Before You Became an Atheist… May 5, 2009

Before You Became an Atheist…

There’s an interesting thread on the Friendly Atheist Forums started by wall0645.

Many of us were raised with religion and it took some time before we became atheists. Which raises this question about your pre-atheism days:

… when you looked at your religion and beliefs critically, was there ever a point where you thought to yourself, “Wow, there actually isn’t much evidence for what I believe”?… Were you ever discouraged or disappointed by the lack of evidence (if you found the evidence lacking)?

Or, for some reason, did the lack of evidence encourage you that you were on the right track at the time?

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  • Well I was raised a devout member of the church of the flying spaghetti monster, but when I got married, I had to stop going to strip clubs and I started losing my faith. Now I’m just a run-of-the-mill atheist.

  • beckster

    The problem with a christian asking themselves about evidence is that it goes against everything you are taught as a christian. You are taught to not require evidence for your religious beliefs. Many people never even get to the point where they think about whether there is or isn’t evidence for what they believe. Those that actively search for evidence are the exception to the rule. Most have been indoctrinated to hold onto their religious beliefs no matter what common sense or evidence may tell them. This is what they refer to as “having faith”. I for one never thought about the evidence until after I decided I didn’t want to believe in christianity anymore. It was at that point that I happily learned that there were very good reasons to not be christian.

  • Aj

    Some theists say they have evidence, but it’s not the kind of evidence we talk about, or the kind that would convince them to believing in another religion. Faith is belief without evidence, or even despite of evidence, most theists advocate faith although not in the cases when they dislike the beliefs. This doesn’t say much about their experience, but it does tell us that they’ll say just about anything.

  • I thought I had evidence. Of course, it never occurred to me that I should compare my side’s evidence with the opposition; I was right, what was the point of wasting my time? I didn’t have any atheist friends, so I never felt a need to know their arguments in order to beat them–if I had, who knows what I would have thought when presented with the REAL evidence.

  • Sandra

    I remember seeing programs where they would claim to have found this (or that) “proof” of the existence of Jesus… just look at all the believers who are ‘flocking’ to see the “virgin Mary” reveal herself on a griddle.

  • Carl

    I thought I had ‘evidence’. Not a lot, but it was all predicated on an extrapolation of the ‘argument from consciousness’.

    I was brought up reasonably fundamentalist, but as I got older I realized that most stuff couldn’t be taken literally. However, I still clung to a basic notion of there being ‘something’ out there, and I used the argument from consciousness to point back to (through a series of convoluted steps) to the God of the Christian Bible.

    But the more time went on, the more I came to see how secular values and ethics made more sense most of the time, and I slowly began to accept that I’d been deluding myself as to the reasons for my beliefs. Ie. I realised that all my progressive values were as a result of modern, secular philosophies and that Christianity was just arbitrarily holding it back.

    Which is why, these days, I find it really hard to understand liberal Christians. I mean, obviously the fundamentalists are batshit crazy, but I can’t help thinking that they at least have a more honest, and consistent, world-view than liberal Christians. I can’t help but see liberal Christians as basically secularists who lack the courage to abandon the last vestiges of nonsense that have a hold over them. Kind of like people who call themselves ‘agnostic’ because they think ‘atheist’ is too hard-core.

  • Sam

    The strange thing is that I actually saw lots of evidence backing up religion at first. I used to defend it against my soon-to-be-atheist friends. The evidence I held to was the authority of the mob. Though I used to agree with them that no religion could be right, that the existence of supernatural forces and god(s) must be true because of all the recorded observations. Afterall, it seemed the likelihood of all these myths, legends, and fables, being wrong, despite with all of their similarities, would be really small. The problem with my argument, I later realized, was that I was assuming there was no other explanation for the stories they told. That realization broke my hope for the stories and I turned to science and atheism.

  • Sarah Langford

    I was one of those liberal Christians that Carl was talking about. I couldn’t cope with the prejudice that seemed to me to be inherent in the pentecostal church in which I was raised. Then I read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand and although I don’t agree with her philosophy, one idea resonated with me: you can’t privilege anything above your own reason. I realised that I was accepting a belief system, that when I looked it as a whole, was internally inconsistent and didn’t make any sense. I might have been able to overlook the sheer ridiculousness of it if I had felt that it still had some relevance to my life but that feeling had vanished long before my belief in the existence of a higher power. Now that I’m free from superstition and the associated guilt, I’m much happier. Knowing that it’s me and not some bearded guy in the sky who is responsible for my life is incredibly liberating.

  • Miko

    “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”
    — Carl Sagan

    Pretty much hits the nail on the head. Took me a couple of decades longer to get rid of my political delusions after I’d shed the religious ones, but in both cases really it all does come down to forcing yourself to care whether your position is objectively right or not. And you also have to stop thinking of lists of reasons why the “other side” is wrong as being evidence for your position.

  • Tony

    I can honestly say I never actually bought into Christianity. I was raised Presbyterian and at the age of 8 I was already questioning my pastor about the existence of god. I guess just always being an extremely logical thinker never really gave Christianity a chance with me.

  • When I was a kid, I had a breakdown and I could not stop crying when I realized there was no way that Jesus’s mother could have been a virgin, and that most of the other miracles in the Bible frankly could not have actually happened. But I shoved it deep down inside a dark corner of my brain and went on believing for over a decade before I let myself think again.

    Slightly off topic: One of the reasons I left the church was because I did not agree with the conservative politics the churches started promoting in the 1980s. But that was a separate process from me losing my faith and becoming an atheist.

  • schism

    …when you looked at your religion and beliefs critically…

    Ha! I was never taught critical thinking skills precisely to avoid that sort of scenario.

  • I was raised by a devoutly religious Catholic family and attended church services weekly at the family’s church. I think my atheism came out of the fact that I didn’t get anything out of the services because I am deaf and it was a hearing church that didn’t have sign language interpreters. So I studied religion on my own fueled by my exposure to students of different religions in public school. I was surprised that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all worshiped the same God yet each claimed to be the “True Faith”.

    I came to the realization that it was impossible to know which religion was the right one… they couldn’t all be right, but they could all be wrong. So I became agnostic. Further research lead me to atheism and eventually antitheism.

  • anonymouse

    Christianity has a built-in failsafe of fear of questioning. It’s wrong to ask why, and make the things (god) explain themselves. It’s “faith”. It’s something I deal with even now, even though the thought of a virgin-born son of god-man-his-own-self thing is silly to me. They start very very young, and instill a real sense of fear of hell in kids and work from there.

  • Sven

    As a very young kid I was something of a geography prodigy. I really liked reading maps and learning about far-away places.

    As I learned about foreign cultures, I discovered that there are other religions out there, and they’re just as sure THEY’RE right as my fellow church-goers thought WE were right.

    In a burst of critical thinking (bear in mind I was about TEN) I set out to figure out whether there was any objective reason why I should be a Lutheran Christian over any other religion. Too few people seem to reach this state of self-reflection in their lifetimes, sadly.

    By 16 I had found no compelling reason to be Christian over any other faith, but I remained broadly theistic due to Pascal’s Wager (I had never heard of Pascal’s Wager… I had come up with it independently only to realize the concept already existed).

    By 20 I said to myself “I haven’t really believed in God in a long time anyway, and Pascal’s Wager is flawed”, And in a puff of logic I became an Atheist.

    In short, it was a quest for knowledge about something unfamiliar, and to objectively compare it to the familiar, I applied some basic introspection.

  • This is how it went for me:

    “Do I really believe that? Well, “no”, but this is meant to be taken symbolically”.

    Eventually, I came to realize that I believed in no supernatural stuff at all; it still took me a while to admit that I really didn’t belong.

  • Zered

    I agree with many of the statements above. When I believed, I didn’t even look for evidence, I just KNEW that what I believed was right. I was raised in the church and had no need for questions or searching for evidence. I already had everything I needed in life and there was no thinking about the fact that I might be wrong. No matter how far fetched the story, if it was in the bible, I believed it. I don’t know what got me started thinking, but I know what it was about: other gods. I thought about all the other religions that taught that their god was the one true god too. “Well, we can’t all have the one true god”, I thought to myself. When I first had these thoughts of course I deemed the other gods as “false”, but the question wouldn’t be dismissed. It always came back to me. I eventually came to the realization that since I thought the other gods weren’t real, *gasp* mine not be either. Yay, rational thought! ….and the rest is history.

  • Yoo

    It was the lack of evidence that got me onto the path of explicit atheism, which in turn was prompted by the crappy science in a book written by a certain Henry Morris. (Yes, in my case it was the creationists’ fault that I became atheist.)

    It also got me to start viewing other things skeptically, when before I had the wishy-washy attitude that if so many people believed something, then there must be something to it. Then it became apparent how flimsy mystical or supernatural claims were backed by evidence.

  • Yeah, that’s pretty much the story of my deconversion right there. I was already quite skeptically minded, long before I decided to consciously apply critical thinking to religion.

    When I did apply critical thinking, I realized right from the start that Christianity did not have much evidence to show. I also realized that many Christians argue that evidence is unnecessary, and faith suffices. But I found this unpersuasive. I also realized that there are an assortment of arguments for God/Christianity for those who don’t like the idea of “blind” faith. But I saw these arguments, and found them lacking. Yes, I found this extremely disappointing.

    And yet, I existed in this state for a few years. The position of doubtful adherence is surprisingly stable.

  • Quester

    Sure, there was a point where I realized I didn’t have much evidence for what I believed. That’s why I’m now an atheist. If the evidence had supported my faith, I’d still be a believer.

  • Nick

    When I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I had doubts, asked my parents about it, and they were honest with me. They were still honest when I asked about God, but the response was decidedly different. For my every doubt, the mere conviction of my family was enough to keep me in. Still, I constantly doubted. I constantly thought, “How could an all-powerful god leave so many gaps in his story?” I was severely troubled by the idea of an eternity of worshiping and praising god. This is our reward?

    I’m pleased that I had the courage to step outside my comfortable life to seriously consider what I believed. I truly think that many people hang on for the wrong reasons – social pressure, family expectations, even fear. To pause and objectively contemplate religion is the only step anyone needs to make. Do this, and the lack of evidence is overwhelming. Still, one needs to make a conscious decision to remove the blinders.

    After taking a leap of faith, I needed to take a leap back to reality. It took some courage, but I remember the moment when I was standing on the edge. I decided to jump back to a secular world and take a look. I’m glad I did.

  • When I began doubting I prayed, read the Bible even more, and used good old-fashioned denial. After a while none of that worked and I had to admit there was no evidence and I no longer believed.

  • I realized that pretty early on, and I realized that I had to just deal with the issue. “Just dealing with it” got to me after a while, though, and it’s how it got me where I am now. 🙂

  • It was the other way around for me – I think I just ditched the whole thing because it sounded like nonsense, along the lines of Santa, etc, and only came to realise the piles of evidence against it, the biblical contradictions, etc much later. To a certain extent I dislike this fact as it means I was just rejecting it on a hunch, not through my powers of critical thinking, but at least I get to boast about my precise instincts as a young ‘un 🙂

  • Sam

    I was Catholic and honestly I don’t think I ever thought about my faith critically until the end, when I stopped believing. I suspect most people are the same way.

  • stogoe

    I grew up in a Dutch Reformed church, but my parents passed on to me a love of learning and a wonder for the natural world. Our church wasn’t anti-reality, either, at least not while I was growing up. I never looked for evidence of the central myths of christianity, but for whatever reason I always felt there should be evidence that being a Christian made you a better person, gave you morals you otherwise wouldn’t have. I never found any of that evidence, and it didn’t sit well with me not to have it, but everyone I knew went to christian church so I didn’t have any evidence the other way, either. Heck, I probably hadn’t even heard the word ‘atheist’ until the middle of this decade.

    There was one kid in middle school, though, a fat outcast nerd like me, who I became close friends with. He made the argument that Jesus’ suffering was finite, and that spread out over all the people who had ever lived it would be less than a pinprick each. I couldn’t refute that, but that alone didn’t deconvert me.

    I left the church much later when I became convinced that churches as an institution were immoral at best, but it took several years after that to recognize that there was no evidence for the ‘trueness’ of religion at all.

  • absent sway

    I had a multitude of questions about what I was taught as a young child and I was given answers for every one. They didn’t have to be good answers to be convincing to me at that formative time, coming from the people I most trusted, and combined with the understanding of faith as a virtue. Once the basic framework was in place, for the next twenty years or so I tried to answer my own questions within that framework, looking increasingly to apologetics and more liberal interpretations of Christianity. Along the way, I experienced powerful spiritual community and the occasional ecstatic or transcendent moments that cemented my faith. I did not stop thinking of doubt as a particularly threatening sin till perhaps mid-college, so when I speak of “questions” from before this time (after the initial indoctrination), I am referring to very fleeting feelings of panic that I drowned out with more prayer, more meditation on reassuring scripture, more church attendance, etc. I had many “yeah, I must admit this looks weird” moments but always with the rapid follow-up thought, “but God will make it right somehow and it’s not my place to judge God.” I knew enough to see that it didn’t make sense to justify biblical arguments with the Bible when trying to convince unbelievers, and I could think critically about a great many things but I saw faith as necessarily different territory. Obviously this became maddeningly difficult or I wouldn’t be here.

  • Kiera

    I’m a little different than most because I came a round about way to atheism. My parents were Christian (roman catholic and methodist), but neither really practiced. There was a little pressure from my dad’s parents, but my mom put her foot down, and neither me nor my brother were baptized. She said if we wanted it later in life she would support it. That kind of open attitude really helped foster my own search for a faith/spirituality/religion/whatever.

    I became a pagan in 8th or 9th grade and I was a non-practicing solitary until last year (I’m almost 3 years out of college now). For a year or so before I became an atheist I dropped most of my beliefs but hung on to the title, and then one day I just kind of sat myself down and said “Kiera, what are you doing? You know you don’t believe in this stuff anymore.”

    I have a romantic attachment to paganism. It’s nice to believe that kind of stuff exists, and I still belong to a pagan forum where I have been posting for years. I don’t think they’re crazy for wanting to believe these things, and I don’t want to convert them, but I encourage skepticism and critical thinking every day there.

    I never really had evidence. I knew that. It didn’t bother me because you find ways to compartmentalize and think of that as a non issue. These things over here don’t NEED evidence. They’re based on faith. I really get that mentality and it’s interesting (and sometimes frustrating) to see that reflected in other people. But it’s just like any kind of life experience. It’s always frustrating seeing other people work through things you’ve already figured out, and there is little you can do to help them. They’ve got to figure it out on their own. I’m just here to give little nudges when I can.

  • Sara

    I was raised in a methodist church, and the funny thing is when people told me the bible was symbolic, I took it to mean “not real” in the first place. i never believed and had sort of an epiphany when i realized people – grown-ups for that matter – took this book seriously and thought it actually happened. i was about 7. but i did what i was “supposed to do,” trying to not get caught pretending. i didn’t really get comfortable with my atheist self until much later.

  • Old Beezle

    I applied the scientific method to my beliefs and guess who won? The faith that I was raised in said that you need to do xyz to be happy, fulfilled, etc.–pretty subjective. So I quit doing xyz to see what would happen. Nothing changed. Still me. Still happy. Now more fulfilled. Once I had completed that experiment, the rest was academic.

  • Polly

    Were you ever discouraged or disappointed by the lack of evidence

    HAHAHA, Oh man, YES! I had once intended to study up on evolution in order to debunk it and maybe even offer a sort of sunday school class at church. The more I dug, the further away that goal got.

    I also thought about an all around apologetics thingy. Again, nothing encouraging about what I found.

    The atrocities in the Bible also took the steam out of me. I found that my bible-based ambitions kept running against my values and intellect. So, I remained a devout but more or less paralyzed xian until I deconverted years later.

  • It’s a very interesting point.

    I can’t say I ever thought about evidence much until I really started questioning my belief. It may have helped then, though.

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