March 27, 2019

Why Do People Become Atheists?

Tickell's Blue Flycatcher

Many religious believers are interested in understanding why people become atheists. Not surprisingly, people become atheists for many different reasons. We are all born atheists because we do not enter the world believing in gods. Some people remain atheists because they are never indoctrinated into any religious tradition. They were born without believing in gods and they never start. But many others are indoctrinated, begin believing in gods, and become atheists later in life. This post will focus on them and address the question of why people who were formerly religious believers might become atheists.

I suspect that one of the most common reasons someone who was once a religious believer becomes an atheist is that this person begins to question aspects of what they have been taught about the religion into which they were raised. They arrive at the point of asking questions in many different ways and for many different reasons. For some, this seems to happen naturally as they grow up. They may discover that Santa Claus was a lie and begin to wonder whether Jesus was another. Or they may realize that their prayers are never answered and wonder why. For others, a particular experience leads them to question something about what they have been taught (e.g., a younger sibling dies of an awful illness in spite of faith healing). Still others may observe how poorly many within their religion behave and start to wonder if this is something they can be a part of.

Once they begin asking questions, they quickly discover that the answers they receive are unsatisfactory. Maybe what they are taught about various gods does not make any sense to them. Maybe they find a particular problem (e.g., the problem of evil) insurmountable and are unable to maintain belief once they begin to consider it. The questions result in doubt. As the doubt builds, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold on to one's faith. Some people in this position fight desperately to maintain their faith but are ultimately overcome by the recognition that they can no longer believe in gods.

This is what it was like for me. Atheism was not something I chose; it was where I ended up after discovering that I could no longer believe in gods. I denied it as long as I could, but the time came when I had to admit to myself that I no longer believed in gods. Even then, it would take me additional time to label myself an atheist. I could no sooner return to believing in gods than I could unlearn my native language.

Many atheists will tell you that they are atheists because there is insufficient evidence to support belief in gods. They are right to do so; however, this is a place most of them reached only after some investigation. Few religious believers simply wake up one morning to find themselves transformed into atheists. Most of us get to the point of recognizing that there is insufficient evidence for gods by searching for it. In many cases, we genuinely hope to find it. But without it, we realize that god-belief is indefensible.

Various apologists and some clergy would love to convince you that atheists are flawed in some way, but that does not appear to be the case. Some will insist that atheists are just mad at whichever god they prefer, but it is not possible to be mad at something one does not believe in. It is true that some atheists have had bad experiences with religion (e.g., being sexually assaulted by clergy) or have been turned off by the bigotry exhibited by many religious people, but not all atheists have had these experiences. Some still have fairly positive attitudes toward their former religion even though they are now atheists. Most of these "explanations" are little more than attempts to prevent people from questioning their faith. If you are really interested in why people become atheists, ask atheists.

If you are curious about atheists but find yourself put off by how obnoxious some of them are, I share this sentiment. Some atheists are not worth your time. Be persistent, and I'm sure you will be able to find some who are. Social media can be challenging because it seems to bring out the worst in people. But because many atheists are not open about their atheism offline due to fear of discrimination (or worse) from religious believers, it is likely to be your best bet. My suggestion if you are looking for reasonable atheists (or other reasonable people) would be to observe some on social media to see how they behave. When you find a few who are not calling people names, approach those who seem more reasonable with your questions. At least, that's what I do when I am looking for reasonable atheists.