A few years after my deconversion, I went through a traumatic experience that was so horrific that I don’t even want to outline what it was here. Well, to be more specific I witnessed at very close range someone else’s horrifically traumatic experience. Thankfully nobody died, but it was still traumatic enough that I ended up in therapy after the dust had settled. A few months later I was riding around with a girlfriend and she mentioned that I seemed to be doing a lot better since the event had occurred–and she was hugely relieved because it’d been all I could talk about for those first few weeks. In fact, she and some of our other mutual friends had been using as a barometer of my emotional health how much I’d been talking about the incident.
“Was I really that bad?” I asked, but I already knew. I hadn’t even been aware of talking about it at all until that moment, but right then I could suddenly feel an impending stormcloud of memories. Yes, I probably had been that bad, I thought.
Patty just laughed. Oh yes, she told me, I’d been that bad and worse. It’d been all she could do to just listen and be there for me. I cringed, but we were at a light so she put a comforting hand on my thigh and said very seriously, “Cas, I’m your friend and I love you. You needed to talk about this. It’s okay. You’re doing a lot better now and that’s what’s important.”
And just like that, everything was better again.
When we deconvert from religion–especially if the experience was traumatic–we’ve got a lot to get off our chests at first. Sometimes we’ve been hurt very badly. Sometimes our friends and family might not even be able to see those scars and wounds, but they’re still there and while that pain is fresh, it is the most important thing in our world as we’re processing the damage that was done to us. Sometimes a deconversion is so traumatic that the whole world eclipses inward like we are the black sun at the center of the universe, and it can be hard to even think about anything but that pain.
For some of us, that processing is done fairly quickly and soon after deconversion. For others of us, it can take many years and sometimes doesn’t even start for years after the deconversion. Ex-Christians proceed at our own pace and there’s not really a way to tell just how much time someone will need to get healthy again. Some elements of the deconversion may resolve much more quickly than others; this lopsided progress, too, is normal and perfectly reasonable.
I get that sometimes our surrounding friends and family might still be (and in fact usually are) invested in the religion still, and so it can be that much harder for them to understand how something they love so much could hurt anybody so much or become such a traumatizing force. I get that.
It’s still heartbreaking how often I notice someone talking about religious-induced trauma either on a forum or on social media or even in real life, and see them get responses like “OMG STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS ALREADY” and “gyahh, can’t you lay off religion?” — or even for me to see attempts to proselytize and reconvert the person who’s been hurt so badly by religion, which may well come across to the ex-Christian as grotesquely insensitive and unloving.
People who’ve been hurt often need to process that pain.
Sometimes our processing will take the form of mockery or posting of atheist memes or whatever. Sometimes it’ll take the form of exposing and calling attention to super-hypocritical Christians. Sometimes it’ll be expressions of anger toward an ideology that proved to be not only false but harmful and toxic to our emotional health.
I’d like to ask the friends and families of those deconverting from a religion to please show a little heart, and respect our need to process and resolve old emotional hurts. Think of it like an accident or a seriously bad love relationship that just ended. For many of us, our entire conceptualization of reality turned out to be wrong, and that can really do a number on someone’s head. When we’re done with our processing of that pain, we’ll be the same folks we were before–though hopefully healthier and more whole for having gone through this needle’s eye and come out the other side. Some of us have some serious stuff to process.
And it’s okay if we need to talk about it.
One of the most challenging things we can experience in a friendship is a huge radical change in one of the friends. It’s no surprise that most friendships will cool under that strain. My friendships sure did not come through mine–I lost every friend I had after I deconverted.
In time I came to realize that I’d mistaken my church friends for real friends, when really they were more like “work friends.” I’d made the mistake of buying too seriously into the love-bombing most churches do to their members. That realization helped a lot when I felt the inevitable grief over the end of all those friendships. When I deconverted, those people I thought were friends had to decide if they cared more about me as a person, or me as a fellow Christian. I’m sure it was a very uncomfortable decision to make–but I’m also sure it was a quick one.
Having been thus rejected, for a long time I had to process my pain by myself. And largely, that is exactly what I did. Social media didn’t really exist, nor internet forums, nor meet-up groups devoted to becoming or living free of religion. Today, all of those things exist, which means that people who leave Christianity have access to forms of help that simply didn’t exist when I deconverted. In a lot of ways we live our lives in fishbowls now, with our comings and goings visible to a great many other people. There’s a public nature to our private lives that still intimidates me a little. I’m seeing ex-Christian peers dealing their grief in ways that are more public than anything I would have been able to do twenty-plus years ago–and it’s just astounding how much more quickly they’re doing it than I managed to do on my own.
Inevitably, then, a newly-minted modern ex-Christian is going to step on some toes among those who are still in the clubhouse.
These ex-Christians are possibly going to ask challenging questions and reject the standard-issue apologetics fallacies that once served to soothe that dissonance–the same fallacies that their still-Christian friends may find perfectly satisfactory. And that rejection is going to challenge those still-Christian friends. I get it. It’s going to make those Christians feel like the new ex-Christian is implying something about their own intelligence or discernment, when it isn’t.These ex-Christians are possibly going to say some extremely derogatory things about their onetime religion and the god they likely don’t think even exists. And those derogatory statements are going to offend Christians who are used to their faith system being accorded deference and respect above all others, and to their “god” being entirely above questioning or reproach, even if none of those statements are aimed at any particular person at all.
And these ex-Christians are possibly going to be raised middle fingers to everything their still-Christian peers and family members think is true about non-believers. Some of us go a little wild after deconversion, sure, just like preacher’s kids sometimes go a little wild after leaving their parents’ homes for college. But most of us don’t. And I know that’s going to be a real challenge for Christians who buy into that “people can’t be good without ‘God'” myth. If the rhetoric about non-believers isn’t true, that may well lead Christians to wondering what else isn’t true about their various claims and platforms.*
I gently suggest that newly-deconverted ex-Christians choose their battles wisely.
Not everybody’s going to be ready to hear what we have to say, and we can probably remember a time when we weren’t either–when a ready apologetics fallacy sprang fully-formed to our lips the second we heard a prompt. I’ve got ex-Christian friends who wait months if not years before even clicking “like” on something critical of Christianity; it’s their choice to make and I totally respect their desire to maintain their own emotional safety–cuz once the genie’s out of the bottle, she ain’t going back into it.
In my own personal experience, I don’t want to cause gratuitous pain or burn bridges, but I do want to be honest and authentic to myself because I remember how stressful it was to keep my questions, doubts, and eventual deconversion to myself. I’ll never have a big honest heart-to-heart with some of my extended family about my deconversion, but they seem quite content to love me and respect my boundaries without talking about it. They’re not the pushy sort of Christians anyway, so my deconversion doesn’t really threaten anything they believe or think about the world, nor does it threaten to invalidate their own life choices. Our shared religious faith wasn’t really a foundation-block for our relationships.
My friends were a different matter. They were very much were the pushy sort of Christians (as was I, it must be conceded), very much did consider my deconversion a personal challenge to their own life decisions, and very much did consider the religion to be a foundation to all relationships, so when I left Christianity, that spelled the absolute end to our ability to maintain respect and affection toward each other. We weren’t insincere people or fake friends; I just don’t think any of us even knew what real friends even were. We were work friends–tied together by our shared hobby and passion. Once that hobby and passion were cut away, there wasn’t anything left to connect us.
That said, if you need to talk about it, find a safe space to do so and talk about it.
You have a right to say what’s on your mind. It’s your house too, metaphysically speaking. And if there are folks around you who love you no matter what, they’ll want to know you’re in pain so they can be there to help shift that burden a little. I’m not a fan of so-called “venting”–I’ve seen studies that indicate it might make emotional pain or anger worse, not better–but talking through one’s emotions and experiences can help us to crystallize what we’re feeling and also get us valuable feedback from those who know us best.
An ex-Christian will find out very, very quickly which friends were real friends and which ones were just “work friends” as he or she begins to sift through the hurt, grief, and pain that is so often involved in deconversion.
Hint: the people who try to shut an ex-Christian up probably belong to the latter group.
Be aware of people who push back against your honest expression of emotion by trying to silence you, questioning your right to speak, ferreting out your motivations like that matters at all, speaking over your experiences, Just Asking Questions, or refusing to show respect to stated limits and boundaries. When those people do those sorts of things, they’re telling you loud and clear that they’re not ready to hear what you’re saying–and that they might not be safe harbors for your honesty. Do with that information what seems best to you, but it’s a good idea to pay attention to something that clearly said.
In the end, know that it’s normal and okay to talk about losing one’s faith. Some folks don’t, and a lot of folks do. Sometimes people you thought had your back will turn on you for discussing it; other times you’ll be surprised at who remains at your side. Sometimes you’ll end up with a quiet detente like I have with most of my family; sometimes things will get very hostile; sometimes you’ll be embraced anew. In a lot of ways we’re all still navigating what is fast becoming a post-Christian society, so it’s really hard to tell sometimes what will happen when someone speaks up about being an ex-Christian.
And we probably aren’t going to shut up completely about having journeyed out of Christianity. Some of us barely mention it at all once we’re all done dealing with it. Others of us will continue to discuss the religion and the various criticisms of it that interest us (ahem). The pain is over, but the fact of the journey remains and we’ll probably talk about that too for a while. This post-Christian discussion is also necessary.
The more of us there are speaking up, the easier it gets for others to find the courage to question their old assumptions and to maybe even leave a harmful religion. So if you’re wondering if you should talk about it, then yes: if you can and you want to do so, then talk about it. You might be the thread in the safety-net that someone else needs. The other benefit to having many voices raised to discuss the harm religion can do and the move away from harmful religion is that it’s a lot harder to demonize and stigmatize a friend. The more of us share our stories, the better we’ll be known and the harder it becomes for Christians to say things–or believe things–about us that simply aren’t true. Even when the first shock and trauma of deconversion are past, it’s important that we make ourselves known.
So yes: we talk about being ex-Christian, especially when we’re fresh off a deconversion.
And that’s okay.
* SPOILER ALERT!!! None of it is.