Friday, March 21, 2008

(De)Conversion Story

Part One - The Good old days

When I was young, church was everything. God was everything. The mind that would later be dedicated to biochemistry and anatomy, readily absorbed theology and canon. I learned every hymn, read every text in the church bookstore, and accepted it all. I used my voice to proclaim the word every week. I honestly felt contentment in my life. I don't have a horror story about evil priests or wicked congregations. I belonged to one of the well known Coptic communities in the US. I have no doubt that if I mentioned it here, people from around the country would recognize it. For a while, things were ok.

Part Two - Doubting Atheos

As I grew up, I found that I had a talent for arguing and logic. I had many "logical" explanations for various doubts and contradictions, ("They weren't 7 literal days of creation!", or my favorite "the apostles wouldn't let themselves be martyred for nothing!"). After a while, things piled up. Certainly evolution was in sharp contrast to genesis? Certainly abstinence only sex ed was a failure? What about all those other gods? Woah. See that was the one that got me. What about those other gods. I could keep evolution/creation on a doublethink see-saw, I could acknowledge that condoms were the way to go and the church was just old fashioned. But that other-god-thing stuck. Thousands of gods have been worshiped by people throughout history. What is intrinsically different about the Christian God. Nothing. Born of a virgin? So was Horus! Did my ancestors have it right?! Doubtful. Even if one conceded the existence of a god, what tremendous arrogance it would be to suppose that one had, by shear luck, been born into the faith of the right one! That is, of course, if one is right to begin with.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. These doubts nagged on me. I prayed and read but found no peace. Reason is the enemy of faith, and I had unleashed the former on the latter. So I went to church a little less, I found the word a little more out of touch, and then something happened.

Part Three - Please listen closely as our options have changed

It is quite embarrassing to note that, by this stage in my story, I didn't consider atheism. I drifted away from the church and expressions of faith which I found hollow. But for some reason atheism didn't occur to me as an option. Around this time, I read 1984. For some reason I owned the book, but had never had to read it. So I picked it up on a lark and found religion. And not in the way people on death row "find" religion. I FOUND it, in the doublethink of the Party. Slavery is Freedom, fear as a control mechanism, the bashing of dissent. Certainly this was a hyperbolic version of religion, most of us are not tortured in church basements (Scientologists?), but the oppressive dogma stood out to me. 1984 is social commentary, but I think that makes it better for this purpose. Let me demonstrate: try explaining how patently obvious evolution is to a creationist. When that fails, explain gravity, and its theory. I doubt they'll balk at that, even though it is far more complex and has changed more recently (Einstein) than the theory of evolution has (Darwin, duh). By removing religion from the conversation, the mind is free to consider fact. You cannot be an apostate by discussing gravity. So too, 1984 took dogma out of a religious context for me. It allowed me to view dogmatism, and quickly religion, objectively.

Then the doubts about those other gods (see above) weren't so scary. This objective view of religion was essential, it made atheism possible for me. All I needed was a little more encouragement. I found it when I read the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. He said everything I thought, only smarter and in a British accent. I don't think I can overstate the effect it had on me, intellectually. There was very little in his book that I didn't know. I knew about comparative religion, I knew about biology, I knew the lies people told about atheists to be just that. Some of the stories and storytelling was new, but that wasn't it. It's hard to express how relieving it is to have someone else think like you. It's easy when you're in church every week. Far harder when you first leave for a would of reason. Harder still when you do it alone.

Epilogue - A tired med student wraps things up so he can get back to the books.

So that's my story in a nutshell. I'm sure I left some things out, but those three phases were very real to me. Writing about it was nearly as cathartic as living it. But it's not all sunshine on this side. Someone once said, Religion is the opiate of the masses. If he wasn't a despot, he might well have been a biologist. Religion is remarkably adaptable, evolutionarily. People of faith are said to be happier. I don't doubt it. But being happy because you have faith doesn't mean your faith is right. After all, I suspect the worshipers of Horus in the old country were happier than any atheists that were around. The point is, times have changed. We can explain the events in our world without gods in our equations. We invented religion, and for many of us, it has outlived its usefulness.

(ps. I'd like to thank some very kind email corespondents, you challenged my mind enough to make me tear myself away from my books for a bit and write this post)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you miss being a devout Coptic Christian? Do you miss the idea of a God? If you could choose for a God to exist, such as the Coptic Church claims, would you?