Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Deconversion Part 4


Even though I was feeling decent about myself by the time Nikki and I broke up, I still found myself in a somewhat precarious position as far as the future was concerned. At that time, I had a shit job. Like the kind that doesn't require you to graduate high school to get. My degree turned out to be only slightly better than useless. It was a video game design degree that I ended up getting because I, as a very young person who had found his "soul mate," followed Samantha to her college of choice and selected a program that interested me somewhat. I liked video games. Still do. It wasn't until I was just about done with the degree that I realized I was not cut out for the business of making video games. Also, I specialized in writing for games which, as it turns out, isn't so much a job that people get paid to do. At least, not very often. And those who do generally have a few published novels.

Anyway, I began to fear I'd be trapped in my horrible little failure-job forever. When you go through something like that, you get philosophical. Well, maybe you don't. I get philosophical. The job, which, by the way, was delivering pizzas, required me to be in my car for long stretches of time doing nothing in particular. Just driving around. So I started listening to a lot of audiobooks and, eventually, podcasts.

This is, I'm sad to say, where the skeptic you know today was born. It must be anti-climactic, but the fact is that I considered myself a de facto atheist before Nikki and I broke up, and I read [i]The God Delusion[/i] and became a much stronger atheist. [i]The God Delusion[/i] didn't go far enough for me, though, so I moved on to the other Horsemen, and then into the podcasting world with The Non-Prophets, Point of Inquiry, Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid. Very quickly, I learned how logic works. I learned the fallacies. I learned the science behind the claims. Over time, I picked up more sophisticated podcasts, delving further into philosophical and theological questions: The Atheist Experience (by the same people as Non-Prophets, but it's a call-in show that tends to lead to some pretty esoteric topics), Apologia (debates being theists and atheists on dozens of specifics topics that each worldview might inform), and, most recently, Reasonable Doubts (a very sophisticated exercise in the psychology of belief, counter-apologetics, and Biblical fact-checking, while still being entertaining). I jumped into classics, like Russell, Hume and Lucretius.

So there's my secret laid bare. I'm no genius. I figured out the problem of evil for myself in high school, but wouldn't have known what to do with the Transcendental Argument even today without the aid of the giants who came before me, and the giants who came before them. I listened to both sides and picked what I perceive as the winner. Religion has done me no great harm, but I think it is harmful. I remember the fear I had when I thought God would kill me as a child, or the distant but present worry of Hell until I finally dismissed that notion in college.

There will be those who claim that my heart's always been closed to God, but to make that claim is to suggest something very insidious about God. When I was a child, I sincerely believed. I wanted God and Jesus to be real. But every time I prayed, I always knew I was talking to myself. There was no other voice. I was given no revelation, no experience, nothing beyond what I forced on my own. My entire experience with Christianity could be reasonably compared to my experience accepting Jesus into my heart - I imagined it happening, and I knew at the time I was imagining it, but assumed that this utter lack of communication on God's part was how it was supposed to be. After all, the adults all seem to believe it. They're always right.

But to make the claim that I never opened my heart to God is to claim not only that God elected not to reveal himself to me in any way that I would describe (even at the age of seven) as meaningful, but that he specifically made me (or allowed me to be made) in such a way that I would be closed to him, and thus condemned to Hell, from birth.

I have no doubt that the shallowness I experienced of sitting in silence and having a conversation with my own inner monologue, combined with the clear assumption of belief on the part of, as far as I could see, every person in my immediate environment, led to me questioning even in elementary school. If God existed, and had responded in any way that could be construed as even slightly inspirational, I expect I would be a very different person today. I would never have questioned its existence.

But I can't say I learned nothing from prayer and seeking God. The silence of all but my own inner monologue taught me that, within my own head, I am truly, utterly alone. And when I leave the company of others, there is nothing that comes with me. Solitude is a fact of life. And it does offer its own peace.

The most spiritual (though I hate that word) experiences of my life have been spent in contemplation of solitude and insignificance. When the Sun goes down, go outside and stare into the night sky for an hour.

Deconversion Part 3


I was in high school and quickly learned the art of taking myself [i]very[/i] seriously. This is also where I made friends with Mike, who was the first up-front atheist I'd met. Until that, I don't think I'd ever considered that some people might not believe in God.

It didn't bother me that he didn't, but the first arguments he threw at me were dumb. The "can he make a rock so big" variety. I didn't have trouble dismissing those.

At this age I had also become a fanatical devotee of The Smashing Pumpkins. I enjoyed reading the lyrics, trying to piece together the song meanings. Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness became my Bible.

It was through Billy Corgan's friendship with Marilyn Manson that I eventually came to listen to him, which spurred me on to more alternative reading. Sometime in this period, I started calling myself an agnostic. I read The Satanic Bible (too credulous, at that age, to question how honest LaVey was being about his own life), had many (many) "deep" conversations with friends on the subject, and eventually started calling myself an atheist.

High School is also when a complete stranger and several of his friends cornered me in the hallway and demanded to know what I had against Jesus. Until that point, I didn't realize that I had anything against Jesus, and I didn't know how they knew I did.

This was also my first attempt to really read the Bible. I didn't make it through the Old Testament. I couldn't understand why foreskin was so important.

Though high school was the longest four years of my life, in the context of this story it just came and went and there aren't many details to share. College was where I started being honest.

It had to be Philosophy 101, of course, that challenged me. I was calling myself an atheist, and had talked about why with friends, but they weren't knowledgeable enough to really challenge me, nor was I familiar enough with the workings of logic to understand the flaws in my arguments. Go public education.

I did really well in Philosophy. While my understanding was rudimentary, I was interested in the subject and had explored it at least a little. That put me miles ahead of everyone else in the class. I was going to be a philosophy major (until a counselor convinced me that there are no jobs for philosophers - thanks a lot for that one, asshole. How about if I'd gone into Law after that? But I digress.)

I liked the class. It exposed people's hidden assumptions and bigotries. I also met Samantha there, who I somehow got the courage to ask out, and who I'd spend the next five years of my life with. (Side advice: Don't spend all of college dating one person. There's a very good chance it won't work out, and you learn a lot of important lessons about socializing with the opposite sex in college that you don't get in high school. Thus, I remain single, having dated one girl since Samantha and I split. She married a guy about twelve to fourteen years older than her and moved to England with him. Didn't see that one coming.)

Regarding bigotries, my favorite moment was when a guy, who I'd spoken with and knew was a decent guy, made the following statement: "I just think it matters that they're good people, not that they're Christian *gestures to himself*, Jewish *gestures to the girl who had discussed her Judaism*, or even in a cult *gestures to Samantha and I*."

My teacher, Leonard O'Brian, convinced me to start calling myself agnostic again with two arguments combined. First, the transcendental argument, which essentially proves that an omnipotent god would not have to be bound by logical possibilities. Logical contradictions and disproofs are not an obstacle for omnipotence.

Second, and I haven't heard this one since, he questioned whether God might best be expressed in metaphor, rather than logically. I wrote an essay in response to this, essentially arguing that this may be the case, but it effectively makes the concept of God unintelligible in any real sense. It's impossible to discern any attributes or motivations of a metaphorical god, even if it does exist. That's when it clicked. Oh. That sounds an awful lot like agnosticism.

So I was an agnostic for the rest of college. When Samantha left me for the older guy, after college, I went through a pretty severe depression. I'd built all my expectations for the future around her - again, stupid move. I made an effort to get out of it, looked at myself objectively and decided I wouldn't want to be with me either, and resolved to do something about it. Thus began my effort to improve myself physically, mentally, and professionally. Physical came first, and I went from 140lbs to 165lbs over the span of about a year - the gain all being muscle. I'm not bragging; it's all gone now.

The mental improvement ended up being placed on hold because Nikki essentially dropped out of thin air and into my lap. She went to college with me, wanted to go out with me but couldn't because of Samantha, found out we broke up, and found me with Google. I had more superficially in common with her than any other girl I've ever dated, and I never really felt passionate about her. She was fun, I liked her, but that was about as far as it went on my side. We eventually did break up, because she recognized I just wasn't getting there, and she was. Smart girl.

Her mom owned a metaphysical book store, so I got to see all kinds of ridiculous New Age crap with her. It was with her that I first heard of and watched The Secret. This film, I think, reminded me that I needed to get smarter. Shortly before Nikki and I broke up, I started reading again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Deconversion, Part 2

I was mostly done with the third grade by the time we moved to Arizona, and I was to switch schools at the start of the fourth grade, so I didn't really make any friendships until then.

Franklin AuYeung was my first really close friend. I don't remember exactly how we got to know each other in the first place, but we were best buds for quite some time. In California I had a lot of friends I valued equally, but Franklin and I understood each other very well and got along famously.

It's his presence that led me to think of myself as a "smart kid," which is the social identity that made me who I am today. Franklin was very much a stereotype. His parents had moved to the USA from China, he was an overachiever (always, always straight As, great at piano, the whole Asian-kid routine), he even wore glasses. At that age, glasses always meant smart kid. Or nerd. Same thing.

He was Buddhist in the same sense that I was Christian - when people asked, that's what he knew to say. But, like me, he took a personal, unguided interest in the subject of God. He and I would talk about it often, philosophizing at a level slightly above what people would expect of our age, but not by much. We were, after all, smart kids. Smart. But kids. We never questioned whether or not God existed, but we tried to figure out how to get to know it better.

Organized religion wasn't for either of us. After Sparky's, I'd been to a few church events and they were always dreadful. When I was trying to learn about God, it had to feel like something between solving a puzzle and exploring new ideas. Church was just people telling me the rules. Even at that age, with all my interest in the subject, I never wanted to have to deal with church.

This was the stage where I really learned to ask questions, and think creatively. I credit Franklin with all that. We remained close friends from fourth grade until high school, where we each ended up going to different schools. We would call each other and chat every once in a while, but we essentially lost touch.

On February 23, 1998, I was watching the local news with my family and learned that Franklin was killed in a car crash that day. He was the sole fatality.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How I Got Here

You'd almost think I'd lost interest in the subject, but I haven't. I am, however, recognizing my own limitations on this subject (or subjects since, after all, I tried my hand at scientific skepticism with this blog as well), recognizing that I'm rephrasing and repeating arguments that have already been made in many forms over hundreds of years. There's nothing wrong with that, I made an effort to provide a unique perspective or twist on those arguments, but there are people who've done it all before, and better.

That's not to say that I have nothing to contribute, though. I do have a plan. But that's only in my head, and I won't go into it here. Not while it's so undeveloped, anyway.

But in the mean time, I thought I'd share my "deconversion" story.

I put deconversion in quotes because, though I was raised Christian on paper, it was about a half-step away from a secular upbringing. God was mentioned, so were angels, I think Jesus was at some points, but mostly it wasn't our problem.

My first memory of God was a nightmare I had when I was about five, maybe younger. Memories from that age are always fuzzy and confused, but I remember certain details of this dream pretty clearly. It took place in a black void which somehow had a solid, but invisible, floor. My mom was sadly playing piano, and I approached and asked what was wrong. She told me that God was going to kill me. My mom never lied to me, so this scared me out of my wits. God himself showed up and told me it was true. He looked a lot like George Washington, including the tricorner hat.

He always had that hat. Most people's default image of God is a guy in a white robe with a beard, but mine wears a navy blue tricorner hat.


God told me that I could spend a few moments with my mom, but there would be three chimes. On the third chime, my throat would swell up and I would die. The first chime rang, then the second, then I woke up. Opening my eyes, I heard the third chime. I specifically remember that one coming after I woke up, because that's what scared me so much.

I ran to my parents, I don't remember crying but I probably was, telling them about my nightmare and how the third chime rang after I already woke up. They told me it was probably Ethel, a sweet old lady who lived next door and whose house my bedroom window faced, watching Wheel of Fortune loudly. I did my best to believe that, but even now it seems unlikely. My parents were, presumably, unaware that hallucinations are extremely common in the half-waking state immediately following a nightmare like that. Part of your brain is still pursuing the dream, and it doesn't know how to differentiate. Maybe they did know that and just didn't know how to explain it to a five-year-old.

Apart from that, God didn't really come up in any significant way until the second grade. My dad's mom was (and is) a devout Christian, so I'm sure she talked about it with me at times, but it was certainly never any fire and brimstone or even any guilt talk. It would have been all about God's love.

In second grade, though, I met Danny Olson. As is so easy at that age, we became friends. I liked Danny, I liked going over to his house. We played Contra together, and his mom would enter in the cheat code (up, down, up, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, select, start) at the beginning for us so we could get infinite lives or whatever it was. Funny how I remember the code but not its effect.

Danny's family always prayed before eating. My family never did, so it felt a little awkward, but I got used to it after the first or second time. One day, Danny showed me this awesome sash he got from a club he was in. It had three crowns sewn in: one bronze, one silver, one gold. The bronze was full of gems, and the silver was half-full, while the gold was empty. He got all this awesome stuff at a club he attended called Sparky's. I don't remember if I asked my parents (or if the Olson parents did) before going, but I went to a Sparky's meeting with Danny and his family on a trial run.

Oh man, it was awesome. Or rad, as I probably would have said at that age. They gave us cookies, and juice, and we played some game I don't really remember today but it seems kind of like wiffle ball in my memory. I just remember it was a blast.

So I convinced my parents to sign my up, and every week I went to Sparky's. This, however, was bullshit. I'd show up, we'd sit in a circle and hold hands in the area where last time we played wiffle ball (or whatever). No wiffle ball tonight, though. We're going to break into teams and play something else!

"Breaking into teams" meant separating the bronze, silver, and gold crown kids. "Something else" meant reading stories from the Bible and being quizzed on them. This... did not seem like what I signed up for. But whatever, it's easy, maybe there'll be wiffle ball next time. And I did get the sash with all the crowns, and they even gave me a gem that first night... so maybe it wasn't so bad.

I have very few specific memories of the rest of my time at Sparky's, because it mostly runs together into a sea of quizzes on parables. Something about a man who build his house on sand. I remember not doing very well on my gem collection, mostly just getting gems for showing up each week.

There was one talk at the beginning of one week where they made a big deal out of accepting Jesus into your heart. I sort of thought everyone had already done that, I didn't realize I had to specifically tell Jesus I was Christian. So sometime that week, while I was in bed, I closed my eyes and thought to myself (or to Jesus, I suppose), "Jesus, I accept you into my heart." And after sitting around for a couple minutes thinking, "Is that it?" I decided that I had to imagine Jesus answering, so I imagined Jesus entering my heart. The next week, I mentioned to someone, probably Danny's mom or dad, that I had accepted Jesus into my heart and he or she told the group leader who made a big deal out of it. I still didn't really get why it was such a big deal.

Eventually I moved up to the silver crown, but I must've quit or Sparky's was over with the school year or something like that because I stopped there. Or maybe my parents told me Sparky's was ending because they wanted to pull me out.

I have no memory of this, but my mom told me how I acted while I was in Sparky's. I'd frequently just launch into God/Jesus-talk, telling people about some of the stuff I heard was in the Bible. Even my grandma was worried about me. I never sensed it at that age, though, and considered myself Christian for quite some time to come.

We moved from California to Arizona while I was in the third grade. I'll pick this up there in my next post.