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Saturday, July 12, 2008

On Becoming an Atheist

To mark the fiftieth post, I decided to make a milestone post. I tried deciding among this post, the post on the atheist definition, and the post on an atheist Heaven. I hope you all will find this choice of post interesting.

This is a personal account of my de-conversion (for lack of a better word) and coming to a rational view from a religious view. I think a few parts of this should be especially interesting as they are less common than most. Theists and atheists alike should gain something. Several points of interest that will be covered:

  • After becoming an atheist, while I rejected creationism, I also rejected evolutionary theory. I viewed them to be equally ridiculous (worthy of ridicule) and both as equally unlikely and preposterous.
  • A conversation between me and another concerning gay adoption while I was still a theist.
  • My father is/was a biblical fundamentalist who brought me up in the same. While believing the Bible is inerrant and in the divinity of Jesus, he rejects and even hates Christianity.
  • My first encounter with an atheist or really atheism in general was at the age 14.
  • I still conceal my atheism from most of my family and one of my friends.
I will try to keep this post as succinct as possible :-)

Growing Up "Christian"
Firstly, I never called myself a Christian. Even though I accepted my father's fundamentalist beliefs of the inerrancy of the Bible and the divinity of the Messiah, I never called myself a Christian. This is because my father left the Christian church in the 80's when he had repeatedly questioned Christian dogmas such as the trinity. He spent much time studying and couldn't find support for many such dogmas in the Scriptures.

After leaving the Church, he studied on his own everyday and rejected some core Christian doctrines. As such, I was never brought up learning that 1=3 and, in fact, my first encounter with that was probably at the age of 14. I was also raised learning the proper name of Yahweh for the Creator and Yahshua for the Messiah. I never celebrated Christmas as the birth of the Savior, as I was taught the pagan history of the ritual.

Growing up, my favorite Bible story was Noah's Ark. I remember being somewhere around the age of six and I had a set of five cassette tapes "shelved" in a wooden block shaped as Noah's Ark. I listened to the tapes ad nauseam. My favorite movie was the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, which remains one of my favorites to this day. I also watched the BBC's version of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on a near daily basis.

I remember keeping the Sabbath was excruciatingly boring for such a little kid, as it was a day of rest and also meant no going anywhere, no cooking, no TV, etc. The only TV we could watch was the Discovery Channel (back when it had animals on all the time). My father sat me down when I was about nine and gave me the graphic description of the Messiah's death. Starting at probably age 10-11, we started having weekly Bible studies, one for adults and one for kids. My favorites were always the descriptions of the Kingdom (Heaven) wherein there were descriptions of the condition of the Earth, interaction with animals, and everything else. It was never some abstract concept for me, it was always a physical reality.

When I did move near my grandparents, we started going to their house for Christmas with my mother (as my mother and father had divorced). Christmas was always a very painful and troubling time for me. I knew the history of Christmas and why it shouldn't be celebrated. So, however much I liked the meals and presents, I had continual guilt about being there. I often tried to think of ways I could get out of Christmas or perhaps declare I was no longer going. I never stopped going to Christmas, though, and it is still a holiday I participate in to this very day, except now I enjoy it.

And the Pledge of Allegiance? I hated having to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I never used the name God. Not using his proper name, Yahweh, was an affront to Him. I also had to lower my voice at that part and say "under Yahweh."

Meeting an Atheist
My first encounter with an atheist (at least one who said she was an atheist) was probably around age 14. Before that, I never even knew there were people who didn't believe in Yahweh. It was really quite shocking. How could you not? How could you look around and say, there is no God? I could feel His presence... couldn't they? It was rather baffling.

I was sitting alone in a hallway at lunch (I was a loner in high school) and one day this girl sits down with me and she's dressed in all black and had dyed hair. She was talking to me and eventually something came up about God and she said she thought the entire idea was so silly. I remember her exact words: "The idea that there's this great invisible man in the clouds and he has this big book. And in this big book he's going to write down every single thing that you have ever done and thought. And then there will come a day after you die and he will read all the horrible things you did and thought and then direct you through Door A to Heaven or Door B to Hell."

Probably the next year I encountered a more open atheist who was my friend. One night, he asked me why I believed in God. I remember my answer was along the lines that "I believe it with all my heart. I know there is a God." He said okay, and didn't press the issue.

Becoming an Atheist
I would say the first time I started to question my faith was around age 15-16. One day I realized that the predominate religion in North America was Christianity, in the Middle East was Islam, Hinduism in this place, Buddhism in that place, and so on. So, it seems people don't believe what they do because of any special revelation or because of any critical thought; they believe it because it is what they are inculcated with as children. They accept what is native to their region.

After that, it was just a long process of that seed of doubt growing. I didn't read any books on the matter and I didn't talk to anyone about it. If I had told either my mother or my father, they would surely have disowned me. It was a painfully lonely process. I cried a lot and prayed a lot. Realizing that no one was on the receiving end of those prayers that I had been sending for so long was also difficult to grapple with, or that the presence I had felt was simply willing to feel it.

I would say another substantial blow to my faith came when I discussed gay adoption in an IRC channel (if you remember those). After that, I realized I had really no basis for my homophobia and opposition to homosexuality. The chat was basically me arguing that a child needs a mother and a father, it's child abuse, having gay parents will have the children bashed by peers, etc. There really was no argument for keeping kids in the social care system when there are loving homes for them, though.

Within a year I'd say I had become an atheist (though I did not call myself it), though I wasn't out about it. I was still in school and I had teachers who talked about Jesus, God, and Christianity in the classroom! Failing to believe in God would surely meaning failing to pass the class.

Even becoming an atheist, I still had all these horrible thoughts in my head of "What if I'm wrong?," "What if Yahweh really exists and I have saddened the Father?," and "What if I'm going to Hell?" I never really lost the idea of Hell from my mind. I never resolved these questions of doubt on my own.

One day I was watching this news segment about a girl who had escaped a Mormon compound. She had been out for maybe 6-12 months. They showed her in a museum looking at an erect skeleton of a brachiosaurus. She's crying as she looks up at the dinosaur bones. She says that even though she knows now that dinosaurs exist, she can't shake the lingering inculcated belief that they were a lie and and invention of Satan. That story really struck a chord with me about inculcated beliefs surviving rationalization.

Being an Atheist
Even once I became an atheist, I am ashamed to say, I rejected evolution. The whole idea was preposterous. This goo which always existed came out of the ocean and one day evolved into humans? How foolish.

This is the point I try to stress with regard to the evolution-creation controversy. Evolutionary theory has nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with science. Atheists often take up the fight of evolution because (1) introduction of ID is an erosion of educational standards, (2) the attacks on evolution are attacks on science, and (3) it's primarily fueled by religion (as with homophobia). Being an atheist doesn't require you accept evolution any more than accepting evolution requires you to be an atheist.

So, once I was an atheist, I didn't accept evolutionary theory. The reason is the same as why most theists don't: ignorance. I accepted all the spoon-fed arguments thrown out by the ID/creationism crowd: it's just a theory, there are gaps in the fossil record, no transitional fossils, etc. Giving time in class for a "competing theory" sounded very rational to me, even if I did not believe creationism. I could take this stance as I was not well educated in science, much less evolutionary theory. This was a consequence of disliking science at the time.

When I was in high school, after I became an atheist, I wrote on the validity of evolutionary theory:
Evolutionism is a theory. To my knowledge, evolution has holes in it. That's why it is a theory. [...] If it was proved to be true it would be a fact.
Regarding Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's argument that God had to have created the universe -- yeah, I knew about Ray Comfort (and wrote about) Ray Comfort back when I was in high school as well -- I wrote:
They conclude that anything in existence had to have been created, it couldn't just become. Valid argument, but then I wonder: who created God?

If the response is that God has always been (i.e. nothing created him), then I don't see why the other side can't use the same premise for their theory. Either (a) Nothing created God; he always was. He then slowly created life, the universe, and everything over a period of time, OR (b) Nothing created some organisms, molecules, or watever; they always were. They then slowly evolved into life, the universe, and everything over a period of time.

Regular expression to match origin theories: /Nothing created ([a-z'\-\s]+); (he|she|it|they) always (was|were). (he|she|it|they) slowly ([a-z\-'\s]+) life, the universe, and everything over a period of time./

It's not an argument one way or the other, it's that both creationism and evolutionism (from the best of my knowledge) assume that there was always something that always existed and progressed into what we have today; yet, advocates of creationism attack the concept of evolutionism based on this mutual aspect.
When did I accept evolutionary theory? I had biology in high school; however, the teacher specifically skipped over the evolution chapter in our lesson plan. I remained skeptical of it for quite some time until I actually started studying it on my own. After studying it, it amazes me that there are people who still deny evolution. I realize, though, many haven't taken the time to investigate it for themselves, thoroughly. There are also those who criticize people who zealously defend evolutionary theory as being "religious" or "dogmatic" about it. The same is done, though, when Christians attack others areas of science, be it contraception or the heliocentric model.

But I digress. Studying evolution gave me a spark for science which I continued to pursue. I learned the difference between lay theory and scientific theory, and lay fact and scientific fact. I continue to study science and I credit Stephen Hawking for much of my affinity for science.

But my passion for science is independent of my atheism. I hate when anti-science advocates like Ray Comfort build a false dichotomy between science and religion. I hate it also when pro-science advocates like Richard Dawkins say that he doesn't see how you can have religion and be a good scientist, or that having religion would take away from your science. I find it rather disheartening.

The Charitable Atheist
What always irritates me is when theists use arguments such as morality or charity requires religion. I am not sure if I should take it as offensive (which I do), or simply their lack of experience with atheists. In my experience, atheists are just as friendly, gregarious, charitable, and selfless as Christians. Often, atheists are more so because they are more accepting due to the stigma they live under.

But my objection to the arguments is always personal. As an atheist, I have no problem doing selfless acts. I spend 90 minutes every 3-4 weeks with a needle in my arm donating platelets. I receive no compensation for it (except for a bottle of water afterward) and no recognition for it. Unlike Christians, I don't ever expect to be rewarded for it either.

I also have a passion for kids. I have volunteered as a volunteer tutor consistently for eight of the past ten years. I plan on joining the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Once I get situated for it, I plan to adopt a son probably in seven years. I also donate and volunteer for certain causes when I can, such as gay rights.

All of these things I do without some dogma or book telling me to do so, and without either a carrot or stick awaiting me at the end of life. I live the best I can and try to be slow to anger in personal relationships. So, when a Christian tells me that I am a miserable little worm, or that I need religion to be a good person, or the Bible tells me that, as an atheist, I do no good, it's quite difficult not to take offense to it. No greater sweeping generalization is made than that towards atheists.

Coming Out
While I have been an atheist for years now, I have only recently started "coming out" about it. I think it is important for those around you to know that you are an atheist so that they know that atheists aren't these child raping murderers which they are often portrayed as. It may also cause them to think twice before voting on something which would erode our rights, as they know someone personally affected by it.

I work online developing websites (I will soon be specializing in atheist-friendly only websites), so I have no workplace concerns. Almost all of my friends know that I'm an atheist. The only friend who does not know that I am an atheist is that friend for whose marriage I have taken this trip. I have known her for probably 13-14 years and had a close friendship with her especially the last eight years. She is a devout Christian, though. She has attended church every week of her life, has actually read the Bible, and has talked about it a lot. I have never quite been able to work up the courage to tell her.

Very few of my family knows about my atheism, as they are all Christians and I have very close relationships with them. Of my four siblings, only one knows as she is also an atheist. I told my mother this year while I was in town one week. And that is the entirety of it. If any of my extended family knew, I know I would no longer be welcome at the occasional gatherings we have. My father is not only a fundamentalist, but also an old man, so he is quite set in his ways. When he found out my eldest sister was gay, he disowned her an never spoke to her again until she was, I believe, 34 since she had a daughter and he has quite the soft spot for kids.

Telling my mother was quite difficult. She is also a fundamentalist, but relies more on the spiritual connection she has with God. The night I told her, it took several hours and she cried the entire time. She believes in her heart that I will be going to Hell for all eternity. It's nothing she revels in like many Christians do; it causes her great pain. It makes me wonder: how could there possibly be a Heaven for my mother, knowing that her children are burning in Hell?

Conclusion: My Views
If you have made it this far, you are a brave, persistent soul :-) I thought I would conclude by discussing exactly what my beliefs are.

I am an atheist. I am without belief in a god. I've encountered many atheists who, for whatever reason, hate it when the word atheist is used like that (even though that is the proper definition for it). They think it should only be used for people who believe there are no gods. What is the difference between disbelieving there is a god (which describes both me and them) and believing there is no god (which describes only them)? It will be the subject of a later post on atheist labels.

In short: the difference is I disbelieve there is a god and I disbelieve there is no god. That is to say, I do not believe there is a god and I do not believe there is no god. I lack a belief either way. I have no belief. I am an a-theist; someone who is not a theist; someone who does not believe there is a god.

I find the question of whether there is a god utterly pointless, anyway. What if there is a god who exists entirely outside of the universe and has never interfered with it, not even at the big bang? Does it matter? What if there is a god who "created" the big bang? Does it matter?

It may matter. Whether it does is not something we can discern. Whether there is an afterlife given by such a god cannot be discerned. It could be we all die and be dead forever. It could be that we all go to a heaven. It could be that we all to a hell. It could be that some of us go to a heaven and some to a hell. It could be that we are all reincarnated for all eternity. It does not matter, though, as we cannot discern it -- so why concern ourselves? The god could certainly show up and tell us and then we would know, but barring that, all we can do is speculate, which is a waste of what time we have left in this life, especially if it's our only one.

While the above goes towards knowledge, not specifically belief, I would say that belief falls in line with the above reasoning. What is the point of believing one way or the other?

I not only neither believe against nor believe for the existence of a deity, I also lack the interest in believing or disbelieving. You could call me an apatheist, then; however, that doesn't go towards a statement of belief, so it cannot be substituted for the word atheist (just as agnostic can't).

I am an apatheist. I am an agnostic. I am an atheist. Put without labels: I lack interest, knowledge, and belief of a deity.


Anonymous said...

Just an observation:

     A word means what it is commonly understood to mean. Similarity to words in other languages (even partial derivation) can provide useful clues to the likely meaning of an otherwise unknown word. But, ultimately, it is the way people actually use words that determine what they mean. As an example, "gay" used to be a synonym for "merry." But it would be foolish to insist that that was the "correct" definition of the word.

weemaryanne said...

Can't recall who said this (Isaac Asimov? Robert A. Heinlein?) but it seems apropos:

"There may or may not be an afterlife. Soon enough you'll know for sure, so in the meantime, why worry about it?"

Thanks for sharing your story.

The Ranting Student said...


This was great. Thanks for your story.

Take Care.

Brittany said...


Thanks for sharing your story DI.

Honestly, for the past 20 minutes, I have been thinking about what to say on this post.

I'm currently listening to a song by Skillet, called Savior! You should check it out!

Oh, btw, the Big Brother/Big Sister program is pretty Awesome. You should definitely join. Great expereinces!

Have a blessed day discomforting ignorance...

In Christian Love,

DisComforting Ignorance said...

Thanks all for the comments.

@anonymous: I've included the response in an upcoming post entitled Definitively Atheist, if you want to keep your eye out for it (currently away on vacation).

@weemaryanne: Thanks, that pretty much sums up my feelings on it. Worrying about something you cannot know or cannot change always seems pointless to me. And not just with regard to religion.

@Brittany: Thanks for the comments; I always have a habit of thinking on my own comments, so I've just gotten to the point where I read something and come back to it a few hours later to comment.

Were you in the BBBS program as a Big or Little? You know, it's been around for over thirty years. I was in it when I was a kid. I only had a Big for about a year, but it was still an amazing experience. It's been something I have been looking forward to doing ever since. I have been putting off applying as a Big, though, for several years now as I'm waiting to get better situated for it. If I wait for too much longer, though, it will coincide with the adoption plans.

Brittany said...


I was in the BBBS program as a Big Sister. I truly enjoyed the many experiences I had as a Big Sis.
The laughter and fun times me and my little bro had were amazing.

You should really go ahead and apply! Great experiences and great laughs are what await you!

Take care discomforting ignorance!

In Christian Love,

DisComforting Ignorance said...

Everyone I have ever talked to about BBBS has had nothing but wonderful things to say about it. I did apply once before as a Big, but it was at a time when I was working a lot, so I didn't have much of a social life (outside of professional circles). I spent free time volunteering (including with children), though, so I thought that would be adequate. Alas, no, though, so they told me to re-apply once I had a social life to supplement it.

I have been putting it off ever since then. I know they will ask me what sort of social things I do outside of work and volunteering and I would have to be honest about mainly interacting with atheist social groups and the friends I've met through there. Since I'm in Texas, I'm not sure how favorably the coordinator (or the parents) would take that, as it could be one who links atheism with pedophilia. So, I've been putting it off until I can find the time to make more social connections other than with atheists.

The first rejection (or rather postponement) was disheartening. I think a second one, especially if it's because I'm an atheist, would be crushing.

Brittany said...


"The first rejection (or rather postponement) was disheartening. I think a second one, especially if it's because I'm an atheist, would be crushing."

I did not know that they could deny you to become a BBBS just by your beliefs.

I know that they allow buddhists or christian, hetero or homosexual people to become a BB/BS. It would be unfair to allow a non-beleiver access to become a BB/BS.

Well, anyway, I do hope you keep on applying. Don't ever give up. Be persistent.

In Christian Love,