[NB: This is an edited version of a journal entry from November 11, 2006. The good friend who showed me the two movies is Matthew Gress, whose letter appears on your deconversion page]
I am an atheist.
This is not a conclusion that I drew overnight. Like many other nonbelievers, it happened gradually.
My religious instruction was not intense. I went to Sunday School maybe, 2-3 times a year. My mother was raised a mainline Lutheran. Every once in a while, she would remember to drag us out of bed to attend church because (I believe) she thought that it was what all good people did. From a young age, I viewed bible stories in the same vein as the stories of Cinderella and Snow White. I never made any distinction between the two. I thought that fairy godmothers, magic powers, and people rising from the dead were interesting to think about. Even at a young age, I don't remember believing that the stories were true. I was shocked when I realized that, even though adults said that Snow White and Cinderella were imaginary, they believed that God and Jesus were real.
I also remember one of my Sunday school teachers saying, “Pray to God, and he will help you.” I took her advice and prayed for a new bike. Nothing happened. By the time I could read, I saw a poster that showed a boy praying for a bike, with the caption saying something along the lines of “Don't pray for selfish things.” I remember being a little ticked off at that. I mean, here was one source saying that God could do anything and would answer all your prayers. Now, I thought, I'm being told that I'm not supposed to do that? What gives?
I did not tell anyone what I was thinking. I had a feeling that it would not go over well.
In the third grade, I had an epiphany of sorts. The teacher was telling us that Mary, the mother of God, was the best woman that ever lived, and that we girls should all try to be like her. But, I remember thinking, she was a virgin AND a mother. I did not believe that I would have my own personal annunciation. After all, only one was required. So in order to emulate Mary, I had two choices. I could either remain a virgin, or I could become a mother. I could not possibly do both. No matter what choice I made, I would fall short. I thought I was being set up to fail. That ticked me off, too.
Again, I said nothing. I did not think it would go over well.
I went to catechism. I was confirmed. The entire time, I felt like a fraud. I didn't believe a word of it. I didn't dare put a stop to it. My parents threw a big party in my honor. They rented out a room at the Yacht Club and invited everyone they knew. My mother told me that only my wedding would be bigger. I just kept my head down until it was over. Once it was, I never went to church again. My parents never pressured me. They never went much themselves, so what could they say?
I did have one year when I went to church every Sunday, but only because I sang in the choir. I didn't care about the worship. I just wanted to sing.
The faith I was raised in would not be that easily shaken. I ended up at St Olaf College, a Norwegian Lutheran “college of the church.” I sang in the choir all four years I was there. I also took three religion classes. The college required it for graduation. It also required that two of those classes had to be about the Christian religion. (In contrast, I only had to take one science class. Then again, I was an English major.)
As it happens, those classes were not mere indoctrination. In the first class, we went through the Bible from cover to cover. The next class was about the history of the church. The last was about the history of women in the church from the Old Testament through the Second Great Awakening to Feminist theology.
I was especially incensed by the church's attitude toward women. It started with the Old Testament patriarchs, continued through Paul, and was built on from there. Some of the worst offenders were members of the early church. I remember reading Tertullian, who said something along the lines of, “Women are all Eve. They are the gateway to hell. They should wear sackcloth and ashes because they are responsible for the fall of Man. They are all sinful, worthless, and vain.”
After reading Tertullian, I literally thew the book across the room. By the time I got to the “Malleus Malificarum,” a few months later, my throwing arm was just too tired.
The effect of all this was to educate me out of any faith I had, if indeed I ever had any.
That was a big deal to me. I was raised to believe that faith, and faith alone, would get me to heaven, and that God, through his grace, would grant me faith, i.e. the ability to believe in Him. God never gave me that ability. Because I had no grace, I had no faith. Without faith, there is no salvation. So, with that kind of logic, it was God who, by depriving me of my ability to believe, had condemned me to hell. So either that was true, or God didn't exist, and none of it mattered. Understandably, I liked the second option better. Besides, after reading one misogynistic screed after another, I concluded that His followers didn't like women much.
While I was at St. Olaf College, I met more than my fair share of fundamentalist Christians. The rules they chose for themselves were oppressive. Even when I thought I might believe, I did not want to live by their rules. They couldn't drink. They couldn't smoke. They could not have sex until they were married. (Many of them did get married just so they could have sex.) They went to the Assembly of God church every Sunday, where they spoke in tongues. I thought that was nuts. (To be fair, so did a lot of Lutherans.) One of the fundies said that he punished himself in some way every time he thought about sex. Another fundamentalist told D__, one of my best friends , that D__ was possessed by Satan and going to hell because he had come out as gay. When D__ cane out to his mother, she told him that he was going to hell unless he was celibate for the rest of his life. I was appalled.
Nevertheless, I sometimes envied them. I wondered what it must be like to be so sure of everything. I still do.
After I lost my remnants of faith, I went religion shopping. I was agnostic, then pagan, flirting with Wicca. then I was agnostic again. For the last few years, I had been following Thelema–I even bought Aleister Crowley's “Magic,” a large, comprehensive, and expensive book summarizing many of his works on ceremonial ritual.
My deconversion began when a good friend of mine showed me a BBC special called,
“The Root of All Evil?” It's a documentary by evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins. He said things about religion, often to practitioner's faces, that shocked me. He minced no words. He even said that indoctrinating children into a religious belief was child abuse. I kept thinking, “Yes, I see your point, but you can't talk to Christians like that! You're going to piss 'everybody' off!”
I found him arrogant and shrill. Even so, the seed of my changing my mind was planted in the program itself. One of Dawkins's interviews was with a Jewish man from New York who was no longer a Jewish man from New York. He had converted to Islam, and was now living in the West Bank. The guy was a complete fanatic. During his anti-secular rant, he said, “..And you allow your women to dress in this shameful, immodest…”
“They dress themselves!” exclaimed Dawkins, interrupting.
O.K., I thought. Maybe he's not so bad.
After I saw the movie, I thought about it for days. Then my friend played another movie for me called, “The God that Wasn't There,” directed by an ex-fundamentalist turned atheist named Brian Flemming. I know a bit about comparative religion, mythology, and church history, so he did not say anything about Jesus that I hadn't heard before. Flemming also had a much better idea of how to approach believers, having lived in the United States and been raised as a fundamentalist Christian.
Then I thought some more. I thought about all that religion shopping I had done. How, from the time I was in kindergarten Sunday school to Aleister Crowley's Rites of Eleusis, there was a small, yet persistent voice in my head saying, “You know…All of this 'could' be complete bullshit.”
It was a part I had to ignore in order to be an effective singer of sacred music, or an effective scryer, and a decent ceremonial magician. It has always been at odds with whatever religion I was investigating that year. Nevertheless, through my whole life, I have held on to my skepticism.
So with all this in mind, I thought about the Dawkins documentary some more. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got–but not at Dawkins. We have, in America, been so deferential to the faithful. In the name of politeness and tolerance, we have given them a pass. Dawkins did not. That is why he sounded so shockinghe was doing something that I have never heard anyone do. He didn't stand aside and allow the religious to be hateful, unreasonable and willfully ignorant. He called them on it.
As much as a pass we nonbelievers have given the religious, they have not given us the same courtesy, from every right wing church in the nation, all the way up to our idiot in chief, whose father and predecessor said, “No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.” We nonbelievers have stood by, in the name of peace and tolerance, while they called us every awful name they could think of. They say that we are arrogant, that we have no morality. That we cannot be trusted by good, right thinking people.
Not even 9/11 could stop them from leaving us out.
9/11 was a bad day for a lot of people. (To be fair, it wasn't as bad for me as it was for the people of New York City.) When it happened, I went to my friend's house to mope in horror. That evening, there was footage at the Washington DC Cathedral of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a big ecumenical show. There was lots–and lots–of God language. I had thought that this was a time for all Americans to pull together. Instead, I came away feeling more marginalized than ever.
I have had enough of this.
People can believe whatever they want. In the US, their freedom to do so is guaranteed by the Constitution. I will not force anyone to abandon their beliefs, no matter how misguided I think they are. However, if they are going to use their religion as a basis for public policy, I will hold their beliefs to the same scrutiny that I hold political and economic beliefs that are used as a basis for public policy. Religious belief will no longer get a pass from me in the public sphere. The time for unquestioning deference is over.
As for me, I have finally found a way of thinking that is compatible with my skepticism. Even better, I have given up nothing. I know that I am a part of something bigger than myself. The earth is more diverse, and the universe more vast, than I can comprehend. When I die, my consciousness will cease. Yet, within the short blip of a lifetime I do have, anything is possible. It feels selfish to ask for more than that. I do not need someone to look over my shoulder to make me good. I want my fellow human beings to be as free as possible, and I help and do nice things for my friends and loved ones because I want to. I have not lost my sense of wonder. There is more wonder in the smallest quark and the farthest reaches of the Andromeda Galaxy than there ever was in any god or goddess. And the best part is, they actually exist.
That's the entry. Thank you, Richard Dawkins. Thank you for sticking your neck out and calling religious believers on their irrationality. When you wrote “The God Delusion,” you articulated what had been percolating in my head for quite some time. Also, thank you, Josh Timonen, for your work on this website. I have enjoyed reading the news and comments.
You know, after all that, I am a little bit afraid to sign my full name. Which is, in my opinion, all the more reason why I should do it.