I’ve been thinking lately about my former faith and how it may have, for better or for worse, shaped the person that I am today. Throughout this little exercise, it’s easy to ask oneself how it happened to be that a person such as I would give up on the beliefs of a lifetime so completely after having had them dogmatically drilled into my head since birth, especially when it’s the experience of so many atheists that you can’t convince a religious person that what they believe is a fairytale.
The short answer, of course, is that you can convince religious people that they’re wrong; just not in real time. The reasons why we hold on to our beliefs and thoughts are varied, and we’re not gonna give up on them without a fight. Particularly in the face of our enemies. Over time though, provided the arguments make sense, pretty soon they re-emerge in the brain as clearly as if we had made them up all on our own (and some of which, we likely did). The seeds of doubt have now germinated and are beginning to grow a new tree of knowledge.
It’s not the first time that I’ve thought back to those years and wondered how this happened. For as devout as I was, I’ve realized that there were intense moments of doubt about the validity of my faith at many different times in the privacy of my own mind. I couldn’t share these doubts with anyone since my entire social circle consisted of friends and family who all attended the same church, and there would have been too much shame and defense had I expressed these thoughts to anyone. I remember talking to a friend one time about a mutual friend of ours who had recently left the church. And by merely mentioning that we had spoken to one another about what my faith meant to me and what his former faith had meant to him, I was confronted with a look of fear as my friend blurted out, “He didn’t try to talk you away from church, did he?!” Besides the grave uncertainty of conviction that should appear obvious with such a response, this anecdote should somewhat illustrate how impossible it was to have an adult conversation about faith and doubt amongst the believers of my former conservative Christian church.
These were moments, though, when the doubt had begun to sprout, however slowly. So when were they actually planted? Since I’m convinced they found purchase by natural means rather than the diligence of a farmer, it’s difficult to pinpoint any exact time or place. But I had an experience a few years ago that suggested an idea as to how this may have happened. Following my apostasy, I lost a lot of friends and acquaintances. But I found my way onto a secret Facebook group for people within my former church which allowed me to get little bits of information on so many people I used to know much more personally. Losing contact with these people was an unwanted side-effect of my leaving the faith, so if I could stay in tacit contact with them in this way, I would at least have some desirable part of my old life back. But I didn’t comment on the group. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
“As far as any ‘official’ line in this church, dinosaurs didn’t exist, but they weren’t ever something which was brought up in sermons either”
Then one day I read a post by a young mother who wanted some advice about what to do about her child who was asking about dinosaurs. As far as any “official” line in this church, dinosaurs didn’t exist, but they weren’t ever something which was brought up in sermons either. But that said, I loved dinosaurs when I was growing up; they were the most amazing things ever as far as I was concerned and I learned everything I could about them. My parents, from what I can recall, neither encouraged nor discouraged this behavior, and very possibly thought that it was just a fantastic way of keeping me occupied. So when I read the bullshit advice she was getting (though much of it was just reassurances that she was doing the right thing by asking), I thought why not throw some innocuous yet helpful advice her way. So I made my first comment on this group, recommending that she take her curious child to the library and just let him go from there. While I imagined this little mother/son outing that would no doubt find some answers, absolve the mother of talking outside of her expertise, and bring them closer together, I hardly had time to notice that my comment was deleted and I was kicked out of the group.
Because of an inside source, I was quickly reinvited to the group. So I commented again, confronting those who tried to silence me after making an “innocuous suggestion.” And the response, from the young mother no less, was that my recommendation was far from innocuous, and that taking her son to the library to read “worldly knowledge” on dinosaurs was surely the last thing she would do. And then I was kicked out again, this time for good. My inside source was rooted out as well.
At the time, I was livid. Simply seething, first because of this woman’s open disdain for taking her child to the library, and second because I was kicked away from the last window to the people I cared about from my former Christian life. And to add insult, to pour a little salt in the wound, I found out that it was none other than my own mother who banished me from the group. Though the dropping of the veil stung at the time, I took it as a clear enough message that those chapters of my life belonged only in my past, and I more or less just said goodbye to those people, burying them next to the ashen heap of my old Christian faith. The only ones left in my life are my immediate family, and even they I only see during the holidays.
But the response from the young mother has stuck with me. The more I think about it, the more I think she may have been right. If maintaining her son’s faith in an all-powerful God is her most important charge as mother, then she may have been absolutely correct in diverting his attention away from dinosaurs. Looking again at my own childhood, there was never a time that I can recall where I truly accepted that dinosaurs were a fairytale, and that the existence of their fossilized bones was simply a test from god (or the devil, depending on who you asked) to demonstrate the strength of our faith (and the limits of our credulity). As much as I strongly believed in God with a capital G, I knew also that at one time, dinosaurs roamed the earth.
A lot of people are thoroughly devout Christians who recognize the earth to be 4.5 billion years old. But not all of them were told that every word of the Bible was literally true and that any deviation would damn them to an eternity of torture in hellfire. More liberal theology allows for little dents in one’s faith that don’t bring the entire house down on top of it, which is important if you want people to keep believing such fantastical things in the age of communication in which we live. I’ve thought to myself before that it’s the most devout and earnest believers in a congregation that are in the most precarious position of losing their faith, because they’re genuinely interested in whether or not it’s true. And in my case, I’m fairly confident that the dominoes of faith began falling the first moment I learned about dinosaurs, because as I knew the history of the world and the theology of my family’s church, both couldn’t be true.
With luck, the curious little boy who asked his mother about dinosaurs has since secretly found a few websites online on the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Stegosaurus. And with a little extra luck, his mother isn’t kicking him off those sites.