Part II: On How I Became an Atheist

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Part II: On How I Became an Atheist

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’ve given you some shockers over the years—I feel quite guilty about that, I promise!—but I am proud that I’ve been truthful with you about my life choices, in the end, at least. It’s important to me to be transparent; it doesn’t sit well to be otherwise.

Another admission is pending, I’m afraid. This time, I confess, I had resolved to stay quiet, not because I am ashamed, or because it’s easier not having this conversation, but rather, I had reasoned that this particular revelation would cause you undue distress and hurt. But I changed my mind. This letter, I’m sure, will distress you, of that I have no doubt, but it dawned on me that you already know—or suspect—in part, what I’m about to tell you. Nothing gets past you Mum! I trust that you’ve already dealt with some of the distress and fear, and so, to try to “save” you pain, is, in fact, the cowardly way out. I’m sorry if this hurts, but it’s better to be open and truthful about the “what”, and offer you the “why”…

I am an atheist. To be specific, I am an agnostic atheist, and that simply means that I do not know for certain that there is not a God, but I don’t believe there is.

I live my life as if there isn’t a God, in much the same way, as I live my life as if there isn’t a Santa Clause. I don’t know for certain that there isn’t a Santa, but I don’t believe that there is. This is a silly and contrived comparison, perhaps, but it does illustrate an important point: not knowing for certain if a claim is true, does not necessarily mean that the rejection—disbelief—of the claim is made in, or leads to, doubt. God can’t be disproved, and I recognise that to profess certain knowledge that no Gods exist is an untenable and arrogant position. I am, however, rationally convinced that God, especially a personal one, is overwhelmingly unlikely, and I simply do not believe the claims that God is real, because the evidence is poor, contradictory, and unconvincing.

For clarity, I’d like to say a little bit more about atheism by quoting Sam Harris:

In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs

Atheism is less about saying there isn’t a God, and more about rejecting claims of Gods. So many cultures believe in Gods. If one stands back, and objectively review the situation—knowing what we know about our reality today—it is easy to dismiss these numerous claims as man-made. In fact, Christians are atheists with respect to all other faiths. They reject the claims of Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Scientology, not to mention all the African, American, Eastern superstitions. Likewise, other religions do the same. Atheists merely go one God further.

That said, how did I get to this point? Not suddenly, I can say. It took me about six years away from the church before I consolidated my belief, or rather, my disbelief. It was a gradual process. For the majority of that time, I didn’t think about religion or God; I just suppressed it, when it threatened to come up, and enjoyed life away from the church. Why do I say enjoy? Well, that is really the crux of the story. In short, Christianity made me profoundly unhappy.

You will remember my dramatic conversion the night that Elizabeth and I stood in front of you in tears. I wrote about this experience and how I became a Christian in my blog post, Part I: On How I Became a Christian. It relates to my eventual disillusionment with Christianity, but I must offer a caution: that post is a much tougher read than this letter, and it contains things that you will find hard to swallow. I’d like you to read it, but know that it will be a shock. Anyway, after repenting and accepting Jesus into my heart, I was a typical fired-up, born-again Christian. I had found a plaster for the past’s guilt, shame and fear; I didn’t realise it was a plaster, at the time; to me it was a cure. I took my relationship with God seriously… I was sincere.

Comparing my Christian life to bi-polar disorder seems apt, somehow. There were high moments—mostly in a congregation—but these were consistently followed with moments of darkness. For years, I struggled with my “sinful” nature—primarily sexual desires, but other things too. I did all the things that you might expect. I prayed. I trusted God. I sought counselling. I accepted that I was a wretched, broken sinner, with no hope of meeting God’s law through my own efforts; I knew that I could overcome only through the grace of God. I turned from sin, and I trusted Jesus. But, you know, there was never a change in my desire to sin. I would fall and repent, fall and repent, fall and repeat. Each time, I hated myself just that little bit more. No matter how sincerely I prayed and begged, I could not overcome. It was not unlike an abusive relationship. It wore me down. The cure was supposed to remove my guilt, shame and fear, but instead the “cure” fed it. It is one of the great ironies of religion.

I can list other things that bothered me, like the church leaders that kept falling to scandal, and speaking in tongues, which I knew in my heart I was faking. I wondered for example, why healing prayers, even small ones, were not answered? By the way, why does God never heal amputees? It concerned me that so many other Christians were horrible and unreliable people… So many things didn’t seem right, but none of these made me leave the church. I brushed these questions aside as one is encouraged to do—God works in mysterious ways, and all that. Who are we to judge and question? Well, considering the stakes, and considering what is expected, is it not vital that we question? If it is all true, should the faith not stand to up to scrutiny? But it doesn’t, and that is why questions are not encouraged, or worse, questions are answered with superstition and pseudo-science.

I wish I could say that other things convinced me, such as the inconstancies in the bible, or science—that has more compelling answers for everything that religion tried to explain. I wish I could say that an intellectual argument compelled me to change my mind. But it did not. When it boils down to it, I left the church because I was weary, and so, so, so unhappy. That point being made, I think I’ll move on.

What happened when I left the church? Well, my life improved. Sure, I still harboured guilt and fear, but I ignored it. And in time, these feelings faded, almost forgotten. I embraced my nature and made peace with the fact that I am human. There was no-one to impress, no-one watching over my shoulder. And it felt good. I got down to living life. In hindsight, I know that leaving the church was essential for my happiness. I am now a husband and father as a direct result of that decision.

The next big change happened only recently, when I discovered the late Christopher Hitchens. He challenged me to start thinking about the important questions in life again. How did we come to be? Why are we here? What is it to live a moral life? Why are we like we are? He encouraged me to pursue knowledge and wisdom. I discovered that science and philosophy and literature have better, and more wondrous, answers than religion. I finally overcame the indoctrination of my faithful years. I was so far removed at this point that I could analyse Christianity objectively. My guilt, shame and fear have truly been discarded, and my lust for life invigorated. We are incredibly fortunate to have our time in the sun. It is precious and wondrous—all the more because it is the only time that we are likely to get.

I don’t deny the power of religion. I obviously experienced this in my own life. The truth is that a lot of very smart people are religious. Intelligent individuals are perhaps the most adept at rationalising unreasonable beliefs. We have an evolved nature to believe in a higher power. We are “programmed” to see design and purpose. Also, we should not discount culture. Children raised in a certain faith are almost guaranteed to stay in said faith. Childhood indoctrination is tough to shake.

It is also true that a lot of people have transcendent experiences, and this makes religion very compelling. As Christians, we’ve all believed that prayer works; we’ve all experienced peace and happiness in God’s presence. This cannot just be imaginings, our minds running amok, or coincidences, can it? It can’t just be psychological? Well actually, it can be, and it probably is a function of our brain. Science offers answers to these phenomenon. These experiences are always subjective, and they have never been objectively demonstrated to be of supernatural origin. They are emotions that has been demonstrated to be functions of the brain. When I was a Christian, I knew that I knew, that I knew, that it was all true. Now, I know that I know, that I know, that it is not. The difference is that my conviction is now supported by something more than just feelings, and that is important, because we know that humans are too easily fooled.

I don’t want to offend you, but I’m sure that I must have. I know that you find great comfort and strength from your faith, and that is absolutely fine. I don’t respect Christianity, but I respect your right to believe it. I don’t write this to convince you that I’m right. Instead, I want to offer you some explanation as to why I am a disbeliever. I wish that I could spare you the grief of your belief that I will go to hell because I have turned from God, but that is not in my power. All I can say is that I’m finally free from that fear.

In conclusion, I want to say that I am very grateful for you. You are the very best parents one could hope for. I love and respect you dearly. I would not have sent this if I did not.

Lastly, my hope is that this would open a channel of conversation rather than close it. If you have any questions or comments, please email or phone me. I have trimmed out a lot of things that I wanted to say; it was not really relevant, and I didn’t want to sound too preachy. I’m not convinced I succeeded at that. I am very passionate about the things I have learned, and I would love to talk, debate, and share.

Your loving son

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64 responses »

  1. I am always amazed that people would feel bashful coming to their parents about something like this. Your parents are the ones who are supposed to love you no matter what. Being an Atheist is who I am, and who you are. You haven’t killed anyone, stolen anything, or lied to anyone. You are still your parents child and they should love you, God or no God. I would certainly love my kids if they decided they wanted to be religious, gay, bisexual, or anything else.

    • It is a tough pill to swallow for parents, considering the beliefs that they hold, and the consequences of rejecting said beliefs. Hence, most attempts to breach the subject will have a bashful tone to some extent. It is going to cause distress, after all.

      But yes, I see what you’re saying. There is a tendency to treat it as something to be ashamed of. Something despicable and immoral. At least we have irony, hey?

      And yes, it is the parents’ job is to love and support their children. Always. I’m lucky in that regard. I knew what my parents response was going to be prior to sending them this letter. I knew that they’d be hurt, but that they’d always love and appreciate me. And that is how they responded. My parents are awesome that way. I doubt I would have had the guts to send them this letter if rejection was likely, no matter how unapologetic and unashamed I might be about disbelief.

    • Its funny that you guys are talking about shame and stuff when coming out to your parents about this, I guess I was lucky, my parents raised my atheist so I never had to go through this.

      • I wonder if it isn’t better to raise a child agnostic and let them consider the evidence themselves when they get older? It would be easier for them to be as objective as they could be.

      • In the sense that I think you’re using the word agnostic, absolutely, I agree, and my post reflects that. It is our intent to teach our children as many *facts* about religions, the world, and secular worldviews.Likewise, we aim to cultivate a desire in them to seek knowledge for themselves, and to exercise and refine their skill to make their own decisions.

        I feel a little uncomfortable about using the word agnostic here, but that is largely because the word means different things to different people. My next post will be about these definitions, and that will clarify my position. Also agnosticism generally only refers to the question of God, which I a bit limiting in context of my post.

        I think a better word is sceptic. If I can impart to my children the instinct to question first (i.e. disbelieve), to seek knowledge and investigate, and only then to believe (or to keep their disbelief), I’d feel that I’ve done well by them. And this applies to all aspects of life, not just God.

        Does that make sense?

        I appreciate the comment, thanks for reading.

      • It makes perfect sense, and well written. I wonder what your take might be though on the notion of properly basic beliefs in that context? I don’t suppose we would ask them to question the reality of the physical world. Of course, in your eyes I suppose God would not be such a belief and thus you wouldn’t be obliged to treat as such. In any case, I look forward to more of your posts for seeing things from another perspective if nothing else.

      • Yeah, I don’t accept the notion of properly basic beliefs. For why, it useful to see wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Argument_from_divine_sense

        I’m not sure what you mean with reality of the physical world, so not sure I can comment. But I’ll take a stab at it and say that we only have the physical world to work with, it is our reality; we cannot make truth claims on that which we cannot observe and test, or explain as a function of the physical world. I’d still council my children to question everything. Is our perception of reality really real? How do we know? Does it matter?

        Thanks for sticking around, I hope my alternative perspectives (to yours) remain interesting 🙂

      • Sorry @braudcj, I was on my mobile, I thought your comment was on my post https://amrestorative.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/guidelines-drawn-in-gray-the-ancestor-letter/

        Hence, my comment might not make that much sense!

        If you read the post above, you’ll get an idea of how I intend to raise the kids. I agree with you, that it is not a good idea to raise children as atheists exclusively and not expose them to other things.

        In fact, I just watched an Atheist Experience show that talks about atheist parenting. Some good stuff in here: http://blip.tv/the-atheist-experience-tv-show/atheist-experience-810-atheist-parenting-6574495

  2. I identify. I came out as gay at the same moment I came out as atheist and I felt the latter hurt my parents more. They have given their lives to the church. I was raised pentecostal and then embraced fundamentalism – in those days the Kenneth Hagins, Kenneth Copelands and Oral Robertses kept us teenagers, enthralled and on fire for God. Eventually, like you, the questions started: why did God punish the Egyptians when he was the one who hardened the Pharaoh’s heart? And all those innocent firstborns murdered to make a point? When I asked a devout friend his answer was as in your post: God works in mysterious ways.

    Then came science. Like you, when I believed in God I knew that I knew that I was right. Now that I am on the other side, so to speak, I know that I know that I was wrong. And that scares me: that we humans can believe something so passionately and so truly and yet still be so wrong. This makes the case for science even more compelling. I’ll believe in God when there is good evidence to do so. I am absolutely not going to base my life on a book written by a cabal of men who claim divine inspiration and I am to do whatever they tell me. We know what men can be up to. Some are frauds, some psychopathic and others just mad. And heaven? A place where the streets are made of gold and we wear white robes and sing hallelujah until the cows don’t come home, eternally bowing before and praising a being that’s clearly narcissistic and a facsimile of priests and kings who want acquiescent followers. What a scam.

    Now I’ve written this I will post an extended copy on my blog. 🙂

  3. I am dedicated to my faith. I am dedicated to knowledge and science. I am dedicated to figure out wisdom, however all is put under the stone I stand upon. What I believe is more potent than a child raised as an atheist are the people who disband from the faith that make formidable opponents in discussing the reasoning concerning both Atheism and Religion and Science. So, you letter is deep and interesting. I look forward to reading more.

    • I appreciate you reading my post–and looking forward to more!–and thanks for taking time to comment.

      It’s the “all is put under the stone I stand upon” bit that worries me; it generally undermines the “dedicated to knowledge and science” bit.

      In the words of Lawrence Krauss, “At best, science and religion have very little to do with one another. At worst, they are completely incompatible. And what little connection between the two even in the best of cases involves a one-way street. Science may enrich faith, but not vice versa.” See this excellent lecture by Dr Krauss, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcR4XqLlxSA

      Trying to marry science and religion typically leads to one or both parties compromising to make the relationship work.

  4. My experience with other believers is a big part of what initially drove me away from my church and eventually from god all together. While my parents know I no longer believe, sending them to my blog takes more courage than I have right now.

    I really enjoyed the read, one thing stood out though is your definition of atheism. The way that I have heard it explained many times is that a Theist, is someone who believes in the proposition that there is a god, while an atheist does not believe in the proposition that there is a god. Science cannot disprove god (you can’t disprove something that doesn’t exist) so we will never “know” there is not a god. Agnostics generally believe that there is a god, just not in any one religions view or path towards said god. Atheist just don’t believe there is one period.

    Anyway hope this clears things a little, if not no biggie. Everyone is free to believe what they want to believe. After all, atheism isn’t a religion it is just the disbelief in them.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yeah, sometimes Christians are their own worst enemy! As Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

      With regards to the definition of atheism, bear in mind that I didn’t want to get too technical in a letter to my parents. Often this topic can get too technical and the point can be lost.

      But this is my understanding and how I like to think about it: Gnosticism and Agnosticism is about knowledge. Theism and Atheism is about belief. This is a nice visual representation of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Theological_positions.svg.

      To be gnostic about anything is a remarkable thing to say. It means you have all the information. It means you know without a shadow of a doubt, no further inquiry required. Case closed. That is just not a reasonable position to take. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have degrees of Gnosticism. There are good ways to determine if things are likely to be true or false. In that sense, I am almost a Gnostic Atheist. But it would be going too far.

      This clip from the Atheist Experience is brilliant and very helpful about the subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoQWqeFyIFE

      • I recently started listening to atheist experience on stitcher and really enjoy their show. I had not seen the clip you posted and I agree it does a good job of describing the degrees well. Thanks for posting the link!

  5. Hello! I appreciate your blog and the fact you speak your mind without being hateful. And per above comment about Christians being their own worst enemy, I do feel very disappointed about those who are Christians but act more like Pharisees.

    And…who are some of your favorite atheist debaters? I love listening to debates; they cause me to think on questions that are difficult to answer and gain more insight. I know you didn’t ask about any Christian debaters lol, but I would also like to provide one to you as you continue on your quest for knowledge. His name is Ravi Zacharias. You may enjoy some of his talks. He may even challenge you just as atheists also challenge me!

  6. Thanks for your comment and for reading.

    It’s funny you mention Ravi! In preparation for my next post, I was listening to a talk of his this evening: Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqbFxZ-3XA4. The bit I’m going to write about is in Part 3, which is a story he tells of conversing with a university student.

    With regards to atheist debaters, if you’re really interested, you will find no better than Christopher Hitchens–author and journalist–who’s debated all manner of Christian apologists, such as: William Lane Craig, Douglas Wilson, David Allen White, Rabbi Shmuley, Dinesh D’Souza, Alister McGrath among others.. All great debates, and all on youtube!

    Other favourites of mine:

    Sam Harris, neuroscientist
    Michael Shermer, writer
    Lawrence Krauss, physicist
    James Randi, magician
    Matt Dillahunty, public speaker, president of the Atheist Community of Austin and ex-christian of 20 years
    Richard Dawkins, biologist

    I enjoy the debates and hearing both sides. It does indeed challenge you to think and sharpen your understanding.

    I hope that helps.. enjoy the hours of debate!

      • I’m not sure if you have watched Ravi’s talk on the incoherence of atheism, but I think you may have just as much, if not more, to add to your next post with this particular presentation. Since this is not a debate, I am looking forward to what you have to say in opposition, or even in agreement, to his arguments.

      • I started listening to that talk, I think he was at a conference or something, but for the first 15 minutes he just repeated things I’ve heard him say before, so I lost interest. I might revisit, but I doubt it.

  7. Maybe one day your folks will write you a letter of apology and announce they have decided to kick into touch every bit of religious nonsense once and for all.

    • I don’t want an apology really. I’ve got great parents, and they have always looked out for my well being. No, no apologies necessary.

      With regards to the latter, there is reason to hope, and there is reason to doubt.

      I appreciate you reading and commenting!

      • T’was more tongue in cheek rather than literal.
        Only sad that a child has to ‘confess’ to such a thing.
        I live in South Africa and we are not usually subject to too many religious nutters out here, thank goodness. But we do get a few….:)

  8. Because you have been a former christian, maybe you should try to write also to your former heavenly father. Since you dont know if exists or not, would be interesting to read it.

  9. I read a post recently that examined Religion/God from the perspective of having an invisible friend because we need one, and that’s okay, for those who need one, but we must stop deluding ourselves that he is real. Your post touches me, I’ve been there; it took me many years to finally accept that backsliding was the beginning of my life and the acceptance of myself. We’re fine just the way we are, no need to be feel guilty for being alive without a master. Thanks for your visit, I will return to read some more. Cheers.

    • Well said. Yes, it takes a while to shake the slave mentality.. But boy, when it’s gone, life is beautiful.

      I appreciate your kinds words. And I hope you enjoy my other posts!

  10. Pingback: Part I: On How I Became a Christian | Amber Restorative's

  11. You expressed your realization very well and it was similar to mine. I had the similar feeling of freedom. I felt like my life is my choice, not some other beings. I strive to be a good person because it is the right thing to do, rather than in response to a promise of punishment if I act in a non-approved way. We have to stop the delusion. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Congratulations on completing a difficult journey. Mine was a bit easier, and until I read a story like yours, I don’t appreciate how easy I had it. The search for purpose and answers to questions that almost make sense can lead in strange directions.

    • Thank you. Yes, strange directions indeed 🙂

      Context is a wonderful thing. Compared to someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, my journey is a walk in the park…

      It is my hope that my children’s journey will be easier than mine.

      I appreciate the read and the follow.

  13. You paraphrase one of my favorite quotes about atheism. As Stephen Roberts said, “I contend we are both atheist. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

  14. Pingback: Part III: On Why I Remain An Atheist | Amber Restorative's

  15. Pingback: On Why I Remain an Atheist: Revisted | Amber Restorative's

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