May 22, 2020

My Journey to Atheism and What I Encountered Along the Way

winding road

This post initially appeared as five separate posts on Atheist Revolution from 2005-2007. It was consolidated into the post you are now reading and revised in 2020.

I have often enjoyed reading the personal accounts from atheist bloggers about their journeys to atheism, so I figured it was time to share mine. If nothing else, it will be a good excuse for some self-reflection around how I came to believe what I do. Or at least, how I came to stop believing in something (i.e., gods) in which I previously believed.

My Christian Background

I was raised in a mainline Protestant church (Methodist) by parents who thought that it would be good for me to be exposed to religion. To some degree, they may have been thinking about the disadvantage I would have experienced growing up in the United States without knowing about Christianity or being part of the privileged tribe. But the primary reason they gave me at the time involved their concern over the health of my "soul." I did not hear much about hell at home, but it played a role in why it was so important for me to grow up as a believing Christian. My parents also attended church for the social benefits, and I suspect that this was why they continued to go for a few years after I was out of the home.

My earliest memories of religion involved fear. Like our primitive ancestors, I was afraid of the unknown. As a young child, just about everything was unknown. Added to this, I was a bit more neurotic than most. I prayed because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't. Nobody needed to threaten me with hellfire and damnation; the suggestion of an invisible man in the sky who might torture me forever if I didn't behave was enough. My prayers at this time were never about asking for crap I wanted and almost always attempts to prevent bad things from happening to those I loved.

Entering public school (on the West Coast) exposed me to a couple of new ideas. First, I learned that religion was something that was considered a deeply personal and private matter. One did not generally discuss it with others or hear about it at school. This was very different from experiences I would have a couple decades later in Mississippi. Second, despite the private nature of religion, the children generally assumed that everyone was Christian. This type of Christianity in no way resembled the evangelical forms I would encounter later, but there was surprise and sometimes ridicule for anyone who did not identify as Christian. I had friends of all different Christian denominations (e.g., Protestants, Catholics, Mormons), but differences in what they believed were almost never discussed.

Church was a formal, stuffy affair where children were expected to be seen but not heard. The young ones were dismissed mid-way through the service and before the sermon to Sunday school in another building. I guess the adults realized that we weren't going to understand the sermon (they were right). We were always relieved when it was time to exit the sanctuary and head off to Sunday school. I remember very little about Sunday school except that it involved a lot of singing and crafts (both of which I hated) and always seemed to be more focused on the younger children. I also remember being very happy when it was over.

A Rebellious Streak Leads to Freethought

During my junior high years, my attitudes toward religion began to shift as a result of several factors. First, as my self-confidence gradually improved, I found myself praying less frequently. Since my primary motivation for prayer had involved anxiety, it is not surprising that prayer became less relevant. It had also become increasingly clear that there was nothing on the receiving end of my prayers. At least, I never received any sort of response. Second, my classmates increasingly viewed going to church and expressions of piety as uncool. Being "bad" was cool; being a church-going "goody-two-shoes" was not. Cigarettes, heavy metal, and MTV (they actually played music videos in those days) became part of the context. Church did not fit into this. Third, I became increasingly bored with church. Every Sunday I tried to think of creative ways to be permitted to skip church. Although I could tell that my father would have preferred to stay home and watch football, my mother continued to insist that it was good for us. With my increasingly rebellious streak, this would set the stage for plenty of conflict.

My boredom with church gradually turned to dislike and eventually hatred. It was completely irrelevant to my life. When I forced myself to pay attention, I noticed one contradiction after another. I looked around and found myself wondering why the people in the room didn't seem to live their lives in accordance with what they supposedly believed. The sense of hypocrisy became overwhelming. Sunday mornings brought frequent arguments with my parents, as I was no longer afraid to criticize what I saw as a major waste of time. Somewhere around the end of junior high and beginning of high school, my parents finally decided that I was old enough to refuse church if I chose to do so. I would go willingly on Christmas eve, Easter, etc. to appease others, but that was plenty.

The culture of high school was similar (i.e., excessively pious kids were often the butt of jokes), but there was an important difference. For the first time, I was exposed to evangelical Christianity (e.g., "Don't bother to ask her out - she's one of those Bible thumpers."). I had a close friend during this time whose parents were both pastors at an evangelical church. While he was anything but religious, he was required to attend a church where speaking in tongues was common. His parents would later burn his heavy metal record collection, conduct a full-blown exorcism over him while several parishioners held him down, and eventually throw him out of their house. This was the first time I had encountered anything like this. Sadly, it would not be the last.

By this time, I had discovered politics, science, and philosophy. As I found myself in agreement with my parents' moderately liberal politics and was excited by learning about world history, science, and philosophy, religion transformed from a well-intentioned waste of time to something more sinister. I began to discover freethought, and I saw that faith demanded blind acceptance of things which were not supported by science. History demonstrated countless atrocities committed in the name of religion. Philosophy showed that morality need not derive from religion. Perhaps most significantly, my increased exposure to politics convinced me that the overwhelming majority of people who called themselves Christian were hypocrites who had embraced capitalism and a disdain for the poor over Jesus.

Time for Christian College

As high school graduation neared, I found myself becoming more liberal than my parents on most issues (e.g., I supported the legalization of drugs, animal rights, and became concerned about the environment). I saw no use for religion, but my feelings toward it were somewhat less hostile than they had been previously. Had you met me at the time, I might have even described myself as "spiritual but not religious." I saw religion more as a waste of time than a destructive force. My feelings toward most believers could be described as a mixture of pity and disdain.

Under the guidance of my parents and a few influential high school teachers whom I trusted, my college application process focused on private liberal arts colleges. I had the grades to get in, and my grandparents were willing to help with the expenses to fund what they saw as a superior education. I was in complete agreement with everyone advising me that a small liberal arts college offered too many advantages to pass up (e.g., small class sizes, an opportunity to work closely with faculty, higher academic standards than state schools, etc.). The fact that all the liberal arts colleges I was considering were religious institutions did not bother me because they played down their religious origins and emphasized the quality of the education they provided.

I ended up at a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest with a student body of approximately 4,500 at the time. The influence of religion turned out to be something of a paradox. Most of the faculty with whom I would work closely were either openly atheistic or so quiet about their religion that one could not guess what they might believe. The students were another matter entirely. I would say that approximately 50% of the student body were conservative Christians. Still, conservative Christians in the Northwest were nothing like those in other parts of the country. Most had no interest in converting anyone; they just preferred to hang out with their own kind and talk about how the rest of us were going to hell.

Academically, I was drawn to psychology, philosophy, and law. The pre-law program was fairly weak, so I ended up majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. I loved the liberal arts perspective of encouraging students to expose themselves to a wide variety of subjects. I took courses in biology, anthropology, art, and even religion (Christianity and Buddhism). Outside of my major, my favorite courses by far were the philosophy of religion, a survey of Buddhism, and an advanced philosophy seminar on identity and the nature of personhood.

I had discovered Bertrand Russell in high school, and I read more of him in college. This helped me to realize that not believing was a viable option with a long history behind it. I was quite open about being an atheist during at least 3 of my 4 years in college. I regularly debated Christian students, wrote most of my philosophy papers on the flaws of religious arguments, and had several great discussions with peers and faculty on the subject. I felt truly alive during this time and experienced virtually no meaningful consequences from my openness with atheism. There were plenty of rational students around, and my circle of friends was large. For the first time in my life, I felt free to be open about my atheism.

In retrospect, the lack of consequences for being so open seems surprising. Of course, the culture of the Pacific Northwest at the time was very different than most of the places I've lived since. But I don't think that this was the only factor. My mindset at the time was very different than it is now - much more idealistic and carefree. I suppose it would be accurate to say that any rejection I may have encountered due to my atheism simply rolled off my back so that I barely noticed it. If someone didn't like my viewpoint, that was their problem. I never dwelled on it. It sucks that this had to change.

The Religion of Political Correctness

Looking back on it, I think attending this particular Christian university was exactly what I needed at that time in my life. I received an outstanding secular education, studied Christianity from both a theological and philosophical position, and honed my critical thinking and debate skills. I read Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Thoreau, Freud, and of course, Bertrand Russell. It was Russell's excellent Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects that gave me permission to fully reject Christianity and helped me understand that I was certainly not the first to do so. By the end of college, I was openly atheistic and experiencing the joy of finally breaking free of religious indoctrination.

I headed off to a Ph.D. program the summer after I graduated. In retrospect, it might not have hurt me to do a bit more growing up before beginning graduate school, but I felt like I needed to capitalize on the momentum I had built up in college and keep going while my motivation was high. I would not be exaggerating to say that nearly everything about my new graduate program was a shock. My life changed so dramatically that I would end up becoming a very different person than the one who had just completed college. Relevant to my purpose here, I was immersed in a very different view of religion than anything I had previously experienced.

The community in which I resided was much smaller and more conservative than the area I had left on the West Coast. Religion was still a rather private matter here, but it was certainly more prevalent. This shift was trivial compared with what I experienced in graduate school itself. Not only was I the only atheist among my peers, but I would soon learn a very difficult lesson about my chosen field of psychology which continues to impact me to this day.

An important part of my training involved multiculturalism. This is typical in the helping professions because programs are faced with preparing students who may have had rather limited experiences with diverse groups to competently provide services to members of these groups. To my amazement, religious belief was considered part of multiculturalism in the sense that critical attitudes toward religion were perceived as an unacceptable form of intolerance just like human differences based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. For more on this, see see this post

As you can imagine, this put me in an excruciatingly difficult position. It was made clear to me that successful completion of the program would depend on my ability to keep my thoughts on religion and even my atheism to myself. Merely by being an atheist, I was perceived as not having adequate respect for religious believers. Trust of my peers became an issue, as I learned that statements I had made outside of school got back to a professor. Clearly, this was not a safe environment to be open about atheism. I became increasingly depressed, withdrawn, and distant. I convinced myself that this had to be a fluke of this program and couldn't possibly reflect the field as a whole. I was determined to soldier on, bury my atheism, and refocus my energies on my studies. I would succeed, but success would come at a price it would take me years to understand.

Down in Dixie

I made it through graduate school but only by suppressing my atheism and pretending that criticizing someone's religious beliefs was akin to racism. A form of multiculturalism that insisted that religious belief was on the same level with race, gender, and sexual orientation was something I wanted no part of, but I had invested too much to let myself flunk out. I was told that I was being evaluated on my openness, willingness to self-disclose, and exploration of how my beliefs impacted my work with others. But I learned that merely questioning someone's religious beliefs equated with criticism of someone's race and was evidence of serious intolerance. To survive, I had to bury my atheism and profess respect for religious belief.

This bind was nearly intolerable at times. I vividly recall turning in "personal reflection" papers where we were supposed to discuss our racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities. When I disclosed my atheism in one of these papers, it became the subject of intense class discussion and condemnation. As the only atheist, I was expected to defend why I rejected religion without saying anything even mildly critical of religious belief. My peers seemed to think that my very presence in the program was a threat to their spiritual well-being. I became increasingly isolated. At least one professor penalized me for being intolerant because she felt that atheism was per se evidence of intolerance.

I made it through the program and completed my Ph.D. but not without lots of second thoughts about what I was doing and why. Looking back on it, I suppose I can almost see a valuable lesson about society's tolerance of atheism in there somewhere. I had largely been sheltered from this while living in the Pacific Northwest. It was a difficult lesson but one I needed to learn. As I moved to Mississippi for a job, I would be surrounded by Christian fundamentalists. Perhaps it was a good thing that I learned how to conceal my beliefs about religion.

Mississippi is by far the most religious place I have ever lived (or even visited). Nothing I had previously experienced prepared me for the degree to which evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is part of public life. Within weeks of being here, I had been approached by complete strangers in the grocery store and at the gas station with some variation of, "Hi there! What church do you attend?" My wife at the time was repeatedly told by strangers that she was going to burn in hell after she indicated that she did not attend church. She was also subjected to mandatory prayer meetings at work and persistent invitations to attend church with her boss and his family. Our next-door neighbor never spoke to me again after I politely told him that we did not attend church. I was invited to church by nearly every co-worker, secretary, pest control technician, and delivery person I encountered. I know this is hard to believe if you haven't spent time in the South, but I am not exaggerating.

I know that the obvious question is why I am still here. There are days when I ask myself the same question. If it wasn't for enjoying my job, really liking some of the people I work with, and the feeling that being settled (even in a place with many negatives) is better than the ordeal of going an academic job search again, I would have left long ago. Other perks include the winter weather, the cheap housing, and the small-town atmosphere. But if I am honest with myself, I suppose another reason I'm still here is that I've made a lot of progress learning to become comfortable in my own skin, less concerned with what others think, and more willing to be true to myself even when it is unpopular. I've gained something intangible from struggling against Christian extremism while being in its heart. I'm not saying I don't still have a long way to go, but there has been movement, and I suppose that is what helps me keep going.