Have you ever heard of cold reading? That’s when someone tries to guess very personal things about you to make you think that person has some sort of unique, specially-granted knowledge of you. It’s a skill like any other, one you can learn and practice fairly easily. It’s the skill used by tarot readers and those “mediums” who act like they’re communicating with the afterlife. Similar techniques are used by just about any profession where someone needs to establish a quick rapport with you. Its components aren’t hard at all to learn, which is why confidence games rely on them so heavily.
If I had a nickel for every Christian who’s tried to cold read me, y’all sure wouldn’t be seeing my shiny hiney around the internet. I know why they do it; I used to do it myself, thinking that I was receiving some blessing from my god in the form of divinely-gained information. Thanks to a chaotic upbringing, I could be quite observant sometimes, and mistook hypervigilance for a supernatural gift. Now I just wonder why I wasn’t thinking it through a little more and asking why my god was slipping a first-world Christian some generic, vague tips about people when he could have been feeding starving children somewhere. At the time I thought it was an amazing miracle that I could tell someone was facing a lot of drama, or considering a big personal move, or often felt a little confused about what this whole life thing was all about. The person I was talking to always seemed so impressed that I’d know something so personal about him or her, too, which only fed my delusion that I was getting this information through supernatural channels.
People tend to think that information about us is more accurate if we think it’s been personally tailored to us. This tendency is called the Forer effect, and it’s how astrologers, televangelists, and psychics stay in business.
When a Christian takes it upon him- or herself to tell me why I deconverted, usually I’m about to see an attempt at cold reading. A lot of boiled pasta is going to be thrown at the wall to see if any of it sticks, with the hoped-for result being clearly that I’ll be so impressed by this display of spiritual divination that I’ll break down and start weeping aloud the Sinner’s Prayer.
This tactic is used in lieu of presenting actual evidence for the religion and is a blatant attempt to psychologically manipulate the target. This manipulation attempt can be innocuous-sounding and well-intentioned (like a Christian who once told me “I am praying for you to find peace one day,” when she didn’t actually know me well enough to know if I needed peace and was just taking a chance that I did) or it can be quite detailed. Christians can be very creative indeed when they try to come up with reasons why someone left their religion. Those reasons don’t usually bear the faintest resemblance to the truth.
I thought it might be instructional to discuss why I didn’t actually deconvert.
* I did not deconvert “just to sin.” And obviously, when Christians say this, they are generally talking about sex–not surprising, really, considering the repression and shame inherent in that culture. If I thought Christianity was real, then the best option in that case would be to stay Christian and keep sinning. Then I could just keep asking for–and receiving–forgiveness for those sins. It’s insulting to be accused of something so puerile and shallow, considering the threats that Christianity uses to cow and threaten dissenters.
* I did not deconvert because “bad Christians” chased me off. But it’s interesting how often this accusation gets hurled. Christians themselves are well aware of how many of their peers mistreat others. When I was Christian, even when I became aware of the full extent of the hypocrisy surrounding me, my attitude at the time was that a short lifetime of abuse was nothing compared to an eternity in Heaven. I tried not to focus on what my brothers and sisters in Christ were doing–instead I tried to focus on what I thought my god was doing, and of course on my own salvation.
* I did not deconvert because I wasn’t entertained enough by my various churches, or because they weren’t Bible-based enough, or because they didn’t disciple me enough, or because there weren’t enough activities to suit Queen Me. I was a member at various times of very large churches and very small ones; fundamentalist churches and more progressive ones; churches with almost nothing to do and churches that kept me busy every night of the week. I don’t seriously think that anything going on in any churches or anything my leaders did caused my deconversion.
* I did not deconvert because I didn’t get a pony and a plastic rocket when I demanded them. This accusation just floors me. One of Christianity’s major truth claims is that Christians worship a “wonder-working god” who answers prayer, does miracles, and intervenes constantly in his children’s lives. But if you actually hold the religion’s feet to the fire on this claim, you get demonized for demanding evidence that this claim is, well, truthful. Just like those of every Christian who has ever believed, my prayers were “answered” about as well as not praying at all. I wasn’t miffed that I didn’t get a pony and a plastic rocket. I didn’t think it was respectful to treat a god like a vending machine. I see Christians do that every single day on my social media feeds–and when nothing they ask for seems to happen, they’ll just leap to the next “name it and claim it” demand like they don’t even remember how the last demand turned out. I wonder if they do remember, though, deep down, and I wonder if they are using me as a scapegoat for their own bitter disappointment. They know prayer doesn’t produce miracles, and I don’t think they like me saying so.
Sounds pretty shallow, doesn’t it all?
The Christians who accuse me of these things must not think highly of me. Worse, they never seem to hit on the real reason why I deconverted. It had nothing to do with sinning, or being entertained, or not getting free swag. Christians get taught that people deconvert for ridiculous reasons, and in their bubble they are taught furthermore that once some perky, bright-eyed, enterprising Christian figures out that reason then the situation can certainly be fixed with a heartfelt conversation and the application of just the right talking point.
Based on how I acted and felt while I was a Christian, I really suspect sometimes that they’re talking more to themselves than to me, soothing their own fears, as if they’re saying: Well, we’d never leave church just to have unapproved sex. We’d never leave over unanswered prayer. Why, just look at all these pastor-approved bumper-sticker slogans and apologetics books explaining everything! We’d know better. We’d never make those silly mistakes. Whew! Glad we got that all settled! Now our faith is bulletproof and we’re totally safe! We’ll never deconvert like those people did! And it works, for a little while. Until the next person leaves. Until one of the people gloating about how silly those ex-Christians are gets a sudden realization that cannot be un-realized.
Was it true that I never saw prayer yield miraculous results? Was it true that I knew a bunch of hypocritical Christians? Was it true that church seemed increasingly irrelevant and harmful to me? Was it true that I came to perceive that a lot of what Christianity conceives of as “sin” is really a bunch of nonsensical, arbitrary, and controlling rules meant to enforce hierarchies and keep people compliant?
Yes, those things are all true.
But they are absolutely, positively not why I deconverted.
It’s simply fascinating to me to hear about what someone’s breaking point was in their religion–what that point was that they reached it and said “Okay, I’m out of here. I’m done with this. Y’all just go on without me.” It seems like the exact breaking point varies with the ex-Christian, but it just about always boils down to one thing, and this is actually why I deconverted:
The religion made a variety of claims that turned out not to be credible, so I saw no reason to remain in a community that was unhealthy for me.
All that other stuff that Christians are convinced makes people leave is nothing more than the myriad symptoms of a simple but serious illness.
I’m not surprised that so many Christians would rather make up reasons for my deconversion and rail about those things rather than simply ask me about it. It’s a real challenge especially to evangelical or fundamentalist Christians to hear that someone might have been a real, honest-to-goodness TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and still have left the religion; that’d mean at the least that one of their favorite (and, I strongly suspect, misunderstood) clobber verses is untrue. Even if the Christian in question isn’t a literalist, a deconversion can feel like a slap in the face–like an intentional personal challenge and invalidation of that Christian’s own life choices. As the saying goes, there really isn’t a polite way to tell someone they’re deluded or wrong, and when I say that I don’t find Christianity’s claims to be at all credible, that’s going to raise some hackles if someone thinks otherwise.
Christianity is also often idolized as a one-size-fits-all garment for everybody, too, so by rejecting it I am putting Christians in a very uncomfortable situation: either the religion has some flaw in it, or I have some flaw in me. If the religion is seen as 100% perfect and I still discarded it, then clearly the problem was on my end. Since I genuinely don’t think I did anything wrong as a Christian, though, these attempts are going to look increasingly foolish and mean-spirited. I’m still waiting for some Christian to accuse me of deconverting because I didn’t like church potluck food, but I’ve actually seen pastors blame deconversions on the inadequate size of their churches’ parking lots and on the rise of kiddie baseball leagues, so I’ve learned not to underestimate the creativity and desperation of that crowd. They’ll do literally anything but actually listen to ex-Christians.
It’s not loving to try to dictate someone’s experiences to them or to use cheap psychological tricks to manipulate them, but every time I see a Christian doing that to someone, it just reaffirms to me that I did the right thing in leaving. People with credible support for their claims don’t usually need to resort to mind games to persuade others of those claims.