Psychology of core belief changes
June 10, 2012 1:37 AM   Subscribe

Have you or someone you have known ever radically changed a core belief system? How and why does deep psychological change occur?

I am looking for anecdotes of personal change, studies in psychological and sociological scientific literature and books or news articles featuring people who have made fundamental changes in the way they think about people and the world we live in.

For Example:

Pro-Choice to Pro-Life
Liberal to Conservative
Neo-Nazi to.. non-racist
Coke to Pepsi
Strict Disciplinarian to laissez-faire parenting
Anti-Death Penalty to Pro-Death Penalty

or vice-versa.

Especially interested in the how. What lead up to the change and what tipping-point if any caused it to occur.
posted by j03 to Religion & Philosophy (43 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
A couple of years ago, a Polish couple made the news because they were neo-Nazis who converted to Judaism.
posted by neushoorn at 1:58 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

My thinking shifted from the typical corporate marketer's worldview of consumers and markets by 180 degrees to now looking at the whole from the human centered of point of view. It was not overnight and I did not realize it until 3 or 4 years after the period in which the shift in perspective was taking place that my worldview and frame of reference had flipped from the "producers" point of view to the "end users" point of view. This include the underlying shift in core values as well as what I'd considered to be metrics of success. There are many nuances to this and perhaps covers more than what I can write in a single comment - such elements as external drivers vs internal drivers, centering and grounding as personal elements as well as those relating directly to "work" as mentioned above.

The trigger or tipping point was not an overnight 'aha!' as much as we'd like these things to be such, but an extended period of immersion in a very different operating environment from that which I'd worked in prior to this period.

That is, my starting point was from the perspective of having worked for a decade in marketing, advertising and marketing communications (from ad agency side to Fortune 50 MNC) where the "end users" were remote from my consideration and even as I was 'persuading' them (yes, MadMen style, imagine Don Draper having an epiphany of values and human beings) to purchase something, the results were always just numbers on the bottomline and the money being spent was mostly B2B. I.e. if anything failed to satisfice or give value for money, it was middle management making corporate purchases. Then I did the requisite MBA and some strange twist of fate dropped me into academia. And not just any old academia either.

I went in as Director of Graduate Admissions for a Human centered design program. Where the core values espoused (and thus to be communicated and "marketed") were that people, their needs, aspirations and values came FIRST. And instead of making B2B sales or national level advertising campaigns or marketing launches for faceless masses of consumers, I was talking one on one to young people, seeking a graduate program of their choice, which might cost them, individually, student debt equivalent to a smalltown mortgage.

Personal life long choices of young impressionable humans were suddenly in my hands.

*deep breath*

Good thing I'm a beanplater who found my humanity.
posted by infini at 2:19 AM on June 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Because that didn't answer your exact question below, because I hadn't looked at it from that perspective:

How and why does deep psychological change occur?

please feel free to ask any further questions to help uncover the reasons for the above in the context in which you require them.
posted by infini at 2:24 AM on June 10, 2012

A friend of mine went from being a (relatively) devout Catholic to being an atheist. In her case, the core beliefs that made up the bedrock of her Catholicism disappeared as soon as she started to really think about it, and from that point onwards it was just a matter of her coming to terms emotionally with having such a huge shift in belief. The lag time between the two is probably the most interesting thing about it - she would frequently admit that her old beliefs no longer made sense, but would then insist that she just needed to find a new way to support them. To us, it was obvious that she had already given up on Catholicism, but it took a while for her to be ready to acknowledge it.
posted by anaximander at 3:21 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Infini, thank you..

What I am taking from your answer is that the change was a result of a drastic immersion in new responsibility. Personal life long choices of young impressionable humans were suddenly in my hands.

Your first job was to view humans only as statistical numbers, but your new job forced you into a position of responsibility for humans as... well humans.

If you agree with that statement, I think that's pretty much the type of thing I'm looking for.

"Suddenly having direct personal responsibility for important life choices of other humans gave me new appreciation for the complexity of the human condition."

Something like that.
posted by j03 at 3:24 AM on June 10, 2012

I went from: pro-life to pro-choice, conservative to liberal (within the US paradigm, anyhow, because in Europe I'm only a bit left of center here), strict to laissez-faire, and fundamentalist evangelical Protestant to agnostic who appreciates atheist thought.

Here's the thing though – I was raised in an environment of the first of those, plus a smattering of racism, homophobia and misogyny. Despite being raised in it, and being required to participate (yes... I was brought to abortion center pickets starting at about age 10, and given signs with aborted babies on them...), I never wholly swallowed it. My best friends were Native Americans; this did not sit well with my family, and I saw the problem as being with them, not with my friends. My paternal grandparents were the only family members not part of the otherwise-shared religion; they were actually atheists. Around age 6 I was told by a priest that my paternal grandmother would thus burn in eternal hellfire. I did not see any problem with my grandmother; I saw a problem with the priest's incomprehension of Scripture (and boy I told him, he ended up having to call my parents to fetch me). One of my cousins is gay. His father beat him and locked him in closets. I saw no problem with my cousin; I saw the issue was with his father and the wider family who tacitly supported him by brushing off police visits and "teaching" me the evils of homosexuality.

How and why does deep psychological change occur?

By listening to yourself. By trusting your gut reactions reasonably, asking questions that arise, and taking time to evaluate responses you get. Not being swept up by extreme emotions either way. Having the willingness to stand up for what you do genuinely believe, when that's based on the realization that we're all on this planet together, and anyone who says otherwise has some more questioning and discovery to do.

It has to come from within. After all, look at me: I was raised by a family who told me from my youngest age that I would marry a good man in the Church, have babies, stay at home and take care of them. They punished me every single time I deviated from that path. The church rewarded me when I parroted their teachings and participated in their rallies etc. I was taught to fear "secular humanism".

Now I live in France, unmarried and no kids at age 36, with my own home and job, as a left-leaning agnostic, with lovely friends like the rainbow. (And yes, some of them are fundamentalist evangelicals from my old church.) You cannot make anyone into something; they have to choose. Recognizing the power of choice is how your own psychological change can occur.
posted by fraula at 3:25 AM on June 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: fraula: By listening to yourself. It has to come from within. You cannot make anyone into something; they have to choose.

Yes. You can lead a horse to water but you can't force it to drink. But I'm still thinking maybe there's ways to make a horse thirsty.

Your story has lots of elements of personal experience with and empathy for people in minority positions... Native Americans, homosexuals, atheists.

I'm curious what age about were you when the transformation occurred for you?
posted by j03 at 3:35 AM on June 10, 2012

I help people with these kinds of changes for a living. The conscious part of change can occur in many different ways but underlying it is giving up an attachment to who you thought you were an allowing yourself to take on other perspectives. Attachment is an emotional state and is fueled by longings and fears and attempts to feel certain ways and aversions to feeling others. The more one can tolerate various feelings, the more flexible one becomes.

To use your horse metaphor, you don't want to make the horse thirsty, but want to uncover the hidden thirst within that is being avoided out of fear, rigidity, and loyalty to those you love(d).
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:41 AM on June 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Suddenly having direct personal responsibility for important life choices of other humans gave me new appreciation for the complexity of the human condition."

Something like that.

Without getting longwinded on your entire comment (ruthlessly suppressed :) let me use your key words to articulate what I believe was the key "trigger" (now, seen in hindsight, another decade later)

It was the coming face to face with the consequences of the application of my talent/ability/skillset that was the wake up call.

Meaning, that up until then, when I was very very good at communicating across the table and making a sale, it was always from the PoV of "an account executive" to "marketing manager". Neither side of the table had any personal investment in the transaction in the same way that had I used "hard sell" as an Admissions Director (or even leverage in my role as head of dept of all student services) to convince some poor sod to take out a student loan for 50 or 100 thousand dollars for this degree.

And, there were those who were doing this and were asking me to do this. It was only when pushed to the wall that I pushed back on this blind acceptance of what the job was and what it really was, if that makes any sense.

I refused to accept performance measures based on FTEs (full time equivalents), again dehumanising people into metrics, and said that each of them was a human wanting to make the best career choice investment for their lifetime/future. There were no returns if the purchase of the printer or computer was bad, as in a B2B scenario, nor selling the house again in a B2C.

Also, I'd say, that every aspect of the environment had to change in order for this to have happened - from profit maximization to notforprofit higher ed, from marketing 'aspirational lifestyles' in the abstract to more or less the same, but in the concrete and now with the responsibility to ensure you weren't going to screw up someone's life/future/debt.

I'm sorry, I'm rambling.

Since then I have worked hard on myself to increasingly align my work to my core values, and made sacrifices to reach the point where I'm lucky enough now to be able to turn down work that does not meet my standards.

I'm also laughing at myself right now for such youthful idealism being displayed at almost menopause. Or its just TMI's attendant vulnerability because it feels like the world has gotten too cynical and profit minded, to the exclusion of all else. Profit is good, but within reason and with a balance to people and planet as well.

/end rant. Thank you for asking and thank you for reading.
posted by infini at 4:09 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was raised vaguely Church of England anglican, although it was widely accepted that all of us in the family excluding my mother were agnostic or atheist, and was very much a staunch atheist. I had read the Bible bored out of my skull during forced services, but was pretty much a "each to his own, flying spaghetti monsters indeed" atheist.

Until about seven years ago, I converted to Orthodoxy - more traditional than the Catholics! My husband, a lifelong atheist, converted about two years ago and most of our children are now Orthodox too.

I can remember the moment when I changed - I was watching some of my adopted children swimming and laughing, and my heart filled with love, deep savagely strong love, and I thought how strange that was, given that they had spent that morning driving me nuts with bad behaviour, that I was spending a day out in the sun by a pool which I hate, and that there was absolutely no biological reason for me to be tied to them - yet I was so full of joy witnessing their happiness at swimming, absolutely illogical love and joy. I realised that love was more than I could explain, and somehow that made me sure in that moment that there is a loving God.

A few weeks later, my husband went to interview the priest at an Orthodox church, and I waited for him in the church and on our way out, asked when the next services were. It made sense to me to go to the oldest church.

Three things from that:

1. I became technically pro-life, in that I do now believe abortion is the death of a child, while before I was much more until the time of viability, there is no child. But I am as utterly convinced that pro-choice access and educations is good and necessary, and that an early abortion is not the same as infanticide, and even with late term abortions - the choice must be the mother's, not her doctor or her priest or her politician or even her partner.

2. I absolutely still believe in science and critical thinking. Evolution is the most beautiful and likely explanation we have now. There are quite a lot of Orthodox scientists.

3. Those two things didn't change much, but what did strikingly change was theology. I had tried to read some theology texts as an atheist - St Augustine, C.S. Lewis and other basics - and found them dull and impenetrable. Once I had faith, reading them was as though they had been translated into English all of a sudden and I could understand what they meant. Before, I could only see them as sociological or historical texts, but now they have another meaning that is vivid and clear.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:12 AM on June 10, 2012 [19 favorites]

Here in Illinois, I have seen a number of people go from pro- to anti-death penalty. Scott Turow's discussions of this issue are illuminating for me, although, he says he started out anti-, so it's not the transformation from strongly pro- that some people have undergone.

What seems to have happened with this particular issue is an accumulation of things, starting with practical, real-life problems with the death penalty coming to light, to the point where you don't have to make a deep ideological about-face to acknowledge that there is room for debate. Once you question a few assumptions (like that the people charged with capital crimes are are almost certainly guilty) it's easier to question other ones (like that the death penalty provides closure to the families of victims). I think there is something about realizing you're believed something for so long, so strongly and with no backing in truth, that makes it a lot easier to cast off a position.
posted by BibiRose at 4:33 AM on June 10, 2012

Changed from culture-warring, far-right of center, lock-step Republican to card-carrying member of the Libertarian party. Much more than a change in political party - the entire expression of my belief system changed in a very short time.

How? My mother was in the hospital, dying. She had a marriage ceremony with non-ordained hospital staff to her longtime boyfriend. While I was composing the obit, I called my pastor (who is quite conservative, so his answer surprised me) and my question was how to politely handle what to call the long-time partner since, (my words) they were clearly "not really married". I heard my pastor sigh, and he said, "Brownrd, list him as her husband. What do you think they did 2,000 years ago - go to the courthouse and get a marriage license?". His statement, while shocking to me at the time, started a cascade of mental events which led to my "conversion" to Libertariansim.
posted by brownrd at 5:49 AM on June 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

I had a similar transition as brownrd, caused by the death of my younger sister at the age of 28 from cancer (I was 32 at the time; I'm 41 now). We were particularly close, and was her primary caregiver through her battle with ovarian cancer. When she died, I realized that I would never see her again or be able to talk to her again. Sure, my faith (or more appropriately, my religiosity) told me there was the "promise of Heaven" but for all intents and purposes that door was shut until I died. That, coupled with the "injustice" of the circumstances of her death, made me question and eventually reject my faith within a year. I wound up moving leftward politically as well, as so many of my political beliefs were "packed together" with my religious beliefs. Currently I would describe myself as an atheist who misses God who is a political prgamatist uncomfortable with Parties and platforms of any stripe.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:21 AM on June 10, 2012

Just to be clear, KingEdRa, my spiritual beliefs did not change - the expression of same did. I did become a lot less religious (a good thing) but I am still a Christian and always will be.
posted by brownrd at 6:31 AM on June 10, 2012

This Fresh Air interview, of a former skinhead who now works for the FBI, really made an impression on me when I first heard it. It's got lots of stuff about how he grew up and the daily small steps that go into both forming and changing extreme beliefs, so it may be very appropriate for your purposes.
posted by matildaben at 6:40 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Anecdotally, getting directly involved in the criminal justice system can change one's views about 'law and order' issues a great deal. (More generally, I think a traumatic experience can have a huge impact on one's world view.) There is a great deal of truth to the cliche "the definition of a conservative: a liberal who's been mugged" and its corollary "the definition of a liberal: a conservative who's been arrested."

For more detailed anecdotes, go to and search for "libertarianism happens to people".
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:46 AM on June 10, 2012

I went from strongly pro-life to pro-choice after going through pregnancy & birth. I was horribly sick for 9 months & at the end the complications & emergency surgery very nearly killed me. I had a good support system (friends, family, & a flexible job) & health insurance, but if I'd been single, or working at minimum wage and unable to take time off or pay for doctor visits, or 13 & trying to get through 6th grade... well, it wouldn't have been pretty. I realized there was no way I had the right to force anyone else to go through that if they weren't willing.
posted by belladonna at 7:24 AM on June 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

David Horowitz was a red diaper baby and leftist radical who went right when a friend of his was murdered by the Black Panthers. He wrote a memoir about this called Radical Son. I find his political writing strident, but the memoir is much better and more humane.

The blogger Neo-Neocon went from left to right after 9/11. You'll want to look at the tag A Mind Is A Difficult Thing to Change for that story.

Abby Johnson was a director at Planned Parenthood and became pro-life. She wrote a memoir called Unplanned that I have not read. Planned Parenthood questions her story.

David Brock went from left to right and wrote a memoir about this called Blinded by the Right. I have not read it.
posted by Surprised By Bees at 7:54 AM on June 10, 2012

My best friend went from Republican to Liberal, Pro-Life to Pro-Choice.

In general, I just felt like, you are acting like a crazy person, right? Because I knew, in my heart and in my soul, that she was NOT a Republican, and she didn't want to be up in other people's uteruses. I knew she was in favor of gay rights. I knew she was religious but not religiously conservative.

So I talked to her relentlessly. I argued with her. I found personal stories of people who were hurt by the narrowing of abortion laws, I talked relentlessly about liberalism and moral rightness, I just didn't let up.

Keeping in mind, we didn't live together, but whenever we saw one another, we'd have these super intense political conversations that other people were uncomfortable to witness. We weren't fighting - but other people thought we were. I sort of took the tack of causing her to know all the things and people I could find that were hurt by Bush II - the "if you know an "X" Person, you will soften on that issue" approach.

I think it took four years, but I cried when she told me she was voting for Kerry.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:13 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes. You can lead a horse to water but you can't force it to drink. But I'm still thinking maybe there's ways to make a horse thirsty.

I don't think hard sell is one of them. I think it raises unnecessary barriers of resistance when too much persuasion or convincing is applied. I believe (or rather, I learnt to believe) that one could only lay out the pros and cons, openly on the table, and then let the other person make the best decision for themselves. One's own responsibility however was to ensure that the best set of information to help in decision making was made available.
posted by infini at 8:23 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was raised by pretty racist parents in an all-white area (although we weren't neo-Nazis). I didn't know anything else. As my horizons got larger, so did the cognitive dissonance. How could this girl I am friendly with in high school be a monster, just because she's black? Little feelings like that started to bug me.

In my early twenties, I realized that I really really liked blues music, starting with white artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt and the Stones, and ending with B.B. King and Robert Johnson and Johnny Copeland and Muddy Waters and Billy Branch and Albert Collins and ... the list goes on. Finally, I just couldn't bear the contradiction anymore. I would be thrilled to get Buddy Guy's autograph, but in the next breath, had the nerve to think I was better than him, just because of the color of my skin? Couldn't do it anymore, it was too stupid a belief system.

So for me, it was a gradual sequence of weird little moments like that. I think one reason people often have epiphanies related to deep-seated beliefs in their late teens/early twenties is they have the opportunity to leave their protected home environment for a very different one, as can happen when you go away to college or are able to move to a different city.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:37 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's the introduction of doubt that absolutely cannot be ignored. Cognitive dissonance can take you some far, but at some point if you're a reasonable person, there's just a point where you cannot square something with your beliefs.

For me, I can tell you the day I lost faith in Catholicism. I was pretty much the classic family Catholic, went to church and Catholic school without really wondering why. My mom decided we needed counseling because we weren't getting along, only she did want to pay for actual counseling, so she got a church counselor, who was basically a nun. She wanted to know why I was angry and acting out. I said, basically, my mom was ruining and endangering my life with her personal choices (and she was, this wasn't just normal teen angst, this was she hooked up with an abusive guy who beat her and stalked us and nearly killed us several times and we eventually wound up moving away from the town I lived in in the middle of the night so all my friends thought he'd just killed us) and gave a long list of examples. And she gave me this condescending sigh and told me that Jesus would want me to listen to my mother, then turned to her so they could spend the next 15 minutes or so talking about how I was a bad kid. I was furious and got up and left.

I remember sitting under this big old oak tree and thinking, "So, if Jesus wants me to listen to her, obviously that means he wants me to be miserable. Why would I want to worship someone that doesn't want me to be happy?" I thought about all the exercises we'd done where we were supposed to talk to Jesus and I was acutely aware I was babbling to myself and thought if I just prayed harder, or the moments we were supposed to feel like we were in his presence and I didn't feel anything.

And that was really the end of it. Oh, there was a lot of seeking in the years to come, a lot of reading on other religions, reading the Bible from cover to cover (we'd elided over some of the questionable content in my religion classes so the Old Testment was a real horrorshow), digging into some of the history of Christianity (again, real horrorshow), and that kind of thing. But sitting under the tree, that line of thought was definitely the tipping point.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:10 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was raised to hate, to despise Christianity- only ever told any of the bad things about "fucking useless bible thumpers". And i was into it for a long time. I loved to point out the evils committed by christians, the glaring inconsistencies i thought were so clever. I am getting baptized today.

There was never an instant that changed me- just a million little nudges and thoughts and questions and some research here, some there, some realizations that most of the Christians I knew put a lot more effort into being good people than most of the Christian-haters I knew, more research, realization that Jesus has very little to do with my friends' and parents' idea of Christianity, becoming more mature and realizing that an individual's beliefs had the potential to be a lot more nuanced and subtle than the screamers and sophists and stereotype upholders on either side would have you believe, eventually culminating in loving Jesus enough that I didn't care what anyone thinks of me and am willing to take the label of Christian although I know most people from either camp won't understand what it really means for me.
posted by windykites at 9:19 AM on June 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's a book: The Best of Enemies. It's really the story of " C.P. Ellis (a poor white member of the KKK) and Ann Atwater (a poor black civil rights activist) went from being each other's worst and most hostile enemies to forming an incredible, long-lasting friendship."

It's really an inspiring story, and there are ancillary materials (a film, and maybe more) to go with it.
posted by amtho at 10:02 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Recently (slowly, over the past few years), I have gone from a economically liberal/government interventionist (Keynesian) to a more conservative, laissez-faire fiscally opinionated person. There were a few reasons for that.

First, I realized that the other side had a legitimate argument. This was not obvious because a lot of conservatives simply couldn't articulate their position in a coherent way. These include the talking heads on TV and people I went to school with. But realizing and discovering that there were some very smart people on the conservative end of the spectrum legitimized that side and forced me to acknowledge that not everybody who was a conservative was a crazy asshole.

The second thing that moved me to the right was me forcing myself to study and listen to those people. I was very comfortable listening to economists on the left, but I was very adverse to having my position challenged, or at least adverse to challenging myself. This was the most difficult part of my transition. Many times, I would hear a clear, coherent, and persuasive argument against a belief or idea that I held and I wouldn't be able to refute it myself. Eventually, I went from forcing myself to listen to opposing arguments to actively seeking out ideas that went against my own core beliefs.

The last part of my transition involved me actively adopting these beliefs and debating my friends using them. Even though I personally did not have a full conviction in them yet, I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could coherently and consistently use this new belief system. With this exercise, I was able to narrow down what I actually believed.

In the end, I had to realize that this issue wasn't one that was black and white, but rather one that existed on a spectrum. Further, I realized that there were not correct answers, per se, but rather simply ideas on this spectrum and value judgements that would make me lean one way or another. Once I realized that neither side was wrong, my head cleared up a lot and I feel like I can objectively analyze things far better than I could a few years ago.
posted by Geppp at 10:18 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can share my own anecdote on this: I underwent a huge personal reformation that coincided with my 30th birthday. In my teens and twenties I was a big partier and had well-defined notions of romantic love and partnership especially after meeting my LT SO at age 25. Then, the SO and I had a devastating breakup when I was 29. Alcohol played a huge role in why we fell apart. I spent six months living alone, and the SO and I got back together at that point.

From then on, which is to say the last two years, I've stopped drinking entirely, stopped the use of recreational drugs (no more smoking pot), stopped eating meat, started focusing more on my health and well-being, started seeing a therapist, and, in spite of feeling like I will spend the rest of my life in a monogamous relationship with my partner, I no longer "believe in" monogamy (as being righteous. Period).

I wish I could recall a quote I read recently (maybe here?) on the subject of free will... Hmmm. Anyway, the feeling I have is that I've matured more toward my true nature, and given up illusions brought on by circumstance, i.e. ignorance; misguided thinking. I don't want to hazard getting too-meta about it-- My life experiences led me to be the person I am today, granted.

And, said reformation might not read as any big deal. But, to me, it's really been life-changing. There has been a philosophical change in me. I function so differently now than I did 3 years ago. My social and working life is drastically different. I have a LOT more energy physically and mentally.

The tipping point was not one, overnight event, although it happened almost that fast. I had hit a bottom; a low. It wasn't my lowest-low ever. But, it was first: I'm involved with someone with whom the connection is enviably strong. We share the kind of love that people spend lifetimes looking for. And, yet, I can no longer be with that person. Then: I can love and have a fulfilling relationship with another person other than the love of my life. Then: The love I feel for others doesn't diminish the love I feel for the 'love of my life.' Somewhere in there: I want to be absolutely clear-minded moving forward. No getting buzzed (people that partied with me in the past are astonished that I went completely sober, cold turkey, with zero difficulty). Going vegetarian is a little harder to explain to myself or to MeFi, but it has to do with aligning my behavior with my beliefs and not being lazy about it. And, I'll add, I'm in a blissful relationship with the aforementioned SO again, but a part of me knows that the relationship could be taken away again at any moment, by death, his drinking, or whatever (we're both sober).

I feel I've over-shared in my first MeFi post, but I hope you find this useful! Yes, I underwent a radical change in my core belief system. And, it feels to me like I was suddenly given a burst of inner-strength not unlike the kind that strikes a person to lift a car off of another person's body. It feels divine. And, I'm kind of atheist.
posted by little_dog_laughing at 10:47 AM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

A (former) close friend -- he was for many years married to my best friend from junior high -- was a left-leaning, anti-racist, atheist skate punk for many years before turning into an ultra-right, racist, anti-immigrant "Christian patriot" survivalist who leads his church militia and hosts a far-right internet radio show. I believe this transformation happened due to combination of having come from an extremely dysfunctional and abusive family of origin and moderate-to-severe mental illness. (The story is a lot longer and more elaborate than that, but that's the core of it.)

Amusing anecdote: I occasionally check his website and discussion boards to see what he's up to (mainly to keep an eye out for anything that might suggest he's considering going on the run with the daughter he had with my friend). Last year, he was leading a weekend retreat in "Christian self-defense" to train for the upcoming race war, send "the illegals" back to "their" countries, etc. For lunch on the final day, he was asking everyone to pitch in $8 so that they could have a meal catered by the Mexican restaurant in town.
posted by scody at 10:55 AM on June 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

For me, the core beliefs change at the moment when I come to accept that a) I want them to change and b) I have the right and ability to change them.

I rejected a lot of what I was raised with - especially the trappings and what I like to think of as excess beliefs/practices - when I was a teenager. In a way I say that I really stopped being a Unitarian Universalist and really started being a Mormon. But I didn't get rid of a lot of the stuff I actually still believed in - just the stuff that kept me on one side versus the other. That is, I accepted God and the restoration of the Gospel and sin and a lot of other stuff that were basically "SMPA is not UU anymore" things, and I dispensed with stuff I had never really cared for (us crossing out gendered language in the hymnals bothered me years before I thought that it mattered in the sense of "God might actually be real" rather than "this is just stupid.") And I retained e.g., a strong sense of personal agency and a belief that other people must have the right to choose their own path.

I usually have to go through a lengthy period of exposure to and reckoning with a new belief before I get around to accepting it as my own - my mom joined the LDS church 10 years before I made a permanent, internal commitment of my own - but this is one of those "necessary but not sufficient" kinds of things. The wanting to change my belief - the decision that I am dissatisfied with what I believe, that it's not working for me, that it's not true - is also required.

The long period of exposure isn't always necessary, also - I accepted the majority of my small-L libertarian beliefs in a few weeks after the initial exposure. I attribute this to a very strong preexisting sense that I just didn't buy the stuff I'd heard before; it wasn't so much the changing of beliefs as the adoption of a belief where presently I lacked one. Similarly, no amount of exposure to Marxism or Maoist beliefs has ever made a lick of difference in how I judge them.

(Once I have actively chosen a belief it appears, thus far, that I am very, very, very unlikely to change it to something else.)
posted by SMPA at 11:25 AM on June 10, 2012

I had a very dramatic change from being a hard core leftist to being much more middle ground.

This happened when I started accepting (instead of filtering) and trying to explain observations that contradicted my beliefs (instead of reflexively saying "that's totally caused by poverty", for example.)
posted by rr at 11:58 AM on June 10, 2012

Oh, and chiming back in about my friend who went from lefty skate punk to racist militia leader, regarding the tipping point of his transformation.

It was clearly a series of many things, of course, but I think there were three key moments that seemed to get him on this path. The first was suffering a serious injury his 20s, which ultimately led to his inability to hold down full-time work; at the same time, his wife steadily ascended her career ladder and became the breadwinner for the family. That prompted a kind of identity crisis that he turned outward as resentment towards his wife, and then as blame towards immigrants, etc. who were supposedly taking all the jobs anyway (as framed on the talk radio shows he listened to all day long, now that he wasn't working).

Second, his conversion to Christianity from atheism -- which his wife, who is a liberal Christian, had long encouraged -- veered quickly towards the right-wing of evangelicalism/fundamentalism. This dovetailed neatly with right-wing talk radio discourse in general, plus it specifically gave him a way to assert his identity as the "head of household" spiritually to counteract the uncomfortable fact that he obviously wasn't the head of the household financially.

Third, when his wife had decided she'd had enough of this (after trying counseling, etc.), she started divorce proceedings, which precipitated a breakdown that led to him ultimately reinventing himself -- both as a way of defining himself in total opposition to everything his ex-wife represents but also as a way to finally give himself a sense of purpose/importance.

Again, this is all against the backdrop of his own terrible family history and mental illness. I find the whole story pretty tragic, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, really.
posted by scody at 12:00 PM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and one more personal story: here are a couple of comments from several years ago regarding my parents' shift from decades of liberalism to the far right after 9/11 (though not quite as far to the right as my former friend).
posted by scody at 12:13 PM on June 10, 2012

The best way to change your beliefs is to take them seriously. Most people don't do this, they're more concerned with the practical effects of saying you believe something. That's why you hear stories of people who are against abortion, but then get an abortion when they have an unwanted pregnancy. They don't really believe all that stuff about the sanctity of life, they only say they do because they want other people to believe it, or they want to contest what they think other people believe, and so on. They don't really believe in God, they just claim to believe because they think society is godless. They don't answer opinion polls by looking deep in their hearts, they answer according to what they think the reaction in society will be if the results end up one way or another. It's very hard to get these people to change their minds, because they already don't believe.

When I was 10, my mother became much more religious, and my siblings and I went with it too, because that's just what happens. I became a devoted reader of the Bible. My thinking at the time was something like "A book that purports to have been co-authored by the creator of the Universe? Yes, I would like to know more..." By 16, I had discovered Christian denominations vary widely on some critical issues: salvation through faith alone? Or not? What about predestination? How much does the Old Testament law still apply? I couldn't find the answers to these questions, and found that Christians still don't agree after 2000 years, which I thought was plenty of time to have it all worked out. So God had sent his son to die for our sins so we could be spared from Hell, but put such little effort into the document that's supposed to persuade all future generations, no-one can really make head or tail of it. If God is going to be so casual about things, then why am I taking it so seriously?

So I think beliefs change when you start taking them as dogma. But most people don't do this, they don't actually try to prove their beliefs to themselves. Instead, they focus on the wrongness of people who disagree with them. They don't care about saying "My belief is true." They just want to say "No-one can give me valid reasons why my chosen belief is wrong." What we call fundamentalism is therefore a kind of radical skepticism.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:26 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another way of looking at it is that people don't actually change, just that people's outward beliefs become a more accurate reflection of who they are vs. who they were trying to be when they were younger.

David Horowitz is just as shallow-thinking, dualistic, and morally vacuous now as he was in the 1960s.
posted by deanc at 1:07 PM on June 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

To elaborate, briefly, it's a cliche (but still true) that people seek something "greater than themselves." Certain deeply held beliefs aren't necessary about that "thing" but rather some greater than that-- beliefs about abortion/war/the death penalty, for example, seem to be more about a person's conception of what it means to live a moral life and live in a moral society. Economic beliefs always seemed to be some melange of self interest, social class issues, and personal identity. Individuals are going to adjust their political belief in service of that higher calling they're pursuing. When they realize that their "greater goal" is better served by following a different belief system (or, more to the point, when those belief systems are simply not working to serve the "greater goal"), they will do that, because the belief itself is actually less important than the individual's personal identity and personal/moral goals.
posted by deanc at 1:52 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

The podcast Mormon Expression Voices features quite a few stories of people born into the Mormon church who choose to leave it later in life. I recently listened to this episode about a family whose belief system changes drastically. Each family member (dad, mom, daughter) goes into detail about what caused their beliefs to change--I found the father's account and description of his tipping point particularly compelling.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:18 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my late teens and early 20s I was politically liberal (bordering on socialism) and agnostic. I am now politically conservative and christian. My political transformation followed my religious conversion and my religious conversion followed exposure to the love of God expressed through friends I'd made who happened to be christian.

Specifically when I accepted Christian doctrine, I embraced the doctrine of total depravity (man is fallen and trends toward sin) and free will (everyone has the blessing of free thought and we must trend away from forcing people to do what's best for them, just as God grants us free will). These two principles, for me at least, translate into support of limiting government (b/c I only want to empower men that trend toward sin with the minimum needed to accomplish constitutional duties lest they become corrupt and use their govt power to do evil and b/c I want to allow people the liberty/freedom to live their life as they please and draw the line of intervention only at the point that their free will directly harms the constitutional rights of another).
posted by TestamentToGrace at 2:50 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"But I'm still thinking maybe there's ways to make a horse thirsty."

I teach philosophy and about half my students come from a very conservative Christian sect, that doesn't believe in a lot of things. I've helped a lot of students through crises of faith of various sorts, and I think these things are important:

1) Getting them to think and examine, but without expecting them to change their beliefs. Of course in a classroom I have the luxury of (trying to) MAKE them do this ... that's why they're there. A lot of them need to be helped or cajoled into it, because they feel like even coming up with the other side's arguments is somehow untrue to who they are (and/or to Jesus). Sometimes I ask them to imagine they're presenting a bill to the state legislature trying to make into law X religious position, and I say, "So if you're working for the committee working on this bill, someone has to come up with the other side's arguments, right? And do a good job of it or you'll get demolished in the debate, right?" That also helps them examine their beliefs from a not-religious standpoint, since they usually realize (with prodding) that they can't "sell" a bill on "the Bible says so." Sometimes I make them write a paper supporting the opposite point of view to theirs; when I do that, I always have them also write a one-page reaction paper, which really helps. Letting them blow off emotional steam about it helps them get through it, since they know they get to say what they "really" think.

2) Respect their beliefs and their right to their beliefs. There's another professor in my department who's a militant atheist who mocks religion in his classroom. (I'm Christian, if a pretty liberal one.) I'm clear with my students that I don't respect dumbness just because it's RELIGIOUS dumbness, but that I do respect (most of) their beliefs, their right to have them, and I'm not trying to change them. Largely because of that, my students feel "safer" exploring various ideas that run contrary to their beliefs with me. My co-worker who mocks students gets super-frustrated that students come out of HIS class MORE anti-science but I have a pretty high "evolution conversion rate" where I convince my more fundamentalist students that evolution is fact and they can accept that and still be Christian. But attacking them shuts them down.

3) Show them a way they can change their beliefs without rejecting the loved people in their lives. I had a student say to me, "But my father doesn't believe in evolution and my father is not a stupid man," which I thought was the most succinct statement of this emotional state I'd ever heard. This is when they usually secretly think evolution is probably true, but they can't commit to that because it means rejecting their family or thinking their mom is stupid or whatever. There are a lot of different strategies for this, but helping them to see that they can think their grandmother is WRONG without thinking she's STUPID is important.

I've had a lot of students come back to me over time who are becoming a more liberal variety of Christian, or remaining conservative but accepting science, or leaving Christianity completely, and these are the kinds of things they tend to need.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:27 PM on June 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Seconding Blinded By The Right by David Brock.
Confessions of a Former Dittohead, by Jim Derych, is good too. (The book originated from the author's series of diaries by the same title on Daily Kos)
Ed Schultz was a conservative talk show host in Fargo for many years. He's said that his first date with his now-wife, at a homeless shelter where she volunteered at the time, was the event that really sparked his change in perspective.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:27 PM on June 10, 2012

I've been a bit of a Scientology critic and watchdog for several years, and during that time, I've gotten to meet a number of people who have gone from gung-ho Scientologists to non-believers - and often to outright critics.

In my experience, it's often one of two things (or both):

* experiencing a SERIOUS injustice within the organization, followed by the organization compounding the injustice (for example, one young woman was raped by a Scientology staff member; after reporting the crime to Scientology officials, they told her and her family not to go to the police)
* getting to talk, at length, with polite, respectful outsiders who question their beliefs

One of the best examples of the latter is Tory Christman, a Scientologist for 30 years who started emailing one of the world's most prominent critics, Andreas Heldal-Lund. When he responded politely, she was surprised and continued conversing with him. To her, it was like talking to the devil - only he didn't act as evil as she had been taught he would. The whole story was told in a terrific article in the New Times LA, Sympathy for the Devil (self-link, but only because the New Times doesn't exist anymore).

Another excellent example is Gerry Armstrong, who was L. Ron Hubbard's first official biographer. While archiving Hubbard's papers, he came across lots of evidence that Hubbard had been lying about his past. As a dedicated Scientologist, Armstrong didn't stop believing then - but he did urge the organization to start telling the truth. Their reluctance to do so, and their negative reaction to him, pushed Armstrong away from Scientology:
As Hubbard’s fictionalized past came to light, Armstrong began suggesting to the church’s leadership that they correct the record. But his overtures were received with hostility. No one was keen to confront the increasingly volatile, reclusive and vindictive Hubbard. Armstrong grew deeply disillusioned with the church to which he’d devoted so many years. “It [had been] very significant to me he was a nuclear physicist. To me, that meant something. And then to find out after all of those years it was just a load, the whole thing began to crumble for me.”
There's an amazing website called Through the Door that offers questionnaires to former Scientologists and catalogs "their reasons for joining, for staying, their thoughts while a member, and their reasons for leaving the organization."

Finally, here are some thoughts by a woman who was an active Scientologist for 27 years, Patty Pieniadz (also known as Cerridwen), on her reflections on the unindoctrination process a few years after leaving (along with a reply from me, with some of my own observations about becoming a believer and then letting go of those beliefs).

For something a bit more scholarly, you might want to read Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves or the work of Margaret Singer (although I think more of her work covered getting in rather than getting out).

I think the Through the Door interviews will give you a surfeit of anecdotes, but if you want more, there's quite a lot at the Ex-Scientologist Message Board, as well. (Feel free to MeMail me if you need any help decoding the jargon in some of those posts.)
posted by kristi at 9:50 PM on June 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I feel like my whole life has consisted of shedding beliefs. Perhaps of looking for beliefs worth having.

An abusive upbringing accustomed me to doubting my assertions, and a later philosophy education systematized the habit.

These days I can doubt that I have ever actually believed some of the things I have claimed. I am not sure how I would know.

I remember having asserted different things at different times. I do have some concept of my character, in that there are things I suspect I would do in imagined circumstances. But I do not claim to know this.

This isn't crippling in any way that is obvious to me. I can form coherent analyses of processes, describe events, predict outcomes, all without believing any of it is, was, or will be the case.

I do believe a few things. I know, for example, that I do not refrain from judgment of events or people, although I suspect my judgments are based wholly or mostly in my emotion and intuition: I don't like some positions. I can even tell you why I don't like them, but from this it does not seem necessary that I also believe the negations of these positions.

So perhaps this is an interesting data point for you: circumstances and innate inclination might make someone a fanatical disbeliever as well.

At least in my case, dropping old core beliefs has not meant picking up new ones. What can do this? Unfortunately, abuse can do this. But so can an education in logic and the principles of skepticism.

Insofar as I have struggled to assert myself and find my confidence, especially in matters regarding myself, this has been bad for me and I think that part is the product of abuse. But insofar as I have become a careful and methodical thinker (and hopefully a genuine listener), I think this has become a valuable character trait of mine.
posted by edguardo at 2:57 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: edguardo.. it's funn that you would say that because I was thinking the same thing... in fact, I was thinking about making another askme question next week about that very question..

asking for anecdotes of people with strong, rigid belief systems becoming more and more doubt filled until they go to the opposite extreme of never believing anything.
posted by j03 at 9:32 PM on June 11, 2012

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