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Asymmetry of conversion

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Steve Loucks has noted a remarkable phenomenon in his "Asymmetry of Conversion" pages: many people who had advocated various forms of Christianity deconvert and become agnostics or atheists, while it is very rare for someone who had understood and used atheist arguments to convert to some religion. And as he describes in his pages, he had done a lot of searching. This should not surprise us as there is no rational reason why intelligent people should take the Old Testament more seriously than other Bronze Age and Iron Age mythology of the time. Further there is no reason to take the New Testament mpore seriously than other mythology from the Roman Empire.

Brian Holtz is a bit more specific in his "Atheist Deconversion" pages; he looks for conversion provoked by force of reason, without any influence from

  1. example or pressure from parents, professors, or any authority figure;
  2. desire for fellowship with some religious person or social group;
  3. desire to rebel against parents, professors, or any authority figure;
  4. negative personal experience with anti-religious people or institutions;
  5. distaste for the historical or distant actions of anti-religious people or institutions;
  6. distaste for the evils that might be mitigated by belief in god(s);
  7. emotional dissatisfaction with the logical implications of atheism;
  8. personal injustice or victimhood;
  9. personal misfortune such as disability, injury, illness, or the misfortune of a loved one;
  10. personal failure or crisis related to substance abuse, gambling, guilty conscience, imprisonment, etc.;
  11. personal dissatisfaction with one's social, romantic, or vocational circumstances;
  12. desire to reform (or excuse) one's morality or behavior;
  13. desire for hope in divine reward.

He continues by analyzing such self-proclaimed ex-atheists as A.S.A. Jones, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel, finding some of those factors at work. And in reference to Steve Loucks's points, they were not exactly very philosophically sophisticated about their former atheism, or more likely, lack of religion.

Though Antony Flew has widely been heralded as an example of such a conversion, he seemed to have come to believe in a kind of deism, something rather far removed from traditional Christianity. It must be remembered that Flew was well over 70 when he began to doubt atheism and over 80 when he finally became a deist, possibly at that advanced age he could not see the weaknesses of the God of the gaps position the way younger thinkers can, see Humanists, Atheists Look to Higher Global Profile though that does not mention his age.

But perhaps the most philosophically-sophisticated atheist to convert has been Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad. He had been a philosophy professor, and during World War II, he had been a regular in the BBC radio program Brains Trust, where people would call in and ask the panelists about this and that. C.E.M. Joad was a professional know-it-all there; he became famous for saying "It all depends on what you mean by..."

But in 1948, he was caught doing something that he had bragged about in his Testament of Joad, written some years earlier: riding a train without a valid ticket. This caused a big scandal, and Joad was fired by the BBC. He converted, and in the last years of his life, he wrote some Christian apologetics. He even debated Bertrand Russell on that subject, and he reportedly lost rather miserably.

So Joad was subject to influence (10) and possibly (12).

Yet another reconvert was Annie Besant. She was an activist in such causes as Fabian socialism, labor-union activism, feminism, birth control, secularism, and home rule in Ireland and India. In her earlier activist years, she was a speaker for the British National Secular Society and a close friend of secularist activist Charles Bradlaugh. But in 1889, she was assigned to review a book, The Secret Doctrine, by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, a proto-New-Age belief system. She went to Paris to interview Madame Blavatsky, and she ended up converting to Theosophy. She became a prominent Theosophist, joining the Theosophical Society and even becoming its president for a while.

References:

Most of this article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).

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