September 24, 2013

Leaving the Faith: De-Conversion as a Process

English: Bust Of Bertrand Russell-Red Lion Squ...
English: Bust Of Bertrand Russell-Red Lion Square-London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You know what I love most about the atheist blogosphere? It is when bloggers informally collaborate to extend the conversation. Huh? One blogger writes a thought-provoking post, another then writes a post extending what the first blogger said or taking it in another direction, and so on. When the atheist blogosphere is working well, this is how it works. This is what I like to see.

Staks (Dangerous Talk) has a recent post asking the formerly religious about who or what was instrumental in our de-conversion. My answers have much in common with his own. Like him, the so-called "four horseman" had zero influence on me because I was an atheist for over a decade before their books were published. Also like Staks, I came to atheism in a time when it was tough to even know where to look to find material on atheism.

I have described how influential Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects was in my de-conversion process and how it was an accidental discovery one day in a used book store. I have also written about the role of skepticism in my eventual de-conversion.

What I wanted to add to the discussion is the idea that de-conversion really is a process for many of us, one that may unfold over years and one that has to happen from within us. That is not to say external influences don't matter. They matter considerably. I'd estimate, for example, that stumbling across Russell's book that day subtracted at least a year or two from the time it would take me to accept the fact of my atheism.

I frame de-conversion as a process and as something needing to come largely from within the individual because this strikes me as the most accurate way to think about it. I also do so in order to counter what I believe is an odd misconception from some atheists that they can bring about instantaneous de-conversion of a religious believer through a single online argument. I am highly skeptical that a single argument is going to persuade any religious believers to abandon their faith any more than a single argument would persuade an atheist to embrace religion.

Most atheists, including this one, will tell you that our beliefs about gods are not something we could voluntarily change in an instant. That is, we could not simply wake up one morning and start believing in gods. We could certainly pretend, but we could not flick a switch and suddenly go from atheists to believers. This is part of why we find proselytizing so absurd. Even if we wanted to start believing in gods, most of us realize that we could not.

I think it is probably safe to say that the same is true of religious believers. A devout Christian does not abruptly decide to abandon everything he or she knows and become an atheist. Such a person is also likely to find efforts to de-convert him or her to be hopelessly absurd. Even if he or she wanted to stop believing in gods and try atheism, it is unrealistic to think that he or she could do so. That is not how belief works.

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