Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Estranged Notions: Why Atheists Change Their Mind: 8 Common Factors

Today's post (or yesterday's by the time I'm done with this):

Why Atheists Change Their Mind: 8 Common Factors

There's a whole list of things wrong with this article, unsurprisingly. It's a typical religious apologist's view of conversion that prefers anecdote to facts.

Real causes of conversion

Psychologists and sociologists who study religious conversion will pretty consistently agree on two things: firstly, that under most circumstances people are most likely to follow the religion of their family (if any); and secondly, that religious conversions generally follow social links.

Apologetic articles about conversion always downplay or outright eliminate the role of social, family, and cultural ties. It's obvious why: these are factors that don't depend on the ‘correctness’ or validity of the religion being converted to, and don't in any way justify why you should convert to their religion rather than any other.

This explains—as the reasons given in the article do not—why the rates of conversion for people who grow up without a religion vary between cultures in accordance with the overall prevalence of religion. In the USA a good half of those raised as “nones” convert to a religion (the number of deconversions more than makes up for this, but deconversion seems to have some significant differences from conversion), while in the UK only a tiny proportion do.

Rationalization of conversion

Another issue is that conversion seems, commonly, to be a largely unconscious process. As a result, the convert will, looking back on it, tend to rationalize the result in terms of their prior value commitments: someone committed to rationalism will usually argue that belief is rational, someone committed to ethics will argue that belief is ethical, and so on.

This is not saying that people are always lying about their reasons for conversion (though obviously some people do). It simply reflects the fact that people do not as a rule have privileged access to their own thought processes.

Context of conversion experiences

Another factor usually downplayed in apologetic articles (which is why, when I see an apologetic account of some conversion experience, I often search out other accounts or interviews of the convert, to see what has been left out by the apologist) is the context of the conversion: certain events—notably depression, divorce, awareness of illness or death—greatly increase the chances that someone will convert.

Obviously this isn't what the apologist usually wants to stress, though there are exceptions: a conversion following a period of depression can be worked into a narrative of being ‘saved’ for example. But when trying to argue for faith as a reasonable choice, it doesn't help to point out cases where people choose to convert at exactly those times in their life when reason may be in abeyance.

Extra penalty points in this context for once again bringing up Anthony Flew.