13 oct. 2011

The Road To Unbelief

This will not be a piece about arguments for or against belief, but rather an account of my particular path as I best remember it. I remember thinking the whole thing was a little bit suspect from the beginning, at around 6 or 7, but I attributed this to the fact that I was in the little kids Sunday school, where they were giving me the baby version. I assumed that I would get the full account later on. When I graduated to the general meeting, with adults and children mixed, I was disillusioned. There really was nothing much there. The next step in disillusionment was my baptism and confirmation. You were supposed to feel the holy ghost descend on you, and it didn't happen for me. It seemed to happen for everyone else, as they told it, but for me, nothing.

I read the bible when I was 8 and 9, more or less completely. It was a great story. I really like how the Israelites went to war to reclaim the land promised them. What troubled me, though, was how irrelevant the vast majority of this text was to anything in the modern religion that was supposed to be based on it. I was also troubled that a sin could be something that you merely thought. That seemed very unfair, because "bad thoughts" would pop into my head that I had no control over. I may have had some form of OCD. I really cannot stand to be watched like that. I would still find it intolerable to be judged for private, interior thoughts that are mine alone. I honestly don't see how anyone could tolerate that for one second. The next step was realizing that there were different beliefs. My church was the correct one, according to its members, and all others were wrong. But didn't an accident of birth place most of them in this church? What if none of the denominations were right? What if it was all made up? I read Of Human Bondage around this time. The hero Philip, prays to God to cure his club foot, and nothing happens. There seemed to be a disjunction between a world described in the Bible, where God comes down and converses with people, telling them what to do, and real life as I knew it.

So by the time I was 10 or 11, I was an atheist, as I remain today. I tried to believe in it for a few years, between 10 and 16, with no success. Being who I am, it was impossible to convince myself. The main factors were (1) lack of intellectual depth, even when I had graduated to the adult version (2) actually reading the Bible (3) no visit from Holy Ghost, (4) intolerance of an intrusive deity as thought police, (5) the contingency of having been born into a particular religion, and (6) reading a novel. Of these, probably 3 and 4 had the biggest impact. Later on, I gathered more reasons for not believing, but these were secondary in my case. I didn't have to learn about evolution or cosmology.

***

I remember clearly what it was like to believe as a child, just because your parents or other adults told you something was true. I don't believe any adults really believe like that. A second form of belief, emphasized in my particular religion-of-origin, is a kind of fervent inner conviction, that is supposed to arrive at confirmation, and once again when you read a certain sacred text and pray for this burning in your chest to arrive. This particular form of belief never occurred, for me. A third form might be a kind of "moderate" feeling of comfort that comes with familiarity with ritual. Finally, a fourth modality of belief is apologetics, a set of usually bad arguments. I would have been a great apologist, (if I were a dishonest person) because I am a nonbeliever. I think most apologists are nonbelievers, uncomfortable with their nonbelief, who need to convince themselves through spurious, intellectually dishonest arguments. Scratch an apologist and you will find a liar.

5 comentarios:

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

This is excellent, Jonathan. All of us non-believers have a similar story, I'm sure. The one "form of belief" you mention that gives me pause is "a kind of fervent inner conviction." I'd hate to throw that out. Here are a couple of examples unrelated to religion to illustrate what I mean.

I have twice seen UFOs. Not flying pie-tins, not swamp gas, but brilliant lights moving mechanically at unearthly speeds. These experiences have inspired no particular interest in UFOs, extraterrestrials, etc. I would never go to a UFO Believers conference or debate the existence of aliens with Michael Shermer. But I have a fervent inner conviction about what I saw—i.e., that in both cases these objects were not explicable as some kind of everyday phenomena.

A second example involves my wife, who is ... well, not psychic exactly, but certainly sensitive to her family members. Several years ago, when her brother was still a working cowboy, she woke up in the middle of the night with a horrible pain between her neck and shoulder and a feeling that she just had to call her brother. It took about an hour to connect with him (he was in a remote area of Montana), by which time he was in the hospital, being treated for a broken collarbone (a horse had thrown him). This kind of thing happens with her all the time. I see this frequently and know it's real. What do I care what science or Michael Shermer have to say about such things?

Anyway—stray thoughts in a stray season....

Jonathan dijo...

Thanks, JH. I wouldn't deny the existence of that inner conviction. I said that it didn't happen for me. It could tomrorrow for all I know.

Vance Maverick dijo...

In my own "religion-of-origin", I did get to the "fervent inner conviction" stage -- through about age 17. This has made moving away from the faith different, more painful than you report....

Jonathan dijo...

That's a typical age where they get you, because you are more susceptible to those kind of emotion. For me it was about 14 when I was trying to feel that but without much success.

Vance Maverick dijo...

I don't feel such anger at "them" (priests, laypeople, parents) as that suggests. I don't think anyone acted maliciously, given they were believers themselves. And (to take a more cynical tone after all) they probably couldn't imagine any kid would take them quite that seriously.