In our culture, if a person wants to become a Christian, they will find no shortage of support and encouragement. There is an abundance of churches, evangelists and websites that are only too happy to welcome a new member into the fold. Almost every gospel tract or Christian website (such as the famous “Four Spiritual Laws“) ends by encouraging the reader to repent and become a Christian, provides information on what they should do next, and supplies contact information in case they have any further questions. Most other major religions have similar support structures.
However, it has occurred to me that there is nothing comparable for atheists. As far as I know, there is no readily available resource that explains how to become an atheist or tells a prospective deconvert what they should expect from the process. This is undoubtedly because atheism is not a unified, hierarchical body that focuses on winning converts, as many Christian churches are. However, I wonder if it is not also because many atheists view becoming an atheist as an event rather than a process, not something that people need instructions for. Present a person with the arguments for atheism, the thinking goes, and if they find them convincing, they will deconvert and that is all there is to it.
I do not believe it is as simple as that. The factual arguments for atheism are indeed important, but the process of deconversion consists of more than merely hearing them and being convinced. On the contrary, becoming an atheist is indeed a process. Moreover, it is a process that is often long and arduous, which is why those who have gone before should help and guide those who have yet to complete the journey. Religion is a foundational part of many people’s lives and identities – after all, most believers were indoctrinated starting from childhood. A commitment that deep is never cast aside lightly, nor without struggle. And while many people can do, and have done, this on their own, that does not mean help would not greatly ease the transition.
And, fortunately, there is help to be given. Although atheism is a highly individual and personal philosophy, as it should be, the process of becoming an atheist follows a surprisingly predictable pattern. I have read a great number of testimonials written by ex-believers, and in my experience, the great majority of them consist of the same four steps, in the same order. This essay will detail these steps and cite testimonials that show people passing through each of them. The primary purpose of this is to give hope and comfort to people going through their own deconversion, and to show them that although the process may be difficult, the end result makes it all worthwhile.
Part I: Exaltation
The first stage of deconversion consists of the believer’s pre-deconversion religious beliefs, which exist either because they were indoctrinated with religion in childhood or experienced an ecstatic religious conversion later in life. In this stage, the believer is often very happy, even joyous. Typically they experience a strong feeling of belonging and confidence, a comforting sensation of “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”, arising from their faith that they know exactly how the world works and that their salvation is assured. Often there is a strong rejection of atheism, even a sense of ridicule or pity for the poor benighted souls who have not discovered the truth for themselves.
“Christianity blew the lid off everything. It restored the great, bright, morning world of my childhood, where all of life was an adventure played out beneath the blue sky. I felt exalted and encompassed, transfigured and diminished. Under the delirious gravity of my renewed faith, the most humdrum events became new, and luminous – full of music – full of portent.”
—Kenneth Nahigian, “How I Walked Away”
“I have a memory of almost photographic clarity of one afternoon when I randomly decided to pick up a Bible and read from the beginning. I remember feeling stunned with awe at how amazing it was that I had the words of Genesis right in front of me – words written thousands of years ago that told the story of the creation of the entire world! How fortunate we modern people were to have access to such a document, and how could anything else in the world that was written since then ever compare to it in importance!”
“I believed with all my heart that I was a child of God, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, serving a Risen Savior. One of the most powerful experiences I had over there was an Easter ‘sunrise service’ which took place in a sort of natural ampitheatre that had been formed by a bomb crater during WWII. As we all sang together ‘He is Risen’, looking out over the jungle canopy into the valley and out to the Pacific dotted with innumerable islands, I remember feeling profoundly blessed. ‘Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul; thank you, Lord, for making me whole – Thank you, Lord, for giving to me – my sweet salvation, so rich and free.'”
—IIDB user “christ-on-a-stick”, “A Salvation Story”
“My born-again experience occurred when I was eight years old. I can still recall the conversation I had with my mother when she laid out the Gospel for me. The story made sense to me, I accepted it, and, as the next step was explained to me, I invited Jesus into my heart and pledged to serve him with my life, to follow his lead. Even now I recall the special feeling I had then, a feeling of everything falling into place and making sense, a feeling of inner strength and happiness and enthusiasm, a feeling of belonging, of having a place, of knowing who and why I was. It was a feeling, as was explained to me, of the presence of God. I felt God in me.”
—Kendall Hobbs, “Why I Am No Longer a Christian”
“Before that movie, I knew about God and the Bible and Jesus, but now I realized I had no personal relationship with Christ, and I needed one. When the altar call to come forward and accept Christ was given, I did not go forward, but listened intently, memorizing the ‘sinner’s prayer’, planning to pray it at home. Later that night in the dark and quiet of my room, I got down on my knees confessed my sins, repented as much as I knew how and accepted Christ into my heart. It was a mind-altering experience for me. In my mind’s eye I visualized the Creator of All physically with me in the room. I felt overwhelmed with what I believed was a personal manifestation of the LORD to me directly. I cried and cried. The emotional cleansing and reality of that moment has never left me, and as I write about it now, it comes alive once again.”
—Dave Van Allen, “My Anti-Testimony”
However, the happiness of this stage is built on a foundation of ignorance. It exists because the believer typically knows nothing about atheism or any other alternative viewpoints. The average believer, in my experience, has never read a single book or website arguing for atheism, nor have they listened to any other nonbeliever present and defend their position in their own words, without a religious filter. All of their information about atheism typically comes straight from preachers and other religious authorities who have told them that it is a depressing, cynical, misanthropic worldview, and most believers accept this without question. In fact, the majority of believers do not know of any reasons or arguments in favor of their own faith; for the most part, they believe because they have always been taught to, because everyone around them does, or because it makes them happy.
If carefully shepherded and guarded from conflicting information, this stage can last for a lifetime, and in many people it does. However, in some people, some bit of cognitive dissonance arises that cannot be explained away, and hairline cracks appear in this confident facade. Often the believer initially interprets these as Satanic attacks and tries to stem them by redoubled effort, such as more frequent church-going and Bible-reading. But these efforts are rarely successful; once the skeptical mind is awakened, it is all but impossible to quiet. With time, the first small cracks of doubt may grow into a full-blown crisis of faith, leading to the next step, which is…
Part II: Doubt
In the second stage of deconversion, the sense of confident assurance that comes from religious faith begins to melt away as the believer’s doubts grow, typically despite intense efforts to suppress them.
The first cause that plants the initial seed of doubt varies from person to person. However, some of the common reasons include: meeting a real atheist and finding that they are not the immoral, unhappy misanthropes the believer has been led to expect; witnessing a good and faithful fellow believer suffer horribly seemingly for no reason; witnessing institutionalized corruption or hypocrisy in the believer’s religious hierarchy; realizing the basic unfairness of the doctrines of Hell and salvation; or finding an unanswerable contradiction or error in the believer’s scriptures of choice. Any of these reasons, or others, disturb the believer’s foundation and pierce the self-imposed veil of ignorance surrounding their beliefs. Often such questions have been present all along, but were always brushed away, or dismissed as mysteries of faith not meant for people to understand, until some event forces the believer to confront them head-on.
“I decided to sit down and read the bible myself without the aid of any other books. I decided to start at the very beginning of the bible, read every single word and read it from cover to cover. Little did I know then that I had just stepped on the road to atheism. (I think the single, greatest thing any atheist today can do is encourage Christians to read the entire bible cover to cover, not missing a single word.)”
—Anonymous, “From Christianity to Atheism”
“I surmised that if I were to be able to take on the skeptics and questioners, I needed to know their turf and speak their language. It was out of my desire to strengthen my faith and witness that slowly but surely, and in a profoundly unsettling way, the first cracks began to appear in the foundation of my world-view. The most frustrating part was that it was quite beyond my control; in spite of the hours I spent in prayer and reassurance that I sought from trusted friends ‘more mature in the faith’, the information that I was absorbing was creating realizations in my mind that were as impossible to stop as the incoming tide.
On that day, forty-five minutes seemed to stretch on for an eternity, as I brought myself before God, humble and broken, and asked for guidance and ‘anointment’. With every minute that passed, my heart grew heavier and more distraught; I had the strangest almost panicked feeling of being on a telephone with silence on the end of the line when you were urgently trying to reach someone. For the life of me, I did not understand why it had, over the past few months, become harder and harder – and now impossible – to feel His presence.”
—IIDB user “christ-on-a-stick”, “A Salvation Story”
“But my mind did not go to sleep. In my thirst for knowledge I did not limit myself to Christian authors but curiously desired to understand the reasoning behind nonChristian thinking. I figured the only way to truly grasp a subject was to look at it from all sides. If I had limited myself to Christian books I would probably still be a Christian today. I read philosophy, theology, science and psychology. I studied evolution and natural history. I read Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Ayn Rand, John Dewey and others. At first I laughed at these worldly thinkers, but I eventually started discovering some disturbing facts—facts that discredited Christianity. I tried to ignore these facts because they did not integrate with my religious world view.
For years I went through an intense inner conflict. On the one hand I was happy with the direction and fulfillment of my Christian life; on the other hand I had intellectual doubts. Faith and reason began a war within me. And it kept escalating. I would cry out to God for answers, and none would come. Like the battered wife who clings to hope, I kept trusting that God would someday come through. He never did.”
—Dan Barker, “Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist”
“About eight years ago, the whisper of atheism began in my head. I shook it off, like a dog bothered by a flea, and like a flea, it refused to stop biting. It terrified me. I lost sleep. I’m not joking. It was that intense.”
—Ann Murray, http://www.positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9620.htm
“Reading the Bible was harming my faith more than it was helping. And even prayer was becoming more of a problem than a solution. Previously, spending more time in prayer made me feel closer to God. Now, however, I found myself having to shorten my prayer sessions, lest I do more damage to my faith. The longer I prayed, the more I felt like I was just talking to the ceiling or thinking to myself.”
—Kendall Hobbs, “Why I Am No Longer a Christian”
“I didn’t truly want to question anymore, I just wanted all the doubt and fear to go away.
I still went to worship services, but I began to feel even worse about it than before. I wasn’t just feeling lonely and out of place, I was even mentally criticizing things that were said during sermons and prayers. I sang, but without much feeling. I could barely believe that I had started to think of the lyrics as lame. Lame! My inner censor was starting to get overworked. How could I allow myself to think and feel these things? Was this some new post-adolescent rebellion? Was I being reasonable or just influenced more by my feelings for my boyfriend than anything else? I wondered to myself if I was falling completely away from God and turning into a horrible sinner. Had I fallen for the oldest trick of Satan’s in the book – becoming unequally yoked with an unbeliever?”
“I prayed and cried and stayed up late into the nights looking for those magic resolutions that would shed light on my problems — needless to say, they never came! Those feelings of depression and loneliness, the feelings of fear of an angry God, were quite troubling. Joe, the once-proud preacher of the gospel, was now weak in faith and questioned the validity of the most esteemed message on earth.”
—Joe Holman, “From Gospel Preacher to Good Atheist”
“When I finally admitted to myself that the Bible was a mix of truth and fiction, everything else crumbled. I was on my way out.
This was a frightful time for me. I prayed daily, ‘Lord, don’t let me go!’ My faith had been a rock to me through many difficult days. I needed it. I begged to be enabled to believe, to have the confidence that I was protected and guided by an all-knowing, loving God. ‘Lord, you promised!’ But there was no answer.”
—Anonymous, “Missionary Kid Finally Grows Up”
Although we atheists describe doubt as a liberation – and it is – the first glimmerings of doubt in a believer’s life are usually viewed with horror, as these quotes show. After all, at this point the believer is still very much in the grip of their religious viewpoint, which teaches almost without exception that doubt and questioning are profoundly evil. Doubting God is viewed by most religions as the worst crime one can commit; furthermore, the spread of doubt threatens to undermine the carefree happiness and self-assurance the believer formerly possessed, and an alternative is not yet in sight.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the person going through this stage of deconversion experiences intense inner turmoil. Often there are sleepless nights and agonized prayers for more faith, for God to free them from the burden of doubt. But relief usually does not come, and the more the person struggles, the more their former confidence recedes. More than one former believer has described this time as “like talking to the ceiling”, as the sense fades that anyone is listening to their prayers.
Still, out of fear or guilt, few believers in this stage inform friends, family or colleagues of their doubts. Most still consider it a personal problem, something they must combat on their own. Accordingly, they tend to withdraw from their former religious circles, depriving themselves of the steady flow of exhortation and peer reinforcement that helps to sustain indoctrination, unintentionally accelerating their deconversion.
The stage of doubt is an unstable equilibrium. Religious faith and burgeoning skepticism of religion cannot exist side-by-side forever; one must ultimately overpower the other. Some people are ultimately too frightened by the implications of doubt and flee back to unquestioning faith, while others find a new equilibrium, discarding some of the beliefs that were causing them trouble but retaining their theism in a modified form. However, neither of these outcomes are the norm. Doubt is very difficult to suppress, and like wildfire, it tends to spread once it has been kindled, challenging every comfortable and familiar assumption. The longer it persists, the greater the chance that it will ultimately shatter the believer’s faith altogether, leading to the next stage…
Part III: Darkness
In the third stage of deconversion, the person’s former faith has collapsed, but they do not yet have anything to replace it with. Unfortunately, most people are taught that only through religion can they hope to find happiness, meaning, purpose or fulfillment in life, and this belief often persists after all the other aspects of religious belief have gone, leading to a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, of having hit rock bottom. Fear, undirected anger, and feelings of depression are common. Often a person feels overwhelmed and lost, adrift in the world without a framework to make sense of it all.
“My next reaction was a feeling of unfathomable, bottomless purposelessness. I remember several days when I was walking around in a sort of daze, feeling that nothing was quite real; everything had changed. The world was not ‘in God’s hands,’ which made it a much scarier place. No one was behind the scenes, patching things up when people made a mess; for the first time I felt genuinely capable of screwing up badly. And there was no one enveloping me with steadfast, perfect Love. The world was confusing, scary, and cold.”
—Anonymous, “From contented devotion to exhilarating freedom — a detailed analytical account”
“But don’t imagine that was an easy process. It was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. It hurt. And it hurt bad. It was like spitting on my mother, or like throwing one of my children out a window. It was sacrilege. All of my bases for thinking and values had to be restructured. Add to that inner conflict the outer conflict of reputation and you have a destabilizing war. Did I really want to discard the respect I had so carefully built over many years with so many important people?”
—Dan Barker, “Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist”
“I graduated from college with no meaningful philosophy of life. My Christian hope had gone. I can not begin to describe the despair that filled my life for the first two years after graduation. There was nothing to live for. I wanted to be happy, but I didn’t know why that would matter. Two hundred years from now, who would ever care if the bones left behind had supported a happy person or a sad person? Probably nobody would ever care. But somehow, I cared. And I wasn’t sure why. I wanted to be happy. I knew apathy, bitterness, struggle, frustration, anger and confusion.
When my Christian hope had faded, why didn’t I look for something else? I didn’t know there was another way. I had grown up in Christian schools, Sunday schools, and Bible studies. The Bible was the only hope I knew about, and it now seemed inadequate. I never thought to look elsewhere—such is the grip that religion can have. I wish now that somebody had told me how to live the good life without the Bible. But I would not learn that until many years later.”
—Merle Hertzler, “How Questioning Changed Me”
“Emotionally, the process was a nightmare, a genuine living hell. In the months prior to my deconversion, I fluctuated between confusion, depression, self-hatred, terror and rage. Confusion, because my whole worldview was falling apart, and I didn’t know what to believe anymore. Depression, because I felt as though I was losing my best friend. Self-hatred, because I hated the fact that I was so ‘weak in my faith’, and I hated even more the fact that I wasn’t strong enough to break free of it all. Terror, because I didn’t like the prospect of being burned alive for eternity if I was wrong.”
—Rob Berry, “How I Became An Ex-Christian”
“This at last lit a candle, began a slow gut-wrenching renaissance. I had been a sincere, dedicated Christian, seriously trying to live a Christian life and understand Christian doctrine. And as a result of doing just what I had been told to do – study and learn Christianity – I had discovered a spiderweb of cracks in the very foundation! In short, my gradual loss of faith was not something I did willfully or maliciously. Indeed, I fought. I kicked and raged over each millimeter.
It was like losing my heart.”
—Kenneth Nahigian, “How I Walked Away”
However, although this stage of deconversion is the worst, it is also the briefest. In fact, with help – such as acquaintance with an experienced and knowledgeable atheist to act as the deconvert’s guide – it can be skipped entirely. But even without such help, this phase does not last long. Inevitably, the person emerges from the fog at least a little, either finding some internal source of strength or, more commonly, coming across the writings of atheists who have undergone similar experiences and emerged from the other side. This discovery is usually the first spark of hope, the gleam of light through the darkness that hints at a way out, and leads to a renewal of strength and purpose.
If you are going through this stage of deconversion, the best advice I can give you is to read, as often and as widely as possible. There is an enormous world of literature written by freethinkers and former believers throughout history that offers support, encouragement, and a positive, religion-free view of the world. (For historical authors, I recommend Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and especially Robert Ingersoll. For modern sources, consult the Recommended Reading page, and especially the Deconversion Stories section of this website.)
With this assistance, the third stage soon passes away. This darkness, like all others, is only a temporary state, and eventually, inevitably, the veil of night begins to lift. Light creeps in around the edges of the world, at first only a far-off promise, but soon drawing closer and becoming brighter, outlining familiar things in a new way. The shadows of fear recede, and in the light of a new dawn, an entirely new world is revealed, familiar yet wonderful and strange. Finally, the dawn brightens into a new day, lifting the curtain on a life cleansed and renewed in purpose. The process of deconversion is now nearly complete, and vision turns to the fourth and final phase…
Part IV: Illumination
The fourth and final stage of deconversion begins with the new atheist’s journey out of the darkness of uncertainty, and ends with their arrival in the light. Most people, by this stage, have learned that they are not alone, that their path is one that many travelers have walked before; that there are whole communities of freethinkers out there, glowing like galaxies through the dark veils of blind faith.
“The more time that I spent reading essays by atheists, agnostics and freethinkers/humanists, the more I began to realize with a mixture of both fear and joy that I was thinking more like an unbeliever, similar to before I actually became a Christian approximately seventeen years earlier. I felt a certain kind of excitement building inside of me that was a very freeing experience. It was as if I was being released from some sort of prison, or a bondage if you will. The feeling was that of a mind being set free from religious restraints and it was very liberating. I was beginning to realize that there was no higher power keeping tabs on my entire thought, life, and every move and action in my life. If there was a higher being, it certainly was not the invented god of the Bible or any other religions invented by humans.”
—James Edwards, “From Faith to Reason”
If the previous stages of deconversion are characterized by fear and despair, this stage is characterized by a peak as high as those valleys are deep, a joy as high and sublime as the horizon of dawn. The exhilaration of breaking through the layers of things that you believe because you have been taught to believe, of discovering for yourself what is true, and of finally knowing who you are and understanding your place in the cosmos, is something compared to which the sterile and antiquated dogmas of religion seem puny and absurd. Returning to them, at this stage, is like trying to return to life in a small, windowless room after one has seen the soaring, sunny vista that awaits just outside.
“If I may paraphrase a famous Christian: Free at last, thank God I’m free at last!”
—Ian Carr, “My Post-Christian Testimony”
“A few days later, after many nights of thinking and reading, I realised that I had also gradually lost faith in God, and that I no longer believed in him. It was a relief to finally be free of the constant guilt and shame that had chained itself to me as a result of my ‘perverse’ attractions. I didn’t have to cry myself to sleep at night, asking God to ‘change’ me in some miraculous way. I didn’t have to wonder why God ignored me when he seemed to do so much for other Christians. I was free!
All-in-all, I believe I’m a happier person now than I was then and more at peace with myself. I’m also saner now that I don’t have to interpret every event in my life as a message from god. Most of all, my Sundays are free again. Aaaamen!”
—Anonymous, “To thine own self be true”
The journey to atheism brings insight, as well. With the scales of religion fallen away and the light of reason now shining behind their eyes, the newly anointed freethinker can view the world in an entirely new way, perceiving all the things they could not see as a believer, all the things that were shrouded in the trappings of mystery and blurred out by the distorting lens of faith: the bloody atrocities and twisted logic in the pages of their holy books, the manifest similarities between every religion in all cultures, the shadows of fear and doubt that still linger over their former fellow believers’ shoulders, the human foibles and uncertainty of the men who lead them, and most of all the tragedy of those who spend and expend their lives in the grip of delusion, the senseless waste of human talent and human life that could have been put to so many better uses.
“My journey out is comprised of perceptions, struggles and victories over fear that color my worldview. I remember hearing that many Jews who escaped Germany during WWII kissed American soil, because they so appreciated the freedoms we have here. Whereas, many native-born Americans take them for granted. I feel that I have escaped an oppressive regime and as a result, have a heightened awareness of what it means to be free to reason and make judgments….
When I lost my faith in Christianity the first time, I had an unusual perception. It was like a waking dream. I had this vivid mental image of myself sitting in a prison cell. It was dark and bleak. Suddenly the door swung open and a stream of light invaded my darkness. I hesitated a moment, then got up and followed the stream of light to the outside. My eyes had trouble adjusting. But once outside, I felt the warmth of the sunlight, heard the sounds of birds, and beheld the unspeakable beauty of plants, flowers and trees in peak summer. Then I ‘heard’ the following words: ‘Is there any argument, no matter how articulate or persuasive, that can convince you it is better to be in a prison than outside in the beautiful garden?’
All these many months as I struggled to reconcile myself with Christianity, I have felt the same knots in my stomach that I experienced so long ago. Releasing myself from its illogical and unreasonable demands has helped me to reclaim happiness.”
—Anonymous, excerpt from an e-mail sent to this site
“Emotions did return to me, quietly at first. I felt a bit like a child, as though I was rediscovering the world. In particular, I remember a monthlong period in which I became flat-out fascinated with trees—there was something beautiful about the way they branched out, cutting a tangled silhouette against the sky. I also became enthralled with sunsets, and to this day I still love watching sunsets. Everything seemed fresh and new. It was as if in my enthusiasm for the supernatural, I had overlooked all the beauty the natural world has to offer. Now I was playing catch-up, discovering all the neat stuff I’d missed. I also read dozens of science books during this time— I decided it was time to find out how the universe really works, as I didn’t want to ever be fooled again.”
—Rob Berry, “How I Became An Ex-Christian”
“Due to my total change of world view I also had some very weird experiences that were not like anything I had expected. I was struck enormously by what I called ‘existential shock.’ I was completely amazed at the mere fact of existence. Not in a ‘wow that’s impressive’ manner but in a feeling that I only had religious words for. It was being struck by the amazing ‘sacrament’ of life – or the utter shock and opportunity of existence over its alternative. It was totally numinous and an almost disturbing feeling that existence is the case. I felt transformed, awed, excited – the whole world seemed more special than can ever be said. Life was far more poignant without Christianity than it had ever been with it. I was not expecting this to happen to me. I thought these experiences were what converted people to religion, not what you got when you left!”
—Steve Locks, “Why I left Christianity”
Upon realizing what they had overlooked for so long and what many others still are overlooking, many new deconverts feel anger (and who could blame them?). It is a natural reaction to all the unnecessary loss and suffering caused by religion, and all the horrendous evils people inflict on each other and themselves all because of a belief. However, if I could give new atheists just one piece of advice, it would be this: do not let anger overwhelm you; remember, after all, that you were recently a believer yourself. If you do feel anger, channel it into more constructive venues. As one atheist commenter put it, anger without action is toxic; but when used in the cause of good and kept in control, anger can be a powerfully motivating force. In any case, when people see an atheist living a happy and fulfilled life, it shatters stereotypes and does more to draw them toward our position than probably anything else we could say or do.
There is another common aspect of deconversion that provides an important insight. When someone converts to Christianity, or any other religion, they usually do it with an evangelist’s prompting, and they are guided and shepherded every step of the way by church attendance, prayer groups, Bible study sessions, Sunday school classes, and other believers who are happy to check up on them and accompany them constantly so they have no time to sit quietly and think things out for themselves dispassionately. Every step, every decision that takes them deeper, is coerced and validated by intense peer pressure. Not only does the congregation go to great lengths to remove every roadblock, every source of doubt, from the convert’s path, this “love bombing” technique makes it almost impossible for them to back out, even if they want to.
By contrast, when someone becomes an atheist, it usually happens alone. People have to wrest themselves out of the grip of religion all on their own, teaching themselves critical thinking, rediscovering the arguments that so many others have found persuasive, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps with no help or tools except their own inquiring mind. I have read stories of people who became atheists without even knowing that it’s called that, or that there are others who feel the same way. And all this occurs in spite of a highly religious populace constantly pressuring everyone to conform, and threatening dissenters with exclusion, rejection, and eternal torture. To stand up to that onslaught and refuse to give in takes exceptional bravery and strength, and all atheists who have done so deserve a hearty commendation.
The point is that, given how difficult it is to become an atheist and how easy it is to become a believer, it is no surprise at all that there are so many more believers than atheists. Only the most dedicated, determined and courageous seekers can overcome the obstacles set in their way to make the journey to nonbelief. But there is nothing intrinsically difficult about being an atheist – as I wrote earlier in this essay, the third and worst stage of deconversion can be skipped entirely with help. If the societal deck was not stacked so heavily in favor of religion, there is no telling what the relative proportions might be.
But despite the difficulty of the journey, there is a payoff at the end. Beyond the agonized searches and the sleepless nights, beyond the pressure to conform and the weight of ancient dogma, beyond the doubt, the anger, and the fear – beyond all this, there is clear air and peace, and the joy of finally being free and in possession of your own mind. No other happiness in the world can compare to the happiness of true self-determination, and nothing that any religion has to offer comes even close. Though the travel may be long and difficult, it is a journey whose every step is worthwhile.
“Once I released my old Christian worldview, I noticed two dramatic effects (again, discoveries, not decisions). One was an almost total lack of fear; I had been blind to the amount of fear (and guilt) I’d been staggering under as a Christian. In every realm of life, I now felt free of fear. It was a glorious, tremendous, exciting feeling, full of possibilities! (Rather like… being born again!) It seemed ironic, because now for the first time I also felt able to make genuine blunders, without God fixing things up for me afterwards — shouldn’t I feel more afraid? But perhaps it was simply that I felt I’d gone through the worst crisis I could have imagined, and came through on my own strength, and now felt I could handle anything. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve already done the most dangerous thing of all, giving up faith and risking Hell….
The other significant effect I discovered was a compelling sense of urgency in life. My life expectancy dropped from infinity to just a few decades! Life is short, short indeed, and when I die that’s the end. There’s so much I want to experience!
In the 3 years or so since this change occurred, I’ve enjoyed exploring the world with new eyes. The change was immense; everything needed re-thinking. Before, I ‘had all the answers;’ now there is this wonderful sense of adventure to life, of so many things to explore and discover. (I suddenly crave travel, something I’d been indifferent to before.) I am no longer a soul that has a body, but a body that has a mind. As a result, my identity is a less cerebral one, more ‘body-centered,’ more oriented to the here-and-now, more healthy, more integrated.”
—Anonymous, “From contented devotion to exhilarating freedom — a detailed analytical account”
“My life isn’t perfect, and I still have bad days, but who doesn’t? I’ve already been through the ‘deconversion high’ everyone talks about, but I still have moments where I’m amazed at something seemingly trivial – like the vivid colors of flowers or the complex symmetry of snowflakes. Sometimes I’m astounded at the progress of human evolution, knowledge and the genius of discoveries and inventions. I remember the first dizzying realization that experience, achievement, and mere existence is so much more precious than I ever imagined. Although I think about religious things often, my life no longer revolves around fear, guilt and the big sky daddy. My morality no longer comes from antiquated fables and outdated cultural customs. I’m not afraid of the future or even death.
For the first time, I can say I’m happy to be alive!”
“A few days later I sat down and made myself admit that I was not a Christian and there was no god. I had resisted doing it for so long, even though the idea had entered my mind a few times in the last year. I repeated it to myself a few times, more boldly, and it was just like people often say about their conversion to Christianity. It felt like a burden was lifted from my shoulders. The world brightened. I felt relief and joy and peace. I found that feeling astonishing. It was the feeling I’d always hoped for in Christianity, the feeling that I was supposed to have had by surrendering to Jesus, and here it came by abandoning faith. I savored the moment. I remember it so clearly.”
“It’s such a wonderful feeling when you finally come out from under the mental prison of religion! I remember being so relieved and happy as well. It really is a peaceful feeling.”
—IIDB user “Anne Fidel”, http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?t=113669
“It is really amazing. Christians talk about the liberation of ‘being saved’, but truly, nothing compared to the liberating feeling of tossing aside the shackles of religion. I slowly deconverted over a time period of five to six years, but when I finally realized that ‘Hey, I’m an atheist!’, it was a sudden and freeing moment. That happened back in 1997, and I love having reclaimed my rationalism and ability to think from the evangelical brainwashing.”
—IIDB user “Colorado Infidel”, http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?t=139357
“I am now thirty years old. In looking back on the past 12 years of my adult life, I can honestly say that I am now – as an ‘out-of-the-closet’ and unashamed atheist – happier than I ever was before….
I now realize that I am free to live my life, pursue happiness, and work to become the person that I want to be, no longer shackled to the dogma that so often caused me to doubt my self-worth and second-guess my own ability to reason and make good choices. At the same time, I – and I alone – am ultimately responsible for those choices and whatever consequences they bring; because I do not abdigate responsibility for my decisions and their consequences to powers beyond my control, I am spurred toward making every possible effort to make this life one that I can look back on without regret. After all, it’s the only one I’m getting.”
—IIDB user “christ-on-a-stick”, “A Salvation Story”
“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural—that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world—not even in infinite space. I was free—free to think, to express my thoughts—free to live to my own ideal—free to live for myself and those I loved—free to use all my faculties, all my senses—free to spread imagination’s wings—free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope—free to judge and determine for myself—free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the ‘inspired’ books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past—free from popes and priests—free from all the ‘called’ and ‘set apart’—free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies—free from the fear of eternal pain—free from the winged monsters of the night—free from devils, ghosts, and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought—no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings—no chains for my limbs—no lashes for my back—no fires for my flesh—no master’s frown or threat—no following another’s steps- -no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.
And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain—for the freedom of labor and thought—to those who fell in the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains—to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs—to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn—to those by fire consumed—to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.”
—Robert Green Ingersoll, “Why I Am Agnostic” (1896)
Throughout this essay, I have quoted the words of people who have gone through the experience of deconversion – not just to support my thesis about the four stages of the process, but to demonstrate the sincerity of those who have walked away. In their descriptions of the iron-hard certainty of their former faith, the fear and turmoil they experienced when their doubts began to grow, and their present happiness and peace free from the bonds of religion, their conviction, their passion, and their honesty shine through. To anyone who doubts that these stories are anything less than the heartfelt testimony of brave souls who have gone through a life-changing experience and emerged the better for it, I encourage you to click through and read their full stories. It is impossible to do so, I find, without coming away convinced that this world could be a far better place if only there were less religion in it.
Of course, there will always be those willing to pour scorn on these stories and the travelers who have recorded them. There will always be those who stand ready to sneer at people who have walked this path – not because they themselves have any understanding of what deconverts have gone through, but because their rigid, inflexible faith demands it. It demands that former members be demonized, shunned, destroyed, that their honesty be questioned and slandered, and that dark, secret, shameful reasons for their apostasy be contrived. It demands this because fundamentalism is a faith built on a foundation of sand, and the shift of even a few grains may start a slide whose results are impossible to predict. Most of all, it demands this because, to many religious believers, solace and comfort can be found only in absolute certainty, simplistic and free from the complexities of the real world. The notion that anyone might have valid reasons for doubting is a notion that these zealots find intolerable and frightening.
But, I again emphasize, there is nothing frightening about ending up where these deconverts end up – there is nothing frightening about atheism. True, the loss of a major source of guidance in one’s life can be a scary feeling, especially to people who have never known anything else. Taking responsibility for your own life is a transition that takes some getting used to. But the other side of that coin is the exhilaration of freedom. As an atheist, you can decide for yourself what you want to do, set your own course, blaze your own trail. Whatever is important to you and fills your life with meaning, you can do it; and that, I believe, is truly the most amazing liberation a human being can experience.
As one deconvert put it in his testimony:
“So I write this story for you. I write it to let you know that you’re not alone. I write it to let you know that your experience is not unique. Many other people have gone through exactly what you have… Most importantly, I write it to let you know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Truer words were never spoken. To those who have made that journey, I salute you and am glad to stand by your side; and to those who are struggling with doubt, who perhaps have not yet mustered the courage to walk that road, I encourage you to come and join us in the clear air. I tell you with all confidence, in the end you will be glad you did.
• Into the Clear Air: Extended Testimonies: In the course of researching this article, I compiled a list of literally hundreds of testimonies written by atheists giving voice to the happiness and freedom that come from leaving religion. Due to space considerations, not all of them could be included in this essay; but to further support my main point, I felt it worthwhile to make a wider selection of them available. This extended set can be found here.