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’

grrrl meets UK Christian radio program programme

The interview is online now at the Unbelievable? website.  Here’s the program’s description:

This week on Unbelievable : “Losing my religion – dialogue with an ex-Christian”

Rebekah Bennetch lives in Saskatoon, Canada. She grew up in a Christian family. Her dad is a pastor, and other family members are involved in Christian ministries. She professed faith from a young age, went to Bible college, atteneded church and went on mission trips. But in 2007 she “came out” as an atheist and now describes herself as the “black sheep” of her family. Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster on contemporary spirituality. For many years he presented “Open House”, a nationally-syndicated Australian radio show on life, faith and culture. He now resides in the UK. They discuss what led Rebekah to abandon her faith, how Christians can best treat their “apostate” friends and family, and what lessons can be learnt for fruitful dialogue between believers and atheists.

Here’s the link for the interview — it’s a little over an hour long.  Right now I’m buried in end-of-term marking of student reports and finals, but later this week I’m planning to reflect on the exchange I had with Justin and Sheridan. In the meantime, check out the interview, and make sure to read the latest comments on the blog here (and here, and here), by my old youth group pal Alison — she’s always good for a laugh, and for a reminder of why I rejected the faith system she represents.

What he said:

Penn Jillette on Piers Morgan’s show (watch the first 10 minutes):

Wow, go Penn!

I love this example of atheist/Christian dialogue.  I thought Penn hit the perfect tone — approachable and friendly, yet still able to openly disagree with Morgan.  It’s funny to see how flustered and angry Morgan gets as he tries to bait Penn in the various traps believers like to lay out for nonbelievers (ie., the arrogance of atheists, the beginnings of the universe, death, etc).

I’m going to watch this clip again — and I’ll be buying Penn’s book, too.

On atheist “evangelism”

[more on my Unbelieveable? experience]

Sheridan Voysey, the Aussie Christian broadcaster I spoke with last week, has posted the first of a couple posts on his podcast experience.  This first post is one worth checking out, as he gives 5 specific tips on how to talk to an atheist (or a Christian).  It’s good advice for anyone to take, especially if you are interested in building up positive relation between yourself and whoever you’re speaking to. I don’t have much to add to what he wrote about in his post, but in reading it, there were a couple points I thought needed a little more clarification.

Here’s how he describes me to his readers:

Rebekah’s story is an interesting one. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, with many members of her family in active missionary work or Christian service today, Rebekah went through two Bible colleges and umpteen churches before announcing herself an ‘apostate’ (her description) after a series of life events. Today she is a something of an evangelist for the atheist cause. She runs atheist small groups for former believers, runs secular holiday camps for kids, writes on atheist/skeptic/freethinking parenting and contributes to atheist blogs.

The part that stood out to most to me is Sheridan’s description of me as “something of an evangelist for the atheist cause.” After getting over the triggering qualities I usually associate with the word “evangelist,” I don’t think it’s an accurate way to describe my involvement in the atheist movement.

I looked up evangelist in the OED, and nearly all of its definitions refer to religious teachings, preaching, and spreading of the gospel to the unconverted.  That said, in 1993, an additional definition was added: “A zealous advocate of a cause or promulgator of a doctrine.”  Even so, I don’t think I should be counted as an atheist evangelist, because I don’t see my end goal to be one where I deconvert others to the “good news” of nonbelief.

Now I’m sure there are several people who will regard me as “zealous,” due to the subject matter of what I write about online and what I talk about in person, if only because I tend to get a bit passionate in talking about certain issues. [I recently discovered my Bible college roommate on FB cut me off from connecting with her — it’s not the first time someone from my past-believer life has chosen to end friendship with me]  But I don’t think of myself as on a mission to get everyone to see the world the way I do (I left that goal behind when I rejected Christianity) — and if having passion equates one to being an evangelist, then the word itself is going to get diluted in meaning pretty fast.

The motivation behind my involvement in the atheist movement isn’t to spread nonbelief, but moreso to foster community amongst people who are already nonbelievers.  For me, it’s not enough to call myself an atheist, because I’m so much more than that label. If I were only involved with specifically “atheist” endeavors, I could see myself getting bored pretty fast — because one can only dissect religion and other illogical beliefs for so long.

So, I find other ways to get involved.  For example, I meet with other irreligious parents in our Secular Family Network, and trade ideas about how to raise our children without the influence of a religious institution.  This weekend, in fact, is our annual freethinker summer camping trip! I’m already looking forward to spending time enjoying the outdoors with the friends I’ve made as a result of being in this group.

For me, it’s more about the community and not so much the spreading of ideology.  I know that I can’t persuade anyone out of their faith, and so it’s not my main goal. This isn’t to say that I’m not happy to talk about religious issues, raise questions, and occasionally poke fun at the hypocrisy and absurdity of some religious dogma — but that’s not the same thing as saying my intentions are to convert others to nonbelief.

good without god.

[more on my recent podcast interview]

Part of our discussion on Wednesday touched upon morality.  At one point, I ended up talking about where I find a basis for morality, since I no longer believe in a divine moral lawgiver.  I’ll readily admit that I’m not a philosopher, so talking about objective vs. subjective morality not an easy discussion for me to have. (part of me thinks believers get off a little too easy when it comes to answering these kinds of complex questions, because they can just say “God.” and be done with their answer.)

I ended up talking about the ethic of reciprocity, and how most ethical systems can be boiled down to this principle of doing good to others, because you would like to have good done for you.  I don’t think my answer was too radical of a concept, but then our conversation drifted into implications of individual selfishness and reciprocity.  (ugh)

Well, I wish I could have steered the talk of morality in a different direction.  I wish I could have brought up Psalm 14:1, and asked them about what they thought of the verse.  Psalm 14:1 reads:

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.

Now here’s a verse most atheists will recognize, because it’s one usually hurled in our direction. It’s the last part of the verse I would have wanted to talk about — the notion that the godless are corrupt, full of vile deeds, and up to no good. There aren’t many Christians out there who would admit to agreeing with the last half of the verse — but I know many people who still hold onto the idea that god is a necessary prerequisite to being good. But is it true?

Not according to evidence.

Part of my reading prep for the interview involved me reading the peer-reviewed article “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions” by Phil Zuckerman. This article compared different societies’ levels of religiosity to their levels of violent crime, happiness and well-being indexes, health care services, standards of economic equality, education, and several other categories.  The result?

… societies with higher percentages of secular people are actually more healthy, humane, and happy than those with higher percentages of religious people.

The author was sure to point out that the amount of secularity doesn’t necessarily cause these positive factors in society, but being irreligious does not seem to be a hinderance to having a good and happy life.

I guess this brings me back to another point I wish I could have pressed the two Christians on — why do I need to be a Christian?  If evidence shows societies to function just fine (if not better) without religion, why do I need to be religious?  If I can find meaning and significance in the natural world around me, why do I need to add a supernatural belief on top of it?  If I can be good without god, why do I need Christian faith?

Still waiting for the answers to these questions.

Happily living without religion

CFI Transnational has a new ad campaign that just kicked off today: Living Without Religion — here’s the video for the campaign:

Didja catch the 2 smiling mugs at the :33 second mark?  That’s Jerry and I!  I’m very happy to lend a picture of myself to such a campaign.

To hope, to care, to love. We have all experienced these powerful, fundamental feelings. They help define what it is to be human. These important elements of a fulfilling human life are experienced by religious and nonreligious people alike.

There are some common myths about the nonreligious—atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists. One popular myth is that the nonreligious are immoral, or at least that they can’t be relied upon to be as good as those with religious beliefs. If you know any nonreligious people (and almost everyone does—see below), you already know this is not true. Human decency does not depend on religious belief. There are good believers and good nonbelievers; there are wicked believers and wicked nonbelievers. You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.

more here