May 14, 2008

What Makes People Deconvert?

In an interesting post, Kieran Bennett describes reviewing 114 stories of people who abandoned their faith (almost all of them former Christians). He could identify reasons in 94 of them. I am moderately surprised not at the reasons, but instead at the frequency of them. The leaders were:

Unsatisfactory answers to simple questions14
Science objectively disproved claims of doctrine14
Logical problems with dogma12
Critical reading of Bible raised doubts about faith or morality10
Hypocrisy or misdeeds of religious figures8
Could not discern between competing claims for "truth" in various religions8
God failed to answer prayers8

What is interesting to me about this is that the plurality of reasons for leaving one's religion derive from religion's inability to explain the world, particularly in light of the discoveries and findings of modern science. This makes sense -- if the world obviously is a certain way, and religion insists that it is other than what can be seen and proven to be true, religion must therefore be false.

This also goes a long way to explain why the theory of evolution is seen as such a threat by religion -- it specifically refutes not only the text of the Bible but also its generalized message that God is the Creator of Man. Unless "God" = "roughly one billion years of accumulated, incremental mutations," the theory of evolution and the Book of Genesis cannot both be true, in even a metaphorical sense.

I'm also amazed at the relatively low number of people who cite unanswered prayers as their reason for doubt. Of course, it has never occurred to me, even once in my entire life, that praying for something would make that thing more likely to happen.

I know there are stories of people who testify that prayer has healed people with apparently incurable illnesses. I've never seen it happen; people with incurable illnesses that I have known, or known of, have all died. The strongest example from my own experience was a man of very great faith that I knew in my early adulthood, only a few years older than me. He and I had played cards together, discussed religion and politics together, and we liked one another's company just fine during the four or five times a year that we would see each other at social events. I considered him a friend, maybe not a particularly close friend, but someone I would have gone out of my way to help had I known it was needed. He'd just gotten married a year or two before a period of time when he felt a little bit under the weather for a few days. His wife ultimately persuaded him to go to the doctor. Like me, he probably needed to be prodded by his wife seven or eight times before he actually did it.

As it turns out, it wouldn't have made any difference at all. The doctor ran some blood tests and told him he had stage five leukemia, and that he had only a few days, a few weeks at the most, to live. This man (and his wife) were active and devout members of an evangelical Christian congregation, and his family and friends and co-congregants all gathered to pray for him as intensely as they could. He died seven days after he was diagnosed with cancer. Their prayers and faith had done him no good at all.

He had a very moving funeral; the huge megachurch he attended was packed and his pastor gave a powerful eulogy, during which the pastor called people in the audience to come down to the front of the church and accept Jesus into their hearts. No one took him up on the offer, and I can understand why -- you either had already done it, which was why you were going to that church in the first place -- or you weren't going to do it because the prayers and faith hadn't done this man (or his widow or the rest of his family) any good at all; he had been taken at far too young an age, and for no good reason at all.

Such an event seemed to me to be a cause for someone to lose faith, not to gain it. The randomness of the event demonstrated to me that if there was a God, either my friend wasn't doing the right thing to worship Him correctly, or the worship and faith didn't matter. And if the worship and faith didn't matter, then why have faith, why do worship at all? What would be the point of worshipping a God who would take a good man like that who was smart and worked hard to provide for his family and to contribute to his community; a faithful man like that who eagerly participated in his church and tirelessly witnessed his faith to anyone who would listen, even a skeptic like me; a friend to hundreds, a son and brother and uncle to a wonderful family, a husband to a loving wife who wanted to have his children? Surely those people needed him with them on the Earth more than God needed him in Heaven.

His death benefitted no one. If God took him, God was cruel, and I certainly didn't want to worship a God like that. I didn't even believe in God but I was still mad at Him for taking my friend. Deep down, I still am a little bit angry that he's gone, even though it's been many years since he died.

This, it seems to me, is an extreme case of an unanswered prayer. There have to be millions of unanswered prayers. Not just selfish prayers like "Jesus, I want to win the Lotto" or "God in Heaven, make my evil stepfather nice to me." Nor do I mean "test prayers" like "I defy thee, God! Strike me down with lightning this very second!"

No, I mean noble, touching, hearfelt, and selfless prayers like "Dear Lord, my son lost his arm fighting in Iraq. Please give him his arm back so he can have a normal life." God isn't going to grow that kid a new arm, no matter how much you pray. Even the most faithful of people know that this soldier is never going to have an arm again -- even if those people believe that God, and faith in God, can do literally anything.

Every person of faith, it seems to me, must have hundreds of examples of times they prayed for something and didn't get it. They might come up with elaborate reasons why they didn't get what they were praying for and now, looking back on it, they realize they were better-off the way things turned out. But they can't know that's actually true, even if they are happy now despite not getting their desires fulfilled in the past. That's really just a rationalization.

Bennett concludes his article by musing that for the most part, atheists can do nothing to "deconvert" the faithful. A person must arrive at the conclusion that his or her religion is not true on their own, or not; there is little that an atheist can say to change their mind. The "deconversion" must originate within the self; it cannot come from an external source. I basically agree with that.

But I am really surprised that more "deconverted" folks don't cite unanswered prayers as the reason for their loss of faith.


Kieran said...

I was somewhat surprised that prayer even came into. To me it seemed that surely god never answers prayers, so religions must have found a way to immunise their followers from doubt arising from this.

Thanks for the link, I'm glad you found the post interesting.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I had one quibble with your post, Kieran -- you had another category of "Met atheists who weren't evil baby-eaters" but I could not tell how many such stories you identified. But this is very minor; the big insight was that people lose faith mostly because religion doesn't answer their questions in a satisfying way rather than (for me) God fails to answer their prayers.

Orange Phantom said...

I get the impression by your discussion concerning religion that you feel something is missing from your life. I'm not sure how to address that (given that it's true). Why do you feel the need to substantiate your position against something that doesn't exist?

We are all going to die, no matter how hard we pray (except me; most people die in their sleep, so I don't plan to sleep after reaching 65 years old...).

Seriously, prayers are for asking God to grant us something that aligns with his plans. Hogwash? Maybe so as you could rationalize when something does (or does not) occur that it conforms to this 'plan'. I think one thing prayer does do however, is to give a peace and understanding that we are not able to control everything in our lives, and that some higher power has some form of control.

I can pray for wisdom; do I get it? How do you measure that? I can pray for money; again how do I measure that. Science gives us a method to quantify things, while religion does not.

I particularly enjoyed a previous post you had about the guy in Tx that attended Christian boot camp. His writings (I thought) were simialr in some ways to Ann Coulter. Entertaining but lacking in things other than emotional appeal. I'm sure that what he stated had substantiation, but his writing style used a great deal of 'trickery' to accentuate his position. Sounds to me that the camp was a typical brain washing exploit, not unlike a number I've attended under the guise of team building for different companies I've worked at over the years. This church I don't believe is typical amongst Christian Churches (I really don't know as I've only been to a few differnt ones over the years).

Anyhow, we'll have some enjoyable discussion when you are visiting later this year. I hope you like beer. We can listen to some blues/jazz too.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Respectfully, your impression is not correct. I have a very full and fulfilling life and I don't feel like anything is missing from it. That doesn't mean my life is uniformly happy -- whose is? -- but I am generally at peace with my role in the world and how the world works. Of course, I see part of my role in the world as trying in my own way to make things better for others by using the talents and abilities that I possess, so that inherently involves looking for places where things are not as good as they could be. Maybe that's where you pick up on the idea of "searching."

There is no divine "plan." If there is such a plan, its machinations are functionally indistinguishable from chance. My friend died, which is only one of many examples we could all think of under the category of "bad things happening to good people." Accepting that "there's a reason things happen," and that we "can't know what that reason is" is so profoundly unsatisfying a response to the question of why bad things happen to good people that it is, for me, not a response at all.

Orange Phantom said...

Just as I assumed you would answer.

I just suggested you were searching, but I know you are not.

I suggested a 'plan' as a way of people trying to rationalize what happens. Is it merely by chance? Blast if I know. As for myself, 'For reasons unknown' doesn't cut it either. Horse hockey so to speak, but for some, it's comforting. We're all gonna die one day, whether it's at age 20 or 80 makes no difference. No specific puprose need be fulfilled before you are allowed to die. I think we just should try to be the best we can to all we come in contact with.

Dying is not a promotion or demotion, but just what happens. We don't earn it or deserve it (as reward or punishment).

Maybe we can discuss the idea of chance? After all, that's what evolution, is correct? AS a software guy, I am somewhat familiar with randomness (a.k.a chance). As of yet, there are no algorhytms that have been mathmatically proven to really be random. Interesting, is it not? Or are we just fooling ourselves...

The beer will be cold.....

Transplanted Lawyer said...

There is much more to evolution than chance. I'll bring The Blind Watchmaker with me in September, and as we empty the bottles of cold beer, I'll be happy to lend/give it to you.

Kieran said...

transplated lawyer:

Sorry, I didn't notice I'd left the number out until someone pulled me up on it this morning.

It was 11.7% of the sample.

Orange Phantom:

I do not feel that there is something missing from my life, well aside from the less "family friendly" item of Maslow's hierarchy. :P

God is not real, but it is not against god that I need to substantiate a position.

Religion is very real, and it's influence pervades our society, and as your attempt at bearing witness demonstrates, it's something that atheists are compelled to respond to every day of their lives.

Were various religions not intent on "saving" me, and "saving" the society I love, I would have little or nothing to say on the topic.

Orange Phantom said...

Thank you for your comments. Perhaps it is just in the blog that the issue keeps coming up (and I enjoy discussing it). However, I don't see my role as one having to save anyone else. I am not able to quote the Bible, so I'll paraphrase as best I can. There is a passage that Jesus talks about others listening to the words of followers. Jesus' reponse is that if someone doesn't listen, to just move on.

My comments are not directly related to anyone in particular and I understand your position of having to defend/justify your beliefs everyday.

What I don't understand is why seeing a religious display at Christmas time for example, upsets you (even if it is on public property). How does that affect you day? I am sincere in this question. If I saw a display (on public property) celebrating non-belief, it wouldn't upset me. Kwanza is a non-belief, synthetic celebration. But it's the values that are what's important. Same for Christian celebrations (like Christmas). What's wrong with celebrating friendship, kindness, generousity etc?