12/29/2002                                                                                       View Comments

deconversion

by Paula Hay

all I know, all I believe
are crumbling images no longer comforting me
this ground is not the rock I thought it to be
thought I was high, thought I was free
thought I was there: divine destiny
I was wrong. This changes everything.
-- Maynard James Keenan



The late fall afternoon is peaceful as I cozy up on the sofa for a few hours of cable television movies. Flipping through the channels, I happen upon a prerecorded televangelist rally. I pause to observe. The small man on the stage shouts into his cordless microphone about the power of God and the salvation of Jesus, stomping up and down the length of the stage, visibly energized by the clamorous feedback of his audience. Although the program is nearing its end I know he has been performing in this manner for about an hour. He concludes his sermon with an emotional prayer backed by a solemn minor-key melody on electric piano. I watch then as hundreds of people stream from the arena seats to the stage, seeking salvation in the small man's invitation to become "born again." There are close-ups of teary-eyed individuals with upraised arms, singing and praying, overcome by joy to have finally found salvation.

The scene transports me back in time to my mid-teens when I, too, once responded to an altar call in a very large arena. I know what the people on the television are experiencing. I know also that many of them will one day abandon their "salvation."

Fundamentalist Christianity was for me an 11-year ordeal of confusion, self-censorship and self-abasement. After the joy of my initial religious experience wore off, I moved into the modus operandi of Christian fundamentalists everywhere: I shut down emotionally and instead relied on the Bible to dictate my feelings. In Christian fundamentalist circles this is known as "living by faith."

In my mid-20s I experienced a severe crisis which led me to question the wisdom of living in this manner. Over a period of about a year I allowed myself to think the doubtful thoughts which I had been filing away in the back of my mind for so long. I felt as if I was issuing a direct challenge to God himself, and lived in great fear of divine retribution. My doubts led me to discover that it was indeed possible to make sense of life, to make decisions for myself, to set and attain goals, and to know my own heart. My spiritual path forked. Do I remain true to honesty, or true to the faith? I chose honesty. Thus was I deconverted.

For several years I believed my experience to be unique. In time I met another person who had defected from the ranks of Fundamentalist Christianity; then another, and others still. I am now convinced that the number of Americans who have had a "deconversion" experience of some type is much greater than one would suspect.

Deconversion is currently an under-studied phenomenon which could provide an important perspective from which to understand religion in America. The specific psychological, sociological, cultural, and political implications of large numbers of religious deconverts are beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that deconversion births as radical a psychological shift as the original conversion experience. It is quite enough to impact American culture and religion, just as conversion experiences produce "born-again" Christians who impact American culture in clearly manifest ways.

To understand these questions I turn to Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists, edited by Edward T. Babinski. This volume is a collection of 33 deconversion autobiographies from people once active and highly visible within the ranks of Fundamentalist Christianity. These essays give articulate voice to the deconversion process. They are at once diverse and congruous. Leaving the Fold is not intended to provide scientific statistical data; rather, it is an informal survey which provides much useful anecdotal material.

Surprisingly, the testimonies present only two key factors in their authors' deconversions. The first is related to external circumstances, including the behavior of other church members, leadership, or the denomination. The second is wholly internal: church doctrine simply becomes untenable.

The most common and compelling motivation for leaving fundamentalist Christianity cited by Leaving the Fold's contributors is, by far, a loss of personal faith. For the majority, the deconversion process begins with a single question, or group of questions, for which he can find no answer. This pattern emerges repeatedly. It is as if their fundamentalist faith is a large puzzle. Slowly at first, random pieces begin to fall away, creating holes in the overall image. These holes weaken the puzzle structure, allowing more pieces to fall away. Eventually all the pieces fall away leaving the deconvert free of the fundamentalist worldview. While this process is painful in many ways, all the writers consider it to be, ultimately, a great liberation. It is surprising how many of Leaving the Fold's writers consider their deconversion experience to be a "rebirth," or liken it to being "born again."

Another interesting aspect of the deconversion experience is that it is largely involuntary. Not one of Leaving the Fold's contributors relates a process in which he consciously decides to leave the faith with deconversion as a goal. The testimonies are of those who set out to find their answers in an effort to maintain their faith. Only grudgingly did they come to accept that the answers for their questions were to be found outside church doctrine. In various ways each describes how he was forced by intellectual honesty to face his discoveries.

It may seem surprising at first to think of deconversion as an involuntary act. However, I would point out that the initial experience of being "saved" is very often itself involuntary. Converts are generally not provided with all the facts necessary to make an informed decision. Instead, revival meetings and proselytization efforts are engineered to create a specific vulnerable emotional state within the target. The convert is then manipulated into accepting whatever religious message the evangelist has to peddle. Individuals converted by such deceptive methods have not voluntarily chosen to convert; they have been coerced. It is a difficult thing to accept that one has been duped. No one chooses discover that he has been lied to.

Because of their experiences, Leaving the Fold's contributors demonstrate a thorough disgust with Christian Fundamentalism. None view it as a positive religious expression.

The least hostile view its role as a stepping-stone toward greater faiths, such as Dennis Ronald McDonald's essay titled From Faith to Faith and Joe Barnhart's Fundamentalism as Stage One. I found Ernest Heramia's The Thorn-Crowned Lord/The Antler-Crowned Lord the most interesting of the stepping-stone testimonies. His deconversion path led him from Christian fundamentalism into neo-Paganism. I find this distinctly courageous, considering that of all religions, Paganism draws the wrath of the Fundamentalist like no other. In a very real though metaphoric sense, this particular move requires standing up at the Gates of Hell, facing one's demons, turning to the so-called "dark side." Neo-Paganism is eventually where my deconversion process brought me as well. His spiritual path is in some ways quite similar to my own.

Many of the testimonies are openly hostile to the very existence of Christian fundamentalism and view it as a kind of sickness. David Montoya's The Political Disease Known as Fundamentalism, Marlene Oaks's Old Time Religion is a Cult, and Kevin Henke's A Little Horse Sense is Worth a Thousand Inerrant Doctrines portray especially dysfunctional religious experiences. Frank Zindler's innocuously titled Biography depicts a deconversion which propelled the writer into anti-fundamentalist activism. So convinced was he of religion's evil that in 1978 he joined Dr. Madalyn Murray O'Hair "in her lawsuit to remove religious graffiti from American currency." Their efforts were unsuccessful, but to this day Zindler remains a pro-atheism activist.

In all, Leaving the Fold provides a solid overview of the deconversion process and what it means in the lives of ordinary Americans. The lack of data regarding the wider implications is disappointing to the say the least. Until scientific data are available, there is no way of knowing for certain how large a segment of the population has had a deconversion experience. However, the public status of most of this book's contributors may indicate that there is indeed significant impact being made throughout the American religious landscape. For this reason religious deconversion should receive the full benefit of future scholarly inquiry.

reposted from here with permission of the author

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