My de-conversion story

The Positive Atheism site publishes stories sent by formerly religious people telling how they de-converted. I've sent mine on 2002. Here it is, with minor changes. It's just a personal story, to be read as such. Please don't take it as proselytising or try to 'show the error of my ways'.

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I’m an ex-Catholic and my deconversion was quite a slow and painless process as compared to the horror stories I’ve read in this site. My family was, and still is, profoundly catholic, but religion was never a matter of terrible fear of going to hell. Nor were we told to believe that we were wholly unworthy in the eyes of God with little hope of being “saved.”

All the classrooms in my school had a sign on the wall that read “God is watching you,” Big Brother style, but God was supposed to be benevolent and forgiving. You had to really insist in going to hell (though I could never understand why anyone would).

Yet, we had to go to the church every Sunday and, every evening, tell our beads together in the living room, on our knees, not to speak of bedtime prayers, frequent confessions and religion classes. Up to the age of 12, I was comfortable with my faith. I didn’t like to go to the church, I didn’t like the evening litanies but, all in all, the matter never concerned me.

Yet, I’d have long discussions with myself in which the rational part of me tried to explain things the rational way and the religious part would present the faith based “arguments.” For long, long years, the debate would end with “Well, there must be an explanation. It’s only I’m too limited to understand this matter. When I die and go to heaven, everything will be explained”.

For instance, it always bothered me that “it is better to believe without having seen than to see and then to believe.” Or that unbaptized children who died would go to a vaguely defined place called Limbo instead of Heaven. Or that Jesus had to die for my sins (we were expected to feel guilty for it, though I couldn’t understand what those sins were).

They told me believing in Adam and Eve (and Genesis) was not mandatory; that was just a way God used to explain things to our primitive ancestors. Yet, “original sin” was a dogma (and I couldn’t understand why I had been born already guilty of something I had not done).

I tried not to think about it, but felt that there was something fishy about prophets and their divinely inspired writings. Why had inspiration stopped?How could we tell false from true?

I was supposed to confess my sins frequently — and I was supposed to sincerely repent from them and intend not to sin anymore. Yet I knew very well that I’d do everything again, sooner or later.

That certainty only grew stronger when I became a teenager and my mind was always full of “dirty” thoughts. I’d spend some time tortured by guilty feelings before I had the guts to confess everything. Then I’d feel clean and start “sinning” again. After repeating that cycle for many years, I decided there was no point in confessing. Because I hadn’t confessed, I was not fit to take communion so, one day, I realized I hadn’t had confession or communion for over ten years. Luckily, I went to church alone and my family never noticed.

Just as a note, if you out there are not Catholic, you may not realize how unpleasant and ridiculous it is to confess. To kneel before a perfect stranger and whisper him your most private thoughts in the hope he won’t find you went too far to deserve absolution. Then he’ll whisper back in you ears, with droplets of spit and foul breath, standard words of advice and a number of prayers to repeat as a penalty.

Old ladies seem to like it, though. It must be like a free “shrink” to them. A captive audience, willing to listen to all their petty woes and worries. And, being half deaf, they speak too loud and the people in the line have to pretend they don’t hear a thing.

I had a book of prayers in which many of the prayers were followed by their value in “indulgence time”, that is, if you prayed a “one-day” prayer, your time in Purgatory would be reduced by one day. A few were worth weeks and even months, so I only prayed those and wondered what was the point in wasting time with the “one-day” ones and why they were in the book.

I was also told that the mass was the re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrifice and that I should feel enraptured during it. Somehow I never felt anything but boredom.

Well, the list could go on and on. Yet, my faith never wavered. I took religion to be a fact of life. Boring, indeed, but necessary and unavoidable like brushing my teeth.

Also, I never had any contact with atheism. I knew for a fact there were unbelievers and other religions, but never came upon rational ideas (only once, when I was about 10, I read something in the papers about the possibility of the Hebrews having stolen the body of Jesus from the tomb to make it look like he had resurrected; that notion was rather shocking and was quickly buried in my subconscious mind to resurface only decades later).

As far as I could see, there were sinners, but no contradictions. What I was told at home was confirmed in school, in the streets, in the papers, on TV. The doubts that the sane part of my mind kept bringing up were quickly swept under the rug and forgotten (they all surfaced later, intact, when I started facing my doubts).

I lived in a kind of “Truman Show,” without any oddity to make me suspect my faith might be an illusion. A believer at home, though, I was ashamed of revealing myself a believer in public. When asked what my religion was, I mumbled something like “I’m a Catholic, I guess.”

Proselytizing was out of the question. Although I believed myself to be sure of my faith, somehow I felt uncomfortable to impinge it on others. I never thought I had anything convincing enough to tell them, so I’d let them be. Because I couldn’t understand why I believed, I couldn’t defend my faith, but couldn’t reject it, either.

When I was 12, there came the first serious blow. Pope John XXIII summoned the Vatican Council II and, being the open minded man he was, people started to discuss and re-evaluate everything. He died before the council was over and his successor, Paul VI, a conservative, tried to stop the process. Yet, a period of free experimentation followed and a lot changed.

Part of the Catholics refused the changes and schisms happened. My family was not altogether happy with the new ideas, but decided to comply. In my mind, though, what seemed a 2,000-year-old unmoving rock had split. I tried not to think much about it, but the doubt was installed. I kept looking for churches where the priests were older and resisted to changes in the rites.

When I neared the age of 40, the Pentecostal churches, so far a minority in Brazil, began to spread and attract Catholics. As a reaction, Catholics created the Charismatic Movement to lure them back. I thought Pentecostals were ridiculous, but Charismatic Catholics were even worse, being an imitation.

Those innovations I saw as a disrespect to tradition. They usually drove me so mad that I’d spend the mass trying to think about other things and I’d doze during the long, boring sermons.

For instance, the songs could hardly be called hymns anymore. They were played by a small band with guitar and percussion and sung in such a way that sometimes made me feel I was watching some kiddie show on tv. And the audience (not the assembly anymore…) would dance and clap their hands. It was a long way from the solemn hymns accompanied by organ and incense of my childhood. Silly songs with silly words expected to convey a “nice” message. The word “love” was repeated so often throughout the mass that it became meaningless and disgusting to me.

One of the things I most loathed was having to hold hands with the people on both sides as we sang the Lord’s Prayer. It was okay if they were pretty girls, but, somehow, pretty girls seemed always to have better things to do than going to church so I had to hold other guys’ hands.

Eventually, I took to leaving my place and standing in the aisle when this moment came. No use crossing my arms and pretending not to notice. They’d poke me and insist in grabbing my hands.

During the sermon, the priest would use a whispered “Latin lover” voice for a while and then, all of a sudden, start shouting out loud. I hated his fake voice, I hated his shouts. It reeked of motivation, of brain washing (and I hate motivation techniques). If he needed those tricks, maybe his message was not convincing enough of itself.

The mass was endurable (boring, but not revolting) when it was one of the older priests, but the younger ones had always new ideas to enliven the celebration and compel people to participate actively.

Eventually, I started doing the so far unthinkable: to go to church, but leave when I realized it was a young priest that day. In about 40 years, I had never missed one Sunday and now I’d miss many in a row. I’d tell myself “Well, I tried. I came to the church. But I don’t have to stand this.”

After this first step, facing my doubts seemed a lot easier. I began questioning what I heard instead of trying to doze. I’d take notes of the thoughts that came to my mind and of the things I heard and struck me as absurd. When I got home, I’d go to my computer and elaborate on those notes in a document that kept growing.

I still saw myself as a Catholic, but the idea of hell was unacceptable, for instance. If there indeed was a hell, it was empty. I was also against Rome forbidding birth control. What was wrong with pills or condoms?

Why the hell should we be constantly praising God for his supposed gifts? What gifts? What right did he have of throwing me in this valley of tears without asking me first? Why should I be submitted to a test I didn’t ask for, the failure in which meant eternal punishment?

Why should we believe a god we never met just because people no different from us said he existed? Why wouldn’t he talk to me directly and say what he wanted of me? Why there were so many religions, all of them the only true one?

I was not ready to disbelieve God yet, but I began vaguely to think that Jesus’ teachings had been sorely misinterpreted by the Church along the centuries. Of course, I knew little of the Bible but from the excerpts read during the masses. The Old Testament was not important, doctrine wise, and there seemed to be no big discrepancies in the New.

It was then a major breakthrough happened. While randomly surfing the Internet, I hit a page dedicated to the Mother Goddess and how the patriarcal society had perverted humankind. They had many pages describing Babylonian gods and goddesses and how they had ultimately been at the origin of the Hebrew Yaveh.

One particular sentence was the key: “We tend to think that Yaveh manifested himself to the Hebrews at some point in their history. Actually, he is the mix of the many gods the Hebrews encountered and adopted during their nomadic life. He might be traced to El, the god of Ur where Abraham was born. But he’s also Asherah or Ishtar and many others, all summed up. And the Hebrews were not monotheists. Although they were bound to worship Yaveh and only Yaveh, they accepted the existence of other gods. In exchange for this exclusive adoration, Yaveh vowed to protect their tribe against the others and their gods”.

The text went on to point the parts of the Bible where God was said jealous of the other gods and many bloody and violent aspects of his commands. I found this very interesting and went on to research the matter (“Praise the Internet, not the Lord”, I say).

Also, I found out I was not alone. For centuries, there had been atheists and they had ideas that had never occurred to me. I discovered the history of the Catholic Church was far from holy. Inquisition and the Crusades were shown to me under a new light. The Bible turned out a bloody, violent book, full of contradictions. The work of a barbaric, bronze age tribe, not God inspired. So much for the “good book”.

Finally, the accumulated weight of what I found and of my own thoughts made it impossible to keep pretending to myself I was still a Catholic. I didn’t believe in God anymore. It was not sudden, rather like a slow wakening, where dream and reality coexist for a while. But old habits die hard and I still felt the need to go to church every Sunday. Somehow, I didn’t want to cut the last link completely.

One Sunday, though, all dressed up and ready to go, a pouring rain started. I thought to myself that I was not willing to walk all the way to the church under rain and wind just to spend a whole hour drenched, in a hot, crowded, stuffy church, listening to gibberish that would only upset me.

I didn’t go that day and never again for 6 years now. I rembember sitting down that day and asking myself “Is this it? All that going to church and masses and prayers and saints and guilty feelings, just gone? All that I believed in?”. It was not traumatic, just the melancholy at realizing something was gone forever, something I was so used to.

I didn’t miss God. I had prayed to him everyday because I thought it was mandatory, and asked favours of him in the hope he might eventually hear me, but had never felt we were close. He’d always been a distant, silent stranger (but I do miss Santa Claus…).

To this day, I’ve never stopped reading and researching sites like Infidels.org and yours. Such a wealth of facts and thoughts and I’ve spent 42 years of my life complety isolated from it!

I never told my family. They won’t just understand and I’m afraid of disruptions that might ensue. Besides, my parents are already quite old and not at the best of their health. I see no point in upsetting them now. They also take comfort in their faith. Even in the worst of their illnesses they keep saying that “If I accept the good God sends me, I must accept the bad”, “God sends suffering to those he loves most in order to test their faith”, “Jesus suffered so much for me, I’m only happy to share in his suffering” and so on. How could I take this from them (supposing I’d succeed, and I don’t think I would)?

As for other people, at first, amazed at the discoveries I had made and also angry at having been fooled for so long, I wanted to tell everybody, to make them “wake up” and see the obvious. I had lengthy conversation with believers on the Net and with workmates. This was very instructive and helped me elaborate my argumentation. It also taught me that I was an exception.

A believer that is happy with his or her faith will not be deconverted. If they believe two plus two is five, you might at the most make them admit that two plus two seems to be four, indeed, but it is just that our limited understanding is not able to see the superior reasons for which it’s actually five.

This explanation will appease whatever disturbance you managed to create in their minds and they’ll be happy again. If you insist, they’ll keep quoting meaningless things from the Bible and telling you to repent before it’s too late. The tough questions will be just ignored. Looks like I’m talking to a deaf person.

It’s also unsettling when your acquaintances, so far perfectly reasonable, convert to some Pentecostal denomination, show up with a Bible and give you leaflets from their sect. They seem so sure of their faith it’s frightening. There’s a hint of lunacy in their calm certainty. The kind of lunacy that makes people fly planes into buildings.

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