Just over four years ago, I had what I sometimes call my “epiphany” — the moment where, in the middle of a worship service, I had a moment of intense mental clarity and realized that a journey of several years of study and personal reflection had brought me to the point that I didn’t find any of the theological trappings of Christianity compelling anymore. I had crossed over — or, perhaps more accurately, I finally realized where I had already come to stand.
Unlike some other deconversion stories I’ve heard, I hardly struggled at all to make sense of a world after faith. I’d been mentally tracking that for quite a while, frankly, in large part by reading the writings of atheists and freethinkers. Most of my struggle was in how I had to renegotiate my relationships with people whose primary connection to me was my now-former religion.
My primary concern was with my wife (who was and remains a Christian) and my family, particularly my deeply religious parents. Still, I had some looser connections to people who I had been involved in ministry with, and I knew that those were going to be harder to navigate. Even worse, I knew that I wasn’t ready to come out, and most of these people lived in or were still deeply involved in the small community where I lived at the time.
So I did what some people consider unthinkable: I ghosted them.
Ghosting, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when you cut off contact with someone suddenly, without warning or explanation, in order to end the relationship. It is generally used in the context of romantic relationships or dating, but it can refer to relationships of any kind. (It also is seldom characterized as a neutral or positive move, instead being described as “cowardly” or any of a number of similar adjectives.)
I’m not going to spend much time defending why I took this course of action. It happened four years ago in most cases, and it wasn’t something that I did across the board. I have retained quite a few of my Christian friends from before my deconversion, but there are reasons for my selectivity.
Instead, here’s what I want to say to my “ghosts” and to religious readers: As painful as it might be for your newly-secular friends to break off contact, there also might be good reason for it.
While not every situation is identical, deconversion is for many people a process of figuring out what battles you’re ready to fight, which ones you aren’t, and what defensive actions you feel that you need to take out of mere self-preservation. I knew that I had to have the conversation with each of my parents (the conversation with my wife happened without forethought, but that’s another story), and I communicated the change to a variety of my Facebook friends. On the other hand, my already-shallow relationships with others were such that the risk of uncomfortable conversations, ones where I was likely to feel cornered and obligated to explain and defend my new positions, were high and the benefit very low, given how little I interacted with those people.
In one case, I had known a particular friend for over twenty years, but I knew all too well how the conversation would go if they found out — in fact, I knew because we had discussed evangelism tactics over lunch once in the past. We didn’t talk much at that point anyway, just from having lives that drifted in different directions (and evidently, these were very different directions).
In that light — as the result of a very simple cost-benefit analysis — it seems clear that cutting off contact will likely be a safer move. The only other personal considerations were the potential confrontations that could ensue — the Where did you go?s and Why haven’t you returned my calls/messages?s — and the painful uncertainty for the other person.
I don’t want to minimize either of those considerations. Despite having been reassured by many friends that I shouldn’t feel such, I admit that I do feel a twinge of guilt for having left many of these people behind, even if I don’t think that my actions were the wrong ones. It’s not that I felt like I was better than them or that I disliked them anymore; I just knew that I could only renegotiate so many relationships at once, and the less important ones got triaged.
This state of affairs also need not be permanent. I wasn’t ready to have these conversations with many of the people I ghosted four years ago, but now perhaps I might be as someone who has become much more open as an atheist. If the situation arose to reconnect with some of these people, I don’t know that I would shy away from it like I would have before.
I haven’t given up hope entirely on these relationships. My religious life might be well in my past, but even this atheist is okay to hang out with ghosts at least every once in a while.
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