Thursday, December 29, 2011

Atheist Conversion Story

I sat down a while ago to write exactly how, why, and when I became an atheist. I have had people ask me about it before, and I thought I would write it all out and get my thoughts in order so that anyone who was curious could read about it. I started writing, and three hours and 1,500 words later, I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through. So, I scrapped that, and decided to write a condensed version.

What it comes down to is that I was raised in a very close-knit and very religious Mormon family. Many of my friends were my same religion, and I spent a lot of time at church. My family read the bible together, prayed together, and in high school I spent an average of 10 hours a week at church ( scripture study class, Sunday church, and Wednesday night youth activities). Church was a huge part of my life, and it was important to everyone important to me, and so I went along with it. I said what I was expected to say and I mostly did what I was expected to do. My family thought I believed it. For the most part I didn't question my “faith.” I’m a pretty easy going person, so I went along with what other people wanted, because I thought it didn’t much matter. This lasted through high school, through most of college (at a church school), and even afterwards for a short time. I didn't have a testimony of Jesus, but so what? I’ll go along with being Mormon, because it’s all I know.

At college, I started studying the bible for a required religion credit and finally started paying attention. I was supposed to believe WHAT??? I was supposed to look to the Bible for moral guidance? Murder, slavery, child brides, and polygamy all get condoned, and I’m supposed to believe this is the highest moral law? Suddenly, something actually was important to me. That something was figuring out what I DID or DIDN’T believe. Did I believe I should submit to my husband? Did I believe that homosexuality was a sin? Did I believe that my church was true? Did I even believe in god? I had a lot of incentive to believe. My whole family is very religious, and I wanted to make them happy. I was pretty miserable at this point in my life and I saw how content other people were in the church, and I wanted to be content like them. But still, after four years of study, thought, and unanswered prayers I realized that no, no church is true. There is no god.

It’s not that I think religion is “too hard,” and I didn’t want to put the work in. It’s not that I want to live a terribly sinful life. It’s not that I’m angry or sad. It’s that it’s NOT REAL. Once I realized that simple truth, I felt an actual weight lift off my shoulders. I no longer had to force my mind to believe ridiculous unscientific facts. I no longer had to harden my heart against equal rights for the LGBT community. I no longer had to feel unloved by a god who seemed indifferent to me. I had finally found the happiness I wanted so badly, and I found it through abandoning the religion that had been tying me down!

So, I guess it’s as simple as that. I’m an atheist because I tried really hard to believe in a god, and couldn’t. I tried praying, fasting, studying the scriptures and that only drove me farther away from religion. I stopped being depressed and angry when I stopped trying to force myself to believe in god. As an atheist I became more giving, open, confident, smarter, happier, and a better person.

Monday, December 05, 2011


I just finished taking a big Japanese language test. It’s called the JLPT, and I took level 4. It’s a pretty expensive test. Between the test fee and the postage to mail in the test application, it cost about 7,000 Yen. That’s about 90 US dollars. I’m hoping to get a job teaching English at a Japanese University pretty soon, so being able to pass a Japanese test would look pretty good on my resume. Now, there are 5 levels, the 1st level proving that you are fluent, and the 5th level showing that you have probably studied two semesters worth at college. (As anyone who has studied a foreign language can attest to, two semesters doesn’t add up to very much language ability, much less when you have to spend half that time just learning to read...and not getting very far on that anyways.)
So, I took level 4 on December 4th 2011. I began planning to take the test in May, 2011. In May, I went to the JLPT website and answered the sample questions they provide on the website for level 5 ( I passed with flying colors. I failed the level four questions spectacularly. However, the test wasn’t for another seven months. I study about twleve hours or more a week, so I figured I could level up in that amount of time. I study from the textbook series called Genki. I mostly focused on just working my way through that textbook. It’s a great textbook series that combines all four skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing), in order to create a well-rounded Japanese speaker. I figured that it would just as adequately prepare me for the test as anything else would. I felt that my listening skills were pretty good, as were my reading and writing skills, but that I needed more work on my grammar. (Specifically, particles, for any Japanese speakers out there)
About two months before the test, I started looking online and found some practice tests. I took them and aced the reading portion with flying colors. I did acceptable on the grammar section and got a...wait for it.... 0 on the listening section. Yes. ZERO.
See, the test doesn’t just hand you the answers. A sample question was something like,
Listen to the dialogue-
Girl: Why were you so late today?
Boy: I had problems on the bus.
Girl: What happened? Did you oversleep?
Boy: No, when I got off the bus, I realized I had left my wallet on my seat!
Girl: Oh! I thought you were going to say you forgot your wallet at home.
Boy: No, I didn’t forget my wallet at home.
Question: Why is he late?
A-He slept in and missed the bus.
B-He left his wallet at home.
C-He left his wallet on the seat of the bus.
For someone like me who can only pick out words here and there, this is a pretty tricky question! When I hear the choices, it’s hard to pick which one is best, because I heard the main parts of each sentence. So I picked B, because I heard about him leaving his wallet at home more than anything else. In the test making business, we call those types of questions “distractors,” and I should know better than to fall for them, but I did every time. That’s why I did worse than if I had just marked random answers.
So I immediately started focusing on my listening skills. I listened to Japanese on my phone as I biked to and from school, I watched Japanese TV at home and YouTube tutorials, and I started feeling more confident. I found a different listening sample test and scored 60% on it! (50% is a passing grade.) I continued studying, but I felt very confident that I would pass the test. From time to time Jon would give me five minute tutorials in Japanese grammar or reading as we were grocery shopping or waiting for the bus. For example, he taught me how to remember the difference between the very similar looking kanji for “to wait” , “to hold” 持, and “especially” . 

Now we’re up to the month before the test. I stop learning new things, and go back and review everything that I’ve studied up to this point. It’s a textbook and a half of review, and I’m glad I did it. There were plenty of vocabulary words I had forgotten and important grammar issues I had totally forgotten about.
The Friday before the test, I do one last online practice test, just a short one on grammar. I, again, get a big, fat, ZERO. Again, worse than if I had just marked all Bs. I then go to the list of kanji (Japanese characters)I need to know and realize that I don’t know lots and lots of them. I know about 250 from my textbook, and the test requires 280, so, since they only require 50% to pass, I figured I was in the clear. Well, my textbook did not teach me the same ones the Japanese test makers think I should know.
At this point I’m much less confident. I don’t know the right kanji, my grammar skills are non-existent, and I’m pretty sure I WON’T pass. I spend all day Saturday and Sunday morning skimming the new kanji so I can recognize them, and reviewing more grammar (particles!).
The test starts at 12:30 on Sunday, and by 12:15, almost everyone is in the room, ready to start. We have assigned seats, and we clear our desks of everything except our test voucher, a few pencils, an eraser, and a watch. The administrator walks up and down the row checking our faces to our test photo and handing out the question packet and answer sheet. At 12:45, we finally begin.
I am glad that I spent that last few days in review. Almost everything I reviewed is somewhere on that first portion of the test. There are 30 minutes and 35 questions, and the kanji part is relatively easy. I answer all the questions that I’m sure I know first, then count them. There are 18 questions that I’m almost positive I got right. That’s half. That’s passing! I finish the test, guessing on the rest of them, but making pretty good guesses, I think. I walk out of the room with a smile on my face. I notice that lots of people aren't smiling. In fact, I glance around once we've done, "pencils down!" and I notice that lots of people didn't have watches with them. They must not have known that the time was up, because plenty of people have questions with no hole at all filled in.
Jon was waiting for me outside of the building, as he went with me to the testing area to support me. He had walked to McDonald’s and gotten me a cheeseburger and a coffee to keep me from getting hungry or sleepy. He’s wonderful. One of the questions had been to correctly identify the kanji for “to wait,” so I chalk that up to him.
I felt really good going back in to take part two. It was a 60 minute reading portion. I’m a good reader, and my reading skills have transitioned pretty easily in my other language (Spanish). I got stellar scores on my practice reading tests. I love reading.
I still love reading… English.

Boy, this part of the test kicked my butt. It started with the classic Japanese test question, where they take a sentence, break it into four pieces, jumble it up, and you have to put it in order. I’m very bad at this. When I see my middle school students doing these types of questions in English, I struggle to help them figure it out….in my own language. So, I figured I would skip those, and go to the reading passages. Well, those took a long time. One reading question would focus on one paragraph of reading. So, in order to answer one reading question, I had to read a full paragraph of Japanese, then read the question and the multiple choices, another five sentences in Japanese. Just for one question. I read as quickly as I could, even skimming some reading sections, and I still had to guess on about 8 questions, just filling them in randomly. I did not leave with a smile.
There was another half hour break where Jon and I went for a relaxing walk and he talked me up, and then I went in to take the listening section. I don’t know, it’s all a blur by this point. Maybe I got 50%? There were only three multiple choices to choose from for about half the questions, so that really helped pull my random guessing score to 33% rather than 25%.
I had a hard time with this test because of its 50% pass rate. I’m used to the US, where 70% is usually the pass rate. When you walk out of a test, you know whether you knew most of the answers, so you know if you passed or not. But here, you could conceivable only know 35% of the answers, guess randomly on the remaining 65%, get 25% of those right, just from random guessing, and still pass the test! Knowing my track record of guessing, I’m not betting on that, but I still don’t know.
Also, I won’t find out if I passed till I get my results in the mail in Feb, two months after taking the completely scan-tron test. What, are they going to check them by hand? And then deliver them by carrier pigeon?