Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Road to My Deconversion

A memoir excerpt by Derone Pugh

The origin of my Atheism or deconversion, as I like to refer it, goes back to my formative years.

I was baptized at the tender age of six. This marked my indoctrination and allegiance to an organization and doctrine, that at the age of six I had neither the knowledge nor maturity to understand and decide if I wanted to be part of. However, I did not begin to see the light until a couple of years later.

I began my journey on the road of Atheism at about the age of nine in a church in which my grandfather was the Pastor. I can remember walking into the church and looking up and seeing a painting of what was supposed to be Jesus, which depicted a Caucasian male with long dirty blonde hair and blue eyes and a radiant glow around his head. I asked myself, how would we know how he looked?

The church in which this painting was housed was home to an African-American congregation, which in large part, was comprised of the poor and downtrodden of a Southern California African-American community. These congregants prayed fervently to their Jesus, danced and gyrated around the church, sweating and moaning with the occasional outburst of an “yes lord,” “Amen” and “thank you Jesus” while my grandmother banged away on an old slightly out of tune piano, my grandfather stood in the pulpit intensely beating and rattling a tambourine and I rocked out on the drums.

All of this occurred during what is called the devotional portion of the church service and it went on until it reached a climax or fever pitch. Now as I reflect on the emotional intensity of the congregants during the devotion, I realize that the devotion possessed what I think is the emotion that one would have for a lover. That is, the outpouring of emotion had, what I realized after my first sexual encounter, produced the type of loyalty and attachment that one would have for a lover. Please understand, I am not doubting the sincerity of the congregants or my grandfather, they all were certain that they were doing the work of the “Lord.”

After the devotion period, began the fleecing of the congregants, that is, the tithes and offering were taken up. My grandfather would open by saying something to the effect, “the Lord is good and has been good to us. It’s time now that we show our appreciation to the Lord by doing what he commands us to do, ten percent of our income is to go to the Lord.” I began to ponder, if God created the earth and the entire universe, what would such a powerful being need with some measly pieces of paper with pictures of dead presidents printed on them? It was always during the fleecing of the congregants that I began to wonder and doubt. For why would an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving being want to obtain the money that his poor and down trodden children so desperately needed to acquire the bare necessities to survive on this earth?

Another point of contention I had with the Christian doctrine at the age of six was the idea of the Trinity. I could not wrap my brain around the idea of there being three persons, beings, or “spirits” in one. I can remember sitting in the church pew during a sermon in which the preacher explain the concept of the Trinity. To say the least, his elucidation of the concept was inadequate. I attempted to mentally visualize the concept but could not. The preacher explained that God sent his son Jesus to the earth to be the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of humanity and he ascended into heaven three days after his death and took his rightful place on the right side of God. The Holy Spirit is God’s spirit and God is the head of the Trinity. But God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one. During his elucidation of this the preacher explained that God came down to the earth in the flesh to experience the trials and tribulations of humanity. This is difficult an adult to comprehend and even more difficult for a child to understand. This left me with three questions: 1.) If god is omniscient, why would he have to come to earth to understand the hardships and difficulties of humanity? 2.) When Jesus was on the cross dying, why did he say “my god why have thou forsaken me? Was he talking to himself, as god, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus are one? 3.) God being omnipotent, would it not be very easy for him just to forgive the sins of humanity? I left that sermon being more confused than I was before I heard it.

My reading and attempting to understand the Bible led to even more doubts and confusion. I asked myself many times during my childhood, why is God so confusing and mysterious? Why does he not reveal himself to the faithful? Why is Revelations the most gloomy and depressing portion of the Bible, but God loves all humanity? I never took any consolation in the Book of Revelations. In fact, I take even less consolation from the Bible as a whole being an African-American and reading that God supposedly cursed the darker nations of the world through the curse of Ham (son of Noah). This god is not as just as his worshipers boast. What is even more absurd is the reason why this god cursed Ham, for seeing his father (Noah) naked. Naked!!! Even at nine years old, I found the propositions in the Bible absurd and the people around me in church credulous. Nonetheless, I feigned belief through cognitive dissonance and for fear that I would be shunned by society and my family.

However, around age 15 I began rebelling and told my father that I did not want to go to church anymore which resulted in my being kicked out of my father’s house. And no, I was not the prodigal’s son; I did not return to my father’s house, I went to live with my mother. At that point, I rarely if ever attended church again.

At the age 18 I entered the Marine Corps and found many people which held faith an important part of their lives. However, of all the people in the world, I think it is the combat soldier that needs something to hold on to during perilous times. In any event, it was during my enlistment in the Marines that I began to seriously call into question the existence of a god. In August of 1990, my unit received orders to deploy to Monrovia, Liberia and do a partial evacuation of the United States Embassy and evacuate some American citizens and augment the security of the embassy. Liberia was in the midst of a civil war and to borrow a phrase from the great 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the people of Liberia were reduced to a “state of nature” in which every man was for himself. During that operation I witnessed some of the darkest immoral expressions of the human psyche come to fruition; and I wondered, if a God who is omnipotent, loving, and just exist, how could he allow people to perpetuate and live in such horrific conditions? I witnessed children starving, heard people being tortured and executed and many other immoral acts being committed all in a quest for power in which this God never once intervened. This experience shook me to such a degree that I left Africa with a very small measure of belief that a God exists than when I had arrived and even less confidence in humanity.

What solidified my deconversion or atheism was my study of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Southern California and meeting an unrepentant Atheist who I will refer to as JH. JH was a graduate biology student and was one of the nicest, most intelligent, and most well read people that I have ever met in my life. Through JH I met other Atheist who shared the same characteristics. One common thread that ran through all of them is that they did not have belief in a god yet they were some of the most moral people I have ever met. They cared about their fellow students, the environment and the poor. I enjoyed very much having my beliefs challenged and engaging in intellectual discussions. To say the least, the university environment was refreshing. It was after reading Hobbes, Hume, Socrates, Machiavelli and many other great philosophers that I realized that the internal struggle that I have had since childhood had been pondered over many times before by people who had the intestinal fortitude to challenge the common assumptions and authority of their day. Shortly thereafter, I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Suddenly, a new world was open to me. I became aware that it is reasonable not to believe and have doubts about things which there are no evidence for. That is, those things which people hold sacred became perfectly fine for me to question, doubt and disbelieve. After reading more philosophy and the works of Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris and learning how to think critically, I realized I was set free from the debilitating, controlling and irrational belief in a god. It is wrong for any human being to be controlled by fear, this in itself negates freedom.

One thing that I have become conscious of is the day that I admitted quietly in my mind that it is plausible that there is no omnipotent being who intervenes in human affairs, which was around December 2002, is the day I began to take charge of my own life and take responsibilities for my own actions. It is this realization that led me to go back to college which ultimately resulted in my attending the University of Southern California. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. Presently, I am working, my wife and I are raising five children as freethinkers, and I am applying to law schools. Indeed, I am certain that would never have reached this point in my life had I remained in the confines of religious darkness and depended upon a being that simply does not exist.

Nonetheless, the most heart wrenching tragedy of all is not my struggle with religion but my grandparent’s dependence on it. Like some religious people, I am almost certain my grandparents had some doubts. They have since past, and for the most part, lived their entire lives in fear, never reaching, I think, their full potential. They died in a state of poverty, just as poor and ignorant as the day they were born. My grandparents never realized the importance of educating their descendants and how important the acquisition of knowledge for each individual is for the well being and advancement of humanity. If they would have only looked at the world through a rational lens, I am certain, I would be the first to graduate from a University.

1 comment:

Candace said...

Loved the "I feigned belief through cognitive dissonance..." Heh - didn't we all! Also loved the "another soul lost to logic." Very witty!