My journey into this brave new world called the Internet began in late 1998. I had finally acquired a computer capable of Internet access, installed one of those AOL trial memberships CDs, and soon after found myself immersed in a world of chat rooms, email, and digital renderings of written documents and pictures. I inadvertently discovered what Drew Barrymore looks like without her clothes on. How little I knew about this new world. I had no idea what all the Internet had in store for me.
My story isn't unlike the story of most Christians at that time who were logging on via dial-up modem: we saw the Internet as a new vehicle we could use to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Cutting edge evangelism. Pretty exciting stuff. I was a youth minister at the time, and I had created a monthly newsletter for our church's youth ministry called "Crossroads." Most of the articles featured in Crossroads were humerous, but I had one serious column I wrote (being the youth minister and what not) titled, "Words to Live By." I wrote about "crucial" topics like the importance of reading your Bible and why we should pray. Once I figured out how, I created a website for Crossroads, which led to other interesting online projects like the Email Bible Study and my first crack at running a message board where people could discuss all sorts of Christiany topics.
Over time, the small "Words to Live By" section of the Crossroads website grew in popularity, due largely to the 300 or so subscribers to the Email Bible Study. Indeed, the website had outgrown the small youth group of the small church where I had been the youth minister. The Internet connected me with a much larger audience.
When I left that church, the Crossroads newsletter ended as well after a two year run, and with it ended the Crossroads website; however, the Words to Live By web page (featuring regular articles by me, along with the Email Bible Study) had evolved into its own entity by then, and I continued to write. By the end of 1999, "Words to Live By" became a full-blown Christian apologetics and theology website. I also gave it a new name and URL: A180.net.
The website continued to grow, and I continued to write. By 2001 I had assembled a group of writers from various parts of the world to contribute to A180. I called this group the "Pantheon Club." I had men and women writers from various religious backgrounds, and each of them had a different perspective and topical interest, but they were all Christians of some sort, except for one, a Wiccan girl who wrote under the nom de plume "Scarlet." I wanted more variety. I wanted at least one atheist in the Pantheon Club, and maybe even a Muslim or Buddhist. I had a few atheist contacts whom I met online, but I couldn't find anyone willing to contribute articles as my token atheist writer. So I came up with an idea: I would become that atheist writer.
I chose the pseudonym "Nevermore" after Edgar Allan Poe's narrative poem "The Raven," because, like the narrator in the poem, I wrestled with a devotion that threatened to drive me mad, although my devotion was to my religion rather than a dead lover. I wrote my first atheist article as Nevermore, titled simply, "Why I am an Atheist." Thing is, I wasn't an atheist at all back then. I wrestled with doubts often, but back then I still had faith, and my "career" as an online Christian apologist was blossoming. I secretly became the atheist writer "Nevermore" for three reasons: I wanted an atheist writer in the Pantheon Club, and couldn't find one (even back then I encouraged critical thinking and being open to different ideas, even though I didn't quite have it all sorted out myself). Secondly, I felt my atheist contributor should have a gothic feel to him (don't know why). Thirdly, it was an experiment. Could I write a convincing article in defense of atheism? I believed I could, but I knew doing so would require me to "step outside of myself" and into the context and mindset of an atheist. I had to empathize, and moreover come to appreciate why someone would think being an atheist is a good thing, even if I couldn't agree with such conclusions myself.
I can't take credit for this experiment. I attended a composition class in college back in 1996 in which the teacher encouraged her students to write argumentative/persuasive papers on hot-button topics, but only if they chose to argue in favor of whichever side of the topic they opposed. If a student was pro-life with a golden cross around her neck and one of those "it's a child not a choice" bumper stickers on her car, my teacher wanted her to write about the importance of upholding Roe v. Wade. Atheist? Write about how there's no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. Vegan? Write about how everyone should eat beef. And so the class went.
I found such an exercise challenging, troubling, and thrilling all at the same time. I also understood the importance of separating oneself from one's personal preferences, bias and thought habits, and examining an issue through another person's eyes. So I wrote my paper on something I opposed vehemently: evolution. Remember, this was the 90s. I wore a black jean jacket that said "Prayer Warrior" in large red letters on the back. I was a young-earth creationist back then. For me to write a paper on evolution and make a serious attempt to support it rationally was huge. Turns out it was one of the best things I ever did.
I actually learned what a theory is, which consequently meant I discovered how silly the "it's only a theory" argument is. I had discovered how wrong all the ministers had been who taught me that evolution "wasn't scientific." For the first time, I began to understand what science is and how science actually works. Writing that paper was, to borrow the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, my "first step into a larger world." I went from being a Hovindian young earther to a theistic evolutionist à la Francis Collins. I consider that progress.
So I conducted the same experiment with atheism, and the atheist writer Nevermore was born. Nevermore only had opportunity to write a few articles before A180.net shut down for good, but it was enough. I disappeared from the Internet in 2005, and didn't return until late 2009 due to various personal issues, including getting divorced from my wife of eight years and dealing with the subsequent fall out. As I have said before, I was too low on Maslow's hierarchy of needs to worry about matters of philosophy or theology. As I worried about bills, child support, finding a job and figuring out what I was going to do with my life, Nevermore lay dormant inside me.
When my best friend Steve died in 2008, I had an emotional resurgence of faith. Steve was a minister who started his own church, and when he died, I wanted to continue his work at that church. Steve's church was the only physical representation of my brother that I had left. Nevermore (i.e., the doubts I held and the atheistic conclusions which I slowly and reluctantly began to accept) became repressed by my emotional side.
In retrospect, I see why leaving the faith is so difficult, and why most people don't bother to even try. I visited Steve's church after he died, and felt the warmth of family, the unity of a common purpose and belief, and the comfort of repetition in ritual and oft-repeated praise song choruses. My emotions - raw from losing my dear friend and brother - found comfort there. I decided I would move back north and pick up where Steve left off.
My alter-ego Nevermore, however, knew better.
Once the emotional sting of Steve's passing dulled a bit, my rational side kicked back in, and I saw my "faith" was nothing more than desperation, a clinging to an old way of life, and a futile attempt to keep Steve alive in some form. I saw that my faith - my desperation and wishful thinking - was sustained by the repetitive and echoic conditioning utilized so famously by the church. The only emotion I felt at that moment was embarrassment. By 2009 I accepted what I tried to deny back in 2004: my faith was gone. I couldn't return to my old life of church services, pot luck dinners, weekday small group Bible studies, youth group activities, mission trips and Christian conventions. I could return to that old world nevermore.
Had personal crises not sidelined my intellectual life for four years, the Nevermore Experiment I conducted in 2004 would have most likely made me an atheist by 2005. I'm not saying every attempt to understand and try to defend a view one opposes will "convert" a person to that position. The point is, much like John Loftus' "Outsider Test for Faith" that I discovered in 2009, the "Nevermore Experiment" requires a person to step outside of her accepted belief system in order to examine the facts apart from one's typical paradigmatic filter. To qualify the cliché, "think outside the box," the box is our paradigm, belief system, or worldview. The Nevermore Experiment demands thinking outside one's paradigm.
I encourage this practice, whereas most religious people discourage it. I have witnessed time and again Christians doing their best to shield themselves and others from non-Christian books, shows, music, websites, et cetera, which they consider a threat to their faith. They discourage other believers from reading or listening to "the wrong things" that could "turn them away from the faith." When the theme of A180.net shifted from a strictly Christian apologetics website to more of an open-minded skeptical website, many of my Christian friends put a metaphoric "Enter at Your Own Risk" sign on A180.
Is faith so fragile that it needs to be constantly reinforced with ritualistic repetition, the habitual gathering together of believers for reaffirmation, the continual rejection of reason and a perpetual blind eye to anything contrary to one's faith? Yes. Christians prove this every day with their actions. They have to guard, shield and defend their faith like it's a newborn baby because faith is just as delicate, if not more so. Faith must be taught to people when they are too young or too ignorant or too emotionally-charged to think deeply enough about it; moreover, they must be conditioned to accept it. Why? Because faith is fragile. Deep down believers know this, and whether they realize it or not, they're insecure about it. The Nevermore Experiment is a threat to them, because reason is a threat to faith. A quote from Dan Barker comes to mind:
Truth does not demand belief. Scientists do not join hands every Sunday, singing, yes, gravity is real! I will have faith! I will be strong! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down. down. Amen! If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about it.