Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Deconversion

When I was growing up, I was taught that I was a Christian. I went to church with my family every Sunday morning and Sunday night. All of my friends were also taught they were Christians, and they also went to church with their families every Sunday morning and Sunday night. For a good while we even went on Wednesday nights as well. We weren't Baptists, or Episcopalian, or Catholics. My family attended Pentecostal churches. There were people speaking in tongues, people prophesying, dancing in the aisles, and so forth. Sometimes church services would go for three hours or more. I went to Sunday school before church as well. We'd get there at 9:00 a.m. and sometimes not get out of there until close to 1:00 p.m. I didn't really like going to church, but as a kid I didn't have much choice in the matter. My parents were going and did what they did, cause I was a kid. This is not to say, there weren't things about church going I didn't enjoy. I did look forward to seeing my best friends. But mainly so that we could have fun goofing off together in Sunday school and in between Sunday school and the regular church service. During the service we didn't get to screw around much, because important things were going on. God-worship was taking place, so we knew better. But we would still try and screw around long distance. My family would sit on one side of the sanctuary and my friends would be sitting somewhere else. My friends and I would certainly try and make eye contact with each other, and sometimes we'd be able to access some inside joke through our own made-up sign language and the laughing would ensue, which of course led to the inevitable parental reprimand of SSSHHHH!! I rarely paid attention in church, as I suppose most kids don't, but there were times as I grew older that some things would perk-up my ears. I went to three different churches as a kid. The first was a sort of non-denominational, evangelical, Pentecostal church. My family stopped going there when my sibling became a teenager and I was probably 11 or twelve. We then moved to a more fundamentalist church that was a bit closer to our house. I know we left our old church because of some political controversy within the church administration, but I don't really remember what went on. For one thing I was really to young to give a rip, other than I knew that I was going to have to make new "Church" friends. This is why we left, but I still don't know why we started going to the new church, but I do know it was about this time that I started to hear things that made me pay at least a modicum of attention in the service. Once we moved to the new church, we really didn't go to Sunday school much anymore, again I don't know why, but decisions were made, and Sunday school sort of faded into the past. As I said, this new church was very Pentecostal, especially the music potion of the service. But the preacher (she was a preacher not a pastor) was also very hell-fire and brimstone. It was this stuff that started getting my attention. Up till this point I had never really been told of all the horrors of hell that awaited me when I died. It was mainly doing unto others and Jesus healed the sick, and Noah took two of every animal on the ark, and all that business, kid stuff, if you will. But now I was a preteen, and was capable of understanding consequences. So at our new church I sat up and took notice whenever the preacher would single out the youth of the church (not the kids, but the Youth, which definitely included me) as being particularly susceptible to the wiles of life of sin. And it seemed like the preacher was always singling us out, you see, the youth all sat together in one section of the sanctuary, away from our parents (for the first time). She would (the preacher was a red-headed lady, not that being red-headed matters, but it's just something I remember) look directly at us and speak directly to us about how Satan wanted to corrupt our minds and lives, and he was (at that very moment) waging a WAR against our sanctity. To me it was clear that I must have been losing this battle, because as a preteen, I was just becoming aware of my ideas about good and evil. Up till then I was really concerned with how many transformers I might collect come next Christmas. But now I was being confronted with a call-to-arms for battle with the father of lies, who was supremely intent on destroying me eternally. Every Sunday. I remember leaving church feeling sad and rather despondent about my prospects of success against Satan’s legions. Over time, I actually began to feel myself a lost cause, because sometimes in church when I was supposed to be glorying in god's presence, I would literally shiver (not from being cold). Chills would run up my spine momentarily, and at that point I would think to myself, Satan is attacking me with all he can. I would redouble my efforts. I would shut my eyes tighter, I would lift my hands higher in the air, and I would talk gibberish a little more gibberishy or faster. At this point I had been told I should be speaking in tongues, as that is one of the gifts of the spirit, and so I did this at every service, thinking that I was learning the ropes of spiritual battle. Granted, I never thought I was actually speaking some extinct language, but maybe it was a language that had never existed outside of heaven, or maybe god could understand it, even if I couldn't, or maybe just making the effort was enough, I don't know. The point was I always felt discomfort at this new church. Ironically, it was about this time that I noticed for the first time a really pretty girl. Though, she was much older than I was, and had a boyfriend (the preacher's son no less, and I swear I'm not making this up), ahh... unrequited love...., I did look forward to seeing her every Sunday, and was supremely disappointed on those Sundays when she was not there for whatever reason. For some reason, we did not attend this church for more than a few years and then we moved on to another church, one which was actually farther from our home than the very first church we went to. If I remember correctly, the impetus for this change was again political controversy, but of what nature, I'm sure I never knew. Nevertheless, my sibling had made some new friends at high school and really wanted to go check out the church they went to, they were so cool. So as it turns out, we did just that. In addition, our old church music minister, who was one of the highlights of the church (great piano player) had moved to this new church as well. Now, I personally was hoping at this point that the new church would be more like the first church I remember, and not so much like the last church. It actually ended up being about halfway between the two. Although the services themselves were about as long and as athletic, the pastor (he was a pastor not a preacher) was a bit less hell-fire and brimstone, but to be sure, that stuff was definitely still a big part of the experience. I was in high school now, so I was particularly aware of the females surrounding me at church. This is important because, I found that if I wanted to impress the ladies, I had better show some reverence before god. My thinking was " These girls are gung-ho Christians. If I become gung-ho as well, that might be my in with one of them". And so I embarked upon my phase of radical Christianity. Mind you, at this point it had less to do with my dread of the afterlife fate that surely awaited my sinning persona, as it did with my here-and-now predicament of landing a foxy lady. I had had a few "girlfriends" in middle school, if that's what you'd like to call them, but I had had many more unrequited crushes than actual girls, during that time. I was however, supremely aware of my Casanova guy friends who were always hooked up with the finest girls in school. I was JEALOUS! I wanted a hot girlfriend now. So, I figured this was my path to amour, being all Churchy. What's more, I think every guy that went to this new church of mine was doing the same thing I was. Maybe not, but I suspect as much. Anywho... I'm not sure my devious and not-so-clever plan actually worked. After a year-long pursuit, I did get a girlfriend for a summer out of the deal, and she was hot. But the summer fling didn't last, even all summer, she hooked with a new guy at our school before the summer was even out, HUSSY :-) but that is neither here nor there. The real point of all of this is, I approached religious conviction with ulterior motives in mind. It was a means to an end, in this case the end being success in love. I did not really think about the tenets of the particular faith I was being fed. All I knew was that there were hot girls there and I wanted in on some of that. At my previous church, I had unbeknownst to me, developed a pretty healthy personality aspect of self-loathing. I remember in late 1987, the preacher at this other church told the congregation that a mathematician had calculated that Jesus' return was going to happen on either September 11,12,or 13 of 1988. I was petrified at this news. I figured, I'm screwed, I've only got a year left (not even that) and I'm only thirteen years old. I'm not gonna get to learn how to drive a car, I'm never gonna get laid, no getting married, having kids, none of that. The world is going to end and I'm fucked. of course that guy was wrong, and when those days came and went, I felt relieved and also a bit perplexed. I think this was the very first time I asked a question about Christianity’s truth. I figured, " Jesus didn't come back, but he said he was going to, so why has it taken so long, why hasn't he come back yet? I remember thinking the world was probably as bad as it was ever going to get, so what was the holdup.
For a while I was convinced I was the Antichrist. The shivers I would get in church made me think I was somehow naturally averse to the Christian teachings. I would get the heebie-jeebies in church, but nowhere else (this is actually not true, I got the shivers in school too, I just selectively forgot those times). I just knew I was going to turn out to be the Antichrist. It always seemed to me that if I wished one thing, the opposite would happen, good or bad. I think this contributed to my confusion over my supernatural apocalyptic role, in some way. During my middle school years, I learned from church that I was going to go to hell, most likely, because Satan wanted me. I never really learned that god wanted me much though. I know, I know, god loved me enough to save me from sin through his son's crucifixion and all that. but that happened 2,000 years ago, according to my middle church (the really Pentecostal one) Satan was after me right then and there, as soon as I walked out the building I was going to be under attack. As they say, there's no time like the present, and to me Satan was going full-tilt and god was resting on his laurels. I figured I had no chance, thus I came to think I might be the antichrist. Believe it or not, this thought persisted with me in a much hidden and subdued sort of way until after high school. I buried my worry, but it was always there. My rebellious stage in high school was probably due in part to this deep-seated paranoia, that and I was an adolescent, chock-full-of-hormones, guy. All throughout high school, I went to this new church, although it eventually became just my church. the girls were certainly a huge attraction (pun intended) but I was also drawn to wanting to be like the cool older guys there as well. I went through a copycat phase, where I wanted to play all the same instruments as this one guy who was about 7 years older than me. The church had a band which played for the music portion of the service each Sunday, and so I joined, thinking I could boost my coolness factor by doing so. I unwisely thought I could single-handedly buck the band nerd moniker and effectively be the salvation of all instrumentalists worldwide. To this day it has yet to work, we are all still nerds. I also wanted a low rider diesel truck, because one of the guys at church had one and everyone kinda thought he was cool because of it. I desperately wanted to be cool.
There are times when I was moved at church. The Easter services were usually moving to me. The church would put on a cantata (not in the liturgical sense) and usually have someone dress up as Jesus carrying his cross, with a crown of thorns, bloody, up to Golgotha (where he was crucified). Then the troop would act out the crucifixion itself complete with the big hammer, accompanied by thunderous booms for effect, and big-ass railroad spikes as nails. it was always a tear-jerky moment. Suffering is never a happy time. I would cling to these memories during the rest of the year in order to prop up my faint faith. If for no other reason than to maintain the facade of devoutness for the girls, I honestly tried to feel like a Christian as often as I remembered to do so, which wasn't very often (usually there was hot girl near me). But the thing is, I never really felt like a Christian, at least not in the ways I saw on display around me. When I would hear someone give some tongue-infested prophecy, I would feel uncomfortable. I was always a little nervous if someone spoke out in tongues during the service and nobody would come forward to "interpret" it. I was uncomfortable and also a little sniggerish. I would sometimes smile a bit to myself if this happened. I knew those tongue-speakers were full of it then. Now, I tried my hand at the tongue-speaking for a good long time, but I never really thought I was supposed to be doing it. It was more like wind sprints on the baseball team for me. The running had little to do with playing the game, but they did force us to get a bit of exercise. The situation was similar to my speaking in tongues, I knew I'd never really be in the prophesying game so-to-speak, but I practiced the skill nonetheless. but these moments in church where no interpretation would follow the Swahili being spouted, I finally figured it out, everyone was making it up. Then I realized nobody was speaking a real language, it was all just gibberish, not gibberish-sounding to the ignorant, just plain old gibberish. I think I lost a bit of ability to be a Faither around this time.
After high school, I went to college. For a year, I lived at home and went to junior college. I had stopped going to church by now, placing myself instead with the church of drinking beer and hanging out with new college friends. I didn't give much thought to the Christianity of my youth, but it was still there. I spent my time drinking, working, studying trombone, trying to get laid, and so forth. It was at work that I met my wife (future) who come to find out was going to be a nun before she met me, heh, heh, heh.... That's right ladies, she gave up celibacy for a life with me. Seriously, she was a devoted fairly new Christian, having come to her faith within a few years of our meeting. I fell into the old trap of false fronting in order to keep the girl. She was hot, I was lucky, and I didn't want to screw it up, so I hopped back into the world of Christianity after a brief albeit immensely relief0laden hiatus. We got married very quickly and moved away to start college together. Away from family, friends. It was just we, in a new town surrounded by a huge state university (The Florida State University to be precise). It was here that I was exposed to the history of my childhood religion in ways I was never afforded while actually involved in it. The world of music illuminates religion(s) in ways most people would never think of. To most, music is background sound to a worship service, but not to all. I won't lecture on music theory or history here, but suffice it to say, my studying music made me view religion (my religion) much differently and much less reverently as I had once purported to do. This being said, I still tried to be a Christian, not a good Christian, just a Christian, but it never stuck to me, like a religion ought to. We played children's church leaders for a little while, I tried coordinating the music at our Assembly of God church for a while, none of it worked well. I was (still am) a fairly defensive kind of guy. I don't like being affronted by anyone, especially if I think that person knows considerably less about a particular topic than me. Because of this, I didn't really fit with the whole church leader role, and so I gave it up. But truth be known, I was only playing at being such a thing, my heart was never in it, and I think it showed. I started thinking about philosophical issues during my time at FSU. Economics, Politics, but curiously enough not other religions. I wanted to hang on to my inherited conservatism and so I jumped on the impeach Clinton bandwagon, I later recanted. I even would have voted for W. in 2000 if I had been registered in Pennsylvania, which is where we moved to go to graduate school. But I found myself leaning ever so slightly to the left while in graduate school in Philadelphia. I also found myself, as did my wife, not caring about going to church anymore. We tried a few in Philly, but didn't like any of them so we just stopped trying after a few attempts. During Graduate school, I started reading non-stop. Mainly fiction. I plowed through every Stephen King novel he wrote and published and I could get from for $1.00 or less. I have quite the collection now. Grisham, Clancy, Crighton, Tolkien, etc... I read a lot, and of course I studied and practiced my horn too. I'm sure my adopted practice of reading played a part in my deconversion. there's nothing like reading the printed word to make a person think, about anything. Television requires nothing, movies nothing, watching a baseball game nothing. Of course no one is prohibited from thinking whilst participating in one of these activities, but there is no requirement implied. On the other hand, thinking is requisite while reading. Even though I was reading fictional stories my mind was beginning to formulate some ideas about myself. We lived in Philly for almost two years before moving away to Michigan for work. It was in Michigan that I finally gave up trying to be a Christian altogether.
I have mentioned how as a kid I was never really inclined to be all that devout. I did however glean a great deal of information about Christianity. The virgin birth, the walking on water, the resurrection, the money lenders in the temple, etc... I knew the New Testament stories. I had absorbed them over time, and they are still with me, but I certainly was no budding biblical scholar. I have read the entire bible once, completely. I have read a lot of the parts that are essential to any amateur Christian many times more. When I was trying to a Christian I hardly ever thought about the bible, but ironically, as an apostate, I have thought about the bible and it's stories a great deal more.
A few years ago, I decided to start writing down in a notepad what my real true thoughts about life and religion were. I began in 2002 with a great deal of personal despair. I had thoughts that god was either evil or non-existent. I was hurt over personal disappointments in life and I found the god I had tried to believe in to be the most readily available scapegoat. Fortunately this did not last long, I realized after a while the only way I could divert my life around these disappointments was to figure the route myself. My blame of god dissipated, but it also sowed real doubt in god's existence. I continued to write down my thoughts. Things like " the stories in the bible were written by men, not god; 2003", "creation did not happen, evolution did; 2003", and "god does not exist; 2004". It's important to note the dates. I had begun to write these thoughts of mine down years before I had ever heard of the "New Atheists". Not once in my life had I picked up a book criticizing religion at this point. I had however moved from Stephen king to Stephen hawking, and other similar books. probably one of the single most eye-opening books I've ever read, Hawking's " A brief history of time" was the nail in the coffin which had been buried years before. It taught me that nothing from religion is as cool as the universe itself. In 2007, after I had been effectively an atheist for a few years, I came across a you tube video of a guy named Sam Harris giving a lecture in Toronto on religious fallacies. I had never heard of the guy, but I was intrigued nonetheless. After watching the whole hour presentation I was floored. I had just heard someone else saying the exact things I had been thinking and privately writing down for nearly two years. I had no idea there were other people who thought as similarly as I did. I grew up thinking that atheists were as bad as Satan worshippers. Now being one, I knew better, but it was refreshing to know the network of freethinking individuals out in the world. I have read both of Harris' books, and I follow his blog. I have since read many other free thought books, some I agree with, and some I don't wholly. My abandonment of Christianity has led me to philosophy, and I have read a great deal of philosophy in the last few years. It also allowed me to explore cosmology and particle physics (on an amateur scale). I have many more widely-spread interests now than I ever did as a Christian- poser. My blog posts explain my position on the various tenets of Christianity so I won’t replay them here. Having written this, I'm glad. I've put it off for a while, but it was nice to go back in time for a while. I know I've never been a Christian, despite the efforts of my childhood church. Although I did try for a long time, for various reasons. I understand why people resort to religion. For some it comforts, for others it is a tether to hang onto in an otherwise tumultuous life, for still others it is a way to lift themselves over their fellow humans. But the thing is, none of those reasons matter, because in the end, religion is an idea. Ideas are only ideas until they are realized. There is no possible realization of religion until we die, and at that point it's too late to get anything out of it, which is why heaven and hell were invented. The ideas that religion itself stakes claims to, morality, ethics, and the like are certainly realizable, but the thing is, they aren't religion's ideas, they are mankind's. And at the risk of becoming a bit tautological (circular) religion is also an idea of mankind. Humanity has no need for religion, it has come up with it's own ideas about ethics and morality. Religion has usurped these ideas and gathered them under its umbrella, when really they are the same types of ideas as religion itself. if religion spawned only good in the world, then that would be great, but it does not. Nothing does. And how is that? Because everything we concern ourselves with, global warming, overpopulation, nationalism, religious freedom, everything has two sides, affirming and opposing. Religion is man-made because it has both sides of the coin. This is probably the most telling aspect of religion's origins, but there are others. I am not a Christian, anymore. Maybe one day, you won't be either.

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