Compelling Conversation through Deconversion

Editor’s Note: Clergy Project member Gretta Vosper offers striking insight and analysis about experiences different kinds of clergy have as their religion beliefs change and die. It’s a prelude to a thoughtful review of the book that Clergy Project President, Drew Bekius wrote: The Rise and Fall of Faith.

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By Gretta Vosper

A Pastor’s Deconversion

A chasm of distrust lies wedged between religious and secular world views, preventing meaningful dialogue and sustainable engagement. Often, those who make the journey from religion to secularism are scathing in their indictment of those left behind. Drew Bekius refuses that course. The story around which he built his life crashes around him with cinematic drama. But standing in the wreckage, he draws on a strength of commitment he learns is all his own, and turns it to the work of building dialogue. In an extraordinary offering, Bekius invites those on both sides of the chasm to find their way toward one another and as they do so, to build an alternative to rancor and path toward understanding.

So Many Stories

I have read my share of deconversion stories over the past decade, almost all of them written by men, and most of those long retired. Some served the church through long and well-respected ministries while others wandered the edges of religious belief, poking at it over the years, alone on their journeys of discovery.

Liberal clergy rarely write these books. Their theological education opened them to the world beyond the literal before they ever stepped into their first pulpit. But those who put their stories down on paper wrestle with the dissonance that scorched their ministry, impugned their integrity and left them scarred by sadness, confusion, and anger. Their writing is an exorcism of sorts, naming the betrayals of the wider church, naming, too, the betrayals of their own lack of courage. Such stories are hard to read.

The liberal, mainline deconversions of the laity aren’t usually labeled as such. Their authors labor, instead, over the task of mythologizing a story they were taught was true. The process of their exploration often allows them to remain within their homes of faith. Their books are filled with references to progressive authors who invited them to question and search: John Shelby Spong, the late Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and Bart Ehrmann. Their losses add up to a few good hymns, a sacrament here or there, and the complacent ignorance that might once have soothed them through the Sunday morning services they attended.

Evangelicals who walk the deconversion path, however, have no patience with the texts that have betrayed them. They eschew the liberal taste for myth and soar completely free of religion’s ancient bonds. But their stories often sting with anger and betrayal, their fury unleashed against a belief system they now label as a sham. Whether having served as pastors or offered their talents for the building up of the faith, they reject the Christian story vehemently, finding in it nothing of redemption and only the emptiness of lies exposed. The losses these authors have accounted are wives and children, communities and livelihoods. They have been stripped of more than most liberals could ever imagine and paid a cost that has been dear.

I have never blogged about any of these stories or books. The work of reading them has been labor enough for me. Perhaps the stories have been too personal. Or, despite the isolation out of which they each were written, too similar, too routine, even, for me to believe they might be of interest to my readers.

A Different Story

But I’m going to blog about Drew Bekius’ story, The Rise and Fall of Faith: A God-to-Godless Story for Christians and Atheists, because his story is different.

>Bekius book

At first glance, you might think the story has the same features of every other deconversion story. It is saturated with the personal. It follows a familiar path, worn by those who have shared their coming out of faith with me before; it is not extraordinary in its features though the crash and burn is both dramatic and entire. Nor is it beyond what I consider a routine telling of the process of deconversation, the ignored questions, the background noise, the moment of awareness, the heavy burden of doubt, and the freedom that comes when belief is finally dislodged. It is a story that, like all the others, is a story of betrayal and loss. It is a story, like all the others, of coming to know and honor oneself. It is a story, like all the others, that tells of the path that leads away from the magical thinking of faith.

But it is a different story because it isn’t a simple monologue. Drew’s story is an invitation to dialogue. And that makes all the difference.

An Invitation to Dialogue

We have been living in a world divided for a very long time. Many of us remained ignorant of that until we woke up in November, 2016 to a new reckoning: a morning that captivated our attention, dragging us beyond our disbelief into a shocked and frightened awareness. Over the course of a brutal campaign, divisiveness had been honed as the weapon of choice and the new order had played it well. Those of us who believed in engagement, consensus, and human dignity as a right, were caught off guard, unable to come to terms with the new reality that anger had created, its power the added thrust needed to win.

Much of the divisiveness that won over the American people was rooted in a world that is fast disappearing: the world of white, male, evangelical privilege. Those who had been feeling the loss of that privilege prevailed, bludgeoning social democracy with vitriol and derision and pointing to the many groups it was too easy to blame: immigrants, Muslims, women, established politicians. Clear these out of the way and American would be great again. How very shortsighted. How very wrong.

In response, the world turned out to stage the largest protest ever seen against the intertwined threats to human rights that evangelicalism and wealth might prove to be. Millions walked in groups as large as hundreds of thousands and as small as a dozen, a demonstration of solidarity that wrapped the globe in pink and power. It bridged division. It united the world.

Drew bekius pic 3

Drew Bekius, Author, Humanist Coach

I don’t believe you can read Drew’s book of deconversion without feeling his devotion to his craft, to telling the story of faith, to the guidance of those who looked to him for encouragement and leadership. He was a man who worked at perfecting his ministry in every way possible. And he was a man who demanded much of himself and his faith, challenging himself to walk just another step with a devotion he was sure would bring him closer to his Lord. And finally, he is a man committed to unravelling his life, to doing the crash and burn with a flourish, who is able to finally walk away both cleaner and stronger for his failure.

Amidst the unfolding of his story of deconversion, Drew calls us to a conversation, ending each chapter with questions framed for discussion: questions for evangelicals; questions for secular humanists; questions for both those groups to explore together. He has emerged from one world into the other but his love for the people of both remains strong. There is no derision here. There is no arrogant leave-taking. There is only honesty and a call to conversation. It is a call we are desperate for and his book arrives at a critical moment in our history.

Healing the World

The work of tikkun olam, healing the world, is ours to do. It has been, in the Jewish tradition of its roots, traditionally the work of women who bring the ravaged back into wholeness with the lighting of the Sabbath candles. But here, in Drew’s book, it becomes a work we can all engage because it starts with a conversation, with the calling together of mutually exclusive perspectives, of two world views that have only ever seemed to wish to annihilate each other. Drew challenges us to risk the failure, the divisiveness, the arrogance of our own perspectives and the arrogance of those of others. He does so because he has given his own life, his comfort, his world view, and his belief for this greater faith in the conversation and the people we might yet become.

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Gretta VosperBio: Gretta Vosper is author of the Canadian bestseller, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, which has also been released in the US. She is also author of Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief and numerous other publications. She leads West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario (featured in the documentaries Godless and Losing Our Religion) despite two attempts to try her for heresy. Gretta has served on the Board of Directors of The Clergy Project. You can learn more about her here and you can visit her website at www.grettavosper.ca.   This post originally appeared on her blog and is reposted here with her permission.

>>>>Photo credits: https://www.amazon.com/Rise-Fall-Faith-God-Godless/dp/1634311108

 

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  • Dave Maier

    Surely it wouldn’t take too long to fix that typo in the subtitle of Gretta’s book in her bio (“that” s/b “than”).

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thank for catching it, Dave. I fixed it, but it’s not yet showing up on my computer. Soon, I hope.

  • https://storytellingskeptic.wordpress.com amyjane

    I cannot wait to read his book. I have been trying to write my own (emergence-from-evangelical) story, but there is still so much emotion. It’s hard to know whether to channel that or eschew it, because my whole family is still extraordinarily religious.

    I have no desire to tear down their faith. It was everything to me, and if I hadn’t followed this path desperate to follow what I believed wholeheartedly, I would have stayed right there in it. There are harms that come from it, of course, and I can never again support bigotry or hatred just because a book says so.

    But neither do I desire to tear down the people I loved or to destroy a world the majority of humanity will always believe, at least in part. Perhaps Drew’s book will offer a way forward, because when I do come out to my family, I’ve no desire to cut off contact. I do, however, want to build something better in this world than I received.

    Thank you for bringing our attention to the book, Gretta. I sincerely appreciate it.

    • http://DrewBekius.com Drew Bekius

      Amy Jane, I love your spirit here. And I commend you for your desire to keep it constructive with your family. You’re right that these are not easy tensions to hold in balance.

      As you ask for a way forward, the book’s final chapter does offer a number of specific guidelines for fostering greater conversations with loved ones in belief. And the book itself is designed to be one you can share with believers, giving them a copy and discussing each chapters end questions (with sets for believers and sets for nonbelievers) together.

      And as for your own writing project, I’d encourage you to begin as a therapeutic exercise and see where it goes from there. Relieve yourself of the pressure of “having to write a book” and simply WRITE! Just get it all out there and don’t worry about what may or may not come of it. That’s actually how Rise & Fall started. My buddhist therapist gave me an assignment that was incredibly healing and eventually it served as this book’s [extremely rambling] foundation.

      Our path is not an easy one. I wish you well on the journey!

      • https://storytellingskeptic.wordpress.com amyjane

        Thank you so much for this reassurance. I have begun to read your book and described some initial thoughts here, but regardless: you’ve provided a specific way forward as far as my own catharsis goes. And for that, I am grateful.

  • ElizabetB.

    Thank you so much, Gretta! There’s so much I love about this post…. one is your picking up on Drew’s theme of dialog — deeper understanding among all humanity’s “sides” is really a matter of life and death in the real world (“if we don’t hang together…”). Thank you for amplifying it here!

    And the other — it’s so interesting to see you explore what I dub “The Varieties of Non-Religious Experience” (apologies to James!!). Observing these differences on Rational Doubt, I don’t remember seeing before now a proposed organizational structure and analysis of the dynamics involved. Thank you, hats off!!!!

    I’m so happy to see that you are with the community that loves you at West Hill. Seems like you and John Shuck are two of the people helping bridge the transition from biblical literalism. Thank you deeply

  • ElizabetB.

    That’s such an interesting distinction about myth. I think I see what you’re saying, but I can’t figure out how one could word Gretta’s statement to allow for that distinction. Can you write an example? Thanks, Mason!

  • See Noevo

    Dear conservative Christian (and probable Trump voter!),

    We atheists who are or were
    – involved in “mythologizing a story they were taught was true”
    – with “no patience with the texts that have betrayed them”
    – who insist on being “free of religion’s ancient bonds”
    – and reject “a belief system they now label as a sham”
    – and “reject the Christian story vehemently, finding in it nothing of redemption and only the emptiness of lies exposed”
    – and insist on getting “away from the magical thinking of faith”
    – and were horrified when “we woke up in November, 2016 to a new reckoning: a morning that captivated our attention,
    dragging us beyond our disbelief into a shocked and frightened awareness” …,

    we would really like to have a dialogue with you, to have a conversation with you.

    (In fact, we would like it so much that we used “dialogue” and “conversation” four times each!)

    What a joke.

    P.S.
    In this age of so-called trigger words, you might say “dialogue” and “conversation” have become such for me.
    ‘We really must have a dialogue regarding’, or
    ‘We need to have a national conversation on’
    are liberal-speak for
    ‘Blah, blah, blah, whatever. We really just need to figure out how to force you to do what we want.’

    • Andy_Schueler

      Dear conservative Christian (and probable Trump voter!)

      You cannot be a conservative Christian and a Trump voter. You could be an opportunistic and hypocritical Christian and a Trump voter though.

    • mason lane

      See Noevo, See Noevo, both the political Left and Right have their own “speak-for.” I must admit I don’t care for a lot of the new speak-for lingo. Dialogue regarding; what was wrong with discussion about? National conversation; I thought national debate was better. I have to agree with Bill Maher that the Left has gone nutzo with their speak for. https://publicautonomy.org/2014/01/27/the-rise-of-the-post-new-left-political-vocabulary/

      But the Right has become loaded with code words to cater to Evangelicals and the far Right Nationalists and even neo-Nazis, and have a near monopoly on violence. “There are fine people on both sides,” one of our Right polititians said about the neo-Nazis who were marching. https://www.thenation.com/article/why-does-the-far-right-hold-a-near-monopoly-on-political-violence/

      American Eagle needs a left and right wing to fly.

    • Raging Bee

      Wow, that last election must’ve really upset you — this is the most effort I’ve ever seen you put into your hypocritical bullshit projection.