Thursday, April 3, 2008

a complacent beginning

When I was young, I went to church. There was no choice in the matter, but I didn't ever feel forced to go either. I went because that is what people did. I always went and I thought I always would go.
And because I was home-schooled (more on that later), church was almost my sole social outlet. As a result, I loved it. I was excited to go to Sunday School every week. I especially loved the 90 second meet-and-greet time when I could run around and say hello to everyone.
Although I take an extremely low view of religion, I don't want to give the impression that I ever felt uncomfortable in church. As I grew older, I am embarrassed to say that I scarcely questioned anything. I worried momentarily about the babies that died without knowing god and about those who did not have a chance to know him because there was no way they could have heard about him in their lifetime. By the time I started to have these worries, my family was going to a church that was more or less Calvinist, which wrapped these problems up neatly, although it quickly replaced them with new ones. The matter of unsaved infants was easy though; if everyone was predestined to go either to heaven or to hell, then if a child dies before he or she has an opportunity to accept Jesus, there isn't a conflict. That child goes to heaven or to hell based on what has been preordained. The same goes for those millions of wretches throughout the course of history and all over the globe who never had a chance to hear the gospel. They ended up in hell, most likely, and that made sense with the Old Testament too, where god was constantly telling the Israelites to wipe out this tribe or that nation, to kill all their men and take their women, or to destroy their treasure. So the ancient Japanese and Indians and Africans and South Americans from the beginning of history to the time when missionaries bearing the gospel arrived on their shores most likely languish in a lake of fire.

(This is only my personal history, by the way. I'm not going to get into what is wrong with these items just yet. That will be a later post.)
So I was able to accept all of these things. It amazes me now that I took in all of this and never thought that it was either evil or unlikely. Thus is my trusting nature.

I was deeply involved in my church. As I said, it was my social outlet. And I was so used to it being such a large part of my life that even when I went to public school (high school) I spent more social time with my church friends than those from school. Again, I do not regret a second of that time. Many of my fondest memories involve the church group. And now, one of the saddest things to me is that I am in touch with very few of my old friends. This is nothing particularly new or unique, I know, but still it hurts to see them on Facebook and know that if I were to write or say hello, we would have very little in common. Judging by their profiles, Christianity is still a very big part of their lives, and that is virtually incompatible with me, who is very committed to my new atheism. More on that later as well. I would just like to mention that if any of my old CCC friends ever do happen to stumble upon this blog, please do say hello.

Aside from the social aspect, I also contributed. I helped to run the audio (it was a very minimal setup, nothing to put on a resume) and even took a paycheck to come in during the week and set up chairs, lock the doors, unlock before and after services, and so on. I bear no ill will toward anyone in my old church - I know that I was lucky to be involved with such a wonderful group of people. Sure, there are deep rifts now; I do not know if a visit would be anything other than awkward and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I had a good church experience.

And I kept in touch with my friends and family when I went away to college. For a few months I returned on the weekends (pretty typical, I would imagine) and visited. But then I started staying at school. But this is not when I lost my faith. Oh, no! I found a church in Orlando. I found a college bible group to participate in.

But through all of this - from when I was five (I'm guessing) until I was twenty-five, I believed all of this because I was told I should, not because I had any kind of experience. I never had a religious experience, in fact. There were times when I felt particularly emotionally vulnerable or was amazed by something, but I never felt anything deeper than that. I even expressed my frustration at a lack of experience.
At the time, I accused those who claimed an experience of lying about it just to validate their faith. I now believe that they had genuinely experienced something special, although I firmly believe that what they felt was not god.
Now I am very grateful that I never had any kind of religious experience, because that would have made Christianity much more difficult to leave behind.

I honestly cannot pinpoint the time when I stopped going to church, or stopped wanting to go to church. It was a gradual but steady decline of interest from the moment I stepped out of my parents' house. If I had to guess, I would say that I was about twenty four when I stopped wanting to go to church, but in some sense, clung to the idea of Christianity. I'll be honest: it was hell that kept me hanging on. Much like Pascal, the fear of hell and eternal torment prevented me from leaving the fold completely. I still prayed for forgiveness, I still asked god for help when I needed it. And although I did not strictly think that I was going to heaven, I was terrified of going to hell. That was the mire I was stuck in for several years.

And I would like to say that there was a lightning strike of revelation, but there was not. It was, like everything else, a gradual progression, a snowballing of events that led to my deconversion. Therefore, I am sure that there are events preceding this, but I cannot remember them specifically.
What got the ball rolling was my dad. I am afraid that he might read this and misinterpret it. He is very religious and very involved in his faith. He has always wanted to be a minister and, despite all of that, I think he is one of the smartest people I know. Anyway, I want to be clear that it was nothing in particular that he said that tipped me over, but more of the thoughts he started. He asked me if we (my wife and I) were going to church. I said no. He asked me what my spiritual status was and I realized that I did not have an answer. I told him that I would have to think about it and get back to him.
So then I started to think about it, I mean really think about it. In that time I heard an episode of This American Life about a pastor who caused great waves in his church by declaring that there is no hell. I can't recall his reasons for thinking so, and the rest of his story, while interesting, is of no importance to this discussion, because the end result was to ease the fear of hell which was still hounding me.
The final landmark event was a Fresh Air interview (obviously NPR plays an active role in my life) with Francis Collins, followed by an interview with Richard Dawkins. Hearing the two opposing viewpoints side-by-side (Collins, a Christian in charge of the Human Genome Project and Dawkins a biologist and atheist spokesman) really was the final nail in Jesus' coffin, so to speak. After that pair of interviews, I read Dawkins's God Delusion, Sam Harris's End of Faith, and a whole raft of books and interviews and articles about atheism.
I never felt ashamed to talk about it, although I do not actively search out arguments, especially among family members. Fortunately Orlando seems to be fairly atheist tolerant.

So now I am an atheist. In later posts I will go into my various reasons (each one of them valid arguments against Christianity).

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