From the Mailbag: Deconversion Saturday

It’s not every day that I get awesome letters like the one I posted last Saturday, but this makes two weeks in a row now. If this keeps up, I may have to make it a regular feature!

This letter is from a commenter who’s posted here in the past as 5acos(phi/2). Although it’s from a country I don’t have first-hand experience of, it has a lot in common with the kind of letters I get more frequently, just with a different set of culturally dominant religious beliefs in place of Christianity. It just goes to show that religion causes the same kinds of harm wherever and whenever it becomes the dominant political power in society, and that every society has a need for secularism. Thankfully, it also shows that every society has skeptics and freethinkers to hold the torch of reason up high!

Hello Adam,

I noticed your latest mailbag post and felt compelled to finally write you a thank you note and share my story, after I have been lurking on your site for so long. Unlike other great personal stories that have been posted on your blog, I think mine is in no way emotionally moving, but I suspect that you might find it a bit unusual considering the context of your site.

I come from Thailand, where the majority of the population identify as (Theravada) Buddhists, and so did I. So by definition, I have never been a theist, nor did I know what it is like to live in a theist-dominated country. And although everyone in my family is a Buddhist in name, we lead a mostly secular lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was not a skeptic – I accepted things that were taught to me without much questioning, and though I questioned and rejected some fantastical claims, I still occasionally fell prey to some of the benign ones.

Before coming across your site, I have already rejected or treated as allegory most of the absurd claims that are rampant in my society, such as reincarnation, karma, the Hindu gods that Thai people still worship, etc. But I did not take the next step to declare myself nonreligious, nor did I feel the need to do so. Being used to a secular life, religion simply was not a big issue to me. I still went along and participated in Buddhist ceremonies and prayers when it would seem rude not to.

Then one boring day at work, I stumbled upon your “Carrot & Stick” essay after clicking through a few links on morality without religion. I found your argument extremely compelling, and by the end of the essay I had crossed over the fence to nonreligion. I then continued reading further into both of your sites, and then I perused the links to discover other atheists’ and skeptics’ sites, as well as ScienceBlogs (long before “PepsiGate”), and have diligently followed them until today. I have learned how to truly think critically. I have learned what the scientific method really is when school have failed to make that point clear to me. It was perhaps only a chain of coincidences, but you were my gateway to science and skepticism.

Thanks to you, the other bloggers, and the Internet, I have come to realize that there are so much brilliance in the world, but also so much insanity. I read about the religiously-driven conflicts in the US with amused curiosity like I would observe an alien life form, but it was not long before some parallels are drawn. I realized that my country is also full of craziness, from the mostly harmless astrology to the Dhammakaya Movement, our Buddhism-flavored counterpart of the Church of Scientology, but the most fearsome and influential of all are the ultra-loyalists. They are, in many aspects, the Thai equivalent of the American religious right. Politically powerful and active, they may not oppose science, but they do try to support absurd political agenda and silence dissenting opinions, and at least for a while they infected most of our brainwashed middle class, including myself. I also have to thank someone else for deprogramming me, but it was no less helpful to read about similar conflicts from abroad, which I could objectively evaluate and compare.

Thanks to you, I am now a skeptic, and I will try to spread rationality into my part of the world.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • gamba

    Hmm! How reasuring this is for new atheists like me.

    Ebon is tha bomb!

  • TommyP

    Stories like this make me so happy! It’s always good to see people being helped. It’s hard for me to pin down the biggest influences for myself on my journey to atheism and skepticism, but I have to thank every person who wrote or shared their experiences with me along the way.

  • Rajesh Kher

    Well this seems to me a hoax or prank or from some one who does not even understand his traditions
    1. Thervada means “Teaching of Analysis.” This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant’s experience, critical investigation and reasoning instead of by blind faith”. Logically he should be skeptic to start with.

    2. While Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism or more precisely from India or Sanskrit tradition it expressly denies all the Gods.

    3. It refutes creationism.

    4. While it accepts that teaching of a teacher is important the person must use his own experience and critical investigation to evaluate the ideas.

    So now he can use any6 source to determine his current values.

  • 5acos(phi/2)

    @gamba & TommyP: I’m glad you like it, and I second TommyP that it’s hard to pin down the biggest influences, since it’s usually a long process of taking apart one’s worldview and building it up again. This site is among those I could identify though.

    @Rajesh:

    Well this seems to me a hoax or prank or from some one who does not even understand his traditions

    Pardon my ignorance, but I can assure you that it’s not a prank, though I admit that unlike many people here, I have not comprehensively studied my former religion. I only wrote from my experience, which was shaped by the selected bits I was taught and my later attempts to rationalize the contradictions.

    Thailand claims to follow Theravada Buddhism in name, but in practice, we are a hodgepodge of beliefs and cultures – some Buddhist beliefs, some traditional values, an implanted loyalty to the king, some doses of oriental gods, a little New Age influence, some imported pseudoscience, etc.

    1. Thervada means “Teaching of Analysis.” This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant’s experience, critical investigation and reasoning instead of by blind faith”. Logically he should be skeptic to start with.

    In the version of Buddhism I was taught, there are indeed teachings which promote critical thinking, including one line which advises skepticism towards Buddhism itself, but I also grew up in a culture which heavily discourages anyone from questioning authorities. I was also not taught the exact tools of critical thinking, but was only instructed to recite the vague guidelines from Buddhism and to accept them on authority (oh, the irony). It was fortunate for me that skepticism eventually won out, but the results of these influences on other people vary. The majority seem to prefer not thinking too much and just getting along with everyone else.

    2. While Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism or more precisely from India or Sanskrit tradition it expressly denies all the Gods.

    Buddhism does deny all gods, but despite many Thai Buddhists emphasizing this point, a lot of Thais still worship Hindu gods or Chinese gods. I’m not sure if anyone worship both at once, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if they do.

    3. It refutes creationism.

    Yes, and thankfully, our governments have had nothing against scientific knowledge, though they seem to have something against allocating budgets to education.

    4. While it accepts that teaching of a teacher is important the person must use his own experience and critical investigation to evaluate the ideas.

    Exactly.

    The problem for me wasn’t that the Buddhist teachings were outright nonsensical. Many of them make sense, they are often practical, and I think they still have some positive influence on me, but the problem was how I was made to accept them – on authority. It’s not too bad to teach students to accept something on authority when it happens to be correct, but that still leaves them susceptible to other false claims from any sufficiently promoted authority.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    Adam, your blog certainly has had a big effect on me as well. The way you explain your stances and write really makes me think.

    @5acos(phi/2): I can relate to your experience of finding differences between the religion you were taught and the religion as it is hypothetically described. Hope you’re doing well and all the best!

  • Valhar2000

    Rajesh Kher wrote:

    from some one who does not even understand his traditions

    Which, as we all know, is extremely rare.

  • Rajesh Kher

    @gamba: Sorry for a bit of strong statement. While I agree that any good writing can trigger the train of thoughts it is essential that you also come to terms with both your actual philosophical traditions and its practice specially in a historical context.

    This will also strengthen your arguments against traditionalist.
    Great to know that you are awakened but to be truly effective you will have to come to terms with your traditions. Wishing you well and huge success in your endeavor.

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    Sacos, thanks for sharing. Its great to hear your history in a culture and religion that is foreign to my own (being a former Christian in the US).


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