Or, There and Back Again
This is the story about my “spiritual journey,” or not, so far.* I started out life as an agnostic, as I believe all of us have, and fell into being an atheist by default. Then, there was a relatively brief period of belief, and finally I once again became an atheist. I put spiritual journey in scare quotes because I do not now consider myself a spiritual person, and before my period of belief in god I did not think hardly at all about spirituality.
So, this post will be about what I believed and when in relation to a god of any type for which now I do not believe. This is not going to be a post on why I am an atheist per se. Although, some of these reasons will be discussed. It is just not going to be a defense of atheism; that is a topic deserving a post all of its own. Along the way I will most likely discuss various side issues. One I will deal with straightaway.
This issue is whether we are born with any religious beliefs or not. I believe we are born agnostics as far as any inherent belief in god. First, we are not even capable of understanding any concept of god to believe in until way after birth. While I do not know the age were this capability arises, I do know that it cannot be before we have reach a degree of linguistic competence. Second, despite the claims of some there is no god gene. How could the coding of a single protein contribute to anything as complex as a belief? Certainly, our brains do allow for belief formation and other functional capabilities such as a theory of mind (which allows us to understand the actions of others) and, of course, language. But, these functions are not single gene directed. Actually, most genes need the complement of other genes as well as the proper environment to be expressed. Third, the environment is the most important factor that influences the forming and expression of religious (also political) beliefs. The religion you are raised in is the religion you will most likely believe in. This belief formation is so strong that many never change their religious beliefs. And those that do, I feel have a more questioning personality.
Hence, I was born an agnostic. So, how did I develop into an atheist? Over time it became my default position without any belief in between my birth and this position. I was raised in a nominally Jewish household. By the age of nine we did not even belong to a synagogue. Other than my brother Jeff’s bar mitzvah and one Purim festival I do not remember going to synagogue at all. The last full Passover celebration that I remember was at the age of ten. Hanukkah continued to be minimally celebrated with gifts for years, but eventually we did not even light the Menorah.
I did go through with a bar mitzvah myself. I will fully admit that I mainly did it for the presents, which were not all that much, and I did not want to disappoint my dear grandfather, not that I told anybody about my reasons. After Jeff’s bar mitzvah we belonged to no synagogue, so me and my other older brother (middle child) Craig, were tutored by some woman (I think Mrs. Framm) in her apartment. After Craig did his bar mitzvah I was enrolled at the Hebrew school of Young Israel, a very orthodox synagogue. The reason I went there was that my parents had some kind of falling out with the tutor after Craig’s bar mitzvah, and the fact that we did not have to belong to the synagogue in order for me to go to their school.
Well, I had my bar mitzvah at the same synagogue where I went to Hebrew school. They separated the women behind a screened wall. I did not like this fact at all. My female relatives that came could not see me do my reading and prayers. Of course, they could still hear, but this was not good enough for me, even though I did not say anything to anybody. I must have been a shock to the congregation because I had hair down past my shoulders. I this point in my life I was well into my alcohol and drug addiction, which would play a significant role in my conversion to a spirit-filled Christian. But, I am a little ahead of myself.
Anyway, this whole time I was growing up I did not hear anybody talking about god. For one thing, this is not the Jewish way of things. Matter of fact they spell god “G-d” as not to be an affront to him. Even at the Hebrew school there was no discussion of god as such. With this background story I moved into active disbelief. Although, out of character today, I was quite mean to and teased the groups of young Christians that would show up at my local mall in Columbia, Maryland, where I spent my adolescence and young adulthood, to proselytize. Usually I gave my beliefs not much thought at all, except for the occasional ridicule. All I know back then was I did not belief in any god—Jewish or Christian.
My journey to belief in god began when I made my first attempt to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. On the suggestion of an ex-girlfriend, I went to Howard County General to be detoxed from alcohol and begin treatment. I was introduced to Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) while still in the hospital. From the hospital I enter a 28-day treatment facility, and subsequently moved into a halfway house. For those who are not familiar with AA the second step in recovery is “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Although, I do not remember the “sanity” part. Now, of course, I consider it insanity.
I had been living at the halfway house for two months. It was located in Elkton, Maryland. It was suggested that I go there to be removed from my environment where I used in Columbia. It was a beautiful day, and I was standing in the large front yard, when I realized that I had been sober and clean for three months. I pondered how I managed such a task given that I was a daily user of something or other from the age of fourteen and an around the clock drinker for a couple of periods in my life including for months before I enter the hospital for detoxification. Well, since you are taught in AA that you are powerless over alcohol, I decided to chalk it up to god. A vague god to be sure, but god nevertheless. This was the first time in my life that I believed such a thing. Later I will give what I believe is the real reason I had such an epiphany.
It is now approximately six months later, and I am living with my parents in Washington, DC and have been going to AA meetings regularly. One night I met Andrew who was a guest leader at one of the meetings I attended every week. Soon after this I ask him to be my sponsor (like a mentor), and he agreed. I had been sober for eleven months when I had my first experience with major depression and the first of a handful of relapses (I binged for a week before seeking treatment). Andrew, who is a Christian, help me a lot through this period of my recovery.
The next notch in my journey was when I was in an alcoholic treatment program after my relapse, and I came across a small Watchtower publication (a Jehovah Witness one), that supposedly poked holes in the theory of evolution. Being somewhat naive on how science works and the use of cherry picking* scientists’ words out of context, the book managed to lower my defenses. I was not converted at the time, but upon the suggestion of Andrew I began reading the Psalms from a Bible my brother Jeff gave me sometime before. Why he gave me the Bible I am not really sure because I do not think he was a believer then or now. Not that it is totally unusual for someone with a science degree (he had a bachelors in chemistry) to have a belief in god, I do not think that most actually do.
Andrew’s way of prosletyzing was of a subtle nature. He just continually did things for me. He took me to AA meetings and did other things for me as well. He invited me on outings with some of the members of his church. It was these other Christians who did the heavier work. Putting ideas in my head so to speak. One I remember was they ask me if I thought Jesus was god or just a good man. Not knowing there were other choices, these conversations lower my resistance toward conversion. Today I would question whether there was even a historical Jesus that the Bible elaborated into the son of god.
Then came the plunge. Andrew, his roommates (all church members), and other church members were kind and supportive. Because of this I decide to attend their church. This church was of the spirit-filled, fundamentalist, evangelical type. At this time I was looking to move out of a halfway house (in Montgomery County, Maryland) after I was discharged from the treatment center I had been in, and I thought moving in with Andrew was a good option. After two weeks of attending his church I quietly accepted Jesus as my lord and savior. After my private conversion I made a public confession and joined Andrew’s church. To become a member I went through a ten week course after church services. I successfully complete the class and was officially welcomed into the church up on stage (the church met in a high school auditorium).
Initially, my life improved. I moved in with Andrew. I felt happy most of the time. There were many reasons why I chose to convert, which I now refute (see below). Some of them were: (1) I felt that it would provide my life with meaning and purpose; (2) my friendship with Andrew; (3) the book I read supposedly disproving evolution; (4) not knowing my options in regards to belief in Jesus; (5) Andrew, his roommates, and other church member’s kindness; (6) the hope that my life would improve; and (7) a desire for heaven.
Within in six months cracks began to appear in my “new” life. I had brief periods when I felt depressed. This soon turned into longer periods of depression, culminating in a week binge on alcohol, locked away in my room. When I finally showed myself to my roommates, I needed to be hospitalized for both detoxification and major depression. After some weeks at a local general hospital’s psychiatric unit, I was transfer to a state hospital (Springfield in Sykesville, MD west of Baltimore). I would spend eight months there, most on an open ward. This was back when such hospitalizations were possible. Alas, there are not any long term psychiatric hospitals, except for a few private institutions, which are very expansive.
It was during this hospitalization that cracks started to appear in my faith. At first there was not any real doubt, but more of ignoring what I thought I believed. But, there were intense periods of recommitment to Christianity as I knew it. This fluctuation continued after I was discharge and move into a halfway house for people with mental illness. My doctors finally realize that it was my depressions that led to the binges, not the other way around. After four more short-term hospitalization, I went on my last binge. This one was to last only three days until a counselor from the halfway house found me in a hotel room, and took me to the hospital.
I wound up back at Springfield, and still thinking that Jesus was my solution, I sought out a Christian drug treatment facility. After being in the hospital for five months they were able to get me admitted to one in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It only took me three months without medication to become deeply depressed again. I left the program and enter a local hospital’s psychiatric unit. After I was discharge, my parents came and got me and brought me back to the Washington, DC area. It did not take long, however, for me to once again become depressed and wind up back once again in Springfield.
It was during this seven month stay that I turned away from my Christian beliefs. There would be no more backsliding and repentance. At this time it was mainly a pragmatic decision. If Christian beliefs were the answer, why was it that I was not able to beat my drinking (which I actually did) and my episodes of major depressions. In other words Christianity had failed as a viable belief. I did not turn away from a belief in god in general. It more or less reverted to the kind of belief I found in the front yard of the halfway house.
Eventually, I dumped all belief in god, but still searched for some meaningful form of spirituality.* It was around this time that I started reading in earnest. I read science books. I read philosophy books. I read religion books. I read history books. And, I read on other topics as well. I was also attending my local community college, of which some of my classes were in science (zoology and genetics). So, my knowledge of science and religion increased. I now understood evolution and could see past any arguments in the Watchtower book I had read previously. Through my reading I gained an understanding of what atheism meant and why it was the correct view to hold.
I admit that when I first began my reading I was swayed by most of what I read. If a scientist had a certain view of science of her or his specific field, I would usually adopt it. If a philosopher (at least those of an analytic bent) argued for a position, I usually was swayed by his or her opinion. Of course, I was not so naive when it came to religion, and I agreed with the stuff I read in support of atheism, which I still do. Over the years I have become a much more independent thinker. I have manage to develop ideas of my own, and where I am in agreement with someone, I ordinarily state it or argue for it in my own way.
So, this brings me up to the present, and its seems like I have spent most of this blog post on delineating my Christian conversion and deconversion. I am frankly embarrassed that I ever fell for Christianity. I sometimes refer to this period as being god drunk. Drunkenness implies that one does not think straight, and I certainly feel that this was the case. An interesting thing was that I misunderstood my experience at the halfway house. What I was interpreting as the work of god was really, ironically, clear thinking. It seems like I began to appreciate clear thinking more than the feeling I got when I was using, but was not able to identify it back then.
I now want to refute the reasons I gave above for why I chose to convert:
(1) I felt that I had something to provide my life with meaning and purpose: This may have been true, but I now believe that Christianity or any other religion is not needed to give life meaning and purpose. It also did not make up the whole of meaning for me, even then. In my post What Do You Mean? I explained that it is us, humans, that give meaning to the world. We may not be right. The meaning we assign may be false. This is it does not align with how the universe is. I admit now that the meaning I had assigned for my life at that time was wrong;
(2) my friendship with Andrew: I would now have to reconsider his motives in this. Years later I tried to contact him, trying to reestablish part of the friendship. Even though he had left the church we belonged to, he was reluctant to meet up. I think the reason for this was that I no longer went to AA or practice any of the steps. If he was a friend before, why should that not continue? Instead, he said that he wanted no further contact with me. I guess it was just too much for him to bare. Anyway, I have not talked to him since, honoring his request, and I have no ill will towards him today;
(3) the book I read supposedly disproving evolution: I found out what made for the truth of evolution by natural selection. I also found out how creationists will cherry pick* scientists’ words to show that they are not so confident of the theory;
(4) not knowing my options in regards to belief in Jesus: The choice I was given was either Jesus was the son of god, or he was a liar, so he could not fit in the good man category, therefore he must be the son of god. The first thing to say is that it relies on the Bible providing truth. But, there is no independent evidence for it doing so. Another thing is someone can be a basically good person while failing to tell the truth on occasion. Also, being delusional, which Jesus may have been, is not necessarily an indicator that someone is not a good person. The biblical Jesus does not have to be seen in a black and white manner. Like all of us, there are plenty of grays to be seen in life. Finally, there may not have been a historical Jesus at all. There are some good reasons to support this claim.^ They do not give a knockout argument, but it does make it a distinct possibility;
(5) Andrew, his roommates, and other church member’s kindness: They were kind up to a point. First, they consider my depression as a sign of unrepentant sin in my life. This is being inconsiderate at the very least, and just plain cruel at the worst, not a sign of kindness. Second, once I was in the hospital they basically ditch me, even Andrew;
(6) the hope that my life would improve: This proved a mirage. Yes, there were some periods were I did not struggle, and I would say I was on the whole happy at times. But, if we look at the whole picture and the deterioration that occurred, any improvement because of my Christian beliefs were temporary;
(7) a desire for heaven: I did not think this one through. An eternity praising god, and a lifetime of worry, not knowing if this was actually where I would wind up—I do not think so. Now eternity looks totally boring, so I have no desire to live forever, even if it would be more interesting than the popular Christian version. And, without the worry I lead a peaceful life in general.
So, here I am back again—an atheist. I took a relatively brief trip through belief in god, part of which I spent as a Christian. Somehow I managed to not pick up on god growing up, so I was naive enough to fall into a sprung trap. Today, I have never felt better about my atheism. It is a firm and comfortable belief. Firm, because I cannot imagine any evidence or argument that would come around that would change this belief. Comfortable because I am not questioning whether or not my position is correct. In my opinion I do not see this as contradicting my basic modern skeptical* attitude. The firmness of my belief just means I do not expect something new to come along, not that it cannot or will not.
As I said toward the beginning I was not going to provide my reasons in whole for having my atheistic beliefs. Sorry if you are itching for these reasons, but I do hope to provide these in a blog post in the not so distant future (whatever that means). Until then, you will have to go on what I have written so far in my posts – What Can Christmas Mean to an Atheist?, Can Spirituality Be Defined?, Can God Be Moral?, What If There Were a Virtual Infinity of Gods?, What Would Baxter Do?, Do You Want to Pick Some Cherries?, Why Deism Is Not the Answer?, and Does Santa Claus Exist?, which have a religious or nonreligious content, but again do not cover all my reasoning as far as atheism is concerned.
* For what spirituality might mean see – Can Spirituality Be Defined?; for my blog post on cherry picking see Do You Want to Pick Some Cherries?, and for how I see modern skepticism see – How Do Skeptics Make Their Way in the World?
^ A couple are a certain analysis of the Pauline corpus and the similarity with other myths. All the evidence I have seen does not prove Jesus’ nonexistence, but in my opinion it lends a greater probably that he did not exist.