How Did Rational Arguments Persuade You Out Of Belief?

One often hears the dubious claim that rational arguments cannot persuade any one to abandon their religious beliefs or their religious faith traditions.  I find when people perpetuate this idea they are usually trying to stop a debate that they find uncomfortable.  Sometimes people dismiss the possibility of rational persuasion in matters of belief because they are personally inherently uncomfortable with confrontation and conflict and/or easily frustrated with disagreements that last for more than a round or two of debate.  Others seem to want to use all the real psychological evidence about how our minds resist changing as their natural tendency as, implicitly, an excuse to hold on to their own prejudices and not reexamine them.

Others buy into the moderate feeling false humility that says that matters of religious belief are hopelessly subjective and impervious to rational progress.  They essentially become relativists about anything about which people have had religious beliefs.  Religious beliefs themselves have indeed always been based on subjective, irrational sources of belief—the unsupported claims of alleged prophets, ancient texts, communal opinion, etc.—and have always been inculcated through combinations of non-rational and irrational means, e.g., rituals, family identities, wildly arbitrary and subjective interpretations of emotional experiences, etc.

So debates between religions have always been, and always will be, futile precisely to the extent that they are about matters which have no rational support.  Insofar as religious believers posit beliefs that are in principle unjustifiable and subjective, and which were formed not rationally but through non-rational and irrational processes that bound them emotionally and practically to those unsupported beliefs, all they can do in “inter-faith dialogue” is assert one prejudice against another.

Now, people wrongly generalize that just because beliefs between religions boil down to irresolvable assertions of prejudices against each other, that all reasoning about the subjects religion treats and which are not amenable to strict scientific resolution must similarly be matters of bald subjective opinion.  They assume there can be no better or worse considerations from metaphysics, epistemology, history, morality, social or natural science that can give a fair-minded person reason to believe one way or another about religion.

But atheists explicitly refuse ourselves the right to faith-based beliefs that reflect merely our own prejudices and insist we have our reasons assessed for their rational merit and not be dumped in the bin of “subjective religious opinions” as though we, like the religious, were accepting arbitrary, unsupportable beliefs as a fact of life with which we were comfortable.  We do not accept articles of faith or fantastic and clearly implausible stories as justifications for belief, etc.

We claim rational reasons for our views and so they should either be rationally refuted or accepted.  Waving us away as inherently subjective just because our subject matter is religion or theism and religious people or theists routinely argue in unrepentantly subjectivistic ways is to unfairly dismiss us because of the behavior of our intellectual enemies which we explicitly repudiate.

And not only do most of us atheists repudiate non-rational and outright irrational bases for belief and think we have reasons deserving of a fair hearing for our disbelief or our lack of belief (depending on the atheist), but many of us feel rather sure that our atheism does not just stem from an anti-religious or anti-theist prejudice precisely because we rejected belief in God while we were devoutly religious people.

In my own case, I was attending one of the most conservative evangelical biblical-literalist Christian colleges in the country.  I spent my high school years alienating my classmates with my incessant evangelism and opposition to sex ed and abortion.  In high school I ran an evangelistic monthly Christian publication out of my church which I distributed to all my friends in school.  I spent all my Sundays and Wednesdays in church growing up, all my summers from 11-21 attending and then working as a counselor at Christian indoctrination and conversion camps.  I took numerous theology and philosophical theology courses in preparation, I thought, to be a church history scholar.  I gladly and believingly adhered sacrificially rigorously to evangelical rules of ethical conduct.

Nearly all my emotional, social, moral, intellectual, and other psychological prejudices were clearly and unequivocally on the side of Christianity and yet I came out an atheist to my surprise and that of many others who knew me.

So I think it is simply false to say that we cannot reason against our presuppositions or our upbringings or our desires or other psychological and social determinants which strongly incline us to keep believing what we presently do out of inertia.

We can change our minds out of considerations of reasons.  We can find common ground with those with whom we disagree and reassess some of our most presently foundational beliefs to see whether they really make for a good foundation.  Numerous atheists are living proof that this is possible, including very famous and adamantly skeptical ones.  It is possible to embrace reason and skepticism, abandon faith, and change one’s mind.

And so I think it is not only a cop out to say these issues are rationally irresolvable but an unnecessary and immoral leniency towards believers that encourages them to persist in their choice to continue to adhere to unsupportable, prejudicial thinking as though it is the only possibility any human being ever has and as though atheists, especially the de-converted ones, are simply no more objectively correct in their views or objective in their methods of belief formation.

This is a longer preamble to a simple question than I intended, but here’s what I raise all of this to ask.  You readers who did de-convert for rational reasons, can you explain what arguments registered with you and why, what rules of reason and belief formation became important to you and why, and what you think we can learn from your experience if we are to develop more targeted methods of dissuading religious believers of false and irrationally adopted beliefs?

In short, what gets through rationally and why?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://zachvoch.blogspot.com Zach Voch

    I determined this: whatever epistemic methodology I used to assess the world, I could not, with any certainty, exclusively arrive at Christianity.

    • Daniel Fincke

      But why was that enough to outright rule it out?

  • http://sapblatt.wordpress.com Mike Saporito

    I was about 13 when I threw it all away – it started with me just thinking for myself – religion/god did not make any sense – it seemed man made to me – my parents made me get confirmed against my will (which explains why the church makes you become an adult in the church long before you are an adult and openly defy your parents) – later I read a lot of authors who resonated greatly with me – Vonnegut, Camus, Keroauc, Sartre, Sagan, Heller, Roth, etc. – they had a world view that was more in tune with mine. Later of course I found Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Coyne, Harris, Shermer et al. I am very happy with myself philosophically speaking – I live a good life and have a great family. I have no problem dealing with the fact that “this is it” -

  • http://asystemofrandomtangents.wordpress.com/ Anna Johnstone

    I was never indoctrinated as my background is more political and neither of my parents are believers. I was lucky enough that they taught me not to just accept what I was told at face value which gave me a resistance to those who tried to convert me in my teens.

  • http://zachvoch.blogspot.com Zach Voch

    Daniel,

    It wasn’t a disproof. It just meant that I couldn’t maintain any intellectual consistency and embrace Christianity. That was enough for me.

  • Nikki Bluue

    My switch to atheism was gradual. I went from Wiccan/pagan polytheist to UU to agnostic to atheist. So my switcheroos were all gradual. The only ‘blunt’ switch was pagan to UU. So in turn, I didn’t really “lose” much, or “gain clarity and freedom” that many atheists claim they felt when they switched to atheism. I felt very little, thankfully.

    I did have to have a good atheist friend explain what atheism is really. I had misconceptions about atheists that made me unsure of calling myself one. I thought atheists were a**holes, who believed in nothing but science and science only. He explained to me that atheists “are all over the spectrum, just as theists are”. He went on to say some atheists believe in UFOs, conspiracies (eyeroll), or angels. What they shared were a non-belief in a deity of any shape or form.

    He went on to explain that not all atheists are forever “closed” to examining any more _new_ evidence that deity or afterlife may exist. He said many are open-minded to taking claims and examining the evidence. I, for one, wanted to continue examining new evidence put forth by others about afterlife/deity.

    I think it was clarifying what atheism is all about is what moved me to switch labels, not “rational arguments”. I already didn’t believe in deity at all—just was unsure of the label ‘atheist’ cuz of my former misconceptions. Again, my journey was always gradual, and I had no religious background whatsoever. My parents could be considered apatheists. My brother, (if I am correct) had a liking to catholicism. There ya go, Dan. Good article. :-)

  • Eli

    There were two distinct phases to my loss of religion. I was raised in a very conservative Christian household and home schooled until seventh grade. Throughout High School I remained very religious and active in my church. My church was “charismatic” meaning the members were expected to put on a big display by speaking in tongues and singing and dancing in church. I slowly began to realize that I just wasn’t feeling what everyone around me was professing to feel.

    By my senior year, my faith was slowing melting away as I started to think about the problem of evil after witnessing some serious health problems in my family. I brought some of my questions to my youth pastor who simply answered, “Don’t worry about that stuff, just trust God.” This answer was profoundly disappointing and it ultimately set me on the path to becoming an atheist.

    Initially, it was very hard to give up on religion because I took it so seriously and tried to live the way I had been taught as a child. I was depressed and afraid that life would have no meaning without the divine. But after letting go I quickly discovered that my life had more purpose and meaning than it ever did before because I was responsible for it.

  • Adam

    I suppose my parents were apatheists. They are technically Presbyterian, but never made religion and important part of life. Go to church on Christmas and Easter, a disingenuous prayer before bedtime, etc., and that’s it. Still, when I was a wee youngin, I believed that God existed because that’s what I was told.

    The form of the religion I was familiar with was kind of silly, though: I was mostly exposed to what I thought were Christian beliefs by what I saw on television, so I thought of Christianity as asserting the existence of heaven in the clouds and hell under the ground and a God who was some old bearded guy in a toga. Throughout elementary school, I spent my time learning some grade-school level geology, meteorology, astronomy, biology, etc. that contradicted this sort of stuff. (And, of course, evolution and geology contradicted the Adam-and-Eve and Noah flood stories, too.) So when I was around ten I rejected the idea of God.

    I don’t suppose that really counts as a rational argument, though.

    I only became familiar with the more “nuanced” forms of Christianity which conformed themselves to modern science later on, but by that point I saw no reason to assume that something as superfluous as a God existed.

    So I don’t think a rational argument really persuaded me into disbelief, but they did keep me from belief later on.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    I think it would be a great idea to try and have every formerly Christian blogger post a deconversion story to their blog. It would be absolutely fascinating.

    My personal experience is that you have to be primed for a rational refutation of religion. I feel like you are conflating two separate arguments here Dan.
    On the one hand, I do think to some degree it is pointless to try and use rational arguments with highly indoctrinated individuals. On the other hand, if someone is truly asking the right questions with the right motives, I think atheism is the rational conclusion.
    I do take some pleasure from time to time in painting a Christian into a philosophical corner, and I think it has some net benefit overall, even if it is only a minor victory.
    I don’t think their is any one rational argument that resonates with theists. For some there are likely no rational arguments that resonate. When I left the flock I was ready to leave. I had wrestled with the questions, become disenchanted with my church, and lost all but the ritual of my faith. As you are aware from past discussions Dan, I can’t even say I have shed all of my superstitions yet.

  • mikespeir

    I truly doubt it’s ever so simple as hearing a compelling argument for a contrary point of view. One still needs an emotional jog to crack the emotional shell of his dearly held beliefs. Then and only then can the solvent of reason seep in and begin its, sometimes slow, work.

  • Valerie E

    Mine also was a gradual stroll away from religion. I was brought up in church and considered myself a devout Lutheran. I must say I still miss the social aspect of the experience.

    I started getting irritated with people when they started denigrating Islam based on quotes from the Quran. Even as a believer I knew how violent the Bible was and resolved to start studying “our” book. Not just the content but its history as well. The more I looked for truth, the more disgusted I got and the more I read the farther I got from faith and belief. I agree with Penn Gillette when he said that reading the Bible is the best way to make an atheist. I continued reading with the standards: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris. I later read others like Erhman and Pagels.

    At some point I was reciting the Creed in church and actually thought about what I was saying and asked myself if I truly believed those things. The answer was easy. Calling myself an atheist wasn’t. It took some time and courage but I got there. (living in the Bible Belt didn’t really help)

    With me it boiled down to a basic value for truth. I don’t want to believe a lie even if it gives me comfort. Not everyone is like that. Some will never walk away – no matter the argument.

  • Garrett Miles

    Well, it all happened about the same time I learned santa didn’t exist. I’ve always just done what I wanted, not necissarily bad or immoral, but just what I wanted to do. The whole “You be good and santa will give you what you some cool things” seemed to me like the kids version of christianity, in which you be good and follow the rules and you get to go to heaven. I was never comfortable in church, either. I was being told stories that didn’t make any sense, and when I would question it a pastor or someone would tell me that it was god’s will being exercised in the story and that I shouldn’t question. I began to feel I had a better grasp on reality than the adults around me. This was when I was about 6-8 years old. After I entered high school and started reading more on my own, learning about the universe and sciences, I realised that no one really knows where the universe came from, and the best answer anyone had was “It’s just always been there.” Same as god, he’s just always been there. Well who created him? Don’t question. I didn’t see a need to place a creator of the universe a the root of all things, when his origin was just as unknown as the universe’s. This was to me the most obviously ludicris explanation of unknowns in all religions. Don’t know where the universe came from? Oh, must have been a god, also hes just always been there and can do whatever he wants. Up to that point I had left all the christian principles behind but still believed in a god. I’d say I was about 15 when I became truly atheistic. Now, I’ve found a religion I can get on board with, because I’ve already lived my life according to it’s philosophy before even learning about it. That would be Satanism. The only religion based on sound, emperical judgement and objectivity.

  • Robert Tobin

    I am a bedraggled refugee from the “Holy” Roman Cathlolic Church born into a family of Irish heritage. I was baptised when I was a screaming dribbling nappy-wetter. However I did object by biting the priest’s thumb, but nobody took any notice. I was a good little obedient boy and went to Mass with my parents every Sunday, but never liked it.

    I suffered 12 years under the Jesuits at Xavier College, Melbourne, Australia. Very early in my life I developed a keen interest in Science, mainly Astronomy. That made the concept of a “ceator/god” sound like bullshit to me. I withstood the crap dealt out by the “Holy Mother Church” until I was about 30 just to please my Mother. I then announced I had decided it was all bullshit and I am Atheist. Well Mother could not stop me and Dad said he was “two bob” each way about it. He stopped going to Mass, but would drop Mum off and pick her up.

    I am a paid up member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and Irish Atheists and am very active in the Internet in my War against the Poison of Religion. I consider Religion as a Mental Health Hazard.

  • KM

    http://unreasonablefaith.com/2010/07/14/the-fact-arent-enough/

    That says it all and sums up my experience.

    • Daniel Fincke

      http://unreasonablefaith.com/2010/07/14/the-fact-arent-enough/

      That says it all and sums up my experience.

      Then your experience is limited to narrow time slices and discounts my experience, which I discussed above, of being able to have a major change of mind against my prejudices.

      People seem to think that just because in the span of time it takes to do a test on people’s psychological reactions to a particular piece of evidence that never and nowhere over the long haul does anyone ever change his or her mind. And that is just preposterous to me. I mean look at this chart and the astonishing rate at which people’s views on a major issue in morality are changing in either three years or ONE year:
      http://sas-origin.onstreammedia.com/origin/gallupinc/GallupSpaces/Production/Cms/POLL/cmgekfr6y0ef3h4efaljog.gif

      I’m sorry, I don’t buy the defeatism, it’s nonsense. People change their minds. Our culture has drastically changed its opinion on dozens of issues. Every single one of them people could have just assumed was unchangeable because in a short span psychological experiment people doubled down on a challenged belief.

      The fact is we do not always just double down on our challenged beliefs or even when use that short term strategy people are amenable to being worn down over the long haul.

      So HOW does it happen?

      Why do so many people want to be defeatist and only focus on how it does NOT happen and not focus proactively on understanding how it DOES demonstrably happen and figure out how to make it happen more?

    • KM

      ups sorry, my “direct reply” was posted as “normal” reply

  • KM

    I think you compare apples with bananas here.
    I do not disagree that general opinion of “the public” changes over time especially as new individuals are introduced and old ones die.
    Neither do i disagree that with age opinions change (although not always to the best).

    I have been debating religious people for decades now and i certainly can tell you that a “true believer” (like a true scottsman ;-) ) NEVER changes his belief based on evidence and facts from “outside”. He is so entangled that he will reinterpret or ignore or select whatever you bring forth.
    I myself was once like that too.

    If change happens then it either happens abruptly and “unwanted” (as in my case) or gradually and unnoticed by yourself until you find yourself already crossing the line.

    If facts and reasoning where what changed people then we wouldn’t have young earth creationists on this planet.
    We do have them because quite obviously reasoning and facts alone do NOT change people.

    I would not simply discard scientific studies (as the ones in my link) as “defeatism” for i do NOT claim that it is not possible to talk with people and get them to rethink their position. The question is simply “how” and that differs depending on the person and its actual “strength” of belief.

    • Daniel Fincke

      It’s not comparing incomparable things at all. The issue is that when you talk about the gradual and unnoticed process, it is a process of encountering arguments and counter-evidence, etc. On the long haul people are persuaded. And men’s acceptance of the morality of homosexuality changing 14 points in FOUR YEARS cannot be attributed to a simple change of the members of the population. That’s absurd. People’s minds and hearts are being won over at a rather astonishing pace that indicates that for all the immediate “doubling down” on their positions people do when confronted on them, people’s minds really do change.

      The mistake is this superficial view of changes of mind that they must either happen right in front of our faces in the time it takes to do a non-longitudinal study or it does not happen at all. Or that it has to come from one isolated knock out argument or it does not happen at all.

      I take the opposite lessons from the fact that people double down when first confronted with new evidence. I do not think it indicates people are unpersuadable, I think it’s evidence that they are simply cautious. I think that when you see something rattling it’s more than just terror at being wrong going on, it’s also a default trust of the familiar and established over the presence of something new that might be misleading. And you might flail around with weak arguments because you’re initially frustrated with what you have established before, and so trust, not standing up well.

      But if the pattern starts getting reinforced over time that the evidence keeps going against what you have an affective tie to believing as established, then I think that people, very observably, start moderating. The reason for resurgences of creationism is intense, concentrated misinformation campaigns. And obviously religions insulate believers’ minds from a lot of facts and counter-ideas. But, nonetheless, religious believers can be and quite often are prone over time to moderating their beliefs because of external challenges (either from atheists or more liberal religionists) when they see particular positions are causing them headaches and causing them to palpably lose debates, etc.

      And a good many, more than ever get credit, make it all the way out of religious belief.

      So, I’m not asking for a silver bullet or a deconversion that takes just a week or a year or even just five years. I just want to know what sorts of arguments and approaches served as special catalysts along the way for the many of us who unshackled our minds.

    • KM

      When you speak about a change of 14 points in 4 years you are not speaking about religious nutheads. You speak about the overall population. I would not be so bold as to expect these 14 points to come from the Ken Ham section of your country.
      General acceptance is up because more come out of the closet, more interation takes place and more and more people have to arrange themselves with gay people which in return obviously forces them to see that they are not so different afterall. But thats not something that takes place in “christianland”. It something that foremost takes place amongst the more liberal people.
      The last 9 years have been charactererized by a “popularity campaign” of the new atheist movement, not by “new evidence and rationality”. The arguments we see are the same that we had seen all the centuries before.
      So was it really “reason” that change people or arguments? or was it rather the “zeitgeist” with its current rethoric?

      Note also (perhaps that is a language thing) that i would differ between “persuading” someone and “convincing” someone.

      I don’t know if the thread is the right place to discuss this, i would welcome some exchange of ideas via mail.

      Anyway… my simple claim is that a “true” believer depends on the strict sticking to his belief. Doing this requires obviously to discard all and any evidence contrary to his belief.
      What you refer to are those that have a more liberal view and actually are able to live with doubt in a sense that doesn’t drive them into the more and more fundamentalistic and closed worldview of evangelical christians.

      Trust me i have spoken for example with turkish people about evolution. It is extremely unsettling to see their reaction and their “thinking” when it comes to such simple discussions as the ones about evolution and creation.

  • david crowther

    If a person is unwilling to truly unburden themselves of what prejudices they at least know they have (i.e. never willingly giving up the proposition that there is a person God), than KM is right- they will not “convert”, so to speak, but merely find increasingly illogical ways to protect their prejudices, in order to protect what they may call “faith” (and here I mean “faith” as Dan describes it: holding something as true despite evidence to the contrary).

    There is one definition of faith that I think more accurately describes a believers useful (at least not-illogical) belief: holding something as possibly true, because there is room to believe without suspending rationality. For instance, while I cannot arive at any nice description or logical picture of God (in the religious sense), there are aspects of the concept of GOd that can stand for me, without standing contrary to my own sense of rationality and logic; say, the source of all being.

  • Fred Boynton

    I am in the group of those who left in spite of being a priest. As I read Dawkins, Dennett, Gould, etc. I had a physical as well as a mental feeling of despair as I reluctantly gave up my remaining arguments from faith and had to rebuild my life from scratch, to find that I am the same person at seventy that I was before (i.e., atheists are moral too).

    The hardest thing to fully grasp was the concept of the origin of life as spontaneous (abiogenesis, ) As Dennett writes, the Cartesian Theater concept (i.e. “soul”) dies hard.

    It seems to me that there is one more problem to deal with: I wonder if you have read the article “The Mental Discomfort of Why?” by James Still? He doesn’t show up on Google, but on infidels.org.

    Articles (and websites) like these are for me the philosophy equivalent of a job that is “above my pay grade,” but I struggle along and seem to understand enough to agree or disagree.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    I think arguments alone might not persuade. You have to internalize an argument for yourself at some point.

    I think one of the best reasons to change one’s belief is to realize that there is no reason to have the belief. If you tell someone why you believe something and they keep asking, “Why does that support the belief?” over and over, you will either reach satisfying answers to these questions or you won’t.

    At one point someone questioned me about how I know that there is a difference between good and bad and I was not able to answer. I had to spend years thinking about the issue before coming up with fairly satisfying answers. In the mean time I didn’t reject the difference between good and bad and I considered that I might have to have faith in morality for a while before I could justify it.

    I also considered that God might be somehow involved, so I started to be more agnostic or perhaps even a believer in God. I had a philosophy teacher who suggested that Marxism might be wrong or lead to immorality insofar as it was materialistic, which reinforced the idea that materialism was inadequate for morality. It was only after I found fairly satisfying answers to the question that I realized that God had nothing to do with it.

    There are many people who have gone in the opposite direction I did and in embracing materialism they have rejected what I see as morality (or at least they say they have).


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