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Bruce, How Did You Deal with Your Emotions as You Deconverted?

i have a question

Recently, a reader named Theresa asked:

Would you please discuss, or please point me to where you discuss, how you dealt/deal with your emotions and conflicts as you were deconverting? My life has been much tamer than yours, yet it’s revolved in a HUGE part around church and faith and belief, and so on.

I’ve been questioning for awhile, but 2019 was an especially bad year, including three huge shakeups in my life, greatly impacting my Christian relationships. It’s all a really long story, one I’m not comfortable sharing with strangers.

I feel sometimes like I’m walking a tightrope, trying to balance or wondering if I should do something now to prepare for the future. For example, I am expected to take over my Mom’s special needs adults class when she passes – not for years yet, hopefully. I love the members, we’re all family – but it will be my chance to cut ties with the church and run.

So much of life now is like this. I don’t have clarity or guidance; and everyone I know wants me to remain as I am. I’ve been a Christian for 45 years +, and taught in one capacity or another for most of that, up until 2019, one of the blindsiding betrayals I went through. I have felt pulls elsewhere as I was growing up, but squashed them, and sometimes I wonder …

I just don’t know how to handle things sometimes. I’ve been in limbo for quite awhile, spiritually and otherwise, and it doesn’t feel good or right to feel this way this much anymore.

Specifically, Theresa asked:

How [did] you dealt/deal with your emotions and conflicts as you were deconverting?

Theresa has been involved with Christianity for over forty-five years. She’s has a lifetime of church experiences and friendships. Based on her comment, Theresa is not a passive or cultural Christian. She’s actively involved in her church; a teacher for decades. It’s evident, at least to me, that she deeply cares about her church family, including her mother who attends the same church. Yet, she has serious doubts and questions about Christianity and is considering an exit from her church. Internally debating these issues has caused psychological angst, leading to emotional unrest.

For those of us who were lifelong followers of Jesus before we deconverted, Theresa’s story has a familiar feel. I was part of the Evangelical church for fifty years, and a pastor for twenty-five years. Much like Theresa, I was deeply immersed in the machinations of the church. I deeply loved God, the ministry, and the people I pastored. I fully expected to spend my entire life preaching the gospel, saving souls, and ministering to both the saved and the lost. My exit story was one where I would be preaching, and as I was emphasizing the certainty of death, drop dead in the pulpit. Talk about a powerful sermon illustration. 🙂 Alas, my faith died before I did. On the last Sunday in November 2008, I walked out of the doors of the Ney United Methodist Church, never to return. Several months later, I sent out my infamous letter, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners, declaring that I was no longer a Christian.

For the longest time, wanting to fend off people saying I left Christianity due to some sort of “hurt,” I focused on the intellectual reasons I deconverted. I left Christianity because I no longer believed its central claims about Jesus and the Bible. While I could have continued to play the game, I have never been willing to “fake it until you make it.” When I concluded that Christianity was built upon a foundation of untruths, I felt duty bound to share my story. This, of course, led to the birth of this blog.

Over the years, I have tried to share not only the intellectual reasons I deconverted, but also the psychological struggles I’ve experienced, even to this day. Think about being married for fifty years, having children and grandchildren, and building a life together with your significant other. Yet, you began to have doubts about your relationship and the prospect of your future together. You sat down and made a list of things you liked and disliked about your spouse and reasons why you should stay or go. You weighed all the intellectual reasons for staying or leaving, concluding that it was time for you to end your marriage. You spent countless hours wrestling with your emotions, weeping over what divorce would cause not only to yourself but also to your spouse. Despite your psychological travails, you knew intellectually that divorce was the right thing to do. And so you walked away. While you are now “free,” you still struggle with thoughts about the past. “Did I make the right decision?” “OMG, what have I done?” “Now what?”

So it is for people who were married to Jesus, the church, and the ministry for years. We rightly concluded that Christianity could not withstand rational, intellectual challenge, so we decided to divorce. What we are left with, then, is the psychological baggage that comes with making such a momentous decision. And don’t let anyone tell you differently. Walking away from Christianity is hard (and painful), at least it was for me. Deconverting was, by far, the hardest decision I have ever made in my sixty-five years of life. My whole life changed overnight, including my relationships with my wife and our six children. In short order, I lost everything that was foundational to my life, including lifelong friends. I was forced, at the age of fifty, to begin anew.

Through this process, I have faced a plethora of psychological struggles. So much so that I have been seeing a secular counselor for over a decade. Counseling has been an essential part of the healing process for me. Evangelicalism caused me harm, both physically and emotionally. Worse yet, I struggle with the fact that not only was I a victim, but I was also a victimizer. I materially caused harm to my wife, children, and the people who lovingly called me “preacher.”

Theresa’s journey is her own. I have always been careful to not set myself up as an example of the path to follow. Each of us must weigh our beliefs carefully and decide accordingly. Not every road leads to atheism. Some people find resting places where they are able to hang on to some sort of religious faith. Others cannot. I encourage people to meet truth in the middle of the road. Don’t back up or try to go around truth. Do your homework. Read lots of books. Make sure you intellectually know WHY you no longer believe.

Once the intellectual reasons for deconverting are resolved, there’s still psychological baggage to deal with. It’s much harder to reason away feelings. The question that must be asked and answered is this: why do I have these feelings? Typically, fear is the primary reason for emotional turmoil. “What if I am wrong?” Fear of offending God or going to Hell lurks in the shadows. Pressure from pastors, family members, and fellow church members — who cannot or will not understand and appreciate your journey — only add to your emotional unrest. How, then, should we handle the emotional aspects of deconversion?

First, seek out people who have walked a similar path. This blog primarily exists to help those who have doubts or questions about Christianity or who have walked away from the faith. I have found that telling my story is one of the best ways I can help others.

Second, find a vehicle by which you can express your struggles. Start journaling, or better yet, start blogging. I have found writing to be cathartic, a way for me to work through my questions, doubts, and feelings. I have long encouraged people to write guest posts for this site. Telling your story, even anonymously, can be liberating.

Third, find someone you can confide in. This is not easy, especially when everyone around you still believes. That’s why my inbox is always open. I am not a counselor, but I am a good listener. And there are other people on this site who are more than willing to help people along the way. The goal is not to convert people to atheism as much as it is to lend a helping hand to people as they walk their journey through life.

Fourth, I strongly encourage people to seek out help from a competent counselor. Not a religious counselor; not a pastor; a secular counselor trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Talking to a disinterested third party can be quite helpful as you try to unpack your religious past. Religion can and does cause trauma and harm. People often grossly underestimate the harm caused by their past religious experiences and beliefs. I know I did. It was only recently, ten years in, that my counselor was able to get me to see how much trauma I’ve had in my life and how that trauma deeply marred and scarred my life and the relationships I have with my family. For the longest time, I believed that trauma was what happened to other people, not me. It wasn’t until I made a list of the traumatic experiences in my life that I finally understood some of my psychological struggles.

What advice would you give to Theresa? Please share your thoughtful advice in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Danny Campbell

    When I deconverted ten years ago, finding a local secular community helped immeasurably. Being able to connect with other individuals, face-to-face, in non-threatening, supportive ways, truly helped alleviate fears of the unknown while also replacing some of the Christian community I inevitably lost in the process. In my particular case, I found a community (secular humanists) through Meetup. But even after all this time, I still get flashes of worry – usually about hell. It’s so hard to untangle all the bad wiring that gets laid down in our brains from day one. If there are no local groups available for Theresa, the next best thing is online communities. Bruce’s blog is an amazing resource for people such as Theresa who are wading these same waters, and a good place to meet, even if only virtually, others who are somewhere in the process.

  2. Avatar

    Theresa, it can be a challenge going through this. It has ripped me up and wrung me out. Facing the fact that I was taught toxic and harmful things by adults I trusted and loved was tough to handle. And I can see how those teachings harmed them too!

    For me, I need to research and read information to help me process. Armed with knowledge, I can face just about anything. I read about who wrote the Bible and how it was written. I read actual science, not the garbage I was taught at fundamentalist Christian school. I read psychology to understand how people learn and why we believe weird things. I read deconversion stories which helped me understand I wasn’t alone. I worked with a secular therapist. I wrote my experiences. I have educated friends and nonevangelical family on fundamentalist evangelicalism and conservative politics. I even studied other fundamentalist religions which have a lot in common in terms of authoritarian structures, isolation, tribalism, etc. It’s a huge journey, but I am much better off outside fundamentalism than I ever was inside it.

    Good luck to you. Explore resources. Read, find nonreligious people and communities, a secular therapist, etc. Be kind to yourself.

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    I think I’m deconverting. Bruce’s post about “it just doesn’t make sense” made a lot of sense to me 😅 But I’ve yet to fully declare where I stand. My husband is a Southern Baptist pastor in the Bible Belt in a small, isolated town 17 miles from the nearest gas station & Walmart in all directions. I’ve been in the church my whole life, born and raised and stayed in the deep Bible Belt. I was born in the IFB church then later my family moved into the Southern Baptist church and then I moved into the reformed Baptist circles as a teen. Granted, my family was not good IFBers (the women wore pants and we went to movie theaters 😱😱🤣) It’s really scary to me right now. Honestly, though, I’m not scared of God. If he’s God and all-knowing then he always knew this and I can’t hide it from him, but neither can I fabricate it. So with God, it is what it is or will be. I’m scared for my marriage and children. My husband is the best person I’ve ever known and his response to me with all this has been so loving even though he has to be scared shitless. He doesn’t let on that he is. He just says that no matter what, he loves me and respects me and will not silence me. But I’m scared for what I will do affecting his vocation and closing his chosen career path to him. I’m scared of ruining his life. And in spite of his best efforts, he won’t be able to help resenting me. Anyway, I didn’t mean to get on here and schpill. I meant to only say that I had my first intake appointment for counseling today and I’m seeking a secular therapist. I’ve never had counseling before, Christian or otherwise. I know a couple “unbelievers” but they are still mystical. I’m not seeking to confuse myself by comparing apples and oranges AND coconuts so I don’t feel ready to talk to them about what’s happening. Most of this is in the closet for me right now. I appreciate this blog and read every post and almost every comment.

    • Avatar

      Harasong, we hear you. It’s good that you are exploring, thinking, and seeking secular counseling. It’s great that your spouse is respectful of you, and you of them. Be kind to yourself. Growing up in the Bible Belt is tough – staying there when you’re starting not to “fit in” is tough – I moved away at age 24 to NJ. Ironically, my daughter is currently living near where I grew up and starting her career. As an atheist herself, but without the toxic religious abuse baggage I carry around, she is surprised by all the Jesus talk that’s so common. She is looking for secular groups to join – in the city where she lives there are several. I don’t know if your rural area has anything but that could be something to explore. There are online private communities where members can engage with each other without your friends seeing.

      Feel free to reach out here. There are a few trolls who Bruce handles. The rest of the people here are respectful and kind. We wish you the best.

    • Avatar

      So sorry, Harasong, for what you’re going through. Resonates with me, a baptist pastor’s wife who deconverted around 2013. Hubby was retired by then. I salute your courage in wanting to preserve your mental health by getting secular counselling. I was lucky when I deconverted that several factors came together to ease the process. (In other times, I’d have said god ordained it that way, prayse him!!) In the midst of running church youth work, I had to take 9 months off for illness. We attended the local CofE church and the new vicar was so awful, many left, including her best workers. Other mainstays, like me had to stop, one for a very unexpected divorce, another through an unexpected job re-location etc. So, I just never resumed churchgoing. My x-tian family and friends whom I’ve told, all seem to think it’s a blip, I was badly affected by my illness and ‘I’ll be back.’ So I’ve had it easy compared to you. But I come back to Luther’s famous statement. ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’ As we know, to live a lie, in such a large matter as our faith – or sexual orientation too – never leads to anything positive. My very, very best wishes. Bruce was an ENORMOUS help, still is. I honestly think I’d have real mental health problems if I hadn’t found this blog back then. (Another gift from my fictitious saviour?) Hope you’ll keep us posted on your progress and keep on commentling! I feel free, I enjoy my life in a way that I never did when god was always looking over my shoulder cos I was a sinner. And the new friends I’ve made in joining secular clubs and volunteer projects mean so much to me now.

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      Harasong, my heart goes out to you. I was fortunate in that my husband finished his deconversion about half a decade before I really started mine, although his engagement with the Evangelical faith of his family of origin was always more intellectual than emotional. He’s probably on the high end of the autism spectrum, and his emotional reactions to things are more subdued than most people. Which for me has been wonderful, because I suffer from depression and self-doubt, and he has been my anchor many times in our 42 years of marriage.

      But. There are always people who will feel obligated to butt into what is an intensely personal journey. Believers who will be determined to drag you back into the fold. Unbelievers who will tell you that everything about religion is obvious nonsense, what’s taken you so long to figure it out? Neither of those camps are helpful. The hardest part of re-thinking your fundamental beliefs is shutting out the noise that other people offer.

      The other hard thing for you is managing your re-thinking as the wife of an Evangelical pastor, stuck in a small rural town. I am an only child of a laid-back Lutheran father and an uber-anxious, uber-Catholic mother. As long as I paid attention to the Golden Rule, Dad didn’t care what I believed (and I suspect he deconverted somewhere along the line). But any suggestion that I had strayed from Catholicism upset my mother greatly, and I brought all my diplomatic skills to bear, every time we talked or visited. It was extremely hard work to manage her feelings. It was only long after she’d died that I finally figured out it isn’t my job to manage anyone else’s feelings, as long as I’m kind.

      I’m so glad you have this very supportive husband, and if he starts to resent you, that’s on him, not you. It’s extremely doable to navigate a new normal with him, where you aren’t as big a part of the church (which means other members have to step up, but if they care, they will!) and he supports your disengagement without announcing to the world that you’re deconverting. It sounds like he might be up for that, as long as he realizes you aren’t trying to deconvert him. Best of luck to you, this is very, very hard.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Theresa–The fact that you are writing to Bruce or anyone else shows that you have intellectual and emotional courage.

    Bruce, Danny and Obstacle have all given great advice. In addition, I would advise you to remember (or at least try to remember) that you don’t have to have the answers–and don’t stress yourself about having the “right” ones. As long as your answers are the best you can come up with in the moment, you’re doing what you need to do and will go where you need to go.

    As an example, I have considered myself an atheist for about half of my life. But being an atheist now means, in some ways, something different from what it meant from when I first left Christianity and religion altogether. Much of that change has to do, of course, with my life experience, which include but are not limited to my reading and intellectual arguments.

    Also, I’ll admit that even at this late date, I sometimes wrestle with feelings of guilt: For all of the trauma I experienced while growing up as a Catholic and later becoming an Evangelical (which included a declaration of “giving my life to Christ”), there were people in both churches who were supportive, loving and simply good. At times, I still wonder whether I’ve betrayed or abandoned such people, some of whom are long gone. Moreover, I found two of my avocations and passions–teaching and writing–at least in part because of my involvement with the Evangelical church. And, for all of its gaps and other faults, the education I got in Catholic school is probably better than I would have had in the local public school. What I’ve come to realize, in part through therapy and in part through supportive friendships, is that it’s not a crime to use whatever benefits or privileges my old relationships or institutions afforded me. Nor is it wrong to revel in the beauty of some (mainly Catholic) churches. I am still learning to use what’s useful, treasure what’s beautiful and leave the rest.

    I guess the advice I am giving can be summed up in two words: Trust Yourself. Whatever emotions come up are part of your journey and will probably change, if not pass–just like the answers you’ll find.

  5. Avatar
    Bruce Gerencser

    Comment from Bob:

    Your answer to Teresa was filled with wisdom and compassion. I couldn’t find the comment link, so if you think its helpful I would simply say 1) trust yourself – do what you really feel is right for you. 2) let go of the approval of others, especially guilt and fear, obligation. 3) you owe no loyalty to those who abuse you. 4) seek and follow what you learn as truth – let go of old ideas and beliefs that no longer work for you. The truth does set you free 5) know you have the power to find a better path and you will be ok 6) give yourself affirmation and credit for your growth, it is ok to do what is right for you. 7) as Bruce affirmed, find as much support and help along the journey as you can. You don’t have to walk alone. You can let go of the past and create a path that is right for you.

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      Bob has nailed it. Not that these steps are easy. They’re actually hard work, and take time. But the further you move along the path that he’s describing, the easier it will be.

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