Wednesday, September 13, 2006

My "deconversion" narrative

Frank the Financially Savvy Atheist is calling atheists and agnostics for their "deconversion narratives," so I thought this is as good a time as any to post mine. (In case you're curious, the conversion narrative plays an interesting role in Christianity, depending on who you ask. One site details Thomas Hooker's six steps to conversion (scroll down).

I grew up in what was essentially a non-religious household. Though my grandparents (who lived near but not with us) believed and went to church, we only began going when I was around nine, and then only because my older brother was curious about going. We attended a Methodist church led by the friendly Brother Steve, and my parents bought us King James Versions of the Bible. I still have mine, complete with my name and the date I received it written on the first page in thick calligraphy.

Mostly we hated church, though I enjoyed the day we got to dress in surplices and light the candles on the altar at the beginning of the service. The ritual was fun. And I still remember fondly our exit among the crowd, with Brother Steve waiting for us all at the entrance/exit with a firm handshake and a smile. Still, the enduring feelings (not memories exactly, but sensations) are of exhaustion--the difficulty of keeping still against the hard-backed pew and keeping my head erect, not lolling near my shoulders--and the oppressive ache of perfume.

Despite my feelings for church, I prayed. Not in any actual sense Christianity might condone, but in the hopeful, immature yearning of adolescent boys for heaven-sent girls. I remember one night, when I was twelve, running up to the hill near our apartment complex and sitting on the wet grass (I hated sitting in wet grass but endured it anyway), praying that the overweight girl with a crush on me would give up and that the girl at school I liked would come around.

So in the long run, I had little to sacrifice in terms of faith. My older brother, who's fierce in his intelligence and his opinions, helped me "see" the lack of evidence for God's existence. Eventually, I came to understand that faith is not a matter of evidence or the lack thereof; both faith and doubt rely on the same assumption: that something we cannot understand with our senses or scientific measures does or does not exist. I'm comfortable making the leap that no God exists.

And that's what's strange to me about my deconversion narrative. I don't remember the key moment I became an atheist; I only remember moments in the mellowing of my atheism. I used to be an aggressive atheist, starting arguments with believers for the sake of knowing I would win them; after all, no one could prove God existed. I remember hearing an agnostic say, "I can't be an atheist because it's the same leap. If life has taught me anything, it's that there's little I ever remain certain of."

And finally, what's strangest to me is that I admire faith. I like the idea of it, that we could blindly place authority in something, that we could trust something. I admire the great things faith has led to, even in the face of the cruelties, prejudices, violences, it has led to.

So there's my deconversion narrative. And now I'll never be able to run for public office.

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