When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

Last fall, I began what I expect to be a long series of posts on my deconversion. The posts so far have focused on what I was like before I deconverted, how the process of deconversion began, and how it progressed through my early college years. I still have some key phases of the deconversion process to chronicle. I also hope some day to get to all the stuff that happened after I deconverted.

In this post I am going to leap ahead in the story from where I left off to cover the time of my deconversion, focusing on how I told various important people in my life that I had become a non-believer.  I am skipping ahead in order to answer Greta’s recent call for atheists’ “coming out” stories, in which she asks us to address very specific questions she has about our individual processes of coming out. Please read her questions carefully and submit your stories to her. 

In this post, I am going to reply to the part of her request where she asks for all the situating details of who I was, where I was, and what the people around me were like, etc. In the next three posts on this topic, I will explore the details of how I came out to some specific people and what I learned from those experiences. In one post, I will talk about coming out to a family from my home church with whom I had been extremely close. In another post I will talk about coming out to my own family members. In a third post, I will talk about coming out at the conservative evangelical college at which I was a senior and a philosophy major.

With no further ado, here are the basic details of where I was in my life, how I came out, and how I have lived out ever since.

October 30, 1999-May 2000

As a newly unbelieving college senior at one of the nation’s most religiously and politically conservative reputable colleges, I came out as a non-believer to my parents, friends, fellow undergraduate students, professors, and members of my religious community.

May 2000-present

And since then I have almost always freely identified myself to any subsequent strangers, romantic interests, fellow graduate students, professors, bosses, colleagues, etc., to whom it has been relevant. I have lived fully out as an atheist.

2003-2007

The only people I have ever deliberately hid my religious views from were my students during my first years as a college instructor and professor. This was not because I was an atheist in particular, but because at the time I felt like not letting them know what I thought on those issues would help them assess better whether I was being objective, think for themselves without defaulting to agreeing with my opinions, and feel confident in expressing and defending their own views without fear that I would grade them according to my atheism rather than their abilities to make good arguments for whatever they thought. I have since come to think of this policy as unnecessary. I usually do not make any big point of declaring my atheism to students but I will typically answer students’ questions straightforwardly and will not be shy about making arguments which are directly influenced by my atheism.

October 1999-May 1999

When I first came out I lived a life that was mostly contained to the campus of Grove City College. The students there were predominantly from western Pennsylvania. The school is simultaneously both academically and religiously serious. Academically the school is best known for its engineering, business, and education programs. Most of the students were not there for religious degrees, but nonetheless a sizable proportion of them was deeply religious. It was the safe default assumption with anyone you met there was that they were a conservative Christian, and most likely an evangelical Protestant. There was a fairly good chance they were specifically a Calvinist too.

I was also personally friends with many of the theology and philosophy majors there. The theology students seemed unanimously theologically conservative. I can’t remember any real liberals or moderates. A few philosophy majors were out as agnostics but most were Christians and fairly conservative. But many of us were quite conflicted in our beliefs and a fair number are now atheists or agnostics. I was a prominent figure in the philosophy and theology department at our school. I founded the philosophy club and was its rather popular president. We had really well attended meetings and various of the important moments of my deconversion and its aftermath took place at our philosophy club events. I was also so close with enough members of the campus’s most famously religious men’s Christian housing group on campus that many people mistook me for a member.

1983-1996

My home, and my home church, when I was not at school was on Long Island. There were people at home and in my home church whom I came out to also. Growing up on Long Island, I knew mostly only Catholics, Jews, and mainline Protestants who I never really saw express any interest in their religion. Only at my home church and networking through my church (such as at our Christian camp upstate) did I find more active, outspoken, fundamentalist, evangelical, Protestant Christians to identify with. The culture of Long Island never struck me as overtly religious at all. I had grown up with a consciousness of coming from a very irreligious, unchristian world. As a Christian I had felt as though my devout Christianity made me a serious minority. In high school I was verbally bullied quite a bit over my outspoken religious and political views.

Throughout high school I had wanted to become a minister. When I was a senior in high school I realized my intellectual curiosity would make delivering sermons pitched for the average parishioner rather boring, so I decided I wanted to become a theology professor instead. Late in my first college semester I decided to major in philosophy because I felt like first order philosophical questions needed to be worked out in order to properly address theological questions. My plan was to use undergraduate philosophy training as a background for subsequent theological training. I dabbled with a Christian Thought major throughout college by taking many of the necessary classes for that major just in case I wanted to declare the major and finish it off in my last two years of schooling.

Spring 1997

As a freshman I invented and organized a “hall Sabbath”. My idea, worked out with a friend whose room we used, was to designate a room on our hall on a given Sunday for all-day prayer and worship and Bible reading. People would come in throughout the day at will to participate. I was there the whole day. It was an extraordinary success. I was chosen to be an RD (like an RA but specifically for upperclassmen rather than freshmen) and part of the requirements for that job was evangelistic fervor.

So, I was very serious about my faith and people knew it. I was also very theologically and philosophically inclined and everyone who knew me knew that well. I had also spent two of my college summers as a camp counselor at a Christian camp where we were heavily interested in proselytization. I was known for my fervent Christian feelings and attitudes from high school and all through college.

October 30, 1999-May, 2000

With my college friends, I came out in person usually through one on one conversations. Quickly word spread through the grapevine so I did not need to tell everyone directly myself. I came out to each of my parents on the phone.

I have since always voluntarily outed myself. Occasionally a friend will introduce me as an atheist (not, say, a “blogger who writes on atheism” but just as “an atheist”) and I find it startling and a little off-putting. I am very proud to be an atheist and to identify as one. And I am very willing to rise to challenges and be confrontational in defense of atheism wherever necessary. And I love connecting with atheists and answering questions of people who are interested in atheism. But I feel like I am being treated as one dimensional or only interesting to someone for my atheism when they introduce me to believers as an atheist and immediately make this isolated fact prominent.

In subsequent posts I am exploring stories of coming out to specific people and the lessons that might be gleaned from how that has gone. The first post to do that is When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed.

Once I have written a few such posts, I will answer Greta’s questions about how I feel in general about having lived the last twelve and a half years as an unabashedly out atheist.

Your Thoughts?

Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

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.

  • michaelraymer

    Neat. It’s interesting to read the story from the perspective of someone that was once so very devout. Before you deconverted, were you a creationist? I ask because I’ve had creationism on my mind lately. A friend from high school added me on Facebook recently, and he identifies himself as a “Bible-believing Christian” and has posted some things indicating he’s a young-Earth creationist. I haven’t really talked about it with him, but I have my “religious views” set to “Atheist” on Facebook and have liked several atheist books like The God Delusion, so the topic could possibly come up. I’m not sure where to even begin if it does though. How do I approach someone on the topic of science when he clearly rejects so much of it? To be a young-Earther you must reject not only evolution but geology and cosmology… so I don’t even know where to start that conversation…

    But anyway, great post and I’m looking forward to the next ones!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Michael. I was a creationist in high school but my creationism simply melted away overnight in college for me. It just didn’t matter to me. Fairly early on in my theology classes it was stressed to us that even Augustine had speculated long ago that Genesis may not be a literal account of creation. I tended to think of the question of creationism and evolution as fairly irrelevant. I remember feeling no strong passions one way or the other. Then reading philosophers who just took it for granted, I came to just take it for granted as well. And then coming to understand that it was uncontested science, I just found myself accepting it without ever being directly convinced of it.

    • michaelraymer

      Thanks for the reply, Dan! That is really interesting, and I’m a bit surprised creationism wasn’t a more central issue for you. You say you came to understand evolution was uncontested science, but the creationists seem to think the science is actually on their side. Before you deconverted, did you find that your religious peers were equally skeptical or uninterested in creationism, or did you sort of stand out on that issue? I’m just curious about how prevalent that sort of view is among the extremely devout. In some ways I can understand where the creationists are coming from, since I can understand how they might feel that a Bible-based faith sort of unravels if the Genesis account is not literally true. Sometimes I think that almost makes them more intellectually honest believers. Of course, that sort of rigid Bible-based fundamentalism has so many problems beyond just the rejection of science, such as all the mental gymnastics needed for accepting the Bible as literally true when it contradicts itself so often…

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I honestly don’t remember creationism being much of an issue in discussions with my friends. I was interested in philosophy and theology, not science, and our theology professors were cool with explaining how the Bible could be read many ways on this point so it was not something the whole faith hung on in my mind. I thought about it some but it was really peripheral to me and my transition to believing in evolution was extremely passive and uneventful.

      Now, as it turns out, my school has since gone and hired a scientist who is a creationist and that’s a high profile deal now, so I don’t know what the current line at the school is on the subject.

  • John Morales

    Occasionally a friend will introduce me as an atheist (not, say, a “blogger who writes on atheism” but just as “an atheist”) and I find it startling and a little off-putting. I am very proud to be an atheist and to identify as one. [...] But I feel like I am being treated as one dimensional or only interesting to someone for my atheism when they introduce to believers as an atheist and immediately make this isolated fact prominent.

    I think you too think the feeling stems from perceiving reality, so that you find it startling indicates lack of inurement (so, could be worse). And I think that you can account for the situation.

    (Also, perhaps I’m in a minority in thinking that a naive reader might imagine you’re appealing to your feelings only)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I don’t understand what you’re saying.

    • John Morales

      To rephrase it less elliptically: You felt you were treated that way because you were being treated that way, you can account for why it happened, and you’re not claiming your feeling is the basis for why it’s problematic.

  • http://marniemaclean.com MissMarnie

    Interesting. I always enjoy reading about how people got to whatever point they are at in their life.

    Do you think delving into calvinism made you more likely to lose your faith? Would it have been harder to shed your religious beliefs if they were less dogmatic? I remember being very young and pondering at length about the idea that my successes were to be attributed to god but my failures were to be attributed to my own short comings and I thought how fundamentally unreasonable that idea was. That was the turning point for me. But I wasn’t particularly devout before then. God was really no different than Santa, he was just some dude who was always judging me and might bring me toys. But what I’m getting at is that it was the unreasonableness of the standards that pushed me away, not any sort of critical analysis of the religion (I was like, 6, after all, I could barely read). So for me, when I read about Calvinism I think that it all seems pretty hard to swallow, but if my parents had been Quakers or UUs I might have taken far longer to come to the same conclusion.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I think I was probably just too logical to have a mealy-mouthed compromise faith anyway but certainly my commitment to truth began with the fundamentalist upbringing having the word truth drummed into me as important, so it is hard to know who I would have been without that upbringing. That’s part of why in most respects I don’t begrudge having started there. I just wish there weren’t certain lingering negative effects that are hard to undo in my life.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X