Friday, March 18, 2011

My Atheist Deconversion

The original intent of this blog was to foment philosophical discussion, not to talk about my personal life. I guess that's why I never posted about my own deconversion on a blog that is largely about atheism and the irrationality of religious belief. I've talked about it before in various places in various levels of detail, but I never put it out there for the general public, and never in a venue where I would be expected to answer for it. Here, perhaps overdue, is my deconversion story.

My mother brought us up in a pseudo-Christian new age belief system, but my father was agnostic, so the idea that my mom could be wrong was present from early on. Still, I generally believed in her spirituality until about the time I hit high school. By then, I was too keenly aware of the suffering around the world to be able believe in an all knowing, all loving god, all powerful god. It was the problem of evil - evidence weighted with emotion - that first shook my faith. If genocide, famine and torture in far off countries could way so heavily on my own happiness, then a god of infinite compassion and capacity would not stand idly by and allow it to continue. But I still believed in some sort of afterlife, a soul, a different plane of existence. I just didn’t know what it was.

I continued more or less as an agnostic with spiritual leanings until age 25, when personal trauma began to erode at my faith. The problem of evil was no longer abstract and distant, but personal and omnipresent. It was no longer possible to ignore the dissonance between what I wanted to believe and what I witnessed and experienced. I could no longer support any belief in compassionate force that interacted with the world. I spent the next couple of months desperately searching for conclusive evidence, one way or the other, for any god and any form of continued existence after death. I could find neither, and I eventually sunk in a life-consuming funk.

Several months into my funk, I was listening to Terry Gross interview some British guy about religion and non-belief. He pointed out that it isn’t reasonable to assume that something exists by default, and that it doesn’t default to a 50/50 chance of existence, either. In most of our lives and in science in general, we don’t believe in something until we find positive evidence. And there’s absolutely no reason to give the supernatural a special exemption from this rule. I gave it a couple hours to sink in and let my mind stew over what he had said, and by the end of the day, I realized he was right: in the absence of solid positive evidence, there was no reason to believe in any kind of god or life after death. I gave up my search and accepted atheism.

Since then, my time spent with the online atheist community has lead me to the realization that I have never been presented with a coherently defined god concept. The very idea of a disembodied intelligence, a mind without a physical brain, is nonsensical, and omnipotence is in itself self-contradictory. Atheists are sometimes asked what it would take for them to change their minds. For me, this would be positive, empirical evidence for a god. But until I am presented with a god concept that is logically coherent and consistent with our knowledge of the nature of the universe, it doesn’t make sense to talk about what the evidence for a poorly-defined, physically impossible entity would look like.


John said...

I didn't hav such a defined deconversion.

You know how I was brought up. You know my parents. So basically, I grew up believing, but not really thinking about it much. Around the time I was fifteen or so, I realized that it just wasn't that important to me, but if pressed, I'd still admit belief. For a long time after that, when I thought about it at all, I told myself I believed, even though the dogma didn't really make any sense. Eventually I realized that I was just clinging to belief out of habit, mostly. At which point I chucked the whole thing and started reading up on critical thinking.

Jackie said...

Actually John, I had thought that reading the encyclopedia had immunized you against Lutheranism. I guess it kind of did, since the faith didn't take. About what year did you start reading up on critical thinking?

John said...

It wasn't the encyclopedias alone. It was Mom and Dad telling me to "look it up" instead of answering my questions themselves. They undercut their own authority.

I started reading up on critical thinking just after I got out of the Navy. I started with Carl Sagan, "Demon Haunted World", and James Rand "Flim-Flam".

Rob said...

I do love Dawkins. He's very high on my list of people to meet.

I remember feeling much like you - reality doesn't jive with what I'd been taught. I stared at The God Delusion on the bookstore shelf like it was radioactive, knowing that if I picked it up there was probably no going back. And there hasn't been. :-)

Mick said...

I'm collecting stories about deconversions .... I have a page on facebook and atheistnexus called 'why atheism'. I think they could be helpful to others in the process of questioning their beliefs. I hope to eventually have enough for a book. May I use your story? I will use first names only. Thanks.
Mick Goodman