My Real Atheist Deconversion Story

My Real Atheist Deconversion Story

I have always felt most at home in communities of nonbelievers. In my very first-ever blog post in 2016, I said this for the first time.

The only problem is that I only know one atheist other than myself. I have almost no outlet for my discoveries or my questions. I hope that this blog acts as a way for me to go from being a rogue atheist to a member of a community of individuals who are either in a situation similar to my own or who were brave enough to be able to come out. I intend to share my experiences and discoveries with you as I make my way through works of atheistic literature, learn more about natural science, and form my own opinions and lifestyle choices based on my beliefs.

Ex-Christian or not?

My blog has certainly done a lot more for me than just this, but it did introduce me to the online atheist community. Almost everyone in this community was an ex-Christian, or at least ex-fundamentalist Christian. At the beginning I would sometimes say I was an ex-Christian, but then at other times I would also write, “I never really believed in God.” The best description of what I was were the first words I ever typed on my blog:

I am an atheist.

Up until a matter of weeks ago, I was unable to string those four words together in that order. There was no doubt that I was an atheist, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. It sounded fake. All day long I live, act, and speak as a Christian, hearing about the evils of atheism.

I was an atheist, but I lived as a Christian. Gradually, I stopped pretending. This felt like a seismic shift in my life and worldview, but it confused people. Was it a deconversion story? I really had not believed in God strongly, ever. I never had that period in my life that most ex-Christians had, being active in youth group, teaching Sunday School, being in Campus Crusade, converting people, or even preaching. I still felt, however, that I could claim that I was an ex-Christian and that I’d deconverted to atheism. It’s complicated.

Lutherans believe in God

Recently, I made the mistake of Googling myself. I was surprised to find that an apologetics podcast, Trinity Radio, had actually dedicated an entire podcast episode to a Friendly Atheist blog post I wrote last year. At one point, the host said, quoting me,

“I’m an ex-Lutheran atheist myself. . . .” Okay, you’re an ex-Lutheran in the sense that you were raised Lutheran, but as you say, you never believed in God. And to be Lutheran, you have to believe in God.

Unsurprisingly, the podcast episode as a whole—being by evangelical apologists—was pretty bad (and homophobic). But what the host said here pretty much encapsulates how illegitimate my Christian-to-atheist deconversion usually sounds. My Christianity was not as personally all-encompassing and so my deconversion story was not as gripping as others’ (like Rhett McLaughlin’s, for example).

Five and a half years later, I want to go back and really explain, for the first time, what my deconversion really was. What did I believe, what changed, and why?

My Lutheran Childhood

Yes, I grew up in a Lutheran household. That much always has been and always will be true. I grew up living with both parents, two older sisters, and one younger sister. Everyone in our house was a member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. For longer than I can remember, all six of us were in the pews every Sunday, belting out hymns alongside the organ. When I was a little kid, I did not understand anything about church. I thought our pastor was Jesus. I was four, give me a break.

When I described my childhood in my second post, I said,

When I was a child, I believed in Jesus. I couldn’t wrap my head around how he worked or what he could do, but my mom told me he loved me, so I thought, cool, I love him too. 

I didn’t describe it well. Again, give me a break; it was my second blog post!

There was a lot more to it than my mom telling me Jesus loved me. Jesus’s love was the air I breathed. I knew nothing else. I probably didn’t even know at that point that there were people that didn’t believe in Jesus.

From the time I was conceived, my belief in Jesus was assumed. I would argue that the entire reason I was born was to be a Christian.

The air I breathed

I’ve written before that:

I was taught the usual fundamentalist Christian ideas: God created the universe, and that is the end of the discussion. There is no evolution and there was no big bang, and don’t ever question it or listen to what those evil others (atheists) tell you.

It’s true, technically, but it’s not very accurate. These things were just assumed. My mom did not go around saying, “Evolution is evil! The big bang is a communist lie! Creationism is true!” Creationism was just true. And we did not call it creationism. We called it belief in God, in Genesis, in the Bible. It was just what faith was, and faith was good. You need faith to live. With no God, there could be no life.

(For context, rather than this militaristic portrayal, my experience with creationism was more like my being read fun books like this one.)

Further, my family didn’t tell me atheists are evil. Atheists and atheism never really came up. Why would they? Still, from our worldview, I could very easily extrapolate that atheism was wrong. Disbelief is a sin; it lands you in hell.

The best kind of Christian

Ironically, while the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was the air we breathed, I did not know what it was. Church was church. Our church is Lutheran. Lutheranism is true because it’s true. Also, it’s the best. Christians are great, but most of them are wrong. Not Lutherans. What’s a synod, anyway? And why do we care about it? It’s in Missouri. We are in Pittsburgh, and we are Lutheran.

A typical LCMS church sanctuary

For my twenty years in the LCMS, I thoroughly did not understand that Lutheranism has several denominations. One time in college, because I thought it was the right thing to do, I took along my boyfriend/husband and my roommate to the closest Lutheran church one Sunday.

This church was ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (The people there were so happy to have people under 40 visiting that they took our picture and put it in their next church magazine. I never went back.) I told my mom after, “Look, Mom! I went to a real Lutheran church on my own!” She was confused. That is not LCMS. Did I think LCMS and ELCA were the same? Probably. All that embarrassment and it wasn’t even the right kind of Lutheran. My roommate was ELCA, at least.

Losing my baby-faith

I lost what little faith I had when I was in 6th grade, so 10 or 11. In the past I’ve emphasized this as the beginning of my atheism, but I realize now it was not as huge a deal as I thought. I went from assuming God was real and Lutheranism was true in my childhood to realizing it didn’t make sense to me as a teen.

If you think about it, I was pretty much set up for this to happen. You could say I was indoctrinated into Lutheranism, but it was more like I was marinated in it. Gestated, even. I was born to be Lutheran, and Lutheran I was. No one had to tell me the details of our faith, they just took me to church, probably assumed I was paying attention (I was not), and that was it.

So when I was in that sixth grade science class where we learned about the big bang and the origin of the Earth, I honestly had no solid faith foundation. I was 10. I had no “relationship with God” outside of the superficial prayers I would say before bed because I was supposed to. My faith consisted of 80% rote memorization and 20% fear.

I had never asked anyone any questions about the Bible. I didn’t have any, but I also knew I couldn’t ask if I did. I had always just assumed that the big bang was made up to justify “the world’s” disbelief, but when I saw that it made total sense and that there was evidence for it, I was easily persuaded. Even then, outside of my hours at public school, I was still living in the Lutheran bubble and breathing the Lutheran air.

What was I to do with this information? Nothing.

Teenage apathy

I basically spent the next ten years being agnostic. It wasn’t an immediate change, either. I started having some small doubts:

I’d never understood how anyone had been able to accurately record the creation story in the first place if no one was there to witness it, and I didn’t know why people believed that humans used to live to be 900 years old but nowadays they couldn’t.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I would discover myriad more reasons why people don’t believe in God. (Does anyone remember this website?)

I didn’t feel like I was in the position to ask about these biblical incongruencies. I knew I would just be told to have faith. There wasn’t really a point to me doubting or bothering to ask questions. Instead, I became apathetic about the entire idea. I thought, “There’s no way my family actually knows this stuff. I also do not know this stuff.” I just kept my mouth shut and continued not caring for ten years. The only thing I was sure of was that no one would ever know I didn’t believe. I now see just how ironic this is, but I meant it!

Even after I stopped believing, I lived like I did. That was the only way I knew how to live. I even brought friends with me to church and volunteered to teach VBS. Who would I be if not Lutheran?

I had much bigger problems than God in high school, like marching band, grades, and most importantly, boys. (I met my husband in high school!) So when I started looking at colleges, Grove City College was at the top of my list. My mother and I both liked it, albeit for different reasons. I knew it was a Christian college, but Christianity was all I knew. This would be no different.

“Why did you go to a Christian college, anyway?”

I’m honestly still working through what made me want to go there, eight years later. Or why it was this Christian environment, not my Lutheran home environment, that made my inner atheist bust out of her cage like a horse at a race. But she did, and then she started a blog.

This, not my initial loss of belief, was a major turning point in my life.

I can think of a couple factors at Grove City that made me become a full atheist. One, I didn’t have individual family members watching me specifically, or bringing me to church with them. It was expected that students find a local church, but it wasn’t enforced. In a backwards way, I was more able to choose my beliefs for myself on this suffocating campus.

Two, each student had their own individual “walk with Christ.” They were really Christian. They went to church because they liked it. They had bible studies with each other… on purpose! They were Sunday school teachers, youth group junkies, Campus Crusaders. They brought their bibles to the dining hall and read them while they ate. I always thought that was weird.

Grove City students praying

I must have thought, “Okay, so we are choosing our faith identities for ourselves now? You mean, whether I’m Christian is up to me? You actually want to go to church? Because I definitely do not. I’m not like you.”

My classes in Christian philosophy as a sophomore helped me work through what I thought. In my first year at school, I had even written a sociology paper from the Christian façade I was continuing to live in.

For thousands of years, the Christian religion has been a very integral, central aspect of hundreds of cultures and of millions of lives. However, recently the popularity of Christianity has been dwindling, and many have begun to shrug off Christ’s teaching, finding it outdated and unstable. This is not the doing of each doubtful individual, but of a mob mentality which makes for a shifting societal viewpoint. In recent years, it is becoming more and more difficult to openly express one’s Christian beliefs without being targeted by those with different opinions. Even in these tough times, though, there are still many Christians whose faith is strong and unfaltering, due to the support of friends, congregations, and family.

While it is difficult to find a sociologist who keeps a Christian perspective in his studies, it is no less true that Christ is what keeps society and the individual together and functioning. It is hard to believe that people accept the idea that humans can coexist without the help and presence of God.

Gross. Moving on.

I spent my sophomore year doubting more and more, and by the end of the year I wrote a paper where I actually admitted to being a naturalist. (I was still uncomfortable about the word “atheist,” and I didn’t know the word “humanist.”)

I tell this story in more detail in this post.

A curious atheist is born

By the middle of my junior year, I was finally ready to call myself an atheist. (Hence my first blog post, “I Am an Atheist.”) One of the first things I did after this was look up the LCMS on Wikipedia. I should have done it long before, but now that all Christianity was beginning to feel very insidious, it was time to see what the LCMS was actually about. To this day I think it holds some of the worst Christian beliefs I’ve seen.

I know so, so much more now about the LCMS than I ever did when I was a confirmed, confessing member of the church. I’ve cared and known magnitudes more about religion—the arguments both for and against it—since shedding my inherited faith.

So no, I did not deconvert from Christianity in the sense that I fully believed and then eventually did not. But when I started this blog when I was twenty, there was a huge change.

The freedom of thinking for yourself

When I was growing up, what I believed didn’t matter. And I didn’t really have my own beliefs anyway. No one asked if I believed, if I wanted to go to church, if I was even Christian in my own heart.

When I was in college, my amount of actual belief in God didn’t change. What changed was my desire to finally figure out what I believed and why—for myself. I started Googling things and reading books that I would later hide from my family. I questioned God, and I questioned my questions. I read Dawkins and Lewis, Hitchens and Strobel. I watched Hemant Mehta and Jaclyn Glenn. And I wrote it all down right here.

That was when I decided that my own beliefs mattered. That the only one who gets to decide what I believe is me. I did not deconstruct a belief in God, I deconstructed my belief that my beliefs didn’t matter. My mind itself had not been chained by internalized religious teachings, but I had not been free, and then I freed myself. I have been continually discovering myself and the world around me ever since.

Epilogue

While I never did have a literal faith in God, there were harmful beliefs from my church and family that I internalized. Aside from things like creationism, it was also implied to me growing up that abortion, homosexuality, Democrats, and women in church leadership was wrong. I lived in a totally white world and essentially grew up colorblind.

You can go back right now and read the blog posts where I actively realized that exclusively male church leadership is misogynist, racism is still happening, and abortion is not wrong.

I even had an odd phase of thinking I was a very unique centrist because I was pro-gay marriage and anti-abortion. I didn’t even know it yet, but I also had a good dose of internalized transphobia for years, even well into writing this blog. Becoming a better person can be a very slow process.

When I first registered to vote at 18, I registered as a Republican. Trying to learn anything about politics, who to vote for, and what’s actually right and wrong is extremely difficult when your only sources are very conservative Republican Christians or your high school classmates who voted for Obama.

I still vividly remember talking with my high school best friend, who was a pro-choice Democrat, explaining my awful anti-abortion stance. (“The fetus’s body isn’t the woman’s body, so it’s not her choice!”) I also watched as they celebrated Obama’s win in 2012, and I couldn’t share in their excitement. All I knew was Obama was bad. I didn’t even know why. I was still apathetic enough and out-of-touch enough that I also didn’t vote in 2016. Luckily, by 2020, I had figured out that voting blue was actually important, and a good thing.

Even after many atheists and exvangelicals lose their faith in God, it takes much, much longer to let go of internalized racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. I know many atheists who are still diligently fighting against these things. May we all continue to learn and do better.

9 thoughts on “My Real Atheist Deconversion Story

  • April 3, 2022 at 10:11 am
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    I was an atheist, but I lived as a Christian.

    I’m inclined to think that this is very common. Many, perhaps most, churchgoers have never really thought things through. They continue mainly through force of habit.

    As to why you dropped out of practicing (or pretending) Christianity? It was because you are a naturally curious person. It is because you are the type of person who wants answers for yourself, and are unwilling to unthinkingly go along with tradition.

    Some of that might actually come from your parents, who possibly encouraged you to go about learning things for yourself.

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  • April 3, 2022 at 11:32 am
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    Thinking back to my Navigator days, we would probably have classed you as a “nominal” Christian, i.e. you identified as such, you went through the motions with church and all, but by your own account did not have a personal faith that informed your life, had never “received Christ into your life”. Interesting that this was within a conservative sect we would normally think of as Evangelical, and that embraced all the cultural-political trappings. I wonder how many other evangelicals are in that same position – it reinforces my impression that current American evangelicalism has shifted from what I knew 40 years ago. The tribal identity is now less about personal piety than it is about all the political crap (there was some of that around back then, but things weren’t as polarized. Also, Canadian).

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  • April 3, 2022 at 12:24 pm
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    Your deconversion story reminds me in some ways of mine, and of a lot of deconversion stories I have heard. Christian “Testimonies” are supposed to be big and dramatic conversion stories, and the people who deliver them have often been coached. They are full of hype and exaggeration, with a specific plot structure and little truth. Whereas “ex-timonies” tend to be completely different, and often very non-dramatic. People often gradually figure out enough about their religion to realize that the don’t believe in it any more. And it may take more time before they entirely wrap their head around the change, and even more before they are ready to use the scary “A” word to describe themselves. There’s no need for us to create a big overblown version of “yeah, I just stopped being convinced, and I don’t buy it anymore.”

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  • April 3, 2022 at 6:50 pm
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    Your ‘deconversion’ story makes me think about my own. While I did consider myself Christian at one point (in my teens), there were aspects of Christianity I never truly believed in. During my teen years I alternated between Baptist and Pentecostal. God was supposedly personal and you could have a relationship with him. Going into my twenties, I rejoined church which was more conservative, but deep inside, they always made me cringe a little. Ironically this would accelerate my deconversion and I decided I needed to be more honest with myself.

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    • April 3, 2022 at 11:02 pm
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      I think part of what I’m trying to figure out is: if we don’t fully believe, but instead we lived FULLY immersed in Christian bubbles, and then leave that bubble, it still is a deconversion of sorts. You’re still being set free from Christianity.

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      • April 4, 2022 at 4:48 am
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        Yeah of course. You’re free to express what you really believe and not have to pretend. That in itself is a big thing and can be very liberating.

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  • April 4, 2022 at 6:07 am
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    Is being “Christian” (or anything) what we do or what we (claim to) believe? As I think back, what I believed would look like a sine wave plotted over many years. I often believed, often doubted, and often did not believe. Then over the final 12 years, I did all I could to not only be a good Christian (Catholic), but I did all I could to find more faith. Nothing worked. The opposite happened. When I finally came out as Atheist, very little changed in my life either internally or externally. I did not need to reconcile anything. It was the most honest thing I ever did (to thine own self be true).

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    • April 4, 2022 at 10:03 am
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      That’s beautiful!! This reminds me a bit of some of what Dennett said in Breaking the Spell. It was something about belief in belief, and practicing a religion vs actually believing it.

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  • April 5, 2022 at 11:03 am
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    Possibly a bit tangential: I dislike the term “deconversion”. I mean, describe your own experience however you like, but I think the way it is generally used among atheists is superficial. To some extent (and this is the way I often saw it explained on alt.atheism) it’s based on the idea that we are all born atheists, and “converted” to the religion we are raised in, which I don’t think is an account of conversion any sociologist of religion would accept. Dumping that religion later is then a “deconversion”. But surely it is true only in a trivial sense that infants are atheist, and that we return to that state when we abandon religion.
    I would say that I was raised by agnostics, and converted to evangelical Christianity at age 15, then (gradually) converted to liberal Christianity in my late 20s, then converted to naturalism in my 40s. I did not “deconvert” in the sense of returning to my younger state of disbelief (except in the most trivial sense of unticking the box labelled “God”); I accepted a radically different worldview, one which is built from the bottom up of concrete particulars, not top-down from abstract generalities. It included a whole lot of stuff that I didn’t know when I was 15.

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