Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A deconversion story

Yes, I am an atheist. I'm proud to say it.

When I finally realized I didn't believe in any gods at all, it was such a relief, I felt like a great burden had been lifted. I still feel a sense of freedom from being an atheist, that now I finally get to figure it all out for myself and reach my own conclusions, rather than to be bound to the conclusions of the religious tradition I had grown up in. But I'm also sort of glad that I had some experience with the religious world, because it's easier to understand where they're coming from.

Here's my deconversion story:

From a young age, I was indoctrinated to believe in Christianity; specifically, the tenets of the United Methodist Church. One side of the family is mostly Protestant (Baptist and Methodist), while the other is mostly Catholic, but my parents decided that the children would be raised Methodist. I was carted off to church nearly every Sunday for much of my childhood, and aside from a short evangelical phase, I never got into it very much (although I loved the beauty of some of the hymns). I believed in God and Jesus for no more complex reason than that was what I was taught and that's what was expected of me - it didn't occur to me to do otherwise.

In my teenage years, I started having some doubts. Nothing earthshaking yet, but little things like wondering why Hindus believe one thing and why Christians believe another. Although I was pious in church, my day-to-day life was quite secular - I would pray but I wouldn't count on it to change anything.

Later on, greater doubts seized me. The problem of evil and the existence of hell were huge issues that I could not find suitable answers for and I dared not alert anyone to my inner doubts. I agonized over why God should make a world in which terrible things happen. I worried about hell - two of my friends were Jewish and Muslim and very good people. I found it very distasteful that fellow Christians believed that others should suffer eternally for believing the wrong things. Like many other liberal Christians, I did not believe in a physical hell, but I kept in mind the concept of compelling belief with threats. Going to church was like a chore, but I did it dutifully and mechanically. In church, I was quite fond of using the Bible as a straightedge for drawing SierpiƄski triangles on the church program and I think I scared a few people by suggesting in Sunday School class that Satan's continuing existence implied that God was either unwilling or unable to defeat Satan. Afterward, I learned not to speak too freely.

But it wasn't till my college years that my nagging doubts really sprang to the forefront. Curious about the big questions of life, I leapt to philosophy and found within it an ocean of doubt - Hume, Epicurus, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and finally, Thomas Paine. I learned a great deal, and I finally realized that there existed viable alternatives to believing in religion. It's ironic that my Old Testament class, with a Christian professor who earnestly professed that the Bible is "more than just a book", introduced me to so much righteous barbarism carried out in the name of God that I felt quite certain that the Bible could not be true revelation. But it was Thomas Paine's Age of Reason that was the straw that broke the camel's back. His passionate criticisms of Christianity were unassailable, and finally broke whatever lingering illusions I had about the Bible being the Word of God.
Lacking the Bible, but still clinging to hopes of an afterlife, I considered deism and buddhism, but rejected them for much the same reasons. Deism posits a god and a heaven, while buddhism posits a cycle of death and rebirth, yet none of these claims about the nature of reality are any more supportable than Christian claims. In the end, any belief in supernaturalism runs into the agnostic's riposte, "How do you know?" Mere faith isn't enough to justify such extraordinary claims. Thus, the only logical recourse is skepticism, disbelief in such things until they can be sufficiently demonstrated to be true (which is itself rather doubtful). Therefore, atheism.

And I've got to say, being an atheist in America (in the south, no less) is a very interesting experience. Imagine being the only one in town who doesn't believe in unicorns, it's kind of like that.

None of my friends or family are atheists as far as I can tell, and I have yet to out myself to them. And that makes for some awkward questions, like why I don't go to church much. Heh, a relative asked me what I thought about the Passion of the Christ and when I alluded to its gruesome nature she gave me a rather dirty look that made me wonder if an inquisitor would soon be arriving at my door. Breaking the news to them might take some serious explaining when it eventually happens, possibly clearing my name from charges of nihilism or baby eating, but I think it'll be okay. Besides, there are some perks to being stealthy - it's hilarious what people will say in front of me assuming that I share their views. Apparently, I am responsible for the sad state of religious freedom in public schools - people can't voluntarily pray at school without being arrested. Also, I'm implicated in the holocaust, satanism, natural disasters, and the dissolution of all morality. So, I hereby offer Christians my apologies for all these crimes (and more!) that I didn't even know I was committing.

But however frustrating it may be to hold a view so contrary to convictions of the general public
(which indeed, seems to anger and frighten some people tremendously) and tarred with a long history of mudslinging, I'm committed to truth, wherever it lies. We can't bend reality to our will; it simply is and we are obliged to learn it as best as we can and come to terms with it. I am proud to be among fellow human beings earnestly seeking answers rather than making up answers to gaps in our knowledge and dishonestly presenting it as the word of God.

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