My path to atheism (and why I’m staying where it led)

forest path

Image by greeneydmantis on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

EDITORIAL NOTE: What follows is something I wrote as a Facebook “note” way back in July 2010. At that time, my identity as an atheist and a skeptic were just starting to really gel for me. Writing this piece really helped me to get my thoughts in order about what I believe and why. I have edited it slightly, but it turns out that it still describes my thinking on the topic pretty well, so here it is for your enjoyment in 2012! I will probably post more about atheism in the near future, maybe including a sort of FAQ to help any readers who are not familiar with actual atheists to understand atheism a little better.

I first remember becoming aware of religion when my parents started taking my sister and I to church when I was a fairly young kid. We went to the Dexter United Methodist Church (in Dexter, Michigan) when it was still in the village. There was Sunday School starting at about 10 and a service at 11. I remember singing songs in Sunday School (♫Jesus loves me, this I know…♫) and having snacks. I, like most young children, didn’t really think about Jesus or the Bible very much, anymore than children would think about Santa Claus minus the presents. It was just a part of the landscape: on Sunday mornings, we get up and go to church, where we sing and pray and learn about this guy named Jesus. I remember liking going to church when I was that age.

There came a time, when I was about 13 or 14, that I got more serious about God. Like way more serious. I really believed and I prayed with all of my might and considered myself a very devout Christian. I liked my youth group (I still smile when I think back to our mission trip to Louisiana to help build a flood-proof house for a Native American Methodist pastor). I even attended a Promise Keepers event at the Pontiac Silverdome. During that weekend, I was “born again” during an especially fervent prayer session in the arena. If you have never been in a place where a whole lot of people are all getting worked up into a religious frenzy, it is kind of hard to understand the atmosphere. I very truly and sincerely felt the presence of God and His approval when I asked to be born again, dedicating myself to serving Him and repenting of all my sins. It was quite a feeling, like nothing I had felt before or have felt since. I’ve read stories that people have written about their deconversions from Christianity to atheism, and some of them describe how difficult it was to give up a certain high they got when they really worked at praying or otherwise worshiping. My experience in the Silverdome that day gave me a glimpse of what those people felt. It was amazing and left me feeling energized and righteous for days afterward.

I don’t really remember my religious views for the next few years. I think that they sort of gradually slid from active Christianity to a sort of passive belief–from “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth” to “I guess I believe in God, doesn’t everyone?” I guess that my final years in high school made other demands on my attention: maintaining good grades, developing a social life, meeting girls who didn’t immediately walk the other direction, “managing” a deepening depression. I didn’t really think about God that much–I had already sorted that, right? I don’t remember for sure, but I think that I prayed from time to time, but it wasn’t like my earlier teenage years. It was more of a “just in case this works” practice, like wishing on a star. It was around this time that I independently thought of Pascal’s Wager, which guided my religious views for a long time.

I can say for sure that I stopped regularly attending church services by the time I went away to college. I never even bothered to find a church in East Lansing to attend, although I thought about it. It was during my time at Michigan State University that I started thinking of myself as an agnostic. Maybe there was a god, maybe not, how could I know? My faith continued its slow decline until all that was left was the Wager–I had better believe because I’ll be tortured for all eternity if the Christians are right and I don’t. By the time I graduated, I didn’t pray at all or even really think about the matter very much. I was more focused on trying to figure out what to do with a BA in Sociology and how I was going to meet a nice girl to settle down with. Of course, about 3 months after graduation, I started seeing the wonderful woman I eventually married and she helped me decide to go to law school. By this point, religion was not even on my radar. It simply didn’t have any mindshare. I’ve heard this referred to as “apatheism,” but I still thought about myself as an agnostic whenever I thought about it at all.

It wasn’t until sometime in 2008 that my deconversion became complete. A webcomic I had been reading for some time linked to two sites: The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepchick. The Skeptic’s Guide is a podcast and I wasn’t really into podcasts then, so I started poking around Skepchick, which is a multi-author blog about science, feminism, and critical thinking. I pretty much immediately recognized that I had found my people. The bloggers and commenters were snarky, funny, and unashamed of their disbelief in a lot of things that the average American takes for granted. This was really the first time I had ever been exposed to the idea that atheism is not a dirty word and atheists are not automatically bad people. This was a huge relief to me because I was functionally an atheist myself at that point, but I was really afraid of the label. It wasn’t long until I had internally embraced my identity as an atheist, although it would still be a while before I would be comfortable expressing it to others. I followed links around the web to a bunch of blogs about atheism and skepticism. I started listening to skeptical podcasts. I formalized my doubts about things for which there was no proof and started trying to think critically about more or less everything. I could go on and on about skepticism and critical thinking, but here it is really only relevant because my atheism is simply a specific case of my general skepticism. Perhaps I will write another post later about skepticism more generally. [note from 2012: I will definitely write something about skepticism soon]

That was my journey from childish belief, through born-again Christianity, to atheism. It certainly is not the most exciting deconversion story of all time (if anyone is interested, Ebon Musings has a collection of very interesting deconversion stories), but it is mine. That takes care of the “how,” but what about the “why”?

Once I started really thinking about it, I realized that my reasons for being an atheist were pretty simple actually. First, I like to believe in things that I can be pretty sure are real. Second, the only way I know of to reliably tell real things from non-real things is, broadly speaking, science. I need data that supports a claim before I can accept the claim as true. In the case of theism, the rather extraordinary claim is made that the entire Universe is controlled by a human-like (although claimed to be infinitely superhuman) intelligence and this being demands and likes to be worshiped by the higher primates on one average planet revolving around one average star in one particular galaxy. Of course, specific religions make other specific claims, but they all really rely on “there is or are a god or gods and we should worship it or them.” Once I started examining the evidence available for this claim, I found that the great weight of it has little value, being either easily explained by non-supernatural phenomena, anecdotal, or of dubious credibility. To me, the only piece of evidence that really has any weight is that a lot of people believe in various religions and, more importantly to me, some people I love and respect very much are pretty serious about their religions. However, even great numbers of people can be wrong (e.g., the Earth is flat and the Universe revolves around it) and my love and respect for my family and friends does not mean that they cannot be wrong. Once I properly valued the available evidence, it was clear to me that there could potentially be a god or gods, but the evidence just isn’t there to support that conclusion. It seems to me that religion has had plenty of time to turn out to have been true all along simply by producing credible evidence, but it has failed to do so. I feel like it is therefore a pretty safe conclusion that theism is simply not a reflection of reality and that it is better to live my life as if that is the case.

Although the above paragraph is the basic outline of the underpinnings of my non-belief, I have some other reasons for being even more committed to atheism. The most important one is the harm that religion has caused and continues to cause to human beings. I guess this is more about my humanistic beliefs than my atheistic beliefs, but they go hand in hand for me. Religion has brought us the Crusades, the Dark Ages, witch hunts, shame about human sexuality, justification for slavery, Sharia law, 9/11, the dumbing down of American science classes, and a worldwide child rape ring, just to name a few of the worst harms. It can certainly be said that religion also has good effects, like providing comfort to those most in need of it; great contributions to architecture, sculpture, painting, and music; and acting as a focus for charity for the needy. However, none of the good effects of religious belief are exclusive to religion (to be fair, evil behavior is also hardly exclusive to the religious) and, in any event, the good that religion can do is far outweighed by the evil that comes along. The price in human suffering is simply too high. Another serious problem with religious belief is that it makes it acceptable and even desirable for people to believe in things that cannot be proven to be true (or that can be proven to be untrue). This helps people believe in a variety of directly harmful things, like the anti-vaccination movement or treating cancer with herbal supplements instead of medicine.

I recognize that this post is not particularly warm and fuzzy when it comes to religious beliefs. I do not apologize for my tone, however. It was clear and direct messages like this that first gave me the courage to claim my true beliefs and lose the shame that I felt at being a secret atheist. Atheists are terribly misunderstood by the American public and more of us need to stand up and show that we are among you, paying our taxes, helping our neighbors, and raising our children–even here in Jackson, Michigan, whose city limit signs proclaim this to be “the birthplace of the Republican Party.” There is no reason for us to moderate our expression of non-belief, not when we are surrounded daily by endorsements of belief (“in God we trust”, “one nation, under God”). I also should note that I don’t mean to attack anyone who holds religious beliefs. I think those people are wrong on that subject, but I can still like and respect people who I think are wrong about something. Please think about that before you start shouting at me in the comments!

Speaking of comments, feel free to ask me about the experiences I’ve written about here or about atheism generally. I really love to talk about this stuff!

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