This is a guest post by Chris Attaway.
Deconversion can be a difficult process, not least because the people around you are oftentimes less than understanding. This is doubly the case if you deconvert after a bad experience, because people will assume that you deconverted strictly because of that experience. I’ve certainly had people assume I converted because of bad people. The truth is, yes, certain morally repugnant Christians did move me along the path to deconversion — but not in the way you might think. Their actions gave me the social distance from my beliefs that I needed to think clearly.
Less than a year ago, I decided to stop calling myself a Christian. While I have held generally liberal beliefs for several years much as I do now, I eventually grew tired of making excuses for Christianity. I remember the thought that changed my mind: thinking over my stance on gay marriage, I realized that I would have a really hard time looking a gay friend in the eye and explaining away the homophobia in Christian tradition. “I know it says to stone the gays, but they were REALLY talking about blah blah blah…” Any single one of these interpretive maneuvers would have been fine on its own, but collectively, I found them unsettling. I had to stop making excuses.
Getting to that point from growing up a good Southern Baptist boy only happened after my life took a number of significant and harmful turns. I went through two distinct periods during which I experienced prolonged religious abuse. While my deconversion did not happen immediately, it was inexorably linked to these experiences.
The first incident occurred when I was engaged to a girl from my church, a small church plant from the Acts 29 Network — the infamous church planting network from which former megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll resigned some time ago. As our engagement proceeded, she grew ever more uneasy with the fact that I believed in evolution. The abuse started when my pastor and the church leadership sent me through a round of interrogations about my beliefs. Eventually, my fiancée left me. It was certainly her decision, but the church leaders were entirely unhelpful throughout the process, continually painting me as an evil person with dangerous beliefs (the irony).
Things came to a head after I left and began going to a church which was more in line with my views. My old pastor messaged my new pastor because of some coincidences in who we knew, “warning” my new pastor to keep an eye on me. When I told a few people privately that the pastor had crossed the line, rather than investigate, my “friends” simply reported things to the pastor. What the pastor did from there, I’ll probably never know, other than that he left a voicemail “excommunicating” me from his tiny church plant (excommunication is a badge I now wear proudly). What I do know is that almost all my old friends from that church never spoke to me again.
The second incident of abuse was similar — incidentally involving another pastor from the Acts 29 Network — but I would prefer to speak only in generalities, since I have since repaired some of the relationships with people involved. A pastor used a relationship with a girl as an excuse to launch a crusade against me on account of my liberal beliefs — by then, I had accepted gay marriage, which is even worse than evolution to that pastor’s brand of Christianity.
Deconverting after having gone through two such incidents may come as no surprise, but people don’t seem to understand that it’s not simply a matter of not liking Christianity because of what happened to me. The bad actions of some should not influence whether or not you accept an idea as being true; we should evaluate ideas on their own terms, not on how those ideas are presented. Yet the opposite is also true, as we shouldn’t accept ideas because the people who espouse them are nice, or we would probably all be Mormons. We can turn this into a more general principle that social ties should have as little to do with our beliefs as possible. We should believe according to what we really think is the case, not reason our way into agreement with our peers.
What that means for someone in my situation is that the dissolution of my social connections to Christianity showed me my true beliefs. Once I no longer had to perform for the approval of others by inventing reasoning to justify foregone conclusions, I was free to accept my most natural conclusions on a variety of subjects. Thus, it was not that my negative experience caused my deconversion; rather, it was my prior social connections that caused my belief in the first place. It is precisely the opposite of what people tend to assume, where I deconverted for social reasons.
Spite is a strong but fleeting emotion, and while thinking back on these incidents can still make me angry, that’s not the way I live my life. Given that I waited for more than two years to deconvert after the second event, I can guarantee that I didn’t make my decision as a petty kind of screw-you gesture. Even if I hadn’t waited, though, my deconversion would be no less true, and I am confident in saying that it is also true for many other deconverted people out there. I can admit there was a period during which I had to vent a lot of frustration and anger, and I know for a fact that other people go through that, too, but people don’t live by that. That kind of anger and frustration, even though it stays with you, never defines you in the long run.
And this only makes sense, right? Christian households tend to produce Christian babies; Muslim households tend to produce Muslim babies. Children grow up to share the beliefs of their parents because of the intense social conditioning we call “parenting.” And this is not a bad thing by itself, but we have to admit that the social conditioning that parents give to their kids is merely a heuristic, and kids have to sort out the truth for themselves when they get older and more able to make their own decisions.
My suggestion is almost the contrapositive of what we know about social ties and beliefs when growing up: when the social ties to our beliefs disintegrate, say through abuse like what happened to me, we are actually more likely to find our true beliefs than when we were raised in a community that conforms to a very narrow set of beliefs. The utter failure of religious apologetics to produce material convincing to a critical mind ought to give testament to this: we do not see any great exodus of Muslims to Christianity or vice versa, because the actual reasons for believing in one faith over another are generally unconvincing without significant social ties.
I’m not saying you ought to deconvert; Dan can argue that point. But I do want to suggest two things: first, if you see someone who went through religious abuse before deconverting, trust that his or her beliefs are genuine. Second, if you are religious and haven’t gone through anything like I have, try to imagine for a second what you would believe if you didn’t have social connections to your beliefs — suppose your parents raised you to be a moral, upstanding citizen, but they didn’t raise you within a religion. Do you think you would still believe?
It’s a tough question to ask yourself in earnest, to be sure. I thought for the longest time that I was confident in my beliefs, and only when abuse pulled the rug out from under me was I eventually able to examine things about my beliefs that I had taken for granted. For all the bad things religious abuse did to me, it did one good thing in giving me space from the social ties to my beliefs, and thus it gave me the clarity of mind to see that I had no reason to believe Christianity any more.