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I recently posted a few posts in a series of articles concerning some research by Joseph Langston into conversions from atheism to Christianity. As he predicted, a kickback from atheists was on the cards. This can be seen in the posts and the comments to these posts:

I have edited a collection of deconversion accounts from different religions to atheism and agnosticism titled Beyond an Absence of Faith – it’s a great book and I would love you all to grab a copy.  I was recently contacted by Joseph Langston, who works with a group called the Atheist Research Collaborative. He was telling me about a paper he has authored that is due for publication this autumn, called “Toward Faith: A Qualitative Study of How Atheists Convert to Christianity [PREPRINT]”. The preprint version of the journal entry is available here.

I would like to look at part of the methodology involved in analysing the papers, and what the initial thematic findings were in terms of the conversion events. In the paper, he states:

Our analytical strategy was specific. One author collected all open-source narrative material and, after elimination of cases, read the material three times: once to gain an initial familiarity with the material, where no coding was done and only analytic memos were written to capture observations; a second time, to begin to define themes and specific instances of them; and a third time in order to refine and sharpen these themes and their instances. Once this task was complete, another author performed a second, independent round of coding, in order to compare and contrast it to the first author’s scheme. The remaining author peer reviewed both coding schemes and made recommendations for change, correction, and additions/subtractions. In this manner, our team disputed, refined, and clarified the themes that emerged (cf. Lofland and Skonovd; Wright, Giovanelli, Dolan, and Edwards).

By this process, the two coding schemes were reconciled into one coding scheme which consisted of 10 themes. We present these themes below in the order in which they appeared most frequently. Because we discuss thematic interconnections throughout each theme description in a combined Results and Discussion section, a brief description of each theme beforehand will serve to provide some context. These themes were:

  1. Ritual Behaviors: prayer, reading the Bible, and attending a Christian church.

  2. Intellectualism: use of rationalism, debate, arguments, and critical thinking.

  3. Numinous Experiences: often inexplicable and mystical experiences of the divine, i.e. “religious experiences.”

  4. Social Ties: social relationships and networks.

  5. Hardship: negative life circumstances.

  6. Unfamiliarity/Pseudofamiliarity (with Christianity/Christians): self-acknowledged misconceptions or preconceptions based on lack of or low experience, or negative experiences, with Christians and Christianity.

  7. Openness to Experience: an attitudinal disposition of willingness to examine different ideas; to be open to another view possibly being true.

  8. Authentic Example: finding Christians or Christianity to be inspiring or impressive; axiological or aesthetic influence.

  9. Religious Study: extra-Biblical study of Christianity, and of non-Christian religions.

  10. Contra Atheism: experiencing a sense of “worldviewlessness”, or of being ungrounded in the larger scheme of existence, e.g. existential despair.

I found the order of this list pretty interesting, and the fact that ritual behaviour sits first in the list is probably not what I would have expected. As Langston continues:

Ritual Behaviors (59 of 111 cases; 53%)

Encompassing interpersonal, affective, and intellectual dimensions, the ritual behaviors of prayer, church attendance, and reading the Bible appeared in more than half of all cases. However, they appeared in the narrative content primarily as independent activities, to the point where they could be classified as their own, albeit minor, sub-themes[1]. Overall, 30 narratives pertained to attending church, 22 referenced reading the Bible, and 21 mentioned engaging in prayer. For this reason, we briefly address each of these in turn.

When self-identified atheists reported engaging in prayer, some of this was what we would call “experimental”, in the sense of “trying out” communication with a deity that one did not even believe in, and could be seen as consonant with an attitude of willingness and volition characterized by our theme of Openness to Experience (below). This experimental attitude especially occurred in conjunction with engaging in the other two ritual behaviors. Otherwise, such behavior seemed to be connected to Hardship situations or events (i.e. stressful or anxiety-inducing events), as well as Numinous Experiences.

Overwhelmingly, attending a Christian church service was a matter of a (sometimes spontaneous) invitation from a friend, or because of the desire of one’s romantic partner or spouse to attend. In only three cases did a person attend church due to other than social influence, and all other stated reasons occurred in even fewer cases than this (e.g. attendance at private religious schools). This links church attendance to our theme of Social Ties (cf. Gebauer and Maio; Rauff; Schaller). Furthermore, social ties, social networks, and affective bonding are central components of one influential theory of religious conversion (Stark and Bainbridge, 1980; Stark; Stark and Bainbridge, 1985; Snow and Phillips). As such, church attendance reflects the influence of personal relationships and communities on the construction and sustainment of religious identities (Stroope).

Motivations for reading the Bible included seeking solace or inspiration in its pages; genuine curiosity about its contents; or exploring the Christian worldview, which invokes the themes of Religious Study. Some came to the opinion that the Bible did not contain the falsehoods, absurdities, and contradictions that they had previously been led to believe it did, which is a tie-in to the Unfamiliarity or Pseudofamiliarity theme. Others reported being impressed and inspired by what they described as the Bible’s spiritual, moral, and aesthetic insights, which is a reflection of the theme of Authentic Example.

[1] Because these are primary ritual aspects of Christianity, we chose to combine them into one thematic category. Even so, they are unlikely to be interchangeable in terms of their effects and thus the roles they play in a conversion journey/event. We would certainly expect them to be interrelated, yet we do not suggest that their impact could be measured as one factor; as such, future research should pay due individual attention to each.

In defining these ritual behaviours, and by his own admission, one can see that it becomes somewhat of a catch-all that includes thematic crossover into other relevant areas.

Ideas like hardship and social ties are arguably cleaner and more obvious and less muddied by other variables and themes. As such, I think that to have “ritual behaviours” as the prevailing theme needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, especially given the different types of behaviours and how they manifest in different ways.

For example, going to church can certainly be seen in ways entirely covered by the social ties category, but also in terms of many of the other categories. I wonder whether young people in the UK, say, who have never really experienced church in their youth (as the act of going to church has really retreated into cultural obscurity), might see the whole church attendance in terms of openness to new experience. On the other hand, going to church, for me, speaks of turgidity, boredom or staleness. An evangelical church may hit social, musical, ritualistic and psychological buttons, including notions such as hysteria.

Seeking solace from the Bible, likewise, may ultimately hit the category of hardship, and coping with some kind of trauma.

I would like to ask readers here, who have previously been Christians (or other religious types) of no doubt many differing flavours, what part ritual behaviours played in their religious life. How much of a draw were such behaviours and the positive feedback derived from them?

I am also constantly running a series on deconversion accounts and would appreciate any further accounts of moving away from religious belief of any kind. The last one and all other links can be seen here.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...