Expect Atheists to Differ Because There's More Than One Path to Atheism

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Imagine that you come up with an idea of something you want to write about. You are considering a title like, "Things I've Learned About..." And then you get stuck. You could list several things you learned about whatever the topic is. Or you could reconsider and instead write more than one post, each focusing on one of the things.

For me, it comes down to how many things are on my list, how much I have to say about each thing, and how long I'd want the post to be. If I have a few items and not much to say about each, it will be one post. If I'd like to unpack each a bit more, I'd lean toward breaking them up. That's what I'm going to do here.

Atheists Get to Atheism in Different Ways

The problem started right before college. I hadn't yet learned that atheists get to atheism in many different ways. I made the mistake of thinking that others followed a path like my own, but this wasn't the case. I suppose this error was understandable. I was the only atheist I knew before I started college.

It was a problem because my expectations were too limited. When I met atheists in college, I expected that we'd agree on far more than we agreed on. I did get along with most of the atheists I met. We were so delighted to have found others that we tended to overlook our differences. But those differences were there.

Some atheists are skeptics. They value reason and evidence. They evaluated religious claims and found them lacking. But they are skeptical about many things besides gods. In talking to them, one realizes that skepticism brought them to atheism. It makes sense to think of atheism as a natural consequence of their skepticism.

Some atheists aren't skeptics at all. They might embrace all sorts of woo but draw the line at gods. Some like the idea of the supernatural. They believe in other supernatural entities but exclude gods for various reasons.

Some atheists get to atheism because of humanism. Many started out believing in gods but have seen the harm religion has caused to humanity. They've rejected gods because they can't reconcile them with all the suffering.

Some Christians love to claim that atheists are atheists because of trauma. This is not true of all atheists, but it is true for some atheists. Religious trauma is a factor in why some atheists are atheists.

This isn't intended to be exhaustive. Many atheists are atheists for none of these reasons. They've traveled different paths.

The Why and the How Are More Important Than the What

If I want to understand another atheist, I need to learn why and how they became an atheist. This tells me something meaningful about them. It is far more valuable than learning that they were an atheist.

This seems so obvious now, but it wasn't always so. I used to think I'd have all sorts of things in common with other atheists. Why? Because we were atheists.

I remember atheists in New Age circles who believed in souls, homeopathy, astrology, and so on. They did not claim to be skeptical, and they weren't skeptical. They didn't believe in gods, but they bore little resemblance to other atheists. They were seekers, and they were still seeking.

I also remember atheists who were lovers of science and had studied the history of science. When they read about how Christianity has treated scientific discoveries, they were angry. This wasn't why they were atheists, but it was an important part of how they felt about religion. Aside from atheism, many had nothing in common with the New Age atheists.

Treating Atheists Like Everyone Else

My lesson was a simple one. I needed to set aside my expectations and treat every atheist the same way I'd treat any other person, as an unknown. Learning that they were an atheist was the beginning but only the beginning. Learning how they got there and why they stayed there was always more revealing.

And you know what? The same is true for religious believers too! If genuine understanding is the goal, it helps to meet people on their own terms.

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