Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: Deconversion stories (page 2 of 2)

What happens when you stop believing in god?

Youngest Boy asked me, “What happens when you stop believing in God?”

“Absolutely nothing!” I said. “You’re still the same person you were, and everything goes on like normal.”

And that’s one way to tell that God’s not real. If you stop believing in cars and decide to walk out in the road, reality will soon disconfirm your belief. If you disbelieve in food and water and stop eating and drinking, you die. But if you stop believing in supernatural beings… it’s amazing how irrelevant your past belief can seem, so quickly.

It’s like Philip K. Dick said:

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Youngest Boy thought about all this and said, “But you could not believe in atoms, and nothing would change.” He’s very smart. You have to watch yourself with this kid.

“That’s true,” I said, “With atoms, it would take a long time to notice you were wrong. You probably wouldn’t know until you tried to do some research involving atoms. Then you’d realise that people who know about atoms could predict things you couldn’t.”

But what does belief in god help you predict? You can’t work out who will be cured of illness when you pray. Most people get better with most diseases, some don’t, and some die. Then you say, well, that was god’s plan. It lends itself to loads of ex post facto rationalisation, but not prediction.

It’s not all true that nothing changes though. You are finally able to embrace reason without having to fear it. Because, post-deconversion, reason has already knocked down your rickety system. There’s no more harm it can do you. You are free.

Celebrity deconversion story

I enjoyed reading this “My Defining Moment” piece from actor and writer Ricky Gervais.

He became an atheist at age eight, over one afternoon. How smart must he be? It took me years! Sometimes I get envious of other people’s intellect.

Deconversion stories: the 2004 election

We’re knee-deep in election results these days, so I thought I’d tell about an eye-opening election result that assisted in my deconversion.

During my Utah days, I was a member of that rare but illustrious species: the Mormon Democrat. I didn’t mind being a minority; I rather liked it. Contrarian streak. Most members agreed (in theory) that liberals could be good members of the Church, but every once in a while someone would question whether liberal points of view were in fact compatible with Church teachings! It didn’t bother me too much. I figured those things weren’t the Church, just the people. One day, things might even out. They were good people.

Fast-forward to the 2004 election. Most Americans now disapprove of George W. Bush as president, but at the time, it was running half and half. That seemed strange. Having started the Iraq war, after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, the choice between Bush and NotBush seemed fairly clear and unambiguous. Not everyone would make the right choice, but didn’t the Book of Mormon say that most people would make the right choice most of the time?

Then came the results: Utah went for Bush county for county, one of only three states to do so.

Well, of course they did. Utah’s conservative, and is to this day more pro-Bush than any other state. But the election did disabuse me of one idea: that the conservatism of Utah was some kind of anomaly that would get sorted out eventually. The people of my church had gotten it wrong, and badly so. No dissenting counties? Not even Park City? A state full of people that claimed to have the Holy Spirit of God had voted for evil, and their vote was unanimous.

I can smile about it now — Utah didn’t vote the way I wanted them to, so they’re evil. But at the time, it was profoundly disappointing. They would never get it. And it changed the way I saw rank and file Mormons. They could get it wrong.

Deconversion stories: The void and the ramen

“If a man die, shall he live again?”

Words from Job. I mused them aloud at my father’s graveside one morning. Immediately my sister said, “Yes.” Let’s just say I was less certain. Faith was coming apart for lack of evidence, and I didn’t like it.

I always liked the Book of Job. The first part of the Old Testament makes some great promises: even if you get thrown in fiery furnaces or… um… get your hair cut off, you’ll be fine as long as you believe in god. And then when good people did believe in god and they burned up in the furnace anyway (along with their hair), then people had to write the Book of Job. You can almost hear the writers saying ‘Gee, it’s weird… believing in god doesn’t always stop bad things happening to you. It’s like the correlation between input and outcome seems almost… random.”

No shit.

The tacked-on ending was the most disappointing part. The book that tells us that good people don’t always get the goodies, ends up with Job… getting the goodies. Hope his family didn’t mind being replaced.

Dad’s death triggered a rather predictable resurgence of faith in me. I even gave a great faith-promoting eulogy. But the spiritual rush didn’t last long without evidence — I had come too far by this time — and so I found myself that morning at my father’s final resting place, coming down off of it.

Later one day, I pondered what it would be like to be dead. Not just a disembodied spirit, still aware of things and observing, but dead. Not existing. And not experiencing not existing because there’s no one there to experience it. Just not. Extinct. Mentally I recoiled from imagining it; religion was what I used to protect myself from this sensation. But I decided to press on and try to imagine non-existence. I imagined blackness, but blackness was an experience. I pushed beyond the blackness and finally… for just a few quiet seconds… imagined the void.

It was terrifying. Nothingness was waiting, everything would go on without me, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The experience didn’t prove anything, obviously. But just being able to imagine non-existence snapped me out of fairyland. Spiritual questions took on a new urgency. I no longer wanted to be fooled by comforting stories; the stories needed to be true if I was going to believe them. And if they weren’t true, I wanted to know it. What about Dad? He remained in the Church all his life, and never had any doubts, said he was absolutely certain. Had he wasted his life in something that wasn’t true? Of course he hadn’t ‘wasted his life’; he took good care of his family, and he was happy in his religion. But maybe knowing what’s true was more important than being happy.

Believers sometimes say, “You atheists must think life is pointless. If you die and that’s the end, what’s the point of it all?” But, post-void, I found myself valuing life a lot more because it was finite, and therefore precious. Except now I had to make life meaningful by myself. Life was cheap as a believer; it would go on forever, and in a much better place, so there was no need to make each day count here. And remember that dreary hymn that referred to this life as a “vail of tears”? Religion taught me that this life was a bad place, or at best inconsequential, just practice, getting ready to live in the better world to come. If you could just get through it ‘unspotted by the world’, that is. This kind of thinking makes people devalue life. People got killed in a war? That’s sad, but they’re still alive really. So no need to do anything about it. You’re not happy in your marriage? Maybe you just need to sacrifice your earthly happiness and grind through it, knowing you’ll be rewarded in the Celestial Kingdom after you die. And so on. Horrible, repellent thoughts to me now, but as a believer it made sense. What a waste. As an atheist, my life has meaning now. The only people I hear who say life on earth isn’t really all that meaningful are Christians.

And so I finally did something that, as a Christian, I could never do: I came to grips with the finality of death and the probable reality of non-existance. One day my brain, that organ of perception, will die, and my perception will stop. I will pass out of living memory. I don’t like that very much. But it’s okay. I’ve had more life than most people in history ever got. And I’m alive today.

The realisation hasn’t changed me much really, yet it has. Once I made an ordinary bowl of ramen. As I opened the little packets of flavour that they include to make you feel like you’re doing something, I thought on how one day I wouldn’t be able to have the experience of tasting ramen. I thought of generations of people who had died and were probably experiencing nothing at all. And then I experienced the flavour of the ramen, and then the sensation of feeling satisfied. All those deceased people couldn’t feel that. My father couldn’t. But I could because I was still alive. I tasted that ramen like I’d never taste anything ever again.

A bowl of ramen. Twenty cents. With the right understanding, even a simple thing can become transcendant.

Deconversion stories: The way forward

I had occasion to chat with a student recently. He was raised in a religious family, but has realised that he doesn’t believe in any gods. The realisation has not been particularly easy. I got the feeling that, while he hadn’t believed for a long time, he was only just beginning to admit this to himself, and to solidify his identity as a non-believer. He seemed poised on the verge of some kind of decision about what to do next, and he was concerned about the effect that his deconversion would have on his family.

The first thing I did was to congratulate him on his sound reasoning and judgement! I also noted that we might have had some experiences in common. I had a deconversion ‘click moment’ about a year or so ago, but it was a long time in coming. While I identified very closely as a Mormon, I was also learning concepts about evidence, and how to evaluate ideas. As a result, I found that my religious knowledge was becoming less and less relevant. Rather than working my secular knowledge into my spirituality, I now found myself trying to defend my religious faith from the onslaught of remorseless reason, and these attempts seemed increasingly dishonest. At last I was able to consider the idea of the non-existence of gods, devils, spirits, and demons without panicking, and then to realise that the doctrine of theism was not well-supported, and very likely untrue.

There are some differences in our stories. For instance, the people in my life have taken my deconversion very well. I’m aware they don’t like the approach I’m taking to life, but they’re still my friends and family. I think it might be somewhat easier for them because I haven’t changed my behaviours — I still don’t smoke or drink, and the only commandments I disobey concern spending hours at church and giving the Church forkloads of money. For this student, it’s a different story. His religion ostracises its ex-believers, and it’s going to have an impact on the people closest to him. He’ll have to take a peripheral role in his social group, and perhaps in his family. They may cut him off. He may not see them again. And what a shame that would be. They’d be missing the chance to associate with a smart, great young person.

Why do we atheists put ourselves through it? Why not just go with the flow, keep our doubts to ourselves, and stay in the organisation? It’s not a bad life. They teach about being nice. Well, nice to other believers, at least. Maybe we’d eventually be able to deal with being slightly out of step with our peers — hey, some of us actually enjoy it. Why not just stay undercover and enjoy the benefits?

The first reason I’d suggest taking the road to deconversion is that when one sees the religion for what it is — a system that people have made up — association with believers becomes less tolerable. This was particularly true for me in a ‘Bible literalist’ church (which Mormons are, though not everyone sees it that way). People would swallow amazing amounts of nonsense if spoken from the pulpit. I remember going to a Sunday School lesson about Noah and the Flood (post-deconversion), and realising that I was surrounded by people who actually believed that Noah literally got all those animals on a literal ark. (I marvelled that once I’d literally believed it too.) At that point, the people of my former faith seemed like aliens to me. I wondered how it was that they could believe these fantastic things in the absense of any physical evidence at all. Perhaps it was that they believed in God, and if one can believe in a god that can do anything, all the rest could follow. But my standard of evidence was higher.

Could I have saved myself some trouble by taking the Flood as figurative, in a church of literalists? Only if I wanted to have a lifetime of arguments in Sunday School. Or shut up completely — but I’m not good at shutting up. Too frustrating. And if the Flood is figurative, what about the Creation? What about the Tower of Babel? The parting of the Red Sea? The miracles of Jesus? What about the Resurrection? Why couldn’t they be figurative too? And if they were figurative, then there might be no literal resurrection, and no life after death — just like atheism. So without literalism, the much-touted ‘comfort’ offered by religion evaporates. And literalism doesn’t last long when sound evidence is required. Nope — might as well save a step and not believe. It’s certainly cheaper and less time-consuming.

Another reason I chose to ‘go public’ with my lack of faith is that I’m trying to be a more honest person, and I thought that pretending to believe would be inauthentic. I view atheism as honest in the same way as science is honest: you observe facts as best you can, and try not to say more than the facts will tell you. And if the facts tell you something new, you have to stay open to it. I sometimes tell people that if some solid reproducible evidence of a god’s existence came to light, I’d happily become a believer again. I’m not holding my breath though.

The road for my student — and for any recovering believer — will not be easy, whichever way he may take. There are costs for not believing. For me, coming out as an atheist meant not participating in church ordinances. Baptism and priesthood ordinations are, to me, symbols with no eternal significance, but they can acquire significant social meanings. My dad performed both of those ordinances for me; if I don’t, am I abnegating my fatherly duties? And so a good friend baptised and ordained my sons this year, while I watched and realised that it had to be that way. It was what I chose when I decided to accept an evidence-based worldview.

While deconversion isn’t easy, it is possible, and it is worthwhile. You can think more clearly. You can make decisions based on how they’ll affect people without worrying about offending some shadowy being. You can teach your children how to evaluate ideas, which will serve them for the rest of their lives. You can overcome a lifetime of religious training, centuries of philosophies and social patterns, and millions of years of human evolutionary perceptual weirdness, using only your mind. I view my deconversion as my greatest intellectual acheivement to date (although it’s a small list).

Leaving the religion of my youth behind was challenging, but I’ve come through the other side of it okay. And I’m finding that being an atheist can be a noble and good thing to be.

Deconversion stories: The investment trap

One of the factors that keeps people in a belief system is the amount of investment that goes into it. No one likes to think that they’ve wasted their time or done something wrong.

Call it an artifact of the sunk-cost fallacy. The more effort you’ve invested in a thing, the harder it is to look objectively at it. And abandoning the thing becomes unthinkable. If you can just hang in there a little longer and invest a little more, perhaps you’ll get the payoff! And if you stop now, you’ll lose all you’ve worked for.

You may recall the story of a Parisian couple who wanted to buy an condominium. They found a property owned by an elderly woman, and (as is customary) they paid her a bit every month for the right to buy the property upon her death. It looked like a good deal. She was ninety years old. What were the odds of her living to 100? But she did.

Time passed. She lived on to the astonishing age of 110. She sent Christmas cards to the couple, adding her apologies for still being alive. The elderly woman, Jeanne Calment, became the oldest living person at 122 years of age, even surviving the husband. The couple paid many times the value of the property. Talk about rotten luck!

When I first heard this story, I wondered how the couple could have gone on so long in such a rotten deal. They must have wondered whether they should pull out and abandon their investment. But the sunk-cost fallacy helps us undertand why they didn’t: the longer they went, the less likely they’d be to pull the plug. Imagine their thinking when Ms. Calment turned 100: Why get out now? She’s a hundred years old! If she’d been likely to die soon ten years ago, surely it would be even sooner now! And then at 110: Well, I’m certainly not getting out now, after paying for twenty years! And every day holds out the tantalising possibility that your investment will be rewarded.

Joseph Smith once said

A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.

What he described is simple to understand if we consider the effect of investment in belief systems. High-commitment belief systems attract low numbers of converts because, honestly, most people don’t want to do all that stuff. But the ones who do join will be fiercely loyal, in large part (I think) to the sunk-cost fallacy. Many religious people feel their investment in faith is worth it, and I have no doubt that to them it is. But being invested in a point of view is a sure way to prevent yourself from being able to examine it clearly. And the greater the investment, the harder it is to re-evaluate the belief.

For my part, my deconversion required me to invest less in the Church emotionally. I identified strongly as a Mormon. It was part of who I was. But recently, whereas I’d always thought that allegiance to the Church was an ultimate good of itself (‘Faith of our fathers, holy faith, we will be true to thee till death’, as the hymn goes), I began to realise that I wanted my highest allegiance to be with truth. Not that I thought there was a difference between the two. I’d always easily glossed over conflicts between doctrine and facts, partly because I could think of clever ways of harmonising them, and partly because my investment in the Church allowed me to stop thinking about them a bit sooner than I should have. Blackout.

At some point, these conflicts became more troubling because I was torn between being faithful and being honest. The one idea that was most influential during this time was this: I don’t have to be afraid of knowledge because if there is a God, he doesn’t want me to believe anything that’s wrong. That phrase seemed true enough to work with. Ironically, it was this idea that allowed me to feel safe enough to notice the glaring flaws of LDS and Christian doctrine, and finally to reject theism altogether.

Now the tricky bit: not becoming attached to atheism! I realise I still need to stay open to new facts. But my understanding of science has given me better tools to evaluate them.

Deconversion stories: The homeo-postate

I was talking to a good believer the other day. “I had the worst allergies last week,” she said. “But then I got something at the health food store that really worked.”

Health food store?

“Yeah, it was these white pills. They really worked! I just put a few under my tongue every hour, and when I woke up the next morning, my nose was clear!”

“It wasn’t homeopathy, was it?” I asked.

“It might have been,” she said. “Yeah, I think it was.”

“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I said. “I have to say, though, that homeopathy isn’t what it seems. Can I tell you my experience with it?”

“Sure.” She’s patient.

You may remember that in order for me to be deconverted from my particular brand of Christianity, three conditions had to be met:

  • It became important to me that my beliefs be grounded in fact.
  • It became clear to me that my beliefs were either not supported by fact, or contradicted the facts directly.
  • I lost the fear of what might happen if the belief system were false.

My rejection of ‘alternative medicine’ and new age horsecrap ties into my emerging skepticism about religion, and falls under Point Number Two. Here’s the story.

In my undergrad days, I worked in the university library. I soon came down with terrible allergies — I think it must have been the dust. One older couple, seeing my distress, suggested I try some chalky white pills they used. I put two under my tongue and — amazingly — my symptoms stopped!

Magic! From then on I was a homeopathy believer. Harmless, natural, and not in the grip of Big Pharma. Ha! Take that, you money-grubbing traditional doctors! The fact that I never managed to replicate the amazing results of the first time didn’t faze me at all. I knew what I’d experienced.

From there, I got into other alternative therapists for my persistent acne. One was the Zinc Guy. He always prescribed the Zinc Drink to me and my friends, even though we all had different conditions. Hm.

Another was the Electric Acupuncturist. He liked to stick people with needles attached to big batteries. Not painful, but twitchy. He said that many of his patients only needed to see him once; they never came back, so he presumed he’d cured them.

Homeopathy, massage, and chiropractic all failed to clear up my very aggravating and embarrassing problem. The naturopaths were short on results, but had no shortage of explanations for the delay. For one thing, they claimed to heal the whole person from the inside out. Do you have any idea how long it takes to heal a whole person? Patience! And the practitioners were never wrong. If I showed any signs of improving, they took credit. If I got worse, it wasn’t that their methods were bogus. I was having a ‘healing crisis’. If I just kept at it, I’d be better in no time. This went on for years.

In desperation, I went to a real live dermatologist, who fixed everything with simple antibiotics in a matter of weeks. That was a pisser. I realised that I’d been had by an entire industry of quacks.

From there I read everything I could find debunking alternative medicine, homeopathy in particular. I found out that scientific studies (e.g. on PubMed) showed either negative results or weak positive results that weren’t replicable. I found that people (including me) are naturally clueless about issues of health and medicine because it’s so complex and multi-factorial, and our brains have problems reasoning under those conditions. We are especially susceptible to the placebo effect and anecdotal evidence.

Of course, just because I’d had a bad experience didn’t mean alt-med was a con job. That would just be trading one set of anecdotal evidence for another. What did matter was that naturopathy in general has not been able to establish its claims empirically.

“So,” I concluded to the believer, “when it came down to my own experience versus scientific evidence, I had to be a bit humble and accept that I’d been wrong. Which is hard to do, because we accept our experiences as fact. They’re what make up our lives! But our experiences don’t always mean what we think they mean.”

Now to the religious tie-in. My religion placed a heavy emphasis on having a personal spiritual experience with God, the Holy Ghost, what you may call it. And I have had many experiences I would describe as ‘spiritual’. Yet these fall under the heading of ‘feelings and experiences’. They may be enjoyable and personally meaningful, but they do not qualify as good evidence to establish the existence of a supreme entity or the truthfulness of a proposition.

People at church are hoping that if I pray, I’ll have some kind of spiritual experience and believe again. They miss the point. If that did happen, it would only prove that I could be swayed by bad evidence just like everyone else.

My run-in with alternative medicine helped me to realise that our feelings and experiences can be wrong. And if you use placebos, medicinal or religious, the consequence is that, unless you get better by pure chance, you just stay sick.

Deconversion stories: the framework

I remember the Sunday that I became an atheist. I was in church trying to sort everything out. The temple of faith was feeling creakier than usual, and the usual amount of plaster wasn’t covering the cracks. Truth be told, I actually resented having to resort to ad hoc justifications in the face of inconvenient facts. So I didn’t go to the adult classes. I went to the Primary classes for kids. I thought if I could just start from the beginning, maybe I could build again without too many contradictions.

What were my options? Maybe I could be a deist. That seemed plausible for about five seconds. You can’t be a Mormon deist.

What got me here? Partly a realisation that the claims of religion were either not possible to evaluate or just plain counterfactual, but that was only one part of the story. A religion isn’t just a set of beliefs; it’s a philosophical worldview with a built-in social network. Deciding to leave takes a bit more than just changing your mind.

My deconversion story has three elements to it, three conditions that had to exist at the same time for deconversion to take place. I suspect that these three conditions are necessary not just for me, but for anyone who is going to get out of a belief system that they are deeply committed to.

It became important to me that my beliefs be grounded in fact.

Not desire, not faith, and not wishful thinking. In short, in order for my beliefs to be worthwhile, I decided that they had to be true in a factual sense.

For most of my life, I believed that it was more important to keep believing in the Church than it was to believe the facts. I didn’t think of it that way at the time because I didn’t think there was any difference. The Church taught eternal truths, science taught earthly truths, and any discrepancies would be ironed out in the fullness of time as scientists learned more and prophets revealed more. In the meantime, I accepted Church teachings as definitive. I am somewhat ashamed to say that if I ran across a fact that contradicted a cherished belief, I kept the belief and tossed the fact. After all, facts are always up for reanalysis, aren’t they? That I never did the reanalysis didn’t seem to bother me much, but at some point it began to.

This brings me to two:

It became clear to me that my beliefs were either not supported by fact, or contradicted the facts directly.

This required education into what constitutes good evidence and good arguments. I’d learned about fallacies long ago, but had given religion a pass. A renewed interest in the scientific method and an intense skepticism were instrumental.

Still, these two facets of deconversion were not enough to convince me to break free of religious doctrine. There was an emotional component.

I lost the fear of what might happen if the belief system were false.

Beliefs have consequences, as any believer will tell you. Just expressing a belief can get you into a community of faith — or out. All my life, I was taught that an eternity of blessings was waiting for me after my death, if only I could have faith in the meantime. But if that wasn’t so, I was wasting my short life. The stakes were huge. And so for a long time I avoided looking into the abyss. It was too painful and I had so much invested in my comforting faith.

The consequences would extend to my human relationships, as well. Would people at Church say, “Well, looks like old Brother Midgley couldn’t hack the program”? Though I’m strong enough to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous calumny, it still bothered me that some would take my deconversion as a sign of weakness. And would I be able to give up the network of religious support in favour of… nothing?

But with my knowledge of defense mechanisms defeating their own usefulness, and the cognitive dissonance growing, something had to give. That day in the chapel I said to myself, “I’ll be an atheist, then.”

Something clicked. I felt a rush of fear, holding on to nothing, ground gone. Then, amazingly, the universe failed to fall apart, and I kept on living. And I have kept doing so up to now. I gave up on faith, and got a knowledge of things as they are. Or as close as I can get.

In this million-part series, I’ll be exploring aspects of my own deconversion story along the three conditions above. I’ll be looking forward to your stories as well.

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