This is my first post as a new member. Thanks to all who posted in the Encouraging New Members topic-- it definitely served its intended purpose and got me past the "lurker" stage. I've been in that stage for a while due in part to my hectic schedule (which thankfully has eased up to some extent), and partly because I was attempting to finish my deconversion letter and struggling to finish it to my satisfaction. I would write a couple pages, come back to it later, and decide it wasn't capturing the right tone, etc. Kudos to those who reminded us newbies that we can just post on topics relating to our current stretch of ex-christian road, and not wait until we reach some milestone or another. That motivated me to simply write an extimony for this site, which will help inspire the drafting of the main story, since I have no hang-ups about any emotional reaction you the reader may have in this setting.
I'll try to give the *short* version for now. I was raised by tongue-speaking, prayer warrior parents who had themselves been raised Lutheran, getting "Spirit-filled" in college. They put me and my siblings through as much Christian school as they could afford and was offered by the school; for me it was all the way through 8th grade. Then I nearly dropped out my sophomore year from the 50x larger public high school I attended, partly because I was convinced the End Times were upon us. I wanted to head up to Alaska or somewhere remote and live off the land. Thankfully my parents were clear-thinking enough to convince me that was unwise, with the help of counseling from a more moderate Christian therapist. On some level I think I recognized that their belief in the End Times doctrine didn't go very deep, even though they talked about it like it was right around the corner and were stocking up on stuff for Y2K. There are numerous other examples of doctrinal mandates I was taught that I took very personally, but I won't go into all of them here. Initial seeds of doubt about the Christian religion developed when I looked around me, saw rampant hypocrisy, and realized that most people aren't so idealistic and don't follow the babblings put forth by their church quite so literally. However, I was told unbelief was a struggle we all have and we should pray until it goes away. I see this now as intellectual suicide.
My Christian indoctrination began to crumble when I served overseas in the military for 4 years, and completely fell apart when I returned to the Midwest. I fell into a circle of family and friends that had either New Age-y spins on Christianity or straight-up pagan belief systems, and pondered some of those ideas as I began studying applied science in college. Training in critical thinking skills, secular ethical systems, and the overwhelming evidence for evolution broke open the floodgates of my doubts about Christianity. I made a decision to use the brain given to me (by God possibly) and search for intellectual answers until I was satisfied. No longer was I just going to accept that my pastor, my teacher, C.S. Lewis, or McDowell had delved into the evidence and found rational justification for the claims of Christianity. I became very interested in skeptical methods of inquiry, judging the strength of evidence needed to support a particular claim, picking out logical fallacies, and taking into account all sorts of bias. I read a wide swath of both print and online material and weighed the arguments and supporting evidence from both the atheist and Christian apologetics camps. I pretty much kept my doubts to myself, except when I was around those whom I knew were not religious at all. As I continued to dig into the basis for my own beliefs, I finally reached the conclusion that Christian claims such as the resurrection, virgin birth, and global flood were nothing more than myth and legend. I realized that others may still cling to some type of more moderate Christianity, and that faith and evolution can be reconciled in various ways (one of my undergraduate biology professor/research mentors, an outspoken believer, had done this), but my already-eroding faith did little to keep any worldview territory sacred from scrutiny. Eventually all the "nodes" of my Christian belief network were eliminated (a beautiful concept I've borrowed from the Evid3nc3 YouTube videos).
I remember the moment I realized that the word "atheist" described me, instead of just saying I disagreed with "organized" religion. I was reading Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith, and my scientific training kicked in. I realized that I can't keep suspending judgment on the evidence for God. Scientists must continually make tentative conclusions based on the available evidence, which are open to reexamination if new convincing evidence comes forth that contradicts the working model. My tentative conclusion was and still is that the most parsimonious explanation for belief in a god or gods is that it is merely human psychological projection. It is a socially and culturally reinforced set of symbols, which offer comforting (although insufficient and superficial) explanations for life's difficult questions. Perhaps there is some kind of higher power driving the formation of the universe, tinkering with probabilities during evolution, etc. It's probably impossible to know. But we do know about our human tendency to find hidden purpose or pattern in completely random events, such as "streaks" in a series of coin tosses. Thus, without any compelling evidence of a god or gods, especially of one that has human-like qualities and intervenes in human affairs, I must fall back on the position that they exist only within our minds.
In that sense, they do exist though, and this is something that I've struggled with. Deities, demons, angels, fairies, etc. are symbols for concepts that may not be demonstrable empirically but provide a conceptual framework that helps make sense out of the chaos. They can serve a purpose until we can come to grips with the full bleakness of our own mortality, our insignificance in the universe, and find meaning in other ways. Also, myth symbolizes that which is only revealed upon deep contemplation, and so is not completely useless for everyone. Some aren't willing to dig into the abstract in such a way. But, I think that any seeker of the truth will eventually have to discard dogma, and any true skeptic must be willing to consider new evidence that challenges their assumptions.
I commend the hard-line atheists and firebrands such as Dawkins and Hitchens for shocking the theocratic status quo and bringing atheists/freethinkers more into the mainstream. However, I've known all along that that's not my style, and I wasn't willing to tell my family that what they have based their beliefs on is ignorance, and a house of cards that can only be propped up with intellectual dishonesty. I didn’t want to be so in-your-face about it, but I didn't see how to go about it differently. So I just left it alone, looked at the floor when they prayed before a holiday meal, tolerated going to church for Father's Day one year, and changed the subject when my parents asked me how my walk with the Lord was coming. Luckily I did have atheist or more moderately religious friends for a support network, since I was finishing my undergrad in the biological science field and I still hung out with some of my old pagan friends. However, my loss of Christian faith was one of the factors in the failure of a long term relationship around that time.
As I transitioned to graduate school, I lived with my parents for the summer and became more acutely aware of our differences. I began to feel like a phony and emotionally cut off from the family that I had always been very close with. Once I got settled into a new place, I was able to find time periodically to attend events held by local groups of fellow freethinkers, which was a great source of encouragement and helped me move past the typical feelings of isolation. Still, I hesitated to bring up my deconversion with my family. My hand was forced about a year ago when my brother and sister-in-law asked me to be a godparent for their third child. After a long talk face-to-face, they knew where I stood and were still ok with my godless "godparent" status. They were respectful and understanding about it, and could see that I was struggling to come up with a way to help them see my point of view without coming across as condescending. Condescending is fine if you're doing a debate or writing a sensational book, but not when it comes to people you love and relationships you care about. They agreed that a written deconversion story would help them understand how I lost my faith, and that I should use it to have a similar face-to-face conversation with other close family members (my parents especially) and not make them just find out about it via email or facebook.
A year went by while I stayed busy with classes and research. Then I met a moderator for this site at a local event for former fundamentalist Christians. [Thanks so much, it was great to meet you Antlerman!] He seemed to understand my predicament perfectly and offered some great advice to help me get past the block of talking about this with my family. First, he told me to check out this site for help and ideas to move things forward. Then we talked about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, which I was just beginning to develop an interest in, and how fundamentalism can swing from the religious side to the "scientism" or flat-earth thinking. I had been contemplating this in my continuing training as a molecular biologist, since I was aware of numerous instances even just within my own field where it was thought by some that all the components of a system were worked out and explained everything, only to find there was another complete level of regulation happening that explains the data. He recommended that I read two books by Ken Wilber, Eye To Eye and A Sociable God, before continuing to fret about how I was going to approach the rest of my family about this.
Some more time went by as I completed my grueling preliminary examinations, but now that I've had a chance to glean much insight out of those two books, I'm a bit more accepting of the esoteric. It's exciting actually. I'm more able to relate to people such as my pagan friends and my brother who asked me to be a godparent, and find common ground instead of immediately feeling like I need to yell "Bullshit!" when they start talking about how Jesus helped them get a new job, or the faeries left them an agate in the driveway. I even talked about my deconversion to my other siblings recently, which actually didn't surprise them all that much, except when I used the term "atheist." There's still so much stigma about that word, but I was happy to explain why it doesn't equate to nihilism. So now I've just got my godmother (who is a bit overbearing and a Lutheran minister now) and my parents to tell, as far as close family members go. Then the rest of the family will probably get updated online. It's going to be so awesome not having to pretend anymore! I'm really looking forward to getting some meaningful dialogue going that will hopefully temper some of the craziness of fundamentalism.
Well, so much for this being a short version of my extimony. Thanks for reading, and thanks to all the volunteers and members that help make this site possible. I can see it will continue to be a great resource for dealing with the upheaval of my (and many others') worldview.
For the record, I've been "tithing" to the site monthly and will continue until further notice.