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Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.
What do you still believe?
That’s a cool church. Does it have wheels?
It’s a revolving door. Through my nephew’s soccer team, I know an evangelical minister who used to be an atheist. He was a successful architect and then converted to Christianity. So there you go.
People do change their minds in both directions, but it seems to me that there is also a tendency in some evangelical Christian groups to try and come up with exaggerated conversion stories, to emphasize how much Jesus helped you (which is not actually what’s happening, but put that aside for now). Has anyone done the demographics to try and understand what fraction of Christians who claim to once have been atheists are actually telling the truth?
Even if we have such data, we should take individual people at their word about their beliefs unless we have evidence to the contrary, of course.
The Altemyer/Hunsberger book Amazing Conversions contains a study going both ways. It’s just interviews, but a lot of the methodology is explained. I found it terribly interesting.
Altemyer does good work, but I haven’t read that one. Thanks.
Christians seem to assume that the claim by a Christian that he was raised as a Christian, then became an atheist, and then became a Christian again is somehow a very impressive “credential” for his revived Christianity.
I think that’s only impressive to other Christians. To an atheist, it only means that the guy made the same mistake twice.
But what fraction of adult Christians assert that they were raised as a Christian, became an atheist, and then became a Christian again? And what fraction of those people are telling the truth?
And what fraction of atheists are telling the truth about what great Christians they were?
Given that more than 50% of American atheists were raised Christian, probably most of them.
I should have been clearer in my original question: We know that ~10% of American Christians had irreligious parents, and many of those people chose to become religious. But there is also a population of people who had Christian parents, were Christians when they were young, are Christians now, but claim that they were atheists at some point in between. What fraction of them are telling the truth?
Hmm – Pew Survey results from 2008 say that ~20% of Americans who identify as atheists also say they believe in some sort of god, and ~5% in some sort of personal god. This implies a certain amount of confusion when it comes to the meaning of the word “atheist”.
The ’08 numbers also say that ~55% of agnostics believe in some sort of god and 15% in a personal god; and for secular religiously unaffiliated the numbers are 65% and 20%.
Putting all those together, ~50% of the people who get lumped in the ‘nones’ on the religious demographics forms actually believe in some version of god and no more than ~20% of current American Christians actually did not believe in any sort of god at some point in the past.
I wouldn’t view the first instance of Christianity as making a mistake. Rather, I think the fact that some people return to Christianity after deconverting is evidence of the pernicious effects of childhood indoctrination. What people are taught as babies and toddlers matters. Those supernatural beliefs were inserted into their little minds while their brains were still developing. They were taught to view the world in a supernatural way, carry out certain rituals, and develop an emotional relationship with a deity before they were even old enough to understand the concept.
I know two Evangelicals who made the claim that ‘they used to be atheists’. Being somewhat fascinated by this, I pressed the question further. Turns out, what they actually both meant was that there was a period in their respective lives when, although they still believed in God, they didn’t act like it and/or actively worship. In other words, they had in fact been non-practising Christians, not atheists. One has since apologised and resolved never to maker that misleading claim again, the other quietly dropped it and has never repeated it in front of me. I do wonder now how many ‘I used to be an atheist, but now I’m an X’ claims fit into this category, and how many others could be summarised as ‘I never thought about religious beliefs until I became a believing X’.
If Christians exaggerate conversion stories, could it be that atheists exaggerate Deconversion stories?
Look at John Loftus…he claims he was this great Christian but he was cheating on his wife and screwing a co worker.
Moreover, he continued to preach when he no longer believed, so we know he is willing to lie.
Come to think of it, that is not uncommon…Dan Barker and Theresa McBain continued on when the no longer believed.
Oh, I know they were worried about money but they made it clear they were willing to lie.
So maybe they would exaggerate to sell books and get jobs in atheist organizations?
Could it be?
So you’re point is that everyone has the potential to lie, or exaggerate truth, and that they might have multiple reasons for doing so?
Earth-shattering stuff, right there.
No, the point is the double standard…if an atheist converts to Christianity he was never an atheist, but if a Christian deconverts he is a noble spokesman for truth.
Are you really that biased?
We are not discussing a double standard. I asked what fraction of Christians who claim to have been atheists in the past actually were.
It is reasonable to ask how many atheists who claim to have been Christians in the past actually were, but in all the cases that you’ve mentioned we have abundant evidence that the people concerned were quite sincere in their Christian beliefs before they changed their minds.
No you don’t have abundant evfdence. In all the cases that have been mentioned, the people admitted that they lied to their congregations. We don’t know how sincere they ever were, all we have is their claim…and yet we do know they are admitted liars.
Your “evidence” is not reliable.
You are wrong about the evidence.
You can go back and find all of the things that Baker, McBain, and others did because of their beliefs in religion. You can watch recordings of their old sermons and do microexpression analyses on their faces to assess their sincerity (with corrections for their abilities as actors). And you can ask them in more detail what they say they believed in the past and see if that is consistent with their past actions. Given all of that, we can conclude that they did believe what they say they believed.
Compare that to the examples SphericalBunny gave, where two people claimed to have been atheists but on further investigation said that they had still believed in their particular versions of god and had merely not been practicing their religion with a group of similarly-minded people. Since that is directly contradictory to their statements of having been atheists, we can conclude that they were not telling the truth.
“No, the point is the double standard..”
Then you should have led with that, rather than the rambling word salad to which I replied. In your last comment, you ended asking “could it be?” To which the obvious answer is “yes, it could be”.
I’m not sure I’m familiar with this double standard that you’re foaming about. I’ve never heard anyone say anything like you say about converted ex atheists, unless they are a public figure, and their thoughts on religion are publicly available. Maybe you’d like to provide an example?
“Moreover, he continued to preach when he no longer believed, so we know he is willing to lie.”
While I’m not a fan of Loftus, you are repeating a point that has often been debunked in these here forums. Leaving the only job you’re trained to do is not easy and may lead to financial hardship on your and your family. Your assertion that people deconvert to get jobs and sell books is at best silly. For these and your other points, I suspect you’re a christian and that you’re trolling (just playing devil’s advocate?).
So you are saying if you have to leave the only job you are trained to do it is OK to lie to people to get money out of them?
Christianity is the biggest lie of all. So what’s worse, believing that lie or lying about that lie?
If you really believe its the biggest lie, then lying about it to other people when you no longer believe it is contemptible.
“Dan Barker and Theresa McBain continued on when the(y) no longer believed”.
Shame on them, they should have stopped immediately put their families in jeopardy, gone on welfare, etc. because we just know those lovely xtians would have paid the mortgage, car loans, medical insurance, etc. until they could find another job in the community.
What an amusing double standard for atheists; its OK for them to lie to get money if they really need it.
Maybe so…but of course that would be true for everyone else.
But maybe they are also lying about how much of a Christian commitment they really had…after all they want to sell books and get jobs in atheist organizations.
After all, if they didn’t ever really take it all that seriously and just got tired of it, their “deconversion” is not nearly so impressive!
>>after all they want to sell books and get jobs in atheist organizations.<<
You have quite an impressive selection bias running. You single out the few former Christian clergy who become prominent atheist activists, and ignore the much larger number who do other things – teach comparative religious studies, teach Latin or Ancient Greek, sell insurance, etc.
So you admit they could have done other things than continue to lie to their congregations.
They can, and they do. But only when they have exit strategies from their current lives. That’s already been explained repeatedly. You seem to think you have found some sort of “gotcha”. You haven’t.
“If Christians exaggerate conversion stories, could it be that atheists exaggerate Deconversion stories?”
Some may, but again we must assume that people are speaking the truth about their beliefs unless we have evidence to the contrary. e.g. if a man claimed to have been a Catholic priest and then become an atheist, but it could be shown that he only attended a year of seminary before leaving the Church, we would be able to say he was exaggerating. But if he only claimed to have been a seminarian seriously planning on becoming a priest, then we would conclude he was probably telling the truth.
“Look at John Loftus…he claims he was this great Christian but he was cheating on his wife and screwing a co worker.”
I do not know Loftus’ personal history. But I observe that being a “great Christian” is _not_ correlated with having good sexual ethics.
Re. Barker, McBain, and the other members of the Clergy Project: you can look up a _lot_ of what both Barker and McBain said and did while they still believed in what they were preaching and use that to judge their past sincerity (Barker still gets a small amount of income in royalties from religious music he wrote in the 1970s). And, as others have noted, clergy who no longer believe are in an unenviable situation, with skills that are transferable to relatively few other jobs. The Clergy Project exists to help people out of that situation – their members _don’t_ want to lie, but are forced to economically and socially until they can find an alternate living situation.
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