A Deconversion Story Of A Non-Converted
What bad thing happened to you to make you hate god so much?
Well, besides the fact that it is impossible for me to “hate” something that I think of as a fictional character in a particularly poorly written collection of essays, nothing. I’ve led a pretty charmed life. My monogamous parents got married after my mother graduated high school and they’ve been married ever since. They’re still together and they still love each other. I had a younger sister, I grew up in the suburbs, got good grades in school, had great teachers, a best friend, and a dog. I went to private school for high school and got accepted to the college of my choice. I started dating when I was 16, but I had “boyfriends” as early as 13. I wasn’t abused, I wasn’t beaten, my parents loved each other and they loved us kids, I had both sets of grandparents until I was an adult, I had aunts and uncles and cousins to grow up with, I went to church every Sunday and I sang in the choir in high school as well edited the church paper and was a youth group leader.
There was really nothing very exceptionally wrong about my life at all. It wasn’t all roses and candy either. I had all the usual troubles that middle-class kids do who happen to grow up in one of the wealthiest nations in the world in one of the best economies in its history. I got bullied, but no more than many other kids at my school and I also had friends who stuck up for me. I struggled in some of my classes, but way less than most kids and I pulled a 3.33 GPA throughout my scholastic career. I wasn’t particularly gifted at sports, but I wasn’t the last to get chosen for teams either, and I even took home a couple of ribbons and trophies. I argued with my parents and got grounded and spanked but mostly I had a pretty good relationship with them and I consider my parents to be people I can talk to and people I can trust. I had extended family die, mostly people I didn’t know very well, and I had pets and even a couple of good friends in my own age group die, but everyone faces death at some point in their lives, and I was old enough to understand death by the time anyone close to me died.
I just never believed in god.
Oh, to be sure, I did believe in all kinds of wacky things growing up. Some of those wacky things didn’t get dispelled until well into my 20s. But I just never believed in a personal, sentient god who could be personified or who cared about me in particular. I desperately wished there was one, but I didn’t believe there was. I suppose, since I believed in Santa Claus, there must have been a time that I believed it when I was told there was a god, but I lost that belief so early and so non-traumatically that I have no memory of ever having believed in a god. In fact, my lost belief in Santa was far more traumatic (that’s a story of how I started on the path to skepticism, but that’s a tale for another time).
I do happen to remember the day I stopped believing in the church as an institution of good, though. I can’t tell you how old I was, except that it was prior to 4th grade. The only reason I know that is because we switched churches when we moved during the summer between 3rd and 4th grade, and my memory of leaving the church is associated with the layout of our first church, and the second church was very different in appearance.
Also, prior to 4th grade and that move, I was a frequent visitor at the public library. It was in walking distance of our house, and my babysitter’s house, so I went often, but was too far to walk after the move, so I didn’t go much again until I got a car. Normally, a kid my age had a child’s library card, that restricted us to a certain limit on books and kept us out of the adult book section. But I had actually read everything in the kids section and I got a special dispensation to have an adult library card. That upped my limit to 25 books checked out at one time (which I always had maxed out) and introduced me to Stephen King and Dean Koontz. One of the reasons why I wanted the adult card was because I had completely exhausted all the children’s “scary” books, including one old tome of classic scary stories that exposed me to Edgar Allen Poe. When the librarian learned that, not only had I read all the Poe in the library I could find, but I wasn’t scared and I understood it, she let me check out the adult horror.
This is related, I swear.
I remember sitting in the pew in church sometime prior to 4th grade and we had reached the part in the service of the Responsorials – that’s the part where the priest says a line and the congretation says a scripted line back to him in response:
Priest: “Lift up your hearts”
Congretation: “We lift them up to the Lord”
Priest: “Give thanks to the Lord our God”
Congretation: “It is right to give Him thanks and praise”
So there I was, sitting in the pew, dozing off, waiting for the next round of songs (the only part of mass that I liked), when I heard the responsorial. Of course, I’d heard it before – I’d been hearing it every weekend for my entire life. But for some reason, that week it occurred to me that the congregation sounded just like a Stephen King novel. I looked up, and everyone was reciting the same words, in the same monotone, with the same glazed look on their faces as if they weren’t even aware of what they were saying. No, I didn’t become convinced that I had just woken up to Attack Of The Body Snatchers, but the comparison to a mind-stealing horror story was very clear and distinct in my mind that day. It was that last line that really did it: “it is right to give Him thanks and praise” – how creepy is that?
When I was in first grade, I devoured the Ramona Quimby books, and continued to do so until I reached the end of the series. In the first or second book, Ramona goes to first grade and learns to sing the national anthem. She was so proud of herself to be like her big sister, whom she idolized! In the song, Ramona falls for a mondegreen, which is where you mistake the lyrics to a song for something else. “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” is the most often cited mondegreen, for Jimi Hendrix’ lyric “excuse me while I kiss the sky”.
Anyway, Ramona thinks the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner include “dawnzer lee light”, which she thinks is some sort of lamp, instead of “dawn’s early light”. In her haste to prove what a big girl she is and what she learned in school that day, she suggests to her sister that she turn on the dawnzer when her sister complains that night is falling and it’s getting dark in the house. When her sister has no idea what she’s talking about, Ramona gets all puffed up with self-importance that she knows something her smart big sister doesn’t know. When it all comes out where the miscommunication is, Ramona is mortified and humiliated.
That story always stuck with me. I hate being wrong, so I don’t like to make very many declarative statements without checking and double checking. So, back to being in 1st grade, where we learned the Pledge of Allegiance. We were taught the Pledge by rote, without being explained what we were pledging to. I don’t even think anyone bothered to explain what a “pledge” itself was, nor what “allegiance” was. So, with the story of Ramona in the back of my brain, in 1st grade I decided that I did not understand this thing called the Pledge of Allegiance, and I could not, in good conscience, recite it until I understood what it meant rather than just parroting back the appropriate sounds. How did I know I wasn’t saying “dawnzer lee light” somewhere when I was supposed to be saying “dawns early light”? Because of that, I have never pledged my allegiance, although I can recite it the way I can recite many song lyrics and movie lines.
Fast forward to that day in church with the zombie-robot responsorials. I thought that no one in that church really understood what they were saying. Maybe they knew what the words all meant, but they didn’t sound like they meant them. And if the grownups were all just saying things by rote, then how could I possibly understand what I was saying? With a precedent already set, I decided that I couldn’t recite any more church stuff until, not only did I understand the meanings of the words, but until I fully and whole-heartedly believed in what I was saying.
And that was the last time I ever said a recitation in church again. The older I got, and the more I understood the meanings of the words, the less belief in those words I had and the more disgust I had in the church itself, for its apparent hypocrisy and attempted dominion over its congregation, including contradictory and outright immoral teachings. That was sometime before fourth grade. But I continued to attend church with my family (I really loved the music and I looked forward to the doughnut and orange juice every week), and I voluntarily joined another church in high school to sing in the choir. While in the choir, I volunteered to perform on special occasions when the priest felt a “play” was better than just him reading from the book, and I also volunteered to edit their paper and to lead the youth ministry. All without believing in any gods, and all with the priest and the entire choir aware of my lack of belief.
There was no scandal in my church that I ever knew about – no priest raping kids, no hidden love child, no gay “luggage boy”, no embezzelment. The priests were kind and compassionate and forgiving and funny and approachable, the choir and the congregation was tolerant and friendly, and the youth ministry even specifically sought me out to give the safe sex class (I was already studying marriage counseling by then and had quite an extensive education on human sexuality, which my priest knew, and it was felt that the younger kids would listen to an older teen more readily than an adult, so I gave comprehensive sex ed to my youth group – none of this abstinence-only shit).
I wasn’t the only atheist at church either. In fact, I wasn’t the only atheist in my choir. But we sang our songs and went on retreats and ministered to the other youth and engaged in philosophical debate with each other with all the fervor and arrogance of teenagers and college students. Nothing bad ever happened with relation to church or god, and nothing really bad ever happened in general to make me blame a god or get angry about it. I just never believed, and as I got more exposure to the doctrine, I stopped having faith in the goodness of the institution too.
Then, much later, came rational skepticism. Only then did my anger develop – not anger at a god I never believed in, but anger at the people, anger at the so-called “messengers” of a made-up character, anger at the hypocrisy, anger at the lies, anger at the deception, anger on behalf of all those harmed in the name of religion. I might be an “angry atheist”, but my anger is entirely for people – people who cause war and death and famine and illness and poverty by peddling nonsense about a character that even a 4th grader could tell was a badly written fiction.