A few years back, I and Tristan Vick collected a number of deconversion accounts from around the world into an anthology of stories called Beyond An Absence of Faith: Stories About the Loss of Faith and the Discovery of Self [UK]. I am presently sorting out distribution to a number of my older books (the long and the short of it is, even though I kink to Amazon, they are a bunch of megalomaniacal bastards, and are looking to get publishing monopoly by screwing up distribution of print-on-demand publishing competitors and blaming it on “their algorithm”) that are often listed as “temporarily out of stock” or not available through Amazon primary sales (only third-party sellers) even though they can never go out of stock because they are held virtually.
I might even write a post on this one day. It annoys the bejesus out of me and has literally cost me thousands.
That said, here is the foreword to the aforementioned book. This books also sat alongside my deconversion series here at ATP that I list below this piece:
What you hold in your hand is no ordinary book on Atheism. Over the past decade a number of excellent books have been published on the subject of non-belief. Drawing both from ancient traditions and the cutting edge of contemporary philosophy and science these books attempt to refute the claims of religious apologists while offering a rational case against belief in a God. But human beings are not, and have never been, purely rational animals. We adopt beliefs and reject them for reasons that are relevant to our own circumstances—reasons that are deeply emotional and experiential as well as intellectual. Many popular books on atheism lack this personal dimension. Thankfully, this book is not one of them. In the pages that follow you will encounter more than abstract arguments against religious propositions. You will meet real people who were once devout but have discovered a new life awaiting them beyond faith. Immerse yourself in their stories and a richer picture will develop as to why so many people today have become dissatisfied with religious answers to life’s questions. You will also find an inspiring vision of what life can be like after religion. Believers will find valuable insights into the mind of apostates and hopefully will feel sympathy upon understanding the struggles they must endure. Doubters may find relief and guidance knowing that others have walked this path before and emerged stronger than they began. Lifelong atheists may come to appreciate their formerly-devout friends and will better understand how to enter into meaningful, constructive dialogue with religious peers. There is much wisdom waiting in these pages for anyone who takes the time to read them.
Stories of the kind you are about to read are sometimes called “deconversion accounts”—the atheist’s counterpart to religious testimonials of faith. As one who has heard many such stories I can tell you they are often as unique as the people telling them. Some deconverts hated their religious upbringing. They recall feeling traumatized by stories of demons, hellfire and the tortures that await the damned. Withering under oppressive rules their natural curiosity and self-respect was nearly smothered by decades of indoctrination into the tenets of their faith. Some counted the days until they were old enough to escape the totalitarian grip of their religion. For others, their religious upbringing was by-and-large a positive experience. Raised in loving households and nurtured by their congregations, religion provided them a clear sense of themselves and a feeling of belonging. People raised in contexts like this have little to rebel against and their deconversion tends to happen mostly for intellectual reasons. When their private doubts become public they often feel a profound sense of loss, having been cast away from the only supportive community they have ever known.
For those who have lived their whole lives in a religious context, leaving the faith may present serious challenges to their health and wellbeing. Raised under an authoritarian parenting style, taught to believe that morality consists of blind obedience to inflexible rules of conduct, some believers never learn to reason their way through difficult moral situations. Self-control is maintained by the threat of divine punishment or fear of judgment from religious peers. Upon realizing they are not under the watchful eye of an angry God these apostates can be especially vulnerable to substance abuse, addiction and other forms of self-destructive behavior. Similarly, some find themselves unprepared to cope with the intellectual complexities of life outside the faith. Beliefs can change quickly. Habits of thought, however, tend to be more entrenched. As oppressive as a dogmatic faith can be, it does offer the believer the comfort of convictions that need not be questioned. A recent deconvert may miss the psychological security of religion and seek out such dogmatic assurances elsewhere. In some cases, inadequate religious schooling may have left them far behind their more secular peers or without the skills necessary to find well-paying job in the workforce. Such problems are most common for individuals leaving severely authoritarian religious backgrounds. The vast majority of apostates leave the faith with both their “moral compass” and critical thinking skills not only intact, but functioning better than ever. Nevertheless, there are other challenges deconverts face that are more universal.
Nearly all deconverts will face challenges in their family life. By rejecting religion, one may risk being disowned by one’s parents, children, spouses or friends. Even when the consequences are not so drastic, a major change of worldview can destabilize relationships that were originally forged or strengthened through shared conviction. If new ways of nurturing those bonds cannot be discovered, relationships will suffer. Recognizing this, many apostates feel pressure to keep their doubts hidden. Even those who refuse to hide their doubt often stress over how and when they should “come out” as an atheist to their family and friends. One’s livelihood can also be threatened by leaving the faith. It is hard to quantify just how much discrimination non-theists face in the work place but stories abound of those who lost clients, were passed by for promotions or whose jobs were terminated when their atheism became known.
Less tangible, but just as important, are the emotional & existential challenges faced by apostates after leaving the fold. While some formerly religious people claim to have never really believed, a great many more believed with conviction. Religion once defined the boundaries of their reality. It gave the world a sense of meaning and purpose. Even during the hardest trials of life, faith could be turned to as a refuge. But after religion, the apostate finds themselves in a universe that looks the same but is frighteningly unfamiliar in character. Having rejected the false consolations of religion, the deconvert must confront the reality of their own fragile and fleeting existence. Lost loved ones are now lost forever. Gone too are all assurances that suffering happens for a reason or that injustices here on earth will be made right in the world to come. Some grieve the loss of their deity the way one would a father or trusted companion. Others must cope with the feeling of being betrayed, misled or even abused spiritually by their religious mentors. It is not uncommon for a deconvert to feel “lost” as the moral and metaphysical clarity they once enjoyed evaporates leaving a dizzying sea of perspectives in its place.
Despite the hardships of losing faith, many also find this time to be exhilarating. Even the most familiar experiences can take on a new sense of wonder as the deconvert rediscovers themselves and the universe they inhabit. For many this is first time they’ve had the freedom to entertain ideas without securing the approval of a creed or holy text. Reveling in this newfound autonomy, many cast their intellectual nets far and wide, capturing as much knowledge as they can. At first they may change their views as often as they change their clothes, but this is not a reason for embarrassment. Realizing one is wrong is simply an opportunity for getting things right. As their knowledge and skill in thinking develop, so too does their confidence in their own reason and judgment. Questions about the nature of existence remain but do not provoke the same anxiety as before. If supported by strong evidence, even propositions held tentatively will seem more trustworthy than the fragile yet hyperbolic “certainties” of a faith maintained through ignorance. The unknown, once frightening, now presents itself as a delightful invitation to inquiry, an opportunity to exercise one’s curiosity and further hone the set of intellectual tools they’ve acquired.
For those who came from more oppressive communities, deconversion has also provided them a second chance to seek out fulfillment in experiences once forbidden. This may mean finally being able to dance or to wear the clothing, eat the food, watch the films, and listen to the music they’ve always wanted to. Simple amusements, perhaps, but nonetheless valuable to one who has never enjoyed those freedoms. This newfound liberty can also lead to personal transformations that are lasting and profound. Some find the courage to escape abusive relationships. Others embark on new personal projects or find fellowship once again in communities that share their newfound values. Many begin to recover from years of shame and guilt attached to sexuality. Making peace with their bodies and desires, they now have the space to explore attraction in healthy ways. For some it may even be the first time they’ve been able to truly love the kind of person they would choose to love. Far from a loss, leaving religion can be liberating. The same people who before could not even imagine living without faith often look back wondering why they hadn’t left earlier. Despite all hardships endured, losing God, it turns out, is just the first step in finding oneself again—this time in a strange but beautiful cosmos rich with wonder and possibility.
Jeremy Beahan, Grand Rapids
Here are the accounts run on my blog:
Please feel free to contact me with your own if you wish to run it here.
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