I should have guessed that one of these fine days Christians would discover ex-Christians and our custom of sharing deconversion stories, or (as we often call them) ex-timonies. As usual, Christians have totally gotten the whole matter wrong about these stories–and they’ve revealed a few very unpleasant aspects of their own tribe in the doing. So here, at last, is the real skinny: here’s what an ex-timony actually is, who tells them and why, and how they differ from Christians’ testimonies.
A Quick Primer: Christian Testimonies.
A Christian testimony is a narrative that Christians are encouraged to develop and rehearse after they either convert to or confirm their faith, in order to share it with both Christians and non-Christians.
Usually, a testimony takes three parts. First, the pre-conversion life (which is meant to sound either hopeless and dreary, or else wracked with dysfunction, or else excitingly fast-living–but in all cases the Christian longs for something more). The second part moves into the conversion moment itself, often presented in conjunction with some miraculous occurrence. And the third inevitably involves how much happier and better the Christian thinks life is since conversion; this last part will often be an exact inversion of the first part.
All three of these elements are typically exaggerated at least.
If aimed at audiences that are largely already part of the correct flavor of Christianity, then the testimony is offered up as a way of reinforcing tribal beliefs and to gain the tale-bearer some attention. If aimed at other audiences, particularly at those who are hostile to the tale-bearer’s ideology, then it will be told with an eye more toward selling the Christian’s ideology to those folks. If you like narrative structures as much as I do, then you might find them interesting from that standpoint!
Remember, though, that these stories are developed for a reason that goes well beyond just seeking camaraderie and attention. Christians think that testimonies are excellent sales tools, and so every Christian within these groups must have a testimony. Most Christian websites have at least a few pages devoted to the task of creating and honing an adherent’s testimony, and Christians can easily find books and video series as well.
And what’s so comical is that Christians are actually flat-out wrong about the power of testimonies as a sales tool.
In reality, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anybody I’ve ever known who heard a testimony and was impressed by it–even (especially?) if it involves miracles. I’m including my actual years as a true-blue Christian in that count–and boy, was that a deflating experience. Typically most people know to discount any mentions of miracles at all, especially claims of miraculous turnarounds in personality. But as with any other bad or wrong idea that enters into the ideology of a broken system, now that this misplaced trust in the power of testimonies has entered into Christians’ belief system, it can no longer be examined or criticized.
(You’ll know when Christians are finally starting to get serious about their churn rate when they start asking what really works to reverse their declines.)
A successful deconversion means that at some point you realize there is absolutely no going back to Christianity. You realize that you have seen enough, that you couldn’t possibly believe it again even if you wanted to. It’s not a case of God “changing the locks” when you leave the house, it’s more a matter of realizing that faith is not a sound guide to what is true.
ThereAndBackAgain, May 2017
Now that we’ve lined up what testimonies are and why they’re created and told, we’re ready to look at what deconversion stories, or ex-timonies, are.
An ex-timony is a usually-spontaneous telling of the story of a Christian’s deconversion from the religion. No websites, books, or videos exist to coach an ex-Christian in making these. That said, they do usually feature an essentially three-act structure as well. Usually the first part of the story involves establishing the person’s Christian bona fides through a quick summary of their time in the religion. The second part involves the moment that they finally realized that they’d been sold a bill of goods about Christianity–though sometimes their deconversion follows a series of small discoveries and is more a drifting-out experience than a dramatic ending. And the third involves how they’re doing since deconverting. Sometimes the third act is an inversion; often, however, it isn’t.
That’s where any similarities to Christian testimonies end. And I’m inclined to believe that even that similarity exists not because ex-Christians are imitating Christians’ testimonies, but because a three-act structure like we see in testimonies and ex-timonies just appeals to us as people. Even then, within that three-act structure we can detect a number of other dissimilarities between an ex-timony and a testimony.
As to the motivations for telling these stories, ex-Christians use them as a sort of introduction to ex-Christian groups. It’s a way of establishing and finding camaraderie–and of having your experiences validated by people who really, truly get you because we’ve all been through something similar. And, too, telling an ex-timony is an act of personal triumph over what is often a very oppressive and abusive ideology. Often the emotion I see pouring out of someone who’s just given an ex-timony for the first time is relief. They’ve finally told their personal truth; they’ve finally come clean.
That feeling of relief and that acceptance are usually the only tangible rewards that an ex-Christian can expect after giving an ex-timony. Nobody’s going to give them money, a book contract, or a preaching job based upon it, that’s for sure. And if their ex-timony is ever connected back to them personally, then they might well expect some serious retaliation in the form of Christian love from their former tribemates.
Sometimes a former Christian leader (like Jerry DeWitt a few years ago) will try to move into a similar role post-deconversion, but their ex-timony won’t be how that happens–as opposed to how a Christian with a super-dramatic testimony might well try to springboard off of that testimony into a leadership role in Christianity, as Mike Warnke and Tony Anthony did for a while before being exposed as fakes. The last difference I can think of off the bat is that I’ve never heard of an ex-timony that turned out to be untrue, unlike how many Christian testimonies turn out to be wildly embellished if not fabricated from whole cloth. I’m sure it’s happened at some point, but veracity just isn’t a problem that ex-Christians need to worry about.
At any rate, after the ex-timony is given, then the person who gave it is now part of the group. From there, it’s what we do moving forward that matters most.
And gang, there are many many thousands of ex-timonies out there nowadays. From this blog’s own official forum to big sites like ex-Christian.net, ex-Christians have more ways than ever to tell their stories.
It was only a matter of time before Christians noticed what we were up to–and warped and mischaracterized ex-timonies to suit their own grabby pushes for dominance.
Christian Criticisms of Ex-Timonies.
Slowly but surely, Christians are catching on to ex-timonies. From “Christian deconversion stories that will literally blow your mind,” to “Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories,” and even Bible.org’s “Case Study: Deconversion” that tries (unsuccessfully) to shoot down something our friend Neil Carter wrote, we see the exact form of Christian love that we expect out of a tribe whose dominance has been challenged. They all have the same basic criticisms and the same basic misunderstandings (it’s just sooooooo weeeeeeeeeeeeird, right?), so we can examine them all at once.
One thing I noticed very quickly about these posts is that they all reveal Christians’ own flaws. As we saw when we talked about the Law of Conservation of Worship, Christians automatically assume that everybody does everything for the same reasons that they do–and they sell narratives about their tribal enemies that function as a thought-stopper to keep the flocks from finding out the truth. That’s why nothing they say about atheism actually looks like anything any actual atheists do and think–but their description of atheism looks exactly like what fundagelicals stereotypically think about atheists.
Christians are no different in how they treat ex-Christians–who may well be coming to rival atheists as their biggest tribal enemy lately. In our case, they have a big problem. We used the product and didn’t get the results that Christians loudly and frequently claim will come to true believers. Often we were hurt through our membership in the religion–sometimes in life-altering ways, both emotionally and physically. And we often talk about some deal-breaking discoveries we made about Christian folklore and mythology.
So Christian critics must both invalidate our reasons for dissatisfaction and make us look like untrustworthy and unreliable narrators of our own stories. But they must do these things while also making Christian testimonies look reliable and trustworthy by contrast. That’s not as easy a task as it might seem!
Mainly Christians’ goal is to poison the well so that Christians will distrust and steer clear of ex-timonies. So as we progress through our critique, be considering how Christians try to play Last Ideology Standing with competing narratives.
Criticism 1: Meaniepie Ex-Christians Are Trying to Deconvert Us! Waaah!
From the Bible.org piece:
Deconversion stories are daunting. This one is especially so since it purports to tell us not just why a former Christian changed his mind, but why people like him will never be converted again.
The reason I am writing about this is because my testimony made me wonder if people who supposedly “deconvert” from Christianity ever feel the same way I do, specifically about their own religious stories. You know, could they more effectively “sell” their new found disbelief if their own tales were more compelling?
And from the asshat who wrote about Jen Hatmaker’s “deconversion” story:
De-conversion stories are designed not to reach non-Christians but to reach Christians. And their purpose is to convince them that their crusty, backward, outdated, naïve beliefs are no longer worthy of their assent.
All of these writers share the exact same misunderstanding of what ex-timonies are and what they are meant to accomplish. I’ll let Sean Connery take it away, with a bit of dialogue from excellent 1990 movie The Russia House, in a scene regarding some Russian secrets that the Americans and Brits really want to know are true or not:
Russell: Mr. Blair, we are buying a Picasso. Okay? You don’t mind an occasional metaphor, do you?
“Barley” Scott Blair: Not at all.
Russell: Good. Some people don’t like my metaphors. I don’t know why. But anyway, everyone in this room is buying the same Picasso. It’s, uh, very rare. Medium-rare. Well-done. What the fuck. The bottom-line question is, “Did Picasso paint it?” And you’re the man who is selling it to us.
Barley: It is not my Picasso, Russell. It is not my Picasso. And I’m not saying it is a Picasso. And furthermore, I’m not selling it to you. And lastly, I don’t give a fuck whether you buy it or not.
Blair’s involvement in this whole international fiasco is tangential at best, even damned near serendipitous. He’s not invested in these secrets at all; he didn’t even know they existed till this international consortium of spies contacted him about them. It doesn’t matter to him in the least what these guys do with the information–or how reliable they think he is.
In the same exact way, nobody is telling ex-timonies to Christians in order to deconvert them. That’s not even a blip on our radar. We know that we’re not going to deconvert someone through a deconversion story–just as we know that nobody’s converting on the basis of a Christian testimony. We know that personal anecdotes aren’t sales tools. I don’t think I have ever even once heard, in all my years hanging out with ex-Christians and being one, of someone telling an ex-timony for this purpose.
Relax, I wish I could tell them. If someone’s gotten to a place where they’re actually paying attention to ex-timonies, then the deconversion ship is already pulling anchor, unfurling the sails, and preparing to leave the Christianity dock.
Criticism 2: Ex-Christians Are Either Lying or Exaggerating.
From the Bible.org piece, some moral leveling and attempts to have it both ways by declaring that if he didn’t see exactly what Neil Carter describes in his ex-timony then obviously it never happened:
People are broken inside the church, and people are broken outside the church. . . I don’t know what church Carter went to that routinely taught him he was scum, but in 43 years of church-going all over the country I have never heard such a thing.
From the “blow your mind” piece, a dig at ex-Christians who feel the need to share deconversion stories at all:
If I had some sort of sudden epiphany or a gradual “intellectual awakening” that caused me to question my faith to the point I could no longer sincerely believe, I would simply walk away from faith without fuss, guilt, shame, controversy, endless talk, therapy, blogging…In other words, I am absolutely certain my “deconversion” story would be the most uninspired and boring tale ever told. And that is something, I think, many evangelical deconvertees who take up arms against God are not OK with.
From the Jen Hatmaker piece, a diabolical attempt to negate the cruelty–even to the point of death threats–that Ms. Hatmaker’s experienced since declaring that she’s all for LGBTQIA rights and dignity:
A major theme of Hatmaker’s interview is the relational-social trauma she experienced as she left the evangelical world. She was mistreated in ways that were “scary,” “disorientating,” “crushing,” “devastating,” and “financially punitive.” Of course, it’s difficult to sift through these sorts of statements. No doubt some people were cruel, mean, and unchristian to her. And such behavior should be called out for what it is: wrong. At the same time, there’s nothing illegitimate about people criticizing her newfound theology. Much of the response to Hatmaker was simply vigorous opposition to her new direction.
In these essays, we see all of their authors trying to hand-wave away blatant hypocrisy within their ranks, and to minimize the complaints that ex-timonies often raise regarding Christians’ conduct. I can see why they’d need to do that. Nobody in Christianity usually likes thinking about how endemic hypocrisy is in the religion, and definitely they cannot do anything about it.
Ex-Christians know that it’s all but impossible for us to really get through to still-believing Christians about how abusive and downright nasty their groups often are. They’ve all spent their lives compartmentalizing and hand-waving away exactly what we’re complaining about. It isn’t until a few cracks in the facade start showing that a Christian can usually even perceive anything we’re discussing. Until then, their only recourse is to suppress us or to negate us. The most they will ever concede to us is that sure, maybe a very small few of our complaints might kinda occasionally have a very little merit. But obviously we must be wrong about what we’ve seen and experienced.
If Christians were more honest about their own testimonies, they might not leap to dishonesty to project upon us as the negation of what we describe. I’ve certainly known some ex-Christians who weren’t honest, yeah. But on the whole, I’d say that we’re orders of magnitude more honest than Christians are–and we see the religion a lot more clearly than Christians do.
Criticism 3: Ex-Timonies Are Totally Mean, If Not Actual Persecution.
From Bible.org’s piece, a whole section exists in the essay to make Christians nervous about engaging with ex-timonies:
In parleys about emotionally charged issues, especially spiritual ones, it’s not unusual for disparaging, derisive, or sarcastic language to creep into the conversation. In Carter’s case, phrases like “the belief system they are trying to sell us,” and “even on our deathbeds we would have to simply trust that we weren’t sold a bill of goods” are part of the rhetorical gamesmanship meant to subtly color the discussion.
From the “blow your mind” piece, a subtle whine about the negative elements that often show up in ex-timonies:
The dark, hopeless, and pitiless indifference of atheism is sold, in the minds of deconvertees themselves, and to all who listen to them, by shifting attention off of the logically absurd and hopeless lack of belief in God and on to fantastically dramatic, and probably embellished, deconversion horror stories that attempt to make Christianity out to be a faith everyone with any sense of decency should run from.
From the Jen Hatmaker piece, an overt and explicit declaration that fundagelicals are totally being persecuted by essays that criticize their deeply held beliefs that are coincidentally “younger than the Happy Meal:”
She [presents herself as] merely the victim of a powerful and cruel evangelical world bent on revenge. Needless to say, some of this is difficult to swallow given the current cultural climate where LGBTQ-affirming people are embraced as heroes (including Hatmaker herself), and evangelicals are being fired and sued for enacting their convictions that marriage is between a man and a woman. And if one wants to talk about “satire” and “outrage” and internet “hit pieces,” Hatmaker might do well to observe the outrageous level of vitriol displayed by the LGBQT community and its advocates in the mainstream press toward Christians who don’t embrace our culture’s new sexual direction.
What makes that whole freakout about Jen Hatmaker especially hilarious is that she hasn’t actually deconverted. Her story isn’t even vaguely an ex-timony. It shares almost no elements with it beyond that three-act structure I’ve outlined. But because she’s left the fundagelical culture-warrior tribe, she gets lumped in with us. (Don’t worry, I’d tell her if I could: we’ve got your back, and we’ve got cookies.)
Again, since nobody’s telling ex-timonies to convert anybody, it’d be tough to make a real case for ex-Christians being mean to Christians–much less to be telling their stories as a form of persecution. Christians are indoctrinated their whole lives to discount any criticism of their behavior and ideology, and these essays are just extending that indoctrination to what the tribe is coming to see as a real threat.
By the way, when you see Christians whining about how meeeeeeeeeeeeean deconversion stories are to them, be looking for them to go on to demand silence and compliance. On those rare occasions that a Christian can even kinda-sorta-halfway agree that abuses and cruelties exist, they will not ever be thinking in terms of fixing those errors. Instead, they try to police those discussing those abuses and cruelties.
We’re Not Going Away.
Mainly these essayists would love it if ex-Christians would quit telling ex-timonies altogether. But that isn’t going to happen. They can police us all they wish; they can argue with us about our own stories FFS all they want. They can try to write angry little posts that totally mischaracterize us and our intentions all they please.
All this effort is going to do is make them look worse in the long run.
We’re still going to tell our stories, and as time goes on people are going to care less and less what fundagelicals think about anybody.
Ultimately, that kind of absolute irrelevance may well be what Christians like these three essayists fear the most.
Here’s the reason why Christians react to ex-timonies the way we’ve seen here today:
Salespeople will never accept any reason for anybody to stop using their product. You’ll never find a hardcore Christian who will hear our ex-timony and accept it. But these same Christians think that testimonies are powerful sales tools, so they will do whatever it takes to shut us up before their existing customer base hears us talking and starts wondering why all these one-star reviews are showing up.
As Christians become more aware of ex-Christians, expect them to start treating us more and more savagely and cruelly–and to do whatever they can to turn our hard-won truths into some bizarro form of sinister anti-testimony seeking to persuade sweet widdle lambs to leave the sheepfold.
Ex-Christians are already well aware of how Christians have always mischaracterized us; well, don’t expect that antipathy to decrease, is all. Winter is coming.
Don’t stop sharing your truth. We need you.
Next, speaking of testimonies, I’ll be sharing mine. See you then!
If you like what you see, I would love to have your support. My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips, and I also welcome monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve. Thanks!