Telling Better Deconversion Stories

A while ago, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist had a post contrasting atheist deconversion stories with Christian conversion narratives.  He thought atheists need to beef up speaking skills to be able to match the intense emotion of Christian “once was lost” stories.

A lot of atheists stop believing in god after a long process of introspection. Maybe they read a book or a friend (or, ironically, a pastor) started them down that path, but there usually isn’t a “born again” moment. When we talk about why we’re atheists, we talk about logic, science, what’s true, and what’s not…

Not a lot of stories. Not a lot of emotion. Not a lot of anything that’ll make the audience shed a tear. Not a lot of the things that draw in people who think with their gut instead of their brain. Not that it’s a bad thing to use your brain, but if we’re trying to reach out to people beyond our own bubble and convince them we have it right, we need to meet them where they are and draw them in.

I’m always in favor of getting into public speaking and reframing your talks to have a narrative arc (this was always my first piece of advice when I ran pre-science fair murderboards), but I think it’s not enough to fill in the rhetorical gap that Hemant is talking about.  It’s not just that Christian converts tell their stories with more aplomb; their arcs are intrinsically more satisfying.

Christian stories usually take the form of “Our hearts are restless til they rest in thee.”   They end with a homecoming. Atheist deconversion stories feel a little more like the end of The Graduate: the escape has been effected, but it’s not clear what you’re going to do next.  The problem puts me in mind of a quote from the beginning of E.L. Konigsburg’s (totally stellar!) book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Two siblings are planning to run away from home, but they hit an snag:

“Of all the sissy ways to run away and of all the sissy places to run away to…” Jaime mumbled.

He didn’t mumble quite softly enough. Claudia turned on him, “Run away to?  How can you run away and to?  What kind of language is that?”  Claudia asked.

We shouldn’t cleave to a flawed philosophy just to have the peace of answers, but, if we believe in an orderly universe, we should expect to find rest and peace at some parts of our philosophical quest.  The real purpose of questioning everything is to turn up some answers.  But when atheists pick ‘skeptic’ as their main self-descriptive adjective, it can seem like they’ve picked process over the goal and it’s impossible to match the emotional draw of Christian conversion stories.

That’s why I’m delighted to see that Free Thought Blogs’ Crommunist is starting a “Because I am an atheist…” series, meant as a compliment to PZ Myers’s “Why I am an Atheist” posts.  Atheists need to talk about what philosophical propositions have passed their newly rigorous criteria, not just explain how religion failed.  It makes your position more compelling and it’s a good check to make sure you’ve calibrated your false positive/false negative filters appropriately.

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  • I usually frame my de-conversion from Catholicism in terms of liberation:

    I had been increasingly restless and frustrated with my faith for years, and yet I held to it right up to the last—routinely re-framing my beliefs in unsatisfying, reduced terms until was left with only an amorphous belief in/wish for “something.” This lasted until I expressed such thoughts to a non-theist friend and he gave me a not-so-gentle push by bluntly asking me “Why?” When I realized my answer was simply “because I’m supposed to; because I find it easier,” I realized I was on the wrong path. This realization in hand, I was able to complete the shedding of my dysfunctional faith and explore the positive and negative ramifications of a godless worldview. It felt like a burden had been removed from me—and that my mind had been opened to a secular sense of wonder and to non-spiritual fulfillment.

    I emphasize my emotions when I tell this story—how unhappy I was when trying to reconcile my faith, how painful yet relieving it was falling out of faith, how much happier I was when I finally accepted the atheist outlook—and not the arguments for or against. My goal in telling it is to show that I’ve found a perspective that works for me (usually I find myself telling it to reassure concerned relatives), not to convert others.

    • Joe

      I would love to hear your story in more detail. Do you plan to submit your story to the site referenced in the post? Perhaps a guest post on this blog? Have you written about this on your own blog?

      • The closest I’ve come to writing it out was in a series of emails with my sister, who remains steady in her Catholic faith. I don’t have a blog, but I will consider submitting it to the site linked in the article, for sure. Thank you for your interest.

        • leahlibresco

          I’d be glad to run a post or series of posts here, Matt.

          • Ruh oh. That sound you hear is the sound of my crippling nervousness as I wonder if I can actually write a more detailed narrative that would be worth reading. Well hey, it’s as good a writing prompt as any I suppose. I’ll knock it around and let you know if anything good comes of it. Thanks!

  • Brandon

    It’s not just that Christian converts tell their stories with more aplomb; their arcs are intrinsically more satisfying.

    I disagree that they’re more satisfying. I mean, they might make better movie plots, but I rarely find them compelling as real world stories. Perhaps it’s because I came from being Christian to atheist in a fairly typical way, going from Christian to nominally Christian to deist to agnostic to atheist over the course of a decade of careful thinking and biology education. I find that satisfying, but it might just be because I can relate to such a tale, as I where I’m completely incapable of relating to appeals to supernatural epiphanies, which sound so silly and credulous to me.

    Atheist deconversion stories feel a little more like the end of The Graduate: the escape has been effected, but it’s not clear what you’re going to do next.

    What I did next was what I suspect most deconverts do – live essentially the same life, only without the guilt of believing that a supernatural entity was angry with me about my sexual proclivities, dietary choices, or utterances.

  • This is a bit of a tangent, but Leah’s readers seem like they might have some suggestions: I can think of many real & fictional accounts of people coming to atheism due to suffering. I can think of many real and fictional accounts of people who found God after finding themselves entangled in serious sin, serious wrongdoing. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any accounts of people who became atheists due to personal searches which were provoked by their own grave moral wrongdoing–i.e. “I was in the Mafia/left my infant daughters in the car while I smoked crack/lied and cheated to get into the college of my choice… and my despair or sense that I was doing serious harm is what started me on the path to atheism.”

    Does anyone have recommendations for that kind of story? (Real or fictional.) Something where the wrestling with what I would call one’s own sinfulness in fact leads to a rejection of religious faith. (And not a rejection which is presented as purely selfish, like, “I stopped believing in God so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about cheating on my wife”–that isn’t what I mean.)

    • leahlibresco

      I’ve seen something a little like this from some of the Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy deconverts. They were uncomfortable with the childbeating, among other things. I know the woman at Permission to Live felt guilty about her reluctance to hit her children, because she was disobeying God/letting her children down. Not sure if this fits your parameters.

      • Thanks! Yes, that definitely does fit, although I’d also be especially interested in reading about someone whose sins weren’t directly or obviously linked to her religion.

        And I suppose I’d also be most interested in someone who came from a religious background with which I identify more (or about which I feel more defensive!) like Catholicism or Judaism–that would be most challenging to me. But yes, thanks for these examples. About to read the post you linked.

        • Joe

          Reading it will be better than just skimming and making assumptions! (Red faced)

          • I thought it was a really powerful post. (The one Leah linked to, I mean.) Lots of insight into parent-child relationships.

      • Joe

        What frustrates me most about de-conversion stories is that they always seem to go from one form of nutty fundamentalism to another. The story you linked to seems to illustrate my point. Fundamentalist christians are made more rational by their de-conversion but they are still given to an ideological extreme “atheism” most of witch is fundamentalist in nature “atheistic materialism”. Most de-conversion stories I read should be subtitled “Throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Thats why I am fascinated by Matt’s story above. Maybe it won’t be so silly.

    • Patrick

      I’ve seen that come up in two contexts:

      1. A realization that the believer’s views on homosexuality were hurting someone they cared about, and concluding that if love and their faith were in conflict, the faith had to change or go.

      2. A realization that they were, in a religious capacity, teaching children to believe things that weren’t true. For example, teaching children to believe in the flood from Genesis, while knowing that there was no such flood.

      The thing is, if your problem is that you feel that you’re doing wrong and you want to stop, atheism doesn’t promise you anything in relation to that problem unless the reason you’re doing wrong is religious. Religious deconversion as a cure for, say, alcoholism, makes as much sense as changing toothpaste brands. Religious conversion, on the other hand, promises a great deal.

      • Ash

        “Religious deconversion as a cure for, say, alcoholism, makes as much sense as changing toothpaste brands. Religious conversion, on the other hand, promises a great deal.”

        I know a guy who attributes his sobriety to his final escape from theism, primarily the new sense of personal responsibility he felt in the absence of faith. And I’m sure many attribute sobriety to their god. But the data doesn’t support any large-scale effects. Therapies for alcoholism and drug abuse, religious or otherwise, don’t seem to do any better than the spontaneous remission rate. Some people just stop using.

    • My story is actually not so different from this (though substantially less extreme than leaving the Mafia)

      One of the principle reasons I left (Protestant) Christianity was because of some “Sin” in my life that, simply put, wasn’t getting better. Without going into details, I was in a relationship with a Christian girl, and it wasn’t meeting the qualifications of the kind of relationship my religion was telling me I was supposed to have. I couldn’t figure out how two people totally dedicated to God and to Christianity could suck so bad at following the rules that were supposed to be for our own good. I got particularly hung up on the part where we were supposed to be “conformed to the image of Christ” more and more each day, where as me and her seemed to be getting worse every day. It seemed like I had empirical evidence either that Christianity wasn’t working, or that the idea of a “proper” Christian relationship that I had been taught wasn’t right.

      I wouldn’t say this is what caused me to reject Christianity, but it started me down a path of questioning that led to bigger questions that eventually did cause me to reject it (though I may not be the best example of Atheism, since I’m somewhere between Atheist, Agnostic, and Confused)

    • Rek

      Eve, I’m not sure how much time you have on your hands, but “Lucifer” by Michael Cordy has some of that kind of thing. It’s been several years since I read it, but I remember one particular scene where a character is going along with a government plot that requires her to do terrible things–or allow them to happen–to people. She is then convinced that there is no god, and subsequently behaves heroically. All this occurs in the context of a key character being convinced that the world would behave better if they believed there was no heaven. But again, it’s been a while, and I’d hate to spoil it for you, anyway.

  • deiseach

    “Not a lot of the things that draw in people who think with their gut instead of their brain.”

    See now, that’s the kind of throwaway comment that ties in with the questions I was raising about the Reason Rally – where are all the artists? Yes, great for the scientists/philosophers/logicians/skeptics of various hues, but it does seem to be dismissive of those who don’t formulate their positions like laying out an equation.

    And it can come across as condescending – if you want to talk to one of them, you have to get down to their level, and that means dumbing down or leaving your brain at the door.

    • leahlibresco

      Hemant’s post was definitely not written for people who aren’t already atheists. I agree that line grates, and atheists tend to underestimate how much evidence it should take to push people to deconvert (because a lot of the arguments are with Creationists who think that their religion’s shot if evolution exists).

    • Ash

      Just glancing at the list of speakers and performers at the Reason Rally, I count five musicians, six actors/entertainers, two comedians, four journalists and writers, and one poet. I count three scientists, three or four activists, a former preacher, and ten “professional nonbelievers” of one sort or another, such as directors of secular organizations or the publisher of a magazine for skeptics.

      I don’t think anyone would accuse Jamie Kilstein of laying out arguments like an equation.

      • deiseach

        I’d love to see more posts that quote an atheist poet instead of retreading the Dawkins/Hitchen/Harris ‘gotcha!’ argument, Ash 🙂

        • machintelligence

          Check out The Digital Cuttlefish at Free Thought Blogs. He (she?) blogs in verse but refuses to call it poetry as it is not polished enough.

  • That you call it “deconversion” sort of points at the problem. It’s a story arc defined by what you’re converting from, not what you’re converting to. No one really cares about what you don’t believe, it’s much more interesting to discuss what you do believe.

    So in many ways this ends up pointing toward the hard/soft atheism thing again.

  • @b

    Asymmetrical is our need for closure. A conversion story is satisfying, reaching atheism is open-ended.

  • I put a lot of time and effort into creating a deconversion series on Youtube, and I’ve since expanded it into a standalone website called My friend Eli, aka Prplfox, has an even more gut-wrenching deconversion on Youtube.

  • julian

    The Cromunist post reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine several years ago as we were walking out of the movie “Contact.” I remarked something along the lines of “That movie really points to a lot of the reasons that I am a Christian.” My friend’s response: “Hmmm, that movie really points to a lot of the reasons that I am not.” Reading the Crommunist list and some of the comments I’m thinking, some of this stuff, (not all of it of course), I could preface with “because I am a Christian.” Hmmm, indeed.