I recently posted the first in a series of articles concerning some research by Joseph Langston into conversions from atheism to Christianity. As he predicted, and as you can see from his writing here below, a kickback from atheists was on the cards.
I fully understand why atheists will push back on claims of atheist to Christian conversion. At the end of the day, we all think we come to any belief through rational reason. But we are psychological beings. Any belief is invariably arrived at with at least a combination of psychological determinants. When we, as atheists, proclaim the rational high ground and claim that we are correct (as anyone will obviously do), when someone leaves this position, then they cannot be doing it for rational reasons. Therefore, we, as atheists, claim they can’t have been “proper atheists” because, otherwise, they would still be believing in the atheistic proposition. A “proper atheist” simply cannot leave atheism properly. They must have some lesser or nefarious reasons for doing so. It is an example of cognitive dissonance, arguably.
Of course, the retorts to this would be that since atheism is clearly correct for X, Y and Z reasons, and if they can’t show that these propositions to be untrue, then they must be being irrational.
Joseph Langston was answering this comment from Kevin K:
So, they’ve searched the internet and have come up with 100-odd “I used to be an atheist” stories. Not to be harsh, but have they considered that many of those narratives come from Liars for Jesus™? The chicken-dinner circuit is chock-a-block full of “I used to be” Christian preachers.
Not saying that true conversions don’t happen … just that I’m doubtful that this type of research is informative in any way.
And this is how he answered (and I think him for interacting here, and giving some good content):
Actually, I was waiting for someone to make this comment. Mainly because we ran across it somewhat frequently during narrative collection. For that reason, I wrote a defense of our project over a year ago, just for this occasion. Although it also touches upon the role of intellectualism in the authentication of (de)conversions, it also touches upon the issue of who is and isn’t an atheist, and verification regarding conversions in general, to include atheist-to-Christian conversions. Here it is.
Disputes surrounding authentication of conversions arise as a theme in atheist writings, blogs, websites, and even among Christian writers remarking upon atheist conversions. A number of examples should suffice to draw this out. In a blog entry pointedly titled “Why are Atheist Conversions to Christianity So D**ned Unconvincing”, evolutionary developmental biologist and popular atheist blogger P.Z. Myers wrote:
There most certainly are people who made sincere conversions from a state of godlessness to one of devout certainty. This is actually a very interesting process, and I’d like to know more about it, because I can’t imagine myself ever becoming a god-believer. I want to understand what makes for a persuasive argument for patent nonsense……Why do people convert to Catholicism? We cannot trust the self-reporting of the victims of this loss of intellectual rigor, because of course they always fall back on the claim of “I am too really smart”, citing bad books with pretentions that have an elevated reputation in the theological community, despite being what Price calls “pseudo-scholarly attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of readers, most of whom will be happy enough for the sedation”. I have my suspicions, but these true believers will never confess to them, and most likely are even unaware of their motivations.
Another entry from Ask the Atheists noted:
I think many of the “Atheist-turned-Christians” have retrofitted the term “Atheist” onto their past but would never have called themselves an Atheist when they were younger. They may have just been apathetic about religion and didn’t care one way or the other about the question of God’s existence or non-existence…I’ve only personally known one Atheist who converted to Christianity during the time that we knew each other and I could vouch for his being truly Atheistic. He converted after he wrecked his car, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and his sister committed suicide all in one month. Sometimes we drop our mental defenses when we’re weak and once religion sets in, it’s hard to shake.
And yet another from the same source, as skeptical as the first:
…I think I’m more suspicious of the “converts” you mention than you are. They match exactly a common evangelist view of atheists, which is that they aren’t atheists at all but rather closet Christians living immorally and in deep denial. They’d love that to be true of all atheists, because it would put Christians squarely in the right and make us look pathetic…These people don’t have to have been invented wholesale, or be preachers in disguise. Born-agains tend to take a very dim view of their time before “seeing the light”, and in the pursuit of humility they may take a very dim view of themselves. They may honestly think that they always believed but denied it in order to be wicked.
In a 2012 blog post [“How could an atheist convert to Christianity?”] on the religion forum Patheos, atheist blogger Bob Seidensticker problematized the atheist “deconversions” of Antony Flew, Richard Morgan, and Leah Libresco, all to Christianity. He analyzed their stories, concluding that none of them challenged the “hypothesis that well-informed atheists never change because of intellectual reasons”. It should also be noted that the threads on reddit from which we derived many of our narratives below contained a noticeable degree of suspicion of and doubt about the credibility of atheist-to-Christian conversions. It was even visible in certain places in the narrative cases. According to one narrative case we collected:
I have…been accused of not being a “real” atheist, not because of any way I answered, but simply because I adopted the Christian faith. On at least one occasion, a guy called me a “fanatic” and flat out accused me of lying. He assumed I was a raised in a Christian home and made some accusations based on those assumptions. In reality, I was not a Christian until I was 25, and was not raised Christian.
This individual went on to note that even though the definition of atheism is often given as “a lack of belief in god(s)”, she/he felt this was differentially treated when discussing ex-atheists:
Somehow, when the subject of a “former atheist” comes up, all of a sudden, the bar is set much higher. All of a sudden, the atheist must understand and be able to refute Pascal’s Wager, must understand how to defend the non-faith, must be able to quote the exact dictionary definition of all varieties of atheist, gnostic atheist, agnostic atheist, strong atheist, etc. etc. “He can’t have been a real atheist, he can’t even quote the American Atheist’s definition verbatim!”
We also personally encountered this same concern in a few of the email responses we received when looking for potential study participants via connections to atheist organizations:
There is the common “Conversion Narrative” that Christians like to present as proof of salvation. This narrative frequently quotes past atheism, (along with a list of other sins) to demonstrate just how bad the person was before conversion. […] I find few of these narratives convincing. For example, when Kirk Cameron explains his past atheism, he never mentions the intellectual reasons for which he found atheism convincing. Instead, he talks about partying and doing whatever he wanted without restrictions. Which goes to show that he was a spoiled brat, not an atheist. I wonder what his life would have been if he had found a role model who was also a Secular Humanist? When I have in public spoken to religious people who tell me that, “I used to be an atheist too, just like you!” I never ask these people what convinced them that atheism was wrong or incorrect. I ask them what persuaded them that atheism was correct at the time they were an atheist. Their responses have been enlightening to me in that they demonstrate that they gave little thought to their previous positions. Most were not atheists in an intellectual sense, they were merely hedonists.
Ostensibly, then, some current atheists reject the legitimacy of atheist conversions to Christianity, either by rejecting the legitimacy of prior atheism, or by invalidating the reasons given as not being legitimate or acceptable, and especially not intellectual in nature. Their focus is trained upon the extent to which these conversions were based on ratiocination, intellectual or rational factors, debate, argumentation, and evidence. Although it cannot be said that these critics view all such conversions as “inauthentic” or disingenuous, their discourse essentially criticizes these narratives as claiming that the conversions in question were based on “cognitive” factors when in fact there were a variety of other elements present that confound the ability to reasonably conclude that logic, evidence, and intellectual factors in general played as much of a role as they claim. In doing so, they qualify what they think tends to count in identifying an atheist, and they foreclose the possibility or perhaps likelihood that intelligence, reasoning, and consideration of evidence can be effective or prominent factors in atheist conversions to Christianity.
On the one hand, we submit that it is an interesting hypothesis, to examine the role of prior learning, study, and knowledge in both atheist-to-Christian conversions and Christian-to-atheist conversions, and to see how measurements of these priors might mediate or moderate the proportions and probabilities of subsequent conversions versus stability in identification. On the other hand, we note at least three problems regarding authentication and the rejection of the legitimacy of atheist conversions to Christianity described above.
First, if one who is currently an atheist would only accept an atheist-turned-Christian story if such stories were to meet certain criteria, this itself casts doubt on whether lacking belief in god(s) is enough to qualify one as an atheist. The implication of such skepticism is that it seems to matter how one arrives at lacking belief, or why one lacked belief; certain (and in this specific case, intellectual) “hows” and “whys” count in establishing the legitimacy of prior atheism, whereas other, non-intellectual reasons do not carry as much weight, if they are legitimized at all. This engages a methodological problem of just how informed, erudite, and well-read a person has to be to count as an atheist.
This leads to a second problem: who gets to define atheism? In the language of atheists who deny the legitimacy of intellectually-grounded conversions to Christianity, we observe a discursive construction of identity through the establishment of boundaries (i.e. boundary work) through the identification and defense of (primarily intellectual) criteria for “atheist” and “not atheist”. Such a defense is all the more interesting in light of the fact that some basis of modern atheism does consist in the moral, and not just intellectual, rejection of religion in its entirety. At any rate, an immediate problem in answering the question of defining atheism, is yet another question: if we must rely on the self-reports of others in order to get at the introspective states characterized by the concept of belief (or lack thereof), then how are we able to affirm or deny what people report about their own beliefs? If a person states that they believe in the Christian God and in Jesus Christ, or if they say they do not believe in these, then how can we dispute the validity or reality of the condition to which these statements point, by referring to how and why a person professes to hold or not hold such beliefs? Behaviors lend some evidence in conjunction with reported beliefs, but, this view may disprivilege private religion. We’re also aware of phenomena such as belonging without believing (e.g. through the work of Grace Davie).
Further complicating this matter, we came across individuals in our research who would say that one need not believe in the existence of God to be a Christian; that they were converting to a religious self-identification (e.g. Catholicism), even though they did not explicitly hold a belief in Christ’s divinity, resurrection, or salvific potential; or that they believed in Christ but did not identify as a Christian. While we did not end up using these narratives in our analysis, such statements make clear the potential messiness of religious self-understandings and identity.
A third problem is the question of Christian authentication of conversions from Christianity to atheism. If atheist-to-Christian conversions can be problematized because the person in question was never “properly” informed and grounded in arguments and evidence against Christianity, then it stands to reason that the same kinds of questions apply to Christian-to-atheist conversions, and therefore the same legitimacy concerns can be seen to surround the “hows” and “why” of Christian conversions to atheism. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, in his book Faith No More, observed at least nine themes from his research on why people leave their religious faith (while also pointing out that these were apostates, not atheists, but that many apostates go on to become atheists). Only one of those themes was primarily intellectual in nature. In the final analysis, disputes concerning the factors in the authentication of (de)conversions can be seen to cut both ways.
We also find a concern that some ex-atheists never lost their previous belief. This is related to the Christian counter-notion that ex-Christians are at times accused of having been nominally, culturally, or implicitly religious. That is, they believed but either very weakly or perhaps even absent-mindedly, and their “loss” of this so-called faith could not have been genuine because genuine faith was never possessed or achieved.
In our view, what we have found is the (perhaps unsurprising) view that others who do not share the views one holds are themselves biased, at best, and tricked or deceived, at worst. Part of this may in turn be related to an inability, or unwillingness, to imagine possibilities that exceed or extend beyond one’s own personal experiences and knowledge—if one does not find a given position to be intellectually appealing or defensible, it may be that much harder for them to imagine how such a position could be appealing or defensible to anyone else. In other words, different things count toward what is convincing for different people; a change in heart or of mind for a person may or may not involve intellectual factors, but regardless of whether such factors are present, this cannot cast doubt on the internal changes a person reports. We think these insights could equally apply to Christians and atheists.
The hypothetical case of a 30-year theologian and pastor converting to atheism has just as much validity as the hypothetical Christian conversion case of a 30-year atheist organization leader who authored books in promotion of atheism and in critique of Christianity or “religion” in general. While at present we do not have the data to assess which of these occurs more frequently, our research would indicate that there is no more feasibility in denying the role played by intellectual factors than there is feasibility in denying any other factors which make an appearance in these narratives. This is not to say that intellectual factors are causal wherever we find them; rather, it is to say that intellectual factors are themselves usually embedded in a web of other contexts and influences that interact to produce unique and heterogeneous trajectories to Christianity. Though unique combinations and life sequences of these are perhaps endless, the elements that compose them are not. From our standpoint, these statements are just as descriptive of Christian-to-atheist conversions as vice versa.
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 in the autumn, called “Toward Faith: A Qualitative Study of How Atheists Convert to Christianity [PREPRINT]”. The preprint version of the journal entry is available here.
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