Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Deconversion Story

This is the story of my deconversion from Christianity. I originally posted this account on the Forum of the blog "Unreasonable Faith". I hope you'll enjoy it.

I have been raised as a Christian, having attended services for most of my life at a small ELCA Lutheran congregation. I was baptized as a baby, and I was confirmed around the time I entered high school. I attended Sunday school, Bible studies, and church camps. I sang in the choir and I was an acolyte, usher, and greeter.

However, despite my active involvement in the church, I had not thought much about the basic essentials of my beliefs. I had read large portions of the Bible (I still haven't gotten myself to read it all - I've been meaning to do it), and I prayed often, but while I grew up, I was never confronted by any serious challenges to my perspective. I had friends who went to other churches, but I didn't really know anyone who was non-religious. I had this default assumption that there was a God, and that most of things I had been told in church were true.

I was never really one to question authority, and I enjoyed church greatly, and I had a lot of friends there at first. I wish I had a higher voice so I could sing "I Wander As I Wonder" in the proper key. That hymn is eerie, and that is why it was always one of my favorites.

Many things happened to me when I was in junior high and high school. Several rifts developed in my church, attendance lowered, and we had some pastoral changes. I also first learned that some of my friends were atheists or agnostics. It actually shocked me at first -- I grew in a fairly conservative community. Every time I drive on the highway, I spy a large billboard which declares "Trust In The LORD With All Your Heart". I thought to myself, 'atheist?! I don't believe that.'

But I didn't really know them that well, so I shrugged it off.

When I was a junior in high school, one of my closer friends let me know that he is an atheist when we were discussing religion. I started debating (casually) with him and his friends about religion during our study hall period. I was the Christian, and there were two others who were atheists.

Some of the questions he asked made me reflect for a bit, but I wasn't very phased. I didn't have a literal interpretation of the Bible, and I accepted evolution, so we actually agreed on a lot. I wasn't affected by a lot of the arguments he used in the areas that we agreed. However, looking back on the experience, I think if my friends had spent more time on how those points specifically apply to religion, I would've been more receptive. But I also realize that they didn't want to push me too hard, because we were friends, and they didn't want to ruin our friendship, which I also appreciate and understand.

He did ask me why God would create homosexuality and condemn it in the Bible? I didn't know - I was unsure. I didn't think he would. My friend referenced Leviticus, and I pretty much ignored it, I have to admit. I could've been more open-minded.

He also wanted to know if I didn't take the Bible literally, how did I *know* which parts were metaphorical and which were not? I gave an answer I had already heard, that the Holy Spirit guides the believer in the interpretation of the Bible. If I were my friend now, I would've emphasized the divisions in church history. I do remember that my friend emphasized the corruption of certain church leaders, but I always brushed these criticisms away by saying that God's church was for imperfect people, as everything human in this world was imperfect. Maybe I would've been more receptive if he had argued specifically that the existence of so many divisions on interpretation and meaning of scriptures, which accord with cultural practices, makes it supremely unlikely that the texts are divinely inspired. However, that is a complicated argument and hard to fit into a 25-minute study hall period, and I know that when atheists talk to Christians, the harder they argue, the more militant or harsh they seem. I know this can be the case, so I can again understand why my friend didn't press me harder, and I do appreciate his willingness to put our friendship ahead of mere ideological differences.

When I was a senior, my English teacher exposed me to existentialism - I started reading Camus and Sartre. However, I maintained that this was fully compatible with my Christianity, and in retrospective, I don't think that this was a contributing factor to my deconversion.

I also began reading a lot of Vonnegut when I was in high school. I read Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Slapstick. Those are all excellent, and I also read Vonnegut's brief essay autobiography, the title of which I cannot recall. I <3 Billy Pilgrim! But I hated the ending of Cat's Cradle - I despised it. It was so irredeemably depressing and gloomy. Somehow, Slapstick was the most amusing and intriguing book of the four, though it seems to be the least popular and the least well-known. There are many excerpts about tribal and community ties which really hit home what it means to be part of a group of people with the same feelings and the same beliefs. I think that book did lay some of the groundwork for my later epiphanies.

Finally, last year I was a freshmen in college. The summer before I left, I had to arrange a schedule of coursework. I was trying to fill my schedule with general education requirement classes, and I wanted to take World Politics very badly. Instead, my counselor stuck me with Forms of the Sacred, a class on Eastern religion. This would prove to be quite fateful.

The second or third week of school, we also had an activities fair. I was out walking after lunch one day, and I strolled along the path in the main common area to visit the booths for all of the clubs on campus.

I spied a banner for a non-religious group. Intrigued, I stumbled over to the display, and asked the volunteer about the nature of the club. I was told that this was a new club for discussing religion, which would primarily be focused on atheists and agnostics. Since I had discussed religion with my friends in high school, I added my information to the mailing so I could stay in contact with the club.

So two or three weeks afterward, I am sitting in my religion class, nonchalantly scribbling notes. We're talking Hinduism, and my professor is going off on a tangent. My ears perked up. The tangents were what made that class - I loved my professor's sense of humor and offbeat commentary.

So anyway, he's talking about all of the different religions in the East, and how they relate, and he casually lets out that some scholars speculated that there might be a link between the proto-religions of the East and some of the western religions. Normally, that would just be an interesting tidbit, a typically inane musing which may fascinate those students who are paying attention.

But that careless slight, that unintended observation -- it struck me. I really had an existential crisis. I felt a surge of doubt paralyze me at that very moment; thoughts of "what if this (my beliefs that I had grown up with) isn't true??!!"

"What if this isn't true?!"

Doubt. I was struck by doubt. Nagging, overwhelming, unceasing, terrifying doubt.

I suddenly realized that I had no idea why I believed what I did.

That was the beginning - that was the day I quit believing in "faith".

And of course, one of the first ever meetings of the atheists and agnostics organization was scheduled later that very week. So I went, not knowing what would happen. All I knew was uncertainty.

So I went. The chairs were arranged in a circular fashion. One of the first things that occurred, since everyone was just getting to know each other, was that each individual in the circle was supposed to say a little bit about themselves: what year they were in, where they were from, something cool about themselves, and if they were an atheist or agnostic, when they became one.

I was one of the last people to be reached, so I got to hear almost everyone else's accounts first.

I was quite nervous at that moment, I must admit. I really didn't know what to say -- I hadn't really reached out to anyone by that point. When I first told my Catholic roommate that I was going to go to the meeting, he looked at me with suspicion because I had already told him that summer that I was a Christian. I told him that I was a Christian, but that I was going anyway because I was interested in the group.

It was sort of a fib. I wasn't sure anymore if I was a Christian or not, because of the doubt that I was experiencing at that time.

Finally, it was my turn to speak. I related my year, where I was from, my hobbies, and my name. Then I stammered something like this:

"Well, I'm not really sure what I believe right now. I was raised as a Christian, but since I've gone to college..."

My brain fizzled. What was I going to say?

"I think my faith has..."

I couldn't say anymore, but I took my hand and made a downwards motion.

In the days before the meeting, I had begun to do some additional research about religion, and I continued this after I returned from the meeting.

Every time I examined my old beliefs, they made less and less sense to me.

The Bible seemed incomprehensible to me. I started asking a lot more questions about it that I couldn't answer. The evidence for a historical Jesus who did the things the Bible claimed was less than I would have liked to believe (I had never actually thought about whether he actually had existed and did the things the Gospels said he did.) It seemed there was too much cruelty and suffering in the world. Evolution and naturalism seemed to be performing spectacularly. Christianity was failing miserably. Everywhere I turned, it appeared that the answer could be better explained if there were no all-good, all-loving, interventionary god.

Finally, there was one particular area that seemed to be the nail in the coffin for my prior religious beliefs.

All the other religions in the world. I had heard Krishna call for grace - I had heard Buddha call for compassion in the wake of suffering - I had heard creation stories which sounded more plausible than the ones I heard growing up. "There was a time when there was neither nothing, nor something". That's a real creation story.

Frankly, Christianity became just another religion, just another faith, and just another mythology. People who believed in other religions seemed to be just as moral as Christians. People who were Christian based their moral ideas on the same principles that non-Christian people used.

And almost all of the so-called religious experiences claimed were more similar than they were different, no matter what the religion.

I remember reading of Near Death Experiences where Native Americans saw a vision of a great chief, where some Hindus saw a great bureaucracy in the sky, and Christians saw heaven and hell.

And even if that weren't enough, I began reading about neuroscience. I became convinced that there is no such entity as the soul. If I needed yet another nail in the coffin, that was definitely it.

The experiments demonstrate that when the brain is harmed, all of the things which have traditionally been identified with the soul are damaged.

What is the soul? Isn't the soul the essence of who you are? And what is the essence of who you are? When the brain is damaged, the essence of who you are changes irrevocably. So when the brain is damaged, is your soul damaged, or is your soul the brain? But we know what happens to the brain when you die -- it rots. So much for the after-life? How can you have a soul to be judged without the brain? It's not plausible.

Lastly, I was already an agnostic atheist for many months before I read "The Evolution of God", but it really cemented many of the conclusions which I had already reached. The evidence which emerges from the sections about political influences on the Old Testament, why the Israelites came out of Canaan and not out of Egypt, and why Paul sold Christianity the way he did in the days of the early faith really make it difficult for me to revert to Christianity or any religion similar to it.

I am an agnostic atheist. I believe that most, if not all, of the gods ever worshiped by humanity are implausible. I do not know if there are ultimately any gods or higher powers. However, I live as if there are none.

Even if there are gods or higher powers in or outside of the universe, I believe that I am living more deeply in communion with them by not adopting a set of beliefs which I am 99% sure are false, and by trying my best to live a moral life based on empathy and respect.

I know that I have prattled on at great length, but I thank all of you for sharing in my journey and my experiences. Thank you.

9 comments:

Gideon said...

What you're describing isn't a "deconversion", because, you would have had to be converted beforehand. It sounds like you were raised in the faith, and that isn't like being converted. I don't even like the term "conversion", myself. It sounds like you're an electrical appliance needing a certain voltage or something.

People like me who were not raised in Christian homes are the ones that get "converted". As to your story, I'm not surprised you became doubtful attending a humanist-run institution. You never had to reason your way into your faith, you were merely born into it, not knowing anything else. I came from the world those friends of yours did, and I could argue against everything they challenged you on.

That bullshit about God creating homosexuality... why would He create something and then condemn it? That's like saying He created sin! He created free moral agents, and some of them decided to go the opposite way. If there are any effeminate tendencies in a man, it's not God's doing. Your friends probably never considered that, did they? Nor did they consider the inclination to perversion an inherent trait in fallen man?

Even if a person were inclined toward homosexual behavior, it doesn't negate God's law that expressly forbids such behavior. There is speculation that some have a tendency toward other antisocial behaviors, but, the same holds true for them. They may have these dispositions, but, they are still required to restrain them.

As for taking the Bible literally, I do, because, if you don't, the whole book is meaningless. Christ sometimes did speak in parables, but, if one reads the entire book in context, one soon sees the common thread of interpretation, and any parable or "metaphor" soon becomes apparent for what it is. Parables are a teaching tool, and have no basis in hermeneutical context.

For instance, there are maybe two references that might infer that hellfire is an eternal state of conscious suffering, but those are in the minority with all of the other contextual examples that state that it isn't, only the results are eternal. Right from the beginning, DEATH is the result of disobedience and sin, not wandering around on fire, forever, with some demon's pitchfork stuck up your ass! Try accessing pagan belief systems for the origin of that fairy tale.

One doesn't or shouldn't need a theology degree to understand God's Word. If you read it like you should, there are no inconsistencies. Even if you don't have a knowledge of history, (i.e. the pagan hellfire belief) the context will be apparent with proper and regular study.

Evolution and Naturalism (paganism, redefined) do well, because, as I mentioned earlier, it is a humanist-run system, and, man in his fallen state NATURALLY leans toward this kind of thing. The Bible emphatically states that the natural man cannot understand the things of God. Only the Holy Spirit, as you said, can illuminate our darkened minds on issues of God and salvation. Naturally, we want nothing to do with anything that restrains our sinful tendencies and selfish nature!

Near-death experiences are not in harmony with truth as revealed by scripture, as they contradict the description given for Christ's second advent. The dead do not go directly to Heaven, again, contrary to a few metaphorical inferences. They die, and rot. Take the case of Lazarus, for example. He 'stunketh'! He wasn't in heaven, nor was his spirit, he was dead, and where there is no consciousness. (Ecclesiastes 9:5) They are either the hallucinations of a fevered mind, or simply delusional thinking. Perhaps, in rare cases, the work of demons playing tricks. Either way, there are no bright lights with Grandma and Elvis at the other end.

Gideon said...

"Even if there are gods or higher powers in or outside of the universe, I believe that I am living more deeply in communion with them by not adopting a set of beliefs which I am 99% sure are false, and by trying my best to live a moral life based on empathy and respect."

Time won't allow me to answer all of your questions, but this one needs to be. There are many religions, to be sure, and Atheism is one of them. If you don't believe me, just look at Richard Dawkins and his crusade against God and Christianity. There's an apostle if I ever saw one!

There is a proverb that states that there is a way that seems right to a man, but, that it only leads to death. You have embarked on that path. If you have any empathy for your fellow man, that is due to the Spirit's influence, but, you still must do things God's way if you wish to have eternal life. Sooner or later, you will be called upon to make a choice between good and evil. Revelation 13 speaks of it.

One thing that atheists love to throw in my face is that you cannot prove Christianity in any scientific way. Notwithstanding that many of their 'scientific' opinions are just that... opinions... faith, indeed, makes up the largest part in defining Christianity. I find lot's of scientific evidence to suit me, but, if you're determined not to believe, God won't force the issue. No atheist has ever convinced me that life is an accident, and they can never do it, because, it is simply illogical.

In the end, everything is on faith. If I'm wrong, I've lost nothing. I'll just die, like we all must. My life was just as full of meaning and purpose as anyone else's, maybe even more. The infidel will lose the life he claims to venerate and cherish, AND the life he could have had, which would have been unceasing.

Now, if you were logical, which course of action would YOU take?

Teleprompter said...

What you're describing isn't a "deconversion", because, you would have had to be converted beforehand.

Sort of. It's like a conversion, except in the opposite direction, thus "deconversion".

People like me who were not raised in Christian homes are the ones that get "converted".

Uhh, no, you're wrong. I was "converted" from Christianity, to agnostic atheism. Yes, you were converted, and so was I. You can't argue that you were and I wasn't - that's special pleading.

I'm not surprised you became doubtful attending a humanist-run institution.

Actually, my university is affiliated with the United Methodist church, but don't let that stop you.

That bullshit about God creating homosexuality... why would He create something and then condemn it? That's like saying He created sin!

Do you believe in a god that created brunettes? If the Bible said that it was evil to be a brunette, wouldn't say that was stupid for a god to create brunettes and then say you can't be a brunette? What's the difference between that and homosexuality, if it's supposedly something you are that is a part of who you are that's beyond your control?

If you have any empathy for your fellow man, that is due to the Spirit's influence, but, you still must do things God's way if you wish to have eternal life.

That's absolute bullshit.

Did Gandhi have empathy for his fellow man because of your "spirit"? What about Confucius? What about a gazillion other non-Christian religious or moral teachers? That statement is preposterous.

You don't need the scriptures of your antiquated religion to have empathy for other people - that is an outrageous idea.

Lastly, I'm not even going to touch Pascal's Wager, over than to say that it's such a terrible argument, I don't think it even merits an additional response.

Gideon said...

"Lastly, I'm not even going to touch Pascal's Wager, over than to say that it's such a terrible argument, I don't think it even merits an additional response."

Is that what it's called? I didn't know that! I mean, I've always used that reasoning, but, then, I guess any reasonable individual would. Wager, huh? Yeah, I thought of poker when I used it.

And, why doesn't it merit consideration? Because it makes you uncomfortable? And why do you antagonize me with insults about my "antiquated" faith and "bullshit" interpretation of it? Do you like fighting? I can oblige you! Which do you want? I thought I'd try the civil approach, but, I don't mind a good slug-fest if that's what floats your boat!

As hard as it is for you to believe this, man is a sinful, self-indulgent creature. He wasn't created that way, he BECAME that way, through his own effort. Becoming righteous again isn't within his scope of ability, and that is where the Spirit comes in. Gandhi, and whomever else you attribute as poster-boys to goodness and selflessness, were that way because of the Spirit, Who strives to some degree in all men. I say strives, because, there is a sinful nature to combat. Paul, as you know, speaks about that in detail. So, if there is anything good going on in the world, God is behind it. Man is concerned with what is best for man, and none else.

Evolution would not instill any moral sense in us, as it is quite unnecessary for survival. Being BIG and MEAN and LETHAL is all that's required for survival in an oxygen/nitrogen-rich atmosphere in this part of the universe. Contemplating love, painted sunsets, etc, might seem romantic, but, it's secondary to accomplishing spreading your genes around. So, morality just isn't a factor in the Darwinian plan.

You can call it "preposterous" or any other adjective you want. I call your views preposterous, too. How far do you want to take that road? Or, do you want to reason it out? Isn't that what "agnostic-atheists" pride themselves on?

Also, the fact your school was affiliated with mainline religion is no surprise. There is an ever-narrowing boundary between so-called Christianity and paganism. There aren't many true adherents of the Word left... corporately, anyway. Many, today, feel we have to copulate with Darwinism in order to put a believable slant on origins. I have absolutely no problem with a deity being the creator and sustainer of the universe. Makes as much sense as matter bouncing in from nowhere and replicating itself with no instigation other than it's own. It also explains the human being's complexity a lot better than Darwin.

Hey, you don't want to talk to me, fine. You'd be no different than your other infidel buddies. Maybe you should write in a disclaimer with your posts: "Sorry, only ass-kissers need respond or comment."

Keep on truckin', Matey!

Gideon said...

Oh, and why don't you ditch that stupid word-verification shit in your comments admin? It's a pain in the ass having to type and re-type information!

Do you get THAT much spam or illiterate trolls commenting that you have to hide behind it?

Tawnos said...

Gideon, though you've been quite rude and inflammatory in your posts, I will do my best to address them politely and in a useful manner.

Is that what it's called? I didn't know that! I mean, I've always used that reasoning, but, then, I guess any reasonable individual would. Wager, huh? Yeah, I thought of poker when I used it.

And, why doesn't it merit consideration? Because it makes you uncomfortable?


Pascal's wager is a very common argument, and your presentation of it as something "any reasonable individual would [use that reasoning]" is sophomoric, at best. The wager comes in three parts, and each have been pretty thoroughly debunked. The succinct answer to the particular form you express is that you make many assumptions about the nature of god(s) and utility of choice. Common questions asked of one putting forth Pascal's wager are "what if the god you believe in doesn't exist, but another does? What if multiple gods exist? What if god punishes those who take such a mercenary view of their own belief?" The list goes on, but I hope only to sow enough seeds of thought that you might investigate the philosophical inquiry being put forth, its history, and responses. Come to your own conclusion.

As hard as it is for you to believe this, man is a sinful, self-indulgent creature. He wasn't created that way, he BECAME that way, through his own effort. Becoming righteous again isn't within his scope of ability, and that is where the Spirit comes in. Gandhi, and whomever else you attribute as poster-boys to goodness and selflessness, were that way because of the Spirit, Who strives to some degree in all men. I say strives, because, there is a sinful nature to combat. Paul, as you know, speaks about that in detail. So, if there is anything good going on in the world, God is behind it. Man is concerned with what is best for man, and none else.


You make an assertion without evidence to back it up. The simple assertion of such does not make it a factual truth. You use the word "righteous", but what do you mean by that? If righteousness is an evaluation of the actions of a person, where does a god enter the picture? You attribute goodness to the actions of your god, meaning even those who do not believe in it can do such actions. The net effect of "God", then, is zero. When you cannot differentiate a believer and nonbeliever by their actions, what difference does belief make?

Continuing in this vain, what is "sin"? Is it the willing choice to disobey the directives of your god, no matter how clear or unclear? If so, how can our nature be sinful? As babies, we are unable to make any choices, much less ones with such abstract concepts as "obey" and "disobey". Under the mythology of Christian creation, we were created by a perfect god, hardly a "sinful nature." You end in the same manner you started, an assertion without evidence. What evidence do we have that your god causes everything good? Why is he responsible for all that is good, yet remains woefully silent on the myriad variety of evils that exist?

Tawnos said...

Evolution would not instill any moral sense in us, as it is quite unnecessary for survival. Being BIG and MEAN and LETHAL is all that's required for survival in an oxygen/nitrogen-rich atmosphere in this part of the universe. Contemplating love, painted sunsets, etc, might seem romantic, but, it's secondary to accomplishing spreading your genes around. So, morality just isn't a factor in the Darwinian plan.

"Moral sense" is quite necessary for survival, and we definitely are not the meanest, most lethal creatures that exist. Consider the proposition of evolution from cells through our current situation. In almost any stage you can imagine, a form of group dominance beats that of the individual. Groups work better at procuring resources, protecting them, and reproducing than any individual. As these groups grow more complex, life becomes a very complicated, recursive version of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Every choice made is responded to by the larger society in which that choice functions. Essentially, what you term "morality" is a manifestation of group dynamics. It's putting into words, rules, et cetera a set of norms that serve to benefit the group for which it applies.

It is this reason morality is hard to apply or even comprehend cross-culturally. The outcome of previous choices is often reflected in further action, making us, largely, Tit for tat agents in life. If you look around you, I bet you could find your own examples of people you react to favorably due to past, favorable experience with them. Similarly, a person or group who has treated you poorly is more likely to receive a negative reaction. Different pasts lead to different sets of rules, different "morality", and can lead to the aforementioned difficulty to understand another's view on morals.

Tawnos said...

Also, the fact your school was affiliated with mainline religion is no surprise. There is an ever-narrowing boundary between so-called Christianity and paganism. There aren't many true adherents of the Word left... corporately, anyway. Many, today, feel we have to copulate with Darwinism in order to put a believable slant on origins. I have absolutely no problem with a deity being the creator and sustainer of the universe. Makes as much sense as matter bouncing in from nowhere and replicating itself with no instigation other than it's own. It also explains the human being's complexity a lot better than Darwin.

Where do you draw the line? How can you presume to judge what is a "true adherent of the Word"? You may have no problem with that, but many of us are unsatisfied with an answer such as that. It reminds me of Ebon's The God of Shadow and Vapor. God keeps getting pushed farther and farther into the the cracks. It's becoming more and more a God of the gaps, a being that exists only to explain the things you don't understand, or which is not fully understood or testable by current science. The difference is that science is willing to say "I don't know, we'll keep testing, here's our best current theory" and religious belief states "this is absolute truth no matter what new things we discover, and any evidence to the contrary should be treated with supreme suspicion, if not as anathematic."


All I ask is something seemingly simple, yet profoundly difficult when faced with its implications on your worldview. Learn as much as you can, and actually try to consider the viewpoint from the other side. Don't pursue knowledge with the desire to prove god, but do so for learning's sake. At the least, you'll know more about what we know about the universe. At the most, it could open a whole new world to explore. I already do the same, and it's how I turned from Christian into an agnostic atheist. I cannot prove that there are no gods, anywhere, but since I've yet to see that they can affect my life, I live as if none exist.

As for your last comment. On my political, religious, etc blog I was receiving massive spam within a few days of setting it up. The captcha is only one small step to help reduce the amount of noise that an admin has to deal with.

Michael Caton said...

Welcome to skepticism/rationalism/whatever you call it, it's a better life! Mike the Lucky Atheist here - we're glad to have you.