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Posted by tungtide on May 22, 2008, 8:37 am

I’ve decided to begin this blog with a bit of a testimonial. Often, these are used in religious circles as a means of patting yourself on the back and showing how devoted you are to the cause. Mine is a little different.

I never really defined myself through my religious beliefs, I just faked it well.

“Everyone in this room is saved. We are the ones going to Heaven and it is our job to save everyone outside these walls. Those people should be fighting to knock down the door to this room so that there will no longer need to be a Bible Club, but everyone will instead share in the love of Jesus Christ.”

Something similar to this was actually spoken to me about ten years ago (credit to Jamesly Brad something-with-an-L, for those who know him). Looking back, this was one of the earliest moments at which I began to question my beliefs. Who was I to say that everyone else was wrong? Why should I be forcing my beliefs on someone else and trying to convince them to give up something they believe in, only to trade it in for another equally absurd story. At the time I was part of a bible club at my high school. This involved taking time out of lunch once a week to meet up with other like-minded individuals. Initially it was a way to interact with my Christian friends and share our beliefs with those interested in the subject. Well, that was my take on the situation. As the club evolved we began discussing ways to become more visible, as if it was a simple matter of sharing a message before the “unsaved” would change their ways. I would often return from these meeting with stickers affixed to my shirt, trying to show off my moral superiority through tacky slogans and phrases. I suspect that this was a mild to moderate annoyance to those around me. Thankfully, those same people had the good sense to ignore the issue and it did eventually go away.

I immersed myself in the institution of Christianity as much as I could stand. I would attend regular services and at least one evening a week with the youth group. By the time my senior year rolled around I was assisting with some of the younger students and helping them “find their way.” Throughout the process I had my doubts but was certain that if I kept working at it I would find that spark, that divine intervention that so many had experienced, and I would finally feel the same excitement and joy as the other Christians in my life. As the months and years wore on I became increasingly uncertain regarding my motives in the church, the youth group, and the bible club. While none of them began with an evangelical philosophy, eventually they all began to impress upon me the need to preach and convert those around me. Changes in positions of power led to a new and more aggressive policy of evangelism and this led to new and profound changes in my interactions with the church.

By the time I left the bible club it had become a monster of a different beast. We were told to bring unconverted friends on a regular basis, to witness to people in our lives (especially family and friends), and to constantly have a biblical explanation for why things should be the way that “we” wanted them. Needless to say I was a little unsure of my place.

I don’t remember ever actually doing any of these things, other than perhaps dragging a friend to one of the lunch meetings. No matter how deep I found myself in this religion, I never felt that it was my responsibility to tell other people that they were wrong.

A similar series of events took place with the youth group. I was told that I should not date anyone of a different religion, that I should avoid sex (and any physical intimacy) until marriage, and that it was my job to bring in the “lost souls” who had not heard the news of Jesus. Luckily, it never got to the point of blaming women for “original sin” or condemning homosexuals as “evil.” Instead, the group focused on the indoctrination of its own members. We would actually go around in a circle and pledge not to have sex until marriage. Those few people who had had unmarried sex would tell us their shameful tales and how sex did nothing to further their relationships. One of the youth pastors even said that an evening of sex between him and his fiancée was the cause behind the delay in their marriage. Still others told of having sex only a single time before marriage and how that lead to sexually transmitted diseases and prevented them from being able to have children. I believe this was the same couple that didn’t believe that Reykjavik was the capitol of Iceland (this was prior to the point where the internet was available in nearly every household, and there was no way to look up the answer at their house). As the youth group took this turn toward evangelism I turned away from both it and the church.

Starting college distanced me from the few remaining friends I had in those groups. I rarely saw any of them and I hadn’t been to church in a couple months (as far as I remember,) but I still considered myself a Christian.

As I worked my way through my undergraduate education I paid little attention to the role of religion in my life. My girlfriend at the time was Jewish, but this was her genetic heritage and not the definition of her personality. I went to church only on Christmas and even then only because it was expected of me while I was visiting home. I became more hostile towards the concept of religion and never really noticed how I was breaking away until after the fact. By the time I graduated I was irreligious, but still afraid of calling myself an atheist. I know that the word, the thought never crossed my mind, since atheists were still a stigmatized group as far as I was concerned. Having grown up initially Catholic and then having experienced the edges of Evangelical Christianity I still had a nagging voice in the corner of my head that would not let me give up on religion so easily. The same persistence and stubbornness that I demonstrate in other aspects of my life was actually a determent in letting go. These traits had me holding on to the last shreds of my belief long after it was dead.

Still, I had never used the work atheist to describe myself. I was simply a non-believer, one who distanced myself from religion and was amused by the arbitrary restraints that (otherwise intelligent) people put upon themselves in their lives in the name of religion. Instead of tackling the issue I sidelined it and decided to learn about the people around me. I learned about how religion played a role in their lives and the aspects that they considered grey areas.

I met couples who were married without ever having lived a day of their lives under the same roof, and couples who believed that the woman should submit to the will of the husband. There were individuals that believed it authority figures should never be questioned, that they should always be given the benefit of the doubt. I saw the positive and negative effects of religion on family: if two consenting adults in their early 30’s had decided to actually spend a night together unwed, they would have each been disowned by their parents. As long as they played by the rules though, the families were as supporting and loving as parents could be.

It was after seeing the irrational, illogical, and sometimes hurtful restrictions that people put upon themselves in the name of religion that I began admitting that I didn’t believe. A young married couple (former neighbors of mine) was shocked to learn that I didn’t believe. The concept of disbelief was foreign to them, and they had never met a person who would openly admit such a fact before. I’m pretty sure they kept this information secret from some of their other, more closed-minded friends, as it would have driven a wedge in at least one of the friendships.

My disbelief lifted a weight from my shoulders and I have enjoyed my life immensely since. Since there are many confusing definitions of atheists and what we believe, so I’ll state it simply: the only unifying concept for atheists is disbelief in any and all supernatural forces. This, of course, leads to a more specific definition of who I am on top of my disbelief, because I do believe in many important issues.

I believe that this life is the only one that I will get, and that makes it all the more important that I do something important with it (as long as I can get a full complement of naps.) I believe in equality, diplomacy, science, and imagination (I think that last point is crucial in understanding this world.) Finally, I believe that I can be wrong. With new data and new evidence I am always willing to reassess who I am and my place in this world. But it had better be really good evidence.

4 Responses to “Deconversion”

  1. Robert said

    Interesting story, thanks for sharing!

  2. tungtide said

    Interesting story, thanks for sharing!

    Thanks. I’m planning to expand beyond atheism-related topics, but felt that this was a good place for me to get started.

  3. Susie said

    Thanks for sharing that story. I find people’s experiences with religion to be fascinating – especially when they begin to question what they grew up with.

  4. tungtide said

    Religion is one of the most fascinating subjects for me (especially since I live and breathe science in my “regular” life) since it tends to affect almost everyone in different ways. I have no delusions about being able to change people’s minds on the subject but if I can cause critical thought I have accomplished enough.

    It was in part because of our conversation on the subject a few weeks back that I decided to re-enter the world of blogging. I had been wavering on the fence for a while, reading what others were writing, and decided to jump back into the ring.

    I am considering resurrecting some of the “classic” posts from my old website and reposting them here. First, I need to figure out if there’s anything worth saving. After taking down that site I dumped all the files into a corner of my computer and they’ve been collecting dust ever since.

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