My deconversion story

10 January 2010

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ZJ: Many people have asked me about my experiences with religion and how this influenced me and led me to where I am now. And I know a lot of atheists who have shared their stories of what it was like to be a true believer, honestly dedicated to their religion, before realizing that they were mistaken and becoming atheist.

This isn't one of those stories. It might not be entirely accurate to say that I "deconverted", because I'm not sure if I ever really converted in the first place. Whatever religious beliefs I held were never very strong, and thoroughly infused with skepticism. I doubt this is at all comparable to those who used to actually believe in their religion. So, for the people who say "but you were never really a Christian!", maybe not. But I pretended to be, for many years.

Here's how it all started: Back in 1989, I was born. Shortly thereafter, I was baptized in a Catholic church. This wasn't because my parents were particularly dedicated to Catholicism, it was just what we did in my family. It was more of a matter of tradition than religion.

Nevertheless, it's meaningless to declare that an infant is a member of a religion, with all its associated beliefs, when they couldn't possibly understand what any of this entails. And it seems quite irresponsible to commit a child to something like that, without any concern for what they might think about all this, and without even giving them the opportunity to actually consider these beliefs for themselves.

On top of that, Catholics believe that if you've been baptized as a Catholic, then you'll always be a Catholic no matter what. Which, of course, I don't believe, but it's still irritating. The Church also counts you as a member unless you formally defect, which I plan to do in the near future.

Now, for the next few years after being baptized, I didn't have much contact with religion at all. But I was quite an avid reader. My family would read to me all the time, until I could read on my own. I was very interested in science—astronomy, geology, biology, paleontology, at least the parts of it I could understand at the time. And I think this really helped prepare me to be exposed to religion.

Around when I was 5 or 6, we moved, and we started going to a Catholic church. The services were intensely boring, and I really didn't get much out of it. I was also enrolled in CCD class, which is like a kind of Catholic Sunday school. We usually spent our time learning about various Bible stories, and I just thought of them like the stories we studied in reading class at school.

At the time, it hadn't yet occurred to me that this was something we were supposed to actually believe, as if these stories really happened. Maybe I was just a little dense, but when I finally realized that the people around me believed this was all real, I was almost shocked. I still didn't believe any of it, but I decided to try prayer, in an exploratory fashion, just to see if there was any substance to what they were teaching us. And, of course, nothing happened, which just helped confirm for me that there was probabably nothing real about any of this. But I understood that I would still have to pretend I believed it, just like everyone else.

So that's what I did, for pretty much the entire time I was involved with religion. I have to wonder how many people there are out there who are like I was, just pretending so they can blend in, because that's what they're expected to do. To be clear, I never felt that I actually had to make myself believe in God to satisfy some kind of supernatural demand. I just had to profess to believe in God to satisfy the people around me.

When I was 8, I had my first communion. It wasn't particularly meaningful to me, it was just a ritual, and an opportunity to have a big party with my family. Throughout all of this, I can't say I ever experienced any of the religious or spiritual feelings that believers and former believers have described.

When I was about 11 or 12, we started going to a Lutheran church at the suggestion of my mother's friends. Again, my family wasn't very attached to Catholicism. The new church was part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a conservative denomination with doctrines of biblical inerrancy and young earth creationism. It wasn't any less dull than the last church, just a little more crazy. The pastor would deliver sermons about how human evolution is a hoax by scientists, and why the church is not okay with gay people. And then there were some stories that sounded a little too much like email forwards.

During this time, I also had to attend catechism class for two years, which was run by the same pastor. In terms of the doctrine they taught us, it was no more convincing, but it was just as boring. Indeed, the only interesting parts were when the pastor said something that made it obvious why I didn't believe any of this. He told us about the devil talking to people through Ouija boards, and claimed that carbon dating isn't real and neither are dinosaur fossils.

Now, by this time, I was in high school, and I was taking biology. And when he brought up dinosaurs, I had to abandon my usual policy of just going along with everything. I politely asked him whether he might be wrong about this, because it seemed like he was. And he told me that fossils are there to test our faith, and so we just need to have faith. I didn't have faith, but I didn't bring it up again.

At one point, he mentioned that the pope was actually the antichrist. Now, I wasn't bothered by this, because I didn't believe anything I learned at the Catholic church either, and after the dinosaur thing, the very idea of an antichrist didn't have much credibility anyway. But how messed up is it to tell kids that their Catholic friends and neighbors are literally followers of the antichrist? That's the sort of thing that foments completely unnecessary division over what amounts to nothing. I hate to think of what could happen when someone actually believes that.

There was also the time when we had a cursory overview of Islamic beliefs, which were treated with a very dismissive attitude, almost as if to say, "Can you believe what these people believe?" And it did seem pretty ridiculous, but it made me think: Somewhere out there, there are Muslims learning about their faith, and dismissing the beliefs of Christianity, which they consider to be obviously ridiculous. So how are we supposed to be so certain that they're the ones who are wrong? Or to take it even further, couldn't both of them be just as absurd, and just as wrong? This only served to confirm that my skepticism was warranted.

It was also around this time that I began to realize that I might be gay. And I know some people have deep personal conflicts between their religion and their sexuality, but this was never really a problem for me. It just wasn't something I regarded as a matter of religious concern—though by then, I didn't regard much of anything as a matter of religious concern. I mean, what was I supposed to think? "Oh no, my religion believes being gay is bad"? Yeah, well, apparently my religion believes fossils aren't real, too. If being gay and being Lutheran were incompatible, well, guess how that turned out.

After I was done with catechism class, I was going to be confirmed. However, my mother and her second husband were going through a divorce at the time. He was a very unpleasant person, and we really needed to get away from him. But the pastor had a better idea. He told my mother that she shouldn't get divorced, because, of course, the Bible says so. She wasn't really interested, and we all stopped going to church shortly thereafter. Ultimately, religion was about as important to her as it was to me.

And after that, we just never bothered to find another church. I never felt like I was missing something by not going to church. I just didn't need anything it provided, and in that sense, it was disposable to me.

For some time, I had nothing to do with religion. There was a point where I would still identify myself as a Christian, and later, as an agnostic, because I was still a little hung up on the possibility of hell, and I felt it would be better to stay on the safe side. But eventually I realized that if there was a god, it wouldn't be fooled by someone merely claiming to believe, just in case. And there were bound to be plenty of other people from other religions, professing to believe in their gods just to avoid their versions of hell. And yet, I didn't have any problem with not believing in their gods. And that's how I became comfortable with identifying as an atheist.

I still wasn't very vocal about it until 2008, when Proposition 8 passed, largely supported by Mormons, Catholics and religious people in general. For some reason, this is what it took for me to realize that religion cannot be safely ignored. It may not be true, but it is a very real threat that must be addressed as such. Two weeks later, I made my first video—and here we are.

Looking back, I've had plenty of encounters with religion that I'm sure I could have done without. I don't think anyone needs to experience the conflict of learning about science at school during the week, just to have their church expect them to renounce reality on Sundays. And for those who actually believe in religion, I'm sure these issues are even more difficult to handle. But at the same time, my history with religion certainly shaped my development and contributed to the person I am today. I don't know whether to be thankful for that, but I am glad to have found my way out relatively unscathed. Some people aren't so fortunate.

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