Monday, July 27, 2009

My Deconversion Story, Part 1

I’m going to try to keep this short and sweet, because I don’t know that it requires a lot of explanation and other people have already told stories similar to this one many times over. Sure, it’s my story this time, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting for you to read. Anyway, on with the show.

I was raised in a “Catholic” household. I use sarcastic air-quotes here because my home was not a stereotypical Catholic home, and thus it’s almost unfair to classify it as such. My father is a cradle Presbyterian (though he’s been practicing Catholicism for the last twenty-something years) and my mother is a cradle Catholic. I was always carted to church growing up, and I attended Sunday school classes, but that was the extent of it. No prayers at home (save for the occasional grace before meals, when we remembered). No rosaries or Bible readings. And certainly no discussions about faith, God, or the Catholic Church. I went to public school and spent my time on other pursuits. My knowledge of religion came from weekly Masses, and nowhere else.

As I got older, I became interested in learning more about Jesus and all that rigmarole. When I was about twelve, I attended a weeklong summer service trip in a nearby town and worked with an impoverished migrant population. This adventure taught me how to feel the presence of God. Doing good things for others made me happy and satisfied; I attributed this emotion to the Holy Spirit and its invigorating presence in my soul. After that trip, hanging with the youth group in middle and high school seemed natural. I attended Catholic conventions and rallies. I became a leader in my church community. I was often the only person in my family who wanted to go to church, and as soon as I was able to drive I generally flew solo on Sunday morning. But none of that bothered me: I was sure that I was doing the right thing, and any doubts I had about my faith I attributed to my lack of a firm Catholic upbringing. Surely I’d know all the answers, if only I had the time to study/had had them drilled into my head from the beginning!

High school graduation arrived, and with it came a college acceptance letter. I attended a public liberal arts university, and on my first day there I sought out the Newman Ministry on campus. It was a thriving community, filled with firm believers who were knowledgeable in all areas of the faith. I was among people my own age who shared my beliefs. I’d at last found a place that I could call home! I dove eagerly into every activity they could throw at me, attending retreats and other functions with great regularity. I learned new things about the Church; my first experience with Adoration (the Catholic practice of displaying and worshipping the “Body of Christ”, in the form of a communion wafer of course) took place during that initial year, and I learned many new things about Catholic morality (for example, I had no idea that there were “degrees” of sin, i.e. mortal and venial). Again, I found no reason to doubt or wonder at why I believed what I believed, or whether it was all true and worth following. People I thought were cool were telling it to me. That was good enough. I was among believers. I knew very few people of other religions, and no atheists. My main friend group consisted of Catholics and other Christians. Why would I ask any questions in that kind of environment?

Well, all right, perhaps I should be a bit more generous, because I wasn’t entirely without questions. I took an introductory course in the philosophy of religion (incidentally, my professor is extremely well-known in the field; I’ve seen his work cited in my textbooks and on some of the atheist blogs I’ve read) and came out with more questions than answers. Why did it seem like every argument for God ended in a heap of fractured logic, while every argument against God led to, if nothing else, the idea that disbelief was at least reasonable?

Another incident that planted small seeds of doubt was a series of classes I took with the Ministry. They were extracurricular and student-run, so their accuracy with regard to Catholic doctrine is somewhat questionable, but I have no reason to think that my teacher (a fellow student) misled her pupils deliberately. She taught us to the best of her ability with all the materials she had access too. The classes were on the Theology of the Body (ToB), which, in short, is a series of teachings that explain the divine purpose of human sexuality. I attended these courses and listened to her words with increasing unease; I felt utterly unprepared as I discovered how strict the boundaries were. I’m sure you’re aware of the basics: birth control is wrong, pre-marital sex is wrong, etc. etc. Catholicism 101, right? Well, this class explained why the Church taught against these acts. And the reasoning behind many of the tenets was, as far as I could tell, shaky at best and downright contradictory at worst.

I hope you’ll pardon a brief anecdote on that topic. One of the inconsistencies that bothered me the most was this one: ToB proclaimed that love needed to be given Freely, Fully, Faithfully, and Fruitfully, or it was not “real” love, but instead some kind of twisted perversion of love, one which God could not bless. This was all explained in great detail, but the thing that struck me was the claim that having sex without being married or while using birth control was denying one of those F’s (Fully and Fruitfully, respectively). Furthermore, if I were to commit such an act, doing so would be tantamount to lying, because what I’m doing when I have sex under these conditions (unmarried, with birth control) is saying through my action, “I want to give myself to you… but not my whole self.” Thus, although my act of engaging in sex indicates that I wish to give everything I have to my partner (which is why I’m having sex in the first place), this is impossible while the conditions are being met, and thus I am being untruthful in my actions. My body is saying one thing, but my heart is saying another. Basically, I am lying with my body, and lying is a sin.

Counter this with a point made much later in the sequence (perhaps to help keep people from noticing the logical discrepancy?): many of the teachings of ToB are not in line with the beliefs of American society. Pre-marital sex, birth control, and so on are all widely accepted in our country today. And thus, convincing oneself that these things are wrong, for reasons that required a month of classes to explain, is a tough task. How were we told to go about it, you ask? One of the keys was—and I wish desperately that I could quote the documents I was given on this subject, but I have lost them over the years—to act as if you believe in the rules laid out by ToB, despite having doubts in your heart. Does this sound like anything I’ve already mentioned? Isn’t it the case that doing this would fall into the category of lying with your body? I’ll make it perfectly clear, if I can: In the example I gave earlier, the sin was that I did something with my body that my heart was not in agreement with. Yet when I’m trying to live my life under these new rules, I’m supposed to do something with my body that my heart is not in agreement with!

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s what it boils down to. But enough of my digression; let’s return to the topic at hand.

I shrugged off all these worries; surely they meant little to me, a true believer. I couldn’t have my faith questioned. I was too deeply involved in that community. On the Ministry’s “Search” retreat in the winter of my first year, I had a spiritual experience unlike anything I’d been through before. I honestly believed that God was sending me guidance, that I could somehow “sense” his presence. I knew what I had to do, though how I knew it I could not explain. I made some changes in my lifestyle: I joined the choir, read the Bible more often, and stopped fooling around with my girlfriend (a move that, as you can likely imagine, was met with a fair bit of displeasure in both the literal and figurative senses). Although these changes were difficult, I did my best to stick by them. And I found fulfillment in carrying out God’s wishes.

For a while, I was happy in my faith. During the summer, I ended up breaking things off with that girlfriend I mentioned (though not for any religious reasons), and consequently started my second year on shaky footing. But luckily I had the Ministry to turn to, and I found solace and comfort in that community. The school year came and went. No major turning points, just a greater level of involvement in Ministry activities. In the spring I interviewed with and was selected for a paid position within the Ministry in the following school year—I was set to be a Retreat Planner, along with another student who I’ll call Blair. My involvement had reached its highest point. I’d never felt so in tune with Christ or the Church, and I anxiously awaited my opportunity to give others the kind of experience that had brought me closer to God just twelve short months prior. I was on fire with God’s love. The Holy Spirit imbued me with purpose and zeal. Nothing could stop me.

And surprisingly, nothing did. No one came forward to say, “Dale, you’re nuts. Here’s why you shouldn’t be a believer.” Nothing terrible happened in my life: no deaths, no personal losses or tragedies, no arguments or broken promises. Sure, I screwed up a couple of relationships over the next year or so. But there wasn’t a devastating loss or a sudden realization. There was simply nothing.

And in the end, nothing was exactly the problem.

Next time: Part two of three!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Entering the Atheist Blogosphere

I’ll be honest: when I got the idea for this blog, I was woefully uninformed about the atheist blogosphere. I had no idea that there were so many amazing, brilliant, well-written atheist blogs out there. And frankly, I feel intimidated. Really, really intimidated.

What do I have to contribute to this field? What can I say that hasn’t been said a dozen times, each in better prose than I can conjure? In what way does my story add anything to the existing body of outstanding atheist works? Can I hope to compete with minds far greater than my own? I minored in philosophy in college, but I managed to routinely perform poorly in religious philosophy classes. What hope do I have of saying something useful or meaningful?

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. It’s not combat I’m engaged in here. Far from it, in fact. I created this blog in part because I wanted to display my atheistic thoughts to the world, and it would be utterly uncivilized of me not to consider atheist bloggers my companions on this journey toward the truth. If anything, I should look at those established blogs as mentors. Father and mother figures, here to help guide me as I take my first baby steps away from the Catholic doctrines I’ve believed for so long. Yes, I think that’s a much more productive way to view things.

So perhaps I should not be intimidated so much as impressed, or awestruck, at the glory of those who’ve come before me. I am humbled by the knowledge exhibited in blogs out there. It is my solemn hope that some day, I will have something as unique and interesting to share as those bloggers routinely do. Until then, I’ll just have to do my best.

Next time: My deconversion story! Every good atheist has one, and now you’ll get to read mine!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"...and let them have dominion...over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Gen 1:26

Sometimes I hate this place. Society, I mean. The human race. As a species we have caused more death, destruction, and desolation than anything else ever in the history of the planet. It is unclear whether humankind is the first intelligent creature in the universe, the only intelligent creature, the last, someplace in the middle, or perhaps not even intelligent at all. I’m inclined to go with the lattermost of those options, for reasons I will expound upon briefly.

What is the ultimate goal of life? A question posed to the sagest of minds across history, and one that I don’t presume to be able to answer correctly or thoroughly, but the question that nonetheless now captures my attention. Allow me to rephrase: what is the ultimate goal of living creatures? Put this way, the answer is simple: perpetuate the species. Create more life. Do not allow the group to perish. This simple and obvious truth needs no justification; just take a look at any creature that walks, swims, flies, crawls, slithers, trots, tumbles, or whatever else, and it will shortly become apparent that their primary objective is to eat enough to stay alive and reproduce.

We are no different. Oh, sure, we’ve got culture and art and technology and morals and a ton of other fancy intellectual gadgets, but what does it all come back to? Survival. Human beings seek endlessly to dominate this planet and transform it into the perfect habitat for our own kind. We play games with ourselves, trying to pretend that humankind is somehow “noble” and “unique” among the world’s creatures. We’re unique all right; no other beast on this rock is able to cause as much damage to the other beasts as we can. With the push of a button, we can annihilate huge portions of the landscape, wiping out anything that lives there and making the area uninhabitable for the remainder of the foreseeable future. Perhaps more terrifying than that is the fact that without even realizing it, we can still cause the death of dozens of animals, human or otherwise; pollution and terraforming alter the Earth in ways that have consequences we cannot foresee.

But there’s a deeper question here, and it’s this: What’s wrong with that? So what if we want to, in slightly clichĂ© terms, take over the world? Isn’t it our prerogative to make an attempt? Isn’t it our right as one of many species to use our natural advantages to our, well, advantage? Shouldn’t we get as fair a shot as any other animal?


It is our prerogative. We do have the right. We’re part of this survival game too. Our ability to reason at a higher level than other creatures is an evolutionary advantage that we have literally no choice but to put to use. Human beings are captured beneath the yoke of self-awareness. Our capacity for conscious thought is simultaneously our greatest asset and our biggest flaw. With it, we are unable to do avoid using it. Without it, we could scarcely be considered human (not that that distinction means nearly as much as we’d like it to; after all, the line we draw is human/beast, and I’ve spent the last several paragraphs trying to blur that barrier).

So here we are. Capable of so much. The smartest creatures on the planet, or so we tell ourselves. Yet we live in denial of our nature. We are animals that masquerade as gods. And in our rush to birth a human-friendly Paradise, we forget that we’re just running the same kind of plays that other creatures run: eat, sleep, reproduce, die. Pass on the genes. Do it all again. Over and over and over. Our means change. We invent clever devices to do our work for us. But the goal remains the same.

And that’s why I feel so disenfranchised with the whole thing: because we pretend it isn’t true. Maybe it’s for the sake of our sanity? Maybe it’s because as we spill more oil and evict more rainforest denizens and murder each other over shiny lumps of compressed coal, we need to feel that it’s all somehow justified by our inherent uniqueness as a species? Maybe it’s just part of being self-aware?

Whatever the reason, too many people fail to see the difference between earning our place at the top of the food chain and deserving said position. We fought our way to the top. We were not put here. And until we can break free of our sense of entitlement, we’ll never understand our true nature as a species. I don’t have an objection to wanting to survive. All I want is for more people to realize that our toys may be different, but the game we’re playing is the same.

Something Awful

If you’re in the mood to become thoroughly disgusted by humanity, read this. Then go outside and stare at the sky and ask whatever god you believe in, “Why?”

I promise you, no one is going to answer.

My (non)Virgin Birth

A post with actual substance is forthcoming. For now, I'm afraid you'll have to content yourself with a teaser.

Hi. My name--for purposes of confidentiality--is Dale. I was a Catholic. I suppose I technically still am, since I've been baptized and confirmed, but I no longer consider myself part of the Church (and I suspect the Church herself would have a few choice words for me if she'd the mind to say them). Regardless, I do not practice the Catholic faith any longer, nor do I ascribe to any belief in God or any other deity. This, you might think, would qualify me as an average, run-of-the-mill atheist. However, my circumstances--for the past four years, at least---have been particularly unique.

For the last two years, I have lived in a house with seven extremely devoted Catholic men, next door to a house with seven die-hard Catholic women. I have been heavily involved with Catholic activities at Northwest University—again, the name has been changed to protect, well, me—and have even worked on the Church’s payroll for a time.

Welcome to my blog. I’ll be using this space to tell my story and share insights. I’m an open-minded person, so comments are welcome; however, flaming is discouraged. Unless you’ve thought about what you’re going to say, don’t say it. I’m not interested in starting a fight.

I hope you enjoy the journey. It has been a living Hell for me to get where I am now… and I don’t even believe in Hell.