Profiles in Conversion

The miracle workers at the New Journal compressed my 5400-word rough draft into 2800 words of tight prose:

I really like the final edit, but since about 6000 words wound up in one draft or another and were cut before the end, I’d like to throw in some footnotes/addenda/scraps from my reporting notebook. Ordered according to the relevant spot in the piece:

1) When I was eight years old, an eight-year-old friend of mine had me declare my faith in Christ in his basement. I was told this would save me from Hell, so I was glad to comply. I later learned that Jews don’t believe in Hell. Damn!

2) In the course of having an evangelical best friend, I attended his church a few times. It was a lively church. Lots of singing and dancing, which was confusing, because the rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth never danced. At one point, after the service, I compared the pastor to a kangaroo. This led, five seconds later, to a knock-down, drag-out fight with the pastor’s kid. My friend never took me back to church with him.

3) I would like to run a study of Jewish kids with certain birthdays (birth date determines which section of the Torah one reads for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah). My theory: kids born around May 27, who thus get the burning-of-Aaron’s-sons passage, wind up less religious than those given Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt.

4) Even strict vegans will sometimes eat oysters or krill, since those creatures seem to lack the capacity for suffering. My Hindu friend would not, because thanks to reincarnation, even oysters have souls. Karma’s a bitch.

5) Sentence cut from the piece: “Witt’s new beginning had me at wits’ end.”

6) I looked for students who’d lost religion at Yale, and found a couple, but only one was willing to be interviewed on the record. The others feared they’d be disowned. This didn’t seem to be a risk for the converts with whom I spoke. So, some slight sampling bias there, though I’m not honestly sure which form of conversion usually begets more stress and worry overall. And I’m sure some Yale converts have been disowned as a result. (Luckily, the new Yale Humanist Community should be a boon for campus deconverts!)

7) Living Water is the Christian a capella group. Magevet is the Jewish a capella group. Perhaps founding a Humanist a capella group would help Yale’s secular students come together as a community?

8) The Unitarian church I sometimes attended as a child was perfectly nice to Christians, for what it’s worth. Though I mostly went for Christmas services, and for one youth-group learn-about-sex class that was awkward for totally nonsectarian reasons.

9) Sentence cut from the piece: “At one point, the two of us–an ex-Jewish atheist and a Christian with Unitarian sympathies–are discussing whether the Koran was divinely inspired in a sacred Buddhist space with stained-glass windows.”

10) Reasons and Persons, a book by the man many consider the greatest living philosopher, has been said to contain most of the moral answers a person requires. I’ve been reading it for three hours. 25 pages in, it isn’t helping. (Edit: 150 pages in, it was helping, but I put it aside for a year or so to think about it properly.)

11) Bijan and I got especially lost in a debate over whether the Miracle of the Sun, a big holy moment for 20th-century Christianity, was actually a miracle. What about all the miracles recounted in Islamic tradition? Bijan replied that they might have been the work of the Devil. What if the Miracle of the Sun was the work of the Devil trying to trick Muslims? After some quiet staring into space, we changed the subject.

12) The issue in Madeleine’s interview, where I hear her explanation of their own religion and want to counter it as she goes, because I know the appropriate counters by heart, is a very serious one. If I find it happening to me again, with any topic I love, I’ll try to remember Scott Alexander’s brilliant piece on ideological bingo cards and keep myself open to new ideas, even if they come surrounded by ideas I’ve heard before.

13) To clarify: I don’t think I’m doing anything “wrong” when God doesn’t speak to me. I always had a nonspiritual life, even when I thought I believed, and while I can’t say I don’t envy my subjects the joy and satisfaction that come with belief, this isn’t much different from my envy of, say, people who really appreciate classical music or Impressionist art and can hear/see things in it that I probably never will. I also have a weak sense of taste, but I like to think that this helps me eat more vegetables and keeps me healthy. Maybe my weak sense of God helps me attain a sort of mental clarity different from the clarity believers describe?

14) Part of an ending cut from one draft of the piece:

“I can’t tell you anything that will sum up the mindset of Yale’s converts and semi-converts, those who grow rather than shrink in their faith on this campus. But I can tell you that finding those people, and learning what makes them tick, was one of the most enlightening things I’ve done here. They make me think in new directions, even new dimensions.”

This is expressed rather blandly, but the sentiment is true. The experience of researching, interviewing, and writing for this piece was incredible, and I’ll remember the double baptism forever. I’d see religion at Yale, and in the world, very differently had I not spoken to Madeleine, Kim, Bijan, Hannah, Julia, Carmen, Pietro, Juan, and many other students in passing.

So, in short, next time you meet someone who believes a religion that confuses you, or has political or moral values that confuse you, or likes music you can’t stand… try noticing your confusion (1a on this useful list) and asking what led them to the things they love.

2 thoughts on “Profiles in Conversion

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