This is a long installment of my ongoing series covering my journey before, during, and after my deconversion from Christianity. Since I think it is interesting how all the ambivalences, contradictions, anxieties, and displacements that I was experiencing parallel and inform each other, I am deciding to post it all as one episode in the series, rather than break each easily isolatable vignette into its own post. For the busy or the short attention spanned, I have made it easier to read in multiple sittings or to skim by breaking it into subsections according to themes.
November 1999-~February 2001:
When I first abandoned Christianity, in the fall of 1999, I was still in many ways an Evangelical Christian at heart and in habit. My ideas about the nature of reality were radically different, some of my value perceptions flipped almost over night, and I painfully felt deeply alienated from other Evangelical Christians; the people with whom I had most identified up until that point. The prospect of going ahead and trying to fit in with secular people, which in my mind included not only out-and-out atheists but merely nominal believers too, was daunting.
Sex and Love
I was particularly anxious about trying to date secular women. I had no real idea of what their values, expectations, or life experiences were like. Though I knew many, and had had a few deep friendships with very secular, even atheist, women, the whole logic of dating as a secular person was a mystery to me.
Sex was an acutely frustrating subject in particular. Here I had been saving myself for marriage up through my early twenties. How much more experienced were they going to be than me and how much was this going to hurt my prospects with them? How was I going to make up for lost time and catch up, so I could be an equal to them? How did the procession from meeting to dating to sexing even go? I just had no organic sense for that kind of thing.
I was coming out of some seriously mythic idealism, in which I was look for this utterly pure and, essentially, non-physical love with this almost literally perfect counterpart that God would magically provide me. And then we would have this pure foundation of virtue to build this perfect sexual love off of after we married.
So, like, what were secular women looking for? What was I looking for in them? What were their characteristic virtues? The primary quality I had always wanted a woman to have was a strong Christian faith. Now what was to be most important?
(More on where that led is here.)
And I had graduated from one of the ten driest campuses in the country and been one of the driest people there even during my senior year, when students were legally allowed to drink off campus at least and when some of my closest friends started taking to it. I was uncomfortable with it. What was I to make of a culture in which drinking was at the center of social life? At the end of my first day orienting to graduate school with my fellow incoming graduate students, an orienting professor asked the small group of philosophy students if we had any questions and the only question was where the bars were. I felt really uncomfortable.
Figuring out drinking and social life in general was a serious source of anxiety for the next few months. I just felt culturally behind and inexperienced in every way. I was a 22 year old feeling like an 11 year old around my fellow graduate students. Worse even–since an 11 year old who hung out with graduate students would wind up being a pretty advanced 11 year old, one seriously ready to turn 12!
Politically I was deeply ambivalent. I pretty instantly jettisoned the conservatives’ moralistic anti-poor worldview and became sympathetic to left wing causes.
I was in principle strongly and emotionally pro-gay–so much so that in 2001 a Christian close to me concluded I was likely gay myself and utterly baselessly started worrying I’d kill myself over it. This led to a panicked call from my brother who she told this to and who thought I was suicidal. Having not had a girlfriend in 6 years at the time this was really embarrassing and upsetting. I was such a loser with women that the most plausible explanation was that I was just in the closet? Even though this person knew I had had a girlfriend in high school and knew all about how I loved her? It hurt to have my series of emotionally crushing romantic failures in college compounded by having my sexual identity stripped from me on top of it.
But as outspokenly pro-gay as I was I had a serious and potentially damaging heteronormative, bi-erasing blindspot. In 2000, in the spring after I deconverted, I risked hurting a friend from back home who had expressed interest in both men and women–though only in retrospect would I realize that his only interest in women he conveyed to me involved a relationship built on gender play that complicated even that. He had told a woman online that he was a woman and was having cyber sex with her as a woman. As for men, he had had sexual encounters with other guys going back to high school. But since he was involved with this woman online (in a way I found totally bizarre and alienated and wrong), I decided, rather dogmatically, that if he could be attracted to women then he should just focus on pursuing them and practically insisted that he man up and ask out his platonic best friend, since he clearly had always worshiped the ground she walked on. He was really in love with her, I decided for him. He didn’t have to go along with these gay sexual desires, he could be straight, so why in the world wouldn’t he? That night I was relatively persuasive in the midst of who knows what kinds of confusions and pressures he was feeling, and we ended the night with him agreeing with me. And then, to my eternal regret, we never were in touch again. To this day, I have no idea whether he was gay, bi, and/or, even, in some way genderqueer. Or whether he has forgiven my obnoxiousness.
As I have become more cognizant not only of the extent of the problem of homophobia but of heteronormativity and of biphobia and bi erasure and transphobia, I have kicked myself only more and more. It also seriously disturbs and confuses me that this happened even after my regret over failing John, my closeted gay best friend in college, had played such a decisive role in my deconversion. It also baffles me that I had this absolutist attitude even as I had so recently read, and been so enthusiastically inspired by, Michel Foucault’s writings about the ability of gays to lead the way in a wider cultural realization about our impoverished imaginations about the variety of good relationships which are possible. I self-servingly took from Foucault a sort of theoretical framework that gave permission and justification for my own rapid change in values from principled sexual abstinence to principled sexual libertinism. But then erased the relevance of the very LGBT community that Foucault was articulating his critique of received strictures on relationships for in the first place. Prejudices are hard to root out.
With respect to abortion, I was reluctantly pro-choice as far as the law went but morally still strongly opposed to it. I wrote a paper on abortion for my Bioethics class at the end of the same semester that I had deconverted. In it, I came down morally against abortion and yet was influenced by Hauerwas and Pope John Paul II to conceive of the issue more as one of “creating a culture of life” than one of making abortion illegal. Partly it made me feel good to continue to in this basic value judgment, at least on a moral level, as it meant that I was not just overthrowing everything I thought in some mindless counter-reaction to everything I had previously believed. I had never opposed abortion morally merely on religious grounds anyway.
While I will not get into all the changes in my views on abortion since that time here (since this post is about then, and not about now, and it’s a huge subject) I should at least note that I have since then come to see the Catholic Church as much more ruthlessly and recklessly interested in stopping abortions at any cost to the rights, the well-being, and even the lives of women than about simply changing hearts and minds and valuing life that I have become pretty well put off to their disingenuous soft-sell “culture of life” language. (Update, I have now written a long post with many of my current considerations in favor of abortion.)
The 2000 Election
Intellectually, I rooted for Gore in 2000 though I was still in the strong habit of disliking him, and I had habitual sympathies for Republicans as a party that I was used to identifying with and feeling was misunderstood and maligned. As the campaigns were heading into the final stretch, I entered my first semester of graduate school and worked in an office twice a week, 9-5. As I did mindless paperwork in the mornings I listened to Dr. Laura, whose parenting advice I liked a lot, despite my strong disagreements with her on religion and gays. Then I would listen to Rush Limbaugh, who influenced me greatly when I was a teenager and whom I now (with some serious disillusionment) loathe. During this period, I wrestled with decidedly mixed feelings towards him and towards Sean Hannity, who followed him.
Yet at a department party I was convinced by James Marsh, an old Marxian professor in my department, to vote for Nader since a Gore victory was a foregone conclusion in New York and I liked what I read on his website the most. I rooted for Gore in the recount and then, so incredibly naïvely, I felt bad for Bush when he was declared the winner and everyone hated him. It really had not sunk in that he had, and would grasp, an incredible amount of power regardless of the unpopularity I perceived him to have (living in New York City).
After 9/11 my support for Bush spiked up in line with the 90% approval that Gallup reported. I was watching live and got chills when he told the rescue workers down at Ground Zero, in my traumatized city, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
After 9/11, I was seriously shocked and depressed. I just remember laying on the couch watching CBS 2 day and night and as I slept. It was the only channel we had reception for on our rabbit ears after the Towers went down. I remember some moods of rage and feeling a ton of guilt that I was not a soldier and thought myself not as fit to try to become one either.
Arabs and Other Muslims After 9/11
But I was careful not to become irrational amidst the emotional volatility of those days. At the time I was taking my one and only class I’d ever take with a hardcore Marxist (James Marsh, the same one who convinced me to vote for Nader). It was on “Justice, Difference, and the Other”, and even before 9/11 he had been railing about US abuses in the Middle East, against the children starving under our then decade’s worth of sanctions and airstrikes against Iraq, and even against the Gulf War itself. Previously I had never known anyone didn’t approve–at least in retrospect–of the Gulf War. In the two weeks before 9/11, I took him as someone with a curious obsession. Who still thought about Iraq this much? Why did it matter so much? These were times of overall peace; no?
Suddenly it was all relevant to everyone.
Because of both the influence of my Marxian professor (though I was not then and still am not today at all fond of full blown, ideological Marxism itself) and my relatively heavy submersion in postmodernism at the time, I was sensitized and savvy to the ways that the media was Othering and dehumanizing Muslims and was upset by it.
I remember a news magazine show presenting video footage of justifiably angry Arabs and wondering with a true colonialists’ anthropological condescension and a bewilderment that can only come from deep denial, “What is it that makes these people so angry?” Having just been so personally traumatized by violence in my own city, I was hardly going to pretend I didn’t understand the anger of people who live with so many ravages of post-colonial de facto imperialism. They weren’t some puzzling species of animal or under-developed, irrational people whose senseless furies were a cause for us calm, civilized, rational Westerners to marvel at, a bit unsettled and with scientific curiosity. Especially not as our own bloodlust and spirit of revenge was ramping up our quietly perpetual war machine for a decade of endless conflict.
And yet I also swallowed the explanation that “they hate us for our freedom” hook, line, and sinker. Such was my cognitive dissonance.
Faith and Violence
I honestly can’t remember to what extent I faulted faith as a contributing cause of what they did at the time. I certainly was upset when people would give purely materialistic explanations of the causes of terrorism and act as though beliefs were never at all substantively relevant to motivation. I had been a devout believer. I knew beliefs mattered to action and that they were not merely a proxy for economic frustrations that had no other frameworks or institutions for adequately articulating themselves. (Just one reason, along with its empirical failures and anti-scientific, faith-like, dogmatism, that I was never much sympathetic to hardcore Marxism.)
So, I was deeply suspicious of those who clearly didn’t understand (or didn’t want to understand or didn’t want to admit to understanding) that religious beliefs could actually be a primary and decisive sine qua non motivator in violence. In a way I also resented their implications that beliefs were not to be taken seriously in understanding why people did what they did since it was a dismissive denial of my whole experience.
I had lived quite conscientiously according to beliefs and was undergoing a personally excruciating time trying to sift out how to live when my beliefs had been destroyed and were now in flux. Conscious beliefs could orient a life. And not knowing what one believed could disrupt it too! And new beliefs could lead to what felt like wildly new courses of feeling and behaving, as I was experiencing. And those changes of beliefs could come despite no other explanatory changes in the non-cognitive situation of one’s life. They could come, believe it or not, due primarily to thinking!
So the idea that the terrorists were truly interested in something else and either using religious ideology as a rationalization to deceive either themselves or others was one I rejected with full feeling. Not that that settles the truth of the matter unambiguously, of course. But at the time, that part of understanding the issue was most vivid and determinative of my thinking about it.
But for all that I don’t remember this intensifying or creating any generalized antipathy towards faith itself or religion itself. I was already in a somewhat combative stance towards Christianity and I fully believed that religious motives explained 9/11 in significant part. But I don’t remember incorporating 9/11 into my critique of religion. Unlike many other New Atheists I wasn’t radicalized against religion by 9/11. In fact, when I went to baseball games that September and for the next couple years I sang “God Bless America” full-throatedly, as became a 9/11 related tradition. The words and overt religious sentiments were irrelevant to me. It was the expression of civic solidarity with everyone else assembled that mattered. I had not yet raised to consciousness of just how much using religious rituals and songs as the vehicle of deep communal civic expression was Othering to atheists, reinforced undue religious privilege, and undermined the Separation of Church and State. I had not yet come to my staunch position that clergy rightfully have no place at a 9/11 memorial or at any other any civic ceremonies.
Instead of developing an irrational hatred of Muslims or Arabs or Middle Easterners more generally, I regained an intense interest in baseball and, in retrospect, realize that I sublimated my feelings of helplessness, rage, and hatred from 9/11 into a seething (but utterly harmless) rage towards the Yankees.
Previously, I had never liked the Yankees, but I had never detested them. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the ’80s and early ’90s during their one truly fallow period since the 1920s. When I was a kid my Mets and Jays were world beaters. And I fortunately had stopped following baseball just before the Yankees got good again. In high school and college I lost track of baseball (for reasons that are an important life story unto its own, one I’ll tell another day). I saw the end of the 1996 World Series and while I didn’t like that the Yankees won, I felt happy for my Yankee fan friends, at least. Then in 2000, coming back to New York and living in the city for the first time just as the Mets and Yankees were heading for their first ever Subway Series World Series showdown, I had begun to dislike the Yankees more. And though I hardly watched the Series, I was mortified to watch the Yankees desecrate Shea Stadium by celebrating their Series win there.
But in late September 2011, having watched hardly any baseball for 9 years, I threw myself into rooting for my Mets the last week of the season after I kicked myself for missing Mike Piazza’s stirring game winning homerun in the Mets’ first game back after 9/11. I started following intently just in time for the Mets to have their routine collapse. And then I followed the baseball postseason with an emotional intensity as though the fate of the world depended on it.
To anyone who would listen, I railed against the Yankees’ ruthless capitalistic domination of the whole sport of baseball through money. I went on a huge emotional rollercoaster through the World Series as the Yankees had two unbelievable come from behind wins on back to back nights, both nights having been down to their last strike when a two run homerun tied the game, and both nights involving an extra innings walk off win. Then I was blown away when the Diamondbacks came from behind themselves just as it looked like all was lost, against the most indomitable and godlike closer in baseball history, at the end of Game 7 to stop the Yankees from wining a fourth straight World Series and their fifth in six years.
I honestly probably hadn’t felt that ecstatic about anything since I had last been in a highly charged worship service. A new obsession was born. Or, I should say, a renewed obsession was born.
A week and a half after 9/11 I not only became consumed with baseball but I also fell in love for the first time since leaving the faith. But that’s a story for another post.
And by the next summer, I completely distrusted the Bush administration’s push for war in Iraq, and over the next 6 years I grew to loathe George W. Bush as much as any human being on the planet. And I came to be appalled by the Republicans and lose nearly all my residual sympathies for them. But I probably don’t have to explain that story to most of my readers. But I probably also will anyway.
Before becoming an atheist I was a devout Evangelical Christian. I am slowly telling the story of my former life as a believer, how I came to deconvert and become an atheist, what it all meant, and where I went from there personally and intellectually. Below are links to all the pieces I have written so far. While they all contribute to an overall narrative, each installment is self-contained and can valuably be read on its own without the others. So feel free to read starting anywhere, according to your interest.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: