Monday, March 17, 2008

An Atheist in the Pulpit

Psychology Today has a very interesting article about the de-conversion process, especially among various clergy members they profile. Although it was more about the clergy and their struggles once they begin to doubt religion, I recognized a lot of myself in their comments as well. You can read the full article here: Psychology Today: An Atheist in the Pulpit

As I wrote about here, I was once a pretty fundamentalist Mormon. Frankly, I'm not sure that there are any other kind of Mormon, which is why it's a wonderful thing Mitt Romney is not in the race any more. My de-conversion process was similar to that of many others: I got a taste of the "outside" world, and the cognitive walls that religion forced me to construct came tumbling down. From the Psychology Today article:

"We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever," says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. "You're trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You're trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That's hard work." In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, "growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world."
This is why religion is forced to remain so dogmatic-- once they begin to admit that small pieces of their proposed worldview no longer make sense given what we now know about man's place in the universe, the whole structure comes down. That's certainly the way it was for me, once the leaks sprung in the levees, it was too late to save them. Not that I would have it any other way. I felt the same kind of liberation experienced by Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation as profiled in the article:

The confirmation, as Barker interpreted it, came one night in November, as he lay on a burlap cot in a church in a Mexican border town where he'd come to give a guest sermon. As he peered out at a splash of stars, Barker had a sudden profound sensation that had nothing to do with intellect, the kind of deeply felt moment more commonly associated with finding God than losing Him. He was, Barker understood, utterly alone here.

"For my whole life there had been this giant eyeball looking at me, this god, this holy spirit, this church history, and this Bible. And not only everything I did but everything I thought was being judged: Was God pleased? I realized that that wasn't there anymore. It occurred to me, 'I own these thoughts. Nobody knows what I'm thinking right now. There's no fear of hell, no fear of judgment, I don't have to be right or wrong, I can just be me.'" It felt as if charges had been dropped for a crime for which he had been falsely accused. It was exhilarating and frightening all at once. "When you're ready to jump out of an airplane to skydive, you can be terrified but excited at the same time," he says. "There's a point where you go, all right, let's do this."

Those thoughts almost brought tears to my eyes, so close were they to what I went through: "I own these thoughts. Nobody knows what I'm thinking right now....I don't have to be right or wrong (or good or evil based on outdated mores), I can just be me." After a lifetime of being told that there was this Big Brother entity that had access to all my secret thoughts, dreams, and desires, to realize that I was in control of my life was like a breath of air to someone who had been slowly suffocating.

There was not much room for nihilism in my new world view. I passed briefly through the nihilism stage, to emerge on the other side emboldened and exhilarated. Life now had so much to offer, that was previously closed off to me. Like Richard from De-Conversion had experienced:

I myself found that my own meanings eventually expanded, after I finally left the Christian faith. “Saying yes to life” for me meant, initially, the exploration of life, making up for lost time so to speak, from all those years spent as a neurotic fundamentalist. I wanted to taste life in all its forms and in all its experiences — to “suck the marrow from life”, as Thoreau had put it. I developed friendships with non-Christians, I traveled, I explored new foods, I learned about wine (I had never drunk much as a Christian), I started dating (I had never dated much as a Christian, either), I explored ideas I had never allowed myself to consider (like Nietzsche’s!), I learned about other religions, and more. Just going out dancing was one of the highlights of that time of my life.

In short, the main theme, for me, for these many years of my life, was: the world is good, and beautiful, and that is why life is worth living.

And that's where I find myself now. I love the intellectual freedom that I have, and I love the freedom to just enjoy spiritual experiences without trying to read some other kind of meaning into them. I don't have to worry if god is trying to get my attention with some subtle message or "still small voice".

But my dad does. The thought of coming out as an atheist has been on my mind a lot recently. I didn't feel as though it was the right time a week or so ago as my wife and I had dinner with my dad. He had just returned from a brief trip to Utah to spend some time with his father (my grandfather) before he passed away, then attend his funeral. One of the primary reasons for religion to exist is that it provides some kind of comforting answer for the question "What happens when we die." I think my dad needs that comfort right now, and no matter how much it grates on me to hear his religious gyrations, I held my tongue and just tried to let him get out the feelings.

All of this is part of why I feel sometimes like an atheist evangelist. We are the ones that really have the good news: you are free to live your life without fear of eternal damnation. You can be a good person because you truly are a good person, not out of fear or seeking for an eternal reward. The world is a beautiful place, made more precious because we realize that every day is a gift; we have but one life to live. The same sense of freedom and exhilaration is available to everyone, if only they will open their eyes.

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