What is Deconversion?
In 1974, at 14 years of age Dan Barker was converted to Christ. The next 20 years of his life were spent in committed Christian service. He was active in evangelism, pastoral ministry, writing and producing music for Christmas plays and Vacation Bible Schools. He led multiple missions trips to Mexico and travelled the country with his wife performing his music in churches and living on faith. Dan Barker was by all appearances a true believer. Today, he is one of America’s leading atheists.Currently living in Madison Wisconsin, Barker is co-president of The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an avowedly atheist organization dedicate to eradicating religion from the public square. He regularly engages in public debates with theists and has written several books intended to deconvert Christians from their faith including the story of his own loss of faith entitled Godless.
While Dan Barker is unique among apostates in his zeal for atheism and antipathy toward Christianity he is by no means alone in his apostasy. A casual internet search using keywords such as “deconversion” and “ex-Christian”, produces dozens of websites hosting the testimonies of thousands of former Christians who now identify as atheists. It is not an exaggeration to estimate the number of testimonies to be over ten thousand. The shocking number of testimonies and the nature of their content is troubling and raises many questions. The initial question being; what exactly is deconversion?
As is the case with most abstract concepts, it is not easy to provide a definition of deconversion. However, there are some characteristics that make deconversion distinct from migrating from one religious faith to another. In my opinion deconversion is more than just disassociating oneself from a religious community and identifying with another. Deconversion is moving from a particular religious faith to no religious faith at all. It is not a passive drifting away from a religious commitment due to indifference or distractions but a complete repudiation of religious claims. It includes the denial of religious beliefs, the removal of oneself from the religious community and identifying as an atheist or agnostic. It is not however, a complete rejection of faith and a turn to its antithesis “reason.” Rather, it is faith in the deliverances of reason as opposed to the resources of faith, such as tradition and revelation. All beliefs ultimately rest on a foundation of faith commitments, those of the devout believer as well as those of the atheist. Deconverts ultimately come to the conclusion that their former religious foundation is erroneous and in some cases immoral and dangerous.
Dan Barker is a paradigm example of a deconvert. For various reasons he lost his faith, disassociated himself from his Christian fellowship, identifies as an atheist and appeals to “reason” as the final criterion for what is true. Even though Dan is not the typical deconvert in terms of his activism he is a concrete example of what I take deconversion to entail. For Christians, Dan’s story is troubling and challenging. What is more troubling for Christians is that there are many more stories just like Dan’s… and they are increasing in number.