Are Apostates a Threat to Believers?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

This post is directed to those who presume an anti-religious in any atheist who has left a religious past, especially one that was strict and authoritarian, and who arrives at views about the Bible and Christian origins that are at odds with the “conventional wisdom” of mainstream biblical scholars.

The stereotypical apostate from a deeply religious upbringing is said to “hate” their former religion and will be biased against it to such an extent that they will seek to undermine whenever the opportunity arises. “Once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist” — only in the reverse direction — is a refrain that I have heard often enough from defenders of mainstream scholarship when they dismiss arguments that come from known “apostates”. I think that refrain is a lazy substitute for attempting to engage with the intellectual content of the criticisms whenever they are raised. If the apostate was once a member of a rigid, authoritarian or other kind of fundamentalist or cultish sect, then it is reasonable (the mainstream scholar’s thinking goes)  to assume that the apostate is now just as brainwashed or closed-minded as ever, only now in a vengeful reaction against their former faith.

Is there evidence to support that portrayal of apostates?

Most people I have known personally who have left authoritarian cults have not the slightest interest in even thinking about their religious experiences. Those apostates are glad to engage in an entirely new life free from any reminders of that past. But that’s me — and I am merely one person’s anecdotal testimony and hearsay report.

It happens that right now I am reading a book for the purpose of reviewing it here and as early as page 31 I found myself pulled up and in dire need to to track down and skim another work that was cited on that page. Here’s what pulled I read:

Citing Burton Mack, Ellegård notes that the biblical scholar/theologian community has pretty much ignored this type of work, especially that of Wells. It’s not a surprise that Wells’s work has been subjected to rather vehement criticism from biblical scholars, some of whom accuse him of ‘anti-religious’ intentions.104

104 It always surprises me to note that many biblical scholars frequently accuse other scholars – some of them also biblical specialists – of ‘anti-religious’ intentions in their work. It’s a strange form of conspiracy theory which posits that a desire for, and search for, truth is somehow blasphemous. Canadian social psychologists Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, in their book Amazing Conversions, studied the phenomenon and determined that it was the inculcation of the religious attitude that there is truth, and that it should be diligently sought, that disposes deeply honest people to turn that inquiry on their own beliefs. Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion (Prometheus Books, 1997)

From page 31 of Knight-Jadczyk, Laura. From Paul to Mark: PaleoChristianity. Red Pill Press, 2021. . Link is to a publicly available copy of the book at archive.org.

How had I missed Amazing Conversions given my zeal in seeking out and devouring that kind of book back in the late 1990s/early 2000s!

So now that I’ve caught up with Amazing Conversions, I’ll share some of its key findings on the way apostates from strict religious backgrounds approach anyone who presents as an inquirer into the truth about their religion. Surely an apostate’s attitude towards such a person tells us something meaningful about the likelihood that they might be reflexively predisposed to bias against establishment religions.

Amazing Conversions describes and discusses a 1995 study into persons who, contrary to the expectations we would have from their upbringing, became either apostates or devout believers.

This book hopes to provide some explanation of these two exceptional kinds of persons: individuals who — against the influences of their past and all the socialization theories in the world — swam against the tide and became, respectively, “Amazing Apostates” and “Amazing Believers.” It presents our research on rare persons who changed so mightily that they “crossed over” and became each other’s destiny. It tries to understand how such remarkable transformations could take place. (p. 12)

Who was selected for the study?

Most of these apostates had pretty nonreligious upbringings, and so their subsequent loss of belief does not come as a surprise. But a few — a very few came from relatively intensive religious backgrounds, and that is amazing. So we rounded up as many “Amazing Apos­tates” as we could and talked with them.

. . . .

We selected, as potential Amazing Apostates . . . all students who scored in the top quartile on the Religious Emphasis scale, and yet scored in the bottom quartile on the
Christian Orthodoxy scale.

Such persons proved quite rare. In 1994, eighteen were filtered out of 1,457 students who answered the screening booklet at the University of Manitoba. Fifteen turned up among 813 Wilfrid Laurier University students. In 1995, the figures were just 11/1,070 in Manitoba and 14/924 at Wilfrid Laurier. That works out to 1.4 percent of the sample being potential Amazing Apostates. We had to screen over 4,000 students to locate 58 of these rare beings. (pp 21, 26f of Amazing Conversions)

So this sample of 58 had travelled the road “from a strong religious childhood to religious disbelief”.

The question of particular interest here

Next we asked the AAs [=Amazing Apostates] to imagine that a younger member of their home religion came to them for advice. Religion had played a big role in this person’s life, but now questions were arising. This person wanted advice on what to do. What would they say? (p. 29)

I quote here the various descriptions of the responses to that question:


Placed in the hypothetical situation of advising a younger, strong Catholic who is questioning her religion, Anne said “I definitely would not tell her to drop her beliefs. I’d probably say something like, ‘You have a mind, you can think, you can figure stuff out. If you’re not sure, talk to other people. I would not want to influence her.” (p. 42)


If a nine-year-old came to him with questions about religion, “I wouldn’t say give up religion. I would just say don’t believe everything you’re told. Although you might think that parents are always right, they are not always right.” He would encourage the boy to do some reading and thinking about religious teachings. (p. 45)


The situation of giving advice to a budding apostate turned out not to be hypothetical in Claire’s case. Several people had approached her in such a context. “I don’t want to push what I believe onto them, because they’d start believing what I believe. I said, ‘You have to find out for yourself what you believe in. That doesn’t mean ignoring what your parents tell you. You have to decide if that is what you want, if that is what you believe in.’ ” (p. 49.)


If a teenage boy came to him for advice concerning questions about Catholic teachings. Dwight would “suggest a few good books. I would give him the other side of the story or places to go where he could find the other side of the story. I’m not going to tell him this is wrong and this is right. But you can tell him to listen to the other side, maybe sit in on a few university lectures.” Ultimately, if the advice-seeker ‘”‘has the information in front of him, he can make a choice. He can decide Catholicism is the way to go, or he can go the other way.” (p. 52)


If a fifteen-year-old, beginning to doubt her religion, came to Eleanor for advice, she would “try to talk to her within a religious framework as opposed to my framework,” and “ask her what she has doubts about, and express my views on the matter. But I’m not going to tell her religion is bad and you shouldn’t be a Christian. I would try to be sensitive, to have her think about it, and ask her why she believes certain things and have her explain that.” In the end. it would have to be the fifteen-year-old’s own decision whether to believe in religion or not. (p. 56)


What would he say to someone from his own background who was beginning to waver in his faith? “I would probably not. give advice as such. I’d probably describe my own situation, and say ‘you can believe something similar.’ It’s not my place to direct. I’m not a traffic light. It would be his choice.” (p 60)


What advice would Gina have for u seventeen-year-old who was beginning to question her religion? Gina would recommend that she think about “what she believes in and what aspects feel right to her.” In addition, she might suggest talking with friends. She could not recommend a teacher or priest “who would try and sway you back, probably.” But Gina herself would not try to guide her to an answer. “It has to come within herself.” (p. 63)


Asked to imagine advising a young questioner, Harry said, “I’d probably tell him to write down all his questions, and then delve way deep into the Bible. See if he could find answers. If he could find them, then good for him. But if he couldn’t, I would then say ‘Stop doing what you’re doing. Break away from it.’” (p. 67)


If a ten-year-old came to her for advice about religious questioning, “I don’t think I would press my ideas on her, but I think that I would just say ‘go with your feelings, with your heart.’ I would be acting as one of the ministers if I went and pressed my ideas on her. ” (p. 71)


Jack’s advice to a young Baptist beginning to question his faith would be “to ask himself if this is what he wants to believe in. He should find out more information, and ask someone who is knowledgeable. It would be better for him to ask a minister than to ask me. I don’t want to be responsible for someone losing his faith.” (pp.74f)


What advice would Kathy give a potential apostate? “Talk to your priest, ask questions. Read. Educate yourself. You can’t just sit there, and accept what they’re saying. You have to read, and see if you agree with what they’re saying. You have to have your own mind. Maybe she’ll agree with me, maybe she won’t. It’s her choice. If I were to try to make her not be u Catholic, that would be just as bad as what the Church does.” (p. 78)


Similarly, if he were giving advice to a questioning ten-year-old, he would be careful not to steer him in one direction or another. “He should be free to choose for himself.” (p. 81)


If a ten-year-old girl came to her for advice concerning her religious questions, Maureen said she ‘wouldn’t discourage the person from believing in religion. For some people, religion is the answer. But if she has questions, I would probably explain my views, and say she has a right to have questions. There are other ways of looking at things. It doesn’t have to be one way. If I was close to this person, I might help them explore these other avenues.” (p. 85)


Nick said he would tell a young questioning Lutheran not to worry. ‘ There’s no such thing as hell. Keep asking questions.” However, “if this person really felt that bad about questioning, I would say ‘Pray for forgiveness.’ If I said, ‘Don’t believe in any of that,’ that would be overwhelming at such a young age.” (p. 89)


If a young, questioning Catholic approached her, Olivia would say to keep thinking about that topic. “But as far as her getting answers, she has to do that primarily on her own. I wouldn’t want to sway her one way or the other, the way a lot of Catholics try to sway people.” But she would want her children to have a religious background. “Going to church is beneficial. Then later, they can decide what they want.” (p. 92)


If a questioning thirteen-year-old came to him for advice about religion, Pete “would have a lot of apprehensions because I wouldn’t want to be like the Catholic church whereby I am telling him what he should do. I’d tell him to think about his doubts, maybe read into them a bit more and let him answer a lot of the questions. But 1 would tell him not to just keep swallowing everything, and maybe he should question his beliefs more. I would make sure that he did not feel that he was different because of his beliefs. You can’t push your beliefs on anyone else, that’s ray main point.” (p. 96).


Only one of our forty-six Amazing Apostates (Quentin) indicated that he would try to turn a budding apostate into a real one. The other forty-five all said it would have to be up to the young questioner to decide. Many of them, m you saw in the case write-ups, went so far aa to say they would never want to influence someone into following them. “It has to be her/his decision,” they said over and over again

The results proved almost im clean-cut on the issue of onesided versus two-sided searches. Only three AAs gave onesided advice that would favor doubt over belief. Thirty-six others outlined two-sided searches for the truth, often saying the budding apostate should consult a priest or minister, read the Bible, pray, or talk with parents as well as reading more widely, talking with atheists, and so on. (Six said they would give no advice, and in one case the matter remained unclear.)

So, just as they did not want to convince anyone to follow them, the vast majority of the AAs rejected biasing the search. They wanted the individual to decide things for herself, after considering both sides of the matter. They frequently volunteered, you will recall, that if the budding apostate decided to stay religious, that was fine with them. (p. 122)

Maybe a true believer parent would consider any of the above too high a risk to ask them to babysit their children.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “Are Apostates a Threat to Believers?”

  1. Once again, a claim is made out of whole cloth which causes the rest of us incredible labor debunking it. This is a manifestation of Brandolini’s law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.”

    Unless the claimant can provide evidence for their claim, I suggest we admonish them for being a Liar for Jesus or whatever epithet seems fitting.

  2. When I once, in a debate with Christians, asserted that the fact that the prophecy about Tyre’s complete destruction and permanent abandonment had not happened undermined the claims by Christians that their scriptures are true that that YHWH their god is reliable, a Christian accused me of having been a former member of a literalistic fundamentalist sect – but I was raised as a Catholic and was never part of any fundamentalist sect.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading