How I Came To Be Atheist

My prior post bears an additional bit of explanation, as the way in which I came to be atheist is essential in understanding why I think of atheism the way I do and why I cannot easily associate myself with New Atheism (despite the fact that I don’t entirely lack admiration for the scientists and philosophers who are participants in the movement).

Several months ago a friend of mine and I were discussing atheism and I asked him how he came to be atheist. His reply corresponds to what I imagine would be the case with most people who are among the “deconverted”. My friend was raised in a Mormon household and unlike his siblings, he didn’t take to Mormonism particularly well. As my friend passed through adolescence he increasingly questioned Mormon theology, eventually reading material on Mormonism authored by people outside that faith. That lead to his dropping Mormonism entirely, and when he extended his skepticism of Mormonism to other religions, he found the other religions readily accessible in Western society equally wanting when contrasted against an empirical approach to living in the world. He would eventually conclude he was atheist.

Assuming I’ve characterized my friend’s experience accurately, the method my friend took to reach a rejection of Mormonism and, subsequently, religion in general seems to correspond partly to John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith. The short version of the test is: Examine your faith as though you were of another religion, and thus are inclined to examine religions other than your own with skepticism. Does your religion hold up to this skepticism? (There are arguments against the effectiveness of the test.) I suspect that even when not articulated in this manner, many people who end up atheist engage in some version of the Outsider Test. My version of the test was distinctly different…

I started going to Sunday School at an early age, (around five) and though my parents were not regular church-goers, being tied up with my Dad’s business, I and my brother attended church regularly from early childhood through our teen years. Throughout my preteen years, church consisted principally of Sunday School, which itself consisted of the faith-affirming feel-good bible stories well-designed (as seen in retrospect) to indoctrinate young minds. I was well taken with such stories, as well as the usual sorts of horseplay one could get up to when surrounded by kids of similar age. There were also the late morning sermons on Sundays that us kids tended to regard as boring, but got sat through anyway due to the expectations of adults.

Church seemed just fine until I became a teenager. At a certain age, Sunday School transitioned from bible stories and fun into something that I immediately found sinister. (I may have been unique among my cohorts in this respect, though I’ll never know for sure.) This sinister disturbance of my good time receiving the good news came about when the notion of witnessing was introduced. To be a witness, according to the Sunday School instructor for teenagers, was to go about the world trying to convince other people of the goodness of God’s Word. I didn’t immediately grasp why I was so bothered by this, but after a few weeks of Sundays filled with talk of witnessing I developed for myself an understanding of why I felt so troubled. I never shared this with anyone at church (which I think worked out well).

Even though I was, at this point, well steeped in an at least semi-evangelical version of Christianity, I was not without knowledge of other religions. It was readily apparent to me that in different parts of the world people worshiped in different ways and even worshiped different gods. Christianity seemed intent on its own rightness and only now was I forced to confront the possibility of having to challenge the rightness of other religions with that of my own.

My grandma taught me never to tear someone down in order to build yourself up. I extended this lesson onto witnessing and thought, “How can it be right for me to tear down someone else’s religious belief only to try to replace their belief with mine? Surely this would hurt the person I would try to witness to.” Once this thought took hold I knew I could not continue going to a church that would pressure me to act against a principle I had just managed to discover, discovering that I held that principle very deeply. It was with an increasing sense of disillusionment that I stopped going to church. After that, it was only a matter of time (and an encounter with Plato’s Euthyphro) before I gave up belief in God entirely.

My conversation with my friend concluded with our acknowledgement that while he had come to his atheism through skepticism, I came to mine through moral reasoning. This moral reasoning has had an odd side effect.

Much as I once concluded I could not tear down someone’s religious belief to replace theirs with mine, I have since recognized that for the same principle to hold true now I cannot tear down someone’s religious belief and replace it with atheism. Atheism is seen by some as a greater good, worthy of achievement through assertive means. I would counter that to do harm in the pursuit of an alleged greater good undermines whatever potential for good that greater good may offer. This was true when armies engaged in slaughter over competing religious convictions. It remains true when one well-meaning believer tries to save someone’s soul (or free someone from belief in a soul). The journey away from religion (or toward it) ought to be a personal one, not dictated by dogma or demanded by rationale.

Just as there are religious leaders who may be worthy of admiration yet engage in occasional ignominious expression, those who represent New Atheism are, I find, subject to the same consideration. The recent flap involving Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Brandeis University is representative of this. On one hand, Hirsi Ali purports to stand for women’s rights. To whatever extent this is true, (I would hope the greatest possible extent) I commend her. On the other hand, Hirsi Ali has said some troubling things about Islam. (Please forgive me if “troubling” seems an understatement.) Whatever the motivation for such statements may be, such is the ignominy that may be expressed by an otherwise admirable person. In this case, (and others resembling it) an ignominy I cannot support.

The more fundamental principle that underlies what I’ve written of to this point is really no more than that most ancient of principles physicians take an oath to adhere to: First, do no harm. And the true ignominy in the world is that far too many people ignore this injunction.

Don’t ignore Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, either.

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