The role of emotions in the deconversion process is underappreciated. This post highlights those by shedding light on how emotions influence what we believe.
Often, former believers identify intellectual reasons for their deconversion. While intellectual reasons play a role in faith exit, other factors are also at play but do not receive the attention they deserve. One of those is emotions. Emotions are at work in every decision we make. Including those to leave the faith.
Psychologist Paul Ekman has identified at least six primary emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust.1 And while psychologists might differ on what precise emotions should be considered primary, the concept of primary emotions has been nearly universally accepted. So, what exactly is a primary emotion?
A primary emotion is the body’s first response to significant stimuli; it is usually strong and intense. For example, when I spotted the spider crawling on my desk earlier this evening, I immediately experienced the primary emotion of fear. When you first heard the news a loved one had died, you probably felt the primary emotion of sadness—although anger, shock, and fear are all possible responses to bad news. Most psychologists believe primary emotions are innate survival mechanisms. They help us identify threats and warn us of danger. Of course, most of the threats modern-day people face today are not physical in nature, but psychological—for example, when others encroach on our boundaries, dignity, respect, values, and sense of right and wrong.
Primary emotions (as well as secondary and tertiary emotions) have proven to affect decision-making in demonstrable ways, both on a conscious and an unconscious level. They move us to act in situations where we likely do not have all the information that we need to make a completely rational decision. For example, a mother that is genuinely happy with a church she attends might donate large sums of money to it when requested, even though it limits her ability to provide for her own household. And a person who is afraid to fly might decide to drive instead, despite the abundance of evidence that shows flying is much safer than driving. Of course, once primary emotions entrench themselves deep into the psyche of a person, which can happen in an instance, they become difficult to manage, and sometimes become buried to such a degree that we are completely unaware of the influence they are having on our ability to make purely rational decisions.
While the one walking away from their faith, would like to think their decision to not believe in God is purely rational, free from the bondage of emotional decision-making, this simply flies in the face of everything we now know to be true about how human beings make decisions. To insist otherwise is to show an amazing lack of self‑awareness. For when someone chooses to believe, or not to believe, in something as significant as God, undoubtedly, there are emotional elements involved in that decision. There is simply no way around it, for “thinking and feeling are inextricably linked.”2
Recent research by the American Psychological Association confirms this as well. Over half of the respondents in their research showed evidence that “disappointment, anger, hurt, alienation, mistrust, and other negative feelings” were important factors in their decision not to believe in the existence of God. Many perceived God, even if only existing hypothetically, as being “cruel, uncaring, or punishing,” which is probably why the emotion most often associated with disbelief in God was anger—anger toward God, the church, parents, or some combination of these factors.3 With what we now know about how emotions work and with the latest research confirming it, it is clear that every person has an emotional stake in what he believes, or does not believe, about God. But whether they are aware of it is an entirely different matter.
Even so, there are many popular unbelievers that are refreshingly self‑aware, wearing their hearts on their sleeves. For example, the famous atheist, Thomas Nagel writes:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.4
I could go on listing hundreds of similar diatribes from those who do not believe in God, but suffice it to say: desire, disgust, anger, disappointment, and feelings of rejection are common expressions among them—strikingly so, in fact, especially among those who proudly like to boast to their followers that their decision to not believe in God is based on reason and rational thought alone. So, while it might be difficult for some to accept or acknowledge, we know conclusively that the decision to believe, or not to believe, in God is ultimately a complex one, one in which emotions play an essential part.
Where Do We Go from Here?
When a family member or friend walks away from church, their faith, or even God, the further they move along the spectrum of belief toward unbelief, the more likely they are to tell you that it was because of rational reasons. But we know from the plethora of research that is coming out, the situation is far deeper and more complex than they want to think. Indeed, from my personal experience, most of the time, intellectual reasons are rarely the driving force behind deconversion.5
1 Shiota, Michelle N. "Ekman’s Theory of Basic Emotions." In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology, edited by Miller, Harold L., 249-50. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2016.
2 W. P. Wilson, “Emotion,” ed. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill, Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 392.
3 D. F. Bradley, Exline, J. J., & Uzdavines, A. “Relational reasons for nonbelief in the existence of gods: An important adjunct to intellectual nonbelief.” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 9 no.4 (2017), 319–327. https://doi.org/10.1037/rel0000073
4 Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1997), 130-131.
5. The above is taken from a section of chapter 6 of Before You Go: Uncovering Hidden Factors in Faith Loss. (Leafwood Press, Abilene, TX, 2021).