Thursday, July 26, 2012

Conversion, deconversion and the will to believe

I just listened to a show on Unbelievable with a discussion between Leah Libresco, a former outspoken atheist who recently converted to Catholicism (you can read about that on her blog), and Hemant Mehta, the 'friendly atheist' who once 'sold his soul on eBay' (you can read about that on his blog and book). The conversation was mostly about Leah's conversion and the reasons for it. She was quite unable to give a compelling case to him about why she converted.

Listening to the conversation reminded me of a few thoughts I'd been meaning to work up into a blog post for some time, so here goes.

The main thing that struck me during the show was how the 'friendly atheist' simply could not understand how an intelligent atheist could change her worldview and become a believer in a specific religion. He basically said he could understand it if she had become a deist, but couldn't understand how she could possibly have decided that Catholicism was the way to go.

But why is this surprising? People change their worldviews all the time (that is, I mean, all the time there will be someone changing their world view, not that any individual is constantly changing their views). Christians become atheists, muslims become Christians, hindus become muslims, atheists become Christians, secularists become muslims, agnostics become believers, believers become agnostics, and so on, and so on. Worldview conversions happen all the time and, as far as I can tell, the people involved go from being a real believer in worldview A, to a real believer in worldview B, its not as if they were pretending in the first instance. People who genuinely believe that there is no God can and do come to believe that there is a God. People who genuinely believe that there is a God and they are in a 'personal relationship' with him can and do lose that faith and come to believe that there is no God. It happens. Whatever our worldview, we should not be surprised to find that people who once agreed with us can change their minds and end up disagreeing with us, or vice versa.

Whatever your worldview, be it Christian, atheist, or whatever, the evidence is that some people who share your views will end up rejecting them. It happens. And it doesn't matter which worldview someone starts out from, some people will always reject their former worldview in favour of a different one.

What I take away from this is the conclusion that no worldview is 100% compelling. There are good arguments in favour of most worldviews, there are good arguments against most worldviews. There is no set of evidence for any worldview which is guaranteed to convince any believer in a different worldview to change tracks. None. 

A Christian cannot convince an atheist to convert purely on the basis of evidence or reason. 

An atheist cannot convince a Christian to deconvert purely on the basis of evidence or reason.

One thing is missing. The will to believe.

If you have the will to believe in a certain worldview, you will find the evidence in favour of it more compelling than the evidence against it. But you can't be reasoned into a change in the will to believe. The will to believe, I think, has to come from within and is probably much more to do with relationships and emotions than it ever has to do with reasoning, evidence or reality.

Chances are, if you mix with a group of people with a different worldview from your own, and you find out that they are nice, intelligent and decent people, you will be far more likely to develop the will to believe in their worldview. Relationship and emotion will slowly shift the balance of will, and you might end up agreeing with things that you once found disagreeable or find some arguments compelling which you once found unbelievable.

I know this has happened in my life. Reading between the lines in what Leah Libresco said in the radio show I can see it in her life too. She mixed with catholics, had a catholic boyfriend, found them to be nice and intelligent people, and slowly came around to their way of thinking.

There are some statistics I heard once [citation needed] which show that most people who change worldview beliefs change them at times of stress or change of circumstances in their lives. Death of a family member, birth of a child, relocation to a new town or country, leaving home for the first time, etc. These are the times when people change worldviews. This is why missional organisations tend to target students - generally away from home, in a new place, under stressful circumstances. Students are far more likely to change their beliefs than people who have been in the same location and job for many years. Looking back over my life I can see this in action - I became a Christian in my first term at university, my first time living away from home. And I began to question the assumptions of my Christian faith following the death of my father. So my experience mirrors these statistics. In other words, emotional change led me to change the emphasis in my will to believe.

What about the 'conversion experience'? I had one of these back in 1988 when I became a Christian. Was that real? If I'm considering letting go of Christianity, how can I deny the reality of the experience?

I can't. It was a real experience. But maybe my interpretation of that experience was all wrong. For several years (yes, years) before I became a Christian there had been tension in my will to believe. Or rather, there were two competing wills to believe in my life, basically one pulling me in a Christian direction, and one pulling me in the other (OK, I don't believe there are only two ways to live, but it seemed like it at the time). When I (finally) decided to become a Christian, the tension was resolved and there was release.

Ask a blues musician about tension and release. The release only works if it follows the tension. The emotional release in conversion only manifests because it follows an emotional tension. The experience is real, but it stems from emotional release, not necessarily the presence of God.

I'm aware that in my life at the moment I have tension in my will to believe once more. I genuinely do want there to be a God and for the major claims of Christianity to be true - I have the will to believe in that. But I also have a strong will to believe the truth and am finding out that Christianity looks less and less true the harder you scrutinise it. Once again, I have two competing wills to believe, and I am sure that whenever I abandon one and wholeheartedly embrace the other, there will be release. It wouldn't surprise me if I have a reconversion experience or a deconversion experience, depending on which way I go.

In closing it looks to me that, most of the time, those of us who change our worldviews do so for emotional changes in our wills to believe. Despite what we think, we don't do it out of rational choice. I once could see really compelling reasons to be a Christian, I now see really compelling reasons not to be one. The evidence hasn't changed, but my will to believe has shifted. The thing is, if it really does boil down to this, then actually that seems pretty good evidence that there is no God behind belief. If the worldview we pick is dependent on our circumstances and external influences, and changes in those can result in changes in our core beliefs, even though the evidence doesn't change, then this suggests to me that the evidence for any particular God is simply not compelling, and there is no good reason to believe any of them, except for the emotional need to connect to like-minded people.

So be careful who you mix with, you will quite probably end up believing the same as them.


KWRegan said...

In my scale of "grounds for credence" which I first sketched here, what you classify under will to believe seems to cover the range from "Emotion" up thru "K3: Modeling". Whereas my "K2: Experiential Knowledge" seems to exclude it.

So my query is, did your Christian experience include anything you then classified (or would have classified) as K2? Famously Mother Teresa reported that she had a lot of early K2 and then went the entire last 50+ years without any. Not having any K2 is a common lot---I've emphatically countered "must-speak-in-tounges-ers" (via I. Cor. 12--14). Note also that I disclaim "K1: Reproducible Knowledge" and "Proof" (recall Tim's "Elijah BBQ" from the other thread:).

But please do allow that some may perceive K2, and even feel they've been co-opted against their previous inclinations. This doesn't entail acting with certainty or immediately being more compassionate either---the Gospels themselves record "signs wearing off". This also gets into the topic of signs which I first intended to broach apart from God in the "Both Sides Now" thread.

Ricky Carvel said...


You clearly look at the world through a different set of filters from the ones I use, so I don't fully understand your classification system.

I suspect the word 'modeling' means something different to you from what it means to me.

For what its worth, my conversion experience included 'physical' feelings of joy and elation such that I have rarely experienced in other circumstances. It was a 'real' experience. Whether that amounts to K2 on your scale, I can't tell. I have been back to the same experiential mountain top a couple of times subsequent to that (both in the 6 years following the first experience), but not really in the last 17 years or so. I have also had two minor 'revelation' type experiences (again, both within 6 years), which probably fall into your K2 category. Experience, yes, but not unambiguous experience.


Edwardtbabinski said...

I don't think missionaries target kids at college BECAUSE of the reasons you cited.

I think missionaries are trying to reach everyone, but they realize that ringing doorbells all day or street preaching just annoys people. But at college kids are more open and easy to speak with, especially if you can sound sincere and knowledgeable about a topic.

Missionaries target everyone though, including young children, trying to get them to attend local Vacation Bible School, Bible camps, etc., and all they need is one kid on the block who is attending such a camp to try and snag some friends to go along with him whose parents really don't care where the kids goes that summer, so long as it gives the parents some time alone to themselves.

On my block when I was growing up there was a lady who did felt-board storytelling and offered the kids cookies. She was protestant. She told stories like David and Goliath from the Bible. My mom was Catholic and didn't appreciate the lady's efforts to get kids to join her group (I think the felt-board lady also tried to get the kids to visit her church too, the kid's Sunday school, but I never got that far).

It all starts with a cookie, or a perky smile on a co-ed.

Christians want you in their churches, period.

KWRegan said...

Ricky, thanks for the response. I've had similar experiences and also more-fraught ones, but I distinguish one of them because it had a concrete, lasting effect.

In late spring 1984 I was walking back to my room on Holywell Street in Oxford while fuming about a remark by Jerry Falwell I'd heard in a BBC radio new item, of the kind that regularly sicken me. But based on my understanding of I Corinthians I resolved that I accepted him as a Christian. Instantly I was freed from a bunch of what you might call tics or "microsuperstitions" such as caring whether I'd entered a room an odd or even number of times---Edward T here might even recall some I affected while playing chess. No recurrence since. Of course my mind was in a ferment, and generally so at that time.

I hesitated writing this over "let's show mine" aspects, but hope it will help structure matters. Anyway I call it my "lone charismaton" and distinguish it even from this fraught experience the following December: A late start getting from Oxford down to Immigration in South Croydon and long delays there pushed me to 5:30pm long past a semi-promised pre-teatime visit to where an African exchange student was staying in London. I had to install software that evening before flying home two days later and wanted to go from Victoria straight to Paddington and home, but I got the proverbial hand-on-shoulder treatment saying "you have time to fit her in", so I took the blue line and rang her doorbell at 6pm. It was a half-hour after she'd learned of her husband's suicide in Africa. I comforted her until the last train before midnight (actually the whole evening is almost completely blank; 18 months ago I recovered repressed memory of the conversation at the door), and installed the software in a daze 2--4am.

luschen said...

Ricky, thank you so much for your blog. I have slowly been going through a deconversion experience very similar to yours - I think I am just about at the same point you are and am interested to find out how we both turn out. I can't really pinpoint why I am changing at this point in my life, but this is the first time I have been in almost constant contact with friendly atheists (not Hermant!) so your comments about taking on the beliefs of those we hang out with most really struck me.