My Deconversion Story

A friend recently asked me how it was I came to not believe in God (we’re talking here about a theistic/deistic conception of God), and after some reflection, I decided to share my story with you… so here it is — how I came to not believe

My parents were Catholic, and when I was a kid we went to church pretty regularly. I remember as early as CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes thinking to myself, “Oh there is really something wrong here.” I would repeatedly corner my teacher with questions like, “So you mean… um… people that aren’t Christian are going to hell?” Yes. “You mean all Hindus are going to hell?” Yes. “You mean all Muslims are going to hell?” Yes. “You mean Jewish people are going to hell?” Yes. (continue ad nauseam)… I think I was about 6 or 7 at this time, and I remember the teacher getting more annoyed with me than I felt she ought to.

I also remember that at my first confession I told the priest I’d cursed 3 times in the previous week and that I wasn’t sure God existed. He told me I had to have faith — it wasn’t much of an answer, I thought, and it certainly didn’t warrant the kind of confidence people seemed to have in their beliefs. I remember thinking, “Wow, how can people be so sure on so little information?” At that age, around 10-11 I guess, based on what I had learned, there seemed little reason to believe all of the magical stuff I was being told — that virgins could have babies, that people could rise from the dead — and I certainly didn’t see any reason to believe the Catholic’s magical stuff any more than the Hindu’s or the palm reader’s magical stuff…

Then, around 15, I remember telling my mom I didn’t believe in God. I remember being really really scared, and that her reaction scared me even more. She told me I was wrong, that I did believe. She said I was confused. It was the first (and only) time she completely and utterly rejected my thoughts and feelings. I tried to reassure her that, no, I really did not believe in God and that I wasn’t confused — but that it was okay, I was still a good person. I remember telling her that it was my “goodness” that made me a non-believer. I just couldn’t believe in a God that seemed to me so petty and cruel and demanding — a being who needed to be worshipped so badly that if you didn’t believe — FLUSH! — down you go to hell…

I remember a lot of people in those days trying to use Pascal’s Wager on me. I would typically respond with something like, “Well any God that is so narrow-minded that only Christians go to heaven, I don’t want to be with in the afterlife. I’ll go to hell just out of camaraderie with the Buddhists and Muslims and Native Americans and Hindus… I’ll go to hell just out of protest.” That always seemed to shut people up.

So, I guess you could say the doctrine of hell played a large part in my early atheist years, a close second was “the problem of evil.” People were always going on about God’s plan and whatnot. I would respond with something like, “Well if God has a plan and if He knows everything, He knew that Adam would eat the apple, God knew man would Fall, He knew we would have rape and murder and incest — and He knew all of this would happen even before he created the world! What an asshole!” That would shut people up too.

Sometimes folks would try to sell me on Jesus and how special and loving he was. I told them if I believed I was the Son of God and that all the world’s current and future population’s eternal salvation was dependant on me being killed, then no problemo — bring it on. I would gladly die to save everyone (including myself) and give them eternal life and happiness… I mean, who wouldn’t? What’s so special about Jesus?

Eventually, as I learned more about human psychology and compared what I learned to what I read in the Bible (and other “holy” texts) I realized all of this god-stuff was really just man-stuff made supernatural. It was a response to our fears and hopes and desires and all the many questions that are unanswered in our lives. So my atheism was initially just a reaction to the “popular” image of God, but now it goes a bit deeper (if atheism is even the right word). It seems to me that all the “other worldly” stuff that so many folks leap to believing in — ghosts, talking to the dead, new-age healing — they are just so many expressions of the same psychological impulses that make people cling to the “mainstream” image of God. The more I learn about neuroscience and anthropology and evolutionary psychology — the more i see so clearly where all these beliefs come from, how the whole puzzle of our supernatural present is the result of our natural past.

In the last stages of my atheism, I’ve become quite comfortable with not having answers, in being able to leave things unexplained. I don’t grant my assent easily; I reserve judgement; I wait for more information. And in the comfort of not needing answers to every question, in my awareness of  the wonderful complexity of our minds — notions such as gods and demons and angels are so far down on the probability scale that, for me, they all seem a bit silly…

And finally, in a somewhat ironic twist, I have found in the explanatory framework  of science what one might call “spiritual” comfort. Like any lost and wandering religious seeker, I have felt human loneliness and alienation… I have suffered yearnings for connection in a disconnected world, the abyss of consumerism in a materially-motivated society, the inability of cash and new clothes to create real happiness… but I have also come to understand why I feel those things. I understand why I seek to transcend the boundaries of my body and to connect with the profound oneness of the universe. And that understanding has not come from holy books or religious hocus pocus, it has come from astronomy and from physics,  from biology and sociology, from anthropology and evolutionary psychology. My “soul” has been nourished by my understanding of our greatest scientific achievements, by getting “dirty” with scientific facts, by digging into the complexity and history of our evolving consciousness — and I have come to understand I am not a being seeking to be connected, I am already a connected being…

4 Responses

  1. thanks very much for sharing Tyson, i am not surprised by any part of your story except for the part about your mother insisting that you did believe. i guess that it’s a very hard instinct to severe from (believing in a higher power) since i’ve always felt that your family’s values structure felt bohemian to me when i was young. i can remember riding in the car with your mother and she didn’t make me put on a seat belt! and i remember you and Alan pretty much were allowed to be independant, i remember you being allowed to turn up your stereo so loud it would shake the floor….i never would have been able to do that!

    so it’s with irony that i tell my Deconversion story. it’s not as dramatic as yours, but i didn’t have the same pressure to pick what my belief was. my family was also Catholic, but a divorce at the my age of 4 (or so) left my family without structure, which may or may not be a reason for lack of steady church going. i can remember going to church and how boring it was. i can remember going to CCD class and how rediculous it was for me to be forced to waste time in. but i really felt like i was way too mature for such silly ideas when i was made to attend a church retreat.

    i can remember being in a madatory “class” where we were supposed to close our eyes………..get your minds out of the gutter, i wasn’t “touched”!……….and meditate how Jesus looked. he was described as the generic caucasian, hippy looking dude in white robe and sandals and all i could think was, ‘what a bunch of bullshit’.

    actually the retreat was great since they had a ping pong table and it was co-ed. i was quite the dork around this time in my life (probably 5th grade) and i persuaded my step-mom to allow me to not wear my glasses to this retreat. big improvement, but no long-distance sight! i talked to some cute girls and was able to hang around some cool kids….but the overall reason for being there was total bullshit, so i would say that would be the turning point in my standpoint on “religion”.

    but the firm decision to combat other’s insistance of my believing didn’t come until my second year of working at my ‘adult job’……mind out of the gutter again, please!……….when i found two guys discussing the belief structure of the Jehovah’s Witness. it was more laughable than Christianity but i thought to myself, “why am i not a Jehovah’s Witness?, they could be just as right as Christians.”

    from then on i worked my way through as much of the Old Testament that i could stand, which was probably half-way. i got the gyst pretty good and in questioning believers i found they didn’t know any more than i did. it really felt liberating.

    for the record, i consider myself Agnostic since there seems to be no way to prove of disprove the possiblity of ‘life after death’ or the existance of other planes of existance (remember i’m the ghost believer) but i refuse to be ignorant to that which all signs point to bullshit.

  2. I am currently in the throws of this de-conversion concept. I was also raised Catholic and there has never been a falling-out of God within the family structure. Right around Confirmation age, a good time as any especially if I’m about to affirm my faith in One God and all his Apostles and hundred Saints, I started asking questions. I started researching and learning the words in the prayers I had mumbled along for the past 10 years, trying to get a good firm grasp on what it was I was doing here. One of the smartest and most open people in my life was my cousin and it was whispered he didn’t believe in God and I couldn’t understand why not. So I thought there must be something to it and to look harder. I had heard all the stories and learned of all the good things Jesus did but the more I wanted to know the less “proof” I found and the more guilt I was given by close family members for daring to question He who answers to no one. And that – was it? Why the fuck not? If he’s gonna write my after-death ticket to the playground in the sky or not, then I think he should answer a few questions. There are far to few answers just accusations and fear-mongering. The more I looked around at Christians the more hate I found. My unflinching acceptance that my priest was my conduit to God was shattered when he told me my recently past, gay friend would NOT be going to heaven. And that was the proverbial straw. Having said all of this, when I’m feeling chaotic and horribly burdened, I’ll go to Sunday mass. It’s the only place I know to go for quiet, contemplation. I take a deep breath and feel a something. It rejuvinates me. I’m in the process of something and whether my Catholic parents think it is the correct course of action; I’m comfortable with it and I’m hopeful that whatever I find that calms me, is comfortable with it, too.

  3. When my young son came to me to tell me he didn’t believe in God I could only look at myself and say “What did I do wrong?”. I took my job of mother very seriously and I wanted to raise confident, free thinking children but I also felt I needed to instill certain values for their well being. I knew there were all kinds of choices ahead for my sons and I wanted them to make good decisions based on information they got for themselves. I knew there were choices in what to believe (different religions) but I never thought there was a choice of whether to believe. It wasn’t a concept I knew. Once I got over the feeling that I had failed and could take the focus away from myself, I was able to listen to my young son and his beliefs and his reasons for his beliefs and I realized that I felt much the same way. Oh, I said the things I was “supposed” to say…”You’ll feel differently when you get older and know more”, “Everyone I know believes in God, they can’t all be wrong”, etc. So now I consider myself a logical thinker and I listen and consider all sides. I believe that we don’t know all the answers but I truly believe that religions are businesses that stay in business because of human fear of mortality.

    Oh, and Jesse, buckle that seat belt!

  4. Many religious communities are failures when it comes to dealing with questioning and doubt; and the questions and doubt come as much from people with deeply spiritual orientations bumping up against exclusivist dogma and feeling that it goes against everything they perceive to be true, as well as those who have trouble buying into miracle stories.

    As someone who believes in God but who is often horrified by religion, I think too many people try to fit God into a box.

    The hell stories remind me of the old joke about how St. Peter guides a new arrival to heaven, but tells the new soul to tiptoe past a certain room.

    “Why?” asks the newbie.

    “Because,” St. Peter whispers back, “that’s where all the (Catholics/Mormons/Methodists/insert-exclusivist-religious-persuasion-of-the joketeller’s-choice) are, and they think
    they’re the only ones here.”

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