My Journey to Atheism and What I Encountered Along the Way

winding road

This post initially appeared as five separate posts on Atheist Revolution between 2005 and 2007. It was consolidated into the post you are now reading in 2020 and edited again to improve clarity in 2021.

I have often enjoyed reading the personal accounts of 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 believe - 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 by parents who thought that it would be good for me to be exposed to their religion. To some degree, they may have been thinking about the disadvantages 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 things I wanted and almost always attempts to prevent bad things from happening to those I loved.

Entering public school 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. 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 various Christian denominations 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 as I became less anxious. 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) were 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.

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 near the 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 on Christmas eve, Easter, etc. to appease others, but that was plenty.

The culture of high school was similar to that of junior high (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.

Could I Be An Atheist?

Around age 16, I was finally able to admit to myself that I no longer believed in gods. Still, I was very reluctant to think of myself as an atheist. That would take additional time, and it was not easy. There were too many negative connotations to the label, and I had quite a bit of religious indoctrination to overcome. Discovering that I was not the only one who did not believe in gods helped considerably. It gave me permission to at least consider the possibility that one could get by without them. That said, it would take me additional time to apply the atheist label to myself and even more to begin to embrace it. It probably wasn't until I was in college that I became genuinely comfortable with the idea of being an atheist.