Question: Was My Deconversion Gradual or Instantaneous?

atheist dan piraro

Several weeks back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Suzanne asked:

What was the thing or moment where it all started to unravel horribly, the pulling the first thread away moment, when you said ‘screw all of this’ and walked away? Was it one thing or a gradual buildup of stuff?

This is a great question, one that is not easy to answer.

My story drives Evangelicals crazy, especially those who are hardcore, never change their beliefs, fundamentalists. What they see in my story is a lifetime of theological change, and this is a sure sign to them that I never had a surefooted theological foundation. After all, the Bible does say that the double minded man is unstable in all his ways.  In their mind, it’s no wonder I deconverted. Look at my ever-evolving theology.

However, I view my change of beliefs in a different light. For those of us raised in the Evangelical church, we grew up with a borrowed theology. Our theology was that of our parents, pastor, and church. When I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College, I had a borrowed theology and when I left three years later I still had a borrowed theology. I believed what I had been taught.

Over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I diligently studied the Bible. I read over a thousand theological books and prided myself in working hard to give parishioners with exactly what the Bible taught. Over time, I encountered teachings and beliefs that were new to me, and after thoroughly studying the matter my beliefs either stayed the same or changed. Over  the years, my soteriology and eschatology changed, as did my view on inerrancy the law of God, faith vs works, and Bible translations. These new beliefs led to changes in practice. I like to think that my changing beliefs were simply an intellectual response to new information.

Over this same 25 year period my politics evolved and changed. I entered the ministry as a right-wing Republican culture warrior. I left the ministry as a progressive/liberal Democrat.  It is likely that my changing political beliefs affected how I read and interpreted the Bible.

I left the ministry in 2005 and left Christianity in 2008.  In the three years between these two events, I went back to the Bible and restudied what I believed about God, Jesus, creation, salvation, and the Bible. I read numerous books written by authors like Bart Ehrman, Robert Price, Robert Wright, Jerry Coyne, John Loftus, Rob Bell, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Brian McLaren, John Shelby Spong, Henri Nouwen, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, Hector Avalos, Soren Kierkegaard, John Dominic Crossan, N.T. Wright, Paul Tillich, and a number of other authors. I was doing everything I could to hang on to some sort of faith.

I went through what I call the stages of deconversion: Evangelical Christianity to Liberal/Progressive Christianity to Universalism to Agnosticism to Atheism. This path was painful, arduous, contradictory, and tiring. I spent many a day and night not only reading and studying, but having long discussions with Polly about what I had read. In November of 2008, I concluded, based on my beliefs, that I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian. Since I no longer believed the Bible was an inspired, inerrant, infallible text, nor did I believe that Jesus was God, rose again from the dead or worked miracles, there was no possible way for me to remain a Christian.  At that moment, I went from believer to unbeliever. I call this my born again atheist experience.

Evangelicals will read this post and point out what they see as a fatal flaw in my deconversion; I didn’t read any Evangelical theologians. I didn’t read any of the shallow apologetic works that are bandied about as surefire faith fixers. The reason I didn’t is because I had already read them. I can recite Christian theology, in all its forms, frontwards and backwards. Since there hasn’t been an original thought in Christianity since Moses got off the ark, I had no need of rereading Christian theological books. The few Christian authors I did read, were new authors that I hoped would tell me something I had not heard before.  I read their books in hopes of getting a new perspective on Christianity, hoping that they would knot a rope and throw it to me so I could hang on. In the end, the rope had no knot, and down the slippery slope I slid until I hit bottom.

So, my deconversion took a long time, but there was also a moment in time when I went from believer to nonbeliever.

If I had to point to one thing that most affected my deconversion,  it would be learning that the Bible was not an inspired, infallible, inerrant text. I suspect this is the case for many Evangelicals turned atheist. Bart Ehrman is a good example of this.  The belief that the Bible was a perfect text written by God and absolute truth from the hand of God himself, was the foundation of my system of belief. Remove this foundation and the whole house comes tumbling down.

One unanswered question remains; if I had started out as a progressive/liberal Christian would I have still deconverted? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. Since I have a pastor’s heart and I love help people, I might have found a home in progressive/liberal Christianity. This is one of those would of/could of/should of questions. That’s not the path I took, so here I am. Unless a deity of some sort reveals itself to us, I remain a convinced atheist.

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4 Comments

  1. Monty

    “Since there hasn’t been an original thought in Christianity since Moses got off the ark, “…..LOL! Awesome!!!

    Reply
  2. mikespeir

    I don’t think there’s any such thing as an instantaneous deconversion. I, too, remember a specific moment when it dawned on me, “You know, I don’t believe this stuff — and I don’t have to!” But when I look back I realize my confidence in the Christian religion abraded over quite a few years before I even recognized what was going on. Belief can’t any more evaporate in an instant than can love.

    Reply
  3. Monty

    Very true. It was a process that took years for me. However, the proverbial straw that broke the camels back for me was when Phil Robertson went on his rant about gays and what the bible says. I clearly remember the very moment when I said enough is enough, I do not believe this anymore and no longer want to be associated with people who hold such views. It was then that the house of cards crumbled. Not to mention the shit I saw while working full time in ministry!

    Reply
  4. Daniel Wilcox

    Bruce closed by saying, “One unanswered question remains; if I had started out as a progressive/liberal Christian would I have still deconverted? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.”

    Yes, counterfactual questions are intriguing even troubling. In my case, I was a very liberal Quaker/Anabaptist Christian for about 50 years, still intellectually convinced God loved and wanted to save the entire world, everyone.

    What finally sunk the ship was the near-take over of American Christianity by Calvinists of the Billy Graham Association, Baptist churches, even our local church. The 1950’s God-of-love Christian faith I had so devoutly believed in was maligned as heresy, semi-Pelagian, etc. In its place was put the God of hidden decrees who only acts for his own glory.
    I drastically realized that my 1950’s faith was only a tiny illusionary bubble with only John Wesley supporting it versus 1,700 years of Augustinian-Calvinistic-Lutheranism claiming everything contrary.

    How likely was God orchestrating such an horrific mess, if his prime message was his love for everyone?

    So your Calvinism killed my Quakerism.:-)

    Reply

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