(My Conversion & Deconversion)
In this article, I’ll recount the story of my own religious journey, up through my “deconversion”. I’m sharing this story for three reasons:
- It provides, I think, useful context to help readers understand my own perspectives.
- I personally find others’ deconversion stories to be interesting. Many are similar, but many others follow different paths before being willing and able to let go of the religious beliefs that they were indoctrinated with. So, under the presumption that some others will find my story interesting, I’ll offer it here.
- Millions of people leave the ranks of the religious every year. In my own path, I struggled in the end, with the very real stigma that believers ascribe to atheists, believing us to be immoral or otherwise defective in some way. I’ve gotten over that, but I think that hearing other people’s stories can help those struggling with their own deconversions… not unlike (I suspect) the struggles of LGBT folks coming out of the closet.
So here’s my story:
Like every person who has ever lived, I was born an atheist. But I was born into a Catholic family (the sixth of eight sons), so I was raised Catholic, which included a number of typical and some not-so-typical activities:
- Attending mass every Sunday (and more frequently during some seasons such as Advent).
- Attending a Catholic elementary school for grades 1-8.
- Within school, belonging to the Dominic Savio club. For those of you not familiar with it, Dominic was an Italian boy who died at age 14, in 1857, and was later canonized as a saint, for having lived a particularly holy life. The objective of the club was to encourage us to emulate Dominic.
- Serving as an Altar Boy. I started this just prior to the phase out of the Latin Mass in the United States, so I learned all the Latin prayers and responses, and served in Latin Masses, then within just a few months, we switched over to the English Mass.
- We lived across the street from the church, so it was common for the priests to ask me and/or my brothers for help on various things. New missals would be published each month, which contained the text for the weekly masses. The priests would usually ask us to put them out, paying us 50 cents or so (a lot of money for us back then) for doing it. On Friday evenings, all the priests went out to dinner at a local restaurant, and they’d have one of us house sit – which consisted of sitting in one of their recliners watching their color TV (we had black & white at home), and taking messages if anyone came to the door or called (nobody ever did). We also got paid a couple bucks for doing that. I’ll note that I was fortunate to NOT be among those who were victimized by pedophile priests. We were always treated well, though a bit gruffly by some. As far as I know, the same is true for my brothers.
- My three oldest brothers all went to a seminary boarding school for high school, though only one finished high school there, and the other two transferred out – one of them the middle of the same school year, and the other at the end of that year. Had they continued that path, and actually become priests, there’s a fair likelihood that I would have followed in their footsteps. But I, as with the rest of my brothers, all attended local high schools. The one respect that many of us did follow their lead on, was taking Latin as our foreign language elective.
Then in my mid-teens, as many do, I began to question my religious beliefs. I had issues in particular with some matters of Catholic doctrine. In the Catholic Church, any teaching that is declared to be “doctrine” is one that (according to the Church) Catholics are required to believe. A couple of those issues that I recall were:
- Catholic doctrine holds that Mary was a virgin her entire life. The Bible, of course, makes no such mention of that. In fact the Bible has multiple mentions of Jesus’ siblings. The Church explains that the words for “brother”, etc. was often used to refer also to cousins. But I didn’t understand what basis the Church had for choosing that interpretation, or why they thought it was important that Mary never had sexual relations with her husband. And it seemed to be extremely unlikely.
- Catholic doctrine also holds that when a Catholic takes communion, the bread and wine LITERALLY change into respectively, the flesh and blood of Jesus (a process known as transubstantiation). Aside from the bizarre cannibalistic nature of that transformation, it also seemed that a figurative interpretation of Jesus’ words (“This is my body” and “This is my blood”) made far more sense theologically – i.e. that we were receiving Jesus’ spirit.
And with my doubts as to these matters of doctrine, the natural tendency is to begin to question other matters of faith. After all, if the Church is wrong about these things, how can I trust any of it? I spoke to my mother about my doubts, and after some discussion, I decided (with her blessing) to check out some Protestant denominations. The first one I chose was the Congregational United Church of Christ, chosen for two mundane reasons – it was close to home (not across the street, but 1 ½ blocks away), and I knew someone who went there.
The Congregational/UCC are among the least doctrinal of Protestant churches, so that made it an excellent fit for me. And it turned out that I knew several other kids my age there. The congregation was welcoming, so I didn’t look any further. I left the Catholic Church and joined the Congregational Church.
The first summer I was there (I was about 16), a few college students who were home for the summer started up a “coffee house” in the church basement as an evening activity (once a week, I think). They were “born again” Christians, and talked all about what it was, what it meant, etc.
I’d never heard about being born again, or having a relationship with Jesus before. The message was very appealing to me, and I was hooked. I became a born again Christian. I studied the Bible daily, and would talk routinely to the difference Jesus made in my life. I accepted the Bible as the literal, inerrant Word of God. That included, among other things, believing in Young Earth Creationism. I actually went through the genealogies in the Bible, and calculated the age of the universe for myself, to be around 6000 years old.
The first significant chink in my born again-ness happened at age 19, when I was in college, pursuing my first degree (in Sociology). I shared a dorm room with two other students. One of them, Mike, belonged to the Worldwide Church of God. It’s (or at least was) a rather odd denomination. They claimed to be the ONE TRUE Christian denomination. They observed the Saturday Sabbath, and the overall set of Jewish Law. They also rejected the notion of the Trinity. They claimed that their beliefs were based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
My big epiphany came one afternoon, while sitting up in my bed (the upper bunk on a bunk bed). Mike was there having a religious debate with a Baptist girl who had stopped by.
Uncharacteristically, I kept my mouth shut and listened. I felt very much like I was at a tennis match, as the Bible quotes flew furiously back and forth across the room between them… (“Yes, but in John blah blah blah, it says, “blah blah blah”). Each of them claimed to be interpreting the Bible literally. Each was intelligent, and as far as I could tell, was sincere in their desire to find truth in the Bible. And each of them had VERY different literal interpretations from my own literal interpretation.
I realized immediately that we three represented just a tiny sample of the likely range of “literal interpretations” of the Bible. So I concluded that it would be more than a little arrogant to decide that of all the people who had these widely varying interpretations, I was smarter than them, and/or more sincere than them in looking for truth, and/or had prayed more fervently for inspiration, and/or was singled out by God to be given the truth.
From that, I further concluded that humans can’t know with any confidence what the correct interpretation of the Bible is. Many million of Christians are convinced they’ve got the answer, but they’re all over the map on their answers. CLEARLY, their confidence in their respective answers is wholly unreliable.
I didn’t abandon most of my beliefs. I still believed in God the creator, and Jesus as a personal savior, but I abandoned the notion that anyone could interpret the Bible literally with any confidence.
After graduation (with my degree in Sociology and a Business minor), I worked as a retail buyer for several years, until at age 25, then realizing that it was NOT my niche. I knew I needed to do something more technical in nature. At the time, in the early 80’s, I was a huge fan of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, and subscribed to Omni magazine (which was a combination of science and science fiction stories). Through those sources, I had developed a strong interest in Physics, so I went back to school to get a Physics degree. I planned at the time to get a Physics PhD, though I later (upon completing the Bachelors degree), vectored off into Engineering, which is where I spent the next 34 years, prior to retirement.
In any case, this academic journey had the side effect of learning that our universe was not some 6000 years old, but rather billions of years old, and that once the big bang happened, the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, etc. occurred naturally, as a result of just a few basic forces of nature, acting on the matter and energy in the universe. I couldn’t rule out a creator as first cause, but it was apparent that no “hand of God” was needed after the Big Bang to create our Earth.
While I didn’t formally study biology, I read enough of it, to learn that the evidence is irrefutable that all life on Earth evolved from simple life forms over billions of years. As with the Big Bang, we don’t yet know how the first life originated, but we know that the “hand of God” was not needed thereafter to create humankind.
So … at that point I was left with the belief that we had a god as a first-cause for the Big Bang and the first life on Earth. I also believed that God actively cared about mankind, and that the core elements of Christian theology were still true. But while I rejected the theological elements that I knew were false, I didn’t really spend any significant time – for years, thinking about the rest of them. Mostly I was preoccupied with my career and my young family, and didn’t spend much time pondering theology. And, I think in hindsight, that they were uncomfortable questions for me. I didn’t want to give up my faith. I still (for a time) attended church regularly, and prayed routinely, etc, believing in a God who cared about the world and about me personally.
The last straw for me came in my early 50’s, after my mother (who was still a devout Catholic) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Obviously I was well aware that millions of people have suffered and died from the ravages of that disease and many other diseases. But with her diagnosis it became personal, and I could no longer reconcile it with the notion of a loving, just, merciful God. So when I finally REALLY thought about it, I understood that Christians suffer and die with equal frequency from all manner of horrible diseases, in spite of any amount of prayer.
So clearly God isn’t intervening on matters of life or death. I retrospectively looked at times in the past when I thought I had seen his involvement in my life and concluded that those were all the products of selective interpretation and wishful thinking. Like millions of other Christians, when good things happened, it was “praise God!” When bad things happened, “God has a plan.” While I had seen positive changes in my behavior, there was nothing miraculous about them. There were things in my behavior that I didn’t like, and wanted to change. Yes, I prayed for help in changing them, but I’m the one who changed them – because I wanted to badly enough, and because they weren’t that hard to change. There were other (harder) things I wanted to change and prayed to change, that didn’t change. And ALWAYS in those past examples, when I changed for the better, God got the credit. When I didn’t change, I took the blame.
Being god under those ground rules is a pretty damned good gig.
So to summarize, I finally came to the following conclusions on the existence/role of God:
- A personal god, who cares about humankind and is actively involved in our lives: All objective evidence says no.
- A god who used special creation, to create all species on Earth: This is clearly false. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming and irrefutable.
- A god who commanded the galaxies, stars, planets, etc. into existence. This is also clearly false. Physics has a pretty good understanding of how our universe formed after the Big Bang.
- A god as first cause in the Big Bang and/or the origination of life on Earth. While I can’t rule it out, I’ll say that I think it’s extremely unlikely. There’s no evidence for a supernatural cause, and given the absolute lack of objective evidence for a god (any god), the smart money says that these had natural causes. We don’t yet understand them, but science gets closer every year. Conclusions of God as first-cause are just intellectual laziness, and are classic examples of the “god of the gaps”
So in conclusion, while I don’t know for sure that there’s no god, I’ve seen no objective evidence for one, let alone compelling evidence. In the absence of such evidence, I choose to disbelieve. That puts me in the category of what is commonly called a weak atheist. Some would refer to that position as an agnostic atheist, and I have done so in the past as well. But as I’ve since been schooled by those who are much more fluent in epistemology, who point out that knowledge and belief are not independent parameters, but rather knowledge is just the extreme position in a continuum of degree of certainty in one’s belief.