My de-conversion from fundamentalism was unsurprisingly a significant event in my life, but there were some few surprises worth commenting on. I submit four here for your consideration. Since very few self-identify as “fundamentalist,” note that when I use the word, I’m merely distinguishing between casual believers and evangelicals who tend to view the Bible as a literal and historical source of Truth.
Surprise #1: People don’t want to know why (not really).
As a Christian, I took it for granted that my unbelieving friends quizzed me regularly on my faith. It seemed only natural to me that they should want to know why I believed as I did. After all, I was interested in what my opponents had to say and insisted on hearing it from their own mouths. Yet perhaps only one in twenty close acquaintances who regularly (and not insincerely) told me they loved me, cried with me in prolonged embraces during prayer, and called me “brother” has bothered to inquire into my departure. I have a number of pet-explanations for this, but I think mostly it’s a combination of their feeling personally hurt and betrayed (leaving a church can feel like leaving a family) and their nagging desire to remain on the proper course in their own faith. As it turns out, they needn’t fear my influence over them or their children, thanks to a dispiriting but consistent trend: attempts to inform the uninterested are almost always wasted.
I’m fairly convinced that believers are in general much less curious about other worldviews than their skeptical counterparts. This point is almost self-evident in that exposure to other ideas is the best and perhaps only antidote to faith. A broad education tends almost inexorably to undermine fundamentalist religious belief. We know this because the results are in: the more educated a person is, the less likely he is to be a fundamentalist, or very religious at all. There is no need to offer or take offense at this, since a given fundamentalist might be very educated. It does, however, reveal a powerful trend, namely that education which is not engineered specifically to sustain faith is typically corrosive to it. Curiosity drives education, so naturally, it is in the believer’s best interest, if he wishes to remain a believer, to be selectively curious. Any information I have which stands to undermine his faith should therefore bypass his curiosity.
Surprise #2: Emotional bonds with other believers were not unconditional but predicated on our common faith.
I still vividly recall the looks of concern a missed church service would earn me. The sidelong “missed you Sunday night” paired with an appraising look that was not quite accusatory. If they missed me so badly after a service or two, it stands to reason that they must miss me dearly now. If they do, they are concealing their grief remarkably well. I have received, if I’m not mistaken, a total of zero messages checking in on me, making sure I’m all right. Perhaps they don’t ask because, well, of course I’m not all right! I’m no longer in communion with the Lord, have condemned myself to enjoy him no longer in this life or the next. I may even be destined to suffer eternity alone and in terror. All the more reason to, you know, check in, or so I initially thought – but I was wrong to blame them for reasons I’ll discuss later.
They are doing what makes sense to them in the present, just like the rest of us. When we tearfully exchanged loving sentiments all those years ago, we really felt it at the time. Cathartic experiences have a way of bringing any two people together, but like most quick-drying adhesives, they prove less strong and lasting than those that slowly solidify over time. As for my family with whom both quick and slow bonds had formed, it is likely all the more difficult for them to confront me, now an outsider, regarding beliefs they have no interest in defending to outsiders. Faith can be a hard sell as it is, let alone to those of us who know where the bodies are buried.
Surprise: #3: For reasons I could not have predicted, it’s hard to be around my old church family.
My wife stopped attending services prior to me. We shared the same thoughts, but I felt the greater sense of obligation to the church. One doesn’t choose to stop believing overnight. In fact, belief is less of a choice than many believers suppose. I was a Christian not because it made my life more satisfying but because I thought Christianity depicted the world truly and accurately. As the evidence against this belief rolled in, there was no helping it: my credulity waned. No amount of Christian apologetics, prayer, and especially no amount of Bible reading was sufficient to reverse the trend. Yet I initially failed to confront the fact that I no longer believed.
We don’t admit to others what we can’t admit to ourselves, so as straightforward as I pride myself on being, I fizzled my way out of the church. First I dislodged myself from the music ministry without providing an explanation. My attendance suffered. I initially supplied lame excuses but eventually stopped accounting for my absences. Then one unremarkable Sunday, I attended my last service.
Excepting my father and one meeting with my old pastor a few months later, I have not had any open discussions with my religious family or friends on the topic of my leaving the church. I’m now a cross-breed between the black sheep and the elephant in the room. I have trouble attending family events, and I’m more to blame for this than my family who probably don’t realize or intend the subtext they pack into their words or the resentment their eyes betray. They would likely describe their behavior quite differently than I would and generally overestimate the degree to which they are motivated by compassion and concern, as so many of us do.
I’m only occasionally offended they don’t reach out to me, and that the few of them with whom I do correspond are typically only doing so in response to me. The cause for offense on these rare occasions is rooted in the knowledge that they believe I’m in danger of eternal punishment. If you think I’m on the brink of hell and that you have the truth that could save me, I assume you’d at least try to help if you cared. For a loved one, nothing would stop me – not even the belief that my attempts would likely be futile. And how on earth should you predict futile attempts when you believe the Spirit of the Living God literally resides within you and can speak through you?
In those moments, I’m simply forgetting something: they don’t actually worry for my eternal soul, bless them. They haven’t really grappled with the prospect of my wailing and gnashing my teeth through the endless eons, hurling belated apologies into an unhearing void. To assume as much is comical. They more or less rest in the knowledge that I am in error and will be put to proper correction some glad day. I confess I’m occasionally envious of those privileged to savor such a wishful prospect.
The truth is that I’m not in their world anymore, and they know it. They don’t know how to “save” me any more than I know how to earn their interest. But by being outnumbered, I’m the one who is out of place. Their views are edifying and mine contrary. They offend righteously and I intolerantly. The “religious talk” and in-jokes which endear them to one another have quite a different effect on me.
When I was a Christian, I was taught to avoid “religious talk” because it could make some feel excluded. As an unbeliever, such talk irritates me for an entirely different reason: it serves as a constant reminder that their beliefs are perpetually and systematically reinforced, a practice which runs so counter to my values that I cannot help feeling appalled. I fear there is no direct parallel to illustrate this for a believer, for whom enduring foul language or blasphemy is a petty irritation by comparison. Watching helplessly as people I care about imprison themselves in self-affirming thought patterns is not easy, and I doubt whether it ever will be.
Surprise #4: Believers often assume the worst of me.
…which is understandable to an extent. I’m after all a self-professed enemy to most of their cherished beliefs about the world. I expected sensitivity to this but was caught off guard by the hypersensitivity I received. I might have predicted this too, had I dedicated more thought to it.
Skeptics attempt to distance themselves from their ideas to evaluate them as disinterestedly and impartially as possible. Most true believers do this seldom or never, which means to attack their views is really to attack them on a personal level. There is therefore often no polite way to criticize those tenets of Christianity, both factual and ethical, which are frankly ill-conceived and unsupported. Even on those happy occasions when there is a polite way to reprove them, it can be hard to “take the high road” when others’ interests are at stake.
As a recent example, my home state of Minnesota nearly approved a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, and some of my family members broadcasted their support for this. On such occasions, I just cannot resist the temptation to intervene on behalf of those whose rights are threatened. I make no apology for this, but one consequence is regrettable: everything I say on the topic of Christianity is taken to be derisive and condescending, which is hardly fair but very understandable. My advice to a recent de-convert is to make your target, the bad idea, clear and to go out of your way to cushion the blow to the believer. It may seem odd, but when you tell a person one of their religious beliefs is misinformed, they are often positive you are calling them stupid. Take the time to remind them in indirect ways that you are no smarter than they are (you aren’t) and, for that matter, no smarter now than when you believed. Now you just happen to have some additional information to share, if they’re interested. Don’t get too excited (see surprise #1) because they probably aren’t.
I’ve learned quite a bit over the past few years, and I’m much happier for it. I didn’t choose to “lose my faith” to free myself from religion (or choose to lose it at all), but freedom has turned out to be a most agreeable perk. The freedom – not merely from petty obligation but to do good for its own sake, under no threat of punishment – is the easy part. Managing or failing to manage relationships has been a persistent challenge. Like any social challenge, blame is a poor ingredient for success, as is dwelling excessively on past offenses. After all, honest religious people are victims of bad ideas as well as perpetrators, and those who would call them hypocrites for falling short of perfection have it exactly backwards. The fact is that there is no God to fill them with his love or guide their steps, speak through them or offer them insight, so their reliance on his assistance is, apart from any incidental confidence it confers, mostly a handicap. They deserve genuine, non-patronizing empathy for this. I’ve been in their position, after all, and was not saved by any exceptional quality I possess. I was saved by some additional information and a vague willingness to attend to the available evidence in spite of my beliefs. It could be that genuine empathy is a sensible starting point to arouse such a willingness in others.