June 4, 2015

How I Became An Atheist

losing faith in humanityOf all the questions I receive here by email, the most common one might be some version of "How did you become an atheist?" The person asking this question almost always identifies himself or herself as a Christian, and the question is often delivered in an angry tone or with a genuine sense of confusion. It is as if the questioner truly does not understand how anyone could possibly be an atheist.

My guess is that much of this confusion has to do with what the particular Christian has been told about atheism by those determined to portray atheists in the most negative way possible. Many Christians continue to insist that atheism is a conscious rejection of their particular god. The obvious problem with this is that almost no atheists choose to be atheists (see I Didn't Choose To Be An Atheist by Southern Skeptic). I certainly never chose to be an atheist. It is difficult to imagine why anyone living in the U.S. today would voluntarily choose to be an atheist. Why put yourself through all the hate if you don't have to?

I have written many posts about my personal journey to atheism, but I still find it difficult to summarize concisely. I think this is because I went through at least two separate and fairly lengthy processes to get there:
  1. Leaving my Christian faith behind and recognizing that I no longer believed in gods
  2. Learning about atheism and coming to terms with the fact that I was an atheist
Losing My Faith

The process of losing my faith and realizing that I no longer believed in gods took 2-3 years from beginning to end and was rather unpleasant. It was not anything I did intentionally; it was something that happened to me. I think this is important because it is not like I woke up one morning and decided that I'd walk away from my faith and become an atheist. Nothing about the process of losing my faith seemed voluntary. Atheism was not a choice I made; it was something I gradually came to realize about myself. It was also something I actively resisted as long as I could.

I did not want to lose my faith. I did not want to stop believing in gods. I knew at the time that this would disappoint my family and make me an outsider virtually everywhere. I was scared, confused, and convinced that I could not possibly have any sort of fulfillment without god belief.

It is also important to explain that there was no one event I can point to as the catalyst for my loss of faith. Some Christians seem convinced that some critical incident must have taken place, but there wasn't one for me just like there isn't one for many atheists. Off the top of my head, I'd have to say that the primary factors leading up to my loss of faith, in no particular order, were:
  • My intellectual curiosity and love of learning
  • The reading I did on my own (outside of school) of books I selected on philosophy and religion, including the "holy" bible
  • Learning about science in school and reading about skepticism outside of school
  • Experiences of Christian hypocrisy
  • The lack of response to my prayers
  • My fascination with mythology, which would lead me to compare ancient Greek and Roman gods in which nobody still believed with contemporary gods
  • Exposure to history which provided countless examples of religious conflict and the great harm caused by the combination of religion and political power
These things led me to realize that there wasn't any compelling evidence that gods of any sort existed, much less a god that was personally involved in human affairs. They also led me to begin to suspect that religion was not as benign as I had been taught. I lost my faith. Again, I did not choose to discard it. I gradually realized it was no longer there.

Coming to Terms With Atheism

The second process lasted even longer but was much less awful than the first. The more I learned about atheism, the more I realized that it was nothing to fear. Yes, there would be negative consequences for me as a result of being open about my atheism; however, there was also a sense of freedom as I learned to live in accordance with my beliefs. As I found that skepticism, freethought, and atheism were not new, fit me much better than religion ever had, and had utility, I gradually began to come to terms with my new identity.

The hardest thing about this process was not recognizing that I was an atheist. That part was actually wonderful because I finally realized that I was not as alone as I had been feeling. There was a label that fit, and I was not the only one to whom it applied. No, the hardest part by far was the realization that I would be feared and hated by a significant part of the population merely for being an atheist. That was the hardest part then, and to some degree, it still is. I've become much more comfortable with being hated these days, but there are still times when it wears me down. The recognition that I'll always be an outsider in the only country I've ever called home is a burden at times.

If I'm completely honest here, I think I might have to say that the process of coming to terms with atheism is something I'm still doing. I've known I was an atheist for more than 20 years, but I've continued to learn a great deal more about atheism in that time. My understanding of how this part of my identity fits into the rest and what it means for my day-to-day life has certainly changed over that time and will probably continue to do so. And I think that's a good thing.

I became an atheist gradually as I realized I could no longer believe in gods. I sought evidence for a personal Christian god and found nothing sufficient to maintain my belief. After discovering that I was unable to maintain my faith, I recognized that I was an atheist. Since then, I have been making progress on integrating that part of my identity into my life.
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