Conversion, Deconversion, and A Family Death
As a child (at around 8-9 yrs old), I was immersed in questions about the fact of evil in the world, appearances vs. reality, the tenuousness of human life, the problem of induction, the question of whether or not God existed, the problem of personal identity, and various problems of epistemology, though I obviously didn’t use philosophical terminology when contemplating them. I grasped bits and pieces of truths that only further deepened my knowledge of my ignorance, replacing my singular queries with queries that were seven times more befuddling.
These questions haunted me day and night, so much so that at the age of eleven I began smoking cigarettes and weed and drinking, albeit lightly, in order to alleviate some of the stress I incurred from thinking on such matters. By the time I was fifteen, I was intoxicated, in one form or another, more or less all day. And at about 15.5 -16 yrs old, I had a false conversion experience that I mistook for a real solution to the philosophical and emotional turmoil I was facing daily.
My “conversion” was not really to Christianity, however, but a Christianized emotionalism I had concocted from bits and pieces of theology I had picked up in youth group and church. As time passed, my desire to “be a Christian” waned. Sure, Christianity had forced me to take school seriously. It had also introduced me to apologetics and, by extension, philosophy. Yet it proved to be too stifling to my freedom as a depraved teenager who merely wanted to indulge in worldly pleasures. So I began reverting to the atheism of my youth. Only this time, I thought I had “good reasons” to reject Christianity.
I lived in a haze of marijuana smoke, muscle relaxers, and malt liquor for several
years, only to be rudely awoken by the death of my beloved grandfather. At this point in my life, my wife (who at the time was only my girlfriend) was pregnant with our first son, Ayden. The convergence of life and death struck me as profound, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. This was a nuisance for me, as I professed to be an atheist and, by necessary logical extension, a moral nihilist. Life meant nothing. Death meant nothing. But there I was, pressed between the horror of death and the joy of fatherhood. These realities had to have an explanation.
Whatever their explanation was, however, it could not be something offered up by Christians. I was left alone to grapple with questions regarding the fundamental nature of reality. Things fall apart. Things come together again. That’s all there is. That’s all there ever was. That’s all there will ever be. Grandpa wasn’t in heaven, I reasoned. Grandpa was dispersed among the elements constituting his body. Grandpa’s body, moreover, would soon return to the earth, and the earth to the atomic elements, and so on…I was constructing a metaphysical system, in other words, in open opposition to Christianity. I was doing this, moreover, in order to make sense of the conflict I was experiencing.
What really brought my endeavor to build a metaphysical system to a halt was my reading of philosophy. The history of philosophy, in a nutshell, proceeds as follows:
x proposes some theory p
y refutes p
x1 refutes y
x1 proposes a modified version of p, say p1
y1 refutes x1
The historical movement isn’t progressing toward an Absolute in which all contradiction, opposition, and negation are resolved. Rather, it’s more like an everlasting tennis tournament. Final solutions can’t be reached. That’s just the nature of the game.
What I was left with, then, was conflict. Internally, I was dealing with cognitive dissonance. Externally, I was watching the philosophical blind lead the blind. I eventually came to realize that building my own metaphysical system from scratch was simply not possible. I had to assume some starting point, and then work within those self-determined parameters. Given some assumed foundation, I could then proceed to ask and answer questions. Yet this was the problem I had been facing all along: If I proceeded in this manner, as all philosophers have, then I wouldn’t be reaching the truth through a vigorous and brave intellectual process. I would be submitting, placing my faith in someone else’s words, or placing my faith in my own arbitrarily constructed metaphysical foundation. Surely that isn’t what philosophers do, is it?
Philosophers, I learned, have always proceeded in this manner. They assume a philosophical foundation. Afterward, they ask and answer questions within their self-determined parameters. Even the most radical philosophers did this, albeit implicitly/secretively. The choice was up to me; I had to be the one to “make a leap of faith,” as it were.