What’s Always Included in Your “Atheist Testimonial”? July 4, 2009

What’s Always Included in Your “Atheist Testimonial”?

As an atheist, you’re probably used to someone asking, “Why are you an atheist?”

Depending on who is doing the asking, and what their motivation might be, you may end up giving 10 different stories to 10 different people. You’re never lying, but you may focus on different elements of the story for each person.

SarahH mentioned the one common thread that she tells during each “Testimonial”:

… The only thing I always share, for sure, is my “breaking point” that essentially made the different between “theist” and “atheist” for me… which was finding out about all the different world religions that other people believe so fervently and realizing that I didn’t have any more proof for my own religion than I did for the ones I’d never heard of.

If someone asks you why you’re an atheist — a stranger, a close friend, a family member — what parts of your story would you tell everyone?

(via Friendly Atheist Forums)

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  • I can be very literal sometimes so my response is “Well, I’m an atheists because I don’t believe in gods” to which I inevitably receive the reply of “Why not?”. There really are so many reasons why I don’t find belief in gods to be useful or even interesting but really it boils down to never having heard a compelling argument for faith.

    That is all I’d need to convert as well. A compelling reason to believe. I’ve been at this a while and I’m convinced that there isn’t a good reason, just lots of bad reasons.

  • Tom

    The short answer is, nobody ever told me I was actually supposed to believe in the bible when I was very young, so I just saw it as a bunch of fairy tales. By the time I came to understand that a lot of people expected me to take it as literal truth, it was too late, I’d already seen how ridiculous it was.

    The longer answer is more complex. My mother is schizophrenic. Growing up with that, I developed a revulsion for anything that smacks of belief in unreality. As a teen I underwent a full battery of psychiatric testing, and the result was that the doctor reported I am “unusually reality-grounded” – which I believe is shrink-speak for “abnormally sane”. When anyone tries to get me to believe anything, I weigh its probability and what evidence I have for it, and accept it or not on that basis.

    No religion gives me any evidence to believe in it. In general, what they want me to believe in is fairly preposterous. Two of every species on earth were stuffed into one boat? And that gave adequate genetic diversity to repopulate the earth? And we are to believe a human woman gave birth with no male genetic contribution, rather than that she lied to her husband about how she got preggers? Obnoxious rabbis rising from the dead? Fig trees are evil? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

    I honestly wish I could believe in a loving ruler of the universe who has a plan for my life and who will give me eternal life and joy. I imagine believing in that must be comforting. But I don’t. It’s absurd on the face of it. It’s just as nonsensical as my mother’s beliefs in invisible video cameras planted in the trees by the FBI to spy on us, or gay men spreading AIDS in supermarkets with little spray bottles. Religion repulses me on the same basis. A person professing a belief in one of these nonsensical religions (e.g. any of them) is essentially telling me “I’m at least slightly insane”, and makes me want to treat them as such.

  • My explanation is always: “Why not?” I can’t see any reason to be any other way.

  • Amber

    I tell everybody my turning point, which for me was a deeply painful experience. I find that most people can empathize with the pain fairly well, so they “get it.” Most people I know wouldn’t really understand a thorough explanation of evidence against religion, so I don’t even bother. Unless, of course, it’s asked for 🙂

  • Todd

    As a former fundamentalist, I hate the word testimonial. Christians giving their testimonials wallow in narcissistic self loathing. Even as a Christian, I hated listening to them.

    The simple answer to the question, of course, is “Why shouldn’t I be an atheist?”

  • Meredith

    I tell people that after the deaths of my grandparents, I came to grips with the fact that I actually would never see them again (unlike the beliefs of the Christian faith in which I was raised). Furthermore I was tired of being Heaven-focused. I was ready to celebrate the life I had here.

  • mkb

    What I don’t believe is that any version of revealed truth is accurate and without revealed truth it is irrelevant whether or not their are gods. Without revealed truth we have to rely on ourselves and the wisdom of others to figure out how best to live our lives.

  • I always mention that the only people who lied to me at school were the Religious Studies teachers – about the Dead Sea Scrolls to be precise.

    They claimed the scrolls confirmed “much that we believe as Christians” when in fact they concern a completely different sect – and they show Christianity to be just one of many groups in that period claiming knowledge of saviour gods.

    Discovering this lie gave confidence to my suspicion that religious people were talking nonsense.

  • I just boil it down to “There’s nothing supernatural.” Someone can try to use apologetics to get around most other claims, but that takes a little more work.

  • Taavet

    “Religion is silly”.

    I’m fully conscious of the human need for the transcendent – but getting from this point to dissing pork or shellfish requires suspension of disbelief to embarrassingly absurd extent.

  • Claudia

    My answer is essentially identical to Tom’s. As a child in a non-religious household I was never expected to believe in anything supernatural. So when I read the childrens Bible I took it at face value: As a storybook no different from Gullivers Travels. I was only vaguely aware that some people actually believed this stuff was true.

    As I got older and had more intellectual tools at my disposal the childhood fairytales, like all childhood fairytales, became less, not more, credible.

  • Sympathetic believers ask ‘What made you become An Atheist?’, and are often taken aback by the answer, which is ‘Nothing’. I was born, believe it or not, as a baby… and babies aren’t born with a label on their foreheads, ‘Christian’, ‘Jew’, ‘Moslem, Hindu’ or whatever. I was born atheist, as we all are, after which one acquires childhood yarns, parables and stories as told in your part of the world, and it either ends there or you at some point think about it and realise what hogwash it all is.

  • Greg

    I was raised as a Southern Baptist. In my youth I did what was required and had a period of 2-3 years in high school and just after where I really got into it. I then essentially quit and spent the next 18 or so years as an agnostic, i.e. ‘there’s probably something out there but I’m not going to focus any attention on it’.

    My final conversion (when I finally admitted I am an atheist) was only a few years ago. My daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at 2 1/2 years old. The immediate response might be ‘you don’t believe in God because how could God do something like this to your child’. In fact, it was more subtle than that.

    We discovered early on that my daughter’s survival likelihood was 95%. I did some research and realized that the survival rate when I was a child in the 70’s was about 10-15%.

    Even beyond that, before leukemia was even categorized as a disease, imagine a child in the 19th century who is perfectly healthy and in a span of 6 weeks is dead for no apparent reason.

    I started thinking about this quite a bit and wondered if there is a personal God why would he arbitrarily choose that if you lived in the 70s and got leukemia you would probably die, but if you live now, most likely you will not. It seems clear to me that it is actually the march of science and medicine that determined the change in these ratios, not some god who controls everything.

    My daughter got leukemia because of bad luck, not god. Stuff just happens. She is cured because of medicine and science, not god.

    Ergo, I am now publically an atheist.

    I’m sure there are probably some logical fallacies in my reasoning, but that was my tipping point.

  • REX

    Most of the time when I am asked why I don’t believe in God, my response is: “Why would I?”, “Why would anyone?”. Then I usually say that I believe the natural state for an intelligent species is to not have superstitions. I usually go on to say that while the scientific method obviously cannot be used to explain everything yet, that it is extremely narrow minded to automatically assign everything that we cannot explain at this exact moment to God. To me, that line of reasoning sells us short, and leads us to give up on the puzzle too easily.

  • Richard Wade

    Before I answer their question, I always ask, “What do you mean by ‘God?’ Please describe or define what this is for you.”

    This models everything else I’m going to do with the person: Not assuming meanings, making them be crystal clear about their terms and claims, not persisting in assuming the truth of any claim without supporting evidence, the burden of that evidence is on the claimant, etc.

    This tends to filter out those people who are not prepared for a conversation where they will have to work at least as hard as me. I’m not going to perform for them while they just sit and listen. They’re going to have to defend the premise of their question before I even begin to defend my answer.

    This is probably why I hardly ever have these conversations.

  • I realized there is so much we don’t know and to be sure of anything completely is probably foolish. We don’t have all the answers so until we do we cannot be sure we have even one ultimately right.

  • Delphine

    My answer’s always straight forward, perhaps considered mean, and a bit rude. However, I find the question, “Why are you an atheist?” to be rude, so it’s not a problem for me to fire right back. Interestingly I never hear follow up questions after my answer.

    My answer:

    I grew up a devoted Catholic, but I’m just too old for imaginary friends now.

  • Jim

    I’ve been using the following logic, lately, to explain burden of proof:

    If I give you an empty basket, why is it more logical to say that there is a rabbit inside it?

    People come up with some really convoluted answers to this question.

  • Science. Finding out the lies I was taught regarding evolution made me ask myself what else might be false.

    It turns out everything else. I am a happy outspoken atheist today.

  • Luther

    I usually say that “the only difference we have is that you believe that God created man, while I believe that man created God.”

    Then I usually share with them what a christian friend said to me when he found out I was an atheist: “There is still time for you.”

  • thiolsulfate

    I tell them that I am an atheist because I have read the Bible.

    Usually I can leave it at that but if pressed, I continue.

    Having found it totally unsatisfactory I read the Koran — then the Book of Mormon — then the Talmud and Hadith. I read the Buddhist Canon, Hindu Vedas, what qualifies as Wiccan canon.

    Having read it all I found them all of equal parts useless, illogical, and broken reason. Some had large swaths of immorality and cruelty.

    All in all and individually they make for wretched sources of morality, even worse records of human and natural history, and totally worthless in explaining current and past phenomena.

  • @Richard Wade, that is a heroic answer. Kudos.

  • Ross T.

    “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” The question is not “why not believe?” but “Why believe?” I don’t believe in any magic man with a white beard because there isn’t anything that suggests he’s real.

  • For me, it’s all about “coming out.” Just like when I came out as gay, I realized I had always known I was gay, when I came out as atheist, I realized I had always known I was atheist.

  • scott hall

    I say it as concisely as possible “Its a choice i made very early in life when i realized religion wasnt something i believed in or made any sense to me and after many decades of living with that choice i stand by it and its not up for discussion past that”

    I started after a while adding the part about it not being up for discussion cause i got so sick of religious folk wanting to force their beliefs on me and trying to convert me.

    Honestly though most times i want to say something like “Well im an athiest because anyone with half a brain would quickly realize that religion is a total load of shit meant to control the weak minded masses and im not one of them. There is a reason your called sheep at your church and not cause your being shepparded by a priest to the holy land, its cause your docile with faith and can be lead to believe anything your told”

  • “Yes, I’m an atheist, but so are you. If there are 2,001 religions in the world, you reject 2,000 of them. And we agree on that, regardless of how deeply other people may follow those religions. The only difference between you and me is that I use that same intellect and power of reasoning that you apply to dismiss those 2,000 religions, and use it towards yours. The result is the same, I just dismiss one more religion than you do”.

  • AnonyMouse

    Since it was the turning point in my deconversion, I always include the part about the PDF document that I saw that explained why Jesus is not the Messiah. (Unfortunately, I am never able to show the PDF in question. I really need to find it, but I have no idea where it is.

  • I have probably given that explanation close to 100 times. The one thing that every explanation contained is:

    Because it is reasonable.

  • James

    If they ask why I “became” an atheist, I reply that I didn’t. I am as I was born, without belief in any given supernatural “god”. Quite a long story – 37 years ago, my biological father got my mother pregnant then decided to romp off with another woman and got her preggers too. My mum’s dad was a miner/deep sea fisherman. The other woman’s was a farmer. Therefore, her father had a shotgun. My biological father married the other woman.

    Now the story would end there, had I not been born as early in the year and in the village I was. In the village I was born, the first born male is placed in a cradle in the local church and rocked. It is a tradition going back centuries. I was the first born. But not the first born to a married couple. Hence, the fact that my mother had had a baby out of wedlock became wide, public knowledge in a time when that shit actually mattered for some reason.

    So for obvious reasons, she never bothered with the whole church thing after experiencing the church’s pettines first hand.

    I was also once told that atheists “don’t exist” by a Portuguese Catholic which led to a hillarious conversation.

  • I have just never believed in God or gods. I was raised to be a scientific rationalist, with no religious education or attendance forced on me. I have never understood why people would consider the stories of Jesus and Yahweh to be any different than the stories of Zeus and Thor. I never ‘became’ an atheist and I think the burden of proof is on the religious to justify their faith in the unseen and undetectable.

  • Takma’rierah

    “Why shouldn’t I be?”

    Ah, the Socratic Method.

  • AxeGrrl

    Brett wrote:

    I realized there is so much we don’t know and to be sure of anything completely is probably foolish. We don’t have all the answers so until we do we cannot be sure we have even one ultimately right.


  • Quester

    As a recent deconvert surrounded by caring Christians who are confused by my recent changes, I find the honest, “I reached a point where I was no longer confident that I knew anything about God, not even whether or not He exists.” If I am pressed past that, I tend to respond as Richard Wade does above, asking what they mean by “God” and where they get that definition from.

  • When I was young I believed in God, but only because my parents did. Even then I doubted my belief and fought with doubt well into my teens. Finally, at about 17 I heard someone say that they were a God-fearing person. At that exact point in time I became an atheist and gave up any sense of belief. I had been sitting on the fence for so long that I finally realized how silly the concept of God was when people felt that they had to fear him instead of love him.

  • Glen

    I vividly remember being 8 years old and realizing that the god of the old testament was a horrible monster. When I was old enough to understand what morality and personal ethics REALLY meant, I decided to reject that god, even though I still believed. Until I finally rejected the stories entirely, I used to wake up each morning and think, “Fuck you, God.” That is the only part of belief that I miss – being able to sincerely curse that evil bastard.

  • chancelikely

    The thing I usually say is “I realized that God and Santa aren’t different enough to believe in one and not the other.”

  • I was not conditioned to believe as a small child, therefore, as an adult,I find atheism to be completely natural and the “default” human condition.

    Of course, I realize that religious people who were conditioned to believe in childhood consider belief to be the “default” condition.

  • To keep it short: “No, I’m not an atheist simply because I study geology.” A LOT of people assume this immediately, think I simply want to fit in…

  • CatBallou

    Science fiction!
    At an early age.

  • Layzie

    Because that’s the way god made me!!! LOL

  • Theism just doesn’t make sense.

    Usually I don’t get an answer to that.

  • “It’s not about proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that ‘God’ does not exist. It is perfectly reasonable to have an opinion on the existence/non-existence of the supernatural, I’ve looked at the evidence, and this is the conclusion that I’ve reached.”

    That’s the phrasing I use for theists, but I said essentially the same thing in how I became an atheist, which I wrote for a general audience (including atheists).

  • Ex Partiot

    I was born a atheist and nobody in my family tried to change that. As I grew older I could find no reason to believe in fairy tales and the rest of the nonsense spewed out by the churches.

  • I never realized it before, but it’s true–I do emphasize different aspects of my “atheist testimonial” depending on who I’m talking to.

    I think the point that pushed me over the edge from deist to atheist, that I always include, was reading Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time” and learning about evolution–when the gaps started shrinking, god just seemed so superfluous.
    (The journey from fundie to deist was a lot more complicated, though, and so that story may or may not get emphasis)

  • sc0tt

    I got honest with myself and realized that I simply wanted to believe the story so much that I had convinced myself that it was true.

    I got honest with myself and realized that I had never had anything that I would consider to be acknowledgement from god.

    I got honest with myself and realized that I had been fooling myself.

  • Raze

    Probably the time in eighth grade (I went to catholic school 1-8 grades) when our religion books had a diagram of concentric circles. The innermost was god, then catholics, protestants, jews, muslims, etc. I just found it ridiculous that they had ranked themselves the closest and most loved by a god they shared with hundreds of other sects, not to mention I’d been taught for years that god loved everyone equally. That was the first big seed of doubt in my ideology.

  • John L.

    I like to tell me that that just like them I don’t believe in most of the bible. Except for me I don’t believe in the parts about our past or any of the supernatural parts.

    This sometimes gets people to shut up since they know they don’t believe in much of the bible either. Or they may argue this fact since they have never actually read the bible themselves. I’ve encountered people that the only thing they know is to have Jesus in your heart and that he died for our sins. Everything else comes from their pastor.

  • I’m not sure I have a common thread, because there are so many different ways to ask about it.

    There are a few things I tend to talk about more often, which may indicate a more common kind of question.

    – You don’t need “evidence of absence” not to believe in something (then give examples by pointing to things the asker doesn’t believe in – in spite of no evidence to the contrary – including, for example, every other religion’s gods). I join them in their many disbeliefs in spite of not always having evidence to the contrary.

    – Often quote Sagan’s “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and point out that it’s the ultimate in extraordinary claims.

    – I say I agree with their nonbelief in other people’s gods for that reason… but I also agree with the other fellow’s disbelief in theirs for the same reason.

    – there’s usually some misconceptions about atheism to clear up – but often different onse each time. Common ones include nihilism, anger (though I point out that there’s no lack of things for atheists to be rightly cranky about), being angry with god (!), not wanting any rules, …

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