In which I help deconvert someone, and on what works

February 23, 2015 • 12:15 pm

I’ve always said that the definition of “success” in mentoring graduate students is “producing a student who can replace you.” And though I’ve had very few students, I’ve replaced myself in that sense at least three times, so I’m quite happy.

And I consider the definition of “success” as an anti-theist to be “turning at least one person away from the delusions of faith and towards the virtues of reason.”  After all, if theists can boast about bringing people to Jesus, why can’t atheists take pride in helping people go in the reverse direction?

Now I can’t claim full credit for doing that to any one person, but I claim partial credit for helping quite a few—or so they tell me. And I’ll add those partial successes up to assert that N > 1.

The latest partial convert is Bruce Gerencser, a former Christian minister, who explains on his website what led to his leaving the church. As is nearly always true for the deconversion of ministers (or anyone else, for that matter), it is a long, tortuous, and complex process involving many inputs. In his post, “Why I stopped believing,” he lists some of them:

I decided I would go back to the Bible, study it again, and determine what it was I REALLY believed. During this time, I began reading books by authors such as Robert Wright Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, These three authors, along with several others,  attacked the foundation of my Evangelical belief in the inerrant, inspired word of God. Their assault on this foundation brought my Evangelical house tumbling down. I desperately tried to find some semblance of the Christianity I once believed, but I came to realize that my faith was gone.

I tried, for a time, to convince myself that I could find some sort of Christianity that would work for me. Polly and I visited numerous liberal or progressive Christian churches, but I found that these expressions of faith would not do for me. My faith was gone. Later, Polly [his wife] would come to the same conclusion.

I turned to the internet to find help. I came upon sites like and Debunking Christianity. I found these sites to be quite helpful as I tried to make sense of what was going on in my life. I began reading the books of authors like John Loftus, Hector Avalos, Robert M. Price, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

The four books that made the biggest impression on me were:

But read Gerenser’s whole piece (it’s short), because he traces the roots of his apostasy back to the very virtues instilled in him by his religious parents, including a love of reading and having the courage of one’s convictions.

The other point this makes is that it’s better, if you want to advance reason, to write and publish (if you have that privilege) rather than to give lectures and have debates. That is because in the quietude of authorship, you can polish and fully express your views, and people can read them at leisure and compare them with contrary views. In a public talk, I often find that the audience comprises people who are already on my side, and have come out of curiosity or to seek affirmation. Those are both fine reasons, and, after all, we all need affirmation (except perhaps Christopher Hitchens!), but in truth I’d prefer a higher titer of opponents when I speak. But again, I prefer to write, and that’s why I wrote The Albatross (soon to be available in fine bookstores everywhere).

Debates, I think, are almost useless at changing people’s minds—at least about evolution. It’s an exercise in rhetoric, the atmosphere is not right for reasoned consideration of arguments, and one can’t go into the evidence very deeply in half an hour or so. And that’s why I wrote Why Evolution is True (already available at fine bookstores everywhere). I’ve had only one debate with a creationist in my life: Hugh Ross, an old-earth creationist. That was in front of the annual meeting of the Alaska Bar Association (don’t ask me why they wanted me, but I got a free trip to a great state), and I have no idea how the audience reacted.

The only debates that might change peoples’ minds, I think, are when atheists debate theists about religion. There the issues don’t involve much consideration of evidence, because there simply isn’t any for God. And it’s not science, so people are less likely to get confused about complex issues. All you have to do is say, “What is your evidence?”, and the theist is stymied, or at least will disgorge a torrent of theobabble that won’t fool anyone who’s savvy or not already in the asylum. I did such a debate once—with John Haught in Kentucky—and was fairly successful at whomping him, though I don’t know how many people’s minds were changed. I had another debate with a Lutheran theologian in Charleston, South Carolina, but it was about the compatibility of religion and science, and the format was not optimal for allowing a real clash of ideas.

Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens seem to be quite good at changing people’s minds in debates, or so I remember from votes taken before and after their debates about religion. But how knows how long people remain swayed after the heat of the moment?

What about one-on-one discussions? That’s the procedure that atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian promoted in his popular book A Manual for Creating Atheists, and the evidence is that his “street epistemology” method does indeed make converts (or de-converts). But that’s a lot of work, and also requires a personality that can handle one-on-one confrontations, which I’m not particularly comfortable with.

For me, then, writing is the optimal way to change minds.  And that is why the Internet has been so valuable as a way to promote reason. I won’t say it always does that—look at how Jenny McCarthy, for example, attributes her anti-vaxer opinions to the ‘University of Google”—but it allows people to think about stuff in privacy of their homes, without distraction. If reason can’t work in such a venue, we have no hope.


h/t: Amy

76 thoughts on “In which I help deconvert someone, and on what works

  1. I’m pretty much with you on your analysis of the merits of the various media, Jerry…

    …but I would add that there’s one thing debates are good at that you didn’t mention, and that’s publicity.

    No, you’re not going to win many if any people over in a debate, but you might get them to start thinking about it on your on, and it may be a good way to get yourself in front of a crowd who otherwise wouldn’t even think to give you the time of day.

    But it’s seriously risky business. Debating is an entirely different skill from anything else, and you can do yourself a lot of harm by doing it badly.

    That’s why I’m much in favor of Richard’s alternative of simply having an open one-on-one unmoderated discussion with somebody. Those always wind up being much more interesting and serve all the good functions of debates. The challenge there, of course, if finding somebody who won’t try to dominate the debate…but, if you can, you’re golden.

    I think, for example, you and Pastor Rick Warren would make for quite the pairing, if your publisher could possibly arrange it as part of the post-launch publicity….



  2. Re: “…he traces the roots of his apostasy back to the very virtues instilled in him by his religious parents, including a love of reading and having the courage of one’s convictions.” I also was raised in a very fundamentalist Christian family, but my upbringing emphasized honesty and my parents encouraged me to go to college (not because they did — my Dad had a 3rd grade education and could barely read and write, though my Mom actually finished high school). Little did they know where that would take me…

      1. It didn’t occur to me that it would be seen as self-promotion. I figured some people would love to hear about a debate that is freely live-streamed. I thought it was esp. relevant as it related to your blog article. Obviously I’m a big believer in debates because I do so many of them.

  3. “That is because in the quietude of authorship, you can polish and fully express your views, and people can read them at leisure and compare them with contrary views.”

    For what it’s worth, this is why I don’t watch videos or debates. Talking and listening is manipulative, and while that is fun and entertaining, it is not the way to advance one’s understanding.

    A few TV shows, like NOVA, have occasionally overcome the tendency to manipulate, but even the best series have ups and downs.

      1. The important part is the ability to step back and think about assertions made in print. It’s not the content. It’s the activity and pacing of delivery.

        If you read, you control the pace.

      2. RE: “Authors don’t try to manipulate their readers?”

        Your question makes the point. Manipulation comes from an attitude of the author, regardless if the author is of a video or book. The medium is irrelevant. Either one can be manipulated, if that is a person intent.

    1. And yet each night I lay my head dreaming of an WEIT tv series similar to “Your Inner Fish” or NdGT’s Cosmos ….

    2. I’m the other way around. I have watched many debates by Hitchens, Dawkins, Krauss, and Harris. I’ve seen Jerry’s debate with John Haught in which theobabble from Haught was beautifully countered with logic and clarity from Coyne. I love watching Matt Dillahunty (sp?), Seth Andrews, and Aron Ra. I’ve learned a LOT of great things from watching so many videos. My favorite thing is to watch one a second time after much time has passed from the first viewing and see how much better I am at understanding the atheist position.

      1. I meant to comment on the books and forgot to do so. I’ve only read Coyne, Dawkins, and Pinker so far. I have much more to read. I am intimidated by Mr. Hitchens and am not sure I will be able to keep up with him. I’m in the process of reading Maajid Nawaz’ “Radical”, but it’s not anti-religion as such. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating. I can’t wait for “Faith vs. Fact”. It looks VERY good.

  4. I’m sure you are correct. Books do a job that cannot be done in such areas as debate and debate on religion is a poor one for changing the minds.

    However, I would not overlook the internet or Ytube video where you present your half hour or hour presentation on the subject. Your video on evolution can have more effect than you think. This is because many of the folks do not read much, if at all. The presentation might encourage some to get the book and learn more. I would surely think that once your new book comes out you should have a presentation on it that goes to the You Tube. The video becomes a kind of teaser for more book sales and maybe more converts.

    1. RE: “However, I would not overlook the internet or Ytube video where you present your half hour or hour presentation on the subject.”

      I think YouTube is a much bigger impact on people than books. Many people buy books but never read them… and many never get around to buying them. When I was growing up, there was no YouTube (and no internet). If you wanted to see a debate you’d have to pay about $20 for the VHS tape (when I got older; as a kid, VHS wasn’t invented yet). Now everyone sees this on YouTube for free. Game-changer.

  5. I may have had something to do with pushing my dad’s friend into the atheist camp. He grew up religious and even dropped out of geology in school because he couldn’t believe that stuff. As he got older, he started questioning more and more and my dad had many conversations with him about the nature of evil, etc. He started reading my posts on Canadian Atheist and finally came around after doing so. When his very elderly mother died a few months ago very painfully, he pulled out a relative st the services and chastised him for saying that his mother went painlessly to god. He told him that he was wrong in that she suffered and he told him he had no right to say that stuff because not everyone believes it.

    People take many years to change foundational beliefs and every deconversion story I hear seems to go from truing more liberal religions to eventually accepting atheism.

    I’m trying to get a Catholic friend to admit she is a liberal christian and mover from catholicism bit I don’t think she ever will.

    Still, debates online probably do motivate people. I send some of Jerry’s around and he is known as “the good guy” 🙂

    1. I ascribe to the view that most deconversions are a gradual process that builds in bits and pieces. I cannot think of a deconversion story that was really caused by a singular epiphany.

    2. It’s easier for a Catholic to give up obedience to papal doctrine, respect for clergy, and belief in all three personoids of the trinity, than it is for them to admit they’re not Catholic any more.

      1. This is in line with my experiences as well. I have a friend who sent her kids to Cathloic schools and listens to The Catholic Channel on satellite radio but she doesn’t believe in free will and thinks the church is terrible given everything they’ve done. I don’t think she even goes to church.

    1. Welcome to sanity!

      If you haven’t already read it, I rather suspect you’ll get a kick out of Richard Carrier’s latest book, On the Historicity of Jesus. It seems like exactly the sort of thing you’d be interested in.


  6. I agree. It has been a very rare occurrence when my mind has been changed about anything by a simple exchange of words (although, in truth, it has happened with at least one non-trivial item). Reading allows one to process and dredge the ideas somewhat dispassionately and on one’s own timeline. So yes, please keep writing! 🙂

  7. I have never tried to “witness” to people of faith about my atheism. However, I am fully open about my non-belief and I am always glad to answer any questions that I get about my non-faith. It turns out over the years that my being open about being an atheist has influenced people to question their supernatural worldview with a few deciding that atheism is right for them. Those are just the ones I know of which is why it is important for the Freethought community to be out in the open as a positive example to others that you can lead a happy, healthy, ethical life without a god belief. While we all can’t be Jerry Coyne, we can be ourselves and make a difference to those who meet and interact with us. That gives me hope for the future.

    1. I think that with friends and acquaintances it’s most useful just to be open about just BEING an atheist without ever trying to push atheism or “convert” them. The very fact that someone they know (and hopefully someone they can respect)is an atheist “normalises” and humanises non-belief in their eyes, and can call into question their own justifications for being/staying religious. The greatest potential for success in my experience, is a friend with a sense of humor who is willing to trade jokes about belief and nonbelief. Humor, I find is a transformative destroyer of religious faith.

  8. “The only debates that might change peoples’ minds, I think, are when atheists debate theists about religion. There the issues don’t involve much consideration of evidence, because there simply isn’t any for God.”

    “The worst reason for not believing in God (though the least obviously bad), is [to charge] that there is no evidence for His existence. This is a bad reason for atheism because no-one can agree what would count as evidence. Miracles, scriptures, the testimony of priests and prophets etc, can all be contested on empirical grounds: but for some people the fact that we communicate intelligibly with one another, or that the world is ordered, or even that there is something rather than nothing, is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there is a Creator who not only made the world but also made it habitable by and intelligible to us. Therefore the appeal to evidence, or lack of it, will always be inconclusive.” ~ Raymond Tallis, Why I am an atheist

    1. Although you’re obviously taking issue with my statement, I take issue with yours, and Tallis’s. What other reason is there to doubt the existence of a divine being who interacts with the world than THE ABSENCE OF ANY EVIDENCE SUPPORTING IT, and that includes the existence of phenomena, like evil or evolution, that wouldn’t exist in a world created by an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. (That’s the absence of evidence where there should be evidence.) If this lack of evidence is, as Tallis claims, inconclusive, then so is the lack of evidence for the Loch Ness Monster, alien invasions, or fairies in my garden. Those must all be really bad reasons for not believing in Nessie, aliens in UFOs, and fairies!

      1. I think Tallis’s argument (if you can call it that) states because NO-ONE can agree on counts as evidence for God, we don’t know we don’t have any… Well this is awkward. No-one can agree whether fairy feces or pixie dust counts as evidence for fairies. And since no-one can agree (despite the fact we never found either) we can’t use the lack of evidence as a reason not to believe… Now we all just look like idiots for not believing. Thanks a lot Tallis. Oh wait, we can just agree on one of them and Tallis’s argument no longer applies. I choose both, because they’re probably the same thing. Pixie dust = fairy feces, we don’t have either = fairies don’t exist. Hurray!

        Oh yeah, and Tallis certainly doesn’t help himself by appealing to the consensus of a minority as some type of validity claim.

      2. //(That’s the absence of evidence where there should be evidence.) If this lack of evidence is, as Tallis claims, inconclusive, then so is the lack of evidence for the Loch Ness Monster, alien invasions, or fairies in my garden. Those must all be really bad reasons for not believing in Nessie, aliens in UFOs, and fairies!//

        “Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster”’__Terry Eagleton, British literary theorist and critic

        1. As I say often here, Elijah showed us clearly what “evidence of God” looks like, and how we ought to respond to people who don’t provide it: 1 Kings 18:22-38.

          I’m still waiting. Shout louder.

        2. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do.

          Then this particular god can safely be instantly dismissed as purely imaginary and more than a wee bit incoherent.

          In any context such as this, “the universe” can only be meaningful if it is defined similarly to how Carl Sagan used, “The Cosmos”: all that is and ever was or will be; all that is real.

          An entity that is not in the universe is, therefore, not real, does not exist now, and never has nor will exist.

          Theologians like to play sophistricated special pleading games, such as claiming that their gods somehow constitute existence itself without themselves actually existing, but we can again dismiss that as meaningless self-contradictory theobabble and / or a conman’s patter.



      3. If we don’t know what we are talking about when we use the word “god,” evidence does not even come into the picture. If we want to find evidence for “it,” we would need to know what “it” is first. If we do not know what “it” is, we can say nothing about evidence.

        1. If you’re saying the problem is even deeper than evidence, I agree. There’s no evidence and there’s also no agreement on what God even is. However, there are plenty of manifestations of God for which there could be evidence and there simply is none. The game that theologians play where they redefine God to something that can’t possibly be demonstrated doesn’t mean they win by default. The vast majority of believers believe in a deity that is going to do something for them personally and for them to say these claims aren’t subject to a burden of proof is ridiculous.

          1. If you are demanding “proof” from people who make such claims, doesn’t that mean you are taking them seriously?

            1. No, I would say demanding evidence is holding them to the same standard you hold anyone to for any claim. That doesn’t mean the argument is taken seriously a priori. If they offered sufficient evidence, at that point the claim could be taken seriously.

  9. The first time I heard (over a little transistor radio I had) that humans had evolved from apes (as it was discribed, to even where I was at the time it rocked me so much) I felt ill. I was a god fearing pre teen, evolutionary ignorant let alone science in general. It took some 30 years (adventure and family intervened)and only after reading a science book that had nothing specifically to do with evolution (solar system, stars, the atomic clock) did I really jump on board. I can still remember the wincing I felt all those years ago but now I can laugh, it is a pleasurable experience. Knowing the truth.. makes me laugh. I had beaten, with lots of help from science authors, the god trap.
    Phew.. keep up the good work Prof.

  10. Whether it’s effective or not, your Odd Couple and INR4 lectures were brilliant. They were the most well structured, data supported lectures on the subject I had and have seen to date.

  11. While I can’t claim to have deconverted anyone, my claim to fame are my children. Religion was rarely mentioned while they were growing up. In our house there was no regular church services, no discussions on religion much at all, so no pressure one way or another. We didn’t avoid the topic, it just never seemed to be an important one. We never once attended church as a family, but both boys have spent time in Christian schools, for reasons other than they were religious institutions, as it so happens. I was heartened to observe both of my boys coming to the conclusion that Christianity was not a valid world view. We live in Oklahoma, one of the rhinestones on the buckle of the bible belt, and they have been exposed to church, the bible, and what have you from friends and family, but neither boy has held truck with religion in any form. Thank Ceiling Cat!

    1. To succeed in removing religion from one or more people should get more scientific study. I hear many explain what or how it happened to them but I personally have no clue because I never had it to begin with. May seem odd to any who did have religion but the idea of it never really occurred to me or interested me. They say you never miss what you never had and that seems true with religion.

  12. I prefer conversations to debates, and for this reason favour Boghossian’s approach. In a debate the speakers tend to stick to a script, but a conversation permits a much more lively and dynamic exchange of ideas. It is a much more fruitful and edifying way of examining the matter than by talking past each other in a debate.

    1. RE: ” In a debate the speakers tend to stick to a script, but a conversation permits a much more lively and dynamic exchange of ideas. ”

      Many debates also feature a dialogue portion. All my debates do. I really enjoy that part, to directly address the opponent’s main arguments. When a person organizes a debate, they have the opportunity to format it however they want (long vs. short opening statements, etc.).

  13. Rosenhouse agrees with you, at least implicitly, in an old response to Rosenau’s accommodationism:

    “But more to the point, I am far more interested in changing the religious values themselves.
    The big problem that needs fixing is not so much that people reject evolution. It is that people’s religious values are teaching them to be mistrustful of atheists.

    Josh should be looking at the science of advertising. If he did, he would discover nuggets like this:

    Other psychologists do basic research on social marketing. Curtis Haugtvedt hopes social marketers in the field will use what he’s learned about persuasion as a result of his laboratory experiments on recycling. So far, he’s found that emotional appeals–like the famous ad showing an American Indian with a tear rolling down his face as he confronts pollution–work better than cognitive ones when it comes to persuading people to recycle. Emphasizing that “everyone else is doing it” also helps. (Emphasis Added)

    And this:

    Repetition is one way to increase visual fluency and hence appeal. The more people see something, the more they like it. “Advertisers intuitively know that exposing people repetitively to the same stimulus increases liking,” says Winkielman. “That’s one of the reasons they show the same ad over and over again.”

    Quite right. Obviously neither of these examples is talking about atheism specifically, but following Josh’s example I think the analogies are pretty clear, especially the part about repetition. As I see it, this is where the New Atheists are making a real contribution.”

    [ ]

    But I don’t know if the same strategy couldn’t be applied to promoting science over superstition.

  14. I would just like to add that Jerry is a big reason I finally turned to atheism, along with Richard Dawkins as well. I was challenged at my old job on evolution by a YEC and decided I needed to be better informed so I bought Jerry’s and Richard’s book and promptly had the ammunition to stomp all his arguments into the ground.

    I then took the logical conclusion from there (being evolution’s impact on what the bible claims) and became an atheist. I’m now a student of Zoology and becoming an ecologist, I donate to many secular and atheist organizations and have even managed to get my copy of “The Greatest Show on Earth” signed by Richard himself! I just need my copy of “Why Evolution is True” signed eventually *whistles*.

      1. Thank you. I’ve been reading the site for years now but I’m not usually one to tell my story but just so happen to be doing a memoir for my English class in college about it and felt like the opportune time with this post to share.

        1. Well, thanks for posting this, and if I was of some help in getting you to abandon faith and, better yet, becoming a biologist, then I’m very glad. I hope you’re happier now than you were, and best of luck with your memoir! If you send me your copy of WEIT I’ll be glad to autograph it for you.

          1. Hello Dr. Coyne, your book was definitely a much needed push out of my belief in a god. I didn’t exactly have faith as I was more apathetic to religion and was more a deist than anything else. I eventually learned the flaw in a deistic god and had to come to terms quickly with that notion.It has been the most eye opening and enlightening years of my life so far. I can only explain it as seeing the world in black and white then suddenly in full color as cliched as that sounds! I will take you up on your kind offer but I may have to buy me a new hardcover copy since my original has seen a lot of use.

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