Atheists who once were christians

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We can read the statistics which show that, in most western countries, church attendance has fallen in the last century. In some cases it is still falling, though in others it has levelled out. The ‘leavers’ are not necessarily giving up all belief in God – many list themselves as ‘not committed’ – but some are choosing to be atheists.

But this is all statistics. There is also a human face to these changes.

Deconversion stories

It’s not hard to find deconversion stories. Many of these converts to atheism were enthusiastic christians and are now equally enthusiastic atheists. Others were very troubled christians who feel very relieved to be out of there. Either way, they are often keen to tell their story.

And so it is easy to find websites and blogs devoted to deconversion stories, and common to find committed atheists commenting on blogs or arguing on forums. As a christian, I find some stories quite distressing (for a variety of reasons), but I think it is helpful to understand what is going on.

Things I’ve learnt

  • Many christians believe a christian cannot fall away, so these converts must never have been true believers. God knows the truth in any individual case, and we cannot know a person’s heart or their future. But the stories show that, as much as a human can know, many of these people were fervent believers who prayed, witnessed, worshipped, read their Bibles, and some even pastored.
  • Some people couldn’t wait to escape the church, but for many of them it was a deeply emotional experience as they really struggled with their loss of faith.
  • Some atheist converts are very angry, but I have found many of them to be likeable and pleasant – though generally unyielding on the truth of their newfound worldview.
  • Perhaps because of their previous experience as christians, many of them are very evangelistic for atheism. And their websites often provide fellowship, encouragement and support for ongoing unbelief.
  • Many of them are very focused on the negative in christianity (unanswered prayer, the problem of evil, the bad behaviour of christians, hell, etc) and seem unwilling to seriously consider the positive. I can’t help thinking that the conclusions a person comes to (christian or unbeliever) will often be determined by what they chose to focus on.
  • Many of them had very negative or unhelpful church experiences. They may not have thought so at the time, but looking back, they can see the problems. One lapsed christian reports how he invited a friend to church, only to have her laugh out loud at the behaviour and teachings of his pastor, teachings he was also beginning to question.
  • Some (many?) believe they were forced by strong arguments to leave the faith. However I have generally found that lapsed christians often have an understanding and experience of christianity that is very different to mine, and arguably different to most christians, which may help explain their decision to deconvert.

How churches don’t help

Churches are an in-group, with their own particular and often peculiar culture, behaviours and language. It all seems so familiar and right to those inside, but this can hide big problems. Some pastors and leaders behave badly. Many feel the need to feed their own self esteem. Many more are well-meaning, but their teaching and leadership promote beliefs and behaviour which are counter-productive.

  • Many don’t have answers to the questions and challenges of unbelief, and few effectively train christians in why it is reasonable to believe and how to face doubts.
  • Churches in the US are often extremely conservative, theologically, politically and socially. They often sound old fashioned and out of touch with contemporary culture – and unfortunately they probably often are.
  • Being part of a dominant culture of Christendom in the US can breed bad habits – triumphalism, pride, disdain for other viewpoints, and the reinforcement of wrong ideas. Lack of love for unbelievers, who are sometimes seen as enemies, is a particular problem.
  • Some pastors and ministers have developed behaviours in services that seem to reinforce the sense of being an in-group, with them as the acknowledged leader and crowd favourite. They build a symbiotic relationship with the congregation that feeds their egos, but sounds corny or worse to outsiders and even many within. (I have struggled to explain this idea clearly, but I hope you can picture what I mean.)
  • Many churches hold extremely literal interpretations of the Bible, especially Genesis and the historical books of the Old Testament. This puts them in opposition to established science and history, and sometimes leads to attempts to justify mass killing in the Old Testament. Whatever the merits of these literal interpretations, they make a church look further out of touch. The doctrine of hell, the ethical stance against homosexuality and teachings on the place of women are significant difficulties for outsiders.
  • Many approaches to evangelism and witnessing are insensitive and off-putting to the unbelieving victims and to the perspiring christian.

Lessons to consider

The most basic fact about the christian faith is grace – God’s love, freely given. We christians need to learn to become people of grace, freely giving love in every situation, just like the God we follow. This needs to become our commitment, our habit and our second nature. John Burke says that if we try to correct people’s behaviour before they understand grace, we will probably obscure this most important truth, while bludgeoning them with a secondary truth.

The evangelical church desperately needs to prayerfully, and in deep repentance, reconsider its beliefs, behaviour and attitudes. We need to repent of pride, insensitivity and judgmentalism. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to refresh our understanding of scripture and of all the things we are so certain about, in case he has new truths to show us. We need to especially pray about our approach to the Bible, doctrine, science, evolution, public ethics and politics, lest our traditional responses are in error in God’s eyes.

If we decide we must stay with the traditional views on difficult matters like evolution, homosexuality, gay marriage, politics, hell, the inerrancy and contemporary applicability of Old Testament laws and commands and many less important practices and teachings, we must learn how to communicate our conclusions to our own members and to a world that is increasingly bemused and alienated by them, and how to hold these views in a loving way.

We need to see atheists, unbelievers, and lapsed christians as fellow humans on the journey of life, friends and not enemies. It is true that a few see us as their enemies, but that just gives us an opportunity to love our enemies and pray for them. While we profoundly disagree with their choice, we should be able to empathise with the pain many of them have gone through. Where we have opportunity, we should apologise for the objectionable things said to them in the name of Jesus. We may never see them return to faith as we would long to happen, but if we love them, some will, and their faith will be much the stronger for the journey.

Last words

This has been a difficult post to write – because the subject is distressing, and because it is difficult to put my finger on the best way to understand what is going on and what God is saying. Please forgive me if I have offended you.

If you are a christian and when you read this you start to feel indignant, and want to tell me how you are not going to let go of the truths you have come to know, let me ask you a question I have sometimes had to ask myself. If I had been a Jew in Jesus’ day, would I have been willing to let go my past and follow him? God is making all things new; Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day, and the Holy Spirit led Peter to disregard the scriptural understandings of his day to go and meet with Cornelius. Are we willing to change?

Please join me in praying that we will do better to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbours as ourselves, even if they are atheists or lapsed christians.

If you want to read some of the things atheists are saying (and this is not for everybody), I suggest:

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22 thoughts on “Atheists who once were christians

  1. Sir Ian says:

    When I was 12 I stopped believing in the church as a source of good because I couldn’t comprehend how they could be against homosexuality. It was clear to me that this was a dogmatic stance, not based on reason. I still believed in god for several years, I even once thought I was a medium (don’t laugh please, I see a ridiculous amount of patterns and my mother is a fervent believer in new-age and mediums and stuff). You know it’s not the ceremonials I detest, I love the architecture and I even love some of the songs. One day I will read the king james bible in old english. I don’t have to tell you why, it’s so lovely. I save this not because I don’t want to challenge myself but because I want to preserve these things till I’m ready for it. Just like I don’t read arguably by christopher Hitchens until I’ve read more of the basic literature.

    Back on topic : What churches need is scientific literacy. I’ve gone onto fundamentalist forums (muslim mind you) and these are not bad people, they are not dumb by any stretch of the imagination. They simply lack the tools to differentiate fact from fiction. As a result anti-vaccin, homeopathy, creationism and many similar theories thrive.

    Now if the church would want to be a source of morality in this world I wouldn’t necessarily mind. But they would have to act like one. They would have to have a very big focus on secular ethics, not JUST the bible. As a result they wouldn’t talk about homosexuality, contraception or abortion. Because these are not the big issues of the world. They would talk about nuclear proliferation and GM foods. These are technologies that harness an immense power and should in my opinion be embraced. But new power brings new moral issues, and we have to debate this. If they want to be a source of moral authority they need to be so literate on these matters that it is self-evident. When my teachers at uni open their mouth they do not have to show their diplomas, it is so obvious they know what they’re talking about. Simply because the moment you leave their field they say : I’ll have to look it up, I don’t know.

    Now onto the last bit of this wall of text : As an anti-theist, a militant atheist : You’re doing it right. I loved this post. People like you are the reason I left the simplistic view I once had (religion is pure evil) in favor of more elegant solutions. Good post. Honestly. You know I don’t agree with everything, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.

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  2. HeIsSailing says:

    I really enjoyed this article unkleE. I am very happy to see a Christian who is not dismissive of the de-converts’ stories.

    unkleE says:
    One lapsed christian reports how he invited a friend to church, only to have her laugh out loud at the behaviour and teachings of his pastor, teachings he was also beginning to question.

    hmmm.. this story sounds familiar…

    Some (many?) believe they were forced by strong arguments to leave the faith. However I have generally found that lapsed christians often have an understanding and experience of christianity that is very different to mine, and arguably different to most christians, which may help explain their decision to deconvert.

    I often get this response from my new friends who discover I was once a Christian. They hear a little of my story from my wife, and they ask, ‘you believed crazy stuff! Were you in some kind of cult? That is not the kind of Christian that I am…’ I figure that no matter what kind of Christian one considers themselves to be, most other Christians are not going to be able to identify with it. This is why I never bother putting disclaimers on my story or blog. I can only work off my own experience, and not anybody else’s.

    How churches don’t help…

    This is a good list that you wrote up, but I hope you don’t mind if I add a couple more points that I cull from my own experience.

    1) Churches abandon and demonize those who leave the Faith. They sometimes even become fodder for weekly sermons.
    2) Churches often encourage believing spouses of apostates to seek a divorce. The stress that some families feel over a new apostate is unbelievable, and I have never witnessed a church that offers any constructive support for the apostate’s family.

    I will write a bit about both of those when I get to that point in my seemingly never-ending story.

    I appreciate this article though. You motivate me to write a similar one from my own perspective. I am often appalled at how the ‘Atheist Community’, as it is sometimes called, vilifies their Christian brethren. Humility and perspective are good things to learn, no matter what your theological beliefs.

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  3. Larry says:

    Yeah, I deconverted from Christianity recently.

    “I am often appalled at how the ‘Atheist Community’, as it is sometimes called, vilifies their Christian brethren”

    I haven’t met anybody who vilifies religious people. I’ve met people who vilify religious belief, and I agree that religious belief is a bad thing.

    Also, it’s all religion – not just Christianity. And I’ve seen just as many Christians denouncing atheists.

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  4. ignorantianescia says:

    “When I was 12 I stopped believing in the church as a source of good because I couldn’t comprehend how they could be against homosexuality. It was clear to me that this was a dogmatic stance, not based on reason.”

    As a Reformed Protestant I fully agree with you about this – and going perhaps even further, would argue that the intolerance of homosexuals in Protestant churches is mostly based on tradition and prooftexts.

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  5. ignorantianescia says:

    “•Many of them had very negative or unhelpful church experiences. They may not have thought so at the time, but looking back, they can see the problems.”

    It might be good to point out that back projecting is a mechanism in most conversions. While the testimonies of former (un)believers must be taken seriously, they must not be believed credulously. The FBI credulously believed ex-Branch Davidians (and made other awful errors), leading to the Waco siege. That doesn’t mean converts did not have good reasons to change their mind, but often the story becomes more black and white afterwards.

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  6. thebiblereader says:

    Two books that I have recently read UnChristian and You Lost Me and both commissioned books by Christian researchers, and highly respected by their field. And much of what you are also saying the barna group has also said has contributed to falling away in faith, and decline in church (attendance.)

    UnChristian is more about how outsiders perceive Christianity, And how non-evangelicals or non-church goers experiences has shaped them with other Christians and how that has led them to reject christinaity, god, and the church. It’s an excellent read for any christian especially any evangelistic christain. *Just to give you an example of what shocked me about the book, was I didn’t know so many people disliked Christians and had so many bad experiences with Christians. I did not know, alot category of the populas described christians as UNLOVING….that was a shock to me and an eyeopener.

    Also the other book YouLostMe, is a little more fluffy, but it deals with young believers in the church, not coming back after and through adulthood. And this point…”Churches in the US are often extremely conservative, theologically, politically and socially. They often sound old fashioned and out of touch with contemporary culture – and unfortunately they probably often are.” really hit it right on the head.

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  7. unklee says:

    Sir Ian, thanks for your kind comments.

    “You know it’s not the ceremonials I detest, I love the architecture and I even love some of the songs. One day I will read the king james bible in old english.”
    For me it is the other way round. The main deal for me is Jesus, his teachings and the life he calls me to; the church, the rituals, etc, are the most difficult aspect.

    “What churches need is scientific literacy. …. As a result anti-vaccin, homeopathy, creationism and many similar theories thrive.”
    I don’t think I know any christians who are anti vaccines, etc, though I know a few who are creationist and anti-science. But this is changing – only social change takes time.

    “Now if the church would want to be a source of morality in this world I wouldn’t necessarily mind. But they would have to act like one. They would have to have a very big focus on secular ethics, not JUST the bible.”
    Yes I agree. I think many christians forget that the Bible was written over a particular period of history, and it shows great progression in its ethics and teachings. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth, implying we didn’t have it all then, and I guess never will. So I am sure there are some issues that God is pushing us to different responses (I think in my lifetime he has pushed the church on materialism, sexism, racism and the environment). But we still probably wouldn’t end up where you want us to be.

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  8. unklee says:

    Thanks too HeIsSailing for your kind words. I think it is safest and kindest to take people at face value until and if there is reason to think otherwise. I think I will shorten your name to the acronym HIS from now on, which may feel like a threat to you, but a prophecy to me!! : )

    I often get this response from my new friends who discover I was once a Christian. …. That is not the kind of Christian that I am…’ I figure that no matter what kind of Christian one considers themselves to be, most other Christians are not going to be able to identify with it.”
    I was a little wary about saying this because it offends some people, but nevertheless it is true for me. I think some of it depends on where one grew up, and I find a lot of ‘lapsed christians’ came from the Bible belt of the southern states of the US, or similar churches. But my experience in Australia is that there are few such churches here, and I would guess the same for the UK. The unfortunate conclusion from this is that many churches are detrimental to faith for many people.

    “This is a good list that you wrote up, but I hope you don’t mind if I add a couple more points that I cull from my own experience.”
    I appreciate that. I may modify the post to include them (with credit to you!). I think it is important to understand these things, both to relate to each other as human beings, but also because christians will do their job better if they understand (this blog is actually aimed at helping christians).

    I look forward to reading your own version of this.

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  9. unklee says:

    Larry said: “I haven’t met anybody who vilifies religious people. I’ve met people who vilify religious belief, and I agree that religious belief is a bad thing.”
    I have been on internet forums where it happens all the time – aimed at the person as well as the belief. Atheist vilifying christian, christian vilifying atheist, sometimes even christian against christian. It’s never a pretty sight. If you haven’t seen it, or been the recipient of it, you are fortunate.

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  10. Sir Ian says:

    You can call me Ian btw, the sir is just for the ironic ring to it. It really depends on community to community, my point was basically that the church should *promote* scientific literacy and not just be ok with it. People heavily underestimate the use of it and as a result communities where quackery is prevalent are enabled. That was my point.

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  11. unklee says:

    Biblereader: I am not familiar with the first two books (though I will look them up) but I have read a bit by George Barna, and he would have had some influence on some of my ideas.

    “I didn’t know so many people disliked Christians and had so many bad experiences with Christians”
    I would guess you live in the US, where the church is stronger and consequently has the temptation to be arrogant. In Australia, the church is weaker numerically and I doubt there are many Aussies who hate christians.

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  12. Sir Ian says:

    I never said it was objective. I only said there is no point arguing about it. We can treat it as objective because it’s useful. But yeah you’re right.

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  13. Nate says:

    Great post, unklee! I really enjoyed it. I think you made some really solid observations, and I always appreciate the objectivity you aim for.

    I also thought HeIsSailing’s comment was very good — I couldn’t agree more.

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  14. unklee says:

    Jonny,

    That is an encouraging thought.

    The interesting thing is, I write this blog mainly for christians, with the aim of helping believers who are looking for new paths – I have another blog aimed more at non-believers (Is there a God?). Yet this post has mostly attracted comment from former believers. I guess it shows the interest in this topic?

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  15. arkenaten says:

    What is really distressing, and a point that seems to be missed by many, those that deconvert do so because of problems with the bible as much as with the church.
    If we are dealing with an inerrant document and an omnipotent deity one would believe that any missunderstanding regardig the Word would have been cleared up long ago so this type of deconversion wouldn’t happen?

    The more one considers this the more one is drawn to a conclusion that it is all hokum – scare tactics by religious organisations and religious communities that have long been inculcated with this type of nonsense.
    It is interesting how Christians and Christian communities are quick to jump at the chance to illustrate the horrors many Muslims have to endure to break away from Islam yet cannot/refuse to see the irony when faced with a similar situation about their own religion.
    And you will notice that no god intervenes with either scenario.
    Perhaps ‘God’ doesn’t interfere because He knows that irrespective which religious cult a human belongs to, all apostates are going to Hell. Well maybe, right?

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  16. unkleE says:

    Hi Chaz,

    I guess I interpret it exactly as written, that people used to be part of the fellowship but then gave up faith and left the fellowship. But if you want to infer that people who give up belief never really believed, I would say that may be true of some people, but we can never know, and that is generalising what this passage doesn’t do.

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  17. ChazIng says:

    Hi unkleE, you have a strange/worrying definition of “exactly as written.” From this I would surmise that you would not make a good literalist.

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