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.


Deconversion: The Turning Point

“Well, I realized that the question of whether or not Jesus was divine wouldn’t change the way I live my day-to-day existence.”

I was sitting at the local coffee shop with the pastor of the church I had attended for nearly three years. I had been dropping hints that I was experiencing some significant shifts in my “Jesus paradigm” (in his words), and he wanted to meet and talk about it. I was on the church leadership team, after all, and led worship at least once a month, and helped set up and tear down the sound system nearly every week in the elementary school cafeteria where the church met.

It was a calculated response. I could have responded to the, “So, where are you at?” question in many different ways. But my response was sincere and I thought it would be the clearest and most concise way to convey my thoughts. He was unprepared for my answer. He probably expected me to say something like, “I think Jesus actually was more concerned with the poor than the rich” or “I think Jesus might have been pacifist.” The surprise on his face at my response would have been humorous were it not such a serious moment for both of us. Overall, though, I was relieved. It was the beginning of the end of one phase of my life, and the start of another, though I didn’t realize the full ramifications of it at the time.

As the conversation continued, it was clear that he and I were now in completely different worlds. At one point, when I turned the conversation around and asked him why the same question mattered to him, I knew he could give any number of responses. He blurted out in astonishment, “Because He conquered death!” Why would I want to disregard the fact that because of Jesus, I get to spend eternity in heaven? If I stayed in the club, death would have no effect on me. And the only way that could work was if Jesus was divine, because that’s how God made the rules. The fact that continuing to believe in a Christian heaven while disavowing the only way to get there would be an untenable position was temporarily lost on him. In any case, my concept of heaven had departed long before the divine Jesus did.

I can’t remember how exactly the conversation ended, but he promised we would speak again soon. A lot of changes took place in the ensuing weeks. He took me off the leadership team and the worship team, but I continued to attend the church with my family (and run the sound board and help set up and tear down, because presumably I could not directly corrupt others in the church in those positions—and there weren’t enough people to do them).

A couple months later, though, I received a phone call from the pastor just “checking in.” He asked me in a roundabout way whether I was planning to continue attending the church for much longer. I had still been figuring things out. More than that, I didn’t want to jump ship at the first sign of trouble as I had seen and heard so many other church members do in my lifetime.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “When I’m up there speaking, and I see you out in the audience, and I know where you’re at, it makes it hard for me to do my job.”

I was both surprised and a bit amused at that point. “Well, if you tell me not to come any more, I won’t come,” I replied.

“No, no, no. I’m not going to bite the bullet for you. You have to make that decision on your own.”

Why did you call then?, I wondered. “I’ll think about it.”

“Matt, I just want you to know, I love you man. I want the best for you and your family.”

“Thanks.” I never went back to the church again.

I ran into him a few times in the following months. Before, I’d helped him move, helped friends craft a video for his anniversary, attended his father’s funeral, and gone to a movie with him. After, though, it was just pleasantries. The love was lost, I guess. The church only lasted for about six more months after we and another important family stopped attending. I never found out just how significant our departure was in the death of the church, but in my more vain moments, I guessed it was significant. Anyway, he moved to lead a much larger church in a much larger area. I’d helped him go back to his roots. At one point in my informal excommunication process, he’d told me, “I thought I was pretty progressive, but you’ve helped me realize I’m a fundie [fundamentalist]!” I didn’t know what I was, but I wasn’t comfortable being a Christian anymore.

Of course, much more went into my process of deconversion, just as much more goes into conversion than being knocked off a donkey by the voice of God, but when you look back, you identify a turning point. This was mine.