The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Deconversion Story

Frank over at Financial Savvy Atheist is doing a Carnival of Deconversion and has requested a tale. A true tale, to be sure, of the loss of faith and belief in sky-dwellers. Here's mine, as told to a note-taking Equadorian stripper who was, oddly, smoking a Churchill cigar and was wearing headphones with the pulsing beat of the Timex Social Club quite audible from across the table. Enjoy:

My earliest memories of church are where I’m sitting and trying to not fall asleep. I would close my eyes and press my palms or thumbs against my eyelids until a greenish checkerboard tunnel pattern formed (in my brain?). I would hold my hands there for a minute or two and then open my eyes; the pattern would stay, then slowly my vision would start to return, the backs of heads and the priest would coming into focus again.

“…And so we speak now in the words our Father taught us, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name’…”

Repetition certainly burns the words into your head. Obviously I do not remember my baptism, I hardly remember last weekend. I vaguely recall my first communion because there is a picture of me in a pink dress shirt and tie (it was the 1980’s, come on – the Thompson Twins were fashion icons for chrissake). I think there was apple juice.

I do remember my first confession. Well, I remember not wanting to do it. Not because I had horrible things to confess; quite the opposite. I just did not want to do it. The priest did not need to know about my casual swearing and occasional masturbating. If he could talk to God, I could talk to God and we could eliminate the middleman, thus saving me the (then) embarrassing telling of a great fantasy involving Alyssa Milano. Besides, why should I tell him? Was confessing that I took some of my mom’s hair clips (you know, because I’m a thug) going to be that one thing that gets me into Heaven? Well better not take a chance – I told him something pointless and that was that. I have never been back.

Catechism was something we did after church or, later in junior high, one night during the week. It was more of a meeting to discus how God fits into life than a prayer group or bible study. In all honesty, I can only remember two “teachers” and nothing of what they said about religion. One sticks in my mind because I saw her and her husband at the video store one night coming out of the X-rated back room. They did not see me, but once you see your “spiritual teacher” holding “Dirty Sluts Who Swallow vol. 85”, you sort of gain an odd perspective on life and how equal we all really are.

The other fellow I recall vaguely had a large glass bottle by his fireplace that was filled with pennies. He said, “Anyone who breaks in here and carries this out can have it.” I offered to take him up on it, but the fear of an inguinal hernia and stealing from a volunteer church teacher stopped me short. Oh, and we pushed a car out of his driveway one snowy night. Not one lesson from all the years of Sunday school stuck with me.

Somehow though, the repetition of church made something in my heart know there was a God. Not just God, but spirits, saints, angels, and devils too. Part of the package, I guess. In high school I was on a “boys challenge” – sort of a three-day (I think) retreat where we would stay at the “Mother House”, a convent at Mount Saint Vincent University in Bedford, Nova Scotia.

Again, the memories of this are faded to the point where all I remember are a select few, decidedly non-religious moments. For example, at one speech or lecture, I was watching a guy named Ozzy spin his pen around his thumb. A sort of a snap-your-fingers motion produced a smooth spin that looked really cool. I taught myself to do it soon afterwards and I still do it today, so I can’t say that religious functions never taught me anything.

At the closing meeting where all the parents and some church higher-ups attended, one retreater was speaking and we all called out for him to do the chicken impression he had made us all laugh so hard with during the previous nights. He obliged after some goading, surely much to the chagrin of the organizers.

I fell away from the church in my late teen years when my parents stopped getting me up to go to mass. I guess they felt that if I wanted to go, I would make the effort and it was them allowing me to make a choice that I still thank them for today. They kept going themselves for a while, but faded off after a few more years. The God belief stayed with me for some time however, until I moved away from home for the first time.

In 1996 I graduated from university with an English degree and moved to Kagoshima, Japan to teach at a private school and see some of the world. I was also quite green and trying to find out who I was and what I thought. Going to a place where Buddhism and Shintoism were the main religions made me question the rightness of what I had been taught.

Since I was no longer going to church and had no interest in being around “church people”, I tried to adopt a new spirituality. I was interested in Japan so I thought maybe Shintoism would be a good fit for me. I went to a large shrine close to my apartment and stood outside the torii gate. Looking in, I tried to feel something. Anything. I remembered that I was supposed to walk up to the front of the building, clap three times, and pull the rope, then toss a small monetary donation into the trough (why do they always need money?).

I felt like a fake. It was as though I was in a horrible disguise that everyone could plainly see and they were all staring at me. I left.

At the bookstore a few weeks later I found an English/Japanese guide to Buddhism. After reading it I was no further along in my quest. It seemed that belief in re-incarnation was a fundamental concept for Buddhists, which seemed way too odd for me to take without questioning.

A friend told me about a four-day course in “personal power” that a friend of his from Australia was putting on. It sounded intriguing so I signed up and paid the $400 to better my “manifesting”. Sadly, the guy was a complete flake and the one thing that stuck with me was a bit during a guided meditation about “relaxing your anus.” I still jokingly sign off emails to a friend who also took the course with that phrase – “relaxing my anus, Mike.”

I stopped looking for spiritual happiness and one day while teaching a lesson to the Japanese teachers, I brought up ghosts. I asked them to tell their favorite ghost stories to illustrate some grammatical point. One asked me at the end of the class if I believed in ghosts to which I replied that I did not. The next day she stopped me in the hall of the school and said, “if you don’t believe in ghosts then you don’t believe in God, right?” She had this “I got you” look in her eyes and I stopped to answer her.

“No, I don’t believe in God”, I said. It was the first time I said it out loud and it felt really weird. I actually said it more for shock value than anything else because it is a silly question that doesn’t follow logic. Shock worked because she was quite taken back and went off to her room. I retreated to mine also where I attempted to debrief myself – Do I believe in God? Do I need to believe in God? No. What changes if I don’t? Nothing.

This was my entry to godlessness. Upon my return to Canada a year later with many books under my belt (of course Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark was key among those), I went for a drink with a friend. He had been religious and the subject came up. I said that I was no longer a believer and he then asked if I was an atheist or an agnostic. I told him “atheist”.

“Wow”, he said. Since then I have often thought about the difference and have gone back and forth between, “I’m an agnostic because I’m open to being convinced by evidence”, and “I’m an atheist because there is no evidence – if that changes, I’ll rethink my position.” Somehow now I feel beyond labels. “Atheist” doesn’t mean anything – I don’t believe in six-legged flying green buffalo from Venus, but I don’t go around saying I’m an “ahexabuffavertovenesian aerialist”. It’s just silly. We only have a word for “no belief in god(s)” because religious belief in a paranormal figurehead in the sky is so pervasive.

Now here I am: a writer who has no need for faith trying to make life as pleasant as possible for my family and friends. I clash with religious people and with people who claim to possess paranormal skills, but this, I think, is necessary. When so many people believe in something demonstrably false, people like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, James Randi, Penn & Teller, and many bloggers and others speak up to try to keep folks from being scammed and to promote reason and rationality.

I am proud to be a very small voice in the chorus of skeptics, heathens, freethinkers, and contrarians trying to make this world a better place, here and now.

4 Barbaric Yawps:

At 13/9/06 7:10 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing that, Mike. It's an amazing feeling when you realize you don't HAVE to believe in anything. It's hard to go against the grain of society, and being able to find like minded people is just part of our human nature. I wonder how many atheists go through the same steps of trying to find another religeon or new age spiritualist belief, before finally realizing they are all lacking.

At 14/9/06 8:57 pm, Blogger BigHeathenMike said...

I'm looking forward to Frank's Deconversion Carnival or whatever he has planned. It'll be interesting to read a collection of tales and get the answers to some of your questions :)

At 15/9/06 10:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Atheist” doesn’t mean anything – I don’t believe in six-legged flying green buffalo from Venus, but I don’t go around saying I’m an “ahexabuffavertovenesian aerialist”. It’s just silly. We only have a word for “no belief in god(s)” because religious belief in a paranormal figurehead in the sky is so pervasive.

Exactly precisely correct! I've tried to explain that to people before, but you said it better than I ever did.

At 18/9/06 8:58 am, Anonymous Sean Kehoe said...

Nice article.

Anonymous, I suspect quite a few atheists will go through a process that would have them evaluating other belief systems. I know I looked at some of the eastern ones and dabbled with an interest in aliens. Ultimately though the lack of evidence for all these things added up. Also, it was interesting how similar these diverse beliefs really were.

I think that's what really made my mind up in the end. How could all these beliefs be correct yet lack any compelling evidence that would prove them true?

Agreed, the term atheist shouldn't be needed in a rational world any more than we need a word spoecifically to describe a non-chinese person.


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