When I deconverted in the mid-90s, I didn’t know a single person besides me who’d left Christianity. At the time, I was totally on my own. My entire family is Catholic, and every close friend I had at the time was either Pentecostal or evangelical. I was on friendly terms with several atheists, but none of them had ever been Christian.
I didn’t really have anybody to talk to about what was happening to me. If I tried to share my struggles with Christians, I got told to pray and study the Bible more (because that had helped so, so, so much so far) or accused of having some great sin or rebellion in my life. I didn’t even want to think of the humiliation I’d feel if I tried to talk to one of the atheists I knew. Whether these fears were real or imaginary, they successfully isolated me. Certainly no books existed that I knew of that might help make sense of what I was going through, and this was well before the Internet’s glory days (we were barely figuring out what Usenet was).
All I knew about apostasy was what my church preached on the subject, so you can imagine the idea of being an apostate terrified me.
Now I know that I was supposed to be terrified. I was supposed to be so terrified I’d be too scared to question anything too much. And I almost was.
Some folks who deconvert do so very quickly and early, but most of us take some time at it. I was definitely one of the latter group. (I don’t mind. I needed to be really sure of my conclusions.) It took my husband an even longer time to recognize that I had, indeed, deconverted for good. He thought it was just a phase of doubt that would end in a greater certainty in Christianity. When he finally understood that no, this was well and truly an end to my involvement with the entire religion, he was immediately afraid of what my deconversion would mean in terms of changes to our relationship.
I sympathized with this fear of his. I still do. Change is one of the risks of marriage. People change constantly all through their lives, and people who marry each other are trusting and hoping that whatever changes come their way won’t drive them apart. Christian marriage partners have it even harder, though, because of their indoctrination into the idea of a “Jesus-centered marriage.” The idea is axiomatic–I’d even go so far as to say “idolized”–at this point in the religion. Even way back then, I was taught that without Jesus, a marriage could not survive at all, and indeed that every single aspect of my life had to be totally Jesus-fied or it’d be awful and sinful and a total failure and possibly end with a demonic possession somewhere, who even knew.
When two people are both convinced that a marriage requires a shared religious sentiment to exist at all, much less flourish, and then one person leaves the religion, then they’ve got a big, big problem on their hands. Especially considering that it’s younger people who tend to disengage and/or deconvert (“disengage” means to pull back from overtly religious behaviors like prayer or church attendance), I wish more Christian couples would think about this question before they got married! Once one partner does deconvert, the other partner is often left convinced that the marriage will of necessity collapse because that center is gone. I’ve lost track of the Christians convinced that the second people deconvert, they lose their ability to love and become raging hellions or criminals. This hugely successful bit of fearmongering is, however, a false teaching.
Over time I’ve realized that ideology is in large part a window-dressing for people. It’s a shorthand label we use to describe our feelings about morality and interpersonal relations and which we use to inform our actions and opinions. But our feelings and opinions come from a lot of other places too. A Christian who refuses to demonize or mistreat others is convinced that this attitude is Christlike–but so is a Christian who does both of those things with the most sanctimonious Jesus smile you ever saw. A Christian who refuses to rationalize ancient atrocities like world genocide or the stoning of rape victims is convinced that this is the best way to follow the Christian religion–while a Christian who has internalized all manner of atrocity-excusing rationalizations is just as convinced of the same thing. And often every one of these folks thinks all the other Christians are doing something wrong.
Even as a Christian myself, I noticed that huge, sweeping, 180-degree changes in people were often claimed as part of a conversion narrative, but those changes never seemed to last long. People’s personalities were by and large set early on, and even being filled by what we thought was the “Holy Spirit” didn’t do much to alter things. A liar still lied after conversion. A cheater kept cheating. An angry, rage-filled person was still a risk to trust. And a good person remained good. When confronted with the reality of a Christian who had not actually changed much after conversion or a “breakthrough” (that’s Christianese for a particularly cathartic prayer session), we hid behind one of our “get out of uncomfortable truths free” card, “Sin Nature,” as much as we could; we called our churches “hospitals for the sick” rather than “museums of the perfect;” we referred to ourselves as “works in progress;” we laid blame on people themselves when their claimed changes proved ephemeral or impossible to achieve. These rationalizations were nothing but whitewash over the truth: that it was not magic or wishful thinking that changed people but copious amounts of emotional work–work that we were simply not willing to do for the most part because we thought that magic and wishful thinking was all anybody really needed.
When the trusted people in my life successfully indoctrinated me in childhood with the idea that Jesus changed people, my feet were set that very day on a collision course with what I have come to call the Cruel Dilemma: that inevitable showdown between my religion’s claims and stark reality. I could not have both. I could either believe what I was taught, or I could trust what I saw in reality. We’ll talk more later about the Cruel Dilemma (you’ve got me for, hopefully, a very long time). For now, I want the idea percolating a little as you consider the hype behind these conversion narratives and the reality of lived experience, and the stress it produced in me when I saw the yawning chasm of reality gape open before me on the road.
The night I realized that my husband Biff was still a liar and a scammer, it rocked my whole world, but it didn’t actually play a role in deconverting me. Christians tend to think that “bad Christians” drive people away from the religion. Indeed, the huge number of hypocrites in the religion does likely scare off outsiders, and it certainly doesn’t make the religion look compelling to me even on a metaphorical level now that I’m out. But someone who really believes can find any number of ways to rationalize the presence of such folks in the religion. Every time I ran across another of these not-quite-changed Christians, it bothered me a lot, yes, but it didn’t make me question my religion’s claims. But inevitably I did notice that no supernatural force was really changing anybody.
I knew that Christians themselves did not magically change upon conversion–but I was still afraid that I’d magically change upon deconversion.
Well, to be more precise, I did, but not in the way I expected.
Everybody changes. My friend Dani Kelley said once that maybe Christians fear these changes so much because the Christian god is imagined to be changeless and therefore perfect, which may well imply to them that change itself is imperfect to some extent. It’s as good a guess as anything I’ve got. Change is scary. Entire religions try to make sense out of the impermanence saturating people’s lives. But the stuff that changes doesn’t tend to be core stuff. Rather, it tends to be how we express and think about that core stuff.
Here are the ways that I changed as a result of my deconversion from Christianity:
* I stopped being so timid and angry all the time. Things made sense at last to me. I didn’t realize what a strain all that cognitive dissonance was on me emotionally until I stopped trying to reconcile my beliefs with reality. I felt like I could breathe again for the first time in years!
* I began dressing the way I wanted rather than with an eye toward trying (unsuccessfully) to control the actions and responses of men around me in society. I started holding people responsible for their own damned actions and responses.
* I no longer allowed anybody to treat me like a second-class citizen or to deny me my rights. I did not take mistreatment with a smile or try to pray my oppressors into magically becoming better people who would not oppress me anymore. When presented with injustice, I questioned that injustice and spoke out against it rather than shrugging and trying to live with it as best I could because it was what I thought a god wanted. Obviously, I no longer followed or accepted sexist “complementarian” (that’s Christianese for “separate but equal”) teachings. I stopped thinking of other groups as second-class citizens as well.
* I slowly grew less afraid of change and learned to embrace it. We’ll talk more about this whole starting-over phase of my deconversion soon, but for now, just know that it was scary at first, but it got easier over time. I also grew more confident in trusting my own judgment and decisions.
* I learned what boundaries are and how to set them–and how to show respect to other people’s boundaries.
* I stopped exaggerating or downplaying stuff in hopes of getting non-believers to see my god in the same favorable way I saw him and my religion in the same positive light that I did. I did not tolerate lies told by others, either, anymore.
You can probably guess that any one of these changes would have been threatening to some people–especially people locked in patriarchal mindsets!–but they were changes that improved me dramatically, made me a lot easier to be around, and dramatically lowered my stress levels.
Here, by contrast, are the ways I did not change at all after my deconversion:
* I did not run out right out to commit and revel in “sin,” hurt anybody, or commit any crimes whatsoever.
* I did not become a drug addict or alcoholic.
* I did not lose my table manners or forget how to drive.
* I did not in any way lose my capacity to love, to feel, to empathize, to sympathize, or to care for others or the world around me.
* I still valued honesty, trustworthiness, reliability, forthrightness, gentleness, civility, fairness, and courage, and I felt renewed commitment to the self-improvement required to cultivate and live out those ideals.
That last item on this list is probably the most crucial. Nothing really important changed about me after deconversion. I was still basically the same person I was before ever walking into an evangelical church. A lot of those external trappings imposed by religiosity fell away, yes, but I was still there underneath all that dross. My parents–who were themselves Christian–told me after I left Christianity that they were glad to see their daughter back at last!
The stuff that changed after my deconversion was largely stuff that wasn’t good for me–more like external baggage that got shed like an ill-fitting winter coat. The stuff that stayed the same was, by and large, core ideals and values that probably won’t ever change all that much–and which was much better for my sanity and mental health.
But the folks around me then had gotten used to that external baggage. They largely hadn’t known me before my conversion, so they saw someone totally new and different left after my deconversion–and this person was not someone they wanted to see. She was not as controllable, or as docile.
The night that Biff realized I was well and truly deconverted, neither he nor I had any idea what was coming. Many Christians who face a deconverted spouse, friend, or family member for the first time feel that same fear. The impulse is to reject that person out of hand–for self-protection, out of fear of what terrible deeds that apostate will do now that “grace” has departed their sinful frames and now that the hand of a god is not staying their violent, lurid impulses. I’ve heard of Christian wives who told their deconverted husbands that they wished these husbands had become violent wife-beaters or alcoholics–because that’d be easier to bear and manage than a deconversion. I’ve heard of parents who instantly threw their ex-Christian kids out on the street or cut them off from support “for their own good”; I’ve heard of employers who fired deconverted employees who revealed their deconversions. I can’t blame them entirely; at this point there are Christians out there spewing all kinds of lies about what horrific things will happen if people deconvert. Hell, I saw a news story a while ago about some totally irresponsible Christian author claiming that simply accepting the Theory of Evolution makes someone more prone to rape!
This complete personal and social rejection tends to be one of of the greatest costs of deconversion. It’s not loving, no. But it is devastatingly effective. After seeing how the tribe handles other apostates–or even just talks about them–a great many people who stop believing in Christianity stay cloaked in shadows, mouthing words and going through motions out of fear of what their “loving” friends and family will do to them if the truth is found out.
If I could counsel any frightened Christians facing a deconverted loved one, I’d gently suggest this: ride this one out and see where it goes before making any big decisions. You’ll likely be really surprised at what does not change.
If I could counsel a Christian who is afraid of changing into something terrible after deconversion, I’d say this: chances are you will change, yes, but not into anything terrible; to the contrary, the changes you’ll see will likely be hugely positive in nature and not alter much about who you really are deep down inside.
The challenging thing about deconversion–for remaining Christians–is realizing just how few important things change about a person who leaves Christianity despite the party line teaching about the matter. Dogma just doesn’t align with reality here at all. The demonization heaped upon apostates is not only untrue but a wicked lie meant to terrorize both those in the pews and those slipping out of them. And it’s painful to see how often this fearmongering works to divide families, sever friendships, destroy communities, and silence people, with Christians rejecting and shunning deconverted loved ones without even attempting to find common ground. It’s a mess, and it’s just so unnecessary most of the time.
We’re going to talk next about another big fear: starting over. And I hope you’ll join me.