This post combines two of my interests – the statistics of belief and people’s stories.
Are there many adult converts to christianity? Why do they convert? Were they really unbelievers beforehand?
It is common to read on the internet that non-belief is on the rise, but this is a very truncated picture. Globally, the percentage of atheists appears to be falling – “people with traditional religious views …. constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population.” (Zuckerman, 2007) – and non-belief is generally only growing in advanced western democracies.
In most European countries plus Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the decline in belief and church attendance seems to have almost levelled out, but it is still evident in the US. Most of my information and stories come from USA, Great Britain and Australia.
In these countries, it appears that many people change their belief during their lifetime, some more than once. Many children of christian parents become atheists and many children of atheist parents become christians (in the US, atheist parents appear to be the least successful in raising children that stay with their parents’ belief – most religions do better at this).
The final statistics thus depend on birth rates, retention rates and conversion rates.
- In the US, where some of the best statistics are available, non-denominational Protestants and those who are unaffiliated with any religion but not atheist or agnostic, appear to be growing the fastest, while atheist and agnostics are growing slowly. Baptists and Catholics have high conversion rates but even higher loss rates.
- In Australia, it appears that the main shifts have been movement from religious belief, often fairly nominal, to non-belief or less specific belief, but few have moved to atheism (McCrindle and also here).
- In the UK, it seems to be much the same, but with a higher level of disbelief and a modest growth in conversions to Islam.
Some of these statistics are reflected in the stories.
Like I said, I love hearing people’s stories, especially conversion stories, and I have reported or mentioned almost 40 of these on this website.
In the latest report, I briefly describe the journeys of 5 people (several of them prominent in the media or the blogging world) who grew up in atheist or unbelieving families, but who eventually came to embrace christianity (More atheists convert).
I have re-examined all these stories, and found some interesting patterns. (Note: these 30-40 stories are not randomly selected, so any patterns may not be found in a wider sample.)
Most grew up not believing
Most of my small sample grew up in atheist or non-believing families. Only a few grew up christian, lost their faith and then returned to it.
Most conversions came because of messed-up lives
Almost half my small sample had significant life problems (alcoholism, abuse, anxiety, etc) and found solutions in christianity. This was generally via the love and care of christians, but God seemed to directly intervene (see below) in many cases. Most of these became Protestant or non-denminational christians.
Professional people needed intellectual answers
Many of the converts, especially more professional people, only converted after significant reading and wrestling with complex philosophical and ethical issues. Many of these converted to Catholicism, perhaps because Catholicism has a strong intellectual history whereas some Protestant denominations don’t seem to value philosophical thinking.
Dreams, visions and healings
Many of the converts reported an intervention by God via a sense of peace, healing, or a vision or voice. This was particularly true of Muslim converts (though this may well be an artefact of how I obtained the stories), but also of many converts in US and UK who were struggling in life.
Almost any statistic or story will be atypical in some way or other. People’s lives and their movement into and out of belief can be complex. But it seems that the main reasons people believe in christianity are:
- they were born into it and stay with it;
- christianity passes the practical test of working in real life – it helps them overcome deep problems in their lives;
- God acts in their life in a way they find unmistakable; and/or
- christianity explains the world better than other belief systems do.