Choosing the right belief for the wrong reasons?

Religious conversion stories often seem to be emotional affairs. I think many religious groups exploit this (whether deliberately or not), using stirring music, intense group attention and other techniques to provoke an emotional reaction. This probably helps to convert people, causing them to cry, faint or be otherwise emotionally overwhelmed with the feeling that something really special has happened.

There are sometimes also emotional reasons why people people de-convert as well as convert, although they are not generally cunningly choreographed*. Certainly many of us who end up as atheists also go on to read up on theology and the many atheistic arguments against religion – particularly those who are online reading and writing blogs. However, I think in many cases, the thing which triggers the journey into critical thinking is emotional, or at least, not a rational argument in itself.

When I was a Christian, the main argument that had always bothered me was the injustice of divine judgement – Someone makes the world and everything in it, then gets His knickers in a twist when some of it (specifically the human bit) doesn’t turn out as He wanted. I managed to mostly ignore this problem while attending church as a teenager, until I went on a youth group holiday. The sheer quantity of preaching I was subjected to during this time bored, puzzled and frustrated me. I didn’t get any satisfactory answers, but I could no longer ignore the problem, so I drifted out of the church group in frustration.

I don’t think my reasons were especially carefully considered or rational – I only discovered proper atheist arguments later – it was frustration and boredom that made me leave. I wonder if the first step believers make is often something which in itself isn’t a damning logical argument against theism? Perhaps some fellow believers being unfriendly or cruel? An obvious lie told by their religious leader? Wanting to lie in bed on Sunday mornings? A personal disagreement with another believer on a non-religious matter? A close friend who believes something different? Or, as in my case, resenting boring lectures.

There are some great arguments against theism, but these are not amongst them. If a fellow Christian you know well deliberately ignores you when you happen to pass in the street that doesn’t make the existence of a god any less likely – they might just be having a bad day. Even if a religious leader is dishonest, he could still put this down to man’s inherent sinfulness. Sure, church hypocrisy doesn’t look good, and it even features at number 5 on Kieran Bennett’s list of reasons why people de-convert. The Church ought to practice what they preach, but if they fail to do so, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely wrong about God.

While none of these reasons are very rational, I think they might give people the nudge they need to reconsider their beliefs, hopefully with a view to what is rational. There are some examples of this in the comments by former believers on Greta Christina’s post asking what changed people’s minds about religion. For example, kc said:

Slowly I became more frustrated by my own questions, and more angry about hypocrisy and intolerance in my own church. That led me away from Catholicism.

A slightly different example is when events in a person’s life force particular atheist arguments into the foreground. Heather replied:

It wasn’t an argument that persuaded me away from my faith, it was a series of emotional experiences. One of the primary benefits of religion espoused by believers and non-believers is comfort.[…] But I hit a time of extreme distress, and I prayed and turned searchingly to my faith and found… nothing. No comfort, no warm fuzzies. I felt my pain exactly as it would feel were there no caring deity there to help me with my suffering. That was the crack in the ice that led to me to look at the situation through the lens of reason.

In a guest-post on de-Conversion explaining why she de-converted, DeeVee writes:

Watching my religious mother and both aunts die of cancer, while begging Jesus/god to save them, and he did not.  Not only that but I also worked in the pediatric ward of a cancer hospital in Houston and watched entire churches praying for god to save babies from cancer, and he did not.

The “Problem of Evil” was always there and a lot of religious people have probably heard it or even pondered it themselves. But when things are going well such worries can be put to the back of a believer’s mind. When personal tragedy affects a person, the problem of evil becomes large and unavoidable.

It seems anything from a subtle change in attitude to fellow believers to a major emotional upheaval can create a crack of doubt into which critical thinking and reasoned arguments can be inserted. This seems more likely if the believer is already aware of these arguments.

Well reasoned arguments against the veracity of religious belief are great for making a point or explaining atheist beliefs. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the part that non-rational factors play in changing people’s beliefs – in either direction.

(* Given the examples above, to choreograph the kind of emotional reaction that might lead someone to reject their religious belief would be an extremely vicious act.)

7 thoughts on “Choosing the right belief for the wrong reasons?

  1. I agree completely!

    I want to highlight an extremely important point that you hint at but do not say explicitly. Emotions can be an excellent motivating nudge, but to de-convert based on emotional reasons alone is just as bad as converting based on those reasons alone.

    That was my point, this is my tangent. =) Emotions alone can be a good reason to accept or reject a belief when that belief deals with emotions specifically. For example, I went through a period where I sincerely asking with an open heart for God to show himself to me, and I felt nothing. Thus, I felt that it was perfectly reasonable to discount the specific claim that God will reveal himself to anyone who welcomes him into their heart even though it would not have been reasonable, on that basis alone, to say God does not exist at all.

  2. Erika,

    Emotions can be an excellent motivating nudge, but to de-convert based on emotional reasons alone is just as bad as converting based on those reasons alone.

    I think that’s an excellent point.

    Thus, I felt that it was perfectly reasonable to discount the specific claim that God will reveal himself to anyone who welcomes him into their heart even though it would not have been reasonable, on that basis alone, to say God does not exist at all.

    Hmm… I think you could say from your experience that a god who “reveals himself to people who welcome him into their heart” does not exist, although that’s probably not that convincing to people other than you (or those who’ve had the same experience – Hi there!).

    When some people “just feel in their hearts” that God had revealed himself or was with them, it’s really not very convincing to everyone else. There’s no way we can independently examine what other people feel. It’s more of an “argument from personal experience” (or in our case, lack of). In the same way, Christians would probably blame you for not “really trying with an open mind” or “misinterpreting God revealing himself” – which would make their God a bit naff, but still, it’s understandably not an argument everyone can appreciate.

  3. There’s a great Derran Brown special called ‘Messiah’, where at one point he manages to convert (albeit briefly) a few sceptics into religious believers. The way it seems to work is that he makes them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious and then asks them whether they believe. In their shaken state they appear much more willing to accept the idea. It’s fascinating stuff.

    My own de-conversation (from pretty lightly held Christian beliefs) probably came from the lack of emotional connection I had to them. I believed in a god because everyone around me did, but there was no “relationship” between me and it. So when I started learning about alternative religions, deism, agnosticism and atheism, I pretty quickly discarded my religious beliefs.

  4. Good post. People are psychologically complex beings. There are probably a lot of emotional triggers in the experiences of de-converts that played roles in our de-conversions. Some people just leave the church and don’t think about their beliefs one way or another. Some of us, however, probably eventually link the emotional experiences with related rational inquiries. For example, if one Christian sharply criticize another for drinking alcohol, the person who has been rebuked may be angry and motivated to ask, “Which one of us is right?” and do some intellectual digging. De-conversion is often a long process, and it probably involves lots of interplay between emotional responses and rational processes. Understanding what happened, let alone articulating it, is incredibly difficult.

  5. Matt M,
    Thanks for that – I’d thought Derran Brown was mostly in the business of propagating fuzzy woo ideas, but that sounds like an interesting example which could shed some light on religious conversions. I think we need more of that type of investigation. I know for a lot of people, that huge emotional experience of conversion is very convincing, so to understand it better can only be a good thing.

  6. Thanks Chappy,

    For example, if one Christian sharply criticize another for drinking alcohol, the person who has been rebuked may be angry and motivated to ask, “Which one of us is right?” and do some intellectual digging.

    I guess that sort of reconsideration would often lead people into other, more liberal churches. However, if they are aware of atheism and even know a few atheists it might become an option for them.

    De-conversion is often a long process, and it probably involves lots of interplay between emotional responses and rational processes. Understanding what happened, let alone articulating it, is incredibly difficult.

    I agree, although I’m reading plenty of de-conversion stories and trying to understand.

  7. “I’d thought Derran Brown was mostly in the business of propagating fuzzy woo ideas”

    Far from it.

    A lot of his shows, especially ‘Messiah’ and ‘Seance’, highlight just how strong the power of suggestibility is. Also, his book ‘Tricks of the Mind’ has a great section called ‘Anti-Science, Pseudo-Science and Bad Thinking’ which debunks a lot of popular woo, such as alternative medicine, mediums and the supernatural in general. The book’s list of suggested further reading includes Dawkins, Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, etc. It’s worth a look if you get the chance. His TV shows are entertaining as well, but often quite frustrating as he doesn’t always explain how he pulls off his tricks.

    In terms of exposing the reality behind claims of the supernatural, Brown is probably one of the most interesting – and effective – people out there. He just doesn’t get as much publicity as he’s (far) less confrontational about it than Dawkins.