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I love dinosaurs, and always have. Giant reptilian monsters striding the earth, small, feathered predators scouring the underbrush, and epic battles between leathery titans always captivated my imagination. What would have been called dragons in an earlier time were a source of endless wonder for me, and I sought to learn all that I could about them. These creatures ruled the earth for over 150 million years, took countless shapes and sizes, and died out in a mass extinction 65 million years ago, all long before people came about. All of this was in direct conflict with my religious upbringing, but as a child, that conflict never occurred to me.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household; my parents would read bible stories like "Noah's Ark" or "Daniel in the Lions' Den" to me before I went to bed, and my favorite lullaby was "Jesus Loves Me," which I can still remember in its entirety. My parents brought me to church three times a week, and I memorized countless bible passages. During my eighth-grade year I was baptized, and increased my church service participation to include song leading and public prayer. As a child, I had been blissfully unaware of the cognitive dissonance brewing in my head, safe within the walls of faith and ignorance. But as little as a year later, in ninth grade, we began learning about the theory of evolution in Biology class - that's when something clicked, and I realized I had a serious problem on my hands.
While other Christians in the class simply refused to pay attention during the sections over evolution, I took up my spiritual armor, sword in hand, and headed straight into battle. I took the position that my parents and the whole church community seemed to take, that evolution was silly, nihilistic nonsense, whereas the first two chapters of Genesis were how it really happened, in all their literal simplicity. I decided I was going to debunk evolution; I knew it had to be false, it went against God's word! I searched the library and websites like talkorigins.org and answersingenesis.com, looking at various Creationist arguments and pairing them with those for evolution, but what I found over and over again was that my own beliefs were being shattered en masse by overwhelming amounts of evidence. I was depressed, scared, disappointed, even angry that I had been led to believe something that wasn't at all true. A cornerstone in my belief system had been crumbled, and I couldn't help wondering how much more of what I once believed unquestioningly was also false. I began looking into other aspects of my religion, finding problems with numerous bible stories I had never questioned, like Balaam's talking donkey, or trying to understand how and why an almighty God would sacrifice himself to himself in order to appease himself, as well as asking myself many other questions that didn't seem to have answers. Despite the intense shame and fear of what my family and friends would think, I couldn't go with Pascal's Wager, pathetically feigning piety in the hopes of divine pity, praying in church, reading bible passages for preachers, passing communion; by now my suspicions as to the validity of my religion had reached a breaking point, and I could not honestly call myself a Christian anymore. I had to put faith on hold, as further investigation was needed before I could align myself with any one belief system. I waited a few weeks, continuing to search for answers to questions I had, sometimes praying, and sometimes crying, but I eventually had to find the courage and the will to tell my parents, "I don't want to be a Christian anymore."
That was the hardest single thing I have ever done in my life, and I can't imagine anything ever being more difficult in the future. To my parents, it probably seemed out of the blue, but it had been months in the making, tearing me apart from the inside out. My father and I began discussing religion on many levels; everything from flood geology to quantum mechanics, from hermeneutics to sociology. I became increasingly disappointed with the things he told me, things I had already come across and dismissed as false, or things I was capable of discrediting on the spot - things any intelligent person should be able to recognize. Eventually, the emotional toll became too great for him, and he ceased talking about religion with me.
During this brief period, I continued researching and learning, but everywhere I looked, I noticed the blatant absence of heavenly fingerprints in the cosmic dust. If a deity did indeed create the universe, it made it look as old and as self-sufficient as possible. Such a deity may exist, but it would not be worthy of love or admiration, as it left us in the dark as to the reality of its existence and its role in the universe. I remembered things I had said and asked in my early childhood that had the distinct flavor of skepticism; as a very young child I asked my mother why the sky was blue, to which she replied, "I don't know, God just made it that way." I then asked who made God, and she answered, hesitantly, "...I don't know. ...Maybe Heaven made him." Of course, I asked who made Heaven, and I wound up with no answer and a frustrated mom. I also recalled wondering if all the dinosaurs were on Noah's Ark, to which I heard many conflicting answers, some saying no, they died in the flood, some saying yes, but they were babies or in eggs, and others, like my father, who dodged around rational thinking by declaring such stories to be miracles, not to be questioned or doubted, but accepted as the divine work of God. I distinctly remember his answer being deeply unsatisfying.
Further skepticism arose from experiences in high school with students and teachers of non-Christian religions. I became good friends with several Muslims, and met a couple of Jews and Hindus, as well as a variety of Christians. My two favorite teachers turned out to be non-religious, and I realized for the first time, really, that there were other religions out there, that mine had been only one of many, and only a specific version of Christianity underneath that. Who was I to assume I just happened to be born into the correct version of the correct religion, when everyone else in the world assumed the same thing of their beliefs? Obviously, they couldn't all be right. I began to become offended in church by the blatant demonizing of people outside the church, and I found myself constantly defending Muslims, homosexuals, atheists, even African Americans and Hispanics, of whom there were few in the church. It's hard to hate and stereotype your friends, and as far as practical applications were concerned, there was not much observable difference between bigotry and "love the sinner, hate the sin."
Along the way, I considered many options on the religious menu; perhaps Christianity was true, but the creation story, the flood and the horrible atrocities of the Old Testament were just allegory, or myth, or cultural memories. Perhaps there was a god that had created the universe, and then let it be. Perhaps all religions were manifestations of a greater power. Perhaps. Somewhere along the way, though, I realized I was looking for excuses to believe in religion, instead of objectively looking for the truth, whether that led to a religion or not.
During this time I also read the Bible, all of it, and compared it to the holy books of other religions. I read the Koran, and the Book of Mormon, and many Buddhist texts, and I realized that if the consequences of religious belief were so dire, the deity should have made its will distinguishable from the machinations and fantasies of human culture and history. The Holy Bible was very obviously the work of human beings, as was every other sacred text I studied. A mixture of myth, moral teachings, cultural history, and fraud.
At this point I found a word to describe my lack of religious belief - atheist, a word I found to be grossly misunderstood and misconstrued, and by labeling myself such, I received a lot of callous and ignorant flak both in the church and at school. I lost former friends, and many who were once happy to see me became awkward and blunt. Many people did just the opposite and acted twice as friendly in an attempt to woo me back into the fold, while others simply ignored the fact and acted like nothing was different, as did the elders, asking me to lead singing or prayer as I had before. It wasn't until a series of private discussions with one of the leading elders that they realized this was no joke or adolescent rebellion, but real, live apostasy.
My parents, in their inability to reconvert me, enlisted the help of a leading elder in the church, who happened to also be my second cousin. The elder was even more disappointing than my father; I don't believe he had ever really questioned his faith to any extent, let alone debated someone who had. He told me after several weeks of meeting that he was going to be busy the next week, but refused to continue the talks even months afterward.
Family tensions soared when one Wednesday night I asked to stay home from church. I was tired of the fake smiles, condescending pity, and outright insults - I didn't need little kids telling me I was going to hell, nor did I need anyone looking at me from the pulpit reminding me, "the fool hath said in his heart, 'there is no god.'" My father told me that if I did not wish to go to church, then I couldn't be part of the family. I would be kicked out of the house, with no support, monetary or otherwise.
After several months, the church appointed an "official" evangelist, and his first target was me. I was again disappointed when after several meetings, he got desperate and started changing the subject whenever he realized he was wrong. He was largely focused on convincing me of Creationism, but our last talk consisted of him ranting rather emotionally about ghosts, near death experiences, and psychic phenomena, which, to their credit, even my parents don't believe in.
What am I today? I'm certainly not a Christian. I hold the position developed by philosophers such as Michael Martin and Antony Flew, that atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive, the former pertaining to belief, the latter to proclaimed knowledge. I am an agnostic atheist; I see no reason to suppose that a god exists, but I don't claim knowledge that there is no god. I say there are no gods with the same confidence that I can say there are no unicorns, no fairies, no ghosts or goblins, angels or demons, or any of a plethora of things that could be, but for which there is no evidence. I certainly wouldn't mind if these things existed. I would love for Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster to be real, just as I would love for there to be an eternal afterlife with an all-good, loving being.
My gradual deconversion from the fundamentalist Christianity of my family to the naturalistic worldview I eventually arrived at has had an enormous effect on my life, my character, my worldview, and my relationships with family and friends. Religion is a virtually taboo subject now with my parents, and the most attention I receive from the church leaders is a handshake and a hello. Former friends that I once climbed trees and traded Pokemon with as a child now barely acknowledge my existence. Despite that, I have gained a much more accepting attitude toward life. The world is no longer a spiritual battlefield upon which the eternal fate of humanity rests. I came to realize the incredible goodness and beauty that humans are capable of, as well as the horrible suffering we can cause. I realized how unimaginably lucky we are to have been born, to experience this brief moment in time, and how precious this life is truly is. With this, I placed the preservation of life, and moreover, the quality of that life, above all other goals in my life. I learned that honesty, especially honesty towards myself, is vital to a rational worldview, and I can now look up at the dinosaur posters in my room and contemplate with a calm, nostalgic smile.
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