I’m taking a stab and responding to this, not because I serve as a model of how to rebuild one’s social network after deconversion, but because it’s a crucial challenge we all face as former believers, one that we respond to in different ways and with varying degrees of success. I’m hoping this blog can play some small part in meeting that challenge, both for myself and for those who happen upon this site.
On the one hand, I have been pleasantly surprised by how little resistance I have received on the part of believers as I transitioned out of faith. To be sure, I did face pressure to reverse my views, some of it unpleasant, but a few of my Christian friends have continued to remain friends, and we still get together periodically to shoot the breeze, chatting about our daily lives and sometimes delving into mostly cordial theological discussions. I enjoy that very much, even if these friends might be partly motivated by a desire to help bring me back to the fold.
Having posted my story online in 2003 and then having published my book in 2009, I’ve had the privilege of hearing from a good number of individuals who are struggling with their faith or who have put it behind them. So in a sense, this has provided me an online social network to help make up for the rich social life I enjoyed in the church, but as much as I enjoy it, conversing online is not as satisfactory as meeting face-to-face and participating in a variety of activities.
In addition, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet up in person with a few individuals in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that have read my book and who share a similar evangelical background and a common deconversion experience.
It can be difficult to find others like this, however, and it’s not practical for all deconverts to write a book and wait for readers in the area to respond. There are freethought meetup groups in most metropolitan areas, two of which I’ve sporadically attended in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. For new deconverts who feel more comfortable socially among Christians than among hard-core life-long atheists, though, attending these groups can be awkward, and it can be difficult to connect with those who have no present or past connection to the evangelical Christian world. In addition, after the first few meetings, for me it tends to become repetitious to continue rehashing why we are no longer religious.
In a recent Point of Inquiry podcast interview (starting around minute 43), Daniel Dennett had this to say about how he responded when asked by freethought groups for advice on how to proceed: "I often shocked them by saying, 'Well, why don't you get together with all your members and see if you can figure out a cause that you would all tithe for.' And their eyes goggle and they realize, 'Oh my goodness....' I said, 'How about putting together a group and helping rebuild houses in the wake of Katrina under the banner of your group?’ There's lots of things you could do, local things, international things, and just put the lie to that "[one can't be] good without God" idea. To me there's nothing more boring that just sitting around with a bunch of atheists saying, 'Oh my gosh, God doesn't exist, and aren't those people stupid to believe in God?' 'Right, right, we got that a long time ago. Now, what are we going to do?'"
I’m with Dennett on this--I think having a cause greater than ourselves or our ideologies can be a key to a fulfilling social life. One danger of this approach is that our charitable deeds can turn into merely a vehicle for defending or propagating our ideology, not simply as a means of making our communities and our world a better place. In other words, in participating as a group in these causes, I don’t want to help others “in the name of atheism” so the recipients of our good deeds (or others who witness them) will become nonbelievers or think better of nonbelievers. That’s called giving with strings attached, and is already far too common (though not universal) in the religious world.
At the moment I don’t have any firm ideas on how to start up groups of former believers with shared deconversion experiences who are eager to make the world a better place, but I’m hoping to start by posting this blog article. Because those of us who fit this description are generally few and far between, or at least unknown to each other, it seems the place to start is to establish an online presence, a call to identify who we are, where we are, and how/when we can come together to do what. I don’t have any concrete details yet, but I’m looking for ideas. Perhaps you can share your thoughts on how to get started...