This isn’t my story—I don’t really have a deconversion story. The following is a guest post from Tim Herd, a fellow software developer and member of the Winnipeg Skeptics. Tim, an avid redditor, can be found online at The Flagcarrier. This entry is cross-posted from his blog.
“It is they who see this charade for what it is and join in the pageantry who are to blame.”—Wiegraf Folles
Today I attended the monthly “Drinking Skeptically” meeting from our local skeptics association. I’ve been skipping it, but I thought I’d go tonight on account of it would help with my being-antisocial problem.
At one point, the topic of Christian upbringings came up. It seems that most of our members were either raised secularly, or given some meaningless wishy-washy version of Christianity that might as well not have been. Maybe not atheism per se, but secularism was the default for them. But not for me. After going through my story a bit, I’ve realized that I would really like a canonical record I can point people to, so I don’t have to keep telling the story and accidentally changing it every time. So, here goes.
First, my background. I was raised, as far as faith is concerned, by a Mennonite mother and a homebrew-protestant father. For those of you unaware, Mennonites are an anabaptist branch of protestantism. Due to 500 years of living in reclusive colonies, they are also effectively their own cultural group. Imagine Ukranians, that speak German, and are devoutly religious, but not in your face about it at all. That is Mennonites. They have a fairly agreeable doctrine, it’s very traditional but not conservative so to speak. They are also pretty progressive. They have great social services they provide, and in general with them it is always help first, proselytize second. All things considered, they are generally a fairly good version of christianity. Obviously though, I still have some disagreements.
My stepdad’s homegrown protestantism, on the other hand, was different. It was a very serious thing, for one. He was of a fundamentalist mindset, but in a very different way. Where most fundamentalists in the States, for instance, look at the physical descriptions in the Bible as literal truth, my stepdad never did. The earth was probably billions of years old, but who cares. If the scientists tell us evolution happened, then God did it. But the moral precepts in the Bible were taken extremely literally. These are the rules. You have to follow them. You have to like them. If you don’t, Hell.
Growing up, I took my “faith” extremely seriously (up until my story here begins, anyway). After all, one wrong move and I’m burning in Hell forever, and that’s a long time. This fucked me up royally. I never had youthful indiscretions. To do that would be a sin. You always hear about the “straight edge” kids. The kids at church private schools who look all prim and proper, and then go lesbian experiment with their first-cousins, drink at 14, sell cocaine, sleep with their youth pastor (all true stories of people I personally know, btw). I was never like that. I never drank. I never smoked. I never even SAW a drug. I never kissed a girl, because what if she’s not religious enough. I never shoplifted. I never lied. I never disobeyed my parents, in any significant way. Because to do that, would be hell.
A lot of people have a strong emotional connection to their religion. I never did. To me, it was quite simple, cut and dry. This book is true. It says I have to do X. Therefore, I’m doing X. No emotional connection required. Part of this was my natural tendencies; I am a computer programmer, and prone to both literal, and critical/rational thinking. But part of this was my parents. You see, my stepdad also took religion very seriously. To him, an emotional connection to religion was evil. After all, if you’re having an emotional connection to, say, the church hymn, you’re gratifying yourself instead of worshipping Jesus. We actually switched churches, three times, and finally ended up no longer attending, because the congregations treated it too much like a social outing, and not enough like the very real threat of hellfire it was.
Because this was a very serious thing to me, I read the entire Bible, cover to cover. Not cherry-picking verses like they like to do, but like an actual book, starting at the front and ending at the back. Unlike almost every other theist-turned-skeptic I know, I was not shocked by the Bible’s insanity. To me, that made no sense. The Bible DEFINED sane, so if I didn’t agree with it, I was wrong. But this had an important effect on me nonetheless.
Remember Mennonites? The specific part of the specific city I live in has one of the highest concentration of Mennonites in the world. There were 12 Mennonite churches within walking distance of my house. A large number of my peers at school were Mennonite. And some of them were really religious. As I started to get close to some of them, I noticed something. None of them were nearly as serious about it as I was. And, well, I considered myself to be doing just the bare minimum to get by. Some of the more openly pious ones (reminiscent of that story about the pharisees praying outside) would not even associate with me, because I “wasn’t religious enough”; I didn’t attend their youth groups with them. To me, their youth groups were nothing but an excuse to socialize, while simultaneously being arrogant and holier-than-thou because they filled their weekly church quota. I would talk to some of these more pious peers, and find out that their Biblical literacy was pathetic. Some didn’t even own a Bible. None of them knew what it said. They all violated the commandments within the Bible daily, and they didn’t even think this was a big deal. In my indoctrinated mind, not taking the Bible seriously was like condemning yourself to Hell with no chance of being saved. And that all these people, including the “most religious” friends I had, acting like it was no big deal? The dissonance was disturbing.
For a while, I could convince myself that those people were just “not true Christians”. The persecution complex that the Bible advocates played well. Obviously, in a church of say 1000 people, there may only be 20 “true Christians”. This was, after all, the rhetoric that my parents preached in our “homechurching” every Sunday, so it made perfect sense. While this is complete bullshit, I believed it right around age 15-17, at the perfect time to ensure I would be socially retarded forever and alienate all the people who could otherwise still be my friends. But I couldn’t believe this forever. Two main things contributed to this.
The first thing was that I sung in the church choir. At the time, we attended a small community church, populated mostly by the elderly. So, the church choir was made up of two main groups of people: The Elderly, and The Preacher’s Family. I assumed, naievely, that the pastor’s family would be of higher theological calibre than other church attendees. But what I saw contradicted this. The preacher and his family, as far as I could tell, sung in the choir simply because, well, that was expected. Where my stepdad had me convinced that I needed to sing to prove that I loved Jesus, the preacher’s family was singing because “what would they think if they saw the preacher’s family not in the choir?”. The internal politics of church life, the putting up images, the constant judging everyone elses’ piety. This was all so strongly distasteful to me that I started to doubt my faith. After all, as far as I knew, the consequences of infidelity was Hell. And the preacher’s family of all people didn’t even take this seriously. Maybe I shouldn’t either.
The second thing that happened, not to get too stereotypical, was science. I took science classes. In biology, I learned about evolution. Natural selection. Common ancestors. I learned that a literal creation was unnecessary. I had never been anti-science. I always acknowledged evolution as being at least somewhat meritous, because why else would they all believe it. But seeing just how thoroughly worked out the science was was a bit of a shock. In physics, I learned about the beauty and simplicity of the laws that governed the world. Before taking gr 11/12 physics, I fully believed that God can and did invoke miracles on a regular basis. After learning the science, I realized that miracles were impossible.
And so, having had my previous worldview shaken thoroughly, I started investigating. I looked up Christian apologetics and tried to convert my long time atheist best friend. But looking up the best arguments that Christians had come up with, having 2000 years to prepare, I found them laughable. Filled with fallacy and appeals to ignorance. This is the best they can come up with, I thought. It was pathetic.
At this point, I was prepared to stop calling myself a Christian. I read over the Mennonite Confession of Faith, and realized that I didn’t agree with any of it. I looked at the “Christians” I knew and saw them as mindless sheep, brainlessly parroting whatever snappy catchphrase they had heard the previous Sunday. I looked at my parents and it occurred to me just how many things they did, that maybe they shouldn’t’ve, but that were justified by their faith. I realized that it would simply be dishonest to call myself a Christian. Instead, I latched onto the concept of Deism. There is a God, but he is clearly not the Christian one, and he is clearly not fucking with the universe. Ever. At this point I was just turning 18
Although I didn’t really believe anyone was listening, at this point I started praying, every night, for the truth. “I don’t know what to believe, God, but I know that what I was taught growing up is a lie. I’m afraid of what I might find out, but I have to know the truth. Please, if you’re out there, show me a sign”. This, every night, for a year. No sign.
When I started university, I got exposed to other viewpoints. In engineering, pretty much everyone was default-atheist. And in computer engineering, everyone was very smart, and thoughtful. Many deep philosophical discussions were had. I saw firsthand just how ridiculous the campus religious groups were, meanwhile I found out that all these godless heathens were actually pretty cool guys. Ehty killed aliens and wasn’t afraid of anything. At this point, I had a bit of a philosophical realization. A universe in which a god exists, but does not interact in any way, shape or form (ie a Deist universe) is indistinguishable from an atheistic universe. They are the same thing. And so once again, I ‘converted’ simply by deciding to be honest about myself. I was an atheist.
Around this time, I had also discovered the atheist haunts on the internet. Places like r/atheism. People like Dawkins and Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. Wikipedia articles on philosophical beliefs. The books Gödel, Escher, Bach and I Am A Strange Loop, which had a very strange, almost spiritual effect on me. I learned about computation theory, AI, theories of mind, all of which served to demystify. To fill some of the gaps that God was hiding in.
All of these resources, combined, had a strong effect on me. But the ONE thing that really gave me that ‘deconversion’ moment was this video, The Instruction Manual For Life. When I saw that piece, I cried. (Ed. note: I just watched it again. I cried again. The last time I cried was in January, upon watching the end of MGS4). It was like the author had lived my life. He verbalized all of my exeriences, all of my thoughts, my fears. In eight minutes of animation. I immediately watched all the other videos uploaded by the two authors of the video, and forevermore it stuck with me.
Now, I am an atheist. I am also a strong skeptic, something much closer to my fundamental nature. I apply my critical thinking across the board. I like to say that my skepticism is axiomatic to my personality, and my atheism is derived from that. In a certain academic sense, this is true. But in a stronger, more emotional, more personal sense, there is more to it. I have personally seen the damage that religion can do. I have never suffered physically due to religion. There are kids who are beaten in the name of God. There are kids who are homeless because their pious parents cannot abide a homosexual in their houses. Hell, think of all the people who are not alive today, thanks to religion. But one thing I have experienced is the thought-supressing effects of faith. My whole life, I was taught to believe a certain thing. To expect a certain thing from the universe. To work towards a certain goal. And then one day I realized I had been lied to, systematically.
Religions both allows and encourages restricting the thoughts of yourself and others. And I can think of nothing more abhorrent. There were times when I personally questioned my own sanity. Everyone else believes this, yet it is so obviously wrong. How can they all be so blind? What if I’m the one who’s wrong. But that’s impossible, see right here this can’t be. But they all say it is. How could I possibly be right here.
And so this is why I am now, finally, at age 21, an anti-theist. Nobody should be forced to think a certain thing. Nobody should be forced to question their own sanity as a result. It is as simple as that.
Thanks for sharing your story, Tim.