Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: An Introduction

Conversion and Deconversion stories have fascinated me for a long time. All stories are unique, and yet there are often common themes that occur. The main reason for my interest in such stories lies in the fact that it is rare to find people changing their position entirely on some matter of ultimate importance. Many of the people I knew 20 years ago still hold the same views and opinions today as they did back then. Not only do people rarely change their minds on big issues, movement on smaller issues is often lacking also. As we grow older perhaps we become more set in our ways. It’s little surprise then that the vast majority of people appear to make their minds up about religion in their teens and don’t change their mind as they get older. This is a fact well known by religious evangelists, hence the massive stress on youth work in many churches and religious organisations, often to the detriment or neglect of the middle-aged and elderly. It is a well-known Jesuit maxim (though the saying, or something like it, originates with Aristotle): “Give me a child until he is 7, and I’ll give you the man.” As true as this might generally be, there are a few brave souls who go into reverse as they get older. They reject their earlier belief/unbelief, changing their minds about an issue of ultimate importance. Their stories are worth hearing. What is it that causes people to make such a radical U-turn?

There are, of course, a few famous examples. For instance, we might think of my fellow native of Belfast C.S. Lewis. Lewis believed the evidence for the existence of God too strong to ignore, but admitted to being a most reluctant convert. We might also think of more recent examples. Probably two of the most well-known are those of the former atheist journalist Lee Strobel, and the atheist-philosopher turned deist/theist Antony Flew. Lee Strobel worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and after the conversion of his wife he decided to look into the truth claims of Christianity. After several years of sifting through the evidence Strobel himself converted to Christian and is now one of the most influential popular-level apologists in the world. He recounts his journey from atheism to theism in a number of books, chiefly: The Case for a Creator, The Case for Christ, and The Case for Faith.

Antony Flew was one of the most distinguished philosophers of religion and one of the foremost voices for philosophical atheism for the vast majority of his academic career. Then, towards the end of his life, there were rumours that he was moving towards theism. These rumours were affirmed when he published his book “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” In this book Flew lays out a number of pieces of evidence which convinced him that some sort of creator exists. Whilst not embracing Christian Theism Flew indicated that he regarded NT Wright’s case for the resurrection as the best there is in print, and hinted that he was moving in this direction in his thinking. Some skeptics were, well, skeptical. Many saw this not as a genuine conversion but simply an old man hedging his bets in his dotage as death beckoned. Others believed that his book had not properly reflected Flew’s own thoughts, but rather those of Roy Abraham Varghese, a theist philosopher who did most of the actual writing of the book. Flew denied that this was the case, but many still believe his mental state at the time was such that he was exploited. Seemingly conversion & deconversion stories can raise strong feelings!

On the other side one of the best known deconversions that I’m aware of is that of Jonathan Edwards, the British Olympic gold medallist triple-jumper. Once upon a time Edwards even refused to compete on a Sunday due to his religious convictions. Today he is an atheist who claims not to miss his faith, and that he is happier without it. Edwards even speaks of looking back at his time as a Christian with an acute sense of embarrassment at how judgmental and even “scary” he considers himself to have been.

That such radical changes can occur in people really grabs my attention. Why did they change? Were there arguments that lead to the change? What other life experiences were they going through that pushed them to make such a radical turn-around?

And so I thought I’d collect a number of brief stories – of conversion, deconversion, and reconversion – to give a flavour of what’s going on in the minds of people who radically change their worldview. I don’t offer these stories up for critique or refutation. They are brief, and there’s far more that each person could say about their own life and how their decision panned out the way it did. We are creatures of narrative and often decisions we make one day have been years in the making, involving a complex of rational, psychological, social, and cultural factors. I’m grateful for the people who came forward to state an incredibly complex situation into a few hundred words.

I never edit or screen comments, but I’ve decided on this occasion not to accept critical comments on anyone’s particular story. They are intended only to give (all too) brief snapshots of the goings-on in the minds of people who “repent” of their former selves. Their purpose is to inform rather than provoke critique.

So as not to take away from the stories themselves, I intend to post them separately from this introduction: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/conversion-deconversion-reconversion-the-stories/

Stephen J. Graham

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2 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Belief, Theism

2 responses to “Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: An Introduction

  1. My own de-conversion story would be a dull affair and I won’t bore you with it.
    But I wanted to say a couple of things about Flew. I studied under Flew at Reading (my degree was philosophy before I took up the law). He was a great teacher and I’ll always remember him with affection. Obviously, I think he was wrong about the fine-tuning argument. (We still have so much to learn about the universe. How can anyone decide that on that partial knowledge that it proves the existence of a creator?)
    What I liked about Flew was that he was always prepared to go where the evidence led him, no matter how unpopular or difficult his conclusion. He had been a socialist but rejected socialism for conservatism when he realised that socialism didn’t work. That set him in opposition to the prevailing ethos of the world of university education in the 70s, but he didn’t care.
    I can’t say for sure that he wasn’t manipulated in some way but his decision to renounce atheism was entirely consistent with his approach to life and I am inclined to say that it was the real Flew who was talking, right up to the end.

  2. Thanks for the comment, and I’m a tad jealous you got to study under Flew! I’m acquainted with him solely through his written work and I’ve always had the utmost respect for a man I regarded as a “beloved enemy.” One of my philosophy teachers attended a panel discussion which featured Flew in his later years. He said that Flew was clearly not as sharp, but still obviously thoughtful, though a bit rambing at times. As far as I can make out your quite correct that Flew’s change was his own mind at work.

    Stephen

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