How I Became A Skeptic - Part 1

I love to do a lot of introspection and one thing that's been on my mind quite a bit lately is how I deal with emotions. I tend to be an emotional rollercoaster, despite how hard I try to stay rational and logical, but I used to be far worse. I grew up in a very emotional environment. As a child it's easy to miss the real life struggles going on around you, but kids don't stay ignorant forever. My household while I was growing up was riddled with emotional turmoil, though I didn't realize it for quite some time. I had no idea just how much emotional baggage I was soaking up until it started to manifest in other areas of my life.

As I headed toward the upper grades in gradeschool I began to notice that I had a harder and harder time making (and keeping) friends. Up until about third grade I had a healthy amount of friends that were happy to spend time with me, but as we all got older something started to change. Many of my friends began to ignore me and made it clear they didn't want anything to do with me. As a kid I never once thought for a second that I might be the cause; I knew that something had to be wrong with them. This feeling was re-inforced by my mother when I would express my frustrations. My mother was oftentimes an emotional wreck, though as a kid I didn't quite understand that yet. She would tell me the other kids were just jealous of me and that the problem was clearly with them.

My mother's emotional disposition on life gave her a worldview that today, is far from the one that I hold. At the time though, my mental toolset didn't yet posses the ability to root out flaws in my own reasoning and shed emotional baggage that wasn't doing me any good. I simply believed what she would say and I would take that information with me back into my little kid social life where it would sabbotage me further. Don't get me wrong, my mother was a great mom and I have known plenty of peers growing up who had things a whole lot worse than I ever did when it came to their relationship with their parents. My mom was doing what she thought was best for her kids. Considering the environment that my mom was raised in herself, I commend her for becoming the upstanding person she is today.

All of that said, nobody's perfect and even though she didn't mean to, my mom sent me out into the world with some of that emotional baggage dragging behind me. Growing up in Utah provided an easy excuse to hide behind. My mom conveyed to me that it was because my friends were all Mormon that we don't see eye to eye. I was never raised religious and this was one of the first times in my life when I began to pay attention to the local religion. This belief was reinforced by the fact that my mother didn't get along with any of the other parents in the neighborhood and some of my friends' parents really did disallow us to associate with one-another, using their religion as the excuse. My friends and I were all just children; none of us actually knew what the hell that meant, only that we weren't able to be friends anymore and Jesus was the reason why.

A seed of hatred for Mormons and Mormonism was planted in me from a pretty young age. It wasn't until I was older that I realized I was an emotional wreck and my friends stopped wanting to spend time with me because I wasn't any fun to be around. I was selfish and rude around my friends long before religion was even on any of our radars. I didn't understand that I was the one pushing them away with my own words and actions. I was an anxiety-ridden little kid and it showed. Nearly everything that followed was simply a symptom of that. Of course, I still hold a distaste for the local religion and religion in general, but that distaste was re-kindled once I began to actually understand the phenomenon happening around me.

The fact that my friends' parents began to keep us from spending time together only added to my skewed perspective that everyone else had a problem, but not me. In a way, I'm glad that Mormonism reared its dark underbelly for me from a young age because it kept me away from it, which in turn kept my mind free from the chains of indoctrination. That said, I think it's important to realize that my distaste for Mormonism at the time, was irrational. Now that I'm an adult I can confidently point to and explain all the reasons why I think religion is an archaic institution. It's important though, to recognize when we're being irrational, even when we're right. Being right for the wrong reasons is the definition of a temporary and fleeting victory.

If there's one thing I will say for my parents, it's how grateful I am that our house was religion-free. No, we weren't atheists (at least not self-proclaimed), but the god question always remained a question for the most part. They would say in passing that they believed in god once in a while and we'd pray on Thanksgiving, but that was about it. It left me free to explore Mormonism from a (mostly) impartial perspective as I got older. Of course, my past encounters with it colored my view for a while but believe it or not I did a 180 on the whole thing when I was about 12.

That emotional turmoil that permeated the home I grew up in eventually culminated in my parents parting ways. When they told my sister and I that they were going to get a divorce, my knee-jerk reaction was to get upset; I even ran up to my room and slammed the door. I would later realize that it was the best thing that could have happened for our family, but at the time it was devastating. I started to break down emotionally and had a really hard time holding it all together. Ironically, the thing that I sought comfort in were the words of two missionaries who we started allowing to come into our house regularly to teach us the Mormon gospel. Though I was right around the corner from my first foray into the world of skepticism, I wasn't yet versed in formal logic enough to spot even the simplest logical fallacies; even a statement as simple and fallacious as "You can't prove there isn't a god." sounded like a reasonable position to me at the time. Only later would I learn that such an argument is a shifting of the burden of proof. I was just happy to hear reassuring words of comfort and I began to get more curious about the religion.

I don't remember much of the details about what they taught me, but I do remember how good I felt as friends and family started to welcome my sister and I into the Mormon fold with open arms. I now see that it's a little sad we were never so embraced as when we decided to be the same religion as them, but it is what it is. My sister and I ended up getting baptised and my dad followed shortly after, mostly just to show support for us and not necessarily because he believed in it. As the year played out the rocky divorce began to calm down and I began to notice how much happier things were at home. I became less interested in church because the light fluffy feelings it gave me were no longer enough to satiate my thirst for real knowledge.

Once I no longer needed to run from problems at home I began to actually pay attention in church. I tried hard to make sense of the things they'd say in Sunday school, asking question after question thinking I just didn't understand because I had been out of the loop for so long, unlike most of my peers. The answers to my questions never made any sense to me. Even the structure of the scriptures made no sense to me and my entire Sunday class laughed when I asked for the page number of the verse they were reading. They convinced me that it was my own reasoning that was flawed, not the answers I was receiving. I was told to pray for understanding, so I did exactly that.....a lot.

I prayed profusely for months, asking god, the holy ghost, whatever, to give me a sign. I kept saying to god that nothing made sense to me and I just needed a real demonstrable sign like he had supposedly given to so many others in the past. I managed to trick myself into engaging in a bit of anomoly hunting before I finally decided it wasn't for me and I stopped going to church altogether. It was that moment when I got to see the true colors of some of the people that supposedly cared about me and my "salvation".

I quickly realized how few people actually had rational justifications for their beliefs and merely jumped through mental hoops to make it all fit together in their head simply because they liked how it made them feel. I just didn't, and still don't work that way. I didn't want to believe things, I wanted to know things. Since nobody could ever give me straight answers that made any sense I gave up on trying to understand. Of course today it's easy for me to look at the things they were trying to teach me and realize that there isn't anything to understand until you look at the phenomenon of religion as a whole. Indoctrination is powerful and for Mormonism it's practically a requirement. I know there are definitely those who convert later in life but I would argue that most of those individuals (if not all) probably came from one form of indoctrination already.

This is about the time that I discovered computer programming. I took an after school class that taught an oldschool (even for that time) programming language called QBasic. I was fascinated by computers and I absolutely loved learning how straightforward computers worked. Once I started to gain a real understanding of how programming worked I knew that it was something I could see myself doing for a career. I enjoyed how logical computers were; when I wrote malformed code the compiler would say "Uhhh, yeah, I don't know what the hell you're trying to tell me." No amount of "Just have faith in my code Mr. computer." was going to make my code compile. I had to continue my learning, gaining a deeper and deeper understanding of how the "magical" machine in front of me actually worked. Today I do software development for a living. Of course, computers are no longer magical to me even though they were once a very daunting prospect indeed.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke

The nice thing about technology is that you can learn how it works. Computers, like everything else in our very material world follow all the laws of physics as we understand them. I finally found something that I could understand at the deepest levels. It was going from this odd emotion-based world of circular reasoning to computers that really jumpstarted my respect for logic and reason. I didn't know it at the time but every time I prodded around my computer seeing what would happen, I was performing a kind of experiment. I made lots and lots of mistakes, but in the end I had a better understanding. In 7th or 8th grade my grandparents sent me a computer that a friend no longer had any use for. I still remember playing around in Windows 98, turning off my sysem's virtual memory, and practicaly wanting to cry when it rendered my new machine almost useless. I ended up shipping the whole thing back to Idaho so my grandma's friend could boot the machine into safe mode and re-enable the virtual memory and ship it back XD.

As I got more and more computer smart I started realizing that I had very few people to share my excitement with. I observed that the people around me, while impressed with what I could do, couldn't truly appreciate them the same way I could. Keep in mind that this is still during the days of dial-up internet. There was no StackOverflow or Reddit where I could go get to know other developers and discuss the nuances of programming with like-minded people. When my teacher stopped teaching the advanced programming after school class the following year, I was completely bummed. Even text books were out of my reach as the cost was up around $50 a book. For a kid in middle-school that meant I couldn't learn as quickly as I wanted to.

For the rest of junior high I gravitated toward video games instead since they were more accessible, provided hours of entertainment, and I could share the experiences with others. I would still dabble in QBasic programming here and there, but I got bored of the practically ancient language and frustrated that I couldn't build any cool graphical applications like the students who got the opportunity to take the advanced class. It wasn't until high school that I was able to start learning C# and really start to learn the skills that would lead to my future career. You would think at this point that I was already a logical enough person that calling myself a skeptic as a worldview had to be right around the corner for me. That couldn't be further from the truth unfortunately.

Continue to part 2