I have a friend on-line who recently realised that the religion she has belonged to all her life is… basically not all its made out to be, to put in mildly. This post is written with her in mind but it is still applicable to anybody who has recently lost their faith or is in the process of losing their faith.
I say process because de-conversion really is a process. There usually isn’t a definable point where one says “OK, yesterday I was a Christian, today, I am an atheist.”. The process starts differently for different people. Some people are lucky and weren’t religious to start with, making the process easier, others are somewhat unlucky in that they and everybody they know are ultra religious and the de-conversion process is horrifyingly painful.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was baptised Methodist and went to Methodist Sunday school most Sundays for my entire childhood. Part of my teenage years was spent going to Dutch Reformed church (sometimes twice on a Sunday) where I got confirmed; I also went to Baptist youth and Baptist cell during the week. Do I know what Christianity is about? Why, yes I do. My parents, thankfully, are very easy-going, accepting people and my complete de-conversion was mostly uneventful. I was never a firm believer to begin with but there was a long time when I wanted very badly to believe.
Losing your religion is a pretty profound experience. When I say profound, most Christians will picture how they felt when they were ‘saved’ or ‘born again’. This profound, is nothing like that feeling (which isn’t even unique to Christianity, consider that for a bit). This kind of profound contains a lot of stark reality that you at first don’t want to accept. It is neither beautiful or ugly, it is the truth.
De-conversion usually begins with a person realising that there are a multitude of inconsistencies and contradictions with what they believe. Christians, Christian society and Christian dogma works hard to keep the reality of these inconsistencies hidden from themselves and others. Realising that these inconsistencies exist is the first crack.
Once you’re aware that there are problems with what you and those around you believe, you can’t help but look out for them, listen for them. The more you look, the more you find. This can be very unsettling. You’re not quite doubting what you believe yet, but you know deep down inside something is not right. A lot of people throw themselves into religion at this point, going to church more often, going to Bible study, joining or leading cell groups all in an attempt to dull and drown out the nagging doubts. Presumably, sometimes this works and people forget (temporarily at least) the issues that they saw previously.
For others, their attempts at ‘revitalising’ their religion is an empty experience and this is where the slippery slope to reality really begins.
Reading the Bible at this point is a fantastic idea, I definitely suggest it and it is usually what happens; because seriously, what else is there to Christianity than the Bible?
“I gave my daughter a Bible. That’s how you make atheists.”
Reading the bible without blinkers on is the fastest way to progress yourself down the road to complete de-conversion. Christians seem to have a mental block against the ridiculous collection of horror stories they claim is the unchanging words of the creator of the universe. Horrifying stories of rape, incest, murder, genocide, infanticide, cruelty, slavery and just plain old bullshit. Fortunately, when the self-imposed blinkers have come off and you read the bible, the manifold issues quickly become apparent, obvious even. The sheer scale of the contradictions and flat-out errors in the New Testament is epic, if only you’re willing to look.
At this point, a person may still consider themselves a Christian, but they’re pretty close to not believing. They start making excuses internally to themselves, trying to gloss over the obvious issues, desperately forcing themselves to believe something they know now, but don’t want to admit, to not be true.
You see, Christianity has a couple of built-in safeguards to keep you believing and wanting to believe. First, to avoid getting tortured for eternity you must ‘believe’ a ‘certain thing’. Any kind of doubt causes major anxiety for obvious reason. Getting tortured for eternity is sure to be terribly unpleasant. Second, you’re being watched, every minute of every day, every single thing you say, do and think, by the entity who is going to condemn you to eternal torture if you so much as think the wrong thing. If ever there was a persuasive reason to lie to yourself, that is probably it. (Ever considered what this ‘knowledge’ does to a child?)
The need for truth though is usually stronger than the slightly dimmed fear of eternal torture. Make no mistake, you’re still anxious as all hell, probably scared, genuinely worried and quite possibly not telling another soul about the heretical thoughts you’ve been having.
You think about it, you obsess about it…
Then one day the stone cold reality sets in: there is no God.
You’re an atheist then? Nope, you’ve just gotten past step one. You know there’s no Christian God, but actually accepting the fact that there is no god at all after a lifetime of thinking, wishing and hoping that there is and having that reinforced by everybody you know, is not a simple or a quick thing.
Typically, after leaving full-blown Christianity behind, you become ‘spiritual’ because, “there can’t be nothing, right”? Most people in de-conversion do this, it’s not strange. Spirituality, Buddhism (very popular with fresh heathens), deism, and pretty much any other non-specific form of theism/deism are par for the course at this point. People research their new spiritual subjects obsessively, usually because they are trying to console themselves about the unpleasantness of death. Fear of death being the third thing dissuading one from dropping Christianity in the first place (strange as this may be, since you’d think people sure of eternal paradise should be chomping at the bit to die…)
Eventually, having just gone through thinking critically about what should have been the most important thing in their lives (religion, Christianity), people start to think critically about their spirituality. Thinking, thinking about science, reality and being just a bit skeptical of things results in:
Oh my hat, there might not be any god at all… but I’m not sure.
And another agnostic is born.
I myself spent a number of years as an agnostic, holding the firm belief that: “it would be silly to think that we are the pinnacle of what is possible in this very large universe”. It took quite a while, many, many pub discussions with Hamish and the good book to come to the inevitable conclusion: there is, no, god, at all.
Some people remain agnostic, some people realise there is no need to even be agnostic and end up atheists. Why?
Agnostics: claim they do not have enough knowledge to know that a god does or doesn’t exist.
Atheists: know that there is no good reason to believe that any god might exist, though it is not completely impossible.
If you’re on the journey of de-conversion, take solace in the fact that many of us have gone through what you are going through, fought the same internal battles, dealt with the same pressure and doubt and have come out the other side, happier, rational people. You may not realise what damage the fear of eternal torture has done to you yet and you may not yet realise how epically great and wonderful the world is experienced through a rational mind. It will come.
I try not to argue with religionuts any more. It is frustrating to see otherwise intelligent, nice people force themselves to be stupid, to ignore the otherwise obvious bullshit their religion sells. There is no point in arguing with a religious person:
You cannot argue or rationalise somebody out of something they were not argued into in the first place.
What a religious person believes is not because it’s true and rational and no amount of rational argument is going to change that. People who de-convert do so because they have realised on their own the problems and contradictions inherent to their religion.
Happily, a lot of us see the light.
There is one feeling that stands out when you’re done with religion: life, this life, your life, becomes more important. When you realise this one is all you have, all you will ever have, you want to have it all with a vengeance.
If you’re in the process, do yourself a favour and watch these video’s from the beginning, they are epically good:
Start at number 1, and watch the whole de-conversion series. It’s well worth it (even if you’re a Christian ;)
And then read the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. And watch every Carl Sagan video.