The Identity Crisis of Deconversion

This is a tribute to some very brave commenters. Wrestling with God is one of the hardest things you will ever do. I don't care if you keep your faith or not. It doesn't matter to me. What does matter to me and actually gets me choked up is the situation you find yourself in now. I remember what it was like and it was a very sad time for me.

I have a similar story to you. I was the adult bible study teacher, led the singing every sunday, usually sang the lead in the Christmas Cantata, was the 'goto guy' and a pillar of the community, etc. But in the process of my deconversion, I had no one to talk to. No one wanted to hear it. Those that did said to pray about it. But how can they understand that praying doesn't fix it? Praying is part of the problem. They said during and afterwards that I wasn't working hard enough, or doing it right, but just have faith. In the speed of a thought, I went from being a good guy to a bad guy. When I wasn't a Christian anymore I became an Atheist. I went from being morally sound to immoral. I lost a part of myself. It was like losing a spouse or child or parent. I lost my Identity. And I lost the kind of friendships that I used to have. For me, everything changed. I had a library full of christian appologetics and commentaries, I had invested so much time in the church and studying the bible. I was forever going to be a different person. I miss the fellowship, and I guess that is one of main reasons I joined DC, to talk about it and share my experiences with people like you. Now I dabble in reasoning and philosophy. I don't want to get fooled again.
Take care and good luck.


Wanderin' Weeta said...

"I lost a part of myself. It was like losing a spouse or child or parent. I lost my Identity. And I lost the kind of friendships that I used to have. For me, everything changed. I had a library full of christian appologetics and commentaries, I had invested so much time in the church and studying the bible. I was forever going to be a different person."

Losing one's identity. That, I think, is the hard part, even more than losing faith. Because the faith, and how you lived out that faith, and the relationships it provided (and that now mostly crumble to dust) are "Who You Are".

It is not until much later that I discovered that "Who I Really Am" had been smothered, squeezed and pounded into the proper "Christian" shape, and now I can begin to just "be". But the process was incredibly painful, and I got a lump in my throat just reading your post, and remembering.

StargazerBfree said...

This posting "speaks to my condition," as my Quaker friends say. I have grown up in the church, in an off-shoot of Methodism, and have spent most of my life connectd to the church in a very significant way. The fears of loss are real as I move on--identity, friends, the massive investment in study and of life energy. And for most of my adult life, my work has been connected to the church in one way or another; right now I am working fulltime for a church related camping program.

Like wanderin' weeta said, you begin to discover that your real identity has been buried. I've spent so much of my life, and especially the last few years, trying to live with the intellectual contradictions, keeping my mouth shut unless I was with someone who was "safe," living with a perpetual knot in my stomach. I'm tired. I just want to live with integrity, to be free to speak what I see to be true. And to live open to new ideas, to not have to rigidly plug into ANYTHING--just to be able to continue to learn and grow. The world, the universe, the human mind--all so much bigger than I have been free to believe in the past.

I am very thankful for this blog, for those who give so much time and energy to sharing here. Thank you! It is so good to have a place to explore all of this.

John W. Loftus said...

Christian scholar Scot McKnight is writing a chapter in a book on people who walk away from faith. Ed Babinski, Ruth Tucker and I have interacted with him here.

lowendaction said...


First of all, thank you for sharing and enabling such a forum for seekers of ALL directions to find a semi-safe harbor to vent, learn, and hopefully grow.

From my perspective, wrestling with God is very biblical, and is a clear sign of an active relationship with God!

I find your last statement interesting/sad:

"I don't want to get fooled again."

Having grown up as a missionary kid, and thus having experienced a wide range of so-called Christian church fellowhips, I've come to the conclusion, that it is not God/Christ that "fools" us away from Him, but the masses of ignorant fools who play religion in His name.

This is not me trying to re-de-un-convert you or anything, much less make light of your life changing decision. And no, this is not me saying I'm right and everyone else is wrong...far from it! But I think you must admit that it is what humans have done with/through the name of Christ/Bible/God that has caused insurmountable and irreversable damage to countless victims, not the truth/message itself.

I'm sorry...I didn't mean to open up a whole can of spiritual goo here!

I can really resonate with your comment about wrestling with God. My feeling is, the day I feel "cozy" or "at peace" with God, is the day something is way off in my life. IOW, like any meaningful relationship, there is constant growth, wich brings its fair share of pain, frustration and misunderstandings. But as long as those never outway the foundation and merits of that relationship, it's always worth it for me.

Quick question: even if I can't explain everything, and compelling evidence is brougth to bear, that I might struggle to refute, is it really wrong to opt for the lesser of two evils? IOW, since neither belief system can be COMPLETELY proven/disproven, is the idea of Heaven and a life spent loving really that bad? I mean, in the end, who really ends up on top? The one who was right a Godless world and shares his victory with the worms eating his brains, or the one who takes this life-long journey on into an eternity with the Creator?


John W. Loftus said...

It's always man's fault, isn't it? It's never God's fault, eh? You are letting God off the hook too easily here...way to easily. What would it take for you to say, "hey, this is probably God's fault in some way"? The fact is, God did not reveal himself clearly which has led to so much confusion among Christians even to the point of burning people alive, and wars between themselves. What would it take for you to consider what I consider obvious? Name it, or drop this defense of your God.

Why God did not say this: "Thou shalt not buy, own, sell, or trade slaves," and say it so often that Christians would've gotten the point and be appalled if any other professing Christian decided to own a slave in the American South, much less make it allowable under law. Some of these slaves became Christians and their Christian masters still beat them and whipped them and raped their wives and daughters.

God is at least partially to fault. I have argued this many times before. Christians are simply not being reasonable about this because of blind faith...that's right...blind faith.

But here's the rub. If God is even partially to fault, then this destroys the orthodox Christian faith. So they continue spouting off proof texts mindlessly in support of their blind faith.

Sorry to be so harsh, but you are clearly and plainly denying what is obvious...obvious. Which can only mean you are blinded by your faith just as much as sincere Muslims are who become suicide bombers in hopes for 70 virgins when they die (THEY REALLY BELIEVE THIS, AND YOU COULD NOT CONVINCE THEM OTHERWISE!), except your blind faith doesn't cause this much mayhem. But both of you are blind.

lowendaction, you had said, "a wide range of so-called Christian church fellowhips..."

What do you mean "so-called"? Tell me what they believed or how they acted and I will show you how easliy God could have straightened them out. Baring God doing that, I will show you how you either believe or act the same way, or that what you believe or how you behave is at least as different as them.

But I can show you how easily God could've done differently by clearly communicating to them. Easily. Try me. It's PARTIALLY God's fault they don't know what the truth is or how they should act.

Give this a try.

I'm going to make this a challenge and a separate post.

Jospeh said...

Thank you, Lee. As you so well put it, the personal side of deconversion is almost always overlooked. Atheists and agnostics are considered as "fools" who don't believe in God because, as the Psalmist says, "they are corrupt, they have don't abominable works." I used to preach that. I can no longer. And yet, I find myself in an awkward position of supporting a group of sincere Christians in what I believe is an entirely worthwhile endeavor (loving fellowship, moral support, good works), while trying not to add fuel to the aggressive dogma that has caught so many fundamentalist/evangelical churches ablaze.

It's only a matter of time that I will have to step down and walk away. I haven't even summoned up the courage to tell my wife what I'm going through yet, though she is perceptive and has noticed I am questioning things more and more these days. Parents are another issue. Dad is a lifelong preacher and missionary and mom is an extreme anti-feminist who would most certainly blame my wife for my demise!

How long will I hold out? My issues with Christianity have now expanded beyond the Problem of Evil. I no longer believe the Old Testament is literal history and I am starting to believe that New Testament Christianity is almost entirely the invention (or reinvention) or Paul. By no means am I inflexible on any of these positions, but the evidence seems to be leaning strongly in these directions.

There was a time when I believed that Christianity was intellectually superior to all other POV's. Looking back, I realize I never sufficiently exposed myself to other belief systems to warrant that conclusion. I have had quiet doubts all my life, here and there, but chose to push them aside, choosing instead to hide behind the arrogant facade of swaggering preachers like Dr. James Kennedy.

But all intellectual argument aside, the emotional toll of this kind of identify crisis is huge. It almost defies words to describe the strangeness of the paradigm shift. It would be one thing if I was going from Christianity to Mormonism or Islam. But I'm now faced with the prospect that there is either no God or (perhaps worse than non-existence) a God who is silent and stoic, detached from human affairs.

GordonBlood said...

This is not really a proper post for what you are going through Joseph but do keep in mind that Christianity is not built upon a foundation of the Old Testament being inerrant or even historically accurate all the time. Most Christian scholars will readily admit that and have little trouble holding a robust orthodox (we can get into what that means but it seems to me a petty conversation) faith. Did the writers even intend it to be constantly seen as 100% history? Im very doubtful of that, considering if the events did not happen then the later writers/editors would have known that. However im abit surprised as to how you can hold that Paul modeled most of Christianity, that certainly is a popular belief but it doesnt seem to me based on much evidence (although young I am studying under a Oxford educated Pauline scholar in university even though im a history major, i just throw that in because its a privelege to do so). As for James Kennedy... well yeah, I dont think I could ever take that man seriously for more than a minute or two; but perhaps im being alittle quick to judge.

Jospeh said...

Good thoughts, Gordon. As I said, I'm not dogmatic about those stances. They are merely illustrative of how far I've drifted from a Biblical inerrancy and literalism.

While I don't think Paul was entirely responsible for Christianity, I do believe that he was instrumental in shaping it in a way that even overshadows Christ's own influence. He took a fledgling, young, insecure, splintered movement and gave it structure and purpose. There is no hard evidence, obviously, that Paul is the mastermind. But I do believe that circumstantial evidence leads to this conclusion (Paul's writing and ideas dominate the New Testament). And by the way, there are several contemporary and scholarly works that have various theories revolving around Paul, so it's not THAT far off the mark.

As for the Old Testament, whether literal history or not, what really started my whole journey into doubt were the many stories of genocide committed by the directive of Yahweh during the Canaanite conquests. I am DEEPLY disturbed by them and I am surprised to find a Christian who is not (most don't even know they are recorded in the Bible). Now, it is one thing for Yahweh to exterminate a race himself (which he could have easily done in a heartbeat), but he sees fit to use the hands of his own supposedly godly people to kill, instead.

If true, think of the psychological damage to the Israelites--to kill thousands of men, women, AND children in the name of a God they had never seen (not to mention the physical atrocity itself). If not literally true, then think of the psychological and sociological damage these propaganda tales of religious terrorism have brought upon the world since!

Bill said...

I was born into a loving Presbyterian (USA) family. Baptism, youth choirs, sunday school, confirmation, summer bible school, church services- the usual progression. I knew the Bible, the history of Christianity, the Reformation and the Apostle's Creed as well as any 15 year old oldest son in a devout family has ever known anything.
Presbyterians are big on retreats, for kids and adults, and I had been on many. During one three-day September rural retreat for teens at a Presbyterian camp in Pennsylvania, our youth minister scheduled us some quiet time to talk to God ourselves. I went down to the river and prayed as hard as I possibly could.
"Please, God, just show me one little sign that you exist."
Does it sound arrogant to say that I felt I deserved a half-second of God's attention? I did. I was certainly as worthy of a Godly gesture as Saul(Paul). Who had I persecuted? Aren't we ever precious in his sight and always on his mind? Is'nt He my shepherd?
I begged Him, finally in tears, for another half hour. Nothing, not the slightest ripple.
There is no God. I stopped believing in Him that day, and haven't been to a church service since the week I graduated from high school
I am an atheist. I do not need God in my life to make it worth living. I am free, I am responsible for my own actions. Nothing has happened in the past forty years to make me reconsider my decision.
Perhaps it is easier to leave the God of Presbyterians than other Christian Gods. I can't speak to that. But it is sad to listen to so many of you beat yourselves up about God. Perhaps you just had more time invested in it than me.
Good luck. I hope you get over it completely some day. Just ignore it. All you need to do is save yourself. You, too, are worth it.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Lowendaction,
Quick question: even if I can't explain everything, and compelling evidence is brougth to bear, that I might struggle to refute, is it really wrong to opt for the lesser of two evils? IOW, since neither belief system can be COMPLETELY proven/disproven, is the idea of Heaven and a life spent loving really that bad? I mean, in the end, who really ends up on top? The one who was right a Godless world and shares his victory with the worms eating his brains, or the one who takes this life-long journey on into an eternity with the Creator?

I don't think you understand.
It is not a matter of wanting to believe, or winning anything. It is a psychological inner reasoning thing. I can't believe in god anymore than I can believe in bigfoot or the loch ness monster or ufo's or leprachauns. My personality, brain, mind, whatever doesn't believe in things that I don't find compelling evidence for.

You all seem to think we can choose not to believe in god. That is very naive. If we chose not to believe in god shouldn't we be fearful of reprisals and going to hell (for those of you who think there is a hell)? The logic breaks down because we demonstrate that we really do believe anyway. Belief is not a choice, it is a result. It is the end point of a psychological process.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Warning, I may get eloquent (Translation: long-winded) here. But what I'm going to say can be put into two sentences.

First: You don't have to choose God to choose 'a life spent loving.'

Second: In choosing humanity over the probably -- I would say certainly -- non-existent God, you are not choosing the 'worse of two evils' as you imply. By choosing humanity, you are choosing the good over what may not be inherently evil, but which has, in many cases, become so.

(I didn't say 'short sentences.')

Am I denying humanity's capacity for evil? I hope I've never given reason for someone to think I am that much a fool. But I am denying that humanity is inherently evil. In fact, I am asserting that the only good on this planet has been the work of people, and people mostly working out of love, not for God, but for humanity itself.

It isn't ministers that have found the cures of diseases, but doctors -- sometimes working against the prohibitions of 'men of God.' (And in the worst cases, like Benny Hinn and Mary Baker Eddy, it is ministers who convince the gullible to refuse the help of medicine.)

It is people who discovered how to put satellites up, and in doing so learned to lessen the disasters of weather. It is people who overthrew the religious-based idea of 'divine right monarchy' and developed, imperfectly, of course, democracy.

But forget the big things. Think about the way the people of Minneapolis rallied to help the victims this week. And I've seen the same thing over and over on a smaller scale, right here in New York -- yes, the New York of rudeness and pushiness and not knowing your neighbor, but when there's a disaster, they help those unknown neighbors.

And you've seen it in your own neighborhood, when Mrs. Jones hurts her back and neighbors help with the kids, when Mrs. Smith gets mugged of her Christmas money, and people bring the gifts she wanted to buy her kids. (And only the most religiously addled ask her first what church she belongs to or what she believes.)

But religion says "No, humanity is corrupt, is depraved, is deserving of hell." (Not all religions, but many, and particularly many of the Christian ones that come here to preach to us and teach us their ugly lessons.)

That's the weapon they use, not maliciously in most cases, but the effect is to control us, to convince us that we are damned unless we 'follow the rules,' such a complicated set of rules that the people in the next church down the road know the first has gotten at least something wrong.

And we tremble, hoping we've picked the right set, and that those ugly Calvinists who say God's already decided who's going to hell and the ones who are really right.

And they take the greatest of human instincts and turn them, pride, sex, curiosity, into sins. (And they can be wrong, of course, anything can be misused.) After a while, we just know we are heading to hell unless we (fill in your own salvation ritual, here) or just hope God decides to forgive us.

And the religious never understand, with their absolute right and wrong and their rules and even their command that we should love our neighbor -- not because our neighbor is a fellow human who deserves love, but because God commands it. (Of course, we, the depraved would never think to give that love without the divine command.)

They never understand how much evil is done by those who give up, accept that they are damned, and buy into the other lie; that it's really the smart thing to be evil and selfish, and that if we didn't have the fear of hell, we'd become monsters. (In fact, think of the bad people you know. Pretty dumb, aren't they? And if you've known many criminals, how many of the chose crime because its one of the few careers you don't need to pass a test to get in.)

Okay, so it's eloquent, long-winded, or just a rant, but I hope you find something to comment on.

Barry Mahfood said...

Thanks for the personal focus. I do believe that many closet atheists choose not to come out because of the emotional costs involved. Even more difficult than losing frindships is the possiblility of alienating family members. If you don't mind me inserting a link, I posted about the costs of unbelief here:


Slapdash said...

Thanks for this entry... I relate to it a lot.

***Even more difficult than losing frindships is the possiblility of alienating family members.*** (barry)

Indeed. I accidentally 'came out' as an agnostic to my mom last week. It can be painful for everyone involved.

(If anyone is interested, I just wrote about it on my blog.)

KDSinLA said...

I must begin by echoing "bill" above: I, too, was raised as a polite Midwestern Presbyterian boy, attended weekly church services, Sunday schools, summer camps, retreats, confirmation, the works. But somehow, all along the way it felt like "work" to me. I never looked forward to church, to Sunday school, to "Pilgrim Summer Camp", I constantly found them dreadfully tedious or, in the case of summer camp, a source of debilitating social anxiety over whether or not I would make any friends or be liked. I cried at camp constantly. I never felt any gentle hands of Jesus wrapping around me to keep me warm: I came to understand through my church experiences that the world is actually a much braver place to live if you can love people without being told to do so, if you can act out of love, not out of duty to God. There is a Bible story somewhere encouraging you to love your enemy, to treat him with kindness so that you may heap hot coals upon his head in the afterlife! That's not love! That's hate done on the sly! Want a real challenge? Love your enemy. Find out what makes you enemies and try to fix it. Don't offer him a warm meal and a soft bed and then ponder how many nails he will be forced to sleep upon once he's dead! Christianity taught me that: to love my neighbor by planning his future eternal suffering. And then I heard a woman I respected actually call herself an atheist out loud one day and lightning did NOT strike her dead instantly. I mean, I really was expecting lightning! But nothing happened...

There's another great story about how a Spaniard in the Middle Ages became so angry with the world in which he'd lost everything that he chose to worship Satan: he went to all the witches he could find, he drew all the pentagrams, he said all the words, he promised Satan his eternal soul if only Satan would bring ruin upon his enemies, would do ANYTHING at all to help him! And you know what? Satan didn't do anything. The man tried for months, maybe it was years. Eventually the Inquisition got ahold of him and demanded an explanation for his Satanism. He said he had given it up because Satan clearly didn't exist: he'd gone looking long and hard for Satan, for a demonic spirit to help him punish his enemies, he'd offered up his blood, his soul, everything he had, he'd done all the incantations, burnt the wax figures, written certain lines from the bible backwards, waited for a dark horned face to appear in the smoke and offer to do his evil bidding, and he'd come up empty handed and he was kind of disappointed that none of it had worked at all.

Of course, the Inquisitors executed him for blasphemy.

And today I get laugh at their idiocy: "He blasphemed because he couldn't find proof that Satan exists!"

But as a sociologist, the hardest part ANYONE surrendering closely held faith is losing the PEOPLE connected to that faith, people you love and who love you and who now have got to SAVE you or lose you FOREVER! That's a war, man! Love is a powerful emotion, even misdirected love! There will be a long period of loneliness, there's no way around that. But what's GREAT is what comes NEXT! Realizing you are NOT AT ALL ALONE AFTER ALL AND WELCOME TO THE REST OF THE WORLD AND WE LOVE YOU TOO and nobody makes us do it!

That takes time... And it takes enormous effort and courage... And even THIS world has its own set of faults. But at least it is trying to love for the sake of love, not for fear or for the thought of relishing the damnation of others. I like this world SO much better than the one that terrified me as a child. If a wild, maniac Spaniard in deepest desperation can't get the Devil to lift one finger to help him, well then God bless it I am an atheist after all and the world is a free place! HOORAY!