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How and why do people become Atheists?

Seven more personal stories

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bullet Stephen Marley: "I have been a non-believer since my pre-teens. My upbringing was Christianity-Lite (Methodist) and while I enjoyed the cool, dark calm of our church interior and the quasi-Gothic architecture inspired visions of European travel -- for me, the sermons seemed conflicted with old testament 'wrath' and new testament 'forgiveness'. The more I read and thought about religion, the more I came to believe that it's primary purpose was to unify large groups of people into behavioral patterns which provide a prescription for social functioning. In short, the priestly class gives weight to the laws of the rulers and lawmakers. The concept of a supernatural power which commands our respect and demands we follow specified rules of order is not entirely without merit - even if it is based upon mythology. On the downside, history is loaded with examples where religion has been misused in its role as a tool for maintaining order in increasingly large and complex societies. I feel the ultimate stage of human evolution occurs when we are able to choose the correct ethical path by logical deduction and sense of fairness, instead of fear of supernatural judgment. I fear leaders, like our president, who make decisions based on private conversations with a supernatural authority. There's the old joke about prayer - 'when you talk to god it's called prayer and that's a good thing, however if you talk to god and he answers you back, that's called mental illness, which is a bad thing.'

The question I'm most frequently asked by believers in God is, 'As an atheist, where do your morals come from and why not do whatever one pleases (including murder) if it serves your self interest?' I can only reply that I believe in the essentially non-religious and fundamentally humanistic principle called 'the golden rule.' As a cognitive being, I'm aware that others share the same hopes for health, love and happiness that I desire and, as a result, I want to live a life that treats others the way I wish to be treated.

Other than that, I will say that I'm very involved with scientific discovery (although I'm not a scientist) and find greater comfort in the wondrous complexity of our world and diversity of life than in following ancient texts. Scriptures written by people with almost no understanding of their world who, I'm convinced, created elaborate myths to explain what they could not fathom. I prefer real answers about life's origins and the nature of the universe, even if it means accepting my own mortality without evidence for an afterlife."

bullet G. Michael: "I was raised in a lax Catholic home. My dad was a convert to RC just to marry my mom. He fell away first and my mom became more of a reformed Christian as the years went on. Trouble was they had a brood of smart kids who kept them on their toes in the philosophical realms.

I went to a seminary to study for the priesthood. There I read the bible, in latin, cover to cover and that begat a series of queries until I was finally judged -NOT- priest material by the powers that be and asked not to come back.

The story of Adam & Eve was the thread I picked at until the whole fabric began to come apart. If this was the word of a supreme deity, I was in deep philosophical trouble and could see no way out of thinking otherwise. Story after story, atrocity after atrocity, I slowly realized that these were the musings of long dead men who were attempting to explain the world around them to others. Some got some things right, others... not so much but "A" for effort.

So I studied the other holy scripts around the world and found them all to be lacking in any viable universal truth. My studies of the immanent worldviews was where my final epiphany came.

'I don't know why we're here or where we're going and I will no longer be concerned that I don't know.'

I describe my worldview as 'implicit atheism' in that I have no -other worldly- point of view that interacts with my thought processes and yet I remain miraculously righteous and moral. That just flies in the face of a lot of believers. They are convinced that all morality comes from a deity and can't even fathom that I could just 'make up' my own set of rules, especially if they are the same as theirs. They have to believe that all morals come from a god (or two) and tell themselves that I'm blind to the fact that 'goddidit'.

Morality was ingrained in us from the time we began to form communities. We knew that in order to survive we had to protect our group of humans from predators and -other- tribes so we created a law making meme long before we let our religions co-opt it when we invented gods.

My question has always been: 'Why do believers concern themselves -where- my morality came from when it produces the same result as theirs'?"

bullet M. Sanford: "I've always been an atheist. My Father is an atheist, and always has been as far as I know. My mother grew up a very enthusiastic Southern Baptist, but rejected her religion with all her heart when she was 18 and fled the South to California. Now she's pretty 'New Age'. So if I grew up with any religion, I would say it was the New Age beliefs of my mother, but I now think of all that stuff as superstition and mysticism.

On my dad's side I had relatives that were Evangelical Christians, including an uncle by marriage that was a Young Earth creationist. He was a scary bastard who ruled over his children with fear. I attended church services a few times when I was around 8 or 9 and it just seemed so weird. I remember they talked about the evils of secular society and praised the lord a lot. The whole thing seemed to me delusional and vaguely scary. I knew I could never be a Christian.

All religions, including 'new age' ones, try to address genuine spiritual needs like finding how to live ones life, good ethics, self reflection, and community. The problem is that they all seem to get mixed up with superstition and dogma - indeed some religions seem to be those things exclusively, and all to often get hijacked by forces that seek political power."


"Probabilist:" ... I was fairly happy [attending an] ... Evangelical school, and I did very well, running circles around my classmates in everything but athletics and popularity. But their obsession with eschatology and "the end times" gave me nightmares, and some things they insisted on as gospel truth really bugged me.

Things that bugged me most as a kid included:

  1. The all-or-nothing 'lifeboat theology' that infected what was otherwise a very good education.

  2. The major mismatch between what I learned about the age of the earth at home (and in Los Angeles County's terrific natural history museums and the National Park System visitor centers...) and what they taught us in school.

  3. The Bible verse ('By Him all things consist') that my seventh-grade electric shop teacher insisted was the only correct answer for a matching-test question that asked why the nuclei of atoms (consisting of positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons) didn't fly apart. I got that question right, but only through a process of elimination: it was the only answer left when I'd used up the other ones. He didn't appreciate it when I challenged him during review of the exam in class the next day. So I ignored my surroundings in class for the next week or so, and read A. E. van Vogt's science fiction novelette 'Mission to the Stars' (aka 'The Mixed Man') under my desktop instead. Still got a B+ in the course, though.

Thanks to excellent teachers in high school math, biology and chemistry, and a National Science Foundation summer science program in marine biology and mathematics when I was 17, I headed toward the natural sciences in college, and a long, sometimes strange process has led me (through many temporary camping spots) to a place that I think of as being just inside the front door of the great hall C. S. Lewis refers to in the preface to 'Mere Christianity'. (I read a lot of Lewis as an undergraduate, but feel no great urge to go back to him now.) I need to be near the door so I can see the rest of the world, but I'm not particularly interested in searching for a new metaphysical label to paste on myself. I question everything, but I'm also willing to acknowledge that--for me, at least--'there are no atheists in a foxhole'. When the chips are down and nothing else is working, I ask for help from within the belief system I grew up in, and it wouldn't be honest for me to pretend otherwise. It doesn't have to be rational: it just is.

But I have no patience with aggressive Young-Earth Creationists of any stripe, and my belief system does not include any idea that would suggest that the material world and its physical behavior are mere illusions, and I have no interest in the sorts of grab-bag spiritualism that grew out of Theosophy."


Cathy W: "My grandfather was an atheist. My mother was an atheist. However, she never expressed more than any agnostic beliefs when I was growing up, and even that was expressed as 'I'm not sure.' (note the "I" message). My father on the other hand, DOES believe in God, but he let my mother handle the religious upbringing, which meant that I went to a Unitarian Church, and heard my mother refute what she considered the more absurd religious statements I heard from my friends. So, for most of my life, I was an agnostic. Then I took a Holocaust course. The grandfather I mentioned in the first statement was a Jew who managed to escape with his family from Belgium after the Nazis invaded in 1939 to Southern France. He fought in the Underground, and my mother was born in France just after the end of the war. I know from talking to my grandparents, that many of my family members died at Treblinka. So when I took this Holocaust course, and studied first hand what was done to 'God's Chosen people,' it started me on my journey from Agnosticism to Atheism. It wasn't until after I had myself tested for HIV as a precaution, and a friend asked me what I'd do if it was positive (it wasn't, fortunately). I told her I'd probably wait until I got sick and started to suffer, then commit suicide. She told me, 'No. I wouldn't let you.' In surprise, I asked her why. 'Because God would know.' And suddenly, I realized that:

  • I didn't believe that God would be so arbitrary as to punish a sick and dying woman for speeding up the dying, and

  • I just no longer believed in any sort of deity. It just no longer made any sort of sense to me.

Sooo... that's my longish answer. I was both born into it, and had an epiphany."

bullet Kristin Tomic: "I'm sort of a third generation atheist...although my parents never spoke harshly about religion, church was never a part of my life growing up. For two years, I went to Catholic school because my parents thought that I'd get a better education there than in private school, and religion was the class I always dreaded. So much of what I learned in our religion classes went directly against what I would learn a few hours earlier in science class, and the experience was very frustrating. I never felt confused about the existence of god; in my mind, there was no question that god (all gods) was a series of primitive myths created by people who feared their own mortality and the vast unknown. After I got out of Catholic school, I developed an interest in comparative religion.

Religion, as far as I've been able to observe, is basically the hope that one day, life really will turn out to be fair. It's the belief that bad things happen because we are being tested, or as part of a much larger 'plan.' It's also the misunderstanding that because something is hard to comprehend, it must be incomprehensible. (See every example of 'intelligent design' for more on that.)

My parents never talked to me about heaven when I was little. My grandparents died, and I was shown the boxes that contained their ashes, and told that as long as I remembered them and loved them, part of them would still exist. That doesn't mean that they're alive somewhere in the ether, means that we live on through our decendants, our words and actions, our accomplishments, and so on. That's about as eternal as life gets."

bullet Donald Martin: "I was raised as a Christian but soon realized that most of the Christians at my church professed high ideals but did not live them. It then became apparent that where you were largely determined the religion which clearly contradicted most Christian faiths. I started noticing how religion was doing damage as well as some good. Blocking sex education, treating public health issues as crimes. It was also clear that many religious leaders such as TV evangelists were simply con people and crooks. I saw intolerance and religious wars that were much worse than wars for land or resources. I came to the conclusion that on the whole, religion is more evil than good. This has been reinforced by the religious right which has blocked stem cell research that might save many lives possibly including my own. Throw the eggs out rather than save lives. How narrow can one's beliefs be. Of course the Islamic fundamentalist are much better at killing people than our fundamentalist. But other than efficiency, there is not that much difference.

There you have a thumbnail sketch. It was a gradual process in my case. My current belief is that even the least offensive religions divert people from trying to improve the world and that religion in politics is evil."

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References used:

  1. "Dear Atheists," forum, at:

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Originally written: 2007-OCT-15
Latest update: 2011-AUG-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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