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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.

The abstract introduces the paper as follows:

The study of religious conversion has historically neglected how nonbelievers (i.e. atheists) come to adopt a belief in a god or gods, and thus cannot address whether findings and theories from previous research apply to atheists. In order to assess how atheists converted to Christianity, we performed a thematic analysis of 111 biographical narratives obtained from the open Internet. Our analysis yielded 10 recurring thematic elements, which we termed as hardship; authentic example; unfamiliarity/pseudo-familiarity (with Christianity or Christians); “contra atheism”; religious study; intellectualism; numinous experiences; openness to experience; ritual behaviors; and social ties. We draw logical connections between these themes and connect them to previous research. Our results impress the need for a more flexible, and therefore less sequential or stage-based, theoretical approach to conversion.

In his introduction, he talks about how there is a real lack of quality research, and touches on some interesting research into Chinese atheists who have converted to Christianity, as follows:

Relatedly, Wong’s doctoral dissertation on how Chinese atheist intellectuals became Christians when immigrating to the United States resonates with the above insights. He determined six key influences: (1) positive interaction with Christians; (2) extensive contact with evangelical communities; (3) self-adaptation in a new culture; (4) experiencing distress/crisis; (5) new freedom to search for life meaning and a cognitively satisfying worldview; and (6) personal religious experiences with the divine.

Lastly, a recent study by Hui and colleagues examined non-Christian Chinese conversions to Christianity over a three-year period, using a matched control group. They found that neither personality, social axioms, psychological symptoms, nor personal values were predictive of such a change. Rather, only whether or not a person thought that there was one and only one true religion proved to be consequential. Their overall conclusion was that “any person can become a Christian without any predispositions or triggering events” (Hui, Cheung, Lam, Lau, Cheung, and Yuliawati: 227).

This is interesting because it appears to show a content-driven conversion as opposed to one concerned with psychological and contextual triggers. As mentioned, though, these findings are thin on the ground and so may not form a robust set of data and interpretations. Across 2016, Langston et al received and whittled down to 111 narrative cases to conduct their own research into conversion from atheism to Christianity.

The narratives reflected the personal stories of those who self-identified as having changed from identifying as an atheist to identifying as a Christian, without the use of the word “conversion” as a frame of reference. Due to the plurality of definitions of conversion, there is no standard or widely used operational definition of the term in any discipline that studies religion (Savage; Rambo). As a result, we understood these narratives to reflect conversions on the understanding that a person had identified themselves as having undergone such a change in self-identification by virtue of their act of answering the specific questions prompts. Additionally, the narratives themselves gave us confidence that few narrators, if any at all, were confused about what an atheist is/was, or that any of them conceived of atheism as still believing in (a) God or Gods but only entertaining religious doubts. Although atheism might have different definitions, the definitions advanced in both academic and lay discourse largely regard it as either a lack of belief in god or gods, or, a positive belief that god or gods do not exist (Bullivant; Cliteur). While we cannot know which of these the narrators had in mind, we offer that it was unlikely to be something wholly other or radically different from these two options.

Moreover, while claiming to be an atheist does not make one an atheist, a heavy reliance on self-reports of introspective belief states leaves few means to affirm or deny their accuracy. In general, behaviors and outward signs lend some evidence for self-reported beliefs, but, crucially, atheists tend to lack such institutional and behavioral identifiers, leading us to highlight the importance of self-identification for them specifically. As a result, we found it feasible to accept the previous atheist status of those who answered these questions prompts.

Because no prior theoretical frameworks have included atheism in the equation of religious conversions, we did not wish to assume that previous studies on religious conversion would necessarily be applicable regarding atheist conversions. Having only the personal narratives of atheists-turned-Christians to guide us suggested an exploratory study using conventional content analysis (Hsieh and Shannon), as such an approach is useful precisely when few theoretical assumptions are available. However, it would be more appropriate to refer to our approach as a conventional thematic analysis, as opposed to a content analysis. This is because content analyses and thematic analyses are similar in a number of ways, yet distinct approaches (Vaismoradi, Turunen, and Bondas), with content analysis focused on how often narrative elements occur, and thus more quantitative in nature. Our approach mirrored LeDrew’s study of identity formation among “active” atheists: we likewise made use of inductive, as opposed to theoretical/deductive, thematic analysis, and not content analysis, although we attended to the number of cases in which each theme appeared. As another safeguard, in order to prevent our review of the literature from biasing or “leading” our analysis and analytical insights, we used a delayed literature review (Glaser), meaning that we began our collection and analysis of cases prior to engaging the relevant research literature on religious conversion (Strauss and Corbin).

I will seek to look into their finding over some following posts.


On Langston’s background:

I have a dual background in psychology and sociology, with an interest in the study of both religion and atheism. Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the structural and individual-difference factors involved in religious change, with a particular interest in Norris and Inglehart’s existential security thesis (e.g., better-off societies tend to be less religious), and how the relatively new cognitive science of religion can be applied to how or why people are religious and/or become atheists.

I am also currently a research associate with the Atheist Research Collaborative; taught an upper level university course in Religion and Society, in the Fall of 2014; and from February 2016 to June 2017, I was also a research associate in the behavioral science department at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

My ongoing research projects can be found here:

I also have an ongoing project that examines the deconversion narratives of former theists, now atheists…very similar to this atheist-to-Christian project, but the inverse; a few studies of this kind have been done, but we intend to break new ground with ours.As for my personal “leanings”, I’m afraid I don’t discuss those with anyone; the entire matter is a professional one to me, not a personal one, so my focus is on doing the best research possible, without personal bias (hence one reason why I and my colleagues have been researching both directions of these conversions). I recently accepted an offer to enter a PhD program in psychology, at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, starting in February 2019.


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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,...