Inoculation

An observation: I know a few people who were proper atheists then came to faith, I know quite a few people who left their religion and became atheists, I know one person who was an atheist, was converted, then later returned to their atheism, I know people who’ve been through various religious identities and ended up either as religious or as an atheist. But I don’t know anyone who has left a strong religious commitment for atheism who’s then later been converted back to faith.

I’m sure there are many such folks, but I don’t know any.

Changes in religious identity are common. It is common to change within a religion (many of my friends have moved from evangelical to liberal Christian, for example), and to a slightly lesser extent between faiths (Buddhism seems to be a popular destination for ex-Christians here in the west). I think it is important to remember that these are changes of identity rather than necessarily belief. The beliefs of many Christians are indistinguishable from those of many atheists. The difference is where one chooses to find one’s identity.

I wonder if the often painful process of losing one’s faith inoculates to some extent against finding another faith attractive in the future.

Being an atheist isn’t any guarantee that one won’t be converted later on (much to the chagrin of some atheists I’ve met who like to suggest — in a irony of epic proportion — that the converted person wasn’t a ‘real’ atheist in the first place). There are plenty of people raised religious, who declare themselves atheists in their late teens then find faith later on. But maybe the process of becoming an atheist, particularly if that becoming is a painful process, makes it more likely that you will struggle to give yourself wholeheartedly to something later.

I’m not saying it is impossible, and it may be a quirk of my circle of friends, but it does seem notable.

Does it chime with your experience? Are you confident you won’t throw over your current religious identity at some point in the future? If not, what could sway you?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Inoculation

  1. Mellie

    It was suggested to me by a relative that now that I have left Christianity, I need to find a replacement belief system. If I couldn’t find a religion that pleased me, said the relative, then I should cobble together one of my own making.

    I could not convince the person that I was actually happier and felt an expansive freedom since I had let go of the need to have “answers” of the kind religious dogma afford. I approach life agnostically now and find it easier to live with myself and others.

    The main reason I can’t see myself starting in another religion or going back to the one I had, is that I am extremely wary of my mind being co-opted by a set of beliefs that are not my own and in fact, conflict with my own values and ethics. I felt somewhat like you described in your post, “The Con”. I was taken in by something that I knew somewhere in the back of my mind could not be true, but I did not defend myself against it. Now the wariness comes from being hesitant to trust my own judgment as far as religious hucksters are concerned. I am improving greatly in trusting my gut instincts and discerning my own motivation. However, I think this progress makes it less likely that I will become involved with a religion again because my instinct tells me that a free mind is more pleasant that jumping into anyone else’s box.

  2. Ian

    Thanks Mellie, that’s exactly the kind of dynamic I was trying to get at. Once ‘conned’ you have a boosted your intellectual immune system against future attack. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. I think your distinction of “identity” vs “belief” is important. There many varied reasons people enter religion — if that reason is disillusioned, I think (as you say) they are often innoculated for life against disillusion of the same sort. But if they were, for instance, in for indentity reasons and they leave, they may join another group for belief reasons or for activism reasons or for family support reasons.

    There is no pan-innoculations. Religions are complex and people are complex. I doubt that many people only go into religion for belief reasons — even thought their ministers may try convince them of so otherwise.

    For me, going back into Christianity for a personal relationship with the Divine is out — I turned off that switch. I never was into Christianity as an answer to belief questions — I only bought into that stuff later.

  4. Religious identity has really become similar to a person’s career. Isn’t it just expected now that we should prepare to have 5+ career changes in our lives?

    “what could sway you?”

    I think I could be swayed for social reasons, but that’s not heartfelt commitment. If I were to find an “aesthetic” that I agreed with or trusted, I’d probably wholeheartedly jump on it, but I’ve found nothing that way yet.

  5. When I was a Christian, I was a ‘real’ one (read: fundamentalist). The identity was strong, but part of my birthright. I sincerely believed the ‘truth’ of Christianity. When I discovered that it was not true, I then struggled with the emotional ties. I had been taught to distrust myself and obey church authorities. I was told such doubts were the devil’s lies.
    Because my definition of Christian was so linked to biblical authority, church hierarchy and unquestioning belief and obedience, I can never call myself a Christian again. I may join a christian community if I find myself very vulnerable, but now I am more aware of other communities I could turn to.
    I do find much in common with liberal Christians but my god was not their god and I find myself triggered by the language.
    I could identify with a religious group, but I cannot accept as truth any claim that is so obviously untrue or implausible so easily.

  6. Ian

    Sorry for the delay in approving this comment. Welcome to the blog and thanks for posting.

    Thanks for your perspective and your story. I’m not commenting on the responses to this post (though I usually have the bad habit of wanting to get the last word in), I’d rather let them stand on their own, but I appreciate them.

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