Immediately Post-Deconversion, How Did Your Theistic Views of Non-Belief Affect You?

A lot of theistic religious people think some pessimistic, condescending, and/or outright villainizing things about what it is to be an atheist. Many of them talk as though our lives must both be meaningless and feel meaningless, and that morally we must both think and/or act according to the most extreme mixture of selfishness, hedonism, moral anarchism, moral relativism, materialism, greediness, lustfulness, vanity, narcissism, domination-worship, sensible knavishness, nihilism, etc.

Some theists think of these problems as primarily abstract. They recognize atheists are (or can be) as generally moral or live lives with as much sense of purpose as they do, but they just do not think atheists have as good philosophical justification for their morality or for meaning as theists do. Others go further and outright assume that it just naturally follows that this supposed lack of philosophical justification for morality will lead us to actually either immorally, or indifferently to morality, or as though nothing really mattered, or something similar and on that account turn us into bad people. Or, more crudely and possibly more commonly, they assume that human nature is such that anyone who doesn’t believe in an omnipotent and omniscient enforcer of morality will do even the most heinously immoral things wherever they happen to feel like it and can evade earthly consequences.

Such dreary and socially threatening interpretations of the implications of atheism obviously serve an agenda of scaring people into staying within the confines of their faith beliefs for they perceive to be the sake of morality and purpose in their lives. It also conveniently stigmatizes atheists so that people dread being one or being seen as one. It makes for fantastic propaganda that stifles and mentally cages people.

Now, if you have lived your whole life in this mindset, what happens when one day you no longer believe in the existence of the kind of god that you thought was crucial for both the justification and the motivation to be moral or to live a meaningful life? Unfortunately, many deconverts (and even some lifelong atheists!) buy into the false Christian choice between theistic meaning and nihilism and become professed nihilists. But does that affect how they behave and value on a practical level?

I want to ask the former theists out there, did the kinds of Christian prejudices about the possibilities for non-belief that I have outlined above affect how you understood yourself or what was moral or best for you post-faith or whether you felt obliged to be moral anymore, etc.? In the immediate aftermath of deconverting did abstract ideas about what non-belief supposedly must entail influence your practical thinking in any tangible ways? Did you feel either any greater license or any greater motivation to be more selfish, more apathetic, more relativistic, etc., etc.? Did you reason that “if there is no god all is permitted” and if you did did that change your behavior or effective mindset in any specific ways?

Did any other theistically or religiously formed beliefs about non-believers affect serve as a negative or a positive influence on how you saw yourself and in turn behaved? It’s a wrenching thing for many of us to go through losing our identity shaping beliefs and communities. We can cast about for role models. Sometimes, conformists as we are, we can regularly be influenced to behave like people we understand to be doing bad things if only we think they are the normal things to do. Casting about for role models when one knows few non-believers, were any of you inclined to follow the examples set by the imaginary non-believers of whom you had heard well-poisoning rumors?

Finally, a little different but still related and interesting, did any other habits of thinking that you would now repudiate but which were forged religiously linger into your non-believing days? Did you hold on to religiously formed sexism or reactionary moral or political attitudes, etc.?

Your Experiences?

For just a few of my ruminations on how I dealt with these kinds of issues, see at least the following few installments from my deconversion series:

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

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

After I Deconverted: I Was Deeply Ambivalent; What Was I to Make of Sex, Love, Alcohol, Bisexuality, Abortion, 9/11, Religious Violence, Marxism, or the Yankees?

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

Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
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.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I’m probably the odd person out because I came by my atheism via the pragmatic traditions of neo-paganism and Buddhism. So for me I didn’t have to worry so much about the eschatology, just the belief in belief stuff.

  • Meire

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Two things that I can think of that I was anxious to try and that I felt I had missed out on were drinking alcoholic beverages and dancing to pop music or going for an all night disco. These are prohibited for proper Ugandan Christians, and when I first deconverted, I was filled with a sense of regret that I was generally up-tight and unable to dance freely, or enjoy a glass of wine in a social setting.

    I now enjoy pop music with abandon, and cannot believe that I once regarded it as demonic and sinful. I have been to a disco or 2, and while I enjoyed myself, it is not something I am keen to do simply because I’d much rather be in bed!

    I enjoy the occasional glass of wine, but have decided that I really don’t like the taste of alcoholic beverages. Once or twice I have had 2 or 3 glasses and been hangover the next day, a feeling I absolutely loathe.

    I am married and my partner is still a Christian. I confess that sometimes it has occured to me to have an affair, just to experience what being loved by somebody else would be like, or what sex with somebody else would be like (I have only ever been a relationship with my partner and we abstained until our wedding). But I do not think that I have these thoughts because I am no longer a Christian. I think I might still have had these thoughts as a Christian, except that I would quickly suppress them as sinful and unacceptable. Now when I have such thoughts, I take time to think about why I am having them, that is, why am I dissatified with my marriage and is there anything I can do about it? I also think about what the impact of having an affair would be on me, my partner and our children, and this helps me to let go of the thought having made the choice that an affair would actually be detrimental to me.

    Something I have been struggling with for some years is being impatient with my young children and shouting at them. It bothers me because in my interactions with grown ups and even other people’s children, I am generally calm and even-tempered. I have often wondered whether I struggle with this because I have lost the Holy Spirit’s ability to magically give me patience and self control. I know my behaviour is wrong, and I have read a lot about keeping my cool and handling my children with firmness and consistency. Some days are better than others, but there are days on which I continually seem to be shouting instructions or yelling at them to stop doing something. I continue to grapple with my behaviour, to dig deeper and try to understand why I am so short-tempered with them. Is it because of a deep insecurity that I am a bad and unworthy parent and that what I consider their inappropriate behaviour is a reflection of this? Is it because my own childhood in a Christian boarding school was so controlled and repressed that I do not know how to handle children properly? I can only hope things will continue to get better. Somehow I am doubtful that I would have been able to magic away this behaviour with an adequate dose of the Holy Spirit!

    As to why I do not lie, cheat, steal and kill; I would like to think that I am an intelligent, rational and compassionate being who is still able to empathise and sympathise with my fellow human beings. I am by no means perfect, but I have realised that my behaviour is largely a function of my personality and character, and I think this has remained largely the same regardless of my beliefs. It may seem like Christianity definied my whole identity, but in truth it had little do with why I am more intro- than extro-verted; a pessimist and not an optimist; and various other aspects of my personality which have remained more or less the same.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    I was definitely affected. And seeing as I deconverted 4 months ago the experience is still raw. In the 2 weeks after I deconverted I was pretty depressed because the “meaning” that I had previously valued was gone, and though it became quickly apparent that there was meaning outside Christianity, it was still a fight to shrug off the feelings of purposelessness and embrace the newfound freedom of my mind. As for behavior. It didn’t change much, I already had a pretty straightforward code of ethics, which was kind of a bastardized combination of some Christian ethics and secular ones so I generally adhered to a basic do no harm principle and threw in a “love your neighbor” so I was left with the fact that I was a moral person in spite of my fellow Christians admonishments that I was not/ couldn’t be.

  • SpontOrder

    ” I’m not a lost sheep. I jumped the fence and sprinted away ” is what I say now when I want to throw some Christian off their game but it’s a bit of personal revisionist history. I did cope with some feelings that would broadly fall within the nihilist tent and I did make a conscious decision to hold to ‘high’ morals (read keeping the v-card) until I was more comfortable with non-belief. There was also this giddy euphoria of new possibility and joy at experiencing science and art and philosophy with new eyes.

  • Buckley

    I have to say for me it was like the Indiana Jones where he had to trust his fathers notes and walk across the bridge that could not be seen. Once you do it, it feels right – you have to trust that you are correct in the way you are moving now. I’ve always had doubts and my family encouraged those doubts by not going to church and by saying “you can choose what you want to be”. Well I choose to be a Secular Humanist. Being a Historian and Teacher I am reaffirmed in my beliefs (or non-beliefs if you will) every day. For me personally it was an awakening of Freedom. I realize that for others who de-convert it can leave a feeling of loneliness and despair and worse – self-loathing. As it turns out, you are far from alone. I have a really dear friend (who is gay) who said that it was like coming out – except that she said she would have a harder time coming out as atheist because there happens to be a greater negative stigma attached. There are times lately that I have to agree. But all in all its been a smooth transition, which I realize is not the same for everyone else.

  • Heina Dadabhoy

    I, for a short time, fell into the trap of wanting to be more “moral” (i.e. more faithful to Abrahamic values) than those who followed the Abrahamic faiths. That is, I avoided doing the things for which those in the Abrahamic faiths most severely judge others in the hopes of proving that I wasn’t some rebellious teen, that my deconversion was philosophical rather than in the interests of having fun, and so on. All too quickly, I realized that people would judge me a frivolous deconvert regardless of what I said or how I acted, so I started building my own ethical code rather than adhering to a watered-down version of Islam’s code.

    Hilariously enough, not long after I left that behind, I found my on-campus atheist group and most of its members were still trapped in the “let’s be more sanctimonious than Christians” silliness. I threw a few parties in the hopes of livening things up and the rest is the history.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Fascinating. While I didn’t go that route in morality terms, I spent a long time determined to prove that I wasn’t depressed or directionless. I was defensive that Christians would use being unhappy against me and was determined not to let that happen.

  • Speedwell

    I was relieved but sorry to realize I was an atheist. It would have been more comfortable to discover that the Bible was coherent; it would have been more reassuring to find that God was truly a loving father who could be interacted with. But instead I found that the Bible contradicted itself into rags and God didn’t give enough of a flip to even pretend to be there. In the beginning of my deconversion, I told myself God would understand that I rejected the false and damaging pictures of him painted by religious people and religious writing. At the end of my deconversion, a few months later, I had realized no picture was quite without massive distortion and it wasn’t possible to act as though The Great Undefined existed (whatever that could mean). Strangely I had incredible bouts of anxiety for years whenever I thought of the Rapture, but I knew (thanks to none other than Carrie Ten Boom) that they were just aftershocks from the trauma of religion-instilled fear, and they eventually went away.

  • Slow Learner

    I was lucky enough to deconvert while still a child (aged 12-13), so I didn’t have a well-established philosophy or set of ethics; or indeed much in the way of pre-conceptions about non-belief. I just sort of kept living, day by day, and pieced together an atheistic philosophy as though I’d never had a theistic one or been a theist.

  • Rosie

    It’s hard for me to say exactly when I deconverted, because it was a process that took several years no matter how I figure it. But for a good long while (more than a decade) I was convinced that the Christians were right, and I was bad or wrong because I could not understand it and/or because it made my life worse and not better to live “right”.

  • Paul So

    After I left Christianity and then read more philosophy, science, and other ideas, I became more aware of the endless horizon of possibilities that eventually made me realize how silly it is to think that people cannot live satisfying and meaningful lives without God. Life is really complex and ambiguous, with so many different diverse meaningful values, beliefs, and attitudes that aren’t relevant to theism. I eventually learn that the reason why many (but not all) religious believers insist that people cannot live or justify meaningful life without God is because they want to reinforce their preconceive notion that somehow they are *special*, whereas other people are impoverished and destitute. It perpetuates this “us vs. them” in-group/out-group mentality, which is practically at the heart of many religions such as Christianity, so I don’t pay any attention to what they say about atheism.

    So my answer your question of whether stigmatized view of atheism has influenced me is a “No”, but ironically what was more stigmatized in my religious community was “Philosophy” rather than “Atheism”, because people saw philosophy as a culprit of deconversion. My elder pastor warned me to avoid philosophy because a lot of people who studies philosophy become atheists, my youth pastor implicitly discouraged me from studying philosophy, and my religious acquaintance who aspires to be a pastor told me that philosophy teaches evolution, and one of my church members warned me that philosophy can teach false doctrines because the devil is out to get us. I get all these warnings from people and I did not listen to them for once, because deep inside I knew that there’s something wrong. I also felt uncomfortable and doubtful, I wondered if I was studying the wrong discipline, but I’m glad that I stuck to my guns to continue studying philosophy; obviously, I learn that most people have unusual prejudices and preconceive notions about what philosophy is, most of them are pretty wrong.

    I eventually learn that behind all these warnings are prejudices and fears of exploring new ideas and thinking about them, which is precisely what philosophy embraces: independent thinking, an anathema to my conservative religious environment. Overtime, virtually every beliefs I have about the world due to my upbringing have been replaced with more reasonable (but nonetheless defeasible and imperfect) beliefs. Instead of praying to God about my emotional troubles, I try to rationally reflect on them to identify their content and cause, which elucidates my feelings such that it brings about a degree of equilibrium.

    Consequently, I made significant progress in changing my values, beliefs, and attitudes. Nonetheless, there are some lingering prejudices that I may not be aware of, but where I am right now is better than way before.

  • John Kruger

    I only ever believed in a very liberal and forgiving brand of Christianity. Methodists in my part of California were mostly concerned with the hymns and singing as I remember. The whole concept of hell was an embarrassing story that nobody ever really talked about in the hopes that it could be glossed over for the warm and fuzzy love and forgiveness aspects.

    Still, when I found out one of my friends was Jewish, culturally anyway, I tried to justify my religion with the Bible and found that it could not be done. I did suffer quite a while with the dichotomy that if there was no religious meaning to my life there was no meaning at all. Eventually though, I realized that there was no god even when I did believe, so nothing of substance was really changed, only my awareness was. After that realization I was fairly comfortable with the idea that what is meaningful is what you choose for yourself to have meaning. The religious justification was just a stop gap for taking real ownership of personal values, since everyone was already picking and choosing personal values from the Bible anyway.

  • Lane

    This made me think of Antipsalm 23:

    I’m on my own.
    No one looks out for me or protects me.
    I experience a continual sense of need. Nothing’s quite right.
    I’m always restless. I’m easily frustrated and often disappointed.
    It’s a jungle — I feel overwhelmed. It’s a desert — I’m thirsty.
    My soul feels broken, twisted, and stuck. I can’t fix myself.
    I stumble down some dark paths.
    Still, I insist: I want to do what I want, when I want, how I want.
    But life’s confusing. Why don’t things ever really work out?
    I’m haunted by emptiness and futility — shadows of death.
    I fear the big hurt and final loss.
    Death is waiting for me at the end of every road,
    but I’d rather not think about that.
    I spend my life protecting myself. Bad things can happen.
    I find no lasting comfort.
    I’m alone … facing everything that could hurt me.
    Are my friends really friends?
    Other people use me for their own ends.
    I can’t really trust anyone. No one has my back.
    No one is really for me — except me.
    And I’m so much all about ME, sometimes it’s sickening.
    I belong to no one except myself.
    My cup is never quite full enough. I’m left empty.
    Disappointment follows me all the days of my life.
    Will I just be obliterated into nothingness?
    Will I be alone forever, homeless, free-falling into void?
    Sartre said, “Hell is other people.”
    I have to add, “Hell is also myself.”
    It’s a living death,
    and then I die.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Who wrote that dreck? Is that supposed to be the plight of the atheist, bereft of the emotional panacea that is supposed to be belief in Yahweh?

    • Lane

      It was written by David Powlison. I came across it a few months back. I thought it effectively captures what you were talking about.

    • Lane

      You might also be interested that David Powlison is a counselor and faculty member at Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) and is the editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling.