In the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a number of unrelated people from diverse and distant stations and geographies experience strange shared phenomena that none of them can explain or understand, and which suggests to those around them that they might actually be losing their marbles. These people are ultimately driven to seek out and travel to the remote location where they have been “summoned.” It’s not a perfect metaphor for what I am about to say, maybe not even a very good one. I don’t believe in alien abduction (although I do agree with Sagan, Hawking and others that it’s likely that there is non-supernatural intelligent life in the universe beyond us). I do understand having a sense of an inner stirring, a change of outlook and perspective that I could not really explain or could have predicted, and later coming to find out that I have it in common with a number of other people.
What I’m referring to are the inner tectonic shifts that came as a result of having dismissed my religion and eventually all supernatural phenomena as completely and woefully inadequate to explain and understand our world and universe and the human experience including all the intangible aspects, beautiful and ugly, that come with it. At first all I could articulate was that I did not believe some article of faith or another anymore, like hell. That list grew over the years until I finally realized I had nothing left to hold any kind of coherent faith or god-ideal together. That struck terror in me at first. I prayed that God would forgive me for not believing in Him, as ridiculous as that sounds now, but I truly had nothing on which to base a reasonable belief. What kind of worldview and life would I be left with? How would I, how could I explain things I had always used God to explain before? Maybe I was wrong!
This was a case of having to empty myself before anything else could occupy, of having to devastate before anything could be rebuilt. There was that moment, like in the film when they all find out about each other’s shared experience, that I also realized I was not alone. I had of course realized through reading and conversation with other skeptics that the ideas I held were common to others, that hell for example, is completely untenable, but this was all cognitive. I tried to articulate what was going on inside me in my first public coming out as a skeptic and freethinker:
To the believer, it will sound as if I am cut off, down a bunny trail of error and blindness, a heretic, apostate. I feel no such thing. Things make much more sense to me, I am more alive, I feel more connected, I am not worried nor do I fear. I am incredibly grateful to the forces responsible for my existence. No god I am interested in knowing would begrudge an honest and sincere inquiry, honoring the only faculties I was born with. I assume responsibility for it. I know love more than I ever have. I have grown. I am more complete in every way. I have ongoing discussion about all this and my ongoing process on Facebook, and I invite anyone to sit in and continue to grow with me, just as it was with listening to Undercover.
I began to read other testimonies of deconversion from a number of religions, Christian, Mormon, Muslim, and found them talking about the same kinds of shifts. Then I found Robert Green Ingersoll. How could he have known over a hundred years ago almost exactly what I would be feeling today? And how is it that so many of us, separated by time and space come to end up feeling these same things, this same way? This was truly good news indeed, much better news than any I had heard based in anything supernatural no matter how fanciful, but I will let Ingersoll tell it in his own words.
When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.
And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain — for the freedom of labor and thought — to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains — to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs — to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn — to those by fire consumed — to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.¹
¹ – From Robert G. Ingersoll’s Why I Am An Agnostic, Section XI, 1896.