I just finished reading an excellent article title An Officer's Deconversion Story: Brandon Frederick. It is a very personal story of someone who was deeply religious from a strongly religious family becoming an atheist. The article has me thinking about my own background, and how completely different my experiences were. I never had the guilt or shame Brandon describes. In this article I thought I would share some of my own religious background.
I've been actively involved in the atheist community for 3 years now. I wasn't brought up religious, and I wasn't brought up areligious. One of my parents was an open Christian, the other agnostic who just didn't talk about it. I do recall going to several different Christian churches as a kid, and I knew some basics. There was a creator God who knew all, angels who watched over us, a guy named Jesus who was born on Christmas in a manger and died on Easter on a cross, Noah and his ark full of animals, and a book called the Bible. Why people went to church, prayed, or anything else was all a mystery. It made as much sense as why I had to eat food I didn't like: it's good for you. I didn't care enough to bother asking more questions. Church was to be endured for an hour before you could go and do something else just like going to school. Prayer before dinner was just an other ritual like brushing your teeth before bed. But there was no reason attached to any of it.
The first time I asked what it was I did believe was in early middle school when we were covering various world religions in a social studies class. I found the Hindu and Buddhist religions interesting (although in hindsight the descriptions were not terribly accurate) and they seemed no more or less believable than anything I had learned about Christianity. Then there was a new term: atheist—someone who didn't believe in any god or gods. It was like “wait... that's an option?” Presented with this evidence I found I could make a choice. I fancied Buddhism because I liked the idea of reincarnation, and the search for enlightenment I perceived as the philosophical quest for understanding. The Buddha also wasn't a God. I was some kind of agnostic with Buddhist aspirations. As a dyslexic with few friends and a restricted home life there was not much in the way of information. The best I could do was reason my way through the topic, and I did spend a fair bit of time thinking about it. I developed a philosophy I believed incorporated Buddhist ideas. It was vague, but there was definitely no personal God or deities at all. There might have been Spinoza's God or some unconscious universal order but my first thoughts on the topic put me in the atheist category. At some point it became clear I wasn't/couldn't be a Buddhist because I didn't really know anything about Buddhism, and I started using the title of atheist and agnostic. Which title depended on who I was talking to. At the time I understood atheist to mean was someone who was sure there were no gods, and agnostic someone who were pretty sure.
My views continued to be reinforced the more I learned about religions in general. The ritual in church seemed to explain little, and when I asked questions about what actual Christian believes were they just didn't make sense or seem believable. Jesus rose from the dead after dying on the cross. Sure, and Santa Clause delivers presents on Christmas Eve. I wanted more proof than a story, and no one was able to offer it. To be fair, I never encountered a learned Christian during this time.
Moving to the south made me a vocal atheist. While there were probably a lot of open-minded intelligent people in the south, I didn't meet them. What I did meet were zealous bigots. Racism and religiosity were rampant. When ever anyone says “I am not racist but...” I know I am about to hear a racist comment. In the south there was no preface—racist comments just came out. When you would point out the comment was racist, they would defend themselves and explain why they weren't racist. There was no connection for them between making a racist remark and being a racist, and I could never make that clear. Arguing about religion was equally as fruitless, but I did it all the same. After being condemned to hellfire for openly being an atheist, someone told the person damning me to stop talking to me. They replied “but I'm trying to save this boy!” For them you just didn't ask questions. You were told there was a God, and you had to believe or else. They believed—just like they believed they were not being a racist when making racist comments. No one had thought about the subject, what any of it meant, or if it might not be entirely accurate.
After moving out of the south, I again took the title of agnostic. I couldn't prove there were no gods, and I couldn't eliminate the possibility. I generally told people I was an atheist-agnostic-apatheist: I didn't believe in gods, but didn't know for sure, but didn't care. I wasn't terribly vocal about arguing against the existence of god as I had been in the south probably because I wasn't assailed by religion as much. I began to see religion as convenient. Not to me, but to others. It was better that some people believe because they would not be a good person without that belief—they needed the rules to keep them in line. Flawed as this philosophy was I still very much had an “us and them” mentality, but it was at least a live and let live policy.
Once the Internet came into widespread use I was able to read more about religion and religious philosophy. I started to know more Christians and understand their thought process better. I found what they did believe varied. Most never looked deeply into their religion's origins or read much about what other religions believed. Almost none had considered or practiced an other religion outside of Christianity. My reading found topics such as creationism, faith healing and the refusal of medical treatment, anti-contraception, and anti-stem cell research. People were not just blindly adhering to their faith, they were making decisions that were effecting people's lives. The idea that religion wasn't always individual belief started to change my mind about keeping quite on the topic. Initially I only read, and talked about the topic in coffee shops. Now I try to participate more.
I've learned a good deal from the atheist community, especially from former believers. Having never been seriously religious I didn't have a difficult deconversion process (if there was one at all). I've also never kept my atheism a secret. The idea there are closet atheists was new to me. So learning about the hardships of deconversion, and the difficulties faced by those who have not come out about their change in religious belief has been very interesting.