Piers Benn

Conundrums and Controversies

Narratives of religious de-conversion – some thoughts

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I have been following with considerable interest some of the material on faith, de-conversion and the psychology of belief that have been appearing on various blogs. This is partly because religion has always fascinated me, partly because I find my general lack of commitment either decisively for or against any religious system to be a source of anxiety and frustration, and partly because I find myself increasingly absorbed in matters to do with the psychology of faith, belief, doubt and especially sudden transformations.

Religious traditions are awash with ‘conversion literature’ – accounts of how people reached faith after periods of doubt, a great sense of facing a momentous existential choice, and not infrequently a sense of sin. These periods of acute conflict and anxiety are reputedly resolved by conversion experiences, which take different forms according to differences in individual psychology and surrounding religious culture. Furthermore, many who recount such experiences interpret their past conflicts as conforming to a certain religious narrative: ‘when I doubted such and such, this was God showing me this important thing about myself’; ‘when I made such and such a sinful choice, this was God’s chance to demonstrate to me the true nature of this choice’; ‘when I thought I asked God for enlightenment but never received it, God was slowly but relentlessly showing me the futility of insincere requests for “cheap grace” ‘. And so on. These narratives often have an irresistibly persuasive force for those who tell them – their past experience now ‘fits’ the new story they tell of the providentially guided spiritual progress they have made.

But in this age of renewed confidence in unbelief, partly spurred by the publicity given to ‘New Atheism’ and the prolific use of social media and the blogosphere by religious sceptics and apostates, a new phenomenon is emerging. This is the ‘de-conversion’ narrative, the stories people tell of their past religious commitment, the growth of their doubts, their failure to find any satisfactory answers from (for example) churches and mosques and their final embracing of overt, confident unbelief. And there is some similarity of pattern to that of the conversion narratives – periods of fervent commitment, followed by conflict (and perhaps reprimands from ‘religious peers’), followed by increasingly confident observation of things that disconfirm religious claims, followed by an almost epiphanic release into the world of non-belief.

Other kinds of conversions, such as political ones, may have the same pattern. But religious ones seem to be different: what one decides about religion could have eternal consequences and shapes one’s whole orientation towards the world and other people. For sensitive people, agnosticism is painful. It might seem the only intellectually honest or reasonable option. But from a practical point of view, the choice is ‘forced’: from many theological perspectives, agnosticism is no better than outright disbelief. So it is not surprising that both conversion, and de-conversion, can result from the desperate need to escape from agnosticism.

For ‘de-converts’, especially from doctrinally strict systems of belief, the rejection of agnosticism is especially well-motivated. It is much easier to scorn a belief system that condemns all non-believers to hell, if you think the likelihood of that system being true is close to zero. But if you think it has some serious chance of being true, but not a very great chance, then things are more uncomfortable. And once the agnosticism is banished (at least temporarily) the rejection of the system easily generates anger: ‘How dare these bigoted fools keep me in subjection! I’ve now seen right through their idiotic, paranoid delusions!’

There’s quite a lot of this on the ex-Muslim blogs, in particular. And just as converts construct plausible narratives of their journey to faith, in terms of (as it were) the behind-the-scenes grace of God, so de-converts offer stories with similar structures. For example, a fascinating collection edited by Louise Antony (Philosophers without God (OUP 2007) contains autobiographical accounts of how several philosophically inclined people lost or rejected their faith. Their stories often are about growing up in a fervently religious environment, realizing that their philosophizing and empirical observations increasingly failed to fit what they had been taught, followed by a final embrace of the atheistic ‘truth’: ‘At last, I can be honest! I don’t have to keep subverting my reason. This stuff is false. I need no longer feel guilt about suspecting as much. My suspicions were right!’ And with this may come another thought: ‘When I told myself to avoid self-deception in embracing unbelief (after all, I was warned that there are many reasons to prefer religion to be false, such as the desire to avoid divine judgement) I was actually engaging in self-deception then. My upbringing had always warned me about one kind of self-deception, and all the while it was the opposite self-deception operating. What a liberation to see that, at last!’

I am trying to make sense of this, and in a way my quest is quite personal. My career to date has been as an academic philosopher/medical ‘ethicist’ in the UK, and I have taught introductory courses on philosophy of religion. But there is an ‘academic style’ to contemporary philosophizing about religion that I want to feel free to eschew, when it seems helpful to do so. That is not to say I reject that style and the analytical approach – I do not, and they have their place. I have a reasonable, though far from perfect grasp of what is going in philosophy of religion and my default position has always been to accept the importance of good reasoning and the Socratic Method. But that can be constraining. For me, talking informally with philosophers about their interests is often more enlightening than reading their writings. Something comes alive in informal, often humorous discussion. They are more confident about certain things, or at least more outspoken, than their writings suggest. Yet they can also be less confident, and more aware than apparent in their writings of the highly personal circumstances that led to what they put in print.

The personal stories behind the religious convictions, or lack of them, among philosophers are sometimes fascinating and revealing. What they seem to show is that intelligence (which I have no wish to define here) has little or nothing to do with whether they are believers or not. I can think of philosophers whose intelligence and breadth of knowledge are way beyond my own, and who are convinced believers. They appear to understand everything an intelligent opponent would say, yet still believe. The same, of course, is true of non-believers. What explains the disagreement? Is it that, although each side is exceptionally sharp and well-informed, there is something, at a very high level of abstraction, that one side has understood and the other not? When it comes to disagreement about particular details, that is likely to be true, as it is in any other area of high-level dispute. But that is not a likely explanation of religious dispute in general, any more than it is of political disagreement. More often, informal probing reveals a particular passion, easily concealed behind the analytical style of writing; a personal quirk, or a story of something that happened to them that clinched the issue for them, one way or another.

There is a noted analytical philosopher of religion whose balanced and careful treatment of issues always impressed me, and who made the move from a fairly robust skepticism to Christianity. It is highly unlikely that his abilities as a thinker changed during his conversion. But a semi-autobiographical piece contains one possibly revealing detail: his son was killed in an accident. I speculate, of course, and it is possible that this terrible event was not instrumental to his change. But I wonder. Did it provide a new piece of information about the world, that he had not known before? Obviously not. We all know that terrible things happen to people, all the time; that they happen to us has no evidential relevance whatsoever. Yet few of us think or feel according to that truth. Such tragedies can force us to re-think our own positions, and more importantly our feelings, about great existential questions to do with meaning, suffering and purpose. Sometimes, personal tragedies lead people away from faith, for the usual reasons (how could a good God let this happen?) yet sometimes these tragedies lead people to embrace faith (how could this terrible thing be meaningless?). What explains why some people move in one direction, and others in another? Is it only a matter of psychology, or does it raise some difficult questions in epistemology as well?

Of course, the psychology is fascinating. And it comes to the fore when people who produce analytical writings for a living start talking in a more personal way. The revelation is a little like when you meet someone in the flesh for the first time, having thought you knew them through their writings, and you think ‘so this is what she looks like, what she wears, how she talks!’. And it sometimes comes as a surprise: this person has this kind of dress sense, or this sort of humour, or is kind and sympathetic (or arrogant and berating) in a way you would not have guessed. One thing that might strike us when we separate the person from the writer is that, when it comes to religious positions and attitudes, some people are gripped by the great existential questions, whereas others, by temperament, are not. They simply are not. It has nothing to do with intellect or even conviction. That is true of writers, as it is of people in general. Some people are temperamentally impelled to ask such questions as ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ whereas others are not – or, if they do ask them, are happy to conclude that because there *could* be no answer, it is a waste of time to worry about them. Similarly, most of us have people we love, but only some of us worry about whether such love needs a special kind of grounding in objective reality, if it is not to be misplaced. (Can I make sense of my love for him or her, if that person is simply evanescent and insignificant ‘from the point of view of the universe?)

The problem of ‘peer disagreement’ about religion (as it has come to be known) is not only about psychology, though. There is also a hard issue about our justification for claiming certainty, if we know that our ‘epistemic peers’ disagree. I’m not yet sure what to say about this. On the one hand, it seems odd that we should have to suspend judgment about something controversial, just because we know that well-informed people disagree. After all, can’t we find out whether they have good arguments, and if they don’t, then just carry on disagreeing? Perhaps. But then we have the problem of whether we can be justified in dismissing their arguments.  Couldn’t we be failing to see something that the other person sees?

Of course, most of us do carry on holding the positions we have. Constant enquiry is exhausting, and life is short. Besides, the impetus behind conviction is often emotional – especially with social or political stances – and we can’t easily switch off our emotions. But with that said, in moments of reflection we might be troubled. I’m only one of billions of people, and there is nothing special about me. Why should my views be right? It would be astonishing if they all were!

I’m presently writing an academic paper about all this. I may return when I have sorted it out – to my, and I hope, to everyone else’s satisfaction.

Author: piersbenn

Welcome to my blog. I am a philosopher and author and have held a number of academic posts. Since 2013 I have been a Visiting Lecturer at Heythrop College, University of London and an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University New York (based at its London Centre). My latest book is 'Commitment' (Acumen Press 2011). My research and teaching expertise is mostly in Ethics, and especially Medical Ethics. I am also interested in Philosophy of Religion and aspects of Political Philosophy. I have blogged for the Times and the Independent and have done many talks and media interviews.

One thought on “Narratives of religious de-conversion – some thoughts

  1. Pingback: Narratives of religious de-conversion – some thoughts | Piers Benn

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