The Social Impact of Deconversion From Christianity to Atheism

 

John Marriott

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 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 like; what are the reasons deconverts give for their apostasy and adoption of atheism, and what does the deconversion process look like. One aspect of deconversion that remains underrepresented in the literature is the social impact which deconversion has on deconverts. If, as recently reported atheists are the most distrusted minority in the United States (Edgell, Gerteis & Hartman, 2006) it is reasonable to assume that deconverting to atheism would have meaningful social consequences. This paper will investigate that assumption and attempt to discover just what, if any are the social consequences in the lives of former Christians who now identify as atheists. The following literature review is a snapshot of the current state of the literature as it relates to the social impact that occurs as a result of deconversion to atheism.

 

Literature Review

 

When one turns to the academic literature on the subject of deconversion they are faced with a meager amount of research. Social scientists of all stripes have paid far more attention to conversion than deconversion. Streib and Keller (2004) note that “searching for ‘deconversion’ in electronic data bases results in a relatively small number of books, articles or dissertations” (p.14). Likewise, sociologist Stuart Wright (1987), reported that he could document only three studies dealing with deconversion prior to 1980. To be sure there have been studies done on related terms such as “apostasy”, “disaffiliation” and “leave taking”, but definitions of such terms have had significant variation (Bromley, 1988). Recently, however the tide has begun to turn and studies utilizing the term “Deconversion” are beginning to show up in the databases. The literature on deconversion is growing and studies focusing on the nature and process of deconversion can be found in multiple academic disciplines including but not limited to the sociology of religion, the psychology of religion and religious anthropology.

Although the extant research on deconversion to non-belief is relatively small in comparison to that of conversion a survey of the field reveals that the subject is gaining attention among scholars. Distinct areas of research regarding deconversion related topics are discernable in the literature, such as the reasons why deconversion occurs, the process of deconversion and the reconstruction of one’s identity after deconverting. The following literature review interacts with the major works from various academic disciplines and is divided into the ensuing three categories: General religious deconversion, the process of deconversion, and atheism and deconversion General religious deconversion. In 2008, Coralie Buxant and Vassilis Saroglou of the Universite Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium published Joining and leaving a New Religious Movement: A Study of ex-member’s Mental Health. In their research Buxant and Saroglou looked at the mental health of participants during three aspects of their conversion and subsequent deconversion from the new religious group; mental health before making contact with the new religion, mental health during their membership and mental health after their departure. It is the last of those three that concerns this present study, specifically the impact that leaving the group had both mentally and socially. Twenty participants were selected from 10 new religious movements, the mean age was 44 years old. Buxant and Coralie found that defection from a new religious movement was accompanied by social rupture for most ex-members. In the case of four participants they severed their ties with parents who remained members. An unspecified number of members reported that after leaving the group they were harassed by current members who attempted to bring them back to the fold. The results of leaving the group manifested in an individualization of faith for many participants who said that they could no longer enjoy a religious community. Moreover, they exhibited hesitancy in joining any other social group due to the negative socialization they experienced while members of their former religious community. Out the 20 ex-members interviewed only 4 have transitioned into another religious community of faith.

 

In a similar study Stuart Wright (1984) examined forty-five ex-members of new religious movements to gain insight on their attitude toward their former religious group. As he focused on defections as a major life transition he was careful not to assume that such transitions are always negative. Wright allowed ex-members to speak for themselves which resulted in a number of surprising results. For example, 67% of the participants said they were wiser for the experience, and only 9% said they were duped or brainwashed. Perhaps even more surprising is that and only 7% were angry with their former religious group. Furthermore, Wright discovered that defection from the group was often precipitated by a significant dissonance between the group’s claims to produce spiritual growth and its results. Participants identified frustration at the lack of personal growth or the inability to change the world as initial reasons for considering leaving. 

                 

However, the dissonance between promises and results was often not enough motivation for defectors to leave. A number of participants cited the pull of social relationships as helping legitimate their decision to leave. When they finally did despite their frustration with the religious group a number of ex-members found it difficult to replace the relationships they once enjoyed within the group. In fact while they strongly critiqued the ideology of their former movement they also spoke fondly of the interpersonal relationships they experienced as a member of the group and which they presently find difficult to have in the broader society.

Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood, by Uecker, Regnerus and Vaaler (2007) investigated the question of whether the secularizing effect of higher education, along with normative deviance and life course factors contributed to religious decline and disaffiliation in young adults. The authors pointed out that although it is commonly thought that the college experience is a major cause of religious apathy among young adults that may not actually be the case. To support this claim they noted that “an overwhelming majority (82%) of college students maintain at least a static level of personal religiosity in early adult life” (p. 1683). Why is this? The authors offered several suggestions including the fact that many young Americans are so “under socialized” when it comes to their religious beliefs they wouldn’t recognize a challenge to it were they presented with one (p. 1683)!

 

Rather than looking to higher education as the primary cause for the decline in religiosity among young adults Uecker et al. pointed to alternative theories. Some evidence exists that the desire to carry on a lifestyle that is typically recognized as outside the bounds of the religious system is to blame. Consuming alcohol, sex outside of marriage, and recreational drug use were cited as possible factors which influenced religious decline in young adults. Furthermore, social factors relating to the decline in religiosity both positively and negatively included marriage, cohabitation and parental status. Marriage affected religiosity in a positive way, acting as a hindrance to religious decline. The reason for this may simply be that marriage, like religion is a social commitment and a young adult who is prone to make one such commitment may also be prone to make another. Cohabitation on the other hand has a clear negative impact on religiosity among young adults. The authors speculated that the reason for this may lay in the fact that unlike sexual relations outside of marriage, cohabitation cannot be done in secret. Young adults who chose to cohabitate may either anticipate or have experienced censure from their faith community and chose to withdraw from it rather than stop their cohabitating. Or perhaps, they have already, long ago shed their religious faith and practice and that allows them to cohabitate without cognitive dissonance. Regardless of what the answer is, cohabitation and decline in religiosity among young adults are highly correlated.

Finally, Uecker, et al. looked at parental status as a possible contributing factor for the loss of religiosity among young adults. What they discovered is that it made little difference whether or not the participants had children or not in terms of their religious involvement. This may seem counter-intuitive given that a commonly offered reason for returning to a faith community by former defectors is because of their desire to provide a positive environment for their children. However, research shows that it is school-age children and not infants and toddlers who are the catalyst for parents returning to church. In the case of the respondents to Uecker et al. those participants with children were young college students with only infants and toddlers not school-aged children. 

  

Process. Kelly Jean Mahala’s masters thesis, The Experience of Transitioning from Traditional Christianity to Agnosticism, (2006) is a qualitative study that investigated the experience of transitioning from Christianity to agnosticism. What she found in terms of social consequences is that while agnostics do not seem to experience the same approbation that atheist do, nevertheless there are negative personal and social consequences. For most agnostics in the study they chose to remain quiet about their loss of faith and subsequent ambivalence toward the existence of God so as to avoid social conflict. Nearly all the participants commented that their agnosticism was personal and did not feel the need to announce or proclaim it to those who were closest to them. Perhaps it is for that very reason that Christians who deconvert to agnosticism experience fewer social consequences than Christians who become committed atheists.

Karen Heather Ross (2009) investigated the experience and psychological impact of losing one’s faith in Christianity in her doctoral dissertation “Losing Faith in Fundamentalist Christianity: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. The purpose of her study was to focus “on the experience of losing faith rather than on the process of leaving one’s religion” (12). Specifically, Ross looked at the emotional and cognitive experience of losing faith in order to provide counselor’s and therapists a better understanding of their client’s deconversion experience. Ross discovered that some participants had positive social consequences due to their departure from Christianity and identification with nonbelievers. One participant reported that he felt a “profound sense of deepening of relationships” as an atheist because he no longer felt obligated to convert his friends to Christianity (Ross, p. 149). For others the benefits came in finding a community which allowed them to find genuine fellowship that was based on shared values and not on religious teachings they did not believe. Ross reported that most participants in her study tend to see the new social networks which they had become part of as superior to their old religiously based communities. However, not all or even most of the social consequences of deconversion were positive. Ross’ participants described significant negative social consequences surrounding their deconversion from Christianity. Ross identified five categories where much of the negative consequences manifested; family of origin, spouse, children, friends, and the church community. In terms of negative social consequences involving family of origin, former believers commented that the relationships between themselves and their Christian parents and siblings were strained. The two main reasons given for the strain were the family’s rejection of atheism and by the deconverts efforts to debunk Christianity.

Ross’s participants reported that their deconversion caused great tension and stress in their marriages. In some cases the marriages dissolved due to irreconcilable differences. Although it is not surprising that such a radical life change would threaten the marriage relationship what is interesting is that the participants in the study reported that they felt dissolution was inevitable given the “non-negotiable” nature of their new found atheistic beliefs. Consequently if the marriage was going to survive it was up to the Christian spouse to come to terms with their partners loss of faith and find some way of dealing with it.

Participants reported a variety of consequences their deconversion had on their relationships with their children. For some children the news that their parent had lost faith was devastating. For others it was of little consequence because they themselves had also lost faith and were not troubled by their parents deconversion. Ross’ data on the social impact of parent-child relationships in the aftermath of deconversion is rather thin. Of her participants only three had children and all of the children were grown adults when their parents deconverted. Therefore few conclusions can be drawn from her study in terms of the impact deconversion has on parent-child relatioships.

Many respondents spoke about the loss of friendships they had cultivated for years as a result of their deconversion. Some reported that they were hurt by the loss of their religious friends but could understand why they were being ostracized. The seismic shift that occurred regarding the foundation upon which the friendships were built made maintaining a friendship untenable. In some cases it was the participants who distanced themselves from the believer, in some cases it was the believer distancing themselves from the apostate. No one in Ross’ study seemed to be totally surprised by the impact that their deconversion had on their friendships. In fact one participant raised it as the primary reason why he waited so long to “come out” as it were as an atheist. (p. 155).

Ross’ participants described a variety of responses form their church communities. Amber experienced harsh judgment from her former church community. She was threatened with punishment from God and called derogatory names. Amber’s experience was extreme compared to Ross’ other participant’s but they too received negative judgment. Only in a small number of cases did the deconvert find an attitude of respect and concern that was perceived positively.

A related study to that of Ross is Julie Krueger’s (2013) work entitled The Road to Disbelief: A Study of the Atheist de-conversion Process. Krueger sought to investigate not primarily “the adoption of atheist belief but the individual’s larger relation to religion and to religious identity” (p. 3). To accomplish her task Krueger interviewed sixteen atheists at a Midwest university all between the ages 18 and 22. She identified five phases of the deconversion process that relate to the adoptio of the identity “atheist.”  These stages include: Detachment, Doubt, Disassociation, Transition and Declaration. An interesting discovery of this study is that social detachment maybe a precursor to deconversion. Characteristic of the detachment phase as identified by Krueger is that the participants in her study who deconverted reported never being closely connected to their previous religious community and did not feel a strong allegiance to maintaining their beliefs in the face of encroaching doubt. For others in the study the social alienation they experienced from their church community for various reasons allowed them to leave their religious commitments much easier than had they been socially embedded in their church community. According to Krueger:

Whether ties to their religious community were weak or nonexistent from the start or whether they were severed after an unpleasant experience, the individual is, at some point, detached from their religious community. Between lack of emotional investment in a religious identity and the weak social and emotional ties to their religious community, there is little to prevent these individuals from questioning the validity of religious belief and practice (p. 4).

 

In the final stage which Krueger labeled “Declaration”, respondents “came out”, as it were to others. The revelation was often to those with whom they were closest, and in Krueger’s terms “finalized” their decision. The decision to come out was not without consequence. For some the disclosure was met with a positive response. Others experienced “intolerance, shock and disappointment” (p. 7). For Krueger, this step in the deconversion process is essential to taking on an atheist identity and is only complete when “the individual validates their atheist identity in social interaction” as this allows them to “locate themselves in the social landscape of American society” (p. 7).    

Deconversion and Atheist Experience. Bridget Fitzgerald (2003) in her doctoral dissertation Atheists in the United States: The Construction and Negotiation of a Non-normative Identity, argued for a three stage deconversion process that follows two distinct career paths. The first path to deconversion led from religious homes to atheism. The second path led from nonreligious homes to atheism. Fitzgerald found those deconverts coming from religious homes take longer to complete the process than those reared in homes with little or no religious concern. Based on those findings Fitzgerald developed an interpretive framework which aids in explaining why some adopt the non-normative identity of atheist. Her framework centered on social and environmental factors such as primary and secondary socialization and individual cognitive factors such as a commitment to critical thinking. Fitzgerald further explored how atheists manage their ideological nonconformity in light of the social stigma attached to their identity. She presented an argument, in contrast to the prevailing literature on deconversion, that one should not expect to discover one single factor that explains deconversion. She rightly pointed out that “the process [of deconversion] is often long, difficult and is impacted by several, reinforcing, often equally significant influences” (p. 25). One of those influences is the relationship between parents and children. Fitzgerald (contra the literature), claimed that it is not having atheist parents which is the most significant socializing factor in becoming an atheist since the vast majority of participants in her study came from religious backgrounds. What does matter is the parental attitude to independent, critical thinking which serves as an indicator of future atheism. The more positive the attitude of parents in regard to critical, independent thing the greater the chance of the child deconverting later in life.

Fitzgerald also focused on the stigma management strategies of atheists. She argued that such strategies are necessary due to the commonly held view that atheism is a deviant and immoral worldview. Thus, out of necessity atheists tend to adopt varying strategies in order to maintain social relationships and minimize the risk of negative consequences due to their worldview.

  

Exploring Differences Between Atheists and Theists: Theology, Theory and Research, a 2007, a doctoral dissertation by Elicia Stein, argued that many widely held assumptions about atheists are untrue. She maintained that modern society holds many negative stereotypes of atheists such as that they possess significant moral, psychological and behavioral flaws. She argued that atheists have been described as “immoral and deviant, and are commonly thought to be more likely to engage in criminal behaviors” (abstract). Stein acknowledged that there is some evidence to support the claim that religious adherence is negatively correlated with social problems but challenged the claim that those who do not believe in God are in some way less healthy socially and psychologically. Stein’s argument was a two pronged attack. First, she identified what she saw as problems with the findings of studies that provide evidence for a correlation between atheism and negative social problems. Second, she tried to show that among theists there are significant social and psychological indicators that show a correlation between theism and social and psychological ills. For the purposes of the present study her work is important in that it does an excellent job of presenting atheism as a marginalized and stigmatized social subgroup.

Kelly E. Church-Hearl (2008) in her work on atheism in Appalachia, found strong support for her thesis that the effect of adopting a minority position about religion and spirituality (leaving a mainstream religion and becoming an atheist) would result in participants taking on a minority identity in the sociological sense. She further hypothesized that the atheist minority would feel oppressed by the dominant social group: Christians.

A major element of her research looked at the negative personal and social consequences of leaving the dominant religious subgroup for a deviant one. She sought to learn how frequently atheist living in a predominantly Christian region experienced verbal hostility, isolation, job discrimination or worse. Church-Hearl’s research sheds considerable light on how atheists face daily challenges as members of a deviant subgroup. She addressed the impact that deconversion had on their feelings, relationships and opportunities. Furthermore, she demonstrated how atheists manage their minority identities in the midst of a dominant Christian subculture.

The process of adopting a minority identity as outlined by Church-Hearl is similar to other, recent studies that have been conducted on deconversion. She proposed a six step process by which participants in the study shed their theistic religious beliefs in favor of atheistic ones. Although the steps in the deconversion process from Christianity to atheism are not exactly the same as what other researchers (Ross, 2009; Smith, 2013) have suggested there is a commonality that seems more than just coincidental.

Church-Hearl found that participants in the study claimed religious believers treated their beliefs with a general lack of respect and often attempted to convert them back to faith. In response, some atheists took the offensive and argued with Christians over the claims of the Bible while others attempted to find common ground with them, avoiding conflict altogether. Many respondents said that they felt as though multiple social institutions such as the legal and education systems were characterized by anti-atheistic rhetoric which encouraged discrimination against them. Many also expressed a lack of social support because they do not have an organized movement providing them with the requisite socio-psychological resources that they once had as members of a faith community or as other minorities such as lesbians, women and racial minorities have.  

 

Approaching the atheist experience from a legal standpoint, Nina Weiler-Harwell (2008) explored two case studies which involved atheism and civil rights. As the title of her study (Attacking Atheists: Doing One’s Duty to God and Country in 21st Century America), clearly implies she is of the persuasion that the atheists experience is one with no small amount of hostility. In examining two legal cases (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000) and Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004)), Weiler-Harwell discovered what she believed was the establishment by the Court of “a new hierarchy of protected and unprotected forms of religious belief,” which in turn “elevated a monotheistic religion over the neutrality standard that had been heralded in prior Supreme Court decisions” (p. iv). In her opinion the Court’s decision established an American civil religion, a religion that discriminates against atheists. As in other studies on the social consequences of atheism Weiler-Harwell showed that atheists are considered by the general public as the most unpopular and untrustworthy subgroup in America. The combination of their public relations woes and the rulings of the Court in Dale and Newdow are earmarked be Weiler-Harwell as signs that in America, atheists cannot expect to receive the same fair and equal treatment under the law as theists can. Atheists according to Weiler-Harwell are a socially and legally marginalized Other, discriminated against because they stand ideologically outside of the majority view.

 

In 2009, Christine H. Foust conducted a study that focused on a similar topic to that explored by Church-Hearl (2008); minority identity formation among atheists. Her work entitled, An Alien in a Christian World: Intolerance, Coping, and Negotiating Identity Among Atheists in the United States, attempted to discover how individual atheists negotiated their minority identities in a predominantly Christian culture. She also investigated how atheist groups interact with society, providing important resources for individual atheists. 

That Foust pays attention to atheist groups is of particular importance for the present study because it is the only study I am aware of that addresses the importance of such groups for atheists. What she discovered was that it is only among these groups that atheists feel comfortable being open about their atheism. It is there they find a sense of inclusion and acceptance that they acutely feel the absence of in mainstream society. Foust discovered that the majority of her respondents joined atheist groups overwhelmingly for social reasons. Forming a sense of community, having positive reinforcement, and getting emotional fulfillment were just some of the perceived benefits to being a member. But ultimately “the most important thing an atheist community provides its members is a sense of hope that other Americans will realize that atheists are as normal, as good, and as respectable as any one else, and until that happens they have a community that will help them through” (p. 81).

Downs (2012) phenomenological study on the deconversion experiences of college students from Christianity to atheism focused on “the thoughts and feelings, the role of significant others and society, and the significance of various life issues in the process of deconversion” (p. 1). Downs’ was concerned with whether or not the various personal and social challenges experienced by those who deconvert to nonbelief are being satisfactorily addressed in higher education. The framework with which Downs approached her study was the homosexual identity development model of Cass (1979). According to Downs the parallels between atheist converts and homosexuals lays in the fact that they are both identified as being in the “visible minority” (p. 7). Cass developed six stages to the coming out process among homosexuals that Downs found relevant to the process of deconversion. Step one is “Identity Confusion” and is marked by feelings of being different which produces high levels of anxiety. The second stage “Identity Comparison” is characterized by a realization that one may be gay which in turn produces feelings of isolation. The third stage “Identity Tolerance” happens when the individual begins to accept that he or she is gay. Often at this stage in the process a person will seek out others who are gay and no longer identify with the heterosexual majority. The fourth stage, “Identity Acceptance” occurs when the gay person sees his or her homosexuality as positive. This however does not mean that the gay individual is prepared to present him or herself to the majority heterosexual society as gay. Pride and immersion into the gay community often characterizes the fifth stage of development known as “Identity Pride.” The final stage of identity development according to Cass is “Identity Synthesis.” Here, the private and public lives of the homosexual individual are merged and integrated with the rest of their identity producing a “more congruent self” (p. 8).

Downs observation that identity formation among homosexuals offers insights into deconversion, particularly deconversion to atheism, appears to have merit. Indeed, her study found parallels for each of the six stages of homosexual identity formation in the deconversion process to atheism. As in Cass’ first stage deconverts, like homosexuals often report identity confusion as they try to make sense of the just who they are; believers or nonbelievers. Like homosexuals, atheists commonly report feelings of  isolation and anxiety as they begin to consider themselves as atheists. Downs also found congruence between homosexuals and atheists in terms of self acceptance and labeling. In this third stage deconverts had come to acknowledge that they were now part of a social minority and adopted the label of “atheist”. In the fourth stage of deconversion Downs discovered that like homosexuals, atheists come to believe that the label “atheist” is a positive term despite not being ready to publically identify as an atheist. In the fifth stage deconverts are willing to identify publically and in fact are proud of their atheist beliefs and associations. Finally, in the sixth stage the public and private life of deconverts are merged and the bifurcation of the atheist self which existed in earlier stages ends.

That Cass’ identity development model applies so well to both cases of identity formation suggests that it may prove as a valuable tool in not only cases of homosexuality or atheism but for any life change where an individual moves from the visible majority to the visible and often unaccepted minority.            

 

Interviews

 

For this study I conducted five interviews with former Christians who now identity as atheists. I contacted all of them through various Facebook pages that serve as online communities for atheists who are apostates from Christianity. After posting an invitation for participants to share the social impact of their deconversion experience with me I was contacted by 12 different individuals. Of the 12 only 5 were suitable candidates for interviewing. The main reason which excluded the other 7 individuals from the study is that while they were eager to share their deconversion story they misunderstood my request. They thought that I was merely wanting an account of their experience and so obliged me by emailing me their deconversion “testimonies” as it were. Because I needed to personally interact with the participants through interviews, such testimonies were of little help and for that reason I chose not to use them in this study.

The first individual I interviewed was Charlotte from Ottawa, Ontario. Charlotte is in her mid 30s, married with children and works as a school teacher. She is the youngest of a number of brothers and sisters all of which are significantly older than her (her oldest sibling is 25 years older, the youngest 14 years older).Charlotte was raised in a Christian home and attended a fairly conservative, evangelical church growing up. Her heritage is Mennonite but of a more progressive strain unlike the Old Order which continue to use horse and buggy for transportation and shun other modern conveniences.

Charlotte’s deconversion took many years and was as she described it “a struggle.” Her doubts about Christianity began at a young age and were fostered by a nagging uncertainty about her own salvation. By the time she was in elementary school her older siblings had begun moving away from the faith of her parents. As she matured she began questioning the church’s position on women’s role and found it difficult to accept that even though many women were as talented and smart as the men in leadership they were not allowed to fulfill those roles. In response to her inquiries about what she saw as both logical and practical incongruities with the Christian worldview she was told that she thought too much for her own good. A major turning point for Charlotte occurred when she was told that because she was dating a nonChrisitan boyfriend the church would not endorse her application to be a counselor at the local Bible camp. This action pushed her further down the road toward atheism; she reasoned that “Clearly everyone already assumed I was sinning, so I might just as well begin!  I hung out with the church crowd less and less and became more and more involved with David and his friends. The time that followed was dark and difficult as I struggled to find my way.” In time Charlotte allowed herself to ask the question “what if there is no God?”. She concluded that perhaps the consequences were not as grave as she once feared. In fact the answers she discovered proved to be not terrible but liberating for her and removed the final barrier to her to self identifying as an atheist.

Charlotte has experienced social consequences of her deconversion however they have been moderate and manageable. Her primary relationships with family and friends have endured varying degrees of stress but have managed to hold. Her relationship with her parents has experienced the most significant negative impact as a result of her deconversion. Although her father passed away before Charlotte became an atheist she was well on her way to becoming one while he was alive. However, she seems to have refrained from stirring up those waters with him and attended church services when she came home for visits. It was only after his death that she began to reveal to friends and family that she was in fact an atheist. This has caused great distress for her mother who is a devout believer. While she was losing her faith she and her mother would debate about the existence of God but now have come to an understanding that they no longer talk about religion or faith. As far as her siblings are concerned Charlotte has managed to maintain good relations with all of them in large part because all of them have preceded her in deconverting. All of her brothers and sisters are either atheist or agnostics, but none identify as Christians. Their deconversion and the impact it had on relations with her parents possibly mitigated the negative impact of Charlotte’s deconversion on the relationship with her mother.

As is the case for many post secondary students who move away to attend college, relationships with both high school and church friends fall by the wayside. In Charlotte’s case when she attended university she moved away from both her home and the community where she grew up and attended church. This naturally lessened the impact of her deconversion on those relationships but it did not totally remove it. Eventually the news of her deconversion worked its way to her old friends through the grapevine. She also posted her religious status on Facebook as “atheist”. One male friend engaged positively with her in discussion sharing his own struggles with belief in God. But not all of her old friends were as understanding. One female de-friended Charlotte from her Facebook account. That female has since added her back as a friend but has not reached out to establish any meaningful communication. Despite losing the social benefits of belonging to a church community the loss has not had a net negative impact on Charlotte socially. She has managed to replaced that community and the social benefits it provided with another, more eclectic group made up of people from different walks of life but with shared interests.

David, a 38 year old married father of one lives in the Midwest. He is a former member of the fundamentalist denomination known as The United Pentecostal Church International. In my discussion with David we did not venture into the reasons why he lost his faith but I suspect from some of his comments that it was a combination of theological problems and major moral failures among UPC pastors that he trusted. At this point in his journey David has not revealed to those in his immediate family or others that he is in fact an atheist. In his words he is a “closeted atheist.” David’s reluctance at revealing his atheism stems from his concern for sparing his mother emotional pain and  not wanting to insult his parents as either liars or fools. David has one brother, who like his father is a preacher in the UPC. Although David has not revealed to his brother that he is now an atheist he suspects that his brother probably supposes as much. David has not been to church in nearly 11 years and has expressed to his brother disbelief regarding specific Bible stories such as the Noahic flood. Prior to his deconversion David and his brother were best friends but today they are no longer in David’s words “close at all anymore.”

David’s relationships with those outside his immediate family have changed little over the last 10 years since his deconversion. Apart from Facebook he has not kept up friendships with people from the UPC church. He assumes that many of his old friends know of his atheism even though he has not gone public with his loss of faith. He does not blame the loss of his Christian friendships on his deconversion directly but recognizes that he and his old friends drifted apart likely for a number of different reasons, his lack of church attendance just being one. Yet he does maintain a social connection of sorts to the UPC. Among the various online communities that he is a member of, David connects with former members of the UPC who have also left the faith and become atheists. The group, about 10 in number will be meeting up in May at a music festival. None of the members have met before in person but they have created a virtual support and recovery community on the internet. This cyber (and soon to be in-person) community provides beneficial social interaction and a place of belonging for former UPCers. When asked to summarize the social impact that deconverting has had in his life, David responded that it has produced feelings of distance between him and those he was once (and in some ways is) closest to. Furthermore, he said that the feeling of distance created by the social consequences of his deconversion motivated him to search for a feeling of belonging, which it seems he has found a measure of in online communities comprised of others who have similar backgrounds and experiences.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest. She is 37, married and the mother of an infant. Both her and her husband deconverted together over a period of time. At first they believed they needed to find the right church, one where they could feel comfortable with the doctrine. But over time they realized that there was no “right church” for them. They decided that they could not in good conscience continue attending church. The immediate consequence of that decision resulted in “a lot of criticism from certain family members and there were some fights.” The loss of a church community and the stress engendered within the family relations motivated Karen and her husband to reach out and find other people who think as they do and who also do not attend church. For Karen, even though there have been some changes in the relationships with family and friends she does not see them as necessarily negative. Deconverting has opened the door to a host of new relationships which she and her husband are actively cultivating. And she does not intend to cut ties with anyone from her former Christian community as long as they want to remain friends and maintain certain boundaries.

One specific relationship Karen and her husband may have concerns with maintaining boundaries is with his parents who are outspoken Christians. In the past they have expressed disapproval over the lack of Karen and her husband’s church attendance and also taken principled stances that have hurt Karen and her husband. While boundaries have been established which allow them to maintain a relationship with her in-laws the dynamic is not without strain. In fact in order to make the relationship work Karen and her husband have chosen to live an inconvenient distance from them. In Karen’s words “its sad that we think the best way to manage the situation is to maintain some distance, but that is how it will be.”

Tammy lives in Southern California, is single and in her mid 50s. She once worked as a hair stylist but for various reasons no longer does. She is presently active in the atheist community in the greater Los Angeles area. Tammy grew up in a nonreligious family but was forced to say the Lord’s prayer at bedtime. At the age of 13 she experienced a very traumatic episode caused her to doubt the existence of God and those doubts were reinforced by being exposed to the theory of evolution. Both her life experience and her belief in evolution combined to eradicated her belief in God and today she is proud to identify as an atheist.

Her atheism has impacted her relationship with numerous family members. Her aunt who is a Roman Catholic maintains contact with her but is not happy about her atheism. Most of her other cousins will not call or write her due to her atheism. Tammy’s atheism is not hidden and as a result she has experienced overt hostility. At times she has been verbally accosted by believers who scream at her that she is going to Hell. She believes that she has been discriminated against because of her atheism and has felt an acute sense of alienation from American culture in general. She cited several examples of mistreatment from others ranging from strangers at the gym where she works out, to her landlord. However, she is undaunted in her belief and chooses to wear atheist related items such as buttons, and t-shirts when in public.

Tammy finds a sense of community and encouragement from being a member of two local atheist groups which meet on a regular basis. Knowing that she is part of a community of likeminded individuals has helped her endure the stigma she feels of being an atheist. Tammy is proud to be an atheist and engages socially with others who share her commitment to secularism.

Mike lives in South Dakota. He is 39, self employed and identifies as a former fundamentalist. He is actively involved both socially and politically on behalf of atheism. In the past he has organized atheist conventions and been the driving force in a local freethinkers group. Earlier this year he co-founded a secular social group for the purpose of providing a space for atheists to meet and find support. At present he is working on an atheist group that will focus on social activism.

Mike’s deconversion was fast. Subsequently it took some people by surprise. The reasons for his loss of faith are not completely clear. Mike mentions he did a large amount of research into life after death in order to prove to himself that the Bible was true. However, what he discovered is that all the claims for the existence for life after death were either unsubstantiated or fabricated. That discovery did not in itself shipwreck his faith but it did seem to open the door to further doubts. Those doubts eventually evolved into unbelief due to the influence of an unnamed individual that he met “who would make it all come crashing down.”

The social consequences of Mike’s deconversion have been both positive and negative. As with many open and active atheists he has experienced  a certain amount of hostility. He has felt marginalized at times for standing up against what he perceived as “others tossing their religion around.” Taking a stand for atheism, or at least against religion is as he put it “by no means an endearing trait.” Perhaps most surprising is that he has even been fired from his job explicitly because he was an atheist. When the Christian owner of a band that he was performing with discovered that Mike was an atheist he fired him. Later, Mike was informed by a member of the band that the owner had confessed to him that he did not want an atheist in the band. 

Concerning his familial relations Mike’s deconversion has had a mild impact. While his parents are by no means happy about his apostasy they manage to get along with him. His father, a committed Christian still tries to re-convert him but Mike doesn’t seems to mind and may even interpret it as an indicator of his father’s love for him. Mike along with his brothers and sister actualize different strategies to maintain their relationships with each other. His oldest brother has no problem with Mike’s loss of faith even though he himself still attends church regularly. Mike and his other brother (who Mike describes as “militantly pro- Jesus”), avoid talking about religion altogether in order to keep the peace between them. His sister would rather pretend that nothing has changed and as long as the discussion never comes up then life is good. 

For the few friends that Mike lost as a result of his deconversion he has since gained many more because of his work in establishing atheist groups and his membership in atheist online communities. He describes his experience with old friends in mostly positive terms. Those who liked him before his deconversion continued to like him after. Rather than seeing the social impact of his deconversion in terms of positive or negative he identified the impact as more of a lateral move. A social shift to the side instead of up or down. A social shift which he identified as ‘slightly positive but generally neutral.”

Analysis

In this final section I present conclusions about the social impact of deconversion drawn from the interviews with the five participants. I then look at how the findings of this small scale study compare to the findings of studies in the literature that relate to the social impact of deconversion. This study reveals that those who deconvert from Christianity experience both positive and negative social consequences.

The positive social impact of deconversion on participants came by way of matriculating into new, secular and atheist social circles. By joining online communities and in some cases local meet-ups the participants found a sense of belonging and support. All of the individuals in this study reported that they experience personal benefit from interacting with others of like mind and see such groups as a replacement for the church community they left behind. Though being a member of such groups almost always is precipitated by social upheaval they provide a deconverts a soft place to land.

The second finding of this study is that deconverts experience negative social consequences in proportion to how outspoken they are about their deconversion and atheism. For those who remained relatively quiet about their loss of faith, disclosing their atheism only to those whom they are closest to and who matter most, the social impact was mild to moderate. The social ramifications were mainly limited to the strain placed on the relationships with family members who are still believers. On the other hand those who are more vocal about their loss of faith and subsequent move to atheism the consequences were noticeably more significant. In those cases it was not only family relationships which were strained but relationships with those in broader social circles. Depending on the degree to which one publically identifies as an atheist and advocates for atheism likely determines the degree to which one will experience negative social consequences. More research in this area with a larger number of participants needs to be done in order to confirm this relatively innocuous finding.

The fact that there has been little research done on the social impact of deconversion means that the findings of this study do not directly support or call into question the findings of any preceding studies. Furthermore, the very small number of participants make any conclusions which are based on the findings of this study about the social impact of deconversion somewhat suspect if not stunningly obvious. However, this study also contributes to deconversion research in a secondary manner. The research from this study provides support for the findings of many of the studies surveyed in the literature review. Together with those findings this small scale study helps provide a clearer picture of the social impact deconversion has in the lives of former believers.

Mahala (2006) discovered that in terms of social consequences agnostics did not seem to experience the same level of negativity that atheist did. The reason according to Mahala is that most agnostics in the study chose to remain quiet about their loss of faith and subsequent ambivalence toward the existence of God so as to avoid social conflict. Three participants in this study also took a more reserved approach when socially navigating their atheism and have experienced noticeably less social pushback than those who have been more public. David has yet to publically declare his atheism to his parents in order to avoid hurting them. If he were to do so it would create turmoil, perhaps the least of which would be his mother crying. When David responded to my post on the atheist website looking for participants he said “I'd be happy to share my story. I couldn't comment on your post though. I was afraid someone might see it on my newsfeed.”

According to Mahala (2006) David’s non aggressive atheism and choice to remain quite about his lack of faith are part of the reason his deconversion has had mild social consequences. The same could be said for Charlotte, although she does not hide her atheism she does not go out of her way to make an issue of it. Even though she has had the expected strain in the relationship with her mother, she has not lost a job, or even any old Christian friends as a result of her deconversion. Karen’s experience parallels those of David and Charlotte. Her respectful and cautious approach with friends and family have allowed her to largely avoid major social consequences.

The same cannot be said for Mike and Tammy, both of whom are outspoken advocates for atheism. Their experiences support the findings of Mahala’s atheist participants who had considerable negative experiences as a result of being an atheist. Mike, the social and political activist who enjoys dialoging about atheism has acutely felt the sting of the effects of his deconversion. Unlike the quieter atheists who have had mild social consequences Mike has felt ostracized by his colleagues for his views and even lost his job because he is an atheist. Similarly, Tammy, an active member of atheist organizations has had numerous negative encounters with not only family but strangers who take exception to her public profession of atheism in the form of t-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers. She often finds herself in hostile conversations generated by her outspoken views on religion. Tammy did not seem to enjoy getting in these conversations but was very willing to engage with her critics. She was very clear that she is proud to be an atheist. The correlation between Mahala’s work and the results of this study indicate that levels of negative social consequences are to some degree proportional to the level of openness and zeal one has for atheism. Mahala found that agnostics received fewer negative experiences than atheists did and concluded that was because agnostics were quieter about their loss of faith. However, the findings of this study indicate that as far as social consequences are concerned it doesn’t matter so much whether one adopts agnosticism or atheism as a worldview. What does matter is the degree to which one publically identifies as a nonbeliever that makes the difference in having negative social consequences.  

An important discovery of this study that confirms earlier research (Ross, 2009) is  that some individuals have positive social consequences due to their departure from Christianity by socializing with nonbelievers. In fact each participant in this study explicitly said that was the case for them. Charlotte meets with a secular book club. David engages in online and in person atheist communities, some of which are specifically comprised of former members of the UPC. Karen has encountered others who have shared a similar experience to that of her and her husband which has encouraged and inspired her to find new friends. Like David she is a member of virtual online atheist groups where she interacts with others who share her convictions. Mike has made atheist friends from around the world and been the catalyst for others to find social support by founding atheist groups in his home town. And Tammy, like the others is connected to atheist groups online and regularly attends atheist meetings in Southern California at various locations. Each of the participants has in their own way mitigated the impact of losing their church community by replacing it with what for them is a more genuine social context; one in which they actually share the same beliefs as those they socialize with.  

In the study conducted by Buxant and Coralie (2008) it was discovered that defection from a new religious movement was accompanied by social rupture for most ex-members. In the cases of four participants from that study who left a new religious movement their parents took the drastic step of severing ties with them. An unspecified number of members reported that after leaving the group they were harassed by current members who attempted to bring them back to the fold. While the findings of this study do not mirror those of Buxant and Coralie, they do lend support to them. For example, even though the defections in this study were not from a new religious movement nonetheless they were from conservative, in most cases passionate Christian homes. In some case participants even described their former religious denomination in terms often reserved for cults.

As in Buxant and Coralie (2008) the participants in this study have all had strain on familial relationships, particularly with those who still remain in the church. At this point none have severed ties with parents or siblings over their theological disagreements. However, as one reads the interviews it is easy to see how such a tragic state of affairs could occur. Both David and Karen expressed concern that the differences they have with parents and in-laws have the potential for disaster. If boundaries are not respected by parents and in-laws it is conceivable that David and Karen may find themselves cutting ties with them. Neither David or Karen want that but made it clear they will not tolerate certain boundaries being crossed. Unlike the individuals in Buxant and Coralie’s research, the results of this study indicate if a severing of ties happens it will not be those who have remained Christians but by the deconverts. In the case of the new religious movements, parents cut ties with children who defected out of loyalty to the movement. The findings of this study show that if a severing of ties occurs it will be the deconverts cutting ties not out of loyalty to atheism but as a result of parents not respecting boundaries.  

Church-Hearl (2008) found through her research that respondents felt as though multiple social institutions such as the law and education system were characterized by anti-atheistic rhetoric. Thus they believed there is systemic discrimination against atheists  making life as an atheist feel like swimming upstream. This study did not produce much support for that conclusion but it did reveal that for at least Mike and Tammy, American society is not seen as a welcoming environment for atheists. This same attitude did not reveal itself in either, Charlotte, David, or Karen. For their part they neither experienced systemic discrimination nor mentioned it as something they were concerned with.

Conclusion

The experience of deconversion from Christianity to atheism has typically flown under the radar of social scientists. A survey of the literature on religious migration reveals that until recently nearly all of the research on religious migration pertains to religious conversion. The small number of studies that do address deconversion primarily focus on the reason why deconversion happens, with even fewer studies looking at the process. This study investigated the social impact of deconversion and in a small way contributes to the growing body of knowledge surrounding religious defection. It did so by conducting five interviews with former Christians who now identify as atheists in order to uncover the social impact of deconversion. The study formed two conclusions. First, the data shows that despite having negative social consequences deconversion can also result in positive social consequences. The positive social impact of deconverting came mainly from commiserating with others who have gone through the same experience. Each participant found community in either virtual groups on the internet or by joining atheist social groups where members meet in person. Second, deconverts to atheism all experienced varying degrees of negative social consequences. The degree to which they experienced negative social consequences appears to be correlated to the degree to which they vocalize their atheism. Those who were less vocal about their deconversion and subsequent adoption to atheism experienced fewer negative social consequences than those who were more vocal and publically identified as atheists. These conclusions are not surprising. In fact they are quite intuitive. Nevertheless, the findings are meaningful because beside providing insight into the social consequences of deconversion the findings relate to and support the findings reported in other studies on deconversion or atheism. 

Copyright Dr. John Marriott 2016