Your First Atheist February 22, 2008

Your First Atheist

Kristine‘s posting about the cocky young atheists in her science class gets me wondering:

Who was the first atheist you ever met?

I don’t even remember at this point.

I didn’t meet any growing up, to be sure. A good friend in 8th grade was agnostic. We didn’t talk about it much. That was the closest I got.

I became an atheist on my own a year later. Only then did I began meeting other ones… but I’m hard-pressed to say who my “first atheist” was…

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  • Mriana

    Oh I’ve known atheists all my life. Guess you could say I was raised under both influences in a way.

    My grandfather’s brother was one. He was a WWII medic who had to decide who they could or could not save. Sometime during the war, he stopped believing in God. I remember the disagreements he and my grandfather had over whether or not god exists and I felt sorry for my great uncle because my grandfather was hitting him over the head with Christianity.

    The thing is, my great uncle was one of the nicest men you could ever meet. He loved children and became a teacher after the war. I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile, except when my grandfather was nailing him. Being an atheist didn’t keep him from teaching- either because his family were the only ones who knew or he just didn’t talk about it much. Either way, it didn’t affect his life much that I know of, except among family members.

  • koz

    I don’t think I’ve met another real life atheist. Wow. I hadn’t thought of it until you asked, but I just can’t come up with one. Lonely here in suburban Maryland!

  • Wings

    I don’t think I have met another atheist, at least no one who has admitted it to me. I guess that would make the people I have met online the “firsts”.

  • Growing up, “atheist” was a dirty word. No one in their right mind would ever claim that title. And if they did, they were to be aggressively converted.

    It wasn’t until I lost my parent’s faith and opened my eyes did I know my first true atheist. My brother.

  • The first atheist I ever met was my mother but if I hadn’t then I’m sure I would have met some at playschool. They may not have self-identified as atheists but they hadn’t been indoctrinated into a belief system.

  • chancelikely

    It was my stepfather, about three years after I decided I was an atheist. Actually, I think he’d more properly be called an agnostic.

    He had been through AA, and said that the hardest part was that ‘higher power’ bit. Oh well, it still worked: his last drink was during the Reagan administration.

    I found out that my brother was an atheist shortly thereafter, and in my early twenties I found a group of friends who were all atheists, with one notable exception.

  • Never met any until I was in my early twenties. Looking back, I can see I never truly had any real faith, despite being raised RC. I don’t know if knowing an atheist would have helped or hindered when I was younger….

  • MAC

    I’m a junior in college and I have four atheist friends. I also know at least two more at this university, and my dad deconverted about two years after I did.

    I think the first atheist I met, though, was an asshole I knew in high school. I met him before my deconversion.

  • kristi

    The first “out” atheists I met were in college. I grew up in a small, conservative town, where I don’t remember atheism even being discussed. Being able to talk about it openly was a huge relief.

  • It was a friend from high school. We still talk quite a bit. I’m 25 now, and the total list of atheist that I’ve ever met has grown to 2.

  • Sarah H.

    My 9th grade English teacher/track coach, which is amazingly awesome in retrospect, considering I grew up in a 500-population tiny town that almost all attended church. He was not just disliked but HATED by the rest of the staff (including my mom, who’s a guidance counselor at the school) partially for being so blunt about his beliefs and partially for being really harsh to students (and other teachers) who acted irrationally or got on his nerves.

    He had a soft spot for me though and got me into science fiction (he loaned me ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ which is the first non-H.G. Wells sci-fi I remember reading). His wife had a particularly painful kind of terminal cancer and although we never talked about it directly, I know that influenced his skepticism about a benevolent God existing.

    I remember that during our poetry section in English class he passed out copies of the lyrics to “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas and we listened to the song in class, but besides that I don’t think he ever ‘pushed’ or mentioned his atheism to students unless they asked (as opposed to several of the Christian teachers who refused to teach birth control, included creationism in science classes, had desk ornamentation with Bible verses on it, etc.

  • You know, now that you mention it I don’t recall every knowing an atheist in “real life” before I de-converted. I talked to a lot online though. I’ve meet a few in the years since.

    I think it’s a lot like homosexuality. Everyone knows people who are gay. Even everyone 100 years ago everyone knew people who were gay. They just didn’t know the people they knew were gay. I’m sure everyone in America knows atheists; they just don’t always know they are. At least judging by the shock when people who know me find out I lack a faith.

  • TXatheist

    My US history professor in college announced he was and I failed his class. That was also the semester I had philosophy 101 and started really speaking out as a skeptic and abandoned xianity.

  • Didn’t even know about atheists until I was out of my teens. The first one, that I can remember and that I know of, was a college professor my freshman year. She was a Chinese woman who taught a class on eastern religions, and she was an agnostic.

    I’m sure I knew plenty of people who were atheists growing up, but it never came out in conversation.

  • stogoe

    I don’t think I was aware there was even such a thing as atheism until I stumbled upon the atheist wobosphere during the Dover trial. I knew a whole bunch of apatheists in college, though.

    Looking back, my best friend in high school was an atheist, though he never used the term. I seem to remember him saying the finite amount of Jesus’ suffering, divided over everyone who had ever lived, would be about equivalent to a pinprick, and why couldn’t we just take the pinprick of sin-wages instead of bowing and scraping once a week for the rest of our lives?

    I didn’t quite comprehend it at the time, but he certainly helped shape the course of my intellectual development.

  • Becky

    I knew a (very few) atheists online, but as for real-life, the first one I ever met was my boyfriend; 2 years ago. My family is super religious, (I went to a private christian high school) so to meet an atheist surrounded by religion would be odd. When I say my family, I mean my mother and her side as well as my father’s side; my father is not religious. He’s not an atheist per se, he just simply does not care. Anyway, going to a private christian high school, I thought more like my dad and didn’t care about all the religion going on around me. In a ‘World Views’ class, I learned the term Agnostic, and identified myself as that.

    Recently, within the past two years, I met my boyfriend online. (haha, go ahead and laugh =p) I learned he was an atheist and I thought that was kind of neat, as I’d never really met one before. Fast-forward two years from then, and with no prodding from him, I consider myself an atheist. Although, I do give him some credit; as atheist is a taboo, icky word around my family, I subconsciously never wanted to identify as that. However, upon meeting the sweetest, nicest guy in the world who just so happened to be an atheist, the word is no longer taboo to me. I also give credit to rational thinking and ‘The God Delusion’.

    Upon this “coming out” of sorts, I put my ‘religious preference’ under my facebook. Because of this, someone I work with who runs a Freethinkers meeting locally (how odd!) found me, and invited me to go to the meetings. I do, and it is so nice to be able to go, have a place to wear my ‘Recovering Christian’ shirt, and not feel like the biggest outcast. If you feel lonely in your town (looking at one of the first comments) I do encourage people to seek out a Freethinkers group locally.

    Wow, that was long… sorry =3

  • Erica

    I encountered plenty of non-Christians once I went to college, but nobody that I can remember who came out and called themselves an atheist. My last year in school, however, I met the guy that I have now been with for 3 years, who is an atheist, and I remember being shocked about it – at the time, I was struggling with my beliefs/non-beliefs, and didn’t know how to react. As we got to know each other better, I found out that plenty of other people we knew were atheists or agnostics as well, and it became much easier for me to accept the fact that I no longer believed in God. So I guess for me, finally meeting people who felt the way I did was extremely important.

  • I’m with Hemant, I’m the first atheist I ever met. And when I was young – I was a cocky young atheist.

  • incunabulum

    Ah… the family down the street. The two boys always won the Science Fairs because their dad (a NASA Astronomer and Roboticist) always helped them with their projects. They were the Athiest Family in our neighborhood when I was growing up. I was an irrational, evangelical Christian f-ck at the time I heard about them. I carried my bible around and spent a lot of time trying to convince people that Christian rock was every bit as awesome, if not better than, whatever it was they were listening to. I hated the athiest family for no reason at all. I would get creeped out when they came on the school bus. All I knew about them was that they were athiests and that was enough. They dressed weird and looked overall “nerdy.” I would revel when Christmas would come around. Since everyone knew that they were athiests (I think something nasty happened once at a PTA meeting) the neighbors on all sides, even across the street, would put up elaborate nativity scenes in their yards. I would laugh, thinking it was so funny that they were surrounded. It was a battle and they were totally losers because no one was on their side.

    Luckily, I got better. By my Junior year in high school I was friends with them and a better person because of it. I would say I was “questioning” at the time. But that wasn’t why we became friends. We all liked video games and electronic music. And one of them gave me piano lessons for a while. I guess it was a time when I thought being smart was cool, or at least worth aspiring to. I still do.

  • chatterbox

    My brother was the first atheist I ever knew about, he proclaimed it when he was in college, I was about 10 at the time. Despite my parents trying to bring us up Catholic, there was a distinct lack of belief in god amongst my siblings, so I never really found it strange when growing up.

  • Julie

    My Dad. As it turns out, I’m a third generation atheist, although I didn’t think about this too much until the last year or so.

    I remember when I was four, a neighbor kid said, “Oh, you don’t know about God? He’s everywhere. He could be over there.” And she pointed to the corner of my yard. I looked over there, but there wasn’t anything in that corner. I went and asked my Dad about it later, and he explained that he didn’t believe in God at all. I was intrigued by what other kids told me, so as I grew up, I read the Bible and explored a few religions. Ultimately, I decided my Dad’s way of thinking was mine, too. So for me, religion and God were sort of this extra, unnecessary thing that other people did. I never called myself an atheist until recently, because it just seemed so normal. I don’t call myself a-Easter Bunny, you know?

  • I’m guessing it was my mom.

  • The first atheist I remember meeting was a substitute teacher in high school. I grew up in the South, where it just wasn’t heard of to be an atheist. The teacher said he didn’t believe in God, I said that was fine.

    The interesting thing he said was, “That doesn’t mean I’m going to Hell, does it?” At the time I was a practicing United Methodist. I said, “That’s not for me to decide.”

  • I’m not entirely certain who was the first. I grew up sheltered in a religious household, so it’s not like atheists were the norm. But by the time I was fifteen and wrote the journal entry I quoted in “He has his faults, such as being a perverted-democrat-atheist, but…” the fact that my friend was an atheist was an incidental side-note, not something shocking…

  • Apsalar

    Now this is an interesting question. The first time I met someone who was admittedly not a Christian was in high school. There was a guy who said he didn’t believe in what churches taught, and he just followed his own way. That was very new to me. In college, I met a girl who was an agnostic. That just rocked my world. Here she was, in the middle of the Bible Belt, and she was very open about her possible lack of belief. Around that time, I started meeting other people I suspected were atheists or agnostics, but they never really said one way or another.

    The first person I ever met in person who also claimed to be an atheist was a coworker in Texas a few years ago.

  • Alycia

    I don’t think I knew any “outed” ones while growing up. You dare not mention such a thing in rural Ohio. One of my ex-boyfriends is now, but I’m not sure he was then.

    Then in college I worked with a guy who was a Communist , and they are atheists, right? I was distracted by his political views and the fact that he shared his name with a Monkee, so I never got around to talking about the atheist bit.

  • Vincent

    The first person I ever knew was an atheist was me.
    I came to the conclusion that there was no god without really talking about that option with anyone.

  • Pustulio

    Definitely myself. I’ve never believed in god. I was an atheist before I knew what the word meant. I couldn’t tell you who was the first one I met because I was raised Unitarian Universalist so I’ve been around atheists my entire life.

  • Sheri

    When I was a child living in a close-knit farming community, one of my friends told me her mother was an atheist. I would watch her closely when I would spend the night with that friend just to see if she was different from everyone else’s mother. My impression of her was that she was distant, health-conscious, and bookish. She never spoke about her lack of belief. I felt sorry for her because she seemed so lonely. I wonder if she ever had any close friends with whom she could really be herself.

  • Huffy

    Cannot say who was actually the first atheist that I met…I do know who the first person I KNEW was an atheist was. When I was 12 my best friend’s older sister. I had a crush on her…she knew I was religious (at the time…I am over that now obviously) and so she told me, “I am an atheist, we would never work out.” Clever girl.

    To those who say they know of none…I think you may be surprised. When I became an atheist, I kept it to myself, with the exception of a couple of discussion groups and close friends and family. After a while, I became more and more open about it. I found that as I opened up about it, others were willing also. As it turned out, I had several good friends who had been atheists all along!

  • Tim Van Haitsma

    I was the 1st one that I knew. But it turns out that one of my best friends in High School was traveling the same road I was. We both went to a Christian school in a very christian conservative area(Holland Mich). I was a only about 2 steps ahead of his deconversion process.

  • Meg

    As far as I know, the first atheist I met was my 8th/9th grade best friend. I made some attempts to convert her and explain that the fire-and-brimstone-preaching folk were wrong. If only she knew the benevolent God I believed in, of course she’d understand! There was also at least one occasion when I outed her against her will. Couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal that people shouldn’t know that. I must have been so obnoxious. If I ever track her down, apologizing for that will be the first thing I do!

  • davidg

    I’m in the process of deconversion myself. Given that I’m a molecular biologist, I like Dawkins’ stuff, but when I read Harris’ stuff I still can’t understand why atheists are so averse to the idea that they employ faith in their position as well as religious people. I think it’s just that it’s become a dirty word given the type of trolls who use it to define themselves. I guess that categorizes me as an agnostic. You’ll never prove God doesn’t exist or that aliens didn’t put us here, but that doesn’t mean I have to believe in the god of the bible either. I choose to BELIEVE that the god of the Bible or other holy books is incoherent with our understanding of science and many other disciplines. Does this mean I’m not a true atheist?

  • I grew up attending Christian schools, so it wasn’t until after high school that I really had the opportunity to meet someone who wasn’t Christian.

    My fiancé the first year of college was an atheist, though he didn’t openly call himself one. My ultra conservative Christian parents really didn’t like him. And my Christian friends thought he was creepy. He wasn’t.

    Even though we eventually had a bad breakup, we later became good friends. He had a big impact on me, humanizing non-belief in a way that made me realize that it wasn’t anything like what I’d been taught.

  • I’m not sure about this, but I can’t recall meeting anyone who used the atheist label until college. Seems strange when I look back on it, but I simply don’t recall anyone who would have described themselves as an atheist before then.

  • There were probably atheists at my high school, but I was a fundamentalist back then and didn’t really associate with anyone. I found out recently that my first college English professor is an atheistic humanist, and I suspected she was nonreligious at the time. (I envied her for it, too, since being religious made me so unhappy.)

  • Cade

    Some of the foreign exchange students in my hight school were atheists. In fact, one of my classes was really small (only about 10 people) and there were a whole bunch of foreign exchange students there that didn’t believe in god either. It was interesting having a class with a third to half of the kids were atheists.

  • Lynx

    Atheists? Well, there was my mother and father, and then my maternal grandfather and paternal grandparents, and my great-grandmother. I never met any other great-grandparents or my maternal grandmother because they all died before I was born, but my parents assured me that no one, as far as the family knows, has had god belief in my family for at least the past 3 or 4 generations, possibly more.

    I was never “taught atheism” and spent most of my childhood and teen years thinking of myself as a “closed agnostic” for semantic reasons (can’t prove god doesn’t exist yadayada) until I read Dawkins and realized I was just a nit-picky atheist.

    I’ve never met anyone outside my cousins who grew up with religion totally absent from their surroundings, I didn’t even know not having a religion was an issue until I was an adult.

  • Either my mum or dad.

  • memory lane

    Can’t say I remember the first atheist I met. For years when we were kids, me and a bunch of others at school/church hadn’t really given a fuck. Couple that with middle school science class and when confirmation came around, we attended a few classes and then said ‘fuck it’. I think the most compelling reason we found to go through with it was the money we’d get. In the end we decided it wasn’t worth it.

  • Claire

    It’s interesting how many people have mentioned that they thought someone they knew somewhere along the way was a non-believer, but never asked. Maybe it’s time we started?

    There’s been a couple of conversations here about how valuable it is to declare that one is an atheist, just so the rest of the (religious) world knows we don’t actually have horns. Maybe asking is the other side of the coin, sort of a ‘do ask, do tell’ policy.

    Although it seems (even to me) somehow impolite to ask someone if they are an atheist, but no problem to ask if they are buddhist or jewish. It must seem somehow wrong to other people, too, since no one else is asking. I think that really shows the depth of the bias in this culture, when you can’t even ask someone if they are atheist.

    On the topic – I remember I was about 10 when I was walking through the living room and heard my dad say something to someone about how religion wasn’t true, and thinking “Aha! Dad agrees with me. Well, that’s pretty cool….”. That’s the first time I remember anyone saying anything like that around me.

  • Josha

    I was the first atheist I met. It felt kind of lonely, like nobody thought like I did, and I was constantly censoring myself around others…that’s until I found websites like this one 🙂

    I had never met another atheist until recently because I wanted to meet some like-minded people. I live in the Bible-belt and atheism is not looked kindly upon.

    The only nonbelievers I ever meet are at freethinkers events, I’ve never met an atheist in day to day life.

  • Milena

    I guess my first atheist would be my dad, because he’s always been a Communist, but he never identifies himself as an atheist (although he did oppose my baptism). The first time people I knew oppenly identified themselves as atheists was in 11th grade. I was an atheist by then too, but I hadn’t started identifying myself as one. We were in a Theory of Knowledge class and we were doing lots of philosophical discussions at the time and the teacher asked us who was an atheist. It was a 14-people class and eight of us raised our hands (although one of the girls who raised her hand is really more of an agnostic). Some of the people who raised their hands I’ve known since the 7th grade, and I believe a couple were raised without religion, but none of us had openly labeled ourselves as atheists until then.

    It’s not really a big deal in Canada, I guess, although it’s more difficult finding atheists in Ottawa’s Bulgarian community. I’ve never met any other Bulgarians who were open atheists and everyone who finds out about me is a little shocked.

  • Hard to answer, since I certainly knew lots of atheists and just didn’t know it. (It’s like people who think they don’t know any gay people.) Most of my family, it turns out, are atheists or hard agnostics, and they almost certainly were when I was growing up.

    But the first person I remember telling me they were an atheist was my father. He’d called himself an agnostic when I was growing up, but finally decided that atheism was a more honest description.

    And Loki forgive me, I actually tried to argue with him. This was a good 20 years ago or so; I wasn’t very familiar with atheism, and I still had all the “you can’t be 100% sure, atheism is just as dogmatic as religion, agnosticism is the only honest position” attitude. Like Lynx, it took reading Dawkins to realize that I really wasn’t an agnostic, either — I was just a nitpicky atheist. (Nice phrasing, Lynx. I am totally going to steal that.)

  • Corncob

    The first person I knew as an open atheist was a friend in high school – one day during lunch, a group of us were talking about religion fairly casually, so it came out – and life went on as normal. It did start my examining of religion, though; it’s one thing to damn abstract people to hell, but quite another to damn your crush to eternal pain, torment, and unavailability for dates.

  • Richard Wade

    My dad. He called himself an agnostic, but this was during the Macarthy era when “atheist” was considered by the paranoid powers that were to be synonymous with “communist” and that was an express ticket to big trouble. Most of his friends were scientists so I suspect I knew others but people just didn’t talk openly about it. The consequences could be much worse than today.

    Flash forward over 50 years and the first atheists I knew who openly talk about it are four of my astronomer friends and folks online. Reading the stories here I’m surprised to realize that no one I knew spoke about it during twelve years of college and grad school.

    Having lived through the last half century of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about atheism has left me with a persistent sense of risk talking about it. It’s still not risk free but it’s certainly better.

  • Mriana

    It’s funny, but I never thought others would not have at least one family member who was/is an atheist. My bio-father was too, but he wasn’t a good example of one, IMO. Be that as it may, I’m surprised not everyone knew of at least one family member as a child who was an atheist. I guess it’s all about what you grew up with and what you are privy to as a child.

  • Susan

    I’ve never met another atheist in real life and scarcely online. A few online aquaintances have said that they are atheists, but they still attend church services. A classmate claims to be a Wiccan but teaches Sunday school classes at a Methodist church. Go figure.

  • Kelly

    My third grade teacher in Catholic School.

  • Karen

    My dad was a secular Jew and basically an agnostic.

    Growing up fundy, I knew very few non-Christians (let alone evil atheists!) and associated myself exclusively with fundies. I worked with people over the years who were non-religious, but none called themselves “atheists.”

    As an ex-fundy I know lots of atheists online, but I only know two or three people off line who openly declare that they don’t believe in god.

    Claire, I like your suggestion. Maybe instead of putting people on the spot by asking them, it’s easier to mention our own atheism to people we suspect are also nonbelievers?

  • Siamang

    It’s really fascinating the whole recurring theme of “nobody ever mentioned they were atheists.” Or “it was rude or unwise to identify yourself as an atheist back then.”

  • Allison

    Okay, I read that post and the first thing I wanted to point out is that Kristine could learn a LOT from the accelerated students if she just paid some sort of attention. Spelling and grammar come to mind as a good place to start. Yikes!

    To go back on topic, the first atheists I knew were my parents. When I was a kid I ended up ferreting out the other kids of atheists in my small community for support.

  • My mother was the first Atheist I met. I don’t think I need to go through that story. 😉

  • K

    I was the first Atheist I ever met.

  • My parents.

    Then later on, my best friend in high school. I’ve also known a lot of non-religious people who for reasons of not wanting to be ostracized, don’t consider themselves atheists… I also know a lot of weak theists… people who weakly believe in God but not in the particulars of Christianity and certainly not what the Christian fundamentalists (or even what the mainstream Christian denominations) preach.

  • viccro

    I was shocked the first time I met an atheist…I’d met plenty of people that were questioning things (which is where I was at the time), but I’d never met anyone that flat out said it. He was this kid that had a crush on me in the 9th grade, and he gave me a lot of strength in identifying myself as such, though I changed schools pretty soon thereafter. I was really lucky to end up at a math/science school, in which the student body is very irreligious…we had a ‘world religions panel’ in which the atheist student got the most support, hands down!

  • anti-nonsense

    My mom. Nuff said.

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