Sunday, November 9, 2008

a peek into my struggles

by writerdd

For the past year, I have been trying to write a book about my de-conversion from Christian to atheist. Actually, it’s something I’ve been working on for four or five years. Last year (2007), I wrote about 30,000 words, stories about my life. This year, I tried to put them together into a book. So far, it’s not working. It’s hard to take 46 years and condense it into something that can be read aloud in six or seven hours. It’s even harder to focus your memories in a way that makes a story that is true and is still interesting to other people. I don’t know why I can’t write this book, actually. When I have written short bits of it and post them on the Skepchick blog, many readers have found them interesting. But when I try to put it together into a book, to create a longer narrative, it all falls apart and turns into a boring pile of shit. (Maybe, I can’t help thinking that my mother is thinking, maybe God is trying to tell you something. Don’t hold your breath, mom.)

So, what is this book I’m trying to write? It is, at least in part, the story of going against the crowd. While America was experiencing a religious revival, fundamentalists were becoming more vocal and prevalent the news, and conservative Christians were filtering up the ranks of government and into the White House, I was losing my faith, quitting church, and voting for Democrats. I’ve never followed trends or been popular, but in the last two decades of my life, I have found myself consistently moving in the opposite direction of society. Everything I have done has been diametrically opposed to cultural trends. While America was becoming conservative, I was becoming liberal. While  mega-churches were growing exponentially, I was sleeping in or going to the movies on Sunday mornings. While Christian books were becoming national best sellers, I was reading and writing about atheism.

It’s not that I’ve been traveling completely on my own. I started writing my book in the wake of 9/11 and under the influence of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Like some readers here, I have felt afraid of and intimidated by fundamentalists. I felt the need to fight against religion and to stop it from encroaching on secular society, the society that I’ve chosen to live in. I felt threatened by the people I used to love, and disgusted by the same religion I used to embrace.

I haven’t even finished a first draft, and I find myself in a completely different frame of mind. Being pissed off all the time is hard, and when I look back into my own past, I don’t see the strident, belligerent, bigoted Christians that I see on the evening news. What happened to the Christians that I used to know? What happened to the churches that I used to enjoy attending? Was it really me that changed, or was it American Christianity? Maybe we grew apart, like lovers who married too young and found, after just a few years, that they no longer had anything in common. At least we didn’t have any children, I can tell myself. Does this make divorce any less painful? 

Now I just find myself feeling confused. I don’t believe in God any more, and I have no desire to go back into a life of faith, but I don’t want to be angry all the time and I don’t want to have my happy memories tainted by more recent stories of religious abuses. I don’t want to demonize good people who are sincerely trying to improve themselves and the world, but I also don’t want to let religious zealots and bigots force me, or anyone else, to follow their antiquated Biblical sense of morality by taking over control of our legislature and courts. I don’t want to ignore the real dangers of religion gone wild, and pretend that the ugliness is not happening because my personal memories are happy.

I constantly have to fight the black-and-white mentality that I adhered to as a fundamentalist. Being an ex-fundamentalist is being like a recovering-alcoholic. You’re never quite free of that past, never able to relax and have just one beer, just one thought. You have to be on guard all the time. In my flight away from fundamentalist Christianity, I found myself with the tendency to fall into a kind of fundamentalist atheism. At first I denied the possibility of the existence of such a thing. Atheists have no holy book, no deity, no sacred creeds, nothing to take literally or to be fundamentalist about. And yet, many atheists and skeptics latch onto the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking that fundamentalists employ. They believe that literalist readings of holy texts and fundamentalist interpretations of religions are more valid than metaphorical readings and liberal interpretations. They see the world as an us-versus-them situation, where you must choose to be on the side of good or the side of evil. The only difference being which side each group considers good.

I don’t want to be a white-and-black atheist fundamentalist any more than I want to be a black-and-white Christian fundamentalist. Like Lokai and Bele, the two-colored men on an old episode of Star Trek who looked identical to the crew of the Enterprise, but who hated each other with a vengeance because one was white on the right side of his body and the other was white on the left, Christian and atheist fundamentalists are nothing more than mirror images of each other, more alike than they are different. Although I still agree that on some level the idea of atheist fundamentalism is an oxymoron, I am beginning to understand how some people can use the term without irony. Can both things simultaneously be true?

To none of my questions can I find satisfactory answers. "I don’t know" goes through my mind more than any other conclusion. It frustrates me, but perhaps ignorance, the admission of ignorance, is the cure to the fundamentalism that has plagued me for so many years.

It’s hard to write a book when you don’t know what you think about a subject. It’s even harder when the book is about your own life and you have no idea where you are going to end up. Sometimes I am afraid my forays into my past will allow the sirens of Christianity to call to me again, that I will once again be sucked into a world of wishful thinking and blind faith. Sometimes I am afraid that I will lose my way and forget who I am and what I’ve been through. I do remember where I came from and a few stops along the way, but the biggest changes in my life happened on days that are forever lost to my memory. So how I can I even begin to tell this story? And why am I obsessed with telling it anyway?

I find myself thinking that maybe it’s too late to write this book. The small wavelet of atheist popularity is over. Once again, I’ve missed my chance to travel with the crowd. Readers are bored with polemics against religion. When George W. Bush leaves the White House, no one will care about religion seeping into politics any more. When the Democrats are back in power, the Religious Right won’t be in the news any more. But I can’t stop thinking about my life and how it has played out against the backdrop of American society. On the other hand, I don’t give a crap about the larger society or any universal messages that might be contained in my story. It is my personal journey and it doesn’t need to be anything need to be anything bigger to be important or meaningful. 

Sometimes I think I need to start the book completely from scratch, but how can I possibly throw away all the words I’ve already written? I need to write, perhaps not a memoir about the past, but two intertwined stories: the story of my previous journey into and out of Christianity, and the story of my explorations of atheism and skepticism over the last few years. To me, the worlds of skepticism and atheism seem just as empty and shallow as the world of Christianity. I don’t find solace in groups or comfort in community. I have to make my own meaning, and create my own purpose in life. As much as I would like to fit in, I don’t. So where does that leave me? Where will that lead me? I have no idea. And if I don’t know where I’m going, how can I write about where I’ve been?


Justin said...

First, you made a cool Star Trek reference so I love you dearly.

"I constantly have to fight the black-and-white mentality that I adhered to as a fundamentalist. Being an ex-fundamentalist is being like a recovering-alcoholic."

I feel you, sister. This is my constant struggle. Daily. And I also think of it as exactly what you called it: recovery.

I don't know if I'll ever really be able to see the world as a rainbow of gradient perspectives and opinions, but I'm trying. It's good to read that you're struggling with the same things.

The recovery paradigm, btw, is the thread I used to bring together the stuff for the play I wrote (took five years, so I'm feelin' you there, too) about leaving church behind. Writing well takes time. You'll get there. And I'll want to read it.

Hugs, kiddo.


Saganist said...

Sometimes I am afraid my forays into my past will allow the sirens of Christianity to call to me again, that I will once again be sucked into a world of wishful thinking and blind faith. Sometimes I am afraid that I will lose my way and forget who I am and what I’ve been through.

I totally feel what you're saying in this post. My religious history is long and complicated, and in fact I experienced the very thing you mention fearing in the above quote.

In college, I was a fundamentalist Christian turned agnostic, and one of the issues I felt strongly about was bigotry against homosexuals. I had a close gay friend, and I remember thinking something like, "I hope I never forget that all people need to be treated with equal dignity and respect." A couple years later, I joined the Mormon church. And as we all know by now, the Mormon church does not treat homosexuals with anything close to equal dignity and respect. And while I never fully forgot my compassion and empathy for homosexuals, I abandoned it in favor of faith.

I'm still trying to figure out what exactly led me to do that, as it was a complicated time in my life. Now that I've come to my senses again, I am very aware of my tendency to seek out certainty, sometimes at a terrible price. You're right, it's a recovery process. I have to work every day to avoid slipping back into black-and-white, fundamentalist ways of thinking, even if my beliefs are now basically the opposite of what they once were. It's tough.

I think your story is worth telling. I sometimes wonder if I've missed the curve too, being a latecomer to the party myself. But all you can really do is be yourself, and tell your own story. I hope you find value in it for yourself, and I think others will too.

carbon said...

"[Fundamentlist Atheists] believe that literalist readings of holy texts and fundamentalist interpretations of religions are more valid than metaphorical readings and liberal interpretations."

I might be what one would call a "fundamentalist atheist", in that I don't think there's any upside to religion... but, I don't feel that literalist interpretations of religious texts are any more (or less) valid than metaphorical interpretations, because I don't buy into either.

I have a hard time imagining a situation where any atheist would have that preference, actually. Were you thinking of any particular people or examples as you wrote that part?

writerdd said...

justin and saganist, thanks. it's just nice to know I'm not alone on this journey sometimes!

carbon, the notes about how many atheists and skeptics seem to think that fundamentalism is the most valid form of religion come from reading atheist blogs and the comments on skepchick for the past several years, although I can't link to anything specific. This is something that I've seen over and over again.

Melissa LaFavers said...

When three different states have just passed bans on gay marriage, when religion is still being used to deprive others of their rights, when we've still got "under god" as part of our pledge of allegiance, and when we've still got "in god we trust" on our money, and when we still have certain legislative bodies praying to god before their lawmaking sessions...

...we need atheists to stand up and tell their stories.

I do understand the writing struggle. Writing is hard, and a great many of your feelings and thoughts on the writing about your de-conversion echo my own.

If you need someone to encourage you, ever, please don't hesitate to drop me an email. I am pretty sure you have the email address.

But please don't let your discouragement keep you from saying what you need to say, what the rest of the world needs to hear. If you inspire even one person to think differently, it's worth it. That's what I think.

Thank you for your post.

cognitive dissident said...

I wouldn't say that it's "too late to write this book" in any sense. There's always room for another good godless book--especially a well-written one! While the initial dramatic wave of atheist books may have crested, there level continues to rise after the novelty has worn off...the "new atheists" of the years to come may very well be de-converts like yourself.

Your story of a "going against the crowd" struggle may be a very inspirational one to many people who feel similarly but perhaps aren't as introspective or articulate.

Best of luck!

writerdd said...

Oh, I'm going to finish the book and see it published. I just have these down swings every now and again. :-) Thanks for the support!

Anonymous said...

I think a book about exploration as opposed to an "I know it all" would be absolutely refreshing.
Good luck!