What Must I Do
To Deconvert To Atheism?
Peter Rhodes

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Peter Rhodes"
Subject: Re: help wanted
Date: November 25, 2002 4:51 P.M.

Actually, whatever you feel like doing is okay with you, don't you think?

I mean, it's your life and your faith, isn't it? If so, then you can renounce it in any way you like.

Are you if there is a ritual, akin to Baptism or Circumcision, that would mark your deconversion?


If so, then might I make a novel suggestion? How about abandoning, just this once, the notion of ritualistically "sealing" important personal decisions in our lives? Yes, if I make a business deal, then of course I'll extend my hand for the traditional handshake that we use to "seal" such deals, to mark them as "Official." But my birthday was a couple of days ago and since nobody was around I just did what I always do as if it was just another day. Had someone else been around -- anybody -- I would have used the occasion as an excuse to do something special, something as an attempt to forget, for even a moment, the angst of misery that is my humanity.

I didn't renounce my faith formally at all. What I did was climb into the sack with a young woman toward whom I'd been attracted for some days, and we kinda had our own ritual. I'm not sure if she knew what was happening in me, the reason for my initial trembling. Oh, but she was very gentle with me (emotionally, that is), realizing that it had been a long, long time. She doubtless saw it as little more than a long and satisfying romp with a hopelessly chivalrous employee of the man who had stood her up earlier that evening. To me, it was much more: for me this was very much an initiation (an "unitiation," if you will; if you can even say that on your first try!).

After that night, I really couldn't go back to church (except to borrow $100 to get my car out of impound). Of course I'd already lost it by then, otherwise I could not have brought myself to do such a thing. I was not a very popular Christian: I had few if any friends; however, I was entirely sincere about my faith: I could never deliberately do something that would compromise or jeopardize what I had or "where I was at," that is, the state I was in. But after this experience, I could no longer even pretend.

Ah, but this is merely what I did: everybody is different and an experience such as a deconversion means different things to various people. To a theistic agnostic I once knew, it meant simply that she didn't have to worry about the afterlife any longer (she dreaded the Christian Heaven as much as anybody dreads the Christian Hell -- go figure!). But the only thing that was involved in her deconversion experience was to tell her husband, a well-known atheistic activist! At the other extreme, the deconversion of a career preacher such as Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is sure to have been much more involved.

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If you read a few of our De-Conversion Stories (deliberately misspelled when it's the title of our collection: the term itself is spelled, deconversion), you might see a few other ways people have done it. One unforgettable fellow wrote in who had been spooked by the whole concept of "Satan." (Satan is a concept, not a person! Even the Satanists will tell you that!) To help himself overcome this, this man "invoked" "Satan" to come inside his body and take full control of his life! After a few rounds of somber intonation, he burst out laughing, uncontrollably, seeing clearly the full measure of absurdity that constitutes the belief that there actually exists a literal Satan, as described by Christian Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and the like. Even the Islamic concept of The Great Satan as a cosmic buffoon is a stretch, but the notion of a powerfully diabolical entity bent on deceiving you into thinking that the Christian god-claim is just a fairy tale (bent on deconverting you to atheism!) really takes the cake!

The De-Conversion Stories, though, mostly describe the steps which led to the writer's deconversion; only a handful tell us about the actual moment itself. This is mostly because there really is no ritual or "moment" for most of us, simply that feeling of betrayal followed by that feeling of freedom. And this is too bad, really, because our cultural habit of needing to seal the life-changing events with a ritual of some sort leads many to think that nothing has happened, that it's okay to sneak back over to "the other camp" for a moment, if need be.

(Okay, I justified going back to borrow that hundred bucks. Now, a full twenty years later, the question is, Can I justify going back just one more time to pay them back?)

But we not only don't need a ritual, we do well to at least examine that cultural habit, if not jetison it altogether.


Because atheism is not the counterpoint to faith.

Faith comes by hearing, as they say, and if the faith, wrought by the word, is not strong enough, you must hear the message again and again until it sinks in (until you die, really, because irrational ideas never really sink in; rather, they require periodic -- weekly -- regeneration). This is the very reasoning behind the Christian slogan, "Seven days without prayer makes one weak." Ritual also helps strengthen the focus of one's faith, as do the visuals of graven images and the sounds of music, chanting, and the "vain repetition" of prayer (Matthew 6:7), especially when said with "importunity" ("wearisome persistence"; "the state of being troublesomely demanding"; "insistence": Luke 11:8).

Of course the social structure provides even more than any of these things to make up for the fact that the object of your faith -- God -- is dubious at best.

But none of this will hook the victim like the guilt-trip that they lay upon a child. This is part of the reason I do this work: I grew up as an atheist, but I also was religious for about three years. While I missed out on the childhood experience, I have experienced intensive religion such as I would think a child experiences.

Atheism, in its healthiest manifestation, is the absence of all this. Atheism, for most, is not a "Ritual of No Gods," if you will, but rather "no gods -- and no ritual, either."

In short, atheism is nothing, either of itself or when compared to theism.

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Imagine a man who is entirely uninterested in sports.

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Q. What does he watch on Monday night, when Monday Night Football is on?
A. What!? Why does one need to watch television on Monday night? or at all, for that matter?

Q. What do the sports banners in his dorm room say?
A. Why would one want to put banners advocating anything in one's dorm room?

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You get the gist: atheism is not simply the absence of a god-belief, but the absence of all else that goes specifically with the god-belief, all that is unique to the god-belief (to use a redundency).

Furthermore, theism is an added attraction. Theism consists of qualities that have been added to the human who, in her natural state, would not be a theist. Take a human and raise her up without ever once telling her about God and religion. This is an atheist. Now, take another human and raise her up in a family with a strong basis in faith. If she goes along, she is a theist. Now, take the difference between the first woman and the second woman; that is, what does the second woman have that the first one does not? This "added attraction," if you will, is theism.

I hope this has been enough of an introduction to give you some ideas.

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As for telling others, I don't tell anybody unless I feel that it's absolutely necessary. Everybody's worth the effort of a rousing, "Hi, ya!" in response to whatever greeting they've just given, and all but the obvious panhandlers are worth a smile when they try to give eye contact. Most people are worth directions to the Post Office or the time of day. But someone's got to be a pretty close friend before I'll consider telling them what my real thoughts are. This is new. I wasn't this way even six months ago. After all I've been through in the past two years with bigotry and such, you'd think I'd have learned my lesson long before six months ago -- three months ago, even. But that's just not what happened.

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"Hey, do you want to go to church with us?"

"Ummm, I don't think so."

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"We're ________s, what faith are you?"

"Oh, we're not religious."

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"I'm sorry, but we keep that subject in the privacy of our family. That's the way we've concluded is best for us [or, "That's the way we were raised"], and this is the way in which we try to raise our children."

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If you want to see what happens when you tell people you're an atheist, then try it out on strangers, such as a clerk with whom you've struck up a conversation. Often you will see a condescending look of abject pity fall across their faces as if you have something seriously wrong with you that needs immediate attention. Any resistence on your part will result in your being "written off" as incorrigible -- and you haven't even done anything!

It's not always like this, but we still live in an era where bigotry against atheists is widespread and wholly accepted to the point of being institutionalized. We do well to play it cool, to be very low-key about our lack of belief, until we have had an opportunity to size up the situation.

Once I see that an individual is accepting of atheists or is at least willing to learn, discuss, interplay, or whatever (as long as it's dignified), then I can move forward.

My first (and usually my last) move is to explain that I work as a social activist fighting bigotry against atheists. This bigotry is more widespread even than bigotry against homosexuals. My explanation always includes a brief explanation of what the word atheism has meant to most atheists who have given their atheism much thought. (I call this "the traditional definition." See the article "Defining Atheism" by atheistic philosopher George H. Smith.) I also point out that the vast majority of atheists seldom if ever think about their own atheism. This is as far as I go with almost all people I meet who wish to talk about religion.

Here is a fuller explanation of the traditional definition and how it relates to discussing these matters with others:

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Regarding the "traditional" definition of the word atheism: Contrary to how the Anglican-owned and Roman Catholic-owned dictionaries would have us think, a person is not required to understand all the god-claims, to consider these claims, and then reject all of them in order to be called "an atheist." In fact, this is impossible! According to this popular definition, there are no atheists: nobody can fully consider all the god-claims that have been expressed by humans as the vast majority of them are admittedly unfathomable -- that is, nonsense!

Rather, an atheist is simply anybody who is not a theist, anybody who does not have a god-belief.

"A-theism" is "the absence of theism" and is consistent with all other uses of the "a" and "an" prefix. None of the examples I've found have this prefix meaning "denies the existence of [the root]." Instead, of the examples I found in my study of this prefix, every one, without exception, means "the absence of [the root]."

The theistic leadership, those who have controlled education for centuries, have a specific goal in defining atheism this way. First, it introduces a pro-theism bias into the very definition of the word that we use for our self-definition! The American Heritage Dictionary defines atheist as "one who denies the existence of God." What!? And in this portrayal, saying that we "deny" God's existence strongly implies that we somehow know that God exists, but are lying about it to ourselves and to others.

Aren't dictionaries supposed to be unbiased? This dictionary takes sides with one side of the argument it pretends to define! You just don't see dictionaries doing this very often; I'd bet the American Heritage Dictionary doesn't do this with any other words! It assumes that God exists and then portrays the atheist as denying this "fact."

Other dictionaries are less overt: a few say something along the lines of, "the belief that God does not exist." Still, this is done to make the position of atheism appear to be a stupid choice, leaving theism as the one remaining choice of reason. Most people either know or can sense that it is impossible to disprove a claim that a thing exists, so portraying atheism as asserting that a thing (God) does not exist makes us look like monumental fools. If this is the only way they can feel good about themselves, then I don't know what to say.

Neo-Agnostics like this definition, too: it pits theism and atheism as two dogmatic extremes between which agnosticism seems to be the only reasonable choice. Well, if an agnostic lacks a god-belief, then she is an atheistic agnostic, and is an atheist -- according to the traditional definition which we advocate. In fact, unless they portray atheism this way, neo-Agnosticism, as an outlook, has no legitimacy. But with the traditional definition of atheism, agnosticism itself, as theistic agnosticism ("God is, and that's all we can know") or atheistic agnosticism ("We cannot know if God exists") retains everything important: saying "We don't know" is still the wisest option. If I say, "I don't know if a God exists," I am an agnostic. But I am also an atheist because as an agnostic I lack a god-belief.

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Again, this is as far as I go with almost all people I meet.

Seldom (if ever) will I try to talk someone out of their faith. Many try to get me to justify my atheism, and to them I respond, "I have yet to encounter a god-claim that warrants my assent." I always talk about the god-claim and hardly ever talk about God as a subject. This keeps in focus the fact that the only thing we both can agree upon is that the theist is making a claim. Beyond the fact that a claim has been made, we are not in agreement: we are in different worlds, in fact!

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Seven years of service to people
    with no reason to believe

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