Analyzing Deconversions

Kieran Bennett analyzed 100+ personal stories written by atheists to answer the question: Why do Christians deconvert?

It’s not scientific at all, but it’s still interesting.

What do you think was the number one reason atheists gave for why they left their former faith (cited in 14.89% of the stories Kieran looked at)?

(Hint: The number two reason was “Logical Problems with the Dogma.”)

Take a guess. Then read Kieran’s piece to find out.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://www.otmatheist.com/ hoverFrog

    The number one reason that isn’t reason….um….they actually read the bible?

    Now I’m going to find out.

  • Karen

    Wow – cool! I have been looking forever for something like this, and here it is. Excellent, and I absolutely agree with his conclusion:

    I think these stories have shown that there are a number of ways of supporting Christians who make steps towards deconversion, but in every single case it appears that the doubt that led to deconversion came from within the individual.

  • Wes

    Hmmmm. I wonder where I’d fall on that list…

    I grew up Christian, and left the religion in my late teens to early twenties. It was gradual—it didn’t happen all at once. I started out fundamentalist. Then went through a more pluralistic, universalist phase. Then became something of a deist-leaning-towards-agnostic. Then an outright atheist.

    Since it didn’t happen all at once, I’m not sure if I could give just one reason why I left. There were several factors at work. One was learning more about science and philosophy, which taught me how to ask questions and question my own beliefs (something religious dogma cannot withstand). I can remember a feeling of liberation after reading Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise and realizing that all my fear of questioning the beliefs I’d grown up with was unfounded, and I can question the bible all I want. It was like a light went on in my head: I CAN question these things!

    Another reason was that during that period of my life I was really battling with depression, and all the assurances that “Christ will heal you” really started to sound like a cop-out. It’s just an excuse for not doing anything to help a person. All the promises about the wonderful things God can do start to sound really hollow when you realize that God can only “do” things when people do the actual “doing” and then merely give the credit to God.

    Yet another reason was noticing irreconcilable contradictions between dogma and scripture, and also within the dogmas and within the scriptures. When I would point these out, they would simply be ignored or rationalized, or (even worse) blame would be put on me for daring to suggest Christianity might be mistaken. I got in trouble at the Christian private school once for suggesting (based on passages in the bible) that Jesus was a socialist or communist. The idea that Jesus wouldn’t support laissez-faire capitalism is simply unacceptable to people. Eventually I started realizing that the pious people around me were merely believing what they WANTED to believe, regardless of whether it was logically consistent. Since the whole authority of religion rests entirely on the social group, its leaders, and its texts, this realization made “faith” sound like a pretty bad idea.

    Another reason is purely sociological: I started becoming more reclusive as I got older, and without communal reinforcement religious faith starts to fade. As I withdrew from the church groups I started feeling less pressure to believe.

    There are probably other reasons too. But those are the ones I can distinctly remember.

  • Polly

    “If you are a Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew, or anyone else who has not accepted Jesus, then know this: No matter how sincere or urgent your prayer, God will not listen or respond.”

    In other words, if you’re not a xian, god says, “F%$# You!”

    I persisted in the faith years after hearing that preached. Nevertheless, it was jarring and lodged itself in the back of my mind. Though, ultimately, deconversion seemed to happen in the space of a month or two, the reality is that the stupidity, hypocrisy, racism and outright Evil of fundamentalist belief had been grating on me for years.

    DARE TO DOUBT…even for just a moment.

  • mikespeir

    These are all major players in the decision to deconvert, but I think another one was missed.

    I was all of 48 before I finally admitted to myself that I no longer believed. Sure, as I look back now I had been troubled by the evidentiary and logical problems for a long time. All this did was force me to redouble my exertions to rationalize my faith. I had too strong an emotional attachment to Christianity. I’m sure I’d still call myself a believer today if not for the series of emotional jolts that jarred me loose enough that I could finally cast a critical eye at what I was believing.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I am slightly surprised by the conclusion, especially since I belong in the “exposure to atheism” category. It’s good to know that people will think for themselves without our help.

    On the other hand, this informal study is plagued by selection effects. It takes a certain kind of person to send deconversion stories in a letter, and to Positive Atheism in particular. If there is an “old atheist” counterpart to “new atheism”, Positive Atheism is it. At least, that has been my impression from when I used to browse the website.

  • Karen

    I was all of 48 before I finally admitted to myself that I no longer believed. Sure, as I look back now I had been troubled by the evidentiary and logical problems for a long time. All this did was force me to redouble my exertions to rationalize my faith. I had too strong an emotional attachment to Christianity.

    Yes, I agree with you mikespeir. Most of the stories he analyzes seem to come from people who deconverted in childhood or young adulthood. I’d be interested in seeing an analysis of people who left the church later in life. I think there is a great deal of repression involved – there really has to be – and I also think emotional attachment plays a big role. Which is also why there’s often an emotional catalyst to the later deconversion (at least as far as I can tell anecdotally).

    There are a couple of books that have been written on the topic but I have yet to read them. I need to move them up on my list!

  • Siamang

    Why do Christians deconvert?

    For the babes?

    **** AWWW. I guessed wrong.*****

  • Jimbob

    That study was a relatively small sampling of deconversion stories, so I doubt the veracity of the implied statistics. However, it’s a good start.

    Now here’s a HUGE list of deconversion stories for your enjoyment:

    http://www.users.bigpond.com/pmurray/exchristian/stories/byWhyLeft.html

    BTW these have not been categorized like Kieran’s were. Just a huge list of reasons to compare/contrast. I’d be curious to see how all these fit into the statistical realm.

  • Cade

    It would be very interesting if we did a more scientific look at this question. We could randomly survey people all across, say, America, with a simple survey.

    1.) What religious view would you identify as?

    2.) How did you come to that religious view?

    Probably other questions would be useful, too.
    There would probably need to be a very large sample size to get any significant results, but it would be valuable information to study exactly what reasons people have for changing their views.

    The sample that Kieran Bennett used and that Jimbob suggested above are useful, but they’re inherently biased. Everybody needs to stand back so we can try SCIENCE.

  • http://www.kieranbennett.com Kieran Bennett

    Wes, Polly: Thanks for the really interesting deconversion stories. I did try and categorise stories according to a small number of common themes, but at the same time no two stories were ever the same.

    Miller: re: selection bias, I totally agree. As I sort of indicate through the post when I say things like “14.85% of the sample”, my little attempt at statistical analysis can’t really be generalised to the wider population of deconvertees for exactly this reason. One day I would like to have the time to do a truly comprehensive study on the matter, it would be interesting to see how my identification of the common themes in deconversion would hold up when analysing thousands instead of a hundred stories.

    Siamang: On a rather scary aside, i know Christians who converted “for the hunks”, and who has since become completely and utterly brainwashed.

    Cade: Ooo, I would love to have the budget to do some actually scientific sampling on the matter! But at the moment I’m just a spare time blogger.

    Thanks everyone for the feedback. This post was the first in a series I’m doing in which I ask people to pose me a question, and I attempt to answer it comprehensively within the week. If anyone has a topic they’d like to see me explore in this sort of style, you know my link. :-)

  • Karen

    Cade: Ooo, I would love to have the budget to do some actually scientific sampling on the matter! But at the moment I’m just a spare time blogger.

    You’d think that some foundation or educational institution would undertake a study like this. Of course it would no doubt be terribly un-PC and perhaps even raise some protests from religious people. I think it would be a worthwhile study for an atheist group to fund, however, if there were some researchers who could design and carry out the study. Maybe some grad students will run with the idea?


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