April 21, 2013

The Process of Embracing Atheism

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For most atheists I have had the pleasure to know, leaving behind the religion in which one has been raised in exchange for atheism in anything but sudden. It does not usually happen in response to a particular event, it is rarely associated with hating gods, and it is best thought of as a gradual process that unfolds over years. I am sure there are exceptions to this pattern, but I find that it is consistent with what I have heard from most atheists.

For me, the process of transitioning from Christian to atheist took a few years and really was a process. It looked something like this:
  1. Doubts about the religious beliefs I had been raised to accept gradually emerged, fueled by my education (formal and informal), the observance of countless instances of hypocrisy by the religious, and the growing recognition that there was nobody listening to my prayers.
  2. I attempted to resolve the doubts through a combination of reading pro-Christian material, prayer, and asking questions of my family and clergy. This produced nothing satisfactory and left me with even more questions.
  3. I begin to realize that I no longer believed that there were any gods or other supernatural entities out there. I fought against this realization as hard as I could because it terrified me. I had no idea what an atheist was, and I didn't know anybody else who did not believe. I felt alone and was convinced that there must be something terribly wrong with me.
  4. In reading many of the classics of Western philosophy after hearing about some philosophers who sounded interesting from a high school teacher, I finally realized that people had been questioning gods for at least as long as they had been writing. I discovered Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, and I finally realized that I was not alone in my lack of religious belief.
  5. I informed my immediate family that I no longer believed in gods. I did not use the atheist label yet because I still wasn't completely sure what it meant.
This was not the end of my journey to atheism by any means. I had tentatively started using the atheist label by the end of high school, but I often found myself hoping I was wrong well into college. It was not until I took several courses in philosophy and religion during college and got to know other atheists that I became truly comfortable applying the atheist label to myself.

I think we do people a disservice when we suggest that every rational person should embrace atheism without hesitation or when we impatiently urge others to profess their atheism. Everyone will have a different journal, and some will take awhile. I like to think that those of us who are writing about atheism may be assisting with or even accelerating someone else's journey, but it is still theirs to make and the pace that works for them.

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