It’s not easy being an apostate

Go. Go now. Go now and read ‘From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader’ in this week’s NYTimes’ Magazine. The article is about Jerry DeWitt, a former minister who’s now working as the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion. (sidenote: hey look! Cafe Apostate is listed as one of the 3 groups in Canada!)

I loved reading this article, if only because I think it really illustrates how it’s a long and difficult process to reject your faith.  So many times people ask me ‘when did you lose your faith?’ and expect me to point to the one day when I found that I was no longer a Christian.  It’s a process, people!  Just like you can’t pinpoint an answer to  ‘when did you grow up?’ — it’s impossible to know the precise moments when you realized you were no longer a believer. (p.s. Thanks to Dan Barker and his book ‘Godless‘ for that analogy)

When it comes to my deconversion, I found it was a series of small steps, or a feeling of slowly letting go — until I finally realized (and accepted) that I wasn’t holding on to that faith system anymore. And, I was OKAY.  I was the same person, just with one less box to check on the census.

What I found to be the hardest part of being an apostate is the rejection you face from your religious family, friends, and connections.  I think the NYTimes article on DeWitt does a good job of illustrating just how much can be lost in admitting your nonbelief. From the article:

Almost at once [after his ‘outing’ as an atheist], DeWitt became a pariah in DeRidder [his hometown]. His wife found herself ostracized in turn, and the marriage suffered. She moved out in June. He received a constant stream of hate messages — some threatening — and still does, more than seven months later. He played me a recent one he had saved on his cellphone as we ate lunch at a diner in town. “It’s just sickening to hear you try to turn people atheist,” a guttural voice intoned. It went on and on, telling DeWitt to go to hell in various ways. “I’m not going to sit around while you turn people against God,” the voice said at one point.

Can you feel the Christian love?

Thankfully I haven’t had any kind of death threats or a broken marriage because of my atheism. I have had many friendships lost, family relationships broken, and I’ve been on the receiving end of countless patronizing ‘we will pray for you’ letters and emails that passive-aggressively condemn my nonbelief.  It’s not something that you want to have to go through, but when compared to having to live a lie (ie., pretending to be something you’re not), then it’s all part of the experience.

So that’s why I get so riled up when I find believers who either mock, deride, or dismiss the stories of apostates (and yes, I’m focusing mainly on Christianity here, since that’s where I’m coming from — unfortunately with other monotheistic religions, the response to apostates is to murder them).

In my experience, I find there are a couple different reactions that Christians have to apostates: First, there’s the ‘you were never a True Christian™ in the first place‘ response, where the validity of the apostate’s past experiences as a believer is questioned. Usually when someone accuses me of never being an authentic believer, it’s for one of three reasons: it’s either out of fear (I don’t want to lose my faith one day!), defensiveness (how dare you reject something I hold so dear!) or it’s a response bred from a sense of competition (Christianity is so much better than atheism, let me tell you why!). Let me tell you, it’s disheartening to be on the end of such immediate judgmental conclusions.

Which reminds me, a year ago today, I was on the UK Christian radio program Unbelievable?. One of the most interesting parts of that experience was to listen in to some of the (primarily Christian) audience’s reactions to my apostasy story. From what I remember, most of the listener feedback in the following weeks fell into those three categories above.

But what I’ve found to be the most frustrating Christian reaction to stories of apostates is the mockery and ridicule that some love to heap.  And while I understand the motivations behind it (again, it probably falls under the same three categories I listed earlier), it doesn’t make this religiously-fueled bullying any easier to take.  In fact, I recently left an online group that I helped start because of a couple people who loved to be nasty in their reactions to the authentic stories of what is lost when outing yourself as a nonbeliever.

I wonder how these same people would react to reading DeWitt’s apostate story of what he lost. (I’m not optimistic)

Anyway, while there is a lot of sad feelings and experiences to be found in these stories of rejected (read: not ‘lost’) faith, I think there’s also so much more freedom and authenticity to be found in finally accepting who you are as a nonbeliever.

And for those people who decide not to embrace the ‘real’ godless you? Well, from my experience, it’s not really that big of a loss to no longer have them as a part of your life. I find that I prefer to have a handful of people who love and know me for who I am, rather than be in a relationship where I’m only accepted for being who they think I should be.

Which is one reason why I loved this song from Wicked so much:

Something has changed within me

Something is not the same

I’m through with playing by the rules

Of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing

Too late to go back to sleep

It’s time to trust my instincts

Close my eyes: and leap!


I’m through accepting limits

’cause someone says they’re so

Some things I cannot change

But till I try, I’ll never know!

Too long I’ve been afraid of

Losing love I guess I’ve lost

Well, if that’s love

It comes at much too high a cost!

from ‘Defying Gravity’

3 thoughts on “It’s not easy being an apostate”

  1. I wonder…how long did it take for you to lose the impulse to pray about things? How long did it take you to be done mourning for the loss of community? I still find these things occurring occasionally, although it’s been about 3 years since I, as you said, accepted that I wasn’t ever going back to faith.

  2. Those are good questions — the prayer one, especially. One of my nighttime rituals was to go through my day as I prayed, and it was such a comfort to feel like I was debriefing with a being that wanted to hear from me. That was hard to let go of — but when you start to feel like you’re only talking to yourself, that sorta takes away from the effect. Granted, I’m able to find some sense of comfort now in meditation, though it’s not quite the same.

    In terms of community, by the time I was admitting my atheism I was pretty much out of the Christian loop. I had worked my way out of a mega-church down to regular churches to a group and then a small house church — so the loss of that sort of community wasn’t as great. And, much to my benefit, I was able to find several atheist communities (both here in town and online) for me to fill in whatever I may miss from being involved in churches.

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments when I think about my past life as a Christian and miss certain parts of it. There’s power in thinking (and honestly believing) that there’s an omnipresent and all-loving being out there who’s concerned about you and the world at large. Then again, there are also comforts to be found in being an atheist and not having to explain all the evils (both natural and human-made) that are in the world that a supposed loving God is in control of.

    Good topics for the next Cafe Apostate, no?

  3. I would add to your three reasons. As you know, I entered the church as an older teen, and the snobbery that us new Christians were taught to show towards those who had grown up in the church was awful! So there was that demographic, of which I’m ashamed to admit I was a part, but there was the other group, those who did grow up in the church but just sort of warmed the pew every Sunday, and rededicated their lives to Christ as young adults and became truly on fire for the Lord, etc etc. They would shoot back at some newer Christians that their faith was immature and that while they themselves had not been living for the Lord for so many years, despite being baptized at the age of 6, etc, they are now heeding God’s calling for their lives etc and are on the true path. It is *these* jackasses that I can see saying that you were never a True Christian. Saying that you were never a True Christian assuages their guilt that they had from living the lie for so many years before finally returning to God. It makes them feel like they are an authority on every aspect of Christianity now. Not sure how I would succinctly put that, as a reason, because I’m tired, but hopefully you know what I mean.

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