The original impetus for this tale is from a comment made by my sister-in-law. A while ago, I was having a discussion with a handful of my wife's family that subscribe to the Jehovah's Witness faith (her father, sister, brother-in-law, aunt and uncle). During the discussion, when it inevitably came up that I'd been a huge Bible-thumper in my teens, my sister-in-law mentioned that she'd always wondered what happened to cause me to doubt the Bible and the existence of God. This conversation occurred over a year ago now (at least I think it was - there have been a few discussions over the years, and my fallible brain has done a good job of mashing them all together into only a couple of memories), and I've been planning to recount the story of my deconversion ever since. So let's get this exercise in navel-gazing started!
When I was growing up, I basically had two completely different families, at least as far as religion went. My father's family was decidedly non-religious. As far as I can remember, the closest I'd ever heard any of my Dad's side ever talk about religion was my Irish grandfather cursing out the Catholics ("Those fucking dogans!") for stealing his parking spot in front of his house while they attended the church a few buildings down the road.
My mother's family was quite religious. Her grandparents were very devoutly Catholic (my granddad is still a member of the Knights Of Columbus), although my Mom converted to Pentecostal/evangelical Christianity when I was quite young. I can't recall religion being discussed often (besides, what kid pays attention to that?), but it was very obviously important to my grandparents, and my Mom followed suit with slightly less ostentatious displays of religiosity.
Because my parents divorced when I was a mere two years old, and my Mom and I moved away from my hometown for about half of my youth, neither side of my family was a huge influence over me, although my mother did her best to make sure that I stayed connected with both sides of my family. It also helped that maintaining strong family ties was extremely important to both clans, and despite the distance, my family was always welcoming and loving. The one exception is my Dad - after he remarried, my relationship with him became almost nonexistant for a number of years (but to save space and stave off boredome in my readers, I'm not going delve into detail on that subject). To this day, I enjoy regular contact with most of my family, though I'm closest to my Mom and my grandfather on my Dad's side (where it helps that I'm his only grandchild with his last name).
When it comes to religion, I have vague recollections of going to a Catholic preschool and elementary school for a couple of years, then transferring to a public school when we moved. I remember going to Pentecostal-type churches when young, having Christian entertainment (I was particularly fond of my "Bullfrogs & Butterflies" and "Nathaniel The Grublet" tapes - thirty years later, I can still remember some of the lyrics!), and going to vacation Bible camp in the summers. From what I can remember, I said my prayers, read my children's Bible stories, and was a good little Christian child. As much as one can be through those years, anyways.
The biggest difficulty for Christianity to overcome in me (especially the Pentecostal, the literalist "Bible-says-it-therefore-I-believe-it" version) was the fact that I'm a nerd. A geek. It took me 30 years to come to terms with that fact, but looking back, it's undeniable. I've also learned to embrace my nerdiness.
In elementary school, I loved science class. I couldn't get enough of dinosaurs, astronomy, geology, and these new things called "computers" that my elementary school had just received a couple of. I was good at math, pretty good at English (THAT wouldn't last), and smart enough to be put into the Gifted Program, which gave opportunities for more challenging science classes!
As I moved up to middle school, "Nathaniel the Grublet" and "The Black Hole" tapes were replaced by Weird Al Yankovic and Metallica. Owl magazine and Encyclopedia Brown was
replaced by Discover magazine and Dungeons & Dragons. What little youthful interest in Jesus I had was pushed aside by computer games like Wizardry and Ultima. During this time, the Satanic Panic hit, and since my mother was a member of an evangelical church at the time, all of a sudden I wasn't allowed to play D&D anymore. I even remember receiving the infamous "Dark Dungeons" Chick tract from someone at church! Mom wasn't pleased with Slayer and Megadeth, but it was a small part of a very eclectic music collection of mine, so she left my music alone.
At that point, I was only vaguely Christian. I went to church, but it was because I was forced to. I secretly played D&D with my friends and told Mom I was playing Car Wars isntead (which was only a lie 3/4 of the time - but I think she knew that). When I was with Christian friends, I acted like a (movie approximation of a) Christian. When I was with non-religious friends, I wasn't a Christian. I was doing what nerds generally do best: rebel in a passive-aggressive manner.
That all began to change when, ten days before my fifteenth birthday, we moved a thousand kilometers away to a small, isolated community of 5,000 people. I was a socially awkward teen with no friends, but my Mom found an evangelical church to join, and she continued to make me join her in going to services. It turned out to be an easy way to make friends, since I was fairly shy and bad at meeting people, but I was familiar with Christianity, though I informed them that I wasn't "saved." Most of them didn't seem to mind, and set out trying to convince me to accept Jesus. I also managed to make a handful of friends outside the church, so I got to resume my nerdy enjoyment of science (especially astronomy and biology) and D&D. But, with a good amount of my time spent with Christians, it took six months for the inevitable to happen.
I still remember the night I got "saved" pretty clearly. I was your typical angsty fifteen year old with few friends, and an absent father. I had been pretty depressed around that time (as fifteen year olds tend to be, no matter what their environment is like), and had been spending a fair bit of time alone. A lot of that time I was angry at my Dad, since I felt abandoned by him. That night at youth group, after the worship service and sermon, there was an altar call. The youth pastor implored, "there's somebody here who needs to forgive someone in their life". (Seriously, in a room with about 20 teenagers in it, could you possibly come up with a more generic, cold-read of an altar call?) I was looking for a way to get out of the depressed funk I was in, so I went up and acknowledged to the youth pastor that I needed to forgive my father. I had a bit of a cry, along with the pastor and a couple of my Christian friends. At that point, the pastor asked if I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart, and I acquiesced. He asked me to repeat a prayer that I can't recall the exact words to (but if you've heard one salvation prayer, you've pretty much heard them all), which I did. The youth pastor looked up at the crowd and nodded with a smile, and the youth group went nuts.
I was now one of them: a born-again Christian. And I would jump in with both feet.
Next: Part 2 - Christianity Insanity