheist” or “agnostic” accurately defined: 3
And there’s something else I noticed: In the stories people told about losing their religion? The “reading/ talking to atheists” part often came at the end of the story. It isn’t what gave them doubt in the first place… but it’s what sealed the deal. (The phrase “final nail in the coffin” came up more than once.)
So here are the lessons I’m taking from this exercise, the lessons I hope other atheists will find useful as well. If we want to help people deconvert — or simply make it a world in which people find it easier and safer to do so — here’s what we need to do:
Come out. Often, simply encountering atheists and atheist ideas, or being exposed to skepticism and methods of critical thinking, can be a big factor in deconversion. And knowing about the existence of other atheists — especially other good, happy atheists — can help people feel like they have a safe place to land once they take that step. (The analogy with coming out as gay/ lesbian/ bi/ trans is inevitable…)
Don’t expect your arguments to deconvert anyone overnight. That rarely happens. Don’t think of yourself as dynamite under the foundations; think of yourself as water wearing away the rock.
Don’t expect to deconvert a strong true believer. Meeting atheists, encountering atheist ideas and arguments… these things can have an effect on believers. But they tend to have an effect in the end stage of deconversion — not at the beginning. The initial cracks of doubt tend to come from within: from people considering their beliefs, and having doubts about whether those beliefs are moral, or consistent with reality, or even consistent with themselves. We can help widen those cracks… but it seems like we rarely, if ever, make them happen in the first place.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t engage with strong true believers. The engagement can help strengthen your own arguments and clarify your own thinking. And if the engagement is happening in any sort of public setting — an online discussion thread, say — it may have an effect on other people following the argument… even if they’re not saying anything.
Arguments can have an effect. This one surprised me. I know how stubbornly resistant to evidence and reason religious belief can be. I know how frustrating it can be to debate with believers who ultimately don’t seem to value reason. But out of 24 non-believers who said that encountering atheists or atheist ideas was part of their deconversion process, 16 said they were at least partly persuaded by specific atheist arguments or ideas. That’s three out of four. And that’s 16 out of the grand total of 43 deconversions — more than one out of three.
Again, we often come in at the tail end of the process instead of at the beginning. But that’s an important part. Don’t dismiss it.
On the other hand, no one argument or idea is going to convince everybody. We’re not going to find a magic bullet, the One Good Argument that convinces everyone to deconvert. Different people find different arguments and ideas compelling. We have to keep presenting all of them.
Expose people, not just to specific arguments against religion, but to methods of skeptical, critical, and scientific thinking. While specific arguments can help people complete the process of deconversion, people need to start the process on their own. However, having critical thinking tools can help that process begin — as well as helping it come to its conclusion.
Encourage people to read the Bible, or whatever the sacred text is of their religion. For lots of people, the loss of their belief began by examining more closely what they supposedly believed, and being either intellectually baffled or morally repulsed. (Julia Sweeney’s performance piece, “Letting Go of God,” is a perfect example of this.) Let’s encourage more people to do it.
Finally, and most importantly:
What we’re doing can work. It is working.
What we’re doing can feel frustrating to the point of futility. Religious belief is often extremely stubborn. It is often extremely resistant to reason and evidence. It is often armored with a wide variety of armors against criticism… and indeed, against the very idea that it can and should be subject to criticism. Trying to persuade people that their religious belief is a mistaken hypothesis about the world — even trying to get people to see their religious belief as a hypothesis at all, one which should be able to stand up on its own against other hypotheses — can feel like shouting into the wind.
But what we’re doing can work. Rates of non-belief have been going up dramatically in the U.S., even in just the last few years. And in parts of the world — specifically Europe — non- belief is so common that in some countries it’s more common than belief.
And look again at the replies to the original post. See how many times people said, “Finally I was persuaded by The God Delusion… finally I was persuaded by Daniel Dennett… finally I was persuaded by something someone said on an internet discussion group… finally I was persuaded by something I read on this blog.” What we’re doing can work. It is working.
So let’s keep it up.