Pecan Pie

Social Anxiety from the South

The [very hard] Work of Deconversion (SOCIOLOGY!)

We talk a lot amongst ourselves about what it’s like to be a non-theist. Threats we’ve received, loves lost, friendship abandoned.

I often wish I had a better way to impart how difficult this can be for us, especially those of us who did come from fundamentalist backgrounds and continue to live in the heart of the Bible Belt.

During the Fall semester, I took an institutional ethnography class and (at the encouragement of my professor) decided to focus my research proposal on the work of deconversion. Not work like 9to5, but work like, waiting in line, having a conversation with your family, reading non-theist blogs…the real, every day work we all do from the time we wake up until the time we meet our hopefully very cold pillow.

I’d like to share some of that with you now and if anyone is interested, feel free to read it in its entirety here.

Church is family. It’s a lot of other really shitty things, but it’s community. It’s belonging; sometimes…it’s not belonging at all. But…even when you don’t belong, you sortofkindastilldo.

In working on this project, I heard stories of women…heartbreaking stories, of women who were in danger of being ostracized by their parents, in fear of losing their spouse, and in my case, just in fear of being a disappointment yet again.

“In high school, I wrote a paper for a satire exercise titled ‘A World without Religion’ (I seriously wish I still had that paper.)  I guess that was the seeding of my skepticism. Anyway, once I got clean, I really took stock of what I believed.  I began to read A LOT.  Atheist Universe, God is not Great, The God Delusion, and so on.  One day, my mom and I were in the car and she said, ‘Well, it’s not like you’re an atheist or something!’  ‘Well, Mom, yeah…I am.’ And that was it.  She looked shocked and devastated, but out of the closet I came!” Thelittlepecan

(Cool story. In IE, you get to talk about yourself. Selfish self-promoting atheism, FTW!)

The point is, is that there is this YUGE disjuncture between what a new, not-yet-out atheist is feeling and the discourse provided to them by their conservative Christian upbringing. With little to no support, it’s just a big, wide ocean of confusion and fear.

This has me thinking about interfaith relationships.


Bob, I have the perviest readers.

Interfaith relationships can affect lovers, friends, parents and children, neighbors and colleagues. We need to think about all the ways we already get along with people we don’t share beliefs with and use those to our advantage (I’m talking to you, religious people).

Anyway, the point of my paper is this…it’s hard work deconverting.

Here’s a picture!

Now an explanation, I quote myself (yes, it’s long)…

Figure 5 is a map beginning with the standpoint of the female deconverted to explain the relations involved. At the bottom is our heroine, the Christian (now former Christian) who is working through the process of deconversion. Connected strongly to this work are three things: the ability to continue being an active friend and/or family member within her support group; the discourse of Christianity, both in the public sphere and in the specific texts of the denomination or brand of Christianity she previously (or maybe currently, this process can get very complicated when it comes to self-identification) identified with; and the discourse of atheism, which is mostly in the public sphere and includes promotional campaigns by groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (Figure 6), books by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins or discussion groups like the one our heroine belongs to on the internet, which encourages judgment free dialogue about non-belief.

From there, the interconnectedness gets a bit convoluted and much more complicated. The discourse of Christianity is a key component for the denomination(s) which she has previously identified. As a Jehovah’s Witness, our heroine has been exposed to and at some earlier time ascribed to the doctrine and theology of The Watch Tower publication (an example of this is given in the text section of this article) which states explicitly several things; that “good” people do not go to Heaven, that excommunication is a viable and acceptable for those who do not follow the rules (both explicit and implied) and that atheism/non-belief/change of belief to something other than J.W. is the work of Satan (Figure 7). Her family is also Jehovah’s Witnesses and so the family institution is affected by the discourse of Christianity and this affects their ability to be involved in a support system for her, but also affects her ability to remain involved with them in return. While being a friend or active family member is not specifically connected to religion on any real-world, tangible level, the family institution is affected by this discourse of Christianity, which is connected to the umbrella institution of religion, thereby influencing it indirectly.

While all of this interaction is going on, our heroine is now connected to a new ruling relation, which is the discourse of atheism. This discourse is by its very nature connected to religion, as it is the antithesis of religion (be that Christian, Muslim, Hindu or any number of other belief systems that focus on a god-typology). Some of this discourse is focused on positive messages; “Be Good without God”, etc. (Figure 6), while others are focused on anti-theism; “The God Delusion” (Dawkins 2006) and yet others are a combination of both; such as the discussion group where our entire collection of heroines congregate.

It has been said in the discourse that getting atheists to come together is like “herding cats.” It is specifically because of this problem that I find this to be a sociology for the people of this project; the deconverted. Leaving something so familiar can be traumatic, but the added distress of considering the consequences family and friends may dole upon you is often just too much to bear. Through a better understanding of the ruling relations impacting the discourse and decisions of their support system, they may better understand why the process is so difficult and why things happening to them are happening in the way that they are. Through a better understanding of how those ruling relations impact the discourse of atheism or non-belief, they may be better able to find a new support system or utilize the new one they have already found to more positively impact their continued work of going from “deconverted” to “out atheist”. It is my personal hope, that through research like this, both the believing and the unbelieving have a better understanding of each other as a whole, so that vital family, friend and social relationships are not discouraged, or worse, dismantled. (Berry 2011)

What I’m trying to say…is this…

It’s traumatic.

It’s life changing.

It’s scary.

We need to remember that in all of the “our movement” rhetoric, we’re also humans struggling with big changes. We need to support each other, not only in our deconversions, but in our struggle to find peace within our existing social support systems. Don’t chastise each other for maintaining friendships and other relationships with believers and be understanding at the devastation when those people abandon our comrades. Even if we think they are wrong…it still hurts to lose a friend.

Now go and for Bob’s sake, be good to each other!

Written by thelittlepecan

January 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm

One Response

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  1. thelittlepecan,
    This is a great article. My family has been involved in deconversion for several generations. We’ve found that having a social support structure is one of the most predictive factors in whether or not one completes a deconversion. I think your article is spot-on in suggesting a need for atheists to work together to provide that network for others like us who are struggling to escape religion. I think if one has a strong and close-knit support structure their chances of completing a deconversion are very good. Thanks for the good read.
    – kk


    February 26, 2012 at 11:51 pm

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