Compelling Conversation through Deconversion

A Pastor’s Deconversion

A chasm of distrust lies wedged between religious and secular world views, preventing meaningful dialogue and sustainable engagement. Often, those who make the journey from religion to secularism are scathing in their indictment of those left behind. Drew Bekius refuses that course. The story around which he built his life crashes around him with cinematic drama. But standing in the wreckage, he draws on a strength of commitment he learns is all his own, and turns it to the work of building dialogue. In an extraordinary offering, Bekius invites those on both sides of the chasm to find their way toward one another and as they do so, to build an alternative to rancour and path toward understanding.
So Many Stories

I have read my share of deconversion stories over the past decade, almost all of them written by men, and most of those long retired. Some served the church through long and well-respected ministries while others wandered the edges of religious belief, poking at it over the years, alone on their journeys of discovery.

Liberal clergy rarely write these books. Their theological education opened them to the world beyond the literal before they ever stepped into their first pulpit. But those who put their stories down on paper wrestle with the dissonance that scorched their ministry, impugned their integrity and left them scarred by sadness, confusion, and anger. Their writing is an exorcism of sorts, naming the betrayals of the wider church, naming, too, the betrayals of their own lack of courage. Such stories are hard to read.

The liberal, mainline deconversions of the laity aren’t usually labelled as such. Their authors labour, instead, over the task of mythologizing a story they were taught was true. The process of their exploration often allows them to remain within their homes of faith. Their books are filled with references to progressive authors who invited them to question and search: John Shelby Spong, the late Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and Bart Ehrmann. Their losses add up to a few good hymns, a sacrament here or there, and the complacent ignorance that might once have soothed them through the Sunday morning services they attended.

Evangelicals who walk the deconversion path, however, have no patience with the texts that have betrayed them. They eschew the liberal taste for myth and soar completely free of religion’s ancient bonds. But their stories often sting with anger and betrayal, their fury unleashed against a belief system they now label as a sham. Whether having served as pastors or offered their talents for the building up of the faith, they reject the Christian story vehemently, finding in it nothing of redemption and only the emptiness of lies exposed. The losses these authors have accounted are wives and children, communities and livelihoods. They have been stripped of more than most liberals could every imagine and paid a cost that has been dear.

I have never blogged about any of these stories or books. The work of reading them has been labour enough for me. Perhaps the stories have been too personal. Or, despite the isolation out of which they each were written, too similar, too routine, even, for me to believe they might be of interest to my readers.

A Different Story

But I’m going to blog about Drew Bekius’ story, The Rise and Fall of Faith: A God-to-Godless Story for Christians and Atheists, because his story is different.

At first glance, you might think the story has the same features of every other deconversion story. It is saturated with the personal. It follows a familiar path, worn by those who have shared their coming out of faith with me before; it is not extraordinary in its features though the crash and burn is both dramatic and entire. Nor is it beyond what I consider a routine telling of the process of deconversation, the ignored questions, the background noise, the moment of awareness, the heavy burden of doubt, and the freedom that comes when belief is finally dislodged. It is a story that, like all the others, is a story of betrayal and loss. It is a story, like all the others, of coming to know and honour oneself. It is a story, like all the others, that tells of the path that leads away from the magical thinking of faith.

But it is a different story  because it isn’t a simple monologue. Drew’s story is an invitation to dialogue. And that makes all the difference.

An Invitation to Dialogue

We have been living in a world divided for a very long time. Many of us remained ignorant of that until we woke up early in November to a new reckoning: a morning that captivated our attention, dragging us beyond our disbelief into a shocked and frightened awareness. Over the course of a brutal campaign, divisiveness had been honed as the weapon of choice and the new order had played it well. Those of us who believed in engagement, consensus, and human dignity as a right, were caught off guard, unable to come to terms with the new reality that anger had created, its power the added thrust needed to win.

Much of the divisiveness that won over the American people was rooted in a world that is fast-disappearing: the world of white, male, evangelical privilege. Those who had been feeling the loss of that privilege prevailed, bludgeoning social democracy with vitriol and derision and pointing to the many groups it was too easy to blame: immigrants, Muslims, women, established politicians. Clear these out of the way and American would be great again. How very short-sighted. How very wrong.

In response, the world turned out to stage the largest protest ever seen against the intertwined threats to human rights that evangelicalism and wealth might prove to be. Millions walked in groups as large as hundreds of thousands and as small as a dozen, a demonstration of solidarity that wrapped the globe in pink and power. It bridged division. It united the world.

Drew Bekius, Author, Humanist Coach

I don’t believe you can read Drew’s book of deconversion without feeling his devotion to his craft, to telling the story of faith, to the guidance of those who looked to him for encouragement and leadership. He was a man who worked at perfecting his ministry in every way possible. And he was a man who demanded much of himself and his faith, challenging himself to walk just another step with a devotion he was sure would bring him closer to his Lord. And finally, he is a man committed to unravelling his life, to doing the crash and burn with a flourish, who is able to finally walk away both cleaner and stronger for his failure.

Amidst the unfolding of his story of deconversion, Drew calls us to a conversation, ending each chapter with questions framed for discussion: questions for evangelicals; questions for secular humanists; questions for both those groups to explore together. He has emerged from one world into the other but his love for the people of both remains strong. There is no derision here. There is no arrogant leave-taking. There is only honesty and a call to conversation. It is a call we are desperate for and his book arrives at a critical moment in our history.

Healing the world.

The work of tikkun olam, healing the world, is ours to do. It has been, in the Jewish tradition of its roots, traditionally the work of women who bring the ravaged back into wholeness with the lighting of the Sabbath candles. But here, in Drew’s book, it becomes a work we can all engage because it starts with a conversation, with the calling together of mutually exclusive perspectives, of two world views that have only ever seemed to wish to annihilate each other. Drew challenges us to risk the failure, the divisiveness, the arrogance of our own perspectives and the arrogance of those of others. He does so because he has given his own life, his comfort, his world view, and his belief for this greater faith in the conversation and the people we might yet become.

3 thoughts on “Compelling Conversation through Deconversion

  1. Doug Roberts

    I always enjoy your Blogs, Gretta, and this one is particularly poignant.

    I’ve never really been through a “deconversion”, albeit I was raised by a devout Christian mother, and briefly dabbled with evangelical Christianity in my 20s, I admit the myths and magic of traditional religion have never really been persuasive to me.

    However, I have enjoyed a continual spiritual awakening throughout my life, to the point where many mysteries about reality, consciousness, and the hereafter, are almost certain to me.

    For many years, I regarded religion as a positive force: a form of spirituality which, though flawed, was nevertheless a better way for many to find morality and purpose in their lives. The absurdity of the stories in most Holy Books seemed quaint and harmless, extremists and evangelicals who take the words of these books literally were innocuous.

    However, in recent years (particularly since the advent of the Internet), I’ve become more and more aware of the abuse, both mental and physical, that traditional religions cause. My opinion of religion has changed dramatically, and I find myself today with an ineluctable abhorrence – even hatred – of such ideologies.

    It’s not for me, personally, that I find this anger arises, but for those who are either mentally enslaved by dogma, and especially, for those who are the victims of it – homosexuals and children in particular. (Proselytizing to children is mental abuse; but there are many far more serious crimes against children perpetuated in the name of religion, such as those cast out as witches by Christian parents in the Congo, the babies who contract herpes after having their genitals sucked by Rabbis in orthodox Jewish circumcisions, the young Islamic girls who are married to, and raped by old men.)

    Although I believe that the majority of those who adhere to one religion or another, do so out of a genuine desire to live a better life, it’s clear this is a false sense of righteousness. Evidence seeps through, that religious folks are no more virtuous than anyone else, and in many ways, are bigoted because of dogmatic thoughts on sexuality, and other allegedly “moral” issues.

    Many Christians and Muslims, for example, claim to love everyone, but reserve a special form of prejudice against homosexuality.

    When I hear the term “Christian”, it immediately reminds me of the vile stories in the Bible, of the infanticide, the incitement to murder and the horrendous character of God as described. It reminds me that in some places, people read that same book, and obey the words literally….which, after all, is a reasonable approach if one sincerely believes it to be the Word of God.

    Whilst I recognise the need for dialogue from all sides on these issues, I find it harder and harder to accept religion in any form. I find this rage rising up from the depths of my spirit, against these ancient myths, which have caused, and continue to cause, daily abuse, suffering and death.

    That religion likes to claim a monopoly on morality and spirituality is, to me, ludicrous….for religion is neither moral, nor spiritual in nature. If anything, I now see it as the very antithesis of these things – imprisoning people’s minds with ancient dogma, preventing them from discovering their true morality, or their real spiritual nature.

    So, as one of the “Nones”, I find myself unable to quench the anger and resentment I feel towards religion. Not, I should point out, towards religious adherents, but to the ideologies themselves.

    1. Gretta Vosper Post author

      You experience is not unique, Doug, though so many simply walk away in indifference, a position I think is unhelpful. I’ve just finished two weeks steeped in a Christian environment at Chautauqua Institution. The people are lovely. Even the evangelical believers or those so engaged in the spiritual pursuit that they would be bereft without it. As you say, it isn’t the people, it is the ideology. But those with whom I resonate most are those who find in religious gatherings and communities, something that is essential to them. And the transfer of the wisdom around how to create places where people can explore those “essential” elements of themselves is, I believe, the next most important step even as I believe it may be too late. Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. garuba fredericks

        Hi Doug.
        I resonate with the way you feel. I grew up as son of a clergyman I agree with you that traditional religions tend to cause abuse, both mental and physical and this also affected my perception of religion, However reading Gretta and about her giant strides at WESTHILL made me start to separate the religious ideology from the people….PEOPLE ARE GOOD, it is the religious ideologies that poison everything..

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