My Approach to Deconversion

In response to my recent post critiquing P.Z. Myers’s tone and tactics, commenter Kogo questioned the assumptions undergirding my complaint.  Kogo wrote:

You’re really invested in the idea that there are a lot of disinterested “fencesitters” out there, aren’t you, Leah?

I mean maybe there’s someone on this planet who doesn’t have a pretty f*cking firm opinion about god, but I’ve certainly never heard from them.

I’ve known a number of people who didn’t have firm opinions about God, were totally uninterested in the questions, or had firm beliefs and changed them.  But I don’t want to get into the anecdote game; I don’t have a reason to posit that my experience is typical.  So let’s turn to the people who know what to do with data.  In 2008, the Pew Center on Religious Life released its US Religious Life Survey, which was summarized by USA Today.  Here are some highlights:

  • 44% say they’re no longer tied to the religious or secular upbringing of their childhood. They’ve changed religions or denominations, adopted a faith for the first time or abandoned any affiliation altogether.
  • Nearly three in four U.S. Buddhists are converts
  • Two in three people who say they grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses have left the faith. Any one of 10 people you meet is a former Catholic

At some point, any of these people must have been marginal cases who were open to new data.  Information was probably making an impression on them before they were actively and openly questioning whether they could really sustain belief in their old faith.  It’s certainly up for debate whether I come into contact with many of these people on this blog or in day to day life, but it doesn’t seem improbable I might reach them.  It’s certainly likely that a much more popular blogger like Myers is being read and evaluated by people just beginning to explore atheism.

To be on the safe side, I assume that I may be the first atheist a Christian has gotten to have a conversation with.  If I get shirty or act nasty, I’ve made the life of the next atheist to cross this believer’s path a lot harder.  And don’t forget I’ve done the Christian a pretty bad turn if my attitude was a barrier to accepting the truth.

But let’s get back to quantitative data for a bit.  If you want to know what’s driving the high rates of churn, don’t forget that, according to another Pew survey, most Americans know very little about the tenets of the religion they’re ostensibly committed to.  A large proportion of deconversions seem to be the result of facing up to what your church teaches and deciding that it’s demands are self-refuting.  According to yet another Pew study:

The reasons people give for changing their religion – or leaving religion altogether – differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions.1 Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

I try to be polite and acknowledge strengths in my opponents arguments or weakness in my own both because I want to argue in good faith for my sake (so I won’t persist in error if I’m wrong), but it’s sure not all altruism and epistemological modesty.  Getting a reputation for arguing in good faith is good tactics.  My  objections to religion are more likely to be considered and answered honestly if I’ve given Christians some sign I’ve done some research and I’m interested in their answers.  (Getting other atheists to that point was one reason I posted my Atheist’s Guide to Catholics).

My goal is not to hand weapons to my enemies; I don’t want to give my interlocutors an excuse to tune out.  If I can keep them engaged in good faith and if the points I raise are good ones and based in truth, they stand a chance of making an impression and spurring further questions.

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  • *Getting a reputation for arguing in good faith is good tactics.*It is? When have conservatives and Christians EVER paid the *slightest* price for their lies and nastiness?

  • "Getting a reputation for arguing in good faith is good tactics."And thus, by writing this, you obviate your good faith.It's important to seek knowledge and truth, and engaging with others is a part of that. But the goal with engaging with others should simply be to listen to and understand critiques to your own position, see what you can learn from them, and get closer to the truth.Persuasion is a dead end. Just try to find the truth. If you get closer, great! If others come with you, even better!But if your goal is "conversion", then you will never question your own underlying ideas and the search for truth is lost.

  • @Kogo: Many people who have deconverted do cite the inability of their leaders to respond to criticism except with distrust and/or anger as something that pushed them toward atheism.You're absolutely right that a lot of people get away with lying and manipulation, but I don't see much hope for atheism if our success depends on just lying better. There are more of them than us, and people certainly trust them more. If we want to win, we have to be right, and we have to be spotless, so it's as hard as possible to smear us and detract from out arguments. It's unfair, to be sure, but, as atheists, we were never guaranteed a fair fight by Anyone.

  • When considering Catholicism (for example) surely other Christian denominations and theistic religions have already done most of the heavy lifting for the atheist. The public atheist who can bring about a shift (outside philosphical circles) from the God of theology to pantheism or agnosticism should go home happy. I think it is a mistake to assume atheists want a purely atheistic society.

  • The goal of the public atheist is secularism, right?

  • [/obligatory I-don't-speak-for-all-atheists-disclaimer]I'd like a more secular society, to be sure, blamer, but that's not the extent of my goal. I believe many religious creeds are seriously out of touch with reality, and the mental compromises people have to make to hold on to them can seriously warp their reasoning and ethics. In those cases, I don't just care about the public sphere, I also hope I can convince that person to change their private beliefs. It doesn't matter whether or not those beliefs have a direct effect on me.