Monday, 26 December 2011

The Five Stages Of Grief

I want to be careful not to sound overly cheerful, about my de-conversion, since in reality it was one of the toughest things I've ever been through.  It's true that I feel peaceful about it now, as I discussed last time, but while it was still going on my emotional life was anything but peaceful.

In the fall of 2009 I had one of those rare "eureka" moments, while reading an article online. Frankly, I can't even remember what the article was about but, for whatever reason, it made reference to the famed "5 stages of grief".  It hit me, in that moment, that I myself was in the latter stages of a grieving experience.  Oddly enough, I hadn't even contemplated this possibility prior to that very moment.  I guess I had always just assumed that a grieving process was only meant for those dealing with a physical death.  Not so.

Here's how the five stages of grief manifested themselves in my own de-conversion...


In numerous posts I've mentioned the fact that, initially, I set out on this investigation with the express purpose of deepening my faith.  What I discovered shocked me to my core, but even still I went through a very long period of denial about the implications of these various discoveries.  I still remember re-assuring my wife, as I shared with her about what I was reading, "don't worry honey, I may wind up with a more liberal version of the faith but I'll still be a Christian!".  This was a conversation I grew to regret, mostly because my wife actually believed me.  As such, it was an even bigger shock to her system when I ultimately revealed that I could no longer consider myself a Christian.  (She cried the first night I told her.)

I never intentionally deceived my wife, I was simply in denial.


For me, the anger phase centered around this general feeling that I had been lied to all of my life. What do you mean there are unreconcilable contradictions in the Bible?  Actual historical errors? In the Bible?!?  You've got to be kidding me!  Why didn't I know about this?  The evidence for evolution is conclusive?  The "creationist" arguments have long ago been soundly de-bunked? Why hadn't I previously been aware?  And you mean to say my "relationship with Jesus" has been imaginary the whole time??  Mixed in with all of this was an anger toward myself.  I was beginning to realize that all of this information had been "out there", all along, but I had simply never taken the time to seek it out.  Why had I been so content, to swallow the Christian worldview without really investigating it properly?

I also found myself having new problems at home, and at work, because things were getting to me in a way that I would never normally allow them to.  It took me a while to make the connection between what was happening in those other areas (work/home) and what was happening inside of me.


I've written before about the bargaining phase, at this link, so I won't repeat myself here.  Suffice it to say, I wanted desperately to have some sort of supernatural experience that would confirm the truth of Christianity.

I'm still waiting.


I have a confession to make...I've always been a believer in the power of positive thinking.  Not in some corny new age-ish "name it and claim it" sort of way, but in the simple sense of believing that what we say to ourselves matters.  I even read a Tony Robbins book once and, at the time, it actually helped me out of a funk that I was in.  I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but it's true.

Having said that, no amount of positive thinking was enough to hold off intermittent bouts of depression during my de-conversion.  Coming to grips with the fact that Christianity is actually false was almost more than I could bear.  Everyone in my family was/is Christian, as I've already talked about, I work for a Christian company (a situation I have yet been unable to remedy), and my very identity itself has always been inexorably tied up in the Christian faith.

Who am I?  What am I supposed to do now?  How can I ever tell my family & friends about this? These sorts of questions, when experienced simultaneously, are almost enough to lead anyone to the edges of despair.  It was while I was in the midst of this on again/off again depression phase (and still struggling with anger too) that I stumbled into the aforementioned article on the five stages of grief.  I realized then that many of the problems were actually of my own making; a direct result of my stubborn refusal to move on to the final stage of the process...


It was almost exactly two years ago that I finally accepted the fact that I am an atheist.  I can still remember repeating it to myself over and over...not as a mantra, but out of shock and to get used to the feeling of those words in my mouth.  "I am an atheist."  "I am an atheist."  Holy crap, I am an atheist!!"  It felt weird.  In many ways, it still does.  Atheists aren't like I used to think they were.  Sure, I guess it's true that some of them are "angry", but not at all for the reasons I had always assumed (ie. that they're "rebelling against God", or some such nonsense).

Has anyone else, atheist or otherwise, gone through a similar grieving process?  How long did it take you to fully accept your change of heart?  What was the trigger that moved you on to the acceptance phase?


  1. On the topic of positive thinking, my favorite podcast (Reasonable Doubts) has an interesting episode at,

    It's worth checking out.

  2. I think I started with acceptance first. I went through those other stages while still a Christian and dealing with the fallout from years in legalism/spiritual abuse.

    When it finally dawned on me that I was no longer a Christian, I felt tremendous relief. Acceptance.

    However, I think I then revisited the first 4 stages of grief after deconversion as I really began to bear the weight of feeling lied to and in turn, lying to those I interacted with as a Christian.

  3. One of the most common comparisons I hear is between losing your faith and going through the breakup of a romantic relationship. (If you believe REM, the comparison works in the other direction, too.) So I think the mention of the Five Stages of Grief is eminently appropriate, even though I don't remember going through much of that myself.

    But then, if my loss of faith had been the end of a relationship, it would have been one of those where we just weren't very compatible, and we both realized it, and neither of us was particularly bothered by it, so we parted on pretty good terms.

  4. Zoe, your story sounds pretty interesting. I'd love to hear more sometime about how it dawned on you that you were no longer a Christian. What changed your mind?

    Michael, for me the comparison works better if religion were my first love/high school sweetheart, and then we broke up after 25 years of marriage. You're lucky you didn't grow very attached, to faith, before walking away.

  5. Hello, I am not saying that I am better to those who claim that they don't believe God. The imaginary friend who you think I am worshiping is helping me in my life. God said you will know them by their fruits and as of now it is so far so good. I know that I sound funny to many of you but I am not a smart guy. I am a Christian a follower of Jesus Christ.

  6. I am so glad that I'm not the only one that had to go through the grief process when I realized I cannot believe in God. I think a big part of why it was difficult for me is that I had used religion as a way of coping with the downs in life, and when I couldn't believe, I had to find another way to come to terms with everything I had gone through in life.

    1. I can relate. For me the urge to pray comes back, most strongly, when I am facing a difficult decision and/or a challenging situation. I realize now that this feeling I used to have afterward, of God having it all under control, was very soothing (a great stress reliever)!

  7. I found your blog - and I appreciate your insights and honesty. I wish you the best of luck.

    As a lifelong atheist - I am sorry to say that I don't have any profound lessons or insights I can give you. I often WISH I could shut off my brain and believe like so many do... but I can't. The Bible makes no sense to me. It never did. I can't read it without thinking it is just a bunch of fictional stories people made up.

    I was born in the rural South - everyone I knew was a Christian.

    Usually, where I grew up, the first or second question people asked you was, "What church do you go to?" - Being different was painful.

    i know it's difficult when you are the only one who can see behind the curtain - you are afraid no one will believe you - no one will LIKE you if you point out the lies and contradictions. There is that fear - and it is based on reality.

    I left the South and dated people who had no idea what Christianity even was... I lived for several years with a Chinese girl. One day she let some Jehovah Witnesses into the house - I felt trapped - but I also felt like she needed to make choices for herself- so they told their story and I honestly and openly translated their message.

    After hearing them talk for an hour about Christianity - she said in the most honest, innocent way her broken English would allow - "I tell you truth - that is the stupidest story I ever heard. Why you believe that? that don't make sense..."

    I had to choke back a laugh. It doesn't make sense. Unless you are brainwashed to believe it.

    Keep looking for another job - you will need to as one day it will become obvious to those around you that you are not like them.

    Sorry if that isn't the encouragement you wanted for being a freethinker - but this is the truth as I have known it.

    Start moving in that direction, new job... new friends... don't have a moment of truth and confess your new beliefs to your casual friends / co-workers until you are sure you can move forward. Just my advice.

    Christians - the more conservative and sure of themselves they are - the more "un-Christian" they can act.

    We have the internet now - and so you can find like thinkers - but it is still a lonely journey. My email is: songwriting at

    Best wishes on your journey.

    1. I appreciate (and agree with) your advice. Indeed it is already becoming increasingly difficult, to stay in the closet, at my Christian job. There are times that I can't resist giving my honest opinion, in casual conversation, and I fear each and every time that they may be on to me. I don't think they are, but that is my genuine fear. Thanks again, for your thoughts, perhaps I'll send you an e-mail sometime.

  8. Hey there! I know this is an old post; but I just found your blog this week, and I've been reading through it with a growing sense of relief. I've gotten to the point where I find the rhetoric on a lot of atheist blogs exhausting, even the ones I really enjoy, and yours came along at just the right moment for me, especially with all the A+ infighting lately. If the other atheist blogs are a raging river, yours feels like a peaceful tributary, which is much more my speed right now.

    It sounds like we've had a lot of the same experiences. I was as sincere a believer as I think it's possible to be for 25 years; I'm certain there are plenty of Christians who are more faithful than I was, but very few who care more about their faith than I did. I tried, I really did, but in the end, the cognitive dissonance overwhelmed me. In a way, my apostasy was perhaps slightly less jarring for me than it is for many, since I was a longtime student of Big-O Orthodox theology and had a profoundly apophatic understanding of God... which I just ended up taking to its most extreme logical conclusion. Heh.

    But that doesn't mean I didn't grieve. In a way, I'm still grieving. As has been said, it's the end of a relationship, and it's appropriate to grieve something that's been so much a part of one's life for so long. That's why I take comfort in hearing about the experiences of other former believers; there's a vast gulf of experiential distance between an atheist who has never believed and an atheist who spent the majority of their life doing their damnedest to be faithful.

    I've got to say, though, it's the weirdest grief I've ever experienced. It's unique, and I doubt I'll ever go through anything like it again. Because it isn't like losing a loved one to death or a break-up. It's like waking up one morning to realize that your beloved never actually existed at all, like realizing you've been married to a figment of your imagination for decades. It's utterly surreal, and impossible to convey adequately to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

    I'm getting over it, little by little; or, I should say, I'm working my way through it. I'm lucky enough to have a partner who went through this process several years ago, and who was instrumental in helping me to feel safe enough to finally let the last shreds of my belief go. And finding others who get it, who understand what a profound change it is to go through, helps a lot too. So thanks for writing about your own experiences. It matters to people you'll never even meet.

    Keep up the good work. I'll be reading.

    1. (I should clarify that in my first paragraph, I meant the general quarreling about A+, not any within A+ itself.)

    2. I understand what you mean to say, thanks for this Julian. There are several other atheist bloggers who avoid rhetoric, that I would recommend, namely Bart Ehrman (even though he prefers to call himself an agnostic). There is a very small fee, to join Ehrman's blog, but it's worth every penny (and it all goes to charity). His blog is one of my favorites, if not my very favorite right now. Ken Daniels is also extremely charitable, in the way he approaches the issues, even though he is on break from blogging at the moment. You can find links, for both of these sites, in my blog list to the right.

      You say, *there's a vast gulf of experiential distance between an atheist who has never believed and an atheist who spent the majority of their life doing their damnedest to be faithful*. I completely agree. Sometimes I find it difficult to relate to those atheists who have never been Christians. They just don't get what it feels like to really believe, and then to change your mind so completely, and it's a very tough thing to explain. I tend to also gravitate, and relate best, to those atheists who are former believers themselves.

      Thanks for sharing a little of your own story. And thanks for reading!

  9. I think my wife is the bargaining stage of my de-conversion, she seems to be trying to steer me towards, Christian Agnostic as a preferred label, instead of Agnostic Atheist, because even though I dont believe in a biblical God. I am agnostic by the fact that I have not studied all religions or all philosphies of God, but I am atheist when it comes to christianity. but I still see the bible as good literature and a half decent teaching moral teaching, (if you can get past all the bloodshed.)

  10. I think I am in the anger and or depression stage at the moment. I'm not as much angry that I've been lied to my whole life as I am that I can no longer be honest with most everyone I know. I was not just a typical "Sunday Morning Christian" (as I used to call people) But I was a completely devoted believer and involved in ministry for many years. I worked full time in Christian ministry most of my adult life and almost my entire circle of friends consists of the people I met during that time. It absolutely infuriates me and saddens me that I can't bring myself to tell anyone how I really feel and believe now. I know exactly how they will respond (because I know how I would have responded) and I simply cannot bear to break their hearts. I'm not mad at the folks who would weep for me... I'm just mad at the situation. I am also mad at myself for the years I spent spreading untruths. I want to go back to every person I pushed my beliefs on and apologize profusely.

  11. I'm going through the grief process and feel deeply nihilistic. The worst part is death. No reincarnation. No afterlife. No God. We're all just biological machines. Love is just chemicals. Everything was a lie. Everything. it's all so ridiculous and illogical and assuming. I feel like I've died inside.