January 8, 2019

Atheism: Just a Phase?

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Have you ever been told that your atheism is merely a phase you are going through, something you will outgrow? Yeah, me too. Many times. In fact, my own mother spent roughly 15 years insisting this very thing! The good news is that I think she's finally given up. She may still believe it, but she has at least learned to keep this opinion to herself. For that, I am grateful.

Who cares? What's the big deal? The big deal is that I found this to be extremely invalidating. There I was approaching 16 and really struggling with all this god stuff. After a couple years of fighting the growing realization that I no longer believed in gods, I finally realized that I was an atheist. When I communicated this to others, I was told I was going through a phase and that I would soon believe again. This was dismissive of everything I had been going through, and I did not think that was fair.

As it turns out, my atheism was not a phase at all. My lack of belief in gods, which I began to understand as atheism around age 16, has been as much an enduring part of my adult life. Many interests have come and gone, as have many relationships, jobs, places I have called home, friends, etc. And I have certainly been through my share of phases. Yet, I have remained an atheist through it all. Since I first recognized that I no longer believed in gods, I do not recall ever feeling like I had a choice in the matter. Whether I like it or not or they like it or not, I am an atheist.

None of this should be taken to mean that my atheism today is exactly the same as it was at age 16. That is hardly the case. I understand atheism much better now than I did then, and I have become far more comfortable with it over time. Far from it being a phase, I have considered atheism to be one aspect of who I am for my entire adult life. I have also realized that I am not comfortable pretending to believe things I do not believe simply because doing so might be popular, might make me more popular, or might reduce conflict. I have had periods of my life where I did this, but I have rarely been satisfied with the outcome and usually ended up resenting those who expected me to pretend to be something other than what I was.

One of the things that always frustrated me about the "just a phase" perspective is that it characterizes atheism as immature. Imagine a child questioning the existence of Santa Claus and being told by a parent, "Don't worry, that is just a phase. You will believe again." For me, believing absurdities without sufficient evidence was the phase. It was a developmentally appropriate phase for a child. Fortunately, it began to fade as I developed the capacity for critical thinking and abstract reasoning. For the most part, I'm glad to have it behind me.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2009. It was revised and expanded in 2019.