Atheist Deconversion

Brian Holtz
Created Jan 2003 Updated Aug 2006

There is strong anecdotal evidence of a conversion asymmetry between atheism and the world's largest religion, Christianity.  Many Christians (including ministers and priests, and theologians) convert to atheism even though while still Christians they had been well-versed in Christian apologetics. By contrast, it is very hard to find atheists who converted to Christianity even though while still atheists they had been well-versed in the arguments against Christianity. If the best atheistic arguments against Christianity are better than the best Christian arguments against atheism, then such an asymmetry is precisely what one would expect. The best arguments of atheism would then tend to inoculate their atheist hearers against Christianity, whereas the best arguments of Christianity would be generally unable to inoculate their Christian hearers against atheism.

I am an atheist who believes that the usual arguments for atheism (and against Christianity) are significantly better than the usual arguments for Christianity, but who considers himself open-minded enough to be persuadable by the objectively best arguments on an issue such as this. Since there is as yet no way for rational people to agree which side's arguments are objectively best, it remains possible that I might someday encounter superior Christian arguments (or consider the usual ones so). One way to evaluate this possibility is to investigate whether atheists having long-term experience with both sides' arguments ever later convert to Christianity primarily because of comparing those arguments. In order to control for irrational or irrelevant factors in such conversions, I seek converts that were not excessively influenced by

  1. example or pressure from parents, professors, or any authority figure;
  2. desire for fellowship with some religious person or social group;
  3. desire to rebel against parents, professors, or any authority figure;
  4. negative personal experience with anti-religious people or institutions;
  5. distaste for the historical or distant actions of anti-religious people or institutions;
  6. distaste for the evils that might be mitigated by belief in god(s);
  7. emotional dissatisfaction with the logical implications of atheism;
  8. personal injustice or victimhood;
  9. personal misfortune such as disability, injury, illness, or the misfortune of a loved one;
  10. personal failure or crisis related to substance abuse, gambling, guilty conscience, imprisonment, etc.;
  11. personal dissatisfaction with one's social, romantic, or vocational circumstances;
  12. desire to reform (or excuse) one's morality or behavior;
  13. desire for hope in divine reward.
(For information about Christians converting to atheism, see Steve Lock's research into the "asymmetry of conversion", and in particular his list of professional Christian deconverts. In my own case, while I was free from influences analogous to those above, I do not count as an inverse example to the sort of ex-atheist I seek, because I converted from Christianity relatively soon after encountering the arguments for atheism, rather than discounting them for some extended period.)

Here are the candidates I analyze below:

Other candidates to investigate are:

A.S.A. Jones

Amy Jones asserts that she "ended up knowing the Bible inside and out just to be able to debate against it", that she had read "several atheist philosophers", and that "anti-Christian arguments" became an important "diversion" in her life. Jones may have been familiar with anti-Christian arguments, but she seems to have lacked the philosophical knowledge necessary to anchor those arguments. She admits her conversion wasn't because of the "historical accuracy, inerrancy or reliability of the Gospels" or because "the information available to me had changed", but rather because she "saw divine inspiration in the actual content of the words attributed to Jesus Christ". In addition, her conversion seems to have been confounded by factors 7 and 12 and probably13.

G. Z. Jordan

Jordan says he joined American Atheists and "learned so much that soon I banned Bibles from my home".  However, as I show in my analysis of his conversion story, Jordan Thus Jordan's exposure to atheist polemics may not have been very deep, and his subsequent conversion to Christianity is tainted by at least six of the potential confounding factors I list above.

Josh McDowell

McDowell claims he is an ex-atheist, but his story merely says he
went to church morning, noon and night, but it didn't help. I'm very practical, and when something doesn't work, I chuck it. So, I gave up religion.
McDowell claims he "used to wait for a Christian to speak up in the classroom so I could tear him or her up one side and down the other", but at the beginning of his conversion he "found out that Buddha, Mohammed and Confucius never claimed to be God, but Jesus did." McDowell doesn't specify how he ever "tore up" Christians while being ignorant of their fundamental claim. (Jesus in fact is recorded not as claiming to be God, but rather as repeatedly drawing distinctions between himself and God.)

McDowell's conversion clearly was counfounded by dissatisfaction with his personal life:

[Some Christians] appeared to possess an inner, constant source of joy. They were disgustingly happy. They had something I didn't have. [..] I discovered that becoming a Christian was rather ego-shattering. [..] If you've ever been around happy people when you're miserable, you understand how they can bug you. They would be so happy and I would be so miserable that I'd literally get up and run right out of the student union. It came to the point where I'd go to bed at ten at night, and I wouldn't get to sleep until four in the morning. [..]

I used to blow my stack if somebody just looked at me cross-eyed. I still have the scars from almost killing a guy my first year at college. My temper was such a part of me that I didn't try to consciously change it. [..]

I had a lot of hatred in my life. It wasn't something outwardly manifested, but there was a kind of inward grinding. I was ticked off with people, with things, with issues. But I hated one man more than anyone else in the world: my father. I hated his guts. To me he was the town alcoholic. Everybody knew my dad was a drunk. [..] I'd go out in the barn and see my mother beaten so badly she couldn't get up, lying in the manure behind the cows. [..]

McDowell's experience is thus confounded by personal problems and yields no evidence of any former acquaintance with the basic arguments against Christianity and for atheism. Instead, McDowell merely asks "Does Christianity Work?" When religion "didn't work" for him earlier, he "chucked" it, and later adopted it simply because he saw it "working" for other people.

McDowell "was in a serious car accident" within a few months of his conversion. McDowell's father then had a bedside conversion (based on McDowell's example, not on evidence) and foreswore alchohol. McDowell concludes: "You can laugh at Christianity. You can mock and ridicule it. But it works. It changes lives." So does alchohol. The question is not whether Christianity can change lives. The question is whether it is true.

C.S. Lewis

Lewis is perhaps the most oft-cited ex-atheist Christian, but I've yet to find a detailed account of his atheism. In his apologetics for Christianity, Lewis apparently did not defend the truth of much of the Bible. The sophistication of his atheism is criticized here, and his lukewarm defense of Christianity is criticized here.

Lee Strobel

Lee Strobel's account gives little hint of being well-versed in the arguments for atheism and against Christianity during his years as an atheist. All he says on this score is:
I was an atheist for most of my life. I thought that the idea of an all powerful, all loving God was just silly. I learned in school that evolution was where life came from, so what do you need God for?
However, it's clear that Strobel was influenced by personal failure (alcoholism) and presumably had a latent desire to reform his extravagant immorality:
And I had a lot of self-motivation for living an atheistic lifestyle. I was living a very immoral life and a drunken life [..] without a moral framework, my personal life was out of control, the drinking, the carousing. I had no moral framework of how to do journalism so I would do whatever it took to get the story. I would steal; I would commit a federal crime by stealing federal document from the courthouse. [..]  figured it was worth it because I never got caught. [..] I, behind the scenes, destroyed the career of one of my colleagues because he was in my way. By the time I was done with him, he was fired [..] I had no moral sense of right or wrong. If something was in my way I got rid of it. [..] I arranged for the destruction of [my girlfriend's] unborn child, didn't bother me at all.
Indeed, reform of his personal misbehavior was an immediate effect of his conversion:
my attitudes my philosophy my worldview my professional standards my marriage, my job everything began to change so much. [..] [I was] so frustrated from work one day and I kicked the wall, [and] put my foot right through the wall. [My daughter] said mommy I want God to do for me what he did for daddy, she gave her life to Christ at age five. [..] Right after I became a Christian I stopped drinking.
Strobel's account alleges that despite his personal problems (and their apparent resolution by his subsequent conversion), his investigation of Christianity began as (and remained) even-handed and rational:
So I decide to take my legal training and my journalism training and investigate: is there any credibility to Christianity? [..] So I would investigate. I went out and I applied those skills to the question of who is Jesus Christ. I didn't do it what an antagonist attitude I did it with a journalist's attitude I said give me the facts. I'm going to look at both sides [..]
However, Strobel apparently did not investigate any of the relevant evidence against traditional theism from modern physics, cosmology, or biology, nor any of the relevant arguments for atheism from modern metaphysics, axiology, or epistemology. He apparently only interviewed orthodox Christian scholars, and thus it's not clear in what sense he "look[ed] at both sides".
after spending two years of checking this out I just realized that in light of this torrent of evidence that points so powerfully towards Christianity, it would have required more faith to retain my atheism than to become a Christian. Because to maintain my atheism I would have had to defy the evidence, to become a Christian I just had to make a step of faith in the same direction that the evidence was pointing. That's logical, that's rational, and that's what I did.
Strobel's "case for Christ" is thoroughly rebutted here and here. Strobel describes the conclusion of his investigation thus:
On that day I repented of my sin, which took quite a while, and gave my life to Christ. I thought maybe my [Christian] wife would be interested in the fact that I just did this so I thought Id tell her. So I came out and was walking down the hallway and turned into our kitchen and my wife was standing there with our daughter [..]  I said to my wife, "[..] I've been reaching out and reaching out and I just touched Jesus Christ. It's real and it's true and I just gave my life to him." She started crying [..]
Strobel's "logical, rational" conclusion was apparently tainted by elements of guilt, interpersonal tension, and ecstatic epiphany. Strobel clearly cannot be counted as an atheist having long-term experience with both sides' arguments who later converted to Christianity purely because of comparing those arguments.