I haven’t finished reading William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion yet (my Kindle tells me I’m 75% of the way through it), but I wanted to share his description of what letting go of God was like for him. Much of his experience resonates with the process I went through.
I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded in logic and reason, requires a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. I used to think that you simply made a decision: to believe in Jesus or not. Collect the facts and then decide for yourself. But it’s not that simple. Faith is something that is triggered deep within your soul – influenced by upbringing, family, friends, experiences and desires….
Christians often talk to those who have fallen away from the faith as if they had made a choice to turn away from God. But, as deeply as I missed my faith, as hard as I tried to keep it, my head could not command my gut…. Faith can’t be willed into existence….
At first, experiencing doubts about my faith, I acted like one of those frightened beachgoers who swim madly against the current, trying to get back to what I thought was the safety of Christianity. But the current of truth had me and wasn’t going to let go of me. When I decided to stop fighting it, I felt relief – even serenity.
While I agree with Lobdell that religious belief requires a “leap of faith” that takes one outside of (believers may prefer the term “beyond”) the realm of logic and reason, I don’t agree that faith is a “gift.” The language of “gift” brings one back around to the question of who gives the gift? God? My current thinking is that some people may be more predisposed to exercise faith than others are. In that case, faith is a manifestation of a personality trait rather than a “gift.”
I agree with Lobdell that faith is “influenced by upbringing, family, friends, experiences and desires,” but, since I have no reason to believe in an immaterial “soul,” I disagree that faith is “triggered deep within your soul.” It may be triggered within one’s psyche, but that’s a different thing from a soul as religious believers commonly use the term. Initially, I didn’t like Lobdells’ use of the word, “trigger,” but, since he converted to Christianity as an adult, I can see how that metaphor may accurately describe his conversion. In the case of one born and raised in Christian faith, as I was, I see my former faith as something that was cultivated rather than triggered. The important thing that I take away by comparing Lobdell’s experience with my own is that everyone’s experience is unique. The “trigger” metaphor captures his experience, the “cultivation” metaphor captures mine; there is no one-size-fits-all experience for either believers or nonbelievers. People who deconvert from religion have many similar experiences, and they also have experiences that are unique to each of them. Finding the points where experiences converge and diverge are part of what fascinates me about deconversion stories.
Lobdell’s description of a commonly held Christian understanding of deconversion as a choice resonates with me. When I was a Christian, I held the same belief. I never in my life dreamed that I would lose my faith in God and I certainly didn’t choose to do so. The peak of my deconversion process was more painful to me than the deacon’s was to him. My impression is that Lobdell’s deconversion was much more painful to him than mine was to me. Many Christians don’t seem to understand that losing faith hurts. A lot. It hurts like hell. Many deconverts struggle, usually in silent isolation, to retain their beliefs. Lobdell’s image of swimmers struggling against rip tides to get back to the serene shores of Christianity is an excellent metaphor.
I’m intrigued by Lobdell’s statement that his head could not command his gut. That tells me that, somewhere in the back of his mind, he had lost faith long before he was able to confront that fact and say it. I think my experience was similar. Looking back, I think I spent a long time labelling my inchoate unbelief as doubt. But, once I unpacked my doubts, lined them up on a shelf and examined them closely, I realize that I didn’t – and couldn’t – believe in God. “But the current of truth had me.” I know believers will disagree with this; they will say that people like Lobdell and me were deceived, or followed our rebellious wills and passions, and other things like that. On the other hand, nonbelievers may understand Lobdell’s experience.
Lobdell’s experience of relief and serenity upon giving up his struggle mirrors my own experience. Once I accepted my atheism, I saw exciting new possibilities ahead of me. I know that many believers can’t believe that arriving at the end of the faith-to-no-faith journey can possibly bring one to a destination of peace, contentment and joie de vivre. All I can say is that it does. The deconversion process is painful, but the endpoint is worth the struggle. That is something about which Lobdell, I and other deconverts agree.
– the chaplain