God knows, I’m not the thing I should be,
Nor am I even the thing I could be,
But twenty times I rather would be
An atheist clean,
Than under gospel colours hid be
Just for a screen.
-Robert Burns (Epistle to the Rev. John M’math, 1785)
Greek Hellenism, from which early Christianity and Christian theology grew out of also spawned the anti-thesis to faith-based belief in God in the form of Cynic doctrines, Stoicism, and Skepticism. This Greek tradition of doubting and questioning would set us up for Epicurus in 341 BCE, who postulated that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space, and who would be the driving intellect behind the very birth of modern science. Out of this came the means to which scientific reason and secular ideologies could abound.
Recently I stumbled upon a quote by the famous British poet Alexander Pope, the third most quoted writer after William Shakespeare and Lord Tennyson, who eloquently informed:
“Scepticism is as much the result of knowledge, as knowledge is of scepticism. To be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired; we must set aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labour and anxiety to acquire. And this difficulty attaches itself more closely to an age in which progress has gained a strong ascendency over prejudice, and in which persons and things are, day by day, finding their real level, in lieu of their conventional value. The same principles which have swept away traditional abuses, and which are making rapid havoc among the revenues of sinecurists, and stripping the thin, tawdry veil from attractive superstitions, are working as actively in literature as in society. The credulity of one writer, or the partiality of another, finds as powerful a touchstone and as wholesome a chastisement in the healthy scepticism of a temperate class of antagonists, as the dreams of conservatism, or the impostures of pluralist sinecures in the Church. History and tradition, whether of ancient or comparatively recent times, are subjected to very different handling from that which the indulgence or credulity of former ages could allow.”
This quote got me to thinking, how true it is. Skepticism is the result of one’s attainment of knowledge. Not just knowledge in the general sense, but specific knowledge, acute, relevant, of pertinent varieties pertaining to a way of understanding; where knowledge acts as a catalyst to increase our understanding of reality. But this intellectual progress is not without its costs, as Pope reflects, the more we learn the more “we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired…” and this is exactly what it was like for me when I deconverted from Christianity.
Some have criticized my “devonversion” saying that I simply “converted” to atheism and discarded my Christian beliefs. But this is not wholly accurate. When I was an infant, I did not believe in God. I didn’t even understand the concept of God. I simply played with my Popples™ and Carebears™ and watched Scooby-Doo solve mysteries on TV, but I was totally secular in my religious and philosophical views, of which I had none. Only by being raised in a Christian home, and indoctrinated into my parent’s belief systems, did I pick up concepts of ecumenical Christian thought. If my mom never would have taken my brother and I to Sunday school and church as children, we would have never learned anything about the Christian faith, and suffice to say, I would not have had to unlearn any of it either.
That said, I did not convert to Atheism, because that implies Atheism is in itself a belief system, which it is not. Instead, I went from a devotional belief system acquired culturally and traditionally, through my upbringing, therefore not one that I freely chose for myself, to a status of newly accrued knowledge which brought me into the realm of healthy skepticism, and gradually lead me to my current nonbelief. In other words, via an emancipation from the mind forged shackles of dogma (although I did not know what it was at the time), I gained a liberation of my intellect by learning to question and think freely for myself. Thus I defected from the Christian mind set which I was indoctrinated into as a child, ergo I deconverted from Christianity to Atheism.
On top of all this, via my curiosity and applied critical thinking, I was able to reject the irrational beliefs, erroneous claims, incredibly far-fetched ideas, and overzealous (yet unfounded) convictions in favor of a more reasonable position–one which reflected the original status of my mind when it was pristine and uncluttered by competing philosophies, unpolluted by superstitious nonsense which I was raised to believe was the “God given truth.” Indeed, the more knowledge I obtained, the more it brought me a better understanding of the world around me, and my credulous notions were swept away, with no cognitive dissidence to wreak havoc on my intellect, I could see the difference between the truth I was told to accept as the “official” truth (regardless of what the evidence showed), and that which was more likely to be the unadulterated truth. Basically, I learned to discern between that which is in want of veracity, and that which is tried and true.
Even as I reflect on this now, I must admit, unlearning what I had learned was far more difficult than being introduced to such ideas when my mind was a clean slate and so easily malleable. This brings me to another thought.
Perhaps, the challenge of deconverting dyed-in-the-wool believers is not to bash them over the head with reason and science, no matter how powerful of tools they are, as certainly it seems many only seem to get more rattled by such a direct approach. Perhaps, it is better to show how the process of unlearning the wrong information can aid in progressing one’s education, simultaneously improving their understanding by correcting the disinformation wherever it should be found, and thereby override the common dogmas we are indoctrinated into when we have not yet developed the skills necessary to apply critical thinking methods to the process of understanding the information we are given. Or as Pope suggests, by “stripping the thin, tawdry veil from attractive superstitions…” and replacing them with genuine, hard won, knowledge.
Easier said than done, I can assure you. But if a layman like myself could take up the challenge, I know anyone can, even a dyed-in-the-wool believer completely engrossed by their myths, caught up in superstition, and blinded by the stupendous force of their dogmas, yes–even one so devout as this may one day see the light of reason.