Although everyone has a unique story, sometimes those stories can have striking similarities. Deconversion stories are no different. Sometimes they sound a lot like “I was born again” testimonies, “I was blind but now I see.” I love reading and especially listening to people’s deconversion stories and learning what was similar and what was different for each person. Deconversion stories are our origin stories.
It occurred to me, that there ought to be a Deconversion How To that walks through some of the stages that are common for people going through the deconversion process. Turns out there are a few out there (for a scientific study on deconversion see: Perez, S. and Vallières, F., 2019. How Do Religious People Become Atheists? Applying a Grounded Theory Approach to Propose a Model of Deconversion.Secularism and Nonreligion). I will be lightly stealing from some of them (I’ll give credit when I do), but I believe I can add something original here (call it motivated reasoning).
This post will have two goals. One, to describe the similarities experienced by others who have deconverted and two, how to get the ball rolling if one wanted to proactively start the process. These proactive steps tend to be the causal steps that we took naturally unprompted.
I need to make clear up front, that the title is tongue in cheek. This post is really descriptive rather than prescriptive. Your experience may have been different, even radically so. Stages could be skipped, reordered or take longer or shorter than described. We are complex human beings and it is difficult to encapsulate the variety of human experience. This post is an attempt to describe the similarities during the process of deconversion.
I also hope this will be a living document. If you are reading this and have gone through the deconversion experience, please help me improve it. Please send me feedback. Send me any corrections or additions you might have. If you find it useful, please consider linking to it from you blog or site.
Note: The overwhelming initial feedback has been about the non-linear nature of deconversion. So, I will state this again. Your experience may be different and that is OK. This post is not to suggest this is the “right” way to experience deconversion it is merely an attempt to describe some commonalities.
First lets get some terms straight, as I see some confusion about the term deconversion. and this will help define the target audience. By deconversion I am referring to a person having had faith in a particular religion, and subsequently ceasing to be religious and rejecting faith of any kind.
It is significant that deconversion applies only to those people who once were religious. This seems obvious, but there are some unique experiences for those of us who were religious and then reject our faith. This is opposed to having been raised secular all of one’s life and becoming more activist in one’s secularism, humanism or atheism. Also opposed to, the probably more common, having been raised culturally of a particular religion but not having been an active participant. There just isn’t much to deconvert from in those cases.
Deconversion is also not just that we rejected our own faith, but all faiths. It is a unique experience to lose one’s faith and find oneself isolated from religious circles. In many cases, this can be the total loss of one’s social support system, as the newly deconverted loses relationships from the old faith and may have no one to replace those relationships.
Lastly, when I use the terms religion and faith, I am referring to the supernatural variety with a world view that presupposes something that transcends nature. I am well aware there are some non-supernatural religions out there. I like the term “graceful life philosophies” from Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book, Doubt, for these. We can debate, for example, whether humanism is a religion in another post. But these are the exception and not the rule.
What Deconversion is not
It might be helpful to contrast deconversion with what it is not.
Deconversion is not conversion. It is somewhat common for people to convert to a religion or from one religion to another religion. In the case of conversion, there is a new faith community that softens the loss of the old faith community. That is not the case with deconversion.
Deconversion is not just deconstruction. Deconstruction is often the process of becoming less fundamentalist in one’s faith. It usually entails the rejection of scriptures being inerrant or authoritative. Often, one’s theology is liberalized to accommodate the modern world. The key difference here is that typically (not always) the person is still a person of faith. This faith may be sophisticated and nuanced but it is faith none the less. It is very possible for deconstruction to be a step on the way to deconversion.
How to deconvert in 10 easy steps
Before the process begins one is secure in one’s faith. The answers provided by the faith community and the sacred text(s) provide comfort and feel True. Sure, there may be a nagging question or two but that is for the theologians to debate up in their white towers.
At this point, cognitive dissonance is at a minimum, the avoidance or minimization of the problems are in full effect, and confirmation bias is at its maximum. There may be some questions best left unasked. Flat out denial is not out of the question.
Life comes at you fast. At this point, something, anything, can happen that makes you take a second look at some of your assumptions. Some deeply held belief might be invalidated. Something doesn’t quite feel right. The pat answers now sound pat. There has been a blip in the matrix.
For some the deep need for truth that led them to religion is the exact need that leads to doubt. It is not a coincidence that many who attain higher educational levels deconvert. Those with Masters in Divinity and PhDs in religion often go on to deconvert after learning just how the sausage gets made. In their quest for truth it is discovered that truth may lie somewhere outside of religion.
For some the precipitating events can be tragic: the loss of a loved one, hurt caused by the church or say half the country electing a demagogue in the name of god. For others it is the slow relentless grinding creep of doubt. But something causes you to start re-evaluating your beliefs.
This stage can be characterized by “calling out to god.” You might even feel guilty or to blame for these initial doubts even if they have arisen due to external circumstances.
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
There may be an impetus to “double down.” You might redouble your efforts to pray more, read your scriptures more, rededicate yourself to god or pursue ministry with more dedication.
At this stage cognitive dissonance is starting to rise. Confirmation biases are just starting to show cracks. Precipitating events may cause brief periods of doubt but your faith tends to win out in the end and push the doubts away.
Read your sacred text(s). All of it. Even the boring parts. Read it without making excuses for what it literally states. Rather than wearing your rose colored glasses try reading it as an outsider.
Ask yourself the hard questions. Why is there suffering in the world? If god intervenes in the world, what does god’s silence mean?
Talk to a non-believer. Ask them to tell you honestly what they think about your beliefs and why.
At the critical mass stage, things are starting to pile up. Multiple precipitating events are happening at the same time. The doubts and questions are taking up a lot of mental energy to keep contained. Cognitive dissonance is becoming problematic. You find it difficult to keep the plates of faith spinning. Critical mass is death by 1000 paper cuts.
Believers call this “the dark night of the soul.” It is a time of serious doubt that threatens your faith. Believers assume this is a temporary stage. However, what if your doubts have validity?
The silence of god during this period can be deafening. Divine hiddenness begins to look strikingly similar to non-existence. The call out to god is increasingly desperate.
God, DO SOMETHING! ANYTHING!.
During this stage it is common to feel like you are doing something wrong. It can feel like you are not seeking god enough or not in the right way. The initial feelings of guilt from precipitating events can mount.
It is easier to blame yourself than to acknowledge the possibility that god is not real. A common response is the dreaded, “I must not be in god’s will,” as if “god’s will” were discernible. This will be particularly painful in religious traditions where many community members often claim to “know god’s will.”
As in the previous stage, there may be a renewed effort to “work harder,” but ultimately this is a delaying tactic. This is the beginning of the end. Cognitive dissonance is peaking. Confirmation bias is starting to fail. Doubt is a constant companion.
Make a list of all the things that are causing you to doubt.
Think about each item on the list and decide if it has validity.
Stop trying to keep the plates spinning and see what happens.
Answer the question, “What if it is not your fault?”
Up to this point the stages have been about things that happen to you not necessarily by choice. The permission to doubt stage is a proactive one. Consciously or subconsciously you give yourself permission to doubt. I particularly like the description of this stage from the ex-christian.net forum: Curiosity Killed The Cat.
The permission to doubt stage is a conscious acknowledgement that doubt is not your fault. It is the attempt at letting go of pent up guilt. It is the recognition that doubt cannot be denied or contained forever. Doubt must be addressed directly on its merits.
In “Letting Go of God”, Julia Sweeney describes this stage as putting on the “Not believing in God glasses.” What does the world look like if you do not assume god’s existence?
Depending on where you are at in this phase you may still identify as a believer. That is OK. But you are taking a more proactive examination of your faith. Or you may feel at this point things are going downhill fast and the outcome is a forgone conclusion. Either way you are taking active steps to learn and explore.
Doubt* is your subconsciousness telling you the truth.
*Religious doubt. I don’t think this is true for all non-religious cases. See for example the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Cognitive dissonance is either peaking at this point or already on the decline as you come to grips with the answers you discover. You may begin to recognize how confirmation bias has been fooling you.
Reverse the old believer’s advice to doubt your doubts and trust your doubts instead.
Can you find objective (non-subjective) reasons for your faith?
Can you find evidence that would convince a skeptic or yourself that god is real?
Let your curiosity guide you. Investigate the things you have been afraid or unwilling to explore. Read atheist books and blogs. Explore science that contradicts your faith like evolution and cosmology. What else has been off limits? Go check it out.
Note: This is the hardest stage for me to write about because I basically skipped it. I also have many friends online who are in the process of deconstruction and those who are happy to remain at this stage. I want to acknowledge and respect those who choose this even while the focus of this post is on people who go on to deconvert entirely. If you are deconstructing send me feedback and I’ll update this section.
Deconstruction is the stage of the sophisticated believer and the liberal theologian. It is a rejection of puerile fundamentalism. At this stage you may actively start to reject elements of religious dogma without throwing the baby out with the bath water. It may be time to retire doctrines that no longer work in the modern world like inerrancy of scriptures, creationism or ancient social morality.
This stage is an embracing of science, education and modern ethics. It acknowledges the complicated world out there and the failure of fundamentalism to address that world. This stage can be a focus on the social gospel. People have become more important than religious dogma.
Often this stage is focused on reinterpreting the sacred texts. Escaping the tyranny of literal interpretation and exploring the metaphorical meaning to be found there. What are the supra-cultural truths these scriptures are pointing at?
Deconstruction may mean the complete redefinition of “god.” It may mean the move away from a theistic understanding of god to deism, pantheism or panpsychism. Rather than seeing god as a bearded angry man in the sky, she might be “the ground of all being,” or as in one famous example, the forces of nature themselves.
If the previous stage was permission to doubt, this stage takes doubt deadly seriously and is as far as one can go and still consider oneself a believer. This stage acknowledges that faith is an entirely subjective endeavor. It is possible to remain at this stage indefinitely at varying levels of faith and doubt.
In this stage and the next few I’ll use the analogy of a mathematical limit. As you approach the limit of unbelief, you probably still consider yourself a believer. Even while you are discarding elements of your faith, some kernel of faith remains when you are on this side of the limit. For the deconstructing believer the approach to that limit can be near infinite or take no time at all.
Take an inventory of your religious doctrines and determine which are literally true, which are figuratively true and which are completely false.
Answer the question for yourself, “who or what is god?”
Answer the question, “what parts of my religious beliefs apply to helping those less fortunate than myself?”
Answer the question, “am I satisfied with my faith?”
Ryan Bell describes the liminal stage as that between faith and unbelief. I have added this pseudo stage to acknowledged that faith is not always binary. There can legitimately be a time of in between.
Continuing with the mathematical limit analogy, this is the infinitesimal approach to the limit of unbelief. For those less mathematically inclined a better analogy is jumping off a diving board into a pool of water. The moment you lose contact with the diving board until you have hit the water is the liminal stage. Faith is gone at the loss of contact, but you are not wet (an unbeliever) yet until you hit the water.
Contrary to the analogies, some may waver back and forth in this in between state.
It may take years, months, days or just moments to come to the realization that you no longer believe. You may have been in denial for some time or it may hit you like lightning. At some point you are honest with yourself and admit to yourself you no longer believe.
The mathematical limit of unbelief has been crossed. Belief is not a choice. You are either convinced of the truth of a faith claim or not. At this stage, you are no longer convinced of the truth of god. You are a non-believer.
You may continue to go through the religious motions for some time after you have acknowledged your lack of faith either out of habit or necessity. Not a problem. You may find yourself starting to pray only to be jolted back to reality. Old habits die hard.
At this point you may be unable, unwilling or incapable of telling another human being. That is OK. You do not owe anyone anything.
Your safety is the highest priority. If you live in a culture where it is dangerous to be an atheist, it is not your job to fix this by outing yourself and putting your safety in jeopardy. If you are young and living with parents who might possibly remove you from the home, you are not required to tell them. Keep it to yourself.
But you do owe it to yourself to be rigorously honest with yourself and no longer pretend internally. Recognize how confirmation bias has worked against you in the past. Notice that cognitive dissonance has flat lined after admitting this to yourself.
Ironically, the experience is not unlike being born again. The scales fall off the eyes so to speak. For me personally, I had a literal “Oh, shit” moment of realization.
Start enjoying your mental freedom and the peace of letting cognitive dissonance go.
Actively read other deconversion stories to recognize you are not alone in this process.
Begin making a plan. Can you tell anyone? Who are you going to tell first?
Deconversion is an emotional experience. It has been described by Brian Peck of the Healthy Deconversion Project as very similar to the grieving process of losing a loved one. You might experience any number of emotions as you grieve the loss of your god, your faith and your religious community. That is a lot of loss and can lead to a wide range of emotions. The point is there is no “right” way to feel and no emotion that is “wrong.” Give yourself permission to feel and take as much time as you need. This is a chaotic time. Give yourself some secular grace as you navigate new terrain.
Anger, depression, guilt and even bargaining with a non-existent god are all normal. What order and how long you experience these or any other emotions is an unknown. There is no need to rush and definitely no need to beat yourself up when it feels like you are starting all over again.
The above are all fairly well known emotions during loss of any kind. I want to highlight a few emotions that are specific to the deconversion process.
The first is the loss of the sense of control. As a believer, there was always something you could do when in need. You could pray. Regardless of distance or your own ability, you could respond to difficulty by calling out to your all powerful god. The first time a tragedy strikes during or after your deconversion, whether it is out in the world or close to home, the overwhelming feeling will be of powerlessness. In the short term, this is painful. In the long term, this is healthy. Learning what you can and cannot control is a part of facing the world as it is not as you wish it to be.
The second is the shame at your previous gullibility. (Maybe this is just me.) As you learn about science, philosophy and ethics, your previously held reasons for believing may become increasing distant. How could I have believed these things? How could I have been fooled by these poor arguments? Remember, that when you are in the bubble, everything seems to make sense. It is only now, outside the bubble, that you see clearly the logical mistakes.
Finally, the feeling of loneliness can be overwhelming. You may not be able to discuss your deconversion with your family or friends. Your social support structure may be off limits on this topic. If you do not happen to live in a larger city, there may be few opportunities for secular community. The main thing to remember is that you are not alone. I’ll say this again in all caps:
Many have gone through this process before you. You do not have to go through it by yourself.
Reach out. If you have a non-believing friend. Run to them! If not, there are plenty of resources online as well as a large community of non-believers. Engage, ask questions and don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Ex-christian.net calls this stage the quest for answers. You have admitted to yourself the truth, you have done some grieving and now its time to do some work. The need for truth has not disappeared just because you no longer believe. Unlike when you were in your faith, there are no bounds on what you can learn or what questions you can ask. There may not be answers to all the questions but as Richard Fynman said:
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
You are a baby not-a-believer. Soak up knowledge like a sponge. All of the things that were off limits, considered “liberal” or “worldly” are now on the table for investigation.
This includes reexamining your religious texts and apologists. I re-read many apologists just to make sure I had not missed something. I had not. How were they convincing before? Are they now? I occasionally crack open the bible to re-read one passage or another to see it with new eyes. What does your religion’s sacred text sound like to your non-believing ears?
Discovering secular thinkers is a valuable process. It reminds you that you are not alone in your deconversion. It may also teach you ways of thinking and explanations for your new found lack of faith. You are not obligated to believe anything. What freedom! You decide for yourself what you believe and why.
You may still be in the closet at this stage. That is OK. Take your time and learn.
Learn some science. The scientific method and falsifiability are great tools for seeking truth.
Read. If you are a reader this is the time to go nuts. Read atheists. Read apologists for your religion. Read scientists, philosophers and ethical thinkers.
Listen to podcasts.
Do some “soul” searching. What do you believe now? Why? How do you know it is true?
It may take a while but eventually you will probably tell someone about your deconversion. Admitting your lack of faith to another human being is immensely cathartic.
I’ll re-iterate here that safety is priority number one. There is no shame in staying in the closet indefinitely if your safety is an issue. But if you can safely do so, telling another person will be a beneficial step.
Consider carefully who you tell and how you tell them. You are not obligated to publicly post on Facebook for all the world to read. Even in places where atheism is not a safety concern there may be employment, school or community implications. You also don’t owe an explanation to your third grade teacher or your second cousin once removed. Think carefully and take time during this process. Start with people you trust and tell only the people who need to know.
Oddly, sometimes the easiest first step is to talk to a stranger. Maybe someone you meet online who is not vested in your faith one way or the other.
When telling family members and close friends remember as Brian Peck has said, “They are at step zero.” Your deconversion process could have been years in the making. You have done the doubting, the questioning, the searching, the grieving and the information gathering. Your family member has not. They are starting from ground zero and this is going to hit them like a ton of bricks. They are likely to react defensively. Tread lightly.
Except in the case of abusive relationships you probably want to maintain the relationship. You may need to be the bigger more humble person in this process. This can be challenging on a number of fronts. You may still be angry. Your newly acquired knowledge mixed with a new disrespect or hostility for faith can be an intoxicating combination that may lead you to say things you might regret. Plan out what you want to say and expect push back and defensiveness from your loved one. Try to give them the secular grace you needed during your deconversion process.
It is a process. Particularly in the case of a spouse, this is unlikely to be a single conversation but rather a lengthy back and forth. Be patient and encourage your loved one to ask you questions. Try to remember how convinced you were when you were a believer and remember that is where they are at now.
Keep in mind it is not your job to convince them to abandon their faith. Your goal is to keep the relationship. There will be some natural tension. Remember that to the believer casting doubt on their beliefs is perceived as a direct attack on them and their identity. Love is hard.
Someday you might find that you do want the world to know. If it is safe to do so and you have considered the implications, knock yourself out, make that public Facebook post. If it is the right time write the email bcc to all. Tell the world. The more people who are “out” the easier it is for others to do the same.
Read other “coming out” stories. This includes the wisdom of the LGBTQ community.
Read “letter to my family” posts. Many deconverted have taken the time to write down their thoughts on what they want their family to know about their new lack of belief.
Write your own letter. This will allow you to plan out the things you want to say.
Be gentle. Try to show the kind of patient loving kindness you would want if the roles were reversed.
This is the big question. Ceasing to believe is really only the beginning not an end to itself. Just because you no longer believe in a god does not mean you do not need human connection and belonging. Your religion likely provided more than just doctrine and dogma it also provided community. One of your first tasks should be to find a secular community that meets the very human need to be a part of a group.
Religion does not own awe, wonder, gratitude or morality. You are the same person you were before deconversion. Likely your morality has remained mostly unchanged, other than having more freedom and less guilt. This is your chance to seek out and express where you find meaning. Ask yourself and try to answer:
What is my source of morality?
Where do I find meaning?
How can I experience awe?
How can I give back?
For me secular humanism provides an answer to several of the above questions. You may or may not find humanism useful. That is not a problem. You get to discover and answer these questions for yourself.
Try the Belief-O-Matic online quiz. This will give you a quick feel for how your current beliefs line up with other organized religious, ethical and philosophical groups.
Study morality and ethics. There is a rich history of non-religious philosophy on ethics. Many times this has been off limits and is new information after deconversion.
Participate online. Twitter and Facebook are full of secular groups. This is an easy way to dip your toe in and see if a group is right for you. Try starting your own blog and documenting your deconversion process.
Find a local secular community. There are many secular community groups. Find one near you and join in.
Give back. Find a way to give back to the world. Without a religious framework this one can easily slip through the cracks. Ethical societies are a good way to keep motivated to give back to the community. This is as much for you as it is for those served.
It goes without saying, that your experience may be different than what is described above. Great! You are a unique human being that is to be expected. Maybe things are out of order or you skipped multiple steps. Maybe you stayed in one stage for a long time. There is no right way to deconvert. We are all learning as we go. The purpose of this document is solely to provide some comfort in knowing that others have gong through this before you.
As I stated at the top, I would like this to be a living document. So, if I got something wrong or an important step is missing, please let me know and I’ll update this post. Your experience is valuable and might help others so don’t hesitate to send me update requests. If you think others will find it helpful, please consider linking to it from you blog or site.
Finally, I am interested in your deconversion story. If you need a random stranger to tell, I am here. If you need to write out your story, send it my way. And, if you are interested and willing, let me know and I will post your deconversion story to the blog.
To hear the deconversion stories of others checkout the podcast and Deconversion Anonymous episodes. In these episodes, people like you who have gone through a faith transition can tell their stories anonymously or for all to see. It is your choice. If you would like to tell your faith transition story anonymously or otherwise get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @GracefulAtheist on Twitter.