Reconciling Christian Experiences With Deconversion

Reconciling Christian Experiences With Deconversion January 28, 2020

The Toronto Blessing was a huge, worldwide event in evangelical history. Today, we examine its aftermath: how one participant had to reassess his experiences in it in the light of deconversion. 

she finally sees what life is for
(thefuturistics, CC.)

(Previous related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian LiesThe Tangled WebTodd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From AccountabilityA Muddle of InfluencesAuthoritarianism in TTBThe Chaos Created by TTBThe Problem With the Christian Slapfight Over TTBTTB Does The UKLeekSoup Saw It Happen; Themes of Power and Control.)

Reassessing Experiences.

For newcomers to this series, the Toronto Blessing (TTB) was an extended movement of evangelical shenanigans. It began in a church called the Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV) in January 1994. Spreading across the globe, it lasted for many years. The United Kingdom (UK) quickly came to prominence as a major hotbed of TTB-related activity.

This movement made its creators famous and often powerful. In a lot of ways, it did so through their careful cultivating, selling, and maintenance of miracle claims. These claims fit into what Christians call charismatic evangelicalism. This phrase encompasses a wide range of the showier, rowdier displays like speaking in tongues, magical healing, prophecy, hopping or dancing or running around, and whatnot. They call this stuff gifts of the Spirit.

As I read about this movement, I found myself wondering what happened to TTB participants after TTB passed. It seemed to me like most churches just quietly dropped the practices associated with it. (LeekSoup said the whole thing “fizzled out” in his own church.) Then they moved on quickly to other things.

I began wondering about the people who deconvert after having experienced TTB-type stuff.

So I asked LeekSoup about it!

A Quick Note: That One Weird Thing That Happened Once (TOWTTHO).

When people realize that Christianity’s claims aren’t true, often they reassess a lot of their former experiences in the religion. And in many cases, they must. What onetime Christians once considered real live miracles while we believed those claims turn out to be simple exaggerations or misunderstandings–or worse, outright lies or even attempts to con us out of our time and money.

Often, these experiences take the form of what I’ve come to call that one weird thing that happened once, or TOWTTHO. (The idea comes from an excellent Ubi Dubium post). They’re experiences that fall well outside what we normally might have, or they take place in atmospheres of heightened tension or drama. They might even seem like hallucinations or our minds falling into hysteria.

People don’t like to have unexplained stuff in their memories. We want explanations. Religious people are no different–but they’re indoctrinated to believe in a lot of imaginary things. Thus, their leaders encourage them to reach for explanations that fit into their beliefs.

Nonreligious people might enter a supposedly-haunted house, feel a shiver run up their spines, and immediately wonder if extremely low-pitched vibrations (too subtle to hear even) might be causing it. Meanwhile, superstitious people might experience the same thing and ascribe it to ghosts. And fundagelicals would likely think demons caused it.

Our beliefs inform the the narratives we concoct to explain our various experiences.

Losing Faith.

Fundagelicals in general base a lot of their beliefs on their strong experiences, attributing those experiences to divine manifestations of glory and power. Thus, they’re quite prone to mistaking flim-flam for confirmation and validation of their beliefs. That is very much what happened to LeekSoup, as it did with so many of us who once believed. He recalled,

My ‘Toronto’ experiences may have helped as a bulwark against doubt. The “reality” of experiencing something supernatural countered my growing sense of dissonance which was based more on rational issues with religious claims. I’ll admit I held on to the experience as proof for longer than I should have because I didn’t want to admit I’d fallen for euphoric emotional frenzy, suggestion, and a sort of mob hypnosis. I didn’t want to admit I’d been fooled, or tricked myself, like that. . .

It all [these charismatic practices] dried up as my faith withered away. It was hard to continue those performative aspects while seriously thinking there was no God behind them. I became an interested observer of phenomena, and the types of people who seemed to experience them most.

I can confirm that I had much the same experience as I came closer and closer to deconversion. Once my then-husband Biff figured out that I’d deconverted, he flung those former experiences in my face: how oh how could I possibly stop believing when I’d had all these experiences?

Biff didn’t like hearing me respond that I’d simply been wrong about what they had been and what their source really was. In his world, there was no room for someone to think that. So I had to be either intentionally lying or else completely deluded by Satan.

Context Matters.

One of the biggest indicators that TTB wasn’t divine was that it was incredibly easy for churches to refuse to participate in it. And that was a big source of cognitive dissonance to many Christians–not just LeekSoup. If a church’s culture didn’t support the idea of bursting into “divine laughter” or “dancing in the Spirit” or barking like dogs or whatever, or if a Christian was personally opposed to the idea of playing along, then well, it didn’t happen.

LeekSoup recalled:

I probably realised quite early on as well, that our church culture was just one of a myriad of expressions of Christianity and that theology was a much bigger thing than I’d realised. . .

Later when I was in the Vineyard, there was a lad who had grown up Pentecostal who believed that only people who talked in tongues were genuinely saved. I blew his mind on that by pointing out that in churches that taught that, everyone spoke in tongues, and in churches that thought Tongues was Deception, nobody spoke in them. He was really stunned and affronted by that. I’d reached a point where I understood that church culture affected Christian practice.

There was still an emphasis in Vineyard on speaking in tongues, praying for people who would fall over, and so on. So I was still doing that sort of thing regularly in the Noughties. Then when Vineyard imploded due to authoritarian leadership issues, we started attending a church that didn’t emphasise Spiritual Gifts as much so it became a lot more rare for me to do that sort of thing. I still occasionally had ‘words’ or spoke in tongues but they were exceptions to the norm.

Resolving Deconversion and Heresy.

In addition, LeekSoup’s girlfriend (now wife) didn’t speak in tongues. He easily reconciled this fact with her status as a Christian:

I saw the manifestations of the Holy Spirit as hallmarks of God’s blessing but not indicative of a person’s salvation. I was never Pentecostal in that sense. So if she didn’t want to talk in tongues that was fine. It didn’t mean she was less of a Christian. But it put of a dampener on me and Toronto.

Caring about someone who refuses to join the tribe can be devastating to a fundagelical’s indoctrination. So can caring for someone who’s left the tribe. Both can present a unique challenge to Christians’ beliefs.

Their tribe-member loved ones know these heretics don’t fit the tribal beliefs about non-members, so sometimes they slowly adjust beliefs to fit reality a little better. Once that starts happening, fundagelical leaders know exactly where it can end. It’s one of the reasons they go to such extreme lengths to demonize and vilify their various enemies. It’s also one reason why they implant false beliefs in their followers about stuff like deconversion.

The Big Question.

So now we come to the question I asked:

Did your experiences in TTB prove difficult to reconcile with your deconversion? . . . A lot of people struggle to figure out how these intense experiences figure in with a lack of gods and even of anything supernatural at all.

And here’s what he said (the redacted stuff ended up elsewhere in this post; emphases mine):

I was almost 40 before I realised Christianity was most likely untrue, and actually stayed in organised Christianity for a few more years. I desperately wanted it to be true, and went looking for reasons to carry on believing, but I didn’t find any. I have had to deconstruct and reconstruct many things in my life, including admitting that my parents, who I love, indoctrinated me, and that when I proclaimed certain truths as a preacher I was wrong. . .

Eventually I realised I was wrong about a lot of stuff. I was wrong when I thought I could love gay people but ‘hate’ their sin. I was wrong when I (briefly) believed evolution was a big lie. I was wrong when I believed the Bible was the Word of God. I was wrong when I said the Nicene Creed, and believed it. I was wrong when I believed in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. I was really, frustratingly, wrong when I believed there was a God who listened to my prayers, and the prayers of others, and who had reasons not to heal people or intervene to keep people safe, and I was wrong when I told other people that we had to trust God regardless of whether we understood his non-intervention. I was wrong when I thought I could build a reasonable version of my religion that accepted science, and treated gay people as people, and waved away the contradictions as a problem just for Biblical literalists.

I’ve been wrong about an entire religion. So it isn’t hard for me to say I was wrong when I thought those experiences were actually the result of God’s Holy Spirit impacting on me.

Those experiences were real to me, and they were unexplained. The lack of an explanation meant I used them as ‘evidence’ that I wasn’t completely misguided; that there was a God, and a kernel of truth in Christianity. But there were other explanations too – hysteria, manipulation (conscious or not), expectation, cognitive biases, copying other people and conformity, needs being met by it, and so on. It was painful to think, but I realised there’s every possibility that those mundane explanations are correct. I’d been wrong about everything else!

Having said all that, I’m glad I had the experience. I have the theology degree. I have the wider reading. I have the decades of church life. I have the times in leadership. I have the employment history in a national Christian charity. I literally had the t-shirt for almost everything. Evangelism, preaching, children’s and youth work, door ministry, you name it. And, yes, I even talked in tongues! I had charismatic experiences that were beyond anything the vast majority of Christians could even contemplate.

So, whatever the argument people want to throw at me, I have been there and deconverted from it. They can’t say I did it wrong, because I did it all, and to a level most Christians will never attain.

It makes me feel fucking bulletproof, to be honest.

rAmen to all of it. All of it.

If we weren’t the real deal, then no Christians ever could be. 

NEXT UP: A special request: the modern legacy of the Toronto Blessing. The people responsible for this movement didn’t recant their practices or beliefs. Many of them continued onward, influencing today’s fundagelicals in indelible, unmistakable ways. Join us for one final afterword about this movement.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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