March 28, 2006

Deconversion, or How I learned to stop worrying and love reason

In dealing with theists, an atheist will inevitably be asked why they don't believe in Jesus/Allah/TheGreatPumpkin. Each time I've been asked this question my answer has been different, though I couldn't put a finger on why it was always different. Everything I've said to answer the question has been true, each situation or event has led me to atheism. However, I've never really felt my answers told the whole picture. It was as if I've only ever given half answers, only a piece of the picture. The concern there being that a theist would read it and think it was a silly (or worse yet insignificant) situation or event that made me lose faith. Then, they would conclude that my search for god was never a serious one and that if only I'd give it a true shot would I ever find whatever god they're peddaling.

This is untrue. While I was searching I meant it. Fully intending to convert imagine the disappointment when, after years of study, it became crystal clear that neither religion was for me. And Islam - fuhgetaboutit - Judaism and Christianity are misogynistic enough!

Recently, I had a dream that sparked a memory I'd long forgotten about. The dream is inconsequential - just me and the bf driving around with three white teddy bears in the back seat of the car that somehow turned into three little girls in white dresses. But it was one of the white teddy bears that sparked the memory. And once this little pebble started falling, it unleashed an avalanche - all the pieces suddenly fell into place. I know how and why I became and atheist. And finally, I can answer this question. (but it's a long answer, so it will be in parts. These long posts are for my own benefit, which is not to suggest anyone out there cares. ;) )

A note before I begin: This is only what happened to me. I am not claiming anything about any brand of any religion. So spare me the "this isn't how WE do it" stuff.

Part One: Christianity

That teddy bear is one that my father bought me when I was ten and in the hospital. It was Easter time and I was having my appendix out. But, it had ruptured and had been leaking poison into my body for no one knew how long (the doctors estimated it had been a month - to which I know you medical types are saying "impossible!"- but I was in the hospital a month before hand with a bad staff infection in my left leg, and they knew then that my appendix would have to come out). The doctors had told my parents - well within my earshot - to have "arrangements" ready because they fully expected me to "not make it".

Something very similar would happen again five years later. It was my sophomore year of high school, Easter break again, and I was back in the hospital being given blood transfusion after blood transfusion because I'd come dangerously close to bleeding to death. (which, as morbid as it may sound would have been a nice way to go. I just got extremely sleepy, there was no pain.) And again, my parents were told that it would be "prudent" to be ready for "anything". The doctor had told my parents that a girl of my age should have a hemoglobin level of 12 (percent?) and mine was 2.6. When I survived, he would later say that my heart being so young was what saved me. Had I been a decade older, I'd be dead.

These events and my subsequent survival - despite the doctors giving me little chance of surviving - are what convinced me to start investigating religion more closely. Since those around me seemed convinced that these happy turn of events were divine intervention, I felt compelled to become more devoted. (Up until this point we were light weight xians. I had been an altar girl (of sorts, we were Methodists, not Catholics) when I was young, I was in the choir and all that, but we stopped going when the Pastor died in the early 90's. After that the only thing concerning religion my mother had ever said to me was asking me if I wanted to be confirmed into the church when I was eighteen. (To which I said no, because I had just started investigating other brands of Christianity.)

In the hospital that second time, I found a copy of the Bible in the night stand (damn Gideons! ;) ). I read it. Not the whole thing - just the gospels - as I was instructed to do by a nurse attending me. It was like a revelation - it was all there. He healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the poor, saved sinners. He loved me and I loved Him. I wanted that feeling of being protected to last. So I started to read more and more - anything that supported and reenforced my hope that god was out there and that he cared.

A few years later, I was off to college and knee deep in Christianity. There I joined a Bible Fellowship on campus and eventually through my Catholic roommate met a priest who gave conversion classes (in case I wanted to join Catholicism). It was at this point that I learned of the schism between Catholicism and the Protestant/Evangelical versions of Christianity. Catholicism, being parent and original, claimed authenticity where as the others claimed superiority. The more I studied the more disillusioned I became. The more bickering between the two brands of the same religion I witnessed, the less I wanted to be in either.

Both were claiming to be exclusively right. Both were claiming that the other was a path to nowhere. Both were claiming that god backed them up.

And yet, they weren't teaching things that were that different. There were minor, petty differences but nothing that necessitated the ranting and raving. I started to feel like a commodity to them, or a prize to be won. It was as if either side could only claim to be the One True Christian Faith(tm) if they won me as a convert. I felt played.

It took me a year to make the decision, but just before my 19th birthday I left both groups. To this day I credit several courses I took in college with helping me make this decision - the Bible as Literature course, the French Civilization and Culture class, and or the (spectacular fem-nazi) Women's lit classes, philosophy classes, and anthropology classes.

As if the bickering over nothing wasn't bad enough, these classes illustrated several things that had been bothering me. Bible as Lit, and Women's Lit illustrated the nature and extent of "females as second class citizens" - that my bible study glossed over ("oh, our church doesn't do that") or made cute excuses for ("God made Eve from Adam's rib so that she would be by his side, but under his arm to be protected"), but never explained. French Civ and Culture introduced me to the unlucky Cathars. Anthropology introduced me to evolution. The philosophy courses were the intro to, the philosophy of science, and the Philosophy of religion.

Philosophy of religion dealt the death blow to my studying Christianity. The course was not critical of religion, but rather attempted to reinforce it. The prof attempted to use philosophy as a substitute for empirical evidence. I remember the exact class where I finally decided to get out. The prof had been talking about free will and how god gave us free will so that we would not be fawning followers" like the angels are. ( I know, I know. Bear with me a moment.)

I asked "what about 'god has a plan'." He said "God won't let you stray off the right path because he loves you." (No, I'm not kidding. And please note this was a SUNY (State University of New York) college, not a religious one.) I said: "but you just said we had free will to chose. If we have the free will to chose, then he can't have already decided we weren't "allowed" to stray off his path. If we can't stray off the path, we don't have free will."

He stared at me, then repeated a slightly modified version of what he had just said. It was something like "god doesn't want you to stray" or some such nonsense. It was that straw that broke the camel's back. It wasn't as if I hadn't had this conversation with the priest or the bible fellowship before. But in that moment, I was looking for more divine intervention. I was looking for a sign that I shouldn't doubt. And this is what I got.

I studied from the age of 15 to nearly 19 - all that time served only to prove to me that Christianity was not where I belonged.

This is ultimately why I rail against xianity more than others. Yes, I'm American so I am confronted with Xianity more so than all other religions. Yes, that also means that it's xians (read: the religious wrong) trying to destroy this country, so they are ripe for ridicule. But beyond all of that I feel betrayed. My search for god was reduced to a tug of war between the two.

Now some may say this is my own fault for trying on both - perhaps I should have tried one at a time. Perhaps. But, that would not have spared me from being questioned by the opposing side. Neither would have stopped the "oh you're not a True Christian (tm), then" jabs, or prostelyzing attempts by the opposing side.

In an attempt to gain the whole picture, and to be as thorough as possible, I tried on both. I don't regret it.

Then, feeling upset that I'd lost touch with god, is when I met Simon Barat (an anglicized version of his real name). A self-labeled "freelance" bouncer originally from Israel, who'd come here after spending time in the military.

And he led the way into part two: Judaism.

(coming soon)