The most crucial stage in any young apostate’s story comes in the months following deconversion. The initial act of coming out as non-religious is exciting, full of the kind of adrenaline that makes the world bright and clear, that rattles your nerve and makes you feel alive. This settles into a steady revolutionary glow, the simple happiness of nonconformity and rebellion against tradition.
But, like the chemistry of any relationship, that fades too, and you are forced to confront reality. Humans by and large need community, acceptance, and consensus in order to believe anything. If you remain in your original religious environemnt, community and consensus will not be found, and your new identity will begin to crumble. These days, the apostate will seek solace on the internet, browsing atheist forums and watching videos of George Carlin and Ricky Gervais til the early hours of the morning. But at the end of the day, the internet is just voices in the dark, unable to provide the kind of personal engagement we need to believe and to belong.
Because no matter what we rationalists claim, giving up faith is not a simple matter of evidence and logic. Apostasy is also the rejection of an identity, often a core identity, an act equivalent to renouncing your citizenship, or deciding to never speak of Joss Whedon again. It is casting yourself loose from old social ties in the hope that someone, somewhere will catch you.
It hurt, and I was scared. I’ve learned since that the one thing I’m afraid of most is being afraid, so I hid, from the pain and from the fear. I buried myself behind walls of intellectualism. I pretended that the pain and fear were irrational, that they didn’t exist at all. I fancied myself a rare true rational soul in a world of emotion-driven and irrational people, failing to realize that ignoring one’s own emotional state is as irrational as is ignoring any other empirical evidence.
And yet the pain got through. I lost myself in countless religious arguments, feeling the need to prove myself over and over again to people who would never believe that my viewpoint was valid. I watched the hell out of George Carlin and Ricky Gervais. And despite the fact that my family and most of my friends accepted my change, I still felt harried, felt like I no longer belonged.
I needed space and anonymity, an environment where I could introduce myself as a nonbeliever and be accepted as one, without spending hours explaining how and why I’d changed. I don’t know if I realized that consciously, but I came up with a solution nevertheless: a plan, hatched six or seven months after leaving PHC, to travel around the world without flying. Consciously, I thought it would be a grand adventure. Unconsciously, it was an excuse to get away, and stay away, until I was ready to come back.
I rented an apartment in my hometown in Montana to drum up the work I’d need to make it all the way, and divided my time between that, old friends, and reading. The structures of my old mind continued to collapse, leaving nothing behind but dust.
I was entering the deep woods, and though the clear paths were already fading, the only way I saw was forward. In June of 2011, I boarded a container ship bound for Antwerp. Steaming out of the Charleston harbor, dolphins leaping in our wake, I felt a crack in the emotional impassivity I’d cultivated, felt some of that that old shivering excitement. The wind was stiff and salty, and everything was changing.