The Pain of Deconversion, Part II – Loss of Identity

A quick recap: Most of my experience as a Christian over the course of about 13 years seemed positive, but ended badly. When I went to the university to complete my upper division courses, I faced questions I thought I had resolved in my walk with God and new ones which poked holes in my certainty about the validity of the Christian God and authority of the Bible. Additionally, I started taking a medication prescribed for the depression that ensued the crisis of faith caused by my education. The med disallowed the mystical experiences I’d long perceived that God had his hand on my life. These two conditions combined led to my deconversion.

As an aside, it may offend Christians as it once did me that I use the word “mystical” to describe experiences of God personally intervening in my life and in the world around me. I use the term because I believe it adequately describes what happened from a more objective view. I no longer perceive that the biblical God supernaturally intervened in my life, related to me personally or imparted to me his Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the experiences were real to me and valid in their own right. “Mystical” implies “spiritual” which gives the experiences validity. The word is inclusive of all spiritual experiences of various religions and beliefs and this is the part that would be hard for a believer who views Christian experiences of God as in a league of their own – superior to any experiences had by people of other faith. That being said, there may be few of the Christian faith who would read this blog and acknowledge my experiences as genuine. It is more likely they would view my journey through the Christian faith as a counterfeit one (as I would have when held their belief systems). Such a conclusion would satisfy their inability to explain how one who had been a true Christian would desert the faith at all.

So, on to the point of this post: loss of identity and recovery from that aspect of deconversion from the Christian faith. In my own experience, my self-identity prior to my salvation experience was self-loathing. I felt particularly inferior to others and only escaped the pain of it in fantasizing about a life where others loved me. When I heard the gospel message that Easter Sunday of my 16th year, it made sense to me in a way it never had in all the times I’d heard it before. It was like God turned on the light and was telling me he loved me – me! He was calling me! He wanted me! He wanted to make me okay. He even wanted to make me good. I believed in the sacrifice of Christ to save me from my sins and invited him into my heart that night.

I had a new identity. I was a child of God. I was loved immeasurably. My entire self-concept wasn’t transformed instantly – that would come later as I grew in the knowledge of God’s infinite love. Nevertheless, the acceptance of God could never be fully internalized because, in and of myself, as the Bible asserts, I was nothing. My positive self-concept was entirely dependent on His love for me. You can see where the problem with identity came in when I lost belief in that love.

That wasn’t all, though. My identity as a child of God gave me a sense of meaning and purpose.  I grew in this perspective as I had countless experiences of perceiving God was using me to show his compassion through loving others and his faithfulness in answered prayer. I was what others called a prayer warrior. I often perceived that the Holy Spirit was giving me his words as I prayed and felt that God’s power was moving through me. Consistent experiences of this type and myriad others over years built one upon another, bolstering not only my faith, but my belief that I was fulfilling his divine call to expand his kingdom of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”[1]

As I lost faith in God, I had little else to instill in me a sense of meaning and purpose for living. I had a grown son who had just moved out and left me with an empty nest and a husband who loved me, but didn’t demonstrate it in the ways I most needed it. I numbed out on heavy doses of antidepressants and escaped through alcohol and gaming. It got much worse than that, but I’m not yet ready to disclose all of it.

In recovering a sense of identity apart from being a child of the one and only, all-powerful God, I focus on what’s important to me. What a freedom! No more self-chastising for wanting something selfish. I have values and I like them. I think they’re ethical and satisfy my conscience (a conscience which is not so damned demanding as it was before – freaking unrelenting!). I am developing a healthier self-concept of myself in that I count without God making me count anymore. As a Christian, it was not what I thought or believed that mattered – it was all God. Now I view my own perspectives as valid and I can internalize the acceptance I receive from me.

There are healthy things I am taking away from my Christian experience for my self-concept. One is that I believed life was “not about me.” I think this keeps me grounded. I am one of billions of humans in this world and no more important than anyone else. I do, however, see myself as having a part to play in my sphere of influence if I so choose to take it. I can have a positive impact. The difference now is I take responsibility for that contribution (and the credit) and allow myself some guilt-free self-interest along the journey. That’s a big perk.

[1] Romans 14:17

The Pain of Deconversion, Part 1: Loss of Security

I guess you could say I’ve already gone through the deconversion process. I can honestly say I am no longer a Christian. I don’t meet the criteria – that is, I don’t believe the Christian path is the only “correct one.” As other former Christians can attest, deconversion is an excruciating process. There is the loss of identity, loss of community, loss of security and not the least, the terrors of hell. Even my values and morals were wrapped up in my experiences of and beliefs in God. From the time of the crisis leading to loss of faith and eventually the time when you are in successful recovery, the whole process can take months to several years depending on how entrenched you were in the faith. In this post I will talk about the loss of security and how I am dealing with it.

My certainty was the first thing that my crisis of faith eroded and, as my security was dependent on that, my assurance that God was in control in my life and everything would always “work for good” to my behalf was jeopardized. There’s something you need to know about this security. It was the sweetest thing and something I still miss, though I am no longer able to buy into it. This assurance had become, over years of “walking with God” and perceiving His faithfulness in my life, a seemingly impregnable foundation beneath my spiritual feet so to speak. It felt so damn rock solid. It was something upon which I rested in peace when my mind was confused, troubles of life stormed me or when I had questions and doubts about God. There was, in everything, an undercurrent of peace, especially when I turned to him in prayer. I could and did talk to him about everything that troubled me and, it seemed, my anxieties were always resolved in a reasonable amount of time, fulfilling the passage, “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”[1]

That wasn’t the only thing that gave me security. I had experiences – countless ones – building one upon another that bolstered this assurance. Often I perceived he brought his kingdom of love and righteousness in situations I had been praying about in some enlightening and ever new revelation of his glorious character. I perceived he spoke to me frequently, sometimes through a person, through prayer, through “His Word,” a life experience and a myriad of different ways. The experience of hearing his voice was always wonderful. Though at times he showed me things about myself that were unpleasant or I would feel convicted to do or not do something that was extremely difficult, the end result of obedience was always peace and joy.

As an aside, I have a mental illness which obviously contributed to many of my religious experiences. I certainly exercised confirmation bias and read divine intervention into everyday occurrences. However, I will clarify that, though I experienced delusions (having inaccurate interpretations of perceptions), I never had auditory or visual hallucinations (inaccurate perceptions). My perceptions were and are accurate. Even in sound mental health, the whole collective experience (until the end, that is) was so pervasive that, even now, it’s difficult to chalk up to mere predisposition and coincidence. The faith is debunked. There’s no question of that for me. But now I wonder – could there have been some universal laws operating that would explain my experience? …A topic for another discussion.

Back to the security issue. So, when I went back to college in my mid-thirties, things went great for the first two years. I obtained my AA in liberal studies and was none the worse for wear. I loved school. It was when I transferred from community college to university for my upper division courses that the trouble started. Initially, my impression of that institution was that it was a godless place – there was no true knowledge of God at all. Right away I was able to discern the deep prejudice against the Bible and the Christian faith that existed there. In my accurate perceptions and analytical mind, I still see that prejudice. To me at the time, that smacked loudly of demonic activity. Additionally, university views were so radically opposed to my understanding of the beautiful God I knew and his people (at least the ones with which I mostly associated) that they seemed purely evil. I felt as if I was God’s soldier, doing spiritual warfare every time I asked a question that challenged a professor’s assertion that the Bible is not true or that the church of God was generally intolerant. That was only the beginning of trouble, though.

As I got into my 2nd and 3rd quarters at university, I began to encounter questions about God and the Bible I thought I had already resolved and others that were still unanswered. I was faced with the cold, hard evidence of the inconsistencies of the Bible, the processes of redaction and revision by scribes and theologians and historical inaccuracies. I took my questions to God as usual and with confidence that he would either give me theological/apologetic insight or a peace that there were things I did not need to know as had consistently happened in the past. For any Christian readers, I will clarify that I was following the divine prescription for a healthy Christian walk: prayer, study of the Word and fellowship with the saints. That being said, my confusion and dissonance grew. Small questions became gaping holes in the answers that once satisfied me. I consulted my pastor and other believers who were able to offer little consolation – mostly that it would pass. I became depressed and started seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed a med that helped with the angst of not being able to find answers to my questions with the side effect of not being able to perceive the “touch of God” in my life anymore. I cried out to God in earnest for over a year with no answer. I reviewed my journals (“Remember” is an instruction oft repeated in the Bible) and comforted myself with insights received from the Holy Spirit in the past.

Eventually, I stopped seeking fellowship, stopped reading the Bible and gave up on trying to go to God who had been silent for so long. This didn’t happen arbitrarily. I wasn’t in “rebellion” (I have combed my journals from the time just to make sure), though for a long time I couldn’t convince myself I hadn’t done something wrong. I knew God to be faithful. He couldn’t be unfaithful to an earnest heart seeking truth, one that only sought what it needed to keep worshipping him. I reasoned that there must have been something I had done wrong.

The insecurity set in hard once my certainty of the authority of the Bible and the biblical God started to crumble. I have described it as feeling like the earth had been ripped from beneath me and I was falling endlessly into a pitch black void – alone, lost and frightened. I had no other coping skills in life other than my faith so that when my faith crumbled, so did all my security. So that’s the first thing in recovering security. Find other ways to cope with life. Strengthen your relationships. Read self-help books. Attend a support group. An excellent resource for former Christians is ExChristian.net (people there get you, really). Whatever works for you.

The second thing I’ve done to restore my sense of security is to take a closer look at certainty and how it played out. It led to the most devastating mental breakdown in my life. How might I find security in uncertainty? One thing is that, if I were not so dependent on certainty, I would not be so let down if at any point I were to learn I was wrong about something. In essence, there’s some assurance I won’t have to suffer what I have gone through again.

A benefit of uncertainty is the continued opportunity to learn and grow. If I don’t at any point believe I’ve arrived at the “be all and end all” of understanding on any point, I’m still open to learning new things. Personal growth is a high value of mine, always has been. I had once thought the biblical God was endless and that, within the boundaries of the Christian faith, there were endless possibilities for growth. I have come to view that as a fallacy. Certainty limits openness and therefore limits growth.

Yet another benefit of uncertainty is the ability to be more tolerant of views that aren’t consistent with my own. As a Christian, I respected people, but not their perspectives if they differed from mine. I like being able to practice more understanding, look at the world through others’ eyes and demonstrate mutual respect for differing viewpoints. That’s something I couldn’t do before. It leaves me open to learning new things which goes along with that personal growth thing so important to me.

I have to be honest. Certainty is a hard act to follow as far as security goes. Is there a final judgment? Will I fail it? I can’t say for certain as certainty is one of those things I’ve left behind me. As for now, I can definitely say, biblical judgment is highly unlikely to my logical mind. That’s enough for me now to move forward.

[1] Philippians 4:6, 7