When I Deconverted: Some Felt Betrayed

When I came out as an unbeliever at the end of my college career, one of the most disappointing rejections I initially encountered came from a family with whom I had been very close in high school. By the time I was graduating high school, and was the closest to them I would ever be, the husband was roughly 60 years old, the wife roughly 40, and their three kids were roughly 14, 13, and 8.

1991-August 1996:

Though I was a teenager and not the same age as anyone in the family, throughout my high school years I had a great rapport with each of them individually and would often chat with each of them at church and go over to their house some Sundays after church spending time with each of them one by one and all of them together. I wrote many poems and some of them meant a lot to them. The 60 year old man enjoyed our theological conversations so much that when I was 18 and graduating high school he rather humbly said that he considered me a “teacher” in relation to himself. I was close to the boys and watched them grow from 4-9 and from 8-13. I had watched the girl in the family grow from 9-14 years old. I had been her camp counselor at the church camp we both grew up attending. All in all I had a fairly big religious influence upon her. She was essentially the closest thing I’ve ever had to a younger sister and I felt a big brotherly fondness for her.

November 1997:
In my sophomore year in college, over Thanksgiving break, the mother in the family was one of the first people to whom I expressed my first burgeoning serious doubts. And I remember her being friendly but stern in insisting I just had to beat back the doubt.

Fall 2001:
A year after I deconverted, in my first year of graduate school, I went to visit the whole family. Beforehand, I let the mother in the family know I no longer believed. I was hoping we could talk through all that I had learned in my four years studying theology and philosophy and why it had all dissuaded me from the faith. When I showed up the mother had manipulative pre-planned to have the children (now ~19, ~18, and ~13) express their disappointment in me.

While she made a pretense at listening to what I had to say, she was essentially closed off to hearing anything I had to say. She was just interested in using the emotions of the kids against me. She made it especially tricky to explain my thinking to the kids. I felt ambushed, betrayed, and mistrusted. I felt like the parents’ support for my thinking and my influence on their kids for all those years was in a flash cynically irrelevant and worth quashing as best they could. They had no interest in either understanding or learning from this gut wrenching intellectual and spiritual conclusion that I had come to through so much intense studying and personal anguish.

When the now 19 year old girl drove me back to the train station at the end of the visit she expressed being really angry with me for “failing” her. She essentially communicated that I had been a role model and a major influence on her throughout her high school years. Impacted, primarily before I had left for college, by both my exhortations and my personal example I had helped her stay strong in the faith and to resist temptations in my absence. So how could I now leave the faith and abandon it all? How could  not be able to endure any longer and just quit? How could I treat everything we had both committed to as though it were a waste of time and effort?

I tried to express to her that I had left the faith precisely because I was the principled person she took to be a worthy role model. It was the principled commitment to truth that I had been taught as a Christian that had made me earnestly investigate the truth of Christianity and realize it was false. It was the principled commitment to truth and doing the right thing that made me go out on a limb and abandon all the comforts of my religious identity, community, and beliefs in order instead to follow my intellectual conscience and become a non-believer. I had not abandoned her, I had come back from further up the road on our common journey to tell her what I had discovered.

~2008:

I was very gratified when about 7 years after this gut wrenching talk, we briefly reconnected on Facebook. She was by then an unbeliever too. She revealed to me that even when excoriating me in the car that day, she had had her serious doubts about the faith. She basically confessed that at the time what she had really resented so much when I admitted my unbelief was that I was taking down one of the major props for her own teetering belief. Throughout high school when she doubted, it was in no small part knowing that I  believed that had helped reassure her that it was rational to keep believing and committing to. After I abandoned my faith, she eventually found it within herself to admit her own lack of actual good reasons to believe. She was now very happily an atheist. And now we had that rare and special sense of camaraderie that you feel with people who you once shared a religion and now share your irreligiousness. I have a special place in my heart for these particular friends and relish the conversations we have shared since deconverting and reconnecting.

Unfortunately, soon after our Facebook reconnect she stopped using the site altogether. She was now a teacher and worried about students looking her up that way. So we have not been in touch since. One of her brothers unfriended me on Facebook without explanation. I tried to re-friend him. I asked what was wrong and he communicated in harsh terms that he was sick of reading my views on my Facebook wall. So, he did not re-friend me and I did not try again. I was briefly in touch with the youngest of the kids too through Facebook while he was in college but a quick check of my friends list right now shows that even though he was tolerant of my atheism when we had our few conversations, he seems to have unfriended me somewhere along the way too. I have never been in touch with the parents in the family again.

So, I learn from that experience that some people you trust and with whom you have intimate bonds and mutual admiration can turn manipulative and cruel—especially when they see you as a threat to change their kids’ minds and resent having trusted you to be an influence on their kids in the first place.

But I also learned that someone’s initial hostility and disappointment at your confession of disbelief may only be the last gasps of their own dying faith. They may be lashing out at you because your disbelief makes it harder for them to believe. In some rare cases, possibly your belief was one of the props keeping up their beliefs and they just need time and room to come to terms with the weak supports for their own faith in their own way. Later on they will thank you and it will be rewarding to reconnect when you are both atheists.

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.

  • carlie

    And now we had that rare and special sense of camaraderie that you feel with people who you once shared a religion and now share your irreligiousness. I have a special place in my heart for these particular friends and relish the conversations we have shared since deconverting and reconnecting.

    I have a couple of those, and I share your sentiments exactly. There are things I can talk about with them that nobody else understands, and they are precious to me.

  • eric

    How could I not be able to endure any longer and just quit? How could I treat everything we had both committed to as though it were a waste of time and effort?

    Sunk cost commitment (“throwing good money after bad”) is such a hard thing to deal with, that even knowing about it and even when my sunk costs are small, I often find it very difficult to stop.

    I can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone to stop throwing good money after bad when the ‘money’ is decades of countless hours, public statements, and actual monetary support for a religious position. When the ‘money’ is their very personality.

    When you stopped putting money in, you called into question the value of their own behavior. You might not have intended it to be an attack, but it should be no surprise that it was viewed that way. With folks so deeply committed, you pretty much have to assume that any effort to change minds or even just explain your own position is going to be a process of two small steps forward followed by a nearly equally large step backwards.


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