What governs the path to unbelief?
I’ve long noticed in reading heartfelt essays by former believers-cum-atheists that real-world facts are what often lead religious fundamentalists away from the faith they were born into.
The strict intellectual isolation of devout church groups and cults — Christian, Muslim and other — control the thinking of their cloistered, indoctrinated flocks from birth by keeping them ignorant of competing outside ideas and saturated in dogma, and thus unaware of the real complexity and objective truths of the world and wider universe. The point is to render members, once they are firm believers, unable to effectively question the dogma that falsely buttresses and dishonestly explains their lives.
So, when those few, skeptical disciples of hidebound religious groups do first cautiously step out into the light of day in the real world and away from their families and church communities, they often quickly see the proverbial “light,” not of divinity but of naturalism and objective reality. This astonishment routinely leads to apostacy, although the journey to disbelief is often fraught with sharp rejection of deconverts by those they have loved and been nurtured by all their lives.
I was again reminded of this fraught path while reading another in a series of “Why I Am An Atheist” essays in a first-quarter 2021 edition of American Atheist (AA) magazine (available by subscription only). The title of the piece by Ovais Khalil of Hanover, Maryland, an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse and a former Christian-Muslim hybrid believer, is “I Want to Live a Life That Makes a Difference.”
Khalil’s may not be the standard American apostacy story, as he was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to Muslim parents but grew up in, of all places, Tupelo, Mississippi (birthplace of Elvis Presley, “The King” of ungodly rock’n’ roll). There, his parents bought a gas station after emigrating to the U.S.
Tupelo was a decidedly evangelical, “Old South” Christian town, and, unsurprisingly, did not offer a single mosque for Islamic worship. Khalil’s observant Muslim parents, who as most Pakistanis greatly value education, sent Khalil to a private Pentecostal school that had a better educational reputation than the local public schools
“At school, I was told that I needed to be baptized and speak in tongues or I would go to hell,” Khalil wrote in his AA essay. “This had quite an impact on me as a young boy, and I grew up greatly fearing hell and anything labeled ‘demonic.” By the age of 12, I was speaking in tongues, witnessing ‘miracles,’ and telling m parents I wanted to become a Christian — which they didn’t like at all.”
Ironically, his parents pulled him from the Pentecostal school and enrolled him in public school — which ended up instilling in the young man an ethos of critical thinking after he joined the debate team. In the meantime, he tried to split the religious differences:
“I still observed all the (Islamic) halal food laws and prayed at the mosque … but I also attended (Christian) church services. In a weird way, I was able to keep Muslim traditions while also believing Jesus was the ‘son of God.’ It amazed me how zealous both Muslims and Christians were about each other. I was Muslim to appease my parents and Christian because I believed in Jesus.”
While later serving in the Marine Corps, Khalil contracted the rare and debilitating auto-immune disease Guillain-Barre syndrome, and while hospitalized — after being told by caregivers that God could heal him — he was baptized in the Churches of Christ and recommitted himself to Jesus.
Later still, after marrying an equally devout Christian woman and contemplating a career in the clergy, Khalil began reading the work of Dr. Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a religion professor focused on textual criticism of the New Testament. (Watch this video below to get a good sense of the doubt Khalil absorbed from Dr. Ehrman.)
Up to this point, Khalil had been a staunch believer in biblical literalism and inerrancy.
“[Ehrman] brought up contradiction after contradiction in the Bible, and … I could no longer deny that the Bible was, in fact, imperfect. I also started listening to other critics, including Matt Dillahunty, Dan Barker, and Aron Ra,” he wrote in his essay. “After hearing these new perspectives, I decided it was pointless to become a preacher, but I still wanted to live a life that makes a difference. So I decided to become a nurse.”
By the time he entered nursing school, he had “renounced faith altogether,” and today he identifies as an atheist and humanist.
He explains his deconversion as a rational act that has made his life far more meaningful.
“If you were to ask me why I describe myself that way, it’s because in order to do real good in the world, one must take action,” he wrote. “Prayer and faith don’t work. Evidence-based science is what is changing the world. And now, as a nurse, I am touching more lives each and every day than I ever did as a fundamentalist.”
It’s always nice to see reason triumph over religious mythology in the real world. And Khalil now also has the relief of knowing that people who don’t agree with him about religion won’t automatically go to Hell.
Nor will he.