It’s really rare for people to ask me why I deconverted from Christianity. Like, really rare. It’s way more common for them to assume they already know, whether they’re talking to me while they’re expressing this assumption or not. However, in a single week, I’ve had two separate unaffiliated people ask me a variation of the same question about the role fundamentalism had in my deconversion. Of course, I’ve been trying to figure out my deconversion for the better part of two years. Perhaps it’s time for me to work out of my thoughts here with you.
A quick note: this is a rather long read. I wanted to be as thorough as I could while concentrating on the points below, so I’ve tried to make it as easy to scan as possible.
Having been a devout believer for my whole life until recently, I’ve been privy to how people react to the “falling away” of a brother or sister in Christ. I’ve had many of these assumptions myself when friends and acquaintances left the faith. As I’ve gone through the deconversion process and observed others who have done the same, I’ve realized that most of the reasons Christians tend to assume someone leaves Christianity are either completely false or confusingly misplaced. So I’d like to cover reasons that most certainly aren’t why I deconverted, while also exploring with you what things did contribute to my change of belief system.
Reasons that aren’t why I deconverted.
I’m an extra-special snowflake who just wants attention for my rebellion.
Unfortunately, people really have accused me of deconverting (and also writing about my life in general, actually) for the sole purpose of believing myself to be super special and wanting attention. The “wanting attention” thing has come up constantly over the course of my life, generally in response to me talking about any trauma or mental health problems I’ve experienced. It was lobbed at me for my eating disorder as a teen, for my multiple suicide attempts and self-injury habit, when I started talking about being sexually assaulted and struggling with PTSD, and especially when I started writing more publicly about the doubts I was having about my faith.
This isn’t an uncommon accusation to make of a woman having public opinions or taking up space. It’s also really insulting, actually. As if I was really bored one day and decided, “I know how to make people pay attention to me! I’ll renounce the faith I’ve based my entire existence on! That oughta do it!”
Unsurprisingly, this accusation tends to come from people who both don’t know me very well and feel somehow entitled to control me — a rather unfortunate and dehumanizing combination. Anyone who actually knows me will tell you I’m not a rebellious or attention-seeking person by any means. In fact, I’m actively attention- and conflict-averse. I don’t enjoy concentrated scrutiny at all, particularly the negative kind abandoning my faith seems to have attracted from many I hold dear.
Ryan Bell, of the Year Without God fame, wrote a fantastic post that kinda dovetails into what I’m talking about here, entitled “I’m not bitter and I’m not rebelling.” It’s well worth the read and helps demonstrate that this kind of accusation is pretty typical from believers when one of their own leaves the team.
Speaking of being part of the team, another common insinuation is that…
I was never a serious Christian.
This is a variation of the No True Scotsman fallacy, or as Neil Carter from Godless in Dixie writes, “You were never really one of us.” It’s also a major indication that whoever thinks this has never known me at all.
I’ll never forget talking to a supervisor at one of my first jobs. Conversation had turned to our personal lives and I mentioned my faith. The immediate response was, “Oh, I know you’re a Christian. It’s not hard to tell.” I remember the profound relief I felt that my relationship with Christ was so easily detectable.
Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the publicizing of my deconversion, I was equally relieved to hear a dear friend tell me that her first thought was, “If Dani can leave, anyone can.” It was so validating to hear acknowledgement that my faith was visible and self-evident by the way I lived my life…so any abandonment thereof wasn’t just chaff blowing away.
Those who knew me well as a Christian ought to be able to testify that I was absolutely dedicated to Christ above all else. All you have to do is peruse #MyFundyJournal to see evidence that I strove to be conformed to the image of Christ through Bible study and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. I was quite well-versed in the apologetics of my denomination, particularly regarding gender-specific issues (just ask me about the headcovering sometime). I was active at my assembly, attending every meeting I possibly could and fellowshipping with the other brethren, even lending my musical skills to congregational accompaniment when I was needed.
But more than the things I did, I was truly and passionately dedicated to God. I took very seriously the command to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. This led me to willingly and joyfully attended Bible conferences, Bible studies, prayer meetings — and even attend as I said in a recent post, whenever I felt like something in my life was getting in my way of my relationship with Christ, I would remove it. The music I listened to, performing music publicly, friends I felt were a worldly influence, colleges I wanted to attend — in my mind, there was no contest between these distractions in my life and my love for God.
I’m not saying I was perfect. I had my fair share of thorns of the flesh and temptations that I regularly confessed and worked to eradicate from my life. What I am saying, though, is that my faith was real and observable. My love for God and my fellow believers was real. Which leads some to conclude…
I just wanted an excuse to sin without guilt.
According to many in fundamentalism, women just don’t enjoy sex. It’s almost as if we’re not supposed to. (I personally think this says far more about what kind of lovers Christian patriarchy teaches men to be by virtue of the subservient role women supposedly fill, but what do I know?) I mean, there are exceptions to this. But the number of times women told me and my peers approaching our wedding nights that sex was something we did for our husbands, not ourselves, and to not expect much pleasure at first if ever…it’s deeply troubling, to say the least.
So perhaps it makes more sense that it was considered the height of depravity that as a 21-year-old, I had consensual premarital hanky-panky — and liked it. I’ll give you a moment to clutch your pearls or roll your eyes, whichever you see fit.If you’re not already reading David Willis’s excellent web comic, Dumbing of Age, I suggest you remedy that immediately. Seriously. Start here.
I’m sure that many can point to my, ahem, “sexual struggles” as reason for leaving the faith, or at least as a starting point. In some ways, though, they’d be right about my wanting to escape the guilt of my sin — if only because our viewpoints on sin are wildly different. This isn’t a concession to this point by any means. I’ll touch on it again in a moment. Also, let me remind you that I was 21 years old, an adult whose sex life was literally no one else’s business.
But considering consensual sex was such an egregious sin that I was expelled from my fundamentalist Christian college after spending 3 separate “counseling” sessions with elders from the local assembly, then two of my closest friends at the time began treating me like I had a contagious sickness and started making decisions for me since I’d proven I was untrustworthy, I suppose it’s somewhat understandable that some people then leap to the following assumption:
“Bad” Christians drove me away.
It’s this question that two people have asked me within days of each other. “Do you think you would have stayed a Christian if it wasn’t for fundamentalism and how you were treated?” It’s also not unusual for people from my past to lament to me that I had such bad experiences. The implication is clear: if only I’d really experienced True Christianity™, perhaps I wouldn’t have strayed.
To be honest, I find this both puzzling and a little insulting, depending on the person and context. I was taught to look beyond the personality and actions of fellow Christians, particularly authorities. Instead, I was to try to glean from them anything that may have come from the Lord. Which is exactly what I did.
So when a high school peer scoffed at me for placing any blame for my depression and suicide attempts on those who relentlessly bullied me, I decided that God was trying to teach me personal responsibility. When a mentor told me that to experience fear in the wake of my sexual assault was to deny the sufficiency of God’s love, I took it to heart. (Of course, repeating “God hasn’t given me a spirit of fear” in the face of every post-traumatic stress episode served only to make that phrase a trigger.) When my best friends told me that I was untrustworthy as a non-virgin, I told myself that they were acting as iron to sharpen me.
Internalizing these and hundreds of other microaggressions over the course of my life was of course traumatic. I can see that now. But at the time, I had neither the experience nor language to recognize or describe it that way. I deliberately accepted these people and their words as part of the perfect will of God. Even if they had intended it for evil, I believed God intended it for good. At no point in my most sincere Christian faith did I ever think the actions of my fellow Christians were driving me away from the heart of God. If someone was a worldly influence, I simply separated from them.
There was a period of 2-3 years where I decided that fundamentalism wasn’t for me. I figured God’s presence in fundamentalism was a bug rather than a feature. During those years, I befriended many of the “right” kind of Christians according to the people who ask me this question. The kind of Christians who strive to follow the heart of the gospel rather than the letter of the law, who are concerned with the well-being of the least of these and engage in social justice liberation work. Many of these people remain close friends to this day, and we work together to make Christianity and the world at large a safer, kinder place. Ultimately, for reasons to follow, this Christianity just didn’t fit.
In light of the above, the answer has to be no, I don’t think bad Christians or the wrong kind of Christianity are responsible for my atheism. Of course, I can never definitively know, because that’s just not the life I had for so many years. But I can say with reasonable certainty that I would have lost my faith no matter what.
I’m just angry with God.
When I started writing about my experiences with sexual assault and mental health problems, along with publicly analyzing the affects my childhood faith and experiences had on me, many of my fellow Christians became very concerned — not that my experiences had happened, but that talking about them somehow indicated bitterness and anger toward God. No amount of reasoning with them would dissuade this belief, so eventually I stopped trying.
You know, I really can’t honestly say I’ve never been angry with God. I touched on this a bit in an old guest post: upon realizing my teacher had witnessed my attack and chose to sit back and watch, it suddenly occurred to me that God had done the exact same thing. More than that, I realized He did it on a daily basis in allowing tragedies and injustices to thrive around the world.
That absolutely did shake my faith, and it did make me doubt God and His goodness. But more than that — it lent more credence to the nonexistence of such a deity than it did to the existence of any deity supposedly concerned about the world.
What I think people fail to understand is that my anger both then and now isn’t targeted at God at all. It’s targeted at the belief that an all-loving and powerful deity can be said to exist and blithely allow horrors to happen to the world at large and even His children while still demanding love and worship. It’s targeted at the belief that evil is permitted to make room for some greater good — a greater good that conveniently can neither be questioned or even observed in this life. It’s anger at how the idea of God is used to justify the complacence of His people in the face of tremendous injustice at home and abroad. It’s anger at the cruelty belief in such a God creates. It’s anger at injustice and those who willingly allow it to happen.
So…why did I deconvert?
That’s a fair question. And a hard one. But I think I’ve narrowed it down to three major components. They all sort of happened together, in a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey mess. It’s difficult to separate them from each other, but it’s the most sense I’ve been able to make of the whole ordeal of the past several years. These reasons won’t convince everyone, and that’s okay. Deconversion, like faith, is a very personal and individual matter. There’s even some overlap with a few fallacious reasons above. Like I said: wibbly wobbly, timey wimey, big ball of mess. Nevertheless…
I saw the logical conclusion of a biblically literalist Christianity.
I’ve said before, though perhaps not on this blog, that Bob Jones University showed me the depravity my version of Christianity led to. In almost every way, outside of beliefs about church order, we were theologically compatible. I can’t pinpoint what exactly opened my eyes, any specific incident. But it was while I was there that I realized, suddenly and with no going back, that our Christianity necessarily demanded perfection from believers. These people, these “sheep,” if they weren’t fortunate enough to be one of God’s annointed, were systematically subjected to humiliation in the name of Christ if perfection wasn’t attained. This humiliation was ruthless, exact, and sometimes led to excommunication from all they held dear. This Christianity promised love and acceptance and peace, but instead manipulated, separated, and wreaked havoc in the lives of those unable to conform. There was no basic respect. There was no concept of consent. There was nothing but a tattered and flimsy umbrella of protection offered only to those who toed the line. Everyone else was left to rot.
This shook me to my core. It was utterly incompatible with the unconditional love and forgiveness I believed to the be true heart of my faith, the true heart of God. I was left reeling for years after this revelation, caught between intense fearful shame created by aforementioned humiliated excommunication and intense anger that they were getting things so desperately wrong.
So I did what I was supposed to do. I read my Bible to find peace and reconnect to its author…only to find the same manipulation and intolerance for humanity in pages once beloved. I explored other denominations…until I realized every doctrinal creed I came across contained the same toxic threads of the fundamentalism I was trying to leave behind. There was the ever-looming figure of an all-loving God who was somehow both near to the broken hearted but working in mysterious ways we weren’t allowed to question. Such an absolute authority, above reproach and not subject to the morality He imposed upon His creation, was not a safe, good, or reliable person. Unsure where to turn, plagued with implications I couldn’t quite reconcile, I began meditating on my personal experiences, my observations about both Christianity and the world beyond, allowing myself to really address questions I’d been suppressing for years. I came to realize that…
My experiences and observations didn’t line up with the “basic truths” of my faith.
I’ll never forget a college instructor of mine that I really liked and respected. He created exactly the kind of learning environment in which I thrive. He was kind, compassionate, patient. Everything about his character and behavior said to me that he was a Christian.
Except he was an atheist.
I wrestled for years with how to match the genuinely good character of this man (and other atheists I met along the way) with my worldview. After all, the Bible declares only the fool says there is no God. There is no good man, apart from the grace of God. In fact, morality and goodness can’t even exist without God! Right?
I began to see, time and time and time again, that the absence of belief in or obedience to God did not in any way lead to evil or detract from good. Combined with my experience at BJU, where I saw belief in God inextricably tied to manipulation and abuse, I was forced to conclude that morality clearly exists and even thrives without divine influence, while evil clearly exists and thrives among “God’s people.” Dan Fincke, of Camels with Hammers, has written a really fantastic post about God and Goodness that’s simply a must-read for those who insist God has a monopoly on goodness.
I swear to you, Tangled is a great big giant metaphor for deconverting from Christianity.
It was this realization that made me realize there was probably no going back for me. Observing morality without God called into question the definition and purpose of sin (which freed me from false guilt I’d carried for that consensual sexual relationship). Even the need for a deity in the first place was no longer a given, or even something that made sense. In fact, the more I learned about science and philosophy and history from actual experts, not untrained preachers in my denomination or unaccredited unfounded assertions from the clearly biased authors of my BJU Press school books, the more I realized that the world simply wasn’t the place I was taught it was. It wasn’t dark and selfish and cruel. Christianity, like Mother Gothel, was wrong about the world. And, like Rapunzel, I was unwilling to continue to hide myself and be used to support something that was increasingly demonstrably false.
I couldn’t intellectually honestly engage with a non-fundamentalist Christianity.
As I said earlier, I tried for a few years to delve into a friendlier, more loving and accepting Christianity that focused on doing good in the world rather than separating from it. But the same toxic threads from fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity kept popping up in those better Christianities. The same deity who was supposedly goodness and mercy and love personified, even identifying with the oppressed, was still a deity unable or unwilling to interfere in global or personal atrocities. He was still unable to make Himself known in a quantifiable or clearly identifiable way, still insisting on obeisance and loyalty without showing receipts that these things are even owed Him. Certainly, the Christians who adhere to this form of Christianity are intelligent and sincere. But the claims they were still making about their deity, their holy book, and the world at large weren’t claims that could be proven in a concrete way to me. And at the end of the day, my faith comes down to whether there is evidence enough to convince me.
Despite all that, I did try to immerse myself in progressive Christianity. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the desperation I felt to remain in some form of Christianity. But I had giant roadblock: I’ve been taught so well how to engage in fundamentalist apologetics. I’ve tried to read the Bible from any other standpoint, to understand passages and see patterns I wasn’t taught to interpret through a Plymouth Brethren lens. I just can’t. I wanted to so badly. I tried to for years. But with the biblical training I received, I simply couldn’t justify being part of a Christianity that wasn’t the Christianity of my youth. And so, with the addition of the previous two points in the mix…I couldn’t justify belief in any deity whatsoever.
These things swirled in my mind for the better part of my mid-20’s as I battled with my desperation to believe in God anyway. But when push came to shove, leaving the faith just wasn’t a deliberate choice. Captain Cassidy once again demonstrates this better than I think I would be able to, in her post “Choices that Aren’t Actually Choices” while also demonstrating why continuing to live a lie was no option for me:
I couldn’t choose to believe again in Christianity any more than someone over the age of ten could choose to believe again in Santa Claus, or start believing in the gods Cthulhu or Hionhurn the Executioner. I know too much; I’ve seen too much. At best, I’d just be forcing myself to say the right words and behave the right way. I suspect that’d be perfectly peachy with the Christians who say this stuff to me; even I used to think, when I was starting to doubt, that by going through the motions I’d brainwash myself into sort-of-believing again. Living that kind of a lie is a misery I would not inflict on my very worst enemy, and it obviously didn’t work anyway. I couldn’t force myself to un-learn what I’d learned or to un-see what I’d seen. It’s hard to imagine a more dishonest way to win a convert than telling someone to “fake it till you make it.”
Belief isn’t something that can be forced. Belief happens when enough evidence has piled up to warrant belief. Growing up in a Christian environment as I did, I was taught to interpret the evidence around me in a specific way that supported belief in the Western Christian fundamentalist God — I had no reason to doubt so long as those explanations held up. But when evidence began piling up that didn’t support my concept of God (or any concept of any deity), doubt was inevitable. It wasn’t a choice made to garner attention. It wasn’t that I was never a true believer. It’s not that I just want free license to sin, or that bad Christians turned me off, or that I just have a grudge against God. So when the evidence became such that I could no longer ignore it or explain it away without having to lie to myself and others…my faith naturally fell away, changing my life forever.
The journey in and out. “There had always been a disconnect between what I was taught and what I observed and experienced, between blind faith in invisible things and repeatably testable evidence. But as a child, as a teen, even into early adulthood, I wasn’t given the words to recognize the disconnect, or even the tools to inspect or deconstruct my beliefs to see if there was any merit to them outside of wanting them to be true.”