What to Expect When You’re Deconverting.

Hi! Today I wanted to talk about the deconversion of a fairly prominent Christian, Bart Campolo, and while I’m at it address people who are just now leaving the religion. I’ve been noticing some stuff going on around the internet about people who are newly-deconverted who are maybe wondering what might be coming their way, and I wanted to talk about it. Obviously, it’s a mistake to try to speak for all ex-Christians, but I’ve been out of the religion long enough and know enough other ex-Christians that I can make some generalizations that might be of comfort or reassurance or use. This is not advice; only the ex-Christian him- or herself can know what is the right way to go. Nor is it exhortation; only the person affected gets to decide just how much risk to shoulder and how much is too much right now. Nor do I pretend that what I present here applies to countries with blasphemy or apostasy laws that make deconversion downright dangerous. It’s just the observations of someone who’s been down the road that newly-minted American (and American-like) ex-Christians are just now setting their feet upon.

What’s really amazing to me is that out of all the criticism I’m reading about Bart Campolo, and there is a lot of it, nobody’s really touching on the reason he left the religion: it just wasn’t true. That’s why just about all of us who leave do so. Many people just pull back from Christianity, and their reasons for disengaging are as varied and deep as the people involved. But when someone actually does leave–as in leave leave, as in reject the whole enchilada and walk away–almost always that’s going to be because that person discovered that the religion’s claims weren’t true. Bart Campolo is no exception to this rule. First he got his ass kicked by the Problem of Evil, as indeed many ex-Christians have, then realized that no truly loving god would reject someone for being gay, then began to look seriously at the standard-issue Christian doctrines of Hell and supernatural meddling. Of this process he says: “I started rejecting the supernatural stuff, the orthodoxy. I no longer believed God does miracles or that Jesus was raised from the dead or that other religions were false. . . My Christianity had died the death of a thousand nicks and cuts.” Sound familiar?

And the reaction from the tribe is about what I’d expected; that RNS piece–by Jonathan Merritt no less, who seems like he’s going through a seriously right-wing phase lately, the poor dear; I hope he’s okay–is sharply critical of his decision and speaks about him in extremely negative ways. Other pieces lament how the son of a prominent minister could ever go so wrong and try to advise Christian parents about how to prevent their children from going apostate that way.

Of course, well before his official deconversion he was getting called names like “idolater” and “apostate” by his tribe (donotlink provided). My point is that I don’t think mainstream evangelicals were really happy with Bart Campolo anyway, or for that matter with his father; though Tony Campolo is a fairly standard-issue evangelical in a lot of ways, he’s just not hate-filled and judgmental enough for most of that crowd. Consequently, they’re trying hard to spin the younger Campolo’s defection as some kind of moral failing on his father’s part. If Tony Campolo had just been a TRUE CHRISTIAN PARENT™, none of this would be happening with his son.

A Patheos blogger, Frank Schaeffer, puts it best:

Bart isn’t a Christian anymore so we need to blame his parents (while pretending not to) and improve the way we indoctrinate our kids lest they turn out like Bart or worse yet, like Frank Schaeffer. To do that the first thing we have to do is lie about them, dismiss the backsliders and make sure everyone avoids their books too, while praying for them, of course.

And drop that mic, brother. Well done. That about says it all. Discredit, distance, disavow, defame, and discredit: it’s like the five D’s of Ex-Christianity.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some ex-Christians-to-be are observing and taking notes on how their brethren and sistren (damn it, it is SO a word, and I don’t care what anybody says) are treating this newly-flown flock-member. A lot of Christians don’t know any ex-Christians they can talk to during their transition from belief to non-belief, so this kind of public drama is all they’ve got to go on.

So–speaking very generally–this is what a new ex-Christian can perhaps expect.

1. There’ll very likely be some fights ahead, and if there are then you’re going to have to carefully choose which ones you engage in and when. Sometimes you’ll feel like shouting about your new realizations to the sky. Sometimes you’ll be afraid to say a word. In some parts of America at least, ex-Christians get along perfectly fine, and many families won’t care or may even be relieved. But in other areas and among other families, announcing your apostasy can lose you your family, home, and job. Some ex-Christians even report feeling physically unsafe in their communities and with their parents and partners. The more involved you were at church, the more religious your area is, and the more involved your family still is, the more likely it is that you’ll be confronted by people who are still in the religion.

Often after you reveal your truth you’ll discover you were worried for nothing, but only you can decide when to reveal what to whom, and it really is better to be safe than sorry.

2. You might feel a bit adrift at first. When I began questioning my faith, my whole world fell apart for a little while. Especially because I belonged to a really gung-ho fundamentalist denomination, one that officially preached Biblical literalism and absorbed most of my free time and energy, when I realized that its claims just weren’t true I was left feeling empty, like my life was meaningless.

That feeling didn’t last. The funny part is that my life has a lot more meaning now that I’m not a Christian. This life is the only one I know for sure I’ll get. I don’t know if I’ll ever get any other life past this one. So I cherish this one and try to make it count. And I no longer panic about figuring out what a god’s will is for my life. I figure that out for myself, and amend or change it when new information emerges–just like Christians do, for that matter, as if there wasn’t really a god involved in the process at all and we’re all just doing the best we can with what we know.

3. You won’t become an immoral person or suddenly run out and do insanely reckless or nasty things to anybody or yourself. I was worried about that too, but it didn’t turn out that way at all. I’m not perfect, but I can safely say that my fears of descending into madness, lawlessness, malevolence, and chaos did not turn out to be true. I no longer beat myself up for my very human flaws, and my sense of community brings me to a desire to improve myself for the good of myself and my society, not because of the threat of eternal torture for a finite lifetime’s thought crimes.

But a lot of things about me improved after leaving Christianity. I’m a lot more honest, for one. I always tried to be honest, but there were just some things about my religion that required exaggeration or distortion to prop them up–and often I felt compelled to keep silent when my peers or leaders said something that I knew was totally untrue. And I wasn’t honest about my doubts and skepticism because I was genuinely afraid of where that honesty would lead. I’m also a far better “steward” of my resources–after hard-won lessons about money and environmental management that Christianity had studiously avoided teaching.

Do some ex-Christians act out? Yes, sometimes they do. But they don’t do anything that Christians themselves don’t do. That’s because we’re all humans, not divinely-infilled vessels. When we get out from under the thumb of a hugely repressive, oppressive regime, a lot of us do have some rather adolescent acting-out to do. It doesn’t matter if the person escaping from that regime is Christian or pagan or atheist. That said, we’re not going to do stuff that runs totally contrary to our senses of morality. A newly-deconverted person isn’t going to run out and be unfaithful, or kill people, or teach impressionable seven-year-olds in a classroom setting that the fifth major food group is Big Macs (I’ll just mention here that the person I caught doing this last thing was actually an evangelical).

Angry Sphynx
Angry Sphynx cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not shown: Deities. (Seriously, how could I NOT use this photo? How? HOW?)

4. You might be angry for a while. But it won’t be at “god.” After I deconverted, I got very angry about having been so deceived, and to some extent I’m still a little frosted–but I direct that ire toward the leaders who know the real truth about the Bible and still spew lies to their overly-trusting flocks, not toward the rank-and-file believers who don’t know any better. Anger is something Christianity seems very uncomfortable with, especially in women. Christians aren’t supposed to be angry, except at sin of course, but even then it’s supposed to be this sort of “righteous anger” feeling, whatever that means. It might take time to learn new ways to process anger, from recognizing when you feel it to managing it maturely and non-destructively.

A lot of Christians see our anger at this deception and at how Christians themselves act and think that we’re “mad at god.” And they will accuse you of this and expect it to buckle you because how can you possibly be angry at something that doesn’t exist? “AHA! CHECKMATE, EX-CHRISTIAN!” you can all but hear them cackle, because you shall know them by their one-liner zingers. They won’t even realize that they’re the ones stepping on your last nerve, not a supernatural being whose existence has yet to be verified. But we know.

5. You’ll probably lose many friends, but you might be surprised at who remains. I lost every single friend I had when I deconverted. It’s not that they were terrible people; it’s that we’d built our friendships on our shared pursuit of Christianity, and when I left Christianity, there just wasn’t anything left on which to base a friendship. They were like work-friends, and I’d made the mistake of thinking they were friend-friends. It’ll hurt to realize how long it’s been since Robin called, or since Stacy visited, or since you got an email from Terry or a Facebook like from Adrian. All I can say is that you’ll find out quickly who really was a friend-friend and who was just a work-friend. There might be a gaping wound in your social schedule. But if so, you’ll fill it up again. It can be hard to know how to make friends–and how to date, for singles or newly-broken-up folks–outside of a Christian context, but you’ll learn. You won’t make that mistake again, and you will cherish the new friends you make all the more.

But one thing that a lot of ex-Christians say is that they’re pretty surprised by who actually is left standing after the dust settles. And you might be as well. Be watching for the people who accept your deconversion with grace, love, and humor–they’re the ones worth keeping.

6. Some ugly truths about how non-divine your old tribe was might surface. Threats are as natural to Christianity as dough is to pizza and in many of the same ways. But you might not have realized just how natural threats were to it until you are suddenly on the receiving end of blithe, chirpy threats of Hell from people you thought were loving and sane just moments before they spoke. Some of these people put truly disturbing amounts of effort into the level of detail in these threats. And not all of those threats will concern the supernatural or afterlife. Some may well center around your home life, your relationships and family, or your job security. These hateful threats will be uttered by people who are absolutely convinced that they are behaving in loving ways toward you, and who mistakenly think that “tough love” means trying to manipulate and abuse you. Their behavior is going to teach you a lot about just what love really means, but learning this lesson might be the most painful of them all.

That’s why a lot of ex-Christians think carefully ahead about where they’re vulnerable before they go public. When someone steps out of line from the tribe, the tribe is often going to do anything–anything at all–to get that person back into line. I’ve heard some stories that’d simply blow the minds of any Christian to imagine their tribesmates doing–but which are painfully familiar and even repetitive to ex-Christians. For me, it made me realize I’d made the right choice in leaving.

7. You’re going to learn to trust your own inner voice if you don’t already, and eventually you will stop wasting your time on conversations that aren’t actually dialogues.

Many ex-Christians have noticed that the Christians around us rarely engage with the reason we left the religion. They have a lot of theories, most of which will center around the things they think we did wrong–we were too legalistic, or not indoctrinated into theology enough; we went to church too seldom, or we let ourselves get so caught up in church that we forgot about Jesus; the list goes on and on and is often self-contradictory, but the one thing these pet theories share is a total lack of resemblance to what really happened. Just know that these Christians are trying to soothe themselves more than explain anything to anyone. If our walk was too much like their own, then what happened to us could very easily happen to them too. It’s palpable, how truly uncomfortable such Christians are around folks like us. Once they figure us out, once they figure out what we did wrong and what they can blame us for misinterpreting, they can put us on a shelf, get their moment of smug certainty that they’d never go the route we did, then forget about us and feel safer from deconversion themselves.

But “figuring us out” means invalidating our voices, negating our own lived experiences, and discrediting us as people, not addressing our actual reasons for leaving the religion. I mean, they really can’t, can they? Not without producing evidence for their beliefs, and I hate to say this but none of them will have that. All they’ve got is manipulation tactics. Especially regarding conservative Christians, studies have revealed they have a high need for closure and certainty–which means that anything challenging those feelings is going to get shot down as quickly as possible, and also that they have evolved a great number of strategies for dismissing or rationalizing away anything that even gets close to doing so. In time I even learned which strategies I also used to keep myself in line. And I came to treasure all the more those Christians who don’t try those sick, abusive mindgames on me–and you’ll likely run into a lot of those too, in time.

I wasted a lot of time trying to convince people who fundamentally did not want to be convinced that I’d done everything just fine and that the religion had just had turned out to be untrue. I learned eventually that such Christians’ worldview desperately depends upon ex-Christians having done something–anything–wrong. A while ago I heard the phrase “jackass whisperer,” and realized I didn’t have to be one. But it took a long time to understand what I was doing and to realize that it’s not my job to convince anybody I did the right thing or to make anybody comfortable with my personal decisions. Ultimately, others are going to have to make peace with things on their own. And if they can’t, then I don’t have to hang out with them.

Another thing I learned here is that no matter how many hoops I jumped through, how many apologetics books I read, how many videos I watched, how many Christians I allowed to try to reconvert me, to convince other Christians that I’d done enough to “deserve” being “allowed” to deconvert, it would never be enough hoops. I wish I’d learned that truth a lot faster and saved everyone some time.

8. You’re going to be okay. When it’s all said and done, though, you’re going to be left more certain of yourself and sure of your decision. You’re going to understand why you fell into the religion and why you left. Hopefully you’ll be open to examining your old programming and figuring out what you want to keep and what you want to grow out of thinking. For some people moving from point A to point Done takes minutes; for others, it can take years. But it will happen. You’ll emerge older and wiser–a bit roughed up, a bit road-rashed, maybe pared of some friends who weren’t really friends anyway, maybe heartbroken that your relationships weren’t what you thought they were, maybe angry at how you’ve been treated, maybe lighter by a few pounds of the fear, anxiety, and egotism you were maybe lugging, but you’ll be okay. I’ve never once talked to an ex-Christian who’d fully disentangled who ultimately regretted leaving the religion or was sad that they couldn’t believe anymore. As a group, ex-Christians are filled with joy, hope, meaningfulness, values, sincerity, and love. (And wow, do they ever know how to par-TAY.)

So you hear that? You’re going to be okay. Whatever scary or bad thing is happening to you right now or that you fear will happen, it will certainly pass, and you will pass through it stronger at the end just like the rest of us did. You ain’t the first one on this road, and you won’t be the last. Many feet have trod that path ahead of you, so you’re not alone.

You’re going to be okay.

Here is the one piece of advice I will offer: This life might be the only one you’ll ever get, so do the best you can to make it a life you won’t regret living at the end.


I mentioned today how a lot of relationships get built around a shared pursuit of religion, and next time we’re going to talk a little more about that idea. I hope you’ll join me for another peek into the Unequally Yoked Club.

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