The ‘I Used to Be a Skeptic’ Pose

One of the standard rhetorical forms we hear from some types of Christians (and wooey new agers too) is how they used to be such a serious unbeliever, a thoroughgoing skeptic, but they just couldn’t resist the truth (often “Truth”) any longer. A new study shows that this is very effective in convincing people of the validity of your claims:

Conveying this skepticism before telling an irrationally stupid story might make it more convincing, according to the results of a new Journal of Language and Social Psychology study authored by University of East London researcher Anna Stone. People are more likely to believe what you’re saying is actually attributable to the paranormal if you don’t sound like an ignorant simpleton at the beginning of the tale. “The declaration of initial scepticism suggests that the narrator behaves rationally in basing his or her beliefs on empirical evidence and so counters potential accusations of foolishness and gullibility or being swayed by too little evidence,” Stone explains in the paper. “The presentation of the evidence that converted the narrator within the account itself offers the audience an invitation to go on the same journey from scepticism to belief along with the narrator.”…

Stone designed a simple experiment to prove what had previously only been a vague qualitative assertion. Subjects read a description of either a precognitive dream (the narrator predicted and prevented a car accident) or a telepathic experience (the narrator thought “of an old friend Sally” and then learned about her hospitalization 30 minutes later) in three different conditions. In one, the narrator claimed to be skeptical of the paranormal before describing the event; in the second, the narrator said he or she didn’t have any interest at all; and in the third, the narrator admitted to being a vehement prior believer. Then, the subjects were asked a series of questions about whether they thought the event described really was paranormal, “just a coincidence,” or the product of narrator gullibility…

The skeptical condition significantly increased the likelihood that subjects would characterize the event as causally paranormal, even though the majority of the subjects rightly attributed it to coincidence.

There’s a related phenomenon as well among evangelical Christians, which is to not only claim that you used to be a non-believer but that you were a horrible person as well. You were a gangbanger or a satanist and you ate babies and kicked old people, until you were saved, sanctified and washed clean by the blood of the lamb. These are effective rhetorical techniques. They may well be true some of the time, but they’re often highly exaggerated.

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  • Marcus Ranum

    It’s like the “I used to be a satanist, who drank, had unsafe sex, and did drugs. Then I found jesus….” Uh, yeah, right.

    I had a funny conversation with one of those guys (a mormon) and started asking him about the drugs. Because, you know, if you’ve been doing drugs, you know how it works. Because I’ve been around people snorting cocaine, and tripping on various stuff… And, after a while, I asked him why he thought it was important to lie about something like that to me.

  • cycleninja

    For example, Mike “I am the walrus” Warnke.

  • dingojack

    So the equivalent of …

    ‘Dear Penthouse, I’d never believe it could happen to me….’ is going to make my story of being a super powerful superhero even more believable?

    Colour me sceptical.


  • matty1

    Gangbanger? Either having sex with multiple partners is way worse than I’d realised or I’m wrong about what that word means.

  • raven

    The ‘I Used to Be a Skeptic’ Pose

    Not impressed.

    I used to be a xian!!! For nearly 5 decades.

    Due to US xianity dying and a demographic shift from xian to None, most No Religions can say the same thing. PZ Myers was brought up in a church going family. IIRC, Richard Dawkins was raised Anglican, Hitchens same thing.

  • Who Cares


    Means you are a member of a violent street gang.

  • richardelguru

    I used to be very skeptical and thought naturalistic explanations were the most likely to be true…



    then time passed and I’ve had many varied experiences



    and now I’m old… and I still am!

  • corwyn


  • Donnie

    “Gangbagger” “into gang bangs” as mentioned by #6 Who Care

  • Donnie

    sorry, the “does not equal” sign was hosed by HTML…..

  • corwyn
  • ArtK

    A good conversion story, the more dramatic the better, helps to reinforce their view that They Are Right.

  • matty1

    OK makes sense, although still kind of weird use of language to me. I thought the same on learning that Americans use fanny (which was used a word for vagina when I was growing up) to refer to their bum. I went through a stage where if an American sitcom character made some reference to “sitting on his fanny” I would inwardly go “but he doesn’t have one”

  • eric

    I think the “was lost, now found” tradition amongst evangelical Christians is probably better viewed as a rite of passage rather than a factual deception. Its more of a ritual act than an objective claim. Myth-telling. If you object to the Icarus myth by saying the wings are impossible and nobody ever flew with them, you’re kinda missing the point. Same thing here.

  • theschwa

    I used to be a skeptic like you. Then I took an arrow to the knee.

  • neonsequitur

    I used to be a former skeptic….

  • Gretchen

    Now hang on, there are a couple of different messages being conflated here.

    “I used to be a skeptic” in this experiment, is not being used to signify a change in group allegience (“I used to be an atheist”) or behavioral shift (“I used to eat babies and kick old people”) but rather a process of acceptance that was more rigorous than most.

    “I was skeptical of this, and now I believe it” suggests that there was a preponderance of evidence above and beyond what people usually require presented to you, which you needed in order to believe.

    Of course that’s going to be more convincing. It’s more convincing because:

    1. People are quite understandably more impressed by the claims of someone who had to change his/her mind in order to believe them, and

    2. If somebody tells you that they were skeptical before they came to believe in something, and then they were convinced of the evidence, that means that they did the work for you. You don’t have to be skeptical, because they were. And you trust them, right? So when it comes to you believing in this same thing, you don’t even need to be shown the evidence. You can skip right over that part and get straight to the believing.

    I see variations on the “I used to be skeptical about/doubt _______” thing all the time, and quite often it’s not intentionally being used as a rhetorical tactic at all. The speaker wants you to share his/her beliefs, yes, but also for your opinion of his/her critical thinking ability and intellectual honesty to be high. Most, arguably all, of us want the same thing.

    So yep, this is a fallacy. But a fallacy is not the same as a lie.

  • Olav

    Marcus #1, I also remember “being around people” snorting cocaine 😉

    Tried it a few times in my wilder days and discovered that stimulants are not exactly my thing. They don’t exactly help you to relax. Cannabis on the other hand…

    What was your Mormon’s answer? None I presume.

  • http://dontlinkmebro F [i’m not here, i’m gone]

    Throw in also the large contingent of people who imagine they are skeptical without really thinking about it (or anything they claim to be skeptical about). There are a lot of dis-believers who might look like skeptics until you actually talk to them about, well almost anything.

    But it does make a great propaganda ploy.

    Evangelical Christians: I can’t remember the guys name, but he would show up at my school (not sure if he was with campus Crusade for Christ) who had a pamphlet entitled “From Running With The Devil To Walking With Christ”. Even Christians and conservatives would bait this guy.

  • minxatlarge

    The study sounds a little weak: “It appears that people may assume some truth in the avowal of prior scepticism unless encouraged to see it as a manipulative device.”

    I’ll bet that most ‘real’ skeptics have seen this rhetorical device enough to have developed an intuition about how it works (and yeah, Satanist Baby Killer would trigger suspicion in most people). This raises the question “why are previously pious non-believers are not as persuasive as pious liars?” Cognitive Dissonance? Or does knowing that you’re lying (or have met liars) make pious liars more inclined to doubt truthful skeptics?

    Because otherwise, it seems as if previously pious skeptics should always begin there.

  • anubisprime

    @ OP

    They may well be true some of the time, but they’re often highly exaggerated.

    Oh say it ain’t so!…

    The darkness makes me gag when serial killers claim to have ‘found the lawd’…apparently just before they are assessed for parole presumably.

    ‘Tex’ Watson…(Manson clone) allegedly runs a lucrative on-line ministry from his cell, in the guise of a minister of gawd’…even managed to convince a daughter of one of his victims that jeebus has saved his soul and she apparently campaigns to get him released, no accounting for naivete but maybe some horrors are never expunged no matter how devout one claims to be!

  • cry4turtles

    I used to date a guy that found Jesus every Monday morning, after being a drunken asshole all weekend!

  • Marcus Ranum

    What was your Mormon’s answer? None I presume.

    Exactly… I asked him how big he cut his lines and how much he lifted a day. And he went “whuuu?” Which was kind of a giveaway.

  • Athywren

    I’m with Gretchen in seeing an important difference between “I used to be a skeptic” and “I used to be an atheist,” but I do love that line. Mostly because it shows the utter emptiness of the argument that there has to be a god, because how else can anyone ever be held accountable!?

    Ok, so you used to eat babies and kick old people, so logic dictates that you need to be held accountable for that (because it just does, ok?) and there’s no guarantee that you’d be held accountable by human courts, therefore god exists in order to hold you accountable. However, in accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour, all your sins were washed from you, and you’re no longer in line to receive any punishment for them, so you’re not actually held accountable in any meaningful way. So it ends up being nothing more than a way to bring Hitler, Stalin, and/or Mao into the debate and dance around the fact that you’re presenting Pascal’s wager, dressed in a funny hat and Groucho glasses. Fun stuff.

  • thascius

    It’s not just religion. Every 4 years the local paper gets a batch of letters saying “I used to be a Democrat but I just can’t vote for Al Gore/John Kerry/Barack Obama.” Funny thing is they all wind up saying almost the exact same thing every single time, regardless of who the candidate actually is.

  • Daryl Carpenter

    Surely the best example of this is the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. I’ve never found his protestations of scepticism against the early followers of Jesus particularly convincing. It seems more of a rhetorical trick, which is kind of what the article says.

  • democommie

    During regression therapy I found out that in a previous life I gangbanged Satanists, ate old people and kicked babies! True story.

  • Big Ugly Jim

    I don’t know the absolute truth of this, but a college English professor once told me that Edgar Allan Poe always began his stories in his inimicable style because the “thing” at the time was Literalism, and that, for Poe’s stories to be haunting to the reading public, he had to start by insisting that his was Literalism before completely pooping all over that. When I hear someone say, “I used to be a skeptic, but let me tell you, I just read stuff and suddenly I found The Truth and I couldn’t ignore it anymore”, I try to talk over them with “I know, even as I pen these words and describe to you this phantasmogorical tale, that you will not believe the utter truth of this, but I assure you, these words are absolutely true”.

    Then I kick them in the shins. Phantasmagorically.

  • Ichthyic

    I used to be a skeptic like you. Then I took an arrow to the knee.


  • Synfandel

    Phantasmagoria is an awesome Curved Air album.

  • Kevin Kehres

    Agreeing in the main with Gretchen @17.

    Skepticism is not the end state. Skepticism is a transitional state of incomplete knowledge and/or unformed beliefs.

    “I’m skeptical of global warming”…followed by “I looked at the evidence and I’m convinced that global warming is real”.

    Once you have reached an end-state of belief/disbelief, you are no longer skeptical. I am not a Bigfoot skeptic — I have reached the reasonable conclusion that Bigfoot does not exist.

    I am not skeptical about the existence of god(s). I have reached the reasonable conclusion that no god exists.

    It’s my pet peeve that people continue to use the term to describe an end-state of understanding or belief. Especially the Bigfoot Skeptics (BSers) that dominate meetings like TAM.

  • Mobius

    You hear this sort of statement all the time on evolution forums. “I used to believe in evolution, but…”

    However, it almost always turns out that the person making this statement knows vitually nothing about the subject, Which means of course that they are trying to pull a fast one and convince you they changed their mind because of the superior arguments for Creationism.

    The “I was a skeptic…” is the same sort of hooey in the vast majortiy of cases. Just as the Creationist claim only really works on those ignorant of evolution, the former skeptic claim only really works on those ignorant of what skepticism is. But, for those people it seems a powerful argument…which is why the dishonest hucksters use it.

  • savagemutt

    Exactly… I asked him how big he cut his lines and how much he lifted a day. And he went “whuuu?” Which was kind of a giveaway.

    He probably just couldn’t remember because of all the marijuanas he used to take.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Those on the speaking circuit are probably straight out liars.

    The mugs in the pews probably delude themselves in this fashion:

    A person is a bible believing Christians from childhood and later has an epiphany, or changes sects, or is born again – and that’s when they become truly Christian. Therefore, in earlier days, they were not true Christians, so they must have been … atheists!

  • left0ver1under

    The religious claim, “I used to be a skeptic and I was into drugs/crime/gangs”.

    If they really were ever skeptical, they would still be now. They claim that someone “used to be _____” without any sign of it is as believable as claiming they were ever a skeptic.

    And as Volkan Topalli of Georgia State U showed with his research, religion is often the excuse for perpetrating criminal behaviour, not the reason they stop doing it.

  • John Pieret

    if you don’t sound like an ignorant simpleton at the beginning of the tale

    Fortunately, those are rare birds in the religious right.

  • jaybee

    C.S. Lewis claimed he was a solid atheist as a young man, but in time he just couldn’t deny the Truth and reconnected with God. But in the telling of the story, he admits that the entire time he was an “atheist” he was mad at God for having killed is mother by cancer.

    Because many Christians have no idea what atheism really is, they think that this makes Lewis a more credible source, rather than simply being another Christian who doesn’t understand atheism.

  • Nick Gotts

    So it ends up being nothing more than a way to bring Hitler, Stalin, and/or Mao into the debate – athywren@24

    Didn,’t you know? Hitler, Stalin and Mao all accepted Jesus just before they died and now have senior management posts in heaven!

  • skylanetc

    The converse is a common rhetorical tactic of science deniers: “I used to be a believer in [evolution; vaccination; global warming; the Moon landings] until I started really looking into it and found out there is NO evidence for blah, blah blah…”

  • lofgren

    As Gretchen alludes in her comment, I am certainly far more likely to actually listen and listen closely to somebody who makes a far-fetched claim if they also claim that they used to be a skeptic. If they used to be a skeptic then presumably something convinced them, and that evidence might also be convincing to me. I don’t know that it has ever actually happened that I was convinced of something following that claim, but I do tend to want to hear what they have to say.

  • freehand

    eric: I think the “was lost, now found” tradition amongst evangelical Christians is probably better viewed as a rite of passage rather than a factual deception. Its more of a ritual act than an objective claim. Myth-telling. If you object to the Icarus myth by saying the wings are impossible and nobody ever flew with them, you’re kinda missing the point. Same thing here.


    These folks don’t do myths; for them, “myth” is a word that simply means false religion. They only believe in the Truth®. They believe the most outrageous lies because they want to. When a speaker on the lecture circuit says that he was an atheist who hated God, behaved despicably, and was always miserable, the listening congregants eat this up. He is confirming their preconceptions (“I heard another former atheist lecturing last year, and he described it the same way!”). Then, when the wonderful love of Jesus saved his soul, he was transformed. They expect and believe this, too. The more dramatic the transformation, the better the story. Since these folks to some degree all come from an abusive family(1), they have a hard time seeing into the true nature of somebody, since abusers and abusees are quite good at redefining and hiding their feelings, even from themselves. (“Don’t hit me again, Daddy, I love you! I know I deserve it, whatever I did!”). They are easily fooled by superficial behavior. For one thing, they are taught to never, ever, question their own judgement in these matters. A skeptic would wonder if he was dealing with a scam artist or sociopath, but the True Believer is the one interviewed on the TV after the mass shooting: “He was such a nice boy, always said please and thank you! He always went to church, and dressed nice, not like a gangster.”


    (1) I wasn’t physically abused, but I was still taught by all the adults around me that if I did well, I should thank Jesus, but if I failed, it was my fault. Plus, all scientists lie. Plus, the Russian Commies invented rock and roll. Sigh.