Deconversion (or Disenchantment?)

Okay, so it’s not a real word…yet. Deconversion doesn’t even sound that great. It’s kind of clunky. I could not think of any better words that adequately describe my experience of leaving Christianity. Unconversion might be a possibility, but that sounds to me more like a complete and tidy reversal, and it is not so easy (nor possible, nor even necessarily desirable) to remove thirty years of enculturation. Deconversion implies to me a kind of excision, a forced or necessary removal of something that no longer has a place. I’m not sure whether in the metaphor I have excised something out of me or excised myself from the larger fabric.

The use of deconversion is not without precedent among former Christians. (See Camels with Hammers for another example) One problem is that deconversion implies a kind of instantaneousness that also accompanies the Protestant understanding of conversion. Change almost never happens that way. Christians particularly enjoy conversion narratives that are dramatic, representing a sharp turn of events, when real and lasting change is more gradual. Take the narrative of the average Christian’s conversion and it will not be hard to identify multiple factors that contributed over time to an individual’s receptiveness to consciously accepting Christianity. The same, of course, goes for many other changes as well. We like conversion, though, because it suggests the great power or will of the actor, be it God or individual. If I quit smoking, but it takes me two years of fits and starts to do so, and I still feel like I could use a cigarette, that doesn’t sound very permanent or appealing. If, on the other hand, I triumphantly announce that I quit smoking cold turkey and never wanted another cigarette again, it seems to attest to my amazing power of will.

In the same way, a quick and dramatic conversion story is a great testimony to the power of God, and these testimonies were once appealing to me. I was often disappointed that, since I had grown up in the church for as long as I remember, I had no great conversion story. No bad past filled with drugs, sex, and hard living; just a good kid who grew up with Christian parents and became a Christian at an early age. I wanted some drama. So I admit that using the term deconversion is a vague appeal to the same kind of story, suggesting a precise turning point. As I mentioned, though, I only recognized this turning point much later and superimposed it on the past for a clearer chronology. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this symbolic method, and we use it frequently to describe changes in our lives. This doesn’t mean the symbol should be used as a substitute for the thing itself. In other words, the story is not equivalent with the actual events; it is a representation of them, and representations can vary widely, between people and even in the same person over time.

There are many other words used to describe a change in religious affiliation, but they are almost exclusively the language of those who remain insiders. The early Christian church was very concerned with apostates (those who abandoned the faith), heretics (those who promoted an unorthodox faith), and the lapsed (those who betrayed the faith in a moment of weakness but have since come back). These all have a negative connotation in modern parlance.

Contemporary Protestantism uses more colloquial language, such as backsliding, leaving the faith, or abandoning the faith. It might speak in terms of belief, such as no longer believing, abandoning belief, etc. In the first examples, faith functions as a substitute for Christianity, implying that if you aren’t Christian, you don’t have faith. Period. Some people may have no problem with ceding the term to Christians; I am interested in what non-members using Christian terms to describe their relationship with Christianity implies for its influence on Western culture.

The same goes for belief. What I like about “not believing anymore” is that it suggests the ongoing social enchantment (support, what have you) necessary to best sustain religious affiliation. What I don’t like is that, like faith, it presumes that belief means belief in Christianity. The religion versus science debate common in the narratives of former Christians or New Atheists has to a certain extent democratized belief, but shares the implication that everyone has to believe in something. Each side accuses the other of denying the evidence. Maybe it is because of my resistance to Christian normativity, but I don’t think of my life in terms of a belief in something, and I don’t identify regularly with “unbeliever” or “nonbeliever.”

I do like the term disenchantment because it indicates the active effort that goes into sustaining religious community. It also resonates to a certain extent with my experience. My social and cultural environment produced an effect on me, encouraging me to view reality in a particular way. As some of the cracks in that version of reality began to show, the enchantment began to lose its hold. Of course, this happens all the time, which is why communities gather regularly to reaffirm their shared values and beliefs. Once I stopped attending church, however, I lost my source of re-enchantment, and since for a variety of reasons I was unwilling or unable to sustain it myself, I was, over time, disenchanted. Why do you think religious leaders try to get you into church?

This disenchantment is also applicable in many other areas. For example, I have also become somewhat disenchanted with Crossfit lately, although I would still consider myself a “Crossfitter.” It has gone through a cycle similar to that of a religion, and has now alienated some of its earlier members by attempting to extend its reach as broad as possible. I hear talk of breaking away and returning to the roots. Sounds a lot like religion, huh? Much more could be said, but I’ll save it for another post.

The point is that these terms are static and ultimately fail to capture a journey that is ongoing. Nothing is final; everything is in flux. I’ll probably continue to use the words deconversion or disenchantment while I continue to search for something more adequate.

2 thoughts on “Deconversion (or Disenchantment?)

  1. Thanks for sharing these posts, Matt. The process of gradually finding oneself outside of the Christian religion is an interesting one. Memories are vague, especially when talking about fuzzy categories like ‘belief’ or ‘faith’, and it is hard for me not to assert that I have never believed, only tried, or something along those lines, when the actuality of it was certainly more complex. It is difficult to describe the process in anything but binary terms, belief being so central to Christian/Western/American culture (where the line is drawn in this matter, I am not sure, ha).

    Spending time in Japan has been very interesting in that regard. Not only is the culturally shared epistemology seemingly different (check out cross-cultural applications of the Gettier problem, it’s interesting, although yet inconclusive), but the importance of belief in religious affiliation is almost completely reversed. Religion is largely a family good. Some coworkers asked me if I was Christian, and I said no, though I went to church when I was younger. They gave me a strange look and asked about my family, and I told them they still went to church. I actually received puzzled expressions when I told them that, in America, belief is the most important thing.

    Christian normativity runs deep in America. Not only have I found it difficult to explain my position as someone that is not religious without using framing that belief within religious perspectives, but I have also found it very difficult to explain in Japan, because the approach to religion is different enough that I don’t know where to begin an explanation.

    Sorry for leaving such a long comment, but I found your post very interesting and relatable.

    • Hi Marcus. I appreciate your response, especially the insight that our approach to religion, particularly our independent approach to belief, is culturally contingent. We cringe at participating in activities we don’t “believe” in, while in many other cultures, like ancient Rome and to a certain extent Japan, you can keep your personal feelings intact as long as you perform the customary rituals. Neither of these has any obvious moral advantage, but our focus on belief has much to do with a Protestant and American heritage. Thanks again for your comment.

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