The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, June 2, 2008

My Deconversion

My older sister (to whose site there is a link on the side of the page) recently suggested that we create some companion entries - hers about why she is a Roman Catholic, and mine about why I am an atheist. While we hadn't gotten started on that just yet, I figured that I would dust off the entry below and post it - it describes how I started on to my current path.

As someone who is not religious, and who, in fact, does not believe in any supernatural being, god, spirit, or otherwise, I find that I am often misunderstood by believers who find themselves unable (or, more likely, unwilling) to comprehend where I am coming from. People routinely assume that I chose to not believe (usually this is accompanied by a statement that I made said choice so that I could do whatever I wanted and lead a hedonistic, immoral lifestyle), that I dropped belief on a whim without thinking about it, or that I never was a believer to begin with. I am going to start by explaining why these explanations are nonsense, and then I am going to tell my de-conversion story.

So, as for the idea that I chose not to believe – as the story below will demonstrate, I did not choose not to believe, I simply stopped believing. To the notion that I did this because I wanted to be immoral and not feel like I'd be held accountable, I have three responses: 1) the people who make these statements are typically rather immoral people who tend to callously use religion as a shield to justify their own actions. For example, one of the people who has made this statement to me the most frequently is a member of my extended family who has been married three times and cheated on every wife on multiple occasions, has been emotionally abusive towards all members of his family for at least the last five decades, and has routinely knowingly lied or passed on malicious rumors about those who he dislikes – in short, he is one of the most immoral people I have ever known. However, he is a Christian, and as such he routinely tells everyone who is not a Christian how horribly immoral they are.

2) Most forms of Christian theology hold to a doctrine of salvation by faith alone. That is, no matter your sins, if you believe in Jesus as the messiah, you will go to heaven. If you are not a believer, then it doesn't matter how well you have lived your life, you are going to burn in Hell for eternity (the notion of an all-good god creating an eternal torture chamber is rather problematic as well, but that's the subject of an entirely different essay). So, an atheist who spends all of their time and money helping the poor is damned, while a Christian who, say, is like the relative I describe above is saved. How, precisely, is that a sign that any force is holding people accountable for their actions? If anything this sort of philosophy encourages immorality in those who believe themselves to be saved. No doubt some people will claim that a Christian will be more moral because they are moved by god to be so – to which I can only say that anyone who makes such a statement has paid absolutely no attention to the world around them.

3) Connected to the above two statements, atheists make up a smaller portion of the prison population than they do the general population, and those societies (such as much of northwest Europe) with the highest proportions of atheists and agnostics have significantly lower rates of crime, better physical health, and lower rates of sexually-transmitted diseases than countries with low proportions of atheists and agnostics. If not believing in God made someone more likely to behave in a corrupt and immoral manner, then both of these situations would be the exact reverse of what they are.

So, how about the idea that I dropped the belief on a whim without thinking about it? Well, as will again be described below, I didn't drop belief on a whim, I didn't even intentionally drop it. But, there is something else underlying this type of claim. A good friend of mine, who is both a good and intelligent person and a devout Christian, once asked me why I didn't think my lack of belief through. He didn't ask if I had, he assumed I didn't and then asked me why I hadn't. The underlying assumption is that if I had thought it through, then I would have come to believe the same thing as him. The fact that I clearly believe differently makes it difficult for him, or many believers, to accept that I may be clear-minded about this. I don't go around claiming that believers would come to my conclusions if they thought things through, yet most believers feel perfectly free to make such assumptions about me.

So, now for the last claim that folks make – that I was never really a believer to begin with. This is a common claim made by many folks about those who have left the religious flock. Perhaps it springs from the insecurities of those who make such statements. I know that I once called myself a Christian, and that I at one point believed in an omniscient and omnibenevolent god who had sent his son to absolve us of our sins. If others deny that this was my beliefs, they are denying truth and reality because the truth makes them uneasy.

So, now, on with my story…

As I say above, I was raised a Protestant Christian, though my family ceased attending church when I was around nine or ten. I remember the church we attended quite clearly – and can still find my way back to it when I visit my home town, despite the fact that I haven't set foot in it in over twenty years. I remember praying when I went to bed, I remember my parents telling us stories from the Bible, and I remember that this all went unquestioned for me. I considered the existence of God to be so clearly self-evident that I didn't understand how anyone could question it.

When I was in my early teens, I had an experience in which I found myself wondering if I was truly being a good Christian. I began to read the Bible, and though I had not attend church regularly in years, I did begin going with a friend's family from time-to-time. This was the time in my life when the fissures in the veneer of religion began to show themselves to me. I noticed that there was a sharp difference between what was stated to be moral behavior, and what was actually practiced, and I began to notice strange things about the Bible. I found that many books within the Bible contradicted each other, or even sometimes themselves.

For example: in the Garden of Eden story, we are informed that Adam and Eve have to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge in order to understand good and evil. We are also told that in eating from the tree, they have committed a tremendous sin. However, the notion of sin implies that one intends to do evil. If one does not know what evil is, one can not intend to do evil, therefore one can not sin. Now, many people will respond to this question by stating that God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from the tree, and therefore they knew it was wrong. However, God told them not to eat the fruit AND intentionally gave them no knowledge of good or evil, right or wrong, and therefore such a warning is meaningless because they could not have known it was wrong to disobey God because God had built them to not know what wrong was.

…and that's only a small sample of the odd claims in the Old Testament, and doesn't even get started on the various oddities contained in the New Testament.

So, the Bible itself caused me to start questioning Christianity. What caused me to really be alarmed, however, was the behavior of my fellow Christians. As a teenager, I had a friend who was quite devout, and a member of First Baptist Church in Modesto. He began to dress in an eccentric way, and so the leader of the youth group that he was a member of decided that this was a sign of Satan's influence (mind you, when these people lost a screwdriver while building a set for the church play, they took it as a sign of Satan's influence – because apparently Satan has nothing better to do with his time than steal tools from poorly-written and even more poorly-acted plays). My friend found himself subjected to a program in which members of the church questioned him about all matter of things, asking such probing (by which I mean stupid) questions as "do you ever dream about having sex with ghosts?" No, I am not making that up…I couldn't make something THAT inane up. After my friend refused to give up his style of dress, he found himself ostracized from the church group except for those occasions when they decided to preach at him. However, he found that while these folks may not have time to talk to him, they did have time to spy on him and harass his friends (including myself).

I also routinely saw Christians engaging in acts of abuse towards anyone who was different from the norm. The number of times that I saw eggs or water balloons being thrown from a car with a Fish ornament on its bumper while the driver and passengers yelled something along the lines of "FAGS!", "MUSLIMS!", "JEWS!" or some other such thing was truly astounding.

So, it became obvious that the Bible was not an authority, as it was self-contradictory and didn't stand up to scrutiny, and Christians were not inherently more moral than anyone else.

However, none of these things caused me to become disillusioned with religion in and of themselves, that was done by simply watching the world. The world did not fit the mold put forth in the Bible. Certainly this included scientific discoveries (and not just evolution, but also the fact that the Earth is round and revolves around the sun, both of which the Bible clearly says are not true, though it is rare to hear anyone remark upon that these days), but also events in the world at large. Watching the news, it was clear that violence in the Middle East was not building up towards a Biblical Armageddon, but was simply spiraling out of control. Famines struck millions of people, and prayer did nothing to aid them. Those who were clearly corrupt routinely got elected to political office, yet those who were honest and virtuous frequently received no reward. This was not the work of a just God, but it was also not the work of a world in the thralls of Satan – there was no method, and there was good in the world, and quite a lot of it, but it was just as likely to come from non-Christians as from Christians.

Even more troubling, I began to apply logic to propositions. I saw that logic was pretty good at determining the truth of statements about the world, and I saw that there was no logical underpinning for the existence of God. Certainly, many different logical arguments have been propped up to justify belief in God, but all of them had fatal flaws in the arguments themselves (many times the argument actually worked against itself when you started thinking about it), and so there was nothing there. I began to realize that I had no reason to believe.

My Christian world view simply did not match the real world in any way shape or form, and slowly my belief began to fade away. It was slow and subtle enough, that I didn't even notice that it was happening, but one day I realized that I no longer believed, and that I hadn't for quite some time.

At first I tried to deny it, and then I tried to reclaim my faith. I prayed, I consulted scripture, I tried to find my way back to God. And I was afraid, but not that I had lost God. I was afraid because I was convinced that the world wouldn't make sense without God (I always managed to ignore that more rational part of me that would point at that world had made no sense with God), and I was afraid that I had become one of the damned.

And then, one day, it dawned on me. I had no reason to be frightened, for there was no reason to assume in the existence of God. The world did make sense, but you had to take it for what it was and work from there, and not try to cram it into a little box called "Christianity" (or any other religion for that matter). More importantly, if I stopped praying and started working, the world could become better. I began giving to charities, I began working to comfort friends, I stopped dividing the world into the righteous and unrighteous, and simply looked at people as people. The religious often like to say that "everyone is equal before God," and yet they also convince themselves that God will bring some to Heaven and banish others to Hell, meaning that clearly, not everyone is equal. However, without religion mucking up the works, everyone was equal in estimation, and what made the differences were our actions and intentions, not our alleged destinations. It was clear to me now that someone who serves other people and works for the betterment of the world was a good person regardless of their religious ties, and that someone who was abusive and destructive was a bad person regardless of their religious affiliation.

In short, the world, while not perfect, wasn't beyond saving, and it was possible to make things better for all of us. And, contrary to what most people want to believe, becoming a non-believer made me more moral because I stopped justifying the actions of myself and others, and began thinking in terms of the greater good for people in this life, rather than focusing on saving myself in the next.


Dave Haaz-Baroque said...

Great post, but I just want to make one quick clarification.

Oddly, when First Baptist Church dragged me through their little programming session, talking about my clothes was curiously absent from most of their harping. They talked about my music collection, the fact that I lived in the basement, they criticized my grandparents for being essentially Unitarian, they talked about the fact that I liked Patrick Nagel art (it's smut and he draws men too effeminate) but they pretty much laid off my clothes, possibly thinking it was too obvious a target.

But the one thing that they spent the most time on; the thing that left them sputteringly exasperated... what they really went after was my artwork, and most particularly my writing. I had been midway through my second draft of 'The Aarzullan Archives' at the time, and they actually tore it up in front of me, saying that I could no longer write or draw except to spread God's message, because demons were spreading their words through my writing (seriously).

To think - what if they saw my work now? The Aarzullan Archives was largely innocuous. That draft didn't even have swearing!

If the church had just harped about my clothes, I probably would have just rolled my eyes and carried on. After all, I was used to people trying to change the way I dressed. But the Church had crossed that final line of trying to have a say in my art and writing (not to mention that they were driving me crazy with surveillance).

They also told me never ever to speak to Steve, because he'd left the church a bit earlier. When people tell you not to even listen to dissenting opinions, it should be a tremendous warning sign.

I don't know how many weeks of writing were thrown away when they tore up that manuscript.

Anthroslug said...

Thanks for the clarification, Dave. It's been sixteen years,a nd clearly my memory of the event has become somewhat muddled. I just recall that they were behaving in a way that was clearly at odds with the public image that they tried to portray (I remember their "We accept you as you are" advertisements, for example), and that you were caught by that nonsense.

Now that you have clarified it, it seems like a worse transgression and behavior than I remember.

Chris said...

Well, I didn't have quite the egregiously charged religious "atmosphere" you folks had considering my parents went to church in Berkeley, where everything is wacky. It was interesting to read that for you, it was a gradual process to step away from religion. For me, even as a kid, I never bought into the whole religion thing since I saw being forced to go to church every Sunday a complete waste of time. The crap they lectured on was disinteresting and all that talk of this guy coming back from the dead to save us again never made any sense. Therefore, I never deconverted because I didn't have beliefs to convert from.

Good entry, Matthew, thanks for the write-ups and keep em coming!

Peter Graves for President!

Steph said...

I need to get my post up soon. Look for it sometime in November.

That is, no matter your sins, if you believe in Jesus as the messiah, you will go to heaven.

This notion, which I discovered during my romp through the same First Baptist that Senor Haaz-Baroque went through, is one of the reasons why - after years of pondering - I chose the Catholic church. The idea that you are "saved" through a simple belief despite your actions strays far from the Catholic concept of being responsible for your actions, thoughts and deeds on this earth. Rather, we are expected to make a continous effort throughout our lives to serve our purpose (ostensibly this purpose is as an example and to be of service to others) thoughtfully and with constant care taken to re-evaluate how we should best use our time here on earth.

Also, another common misconception about Catholicism is that our faith is based upon fear. True, there are people who cling to it out of fear but our faith (and I suppose you could say "salvation" by default) is based upon the premise that man is made to be spiritual, and the maintenance of that spirituality/relationship with God requires constant attention and a strong sense of responsibility to discover truth.

Yeah, there are a lot of people who's attendance in church is based on fear just as there are many people who cling to science because the notion that mystery may persist despite man's attempts to discover is too frightening. Still, that should not diminish the fact that original premise upon which our faith is based is a sincere desire to fulfill our purpose in this life in a way that honors our origins.

Also, one tiny thing and I only mention this because people say it me ALL THE FREAKING TIME and then back up and give me a look as if they have delivered some "Aha!" death knell to my faith when all they've really done is show what a poor debater they are; saying that a particular faith (in my instance, Catholicism) is a sham simply because many people who subscribe to it engage in less-than-Christian behavior is, well, nonsense. If you are, like me, a believer then you accept that there is a genuine truth that lies outside of mankind. The poor behavior of others who claim allegiance to that same spiritual journey has zero effect on the veracity of that truth. It just means that there are a lot of hypocrites who've joined the club. Which is to say humans are involved.

I will be the first to throw a few of my fellow Catholics under that particular bus. There are a lot of people who claim to be Catholic and then deliberately engage in lifestyles and behaviors that are an affront to our faith. However, I don't disbelieve in God because the guy in the pew next to me is living in with his girlfriend and has a God Hates Fags sticker on the back of his car. It just means that the guy next to me is a jerk. God's existence remains unaffected.

P.S. - I don't have any idea what church our family attended. I don't recall ever attending any church regularly since before I was four years old and that building was demolished years ago.

Anthroslug said...

"the notion that mystery may persist despite man's attempts to discover is too frightening"

I hear this frequently described as a reason why people gain a fascination with science, but, really, it isn't any more true than the notion that just because some religious people are hypocrites means that the religion is false. The basic premise of science is that you can get closer to the truth, but you will never really arrive there - in a sense, it's the old saying that the journey is more important than the destination. That being said, the sites along the way to the journey may have a good deal of value (such as, say, antibiotics), but the mystery will only deepen, never dissapear.

Also, you are correct that the fact that there are hypocrites in a religion doesn't prove the religion false, but that's not what I was saying. Like many people, I had held to the idea that religion tended to increase the moral quality of people's behavior, whether the tenets were true or not. This added some wieght to religion in my mind (though I will agree that it is not necessarilly a logical connection), and so when I discovered that this was not true, it was another blade of grass added to the camel's load.

As to church - we were attending church while I was in school - one of my school mates (from both Salida School and Sunday School)and I used to try to play with Star Wars figures without the Sunday School teacher noticing (we usually failed). I don't recall exactly when we stopped, which is why I left that deliberately vague in the entry - but I was older than four, I think I may have been as old as eight, though I don't recall, and I may have been as young as six or seven.

The church was still standing the last time I looked, though that was probably some years ago now.

Anthroslug said...

One other thing - I do think that church's that hold their members responsible for their own behavior in the here and now likely do have a potential to modify the member's behavior. Whether it is for the good or bad depends on the ethical code of the church.

So, I would not be surprised if the Catholic practice of confession has a beneficial impact. While the attitudes of churches such as the First Baptist discussed above likely has no impact, or even negative impacts.