I was asked to contribute my ‘deconversion’ story to a book project about black non-belief. Since it’s (in my opinion) a pretty solid piece of writing, I thought I’d add it here. You can compare it to a previous occasion when I wrote this story, albeit in less detail. Read part I here.
I had been enamoured of Greek mythology as a kid. Dad used to read an adapted version of The Iliad called “Black Ships Before Troy” (a book that I am pleasantly surprised to learn that has survived several moves and sits on my bookshelf as I write this). I devoured the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur, Apollo, god of the sun, and his fiery chariot, the several trials of Hercules, and the punishment of the titan Prometheus, cursed to eternal suffering for having the temerity to bring the fire of the gods to lowly humans. I read mythology from the West Indies as well – Anansi the trickster, and Tiger, king of the jungle. I read mythology from various First Nations within Canada; I read African creation mythology.
And so, when I opened my Bible and read the stories of Cain and Abel, the Exodus from Egypt, the punishment of Onan for failing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife, the flight of Lot from the damned city of Sodom, I found myself disturbingly confronted by the familiar syntax of myth. These were no lessons handed down from an almighty god; they were the oral histories of a group of nomadic tribesmen. It was myth mixed in with parable mixed in with law mixed in with fable. The similarities forbade me from seeing it as holy writ.
The church was misguided, the Bible was mythology, and God wouldn’t answer my prayers. I spent years in a dark spiritual depression, often finding myself awoken at night by questions to which there were no good answers. I stopped asking Dad, because the arguments had begun to develop a bitter edge to them – an edge that was almost entirely my own existential nausea manifesting itself as anger.
I began to read: Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Franco Ferrucci, Taylor Caldwell, anything that would provide me with some way to reconcile the truths I could see with my eyes, and the ones that I had been told to accept in my soul. My faith, once robust enough to earn me the valedictorian slot of my Confirmation class, was now in tatters, clinging desperately for purchase and fighting the winds of doubt that were blowing with gale force.
It was during mass on Christmas Day of 2005 that a thought crossed my mind: human beings just don’t understand God. The thought was liberating – the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have the answer; the problem was that nobody had the answer. We were all just stumbling in the dark, making up ways to worship an entity that we knew nothing about. My joy at discovering this idea was immediately torpedoed by the dread of the next thought: if we don’t understand what God wants, then how can we know He ‘wants’ anything at all? A being that powerful probably doesn’t give a whit about the behaviour of one animal species among thousands, living on one planet among trillions.
So if God doesn’t ‘want’ anything, or if God at least can’t be known to ‘want’ anything, then what does that mean for us? Why should we prioritize any one religion over any other? Why have religion at all, since they’re all equally likely to be totally wrong? Why not simply live as though there was no God, since for all intents and purposes a god that we don’t know anything about is practically equivalent to one that doesn’t exist?
It was my first peek into an atheistic worldview. It was the first crack in the dam of my belief that simply could not be patched. Slowly, then quickly, then with a torrent of logic, the soaring edifice my belief crumbled and washed away. I walked into the church that day a Catholic, and walked out an atheist.
It would be years and many blogs and books and online forums later that I finally identified myself as “an atheist” – a term I had not really considered much before. And when I moved to Vancouver, I decided to look up “Vancouver atheists” to see if I could find something to do on a lonely Friday night. After walking across town to join the local branch of CFI in watching the most pathetic defense of old-Earth creationism I had ever seen (but one that I would learn was actually pretty standard within the field), I called Dad to tell him about it.
After an hour or so of conversation, one during which I could not hide my derision for Catholic dogma (“God makes people curious enough to be scientists so they can research the cures for diseases? Come on”), I finally hit Dad with the double-barreled statement that I’d been holding back from him for years: “I don’t believe in any of that stuff.”
I was expecting the world to come crashing down. Far away as I was, I was still his son and even though I wasn’t relying on him financially anymore, I still wanted him to be proud of me and love me. This man, whose faith brought him out of poverty, comforted him during the death of his wife, and sustained him through raising children in a land far away from where he was born, was now hearing his son proclaim that he had failed to pass that faith on. I was expecting condemnation. I was expecting furious peroration. I was expecting a long silence.
“I know,” said Dad.
I was not expecting that.
Months later, Dad and I were on a road trip back to Vernon, the city where I had been a child, and where my mom had died. Out of nowhere, Dad told me that he wished he had done a better job of teaching me and my older sister religion. I was surprised, given that I had been so active in the church. “Is this because I’m not religious?” I asked, still not willing to use the ‘atheist’ word around him.
“No,” he said “I just wish I had spent more time emphasizing the importance of charity and community with you guys.”
“Dad,” I said “that’s not religion. That’s just being a good person.”
Seemingly annoyed by my flippance, he shot back “well that’s what ‘religion’ means to me.”
My Dad the agnostic?
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