Lighting the Fuse: What Caused Your (De)Conversion? And What, If Anything, Do You Do To Spread Skepticism?

Conversion is a dirty word in atheist circles. We don’t attempt to convert, we tell ourselves and each other. We merely aim to — well, something else.

Plant a seed of reason. Promote logic. Support science.

Anti-theists may go a step further: Call out religious hypocrisy. Tear down clergy who steal and rape. Make mincemeat of superstitions.

All those things are worthwhile to do for their own sake, or I suppose we wouldn’t do them. But I suspect that few of us could honestly argue that we didn’t want to change minds — away from theism. Which we would legitimately and correctly call conversion if the word wasn’t weighed down with a ton of religious baggage.

I have a fairly close relative, on my wife’s side of the family, who, over the past few years, has abandoned his Christian faith. He came out to me as an atheist six months ago. I don’t know for sure if something I said or wrote might have set off or accelerated his drift, but if so, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased. I’d be even happier if it was something I did or didn’t do — in other words, if his change of heart was precipitated by how I live… which I hope, despite the bite in my writing, is with love and without malice.

This hopeful blog post by J.M. Green over at Debunking Christianity, titled “Lighting the Fuse,” made me think about (de)conversion. (Funny thing, metaphors: Green talks about lighting a fuse, while the cover of ex-Christian William Lobdell‘s book shows almost the opposite image — a just-extinguished candle — to express the same idea.)

Green writes:

I was talking with a former Muslim, and asked him what had led to his deconversion. He said that he had come to the United States from Pakistan and was working as a taxi driver while attending college. One night, after his shift ended, he asked a fellow driver to give him a ride home. As they were talking, the other driver, in a passing remark, said: “You know, all religions are man-made.”

There was no discussion on the topic, just that simple statement, but it stuck with him, nagging at his thinking. Approximately two years later, he rejected religion and became an atheist. …

[W]hat struck me was how a simple skeptical statement set the wheels in motion for this man.

The takeaway:

1) In many cases, we may not see the fruit of our labors, but that doesn’t mean they are useless. The taxi driver who made the statement never found out the effect his words had, and such is often the case with our effort.

2) We don’t have to have elaborate arguments every time. Sometimes, a simple thought or statement may awaken the person’s reason and skepticism. Try to plant a thought in their mind which might stay with them after you’re gone.

3) Our words can be like a medicine which stimulates the person’s skeptical ‘immune system’ to fight back against the God Virus.

That one’s a little too precious and self-aggrandizing for me, but O.K.

4) We don’t have to ‘win’ in a discussion. Each conversation is a skirmish in the larger war of ideas. Winning is not the point. Provoking thought, and weakening the faith they have in their religious beliefs should be the goal instead.

Green recommends thinking of religious faith as a boulder “perched precariously on a hillside.”

Each debate or discussion, each skeptical statement, even just the awareness that they know someone who is an atheist ( happy and fulfilled without gods) — these things eat away the soil supporting the boulder, and with enough erosion, that boulder may one day dislodge and go rolling away.

Of course, Christians may well apply the same metaphor to atheists, using their best persuasive powers to chip away at whatever keeps our obstinate boulder in place. As long as they don’t collar me and preach to me with Bible verses, I think that’s entirely fine — part of the free and often raucous exchange of information that spices up our intellectual lives and, at its best, sharpens our powers of communication.

Considering the rather spectacular rise of the nones both in North America and most of Western Europe, this is one match that, over time, will almost certainly go our way.

Do you do anything to hasten the trend? And if you were born into faith, what did it take for you to leave it behind?

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