How Long Does the Deconversion Take? September 3, 2007

How Long Does the Deconversion Take?

My friend, August Berkshire, was mentioned in an article in Minnesota’s The Free Press newspaper.

The article talks about the cliché that you “find God” suddenly, maybe in a moment of difficulty, and you have “one of those a-ha moments.”

August says that it’s not quite the same for atheists:

But when someone decides to abandon their belief in God, things don’t happen quite so suddenly. August Berkshire of the group Minnesota Atheists says that becoming an atheist — which Berkshire defines as “a lack of belief in God, rather than a belief that God doesn’t exist” — could take three to five years.

That seems rather long to me. Personally, it took a few months from the moment I started questioning my faith to the time I “officially” called myself an atheist. Was it a matter of months or years or something else for the rest of you? Either way, I can’t think of any stories where someone instantly became an atheist.

August makes one more statement in the piece:

Berkshire compares his revelation to friends and family to a gay person coming out of the closet. When he told his family, it led to a decade of strained relations.

“They felt as though they had done something wrong in raising me, until they realized I was still the same person,” he said.

Again, my time frame was much shorter. I would say it was about five years after coming out about my atheism until my parents finally got used to it. They’ll still tell me to pray or have faith, but they know the words mean nothing to me, so they don’t push it anymore.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • miller

    It depends entirely on how you define the bounds of the deconversion process. I’d say it took about two years from the time that I discovered religious skepticism (on the internet) to the time I thought of myself as atheist (which only happened by finding the atheist community online). But if you take out the amount of time that I think I was an atheist but didn’t identify as an atheist, I’d say it only took two months to a year. But even before that, I had already stopped going to church for many years, had refused Confirmation, and was a big fan of non-religious skepticism.

    I’ve heard that Kelly of the RRS unambiguously deconverted within a day. I’m almost inclined to interpret that cynically (talk about impulse), but what can you do?

  • Sue

    I would say it took me two years from first doubt to “official” atheism – largely due to my own reluctance to face up to the loss of my faith. I spent a long time feeling that I was going crazy, that I didn’t believe in The Truth as I had been taught it,. I really struggled hard to get my faith back, and also tried to keep my doubts secret from my family – partly because I knew how much trouble I’d be in, and partly because I knew it would break my parents’ hearts. I think that if I could have been more open about what I was going through, it would have been both quicker and less painful, for all involved.

    Hello, by the way. I’m just reading your book and it’s absolutely fascinating. I still have a lot of anger with the Church, and you’re really helping me to let go of that and be more objective about religion and the people who want it.

  • It was at least a year and a half from when I started realizing that there was a difference between saying I believed all of the Christian rhetoric and actually believing it to when I could definitely say I didn’t believe it. It was another two years until I told my parents and brother, and while my mother is still coming to terms with it, the whole thing went over surprisingly well… they knew it wasn’t just a passing phase, and I don’t think they weren’t that surprised either. But it was probably three years after that before I started identifying with the term “atheist.”

  • BK

    Like anything, I’m sure it’s quite different for each individual, but I’d agree with Berkshire, it takes a bit of time for most people. Of my friends who are atheist or agnostic, almost all of them come from Christian families and it took some time, usually during undergraduate studies and the few years after, to first reject the irrational beliefs, and then become comfortable identifying themselves with a position of non-belief.

    I suppose there is a common thread with this unscientifically small sample population – the ‘deconversion’ was slow, gradual, but quite complete. There is another segment of friends who aren’t willing to make the jump and identify themselves as atheist or agnostic, but who for all intents and purposes do not hold any supernatural beliefs. They just aren’t ready to so clearly reject what they grew up with.

    For myself, it certainly did take a few years – a progression of questioning, morphing and finally understanding and accepting that what I grew up with didn’t make sense, and none of the other supernatural belief systems really make any sense. I guess it probably took about 4 years all in all.

    At some level, maybe it’s a good thing to take some time – one would be hard pressed to show that I haven’t thought through, researched and considered a variety of ideas. The outcome may be obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t during the process. It would be nice if people could just accept a rational, naturalist point of view quickly – but the process is probably important too.

  • Having never been converted to start with I’m afraid I can’t say how long it takes to deconvert. The default position, and the one that we are all born to, is that of atheism. I suppose an equivalent question would be “How long does it take for a person to stop being racist?” in that a taught set of opinions and responses shown to be in error are discarded in favour of a more realistic viewpoint. I would imagine that the answer would be: a very short time indeed.

  • Has anyone else, within the “coming out” process, had family member tell you over and over again that you are not really an atheist? Actively embracing atheism is freeing for me, because materialism makes the most sense to me. I’m always open to new ideas, but atheism is most convincing to me. But, after I came out, and had this freedom of ideas, the ability to openly discuss religion with others without feeling like I was disobeying my sect of Christianity that I was raised in, my family came back, was angry, then told me that I’m not really atheist. They see that I am open minded, and assume that I am just searching for God. I’m not searching for anything in particular. I’m curious about different philosophical ideas, things which science is unable to prove, because it’s outside the realm of science. I wonder about the natural world, the dynamic, changing biology which is found all over. This isn’t a search for God, or even a creator.

    Has anyone else run into the same problem? Is my family just following the general steps of loss? Is this their denial phase?

  • 3 to 5 years sounds about right to me. Seems to be about average for those leaving more fudnamentalist strains of Christianity.

  • Sue

    Bjorn – yes, very much so. I wish I could tell you it was a denial phase, but my parents are still waiting for me to come back to their god twenty years later. It might grow less, or less obvious, but I think believing parents who have brought up their children to believe their truth, can probably never accept that those children would believe something else: or at least, mine can’t.

  • August Berkshire

    I’m thinking (hoping) that the deconversion process may be quicker with young people these days than for my generation (I’m 48 now). This may well be due to the internet and the generally increased intellectual support for “coming out.” My 3-5 year comment was based on an informal survey of people of my generation. I’m also finding that young people today start questioning their religion earlier than my generation did. I hear stories of kids who became atheists at age 14 and I think Wow!

  • Jen

    I think it took me about 5 years, from when I first started having doubts to when I started looking into atheism. I think would have identified as an agnostic for a few years, but I never really applied the term to myself. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that it really occured to me to do research online, and that was when I started using “atheist.”

    I don’t know that I have ever heard of a real instant deconversion.

  • In contrast to everyone, I did have a moment – an instant of de-conversion of sorts. I remember the moment I first realized that the Bible was not infallable after all.

    I was trying my hand at Dan Barker’s Resurrection Challenge. For anyone who does not know, he has an online article in which he challenges the believer to place the Resurrection accounts of Jesus into chronological order without omitting any details.

    It took me 10 minutes of trying before I realized I was in big trouble. And just like conversion, this realization brought me to tears.

    My actual de-conversion is still in the process – perhaps a year in the making. I am most definitely not a Christian anymore, but I am still holding on to the slightest sliver of hope that there is a God.

  • I’m still somewhat in the middle of mine. While I’ve finally admitted to myself that I simply do not embrace the Christianity with which I grew up, I haven’t quite come “out” to all of my family yet — especially not to my parents.

    Sue said:

    I wish I could tell you it was a denial phase, but my parents are still waiting for me to come back to their god twenty years later.

    My parents will be just like this. My husband (one of those sorts who questioned everything from a very young age, so grew up fairly well atheist) finds himself eternally frustrated with the attitude they seem to hold that our not being religious is a phase that we’ll outgrow when we “know better.” Um…no, “knowing better” is exactly what brought me here!

    Anyway, like some of the previous commenters, I disbelieved religion for a while before I finally admitted it to myself. As I’ve striven to become more a person of integrity (read: same through and through!), I had to admit that my outward actions of being nominally Christian simply didn’t fit with the rationalism growing in my head.

  • Mriana

    Oh I don’t know, what if you didn’t actually convert to begin with? I mean, I have always questioned Christianity (since I was seven at least and kept my mouth shut most of the time), but it took years to realize that I never did believe in the (Zeus-like) God my relatives believed in, but I always had a belief that God was love, compassion, transendence, even awe and wonder of the universe, and alike, but it was all within us. It was a totally different concept from my relatives. I was always being told I was an atheist because that wasn’t god and I’m still told that by religious extremists. 🙄 I never really labelled myself as such, but rather had leanings towards Humanism. It took a few years after leaving my mother’s house of researching Humanism and continuing to question religion before a claimed the title of Humanist for myself. Then I ran into those like Bishop Spong who called themselves a non-theist and saw God as a human concept. I could accept the title non-theist and Humanist. After that I was told by atheists that those are really emotions and not god. That was when I started questioning my own “human concept” of god, even more.

    Now maybe I’m still wrong here, but I still feel content to call myself a Humanist and a non-theist, because I don’t rely on a personal god nor do I believe in the theistic (Zeus-like) god. Never have really and I’m still not beyond questioning even myself.

    Does any of that make sense?

  • Mriana

    Can’t get the darn thing to edit. I wanted to add, that I still haven’t actually come out to my relatives though, because even a hint at it gets them climbing the walls with insanity. 🙄

  • Danny


    I would say it took me about 10 years for me to finally say I am an atheist. In those 10 years I went from christian, to deist, to agnostic, to atheist. I can finally say that I am very comfortable with my outlook on life and with my beliefs. The burden of having to believe things that make no sense at all has been lifted and I feel great. I did not do it alone though. A lot of people and resources helped me get to this point. This is why we must continue the dialogue of what it truly means to be an atheist, so that we can reach those that may be on the fence regarding their beliefs.


  • I’ve spent a lot of time in the post-Mormon community, and one thing I’ve found is that it’s very typical to have an instanteous “moment of epiphany” (realizing that the precise claims of the religion aren’t true) like HelsSailing’s story above. It’s often a question of holding off doubts until you reach a particular tipping point, as I described in my deconversion story.

    Gong from there to atheism is often the more gradual months-to-years process mentioned in the article. This matches my own experience, as I explained in my post on how I became an atheist.

  • I suppose the time-line all depends on what you consider to be the start of deconversion. For instance, I remember going to church in elementary and middle school and seriously questioning some of the beliefs of the congregation, always asking myself what created god (since they always say he created everything), or what would happen to the billions of people worldwide who did not believe in Jesus (is god loving and forgiving, or are they doomed to hell).
    I fully understood the bible was contradictory, and by highschool I quit going to church and when asked, simply told people I “didn’t believe in organized religion”. Skip forward to a genetics professor that recommended the class read Dawkins’ “Blind Watchmaker”, and by my early 20’s I was openly atheist to myself, close friends, and immediate family members. If you count only from when I went from officially labeling myself atheist to telling my parents, it was probably less than a year…otherwise, a decade or more.

  • Stephen

    I suppose there is a common thread with this unscientifically small sample population – the ‘deconversion’ was slow, gradual, but quite complete.

    Certainly true for me. In fact I claim the all-time slowness record. I reckon from first doubts to being comfortable calling myself an atheist took nearly 30 years, though I’d completely stopped going to church after about 8 years. I suppose the reason is that my church was a very liberal and relaxed church, without the hypocrisy and corruption I read so much of in deconversion accounts on Internet. I found it difficult to be confident that all the nice, respectable, well-meaning churchgoers I knew were really mistaken.

  • Polly

    I was a Christian one day and woke up the next day disbelieving in god. Wait, no, I didn’t wake up that way. I think it was late afternoon or early evening. I told my wife – “You know, I don’t believe this god person exists! I’m an atheist. That’s it.”

    But, for a while the foundation of literalism and fundamentalism had been cracking with no change in my thinking or speaking. I had been complaining the days up to deconversion about the hypocrisy of a particular xian in our life and the seeming ineffectiveness of god to make his people better. But, my reasons had more to do with the things I’d been reading about the history of religion and the OT. The trigger was relational, but the intellectual side was established already. It was like the breaching of a DamN.

  • PrimateIR

    I was raised an atheist, so just from an outsider’s perspective, I can’t help but think that the delays are largely caused by feelings of obligation towards loved ones more than belief or disbelief.

    If I woke up one morning and suddenly “felt God,” my first step would be to contact a professional. If after exhausting that route, I still felt God, maybe I would tell family. But that would be after years in the closet.

  • south2003

    My first time posting

    Well, for me it took a period of 1 yr after having doubts but still attending church sporadically over an eighteen yr period for me to say “I don’t believe it anymore!” At first I was angry at the idea that a “god” could stand by and let horrible things happen to me and others especially at such a young age. Then I started researching what others had to say about the subject and the history of the church and so on and on. That eventually led me to have the lack of belief in a god or any gods….but for some strange reason, I like Thor 🙂

    It has now been three years. Religion is being watered down and jesus is not making wine anymore…

  • AnonyMouse

    It took me about five months to go from Christian to self-professed atheist. The first four and a half, I referred to myself as “agnostic” because I thought that “atheist” was too strong of a word, and because I didn’t want anyone to think that I wasn’t still interested in finding God.

    Then I was laying in bed one night and it hit me: if I removed the context of religion (which I had, realizing that no established religion was currently true), there was no rational reason to go on looking for a God. It doesn’t remove the possibility of supernaturality entirely – and hey, for all I know there may be a deity watching out for me – but since I cannot form a valid hypothesis for such a beastie, it is at best a hopeful philosophy. Ergo, I’m an atheist – though I still like to pretend otherwise sometimes, just for the warm, squishy feeling.

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