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!