Deconversion stories are always tricky. Many Christians tend to attribute deconversions to reactions to negative faith-related experiences or anger at God. Others say loss of faith is an intentional process, either because of childish rebellion or a wish to live a worldly and uninhibited life. Meanwhile, atheists who were once Christian usually discuss deconversions in a very cerebral way, recounting how their studies about the Bible impacted their beliefs (or lack thereof).
My own deconversion story still baffles me, which is one of the reasons I haven’t really told it until now. I haven’t heard another deconversion story like it, and don’t really have an explanation for why it happened the way it did. All I know is, it’s probably time to share. I’m hoping that by doing so I can help to dispel the misconceptions of what deconversion actually entails, and also encourage others to tell their stories.
It was early afternoon, and the Piccadilly Line train was bringing me and my friend home after a Sunday service at a new church in South Kensington. I felt utterly drained, my brain in an emotionless fog. “Are you alright?” my friend asked. I didn’t respond.
It was the very beginning of 2014. I’d taken a semester away from Messiah College, a small Christian private college in Pennsylvania, to go to London and study journalism. One of my goals was to find a church I liked. Back in the States, I’d taken to following classmates or professors to their churches. Trying to find that emotional latch point and get back into the groove of positive, honest worship. During a stint in Philadelphia, I’d attended everything from black churches to Taiwanese churches to Spanish churches in an attempt to find a place where I felt God’s presence.
London seemed like a great place to look for a church. Anglicanism felt promising, based on what I’d heard: a milder and more progressive form of Christianity that held to certain rituals (I liked ritual) while also entertaining varying worldviews, divorced from the issues plaguing the Religious Right in America.
I tried St. Luke’s, a very old, small, one-room chapel that had limited seating. I stood in the back of the small crowd with our study-abroad program’s resident assistant, who was a member of the congregation. The sermon was humble and the speaker faltered a few times. I confess I was more concerned with the parishioner who seemed to be having a seizure in the corner by the kid’s art easels. I watched out of the corner of my eye as some of the other church goers crouched around him, praying softly and humming over the sermon. I left pretty quickly once the service ended. Overall, the experience left me feeling a bit creeped out.
Holy Trinity, this most recent church, was as different night and day. Youth leaders in brightly colored T-shirts jumped around amid smoke machines and the strains of electric guitars. A mini documentary paying tribute to some modern Christian hero whose name I can’t remember played on a projection screen that was at least as big as my shared bedroom in student housing. When it finally came time for the sermon, I was shocked to see the pastor hadn’t even bothered attending in person: he Skyped in from some other location.
In the midst of the hundreds of people crying, laughing, singing and jumping for joy during the service, I felt suddenly extremely detached. It was different, somehow. Not just the frustrating lack of emotion I sometimes got during worship nights when I couldn’t feel the Spirit move: you couldn’t always expect to feel the elation of the Holy Spirit, especially if you were letting other things take your attention from praising God.
No, this was different. This was like waking up in the morning and not remembering where you are, how you got there, what direction the bed is facing. I was completely turned around, all of a sudden, shocked at the responses of the people around me. I was operating on a different plane of existence, looking through a window at something that I couldn’t understand or interact with. I sat down and shut off.
My friend and I got off the Tube at Earl’s Court and walked back to our flat at Redcliffe Gardens without conversation. I felt bad about leaving him in chilly silence, but my brain wasn’t interested in forming coherent thoughts, let alone interested in putting those thoughts into words. As he circled around to the basement entrance to the boy’s flat, I burst through the front door and slammed it behind me.
I only made it up the stairs halfway before collapsing the first time. I gripped the bannister and prayed none of the other flatmates would happen upon me. Summoning my strength, I finally made it to my room. Sitting on the unmade bed, I observed dully that I should change, clean the room, make myself some lunch. Instead, I slid slowly to the floor and lay there in a fetal position for I have no idea how long.
You hear about Christians telling their conversion story, that moment that everything made sense, that lightning bolt of clarity, that wave of emotion and understanding. What happened to me was exactly the same, a cataclysmic shattering of one’s worldview.
As I watched the flutter of the curtains cast shadows on the carpet, smelled the sweet spring breeze wafting into the dim, narrow room, I realized what was wrong: God was gone. I was alone, alone in a foreign city and No One was going to come looking. Remember that feeling you got when you were a kid and you lost your parent in the supermarket, that split second of despair and loneliness? Yeah, like that, but a hundred times worse. I couldn’t get up or even lift my head.
Eventually, I managed to summon the strength to text my friend for help. He burst into the room a few minutes later and stayed with me until I snapped out of it a bit. Then he put me to bed, and I slept for the rest of the day.
Afterwards, I felt better, and dismissed the event as exhaustion or depression. I didn’t go back to church during my time in London; instead, my friends and I had Sunday morning Bible studies together at the Costa Coffee down the street. I still was a Christian who believed in God, and I would go on to continue to serve in missions trips, take intensive classes in theology, and travel to as many different churches and denominations as I could. It would be another year before I would consciously confront my loss of faith, and years after that before I would call myself an atheist. But it was in London, in that moment, that I’d made a crucial (if unintentional) step toward my own atheism: I lost the emotional component.
The relationship aspect was no longer there — my interest in God became an intellectual one. I was fascinated with the idea of God and enjoyed learning as much as I could about my faith, discussing God with fellow Christians, committing apologetics strategies to memory. But I was no longer in a relationship with God, no longer scared of falling out of love, which is ultimately the thing that keeps so many theists from asking those first terrifying questions.
If this story speaks to you, or if you feel like sharing your own deconversion story, I’d love to hear from you! Visit my contact page for information on how to reach me!