The conversion experience - a missing topic in atheist debates?

In watching a few debates and documentaries concerning athiests such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, I've found some of the athiest responses tend to miss the mark. 

For example, there's the small clip of Richard Dawkins answering the question "What if you're wrong?" (link here). While he does make a valid point about your religion being a result of whatever culture and country you grew up in, one aspect that rarely seems to be addressed is the conversion experience.

In the christian doctrine, I could argue that it doesn't matter what culture you're brought up in, I've had an experience with Jesus Christ that has changed my life and many others, and thus I know He is real. And His mandate is to preach Christ to all nations.
Some of the debates I've seen argue the existence of God based solely on text in a holy book versus scientific evidence. This perspective bypasses a whole other aspect of religion: an emotional/'spiritual' conversion experience.

For protestant christians especially, their faith is riding on the coat tails of their amazing conversion. You can point out issues with the bible here and there, and also point to evidence in science that seems contrary to the Bible, BUT most christians will always go back to their conversion experience and say, "THIS is why I know God is real. I don't have all the answers for doctrine or science, but I know that when I got saved in Oct 1989, Jesus Christ instantly set me free from drugs and alcohol and restored my marriage." Hundreds of thousands of christians will tell you similar stories.

Telling such a christian that science shows the earth to be billions of years old won't dent their faith in the slightest. It's going to take a lot more than scientific fact to negate their conversion experience. This is a HUGE hurdle to get over if you're trying to cause a christian to doubt God.


Many 'new' atheists make some excellent points, but they are handicapped in the sense that they were never committed believers to begin with. They are unable to attack one of the major walls guarding a christian's faith. One could say that people in all religions experience a dramatic conversion so it's not something special, but that doesn't seem to be true. Most catholics can't seem to point to a specific time in their life and say "This is when Jesus Christ changed my life, made Himself real to me, and set me free from depression (or whatever problem)". Same with Jehovah's Witnesses. For many religious people, they don't have an experience, they just become assimilated into the religion, like the Borg. Those types of people may be more influenced by scientific evidence.

Matt Dillahunty from The Atheist Experience is a 'real' ex-christian which definitely helps his debates, but other than him, most other outspoken atheists seem to have little christian background. 

Any thoughts?

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Comment by Serotonin Wraith on May 30, 2011 at 2:50pm
You could compare it to a Muslim remembering the date of their pilgrimage to Mecca, where they were overcome with such an overwhelming feeling they were in the right religion. Or the baptism dates for Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons. Feeling great about a date wouldn't make it true even if it was unique to one religion, but it's not anyway.
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 30, 2011 at 4:12pm

Actually I know what it feels like to be 'filled with the love of Jesus'.  Interestingly, I had a similar sensation, post deconversion, at a very expensive, career related, motivational seminar - Tony Robbins sort of format.  It was that second experience that finally explained, to me at least, what I had previously felt on a few occasions as a Christian.


Both types of experiences were group oriented, and there is a lot of appeal to emotion layered upon the group.  There is an expectation of 'something big' driven into the rhetoric, and there are a lot of other noises that make the experience rather overwhelming to the senses.  In the Pentecostal experience there is a lot of chanting designed to bring about layered harmonics - it was called angelic chant.  At the motivational seminar there were speakers all over the place playing very powerful beats and discordant slogans coming from every direction as everybody began chanting slogans.  In both cases, my heart really jumped when seemingly random people burst out with spontaneous utterances.  That's when the procession to the front starts, and you don't have to go, but I had this huge sense of anticipation.


Up at the front the order got mixed around a little.  In the Pentecostal church the pastor seemed to pick people who were ready and he just kinda came at you.  In the motivational seminar there were different 'stations' where exercises took place, like falling backward off a table to have co-workers catch you.


Both of the experiences brought about a huge rush and a sense that, with these people and that feeling, anything was possible.  With the Pentecostal experience there is a bit of humiliation because I just fell back into the crowd, but other people really had these crazy fits and stuff - even so I was part of some rather ridiculous behavior and sort of had that 'I hope what happens in sanctuary stays in sanctuary' kind of feeling.  With the seminar the feeling was more like pride in the ability to trust my team and know that they could trust me.


Anyway, I've replicated the feeling on my own both as a Christian and later in my deist phase.  I really had to 'shrug off' my inhibitions, stand in front of a mirror, do some breathing as I swung my shoulders around, sort of getting the motion right from ankles to shoulders and working the arms into it like I was a tree.  Then I would find a chant that created sort of a binaural effect - not sure if anyone here has ever tried that.  My eyes would be closed by not tightly and I would catch just shadowing glimpses of the mirror.  About the time my head buzzed a bit I could really feel a wave of sensation throughout my body.


At that point you can convince yourself that you are feeling the love of Jesus, and this is particularly easy if you really expect to be feeling the love of Jesus.  You can also convince yourself that you are feeling the force and objects in the room have started to whirl around you.  I once imagined that I was some sort of marine plant flowing with swirling tides underneath a hurricane.  Honestly, if pushed to the max, I think you could convince yourself that you are a poached egg.

Comment by Erica Brooks on June 2, 2011 at 11:38am

I've actually had the same thought -- not only about conversion in specific, but of the way so many of the most visible 'New Atheists' seem to be more or less lifelong freethinkers, and don't really grasp what it takes for an utterly committed Christian to let go of religion entirely.


Have you seen Evid3nc3's deconversion series on YouTube? It's a great illustration of the long and complicated process of figuring out the bullshit from the inside. As he points out, it takes more than a single cogent (or even irrefutable) argument to shatter a person's belief system. The god-construct is way more complicated than that; it rests on a whole series of structures, including culture and community as Dawkins notes, but also belief in Scripture, supposed historical 'proofs', the 'relationship' with god, and of course, personal spiritual experiences like dramatic conversion.


Dawkins always seems a bit befuddled that his powerful arguments don't immediately deconvert people; I think he's missing this immense psychological bulwark that can lose any one of its pieces without falling apart.


Heather -- Even when I was a Christian, I remember thinking that a rock concert would do just as well for getting that giddy high. Fellow church members would say something about the 'spirit moving today', and I'd usually respond with something like, 'well, the band played some really good songs, if that's what you mean...'

Comment by Discern on June 3, 2011 at 2:16am

Thanks for your replies!

Seratonin: What you mentioned is something similar, but it's a bit different. I'm talking about the initial conversion of an unbeliever into the faith, not something that happens to a current believer (like a muslim visiting Mecca, or a catholic taking Confirmation). Many fundamentals believe if you can't pin-point a certain time that you accepted Christ and your life was 'supernaturally' changed, then you're likely not a christian. 

For instance, my dad was an alcoholic and was about to divorce my mother. They were invited to a church service, got saved, and instantly my dad stopped drinking and 30 years later they are still married. These are dramatic changes in lifestyle and habits, and what you find in a protestant church is that you're surrounded by people who have also had a dramatic change in their life at the point of salvation. You are told the reason for this change is the power of Jesus Christ, and due to that your faith in God is now cemented.

For me personally, in coming out of christianity, I continually went back to my conversion experience as proof God exists - no scientific facts could phase me. But the more I studied, the more problems I found with the bible. One day the weight of contradictions and inconsistencies broke my delusion (the cognitive dissonance became too much) and I realised that if the Bible wasn't true, then I had to question: What *was* my conversion experience?

I realized it was a huge psychological mind trip. Everyone loves black and white answers, and fundamental christianity offers that in spades. Yes, there's a God who loves you, He has a purpose for you, He created the universe, you will be with Him when you die. All the questions humanity would love to know the answers to are offered on a silver platter, and your lifestyle can't help but be influenced when you start giving in to this wishful thinking. You're surrounded by people that believe the same thing and have had changed lives, and all of this confirms your new worldview is real. All of a sudden everything good that happens to you is from God.

Heather was talking about having an experience at a motivational seminar. At the end of the day, that's really what charismatic church services are. A big emotional build-up based on moving music and talented speakers. It's quite an experience walking into a church service with 500+ people all singing the same song, and all believing the same stuff. It's liable to affect you if you give into it, and you can easily be tempted to call it a spiritual experience.

What I found interesting, was like Heather, I've had a couple experiences that felt similar to my christian conversion. Both times it had to do with a change in my worldview and outlook on life. Realizing that christianity was a sham was one of those times, and becoming atheist/agnostic felt like I had almost gotten saved again (praise the lord!). The supernatural experience I thought I had as a christian was really all in my head and simply based on my worldview and perceptions.


Erica: Yes, I've watched a number of 3vid3nce's videos, and he makes a good analogy of the various beliefs that make up the web of delusion.  I used to fully believe I could "feel the presence of God" in a church service - but yeah it was just garbage. All I was feeling was the unity and oneness of hundreds of people singing songs and being moved by the music.

Great thoughts guys, thanks.


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