The Unremarkable Story of My Lack of Deconversion
The story of my deconversion to atheism is a short one, but one worth telling. I’ve already related this story before, but I think it warrants retelling, as certain things are clearer to me now than when I first wrote about it. And to call it a deconversion is not really a truth. The fact is, I was not, and have never been, religious.
Not much of a story I know, but my ways have more to do with my upbringing than to any moment or event in life that caused me to question belief in god. The questioning of other beliefs however is an ongoing process. But first a little history.
My family called themselves Protestant. I say “called themselves” because there were never prayers in our house, no crucifixes hung on walls, no bible readings, and rarely a mention of god at all. None of the trappings of a religious upbringing were apparent in my childhood. In fact the only time in my early life I ever heard of Jesus and god was when my parents sent me to Sunday School, which to them was a good form of child-care once a week. The Sunday School sermons were delivered in the form of a puppet show, a great way to teach these stories to kids ( I mean what kid didn’t love Sesame Street?), but the stories never really embedded themselves in me. If asked I would say I was Protestant, but I had no idea what that really meant.
We lived in various towns and suburbs in Oregon in the USA, starting in Corvallis and moving to the burbs of Portland. Religiosity only really showed its face when we visited my grandparents for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That was the only time we prayed. I understood the words and the sentiment of giving thanks, but the prayers at the beginning of mealtime were only participated in because it seemed like the thing to do (that and the occasional clip over the ear from a relative if I didn’t pray!)
There was a bible in the house, an old boxed illustrated bible, the size and weight of a metropolitan phone book. It was an heirloom, having belonged to mum’s mum, or aunt, or something, and looking back, that’s the only reason it was in our house at all. It never came out, and I didn’t really know it existed until many years later when I was sorting through some old photos and letters with my mum. This bible lived in a box, in a larger box, under mum’s bed.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t until we moved to Australia in 1979, and my brother and I started attending a largely Jewish primary school that I remember the biblical stories. The school was a secular government school, next door to the local synagogue, hence the large Jewish presence among the students. It was odd then that the stories from the bible that they told us at Easter and Christmas were only of Christ, and none of the parts that the Jewish kids were told to believe. I did however also learn about Hanukkah at this time, though again, the main thing that was taught was the trappings of the celebration, the Star of David and the Menorah. What did they mean? Who knows?
I still considered myself Christian, but that was mostly because it seemed to me a question you couldn’t answer with “I’m not a believer.” I was a “Cultural Christian”, by which I mean I identified part of myself as being Christian, though I had never attended a proper church service.
I recall one instance during my high school years where my mother asked me about a crucifix I was wearing. At this time, I was a Billy Idol fan. He was always covered in chains and crosses, all part of his “rock image” I’m sure. My friend Mark and I used to listen to his music in his bedroom, pouring over how cool it was, and how cool his image was etc. I never gave it a second thought. For me it was costume jewellery, and it was “ROCK”! My mum asked me “So are you a Christian now?” My answer was, “Nah mum, it’s cool to wear a cross!” I now look back and see why she asked me about this. Young and naive I was, never for a moment did I see the cross as meaning anything more than costume jewellery.
Billy Idol was only popular for a short stint in the 80s. Mark and I stopped being close friends after a while. He went on to worship Bon Jovi as his new “Rock gods”, and I discovered The Ramones. I stopped wearing my cross.
Between high-school and university, I went through a short phase of “spirituality”, crystal gazing, reiki, charkras, chanting, drums and drugs and campfires. But I soon grew out of this once I recognised that the friends I was doing this with were smoking way too much pot and navel gazing for far too long to be productive at anything.
I never really thought much about it after this, not until I entered university.
I studied Fine Art at Monash Uni, and for the first time in my life, I studied Art History to a deeper degree than just the base facts about the artist. In this deeper study I saw how art and society go hand in hand, the art at any time reflecting like a mirror the goings on of the time. The wars fought for religion, the deaths and celebrations of these deaths, the preoccupation with Jesus, the brutality meted up in his name, all are apparent in Art History. It was like the tip of an iceberg of discovery, and since this time, I was not a religious person. I was not then “atheist”, possibly at most a non-practicing apathetic naturalistic deist. I knew there was no truth in the holy books, that much was obvious. If you had asked me if there was a god, I’d say “I don’t know… Probably.”
University was the time when my activist brain became activated. Much of my art was about the way that the media lies and manufactures belief to bolster newspaper sales and viewer stats. It was only a matter of time before my two interests met.
To tell the truth, I had never really asked the question “Is there a god?” It never seemed to be a question worth answering, because it was clear to me that if there were a god that he/it had no interest in the goings on of the world, let alone the lives of everyday humans. I was much more concerned with the follies of mankind, the wars in Rwanda, the riots in South Korea, over governments’ misuse of power. To me, there was so much happening in the world that the supernatural took a back seat. Over the following few years I read enough science books that the idea of god just became completely absurd.
Skip forward The God Delusion. This book, though not being a moment of deconversion, it certainly was a catalyst in giving me the courage to speak up against the ridiculous and denialistic beliefs of religion. The other main event that got me moving in social activism was the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne in 2010. Seeing the speakers at this event, meeting many like minded folks from around the world, helped me develop my ideas beyond the “textbook gun-atheist” sphere, and to evaluate this very complex world on my own terms. That was over 2 years ago now, and I’ve been writing ever since.
The biggest surprise in this whole story was in relating the GAC to my parents (individually, they have been divorced for a long time now). When I told them I was an atheist, they both, independently, told me that they too were atheists. Suddenly it all made sense. I was never a deconvert. I have always been given the freedom to discover the world around me, and have been encouraged to do so on my own terms. That is the gift my parents bestowed on me; a yoke of dogma and denialism, not a sense of guilt for having been born, not a hang-up about my sex-organs; they gave me the ability to discover it all for myself.
I was born atheist. We all are. Only for so many of us, this gets hijacked by others who think they know better than we do what is right.