It is very exciting to me that Camels With Hammers has survived and thrived for four full years as of today. I am incredibly grateful to all of you who have made this possible by reading, commenting, and sharing this blog. There are just no two ways about it, without readers, I wouldn’t have kept doing this. I especially appreciate all those who have been reading and participating since the days before Freethought Blogs and Patheos. When there were so many less people coming through every single one of you was that much more vital to encouraging me to keep going. When you were the only person to comment on a post, your validation and participation could mean feeling like a success or a failure for a whole day. Motivation is so very hard to maintain when there is little pay off. So, every bit of pay off mattered, in terms of visits, comments, links, etc. This blog very literally would not have survived long enough to reach a larger audience had you not helped keep it afloat long enough for lucky breaks to happen. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.
For more than a year and a half now, I have been slowly writing the story of my time as a Christian, my process of deconversion, and my life post-deconversion. Periodically I jump ahead or back in the story. In honor of the four year anniversary of the first Camels With Hammers post, I am going to jump way ahead in the narrative from the furthest point so far and talk about my pre-Camels With Hammers blogging days and the origins of Camels With Hammers. This post will have relevance to my post-Christian evolution into the kind of atheist I am today. But this is one of the posts that will be a bit more personal memoir than directly on the theme of deconversion. Expect more memoir posts in the future that do not feature my deconversion or post-deconversion stories prominently (or at all). There is much more to my life, after all, and I am interested in thinking over more of it.
This post is also rather long and filled with relatively minute details because this is a personal exercise and so in this case I want to be thorough for myself more than I want to be entertaining to you. So, you’ve been warned. No hard feelings if it doesn’t interest you and you don’t read or if you stop reading early.
Late December 15, 2005-June 23, 2009
I wrote my first blog post in 2005. It was just a post announcing my intention to blog. I then didn’t write anything until the following fall. When I wrote again I was writing very personally and with no pretensions of being read by anyone. Blog posts about the minutiae of Tom Petty’s set lists of the tour he was on. Random effusing on the Mets’ playoff run. Reports on my losses and occasional triumphs in poker games with friends. A personal reverie about the onset of autumn. That kind of stuff. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to make something as simple as a line break happen within the protocols of the blogging software so I didn’t feel very comfortable with the medium.
And I was relatively sluggish in getting my dissertation rolling for various reasons, such that my frustrated and panicking mind was very much locked down into graduate school. I wasn’t entertaining the idea of writing philosophy for a popular audience at all. I wasn’t thinking about doing very much by way of social or political writing. Intellectually I was rather myopically obsessed with the politics and technicalities of Nietzsche scholarship as though they were matters of deep world historical significance. Okay, I admit, as I wrote that sentence, the Nietzsche scholar within me cried out, “but they are!” I don’t know. I am going to guess, against my feelings, that they’re not.
My idea for blogging was really just to give myself a way to talk about Nietzsche that felt free and not constrained by the demands of scholarly rigor. It was also a way to make writing about Nietzsche feel more like talking about Nietzsche. I could talk about ideas in the classroom or with friends and colleagues for hours and hours because it involved the instant gratification of immediately being heard and the instant stimulation of immediately receiving feedback and new provocations from others’ unique minds that would go places different than I would on my own. I loathe the unidirectional character of books and journal articles and it was a slog to write and write with no one reading what I was doing for long periods of time. Writing for some imagined, hypothetical audience had none of the rush of writing to a real one.
And as a perfectionist, I was very aware of how mediocre the early stages of what I was doing in my dissertation were and struggled to stay motivated through that necessary stage. It is difficult to learn how to work through one’s imperfections in order to improve when one is conditioned to identify oneself only with being “oh so smart”. It’s tough to learn how much catching up you have to do and to wade through learning and failing and practicing to actually live up to your potential. When growing up people praise you as though you already attained something, it is jarring to have to be working to actually earn it. Such is the joke played on the entitled and the coddled. Such is the cause of paralysis in those raised to believe they are smart. They are strongly tempted to do nothing that will risk intellectual failure, lest it shatter their identity as easily and preternaturally smart.
So, I was very much locked in myself and my self was absorbed deeply in academia. My identity was academic, my intellectual concerns were academic, my often paralyzing fears were academic and my motivations were academic. And with no more than 3 or 4 friends reading, I found none of the real motivation to write I hoped for in blogging, and so abandoned it after a couple months.
In 2008 I had a rare accomplishment. I convinced my dad of something. While I have always been a persuasive person and while I had already had five years of satisfying opportunities to teach college students and persuade them of a great many things, it still was (and is) a great rush of victory any time I can make my dad change his mind on anything. This is both because my dad is a clever, cynical, and critical thinker with opinions worked out over a good number more years than I have even been alive and because, as Jesus is reputed to have put the point, “a prophet has no honor in his own home”.
I was so invigorated by this success I felt like I could persuade anyone of anything. And having had my eyes opened to the potential of blogging as a medium by Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I decided to resume blogging in earnest. So, for a short while in the spring of 2008, while enthralled with the Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I took to political blogging. Occasionally I would get into an atheism related issue and write an actual essay, or I would write about movies. But for the most part I was aggregating stuff I thought was really interesting in politics and giving a little bit of political commentary.
But, as these things go, hardly anyone cared. And so I stopped. And in my mind leaving a blog for a month made it pointless to even try to go back.
Then one day in the summer, out of nowhere, I got a notification that someone had commented on the blog. I read the comment and it was enthusiastic. This person was reading through my articles and loving what I had been doing. It took me a little while to realize who it was. It was Dave, an old suite-mate from college whom I hadn’t had any contact with since we graduated (and whom I probably saw little of during our last two years of school). He had recently friended me on Facebook. At this point, I was in my first year of using Facebook with regularity, so the whole idea of reconnecting with someone from college days was still very novel and exciting. And so we reconnected briefly and started very slowly to become friends again online. Fortunately Dave was a professional programmer who created and ran a rather vibrant web forum for Ryan Adams fans as a hobby.
Dave’s enthusiasm for the blog–this one person’s enthusiasm for the blog–inspired me to think about reviving it. And the fact that he was a programmer made me think that if only I could rope him into helping me, I could overcome my frustrations and limitations with the medium and dream big about what I could do within it to make a blog that was professionally functional and original in design.
And it was no small thing that Dave’s enthusiasm for discovering me and my blog was in part connected to his recently having become an atheist. We had both gone to a devoutly religious college. We hadn’t been in touch much at all when I left Christianity during my senior year so I am unsure whether he had even known I was an atheist now. My atheism was important to me but the whole idea of connecting with a fellow former believer, especially one from my college days, was a novel and exciting one. The idea of atheist community and identity was completely something I had never contemplated.
The previous winter (2007) I had read some Hitchens and Harris and been extremely drawn and excited to discover there were people actually out there expressing the kind of no-bullshit rejection of faith-based thinking that was so important to me personally. It was a rare and amazing experience to find others who were as matter of fact about the falseness of religious beliefs and as focused as I was on the unethical nature of believing with disregard for evidence. It was now exciting to find a kindred spirit in Dave. I was 100% oblivious to the existence of an atheist blogosphere and of atheistic organizations, institutions, and communities that shared my passion for opposing faith. I just had a vague consciousness when I encountered a few atheists in random internet forums that they had a set of phrases and arguments that were new to me and all sounded like they were coming from some mysterious Ur source with which I was not yet familiar.
But I didn’t jump on the idea of reviving and reimagining the blog right away. It took more things, like Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic article on why he blogs and independent suggestions from a couple of close and influential friends that blogging might suit me well after they saw how much I had to say about atheism on Facebook. It took me until the winter or early spring to broach the idea with Dave. He immediately and eagerly agreed to help. When my spring semester 2009 ended, I had the time to devote to a blog.
Eventually, Dave came to visit from Connecticut and we spent some time hashing out color schemes, layouts, and blog titles in the kitchen. An astonishing number of good names were taken. There was already a “Friendly Atheist”, for example. Bill Gates had already laid claim to writing at the “Speed of Thought”. Eventually, I decided against putting atheism directly in the blog’s name since I felt like it would be too constraining. What if my interests and focus changed? So, I didn’t want anything too descriptive. I had no interest in retaining the lackluster mouthful Nietzschean Ideas that I had been using. I was beginning to distance myself emotionally and intellectually from Nietzsche now and didn’t want to tag all my ideas as somehow indebted to him or constrain all my thinking to match his so as to fit the blog title.
But my mind still hovered around Nietzschean themes and images. So, we played with a bunch of them, mixing and matching them. The “Three Transformations” section of Nietzsche’s book Thus Spoke Zarathustra which described how the spirit must become a camel then a lion and then finally a child had been the key to unlocking and organizing the meaning of Nietzsche’s whole philosophy for me. I deeply loved the passage and had meditated on it at great length, read it aloud to students regularly, and numerous phrases and themes from it had become regular allusions in my speech. But “Camel, Lion, Child” sounded corny. Pretty much anything with the word child in it sounded inherently sentimental to my ears. But I had also been brainstorming that afternoon around the image of the “hammer”. Nietzsche’s book Twilight of the Idols featured an alternate title. In full it was, Twilight of the Idols, Or How One Philosophizes With A Hammer. I had always found that an extremely amusing and provocative title. I was musing about making the tagline for the blog “How one blogs with a hammer”.
So, it was only a matter of time before combining my favorite Nietzschean images in different ways I would strike upon the rhythmic and mellifluous “camels with hammers” and have a good laugh with Dave over it. I loved the juxtaposition, the allusiveness, the vividness of imagery, the comically absurd arbitrariness it would esoterically present to the uninitiated, the combination of alliteration, adamancy, and rhythm that the sounds in the words made, the words’ not-quite-rhyming character, the thoroughly Nietzschean ring, and, most of all, the way that it boiled down both my perception of Nietzsche’s works and of myself into three words. I loved that people would take it as either deep or deeply ludicrous (or both) and laugh at it. And Google turned up absolutely nothing for the exact phrase “camels with hammers”. It was unique. And it was esoteric and idiosyncratic enough that it made no specific promises to readers about what I would be doing, in case I changed my mind and the direction of the blog.
A couple weeks later, I woke up with just one thought in my head. I made a terrible mistake with the blog name. It had to be changed. I couldn’t call my blog “Camels With Hammers”. It was completely ridiculous. Then I talked on the phone with Dave, who was excited to inform me that the domain was purchased, the site designed to our specifications, and Camels With Hammers would be ready to go live any day now. And so it was decided. The blog would be Camels With Hammers. (More about the meaning of the name is in my post “Why Camels With Hammers?”, written a couple days after the rechristening.)
And since the Saturday before it went live, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion arrived in the mail and I read the first 60 or so pages and felt like I had been injected with an anti-religious steroid of some sort, I was pumped up and ready to start informing the world that there was no God. I wanted to hammer out in specific details all my reasons for unbelief and do the painstakingly work of refuting in detail every multi-nuanced way that theistic arguments failed.
Nonetheless, reading the first post at the relaunched and renamed blog, it is striking that neither atheism nor religion come up at all but I emphasized much more instead how the blog would complement and contribute to my academic work.
Then the most staggering thing is to see that I churned out no less than 86 posts, including a fair number of in-depth essays, in the first 8 days of Camels With Hammers (June 23-June 30, 2009). Though hardly anyone was reading, I was determined to be the atheist Andrew Sullivan and so I blogged like it. And I mentally committed myself to just keep blogging as though I had a wide audience of readers for as long as it would take to actually create it.
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:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: