People Can and Do Change

Great quotes about Learning and Change

As an atheist, I often find myself in the position of explaining to others what atheism means. When I explain that I do not believe in gods, one of the most common questions I receive in response is, "Then what do you believe?" My lack of god-belief does not need to be replaced with something else. It would not occur to most people to ask this question of someone explaining that he or she does not believe in Odin or Zeus. Having said that, I recognize that atheism says something about what I do not believe and nothing about what I do believe. And so, I often express what I believe, taking care to make it clear that whatever I say has nothing to do with atheism and does not necessarily apply to other atheists. In this post, I'll give a specific example by highlighting something I believe.

I believe that people can and often do change over the course of their lives. Moreover, I am convinced that recognizing this simple truth and reminding ourselves of it periodically can help us treat others better than we might otherwise be inclined. I'll even take this an additional step and say that remembering that people can and often do change seems to be important in preventing us from inflicting harm upon them.

Let's consider the nastiest example of religious extremism, anti-science lunacy, racism, sexism, misogyny, and/or whatever else pushes your buttons that you've ever encountered. Can this specific person change? Probably. Will this specific person change? I have no idea. I think it is unlikely that we'll ever be able to predict who will change in meaningful ways over the course of their lives. At the same time, I am convinced that most of us have some capacity to change.

Most of you have met ex-Christians, and some of you have met ex-Muslims. Even if you don't know any personally, most of you could name a few prominent voices who are not only former Christians or former Muslims but who are former religious extremists. I've known more than a few atheists who were indoctrinated into evangelical fundamentalist Christianity and carried these beliefs into their adult years before recognizing the error of their ways. People can change.

Many people say things, especially during their adolescent years, that most of us would regard as racist or sexist. Most seem to outgrow this, learning that what they say can hurt others' feelings and realizing that this is not in their self-interest and/or is not consistent with the sort of person they aspire to be. Who among us can't relate to this? Who hasn't ever made mistakes like this? People do change.

I've known people who were once White supremacists and are now as tolerant as any of us. I've known people who once seethed with hatred toward anyone who did not share their political views and are now almost completely apolitical. I've known people who once took great pride in their ability to beat others senseless in street fights and who are now pacifists. I've known hardcore drug users who are now sober. I've known people who benefitted from spending time behind bars, completely abandoning the sort of behaviors that got them there. People change.

I hate to see people giving up on others, especially when they do so based on nothing more than a few unpleasant interactions on social media. Given the large percentage of atheists who are former religious believers, I find it disappointing when I hear atheists say things like, "There's no point trying to reason with religious believers because they didn't reason themselves into their beliefs." There are at least two problems with this. First, the scientific literature on motivated reasoning suggests that most of us do not reason ourselves into our beliefs. Second, statements like this sound like one is trying to justify giving up on others. This opens the door to one feeling justified in treating them poorly. People can and do change. Don't give up on others.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that you should never walk away from an unproductive encounter with someone. We all do this, and I think it is a far better option than remaining in an unproductive encounter once we recognize that the other party is not being reasonable. Ending such an encounter is not the same as giving up on someone, and it certainly isn't the same as giving up on an entire group of people.