I spent the last three years asking people why they'd changed their minds. Here are the ten wildest things they told me.
A 'Changed My Mind' retrospective
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In the summer of 2019, I was in a dark place. My writing career was in the toilet, and so were American politics and culture. I couldn’t do much about the first thing, but I was confident I could solve the second, the only way an upper-middle-class white guy knows how: by starting a podcast.
So I did that.
At the time, the chattering classes were looking for an easy explanation for the problems the nation was facing, and one phenomenon they had latched onto was “The Backfire Effect”—the tendency people (allegedly) have to dig in their heels and refuse to change their minds, even when confronted with clear evidence they’re wrong. I thought the Backfire Effect was nonsense, though: we all know people who’ve changed their minds about something, and I wanted to know what led them to do so.
With that in mind, I launched a podcast called Changed My Mind with Luke T. Harrington, which ran for three seasons and sixty-five episodes, and in which I interviewed people about the things they’d changed their minds about—everything from religion and politics to pop culture and grammar. (To be honest, though, it was pretty much always about religion. People just really want to talk to me about religion for some reason.)
I brought the show to a close a couple of weeks ago, but here’s a grab bag of my favorite episodes—and the most memorable things my guests told me on them.
10. “When I saw the siege on the Capitol on January 6, I couldn’t help but think, ‘If the trajectory of my life hadn’t changed, that might be me.’”
Sometimes I interviewed strangers, or even mildly famous people, but some of the most interesting moments on the show came from when I dug deep into my Facebook rolodex for people I’d known forever.
I originally met Ryssa Marshall way back when I was in high school—she was one of my then-girlfriend’s best friends, and she was pretty cool, and I even starred in a short film she directed for a student film fest, but after that, I lost track of her for years. When I rediscovered her on Facebook in my twenties, I found she had somehow gone from “overly zealous Pentecostal” to “overly zealous atheist.”
I had her on to tell her story—it’s a harrowing one of poverty, car crashes, and a flavor of ultra-right-wing evangelicalism that’s pretty foreign to me. Then I asked her if she had any insight into what had happened in American politics, and, well…that up there is what she told me.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and all that.
9. “My regular, year-round phone case is Santa Claus. Because sometimes I just want to look at Santa Claus.”
My first real “get” of a guest was Benito Cereno, author of many fine comics (Tales from the Bully Pulpit, several plot arcs in The Tick, many others) and cohost of one of my favorite podcasts, Apocrypals. The latter is where I’d heard him allude to his one-eighty on Santa Claus, which I thought would make for a fun Christmas episode.
Benito took me on a journey, from his origins as a Southern Baptist kid who resented Santa’s hogging of the Christmas spotlight to his coming-of-age as an atheist who nevertheless can’t get enough of Christian hagiography—especially stuff about Jolly Old Saint Nick.
He was a delight, and he left me with a question I’m still mulling over: If people can’t even agree on whether a hot dog is a sandwich, how can we expect them to agree on things like truth and justice? If you figure that one out, let me know.
8. “I was this close to buying some gold letters and putting ‘#NeverTrump’ across my hat.”
When I first announced the show online, my Facebook friend Brian Gregory Thomas—once a Southern Baptist preacher—dropped a bomb in the comments: he was converting to Eastern Orthodoxy.
I had him on for the fourth episode of the show, and it ended up being my first great episode. “Baptist-to-Orthodox” is about the biggest leap you can make within the Christian landscape, so the story of how a grandson of a Baptist evangelist superstar could end up swimming the Bosporus is an unforgettable one.
And yes, Donald Trump plays an active role in the story. His presence as keynote speaker at Brian’s Liberty U graduation almost spurred him to decorate his mortarboard as described above—and helped convince him it was time to escape the Baptist-industrial complex.
7. “Commitment to God doesn’t involve the same kind of belief commitment that you would have to, say, Bigfoot.”
Halfway through my final season, my producer Blake reached out to philosopher Justin E. H. Smith (author of Irrationality and The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is) to invite him on the show—assuming, of course, that there was something he had changed his mind about. There wasn’t, though: “I’m actually a Leibnizian,” he wrote back, “so I believe we all know everything a priori.”
In the short hour we had, Justin attempted to give me the Cliffs Notes on philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s optimistic approach to epistemology: given an infinite amount of time, everyone can deduce every truth in the universe, from whatever limited knowledge they already have. Was Leibniz right about this? Man, I dunno, but it was nice to take a break from my usual hard-as-nails cynicism.
While Justin was there, I managed to grill him a bit on some of the other philosophical questions that were nagging at me, like “What the heck is ‘rationality,’ anyway?” and “Yo, what’s the deal with Pascal’s Wager?” all of which he fielded with the patience of a saint. And when he reached for an analogy for God, his go-to was Bigfoot, proving that he and I are kindred spirits.
6. “If there’s no purpose, and it’s meaningless, then why would you choose to play pretend and make a meaning?”
As I say on this episode, this has always been my beef with the atheist existentialist set: If the only meaning life has is the one we give it, then that meaning is no less imaginary than God is. What’s the benefit of exchanging one delusion for another?
When I had comics author and illustrator Joshua Kemble (Two Stories, Jacob’s Apartment) on the show, he dragged me to the brink of this particular abyss and forced me to gaze into it, telling me the story of how he lost his Christian faith, became the victim of violent crime, watched his wife tumble into life-threatening depression, attempted suicide himself—and eventually rediscovered his faith. It’s a story of pain, loss, death, and resurrection.
You can decide for yourself whether Josh’s eventual re-embrace of Christianity is reflective of the faith’s truth or just his own desperation, but I’m sure of one thing: in the space of an hour and a half, Josh took me to hell and back, and I’m better for it.
5. “I left Facebook forever—and then I had to recover from being in a cult.”
One of the best books I read last year was Leigh Stein’s satirical novel Self Care, so I was thrilled when she agreed to come on my show, adding that she had changed her mind about “treating feminism as a religion.” I wasn’t 100% sure what that meant, but it sounded like a fascinating conversation.
Leigh took me through the story of how she co-founded a Facebook group called “Binders Full of Women Writers” (ah, Mitt Romney jokes, they never get old), which ballooned into tens of thousands of members and led to the wildly successful, bicoastal BinderCon convention (2014–17, R.I.P.). The story of the group, though, will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved with an online “community”: what started as a fun hang-out space spontaneously developed some unwritten values, which curdled into dogma, leading the whole thing to collapse into endless witch-hunts.
As I alluded to last month, I’m increasingly convinced that social media is a toxic thing—not just incidentally, but by design—and this conversation definitely helped nudge me in that direction.
4. “What religion asks of an adherent is a pretty sophisticated understanding of what a human being is.”
Right after I interviewed author William Giraldi (Hold the Dark, The Hero’s Body), my wife and I went to get our COVID boosters—and I spent the whole trip annoying her with talk about what a deep thinker and kind soul William Giraldi is.
I’m still a bit dazed by this conversation, to be honest. Going in, I had been insanely nervous—while I’d read Hold the Dark, it was (1) way too smart for me, and (2) the sort of violent, hyper-masculine book I’m not typically drawn to, so I had no idea how to interview the guy. But from the start, William blindsided me with his profound thoughtfulness, in every sense of the word.
The gist of William’s story is that he left the Catholic faith as a typical “atheist teen” type, only to find, years later, that deep Catholic themes were creeping back into his writing. He still doesn’t believe, exactly, but he has a deep appreciation for the doctrine on a metaphorical level. You can make of that what you will, but the conversation left me awed at William’s quiet humility toward the question of what it means to live as a human.
3. “I’m alone in a room with Judd Nelson, and all we’re talking about is Jesus.”
One of the best movies I’ve seen this year is Electric Jesus, a little indie coming-of-age rom-com set against the backdrop of eighties Christian hair metal. It’s a funny, charming film that manages to wring a shocking amount of meaning out of a setting that (I’m assuming) most people would find pretty silly. I had a lot to say about it, so I had my producer reach out to its writer-director, Chris White, to invite him on the show.
The conversation that ensued barely fit into the Changed My Mind concept; it was mainly just an excuse for me to fangirl over Chris’s movie and exchange notes with him about the creative process, but I have zero regrets. Chris turned out to be a font of (1) wisdom and (2) showbiz stories, including one about when he interviewed Judd “John Bender from The Breakfast Club” Nelson for a small role in the film and found that Judd only wanted to talk about the Bible the whole time.
So I’m not the only one people are desperate to talk religion with. Good to know, I guess?
2. “There is a homelessness that comes with being a Christian.”
Early on in COVID lockdown, with the show deep into its first season, I suddenly found myself struggling to find guests (something about “The whole world is falling apart and no one has time for your stupid podcast,” or whatever). Fortunately, my friend, mentor, and occasional collaborator K. B. Hoyle (author of Son of the Deep, Breeder, The Six, and many more) came to my rescue with a pitch for an episode that at first struck me as a bit too on-the-nose: she had left the Religious Right because of Trump.
I’d actually been watching a lot of my conservative friends become alienated from the Republican Party over the last few years; the interesting thing, though, was that I’d left the Democratic Party for parallel reasons. The conversation with K. B. happened exactly when it needed to, capturing a couple of homeless pilgrims meeting in the night and walking side-by-side, at least for a moment.
If you’re willing to step out into the darkness—to refuse to allow who you are and what you believe become grist for the power machine—sometimes moments like that can happen.
1. “When we make moral statements—when I say, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ ‘Murder is wrong,’ ‘Nazis are evil’—what I’m doing is not speaking for God, and not making reference to some objective moral principle in nature; what I’m doing is, I’m telling you who I am.”
At the end of the show’s second season, I was limping across the finish line. My latest book had flopped, I was running out of ideas for the show, and I was just generally exhausted and ready to give up. But then a hero came along (with the strength to carry on): my friend Blake Collier agreed to produce the show, assisting me with planning, scheduling, and finding guests.
Blake’s first major contribution was to convince novelist Matt Ruff (Lovecraft Country, Bad Monkeys, Set This House in Order) to come on and tell me about how he lost the Lutheran faith of his youth. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of that conversation with Matt—mainly because he closed it out with an account of morality that’s been haunting me ever since. What if, Matt asked me, morality is analogous to language—not something that points to an objective standard, but also not something that can be schluffed off at will? What if our morality is just who we are?
It’s a thought that falls somewhere between “comforting blanket” and “bottomless abyss,” and it remains the most profound thing a guest said to me.
So those were my ten favorite episodes. If you listened to the show, which were yours? Let me know in the comments.
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Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
I’ve spent the last couple of decades embarrassingly obsessed with with British singer-songwriter Nerina Pallot’s 2005 album Fires.
Every once in a while, a song from it would come around on one of my Pandora stations, and I’d think Man, there’s not a bad song on this thing, is there? I always wanted to listen to the whole album, but I didn’t have a CD player and I couldn’t find it available digitally anywhere (even on the torrent sites, I checked).
The other day, though, I discovered that: (1) Fires is finally (finally!) on Spotify, and (2) Pallot just came out with a brand-new album that’s almost as good. While her albums in the intervening years have been…fine (lots of great songwriting, but where were the pop hooks???)…her latest, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing, finds her having more fun than she’s let herself have in decades.
The standout track here is “Alice at the Beach,” a reggae shuffle with delightfully weird lyrics about heroism and coincidences, but, like Fires, there’s not a bad song on the thing. I’ve had it on repeat for the last week or so, and you should do the same.