Sometimes People Change Their Minds

It’s a funny thing that happens, when an atheist says she was once a Christian and then Christians jump up and down saying “no you weren’t! you never truly understood Christianity!” I’ve seen it happen the other way, too, when a Christian says he was once an atheist and then atheists assert that he must not have ever really been an atheist. And it happens with a myriad of other issues too, including abortion, creationism, and feminism.

But here’s the thing. I believe that people can and do change their minds, and I don’t see any reason to assume that when someone says they changed their mind they must be making it up. You say you used to accept evolution but you’ve become convinced that the science points to a young earth? I believe you. You say you were a feminist but now you think men and women were created to be complementary? I believe you. People change their minds.

My mother was a feminist in college, but over the course of her early marriage she became immersed in more conservative evangelical churches and read patriarchal literature and as a result she changed her mind. A guy at my parents’ church used to be an atheist, and then he met some Christians who were there for him during a hard time in his life and today he’s a Christian too. I see no reason to doubt these stories. Why would I? People change their minds.

When I’m confronted with someone who used to share my current views and now does not, my response is not to assert that they never actually shared my views but rather to address what it was that changed their mind. You used to be an atheist and then you determined that there’s no way something could come from nothing, so now you’re a theist? Well okay, let’s talk about the whole something coming from nothing issue. You used to be a feminist but now you think that feminism exacerbates tension between men and women and that it would be better to simply accept that men and women are hardwired to lead “complementary” roles in life? Well okay, let’s talk about the idea that equality means tension. Why would I respond to people like this by questioning whether they actually “used to be” what they claim rather than by actually addressing the arguments involved?

For some reason, after I posted that post back in the fall about losing faith in the pro-life movement, some bloggers responded by accusing me of making up my conversion. They asserted that I had never been pro-life at all, or that my story seemed fishy. The funny thing is, after my post a Catholic blogger wrote a reverse post, about how she’s been pro-choice and had become pro-life, and I never had the slightest inclination to suggest that she was lying about having been pro-choice. I may take issue with her portrayal of the pro-choice movement and disagree with the arguments against abortion that she details as she discusses her current position, but my inclination was to respond to her arguments and portrayals, not to suggest that she’d made her story up. I mean, even if she had made it up, it’s not like that would change her basic arguments.

I understand the temptation to claim “you never really were XYZ.” It’s a bit of two things, actually. For one thing, it’s a fear that, if a person held your views and changed their mind, your views might be wrong; for another thing, it’s a certainty that your views are so self-evidently true that it would be impossible for someone to truly understand them and then reject them. How could someone who truly loved Jesus become an atheist? Or, how could someone who truly understood all of the problems with the existence of god end up concluding that there is a god after all?

In the end, it’s a simple reality that sometimes people believe one thing, and then change their mind and believe the opposite. I’ve gone through this personally on a myriad of issues and I’ve seen lots of others go through it as well, and perhaps that helps explain why I’m not in the business of challenging other people’s back stories. I would rather engage with their arguments and ideas. I am not threatened by the idea that someone could share my views and then change their mind. In fact, I would be surprised if that never happened. The world is big and fluid and complicated, and I’m okay with that.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://yeswesam.wordpress.com Sam

    A similar response to “you were never REALLY [x]” is when someone responds “That’s condescending” to a claim that you used to hold their views. I experienced this myself, and it baffled me… how was it condescending to say I used to a Christian?

    • Christine

      There are people who do it in a condescending way, so it is maybe a knee-jerk reaction? They’re assuming that you’re about to follow it up with “but I outgrew it” or some other dismissive statement?

      • http://yeswesam.wordpress.com Sam

        That’s a good point. In this context, I can see how it might have come across that way, though my intent was empathy, rather than deconversion.

  • Mostlylurking

    But while people change their minds, people also DO lie, often to make their arguments seem stronger. So colour me sceptic when people trot out their conversion story. Often “atheist” really mean “didn’t go to church every week”, “didn’t really think about religion much” or even “belonged to wrong church”. It’s still important to address the arguments, but its hard to argue in good faith with people who are backing up thei “authority” by lying. And now I’ve used up my quota of quotation marks :P

    • Nea

      This! As an atheist, I keep getting people trying to convert me back to Christianity using the “I used to be an atheist…” approach and then evangelizing. And the more they describe their supposedly atheist life, the more obvious it is that they have no clue and are just repeating whatever their preachers have told them about atheism. I don’t like being evangelized in the first place and it’s five times more annoying and a million times less convincing to have someone who is blatantly lying to me insisting that they are telling me the Ultimate Truth.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ WMDKitty

        What they said. 99% of the “I used to be an atheist” stories are made up out of whole cloth. It’s the modern version of “I used to be a Satanist*” trope.

        *By which they meant they were in a non-Christian nature-based religion.

  • Michael

    I’ll mostly agree, but there are those who give every appearance of never actually having the beliefs they claim to have had. The prime example is Kirk Cameron with his claim that he was a devout atheist. The way he makes his claim makes it clear that he has no understanding of what atheism means, and at the very least he was never an atheist is any way remotely resembling the way I am an atheist, or the way that others I know are atheists. I don’t think it’s harmful to point out these kinds of false claims, or misuse of terms, except that it can potentially be a distraction from the actual substance of the other arguments, as you said.

  • Karen

    I don’t think it’s out of bounds to ask, what did you really believe before, and what changed your mind? We humans are so good with labels, and I expect sometimes people label themselves as something other than what they are, because they need a label.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    When I hear a religionist toss off an “I used to be an atheist” comment, I don’t immediately disbelieve them, but I do tend to be somewhat suspicious of the claim. After all, they usually have something to gain by making that claim, and xians are often known for “lying for jesus”. So my reaction is usually to ask him(/her) to explain why it was they were an atheist before, whether they had deconverted from any other religion in the past and why, and what evidence they found convincing enough to become religious now. If the reasoning they give for once being an atheist is completely different from my reasons for being an atheist, then I’ll point out to them that their claim does not gain them any credibility with me. And if they give some lame reason, like “I just wanted to sin”, then I’ll call them out for complete B.S.

    • phantomreader42

      When I hear a religionist toss off an “I used to be an atheist” comment, I don’t immediately disbelieve them, but I do tend to be somewhat suspicious of the claim. After all, they usually have something to gain by making that claim, and xians are often known for “lying for jesus”.

      When I hear that claim, I DO immediately disbelieve it, because I’ve never seen anyone making that claim who showed any understanding of what the word “atheist” even MEANS. If they don’t know what an atheist IS, then their claim to have been one is an obvious Lie For Jeebus™.

      So, I automatically assume that any christian claiming they used to be an atheist is lying through their teeth. There may be, somewhere on the planet, some christians who were actually once atheists, but those who claim that in an effort to score rhetorical points are, in my experience, always lying. If they actually had once been atheists, and had seen real evidence that convinced them that their god exists, then they wouldn’t need to babble about their previous atheism, they could PRESENT THEIR EVIDENCE! I’ve never seen one even TRY to do anything like that.

      • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

        To give the two counter-examples I can think of:
        1) Any of the old talk.origins crew who might happen to read this blog will recognize the name of Michael Siemon. He was, at the time of his conversion, intelligent, educated and old enough to be taken seriously as knowing what he was doing. Now his reasons for conversion strike me as emotionally-based, but I don’t think he tries to hide that, and of course his Christianity is of the non-proselytizing kind, and he respects the conclusions arrived at by others.

        2) Me, as a child and teen before conversion at age 15 (though for some of that time I identified as agnostic, but that’s a quibble) for what at the time seemed entirely rational reasons. Now to be sure, I was naive about a lot of things, but I did know basically what atheism was (and how it differed from agnosticism), having been raised by agnostic parents.

        By contrast, the Kirk Camerons of the world reveal themselves to be hopelessly superficial thinkers, and none of their positions on any topic can be taken seriously as arising from rational reflection. So if he really didn’t believe in God as a youngster, fine: he was an atheist — and his reasons for being an atheist then were as stupid and ill-founded as his reasons for being an Evangelical now.

      • Notreligious

        I have a friend that’s Christian, that was actually an atheist for year. When her husband started watching porn, it was her Christian friends that agreed with her that watching porn is infidelity. They took her to their home church, and converted her with agreement, love and friendship. Her other friends had various opinions on the porn, from “relax, its no big deal”, to “It needs to be something both people agree upon in a marriage”, to “doing it when you are against it is disrepectful”. But only the Christians were in agreement that it was a dirty, filthy, disgusting habit, and equal to actual infidelity. This understanding led her into religion, plus, her big family and was out of sync with her peers, but admired in the Christian world (she has 8 kids now, one of which is deceased). She is still extremely liberal, but devoutly Christian, which makes life tough for her where she lives now.

        I find the difference between ex atheists that go Christian, and Christians that fake it, is that the real ex atheists never seem to try to convert you. The few I know are very honest about proof of God, the one mentioned above even admits there is none (to her kids, who are being raised Christian, even though the DH is still an atheist of the hardcore variety).

  • Karen

    Also, how can one be a “devout” atheist? There’s no object of devotion.

    • Nea

      We’re often accused of worshipping (pick all that apply):
      – Charles Darwin
      – Richard Dawkins
      – Satan
      These days, Obama’s on the list too.

      Or, far more often, the base assumption is that we do actually believe in God but we’re angry at him for some reason, so we’re pretending that we don’t think he exists.

    • thalwen

      They claim that atheism is a religion because they use their super biblical interpretation skills and apply them to stuff like dictionaries, legal documents, etc. Like:
      -Religious people believe things, so do atheists, therefore atheism = religion.
      -Atheists have morality, if they were real atheists, they wouldn’t have morality, therefore = religion
      -Courts treat religious freedom and the freedom of atheists not to worship in a similar manner (never mind that with freedom of religion is also freedom from religion)
      -There are militant atheists that act like religious fundies (the correlary to this would, of course, be that people who say they are Christian but aren’t really into the whole religion bit make Christianity not a religion)
      -The “Atheists hate God” thing or we just like sinning so much that we pretend he doesn’t exist
      It is beneficial for them in a propaganda sense or if a judge is partisan enough to buy it so it is a pretty common trope.

  • Hilary

    On the balance of giving people respect for their backgrounds v. being sceptical of bullshit, thank you for posting this. People do change their minds, and addressing the issue that they changed on instead of jumping to conclusions about their character is kind and honest. But if too many inconsitancies start pilling up and sets off your bullshit meter, that’s legit too.

    I know a lot of people who converted or are in the process of converting to Judaism. Most but not all came from various Christian backgrounds, so I’ve seen what you’re talking about with people changing beliefs.

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I’m pretty much with you on this one. I think we should take people’s words in good faith unless we have sufficient reason to doubt them. And if someone says “I was once an atheist, but now am saved” that in itself does not seem sufficient grounds to doubt them. But if someone says, “I was once an atheist because I wanted to worship Satan”, we might reasonably suspect they weren’t an atheist in any common sense of the term.

  • Tracy

    I’ve faced the anger and condemnation of the “christian” community after coming out as gay after many years of being part of an evangelical church. “They” say that it’s impossible that I ever was a christian to begin with. “They” would rather believe that I had never truly loved God or understood the bible than to even entertain the possibility that one of “those” kind of people could actually be one of “them”. (Oh the horror!) Although I no longer agree with the evangelical/fundamentalist view of God and spirituality I still consider myself a christian and I find it insulting and incredibly arrogant of someone else to tell me I’m not.

  • smrnda

    Many people change their minds for good reasons, and many change their minds for bad reasons. It’s worth getting at exactly what the person believed before and why they changed their mind, and you can’t get that by just going “You never were a *true believer* to begin with!” Even if someone is full of excrement, being polite and asking the right questions ought to expose this far better than name-calling.

    I have met people who had conversion stories that couldn’t likely be true, or required a lot of distortion of their own lives, or people who changed their minds for completely self-serving reasons, but the best way to get this information is to be calm, polite, and in the end, if a person has changed their mind for a bad reason, they’ll do the work of exposing that for you.

  • ako

    I’m with most people that there is a point where you can legitimately question whether someone’s labeling themselves accurately, but it’s something that should be approached with caution and based on evidence, not something people jump to straight away. If you hear someone say they were an atheist before converting to Christianity, you shouldn’t immediately jump to “Well, that probably isn’t true!” There needs to be something considerably more substantial and specific to what that person has said before you start to go down that road.

  • thalwen

    I think some people are uncomfortable that someone could know “truth” and then come to the realisation that it isn’t true for them. Also, saying someone wasn’t really a Christian/atheist/whatever lets one not question their own beliefs.
    Logically, of course people can change their minds and it’s a good thing or we’d have a much more contentious society. The only ones I do question are the dubious conversion stories where the guy was a Satan-worshipping, atheistic Muslim until he found Jesus.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Perhaps there is an assumption, when people say “well you couldn’t have really been X”, that we have the ability, by believing in something strong enough right now, to ensure that for the rest of our lives we will still believe that. That if we have enough control over our minds in the present, we’re able to make sure our minds don’t change in the future. Hmm.

  • victoria

    Well, specific to Christianity you do have the “once saved always saved” denominations/traditions. Asserting that you were Christian but now are not is literally impossible in some of their belief systems, and there’s only two ways to resolve that cognitive dissonance: either they’re wrong or you were never Christian. And most people don’t like to entertain the possibility that they’re wrong about the beliefs that are most important to their identities.

    • Nea

      I think you’ve hit a home truth here, Victoria. I think that a lot of the assertions of “you were never really…” are about soothing cognitive dissonance, or even more importantly, desperately drowning out the doubts *that* person may have. Add in the thrum of power of becoming one of the tribal gatekeepers of who is in or out, and it’s just about irresistable to lash out at anyone who steps away from the tribe as never having had the right to be there in the first place.

      It’s not just religion either – look at politics and the urge to denigrate and dismiss anyone who, regardless of record, steps the slightest distance away from the party platform.

    • Dan Arnold

      To me, this is the main driver when it comes to how Christians understand others changing their minds and leaving Christianity. For those from the reformed traditions (Calvinist and often Arminian, too), they just don’t have a framework to deal with it because of their theological commitments. And for many, this idea, summarized as “once saved, always saved,” is a source of great comfort. I know parents whose children have walked away from Christianity who take solace in the belief that because their child prayed a prayer when they were (much) younger, that they will still be saved. To confront the possibility that their theology is wrong in this respect would be emotionally devastating. It’s not just about admitting that your beliefs might be wrong, its confronting the logical consequences of your beliefs when it comes to someone you care deeply about.

      • Stephen Browne

        And that, Dan, is how it is possible to have the most dedicated, caring parents in the world who have driven you to the point of insanity. They can’t grasp the idea that you don’t agree, not even slightly.

    • Rosie

      I was going to point this out but you beat me to it, victoria. According to some theologies it is impossible for a true believer to fall away. Therefore by definition anyone who has rejected the teachings they were brought up with was never really a believer. Though these tend to be the same traditions that use terms like “the elect” to describe those who believe, and they tend to believe that god’s omnipotence precludes free will in humans as well.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Tortue du Désert avec un Coupe-Boulon

    I am only really skeptical of the “I used to be atheist” types if they don’t provide a decent answer to the question of “so what convinced you?”

  • David

    Whilst I see no reason to doubt someone’s veracity in general regardless of their theological or political point of view, the Mike Warnkes of this world exist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Warnke) – I’m not sure if there’s ever been an atheist equivalent of him?

    I tend to assume that the likes of Mike Warnke are as insincere about their Christian faith as they are about their supposed previous Satanism though. The one factor would seem to discredit the other. His financial misdeeds imply that he was mainly in it for the money.

  • Sean

    The formal name for this logical fallacy is the “No True Scotsman”. From the Wikipedia:

    Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

  • Heidi

    Whether I question their previous beliefs would also depend upon context. Someone trying to convert me is a lot more suspect than someone who just happens to mention it in casual, unrelated conversation. As long as that wasn’t a roundabout way of trying to invite me to their Bible study class.

  • Alexandra Restrepo

    Libby,

    I spent some time reading your story this evening. I see that you are an intelligent and thoughtful woman, and I appreciate your candidness with sharing your journey thus far. I can understand a lot of what your went through, having attended a secular university after growing up in a conservative Christian home (although I don’t share the homeschooling part). Even though I went through some of the same doubts, same difficult questions you did, we ended up at very different conclusions. My faith became stronger after asking the difficult questions.

    Now, I haven’t read every last blog entry on your site (you are quite a busy writer!), so please forgive me if you’ve received a response like this before. But I feel as though I have to share a thought. After considering your story for some time, it seems to me like you experienced Christianity as a “system,” rather than a relationship. The “faith” you were brought up with was really about performance, which you ultimately recognized was not real (unconditional) love, but performance-based love. Performance-based love, however, is not the heart of true Christianity, even though it oftentimes gets mixed up in well-meaning Christian homes.

    The heart of Christianity is best captured in a Greek word: agape. To love, sacrifically and unconditionally. That is the word used in John 3:16 of God loving the world, and it is used many, many other places in the Bible to describe what Jesus wanted his followers to do: love God and one another with this kind of sacrificial, unconditional love.

    You have probably already heard the above information, having been so well-schooled in the Bible as a kid. But what I’m not sure you’ve ever been told is, your experience of Christianity does not sound like it was agape-love, it was performance-based love. And there is a HUGE difference.

    From what I have read, it sounds like a great deal of your search for answers has been in scientific, theological or philosophical books, rather than exploring these questions in a relational way. I.E. spending time with varied cross-sections of Christians, to determine whether the perspective of Christianity you were brought up with was representative of the whole of the church. It would have been interesting if you had let your doubts lead you to live among Christian hippies or in another area of the country (or world, for that matter). I know you spent some time briefly in the Catholic church, but I think that was probably a little too little and a little too late at that point.

    That all being said, I don’t blame you for wanting to reject what you were brought up with. Performance-based love is exhausting. I just am saddened to see you make such huge conclusions based on (what sounds like to me) a fairly limited experience of people who call themselves “Christians.” You may say, “Oh, I’m still around Christians all the time!” but that’s not what I mean. I mean having a deep, intimate friendship with a believer who loves you unconditionally because God first loved them without cause or obligation (1 John 4:19).

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Sometime you should check out a book called Blue Like Jazz…this is the relational exploring I’d be curious to see you make. In any case, blessings to you and your family and I’ll be praying that God brings a person like I described into your life, if they’re not there already!

    • victoria
    • http://www.christylambertson.com Christy

      Alexandra –

      You’re kind of illustrating Libby’s point here. While you came to the conclusion that Christianity is valid, Libby did not. I’m sure you would find it annoying if someone told you that the reason you were still a Christian is that you didn’t really ask the tough questions or you were brainwashed or that you hadn’t really examined other points of view.

      So perhaps you can understand that it’s equally annoying to get the “You didn’t experience the REAL Christianity. You didn’t have a relationship with Jesus.” line. It is, in fact, possible to have experience with a wide spectrum of Christianity, have close friends who are committed Christians, and still leave Christianity. ( I’ve read one of Donald Miller’s books – dude is WAY over-rated. And he says some really sexist crap on his blog – so probably not the best author to lead with.) I’m not an atheist, as Libby is, but I also left Christianity – the “You weren’t really a Christian. You’ve just been hurt. If you would just read this book, etc. etc.” line of reasoning tends to shut down the conversation. It’s incredibly condescending – even if that isn’t your intent.

  • AnonaMiss

    I used to be an atheist like you.

    Then I took an arrow to the knee.

    (Couldn’t resist!)

  • Tyro

    I concur, LA.

  • kisekileia

    I think there are also situations where people incorrectly identify what they are or used to be because they simply don’t understand the labels they’re using. I’ve seen people (mostly kids) claim that they’re “Catholic, not Christian,” for example. In those cases, I think some further probing would be necessary to understand what the person actually is or was, because the person doesn’t understand the words they’re using and thus is likely not using them accurately.

  • http://theclapp.org/mt-blog/ Larry Clapp

    Sometimes people do change their minds. I changed my mind about home schooling, ’cause it turns out I was wrong that all home schoolers are religious whackjobs. Thanks for that, Libby Anne.

    For what it’s worth, if anyone accused me of never having been a “real Christian”, I’d have to agree with them. I don’t recall a time I ever really bought the whole idea.


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