From indifference to passion – my deconversion

(Via A Load of Bright)

Most people who are born into strongly religious families are raised with their parents’ beliefs and hold them, unquestioned until death, although not before passing them on to their own offspring. I am glad that I was not born into a deep, religious environment because I doubt that if I had I would be an atheist today. In terms of simple probability, it would be a pretty safe bet that this blog would not exist.

My father was (and still is) an agnostic of Jewish background, his own father, my grandfather being estranged from the religion in his early teens. My mother was a devout but liberal Catholic. They agreed to raise my brothers and me as neutrally as possible, with the intention that we would make our own decisions when the time was right. For this, as well as everything else they have done for me, I am eternally grateful to them.

I remember a brief spell of fascination with Christianity when I was about 9 years old. It was at a slightly difficult point in my childhood when I was having trouble making friends at school, and experiencing some bullying, as most people have at one time or another. I remember feeling genuinely comforted by the idea of someone being a sort of friend, looking out for me and protecting me. This is a disappointing glitch in my tale, but the honest truth is that I can’t remember how this phase ended. All I can say is that the interest was intense but brief, and unlikely to have ended dramatically. I think it probably just ebbed away as my social skills improved and I learned to fit in better with my peers.

When I was 13, my older brother was 17 and my younger brother 5, my mother died suddenly of a heart attack. She was 49. I remember a heated exchange of words that very night between my father and my uncle, who said “God needed her”. My father replied “no, her children needed her”.

During the bereavement, I did not consider the validity of religion or its claims in any detail, but I certainly wanted to believe in an afterlife where I may one day be reunited with my mother. As I passed through my teenage years my religious standpoint grew to be one of agnostic indifference. I knew that I rejected organised religion, but was proverbially ‘at sea’ with my own beliefs. Whenever the topic of religion was raised I nearly always expressed my view in the same way, as if I’d learned it by rote, which I suppose in a way I had. I’m not ashamed to have held this view, but with hindsight I see it as ill-informed and naive. It went something like:

“I’m not an Atheist because I think it’s arrogant to assert that there is no God. I don’t know if there is a god or not and I don’t think we’re supposed to know. What I do know, is the difference between right and wrong, and I’m confident that if I go through my life trying wherever possible to do what is right rather than wrong, then if there is an afterlife, I should be treated ok”.

When I was 18 I decided to take a gap year before going to university. I went to work for a pharmaceutical company, where I made friends with a Jehova’s Witness in my department. We got on very well, but had many discussions about his views. I honestly didn’t know that anyone still seriously doubted evolution before I met him. And I was horrified to hear that he would rather see a child die than receive a life-saving blood transfusion. At the time, I was not armed to debate the topics as effectively as I might now. Although his faith was strong, he had never completely committed to the cult, as the rest of his family had. The year passed, I left for university and we agreed to stay in touch.

We did stay in touch while I was some 90 miles away (that’s a lot in Britain), through email, but the subject of religion never really arose during that time. It was in 2004, not long before I left my studies that I was back for a weekend and went shopping (in a manly way) with my older brother and my religious friend. Or so I thought. The topic happened to come up over lunch and he told me that he was now an atheist. There are very few things that distract me when I’m eating, but this stopped me in my tracks.

I was amazed that someone could go from one extreme to the other. To say I was fascinated would violently understate the matter. I quizzed him at great length for the details and he was only too happy to provide them. I won’t elaborate on what he told me, he may one day choose to tell his own deconversion story. Suffice to say that certain websites had made cracks in his faith, which grew over time, culminating in complete collapse. Also, of great significance, was the revelation that had he made the decision to commit to the cult, it would almost certainly have been the end of our friendship, as contact with outsiders was strongly discouraged. I was angry that a religious dogma had come dangerously close to stealing a treasured relationship from me.

He told me about the websites he had read, but it wasn’t until early 2005 when I was back at home and working full time that I finally got to view them for myself. The first of them, was The Skeptic’s Dictionary, about which I have already written. I spent a great deal of time reading here, and this was where I learned and honed my critical thinking skills, as well as making the first steps towards shedding some paranormal beliefs.

The next resource my friend gave me, and perhaps even more importantly than the Skeptic’s Dictionary, was Ebonmusings, the parent site of Daylight Atheism. I intend to write a piece reviewing Ebonmusings at some point, but for now I will just say that I devoured it, every single article, in just over a month. It greatly accelerated my education in theology and atheism, as well as giving me a grounding in the basics of evolution, which I had previously lacked.

Finally, I made my way to The Secular Web and began to debate on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. Interacting with atheists and theists alike consolidated my knowledge and helped me to make sense of what I had learned. There were, of course, many other websites and resources I used at this time, but the three I have named were ‘the biggies’.

I honestly cannot remember at what point I actually ‘became’ an atheist. I don’t remember the first time I referred to myself as an atheist or thought of myself as an atheist. It was gradual. I had found the experience both enlightening and liberating, but it was not entirely seamless. It was certainly not as traumatic for me as it was for my friend, or other fundamentalists who have to watch an entire world view crumble before they can build a new one. However, I had to let my tentative belief in an afterlife go, once and for all. This was not easy, I felt as if I were grieving for my mother all over again. What I came to realise, over time, was that just because she didn’t have a soul that was still alive somewhere, this did not make her life on Earth any less significant, nor the time that I spent with her any less special or meaningful. If anything, it made them more so.

Now, two years on, I’ve read a lot more and have taken the step of writing my own material and publishing it on the internet. Although I was never really a theist, I’m happier, and more confident as an atheist than I ever was before. I can only imagine the contrast that people like my friend, who make a bigger leap must feel! I am extremely grateful to him for his friendship and guidance, as I am to my other friends and family whose support was invaluable. I know I’m not accepting an award, but I truly feel that the worldview I hold is the most rewarding that any human being can adopt. I may be wrong, but I cordially invite any theist to give atheism a fair hearing. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

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