The Christian Guide to Atheists: Never Really a Christian

The Christian Guide to Atheists


Myth: Deconverted atheists were never really Christians

There are a couple of schools of thought with regard to how salvation “works.” One that is particularly well-known is that of “once saved, always saved,” based on passages like Hebrews 6:4-6John 10:27-29, and Romans 8:38-39. The basic idea is that if someone is saved through belief in the tenets of the Christian faith, they can never be unsaved. This theology exists most commonly within Reformed thought (the “P” in TULIP – Perseverance of the Saints), but when someone deconverts from Christianity to atheism, it seems to become far more wide-spread.

Sometimes this is said because people want to believe that their once-saved friends and relatives are still saved and presumably going to heaven. But more often it’s believed for the contrasting reason, that being that the atheist was never saved in the first place because they never really believed.

Now, of course, there are some atheists who will read this and say, “Yup, that is me all the way.” However, I think it is far better to allow the person who believed or didn’t believe make this statement for themselves, rather than for us to make determinations about who was and was not a real believer.

I can understand why Christians might cling to the idea that the person was never really a believer. It can be frightening to see someone who, from all outside appearances, has the same faith that you do. It can be unnerving to realize that faith can be stripped away. Often it is easier to believe that they were never really believers in the first place than to believe that a loss of faith is possible.

In our relationship, Jason always had the stronger faith. In the times when I doubted or even simply had a more  tempered faith, Jason was all in. There was never any question for me about the authenticity of his belief. This made the loss of faith surprising to me and did shake me up with regard to my own far weaker faith. It could have been easy for me to deny that he had a genuine faith for all of those years to shore up my own doubts, but the truth is, the one thing that I never doubted was that he had a real belief in God and the Christian faith for most of our marriage.

When we start to talk about whether or not someone was a “real believer,” we negate their story and that can be a hurtful thing. For a number of atheists who left the faith, there is a genuine sense of loss when they reject their former faith. And for many, what led them on the path toward atheism was a closer examination of the faith that meant so much to them. When we deny someone the opportunity to grieve that loss of faith by claiming that it never existed, we deny part of their humanity. We say that we know better than they what they believed and we are the arbiters of whose faith is legitimate and whose is counterfeit.

Rather than making assumptions about the veracity of someone’s prior faith, ask them about the experiences that led them away from that faith. I have found that most people who I have met are happy to share their journey with someone who is willing to listen.

Next week: Atheists find life meaningless


Alise’s Disclaimer:

  • I’m one Christian and my pool of atheist friends is not vast. If you want to know about what an atheist believes, ask them. Daniel at The Barking Atheist will be co-blogging with me for this series and he is as committed as I am to having a good conversation between Christians and atheists. Stop by his place for additional thoughts on each of these topics!

Guidelines for Commenting:

  • Assume the best of the other commenters. Someone might say something that isn’t worded well. Rather than assuming that they meant it to be hurtful, please assume that they just didn’t know better.
  • Questions are good. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, ask for clarification. As much as I say this is a guide, what I really want to do is to open up a discussion.
  • No proselytizing. We’re here to talk. Not to make people think the same way that we think.
  • Full comment policy available here.
  • Makeda

    Love that you are doing this series. I’m looking forward to learning more as I intentionally look to step outside the box of my admittedly limited thought process. Thanks for being so brave friend. Love you!

  • Veronica Monique

    For each of us the spiritual journey is different and unique. Faith can change, and learning of that change in someone we once thought unchangeable can shake us to the very core. I’ve known friends who have gone one way or the other from Christian to Atheist or Atheist to Christian. It has always caused me to not only question them in an effort to understand, but also to question my own beliefs. It is always scary, and I’m always grateful to those who talk honestly about their transition. I say transition because for those I’ve spoken to it rarely is as simple as a one day they either accepted or rejected faith.

    BTW are we capitalizing Atheist/Atheism or is that a lower case situation. I would really like to know which is proper.

    • Michael Mock

      Lower case, but not an especially big deal.

  • Chuck

    Hi Alise. I think you’ve potentially missed the mark on how we eXtians feel when Christians “negate [our] story.” To me at least, I could not care less. It only confirms that I’ve made the right choice to leave it all behind me. It’s further proof that the average Christian is egotistical enough to believe that s/he decides who gets into the club and who does not.

    • Alise Wright

      Do you find this to be true regardless of the relationship that you have with the person? Like, I get it if it’s just X person on the internet, but is it the same if it’s someone who is supposed to be close to you? I ask because this one has come up pretty regularly as being hurtful, but I wonder if it’s the context of the relationship that causes the hurt.

      • Michael Mock

        It’s a very individual reaction, I think. It doesn’t especially bother *me* to have people say that I was never a Christian – but then, Being A Christian was never a big part of how I identified myself.

        • Alise Wright

          That makes sense. I definitely don’t mean to imply that anyone should feel a particular way if they encounter any of these messages, only that these are the statements that I hear most often. Of course everyone will have an individual response, which is why I appreciate comments here from my non-believing friends.

  • Bailey Olfert

    I would not call myself an atheist, but I do feel that friends who still believe do not want to hear my story of loss of faith. It is too scary for them to think about that kind of change. It upsets their equilibrium. I understand that, but it does feel like I’m the one who is more compassionate about this, which is odd given their supposed source of strength.

  • Heretic Husband

    I wonder why I’ve never heard a Christian who believes in “once saved, always saved” say, “Even though you’ve become an atheist, you’re still saved.”

    I mean, they’re basing the belief on this Bible verse, right?

    “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    Surely our own doubt couldn’t separate us from God, right?

    • Gregory Jeffers

      Right? Why is unbelief a worse sin than, say, stealing?

    • Amber Lee Peace

      I have actually heard this, but from very intense reformed theology. I hate the idea because then the “once-saved always saved” theology is stating that you have no choice over your destiny.

  • Christine Organ

    First, I love that you have opened the dialogue and are attempting to dispel the myths. As an ex-Christian, I can relate to some of this but I am definitely not an atheist. I firmly believe in God or a god-like unified connection. As a Universalist, I believe that I – along with everyone else – am saved, not because of my faith or lack thereof but because of our shared humanity. I wonder if the Christian-Atheist dialogue might be a smaller subset of a larger interfaith dialogue that needs to happen in our society. Not all believers are Christians and not all ex-Christians are atheists. There are so many shades of gray that it boggles the mind. I’d love to engage further in any interfaith discussions you have. Faith sharing is key, which is why I so much appreciate your personal thoughts and testimony and your openness to the comments of others.

  • Sarah Moon

    Thanks for this, Alise. I’m still a Christian and Abe would probably be an agnostic right now, but since both of us have left the version of Christianity we grew up with and therefore many don’t count us (especially Abe) as “real” Christians, we’ve both heard this a lot. It hurts for both of us because it’s like those who say it are invalidating our whole lives.

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  • perfectnumber628

    Good post- this is really really important. As a Christian, I feel like I need to find some tidy explanation, like “oh they never really understood what it REALLY means to be a Christian” just so my own views about the world and my faith are straightforward and make sense. But that’s not right. We have to listen to people and believe them. If someone says they used to be a Christian but then became an atheist, I have to believe them, because they know it better than anyone else.

  • Gregory Jeffers

    Saved from what? Eternal Hell? This category only makes sense if we believe in a post-mortem, abstract salvation. If, on the other hand, the saved are those whom Christ has set free from the Powers and their anti-human paradigms–such that they embody Love–then I can imagine plenty of atheists who are saved but who don’t credit God. And I can definitely imagine a buch of Christians who still need to be saved.

    • Alise Wright

      Amen. I believe 1 John 4:7 all the way. All the way.

  • Miles O’Neal

    Awesome series, awesome post. The Church really needs this sort of call and response, and as always, you do it with grace and wonderful writing.

    Side note: My take on the whole “once saved, always saved– or not” thing is, “I don’t care. All that matters is where are you with God right now?”

    Quick quiz for everyone: How many times did Jesus ask someone if they were saved? How many times did he use that term? What was the full context? No need to answer here, but something to think about, at least for those who think language natters.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Been mulling this post literally for days. I’ve been most fortunate to not have to deal with such reactions personally. I was raised secular, and shielded from family disapproval by my parents. Yet this resonates with me, because of the knee jerk reactions in my community to those who convert to Christianity, or another religion. (I’m among those who’ve had knee jerk reactions.) They are sometimes treated dismissively, derisively, with pity if not contempt. The Christian to atheist experience is not exactly the same as atheist to Christian, but I imagine there are similarities. I think everyone would like less assumptions made about them, and more listening. Everyone could benefit from learning how to respect and love someone while disagreeing with their ideas. Still thinking about this one. How to put this into practice in daily life? Lots to think about…

    • Monika Jankun-Kelly

      On an unrelated note, might there be a short post or perhaps a link to a Beginning of Life project or fund? Nothing major, just a sentence or link is all.

  • Tim2063

    Hi Alise. I found your blog from Rachel Held Evans a few years ago. At the time, I was trying to see if there were any pieces of my faith I could glue back together into a coherent whole. In the end (or perhaps I should say at the present) I couldn’t reconcile what I knew and what I wanted to believe and would describe myself as an agnostic.

    I am interested to see where you take this series. I have only come out to a very few people, mostly for fear of hurting them. I will say the reactions of those people have been pretty surprising. The youth pastor has basically ignored it and I still get roped into being a small group leader in youth group. My Sunday School teacher took it in stride and still asks me to cover the class when he is going to be away. Only my wife reacted strongly, with a very fierce threat to leave me if I did anything to undermine to our children’s faith (which I totally get and she is a wonderful wife, and she apologized later). No one, including my wife, is willing to talk about my absent faith. Considering I attend a fairly conservative Southern Baptist Church, I remain surprised by the lack of reaction.

    Going to church makes me feel like a hypocrite and I loath dancing around questions in youth group with weasel phrases like “Some scholars believe” and “I think pastor would say.” At the same time, I genuinely like my Sunday School class and my friends whose faith I no longer share.

    I guess my response to your post is I almost wish someone would react at all to my deconversion, even if it was negatively. I think your description of ex-Christians mourning the death of their faith is totally on target; I still feel that way at times. I miss the easy answers, but there is some consolation in the growing freedom from guilt and fear that accompanied my conservative faith.

    Looking forward to reading more on this series.

    • Monika Jankun-Kelly

      Tim, so sad to hear of your wife’s reaction. She threatens to leave if you discuss your values, your ideas, treats you like a threat to your kids’ character, won’t even talk about it, and expects you to keep up a pretense. Can’t even imagine how much that must hurt you. I hope her apology is a step towards understanding. While not excusing her behavior in the least, I think she must be acting out of a very great fear, a terror, that your kids will go to hell. I accept your word that she is a good person. I hope that given time to reflect and come to terms, she’ll be willing to at least talk and *listen*. I hope you’ll be able to find supportive and understanding community, if not in person, then at least online. I hope those around you progress from denial eventually to acceptance. I hope your children, no matter what they choose to believe as adults, will have the opportunity to do so freely. Please feel free to contact the Humanists of the Shoals on Facebook. We have diverse backgrounds, and offer a safe place to talk. We can also help you find a chapter of Recovering from Religion, if that would help with the “coming out” process.

      (I’m not trying to deconvert people, and neither is the HotS group. Just offering Tim a place to speak with others who may share some of his views and have similar experiences with family, and won’t expect him to pretend to be religious.)

      • Tim2063

        Hi Monika, sorry for the late reply. Although we don’t discuss my (lack of) faith much, we got past that initial reaction and we are good. Coming from the same faith tradition, I do totally understand the reaction. It is in part fear, as you say, but it is also that in many ways it is the worst possible confession I could make. If you believe God will forgive any sin except rejecting him, coming out as agnostic trumps everything else. I appreciate the invitation to HotS and will check it out. One good thing I have found about my deconversion is I see many more opportunities to find community outside church than I ever did before. Again, thanks for the kind words.

    • Greg Royse

      I honestly share your pain. I de-converted about 12 years ago. I was a worship pastor, the church treasurer and the most active member of the church board of directors. I left the church immediately My wife had a problem with my atheism – which I thought she got over as well. After about 10 years my wife came to a point where she told my parents she had to choose between “me and jesus.” I think it was more of an excuse to run off with her “old flame,” but to this day she still tells our friends and her family that I forbid her from going to church – which is an absolute lie. I think she uses it as reasoning for leaving me and the kids and running off with another man (so christian of her, right?). For me making the transition out of church was very difficult. My entire life had been built on the christian faith. My family and all my friends are christians. But I made a complete break from the church. I feel my life is now much better because of it – I don’t have to feel like a hypocrite – and my children have been taught how to think, not what to think. I understand how hard it can be – but I also know there are some wonderful people and great resources out there that would be willing to help you out. I would definitely start with the suggestions Monika has made – but I also know there are more.

      • Alise Wright

        Hi Greg! I’m so sorry for the pain that you’ve experienced.

        Could you contact me? My email is alise (dot) writes (at) gmail. I’d love to talk to you more about this. Thanks!

      • Tim2063

        Greg, that is a horrible story and I too am so sorry you had to go through it. I think continuing to participate in church is the right thing for my family right now; it may change in the future. Even before I deconverted if I heard someone say they were doing something for God or Jesus my bull$hit detector went off and it almost always seems that God wants them to do the very thing they would want to do without him.

        My kids remain one of my biggest concerns but for right now I am handling that on a “per issue” basis. A youth lesson on homosexuality needed to followed with a home lesson on how I felt everyone was entitled to commit to a life with the person they love and the scientific fact homosexuality is not a choice.

        I am very glad things ended up will for you and I hope I am successful in teaching my kids to think for themselves as well.

  • Rachel N. Smith

    Although I by no means speak for everyone (or anyone but myself, really)I do not know that many of my atheist or agnostic friends would be that offended by being told they were never really “saved” (since by all accounts, they don’t think there is anything to be “saved” from), but I know a dear friend who is heartbroken when anyone says this to her about her sister who is now an atheist. I would imagine it would be very painful for the believing family of most people to hear this explanation in regard to deconverted family members. Most of them knew that person when their faith was very sincere, prayed with and for them, and perhaps even looked up to them as one of the key players in their spiritual life. It is hard to think that none of that was real.

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  • roadrunner00

    I like this blog. Thanks for explaining. I’m an atheist and Christians put up a brick wall if you try to explain why. Trust me I was a Christian for 28 years and I did the same thing. Some terms I expected to see in this blog were “Confirmation Bias” and “Cognitive Dissonance”. These two things a lot of times are introduced somewhere in the deconversion process. Thanks for the blog.

  • Gordon Duffy

    I never mourned the loss of my faith because once I was gone it seemed like it’d been a burden rather than a blessing. I fought so hard to preserve it and then I was so happy it was gone.

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  • hewhocutsdown


    It’s hard to even respond to the absurdity sometimes. If I explain Christianity to the Christians, they think I’m an ass, but when I keep quiet, they think I’m ignorant. Never mind the fact that I’ve studied to become a pastor, my father is a pastor, and I know their tradition and theology better than they do.

    And the recommendations of Lewis or Strobel are absolutely laughable. Yes, I’ve read Lewis and Strobel and Craig and Plantiga and Rowan Williams and Paul Tillich and Gustavo Gutierrez and John Howard Yoder. Don’t even…just don’t.

    • hewhocutsdown

      Whoops, thought this was the “uninformed” post (other tab).

      Apparently I can’t read when it’s browser tabs.