Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My deconversion story

Today is a good day to write my never-written-before deconversion story.

I came from a Catholic family. Relatively liberal Catholic. Not so much in the political sense, but in the sense of being rather open and lenient about religion. I went to church every week, yes. I also went to Sunday school (except it was on Wednesday, and was referred to as CCD). But beyond that, not much was made of it. For instance, I knew how to pray, and knew I was supposed to be doing it regularly, but I never really did. It just didn't seem important.

I don't remember when, but somewhere around middle school or so, I stopped attending mass. Not because I disagreed with it. I just thought it was the most boring experience ever. It happened nearly every week, my mother would drag me to church (my father usually didn't come). Then I would sit in a pew, counting out the hour in seconds. I hardly listened to the service. I just don't have the auditory processing ability to parse more than a few words of a boring homily as it echoed across the church. I hated going to church. I didn't care if it was one of the commandments. I figured that God's purpose wasn't really to make me miserable every week. My mother was mad at first, but that quickly tapered off over time.

The next phase of my life, high school, is vital to this story. I had previously gone to public schools, but my high school was run by Jesuits. Jesuits, if you didn't know, are basically the intellectual branch of Catholicism. This was not your stereotypical Catholic school, taught by strict nuns. Only a few of the teachers were really Jesuits. And a lot of them were flaming liberals. Everyone was required to take a class called "Social Justice" in which we learned about world hunger and cultural imperialism and so forth. We were taught evolution, and regarded the Evo/Creo issue with a rather critical eye. We were also required to do some serious community service (more than 100 hours). I still have a lot of respect for the Jesuits; they are one of the few religious groups which is definitively pro-intellectual.

But I still never thought of myself as particularly religious, even at this time. For instance, I refused to get confirmed. The sacrament of Confirmation, as I understood it at the time, was supposed to be the time where a person really chooses to be Catholic, since obviously we don't choose what religion we're born into. Therefore, I refused to get confirmed just because my mom wanted me to--that would defeat the entire point! I gotta give my younger self kudos for standing up for such a noble (if hopelessly idealistic) principle.

But I was interested in some of the religious classes, because for the first time, I was getting a formal education on this thing that I was supposed to be believing. I mean, wouldn't it be good to know what it is you believe? I was especially interested in the theology classes, because they actually covered justification for belief. I was already into skepticism by that time, so I was a firm believer in having justifications for belief. If you're looking for the one thing which more or less precipitated my deconversion, this is it. I believed in justifying beliefs. Of course, I thought that my religious beliefs probably were justified, even if I didn't know the details. If there wasn't any justification, well, that would be such a tragedy, I don't even want to think what would happen.

Before we covered arguments for God and Christianity, the teacher made sure to emphasize that there is also faith. He told us to not expect much from the arguments, not to rely on them. He said that individually, the arguments are weak and disappointing. Only together do they make the case, and only with faith do they reach the goal. But of all the arguments, I found the "don't rely on arguments" argument to be the worst. That's exactly the sort of argument someone makes when they know they don't have a case.

So without going into details (which could potentially fill a blog), I was disappointed, just as predicted. I saw the merits of a few arguments, but many of were simply worthless. And when the arguments are worthless, combining them together doesn't really help. Around the same time, I also found an intriguing website (to obscure to mention) which turned a critical eye towards Catholic apologetics. I found that the website talked about the exact same things I had been learning in class, and made some worthwhile observations which even I hadn't noticed on my own. I didn't agree entirely with the writer, who was some sort of pantheist, but he largely made better points than the apologetics did.

The whole website made me feel very conflicted. I knew I was doing something wrong, without being told. Even though they always say that it's okay to have doubts, I knew I was crossing some sort of line that was not meant to be crossed. Even though I have the most open family, I was afraid. And yet, I also knew that every viewpoint needs criticism, and religious beliefs are no different.

Note that there are several things which are conspicuously missing from my deconversion story. The Bible never figured importantly one way or another. Neither did heaven or hell. I never thought of Christians as being hypocritical. Anti-scientific attitudes were absent. The problem of evil was never an issue. Perhaps this is reflected on my blog?

My last year of high school I spent in a sort of limbo. I still considered myself Catholic, and I still considered myself believing. But I knew that the floor was out from underneath me. So like many a cartoon character, I just kept on going without looking down. If I looked down, I'd fall.

It was only really in college that I considered myself an atheist. That was when I discovered the larger online atheist community (previously, labels never mattered). But I hid it in real life for over a year. I was afraid, and only told a few people. I now recognize this fear as completely silly and unfounded. I've met hardly anyone who has reacted negatively. And I'm completely capable of handling those who react negatively. It was never a big enough deal that I should have felt the need to hide it. The biggest danger, really, would be if my family reacted negatively. They found out a little while after I started blogging, through my blog. The reactions, well, weren't entirely positive, but they were largely accepting and open. I gotta say, some people at BASS have really messed up relationships with their families, but I was lucky. I have a great family. I never should have been afraid of how they'd react.

If there's one overarching theme to my deconversion story, it's fear. Why? I was never afraid of hell. My family was open enough. It was all self-imposed. Was there some sort of rule against serious doubting which I learned through osmosis? Was I simply not a very confident teenager? I don't know why I was afraid, but I know that's not how it should be. There should be no taboo against doubting, not even a little one. That's just antithetical to critical thinking. And I'm not just talking the token doubts where you are "lost" and hoping to be "found". I'm talking real doubts, where you're lost, and are willing to end up somewhere different from where you started.


DarkSapiens said...

That was an awesome reading.

Now that I think of it, it seems that I've never had a "deconversion" like that, actually. It's like if I'd never really believed in God. I think I firmly declared I didn't when I was… seven years old? Of course, at that age, the things that catch your attention in religion classes are the miracles, the creation myths (nicely presented with cartoons in videos we saw in class), and such things. But at the same time, I was already very interested in science, so when I learned things I found them to be self-consistent most of the time, while those religion myths weren't. I've found that I didn't need any kind of god to explain the world, I never saw any divine intervention like in those stories from the Bible they told us.

I continued to attend religion classes for years after that, I participated in Christian rituals like going to mass, I made my first holy communion and such, but those were more like cultural things for me. I had already made my mind, and I did it on my own. I have to acknowledge my parents for a lot of these. They never really told me directly what to believe, and they let me think for myself. I suppose the fact that they are fairly atheist influenced my decision, but I don't remember them saying to me when I was so young that religion was bad, nor the contrary.

One day I'll have to write about this (yes, this comment is not enough :P).


miller said...

When I think back to when I was seven, all I draw is a blank. I have no idea what I thought of religion back then. I thought church was awfully boring, and that's about it. Like your parents, I don't think mine ever emphasized what to believe. I don't think they ever emphasized miracles either. Just stories. And I don't even know if I was supposed to believe the stories were actually true.

Norwegian Shooter said...

I was poking around your old posts and found you pledged to write a real deconversion story just under a year ago, did you realize that?

Agreed with DarkSapiens, very good writing.

Your younger self does deserve kudos. I didn't believe in Christianity at a youngish age, but I got confirmed anyway. It took me until my mid twenties to tell my family. My family was sort of opposite of yours - liberal politically, but not so much religiously. However, it was an unspoken religious conformity, we are Norwegian Lutherans after all. And my mom was a preacher's kid, so it seemed I would be letting her down if I wasn't religious. And she was, but she got over it eventually.

"He told us to not expect much from the arguments, not to rely on them. He said that individually, the arguments are weak and disappointing. Only together do they make the case, and only with faith do they reach the goal." If only most religious people were this honest! Atheists (and evangelists) would get into a lot less tedious bickering.

Question: Did you tell you parents about your blog and then write about your atheism, knowing that they would read it? Or did they stumble upon it?

miller said...

Heh, I've probably promised to write lots of things that I never ended up writing.

If I recall the sequence of events correctly... I started blogging. Eventually, I revealed that one of my regular topics would be atheism. And I told several people I knew about my blog, so it wasn't like I was fully anonymous. It was mentioned in a conversation which included my parents, and they saw it for themselves later. And then later, I heard their reaction to it. It was all long and drawn out. Nice thing about that is that there are no impulse reactions.

The other nice thing about a blog is that it very quickly becomes obvious that I've thought things through, and know what I'm talking about.