What Does ‘Lapsed’ Mean Anyway When Referring to an Ex-Religionist? (Original)

I’ve long thought it strange to be referred to as a ‘lapsed Catholic’. I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic religion, which I rejected in my early adulthood. ‘Lapsed’, in pretty much every other common usage of the term, refers to a kind of just letting something go or expire, such as letting an insurance policy or subscription ‘lapse’ by forgetting to pay on time, or, simply losing interest. I think that many Catholics and others who subscribe to the religion of their parents (either because they actually believe, or, interestingly, because they just let their membership continue because they forgot or never had much interest in examining the belief system in the first place: its own brand of carelessness) are unaware that so many who no longer believe in the doctrines they were taught in their youth made an active decision to reject them for the best of reasons. For myself as it is for so many others, rejecting the religion of my youth was a long, thoughtful, difficult, yet ultimately emancipatory and joyful process. If those who refer to me and others like me as ‘lapsed’ in the sense of implying carelessness or laziness, or that we just didn’t want to put the effort into satisfying religious demands, they are doing us an injustice. Such dismissiveness may sometimes simply be thoughtless, but it more often smacks of the desire to cast aspersion on deconversion (unless, of course, we’re talking about deconversion from a rival religion!). Yet, remaining within the comforting cocoon of the belief system of one’s youth, with its automatic community membership and societal approval, seems to me to be the easy way to go; critiquing and rejecting one’s beliefs is much harder. This is especially so for religious beliefs that are accompanied by threats, such as hellfire or isolation from a community. For so many of us (and I think most of us ex-religionists), rejecting religion is not passive at all; it’s matter of acting on convictions founded on morals, logic, and a commitment to personal integrity.

I think that a core assumption behind the tendency to dismiss the validity of rejecting dogma is that ‘faith’ is necessary for a human being to be or to become a truly good human being. But why? I’ve heard it said that faith is what’s needed to pass the test for living a worthy life, that knowledge is not enough. Faith, believing without proof, is what’s really difficult, so the assumption goes; therefore, it’s an achievement that’s worthy of reward. I know I’m not alone in thinking that this assumption seems strange. As aforementioned, believing unquestioningly seems to me the easy way to go, and is what we do when we just want to go along with what feels good at the moment, or with what our buddies want us to agree with, or what self-appointed leaders want us to thoughtlessly assent to, or what our communities and families pressure us into. Assenting to the truth of a proposition fully only after careful consideration and weighing of the evidence, or judging whether we’re justified in believing it to be true based on its tendency to generate accurate predictions, is more indicative of intellectual rigor.  Humbly saying ‘I don’t know’ when the evidence is unavailable, ‘proportion[ing] belief according to the evidence’ (as Hume says of the wise man), requiring intellectual rigor of ourselves when important decisions require this: all of these are much more honest, it seems to me, and much harder work, than relying on faith or unexamined dogmas. While I know that many religionists do examine their beliefs and are confident they believe what’s true, none have the right to assume that ex-religionists have carelessly ‘lapsed’. Most of us, you can be assured, have not.


Originally posted 24th April 2013 by Amy Cools. See revised essay here

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