Exodus: Chronology of an Apostate (Part 6)

Things changed fast. By the time I got my driver's license I was a disillusioned Christian. By 17 I suppose you could have called me a lapsed Christian. The day I turned 18 my parents stopped making me go to church. I guess they considered their obligation to me and God fulfilled. They were probably also tired of dragging me to the sanctuary just to see me sit in the back row and read Das Kapital or play snake on my BRAND NEW NOKIA 6010!!!

These two machines done changed the game for teenage Sebastian. 

I'm sure it was embarrassing as well. Church was their social network. Everyone they knew and cared about was there. I remember how my mother used to dine out on juicy gossip about other church member's prodigal children when I was younger and still safely in the fold. 

"Can you believe Diana's daughter got pregnant?"

"Josh has totally abandoned God. It makes you wonder what Eileen could have done differently with him."

"You just see it so often- good Christian parents who aren't able raise their children up in the ways of the Lord. All you can do is have faith and wait for God to bring them back to His bosom."

There was always the tacit implication that a wayward child reflected back on the parents and their failure to apply Biblical principles to child rearing.

"Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it." - Proverbs 22:6.

There it was in the Bible, in black and white. A promise. If you train up your child in the way he should go, he won't rebel. 

So if he does rebel, that means you didn't train him up in the way he should go. That's just logic.

Only now the shoe was on the other foot, and I'm sure it must have been hard for my parents to know that they were being judged by their friends and peers. My mom knew exactly what was being said about them behind her back, because she had spent decades saying those exact same things about other parents behind their backs. No one fears judgement more than a judgmental person.

By the time I graduated high school I thought of myself as a deist. I found it impossible to imagine the complexity of our universe having emerged, "simply by chance" as my mother would still mischaracterize it today. I remember writing an essay my senior year about how a god was necessary for the foundation of any moral philosophy. What else aside from divine accountability could prevent people from behaving like animals towards each other? It's truly cringe-worthy reading, but remember that my entire K-8 primary education was administered directly by my mother. A literal (when convenient) interpretation of the Bible was the final authority on science. The Bible was the final authority on natural history. The Bible was the final authority on philosophy and morality. The Bible was the final authority on everything. By the time I entered the public school system in high school I had missed a lot of basic science classes that would have outlined the fundamental principles of evolution. Or maybe not. My first science class in a real school was biology. We should probably have revisited a lot of evolutionary theory in that course. But the region in which I grew up was conservative, Christian, and Republican, and evolution was a sensitive subject that even science teachers seemed to want to skip over as quickly as possible.

That finally changed my freshman year in college. I took a course entitled, "A History of Darwinism and Its Critics." Importantly, it wasn't a course about the theory of evolution per se, although that was naturally a part of what we learned. It was a science history class about how the theory of evolution came to be and the people involved, why emerged, and how the theory was received at the time and afterwards. The history I learned in that class was dramatically different from what I had been told my whole life. 

According to fundamentalist Christianity, the theory of evolution came to be when an evil and godless man named Charles Darwin hatched a nefarious scheme to rob God of His rightful place as Creator of the universe and trick people into doubting God's existence and forsaking His Holy Word. So Darwin tried to replace God as the author of Truth by replacing the story of Genesis with a lie inspired by Satan himself- namely that all of God's creation merely arose by chance, thus debasing man, God's special creation made in His own image, to the level of the animals. Other godless scientists have perpetuated Darwin's hoax over the years and all manner of evil has been the result, from sexual immorality to euthanasia to the Third Reich itself.

Oh how my mother used to roll her eyes and groan on the few occasions that we were able to watch the Discovery Channel at a relative's house or on our motel TV. I'd be watching Shark Week with rapt attention and the narrator would talk about how sharks have swum the oceans for nearly 450 million years and my mom would pipe in with something like, "Stick to the facts! Evolution is a theory! Why doesn't he admit that evolution is just a theory? Why can't we watch a nature program without having this crap rammed down our throats?" Oh yeah, she was a joy to watch TV with. And if you like that, you'd love how many questions she asked during movies.

But "A History of Darwinism and Its Critics" introduced me to some facts that my mother had left out. Evolution wasn't the sudden insight of a single man. It was an idea that had been brewing for decades before Darwin was born in the minds of biologists such as Lamarck, and Alfred Wallace independently came up with a theory nearly identical to Darwin's. Biological and geological evidence had been poking holes in the traditional Creation model for a long time and the emerging fossil evidence of the day was making the "transmutability of the species" seem increasingly unavoidable to many of Darwin's contemporaries, such as J.D. Hooker

Lamarck was a deist. Darwin himself had studied to become a parson and initially embraced William Paley's argument for intelligent design, including his now famous watchmaker analogy, until Darwin's own observations and collected evidence made that view untenable.

In short, evolution wasn't a conspiracy perpetrated by a lone misotheist. It was an inevitable discovery, slowly and reluctantly accepted by the scientific community, most of whom at that time considered themselves Christians, or at least deists.

I remember sitting in the front row of "A History of Darwinism and Its Critics," so many light bulbs going on so fast that my brain felt like a strobe light, thinking to myself, "Ooooooohhhh. Damn. Now, see; this actually makes sense."

By the end of freshman year I considered myself an agnostic. 

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle ... Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. - T. H. Huxley

Revelation is not a legitimate source of knowledge, and faith is not a virtue.

Today I commonly refer to myself as an atheist or even antitheist (in Christopher Hitchen's sense of the word) but I'm still drawn to Huxley's humble definition.

Of course my philosophical transformation wasn't complete at the end of freshman year. I still needed to construct a new foundation for my world view. One of the appeals of religion (and "swallowing your moral code in tablet form") is that getting your moral framework from a third party at least creates room to imagine that the source of that moral framework is less fallible than yourself. You lose that plausible deniability if you author your own morality. I find that some people fire God but then leave the position vacant, lacking the confidence to become the author of their own moral code or ascribe a meaning to their own life.

Nihilism was not an end state in Nietzsche's interpretation, but rather a form of creative destruction that paved the way for self-determination.

I had always enjoyed reading classical literature anyway, but I started in earnest to prepare myself for the god business.

Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Hobbs, Locke, Jefferson, Mill, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, Adam Smith, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Twain, Lewis Mumford, Hitchens, and Sam Harris became my spiritual fathers, even if some of them rather challenged than augmented my philosophical portfolio.

At 19, my parents were under no misapprehension that I was on my way to seminary to become the next Billy Graham. I had been busted for underage drinking at 17. I had stopped going to church with my parents at 18. My mom had walked in on me undressing my girlfriend in my bedroom while I was home from college over Christmas break. That caused quite a kerfuffle as you might well imagine. There was a lot of "not under my roof" outrage on her part and it ended with me telling my mom to, "fuck off," and I went back to college and didn't talk to her for a long time after that.

My parents converted my bedroom into a guest room, refused to cosign any student loans, told me I wasn't welcome to move back in after my freshman year ended, and suggested I enlist in the military because I needed to learn discipline. This was the "tough love" stage of our relationship. But we had never really talked about my gradual deconversion. They assumed I was going through a rebellious phase and left it at that. We raised him as a Christian, so that's what he is deep down, even if he's trying to "run away from God" at the moment. Like the Prodigal Son or an Amish kid on Rumspringa, he'll be back. After all-

"Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it." - Proverbs 22:6.

There it was in the Bible, in black and white. A promise. If you train up your child in the way he should go, he won't rebel, at least not forever. And my mom was sure she had trained me up in the way I should go, so it was just a matter of waiting for God to keep His promise. But several years went by and I still wasn't coming back into the fold, so the conversation had to happen eventually. And there's really only one appropriate time and place to have loud, heated, public arguments with relatives over highly charged subjects like politics and religion. 

We celebrated Thanksgiving at my uncle's house that year. Everyone was in the living room, watching a show about Tyrannosaurus Rex on the Discovery Channel while one of T-Rex's theropod descendants finished roasting in the oven. The narrator offered some speculation on why the T-Rex had evolved such comically short arms, which triggered my mother to launch into her standard eye-roll and evolution-is-just-an-opinion routine. She was extra fired up this time because my parents had stopped at Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Kentucky on their way to my uncle's house that year and they had arrived laden with brochures depicting Jesus riding on a dinosaur, detailing how the entire fossil record was an artifact of Noah's flood and T-Rex had used his giant, sharp teeth to crack open and consume coconuts.

Now that I had finally learned a little something about evolutionary theory at university the year before, I interjected a few words about the relatively long-armed Herrerasaurus, the fossil record, and the preponderance of the evidence. My uncle excused himself to smoke. My mom countered with the junkyard tornado analogy and I pointed out that the god hypothesis doesn't solve the abiogenesis problem either and in fact raises more questions than it answers, meaning Occam's razor dispenses with it. My aunt suddenly needed to do something in the kitchen.

Two hours later my mom and I were finally winding down our boisterous debate as the rest of the family chewed silently in the dining room adjacent. I can only imagine the downcast gazes, wincing expressions, and averted eye contact as my mother and I argued over every thinkable theological point and relived every childhood experience, including the part where I told her that I resented being made to feel guilty about masturbation as a teenager. My uncle probably did a spit-take on the other side of the wall. I hope someone did a spit-take. What a wasted comedic opportunity that would be otherwise.

Yes, friends, it was a Thanksgiving for the ages; an outrageous family disaster that will never be forgotten.

But at least it was out in the open. I haven't had to relitigate the topic with any of my relatives since then. Except for my mother... who brings it up fresh every two years like someone with selective, apologetics-only Alzheimer's. She'll never give up. She'll always expect her prodigal son to return to the faith, and there's something endearing about that. I would do the same for my children if I believed what she believes. But she also lives in fear that her son's eternal soul is currently bound for hell. And there's something tragic about that: the unnecessary guilt and mental anguish. But that's the story of Christianity writ large, I guess; the comfort and the community come at a price. Nothing's free, not even the love of an imaginary friend.


Popular Posts