Why do Atheist Deconvert?

People leave their faith because their needs are not met. Most of the reasons I offered for why people join a religion are the exact same reasons they leave their faith. Those who deconvert may mock their former religion’s doctrines, tell others how hypocritical the members were, explain how they saw through the cult-like indoctrination and social manipulations, but in the end, most simply leave because their needs were not met.  They are either disillusioned by unmet needs they sought or new unmet needs arose. In either case, the noble reasons they offer for why they left their religion are often just protective, sterile wrappings around basic motivations — no matter how true.

Multi-level Marketers (MLM) leave their dreams of becoming millionaires when MLM doesn’t work for them. They leave because they fail. Their needs are not met. Their minds protect their pride from this embarrassing simple truth by making excuses like:

  • “I hate selling and convincing people of what they don’t need.”
  • “I don’t believe in the product”
  • “I saw through the scam.”

Years after leaving a faith, if she remembers, a believer may feel safer to confess her actual motivations. But often we are partially or totally blind to our actual motivations. Our minds package things neatly for us to preserve a consistent view of self, and a story where we are the heroes.

Christians often claim that Atheists deconvert in order to sin? Sure, that does happen.  That may indeed be one of their many motivations – they desire sex-outside-of-marriage, want to drink alcohol, don’t want to go to church each Sunday or don’t want praying five-times-a-day.  Leaving will help them escape the sneakily hiding their infringements, the guilt or the condemnation of others. But many leave their religion for ‘non-sinful’ reasons too: for better answers, for a more solid identity, for access to a wider social circles or others on the list. But for whatever reason, our minds often blind us from our raw, embarrassing motiviations and give us noble excuses.  We often don’t see our simple needs nor how our minds create ideologies and excuses to make us comfortable or successful in obtaining them.

Rationalizing is a normal function of mind and not limited to the domain of religion.  But I don’t think any habit of mind is limited to religion’s domain.

Question to readers:  Is this your experience? Please share a story.


Filed under Cognitive Science

23 responses to “Why do Atheist Deconvert?

  1. This wasn’t my deconversion experience at all. I had premarital sex as a Christian (and justified it by being in love and wanting to express those emotions in a physical way- although I did end up marrying him. 🙂 )

    Mostly I deconverted because I was tired of the mental gymnastics and wasn’t morally ok with saying, “I’m going to follow this verse/tradition because I agree with it and ignore that one because I think it’s dumb.”

    I don’t know if that’s a good reason or not…but it’s where I was at then.

  2. @ Lydia,
    What wasn’t your deconversion experience? Do you think you can name some simple motivations for leaving Christianity? Do you think there were more than one motivation? (thanks for dropping in again)

  3. “…most simply leave because their needs were not met.”

    I have no trouble with that, so long as we can agree that to have one’s beliefs square with the observed reality is a need.

  4. TWF

    You know my story… one of the oddballs without divine feedback experiences. I guess my need would be hearing from God as proof of His love for me. That’s not to say that I was looking for proof at that time, but when I didn’t hear from God, it was rather difficult to say that God really loved me, or to say for certainty that there was a God.

    However, along the lines of your post, one atheist I knew from work deconverted precisely because of needs. He was having trouble in his marriage and turned to the church for help in keeping he and his wife together. Apparently, they offered him no help what-so-ever, despite multiple requests. His wife subsequently left him, and he subsequently left the flock of the faithful because of it.

  5. I definitely agree that people leave causes/belief systems when their needs are not being met by same, but I want to give people a little more credit than this very psychoanalytic account – but maybe that’s because I need to feel special! 🙂

    Have you also considered that it may not be so much that people invent reasons after they are no longer having their needs met by a belief-structure (or group organized around such a structure) but that they instead invent excuses for whatever irrationality, group think, etc., is present so long as that belief/group continues to meet whatever need(s) it is that they have? That seems to be what Lydia might be suggesting.

  6. @ Lydia,
    I just realized that you were answering the question of the title of the post — duh on me. Sorry. Yes, I don’t think “sin” is the only people Atheists leave by any means. And I may not agree that some action is sin. I was using the title to address the question “Why do Atheist Deconvert”. Heck, now that I say it that way, maybe I will just change the title of the post. Thanx.

    @ mikespeir,
    Maybe we don’t agree, let’s check it out:
    I think something like, “I left because Christian beliefs don’t square with reality” is an abstraction which may hide important facts and may be an over-generalization.

    However, I imagine that you may agree with me that all of the following do not “square with reality”:
    (1) prayer for sick people works
    (2) god created the world in 6 days
    (3) god will care for those in need

    So yes, many promises don’t square with reality, but if you did not care about these things — that is, they were needs you were seeking — realizing these contradictions may not be enough to leave if other important needs were met.

    So in the end, it is unmet needs that drive people to leave. If one of your needs is to have a impeccable world view and your intellectual pursuits change your mind, the need for a self-perceived better world view may be a need too — it would be interesting to see why just having a strongly defendable worldview is important to you. It is not important to everyone. People need that for different deeper reasons.

    @ TWF,
    Yeah, your own story and that other gentleman’s are perfect examples — thanx.

    @ James,
    I am going to assume you confused the phrases “psychological account” for “psychanalytic account” — because I am far from being a Freud fan. 🙂

    I don’t think that people invent reasons, but that their minds create them — then they buy into their mind’s creations.

    Yes, I agree sometimes we invent excuses to stay in a group too — as long as other needs are being met.

  7. Geez, many Christians I know USE their faith as an excuse to do immoral things. But that’s not just Christians – there are corrupt people of all faiths. Most Christians I know who leave do so because extremists have ruined it for them.

    Leaving Wicca was kind of sad for me. I actually had decided to deepen my faith – and I looked up how to do it. Looking back now it’s funny, because I don’t think I should have taken this so literally – but I read that any Wiccan who wants to be serious should believe in some sort of gods or goddesses.

    Now, this was the opinion of one lone website. But it completely changed my mind. I realized that, regardless of the source, yes Wicca was a religion. And I just wasn’t that into it. I decided I’d have to find a new spirituality.

    Having said that I doubt the practicioners I knew of Wicca would say the same thing – in fact Skepchick just posted a link to a site that said many Wiccans are nonbeleivers.

    Anyway – I have yet to find somethinig as good as Wicca. My Apache friends fortunately have invited me to their ceremonies. So I always say I celebrate the solstices – the change in seasons and that’s good enough for me. And it fits with me being a scientist.

    As you know I’m secular, not atheist. But I think there is room for simple, fun ceremonies that are meaningful to us in some way. At least Wiccans fully support science because they strongly believe in the advancement in an understanding of nature.

  8. @ amelie,
    Yes, I agree, many use their religion or ideology to allow them to guiltlessly do bad things.

    This is not an anti-religion post. It is a post to show how we are all motivated at levels we may not understand — all of us. And yet, we only see it most clearly in others.

    I agree, ceremonies can give meaning, pleasure and spice to life.

  9. How could you tell whether we agree, Sabio? I see several “maybes” and “mays” in your response. I certainly understand the whole thing about ulterior motives. We’re good at fooling ourselves that way. We can probably never be quite sure how “pure” our motives are. (Or, for that matter, whether it’s even so important that they are.) On the other hand, we have to get along in the real world. False beliefs scrape hard against reality. That friction can cause some serious psychological discomfort, and even trauma. Is it so hard to believe that someone might wake up to the cause of this dissonance and want to put it away for that very reason? (Granting the possibility and even the likelihood that other, less obtruding motives are mingled into swirl somewhere.) Of course, not being able to believe what those around you believe also causes friction. Having a defensible worldview squirts some grease into the works. 😉

  10. You nailed it in the first sentence. The rest is gravy.

    “For better answers” and “a more solid identity” is me. Hell, any identity. Christianity was my identity from an early age. It was easier to adopt one than find my own.

    A year into my post-Christian state I am still struggling to find one. Fortunately I have a patient, understanding wife who sees it for what it is and encourages me along the way. Well, encourages me while kicking my ass towards finding one.

    I won’t say my faith robbed me of an adolescence wherein I could “find myself”, per se, but it gave me an out. God will fix my problems so why should I have to work on anything?

  11. @ mikespeir,
    The “maybes” were to soften and to avoid assumption — I was being polite.

    Maybe we disagree about “False Beliefs” — I think false beliefs can be very helpful and useful. Many atheist take the exaggerated position of “False Beliefs are always bad” or “False beliefs always have bad outcomes”. Ironically, I’m not sure where they have data for that.

    So, back to OP theme: If an atheist claims

    “I became an atheist because I realized “False Beliefs are bad”

    ,then again, I’d look for the motivation behind that abstracted [false] principle. I try to see through their atheist ideology.

    I said the same in my last comment — does this help make more sense? Again, I don’t mind disagreeing, it would just be good to be clear about our agreements or disagreements, no?

  12. @ MichaelB,
    Thanx, Michael — I was just hoping the gravy made the whole meal more palatable! 🙂

    “Identity” is a funny thing. It is tied to: family, job, self-perceived role to others, happiness, stories-that-make-sense and more. “Identity” seems to me to be a curse of “theory of mind”. So ironically: with all those components and more, when “identity” becomes secure, the ease of dropping its silly components and replacing it with others becomes easier.

    Anyway, that was too abstract.

    After leaving Christianity, the quickest way to find “identity” is probably to:
    (1) Intentionally reach out and make secular friends. Or make friends from faiths you know will never tempt you: Hindu friends, Muslim friends, Jewish friends.

    (2) Get involved in 1 or 2 secular fun activities: Dancing, kayaking, food bank, …..

    (3) Get your family involved in get together with the two items above occasionally.

    (4) Do something special with family on Sundays (or whatever your holy day was). Do this once a month.

    But all this has to be very intentional, with effort and forethought. Everything got handed you on a platter (that is what culture does), if you want freedom from routine thought and routine actions, you have to work for it. Sort of like TV — the default is to be programmed by it, if you want different, you have to be make efforts to be strange. 🙂

    You probably know all that. I was just in a chatty mood.

    I must say: having a supportive wife is a huge plus. Many ex- believers’ wives are still believers who cry at night over their husbands ‘horrible’ choice and pray they return to the flock.

    Is your wife still a strong believer? — sorry, I forgot. What does your wife think your motivations were for leaving were?

  13. @Sabio – I certainly agree that people sometimes don’t understand their own motivations. Having said that, I think it is possible to assume that every large change is motivated by some deep, inner need. I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

    It’s sort of like the idea that every animal behavior is an “evolutionary adaptation” and that it needs to be explained on some deep level. It’s just not true. Sometimes, people just do things. And it’s not always very deep.

  14. How right you are that everything got handed to me on a platter. I was just thinking about that this morning. There is no “Donverts Discipleship Program”. I’m realizing how much of my life I have just left to chance or others to take care of while at the same time believing God was directing stuff. Learning to be intentional, as you say, really takes time and effort that I am simply not used to giving.

    I spent years maintaining – or thinking I was maintaining – a certain image. I may have never been fooling anyone but myself, but that was the primary catalyst in much of my life and now that I’m less concerned with that image I’m having to find new motivations. Again, not easy.

    My wife was a believer and deconverted shortly after me, but she always held her faith loosely as she does most things, so there was very little trauma in the transition. I’m not sure what she thinks my motivations were but she knows me better than I know myself sometimes so I’m sure it’s similar to what I said previousl

  15. @ amelie,

    Oh yes! Well said. I indeed agree, sometimes we change without any clear motivation and even for perhaps small little triggers. Complex systems can have those types of flips. Perhaps you too could give examples of eco-systems (complex system) that changed surprizingly radically after apparently minor stimulus.

    I looked through my post but I don’t think I implied that in the OP. Sorry if I did in the comments.

    @ MichaelB,
    Great story — your wife sounds perfect support — you are fortunate.

  16. In high school I decided to try to fully embrace the Lutheran Christianity I had been raised with before I would reject it. I found myself increasingly being a bigoted extremist (for the Bible tells me so…). But then I tried to reconcile science with the Bible (I distinctly remember myself thinking “Perhaps Adam and Eve were Chimpanzees!”).
    A pivotal point was talking with a returned missionary at a church youth party. When I asked “So if people on an island have never heard of the Bible or Jesus and live ethical lives, are you saying they still go to Hell?” I turned the other direction.
    I’ve moved in and out of spiritual practices (Zen, Taoism, Neopaganism) over the years, but have found skepticism and science to be the most useful tools in developing flexible beliefs based on testable truths. Not so long ago I called myself a Daoist Deist, allowing some wiggle room for the Super in the Natural. Reading _The God Delusion_ regarding the irreducible complexity issue which applies to Deism led me to admit that Atheism is a better model. I still lean towards some variety of Quantum Mysticism, as if there is a spiritual miracle in this Universe, its tale is told in the Big Bang and Stellar Nucleosynthesis…

  17. @ ancientwaykevin :
    I’m thinking that perhaps the one of the reasons people can deconvert without the least bit of deep motivation (as amelie so aptly pointed out) is because they were never deeply invested and/or needs were never met by the religion. You sound like you had both.

    You weren’t having needs met and you didn’t join for deep needs to begin with. What do you think?

    More than religion, in your case, is your investment into Acupuncture — which is huge. You have not deconverted despite no evidence showing its ineffectiveness — but like a liberal Christian, you re-interpret, use in loose ways and justify. Would you agree. You are too highly invested financially — it meets too many needs at this time to allow a total break, right?

    I was close to being in the same situation, but I had a rip-cord.

    Or do I have that all wrong?

  18. Sorry, Sabio. I didn’t meant to ignore you there – I just have a lot going on in my offline life right now. 🙂

    “Do you think you can name some simple motivations for leaving Christianity?”

    Emotional exhaustion. As a preacher’s kid I’d spent my entire life thinking about and trying to please God. At a certain point I simply no longer had the energy for such things.

    (I hope that’s simple enough! I tried to dig down to my most basic feelings about the situation.)

    “Do you think there were more than one motivation?”

    No doubt.

  19. In a sense, you could say that I deconverted from Catholicism because needs weren’t being met. My need for coherent explanations for the world, my need for evidence, my need to think, and my need for a meaningful life were thwarted by Catholicism. Also, while not a major reason behind my deconversion, my need for community DEFINITELY wasn’t being met by the cold church.

  20. @ Ahab,
    I wonder which came first? Perhaps strongest was need for different community and thus your mind told you that NOW (all of a sudden) you need coherent explanations whereas you tolerated obvious weirdness for a long time prior. That is kind of my point. Of course we will never know, but I think the reasons we tell ourselves, may be very different from the real chain of events. Thanx for sharing.

  21. PS — I know that “nice people” nod and agree with each others’ “just so stories” — I’ve long doubted myself and others. It is habit. And it pays off big time in medicine. But it is not a real “warm-and-fuzzy” people skill. Please forgive.

  22. Good one Sabio; yeah, I suppose I have 2 examples off the top of my head. One good, one bad. I can tell you we had pretty poor soil in our yard and only “waste plants” (still good, native plants but not many) growing there. After I tilled the soil and added compost, the diversity of plants and wildlife exploded. We even had frogs and rabbits – this is in a semi urban city!

    On a larger scale, suntan lotion has caused severe problems for coral reefs. The lotion acts like a huge oil slick and gives corals a virus, which causes their photosynthesizing algae to cast off (bleaching) and can kill the corals. It affects every species that used the reef as its home (this is why we use reef safe lotion).

  23. good examples, thanx

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