Talk of ‘deconversion’ is nonsense talk

Why are atheists always speaking in terms of ‘deconversion’? Trying to ‘deconvert’ believers (Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.) Speaking of their ‘deconversion story’. That’s… I don’t even know what that means. Reverting a conversion? Returning to some prior, perhaps more natural state of affairs? The implications of talking about it this way are extremely problematic.

Here’s a few examples:

John Loftus

Dan Fincke

A whole site devoted to the topic.

A whole book written by Seth Andrews (the title of which implies that religion is bereft of reason—which is about par for the course of popular, movement Atheism these days)

And these are just a few of plenty more, though surely Fincke and Loftus are the two most prominent names of this list. Nevertheless, given that Fincke is a very prominent figure in the Atheist movement and a philosopher, I think he ought to reconsider how he frames his conversion to Atheism. For that is, simply put, all that it is. He left one system of beliefs, and adopted a new one. Deconversion talk is nonsense talk, and here’s why.

It is not as though the person who grew up in, and currently affirms, a given tradition ever ‘converted’ to that tradition anymore than the person who grew up in a politically left household and currently identifies as someone on the left ‘converted’ to left-wing politics. In no meaningful sense did either of these individuals ‘convert’ to either of the views they hold; they were raised wrapped up in the tradition and embraced it, though perhaps not consciously or explicitly. Ask yourself this: at what discrete point did either of these people become a Christian or a left-winger? Is it even possible to point to such a moment? I certainly can’t point to any discrete moment when I suddenly realized and started affirming my belief god doesn’t exist. Nor, I think, will anyone else. (Perhaps I could specify a moment at which I became comfortable publicly labeling as an atheist or some such, but that is definitely not the same thing.) I’m not sure that there’s any period, from one moment to the next, in which the sort of monumental change required for a conversion exists. It seems either arbitrary or too short a span of time for such changes to manifest. In other words, religious conversions take place over periods of time, not in single moments we point to. It may be a moment or a thought we could point to at which we recognized or accept the change, but that discounts the prior period in which the seeds of change were planted and allowed to grow.

These sorts of fundamental-to-our-worldview beliefs are not easily changed, since they are part and parcel of the very geometry of our ethical and political world; we’re often embedded so deeply in them that they mold our thinking and acting and being in ways we don’t even consciously acknowledge or recognize. We may not even be able to truly leave beliefs of this sort behind, in a manner of speaking. What I mean by being unable to leave them behind is that when someone is embedded so deeply in a worldview, it won’t be the case that simply converting to a different one will sweep away all vestiges of the former one. There will still be significant ways in which the old views affect the new ones. Examples would be perhaps faltering in times of stress and returning to the prior views in unreflective moments of weakness or intuition, issues with family and friends still holding to the prior views, and even ways of thinking that one must discard or react against in light of the new worldview one holds.

Even worse is the nonsense notion that ‘atheism’ is somehow the starting point, or the fundamental view everyone starts from, in a pre-reflective or pre-theoretic sort of way (and it’s even MORE nonsense when you consider the sort of Officially Sanctioned Atheism that the so-called ‘skeptical’ movement wants to support)—but I think that much of the time, this is what talk of deconversion seems to imply, or strongly suggest. Only in the most trivial and meaningless (at least, for my purposes here, now) way is it true that atheism is the default: simply in virtue that one hasn’t thought about religion or religious claims or gods, or is too young to possess the sort of cognitive abilities necessary to conceptualize a god or gods. The sort of Atheism around as a movement today, which is where talk of deconversion is to be heard, is far, far more than mere atheism. It’s a whole hodgepodge of religious, philosophical, and political beliefs. There is an entire worldview, a whole geometry of ethics and politics that one must affirm to be an Atheist or, at least, the sort of atheist that is typified by Freethought Blogs and the various skeptical conventions (e.g. Skepticon). The sort of mere atheism I have in mind would be a significant change for many non-atheists, but the kind of change that Atheism has in mind is certainly far more comprehensive in its religious, ethical, and political stances—though, of course, it does include the mere atheism of, say, simply denying any god or gods exist. But, for what it’s worth, I don’t see how one can really say they are deconverting from anything in cases where one comes to reject their long-held religious views. Is it perhaps somewhat different from going from one religious belief system to another? Absolutely. But the difference is one of degree, not a difference of kind. It’s another case of Atheism attempting to set itself apart and opposed to religion theoretically, despite there not being any difference in kind from conversion to deconversion. An illusion of difference at best, and pretentious, self-aggrandizing nonsense at worst. It’s another attempt to set Atheism above and apart from religion in a way that’s silly and meaningless.

2 thoughts on “Talk of ‘deconversion’ is nonsense talk

  1. I’m an atheist and never heard that term. Does seem weird and illogical, but definitely not standard vocabulary. I would guess these aren’t random atheists but sime very specific type of naive materialists, probably young and raised in religious household. Just a guess.


  2. not sure how it is in America, but in our country, having been devoutly religious for several centuries, the secularist movement is particularly outspoken and angry. While I’ve never heard the word “deconversion” used before, the idea seems implicit in a lot of the group’s perspectives where they favor truth (science) over illusion (religion). I’m not a fan of it since it strikes me as a false dichotomy, and I do not like the positivist tradition. However, I’m more inclined to call it a knee-jerk response against the deeply ingrained religious tradition as well as an overbearing church that frequently interferes with politics.


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