From Death-Defying Christian Universalist to Secular Humanist: A Deconversion Story
My mother was one of the most devout and well-versed Christians I’ve ever known. Every page of her Bible was marked with underlined verses and praises of glory, e.g. “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” I was always something of a “momma’s boy,” so my mother’s biblical view of the world was deeply impressed upon me as a child. We’d stay up until the wee hours of the night, and she’d read to me from an illustrated Children’s Bible, a memory that I cherish always.
Oddly enough, we never attended church. The reason for this is because my grandparents had long ago embraced the theological concept of “Christian Universalism.” Not to be confused with the pluralistic movement known as Unitarian Universalism, Christian Universalism is exclusively biblical; it is only “universalist” in its belief that Christ will ultimately save every last living soul—that not a single person will be damned forever. My grandparents reasoned that, if we are all God’s children, then how could he possibly damn any one of us for eternity? No loving parent would punish their child permanently, so it would follow that the Heavenly Father shares the same sentiment. My mother, as well as her sisters, took to this view, and it was passed on to me, my siblings, and my cousins. Because of its standing at odds with the “orthodox” view that many will indeed be damned for eternity, we didn’t attend church. My grandparents viewed themselves as outcasts, and that carried over to the rest of us. So, I was brought up in a family of devoutly religious, non-church-attending Christians. Weird.
But, it gets even weirder. My grandparents reasoned further that, by believing that Christ will ultimately save everyone, this is to fully believe in Christ as the Savior of the World—something that the majority of Christendom supposedly fails to do. And if one fully believes in Christ in this way, then they are not subject to death: “He who believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In other words, we believed that we were immortal. Because we truly understood the fullness of Christ’s message, we could never die.
My grandparents referred to this as “physical salvation.” We were not just saved spiritually; we were saved physically. And I believed it. With all my heart, I believed it. I even had a unique sense of immortality as a child.
But, there was a hitch. My father didn’t buy it. Not to say that he rejected it outright; he just “wasn’t persuaded.” Per my mother’s suggestion, I would tug on my Dad’s shirt and ask him why he didn’t believe it. All he could say was that he just wasn’t sure. So, I prayed. I prayed that, one day, Dad would come to realize the truth. So that he would never have to die.
By his mid-thirties, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor and lymphoma. Now, it was more crucial than ever that Dad believe in Physical Salvation. Death was staring him in the face. He fought with courage, but the impending reality was upon him. He was dying. It wasn’t until he lay sick and worn down on his deathbed that he finally gave in. He accepted it! He believed in Physical Salvation. No longer would he have to suffer physical death. Cancer could not take him, for he was saved!
Within a matter of months of his “physical salvation,” my father died at the young age of 36. In one fell swoop, the very foundation of my faith had been ripped from under my feet, leaving me with a feeling I had never known before: uncertainty. And eventually, thanks in part to my education… epiphany.
In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays the unwitting star of a reality television show. Ed Harris’ character, the producer and director of the show, is asked why it is that Truman, after witnessing countless stage gaffes, never questions his artificial setting. Harris answers, “We accept the reality with which we are presented. It is as simple as that.”
My “List of 20”—particularly my religion, my parents, and my time and place in history—shaped my view of reality as a child. It took a traumatic childhood event, coupled with deep reflection and educational experiences, to realize that my entire worldview had been something that I was spoon-fed. I was a product of my familial background and my culture. And, in realizing this, I had my epiphany. I broke free. I shed my religious worldview—the very thing that had been so powerfully imposed upon me—and came to embrace my highly uncertain place in the world. It was refreshing—a rebirth so to speak—in that now I could search things out for myself, explore other avenues of thought—even other worldviews, philosophies, and “realities.” And I’ve been on a journey of exploration ever since.
I suppose what I’m saying is that, more than anything, this class has reinforced my position. The principles that have been taught have deeply resonated with me, in that I inherently identify with so many of them. Perception creates reality, and Richard Carlson’s popular self-help book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, implores us to understand the concept of “separate realities,” so that we can embrace differences among one another, individually and culturally (113). And that “reality” is largely constructed by our “List of 20.”
Nietzsche was right in that there’s no escaping our inevitable subjectivity, biases, and prejudices. All of us view the world through our own “subjective lens.” All of us are the unwitting product of a myriad of unchosen circumstances, ranging from race and ethnicity to language and culture. And, so, the best one can do is embrace it, acknowledge it, understand it, accept it. And, in so doing, strive to rise above it. Expose yourself to new ideas. Broaden your horizons. Challenge your own thoughts and worldviews.
I tend to pride myself on having done this very thing by shedding the overtly religious worldview with which I was indoctrinated. I broke free from some of those “realities” that were pre-selected for me. But, am I completely free?
Following 9/11, it became more and more acceptable to speak out against religion, as that tragedy was correctly perceived as a faith-based initiative—the jihad of Islam. And thus the “New Atheist” movement was born, giving rise to a flurry of books including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, etc.
I have to admit that I find myself swept up in this movement. It is a counter-culture, but a cultural phenomenon nonetheless. And thus I am still a product of my cultural environment, of my time and place in history. I have taken on the identity of the “apostate” that Robert M. Price describes so well in his book, The Reason Driven Life:
The apostate is one who has turned away from a faith he once held … [practicing] a committed struggle of mere negativity, a campaign of continuous guerrilla war against the system of faith he once espoused and now so regrets having embraced. The apostate is still Eric Hoffer’s “true believer”; he has merely switched teams in the same game … I know many mere apostates, people who are for this or that reason very mad at religion and want to destroy it. Ironically, they retain many of the disadvantages of being a religious zealot. They are still burdened by an urge to save the world … the meaning of their lives seems to me parasitic upon that which they reject. If all religion were to vanish tomorrow, what would they do (17-18)?
I have to be wary of this, and consider how much my current worldview is still shaped by external forces, including my stances on religion. Those in the “New Atheist” movement have a tendency to regard empirical science in the same Platonic/Absolutist manner that Christians do the Bible. Instead of, “God says it, I believe it, that settles it,” the attitude is, “Science says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Science may be the best method we’ve devised for exploring the natural world, but, like the Bible, it is not infallible. Every new hypothesis begins as a “fiction.” In the realm of theoretical physics, String Theory strikes me as being overtly so—a mere modernized “creation myth.” And today’s “scientific truth” may turn out to be tomorrow’s “scientific blunder,” such as with Einstein’s steady-state universe or Ptolemy’s geocentric model. I continue to have a high regard for science, but this class has given me caution to avoid the Platonic/Absolutist view in which it’s all too often upheld, especially by fellow atheists.
Getting back to Nietzsche, I like to think that I’ve done a superb job of running with his advice. It was several years ago that I was first introduced to the hypothesis that Christianity consists of pagan mythology—in the works of Acharya S, whose claims are reiterated by the conspiracy film, Zeitgeist, Bill Maher’s documentary, Religulous, and Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code. I thought, “Aha! The whole thing really is a sham, after all!” But, a part of me recognized how readily I accepted this information without scrutiny, due to biases and prejudices against religion that were already firmly in place. So, I did something that atheists rarely do. I took it upon myself to study Christian apologetics, including Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and Tekton Apologetics Ministries—a comprehensive online resource hosted by apologist J.P. Holding. It wasn’t long before I found that the claims made by Acharya S and Dan Brown were utterly false, unsubstantiated by mainstream scholarship and ancient sources.
In the process, however, I also discovered the field of counter-apologetics, which led to the discovery that Acharya S and Dan Brown were generally right about Christianity absorbing pagan mythemes; they just weren’t providing the proper facts in support of the theory. Legitimate scholars like Robert M. Price and Mircea Eliade brought the proper facts to bear, with support from ancient texts and iconography.
The aforementioned process was one that spanned several years of voracious research and study. Why? Because I had to get it right. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be fooled by my inherent prejudices and biases. If the apologists were right, I was determined to give them their due. But, if they were wrong, I was determined to validate that claim. And the only way to do so was to expose myself to mass quantities of scriptural study and Christian apologetics, despite my disbelief. Few atheists are willing to do this. I forced myself to do so, because I understood, all too well, what it is that Nietzsche proposes. I was determined to challenge myself, to remove the subjective lens as much as humanly possible. I cannot honestly claim to have removed them entirely, but I’d like to think that I’ve given it my best shot. I’d like to think that Nietzsche would be proud.
The mental arguments and processing of information that have taken place in my own head over the last several years are eloquently touched upon in Isocrates’ Antidosis:
With this faculty we both contend against others on matters which are open to dispute and seek light for ourselves on things which are unknown; for the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and, while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skillfully debate their problems in their own minds.
When it comes to politicians, I’ll try to cut them a break, though this year’s Republican Presidential candidates aren’t doing much to help! Still, “bullshit is necessary.” And rhetoric, as I have come to understand it, is absolutely critical to a functioning democracy. Let the bull-shitters bullshit and the spin-doctors spin, for we are all guilty of it. It is an inherent property of human discourse. As Penn Jillette says, “It’s all bullshit.” But, it is the only way to arrive at a consensus and make decisions about things that can never be known with absolute certainty, whether theological or political.
Yes, even theological. The existence of God is, in my mind, the ultimate unfalsifiable concept. His existence can never be conclusively proven or disproven. As Bryant says, “the best answers can never be certain but only more or less probable,” and so the aim of rhetoric is “the attainment of maximum probability” (274-76). “If he is an honest rhetorician, he does not imply of most things, “It is so because,” but only, “I believe so because” (Bryant 280).
And that’s precisely where I stand as an atheist. I do not know with absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist; I only disbelieve it, deeming the prospect highly improbable based on the current evidence. I remain open-minded, my conclusions only tentative and provisional. Like all else in the realm of rhetoric, such conclusions are contingent upon evidence that may or may not ever come to bear. For now, I cannot possibly discover God’s existence or non-existence, so I must decide to live my life in the absence of God, as a secular humanist and existentialist. My search for “truth” will never come to an end, because, ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be any absolute truth available to us. And, so, all along, it has been about the journey, not the destination. About decision-making, not discovery.
So, again, more than anything, this class reinforced several of my deepest thoughts on these matters. It clarified the issues, and introduced me to new material that deeply resonated with my philosophical outlook. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it changed my mind about science, but it certainly adjusted my attitude. Though, perhaps that qualifies as a change of mind. And, without a doubt, the course expanded and added to my mind, providing me a greater sense of the role of rhetoric as it is played out both externally, in the public arena, and internally, in my own deeply reflective mind.
The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Print.
The Truman Show. Dir. Peter Weir Perf. Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, and Laura Linney. 1998. Paramount, 1998. DVD.
Carlson, Richard. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: And It’s All Small Stuff. New York: Hyperion, 1997. Print.
Price, Robert. The Reason Driven Life. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2006. Print.
Isocrates and George Norlin, trans. Antidosis. Perseus Project Archives, n.d. Web. 18 November 2011.
Bryan, Donald. “Rhetoric: Its Functions and Its Scope.” Professing the New Rhetorics. Ed. Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1994. Print.