Calling All Atheists Who Were Once Devoutly Religious!

Evangelical atheists, like me, are interested in debating religious people with the intent of dissuading them of their religious beliefs. In my case, I think that the greatest good humans can strive for is to maximize the total aggregate of excellently functioning human powers. Put more simply, we should aim to aid our fellow humans to flourish in their abilities as much as possible. I think that it is both instrumentally and intrinsically good for people to reason as well as possible as part of realizing their full human potential—not only their potential as rational beings, but as social, creative, political, artistic, sexual, emotional, familial, athletic, and humorous beings. Rationality usually contributes to and constitutes each of our powers.

And unfortunately dogmatic, faith-based religions actively inculcate and explicitly encourage numerous intellectually inhibiting irrational and anti-rational habits of thought and practice. They deliberately teach people to believe transparent falsehoods on irrational grounds and to embrace numerous normal cognitive errors as truth-conducive and virtuous. Some people of course learn to think with a fair degree of creativity and logical consistency within the ultimately stifling boundaries of their faith. And of course outside of matters deliberately distorted for them by their faith, many believers are fine thinkers. But the effects of faith traditions on too many people’s abilities to think clearly about philosophy, ethics, politics, or science is too much for me to take passively. I want to argue on behalf of better understandings of science, philosophy, and critical thinking. I especially want people’s philosophies, ethics, and politics to be shaped by reason rather than unwarranted deference to the frequently childish, outdated, regressive, heteronomous and/or stagnant traditionalism of religious faiths.

Now, in reply to this desire of mine alone (and not to any specific failures to be civil or fair to believers) people accuse me (I think almost offensively falsely) of being self-righteous, rude, presumptuous, intrusive, moralistic, illiberal, pushy, imposing, and/or arrogant. In short, evangelical atheists like me are accused of being just as bad as religious proselytizers who try to shove their religious beliefs down people’s throats. No discriminations are made between we evangelical atheists who try to reason with others based on philosophy and science on the one hand and those religious proselytizers who try to emotionally harangue and manipulate people into believing things that reason alone could never persuade them of.

But it is different to seek to have rational debate with someone than to restort to threats of eternal torment, emotionally frenzied worship services, programs that exploit the vulnerabilities of the poor, addicted, or otherwise disenfranchised, arbitrary appeals to authorities that unwarrantedly claim absoluteness, disingenuously formed friendships, and the concentrated brainwashing of children (sometimes even other people’s children whose parents are of a different religion) all in order to win converts at whatever cost.

Now some religious proselytizers, of course, may be more committed to rational restraint and try to only win converts in ways that respect autonomy and reason. And some atheists on at least some occasions can be excessively obnoxious and rude and otherwise intemperate when dealing with believers. But at least in principle, evangelical atheists are explicitly committed to rationalism and science, whereas, in principle religious proselytizers are typically concerned with winning converts at nearly any cost, PERIOD  Even if they won’t confess to this, their behaviors bear out that uniquely amazing shamelessness that the illusion of God’s permission commandment to save anyone they can gives them.

But, I digress. On to my question. The other major reasons we are told not to try to dissuade others of their beliefs (besides the concern trolling lament that it would just be futile anyway) is that if religious people are happy as they are, then that’s simply their business and it’s rude and presumptuous to try to change them. And since people’s religions are often deeply incorporated into their sense of identity, it is seen as disrespectful, even to the point of being a violation of their core being to treat their beliefs as needing changing. It’s tantamount to saying that their whole identity, their whole being as they are at their core must be destroyed and replaced. So, the argument goes, just as it is morally offensive and demeaning to ask gay people to change their sexuality, so it is also morally offensive and demeaning to ask religious people to abandon their beliefs.

Finally, in liberal countries it is common to think of politics as the only area where we should be concerned about others’ actions or beliefs. So there is a reflexive aversion to any thing that could be remotely perceived as meddling in people’s private moral lives against their will. I appreciate the sentiment behind that suspiciousness. We indeed need to be conscientiously cautious to avoid being pushy, harmful, judgmental moralists, but I also think that abdicating all rights and responsibilities to discuss and debate values with others is an irresponsibly dangerous form of cultural neglect that takes too little interest in our fellow humans’ well-being, evinces too little community solidarity, and eventually even risks costly political effects down the road. In short, political values are too steeped in social, cultural, and moral values for us to be complacent about all of the latter.

This is why I am not ashamed of the atheist movement’s interest in subjecting matters of belief and religious practice to critical moral scrutiny. And while I respect the fact that people’s identities are indeed often religiously constructed in ways that need to be partially respected, I do not think that it is rational for anyone (theist, atheist, or otherwise) to stop reexamining their beliefs or to demand their beliefs be put off limits from criticism simply because one is attached to those beliefs as a matter of identity or because those beliefs make one happy.

But what I want to do now is ask only a specific type of person a specific set of questions. I don’t want to hear from those who loathe or mistrust nearly all attempts to change others’ religious beliefs. I have tried to adequately represent your objections above, please listen to what the deconverted themselves have to say. I don’t want to hear from lifelong atheists or deconverts who were only ever nominally believers for whom leaving faith behind was a fairly painless or, even, imperceptible process. I don’t want to hear from current religious believers. I appreciate all of you as readers and hope you’ll read the comments below and provide Your Thoughts on all my other posts.

But I want to use this comments section specifically to survey you atheists who really did experience your religious beliefs as very important to your identities and/or your happiness. You were the very people that evangelical atheists are being told to leave alone. In very many cases you were at least partially influenced to deconvert by the explicit efforts of atheists to dissuade you of your beliefs. You are the “victims” of evangelical atheism.

So tell us all how devout you were. What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer? How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion? How long ago did you convert? How do you feel about it now? Do you resent what they “did to you” or are you grateful? Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected? Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer? And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion? Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted? Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?

And what do you think of evangelical atheism? And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices? What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion? What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged? What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness? If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both? Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards? Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?

For my own thoughts about how I feel as a deconvert when I am scolded for attacking religious beliefs, read Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers The Idols Of Faith”).

Your Deconverted Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • ogremk5

    Hi Dan,

    I don’t think I’ve ever commented on your blog before, but since I fit your category, I’ll try to help out.

    I was raised in the Southern Baptist Tradition. My dad was a non-practicing Catholic, but had very, very little influence on my life. My grandfather was involved in the Aleutian battles in WWII and made a promise to God that if God got him home safely, he would worship for the rest of his life.

    My grandfather keeps his promises and stayed a devout Christian until he died. On the other hand, he’s also the one who taught me the most about figuring things out on my own. He studied quite a bit of the history of the Holy Land. I don’t know and will never know what he really thought about religion. But he must have known that much of the things in the Bible were false.

    But that was how I grew up. Every year, I went to Christian summer camp. I went to Sunday School, and Sunday Church, and Wednesday night church and all of that. I was a very active part of the church. I never was an ‘evangelical’ because, as a teen, I was was cripplingly shy.

    On the other hand, I was (somewhat defiantly) a science geek. I watched Cosmos when it first came out. I was eight and didn’t understand a lot of it, but I still loved it and from then on, I wanted to be just like Carl Sagan.

    I was dealing with this odd dichotomy while growing up. On the one hand, I was a strong Christian. Me and my mom even had arguments about faith and Christianity, with me on the Christian side (weird right?). On the other, I had this thing called science that was cool, but I really wouldn’t understand it for a long time. Even after college, I really didn’t understand how science worked and just why it was so powerful.

    After I moved out, I just got lazy. I wasn’t at home, so church was limited to those weekends I was back home. I was too shy to go find a new one. (To tell you how shy I was, when I moved out on my own and started grad school, I didn’t talk to anyone for over two months.)

    My first real exposure to the application of science to religion was The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager website (now a book). I don’t remember how I found it, but I started reading it and then I spent all night and most of the next day reading it. A lot of it made sense to me.

    After that, I was claiming to be an agnostic. I mean, how could we know, right?

    Finally, I read The God Delusion when it came out and went from agnostic to atheism by the end of it. When confronted with the serious problems caused by religion, I had no choice, but to reject it.

    My story isn’t as interesting as some, but I hope that’s what you are looking for.

    • Daniel Fincke

      How do you feel about having deconverted and its influence on your life?

  • Anj

    I have actually just written a blog post about exactly this, so I will copy past it across: Sorry for the length, but I did not want to cross link to my blog (still figuring out etiquette for this sort of stuff)

    “I wanted to write a bit to explain how I got to where I am today, maybe just to be cathartic, but also because I do not think I have coherently put down why I think what I do.

    Coming to think the way I do today has been a long process, and it still is not over, I am still not quite at the point where I can use a label to say “I am a X”, so I usually just say “God? Don’t really think about it”

    But anyway, the best place to start is always the beginning, so lets go there.

    When I was very young, my parents were into hippy type 80′s things, we went on pagan retreats, my mother was into ley-lines and associated woo. This didn’t have too much impact on me, apart from the lucky side effect of my parents making sure I knew all the names of plants and animals in the forests, and going badger watching etc, as well as getting me into literature via Arthurian stories and Norse mythology. The retreat was fun, as far as I remember, bloody cold, because they had no heating, and we went in January or February, but great fun doing things with the other kids building rafts and running around the forest. My mum was also a Greenham Common woman, and a member of CND, going on frequent protest marches and blockading stuff, so we had lots of interesting people coming over to visit from these groups. I think it is from this period that my love of nature arose, living in the countryside and being taken to forests etc every weekend. Wierdly, she was also a Catholic, so I was christened Catholic, but it was very much a once a week thing, and now, I am not so sure that Catholicism with all the saints, intercessions, pilgrimages etc is so far from some types of paganism.

    Around 1987, so when I was 6 or 7, we got sent on a holiday for under-priviledged children, which was nice, getting to stay in a caravan by the sea for a week, and here it started to go strange. My mother decided we should move to the place we had been on holiday, so we packed up from our small village and moved to a tourist sea-side town. This town had 10,000 residents, 1 Anglican church, 1 Catholic church, 2 Evangelical churches, 1 Methodist church, and just for good measure, a Spiritualist church.

    We initially started at the Catholic church, the once a week, stand up, sit down, go away again thing, then for reasons I do not remember, we swapped to the Anglican church. This was, to my memory, your standard “social religion”, where the services were secondary to other things like coffee mornings, Guides & Brownies etc. My dad did his confirmation, and my parents got their wedding vows renewed here, I got a piano tutor, sang in the choir, all very parochial gentle stuff, if a bit boring.

    Then, for reasons which I do not know, my mother announced one day that “God is not in that church”, and so we tried the Methodist one for a bit, but she still wasn’t feeling God, so we tried one of the Evangelical churches. This, for me, is where religion stopped being just a once a week saying some prayers and singing hymns. With hindsight, I am pleased I was that much older than my siblings, and had been exposed to nature, and other experiences, because as the saying goes “Give me a child til 7, and I will give you the man”.

    By now I was 8 or 9, and was going to the youth group at the church, as well as being involved in the services. They were like nothing I had ever seen, so much more exciting than the Anglican or Catholic, and people seemed to actually believe what they were singing about, people cried in the meetings, raised their hands in the air, did prophecies, spoke in tongues etc.

    I was baptised by full immersion on my 10th birthday (the day before halloween…a source of annoyance for my mother), and became a member of the church. There were fascinating youth meetings, where we had escape artists come to perform, and talks were given about books like “The Cross and the Switchblade”. I actually thought “This Present Darkness” was a factual story, and for a 10 year old, it is a terrifying book. From the outset, the youth meetings were very graphic, one of the images burnt into my mind is the graphic description of a crucifixion we had given to us annually around Easter, as well as the vivid descriptions of hell.

    I found out I was quite good at evangelizing, and became very zealous. When I was 10, at school, we had to write down what the best, and worst things we could imagine happening to us. Most of my friends wrote things like “Worst thing that could happen would be Bros breaking up” or “The best thing would be to be an England footballer”. I wrote “The best thing that could happen in my life would be Jesus coming again”, and the worst “The worst thing would be my friends going to hell”. I got around 10 kids from my class to come to the youth meetings, and in the way that precocious children do, started reading more “grown-up” religious books, and wanting to go to the grown ups bible study instead of the kids one. I also argued with teachers about Noahs Ark, Genesis, and tried to convert them. (Yes, I was as involved in debating then as now). I knew all the arguments, all the ways people would try to take you off the righteous path etc etc.

    My parents got more and more into prayer as a form of healing, and I completely bought into it, but started thinking that maybe if you could pray for good things, you could also pray for bad things to happen to bad people.

    The stay at this church ended abruptly, when the youth leader ran off with the pianist, my mother said she had prophesised this, and no one had listened to her, so we moved to the other Evangelical church in the town.

    This church was even more evangelical than the other one, my parents became members, which meant agreeing with the tenets of belief of the church, which included that only the group of churches they were part of were the “right” christianity, and this was the first time I had run into this concept. I was baptised again by full immersion (apparently the last time did not count, nor did my Catholic christening, so I am now fairly well covered in terms of baptism), this time at a service on the beach. My younger brother and my sisters were also baptised.

    It was decided that my “gift” was translating tongues (Mostly because I kept saying “Hey, that sounds like german/french, I know what that says), and my mother was sent on a prophecy school course to learn how to be a prophet, she has been doing this course on and off since then.

    I became actively involved in evangelism on the streets of the town, and doing the March for Jesus every year through the streets, and going to London to take part in that one too. This church had a much higher activity requirement, the church services were followed by a dinner once a month, and there were meetings of one kind or another most days which required you to go to them.

    By now I was at secondary school, and my parents sent me to a Church of England school initally, so I would not get influenced by non-Christians. This did not entirely work, as the majority of people at the school were not religious, however, the latin classes were handy, and I got my first real introduction to secular life. The downside of this was it led to me being bullied in my town because a) my parents were quite poor, so I was wearing second hand 1970s type clothes in 1990 or so, b) I had not gone to the local secondary school, unlike all my friends, so they were now with new groups of friends, and all my school friends lived away from the town, c) I was the bible basher. My parents told me that persecution was part of being a Christian and that it meant I was doing the right thing….it didnt feel like that though.

    After 2 years at the CofE school, my parents decided that I should go to the local school instead, so back there I went. The school was where the church met, so I think they felt it was a “safe” place. I continued evangelizing, and disagreeing with the science teachers, whilst being fascinated by Chemistry and Biology, especially when they told us about genes. I was still converting my friends, and was especially pleased when I got my friend who liked reading Stephen King books to come to church every week, as I was helping to keep her away from the “Doorways to Darkness”.

    By now I was 13 or so, and had started to get into “normal” teenage pursuits, hanging out with people, skating, biking and generally causing a bit of trouble now and then. (mostly just climbing trees in the old peoples home and getting yelled at by angry old people). Because my parents did not let me go into sex ed classes, I was extremely naive, and, because they did not drink, and had Ribena instead of wine in church (although I thought their 1% wine and ribena were the real thing), when I had my first drink, I thought all alchohol was the same strength, and may have slightly overdone it with some Bacardi and Carlsberg.

    Word got round to the church that I was hanging around with non-christians, and so my parents were warned that I was a bad influence on the other children in the church (I was just more open than the other members children ^^ ).

    Our stay at this church came to an abrupt end when one of the elders and his wife had the pastors wife move in with them, and not in the “stay in our guest room” sense. Again, my mother said she had prophesied this, or at least that there were “Dark shadows” over the church, and if they didn’t change then there would be bad things happening. We left this church, and went briefly to another evangelical church in another town, where someone loaned my parents a holiday cottage on the other side of the country in the mountains.

    After we had been there for a week, my mother announced that God had told her to move there ( I seem to recall some waffle about being on a mountain = being closer to God), and that we had been in the town as long as Joseph and Mary were in exile, so it was time to shake the dust off our feet and move on. So we sold up and prepared to move. By now I was 14, about to start my GCSE years at school, and they advised my parents not to pull me out at such a crucial point, I had made some friends, and did not want to leave…two days before we were due to move, my mother pulled the house off the market, cancelled the move, only to redo it all the next day.

    So, here I was, on the other side of the country, not knowing anyone, and my parents were flitting from church to church trying to find the “one”. We stayed in the first house for 6 weeks, then moved to a remote village of around 100 houses, halfway up a mountain. My parents found a “proper” evangelical church, and initially, I attended with them. That did not last long for me, the service were 3-4 hours long, with services twice on Sundays as well as 2-3 other days a week, and house meetings, bible studies, prayer groups etc. I had discovered Metallica by now, and Nirvana, Pearl Jam etc, and the church did not appreciate me going to church services with “Woe to you o earth and sea, for the Devil sends the beast with wrath, because he knows his time is short, let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is 666″ written on my rucksack. I pointed out that it was a bible verse, they pointed out I was wearing an Anarchy t-shirt and a leather jacket with Guns’n’Roses logo on the back, and popping out of the service for a smoke. I finally left when I went to take a break during a 4 hour service and was told “If you go out, do not bother coming back in”.

    That was the last time I really went to church, it always felt a bit wierd to me, when people wave their arms about, close their eyes or get “slain in the spirit”, I always felt extremely self conscious. I was also uncomfortable with the attitude towards women, women very much take the role of servers, my mother was told that she could not do any of her prophecies in church because she was a woman, she could not do readings or speak to the church. There are mens breakfasts at 6am where the women provide breakfast after the men have prayed, but no equivalent for women. At church lunches after the service, women serve food to the men, then when the men have taken as much as they want, the women get their food. Just after I left the church, it was announced that women should not have VPL (visible pant line) as it was distracting the men. (don’t ask….)

    My sister is married to a man who the pastor told her was “Gods choice”….this may be because the guy had told the pastor “I really like her”

    Anyway, I left the church, and religion in general, apart from a few forays to the local anglican church once every few years, but the church effects did not seem to leave me. The ingrained information and visualisation from when I was younger stayed with me, and for a long time, I was unable to say anything overly critical of the bible, or Christianity, in case something happened to me. At one point, I could not even pick up or read anything that was not Christian (like the Hindu or Buddhist texts, or the Quran, or any one of the number of pagan books I wanted to look at), let alone discuss anything that might not be in line with what I was taught.

    I didn’t even think to really question the basic young earth stuff, even after I left church, it was what I had grown up believing, and I had no reason to think otherwise. It was only when I went to university 3 years ago that I suddenly realised how many stupid things I had been saying, without even thinking about it. I really did think the eye was irreducibly complex, but then, so do lots of non-christians I know of, they have just heard it somewhere and it stuck. I really did think “If evolution is true, how come there are no half/half species at the moment?” Again, this is said by many non-religious people too, which shows the extent that this view has seeped into our culture, and why science education is so important, not just at school, but also in the form of documentaries.

    I still get that little fear voice in the back of my head when I start saying things which go against what I was taught as a child, for example, when I was watching the “A History of Gods” the other night, I was discussing that, for the time it was written in, the old testament is a fair way for those people to try explain natural phenomena….and then I suddenly got worried about the proverbial lightning bolt. As a rational, mature, scientifically minded (I hope) adult, it annoys me that I cannot shake these last little voices of fear from my childhood…even sitting here writing this I am having a few nerves.

    What has helped me immensely has been educating myself about how nature actually works, hence the purpose of this blog, and also learning about critical thinking, and logical fallacies. I also look around and see others thinking like I do, and observe the lack of lightning hitting them. Finally, I also tell people of a religious nature that if, as they think, we are put here by God, surely our purpose is to investigate the natural world, find out how it works, and poke its inner workings with a sharp stick til we figure them out, not spend out tenure on earth looking back to where they say we came from. To me, that is akin to going on holiday, and talking the whole time about your house, and wondering about your house….if you are of the inclination that that is our purpose of course.

    I am still fascinated by the history of religion, but now it is more from an anthropological perspective, I think it is interesting understanding why and how people came to think what they did. A lot of those documentaries have also helped me understand the mechanisms of religion, and I do understand how it is an effective control mechanism. Fear is the most powerful tool in the control arsenal.

    Finally….What are my views?

    Well, I still am not comfortable with the term that many people apply to me, I just say I am a rationalist. Some people say I am far too skeptical at the moment, but I maintain that is the pendulum effect, when you start questioning deeply held beliefs, the natural first effect is to swing to extreme skepticism, before settling at a balance.

    What do I think we need to do? I think we need to make science less scary, lots of people are put off by the technical jargon used in science. Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Neil DeGrass Tyson, Jim AlKhalili etc all do a marvelous job of bringing complex ideas into laymans terms, and this is what we need more of. We need to show people that science is _the_ most exciting way of looking at the world, the wonder you get when you look at something and finally get how it works is the most amazing feeling. The curiousity about “Why is that like that?” is something we need to foster, in adults and children. We need to find allegories for complex concepts. One of the ones I use is extremely simplified, but gets the point across. I use the “Gravity is like a person sitting on a sofa with maltesers…the smaller the person is, the closer the maltesers need to be before they fall down towards them, a larger person will pull maltesers in from further away””

    • Aliasalpha

      the church did not appreciate me going to church services with “Woe to you o earth and sea, for the Devil sends the beast with wrath, because he knows his time is short, let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is 666″ written on my rucksack

      I had that song stuck in my head for a week and just got it out yesterday. Its back now…

      Good thing that its awesome.

    • Daniel Fincke

      This is your deconversion narrative. It does not directly answer many of my questions directly at all.

    • Anj

      Apologies…To reply to your questions fully

      What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer?
      See original post

      How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion?

      I do not have any anti-religious friends. The God Delusion, Root of Evil and wierdly, the first Zeitgeist movie…(although I dislike that in general). Especially the bit in the Root of Evil where he talks about the indoctrination of children, and how hard it is to overcome.

      How long ago did you convert?
      No idea. Its been a long process, probably over the last 2-3 years it has speeded up, depending on how my mental state was at the time

      How do you feel about it now?
      My upbringing? That does not bother me much, I dont speak to my family regularly, but then I never have, so there is no change. We just do not discuss what I study at Uni.

      Do you resent what they “did to you” or are you grateful?
      I am very pissed about it.

      Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected?
      I had no opinion about whether it was better or worse.

      Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer?
      Less worried about things generally.

      And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion?
      I think I attribute this to the fact that I no longer worry about whether I am good enough, or if I get did something wrong.

      Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted?
      Flourishing more. Virtues is not a concept I use, but my abilities as a human being are increased now I question more.

      Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?
      I did not have any unhappiness or emptiness, just fear.

      And what do you think of evangelical atheism?
      I understand it, and if you catch me on a bad day, then I am one of the most evangelical you will find. Some skills never leave you.

      And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices?
      I do not want to dissuade others, I want to get them to think. However, if they tell me what they believe, then they are opening up to my opinion on it.

      What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion?
      That it is not always about yelling, trust me, you are taught about people who try to pull you from your faith. I am less likely to yell at those who have been brainwashed than at those doing the brainwashing.
      As the saying goes “Tread carefully, because it is my dreams you tread on”….remember, some of these people have built their life around their beliefs, and to change that is difficult, and takes time. It is why I do not bother with my parents, they have invested over half their life into this way of belief, and living, building everything they do every minute of every day, and their whole world view into their faith.
      Remember they have been told all sorts of things about atheists and secularists and humanists. The best way I find is to show them you are not like that…if they have to reconsider this, what else will they have to reconsider?

      But sometimes, you have to know when to walk away.

      What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged?
      Imagine finding out your parents were not your parents…how pissed would you be?

      What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness?
      That depends on the person, but assuming mentally healthy, then truth. You can face and deal with truth, happiness from hiding from the truth never lasts long.

      I hope this was more in line with what you wanted.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Anj!

  • iknklast

    Hi, Dan, former Christian here. I was raised in a religious tradition that didn’t really say to me “We are religious”. I was simply presented with the truth of God’s word as though everyone believed it, everyone accepted it, and there were no doubts. Religious was not a word that was needed; it was a way of life, not a religion. I didn’t realize there were other options until I was 10 and my mother nearly died because of a decision made by a Catholic doctor to not allow her to tie her tubes (we weren’t Catholic). We called ourselves Christians, but that was presented to me in the same way as American – it was just what everyone was. I heard about Jews when I was about 11, when my mother informed me that they had refused to accept Christ. So, yes, it was tied up with my identity, with our identity. To not be Christian was to not be human, to not exist.

    I didn’t actually meet an open atheist until college; by that time, though, I had been presented with many freethinking ideas, such as Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw, and had read a great deal of philosophy in high school. I didn’t realize what I was reading was non-belief in many cases, but it was asking questions I had been worried about for a long time myself. I think being presented to the Greek myths was also a big step on the journey, even though they were presented as something obviously false by someone who would defend the Christian faith as obviously true.

    I wouldn’t say deconversion was without pain; I had to wrench myself away from everything my family, my town, and all my friends accepted as true and good. I had been disowned by my grandparents once before, and I was unable to go through that pain again once we resolved the issues involved, so I had to keep my doubts silent. That has perhaps been the biggest pain. I don’t feel I lost much in God; I was able to say Good Riddance to a tyrant who had filled my days with terror (and my nights – I remember as a young child saying “if I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take”. I didn’t quite understand the sentiment, and I felt it was all about the lord striking me dead in my sleep). My biggest sense of loss was in the family. Even though I didn’t share it with them, an abyss rose between us that has never been breached.

    I am happier now, definitely happier. In fact, the day my depression broke was the day I finally admitted to myself that there was no God. I was free to fail, or succeed, on my own, and I had that ability. I am very grateful to all those who used to argue with me about the sillier aspects of belief, and I don’t regret a thing. I’ve even made my peace with the distance between myself and my family.

  • Patrick

    I wasn’t raised in church and discovered Fundamentalist Southern Baptist (that eventually evolved into Calvinism) on my own. It was fully fledged eventually, resulting in bible study leading, praise and worship leading, and even being president of Fellowship of Christian Athletes at my University for 2 years. Full story here:

    As for the questions, I find so much more satisfaction in life now that I’m free from delusions. Food tastes better, sex is guilt free, and my mind doesn’t have a filter for reality. I’ve learned about femenism, sex-positivity, homosexuality and the LGBTQ movement, and I want the ‘freedom’ that was promised to me by Jesus for everyone; the freedom is only found when you’re truly free, and no longer doublespeaking about being a ‘free slave’ as Paul does in his epistles.

    One of the hardest things for me to understand, and has always been, are liberal biblical interpretations; they seem wishy-washy and dishonest to me, and my most recent blog article takes this problematic stance. If people have moved beyond the bible for their morality, guidance, and theology, why not just chuck the whole thing?

    I honestly believe that there is more happiness to be found without a God than with one. By treating reality on reality’s terms, you win, plain and simple. Why would you muck up the beauty of reality with untruth?

    That’s my motivation; it’s similar to the evangelical Christian mindset that I want what is best for my brothers and sisters, whether they understand it or not.

  • MatthewL

    Dan, please excuse my obsessive sticklerism but the proper form is “like me”. It just kinda slapped me being right there in the first line. I probably would have ignored it were it not repeated later on.

    As far as the topic goes, I’m not qualified as the son of an atheist and an agnostic to offer any deconversion story, but I’ve seen and participated in enough spirited (and spiritual?) debates to feel that there is nothing wrong with being passionate about one’s convictions and using whatever non-coercive means available to convince others. This of course assumes a willingness to be convinced by others’ arguments.

    From what I’ve seen of evangelicals part, perhaps most, of the appeal of their is the passion with which the beliefs are professed. In conversations with evangelicals I find that it is the passion I feel for my own position which most opens them to consider what I have to say.

    Apologies for the brief hijacking. I too look forward to hearing more from the deconverted.

  • Jeremy Witteveen

    My story:

    I graduated from a Wesleyan Christian school in the deep south back in the 90s. My religion regimen was constant. There were bible classes every day. We went to church about three times a week. And witnessing to non-believers was my favorite past time. I personally brought two people to Christ, and tried for many more.

    I was the kid that told others that gay people were going to hell, and that it’s God’s kind of love.

    My senior year, we were forced to take a class called, “Understanding the Times,” a course dedicated to scaring the hell out of its students while painting secular colleges and humanism as devil-inspired lure into the depths of hell.

    I took what they taught me in that class, and used the very words in public discourse. I used the information in a scholarship interview for a teaching fellowship, which I’m pretty sure cost me the scholarship, since I told them that keeping Christ out of public schools was the worst thing we could do as a nation, and that I would work tirelessly to bring my Christianity into the classroom, and vocally oppose the evils of evolution and science.

    At a Presbyterian college, my religious views drew snickers when I explained that a literal 6-day creation story were possible if God were real in a bible class. Other kids explained they accepted an old earth and that God inspired evolution. I was appalled at the ignorance.

    Through my college years, I went to church less and when a girlfriend broke up with me and said it was god’s will to do so. Well, that’s not what my “god” was telling me. The heartbreak gave me the right to vocalize my questions which were unanswerable despite all the biblical knowledge I’d been fed my entire life.

    But looking back there were doubts that I wouldn’t listen to, because I thought it was Satan’s voice in my head.

    There were other events that caused doubt, including finally seeing that homosexuality wasn’t a sin and determining that hell and Satan are two of the worst thought-out ideas in the Christian faith.

    After reading Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” and allowing myself to vocalize my doubts, I let go of faith over a painstaking effort to keep it.

    I came out of the closet to my brother and sister-in-law in 2003 thinking it would be better received. It hurt them at first. After painful talks with my mom and dad, I finally started blogging in 2009, a place where I feel justified in bashing religion and faith.

    I felt that if I believed ardently for 25 years of my life, I have at least 10 or so years to be a shithead about it.

    Since my deconversion, I’ve named the south and places where people can’t escape belief, “The Yeshua Fog.” The environment where my friends and family live make it so difficult to get out of faith that they can’t see the truth standing right in front of them.

    Damn, I tried to keep the story short.


    Jeremy Witteveen

  • Jim

    I was raised as a devout Catholic. Around the age of 12 an incident in religion class made me start doubting catholic doctrine. I started asking pointed questions in class, and the answers basically boiled down to ‘shut up and accept the church doctrine.’ Well, since the teachers wouldn’t answer my questions, I started looking on my own. I started reading all kinds on religious and philosophy books: ayn Rand, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Leon Trotsky, thomas Jefferson. I didn’t agree with everything I read, but I was thrilled to find that others were asking and trying to answer the same questions I had. By the age of 18 I was no longer Catholic.

    For the next 30 years I considered myself to be a liberal, protestant christian. It was a social thing; all my friends were christian, the local culture was all christian (I live in East texas). Although I was not a Catholic any more, I still gave the Bible a special reverence and accepted it as generally true, if mostly in an allegorical sense.

    Then in the late 1990s I got involved in online debates on religion, first on AOL then on talkorigins. my position was that of theistic evolution. I got in arguments on both sides, with christians and atheists. ONe thing I noticed: the atheists usually had good reasons for their beliefs, while the christians were breathtakingly ignorant of science and philosophy.

    Then around 2005 I got in a very long and acrimonious debate with a creationist. After months of frustration it dawned on me one day: if the Bible is the perfect word of a perfectGod, then why were people who relied on it so head up their butt ignorant? Well the answer was obvious. The bible is just a book written by people. It is no more perfect than any other book, and should be judged by the same criteria as other books. When I reexamined my Christian beliefs in a critical logical manner, I realised it was all just nonsense. So I became an atheist based on the lack of evidence for any god.

    To address your question about evangelical atheism. I did not become an atheist because some atheist got in my face and convinced me there was no God. Rather, I got doubts because of things religious authorities said, and when I sought answers found reasonable atheist answers to those problems.

    If you go out into the street and start preaching atheism at a stranger, that is evangelical. But if someone comes to your blog and complains you are being evangelical, then that is total nonsense. It is not evangelism to discuss religion with someone who initiates the encounter. There are some bloggers on FTB who do go out of their way to attack religious believers. But from what I’ve read you are not one of them.


  • unbound

    My mother’s side of the family were strongly Catholic with one uncle that is a pastor. I even remember debates happening as a kid at my grandparents house about how to correctly interpret Catholic doctrine after a few suppers (once about acceptability of cremation). My dad was raised as a Lutheran, but he wasn’t strong about it never attending either church; however, I wouldn’t call him even agnostic since it seemed like he just didn’t feel like putting forth the effort of attending church, not that he didn’t believe.

    So, Catholicism was simply the way life was since I was born. In that environment, there is nothing to question as a kid since the reality presented to me included the unquestioning notion that god was there loving us all the time, but we needed to behave according to his will. I did all the prerequisite training as a kid including being baptized very young, first communion, confirmation, and all the Wednesday night meetings attended all my pre-teen and teen years leading up to those events. Of course, we attended church every Sunday (or sometimes Saturday late afternoon) pretty much without fail. Even on vacation, my mother would find a Catholic church nearby to attend mass.

    In the communities I lived in as a kid, there was no known atheists about. You could very safely assume that your neighbors were either Catholic or Lutheran, with the rare occasion of running into some other christian denomination. Pretty much everyone went to some church or another Sunday morning. With all your peers being religious, I can’t really imagine anyone raising questions about religion being potentially wrong as I was growing up.

    All things considered, where I was raised, the church actually behaved pretty morally as far as I can remember. There was much more emphasis on actually acting morally, I didn’t hear much about needing more money (the collection basket was just always passed around with the occasional second collection for something special such as helping a church in another country), and one priest even talked about how neighbors of a recently widowed farmer deserved more of heaven by skipping church to help the widow get the crops than anyone sitting at church.

    Since this was long before the internet, there were not any atheists or even atheist-like literature to get a hold of (at least none that I was aware of) that provided any influence in my own journey out of religion. It truly was a matter of pulling myself up by my bootstraps.

    Although there were a few questions I had as a teen, I’m not sure it was as much being skeptical as it was being bored with going to church every Sunday to hear the same old things over and over again. It just seemed more of a waste of time…and, importantly as an older teen, important sleeping time on the weekend was being disturbed.

    My primary issues with religion started when I moved to Virginia (I met my future wife while on an internship there). The first, closest Catholic church had a pastor that turned out to be hypocritical. When seeking to arrange for my marriage in the church, the pastor resisted the notion of us getting married mostly because my wife was too young in his view and she should take a test of some kind before he would be willing. Furthermore, the date we would have like to get married (precisely between our birthdays) was not something he was willing to work with either since he didn’t think he had the time; although, the homily (lecture) from just a few days before was specifically about how we all actually have the time, but we are just unwilling to give the time. So many things seemed wrong, illogical and hypocritical that the doubts started forming very strongly.

    My wife and I got married (over 20 years ago) by a justice of the peace as a result. However, I wasn’t really ready to abandon the faith, assuming that I had just run into one rotten apple. I found a different church farther away who had a pastor with the attitude I remembered growing up, so things got better again. We ended up getting our married blessed by the church in a small ceremony about a year after our actual marriage. We did go to the pre-cana classes which we viewed with a mix of humor (we were fully married, so the discussion about not having sex didn’t apply) and some disturbing aspects that we largely ignored. One other disturbing aspect in meeting with the priest was his attempted rationalization of a passage in the bible where the woman is to be subject to the will of the man (Ephesians I think)…it was painful to watch the priest try to rationalize the passage when it was clear that the passage did not put the husband and wife on equal footing.

    A few years later, I did run into a few questions when a new engineer was put in a desk next to mine. He was an evangelical christian of some kind that believed in young earth creationism and had issues with Catholics. He raised some disturbing questions about Catholicism which led me to researching more about my own faith. Unfortunately, his fascination with YEC created a lot of questions about religion in general for me (I had never been confronted with the creationism nonsense head-on before that time). While I did not act on those doubts at that time, I have little doubt that the faith the evangelical had in YEC (which was so completely absurd to me even at that time) planted a seed that germinated over time.

    I moved to a different location in Virginia and had to find a new local church. This time I was not able to find a church that was headed by a pastor with an attitude I found to be particularly good. The best church I could find complained about people not donating enough money every 3 to 4 weeks. This was the first time I encountered such complaining, but, again, this was the best church I could find that was within a reasonable distance.

    A few years later when we were in the process of baptizing my youngest child, I ran into another disturbing event. As we were in the church waiting for the priest to arrive, we were talking among ourselves and everyone was in a good mood (after all this was supposed to be a celebration event), but we apparently got a little too loud for the priest who strongly chastised us. Although not a major issue, it none-the-less was the 2nd strong seed of doubt planted in my mind. In my mind this was to be a celebrated event according the what I was taught all my life, and for the priest to clearly state otherwise was completely counter to that notion.

    The primary event that started my rapid change to atheism was the Cardinal Law issue (Boston diocese). Reading on everything that was available even at that time, this should have been a simple open and shut case for the pope. Documents revealed that Cardinal Law was well aware of the priest rapists and was clearly hiding the issue while allowing those priests to rape even more children. When Cardinal Law was sent to the vatican, the only possible response for a moral church was to fire him with a strong possibility of him being excommunicated. But that didn’t happen. The pope just gave him (and one or two others) a little slap on the wrist. Cardinal Law resigned on his much later in the year.

    Here was the church that, throughout my life, claimed to be the source of morals. Yet when something so morally abhorrent came up, the church responded no better (indeed, even worse) than a large corporation. This was one of those times in life where the moral response is so simple and demanding that the lack of that response was mind blowing to me. With the seeds of doubt planted earlier, I simply saw no reason to remain with the church, so I started seeking alternatives.

    At this point, the internet was doing pretty good with available information, so I was able to easily look up various other religions. However, in the process of looking at the other religions, I noticed that they all seemed to have a wide variety of flaws that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As I continued to try to find more information (keep in mind that I try to dig deep into any subject I am interested in…just my personality), I started stumbling on to atheist sites. As I was perusing those atheist sites, I started realizing that my issues with the Catholic church had actually become issues with religion in general.

    Those atheist sites helped a great deal clarify arguments that had already started forming in my head. A site like this one puts a specific example of a notion already floating in my head regarding the doubt of god’s supposed miracles (although I don’t think that particular site was around back then). I read many things on many sites which helped solidify that the conclusion I was arriving at (all religion is bunk) was not only correct, but that I was definitely not alone.

    Thinking back, I’m not sure you could have argued me out of religion before I was ready myself. Perhaps after I met with the evangelical I might have been moved by the arguments, but certainly prior to that time (and potentially even prior to the Cardinal Law incident) I don’t think I would have given anyone the time of day to make their arguments. I simply wouldn’t have cared to think about whatever you would have told me. Although I was critical about many things in my life (I still remember my favorite uncle telling me, “You are too young to be this cynical” when I was a teenager), religion wasn’t one of those things to be critical about. Catholicism was simply how life was, which is probably the whole point of the classes / indoctrination when kids are young.

  • philstilwell

    I have on-line a very lengthy account of my deconversion after 25 years of faith. You can find it by googling “reasons for my deconversion”, “phil stilwell”. ;)

  • davidb

    My story is unfinished, which makes be feel rather guilty, but as far as it goes I’ll copy/paste it, slightly edited from a series of posts at the Secular Cafe discussion board. I may add a little bit. One of these days I must finish the story, but I find it very difficult to write.

    Before the copy/paste, I was a proselytiser for Transcendental Meditation, and spent over two and a half years living a monastic life within the TM movement, and often sat in the presence of Maharishi, and felt myself privileged to do so. After I left I continued to meditate for years, and encouraged others to join what I now think a dangerous cult, if one that was far from being one of the worst.

    That, I think covers my bona fides as a committed believer.

    I am now something of an evangelic atheist myself.

    I am immensely grateful to those people online who, knowingly or not, helped me better understand some factors that lead people to believe dumb things, and helped me better understand the role of such factors as expectation, suggestibility and positive reinforcement in inducing what for want of better words I shall term religious experience.

    In particular, to Robert Carroll, of Skepdic, to John Knapp (though I don’t think he is an atheist) of the TM Free Blog, and to Joe Kellett of Falling Down the TM Rabbit Hole.

    copy/paste follows

    I think I differ from most of the others in that I deconverted from Christianity to atheism at an early age, converted from an atheist position to a non-Christian position (which was not theist as the word seems generally understood by people in the middle eastern tradition, but became increasingly woo filled with the passing of time) and back again.

    I think I’ll cover this in 3 posts, the first of which will be the shortest and easiest to write, about my brief time as a Christian, and its end.

    I was brought up in a household, after my grandfather died, with younger sisters, a Christian grandmother, and pretty much agnostic parents (though my father briefly toyed with Catholicism, being much taken with G K Chesterton in his 20s).

    I was sent to a Baptist Sunday School, the pastor of the chapel (which was next door) being a genuinely kind and nice man, and an utterly convinced Christian, as far as I can tell.

    When I was about 10, I started attending the morning services (alone – my grandmother was not very mobile), and became briefly worried about my parents spiritual welfare, as they did not attend.

    This was short lived, and my atheist epiphany came when I heard a song, and realised for the first time that not everyone believed the bible. Then asked myself why I believed it, saw that some of it was pretty far fetched, and saw no good reason to continue believing.

    The change was pretty much instantaneous, and painless.

    The song?

    ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ as performed by Paul Robeson.

    End of part one


    Part 2a – retreat into religion, spirituality, woo, call it what you will.

    A long story cut short, because I will present the bare bones, and flesh things out in response to any questions.

    I think most adolescents go through a period of questioning the meaning of life, purpose, ethics and stuff, though it seems to affect some more than others.

    I was no exception, and it seemed to me at the time that my atheism led inexorably towards nihilism, and I didn’t like this at all.

    In passing, I suspect that many thoughtful religious people hang onto their religions out of similar convictions, that without religion nothing matters, morality has no basis etc. They are wrong, of course, as was I, but I couldn’t see past it at the time.

    Anyway, I decided that life being meaningless anyway, I might as well spend it looking for the possibility that I was wrong about religion, checking things out to see if there were something I’d missed.

    Not all the time, of course – I had friends, watched films, and read widely in all sorts of genres – but I did spend a lot of time pondering the mysteries of life, and among my reading were people like Watts and Kerouac, who gave me a first introduction to views of eastern religions, too. Hesse, too, and I even gave some sort of speculative credence to Castaneda and his ilk. I sought out books on Eastern religions, like Suzuki, and Christmas Humphries, and, a bit later if memory serves, The Tao of Physics, Huxley (Island and Doors of Perception) Ram Dass, Leary, The Tibetan Book of Dead. And Stranger in a Strange Land, which other people have mentioned, and the tosh of Richard Bach. Much else. I remember being somewhat disappointed when I found little non Christian in James’s ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’.

    Often ideas tumbling around my mind late at night, trying meditation exercises picked up from books, trying to catch myself thinking ,trying to stop thinking, introspecting, seeking, rather Persig like (though I read ZATAOMM later) seeking for quality, for value.

    To the point that at some point something happened, late at night, and I had my epiphany.

    Hard to recapture to write about – it was years before a similar experience of similar intensity, so hard to recapture in the following weeks and months, but the memory of it stayed with me. A feeling of great oneness with everything, deep peace, deep love and compassion for people who had not shared this experience.

    How to explain it? Dunno really, but my working hypothesis is that it was something to do with working my mind to such a pitch that it shut off, rather like people endlessly pondering Zen Koans, like the sound of one hand clapping, as an aid to such a shutdown and experience.

    What to call it? Transcendental Experience? When I read of stealthsparx and GiA’s accounts I suspect that it was something similar to theirs, but, my reading at the time being what it was, I interpreted it within a Buddhist context, rather than a Christian one. It was quite powerful. I babbled about it for weeks, and remember it yet. One of my teachers told me I was being manic, and in retrospect he was right.

    Enough for now – part 2b to follow, perhaps tomorrow.

    To continue

    For some years I continued to read and think, calling myself some kind of Buddhist, and seeking for transcendent experiences, though never anything like the experience recounted before – while sober, anyway.

    Then there came a concatenation of circumstances, close together.

    One of my old schoolfriends told me that while at university he roomed with someone who had become a teacher of transcendental meditation, who was a bright guy, and obviously very sincere about the benefits of it.

    There was an article in the Guardian about early scientific work on transcendental meditation, that persuaded me that it probably did something, and gave me pause for thought. This was after the well known Beatles short lived (apart from George) infatuation with Maharishi.

    One of my flatmates told me about an introductory talk on TM, and asked me to go with her. So I went.

    To the introductory talk, further talks, and decided to give it a go.

    After the ceremony, and on being given my mantra, and starting to use it, the effects were profound and pretty much immediate.

    Every muscle, it seemed, in my body started to twitch, while at the same time I felt so blissful, so at home. And then started my falling down the TM Rabbit Hole.

    I’ll call another halt here, before recounting how far I fell, and the gradual climb out of the rabbit hole.

    It’s rather painful to admit how wrong I was, but one of my main motivations for getting involved in boards like this one is to warn others against the traps I fell into myself, so I will persist.

    But there the copy paste stops, because I found it so hard to write. To drag all the strands together, to tell the world what a dick I’d been, all sorts of things. I must try again to finish off the tale.

    In short, though, I fell deep into a cult, which led me into believing some crazy things, and I climbed out again over a period of years, as I say with the help of teh internets.

    I sign with my usual internet handle.

    David B

  • rikitiki

    I was born into a Catholic family and went to Catholic grammar school & all-boys Catholic high school (nuns & priests in the former, brothers & priests in the latter). During the years when I was 9 –to- 12 years old, I seriously considered going into the priesthood. Then, when I turned 13, along came sex and drugs and my piety slacked off until, by age 20, I was pretty much a lapsed Catholic. Oh, I still believed in God/Jesus, but that was internal, I wasn’t attending mass or other Catholic activities, though I still prayed-in-my-head as I felt the need. That state of affairs continued until I was 39 and went into treatment for alcoholism. Like most, I was firmly told to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and get myself a ‘higher power’ that worked and that I could pray/meditate to. So, searching around and trying on different god-concepts, I realized that any Christian/Jewish/Muslim or other old-testament-founded gods were just wrong. The whole patriarchal, misogynist, racist, privileged, sinful (original and otherwise) routine had become distasteful and morally wrong for me. For my first few years of sobriety, I cobbled up a god-of-my-understanding that was some unnamed goddess of goodness and love and that worked for me for a while.
    Interestingly, the first step toward atheism came when a friend in my AA home group mentioned a book he thought I might enjoy. So, I put a ‘hold’ on it at the local library, only to find out that I was 239th in line for it – whew! Must be a great book I thought, though I’d not heard of it. Forgetting about it for a month or three, I finally got a call that I could pick it up. That was “The DeVinci Code” by Dan Brown, and some of the historical revelations about god and the church that were in it got me thinking. From there, I read other books that were his source material: “Holy Blood/Holy Grail”, etc. In each of these, alternate theories of Christ and his life and legacy were put forth using the same or other historical sources – many of them, to me, seemed much more plausible than what I’d learned growing up and what was touted by most Christians as the “truth”. In my internet searches and reading, I discovered “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, and that led me to “God Is Not Good” by Christopher Hitchens, and that I read just before I found “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris. Whatever ‘faith’ I still had took major blows after those reasoned arguments and examples of how faith is not only inferior to reason but categorically against it, perverts it, and in all cases a cancer to reason (and most ethics). This deconversion was helped in no small part by having an older sister who, 30-some years ago, became a ‘born-again’ evangelical Christian. A wonderful example to me of how religion poisons everything (thank you for that Mr. Hitchens).
    It has taken me about 4 years now to go through the withdrawal symptoms of losing my faith in any gods/religion. Pretty much the same intensity and emotional grief stages of losing a best friend or loved-one, but through each stage I’ve learned more of reality and become so much closer to my real life and opened up so much more to the real world. The more I question and learn, the more blinders fall away that I sometimes didn’t even realize were there! Now I feel so much happier and free and less judgmental of myself and others. Even the best loving god is simply a benevolent dictator, who would want that?
    I think there is great value in evangelical atheism, just as there is great value in anything (like science) that seeks truth in our world. When science questions, hypothesizes, and experiments to arrive ever closer to understanding reality and how it works, I see a parallel with evangelical atheism – science looks at what IS, what there is evidence for, and atheism does the same. At their worst, both can come up with wrong conclusions – but both, being based on reason, are self-correcting. At their best, they free us, making our lives better, our possibilities greater.
    Though no great student of history, I think one of the first great evangelical atheists would be Socrates; by asking the right questions and pointing out known reality, he helped others to examine their own lives and grow. Reading your blog and others, reading about science and reality helps me question myself and expand who I am and, in turn, I get to use what I learn to help myself and others. So, after some years of discomforting truths, my atheism feels great!

  • A Ahmed

    It definitely made me happier. Made me feel free and realize that the universe was a lot more complex and bigger than “god”, or in my case, Allah. I was about 15 and I shared with a close friend that I thought that whatever we had learned at the mosque was “bullshit” – I really used that word – and he agreed with me. He later on ended up converting to Christianity – from Islam, and I turned out to be happy and gay and unwilling to concede to people who would either have me killed (a la Islamism) or deny me equal citizenship and rights (the Church). I began to enjoy music, love, friendship, humanity, nature, much more. At the same time I felt as if it was a part of growing up. If you can drive and vote, shouldn’t you also stop reading fairy tales as real?

  • Ivan

    Dr. Fincke, you keep reasserting your metaethics over and over—but can you please pause to defend them? I would be overjoyed to be proven wrong!

  • Kenny Bellew

    Hi Dan. Years ago, I got my degree in theology, married a missionary’s daughter and then taught at a bible college for 6 years. I’ve been atheist since 1992 or so.

    As this post is about our deconversion story –Later this year, the story of my deconversion is being published in a book called Atheist Voices of Minnesota.

    Proceeds go to Minnesota Atheists organization and causes.

  • Clayton

    I won’t go into my whole story…suffice it to say that I am a former fundamentalist who grew up speaking in tongues, believing in spiritual warfare, faith healing, etc (I was pretty hard core). When I was a senior at Texas Tech about to finish up my engineering degree, I was at a religious gathering when an atheist interrupted the speaker and began asking very difficult questions about contradictions in the Bible. I thought this guy was quite rude at the time, but he prompted me to research the contradictions he had pointed out. This led to me further questioning other parts of the Bible. Within a few months I was a non-believer. This guy obviously didn’t completely “de-convert” me on the spot, but he planted a seed (to borrow a term from Christianity). I don’t even know who this person is but I owe him a debt of gratitude.

    I started a group in Durango, CO called “Durango Skeptics and Atheists”. It is not uncommon that we get into discussions regarding whether or not we should confront believers and try to de-convert them. I am particularly passionate about this topic because I am one of few former believers in the group, and I feel this gives me unique insight into the liberation that a person feels when discarding long held beliefs that are irrational.

    We haven’t been around for very long, but I think we are close to having our first deconversion. I feel like we owe it to the world to try to make people aware of the chains of delusional belief that binds their lives. I like to tell the group that I want to do for someone else what someone else did for me. Think of “paying it forward” I guess.

    I fully support your view that we should actively confront people of faith. It should be done in an agreeable way, obviously, but we shouldn’t be shy about it. Christians would say “Hate the sin, not the sinner.” I would say, “Hate the belief, not the believer.” Whatever the case, people in this country are way too timid when it comes to these issues. At the end of the day, one of the most difficult things for a devout believer to do is answer the following questions:
    (1) What do you believe?
    (2) Why?

    There surely is no harm in asking.

    The other thing we have to remember is that we will never change someone’s mind on the spot. But that doesn’t mean our efforts are in vain. That person who prompted me to examine my beliefs did one of the most amazing things a person could do for another. You may never know what you do to change a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean that you should ever stop trying.

  • Alex Songe

    I just have to say, wow! I’ve only read a few of these comments, but I’m already inspired. I’m going to write my own story before I go back and finish reading more of these comments.

    My bona fides: I grew up in a “non-denominational” church that grew out of the generically charismatic Jesus movement in the 1970′s. I started speaking in tongues at 13, and was slain in the spirit at 15. I went to a school run by my church through grades K-8. In 7th grade, I started my hernest search for deep faith. I would wake up at 6am, read my Bible and pray for about 45 minutes. I’d then eat a small breakfast and go to school. Three days a week, I would attend a pre-school prayer group led by some of the older kids. I was active in youth group, but left my first church after my dad got a better job. At the church I moved to, I led a small group for several months, and I led Bible studies in my public high school for about 2.5 years. I had 2 people come up and tell me that my prayer directly physically healed them.

    At about the age of 17, I started to drift away from the church. The clique of people I hung out with contained a few thinkers, and the youth group pastor never recruited anyone from our group to help run things. By seeing who was picked to handle responsibilities in the church, I saw how church position was social currency…much of it was nepotistic. While many in leadership were honest Christians, I isolated myself from the church because I didn’t want to be led by hypocrites. It was worse than this though, the youth pastor was literally creating clones of himself. They wore the same clothes, had the same haircuts, and acted much the same. I had already had a sense of my identity (so did others in my group of friends there), and we were all completely turned off…seeing that we were being asked to emulate as part of our spiritual growth. Moving meant going to a public school, and I began to see for myself that many of my non-church friends were much nicer and often much better people. The church also started flirting with some of the Prosperity Gospel stuff, though nothing to the degree of “name it and claim it” or Joel Osteen, but a generic sense of “God blesses the faithful with material wealth” was definitely wafting into the air. At first I bought into it, but then I had to see all that many of the wealthy in the church were not particularly holy or faithful, and that many of my modest friends with parents of modest means in school were, again, much better people and “acted more like Christians”. This didn’t deconvert me, but what it did was soften the identity crisis that was to come when I did lose my faith. I knew good people who were moderate Christians of varying types (even the hell-bound Catholics).

    In college, a Catholic friend of mine directly confronted me about creationism, knowing my past as an evangelical Christian. At that moment, I realized directly that all the creationist apologetics were probably false…there was no way that they were valid because scientists would’ve taken them into consideration in their theories. To think otherwise is conspiracy garbage. I started flirting with deism, reading God’s Debris by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) cemented a departure from fundamentalism. Over time, I started to read Kurt Vonnegut, whose Humanism presented in the books finally made sense of a crazy world. The thing about having “the Christian worldview” is that things are supposed to be just and good, though in some ways only in an eventual sense (it might take an afterlife to fix it). Reading Kurt Vonnegut, I finally had the existential permission to make sense out of a world that was completely indifferent to any human I’ve ever known. That was the only thing keeping my deism intact…the existential threat of being doomed in a world that made absolutely no sense in any sense of justice or morality. I began also to notice what really mattered was other people, and not any God to sit in judgement. My dad saw my “spiritual struggle” and handed me a copy of The Purpose Driven Life, and obviously with Vonnegut in one hand and Rick Warren in the other, Driven looked more like drivel. Through Vonnegut, I understood that if I wanted the things I used to think the universe had provided, I would have to help build them. It restored my hope in other people to unreliably, but sufficiently, provide justice and morality. I began the long road of building my new worldview, which I’m still doing, piece by piece. I won’t ever be finished, but it is in so many ways superior than my Christianity, though less complete.

    If it weren’t for other people being openly willing to discuss this stuff, I would not have become so comfortable being open about my own thoughts. I would’ve been much more fearful of the godlessness I do have. I would not have been able to replace my internalized moral sensibilities with superior ones with the same conviction. I would’ve been much more wobbly. Instead, I’m much more confident in expressing my ideas, and I’m much more confident in expressing my lack of confidence in many of these ideas as well.

    As an atheist, my world is much richer, and I’ve started to take responsibility for more and more of my actions. I still try to be timid and shy, but I’m driven by my values in the same way I was when I was happily an evangelical, but I’ve got much better values. I enjoy sitting in the public square again, and I love bearing witness to what dropping these bad values with bad excuses can do to a person. My atheist evangelism closely maps the kind of passive evangelism I loved to do as a Christian. While never really publicly pious (I never liked praying in front of others), I never hid my Christianity (I was never a Tebow and I’m not an atheist analog of that). Similarly, I never shy away from my atheism now…I’ll openly make a snarky comment dropping my irreligiosity, and I never mind sharing my story to someone who asks. On Facebook, I openly address things from “an atheist point of view”, providing something that a few minister friends on FB enjoy (along with some of their congregants). By providing an example of a life worth leading without God, I hope that I can remove the psychological barriers that come with what is nothing short of “Identity Suicide”. They’re going to run across the information, but they’ll refuse to look at anything if it might confuse them into a lifestyle that’s less worthwhile…truth usually trends to lead to good results: “And ye shall know them by their fruits.” I don’t know how much I could argue outside of a technical sense that truth and good consequences diverge to any distance worth commenting on.

    The thing that creates my boundary lines on my evangelism has to be whatever does the most respect to the institution of personal autonomy. Those in the public square should obey the terms set for everyone in what is societally acceptable (no special pleading about religious ideas accepted, though). If someone asks you to not talk to them about something, then don’t hound them…they’ve acknowledged that they do not want to listen for some reason and that’s their autonomy. I never want to see door-to-door atheists, but what we’ve got now in the public square is socially appropriate. Interpersonal relationship-wise, that’s up to the individuals, so I cannot comment much…but most of the people I talk to seem to enjoy my perspective.

  • Libby Mendez

    I’ve very recently lost my faith. I’m a sophomore in college. I’m originally from LA, but currently go to school in Washington state, and I was raised Christian.

    I went to a moderate to conservative Presbyterian Elementary School, even though both my parents are more liberal. I later went to public schools, partly because of the political climate at this school, but starting when I was about eight, my parents starting taking me to a United Methodist Church. This was generally a liberal congregation. We didn’t talk a lot about hell or right wing politics.

    When I was thirteen, I went to a Bible Club with a friend at my public middle school. Here, the evangelical preacher brought in to lead this group spoke constantly about the importance of being “saved” through Jesus Christ, and the maggots that would eat you in hell. He even went as far as to say that the Tsunami that had recently taken place in India was sent from God as punishment for the Buddhists and Hindus living there. I stopped going after that. I actually reported this to the school, but they said that he had the right to be there, because this club wasn’t obligatory to go to.

    The significance of this encounter in shaping my faith was that the idea of the merciful, loving God I had grown up hearing about sending people to a place of torture for all eternity just didn’t make sense to me. So I began asking important people in my life if they believed in God. This is when I discovered that my Dad is actually an atheist.

    I spent the next few years of my life going to church consistently, being involved in the Youth group and the choir. But during this time, I wasn’t really sure if I believed in God. Unlike most other Christians I knew, I was able to dismiss the idea of hell really quickly. And there was this dichotomy within me, that if I was able to dismiss that with absolutely no scriptural basis, I really didn’t put much stock in scripture.

    Then, I went to Summer Church Camp the summer before my senior year of high school. It was here, at campfire one night that I really believed I felt Jesus’ prescence with me. I can’t really describe it; it wasn’t a voice or a vision or anything, but I really believed that Jesus was there with me. That experience ignited in me a much more spiritual, more personal relationship with God.

    When I came to college, I had trouble making friends. I didn’t drink, I was a virgin, and I felt so different from everyone else. So I got involved with this evangelical Christian group on campus run through Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. They were really nice and welcoming to me. They did things on the weekends that didn’t involve drinking or partying.

    I was still a liberal Christian then, I had always been. And as the year went on, certain aspects of this group began to make me feel more and more uncomfortable. They were constantly talking about people in terms of “Christian” and “non-Christian.” The fact that I didn’t believe in hell became more problematic for many members. They spoke about conventions where everyone spoke in tongues. But this group was such an important community for me that I turned a blind eye to these things.

    But then, something came up that I couldn’t ignore. A friend of mine, who led scripture studies in this group and also happened to be a lesbian, told me that she was leaving Intervarsity because they would not let her “practice or platform” about gay things; this basically meant that if she wanted to continue to lead scripture studies, she could not date anyone, and she could not come out.

    This really shook me, because not only was this discrimination something that was so wrong that I couldn’t ignore it, but because I’m also a lesbian, and I was just beginning to admit that to myself at the time. I talked to a lot of my friends in this group about it, and to my surprise, none of them were willing to challenge this with me. So, I left the group. I had a really hard time with this because most of my friends I had made were with this group. When I began college my sophomore year, I became instantly involved with more liberal, queer friendly Christian groups on campus.

    But the thing I couldn’t shake about my experience with Intervarsity is that I really thought that I was experience God there. And they were successfully able to creep into my consciousness. As I read through my journal entries from that year, I realized that I had started to divide the world into Christian and non-Christian categories, as if that’s what made people good people. I realized that the what I thought were experiences with a divine being were actually not.

    And then I started to question the experiences I had with God in a more liberal Christian context. And I realized that those weren’t really valid supernatural experiences either. I felt them because I really, really wanted to.

    I took a course in religion, and in studying other religions, I realized that while I found them interesting, and thought they could bring life some sort of value or meaning to those who followed them, I didn’t consider them as legitimate possibilities for how the world is. And then I realized that the only reason I gave Christianity more validity wasn’t because Christianity was right, but because it was the tradition I grew up in.

    I went through a brief, interfaith-y stage where I thought that different religions were just different ways people interacted with the same God. But I realized that if I really examine other religions, they aren’t all the same. They don’t all basically teach the same values of love or whatever. And believing they were all the same was incredibly arrogant, as if we know what other religions are really about.

    Which brings me where I am now; probably about a 6 on the Dawkins scale. There are days when I try to convince myself that a divine power exists, but I think that’s more because I want it to exist than because that’s what I actually think.

    The idea of a permanent death, with no afterlife, is absolutely terrifying to me. And I’m still trying to figure out how to bring my life meaning without God.

    Do I think religion was harmful to me? Parts of it certainly were. But parts of it, the parts with community and service to other people, those were wonderful. There are voids in my life that I haven’t yet found godless ways to fill. There are also parts of religion that are dangerous; it makes good people do bad things because they believe they are things God wants them to do.

    I think that aggressive, evangelical atheism would have been ineffective for me when I was still devoutly religious, because faith is hard to escape, and it requires belief without reason. Maybe not with the complete absence of reason, but certainly with realms where reasonable arguments fall short.

    What really helped me was being able to talk to my Dad. I think being out as an atheist, so that religious believers have someone to talk to, but not pressing the issue too much when it comes to real life conversations, is a good thing. When I talk to my religious friends about losing my faith, they usually think it’s a temporary journey for me, and that I will eventually come to believe again. That doubts are okay if they’re temporary. But I don’t think that’s the case. The reason is that when I had doubts in my childhood, I still always thought that me being the best person I could be was me being a Christian. Now, I don’t think that’s the case.

  • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    This is a slew of questions, but thanks for asking.

    What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer?

    For several years, I was a priestess and community leader in the Neo-Pagan community in the city I lived in. I wrote liturgy and taught classes. I was on the board of a national non-profit advocacy group for Pagans. I was also a member of a small group that met monthly to do more focused spiritual work and meditation.

    However, I wouldn’t say (and wouldn’t have said) that I was a believer, exactly. Sure, I believed in certain concepts and supernatural things, but Paganism is a religion that doesn’t rely on a creed and doesn’t stress faith.

    How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion?

    They (atheist media in my case) made me realise how I wasn’t really being true to my sense of intellectual integrity. Again and again, I was being asked to justify holding on to a world view that conflicted with reality. In the end, I just had to agree with them and follow where the science led.

    How long ago did you convert?

    Due to unrelated circumstances, I stopped practising for the most part about four years ago. About two years ago, I stopped accepting the existence of anything supernatural.

    How do you feel about it now? Do you resent what they “did to you” or are you grateful?

    To be honest, I’m a little ambivalent. I liked living in a pantheistic universe. I loved the rituals, the music and dancing, the respect for women within the community, the active celebration of our connection with other animals and with nature. But I certainly don’t feel resentment. It’s time I grew up, really. And so, yes, I’m grateful, despite missing those things.

    Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected?

    I had no expectations. And since I lived most of my childhood without having a religion per se, my day to day life has pretty much reverted back to the default position.

    Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer? And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion?

    I really can’t say. My life has changed quite a bit since I was actively practising and I don’t know if I could tease out what is due to losing religion and what is due to other causes. I mean, I can’t even tell you if I’m happier or not. There are so many things to be happy and unhappy about in life.

    Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted?

    Better. I used to cut injustice and evil a lot more slack on the basis of respecting other people’s religious traditions–not the big ones like FGM, but, for example, teaching kids that there’s such a thing as original sin or that men and women have to be separated on buses or in mosques. Definitely better.

    Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?

    It’s hard to weigh things up like that, but overall, yes, I think so.

    And what do you think of evangelical atheism?

    I’m totally in favour of it. Religion is one of the most harmful things humans have ever created. Even my relatively benign brand of former religion is ultimately harmful just in mere opportunity cost.

    And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices?

    Angry. I get angry every time it happens. I keep thinking that we don’t expect people to self-censor when they criticise other societal ills like bigotry or fraud on their own, but when criticising religion because it is built on bigotry and fraud, suddenly we have to be respectful, polite, civil, and friendly. If Bernie Madoff is trying to con his believers out of their life savings, we’d expect ethical people to decry him and show how empty his promises are, but when Pope Benny tries to con people not only out of their money, but out of their freedom and in some cases their very lives, all we’re supposed to do is whip out the comfortable platitudes and an agreement to disagree? I don’t think so.

    What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion?

    Keep doing what you’re doing. It works. The ridicule, the shaming, the insistence on believing what’s real and supported by science rather than what’s convenient and ignorant–it’s not just noble, it’s effective.

    What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged?

    Belief in a magical world–which applies to every religion–is a pernicious thing. Most of the time, it comes from early indoctrination and is very tough to root out. Gentle persuasion and education can help, but often, complacency engendered by holding such overarching ideas for so long requires the shock of direct, aggressive, and relentless confrontation.

    What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness?

    Overall, for society as a whole, I think truth is more important. However, on an individual level, sometimes happiness is the more empathetic and preferable choice.

    If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both?

    Ultimately? Happiness. I think that humans will be a lot better off–wealthier, safer, happier once religion loses its power. We’ll be able to make better choices for ourselves, for each other, and for the planet.

    Or maybe it’s both. Because I don’t know how real happiness can exist if it’s based on a lie. You need truth before happiness.

    Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards?

    Most of the time, yes. If a person is less happy, they can always do things that will make them happier. Loss of community? Join a club or group based on another interest. A feeling of purposelessness? Find someone who can help you find your own purpose. Volunteer or become an activist to help make other people happier. At least they’ll know that they aren’t living a lie anymore. And society will be better off with one less deluded person.

    Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?

    First, the very elderly and terminally ill. It’s kind of too late and rather pointless to disillusion them if they’re not going to be around much longer and they’re taking comfort in belief in an afterlife (if they’re afraid of going to hell, on the other hand, I’d say go for it). Second, those mourning a recent loss of a family member. Someone who is grieving has enough on their plate. I think everyone else is pretty much fair game.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks for answering all my questions! Really interesting.

      Do you think that atheists could coopt any of those pagan rituals (or create new ones) without the mythology? Do you think we have to go without all rituals?

    • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

      Certainly. It would be very easy to adapt them for the most part. The mythology was always seen as a kind of metaphor in any case. The main difference would mostly be in the perspective: in the Pagan view, the metaphor of the myth is a human-made tool to connect on a spiritual level to a real divine person/energy; in an atheist/humanist view, the metaphor would be entirely internal, a way of outwardly expressing common human experience. You could probably purge the rituals of the mythology entirely, but it might be kind of boring on occasion.

      And the music…music is a big part of Pagan rituals. When creating a ritual, you need something to get everyone on the same page emotionally. You often need to get everyone focused and fired up (the other alternative is focused and reflective, but that’s a far easier task to accomplish without resorting to myth). Since Pagans (likewise atheists) don’t do sermons, music (singing, chanting, drumming) and dance are your best bets. But what would you get a group of atheists singing about? Paeans to reason and science would stray very close to “theomorphizing”.
      It’s an intriguing problem, but I’m sure it could be done…

      We already have all kinds of secular rituals (e.g. graduation, birthdays, enlistment into a service or office, award receptions), so having secular rites of passage and secular contemplative and self-improvement rituals, and secular seasonal rituals are no doubt possible to create for those who want them. And generic Neo-Pagan rituals would probably be the best source to co-opt them from. They’re non-hierarchical, participatory, humanistic, and rely upon no specific theology or creed.

  • Carrie Jurney

    I grew up in a very religious household. On my father’s side, one of my great grandfathers was an Episcopal bishop, and the other a head of the Presbyterian church. My maternal grandfather goes to church three times every Sunday and paid me as a child to recite bible verses to him. I vividly remember as a child sitting in church and feeling filled. I have experienced religious ecstasy and recognize it as a powerful drug. I would characterize my religious experiences as 99% positive. In fact, I can safely say that they “did” nothing to me that I regret. In fact I am grateful for that upbringing. I was taught kindness, morality and ethics in a structure that I do not think my parents could have articulated well otherwise. They are good smart people, just not philosophers. My mother was always very careful to preach general tolerance and that the bible was historical allegory based on events, not absolute truth nor universally applicable to modern life.

    I started to loose my faith in my teens. My mother was in a horrible car accident, and it made me question the presence of a loving God when good people were punished so horribly. From that point forward I called myself an agnostic, now an atheist.

    The conversion to atheism has been a long one. I was very comfortable saying “I don’t know, might be, but you can’t prove it either way” in all religious discussions. But this eventually began to feel like a cop out. In the end, it was likely the push of evangelical christian’s against womens and gay rights that set me over the edge. I could no longer even entertain the concept that the religion that I grew up in was based in any amount of fact nor that their presence was for the greater good.

    I would not say that I am happier or unhappier than my pre-atheism self. I do miss the sense of automatic community that I had in church but I have lost the shame by association I had in hearing teachings of the church that I disagreed with. It has forced me to build my own philosophy. My own reasons for being a good, decent, kind person. That is not always an easy process, but I consider myself better for it. The hardest thing was recognizing my own mortality. I am not going to live forever on a fluffy cloud in heaven. I have to make this life count, because it’s all I’m going to get. That’s a great motivator.

    In response to your questions about my opinions about conversion in others. I found value in the process for myself, so clearly I would hope that others would find the same value. However, I’m not what you would call an evangelical atheist. This is not due to a lack of “belief” in my atheism, nor that I think that people shouldn’t be exposed to atheism (were there enough double negatives in this sentence?).Quite the contrary- I just believe for the deeply religious, much like alcoholics becoming sober, you have to want the change for it to happen.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I just believe for the deeply religious, much like alcoholics becoming sober, you have to want the change for it to happen.

      I didn’t want to change. It just happened.

  • shadesofgrey

    Hi! I’ve never actually posted here but I came across your post and thought I’d chime in with my two cents. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, and I know I’m different from a lot of other former believers in that I’m not particularly angry about my former faith and that I’m not a huge fan of some types of what you call “evangelical atheism.” I’m also not sure that the evangelical atheists I encountered as a Christian are reflective of what evangelical atheism really is. I’m just speaking from my own experiences.

    First, for those bona-fides. My parents decided that I was a Christian as soon as I was born, and I “asked Jesus into my heart” at age 4. I attended conservative, evangelical Christian schools exclusively up until college, and I’ve even been on overseas evangelizing mission trips. I genuinely believed everything I was taught about god, and really tried to reach that level of “relationship” with god that everyone else around me seemed to have. In fact, part of what ultimately pushed me toward atheism was the realization that no matter how much I tried to have faith (or, as a sort-of-calvinist, trusted god to give me faith), I never actually felt his presence, and nothing in my life ever seemed miraculous or somehow distinguishable from ordinary randomness. But I was a genuine believer up until about halfway through college when I began to deconvert slowly. It’s been about four years since then, about two years since I started decided I was agnostic and a few months since I’ve called myself an atheist.

    Sometimes I think that my experience with Christianity has colored my view of anti-religious “evangelism” as well. I’ve seen firsthand how evangelism and missions work from a religious standpoint work, and as a Christian I was firmly on the side of what I think was called “lifestyle evangelism,” where you don’t so much as preach but rather let your good behavior (guided by the holy spirit of course) do most of the work. As I was starting the process of deconverting, it wasn’t the “evangelical” atheists that I knew but rather the atheists who were up front about their beliefs when I asked but never tried to push me out of my comfort zone that ultimately had the biggest impact on my decision to deconvert. As a Christian, whenever I encountered more confrontational atheists, they came across to me as unnecessarily harsh and judgmental, and this had the counterproductive effect of driving me back further into my Christian cocoon. Looking back, I think it was a safety in numbers thing – it is a profoundly disconcerting experience to feel the very foundations of your ENTIRE EXISTENCE shake, and from an atheist perspective I’m not convinced that this is always a good thing.

    There is a debate in Christianity, or at least the Christian circles I ran in, about whether Christians should emphasize Truth (a la Jesus) or Love in their dealings with the secular world. While I would be one of the first people to say that truth is paramount, truth by itself is poorly equipped to advance its cause much in a fundamentally relational society. As I look back over my experiences with evangelistic atheists, I think what was almost always lacking was Love, or less abstractly, a relationship. It was always an “I’m right, you’re wrong, it’s obvious” message from them and it didn’t sit well. They had become a threat and an enemy, and without any sort of relationship to counter that reaction, their evangelism didn’t really do much. I probably still internalized a lot of what they said, but they weren’t the reason I left religion behind. It was my atheist friends, those people who cared about me for ME and not for another win for their philosophy, who ultimately showed me that life without god makes sense, and is ok.

    And to answer some of your other questions, sort of in order: I’m not angry about my Christian past. I am bitter about one specific aspect, however: the fact that my parents skewed my worldview so far in one particular direction that I am still having a monumentally difficult time making heads or tails of the world from an objective standpoint. Still, I didn’t have very many particularly negative experiences that resulted directly from religion, and I wouldn’t trade my family and friends that date back to that period for the world. I am happier today in the sense that I no longer worry about death and guilt and sin (well, not too much at least – hell is a difficult concept to fully let go of when it’s been brainwashed into you for decades). And I have a newly awakened curiosity about the natural world, when before I was more preoccupied with theological questions. On the other hand, I deeply miss the certainty of “knowing” I was right and that god was absolutely in charge of my life. With my new freedom from religion comes the responsibility to take the initiative for my life and bear the consequences of my choices. In short, it feels like I’ve had to grow up a second time.

    Although I am still partially closeted (my policy is to tell the truth to anyone who asks directly, but I don’t volunteer it), I am increasingly convinced that it is important for nonbelievers to demonstrate their atheism to a very religious society, but in a way that emphasizes tolerance and genuine love for people who hold to wrong beliefs and allows them space to evaluate their beliefs without feeling pressure one way or the other. (Of course, this tolerance for wrong belief should extend only to the believer’s personal life. The second they start trying to force their beliefs onto society at large, out comes my raging secularism :) ). While I am sure their is a place for evangelical atheism, for me I think it did more harm than good.

  • William

    Apologies for any typos or grammar problems. I did my best.

    “So tell us how devout you were? What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer?”

    I considered myself strongly devout. The idea of there not being a god seemed absurd. I grew up Presbyterian, Calvinist. My father occasionally mocked atheists. My friends were split in devotion. I ran with two circles, one christian and the other agnostic so I was exposed to both of those pretty early on. I was dismissive of the agnostic group and their opinions didn’t influence me much. I chose a lead by example method to attempt to convert the agnostic groups because I was mortified that they were going to burn in hell.

    I started doubting the veracity of the Bible because it seemed odd that a god that loved everyone could torture people forever. A friend of mine killed himself and by the doctrine of my church he was going to burn forever and it bothered me. This caused me to abandon sections of the bible but not all of it. My fathers mocking of atheists began to come back. He specifically used Pascal’s Wager. I became concerned about if I was wrong and the whole Bible was true that I would go to hell. So I needed to know if the Bible was true. And that got me to start studying the subject more.

    “How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion?”

    I went through “The God Delusion” and found it compelling. I looked around for a counter point book and found “The Case For Christ”. I was not impressed by it. I read a few more, “The Reason for God”, “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” and could not find an argument in them that I couldn’t find a reasonable counter for from youtube atheists and/or Richard Dawkins. From there I considered myself agnostic atheist but continued to read atheist friendly books. Mostly the New Atheist group although I’ve strayed from them recently.

    “How long ago did you convert? How do you feel about it now?”

    I deconverted about 4 years ago and I’m glad I did.

    “Do you resent what they “did to you” or are you grateful?”

    I’m pretty annoyed with having been indoctrinated. I feel like I was brainwashed until my early 20′s and I finally got out. I’m more upset that people are still being indoctrinated and brainwashed. I am angry for having to fear hell and having remained a virgin until my early 20′s because of them but for the most part I’m not angry for what they “did to me”.

    “Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected?”

    Neither really. I had no idea what it would be like so I had no expectations. I take that back. It might be just slightly worse. I didn’t expect some of the negative reactions from people to finding out I’m an atheist and having to hide it as much as I do.

    ” Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer?”

    I battle depression really hard still but it’s not any worse than before. When I was religious the only thing I prayed for was to not wake up ever again after I fell asleep for the night. Heaven was supposed to be perfect happiness and I’m not a big fan of the world around me so it seemed logical to want to be rid of it pretty quickly. Suicide wasn’t an option because of the fear of burning in hell so I was just waiting it out praying. There are ways in which I am happier and ways that I’m sadder so I think the it breaks even over all.

    “And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion?”

    The deconversion itself I think had a positive effect on my happiness because I felt like I understood the world slightly better than I did when I was a Christian and it gave me a hunger for education for the first time in my life. This hunger for education has had a negative effect though because in finding out even more about how the world really is (assuming I am correct) has furthered my depression. Interacting with people unwilling to waiver in the slightest even when confronted with empirically supported logical arguments has been disheartening. Estrangement from my father because I can no longer relate to him and his out dated opinions on women and minorities has been painful as well.

    “Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted?”

    I think overall better. I have become far more tolerant and open minded since becoming an atheist. It sorta made me realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought so I embraced education, as I said before, and skepticism. It took me long enough but better late than never. This has led me to study feminism, black history, and the virtues of democratic socialism (think Norway and Denmark) all of which would have been unthinkable if my world view hadn’t been damaged so heavily by a deconversion. It caused me to rethink everything.

    “Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?”

    Unfortunately, no. I find the line of work I’m in would reward me heavily for being a charlatan and being virtuous seems to actively cause failure. All I would need to do to make a good living would be to pretend I was a Christian and sell nutritional supplements. My refusal to lie and go outside my scope of expertise holds me back. My peers on the other hand do it constantly and make loads of cash at the danger of their clients.

    “And what do you think of evangelical atheism?”

    I am an active participant in it. My hope is that the more people that become skeptical the more likely I am to be successful in my business and the more healthy society will be. This would hypothetically make me like the world around me more and hopefully aid in banishing my depression. While atheism and skepticism aren’t necessarily the same thing I find that atheists are slightly more likely to be skeptical. I am rethinking this currently because of recent interactions with the atheist and skeptical communities.

    “And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices?”

    I think they are misguided and don’t see the damage that religion causes. It annoys me slightly when I’m told to just shut up and keep to myself about it.

    “What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion?”

    Encourage them to be apologists for their religion. Tell them they need to know and understand the oppositions arguments in order to debunk them. I think that has the best chance of deconverting people while not coming across as overly pushy.

    “What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged”

    Accusatory language is a problem. Unfortunately tone does matter. Really liberal believers don’t think they damage special interest groups. Sometimes when you explain to them that when they donate money to the church the church might then do something homophobic with it. So they are inadvertently supporting oppressive groups. I have found that pretty useful. You structure it to where they are not doing the offensive thing but someone is using their support to to that offensive thing. It doesn’t work all the time but it’s an example of the approach I prefer. I think the educator approach is far superior to the antagonist approach. Think Neil deGrasse Tyson for educator and Christopher Hitchens for antagonist.

    “What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness?”

    Truth apparently. I think it has the best chance of benefiting the whole even if it makes me unhappy. When it comes to me making someone else unhappy with the truth I probably project because I assume they would want the same thing I do.

    “If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both?”

    Both definitely motivate me.

    “Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards?”

    Probably. Once again I think the world on whole would be better.

    “Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?”

    I know a few people that the fear of hell and the reward of heaven appears to be something they need to act like decent human beings. Actually that might be a no. I don’t know anyone that I think should deconvert for their own sake but I do know some that shouldn’t deconvert because it’s better for the rest of the world.

    Something that I think would be interesting to add to the list of questions would be whether the person deconverted wishes there were a god. For my part I wish there were. It would be nice to have an all powerful deity that wanted good things for me. I just don’t see the evidence.

  • Steph

    I’m usually a lurker here, but think I might be the kind of person you are interested in hearing from. I was raised Catholic. I went to catholic school and lived in a predominantly catholic neighborhood. Pretty much every one I met during my childhood was catholic. I believed in the whole story and quite fervently. At one time in my life, I even relied on my religious beliefs to get me through a very rough time and found great solace in it. My deconversion was gradual and took many years with pauses at each step along the way. I’m in my mid 40s. It is in the last 6-8 years that I could say that I truly am an atheist. At first, I was in the closet about my atheism, except with a small group of friends who are also non-believers. Over the past year or two, most of my social circle has been aware. But, it is only in the past few months that I have been discussing it honestly with my family.
    I don’t resent my upbringing. My feeling is that my parents and teachers were well meaning and tried to do the best for me. They were simply mistaken about a lot. My parents were not exposed to much science and history in their own lives. I can’t hold that against them.
    As far as my feeling of happiness and my virtues—I feel that I am exactly the same person that I always have been. Perhaps it was the gradual nature of my decoversion, but it caused me no real angst. I’ve always been a content and even keeled type and I still feel that way. I still have the same virtues and vices. Only really major change has been in how I examine data about the world and judge whether an argument has merit. I know that a lot of others came to atheism because they looked at the world through a skeptical/rational world view and found that religion didn’t make sense. In some ways, though, I feel I came to skepticism via atheism—it wasn’t until I let go of religious thought that I was able to view everything else skeptically. Now I would say that I am a skeptic. The world makes a lot more sense now.
    I don’t really think atheist writing influenced me much at the start. I didn’t start reading it until after I had mostly finished the process of deconversion. It did help me get from agnostic to firmly atheist. And it did persuade me to come out to my family and to embrace my identity as an atheist. But, I had gotten to agnostic mostly on my own, with the help of a science education and an amateur love of history and mythology.
    Having atheist friends didn’t directly influence my deconversion, but it probably did indirectly. I married an atheist but remained very catholic for the first decade we were together. We never talked about it. However, I do sometimes wonder where I would be if I had married a religious man instead. If I had felt pressured to go to church and to raise the kids as catholic, would I have gone along?
    I have mixed feelings about evangelical atheism. Obviously, I value the truth or I would not have gone looking for answers to my questions. Obviously, I don’t trust the church’s interpretation of things or I would have just accepted what they told me. I think that until a religious person acknowledges the cognitive dissonance or has some question about his belief, you will never persuade them to honestly examine their religion. That doubt may be the tiniest sliver of a doubt at first, but that first doubt needs to come from within. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have discussions with believers (you never know who is questioning in their own mind), but don’t expect a true believer to get what you are trying to say and don’t expect him to thank you for it. In fact, you should probably expect defensiveness. I used to feel about evangelical atheists the same way I still feel about the Jehovah’s witnesses that knock on my door.
    I would not say that I am an evangelical atheist—I don’t feel like I need to deconvert other people. Plus, I’m terrible at confrontation. However, I do think we must come out of the closet as atheists, show that we are good people living normal lives, and do whatever we can to preserve the secular nature of government. I guess I don’t really mind if people are religious as long as they don’t try to impose their views on others. People are allowed to be wrong and make bad choices for themselves. I just want to be able to make my own (hopefully better) choices.
    I can’t imagine why we would need to choose between truth or happiness. They are not opposites and I feel like I have them both. I value truth very highly and knowing the truth gives me a sense of satisfaction and contentment. Not everyone values truth as much as I do, though. I guess, if pressed, I would pick happiness, though it is tough for me to imagine being happy without understanding the world around me.

  • heathermclachlan

    I was once devoutly religious. Part of that was due to the fact that I was raised by a devoutly religious family, and was sent to a Christian faith school for 12 years. However, once I was old enough to investigate the ideas for myself, I became a true believer in my own right. My school and church constantly reminded us that being born in a Christian home and attending a Christian school did not automatically make one a Christian. For the years I spent devoutly believing in God and the teachings of the church, I liked to believe that I had chosen that path for myself. I see now that my decision was very strongly guided. I was shown the ‘correct’ destination and told to find my way there. And I did.

    I think I first started to doubt God (and therefore started my process of deconversion) when I was about 14. During the four remaining years of high school, I moved from strong faith, to disinterested agnosticism, to believing that ‘my faith is my choice, and it is no one’s place to question it’, and back to a sort of defeated agnosticism – atheism that I tried to deny.

    As my friends at school were Christian – or believed they were – they didn’t influence my deconversion. If anything, it was for them and for my family that I kept trying to find my way back to my faith. After some time at university, a friend I had made there (who was raised secularly, and who often needs me to explain biblical references) lent me a copy of Hitchens’ ‘God Is Not Great.’ I felt that, as I’d read so much evidence for the Christian side, I should try reading the opposing evidence. It was in reading Hitchen’s book that I realised that a life without faith was not meaningless, and that I need not be afraid to call myself an atheist.

    Do I resent Hitchens for writing his book, or my friend for lending it to me? Not in the least. There is a metaphor that Christians I know often use – that one has a God shaped hole in one’s life, and that only God can fill it. I never had a God shaped hole in my life – I had a God shaped wedge, or a God shaped stone in my shoe. I was never truly happy while the question of God loomed in my life. Was I sinning? Was I judged for my doubt? How actively did I need to believe? How much could I think without it actually being sin? How much of the Bible did I need to believe and follow? What made it acceptable for me to follow certain rules, but not others? Once I accepted the fact that I was an atheist (at the age of about 21), I felt freed. I don’t resent what was done to me, as nothing was done to me. Deconverting from Christianity did not mean ‘converting’ to atheism. It simply means that I was finally able to voice the conclusion that I reached.

    The only scar on this freedom is that I have – as yet – not come out to my family as an atheist. The mere suggestion one Sunday morning that I would not go to Church made my mother cry. Loudly. On my shoulder. And prompted my father to accuse me of wanting to hurt the people who loved me (Remembering that still stings). When my father died, just over a year ago, he underwent a deathbed conversion. While I know that this comforted my mother, brother and probably my father too, it broke my heart. I could no longer view religion as merely comforting to the people who believed it. I saw that, while it might have been well intended, it was a means of peddling false hope to people who were afraid and vulnerable. To add to my own shame in this, I did the scripture reading at my father’s memorial service. In essence, my pains at deconversion have not come from losing my faith, but from the fact that those I love would be unwilling to accept this fact.

    I do not actively attempt to deconvert people. To people other than my family, I am known to be an atheist. I still have some religious friends, and have (on occasion) taken up the debate with them, in the spirit of honest discussion, rather than in attempt to deconvert. I ultimately believe that the choice should be theirs. I can only hope that reason and rationality will lead them to their conclusion, as it lead me to mine. Lifelong atheists may not understand that those of us who truly believed were not credulous fools, but found some true value in what we believed. People who still believe (whatever they may believe) find some value there too. It provides them with an anchor that they may not be willing to lose. It is – in my experience – not so much a question of reason and rationality, as it is a question of value and meaning. Many religious people believe that life without their faith will be without meaning or value. For deconverts – such as myself – part of the struggle was to find meaning that was not associated with religion. I was lucky in this regard – I studied philosophy at university. I was never told what to think, but only that I must think, know how to argue, and know (most importantly) how to use evidence to support my arguments. I learnt that what I believed was not more important than the evidence. This, perhaps, is what many believers need – to know that their faith does not overcome evidence. In this, I realise that happiness and truth are fundamentally connected. One can be happy when living in deception if one is not aware of it. However, if one is aware of the deception, one cannot be truly happy. Truth is more important than happiness because without truth, there can be no true happiness.

  • consciousness razor

    Lots o’ questions….

    What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer?

    I was raised Roman Catholic, went to a Catholic school, and fully accepted the doctrines as I understood them (which was pretty well, since I was always curious and loved learning about anything and everything). I was about as “devout” as a child could be, until I stopped being religious in my early teens. It took some time to figure out just what I was giving up and why I was giving it up, so there was a brief period when I was devoutness-limbo I guess. For a while I also flirted a bit with Buddhism and some other nonsense, but the lessons I learned in deconverting from Christianity made it hard for that or any religion to stick.

    How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion? How long ago did you convert?

    Indirectly, if at all. The process started over twenty years ago, so details are fuzzy. Back then, there was basically no explicit atheist presence in the media, at least not anything that reached me as a kid. At best I’d hear people equate godlessness with paganism or communism, which never made any sense so I shrugged it off as bullshit. I always loved math and science (which probably had the most significant influence), and there’s always been a lot of the irreverence in popular culture which I was never afraid to absorb, so I guess I was getting anti-religious messages in the background but didn’t really think of it that way then.

    On a personal level, it was mostly due to the negative influence of religious people and gradually coming to terms with all the ugly things of the world: racism, sexism, poverty, war, and so on. I noticed more and more that even the more liberal religious people were anti-intellectual and bigoted, and they often wanted tradition and comfort at the expense of real progress and truth. They offered moral lessons propped up with religious language which were just empty shells, or were doing more to hurt people than help them. Many seemed like hypocrites, but wouldn’t even stop to consider that possibility, which made them much worse in my mind.

    So it all looked like a farce, before I ever started doubting anything about gods, miracles, souls, afterlives, etc. A lot of the doubts about Christianity in particular started to sink in as soon I realized I could doubt them. Some of it was weird, sure, but it was just a given that I had to have faith to believe weird stuff — that’s just how it was, so I went along for the ride. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew there were lots of other religions — I’d met such people growing up — so I had to start doubting whether I actually believed what I’d been taught, or whether their beliefs were right instead, and it all fell apart pretty quickly after that.

    How do you feel about it now? Do you resent what they “did to you” or are you grateful? Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected?

    I feel good about it. I’m very grateful to all my teachers and people I’ve turned to for advice who I’d credit for my deconversion, but as I said “they” probably weren’t atheists for the most part.

    In some ways, it’s better than I’d expected. I was very much plagued with doubt and existential dread at first, but for a long time now I’ve been very comfortable being an atheist. It took a while to understand most of the concerns I had weren’t the kind of problems I thought they were. On the other hand, atheism is still stigmatized quite a bit, which I did expect would be a problem, so it’s not better in that sense.

    Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer? And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion?

    I was a child when I was a believer, and now I’m an adult with entirely different criteria for happiness. It’s hard to say how much happier I am compared to a hypothetical adult version of myself, or which other aspects of my life would’ve been different. I’ll guess that it has been a net increase because I deconverted, but I don’t have a good way to gauge that.

    Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted? Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?

    I’m more virtuous as an atheist than I would’ve been as some kind of believer.

    And what do you think of evangelical atheism? And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices?

    I don’t the term “evangelical” because of the connotations it has for me; but that aside, we ought to persuade people of the truth because it’s the truth. As for those chastising us, it seems like they’re either ignorant or want to remain comfortably aloof from many or all of the problems religions cause.

    What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion? What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged?

    Things are different now than when I was a kid losing my religion. But thinking about it again, maybe it would be good to remember that a lot of the time, indirect challenges to religious beliefs can be effective too. By “indirect” I just mean they address a different set of problems. Along with explicitly bringing god, souls, afterlives, etc., into the picture and challenging them, we can also challenge faith and religion in more general terms, setting the problems in more down-to-earth situations that everyone encounters.

    What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness? If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both?

    Truth matters more, and the reason I persuade people of it is because their actions make a difference. Their happiness, along with mine, is insignificant in the big scheme of things, as is every little exchange where a person persuades another of something. The larger effect I want is that society as a whole responds to reality rather than superstitions.

    Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards? Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?

    It should be worth it for them because they should not only be concerned for their own happiness, which is a transient thing for most of us anyway.

    Sad because you’re an atheist? Eat some ice cream, listen to some music, have sex, or whatever floats your boat. Still unhappy? There’s nothing about atheism stopping you from being happy, just your own thoughts about it, so my advice would be to try to figure out what those thoughts are and whether they ought to do so. Maybe it really does make you sad that there’s no magic man in the sky. Don’t know why that would be, but there are plenty of things which do exist and can make you happy, so if it’s happiness you’re after, you’ll have to look there.

  • Carlie

    That is so many questions!!! I shall try to be succinct.

    Bona fides: was raised in a Southern Baptist church that my grandfather helped build and my second cousin is currently the pastor of. Went to church three times a week. Was baptized TWICE, because the second time I didn’t think the first time was genuine enough. Mission trips every summer. Was a leader in college Baptist group, in a traveling evangelical singing group, led VBS. Basically, I was a part-time version of the woman in Jesus Camp.

    How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion? How long ago did you convert? How do you feel about it now? Do you resent what they “did to you” or are you grateful?

    Deconversion was in my early 30s, several years ago. It took a few years for the whole thing to happen. Small bits of it fell away at a time, like peeling an onion, so the influences were many and varied. Little things I believed turned out not to be true, and then a little more, and then a little more. Started off as technical things; no, this thing that the Bible says isn’t true based on archaeology. This story in the Bible was plagiarized from older manuscripts, etc. Then I started reading the moral and philosophical arguments against – no, it really is a jerk move to ask someone to kill their child to prove their loyalty, isn’t it? Hey, everyone in Jericho did get a crappy deal. Eventually, there was just nothing left. I do remember the moment that I realized that there was nothing left there in crystal-clear detail, when I said to myself “I don’t believe there even is a god, not at all”. My first feeling? Relief. Flooding, happy, content relief. The scary abyss came a bit later, trying to navigate how to be a moral person without God, but lifting that burden of trying to always please god and worrying about sinning and being a bad person was the biggest relief I’ve ever felt. Obviously, I’m very happy about it now.

    Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected? Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer? And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion? Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted? Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?

    As alluded above, yes. Much happier. And much more loving of other people, empathetic towards other people, more caring towards others. But it did take a lot of work. All of my morality and ethics had been firmly formed in the image of “What God Says”, so I had to create them from scratch as to rationales why to be good here, and there. I read a lot of first-hand stories of deconversions of evangelicals, and Parenting Beyond Belief, and a lot of humanist/secular stuff to get ideas and grounding. The most important change is that I now see people as most important for themselves, rather than seeing God as most important and needing to caring about people as just a side effect of that.

    And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices?

    Honestly, it makes me furious. Those people are just writing off other people as being beyond saving, as being hopelessly stupid or deluded and not worth the effort, and they’re talking about me. They’re talking about my family, and my closest friends, and my entire life. And they’re willing to say that we’re not even worth trying to enlighten, that we’re too ignorant and fragile and need to be left alone with beliefs that are harmful to us and to others. There is a dark side to religion, and it’s abusive and dangerous, and they know it, so why actively try NOT to get people out of it? It’s worse than apathy, it’s trying to actively hold people down.

    What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion? What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged?

    Understand that it is probably not a quick process. That you may be able to add a crack into their beliefs, but you won’t deconvert someone in a single conversation. That it takes a lot of time to work through that stuff, and that some beliefs are harder to dislodge than others.

    What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness?


    Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards?

    That’s where the atheist movement, as it were, really falls short. Yes, a person will be less happy for awhile, but they will only stay that way if they have nothing to replace religion with. “How to be good without God” and “why a time-limited life has meaning” is information that needs to be easier to find – I’d love a good, solid book or two that really puts together everything I had to scrounge around for. There are some beautiful essays out there, and some informative books, but it’s all piecemeal and you have to really want to find them, which is difficult if someone is reeling from having their worldview pulled out from under them.

  • Ginny

    The church formed the hub of my life growing up — more so than for many, since I was homeschooled. Most of my friends were made through Sunday school and our excellent children’s choir, where I learned musical skills I still use and appreciate every day. Bible time was the first part of our school day: we would read through the Bible with my mom, talk about it, pray together, and sing a song.

    In my late teens I became involved in leadership and outreach. I was part of a small creative outreach group; one of our members was a talented choreographer, and we’d learn dances to popular Christian music which we’d then perform for other groups of young people, both Christian and non-Christian. My friend the choreographer and I produced dance camps and musicals with younger children in a few local churches: exhausting and thrilling projects, during which many times we felt sure the whole thing would fall apart, and at the end when they succeeded we were full of joy and praised God.

    In college I joined a home church, populated by some of the most fun, loving, intelligent and interesting people I’ve ever known. I considered them second family to me, and our worship, prayer, and discussion together were some of the most joyful times of my life.

    It’s hard to speak of my relationship with God at this time, since I now have a very different perspective than I did then. I didn’t feel the “presence of God” or “Jesus speaking to me” in the way many of my peers and leaders talked about: I often envied their ability to experience God in a more immediate, emotional and physical way. My experience of God was primarily a sense of deep groundedness and safety: I knew that no matter what happened, God was bigger than me, and that even if I suffered and died I, and everything I cared about, would see a happy ending in heaven. I prayed often and I felt guided by a deep wisdom in many of my dilemmas, when I would silence my own questioning and seek God’s voice. Mostly, though, I felt God’s love in the love of my friends and family, and in the good things that came into my life every day.

    Leaving religion was difficult and painful, and it took several years for me to be fully free of it. There is so much I miss: the community, the songs I loved to sing, the belief that no matter what happened to me, it would all turn out all right in the end, and that everything I longed for would one day be fulfilled. I don’t know if I can say I’m happier now: sometimes I feel I am, and sometimes not. I struggle to explain to friends who have always been atheist just exactly how much I’ve lost, and I wonder if that wound will ever fully heal.

    At the same time, while I may not always be happier, I am infinitely more free. I struggled often, as a believer, with the conflict between what I felt to be right (example: genuine love should be celebrated whether the lovers are the same or different sexes) and what the Bible and my church leaders told me. I believed my own wisdom was flawed and corrupted by sin, so I didn’t trust my judgement on matters like this, but it was extremely difficult, and never felt right. My theology became increasingly liberal as I grew up, largely because I just didn’t think it made sense that God could love, forgive, and see value in people less than I did. But it was a struggle and I was always wondering what was right and what was wrong, always afraid of being led astray by sin.

    There were things about myself, things that brought me joy and excitement, that I smothered and avoided because I feared they were leading me away from God. While often the sense of deep, divine wisdom I felt guiding me led me into good choices, sometimes they led me into bad ones: I unnecessarily punished myself for imagined sins; I avoided friends who needed me because I was trying to be holy. I’m glad to be rid of that stuff.

    I would never go back to religion, even if I could. The biggest reason is that, on some level, I always feared it was a made-up story. I devoted a lot of mental energy to pushing that fear as far away as possible, committing myself to my faith because I honestly didn’t know how I could live without it. In some ways, when I stopped believing in God my worst nightmare came true. And I found that it was okay — that I can go on living, even living joyfully and productively. I’m still afraid of things, but there is nothing that fills me with the same all-consuming existential dread that the thought that God might not be real did. The thing I feared most in the world turned out to be true, and I faced that fear, and I survived it. I wouldn’t undo that for anything.

  • Eamon Knight

    Not a regular reader; came in response to the sidebar. I’ll try to be briefer than previous entries ;-).

    What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer?

    Raised agnostic, teenaged convert to fundamentalism. Baptized Church of Christ, active in the youth group, active in Navigators during university (I was one of those annoying people doing evangelism in Res!) and for a few years after. That’s pretty hardcore. Had a crisis of faith precipitated by the impending arrival of our first child, dumped a lot of evangelicalism and spent the next 15 years in a liberal mainstream church, while my beliefs slowly mellowed out into complete unbelief, ending about 11 years ago.

    And yes, my faith was important to me, during both phases of my Christian period: It was very attractive to see my story as a subplot in a grand cosmic narrative being told by God. And it provided comfort in distress, such as when I was unemployed, or recovering from a very nasty attack of appendicitis.

    How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion?

    The closest I came to “atheist media” would be occasional exposure to alt.atheism x-posts during my Usenet days, which I mostly ignored. My usual hangout during the 90s was, which was a generally accomodationist place, and where I was one of the pro-evolution Christians. Its main influence was not anti-religion per se, but the general scientific-skeptical insistence on evidence and reason. I couldn’t help but apply that to my religious beliefs, but that was an essentially internal, private process. I’m just a very private person.

    Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer?

    It’s a great relief not to have to defend dubious (and frequently odious, eg: damnation) propositions, to be able to live with integrity and hold an integrated worldview. Specifically, I regard fundamentalism as a stupid, pernicious, destructive and evil belief (though a lot of its adherents manage to be better than their theology). I’m less down on liberal Christianity, which I regard as merely vacuous and a bit silly.

    And what do you think of evangelical atheism?

    That’s an odd question. Just on free expression principles, I’m in favour of (almost) everyone trying to persuade others of their POV on religion, politics, whatever, provided they are willing to accept “No thanks, not interested” as an answer. But that obviously means that atheists can and should write books and blogs, hold rallies, buy public ads, etc — why not?

    What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion?

    Nothing that doesn’t apply to the art of persuasion in general: there’s no one golden rhetorical strategy because every individual listener is different. Some people may respond to eg. ridicule — I would simply be intimidated and walk away. As I said, I’m a private person, and my conversion was a slow, internal thing. And if you’re making it about winning the argument for your ego’s sake (like about half the internet ;-)), then you’re just an asshole and deserve to be ignored.

    What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness?

    For myself, truth — because in the long run, I can’t be happy without it. I can’t make that choice for others.

    If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both?

    Maybe I don’t count as an evangelical atheist. I’ll argue with anyone who wants to argue with me, because I think truth is important, and it’s good to promote my position OR to find out that I’m wrong and need to update my beliefs. But on the whole I’m more concerned with what people *do*, and their beliefs mostly as a driver of that. Inevitably though, I think arguments over behaviour often have to trace back to those root causes.

    Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards? Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?

    I have a long-time friend — one of my two successful conversions from evangelical days — who’s now a devout Catholic. She was a mixed-up teenager, and is still emotionally labile, and I think her faith provides her with a certain stability (though I think it’s also led her to make some unwise life choices like having seven kids). I do wonder a bit whether she could function without her faith, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever find out.

  • JP

    It’s a little difficult for me to write about my experiences as the wounds are still fresh; but here is the pertinent information.

    Spirituality defined me for as long as I can remember, whether negatively or positively. I went through the wretched evangelical wringer in my teens and converted to Catholicism in my 20s, mostly because converting to Eastern Orthodoxy would have been inconvenient where I was living at the time. I practiced, both faithfully and unfaithfully, for many years, because I was convinced— or rather, I thought, convicted— of the God portrayed in mysticism, Christian and otherwise: the great beating heart of the universe that ultimately draws all that exists to it, the conflagration of love, all-consuming, all-adoring and all-adorable. Truthfully, I never had much time for the unsavory vicissitudes of modern Christianity; I loathed anything with even a whiff of Calvinism and couldn’t be persuaded to touch Penal Substitutionary Atonement with a 100-foot pole. I was all about theosis. I read Patristics, the Desert Abbas and Ammas, medieval scholastics, mystics galore, and in all of them I discovered a sere but profound comfort. They not only offered me the hope that I might transcend an existence I found nigh on intolerable, but promised me that, as miserable as the circumstances of my life might be, I was loved, completely and utterly, so much so that on many occasions I found myself in tears contemplating the height, depth, and breadth of that love.

    I have neither the time nor the heart to describe the slow freefall into unbelief that followed; I’m not even sure I understand the trajectory well enough to explain it. Suffice it to say that coming out as transgender after suppressing that supremely important aspect of myself for decades was the first chink in the wall, and it took about two years for the edifice to crumble completely after that. I harbor no resentment towards the faith that sustained me for most of my life; in fact, many parts of it still seem very dear to me, and I understand all too well the attachment that many people have to it. But eventually, I found the weight of cognitive dissonance too overwhelming and had to lay the burden down. My back still aches from it, which is why I’m not entirely able yet to joyfully embrace any new identity that might be waiting for me. I’m still grieving for what I’ve lost—that sense of being loved perfectly, unconditionally, and eternally, of being consumed in the heat of a love more intense than any I have ever or will ever know in this life. I will never be loved that way again. And the hardest part now is realizing that I was never loved that way to begin with. I am in mourning, and the worst of it is not that the One I mourn is dead; it is that the One I mourn never existed in the first place. That is a uniquely poignant kind of suffering that I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t experienced it can fully comprehend.

    That said, I am not sorry. Nor for any of it. Not that I believed, and not that I do not believe now. My unbelief did not come about through evangelical atheism; if anything, it was prefigured long ago by my fascination with the Via Negativa, with St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, with Thomas Merton and contemplative mysticism. The only problem as far as I’m concerned is that they didn’t take things far enough. What atheists did for me was not a matter of persuading me to throw my beliefs over the side of the boat. What atheists, including my partner and dearest friend, did for me was to stand on the other shore and wait for me to make my long and solitary way across the water to them, to light a fire there as a beacon through the darkness that engulfed me after my belief was extinguished. There came a time for me when I could no longer deny the doubts that had been gnawing at me for years. And when that time came, atheists were there to welcome me. My grandmother, who died several months ago at the age of 97, was the most loving and compassionate person I have ever known, and the staunchest atheist. I like to think she would have been very proud of me now, and I hope I have her courage and fortitude in the months and years to come.

    I thank you all for all the good work you do. Today is my first godless Easter, and it’s a peculiar feeling. It seems very much like every other day this spring—sunny, flowers blooming, birds singing. And to be perfectly honest, I’m stymied as to why so many people seem to think that ought to be a dreadful thing.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Congratulations on your first godless, Easter, JP. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Eamon Knight

    PZ should link to this thread — it goes right along with his “Why I am an atheist” series.

  • Keljopy

    I was raised in the Reformed Church of America in a quite devout home (church at least three times a week, prayer before meals, devotions after dinner, christian summer camp, etc.). I bought into it all and became quite devout myself up through my first few years of college (went to the campus crusade group, helped them try to convert people). My beliefs were biblical literalist and thus anti-evolution as well.

    After going through a long period of subconsciously doubting and losing belief but being too scared of the alternatives to deconvert, it was reading atheist blogs that finally allowed me to feel like atheism was not all that scary and consciously deconvert.

    The final “I don’t believe in god(s)” self-realization came at age 21, about 5 and a half years ago.

    I feel great about it now. I am extremely grateful, I often feel amazed at the fact that I “got out” of the fundamentalism I grew up with. Being an atheist is far better than I could have imagined when I was a Christian and I believe I’m happier now than I would have been as a Christian, although it is hard to compare because the early 20s is such a time of change.

    It was a huge relief mentally when I realized my lack of belief because as a biologist it is quite difficult to justify evolution denialism and I think the cognitive dissonance would have worn on me as I began to work in the field of biology and live/work with others who would have thought I was nuts for believing in a 6000 year old earth. I think this dissonance would have decreased my happiness in the longer term and I don’t feel I lost much because I was always a bit quirky and the church never embraced that, so I never really got much of a sense of community there, which I feel like is the only thing I lack whereas I feel like I have gained a world of wonder and curiosity.

    In other words, overall I am glad for evangelical atheism. I think someone being dissuaded from irrationality is always good for society and usually good for the individual. Since most believers I know are Christian’s who have no problem trying to evangelize for there religion, I don’t think them taking issue with atheists for challenging their religion holds any water.

    I’m honestly not sure what can be taken from my deconversion because I’m not really sure how it worked on me other than my being curious by nature and the timing being right. One thing lifelong atheists should understand is that for many believer, they will initially probably just outright dismiss anything an atheist has to say. If they are starting to question, the lifelong atheist should understand that for many it is a terrifying time and that it is helpful to have patience and show that atheism is not a scary way to live.

    In general I think truth in this will lead to more overall happiness. When it doesn’t, I generally think truth is more important, however I make an exception for people who are older, like my grandparents because I no longer feel that the overall good would outweigh the negatives at their age (both in “coming out” to them or in convincing them of the truth). I feel like at that point their own happiness would be much diminished without enough time for it to be regained and I don’t think that the harm they will do to society in the few years they have left is great enough to justify it.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I’ve been reading and commenting around “the scene” for a few years now. I told my own deconversion story already in a few forums, such as the James Randi forum. There’s not much I can add to that at this point. Additional time has strengthened my toolkit of rational thought but has blurred the finer details of deconverting itself. Anyway, I think I’ll point out my particular situation. There will be a lot of mundane details of my life, but I have a goal in telling it all. It’ll point out a few things that are important to understand about the “average” true believer.

    What I can say is I was a very devout believer. I first joined the faith in my early teenage years, about 13 or 14 or so. Now I recognize that at the time I was ripe for the picking. I had been placed in a small private school as an attempt to deal with my social awkwardness (weaker skills than normal, a problem I still deal with though I have improved) and the inevitable bullying that resulted. It was a rather interesting moment. I was incredibly closed off at first, and slowly opened up to a number of very kind people, while simultaneously embracing the christian faith that seemed to answer “everything”. My previous beliefs weren’t exactly rock solid to begin with mind you. Before going “christian” I believed in pretty much every “fad” belief out there, from ESP to aliens to all variations of supernatural things. All christianity really did, in retrospect, was laser focus and expand on ONE of those beliefs and sacrifice the rest. It can’t be said I was a “natural atheist” before this is the main bullet point I’m getting across here. The only real point to add there is before ditching ALL nonsense altogether, I had already felt the “liberation” of abandoning nonsense once before. My reasoning was very limited, it was basically “this is what I choose to believe, and the rest contradict not only it but each other, so they’re gone”.

    I will also add that I wasn’t “forced” into this private school. Not exactly. It all sounded very exciting as a new start, and I already had a vague belief in god as a general concept anyway. I won’t go into the details on what made my parent make a choice like this, but suffice it to say it was a rather starkly changing period all around. The parent responsible likely would not repeat that decision at this point, and I’ll leave it at that.

    So, I got indoctrinated. I learned a lot of the “values”, the whole concept of respect of elders being a priority, some hard core creationism, but I should add one thing to all this nonsense. It’s not exactly the picture painted by movies about this sort of thing. From what I’ve read of others, a catholic school really is a lot more harsh than the private school I went to. Yes, I learned a lot of nonsense and some messed up values, but generally they weren’t very forceful about any of it. More forceful than they should have been, yes, but the thing anyone “preaching” rational thinking should understand is many christians aren’t spooked into belief by the threat of hellfire. I certainly wasn’t. Hell was brought up, but only in passing, and it was highly frowned upon to believe “out of fear”. Heck, I never gave heck much thought. Many of the teachers there even did mental gymnastics to justify it to themselves, imagining hell as just a place of “total separation” from god.

    This brings me to another point. Unlike what I imagine a catholic school to be, this particular christian school wasn’t denominationally controlled. That is, the particulars changed in some interesting ways from teacher to teacher. One believed “all dogs go to heaven”, while another didn’t believe animals went anywhere (heh, in a way I guess I agree with the latter there now). One believed in the “gap” theory (old earth, young life), while another believed that was too “accommodating”. Oh, the above examples refer to two people specifically, a husband and wife who were as truly in love as one might imagine. They didn’t let these “small differences” get in the way, much to their credit. The one thing they all had to believe, aside from a “literal interpretation of the bible” (which in retrospect, still leaves a lot of room for open interpretation), was the whole bit about salvation through the Jesus. As a result, when homosexuality was brought up (rarely, usually broached by students and generally not talked of by teachers who didn’t want to think about it) the explanation of it’s “evil” was basically that god made the rule and if nothing else, a lot of those rules are there just to “test” if god’s people can “obey” them. Seems a rather cruel thing to give an order JUST for the purpose of seeing if someone will obey it now, but it’s really easy to think of “obeying” as identical to “loyalty” when you’re thinking like that.

    So here’s the deal. I really did get fully into it. Whatever my lacking in critical thinking skills (such as my ignorance that an explanation created out of whole cloth, no matter how effectively it can explain something, still isn’t proof of that something), I did LIKE to think all the time. I could never suffer superficially holding a thought just to fit in. Heck, while having friends allowed me to open up, generally I was afraid of losing myself to the crowd. Ironically, I kinda did, but the point is that for someone who truly identifies themselves BY their faith, as I did after only a few months at this place, there really is a lot of thought going into it. It wasn’t just something I was “born into”, I converted and was utterly convinced of the truth of it, constantly weighing all my thoughts against each other, rooting out inconsistencies as best I knew how and trying my hardest to live up to those christian ideals.

    While doing all this, I was also, though unaware of it, forming my own idea of christianity and what the values “truly” meant. I already had a pretty good idea of right and wrong beforehand, and as far into christianity as I went, all my “interpretations” were melded with that. It wasn’t “right” to kill an entire town or planet full of people…. UNLESS! Hey, there’s an afterlife, and heck, I can imagine that in some untold story god appeared before all those sinners and offered them a chance to change, right?

    My sarcastic comments about myself hide one thing. I was NEVER aware, not once, that I was doing all this to myself. Call someone a liar, or dishonest, and they will laugh you off not because they are “pushing the truth back”. The human brain isn’t that simple. Near as I can tell from my own experience, a person of faith truly is utterly unaware of their own self deception. Heck, self deception of people who truly believe wouldn’t even make SENSE if they were aware they were doing it. I had no idea I had been fed a bunch of nonsense about evolution. I had no idea that I was just making up explanations to make everything fit without contradictions. I had no idea that the concept of “faith” itself literally meant believing something without evidence and NOTHING ELSE. That last one is the trickiest to explain. The feeling of “having faith” is really bizarre in retrospect. It’s a DELIGHT in believing without evidence. The problem is the believing part came FIRST, emotionally as well as logically. Once you “know” it, then you can explain to yourself how “faith” is glorious. You already HAVE that emotional connection. The disconnect from reality is a secondary emotional concern, thought of only after the constant “knowledge” sense. Short circuiting that takes some hell of a lot of doing. There is no magic bullet. No single “technique”. Along the same lines, I say “explain to myself”, but again, that falsely suggests an awareness of what I’m doing that I just don’t have. Awareness of what I WAS doing came only afterwards.

    I will add one other thing. All those friendly people? They were truly genuinely nice, as truly genuinely nice as any nice atheist. Not all of them were kind, the spread was more on the kind side but there were jerks too. It’s really just like any smattering of a distribution anywhere. None of them were doing that “love rush” cult technique or anything of the sort. Most kept their distance until I opened up a bit more, and if anything good came from that experience, it really was learning to trust other human beings. The good people there, if I had ever kept in contact, I would still consider them my friends. Heck, one of them still is my friend to this day (that person has also become an atheist by the way). The good qualities in the kindly ones are just human qualities, whether or not they’re attaching something as pointless as religion to it to justify it. Many of these good and kind people though really were convinced they would loot and pillage if they didn’t have god as their moral compass. The right response to this isn’t “well then you’re a sociopath”, because they aren’t repressing those urges at the orders of their faith. The right response is “frankly, I doubt it”. Deconverted people tend to act more or less the same as they did beforehand. I credited so much of my good behavior to my faith (and my bad behavior to myself and only myself, which is all sorts of messed up), but when I lost the faith, I generally acted just as I did during, and heck before, the conversion.

    I kept this up until about 6 years ago. Before then, numerous events disconnected me from that school, and the later private school had an entirely different rather hostile environment wherein I recall thinking lots of those around me were “phoning in” their faith. After certain incidents I left that one as well. I lived my life from then on still “in faith” but had been starting to read numerous things online, starting with It was a rather surprising introduction to critical thinking by analyzing a “safe” topic like whether people swallow 6 spiders in their life or whether a duck’s quack echoes. I ingested the entire web site as it was back in 2001 and wanted more. I dove into the forums of this place and got into many conversations, preserved for all time on that amber colored discussion panel. My sureness of faith is also preserved there in all it’s embarrassment. More than anything, when faith came up and I defended my own, it felt like I was defending. I never once thought of myself as bringing in my unwanted nonsense. When others would criticize me for my rudeness, to my credit I didn’t express the “confusion” I felt, but that’s as far as it went. I was so mired in my own faith that I literally couldn’t see where I’d gone wrong. I was also so mired in my faith that I couldn’t even understand why someone would BE offended by the “light” of the truth I offered.

    I overstate things a bit. Rereading my own posts on christianity long ago, they are embarrassing, and they are ignorant, but I certainly never got quite as bad as some do. Also of note, I never sought out atheist forums for debate. I went to general forums of my own interest and wasn’t even aware atheist forums existed.

    Over time, I deconverted. With all the details I’ve given of being in faith, I will skip to the more salient points here. I found references to James Randi and a few other early internet skeptical giants like the bad astronomer. I learned a lot about critical thinking and I was applying it to all sorts of areas of my life, including my faith. I still had this bulwark up though. That bulwark said “it’s okay to simply pick some things to demand evidence for, and some things to trust on utter faith, as long as you are honest to yourself about that”. Over time, I found numerous bits of information trickling out from the more general skepticism sites on things like evolution and specific things that actually can’t be found in the bible. Yes, I was rather shocked to find that there isn’t a single mention of “the rapture” in the bible. I was also educating myself on what evolution actually was. I had actually been in a few online “debates”, and let me just say that as ignorant as I was, the debaters “for” evolution didn’t know what they were talking about either. A few even had mystical ideas on evolution themselves. It’s no wonder I wasn’t convinced until I did my own research. So we get to that point 6 years ago when I had been convinced of the truth of evolution (before even finding out about the molecular evidence), knew that numerous “truths” of my understanding of christianity weren’t even in the holy book they supposedly came from, and had generally just accepted those facts while still holding onto my faith itself. The stunner came from even more self reflection. I had given up so many parts, I was picking and choosing, I had learned numerous things about basic human behavior that led to belief in silly urban legends, and I knew that the very holy word I believed in had only age in it’s favor. I COULD have kept faith, I really could have, but my intellectual honesty wouldn’t allow it. I realized that with every little thing slowly chipped away, I might as well give up the whole thing, Jesus god and all.

    Some people had a horrible experience doing that. I didn’t. I really did define myself by it years before that moment, but the process had happened so slowly that finally admitting it to myself was like taking a breath of fresh air. Nothing really changed. Well, except for a few things. My political beliefs changed almost overnight. Heck, my opinions on homosexuality were already progressive before my conversion and had gone back that way a few months before my deconversion.

    I think I have painted a solid picture of the life of a faith head. What I want to get across is that the things it took to reach me were basically a sense of constant self examination and learning some critical thinking skills. I think the best way to get to someone is first make them care about the truth by talking about some stupid thing you both agree on, then teaching via silly urban legend this or that. That does have value. More important than particular beliefs are how one reaches them, and by the same extent more important than whether someone believes in a religion is whether they have the tools to remove themselves from it.

    There is value in a nice approach of finding common ground and talking about how someone’s religion doesn’t match the other moral values they say they have. There is value in a rude and outrageous approach “shocking” someone out of the notion that religion is just the norm.

    However, for me, the way out of faith came because of a long slow path of learning critical thinking skills and my faith just slowly being dissolved. I can’t say there are no “eureka moments”, because I’ve read deconversion stories that are exactly that. I can say I think a lot of people were be best served by this method. It’s subtle, it’s slow, and it takes patience, but it worked for me, and for the person with the right sort of personality, I think it’ll be an effective tactic.

    Oh, one last thing. Whatever strategy one pics, rude or polite, direct or subtle, never forget it’s a person you’re debating.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I need to add to my ridiculously long story because I managed to avoid answering some very specific questions you had. Sorry there.

    How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion?

    I encountered a few atheists and had some lively discussions with them as a christian, but really the biggest enemy of my faith was my own need for internal consistency. Those debates made me think of things though, so it added to the growing “concerns” I was having. It would have been better though if the two I had spoken with had been more logical in their attempts I think. Both had more emotional reasons for not believing and weren’t too good at arguing their points. One had that religious “respect” of my views, and the other didn’t. Not sure if that helped or hindered their attempt really.

    Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer?

    I was quite happy when I finally realized I had abandoned my old faith in favor of rationality, but happiness, as I’ve learned from studies, tends to “normalize” after any change in life, good or bad. This goes along with the whole “people tend to be the same either way” thing. The biggest change is that my attempt to help people isn’t hindered or completely countered by false beliefs. There’s more truth to the phrase “for good people to do evil, it takes religion” than one may realize. (Mind you, that also goes for certain personality cults like objectivism, or anything where someone makes decisions not based in reality.)

    And what do you think of evangelical atheism?

    While I am not a huge “voice” in the community like some, I love it. I can’t help but wonder if I would have converted sooner with a more direct approach at times. I’ll never know, all I know is what worked for me, but promoting atheism is a great thing. The big arguments in the movement come down to the methods. Eh, I think all methods can flurish, but they probably can’t all act in concert together. A subtler method likely works best when the people slowly learning rational skills don’t get “betrayed” with knowledge that their precious or something is associated with deadly atheism. Hard to say. One thing I think much more of the promoters of atheism could benefit from are actual studies into this sort of thing. The more I learn about psychological tests, the more they sink home. Ignore their lessons at your peril.

    What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion?

    If the target is someone like me (that’s a big point to make), take things slow. I hate to sound wormy or sneaky, but that’s sort of the best way to go. Make the conversation something basic like logical skills. Those like me simply don’t HAVE the right toolkit to start with. Anything else is meaningless until they do. It’s the attempt I’ve been making. Over many years I’ve had small conversations on topics we agree on and after their emotional rejection of it, I also drop in how there’s terrible logic supporting that thing too. They love it, and learn a few things. Over time, they start making those sorts of logical arguments on their own, and I’ve started to see real differences over the past few years with family this way. This isn’t for everyone. It may seem far too dishonest for some to stomach. All I can say is it seems to be getting results. It’s somewhat satisfying having a dear friend call after several years to announce to you they’ve done all the thinking all on their own and decided to abandon their faith. At that point, feel free to come clean. Once someone makes that sort of jump for logical reasons rather than emotional ones, any sense of “betrayal” just won’t exist, at least in the very limited sample set I have.

    What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness?

    It depends on the situation. I value truth above all else, and it just so happens that the truth of the universe allows FOR human happiness to flourish. That’s great, but need not have been the case. When I say “it depends on the situation”, I really am talking in a much grittier sense. If nazis are all around you and you want to project a jewish family, it does no good to “speak truth loudly” by denouncing naziism and calling attention to yourself. It’s painful to see politicians so easily caving into hatred all the time though… Also, making dialog possible has to start somewhere. The only key I have is making sure it’s physically safe to do so.

    If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both?

    Both. It comes down to the simple fact that religion doesn’t make people happy any more than atheism does. That was never the purpose of it. Heck, talk to religious people. They don’t claim they ARE happy all the time right now, but that they have the PROMISE of happiness in the next life. They may claim they are “joyful” and explain the difference, but it’s not really much more than the simple experience of “knowing the truth”, which tends to be a lot better when you know you got there with evidence and logic. I don’t claim that people who become atheists will be “so much happier”, but they will certainly have a better footing and realize they should be making the most out of their existing time, that satisfaction with life doesn’t need to wait for some nirvana but can come from helping others right now. So, satisfaction, that’s probably a better quality to look for anyway.

    Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards? Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?

    I think that if someone is truly less happy after deconversion, therapy should be looked into. However, if life satisfaction is important, and a big part of that is feeling like you have made a difference in the lives of others, I might say that someone who’s dedicated their whole life to the priesthood or running a church would have a much harder time of it after deconversion, due to the very basic fact that their ONLY life skill can no longer support them and they will have the sudden horror of realizing they have never helped anyone through promoting faith (maybe through the occasional hunger drive though). However, I can’t talk for them. I wasn’t pursuing that path myself, and others who HAVE like the naked pastor have come out and say they like their life now better anyway. Perhaps there really is no one that would be truly worse off for it, except in incredibly repressive regions of the world. Many former pastors came out on the other side just taking their skills, removing the dishonest bits as best they can, and promoting atheism, so there’s always the satisfaction of a redeemer.

    All in all, you ask for the deconverted to say whether they think that evangelizing atheism is wrong, and I say “no”. Do it, and do it a lot.

  • joelj

    Since my story is on my website, I’ll limit myself here to answering your questions. Other people have responded in more detail and more eloquently, so some of my answers will just echo them.

    So tell us all how devout you were. What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer?

    I was raised in a devout fundamentalist Christian family. When my high school counselor suggested that I consider applying to Vanderbilt, I instead chose a small Christian college which required a Bible class and chapel every day. I was a very active member of a number of churches in the various places I have lived, and I financially supported those churches and other Christian organizations.

    Over the years I studied the Bible and read scores of Christian books. I taught Bible classes and led home discussion groups. I read the Bible aloud and led prayers at home, in churches, and in an office prayer group. My wife and I hosted music parties consisting of worship music in our home. On a few occasions I led worship services, preached sermons, and gave testimonies. I participated in the Dunamis Project, Tres Dias, and Promise-Keepers events. My wife and I went on a prayer mission trip to Ireland.

    In my late 40′s I wrote some statements of my theology, intending to give them to my sons to counteract what I saw as false teachings in all the churches I knew of. In all of that time I questioned many things about Christian doctrine, but never questioned my Christian worldview.

    How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion?

    The only atheist who ever discussed religion with me merely questioned the goodness of a god who preferred faith over good behavior. I had no satisfactory response for him, and for several years I occasionally wondered how I could have answered his concern. That question by itself didn’t shake my faith, but pondering it may have inclined me to be less easily satisfied with the traditional answers to difficult questions about Christian doctrine that came up over the years.

    One book I read a couple of years before my deconversion may have been key to enabling me to question my religious beliefs. On a vacation, looking for something interesting to read, I picked up a book on critical thinking, How to Think About Weird Things, by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn. It debunked creationism, but did not address religion in general. That meshed with my beliefs, but also led me to begin to question more fundamental aspects of Christianity. Most importantly, it reinforced my confidence in science and encouraged me to demand evidence to support my beliefs.

    How long ago did you convert?

    About eight years ago I found that I no longer felt that the core beliefs of Christianity were very important to me, and decided that I was no longer a Christian. A few weeks later I realized that I no longer had any basis for believing in God.

    How do you feel about it now?

    It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

    Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected?

    I never anticipated the possibility that I would ever be anything but a faithful Christian; I was astounded to find myself an atheist, so I never had a chance to think about what it would be like beforehand. I had always been told that atheists were unhappy, though, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was happier as an atheist.

    Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer?

    I’m definitely happier, more relaxed and more peaceful now. I no longer expect the world to be the way I think it ought to me, so I can handle disappointments better. I had frequent bouts with depression until I abandoned my faith, but I have never been depressed since then.

    And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion?

    I attribute some of my increased happiness to my liberation from some of the “oughts” I had imposed on myself. That liberation actually occurred a few weeks before my deconversion. I think my ongoing happiness is due to my freedom from all the demands of my religion, my relinquishment of the demands that I made on other people, and my abandonment of expectations that God would solve the problems of the world.

    Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted?

    Now that I no longer feel obligated to behave in the manner prescribed by my understanding of God, I am much more the kind of person I want to be. I’m far more open to friendships with people who are different from me, and far less judgmental of others’ ideas and behavior. I’m much more consistently cheerful and I’m learning to be more generous.

    Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?

    When I lost my faith, I also lost the strong sense of family and community that I had enjoyed with my family and friends. That was a painful loss, and I continue to struggle to deal with it. On balance, I feel that the freedom to be myself is worth that loss, but that fact doesn’t fully compensate for the decrease in companionship with my friends and family.

    And what do you think of evangelical atheism?

    I now see sharing freethought as the major mission of my life. I want to share the freedom I’ve found, and I still faintly hope to re-establish some of my close friendships by helping my friends and family go free of religion.

    And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices?

    I agree with Carlie that religion is too harmful to be ignored. I would feel uncaring if I didn’t attempt to show people the truth.

    What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion?

    I was myself a believer for so long that I am extraordinarily compassionate toward religious people. I know that I was an intelligent, thoughtful, science-loving person even while I unquestioningly believed in a spiritual realm behind the physical universe. I am very patient with the religious people I deal with, because I can never forget how deluded I was myself. At the same time, I look for every opportunity to help them challenge their beliefs because I know how liberating it can be to learn from science rather than religious authorities.

    What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged?

    Unless they spent considerable time believing in supernatural things of some kind, I don’t think lifelong atheists can comprehend what it is like to live in religious delusion or to have that delusion challenged. It may be helpful for them to imagine the situation being reversed by imagining the cognitive difficulties of a muggle being told about the world of magic. Perhaps the best way to begin to understand, though, would be to read lots of stories like those above.

    What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness?

    To me, long-term happiness is the ultimate value–the one I want both for myself and others. For myself personally, truth is a key element in long-term happiness. Other people may not share that value, so I can’t speak for them, but I can’t think of any situation in which the truth would not contribute to my happiness.

    Anj said it beautifully: “You can face and deal with truth, happiness from hiding from the truth never lasts long.”

    If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both?

    Both. As others have said, I think they go hand in hand.

    Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards?

    No, it would not be worthwhile for that person, but by enabling that person to make decisions based on evidence rather than authority or tradition, it could provide a net benefit for other people and future generations.

    Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?

    There probably are some people who would be worse off if they deconverted. A Muslim in a country in which apostasy can be punished by execution, for example, might be better off not deconverting without some protection from enforcement of the law. I never told my parents that I was no longer a Christian, because they were very old and I didn’t see any benefit to upsetting them.