July 7, 2019

Why Do Atheists Refuse to Believe in God?

Jack Russell terrier

Bruce (The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser) recently noted that searches for "Why do atheists refuse to believe in god?" had been bringing visitors to his blog in search of answers. This isn't surprising. I have noticed the same thing here. Many Christians seem to be very confused on this subject and often frame their question in just this way. I suspect most of us have addressed it many times. Since Bruce's post appeared on the same day as this one by Godless Mom in which we learned of some wild speculation by a Catholic about why we are atheists, I figured it was time to address the subject again.

Bruce begins his post as every atheist responding to this question should: posing the question of which god? Better still, he notes that answering with something as seemingly simple as "the Christian god" isn't terribly helpful because different groups of Christians seem to worship fairly different gods. He decides to focus on the sort of god in which most evangelical Christians claim to believe, draws on his vast experience as an ex-Christian of this variety to explain what they believe about atheists, and then explains why he doesn't believe in this god. Not surprisingly, Bruce's answer to the question is deeply personal. He explains why he doesn't believe. Without getting our hands on something like the results of a large-scale survey of atheists answering questions about their journey to atheism, all any of us can do is explain why we don't believe in gods and share some stories about other atheists we've known. This may not be satisfying to the Christians asking why atheists refuse to believe in gods, but it is an honest approach.

For this post, I thought I'd take a brief look at some of the more common assertions I have heard from Christians about why they think atheists refuse to believe in their preferred god(s) and compare them with my experience. I'll start with some of those Bruce mentioned and bring in a couple from the Catholic in Godless Mom's post.

Atheists Just Want to Live in Sin

Bruce points out that one of the more common things we hear from evangelical fundamentalist Christians is that we are atheists because we are stubborn, rebellious, pissed off at the world, and desire (even if we do not fully realize it) to "live in sin." It is probably accurate to say that many atheists do things that evangelical fundamentalist Christians would regard as sinful, so it is not too difficult for them to find at least some evidence to support this claim.

In my case, there was plenty of anger and rebelliousness; however, it came after I realized I could no longer believe in gods. It was more of a reaction to how I was treated at the time than anything that prompted me to begin questioning gods. I was a scared child and not someone who had any desire to sin. I certainly didn't want to stop believing.

Most objective observers would agree that I did go off the rails a bit after realizing that I could no longer believe in gods. I did look angry and rebellious, and I did all sorts of things that would bring strong disapproval from this group of Christians. I can see how it might look like I deliberately left religion so I could do these things. But again, the last thing I ever wanted to be was an atheist. I fought against the realization that I could no longer believe as long as I could. The "sinful" indulgences were a reaction to the turmoil - a sign that things were falling apart - and not something that led me away from god-belief.

Atheists Just Don't Want to Submit to Divine Authority

Bruce notes that many evangelicals have convinced themselves that atheists are "rebels at heart" who are not content to submit to the authority of their god(s). I can't emphasize enough how untrue this was for me in the years before I discovered I could no longer believe in gods. I was a timid, shy, rule-follower who could have really used a rebellious streak but couldn't seem to find one. This would emerge but not until well after I'd started to come to terms with the reality that I could no longer believe in gods. Today, it would be very easy for me to say that I have no interest in submitting to any gods. At the time, submitting was all I wanted to do.

Atheists Hate My Preferred God(s) or Worship Satan

This one is so absurd it is a shame we have to keep addressing it. I've never known how to hate something I don't think is real. All that time I spent in prayer begging the god in which I believed to take my doubts away and help me get back on the right path was not about hate. It was about pain, fear, and desperation, but not hate. As for the Satan stuff, I was terrified of it until after I realized I no longer believed in gods. After that point, I didn't believe in Satan either. It was nothing more than a symbol which could be used to upset Christians.

Atheists Are Reacting to Hypocrisy or Bad Behavior By Religious Believers

According to Godless Mom's Catholic, some atheists are atheists because they've had bad experiences with religious believers. Maybe this was a factor for some atheists, but it played no role whatsoever in why I stopped believing in gods. It was certainly relevant to shaping my attitudes toward the Christians in the church I was forced to attend and to Christianity as an organized religion, but it did not have anything to do with my inability to maintain god-belief.

Besides everything Godless Mom said, I have another reason to suspect that this rarely leads to atheism. Of the people in my age group with whom I attended church, I was far from the only one who noticed the hypocrisy, but I was the only one who stopped believing in gods. Most of the others had the opposite reaction to the hypocrisy and bad behavior. They doubled-down and decided to work harder at being "real Christians." In the years since, I have learned that this sort of response to hypocrisy and bad behavior seems to be at least as common as any other and far more common than atheism.

Atheists Just Haven't Been Called By God(s) Yet

Maybe Godless Mom's Catholic has a point here. But if that's the case, then who's fault is that? As desperately as I wanted to maintain my god-belief, I was unable to do so. There were too many questions without answers and no evidence I could use to prop up the belief any longer. But if I'm being completely honest, I have to admit that it was far more serious than just being a matter of insufficient evidence. The evidence that should have been there wasn't. For several years of my life, I prayed at least once a day every day. I prayed to the god in which I believed and in Jesus' name. My prayers were nearly always unselfish and tended to focus on others' health and safety. And I received no response throughout that entire time. Not once did I experience the sense that there was anything on the other end of my prayers.

This might have been less of a problem had it not been for the fact that virtually every Christian I asked claimed that our god regularly responded to them. I don't mean that it descended from the heavens and spoke to them. But at minimum, they claimed to feel its presence so strongly that it could not be mistaken for anything else. I never had that experience. Initially, I blamed myself. I'd eventually begin to suspect that these people were either lying or deluded. If I haven't been "called," it isn't for lack of effort on my part.

For More on Why Atheists Don't Believe in Your God(s)

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