Frank Bailey’s Deconversion Story
Frank is a VIP Blogger for our site. This is his story…
Origin Of One Atheist
By Frank C. Bailey
Encouraging contributors to tell the story of how they became atheists is a thing this site does and it makes sense that I should contribute my own story. Just about all the parts of this article have been touched on at one time or another in my facebook notes sometime in the past three years since I became an atheist. That happened in November of 2007, so it’s been just a touch over three years exactly now. When I was a child, I was the furthest thing from an atheist, in the sense that I didn’t think about religion too much and knew next to nothing about The Bible. Then I got to college, got exposed to a more fundamentalist Christianity, and started to become something like an atheist’s opposite number, with even my own conversions to boast about. Starting with accusations of a friend becoming hellbound owing to a conversion to the Episcopal denomination, the first in a six-year drumbeat of damage to my faith that finally culminated in betrayal and hatred directed against me by the faithful in response to me giving the whole notion of God one last chance. As an atheist, I am a composite of my experiences, the authors I’ve read, and what perspective they’ve given me.
My spiritual path as a child was by no means a forgone conclusion. Traditionally, my mother’s side of the family had been Southern Baptist, my father’s had been Lutheran, my stepmother’s was unknown beyond certain Native American spiritual tendencies, and my stepfather was an atheist. As my mother had sole custody of me, and was the foremost parental figure amongst these in any event, she was responsible for whatever spiritual path I would walk. Having had few fond memories and even less love of her strict Southern Baptist upbringing (She had once given the minister a shiner while he tried to baptize her immersion-style without explaining what he was doing.), my mother decided to part company with the rest of the family, a brave and difficult move considering the rancor it inspired from her dominant older sister. As it happened though, she was not alone in her dissatisfaction, as her own first cousin had similar misgivings and had joined the local Methodist church. The competition, as it were, was not impressive. A single attendance of my father’s Mountain Home Lutheran church was like entering some macabre Victorian mansion with a penchant for stained glass and Christ iconography. After a terrifying Sunday school experience involving a puppet show featuring a Jewish puppet encouraged to repent throughout, but who, alas, kept true to embattled tribe and paid for it damnation in hell depicted in all its auditory and visual sadistic glory, I was further treated to talk of hell and damnation from the balcony of the cavernous sanctuary the likes of which I had never had a nightmare of comparable degree. Quite sensibly, my father never took me back, or even went back himself, although he did not lose his faith. As for the Southern Baptist church, it never seemed able to muster the energy to much of any character, outside of its opinions on hell, and thus lacked even a glimmer of appeal. Hell and I have always had a rocky relationship.
Keep in mind that the hellfire stuff was from other churches. Contrary to everything I now say about religion, I have to freely confess that the Methodists were good to me when I was a child. More than good, in fact, as the kids who would ignore me or worse under any other circumstances were reasonable to me there. During Methodist youth meetings or events, I was not picked on by anyone the way I was otherwise and we had some truly great teachers and leaders during that time. There is a woman named Linda of whom I still occasionally think and for whom I hold great affection. As I wax nostalgic and fondly of my days as a young Methodist, I should stress to make clear I’m not missing Jesus or God and I would argue that, to the extent the church I was brought up in was an accepting and positive place for me, it was to that extent a bad Christian church. Proper Christianity emphasizes vacarious redemption, enslavement to Yahweh, atonement, people as sheep, personal sacrifice during the season of Lent, etc., whereas the church of my childhood emphasized kindness, equality, fair-mindedness, community involvement, a spirit of adventure, a generosity of spirit, and that kind of thing. We never got to the bad parts of The Bible, because we simply ignored them, including most of the Old Testament and the entire Book of Revelations, with our teachers even saying things like, “Oh that’s unpleasant, let’s skip that.” Sunday school was a thing that I could largely run the table of by my mid teens, filling it with discussions of cinema, popular culture, and playing of the Kevin Bacon game. This diluted dose of Christianity was to inoculate me against atheism for quite a while, actually. A harder line would’ve probably had me rejecting faith due to facing serious questions about it sooner.
Naturally, I left the Methodist church of my upbringing when I went off to college, although for my first year there, I always returned to it whenever I came home. My loyalty and interest was so tied up with that particular church and the particular community within it that I saw no point in simply going to find another church where I was moving. Serious Christians were certainly encountered my freshman year of college, and some interesting debates were had, but nothing like my undivided attention was in play. That all changed when my social group started to disintegrate due to some stupid drama that seemed anything but at the time. Unsure I’d be able to make friends again after the first I’d ever made abandoned me, I was looking for somewhere to turn and a young Christian woman named Sarah gave me that place. She hooked me up with a much more lively Baptist church where an energetic, and charismatic, style of Christianity was practiced. Simultaneously, I was introduced to the interdenominational Christian group Logos on campus, which was really a subsidiary of an Assemblies Of God group with a very specific take on faith and the Christian religion. Meetings were pleasant enough, always featuring snacks and friendly people in good spirits. These were the heights of faithful days for me, but I always did feel sorry singing the praise and worship songs with their silly lyrics and insipid melodies. Of particular objection was the gentle back and forth twisting one must undergo with raised hands for most songs, whereas more interactive songs resembled nothing so much as the evangelical Hokey Pokey. Sarah was also one of four unlucky women I fell in love with during college (None of these unfortunate souls reciprocated, quite rightly.), which I only mention because it’s probably a sizable portion of the reason why I became all theologically fired up. Once again, I was making foolish decisions to try and impress a girl.
Sarah came and went and I fell in love with a nonreligious girl named Katie, but was undaunted in my faith. A disastrous study abroad experience in Tours, France had resulted in me missing my grandfather’s funeral, health problems, and the loss of 5,000.00 dollars, so Logos’ summer program began seeing a lot of me and they were a big help. Junior year began with the same theological enthusiasm I’d had before, but my friend Kirk had been experiencing some theological change of his own. He’d left the Baptist church of his upbringing and become an Episcopalian. A confrontation between him and the leaders of Logos over this fact took place and he told me about it later. Apparently, the Logos leadership of that time believed that any Christian denomination too close to Catholicism did not count as genuine Christianity. Not only was the Episcopal Church, as essentially Americanized Anglican, just one step of separation removed from the Catholic Church, but also the founding of it in Henry VIII’s lust for divorce invalidated it and any of its descendents from being legitimate forms of Protestantism. You may have guessed that Methodists are actually a spinoff of Episcopalians, and so I had double the reasons to be offended, both for my friend and for the beloved church of my upbringing. Anyway, the bottom line was that Kirk and I, along with all Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, Methodists, and, oddly enough, Lutherans, were hellbound. With that, the first hammer blow had been struck against the armor of my faith, giving that armor its first chink.
What followed was a lot of contemplation regarding the subject of hell. When one really believes in this stuff and demons and angels and all that kind of thing, hell isn’t a laughing matter. While I never really was afraid that I personally was going to hell, the idea that people could go to hell for merely picking the wrong religion, despite however morally they may or may not have chosen to behave, bugged me and I couldn’t shake it. Some of my friends helpfully suggested to me the concept of universalism, which is the idea that the true doctrine of Christ is that his sacrifice means everyone is going to heaven regardless of what they do, because otherwise his redemption would be imperfect and he does not do imperfect things. That made some sense to me.
Having some recent loyalty to evangelical Christianity, I tried to stay in it despite what happened with Logos, but then some of my friends decided to take me to a S.A.L.T. convention in Oklahoma. I don’t know what S.A.L.T. stands for, but it’s basically a huge convention of evangelicals from a few surrounding states and it turns out that it functions primarily as an especially obnoxious fundamentalist telethon. Keep in mind please that I was not told anything of where I was going or what was going to happen. Instead, I was persuaded to get in a car for a random road trip of sorts and found myself in a hotel somewhere in Oklahoma about to experience this thing. Being that it’s a fundraiser and I hadn’t brought any money, things got uncomfortable very fast. Essentially, the whole thing was Christian musical performances with sermons sandwiched in between them, unfailingly asking for money each time. At least, that’s what the first 20 minutes were like, because I couldn’t stomach any more than that and had to be told afterwards what the other six hours were about. So it was that I was stuck in a hotel lobby in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma with the only entertainment I had with me being my iPod. Keep in mind that we are talking 2001, so it really did just play music and that was it. Fortunately, I had a few George Carlin albums on there, so I made it through. As it happened, there were a pair of children in the lobby with me who looked bored. Inquiry revealed they were the children of the hotel owner and had to stay out in the lobby and out of trouble while their father saw to it that the events went off without a hitch. Sympathy overtook me, and I let them each listen to Carlin’s rants about religion with an earbud each. Such subversive activity probably was my earliest act of defiance against theists and a harbinger of things to come.
The above took place in late 2001 and nothing much theologically interesting happened in my life again until roughly summer of 2004. During the intervening years, I’d been attending a Methodist church in Springfield that seemed nice enough, but I was always an outsider in it. I guess I wanted to replace that friendly environment where everyone had known my family since my great grandfather’s day and there was that warm sense of community. No church has ever been like that since. They’re just places to go to talk about The Bible and Jesus. There was also a Methodist student group called The Wesley House I went to during this time, and they were…forgettable and not worth going into. My grasp of scripture was tightening up a bit during this time, and I had become an annihilationist, that is a person who believes God will merely destroy the souls of the unworthy rather than torture them forever in hell, instead of a universalist, being that there is an easier scriptural case to make for that position. On its way to my life was the beginning of very trying times that would force me to ask some very unpleasant questions and ultimately arrive at atheism in the answers.
From summer of 2004 to November of 2007, it rained misery upon me. I was quite willing to apologize to whatever God there was for what I’d said or done to deserve what took place. It all started with a high school reunion, for which I volunteered to be one of the people who tried to track people down. One person I found through an old e-mail I’d gotten from them three years ago turned out to be a woman in some trouble. She was at the end of an abusive marriage after enduring an abusive family life and needed a new start, so I bought her a bus ticket and let her live with me. After beginning a romantic relationship with me (Seducing me), taking me for every dime I earned that summer at the bank I worked at, cheating on me with two male friends of mine, and ultimately leaving me for one of them, she’d rocked my world pretty hard. In my trauma, I fired off an e-mail to a girl I’d always had a crush on telling her I loved her, and then got a phone call from her father telling me to never contact her or anyone in her family again. Heck of a no. From there it seemed my prayers had been answered as God provided me with a girlfriend. Granted, I had to steal her from one of the guys the previous girl had cheated on me with, but other than that it was cake.
Her name was Marie and she did most of the work when it came to losing my faith. The story of this relationship, which became a failed engagement, is a rather long one but I’ll boil it down to its basic parts. She was abusive to me in a way that was to a large extent psychological and to a lesser extent physical, but the psychological stuff was far far worse. The worst thing she did, and the relevant thing she did, was demonstrate to me just how difficult it was for me to give a woman an orgasm (I failed to ever do this with her or anyone else to this day), how utterly impossible it was to tell whether or not one had done this, and how this intense uncertainty and insecurity regarding sexual play would destroy forever my ability to enjoy it. Atheism began to creep into my mind, which it had fleetingly in the past perhaps, but I could never quite shake it this time. Though I might’ve been emotional, and I certainly didn’t know how to articulate it this way at the time, the rationale went something like this. Though I have been denied much in life because of the social limitations of my Asperger’s, the onset of diabetes at 21, and my distaste for nature and the outdoors, I had held sacred and kept a hope for romantic love and the possibility of its redemptive power and consolation. However, if I was to be denied this because of my design, because of the design of human beings, well, the argument from design actually might prove God, or at least one worth worshipping, doesn’t exist. I should note that during this time, this idea was coinciding with roughly a year of going to a reform Jewish temple, as was Marie’s want. These people were the most reasonable form of religion I had yet encountered, and didn’t even have a hell. That positive experience allowed religion to hang on by its fingernails for a little while longer.
Marie broke up with me over AIM on September 11, 2006, and no I’m not kidding about the date. To say the least, I was burned out by then. Though I sporadically went back to my Springfield Methodist church, I was mainly spiritually adrift. She began dating a man in my social circle, ensuring I would have to keep seeing her all the time, which was unhealthy to say the least, and this eventually meant I moved to Arkansas, not least in part to get away from her. There, I began attending my mother’s Methodist church, first in December of 2006 whenever I was in town on Sunday, which was increasingly frequent and finally permanent April 15, 2007. Remember that we’re counting down to November of 2007, so that’s eight months of regular attendance. Not just regular either, as I was involved in two Bible study groups that essentially meant I went to church three times a week. This time, I was going throw myself into it wholeheartedly, and read books on my faith to make sure I understood it better. Then I picked up a book called The Sins Of Scripture by a man named John Shelby Sprong, which was very critical of certain parts of The Bible and a model of theologically liberal polemic. Due to my reading of this book, I always served as the devil’s advocate in class, full of questions and challenges. It might be described as the old notion of tearing down your faith every day to make sure it can still stand being reconstructed all over again. Before this process could reach whatever terminus might’ve come along for it, I began dating a woman in the class. Things went along well until she broke up with me a week into it. Normally that would’ve been fine, but she told she that she had done so at the insistence of the rest of the class, due to their dislike of my theologically liberal mindset and me. Having been knifed in the back rather venomously by my theological peers, I knew it was over, even as I halfheartedly looked for other Methodist churches. Upon doing some research on atheism on the Internet, I found out about this book called The God Delusion and the rest is history.
Well, not quite. I have read Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett in the past three years, and in that order, and I’ve found value in them all. Dawkins is the most valuable to me, but he’s not my favorite, and I do get something distinctly valuable from all of them. From Hitchens, my favorite, I get a sense of outrage at the tyranny and enslavement of the mind and body religion represents. Harris provides more intellectual meat than any of them and his careful considered deconstruction of religion demonstrates how it cannot justify itself on the most basic of levels. Dennett provides philosophical perspective and, unlike any of his contemporaries, manages to never lose his patience or perspective as he goes about his skeptical work. What Dawkins provides is the answer to the question that really made me an atheist to begin with. If there is a God, then, examining my lonely crippled life, seemingly so useless to myself and others in any ways that might provide real comfort to me, then what am I do but to hate with only the greatest of inconsolable rage. The Greatest Show On Earth actually did more for me than The God Delusion. It taught me to see all the unfairness and pain of evolution and how none of the Earth’s creatures are really exempt. All manner of creatures have felt what I feel because sometimes that happens in the evolutionary process. Life, quite simply, isn’t about me or any other individual animal. Nature doesn’t care if I can please a woman sexually, just that I impregnate her. That’s how it is, if not necessarily how it ought to be. I don’t understand the world I live in, but I know it’s vast, beautiful, and queerer than I can suppose, so, within the limits of what, given my diabetes, is likely brief time on this Earth I have, I have to make my own meaning within my own limited understanding. As I write this, months of my effort, money, and time have reunited a mother with her child. Already, I am greater than the God who is supposed to have created me, and knowing this I accept my place in the cosmic scheme of things, finding no small measure of peace in the process.