Will Atheism Become Easier?

In the next generation or so, will it be easier to become an atheist?

I don’t mean socially or politically easier. I’m not wondering whether there will eventually be less anti-atheist bigotry, discrimination, stigma, whether state and church will be better separated, etc. (That’s not what I’m thinking about today, anyway.) I’m wondering if it will become emotionally easier, and philosophically.

Here’s what I mean, and why I’m asking. Years ago, I had a conversation at a party with my friend Tim. It was a somewhat tipsy conversation, so I may not be remembering it entirely accurately, but I think this was the gist of it: We were talking about existentialism (yes, I have tipsy party conversations about existentialism, so sue me), and Tim was saying that he agreed with the original existentialists about how, from any external objective perspective, there’s no meaning to our lives, and meaning is something we create entirely for ourselves. And then he said something like, “The difference is that I don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”

I knew immediately what he meant. And I said something like, “I wonder if the difference is that they made up existentialism, it was totally new to them… but we grew up with it. The idea was already in the air. Even if you didn’t grow up in an intellectual household, the basic idea had already filtered down into the culture. So when we were figuring out the world and our place in it, existentialism just seemed normal.”

This is what I’m wondering about atheism. The current generation of atheists didn’t invent atheism, obviously — but for many of us, it was a new idea that we had to struggle with. Most atheists say that they’re happy to have left religion… but a lot of us say that the process of leaving religion was difficult and traumatic. We had to find a radically new way of looking at the world and our place in it, with radically new answers to the big questions of life and death. Without belief in God or a soul or an afterlife, we had to seriously re-think questions about morality and mortality, meaning and connection.

And if we came to our atheism more or less on our own — if we came to the atheist community after we let go of God, not before — we had to re-invent the wheel. I certainly went through that. When I let go of my spiritual beliefs, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of atheist and humanist and skeptical and secular philosophies of life and death. Death especially was a struggle for me — as it is for many believers letting go of their beliefs — and I pretty much had to piece together my own ways of coping with a life in which death is really and truly final. And I’m not the only one. Other atheists who have left religion report similar emotional and philosophical struggles: about death, about meaning, about personal responsibility, about really big questions that frame our lives.

But I’m wondering if that will be less true for the next generation.

If atheists continue to get our ideas into the world — not just our ideas about why religion is mistaken and atheism is right, but our ideas about how we live without a belief in God or a soul or an afterlife? If we continue to get our ideas in the air, and filtered down into the culture? If we can create a world where it’s pretty much impossible to grow up not knowing that atheists exist… the way it’s now pretty much impossible to grow up in America not knowing that gay people exist? If we can create a world where atheism is normal?

I’m wondering if this struggle will be easier for the people who come into atheism after us. Or even if it will be a struggle at all. I’m wondering if they’ll look at atheism the way my friend Tim and I look at existentialism. “Sure, there’s no God, and my consciousness is a biological product of my brain, and my sense of a cohesive identity and selfhood is a somewhat illusory mental construction, and when I die I’ll just be gone forever. So what? That’s fine with me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

So for the atheist readers of this blog (which I’m assuming is most of you), I’m curious what your own experiences of coming into atheism were. Did you grow up with atheism more or less from birth, or did you come into it later, on your own? If you came into it as an on your own — when did that happen? Was it a while ago, or did it happen pretty recently? Were you already at least somewhat familiar with some atheist ideas and people before you deconverted, or did you get connected with the atheist community/ movement after you let go of your religion?

And was your deconversion a struggle, or was it relatively un-traumatic? Not in terms of how your friends and family and the rest of the world felt about it — but just in terms of how you personally felt about it? I realize this is an extremely un-scientific poll, but I’m idly curious to see if there might be a connection between the two.

Will Atheism Become Easier?
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148 thoughts on “Will Atheism Become Easier?

  1. 1

    Well, although I went to a private (read: Catholic) elementary school, and we had compulsory prayer and religion classes, I grew up thinking that the story of Jesus wasn’t that different from the story of, say, Thor. And besides, Thor appeared in a Marvel comic with Iron Man and Captain America, which made him much cooler than Jesus xD

    My parents are both agnostics who have never pushed any religious view on me. Even my Catholic grandma is OK with my atheism, so yeah, I’ve been pretty much an atheist since I was in the cradle.

    And just to put you in some socio-cultural context, I’m from Spain, where atheism is considered no big deal (Except for the hard-right wingnuts, but even they know that talking about religion in a electoral campaign would cost them lots of votes)

  2. 2

    I was raised “atheist”. My mom’s an atheist and my dad just never talked about his beliefs till I was a teenager.

    Lawl, for me the big dramatic thing was finding out other people believed in this weird nonsense. THAT took several years to come to terms with.

  3. 3

    Born into an atheist family in a largely atheist society (deep south NZ). For me the best thing about growing up without religion was that everything I saw and learned increased my appreciation of the wonder and beauty of the world, most particularly the sheer mindboggling cleverness of biology to have evolved from a few self-replicating chemicals into every living thing on earth (I read a lot as a kiddie).

    Am a geologist now. A better follow-up inoculation to child religion-aversion therapy would be harder to find.

  4. ik

    I wonder if a transhumanist viewpoint might solve the death being final issue. Even before I was an atheist, my view of death was along the lines of “Science will soon rescue humanity from this scourge”.

  5. 5

    I’m English. My mum is agnostic, my dad is a deist. My cousins (and aunt) are extremely christian, my sister is a Muslim, my uncle is atheist, his wife catholic.

    We all get along really well. So for me becoming atheist was simply the rational choice other options were presented, but seemed wonky. I was vaguely deist until I was 8 or 9, simply for the warm fuzzies and wanting to look into things more.

    I went to a Catholic school, but opted out of services (they took none Catholics provided they were extremely bright). I wasn’t there long after finding the mono running the place beat kids. I then went to a C of E state school (no separation of church and state in the UK) where I continued to opt out, religion wasn’t really mentioned much there unless you went to the optional church services. When I went to high school my RS teacher was atheist and kindled in me a fascination with how religion manipulates and controls, which I have til this day.

    I guess theism needed to prove itself to me, all it managed was to show that it is bonkers. I guess I grew up in a little preview of your future world, so, yeah I think it will be easier if people aren’t battered with the religion club at a young age.

  6. 7

    I grew up in a place where most people are non-religious (Stockholm). Even if only a few actually identify themselves as atheists, people who are explicitly religious are a very small minority. And are, frankly, considered just a little bit odd by the rest of us.

    Anyway, it was pretty easy. I don’t remember ever feeling particularly upset that religious beliefs weren’t true, any more than I’d been upset that any other category of supernatural belief wasn’t true.

  7. 9

    “One word, Ma’am. One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
    – Puddleglum, The Silver Chair

  8. 10

    I was brought up as a cultural christian with less than a year at Sunday School and no church attendance. Religious instruction at school was with Methodist/Uniting Church teacher and focused on general morality and a few parables. I gave religion very little thought until I converted to generalised non-specific christianity after reading an inspiring story in my late teens and then got caught up in a fundamental church for 15 years (Worldwide Church of God). I was exploring ideas and what was available in the world and something about them got me hooked (probably that I’ve always had trouble making friends and they were very welcoming). I was very enthusiastic for a while, even though right from the beginning there were bits and pieces I knew were wrong, but I just wrote it off as ‘nobody’s perfect’ and ignored them. After about 10 years involvement I got the opportunity to go to Uni as a mature-aged student and the self-imposed blinkers wore off and I eventually walked away. Most of the last 5 years I stayed only because all my friends were in the Church. But they all gradually got married and/or moved away so there was nothing left to keep me attending in the end. Now I’m alone again, but my mind is free.

  9. 11

    I grew up in a religious household, attended Catholic schools, and yet I can’t remember a time when I really believed in a god. I do remember pretending to believe until my mid teens, but it all seemed a non issue, unless I was around my family, then I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t become vocal until years later, when I became increasingly annoyed at the expectation of privilege the religious sector held.

  10. 12

    I grew up in a religious household in a very religious community. Atheists were horrible horrible people who would burn forever in a fiery pit.

    Deconversion for me was a slow, but not painful, process. It started with a lot of science classes, which started showing some of the cracks in the dogma I was taught. Then it continued with reading some classic atheist books.

    So instead of being a progression of “no god” to understanding atheist philosophy, it was more of a integrated process where I started to see flaws in Christian theology and was looking for something better.

    But I’m not sure if I accept your premise. I think atheist ideas and philosophy have been around for a while…and what we have is an education/exposure at a young age problem.

  11. 13

    I think my path could be somewhat easier for others to follow in the future. I was raised Catholic, and was pretty serious about it. After college (2005ish), I had what I considered a crisis of faith and look around at more liberal religions (e.g., UCC, UU, Buddhism, Taoism). I had to believe in something. I wasn’t some atheist.

    My aversion to atheism was actually cured by reading atheist blogs, PZ and Ed’s blogs were the primary culprits. It was finding out that good smart atheists existed that allowed me to consider myself an atheist and quit my search for faith. So, I think the rise of “new” atheism will definitely help people like me to realize there are good atheists out there and it is reasonable worldview to hold.

    I’d also like to point out that I haven’t actually come to grips with existentialism. The idea of making my own meaning out of life seems huge. It’s literally the most important thing I’ll do and it’s very anxiety provoking whenever I think of long-term life goals. I don’t want to be some stereotypical nihilist atheist, but that’s exactly how I feel when it comes to big picture life questions.

  12. 14

    William Stock, it is obvious from that quote that Puddleglum has not seen a nebula, or a supernova, or a quasar; nor have they had the chance to observe the spectacle of a tornado touchdown or a volcano eruption. Worst of all, though, is that this man is so simple-minded he cannot pull his mind away from his imagined sun and behold the details of how the real one works.

    Those who think that reality is boring think so because they bumble incompetently about it with their eyes screwed shut.

  13. 15

    I grew up in a christian household. Reformed, which was not very strict, but I had to go to church every sunday. Furthermore we read from the bible every day, at dinner, since I was 8 or 9 years old. (previous to that, we didn’t read, the regime tightened up, at age 8;))

    I have always been highly sceptical of faith. I was always fighting with my dad on this issue. I have had a very loving upbringing, and love my parents very much. So this was the only thing we really differed on!

    I told them early on that I was an atheist, although I didn’t really use those words.

    Leaving faith has not been a problem for me. But dealing with the fact that I still had to go to church and listen to the same biblestories after dinner was a problem.

    I dislike lies and am fond of the truth. Having had to listen to obvious crap and not being allowed to roll my eyes at it has been the hardest in leaving religion behind.

    Doesn’t sound like much of an issue, but is has been hard on me. I truly dispise pretending.

  14. 16

    I was raised half-ass Catholic, and went to a Catholic elementary school (public middle- and high schools).

    The Catholic school was pretty mild by the standards I sometimes hear about. While it did have the teacher I dislike the most, it wasn’t because she was mean and whacked us across the knuckles with rulers, it was just because she was a bad and uninteresting teacher. That school also had my favorite teacher of all time, and I’m still friends with her to this day.*

    Deconversion happened around the end of high school, 16-17 years old maybe. While I wasn’t much of a practicing religious person, I never contemplated that God might not exist. I thought that even if we didn’t understand it fully now, God was something like gravity that was a fact of the world waiting to be discovered.

    That changed when I happened upon an interesting little book in the science section of a small bookstore with a very provocative title: The God Delusion. I didn’t know anything about Dawkins at this time; I certainly did not know that he was a leader of the atheist movement, or even that there was an atheist movement.

    The title immediately caught my attention. As an aside, it seems Richard has a great talent for titles. I came to the book with no presuppositions, with an open mind, and was exposed for the first time to a life changing and radical idea.

    I found that I could not argue with a damn thing he said. Everything I had thought I knew about God and religion was wrong. Even after reading a rebuttal book (Dawkins Delusion, Alistair McGrath; totally ineffective in comparison), the case Richard had made was unassailable. If I wanted to be true to myself, I had to become an atheist.

    So I did.

    * Her husband’s a former priest, and for super double awesome bonus points, they’re atheists!

  15. 17

    It would be nice to know the ages of everyone and where they are from. I’m 55 and from the West/Midwest of the US. I never heard about atheism growing up just as I never heard about gays. We went to church every Sunday and said grace every so often but we weren’t overly religious. We all believed in god in my family. I don’t remember ever thinking about it as an option to not believe.

    When I reached my late teens I started looking into religion. The Episcopal church didn’t seem to be very exciting. At this time the Maryknolls were in South America and Liberation theology was in the news. It seemed the Catholics were involved in really going out and helping people. I started looking into Catholicism.

    While I found what they were doing appealing the beliefs themselves were not. I tried going to the masses but that was much like the Episcopal church. I started looking at the Protestant world and went into an even more bizarre world. The more I studied the harder it was to accept what was stated as fact.

    Paganism, Buddhism, Himduism and Islam all were equally dissatisfying. Buddhism’s mindfulnes was the only thing I took away from these years of searching. Then the internet came and I started reading links to things like logic and atheism and science. This was an exhilerating and extremely difficult time for me. Everything I read challenged me and many times I had to reread a subject many times before I could accept it. Thank you to everyone who wrote these articles that led me away from my acceptance of belief.

    These ideas were satisfying in a way that the religious ideas weren’t. They were built on a solid base of knowledge. Religious ideas varied wildly and claimed absolute truth while scientific ideas were tentative and built on each other. Many times I couldn’t accept an idea for a long time such as death being final. I gave up god long before I gave up on the idea of life after death.

    I agree with Christina on this one. For me at least this was very true.

  16. 18

    I completely agree…”So what?”
    I arrived at the conclusion after several painful years of testing and observing theistic concepts, even things like fate and destiny, “karma” and other nonsense. What I found is that the only “magic”, the only real magic, is in the physical and observable universe. I arrived at these conclusions after years of study and practice and experience, and I feel that I always knew them, but was willing to see what else there was. Planets spin, stars explode and caterpillars turn into butterflies. None of these objects, so far as we are able to tell, give a hoot in hell for an afterlife.
    There is no “afterlife,” there is only a constant and gradually attenuating continuation of physical, chemical and atomic reactions. There is no church, no temple, no prophet, that can make a statement any more profound than “Every atom in our body and everything around us was made in the heart of a dying star!” What could compare? And it isn’t something you have to believe, or fantasize about – it’s a fact, that you can know and be aware of.
    To be aware of that – that you can know about the world around you, your fellow human beings, and your own mind – is enormously empowering. That knowledge can, if you are reasonably mentally healthy, slice through every fear, every reservation, every self-denying and self-demeaning thought, every layer of religious indoctrination, and help you to see the world as it actually is.
    The world is wonderful, beautiful, staggering, and awe-inspiring. There is very little to fear in the world, when you abandon the fear of death and what happens after. There are only things to know, and that which may have caused fear before, is now only to be guarded against, avoided, or confronted.
    I almost never comment on anything anywhere, but your recounted conversation touched a nerve – I had arrived at the same conclusions after confronting the old Existentialists. I quite enjoy your blog, and I hope you see fit to continue it for the foreseeable future.

  17. 19

    “I’m wondering if it will become emotionally easier, and philosophically.”
    I can only speak for the Netherlands. I have never met anybody who struggled emotionally and/or philosophically with atheism. I certainly didn’t. As a young teenager (13, 14) it took me only a few minutes to become an agnost. Answering the question of a classmate someone from Youth for Christ told us that Pinochet would go to heaven if he repented just before his death. We thought that incredibly unfair.
    Ten years later it took me only a little longer to become an atheist. That was an existential choice – I felt I had to accept Quantummechanics (specifically Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), reject causality and thus all religion.
    But I do know that some former extreme Calvinists in the Netherlands have struggled.

    Death has never been a struggle for me. Already as a teenager I realized that only the suffering before was to fear.

    “our ideas about how we live without a belief in God or a soul or an afterlife?”
    There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and learn that several intelligent people have thought about those ideas. How to live without …. never has been a problem for me – first I was too young, later I accepted ideas of other people. I am a very unoriginal guy.

    The point is, I think, I never have had an emotional connection with any belief system or any religious organization.

  18. 20

    I don’t know if I ever really believed in God. At about 10 years of age (and more than 50 years ago) I said something to my father that caused him to ask me in a startled voice “don’t you believe in God?.” I can’t for the life of me remember what it was that I said, but the time frame is pretty accurate, since he died when I was 12. I don’t remember arguing with him either, but I do remember thinking: of course not, does anybody? I thought the bible stories we heard in Sunday school were fairy tales for adults. I was a voracious reader of science fiction, and had a good grasp of the difference between fact and myth. FWIW, my mother attended church regularly, but my father did not, although I can remember him reading the bible.

    Being a good little kid, I did attend confirmation classes, and was confirmed as a Lutheran at age 13. I quit attending church shortly thereafter, telling my mother that, since I was now an adult in the eyes of the church and responsible for my own actions, I wanted nothing further to do with religion. My mother was not pleased, but there was little she could do about it.

    My view of religion at the time was that, although the existence of a (deist) God was debatable, a theist God was absurd. Why would an all powerful creator of the universe possibly want to be worshiped? It looked like God made in the image of man, rather than vice versa. I suppose that I was a strong agnostic ( 6/7 in the Dawkins scale).

    While in high school, I met a few others like myself. We were all teacher’s aids in the biology labs, and all males. There were some lively discussions with the faithful in the prep room.

    As an aside, I grew up in Chicago, in a very ecumenical neighborhood. There were at least 5 churches within easy walking distance of my house, and my friends were Catholic and all sorts of flavors of Protestant. Our family doctor was Jewish , as was our neighbor across the street and my favorite teacher. I don’t recall any Jewish children, but I might not have been paying attention. I remember one English class where I had to have explained to me why excommunication was such a big deal. I figured that if you were kicked out of one church , you could just join another, or have Sunday mornings to yourself. I needed to be told how powerful the church (of which there was only one) was in those days.

    In the public schools in the ’50s in Chicago there was no separation of school and Christianity. Our elementary school (K-8) had an annual Christmas pageant complete with manger scene and bible readings. I was a shepherd one year, and I still have the costume my mother sewed for me. It didn’t seem to bother anyone at the time, or if it did they kept their mouths shut (probably the latter).

    By my 20’s I called myself an Atheist, but I wasn’t blatant about it. If I thought that it might be controversial, I could always say that I was raised as a Lutheran (and I had a 8 year Sunday school pin (50 x 8 = 400 days) to prove it). I have become more confident in my lack of belief now that I am older, and am somewhat proud that I got there on my own.

  19. 21

    To some extent, yes: atheism will become easier as the ideas begin to permiate society as a whole. But like racial tolerance or acceptance of homosexuality, there will always be vociferous hold-outs. On the whole, it will become easier to accept atheism, except in the households and communities where it will become much, much tougher.

  20. 22

    Of course it will get much, much, easier to be an atheist as the inexplicable level of religiosity in the USA slowly dies and falls in line with the rest of the civilized world, where to be openly religious is rare, and considered a bit weird by the majority. For you, a faith-based childhood is the norm and it takes an effort to break away from that. For the rest of the English-speaking world, growing up without religion is the norm, the default state, and it takes a conscious effort to become what we call a ‘god-botherer’ . Hang in there, Greta.

  21. 23

    Setár (#14):
    “Those who think that reality is boring think so because they bumble incompetently about it with their eyes screwed shut.”

    Agreed. But the Puddleglum quote is from a context where a witch is trying to hypnotise the heroes into believing that her underground kingdom is the only world that exists. So he isn’t saying that reality is boring, but that the “world” made up of underground rooms and corridors is boring.
    Whatever that has to do with the subject of the thread…

  22. 24

    It was more traumatic for me to believe in the kinds of stuff priests and religious laypeople told me I should believe than it was for me to drop those beliefs.

    I was raised with a strong sense of social justice that didn’t jive with a lot of what Catholicism (specifically) and Christianity (generally) taught as truth, and the answers I received to many of my religiously-directed questions were extremely unsatisfying. But in the absence of exposure to other paradigms, I continued to believe out of a combination of fear and a lack of awareness about alternatives.

    Upon exposure to the existence of these alternatives, non-belief in the supernatural came as easily and naturally as drinking water.

    The only difficult part was being open about it because people who aren’t atheists are often major-league assholes to people who are.

  23. 25

    Well now, this is an interesting question. I was raised Lutheran, church, sunday school, the whole bit. The more of the rituals I had to put up with the more I thought it was silly. In my teens I checked out other religions with the same result, silly. I became somewhat of a deist, then dabbled with paganism. In my late 20s I considered myself agnostic and went with that without much more thought. In my mid 50s I did more reading on many subjects and religion and faith were two of them. That’s when the light came on and I realized I really was an atheist and calling myself agnostic was just dodging the issue and trying not to piss off too many in the family. I also realized that I really didn’t give a shit what that bunch of hypocrits thought anyway so since age 54 I just say I’m atheist and be done with it. Coming on age 63 now I’m satisfied with it. No trauma, no doubts, no wringing of hands and much less tollerance for bullshit.

  24. 26

    I was born into atheism. Both my parents are atheist, though my Dad identifies more as Jewish than atheist; he’s probably one of the only atheists who keep kosher that I know of. So for me, being atheist wasn’t a problem at all. The only real change in my beliefs is that as a child I was more of a faitheist, seeing nothing wrong with anyone else believing in religious nonsense. However, I grew out of that.

  25. 27

    I think you might be really onto something about it being easier if the idea is already well known. I’m 21, having been an atheist since my mid-teens and for me religion and God was never very powerful in my life. I was raised Quaker in Canada and then the US and while atheism was never brought up neither really was God. The meeting house I went to was more like meditation for 30 minutes then anything else and we never opened a bible. So God was a background belief, something assumed but not dwelt upon. In middle school I had a friend who was the first atheist I’d met and was my first encounter with the idea. During high school I still believed in a deity but with even less religious attachment and my introduction to political radicals on the far left introduced to even more atheist ideas and denouncements of religion. Dawkins then pushes me over the edge on his explanation of the logic of atheism over agnosticism, I’m an atheist and it didn’t hurt at all. I’m embarrassed over my former beliefs but it was more of “oh wow, I was wrong. this guy makes a lot of sense. hey peers what do you think of this? you agree? great!” and then enjoying the online community. My family was accepting of my irreligiousness and i’ve never really been plagued by any mind-crushing doubt over it. It just makes sense.

  26. 28

    “Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”

    I’ve also been baffled at the idea that anyone found it uncomfortable, much less depressing.

  27. 29

    Speaking as one that never had a religion at any stage of life, I can say it’s pretty damn easy to be atheistic when you have no religious crap to unlearn. Strangely enough, the concept of doublethink as described in Nineteen Eighty-Four was utterly ludicrous – unbelievable! – until I met some christian apologists.

  28. 30

    Yes. Of course it will be easier to define your beliefs as atheist if you know that such a position is possible.

    I was a ‘good, Catholic girl’ who drifted into a not-rock-the-boat sort of atheism quite early in life. Looking back, I think my disillusion with god began when I was seven and being indoctrinated with the catechism before taking my first communion. To emphasize how sacred the host was, the nun told us a horrific story about a girl, just our age, who was gunned down by the Nazis in church, during mass, just for being Catholic. With her dying, bullet riddled body, she crawled around the altar lapping up the spilled, consecrated hosts so they would not be desecrated by Nazi stormtrooper boots. God loved her for it but I had no clue why anyone would do that. Even for saving god, that seemed excessive. I remember only the horror. I don’t know if I thought I would be able to do that.

    My anti-god stance was solidified when I was fourteen and went back to my elementary school to teach catechism classes. I was given a ‘teacher’s handbook’ to teach from and discovered to my jaw-dropping anger that every one of the stories that I had had trouble believing – from Nazi girl, to the wonderful kid who asked his parents to give away all his Christmas presents to worthier kids – was right there in the book, clearly labeled as a story to tell to get the kids to believe in whatever was the object of the lesson. I was being asked to lie to kids! I could not do it. I was a dreadful failure as catechism teacher. I stammered and stuttered and hemmed and hawed and could not summon up the conviction myself to convince the kids that what I was saying was truth. After one class, I was pulled out and told to tutor remedial reading after school instead.

    I had seen behind the curtain, and it was all made up.

    I was a surface Catholic for all of Catholic high school. Everyone I knew was Catholic. There was a public school, but no one I knew went there. Even though I knew most of it was made up, I had no alternative and I was still a quiet, ‘good girl’ who didn’t want to make waves. It helped that this was mid-60s when the Catholic church itself was trying to become more modern and open.

    I walked away from it all when I went to college, met people who were not Catholic, stopped worrying about fitting into a narrow group, found my own purpose, and I never looked back. My mother, who was saddened when I gave up the church because it was all she knew, recently – at 90 years old! – came to me and said that she had been thinking and she knows now that I was right. She has walked away from the church and god and calls herself a secular humanist. I am sure she would not have done that if I had not shown her that a full and happy godless life was possible.

    I still do not understand what they mean when people say that god gives meaning to their lives. They seem to me to be like those guys in the underground bunker on the old “Lost” tv show. They have to push the button every so many minutes or the island will blow up. It is their purpose to push the button and save everyone. But one day the button is not pushed and nothing happens. They are free to go out and live in the sunlight without having to do meaningless things over and over in fear. How can stepping away from a made-up god who someone told you wants you to be in the bunker pushing the useless button all your lives – even with the cookie of ‘if you do this until you die, trust us, it will be better afterwards’ – be an agonizing decision? Yeah, it’s a purpose, but it is a pointless, stupid one. Why would anyone choose that?

  29. 31

    I don’t know if it’s because I moved to America and religion is more important here, but it strikes me as it’s getting harder to be an atheist.

    I’ve been one all my life. It’s never been a big deal and I’ve never felt that being ‘out’ as an atheist was a big deal (I’ve been ‘out’ since I was about 8 and decided that if Santa didn’t exist then God probably didn’t either). Everyone I know is aware of that fact, and while some of my family ‘believe’, none of them are really gung-ho, in-your-face religious. I’ve always felt safe being open about my atheism and never had anyone disown me because of it.

    Then I came here and nearly everyone I know is religious. Not only religious, but fervently religious. It’s not just America though. I went home to the UK recently and there seems to be a big push by the religious there to bring religion more into public life.

    All I know is that while I refuse to hide my atheism, I don’t feel as ‘safe’ as I used to about being open. Will it get easier? Only if we keep visible and vocal, I think.

  30. 32

    Judging by my experiences living in Europe: being an atheist here is no big deal, because it’s a common point of view. Even most religious people are only nominally religious, and those who take religion seriously are considered rather strange.

    Will the USA follow a similar path? I hope so.

  31. 33

    Realizing my atheist wasn’t hard for me.
    I wasn’t raised religiously. I started attending church of my own accord when I was 10 or 11. This was mainly for social reasons. I had moved up to intermediate school, and somehow all the kids knew each other even though we’d previously been divided in 3 elementary schools. Turns out, they all knew each other through church. I wanted to get into the social action more than anything.
    I spent a few years doing the church thing, but most of it never made any sense to me. I read my bible on my own time, I attended youth revivals, and I did everything how I was told. Despite my efforts, god never bothered to make himself apparent. Towards the end, I started to get frustrated that I couldn’t just be a good Christian girl. In Texas, that’s kind of a big deal.
    I actually felt so much better when I just stopped trying. I was a self proclaimed atheist at 14. I’d been an atheist the entire time, but I didn’t accept it until then. When I finally embraced reason, I felt like such a weight had been lifted off of me. I didn’t even care that people were not always so friendly about my outright public denouncement of their god.

  32. 35

    I agree with you Greta. I think it will become easier over time. I also think that younger generations are more tolerant of differences between people and science. That should also affect the process.

    I wrote a long post on my journey to atheism that anyone read at my site http://reason-being.com/index.php/2012/03/10/my-road-to-atheism/ . I also started a forum (a few weeks ago) for people to share their stories with the idea that you are talking about. My thought was that the more of us that share these stories the easier we might make it for others to follow in our paths. That forum is also on my site.

    Thanks for posting this topic Greta. I agree with you and think this is a conversation well worth having.

  33. 36

    I didn’t read most of these before replying (although I will read them now, with great interest) but I did read the first one, and Spain sounds like a great place to grow up.

    My father was an atheist but he never spoke a word about it, and we never really realized that until much later. My mother wanted us to grow up vaguely religious, and carefully took us to all different kinds of churches.

    So I started off being vaguely religious, but was growing up in an area that was all one religion… and we were not that religion, so the other kids hated me, spit on me etc. and I dearly wanted to belong to SOME group. I ended up with a very fundamentalist born-again group, very “everything the bible says is literally true” type of group.

    However, the older I got and the more I thought, the more I could not make that stuff add up. Finally, (sadly) only about 8 years ago, I let go of all that religious stuff, pretty much on my own. No support group or anything. I eventually discovered others who thought more the way I did, mostly through skeptical books, blogs and magazines that my father told me about, or gave me before he died.

    It was a struggle to let go of a lot of those religious beliefs. One thing that helped me is I live on a farm. Life and death are a constant here, because I raise my own food. It helped me to accept the fact that death is a normal and necessary part of life, it’s not magical and it’s not horrible either. It just is, like a rock or a tree.

    Funny in a way, I once again live in a very religious community (but one that is a lot more tolerant than the one I grew up in) and really can’t share with my neighbors that I’m an atheist. Or at least, I have to be careful and cautious about it. It’s sad to me that religious people seem to have a very hard time being tolerant.

  34. 37

    I came into atheism on my own. I was a senior in high school, and up to that point I had been very apathetic about questions of religion. When I was about 17, I said to myself “I don’t actually believe in any of these gods people go on about”. No one else cared about my thoughts on the matter (apathy regarding such things is not uncommon where I come from), and I didn’t find the implications of atheism hard to deal with at the time.

    That would have been that, but then a series of unfortunate events left me extremely desperate for an out regarding death. I latched onto the first thing I found which gave me such an out (Christianity), and held on for dear life for the following 5 years or so.

    I knew nothing of atheist thought (aside from what I had gathered myself previously) during that time. If I read arguments counter to faith, it was only within apologetic writings and my intention was to convince myself of a position I had already taken. I wasn’t looking for truth, I was looking for reprieve.

    Luckily I had at least a shred of intellectual honesty left, and that was my saving grace (pardon the cliche). I couldn’t honestly reconcile my political views with Christianity (believe me, I tried), and any emotional hold that the Christian myth held for me was thus broken. I went back to calling myself atheist. That was about a year ago now.

    As I suggested before, I became acquainted “with the atheist community / movement” after I had relinquished my quixotic quest for heaven.

    The process of de-conversion was not easy. I spent too many resources chasing dreams and running from fate. I’m surprised I came out of it all with my head on (relatively) straight.

    How do I feel about it now? I find that the flow of time seems distinctly hostile (like being ushered along at gunpoint, frankly). But I value friendships, community, and life’s other high points now more than ever.

    Is accepting my atheist outlook easy for me? Not really. Do I care anymore? No.

  35. 38

    I find that the flow of time seems distinctly hostile (like being ushered along at gunpoint, frankly).

    Okay, I shouldn’t have included that aside. My apologies to those who have actually been ushered along at gunpoint (or known those who have). I should have stopped at “the flow of time seems distinctly hostile”. Sorry.

  36. 39

    I was raised Mormon, but I can’t remember ever believing it. I remember thinking I did when I was very young because I was told I did, but even at eight when I was baptized I was thinking to myself that I really didn’t buy it. It took years of introspection before I actually admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in anything supernatural, but I think a lot of that is because until I was a teenager I didn’t even know what atheism was. As soon as I knew it was an option I was all over it.

  37. 40

    I never felt any existential angst when I deconverted (a gradual, unnoticeable, and comfortable process). But I did, later, when my significant other died. Existentialism is not just about losing the meaning given by gods and religion, it’s about losing the meaning given by *anything* you decide to give you meaning. So, if you’re a romantic like me, and you build a life around your loved one, when it is taken away, BAM, existential crisis. I think they’re unavoidable in human beings because we have to latch onto one thing or another for meaning, most of which will eventually desert us or will change as we grow.

    I’m not upset that religion can’t explain the difficult changes in our lives; as an atheist I am happier to know that sorrows just happen, with no particular meaning behind them…but it doesn’t mean I am any more exempt from feeling their pang.

  38. 41

    Absolutely! Atheism **will** become easier, and the haters are responsible.
    It’s my experience that the younger generation – at lest the late teens / early 20s individuals in my extended family – are very put off by the egregious displays of hatred against various groups coming from the political right.
    These youths find the wars against gays, atheists, women, and the middle class both unfair and decidedly unChristian. They are supporters of the Occupy movement (one is on the “national council”) and openly vilify most conservative preachments.
    I think today’s youth is becoming more progressive as a result of the internet and 24/7 connectedness. So, yes, of course atheism will become easier in the future.

  39. 42

    All four of my grandparents are atheists. Both of my parents were raised atheist. Atheism was never a struggle for me (although I flirted briefly with agnosticism in middle school, just to make sure I wasn’t just blindly accepting my parents’ beliefs.) There are going to be more people like me every year.

  40. 43

    It may eventually get easier, but I expect the push back will remain pretty heavy for some time to come.

    I was raised in the US in the South in the late ’50’s/’60’s, so being a Christian was just a given, whether or not one was active in a church. Raised as high-church Episcopalian, then turned to evangelical Christianity in college. After college, many years on a religious/spiritual quest including a lot of new age woo, Americanized versions of eastern religions, etc.

    Belatedly just in the past year embraced atheism. At a specific point, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders that I would no longer have to struggle with why real life didn’t align with the teachings, how to explain Jesus, which religious path to follow, etc. In the process, found the atheist blog community which have been a real help in feeling I’m not alone. However, I haven’t had any big crisis about how this new world view explains things – everything just makes more sense to me as an atheist – all the pieces clicked into place.

  41. 45

    I was raised Mormon, and went in and out of believing it. My rift with the Mormons came with their Proclamation on the Family – the early anti-gay prerunner. I didn’t know I knew any gay people at the time, but it just felt wrong. From there I started to re-evaluate everything I had previously accepted. I went through a period of just being non-Mormon, then non-religious.

    I simply avoided thinking of the issue until my 6-year-old daughter (raised outside of church) came up to me out of the blue and asked me, “Mom, do you believe in God?” Before I could come up with words to express my muddled thoughts, she continued, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science.”

    That crystallized it for me. But I still shied away from the A word. It took a friend of mine declaring herself an Atheist to me that got me to accept that very scary word as a true description of my own beliefs.

    It wasn’t a traumatic transition, probably because it stretched over more than a decade.

  42. 46

    I just found this blog because I’m reading the “Why are atheist so angry” book (which I’m liking quite a bit).
    About the post here, I think it’s an interesting question. It certainly was hard for me to find my own world view after my previous, religious one was shattered.
    I was a mormon in my teenage years, until I read a critical book about it, which made a lot of sense.
    Before I even finished reading the book, I had stopped believing in mormonism but I was left with a hole and a lot of questions about the world.
    It was not pleasant. It was scary and it made me sad to come out to my parents and tell them I didn’t believe in it anymore. They respected it even though they dismissed my reasons as “confussions” bacause of “one book”.
    After that, I couldn’t really believe in any other christian cult because I had dismissed them all as “wrong” while I was a mormon, so I turned to wicca and witchcraft. Just learning and no practice.
    It wasn’t fulfilling and I dropped it after a short time, until I discovered what MBTI was and that I was an INTP. I joined an INTP mailing list where there are quite a bit of atheists and the I discovered that it was an option to just be an atheist (thanks to a Tim Minchin video shared there).
    Science has helped me understand the world and the universe since then. I didn’t have a problem with death as a final state or about reality though, but Atheism in itself was just hidden from my options back then.
    In my case, it would’ve been a lot easier if there were representations of atheism in mainstream media. In my country, you never hear about that philosophy.

  43. 47

    In a nutshell!

    I was raised pretty fundamentalist, pretty much cut off from any and all more intellectual influences. Extremely difficult deconversion starting when I was 12 or 13, crippling depression all through my teenage years, eventually reaching a full atheist position in my early twenties, after I finally educated myself in the basics of logic, philosophy, and science.

    Interestingly, my wife had the exact opposite experience; she was raised almost totally secular, and today, atheism seems the most natural thing in the world to her.

  44. 48

    I am 53 and grew up in the UK. My family were Methodists. Even in the sixties and seventies people who still went to Church or Chapel on a Sunday were regarded as a bit odd. Nowadays, the vast majority here aren’t atheists as such, they are just completely indifferent to religion, so if you say that you are an athiest they mostly don’t care. Religion isn’t even an issue.

    Our problems are mainly our antiquated system of government, which gives unwarranted privilages to the Church of England, and the fact that our elected representatives seem to think that we are far more religious than we are.

    On balance though, being an atheist in the UK is easy.

  45. 49

    We’ll have to get over our obsession with lasting forever, and learn to live life for what it is in the time it lasts.

    I’ve grown so I don’t like seeing couples’ written or carved initials in sidewalks or trees or what-have-you with little infinities or “forever”s. John and Jane aren’t going to last forever. And that’s okay. I’ll be tickled if I ever see one that, instead of “John + Jane ∞” or “John + Jane forever”, says “John+ Jane. Now.”

  46. 50

    I think it might be instructive to compare my experiences with those of my niece and nephew — both adults now.

    I grew up in a Christian household, went to church every Sunday, participated in all of the “churchy” things growing up. Even so, by about age 8, I had sussed out the fact that god was the adult version of Santa Claus. My teen years, despite being on the church softball team and counselor at the summer day camp, featured a miserable hour each Sunday. I could not will myself into belief…in fact, most of the time people were praying or stating the Creed, in my thoughts I was saying “fuckedyfuckfuckfuck”. I went through my agnostic phase, and my deist phase, and finally arrived where I am now as a “confirmed” atheist. A 7 on Dawkins’ scale of 1 to 7.

    My older brother was raised in the same environment…but his kids were deliberately raised without religion(FWIW: I’m childless). My sister-in-law said once they decided early on that they wouldn’t prevent the kids from going to church if they wanted to, but didn’t want to saddle them with any particular belief system.

    They’re happy, well-adjusted, solid citizens; quite indistinguishable from the god-bots next door. But neither of them believes in any kind of god. My nephew explicitly makes fun of one of his good friends who is a Christian. He thinks the whole philosophy is silly. As far as I know, they have never laid awake trying to convince themselves that a god exists. They had no need of that hypothesis.

  47. 51

    Hey Greta and others! In answer to your question about my experiences coming into atheist:

    I was more or less an atheist from birth and becoming an atheist was almost as easy and natural as breathing for me. I grew up in a secular household where we rarely went to church. My parents believed there was a god but didn’t talk about religion much outside of my mom’s youth going to Catholic school and I wasn’t indoctrinated in any way. I’ve accepted evolution as natural history since age 5. I knew I didn’t believe there was a god or an afterlife by age 10. I came to atheism all on my own. Christianity just always sounded like a myth to me. I have never felt any yearning to join a religious community or believe in a deity or anything like that. As I said, being an atheist and nonreligious was extremely natural for me. I was an atheist long before I knew the term for it or knew any philosophy.

    I should note that while in college and still maturing personally and intellectually, I did find some elements of theism appealing. For example, I found the teleological argument appealing, not valid but interesting. I didn’t yet make the connection to evolution showing that was wrong. But I never thought there was a god or never felt any need to join a religion. I just didn’t yet understand why certain ideas were wrong and to abandon the ideas it was a simple matter of gradually learning why certain ideas were wrong.

    My point is, in response to your blog, atheism was already easy for me. The fact that there was no god was no big deal for me and was always sort of just how the world was to me. I never saw a whole lot of appeal in theism or religion.

    Just for some context, I am age 28 and have lived in liberal areas all my life. And as I said my parents were mostly secular and did not indoctrinate me. So I lived in an environment where atheism could come very naturally. I fully realize that most atheists did not grow up and/or currently live in such an environment.

    Sorry for the rambling response. I hope that answers your question. Feel free to ask any follow up questions.

  48. 52

    I worked out for myself that a lot of the Christian doctrines I’d grown up with couldn’t be true (like hell). But even after I stopped calling myself a Christian, I went through a period when I called myself a Taoist. Taoism seemed the religion most compatible with science, and didn’t require convoluted apologetics.

    In retrospect, I think I called myself a Taoist because, well, everyone has to have a religion, right? It wasn’t until later that it dawned on me that I could opt out of religion altogether.

    So yes, I think future generations will find it easier to gravitate toward atheism than you or I did, simply because more of them are growing up in an environment where they know an atheist or two, and realize that that’s a viable option.

  49. 53

    I was raised christian, but the Netherlands is really quite secular, and as a kid I did notice other friends of mine did not have to got to church every Sunday for example. When I was around 10-11 I refused to go to church anymore with my parents and although they protested, they gave in and that was it. It was easy getting out, and there’s no outside pressure from society to be religious at all.
    I was not familiar with atheism or even knew the word. I simply knew I did not believe the stories in the bible anymore. When I was even younger, (perhaps 4-5?) my first stuffed animal I named Bibio, from bibliotheek (dutch for ‘library’). My father would take us to a library someplace near, and I loved going there. As soon as I could read, I’d read everything I could get my hands on. My favorite subject were ancient and foreign cultures. There were these books especially for kids, with colorful pictures but also plenty of text to quench my thirst for reading. The ancient Egyptians, Greek, Mayans etcetera, I devoured it. And the myths that came with them probably put the biblical myths into context.

  50. 55

    My experience was the same as that of Rilian (#2): I wasn’t raised with a religion, so I never adopted one. It’s caused a sometime-problematic cognitive bias where, despite the fact that I know the statistics, I always assume everyone is an atheist until I discover otherwise (at which point I’m often shocked). I don’t find the ideas that this life is all we have, that there is no ‘greater meaning’ to life, or that there is no one watching me every second and keeping a tally of my actions to be at all problematic, and I never have (in fact, I find the idea that any of the opposites are true or are desirable rather disturbing; one of the great ironies of people trying to convert me or describing why they find/found it difficult to leave a religion is that those things in which they find/found comfort are flatly horrifying to me – were Yahweh real, I’d definitely join Lucifer to wage war against his authoritarian, paternalistic control over reality).

  51. 56

    Great article, this topic is very near to my heart as I have been wrestling away the last bits of pyschological and emotional grips from religion; dispensational, conservative Christianity. It has been almost a year since I admitted to myself, and my wife, that I am, for all intents and purposes, an atheist. I did not anticipate the phantom pains involved with letting go in the brain. It really should be the focus of a neurophysiological research project because the phenomenon is real in some people.
    I came to atheism mostly by reading, and watching a lot of YouTube videos, and of course hours of introspection. The logical aspect of non-belief came quickly and easily for me, noting that this may seem redundant to point out. The emotional barrier is one that I can’t say I am fully over – death being the one stickler in my head from time to time. I have done more reading/studying and seeking out of non-theist material in the last month or so than in my in entire life previous to that times one-hundred so you might say I’m doing something about it.

    The whole process is of course more than worth it, I see the world quite differently now, and have a much more optimistic view of humanity. Wrestling with my personal issues is not going to evaporate over night and I now use this as a source for motivation, and a reminder that I am after all, only human.

  52. 57

    I ALSO had a childhood similar to sumdum (#54): my mother is an anthropologist, and I grew up reading a lot about different cultures, especially early human history and mythologies of various societies (Greek/Roman, Egyptian, Mesoamerican, Babylonian, Sumerian; Japanese, Chinese and Indian came later). The Christian myths aren’t semiotically distinct from any other mythologies, so I never saw any of the stories as TRUE, despite growing up in a Christian culture.

    (This is in parentheses because it runs a bit off topic. Garden of Paradise with a talking snake? Two animals of every species fitted onto a single boat and repopulating the entirety of the planet? Yahweh impregnates a woman to create a son who is also him, who later dies, comes back to life, and then vanishes? The stories are absurd on their faces, and this is clear to anyone who hasn’t been told they’re true for hir first decade of life. Also, the Xtian Bible has some issues with narrative continuity, which make sense in something like a comic book series with different authors over decades who forget things or haven’t read every issue obsessively, but don’t make sense for accurate reporting on how events unfolded coming from the omniscient creator and maintainer of the universe: for example, why did Yahweh make Adam and Eve ‘out of’ anything? If existence is predicated on his will, he should have simply been able to will them into existence, not needed to transubstantiate them from clay and a rib. The most shocking thing about people buying into the Bible isn’t that it’s so clearly fiction, it’s that it’s not even very good fiction. Were the writers writing contemporary fantasy, they’d be pilloried by the blogosphere for violating the ontological conceits of the universe they’re creating at every turn.)

  53. 58

    Atheism was pretty easy for me. When I was young, I picked up a belief in God and an afterlife from the culture that surrounded me. However, my parents weren’t religious so I didn’t get any religious tenets constantly drilled into me.

    I stopped actively believing in God when I was nine-ish, and I was fourteen or so when I came to the conclusion that God probably doesn’t exist. I don’t recall having had any sort of deep existential crisis upon this realisation.

  54. 59

    You know, I grew up terrified that other people would go to Hell, and I had a morbid fascination with the End Times. (We were a premillenial dispensationalist sort of family.) When I was sixteen and in the middle of an abusive relationship, I told my mother that I was seriously considering agnosticism, and she (justifiably, considering her fear of Hell for her loved ones as well) told me that she hoped I was okay with going to Hell, then. (I have enough years behind me now to recognize that her harshness was that of fear, not of anger, and I feel sorrier for her than for myself in that situation.)

    Although I returned briefly to evangelicalism in my late teens, I dumped Christianity within a couple of years of moving out, and practiced Wicca. Although I enjoyed circles and the information that I was taking in as an initiate in a coven (I figured, if I was going to practice a religion, I was going to do so seriously), I still never felt any real connection to anything supernatural, and felt just as silly praying to Dryghton as I did to Jesus. I felt nothing in reply other than what I was learning to recognize as my own desire to connect with something. The only thing that truly satisfied that desire was the connection that I forged with my fellow musicians and with audiences when I performed in concerts. (I am a clarinetist and a singer.)

    I slowly stopped practicing, and slowly began to question what I believed, and I remember telling my now-husband one day that, if there was no God, it seemed as if they sky would be so much bigger. He was confounded, I think, because he was already an atheist and likely for different reasons than me. He hadn’t had to think about it so much; it had just fallen away from him despite our very similar backgrounds.

    Then, one day, it fell off of me, too. And the sky has been much bigger since, and I appreciate music and the sky that much more because they, and my loved ones, are what give me a sense of transcendence. When life presents serious challenges, I have the comfort of knowing that, in the grand scheme of things, what is huge to me is tiny compared to that sky from which I and everyone and everything I know and loved emerged. I feel that much better when I realize how insignificant I am, and when I realize that my suffering will not have any permanent impact on the universe. I also have more impetus to do good now because there is nothing waiting for us, so it will do to reduce the suffering of others as much as possible and to love my favorite people and things all the more fiercely. It also gives me room to recognize that some things just happen, and that I will have no control over them, and neither will any supernatural beings or forces. That’s more comforting to me than assuming that the terrible things that have happened throughout history have occurred under the auspices of anything with any grand plan or control.

    The past three years of atheism haven’t been an existential crisis for me; they have been a long process of learning gratitude. I recognize that I am very fortunate, though, and I am grieved that it isn’t that way for everyone. It’s not due to any failing on their part.

  55. 60

    ik, I’m not confident about the transhumanist perspective because I am extremely leery of anyone or anything that says that we are not going to die. As for the idea that we may be able to upload our consciousness someday, that’s all gravy excepting that I believe that our selves exist in our brains, and uploading one’s self may lead to something very much like one’s self, but it will not be the same self. When your brain dies, you die, even if something like you lives on in the ether through hookups like that.

  56. 61

    I was raised by atheist, skeptic parents without too many childhood friends, so something that took me a while to learn when i started engaging in atheist activism was why people resonated so with the idea of a supreme being. I couldn’t see what made this such a better / more enjoyable / more comforting outlook than one without such a being. I’m writing now as though this were a rational thought process, but in the moment it was just confusion, as though someone were trying to sell me something while speaking Spanish — i could kind of get the gist after a while, but the sale just wasn’t going to happen.

    That’s not to say that i haven’t since learned what (at least part of) the big deal is. I struggle with the apparent lack of intrinsic value to life (i.e. preferring a universe that struggles against entropy or is self-aware to the alternatives), and i’m absolutely terrified of death. But none of this makes atheism “more difficult” or naturalism less attractive, any more than the architectural beauty of (European) churches makes Christianity more attractive (but then, for many people, maybe it does).

    So, i fully expect atheism to become mundane after not too long, and my experience suggests that the only difficulties that arise out of it are introduced by religions.

    Also, well-said, t2tb.

  57. 62

    I grew up very loosely Catholic. We attended church for a few years; we stopped out of disgust with the church’s obsession with what came back in the collection plate, my parents later told me. Then we went at Easter and Christmas for the few years that my great-grandmother lived with us.

    Anyhow, religion was always just there; it was what you just assumed the Big Questions were all about (death, where did we all come from, etc.). It was never an important part of our day-to-day lives. But in 7th grade I started to think very seriously about religion. I looked at the various religions in the world and tried to work out which one I thought might be correct–since they obviously couldn’t all be correct.

    Finally I realized that if you aren’t already favoring one religion over the others, they all look unbelievable–they all make goofy claims that don’t make sense, and demand you believe them regardless of, or even in spite of, the evidence. In the end I realized that they must all be wrong: made-up guesses by people long ago trying to make sense of the world. And then religion made sense again, though not in the way I’d expected.

  58. 63

    “We had to find a radically new way of looking at the world and our place in it, with radically new answers to the big questions of life and death. ”

    What made it easy for me to switch was the (sudden) realization that I didn’t need to find “new answers” because religion hadn’t provided me with any answers. Trying to answer the questions “What does god want me to do?” or “Why does god want me to do this?” becomes irrelevant when you realize that the questions are meaningless and unanswersable. I’m here for a short while and I’m going to use my time to learn what I can about the world around us because I don’t get a second chance or an afterlife.

  59. 64

    Raised Catholic, left at 15 because I realized I had become a sexist homophobe and it was because of the religion. Stayed agnostic theist until college and had all the usual attempts at ‘fixing’ religion (like nongendered god-being, animals must be treated spiritually same as humans). College physics, philosophy and biology broke my dualism and I become an atheist but did not say so for many years.

    I had zero problems ‘deconverting’ unlike many I’ve heard about. I guess I was always like that, I did an experiment with tape/wrapping to disprove Santa at 5. Long before I was able to not attend church I would not take their communion and made it a point to bring up everything I thought was wrong about church.

    None of this has to do with the OP though. If you remove souls and afterlife from religion, nobody would care about religions anymore. The existential concerns are still valid today.

    My theory is there is an intellectual acceptance followed by emotional. There is no objective answer to these concerns, it is a blank book and I think you have to write your own. The fact that I will be annhilated at the end of my life means every choice I make is effectively meaningless in the end. It also means the ultimate value of my life is 0 and I’m playing a zero sum game.

    This is where some atheists do the atheist apologetics thing and I think the theist gets the picture that the atheist requires some comforting falsehood too. I do not think my annihilation is a good thing at all, but we have to accept reality.

  60. 65

    I grew up and live in England. My parents were indifferent to religion, if not atheists. Religion simply was not a part of our lives. My only experience of religion was at school, and that was pretty secular.

    So, I never really gave religion much thought. I remember occasionally being asked if I believe in God… my answer was typically “I think there may be something like a god in the universe”. That was in my early teens. By my late teens I had arrived at the conclusion that all religions were wrong, and god probably did not exist.

    In my late teens and early twenties I read up on Zen Buddhism and got into some New Age nonsense. It didn’t last long, thankfully. That said, I clung on to my trust of homoeopathic and other alternative medicine until only a few years ago.

    Between my mid-20s and my late 40s I never had cause to state my position on religion. It wasn’t mentioned in my social circle or at work. It was only in recent years that I decided I needed to position myself in the spectrum of belief/disbelief. This was largely due to my greater awareness of the unfair privilege accorded to religious groups in the UK. Things like Bishops in the House of Lords and so-called “faith schools” promoted by the Blair government.

    As for the meaning of life. I’ve never believed in an afterlife, so no change there. The meaning is what we make of it. Friends and family are what matter. Making the most of our time together.

    When I die, my body will go to medical research / education. After all, it’s such a waste to simply burn or bury it, when it could be of use to the living.

  61. 66

    I’d come to be atheist as an adult, and without having any real atheist literature or support. Really, the only trauma I can say I suffered was the horror at realizing I’d been lied to.

    I’d gone to private Christian schools from 6th grade through graduation, and I can’t really say that I ever consciously questioned it, but at the same time, I never bought into it either. My family was a religious one, albeit not a “normal” one; my mother was Christian and my step-mom was Jewish, and by those two examples, I learned most about the idea of gods. I also had a step-dad who came from a Japanese Shinto-Buddhist-turned-Christian background, so while I was always surrounded by religious belief, I really think that that early experience with multiple ways of believing ultimately are what insulated me from truly buying in to the whole idea.

    I can actually pinpoint the event that caused me to start questioning – embarrassingly, it was reading The DaVinci Code, and it’s explanation of the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern demi-god savior figures that the Jesus legend was likely based on. I knew that the author was presenting these as historical facts, and I wanted to know if that was true or not. Imagine my shock when I found that yes, it was, but what he’d included in that (rather terribly written) book wasn’t even really scratching the surface, and that there were dozens of pagan demi-god cults with essentially the same details, differing only in specific cultural instances that would make the legend meaningful to the people of that place and time.

    I was desperate for more information on the history of Christianity, of how it could possibly have come to pass that, in a region absolutely saturated with the same basic myth, one small sub-group somehow managed to pass it off as an actual religion. I found James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword, and that was the first time I heard that half of the Pauline letters were forgeries, and I began digging deeper. I discovered the realities of gnostic religions, about the Greek Mysteries and how the legends and rituals were symbolic and metaphorical, and explained in full only to initiates of the specific cults, and how easy it would be for the populace in general to believe it was real, having no knowledge of the meaning behind the madness. It was so clear, how easy it would be for an entire civilization to “forget” that it wasn’t real, if the vast majority of the population wasn’t educated. Take into account political pressures, and it becomes an inevitability.

    I was horrified at having been lied to – willfully lied to. It’s not possible to have even the slightest knowledge of the original texts and not know that they do not say what the modern Bible does. It’s impossible to study the history of the Church and not know that forgery, “correction”, and mis-translation of scriptures were rampant. You have to willfully lie, or delude yourself into believing that it doesn’t matter that it isn’t true. My eldest brother is a minister, and had attended a prestigious Seminary. I still often wonder what precisely he was taught there, and how he can reconcile the cognitive dissonance.

    At the same time, I was searching for some other Truth to replace Christianity with – it was clearly not true, so maybe one of the other religions was. I tried on Buddhism, but it was too much like Christianity in the outrageous things that adherents were expected to believe. I stumbled upon Taoism by accident, via a coffee-table book written by Osho. I immediately identified with the philosophy of not making value judgments regarding a statement of fact – a thing is not inherently good or bad, it simply is. And the most powerful statement was regarding Death. Death is merely a part of life, and how can a part of life hurt you? From there, it was the simplest thing in the world to say that there are no gods, and we are only responsible for ourselves.

  62. 67

    For me, part of it was that I never had to deal with a lot of the religious nonsense to begin with, at least not in any meaningful way. I grew up in a largely secular home and while my Old World Italian grandmother was Catholic, my parents were only vaguely aware of Catholicism for the most part. I went to a Catholic elementary school for kindergarten and part of first grade, but that was because the public schools in the area sucked, and when we moved to a better area, I went to public school.

    I also went to CCD (what is commonly referred to as “Sunday school”, though it was on Wednesdays and my cousin and I insisted that it stood for “central city dump”, which was absolutely hilarious to a 9 and 10 year old), and eventually was confirmed a Catholic. Even then, I had no idea what I was doing. I went through the motions, never having it explained to me why it was important. Looking back, had I known then what I know now (and yet still somehow believed the Church was worth supporting), I would have chosen a different confirmation name, among other things.

    Mostly, though, despite going through the motions, I never understood why any of it mattered. Deconversion to me was kinda simple because there was no weight placed on any of the ideas I was supposed to believe. I knew who Jesus was, but not that he was supposed to save me from anything, at least not except in the most abstract of fashions. I believed in Heaven, but over time I stopped acting as if there was one, so fully accepting atheism wasn’t really a big deal as I hadn’t *really* bought into an afterlife for years.

    As to how I came into it, I accepted my atheism a few months ago from reading blogs like yours and JT’s and Jen’s and Hemant’s. I started reading those because I’d been an LGBT activist for years and atheist support of queer issues brought me to you guys. The more I read, the more it made sense. I finished God is Not Great a week before Chris Hitchens died and that sealed it for me. However, considering I spent years railing against the evils of “organized religion,” always loved science and logic, spent years being oppressed by religious believers because of what they believed, and was heavily involved in politics littered with the hypocrite faithful, this was just erasing the final little spot: an irrational belief in a tyrannical sky fairy.

  63. 68


    When I was first introduced to Camus in high school, I had thoughts along the same line as you: Why is this a problem? Why is it so hard to accept?

    I was born at the end of ’88 in College Station, TX. We went to a crazy church most of my early childhood (No watching Disney because they had witch movies [Hocus Pocus] and such nonsense). My parents sought an escape from that environment because my conception caused my mother to drop out of her last year at college. The community was not kind to my parents even though they had gotten married first (or so they claim). Our next church in the Dallas area was also Baptist, but I spent more time playing Pokemon in the bathroom or the back pews than listening. My parents were both in the church band/choir, so I was lucky. I caught them all!

    I was also a prolific reader, especially of sci-fi. So even though I was the top Sunday school verse-memorizer, I had more fun reading about Jedi and Daneel Olivaw and Drizzt than I ever did the Bible. In my early teens, I asked my parents if the Bible was true (don’t remember why) and they said they didn’t believe in hell and they weren’t sure about heaven. I sort of walked away an atheist right there. For all of high school, I never had a problem being an atheist or not holding any religious beliefs. I think humanity should always move forward and I feel that people have an obligation to help each other. This drives me and keeps me feeling optimistic, and I’ve never felt like I needed anything else.

    My first contact with the wider atheist community came when I picked up God is not Great in an airport in 2009 on my way to a conference. Hitchens’ subtitle “How Religion Poisons Everything” called me to like a beacon because I had written many times about the idea of religion as a poison. I couldn’t have been more delighted to find a book on the same theme. After reading it, I wanted more and followed his recommendations of Harris and Dawkins and Dennett. And I was given your Atheists and Anger post a little more than a year ago. The things I’ve read from you and so many others have been inspiring and empowering in ways I had never sought. I never struggled with my own beliefs, but I certainly never felt safe telling most people in Texas or in the Army. I lost a really good friend in Afghanistan this year and my grandmother two days ago, but I still don’t feel the need for there to be “more” as some of my family says.

    So yes, I think it will be easier. And you’re helping. Thanks.

  64. 69

    When you say we might feel that:

    “Sure, there’s no God, and my consciousness is a biological product of my brain, and my sense of a cohesive identity and selfhood is a somewhat illusory mental construction, and when I die I’ll just be gone forever. So what? That’s fine with me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

    …that is exactly like what my transition to atheism was like. I was raised vaguely Quaker, and the belief system I experienced was basically there was good/God in everyone, and we probably became something nice like God-energy after we died, and were able to look over the people we loved. Jesus was only mentioned as this awesome guy who liked to heal and love people. I knew about other religions, but they were just interesting myths to me.

    I eventually realized I didn’t believe there was a higher power, and then that the notion of a soul (in the “life energy” way, not the “tainted-by-sin” way), while nice, wasn’t necessary or warranted…and that was it.

    In short, I think you are exactly on target. I am 21, and my transition to atheism was painless. I had a vague worry for a few months that it might upset my mother, but never a fear she would be angry or disown me (and then I found out she had turned atheist too!).

    That’s not to say I don’t experience frustration with religion being shoved in my face from time to time, or people judging me because I don’t believe, but in terms of personal emotional/psychological difficulty with the transition, it was simple absent.

  65. 70

    I grew up in a secular Jewish household where God was rarely discussed (and then in Grade Two I tried to convince my parents that Jesus was Our Savior and they promptly shipped me off to Jewish Day School.) In any case, I don’t think I ever really believed that God existed, and when my mother described her version of God (i.e. God sees us the way we look at little ants)he might as well not have existed.

    In terms of an afterlife, I don’t remember this ever being painful to deal with. I mean, yes, when a scary situation happened (e.g I carelessly crossed the street and almost got hit by a car) I would get that Shit-I-Almost-Died speeding heartbeat etc., but theologically I always tried to think about what life was like before I was born . . . I don’t miss it because I wasn’t there. I’ve thought of death the same way as long as I can remember.

    I’m in my early thirties . . the hardest part about being atheist before accessing atheist voices via books and the internet was feeling like I am the only atheist in the room, and wondering why am I the only one who sees that the Emperor has no clothes?

  66. 72

    I think I was always an atheist, despite having a Christian father, an agnostic theist mother, and going to church regularly as a kid. For as long as I can remember I thought the stories they told me about the Bible were ridiculous. I was always asking the Sunday School teachers questions that they couldn’t really answer and I remember coming to the conclusion (I was probably six or seven at the time) that the Bible was at the very least inaccurate and flawed, though I still thought it might have some historical merit aside from the supernatural stuff. I did entertain supernatural things like ghosts, the Force, and gods as a possibility for awhile, but it was in much the same way as I entertained the possibility of aliens visiting the planet. It would be cool and it might be true, but it didn’t really effect me and how would I know, anyway? I do remember a time when I was about fifteen when I really tried to imagine not existing after death and that felt very… disturbing for a bit. But after that I think I pretty much accepted once and for all that an afterlife probably didn’t exist. I didn’t realize that I was atheist, though, until I was in my twenties. I knew I didn’t believe in a god, but I didn’t know what that really was, and didn’t realize there was an actual community of people who felt that way. I think the most traumatic thing for me was coping with feeling like the only person who didn’t believe in God in various communities that ranged from merely mildly Christian to fanatically Christian.

  67. 73

    My path to atheism was pretty much a painless one. Whilst my parents are Christians, they never went to church and have never preached about religious ideas. And whilst I’m sure there must have been a point in my extreme youth when I believed in it at least to some degree (my three elder sisters are all religious and my primary school had daily prayers and hymn singing) I can’t pinpoint the moment when I stopped believing. I guess it must have been too early and too straight forward for me to remember.

    As for the atheist community, whilst I knew that most people weren’t devoutly religious, for the longest time I firmly believed that I was one of very few people who didn’t believe in God which made me feel very alone and unable to talk about my atheism. Only my closest family had any idea that I was an atheist. It was only when an online friend of mine recommended ‘The God Delusion’ that I had my eyes opened and realised that there were countless others in the same position as myself and that I wasn’t as alone as I had previously thought. Visiting richarddawkins.net and discovering all the people posting there was a tremendous release and gave me the confidence to be far more forthcoming about my atheism.

    Today, I am totally comfortable about my atheism and no longer worry about what anyone thinks of it. If they have a problem with it then it’s their loss, not mine. But without the help of the atheist community there is no way that I could have reached that point. I think that there is still a very long way to go before atheism becomes accepted as a natural position. There are too many people with too much power working to make sure religion remains firmly in the public eye and retains it’s mainstream acceptance for this to be achieved. Only when this power is eroded will that stand any chance of happening.

  68. 74

    I grew up without religion, despite living in a very religious society (Northern Ireland, 1960s). I moved to New Zealand, which is a much less religious society, as a child.

    In high school in the 1970s, I did encounter some opposition to my atheism from other students, but not really hostility. I got much more hostility to my views opposing sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa.

    When I went flatting in the late 1970s, there was opposition from some landlords to couples “living in sin”.

    Since then, society has changed hugely. About half of all New Zealanders have no religion, and most of the remainder profess a belief in God but very rarely go to church. Our mainstream political parties are not religious; some religious parties have existed but were unable to win seats in Parliament, and our Prime Ministers in this century have been agnostics. Most people see marriage as a romantic ideal, not as a necessity. Gay couples are mostly accepted without comment, although there is still only civil union and not gay marriage.

    I have seen significant change on these social issues in New Zealand over the last 40 years. I’m sure America will move in the same direction even though it is starting from a less-enlightened position.

  69. 75

    I grew up with Christian indoctrination, but it didn’t really take. The reason for that had a lot to do with the fact that here in NZ, atheism is an idea that’s freely floating around out there in society without being seen as particularly novel or shocking. It really wasn’t hard for me to make the transition from “this stuff doesn’t make any sense” to “that’s because this stuff is a load of horseshit”, because the idea that Christianity is fiction was available to me.

    In actual fact, what took me the longest was realising that I had deconverted. I was vaguely, non-committaly gnostic for a while in my teenage years, and I was open minded about the idea of god, but I thought that most of what Christians believed was rubbish – including the historicity of the gospels and their depiction of Jesus, so I mentally edited those parts out. It wasn’t for a few years that I actually sat down and thought about these things enough to realise that there’s a point at which one has thrown away so much of the original system that one really can’t be said to be an adherent of that system at all in any meaningful way, and I had passed that point a long time ago as far as Christianity was concerned. I was open minded about the possible existence of a Supreme Being of some description, but what I didn’t realise for a while was that I absolutely did not believe in the god of the bible.

  70. 76

    Both: I was raised Christian but not that Christian. I attended a lot of different churches on the East Coast for various reasons, but in general people around me didn’t talk about religion much. I never once believed for sure in God, though a few times I got myself to sort-of believe; but I used to feel guilty about not being a good Christian. I used to look around at other religions and think maybe I should join one of them, that if it fit better, it would make me a better person.

    Coming to the South Bay Area in CA a couple years ago (I’m 26), I found churches much more unapologetic in their demands for conformity. I realized that by calling myself “Christian agnostic” I was implicitly supporting them. I became atheist.

    I was not familiar with atheist ideas growing up, or aware there was a movement, though I knew there were atheist groups. I thought one was mostly just “religious” or “not religious”.

    I struggled a *lot* with the ideas of morality, as I believed what they said about needing a religion to have a real morality. Even though I myself was very much invested in morality and never tried to use religion to back it up, indeed believed that God was highly immoral. Once I realized the “objective standard of morality” claim was BS, I declared myself atheist proper and never looked back.

  71. 77

    The answer is most likely yes. Here in Norway, today, being or becoming an atheist is very easy; for most it’s not really something they ever think about – it’s pretty much the norm. Even most of those who identify as Christians would probably be regarded as atheists by many American Christians – it’s mostly a sort of vaguely Christian-flavored somethingism. People who are very religious i. e. see their religion as an important part of their life, make important decisions based on their religious views, pray regularly and go to church every Sunday are a small minority and seen as rather odd. It’s not a hobby like knitting, more a hobby like amateur beetle-collecting 😉

  72. 78

    I might spend days reading this thread, there are such interesting stories here. It already seems like I’ve spent ages and I’m only up to number 30. But I can’t wait, I feel the urge to join in. 🙂

    As far as I can recall, there was never a time I was religious so I never had to struggle with losing faith. I’ve always considered my experience to be the exception rather than the norm, although I don’t really have a basis for saying that except for the oft-repeated statistics that indicate most people have religion. At any rate, none of my friends ever seemed to be like-minded so although I would have liked to talk about it while growing up, I mostly kept a buttoned lip and spent time listening rather than revealing my ignorance.

    My parents are agnostics but are perhaps better characterised as pragmastists. I know they don’t believe in god-as-benevolent-father-figure but perhaps in some sort of universal plan. My father sings in a church choir, but only because he likes the music. By and large they don’t care to discuss religion, although I suspect they would be more against it than for it if pressed.

    I don’t know precisely what my siblings’ beliefs are, but they are at least partly skeptical. There seem more important things to talk about. I do keep a badge (the scarlet A of atheism) in my pocket to put on if I should ever run into anyone sporting a cross, but I don’t think I’ve had to use it yet. I’m not in any sort of society of atheists, for me that would be too narcissistic, but I do visit the freethought blogs often, and on very rare occasions (like now) I speak up.

    I was exposed to fantasy and science-fiction from a young age, and one defining point about myself is that I feel I’m very clear on the differences between fantasy and reality. I usually don’t need to be convinced that many religious tales are fairy-tales, for me it seems clear on the first reading. Maybe this helped my mind become immunised; conversely maybe this is why my religious sister-in-law feels the need to declaim that the hunger games mockingbird-in-ring symbol is satanic. There’s a study waiting to be done there.

    I think it’s part of the human condition that everyone (including me) believes in varying levels of bullshit. Part of being intelligent is forming patterns, even when patterns don’t exist. I’m not at all religious (7 on Dawkins’s scale) but by and large I don’t run into any conflicts with religion. I’m completely opposed to religious tyranny but then I’m opposed to any tyranny and I can’t admit having suffered from religious tyranny myself. I find the idea of religion distasteful but if anything, nonsense like astrology and homeopathy probably offends me more day-to-day than religion.

    It’s probably best not to try and convert me because I tend to reply in kind. The few times I’ve ever experienced religious pressure, whatever my age, I’ve pushed back.

  73. 79

    But I’m not sure if I accept your premise. I think atheist ideas and philosophy have been around for a while…and what we have is an education/exposure at a young age problem.

    Ideas being around isn’t much when they don’t get around enough for people to come around.

  74. 80

    I started as the son of a pentecostal, evangelical, speaking in tongues preacher. By the time I graduate high school I had found no reason to believe in any of it. If there was a god, I thought, it must be some other sect that has the inside track. So I searched high and low, around the globe… yet found all believers lacking any truth that was more true than science and what I can myself find out by experimentation. There were no gnu atheists back then. I thought I was basically alone. I had been seeking the truth of a god not the truth of no gods. I did not look to historical atheists and mostly thought atheists were not quite right. I found anti-theism by looking in every place that claimed knowledge of gods. What I found was those claims were empty and false. On my own and without the help of philosophy I became nihilistic. I still am. I am an ape, nothing more. There is no reason or meaning, life simply is. I don’t need any explanation for why this is, only an explanation for why I had to learn this on my own. Why was ignorance and superstition thrust upon me as truth? I don’t blame my parents, they were hardly the only people on the planet doing so. This lead me to explore history and religions and philosophy… the very fucking things that my education SHOULD have done in the first place. Some days I’m angry that the truth was kept from me. Other days I simply want to give up… there are to many dumb apes to overcome this. Yet other days I want to scream, yell, rage, and cause discomfort in the world. I want to tell all those fucking idiots that they are wasting their time. Religion is a lie. Forget the matrix, you live in the religion!

    I did not deconvert… as I tried to discover truth, I found none and thought myself alone. When I heard of the four horsemen I actually thought “Wow, there are other people like me” … but don’t get me wrong. I disagree with just about every ‘famous’ atheist on one point or another. I don’t think there are many famous nihilists. To me, life really is that harsh, cruel, and pointless. Just the same it does not prevent a pansy from being beautiful or a sunset from being aesthetic. Meaning is found in the moment, the context of a moment, and the interaction between living beings… whether they are mammal, vegetable or other. To feed a stray cat for one meal on your doorstep is to give meaning to your life and to the life of the cat. For all that a believer will claim, their gods might have only that one act as the plan for your life. I don’t need a god to tell me that such a moment IS meaning, nor a church to help me remember. I am not god… I’m better than a god. For all that this life is not I remain, I exist, I give meaning to the world around me. I am. Because I am there is meaning for some brief time… not one god has done as much.

    I generally think the new atheist movement is a bunch of folk that have become excited that they can ride their new bike… with training wheels. The hard part is still to come. I’ve been doing the hard part of decades. Hearing someone agree with me does not make it easier or give life more meaning. I am still responsible for all those things. In all of it, I am still alone and I would have it no other way. My meaning does not depend on others and never could it if I am to be true to myself and to the meaning I find in being alive. I am. I wish that you will be.

  75. 81

    I think this is an interesting observation. I grew up in French Canada and my parents were more or less traumatized by the Catholic church, which was very powerful (politically and socially) in Quebec until the 1960s. I was raised completely sheltered from religion, and once I found out that religion existed, I thought for a long time that it was some ancient myth people didn’t *actually* believe in. I learned about it on my own as a young woman. I still can’t understand by what logical process believers go through to think their religion makes sense (it’s not demeaning; I actually would love to understand, and I keep trying… but no dice). Anyway, my point is that I’ve only dated atheist Americans in my life and all of them were raised in very religious families (my ex’s parents refused to talk to me because I wasn’t baptized). Although my boyfriends were all atheists, I did feel there was always some sort of “good and evil” struggle within them. One was still not over the purity/ no sex hangups, it had been ingrained in him. Another admitted to me he still was getting kneejerk fear reactions about hell, fifteen years after he’d de-converted. I don’t know if it’ll fade away with time, but somehow I feel lucky that all this unnecessary guilt trip about b.s. will never be part of my psychological makeup.
    In short, Greta, I believe your analogy about existentialism is bang-on. If the road to atheism remains well threaded upon, the next generation will be ready for a new enlightenment (in the “age of reason” sense of the term)

  76. 82

    My parents aren’t religious, and while I was exposed to religion at a fairly young age via a private Christian school my parents sent me to for kindergarten and first grade and one of my best friends through the rest of elementary school, it never took. As I grew up, I was both amazed and horrified when I learned about the silly things that so many other people in this culture believe. While my parents are kind of wishy-washy about their irreligiosity, both my brother and I are strong atheists. I probably wouldn’t have any traumatic associations with religion or strong feelings about it except that so many Christians discriminate against me and vote against my civil rights.

  77. PSG

    I never did well with belief, but I always did obedient well. I was just that kind of kid. I gave up organized religion a long time ago but I didn’t give up on a god entirely until much more recently, around the same time I started poking around the atheist movement. The god thing was easy to lose. The immortal life thing was a real shitty thing to lose – death is by far the biggest struggle I have with my atheism, well that and how to be out or not about it in my personal/professional life (yay for living in the bible belt).

    I can’t imagine how much different my life would have been if I hadn’t grown up thinking that there was another life after this one, something my parents still seek comfort in and mention to me. I just blink at the ridiculousness of the premise now, but it is such a lovely story, isn’t it?

    Atheism would be so much easier without the lies, the feeling of betrayal and loss, that I somehow gave up something when I left the mythology behind, no matter how delusional it was… It’s a very strange feeling when you know you are thinking very crazy thoughts but you can’t yet stop the thoughts either. The public delusion of our children has gone on rather long enough, don’t you think? I find it is not harmless at all…

  78. 84

    Leaving my religion was definitely traumatic. I was raised Southern Baptist but converted to Eastern Orthodoxy (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding) in 2007 when I was 19. That was a big enough deal for my parents, but only about a year after that I began having doubts about the Church and about Christianity as a whole, which sprung from the fact that I could no longer in good conscience believe that homosexuality was a sin. (Which itself sprung from a brief bout of Libertarianism that afflicted me my freshman year of college and caused me to vote against the marriage amendment in VA – which, sadly, passed anyway. I announced on my blog (to my very, very conservative Christian classmates) that I would be voting against the amendment, and the ensuing conversations started the ball rolling on the issue of homosexuality being sinful.) But I couldn’t admit that – I couldn’t say, “I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin,” even to myself. That would be saying the Bible was wrong, something that was impossible for me to say. Instead I said things like “I struggle with this teaching,” or other things along those lines.

    From homosexuality it went to sexuality in general, sexual identity, sexual acts and so forth – then to family, and what marriage is and what it means – then to women and their role in the Church, in the family, in the public sphere. Eventually, over two years or so, my conscience couldn’t withstand privately holding beliefs that were anathema to the Church in which I worshipped and ate the body & blood of Christ. (And yes – I held onto Christ far longer than I held onto religion.) I stopped attending, I sort of pushed it all away and was in denial. It was agonizing – the crushing weight of the guilt made me very withdrawn and fearful. Being Orthodox, I had icons of Christ & the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall – I would avoid looking at them as if they could look back disapprovingly!

    What helped me to break free from the chains of guilt was realizing that a friend who I knew from blogging, who was one of the most passionate and articulate apologists for Eastern Christianity among our circles, had come out as an atheist a few months before. I mean – this guy was on every blog, got invites to debate on YouTube… he was “famous” among the 40-50 people that made up our circle. And HE had the balls to come out! He had a lot to risk, more than me, but he did it. I messaged him and we had some good conversations. I also discovered that a good friend from a message board came out not only as atheist but as gay – she was tired of trying to deny who she was, because she was breaking her own heart by living closeted. At that point, I made the leap and said (privately), “THE BIBLE IS WRONG! HOMOSEXUALITY IS NOT A SIN!” and my coming out – a year-long process culminating in an announcement, but that is actually still going on to this day – followed from there.

    The other helpful thing is I began pursuing secular knowledge and philosophy and ethics, mainly in the form of Hitchens (at first). So much of my identity had been broken down by rejecting my faith and making “friends” in atheism via YouTube and Hitch’s books and articles helped soothe my troubled heart. I felt stronger & stronger, more sure that I would be able to defend myself if asked or challenged. I also knew next to nothing about science, literally, despite being college-educated, and wanted to get a firm foundation.

    Last summer, I was having a conversation with a friend who was urging me to come out – “What if other people feel the way you do, but are too afraid to say it? You’ve been publicly religious for so long – what a powerful statement it would be if you came out as godless!” I was still too scared, though his admonitions got me thinking. That night I made a promise to myself – part sincerely, part morbid humor, part hedging my bets – that when Christopher Hitchens died I would honor his memory and his friendship (there is nothing better than being addressed by him as “comrade,” even if via YouTube) by coming out, being honest with my family in particular and my friends/the world in general, and telling the truth.

    Well… you guessed it. When Hitch died I was so emotional, but I’d already written 80% of a rough draft of what I wanted to write to friends & family. I stayed up until 4am crying, watching YouTube videos, and finishing my coming out letter. I emailed or facebooked it to the appropriate people – then the next day after they’d read it, posted it on my social networking sites. It was a bit anticlimactic… my parents had suspected and told me they were “saddened” and would pray for me, but they did not cause a scene. My brothers’ reactions were a little worse – one told me I had humiliated him (because I put it on facebook – my “public renunciation of our lord & savior” he said) which struck a nerve and made me pretty upset, and the other said that I had a demon in me and if I needed help overcoming the demon that he would be there for me. Surprisingly, my grandmother, of all people! was the most supportive, though she remains a devout Christian.

    It’s still a process. A lot of people didn’t read the note, so I’ve had to come out separately to people here & there. Someone just told me “Christos Anesti!” (Christ is risen!) this morning on facebook since Orthodox Easter was yesterday… I got a bit of a chuckle, lol… behind the times about four months, are you?!

    But the one thing I can say is that BEING ATHEIST AND ALONE was the worst part of my deconversion. The… almost three years I spent setting the alarm every single Sunday, feeling the guilt as I shut it off, making excuses, continuing to participate in religious conversations as if I weren’t the vilest of hypocrites, getting emotional on Easter and convincing myself if I just went back to Church I’d be happy again… it was like self-flagellation but without the masturbatory pleasure, lol. If I had reached out, if I had even googled the word “atheist” – I might have saved myself years of hurt. That’s why I think being visible as atheists is so important now. We HAVE to be approachable – people drowning in floods of guilt need our help!

    Sorry for the long comment, I got started & couldn’t stop! Thank you, Greta!

  79. 85

    Oh, the other thing I wanted to say – for me, leaving my religion was an emotional choice, not a logical one. No one convinced me God didn’t exist, no one challenged my creationist beliefs. I rejected Christian teaching because I loved people (gay people, in this instance), and could no longer believe they were condemned sinners. I held onto God for longer than the Bible, and held onto Christ even longer, but ultimately when one pillar fell they all went.

    I say this because I think it’s important to note it takes all kinds. It takes the logical or philosophical discussions about the existence of God, it takes science vs creationism, it takes legal action to protect our rights against onslaughts of religious constitutional violations… but it also takes preserving (as much as possible) loving relationships with our friends and families.

    And mostly, it takes coming out.

  80. 86

    I was one of the ones who grew up without religion. My parents (both atheists) made a conscious decision not to really involve religion in my childhood at all – they never talked about it, my friends never talked about it, and my grandparents never talked about it, so really my only experiences of it until I went to a religious high school in year 6 were through TV and my other grandparents who lived interstate and who we saw once a year at best. I remember being really suprised when one of my friends in primary school told me she believed in heaven – I thought that was just something that people on TV or in America did! (In fact, I think the first thing I thought of was The Simpsons.)

    Overall, it was just sort of a thing I never really thought about. Religion has just not really ever been a big deal in Australia while I’ve been alive, and though I went to a religious school at least half the other students were effectively deists at best. I dabbled in Wicca a bit, but ended up giving up due to lack of interest and, well, because I just didn’t really believe it, though I didn’t have the language to describe why yet. I genuinely didn’t even know about the struggles of atheists elsewhere until I picked up wht God Delusion in year 10. When I did so, though, I realised how much there is even in Australia that assumes people are religious, and was very pleased to see words put to all the things niggling in the back of my mind for quite a while.

    So yeah, I definitely think it’s getting easier, and it’ll only get more and more easy as we keep going.

  81. 87

    I was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, went to their school up to 6th grade. Moved to a new state and went to public school with lots of jewish and mormom kids. I actually know lots of stuff about lots of those religions because of this – and none of it makes any sense to me. My family is christian and I’ve been baptized in a couple of churches. But the funny thing is that, after all that effort, I never felt connected to any of them. They were all, at heart, mysogynistic in outlook and so patriarchal! I have a father, he’s very good to me, and I don’t need another, thanks.

    And, as I watched my kids grow, I realized I just didn’t believe there was some omnipotent, omnipresent being watching over my every move. It’s just stupid to think that, it’s illogical, it’s just plain wrong! And every justification I’ve ever heard for the existence of a god of any kind was predicated on the believer being…dumb.

    Really, I moved into atheism gradually – it was a natural fit for me. It wasn’t difficult and I’ve suffered no repercussions from it. I’ve always been very comfortable with the notion that this is the only life I get, so the notion of what happens next never really bothered me. I think I’ll die, my organs that can be used will be sent on to other people, the remains will be burned and it’s done. The important thing is to leave behind ripples in the pool, to know people will think of the good things you did while alive, to leave memories of you behind.

    But your question was whether it would be easier for the younger generation to be atheists and I think the answer is yes. My children have been raised atheist and they are all fierce defenders of their own views. It’s fun to watch them win arguments with peers over the god question and even more fun to see their friends agree with them.

    We spend lots of time teaching our kids to think logically, rationally, make good evidence based arguments. And that leads them to the god question, which leads them to atheism. And then they see that many adults they personally know are declared atheists. That makes the choice much less scary, so they make the leap.

    I meet many teens who identify as atheists and they seem sincere. It’s not seen as rebellion, it’s seen as logic. And that, my friends, is a huge victory for all of us.

    And for anyone interested, I live in a small town in the middle of the bible belt, USA. If we can have a thriving atheist community here, we can have it anywhere!

  82. 88

    I was raised extremely wishywashy protestant extra-lite in Australia in the 60s & 70s by basically atheist parents. The high quality private schools here are religiously affiliated, so we called ourselves C of E (ie, Anglican). In practice this meant a hymn and a prayer at school assemblies, a weekly chapel service (in school hours, not a Sunday requirement), and mild religious instruction which was bible stories in primary school, and by high school was more ethics discussion than anything else.

    The idea that god has a purpose for everyone wasn’t really strong in these places to begin with. What religion was there, was empty forms and a bit of general “be nice to people” advice. So dropping god didn’t really make much difference in terms of meaning.

    The main difference is in living forever, which heaven was for. But hey, when you’re a teen you’re immortal so even that made no big difference to me 🙂

  83. 89

    A really good book about this topic is Society Without God. It’s a study of Swedish attitudes on religion. While most refer to themselves as Christian, God is so far removed from their lives that when interviewed about whether or not they believed many people reported that they never even had a discussion about it. Even many of their grandparents were non-believers.

    I’m 24 now, and stopped believing when I was 12 after starting to read the bible. Atheism was a foreign concept to me, but it wasn’t traumatic for me and I wasn’t any more upset about dying than before. I had a very brief return to faith when I was 16, but I was on a wide variety of drugs at the time. My mom is a lapsed Catholic who sent us to CCD, but thinks that people who go to church are creepy, is pro-choice, and has admitted to believing only because she “needs” to. My dad is German and agnostic, he never cared too much about either way. I think his European upbringing may have influenced this.

  84. 90

    A really good book about this topic is Society Without God. It’s a study of Swedish attitudes on religion. While most refer to themselves as Christian, God is so far removed from their lives that when interviewed about whether or not they believed many people reported that they never even had a discussion about it.

    When is it from?

    I live in Sweden, and from what I’ve seen people who actually identify as Christian are very rare. At most, people tend to profess a belief in some kind of vague life-force higher power thing. It could be that the place where I live (Stockholm) is more secularised than average, though.

  85. 91

    “Sure, there’s no God, and my consciousness is a biological product of my brain, and my sense of a cohesive identity and selfhood is a somewhat illusory mental construction, and when I die I’ll just be gone forever. So what? That’s fine with me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

    That about covers it for me, and I’ve held that view pretty much since I could hold a view at all. My two adult children are confirmed atheists, as are a fair number of my nieces, nephews, and younger cousins.

    So to answer the question, yes, I think atheism is becoming easier.

  86. 92

    I’m one of those for whom leaving religion was traumatic (seems that we are a minority, at least here). But I remember that I described it some time ago as a comment to one of Greta’s threads, so this time just a few more general remarks.

    Xsnay #40

    Existentialism is not just about losing the meaning given by gods and religion, it’s about losing the meaning given by *anything* you decide to give you meaning. So, if you’re a romantic like me, and you build a life around your loved one, when it is taken away, BAM, existential crisis. I think they’re unavoidable in human beings because we have to latch onto one thing or another for meaning, most of which will eventually desert us or will change as we grow.

    I think you have a point. But in addition, let’s not forget also about the historical setting for existentialism. These people lived through a horror of world wars, with millions of their contemporaries dying and suffering, apparently for nothing, like ants trodden on by some monstrous giant.

    Taking this into consideration, I can relate to them … sort of. I can appreciate that in such a situation a proud retort like “Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. What’s the big deal?” sounds – oh, how to say it delicately – sounds otherworldly. My own meaning? As in “My heaven, my land, my dreams, my head, my sex, my bed”? When the world is falling apart, repeating “my, my, my…” is not going to help much, don’t you think so? What is “mine” is inseparable from what is “external”. Splendid isolation is not an option: when creating ‘your own’ meaning, you interpret willy-nilly the external world (significant parts of it) as meaningful too. How to do it when the external world is horrible? It seems to me that this was (to a large degree) their problem. It was like: “how can I live meaningfully, when I’m not able to invest any meaning to the lives and deaths of the people around me? Their lives and deaths strike me as utterly nonsensical, and this nonsense in turn infects also my head, my sex, my bed …”. As for me, I find it understandable. Don’t you?

  87. 93


    A really good book about this topic is Society Without God. It’s a study of Swedish attitudes on religion.

    Mostly Danish, actually.

  88. 95

    I’m 28 now, and I was more or less an atheist by the time I was in my mid-teens (say between 15 and 18). I don’t think I put a name on skepticism until my early 20s, but I had certainly stopped buying into religion earlier than that. I attended a Methodist church from as early as I can remember, at my mother’s behest, and I continued going through high school, even though my mom’s attendance had petered off. I adored being part of the choir, even after I stopped believing, in spite of the horrible treatment I sometimes received at the hands of my religious teenage peers (who are no less cruel to young geeks than your average teenager, it turns out). My dad’s side of the family was always a little more Adamantly Religious (prayers before meals, church every Sunday and Wednesday) but since I grew up with my mom, I only experienced that side of the family a few times a year.
    So while I wasn’t exposed to explicit atheism from a young age, I had observed that at least one extremely intelligent, capable, good person (my mother) didn’t seem to be going to hell even though she didn’t go to church every week. It was on a church choir retreat that I remember having my first “there’s probably no god” thought. For some time I had found myself wondering “am I supposed to feel something when I pray? Because I’m… not really getting anything.” Then one gorgeous early summer day we were out in the woods for a retreat and told to go sit somewhere secluded and “have a conversation with god.” I found the base of a sun-warmed tree and sat so that I couldn’t see a single other person – just the early blooms of azaleas, robins on branches, and trees gently swaying in the breeze. I closed my eyes and thought about prayer. Then I realized – why would I sit here praising a god that has never given me a shred of evidence as to his existence, when I could instead be glorying in the beautiful nature around me? I had no proof of a supreme creator, but I did have proof of the sun shining through the clouds, and the wind making the trees sing. So instead I opened my eyes, took in the beautiful scenery, and did a meditation exercise a neighbor had taught to me. While staring at the beautiful forest, I breathed deeply and repeated “peace within me, peace surrounds me” in time with breathing in and breathing out. When the prayer time was up, I remember feeling more energetic, alive, and rejuvenated than I ever had – in my memory the world was in sharp focus; colors were more vivid, sounds had a greater depth. I felt very content, and maybe a bit smugly clever for finally deducing that everyone around me was probably deluding themselves.
    Reading back over that description, I can see how someone might say it sounded like a “spiritual experience,” but it wasn’t. It was a beautiful day, and my mind was clear because I had finally admitted to myself that I had been buying into a big fairy tale about a god that would fill you with his hold spirit. It had finally occurred to me that if there was no scientific evidence for a great supreme being – he probably didn’t really exist.

  89. 97

    I was raised in a non-religious house hold so I never went through this “leaving religion” thing that a lot atheists talk about. Hopefully my experience will become the norm rather than the exception for future atheists.

  90. 98

    I’m 54 and was raised by atheist/secular parents. It wasn’t difficult for me to be an atheist. Growing up in CT, religion didn’t seem to underpin social interactions the way it does in the midwest or south.

    I’d say it is less difficult due to how society has been changing with media and the internet. Religion isn’t dying, it is losing adherents.

    As someone mentioned before, I was surprised by people that were religious and still don’t fathom belief.

  91. 99

    For me there was no “deconversion” – my belief in gods faded right in parallel with belief in Santa Claus. I learned pretty early on not to talk about religion with my parents or friends (I was in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood), but that was fine. Throughout childhood and adolescence non-belief was relatively non problematic.

    I hit the existential angst phase right on cue in my college years. So looking for alternative “spiritualities” was part of my quest to make sense of life, and after a few years of dabbling in that realm I left that behind, too. Now, I should also point out that I suffered bouts of depression throughout my 20’s (finally corrected with medication when I hit 30 – yay!). I truly believe the causal arrow is from depression –> susceptibility to existential angst. I noticed that when I’m not depressed those Big Questions just tend to disappear.

    Over the past few years I’ve taken to practicing “mindfulness” (the secular aspects of Buddhism – the 4 Noble Truths, the 8-fold path, all that, without the supernatural stuff). That more than anything else feels like a spiritual “home” right now, sort of an empirical investigation of how the mind/soul/body stuff all works (and yes, without making any ontological commitments about “soul stuff”).

    I’ll tell you, though, the thing that the religious have as an advantage is this wonderful just-add-water community bonding through churches. I haven’t found a secular replacement for such a surrogate “home” in my life. I also take it as a life mission to make the existential struggle a little easier for the next generations, too – we really need to figure out how to get some basic, primal needs met. I get why having an unconditionally loving Imaginary Friend can be a strong comfort, and at an emotional level I envy the people who are able to let go of reality enough to enjoy that. But – no surprise – I know it’s not real, and I just can’t go there. It’s like that scene in The Matrix where one character is making a deal with the Agents to stay in the Matrix in return for his betrayal of colleagues – he preferred the pleasure of the illusion to the harshness of reality. Nope, can’t do it. But I envy the peace of mind it brings people.

  92. 101


    It was written in 2008, about Denmark and Sweden. He said that people reported themselves as Christian in the sense that a lot of them had their kids baptized and paid church tax but that even the people who believed in God (including preachers) were, like you said, very vague.

    I don’t have any experience with Scandinavia, but when I visit family in Germany I notice a similar attitude, though I do have one cousin who is a strong atheist and stopped paying church tax.

  93. 102

    The main body of this post is smart and enlightening, as is entirely usual for Greta, and commenters are doing a good job responding as requested. As a guy whose username is cribbed from Camus, though, I think I have to defend him and his outlook (I know rather less about Sartre) a little against Tim’s comments.

    I’d say Ariel @93 and especially Xsnay @40 have it right: the response of existentialists in the Camus vein to Tim would more or less amount to citing the Problem of Evil. Existentialists, IME, don’t argue that meaning-creation is horrifically difficult most of the time; Tim’s assertion that “Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought [humans being forced to create our own meaning] was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis” is, I think, flatly wrong. The existentialists I’ve read do have a carpe diem-ish message about keeping meaning in mind rather than succumbing to humdrum routine, but other than that their message has little to do with “daily basis”; they’re not claiming that making our own meaning is usually all that tough.

    The difficulty, in short, doesn’t lie in “daily basis,” it’s in extremis: the harrowing experiences we all have, if we live long enough, in which the universe and/or our fellow human beings crush the very things we cherish, love, and find meaning in. It’s the haunting (and outstanding) essay Greta posted on her old blog, “The Times I Miss Rob,” or for that matter the Litany of Anger from her new book and her most famous blog post. It’s the human need for justice and caring colliding with a cosmos and/or a human species that, in notable and not-all-that-rare circumstances, has no interest in justice or caring.

    If conditions like the ones the characters face in Camus’s The Plague aren’t quite as common these days as they have been during most of human history, that’s wonderful—and it’s a tremendous gift that smart, principled, and rational people have bequeathed to many of us. (Steven Pinker’s terrific book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, provides a lot of evidence that human life is vastly better—more peaceful, especially—now than it ever has been before. It’s cause for real optimism.) But Camus’s broader point is that we’re not capable of exterminating the plague entirely. Injustice, suffering, death, and the squandering of things that matter will always be with us, and they’ll always pose real obstacles to our hopes and ideals. I’d say it’s that, and not the “daily basis” maintenance of meaning, that is the difficult “psychological state” that existentialists pay a lot of attention to.

  94. 103

    I was raised Catholic but I’m not sure I ever really believed any of it. The hardest part of leaving the Church for me was convincing my parents that I didn’t want or need to be going to CCD. The Church made that easy eventually – they threw me out for arguing with the teacher. I liked the secular humanist line in the education materials that they included as “obviously wrong” other views on the world. I managed to get several other kids on board with my views and the teacher totally lost it.

    I was still required to attend Mass until I moved out of my parents house (amicably enough, went to college and all). I never tried to practice another religion or felt the need to spend Sunday AM in a large pretty building singing.

  95. 104

    My experience was definitely emotionally traumatic – for the reasons in your post, not because of any outside pressure. I cried and cried and prayed and prayed as my belief slipped away. Like it was a bad thing, like something was going horribly wrong, but I couldn’t stop it. This was about age 14 or 15.

    Ten years have passed and now I look back and think of the moment when I lifted the weight from my shoulders. That I didn’t have to make myself believe in a god because there WASN’T one. It was amazing, nothing has felt better. Now it makes me so happy to think about the end result, but the journey was kind of devastating.

  96. 105

    @ #93

    I’d say that many people might make efforts to try to make that external world less horrible one of those things that create personal meaning in their lives.

  97. mrp

    I have not read all of the many comments here, so forgive me if these sentiments have already been expressed.

    I personally grew up nonreligious. I was baptised, and, much to my regret, I also decided to be confirmed in my Christian faith at age 13, which is simply a cultural thing that most people do in order to get a party and extravagant presents.
    However, I never believed in any gods. I tried praying sometimes, but nothing ever happened, and the bible stories were clearly as untrue as the stories about Thor going fishing for the Jormungandr that I enjoyed reading as a child. I remember being asked by a classmate when I was in 5th or 6th grade what I thought would happen when we die. I didn’t have to think for a second, because I already knew, and I answered that nothing would happen. We would cease existing. And I have known that my whole life.

    Now, to get to the point of my comment here, I’m afraid I’m not entirely sure that the subject of one’s own eventual demise will ever be a subject that is just shrugged off. Even though I had known my whole life that everything I am is going to perish at some point, it still hit me incredibly hard when at age 18 I realised exactly what that means. It means that I will be forcefully destroyed at some unknown point in time with absolutely nothing to say about it. No judge, no appeal, no help desk or argument.

    I do think being an atheist will become easier. I think it has become easier. Being an atheist is the most natural thing in the world to me and to many people I know, and I think it will become more and more natural as (or should I pessimistically say if?) standards of living continue to rise around the world, both with regards to health, but also with regards to personal freedoms.

    I do not think, however, that the thought of dying will ever become something that comes naturally to people and is easily shrugged off. Though it will likely become easier to deal with the more we as a society, as a species learn to talk about it, I think this, the human condition, will remain a great problem for every individual that he or she will have to face in their own way, and some will stoically endure it without flinching while others will despair, but I quite honestly do not see death as ever becoming something that you just shrug at and say “So what?”.

  98. 107

    I remember hearing somewhere a viewpoint along the lines of “agnostics raise atheists”… many people who leave organized religion, but still cling to the idea of “spirituality” or some kind of “higher meaning” seem to have children who have no need for those things their parents still want to cling to. I think this would describe my upbringing fairly well (although since we’ve never discussed religion from a perspective of personal beliefs, I can’t actually confirm if my parents are atheists or agnostic of “spiritual but not religious”)

    I was a theist, in a generic god-is-love sot of way, as a child, and I wasn’t terribly happy with giving it up when I realized that *wanting* it to be true couldn’t *make* it true. On the other hand, my older daughter has been pretty comfy with her disbelief in a god since she was old enough to articulate a position. My younger daughter, I’m not so sure… last I checked she was a polytheist.

  99. 108

    @ Andie

    He said that people reported themselves as Christian in the sense that a lot of them had their kids baptized and paid church tax but that even the people who believed in God (including preachers) were, like you said, very vague.

    Oh. That explains why the number of Christians seems so large.

    Most people my age (20-ish) are both baptised and confirmed, even though they’d never call themselves Christian. It’s just that baptism and confirmation have somehow ended up being things we do, irrespective of our actual religious beliefs. Kind of like how a family of Jewish atheists are still likely to celebrate the kids’ Bar/Bat Mitzvah. And if either of someone’s parents is a member of the church they are by default counted as a member too and have to pay church tax – unless they do a bunch of paperwork that lots of people just never get around to. Often their parents are only church members because they didn’t want to bother with the paperwork either.

    I don’t think there was any deliberate attempt at misrepresentation, but cultural unfamiliary seems to have gotten the author of Society without God to pick criteria for being “Christian” that are a bit like counting everyone who celebrates Easter as being an Eostre worshipper. It just doesn’t give any kind of useful estimate of how many are actually religious in any meaningful sense.

  100. 111

    Deconversion was and is a painful process for me. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, and every last one of my relatives is also Christian. I was pretty much an evangelist growing up, always trying to convert my non-believing friends, devoted to youth group and all things Christ.

    Some doctrines began to seem contradictory to me in my teens, like predestination vs. free will. So I began having doubts, but really only doubts about perhaps which sect of Christianity I belonged to, not doubts of there being a God.

    Deconversion came through a lot of soul searching, studying and practicing Eastern religions, and then finally one day when I was standing in the middle of a megachurch congregation, the light bulb of the unthinkable went of…I don’t believe in God. For so long I thought my search was which type of God I believed in, which temple brough me peace, which doctrines made sense. Until I realized the path I was truly seeking all along was to throw it all out — to get rid of everything.

    It has been very painful for my family and for me. I hate disappointing them, I hate them worrying for my soul. Because they truly do believe it is going to hell, and the love me, and their hearts are broken. And I have no way of easing their pain. I can only continue to speak truth and hope some seeds of reason will be planted.

  101. 112

    I have to hope that it does get easier for future generations, I sure as hell wouldn’t wish my deconversion experience on anyone.

    I was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist home. I went to church 2 or 3 times a week, I attend private xtian schools, went to summer bible camps, when I was 4 my family went to Bangladesh to bring Jeebus to the heathens, I was “born again” at age 5 and baptized at 8, when I was 13 the family went to Germany so my folks could preach and teach at a missionary school. I breathed, ate and slept religion. I believed, whole-heartedly.

    Then, for the last 2 years of high school, I attended a public school, not sure why we left the religious school, but it changed everything. I discovered that, even though the private education was far better in reading and math, they had horribly stunted my science education (big surprise, right?).

    I learned about geology, paleontology, astronomy, chemistry. I devoured text books, I read every scrap I could find. And I had a great teacher who encouraged me. And then he gave me a book on evolution (I really wish I could remember what book it was). I read it all night, cover to cover twice. Years of religious indoctrination, based on the literal and infallible WORD OF GOD!!1!, weakened by all my previous studies, crumbled overnight.

    I was lost, everything I thought I knew was a lie. I was furious with my parents, and relatives. How dare they feed me this crap for so long? How could they lie to me like that? (I realize now that they didn’t lie, at least not intentionally, they told me what they believed was the truth.) They tried to “bring me back into the fold” and I saw them trying to stuff me back into that tiny dark box, and we fought. Big screaming fights, anger and tears, pain for everyone.

    I cut ties with everyone, all but my two oldest friends, and I moved across the country, 3500km by car, to start fresh. Most painful thing I’ve ever done (and I once once got road burn over 40% of my upper body, while simultaneous grinding my arm down to the bone, which broke in 3 places). I made a life here, made friends of all types, including some wonderful atheist humanists. I started working to eliminate the remaining fears and superstitions left to me by religion (including the guilt about sex, thank dog that’s gone!) The move to atheism and secular humanism all seems to follow logically from there, it wasn’t a short trip, but I got here in the end.

    I’ve managed recently to have a few conversations with my mom and dad (and a few more fights). They have been awkward and strained, but at least we’re talking again, eh? Like I said, I wouldn’t wish an experience like this on anyone. I don’t regret for a second freeing myself from that horrible, oppressive religious tyranny. But I would be thrilled if no one ever had to go though that in the future.

    And I seem to have had verbal diarrhea all over your thread. Sorry, the story kinda got away from me. Maybe I should send it to PZ for his “Why I am an Atheist” series.

  102. 113

    First off because I agree that age and region are important due to cultural influence. I’m 29 living in Canada.

    Accepting death was remarkably easy for me. I never imagined I would actually live a life after death, it was never an aspect of our faith that had been important. When I was eight years old I realized that I would die. My grandfather had just transpired after fighting lung cancer, his family held a ceremony where his ashes were spread out over open water. Afterwards as I looked out at his ashes being spread over the water, I realized one day that was all that would be left of me. One day I hope my ashes will be placed in a garden or allowed to flow down a river. Being bound up in a grave seems like such a waste.

    After reading through all the posts(Gods there are plenty of good ones) before I started writing this, I believe I’m in the minority here, I never gave up on religion so much as I simply grew out of it. Hell, when I was a child attending church was fun, I looked forward to it every week. I was also a child who looked forward to fall classes so maybe that doesn’t count for much.

    I wish I could say that through critical thinking and careful examination I declared “name of religion here” to be false. It just wasn’t like that for me, I grew up exceptionally wise in many aspects, to the point where men thirty years older took my advice. Yet I remained naive as a gosling in respect to my religion. (An ugly duckling if ever there was one.)

    In my household when we were young we enjoyed a full gospel upbringing. This means our church was free spirited. We sang, we performed plays, we hugged, lunches were shared and good times were had. Prayer was like an easy way to learn to speak publicly. My mother never once tried to tell us Santa brought our gifts to us, it was simply her giving us gifts “In the name of Jesus Christ.” Our parents never intentionally lied to us, they never compelled us to read the bible so why should we question God? After all growing up inside of such a warm, loving, wonderful atmosphere never gave me reason to doubt. (Eggs are eggs)

    Eventually I read through the bible, yet instead of seeing the inconsistencies as problems, I did what most people truly do with their religion. I took away the lessons I wanted, ignoring the rest. For me the lesson was simply, “Love.” I didn’t realize that distilling the essence of what I believed down to this one word would lead me to atheism. Yet that is the course I set with no regret. (See I can swim too.)

    I believed in God, hell I thought I was special, one of God’s Chosen(that’s embarrassing to admit yet I wisely never chose to share it at the time). I’d been through fires, launched off hundred foot cliffs, even been in more than one vehicle accident. All without so much as a scratch. God surely had a plan for me! Now if only I knew what it was. Only I didn’t believe in the God from the bible any longer, I believed in the precept of “Love” as God. Not “Gimme a hug” love, rather lift you up love, the quiet acceptance of who you are love. This precept is still important to me. (I don’t quack, I’m special.)

    I started to learn more though, physics, biology, chemistry, they all played a part. Slowly I simply let go of the religious trappings which had marred my precept. I eventually settled into a godless belief, I had heard of atheism yet I never imagined that it coincided with my belief system. It wasn’t until I happened upon Richard Dawkins that I was able to understand then express that I was indeed an atheist. (Now that I’ve spread my wings, why should I want to live on the ground?)

    Was it painful for me personally though, yes though not for giving up on God, but for taking so long to realize I had. A pain far worse though is knowing that others are not privy to the truth. My mother who is brilliant, loving, and kind. A being capable of drawing autistic minds out of their shells. Enabling them to interact in our worlds. Allows herself to be continually destroyed by her own beliefs.

    But ultimately will it get easier? That’s the question that started this thread, well I think that it’s already happening with young people. Paraphrasing Greta in her book, “You know that your God is made up right?” “Yeah, so what, you coming to our youth group?”

  103. Leo

    I am a lifelong atheist. Now, as I was raised on a ranch near a small community, I had little social interaction with peers, so my story might be slightly different had a been raised in a more urban population. Nonetheless, my parents, while not atheists themselves, never took me to church (with the exception of weddings and funerals) or really taught me about religion, except in passing. So I did hear about ideas about heaven, and even had a nightmare once about Satan coming to get me. But without these ideas really being forced on me, I don’t know if I ever truly believed in them beyond how much a child believes in anything else, like wizards or dragons. (Honestly, I probably believed in wizards and dragons more!) So, yeah, I had no afterlife belief to give up, and thus it’s not really that big of a deal. Sure, the idea of death kinda sucks, and it’ll perhaps never be easy to deal with, and I’d hate to die at this young of an age (27), but I expect I’ll be more able to embrace the idea as I get older. And it certainly seems to be less of an issue than for the formerly religious.

    Sorry if that’s not composed the best…it’d take a bit more time to correctly assemble my thoughts than I’m willing to spend right now.

  104. 115

    The biggest problem for this thread is that so few people have put a time frame on their experiences. Location is also helpful. Put those together and you can start to do a time/location study to see if things do seem to be getting easier over time and whether there are areas where this is better or worse.

    See how my case pans out.

    When i was young, religion was never mentioned and I was never taken to church.

    Later, at school, I came across religion in Religious Education classes, but there was no particular emphasis, and it was really just a sort of sociology, learning as much about other religions as christianity.

    Later, when I was 13 or so, the RE teacher changed to what one can only call a “preacher” – his sole concern was to turn us all into god-fearing, church-attending christians of his particular sect. This being tedious and not very educational I got a note from my parents to excuse me from this lesson, and thus spent the time in the school library with the Jew and the Muslim – free homework time! Curiously, within a year there were a couple of dozen of us in the library, and hardly anybody in that RE class.

    Do I keep quiet about atheism, or make a vocal case? Neither really. If the subject of religion should arise, I will state my position, but then it practically never does arise.

    Much later, called to do jury service, one was asked to swear an oath. Having sat on several juries I noticed an interesting phenomenon; People swore on a bible or other religious book, but after I had stood and “affirmed” (the atheist version) almost everybody affirmed, almost nobody used a religious book. Clearly most, particularly the Christians, were only culturally religious.

    Now for the context;

    Firstly, I am English, which sort of explains the general lack of interest….

    Yet that 13 yr old was 50 years ago in 1962. The swinging sixties had not started yet, and postwar attitudes were still quite prevelant, but it is quite apparent that religion was already in a strong, if somewhat secret, decline.

    Long may it continue.

  105. 116

    The biggest problem for this thread is that so few people have put a time frame on their experiences. Location is also helpful.

    Quite right, an oversight on my part. So for my post at #113, add that I was born in 1981 in Southwestern Ontario. My world-shaking loss of faith came when I was 17, so 1998. I’ve been an atheist for maybe 8 years (hard to say the exact point it happened), and I’ve been an out-and-proud Gnu Atheist for about 3 years.

  106. 117

    For data collection purposes – I’m above at #30 and I was born in 1951 and raised in Detroit, Michigan. I discovered the lies inherent in the system in 1965 when I was 14 and walked away from the Catholic church, and all god belief, entirely in 1969.

  107. 118


    It has been very painful for my family and for me. I hate disappointing them, I hate them worrying for my soul. Because they truly do believe it is going to hell, and the love me, and their hearts are broken.

    Sorry that your family took such a hard line. You should be aware though that not all Christians believe atheists automatically go to hell. That’s one thing I did get from the qanda debate between Pell and Dawkins (careful, it’s an hour long). Ok, this is admittedly the word from the Catholics, and in particular the guy who thought humanity was descended from Neanderthals, but he’s still a Cardinal so even so.

    It is kind of nice to think you can be true to your principles and remain an atheist, and yet still go to heaven if you’re wrong. (Nice, although I still don’t believe in a heaven for a second).

  108. 119

    It looks like many of the responses here answer your question, Greta: Atheism has *already* become easier.

    I wholeheartedly agree with this:

    “Sure, there’s no God, and my consciousness is a biological product of my brain, and my sense of a cohesive identity and selfhood is a somewhat illusory mental construction, and when I die I’ll just be gone forever. So what? That’s fine with me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

    Life’s what one makes of it, death is an inevitable consequence of life. Happiness can be elusive and fleeting, but -on the other hand- misery can be mitigated. I’m cool with that.

    If deist god exists then it is supremely amoral to have made such a universe; in D&D terms deist god is chaotic neutral. Of course, had deist god created a different universe where evil couldn’t exist then that universe would necessarily be populated with free will-less automatons.


    Thanks for the blog, Greta.

  109. 120

    I was brought up Catholic in ’60s England but my parents stopped going to church in 1968 after my youngest sister was born and without ever explaining their decision for many years. Thus I started secondary school (C of E) in 1968 where I learned for the first time that there were non-Catholics in the world (first lie I caught the priests in). Oddly RE lessons at that school taught me about the earliest rifts in Christianity (second priestly lie – I’d always been taught there was never any dissent), as well as the history behind the Protestant split from Rome. Then one day in study period another boy stood up and declared to the school chaplain that he didn’t believe in gawd. The chaplain’s response was sad and laughable – his 7 years at seminary ‘proved’ gawd existed!

    Serving in the British Army in Northern Ireland at age 19 in the summer of ’76 proved beyond any reasonable doubt that neither Catholicism nor Protestantism was worth a crap to me. Both had their liars for Jesus but neither was honest or even slightly Christian according to their own instruction manual, the New Testament. Both sides had their ‘prophets’ justifying murdering innocent people for their respective version of ‘teh troof’.

    For many years thereafter I went with something closer to pantheism or maybe deism until I read Dawkins and realized that either one was indistinguishable from no gawd at all. Talking with my dad over the past years I’ve learned that he’s had his own doubts for many years, while talking with my son I learned that he never once imagined there could be any kind of gawd, and he couldn’t even begin to understand why anyone believes in the Abrahamic gawd at all. Oddly when I was still married to his mother I was upset to learn that there were 2 kinds of agnostic to her way of thinking – apparently Catholic agnostics and Protestant agnostics are incompatible – although to be honest I was still very much a misogynistic asshole of the first order back then – thanks to my religious upbringing I think. I now try to think of myself as a recovering misogynist asshole, and I try my hardest to avoid sexism and misogyny although I know I still sometimes fail.

  110. 121

    Raised fundamentalist Christian(Baptist) From the age I became fully aware of my surroundings till age 19, God, Jesus, and the church were my life. I was always attracted to the “darker” side of things but I always thought it was Satans’ doing.

    I joined the army at 19 and after remaining “faithful” to God
    for a little while, thankfully sex, drugs and rock-n-roll saved my life.
    I was so socially awkward growing up that my new found friends
    who were into the metal scene(with which came the sex and drugs)
    were too much to resist.

    After a few years of hard partying and not really caring if there was a god or not, I realized I still believed in a god but was intensely angry at him for everything I had missed out on growing up. I felt as though I was cheated and finally experiencing everything I should have been growing up, and if God didn’t like it and wanted to send me to hell, well fuck him!

    To cut it short, my search to find out if there was actually anything in my new life to be ashamed of or to fear going to hell for led me to a brief stint in agnosticism. The internet and good old fashioned knowledge then led me straight into atheism about 15 years ago and I haven’t looked back.

  111. 122

    When I became an atheist it wasn’t because my beliefs had changed, but because I recognised a term that matched them. I’m an aussie, so religion is largely either ignored or mocked down here, so there was no major change in my life or how I interacted with folks. My family is still intensely Catholic, but my movement into atheism is probably a direct result of their reverence for knowledge and learning. For me the transition was inevitable.

  112. t

    I had the good fortune to grow up in an entirely non-religious, pro-science household. My family were never anti-religious —I didn’t know my father was an atheist until I was in college because we never spoke about religion at all — it was always just so apparent that the religious claims of some of my friends and extended family members were simply not true in the same way that Santa wasn’t real.

    I first discovered that some people thought there was an externally imposed reason for being when a friend tricked me into attending a Christian summer camp at the age of 12. I argued even then, long before I’d ever heard of atheism or existentialism.

    I feel similarly about the idea of free will. I never imagined I could do other than act of my own volition and face whatever consequences resulted from my actions. I am always amused by the fuss religious people make of having freewill, as though it’s either a gift or a great and wearisome burden. What else is there, and why would you want to exist in any other state? Their entire conception of it is absurd.

    That it turns out that what ‘we’ think of as free will is largely an illusion doesn’t bother me at all. That some part of my brain other than my conscious mind is largely in change of my choices doesn’t disturb me in the least; it’s interesting, but not at all upsetting.

    And I have exactly zero fear of death, though I’m not very fond of suffering.

    Anytime I catch myself falling too far into my navel when pondering my place and purpose in the universe, I remind myself that we are just a few As, Gs, Cs and Ts removed from this:

    …which puts everything in perspective again.

  113. 125

    I’m 29 and was raised in rural Michigan. My parents raised me on Doctor Who and Wild America (PBS was about all that came in) and a whole lot of books. At 5, I decided to test whether Santa et al. were real. I lost a tooth and planned to put it under my pillow without telling my parents. If the toothfairy didn’t come, then she and the others weren’t real. I tried not to talk the whole way home, but my dad figured it out. I told him about my plan, and he was proud of me (notable as it was uncharacteristic of him). He was a scientist, so it doesn’t surprise me now.

    It came as a bit of shock to me when at 7, after my brother was born, they decided we should go to a small Methodist church. I hated it, but the people were nice. I just couldn’t reconcile any of it with the science-based explanations to my childhood questions. My mom tried to help. “Maybe Gods days aren’t like our days” ect. At 11, I was in full-blown doubt, but it wasn’t until someone at church said that god values those who questions that I felt like I had the last bit of permission I needed. I imagined that I had never been raised Christian at all. What would it look like from the outside? Rather suddenly, the whole thing fell apart. Popped like a bubble. I was sitting in the woods in the spring, surrounded by wintergreen, dead leaves, and melting snow, and god wasn’t real.

    Not being able to go back was scary for a little while, but it was out of my control. You can’t believe in something that you know isn’t real. If you can and it works, I want a unicorn.

    My mom was only a little surprised when I told her. “So you’re an atheist?” “What’s an atheist?” “Someone who doesn’t believe in god” “Oh, I guess I am” My dad was harder, even though, I found out later, he is an atheist. He was defended the importance of respecting religion, even if you don’t believe. He never did give me a good reason for why religion is good. I was a little hurt – I had hoped he would be proud of me again. I suspect his anger had more to do with the “disobedience” of wanting to read a book during the sermon than my lack of belief, though, he still attends church with his wife. I didn’t loose any friends and endured a number of dumb questions from classmates (aren’t you afraid of hell? um, no. Do you worship monkeys? snarky answer: ancestor worship is an Asian religious thing. Also, “common ancestor” not monkeys). But on the whole, it was relatively painless.

  114. 126

    I will assume it does get easier using my experience as evidence.

    For me I was never raised on religion, and had never even heard of God/Jesus/etc. until I was five years old. That occurred when I stayed with an Aunt and Uncle for the summer and they took me to church and sent me to Sunday school with my cousins… once.

    I just asked too many questions, the stories they were telling me (Noah’s Ark) were just too absurd to be believed, even with the suspension of disbelief I usually held for stories (for that’s all I thought they were). These questions apparently were not welcome as they never brought me back there for the rest of the summer, opting instead to just skip church.

    As I grew older, religious texts were in my house (Bible, Qu’ran, Teachings of the Buddha, Book of Mormon, even the Satanic Verses) and when I asked about some of the titles I was encouraged to read them, though my best attempt at the time ended shortly into Genesis with me bored out of my skull.

    When I was 10 I was given a little wooden cross necklace by a friend and I wore it for a couple years until I lost it. I didn’t know that it was a crucifix, I just liked the patterns of the wood grain. At this point I still didn’t really understand religion. I’d heard some of the stories, but it had never occurred to me that anyone might actually believe them. Christianity was just mythology to me. Boring mythology, especially when compared to the Greek ones which fascinated me to no end.

    It wasn’t until I was about 16 when I finally learned that there were people who really did believe these things and acted on those beliefs, and it wasn’t until I was 18 that I learned that there was a word, “atheist”, to describe me as not believing in it.

    Since then I’ve read the bible and studied up on the history and apologetics to become more knowledgeable on the subject.

    So when religion gets to the point where its influence is weaker then it will be easy for people to grow up atheist without worrying about it since even in the current world I was able to be an atheist for 16 years without ever knowing it, or having a problem with my position.

  115. 127

    Although I officially called myself an atheist by the time I was 18, a lot of Christian ideas always seemed off to me for years beforehand, as if I were critiquing a poorly-made movie or comic book. A lot of stuff just seemed off about it, or I always thought that if I were in God’s position, I’d have used my omnipotence much more efficiently, with or without omniscience. Really, if you had the power to do ANYTHING, that would include stuff like time-travel, transmutation, mind-control, etc. This is elementary stuff for a comic-book writer or someone who’s ever played a high-level wizard in Dungeons & Dragons, and the god of Abraham couldn’t figure this shit out?!

    Another line of reasoning that compelled me to stop believing in any kind of god or religion was the knowledge of dead religions, a.k.a. mythologies. The only difference between the Hellenistic beliefs of ancient Greece and the Christianities (or any other religion) of today is that Christianity is that there are people who believe in them, whereas in ancient Greece, people believed in Zeus, Athena, Hera, Ares, etc. back then. This reminds me of a Dungeons & Dragons setting called the Forgotten Realms, where the gods gain sustenance from the faith of their followers and actually died when they had no more followers to believe in them (their corpses could be found floating in the Astral Plane as large landmasses).

    As far as how I felt when I came out as an atheist, I felt incredibly liberated. I was glad to rid myself of my mental simulation of an eternal peeping Tom. It also felt great to find like-minded people on the Internet about this subject, as well as refining my thought processes to ween out irrational thinking, and I think atheism was the catalyst for that.

  116. 128

    As a former religious person I must say that the sense of purpose or meaning was the most difficult part of the religious experience to give up.


  117. 129

    I was raised (in the northeast US) in an atheist home, though I have some very religious extended family. The concept of making my own meaning was normal and natural. It’s just that I’m the one I’d be letting down if I don’t live up to my potential, and not some sky fairy.

    And so, when existentialism was introduced to us in my public school, I didn’t quite get it at first. Waiting For Godot seemed odd to me, not exactly depressing, more absurdist. Existentialism was then explained as some sense of being lost or hopeless or meaningless, and we were supposed to write our own existential play, so mine was about someone who worked on an assembly line and was bored and unhappy with life.

    Related aside: One of my favorite plays (and films) is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after which I named 2 of my cats. Sadly, Guildenstern _is_ dead, but Ro is hanging in there 19 years later.

  118. 131

    I grew up in a liberal New York household. We were nominally Catholic, but this was hippie-crunchy-post Vatican II Catholic (our church was round, not cross-shaped). I really liked it, and I believed fully in a loving god and my pal Jesus.

    I rejected organized religion first, deciding in my teen years that history showed them doing stupid things such as organizing to kill people. (How does anyone get through learning about the Crusades without realizing that?) Even with the best intentions, people in large groups were not to be trusted.

    (I suspect my dad may have subtly encouraged this notion. He looked like the quintessential conservative white man, always wearing a well-tailored suit and with a Ron Reagan/Bob’s Big Boy hairstyle, but he was definitely a liberal. He could see the straight line connecting religion, nationalism, and an Orwellian universe.)

    So I was deist first, and since I was interested in science, I quickly became agnostic. And then one day I just realized that the whole business was obviously the will of humans, that there probably wasn’t a god. So I said (out loud), “There is no god.” Lightning did not strike. My life went on pretty darn well. And that was that.

    No breast-beating. No inner turmoil. The whole process from good Catholic to atheist took about three years, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. I graduated from my Catholic high school as an atheist.

    I was lucky to live in a multicultural/liberal environment, and to have a father who was, I suspect, a closet atheist (or at worst a deist). I’m in my 40s, so not exactly a young ‘un. I expect my multicultural, liberal environment made it easy, and so yes, I hope it will be easier for the Internet Generation of atheists to make the transition, knowing that there are others like them out there.

  119. 132

    US military father, German mother, both atheists. Lived in US, Belgium, Germany. Named for the hero of Fountainhead (I am not a fan).

    Had I not been an atheist when I hit Ann Arbor in 1975, how my religion could have survived the philosophy, literature, and anthropology professors, or just plain reading books, I’ll never know. Seems impossible. “Why I am Not A Christian” was fairly common (Russell).

    No need to create a world where atheism is normal – it’s been here awhile, just not among the masses. We could use to educate more people generally, I grant. Call me a snob for wanting every person to get to read some heavy books.

  120. 133

    Here’s something to consider, about people dying. Do you grieve for someone who died at age 79 instead of age 80? How about, someone who could have lived to 65 but died when they were 12?

    Remember that the person who died doesn’t suffer in any way because of what they missed.

    It’s like crying for not getting to be the winner of the Olympics and it’s like crying because you didn’t win the lottery. 🙂

    When I cry that somebody died, it’s not really for their sake, it’s for my own. I’m wishing they were still here; I’m sad about my own eventual death. I’m generically mourning that people have to experience any death at all.

    If we let grief run its course, our minds naturally let go of it. We’ve mostly evolved not to obsess.

    If I’m fortunate enough to face impending death due to aging, I’m sure I’ll wish I could have lived longer. Who wouldn’t? I hope, though, to get over it, and enjoy what life I have left.

    These are things I learned from other atheists. I think that life is emotionally easier when you’re an atheist. I think it’s why atheists I know, in general, recover from grief so fast compared to theists, both lifelong atheists and “deconverts”.


    Sometimes a theist asks me how I can live with the idea that when I die “it’s all over”. Since I didn’t grow up with a further expectation, it really doesn’t bother me.

    Sometimes they’re sad that I don’t have the comfort of a promise of heaven. I try to explain with the following analogy.

    …Imagine that, when *I* was a tiny tot, my family promised I would grow a pair of beautiful wings. They clearly believe their promise.

    We all gather weekly to celebrate how wonderful it’s going to be. We sing songs about it, hang pictures of the event. In my saddest hour, they go out of their way to console me with the glorious idea that, one day, I am going to be winged.

    Spreading the idea that I’m going to grow wings is the most important activity in my entire life. Not only that, but I’ve also come to believe that the very act talking about it is the highest possible of ALL human virtues.

    And then, one day I find out you, unlike most of the people I happen to personally know, don’t believe you’re going to grow wings. So I feel compelled to ask you, “How can you stand the idea that you’re never going to grow wings?”

    Should I feel sorry for you that you live without such an expectation? I don’t think so.

    Oh, those poor non-Muslims who can’t expect a thousands of virgins in the afterlife! Oh, those poor non-Hindus who can’t expect to live thousands of lives! Oh, those poor non-Buddhists who can’t look forwards to joining the World Buddha Consciousness! Oh, those poor Christians who can’t expect to fight and drink mead at Odin’s side !

    It’s patronizing to assume anybody’s life is somehow lessened by freedom from a particular belief.


  121. 134

    Raised evangelical. Deconverted about four years ago. I didn’t know any atheists and had not read any atheist material (except sci-fi written by atheists if you count that).

    My conversion was a struggle and very traumatic and I haven’t completely recovered.

  122. 135

    I grew up more-or-less as an atheist, and it was never a struggle for me. Canada is something like 20% nonreligious (more in the cities), so it was never a big deal. I was incredulous when I realised how religious other people really were.

  123. 136

    […] document.getElementById("fb-root").appendChild(e); }()); Greta Christina, over at the other blog collective (which is starting to look better after Patheos 3.0), asks “Will Atheism Become […]

  124. 137

    As I was reading this and agreeing with your friend Tim, I suddenly realised how right Douglas Adams was when he gave the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything as 42. That pretty much sums up the matter, and is as good an answer as any, because it’s not that the question can never be answered, it’s that there never was a question in the first place. I hope that the fact that existentialism exists means that our brains and thought-processes are evolving, and that one day, we will no longer need meaning imposed on our lives, but will be able to live meaningfully from the inside out.

  125. 138

    Adams was right because the answer will not be found by humans, and when humans do actually get ‘the answer’ it will not make sense to them. So it is not that there never was a question, the question is just devoid of value of any kind.

  126. 139

    This is an interesting question, and I wonder if my own story might not give a hint as to what is to come.

    I a in my late thirties and grew up in New York City. I had a keen interest in science from an early age thanks to Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ and David Attenborough’s ‘Life On Earth.’ This interest was encouraged by my relatively progessive family, and so even though we were nominally Jewish (I was Bar Mitzvahed), it never occurred to me to take any of of the religious texts as being anything other than allegorical. I didn’t come across the concept of Creationism until we read ‘Inherit the Wind’ in junior high, and my reaction was more of a “Wait… people actually BELIEVE this stuff?” If asked about my religious beliefs until high school, I might have claimed to be some sort of fuzzy deist.

    That changed when I got to college and found people were a little more aggressive about their religions, to the point that they might be really in-ypur-face about it (particularly humanoid androids sent by the Campus Crusade for Christ). I dabbled in New Agey nonsense while in college, but that was mostly in a largely unsuccessful campaign to get laid. At one point, a friend of mine actually asked me to define what my faith was, and I had to say that I didn’t have one. It wasn’t a big “eureka” moment or anything, it was just the first time that I had articulated it to another person.

    I haven’t really had much of an issue in my personal life because of my atheism. Much of this comes from living in a big coastal city like New York, where there is so much diversity that nonfaith is often accepted. Everybody I know is aware that I’m an atheist, including my family. I read about what other people have to go through just for being sensible and I am very grateful for the advantages I have had, but hopefully as time passes and secularism becomes more common, more experiences will be as relatively painless as mine was.

    Travelers coming to New York City: forget Times Square (you can just stay home, watch ‘Blade Runner’ and suck on a car tailpipe for almost the exact same experience), put the Broadway show on the backburner, make sure first and foremost that you spend a day in the American Museum of Natural History.

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    Well I live in France, but I don’t think the French example is very meaningful here nor comparable in any way to the path the US will hopefully follow toward agnosticism, as France went through a revolution 220 years ago where priests have been condemned for deceiving the people and collaborating with the nobility, and as a result emprisoned, exiled or beheaded, as Church property was confiscated by the State. Those were rough times.

    Even though a strong reaction followed, and Napoleon 20 years later was still crowned by the Pope, a lot of this spirit I guess remains in the French culture.

    In any case most believers here tend to be very discreet about their beliefs, being afraid of being made fun of or regarded as naive and slightly retarded. Those who publicize their faith either belong to the minority hardcore type, or admit a belief in some sort of “higher being” that will welcome them in the afterlife, with little impact on their day to day life. A politician claiming to follow the Word of God would immediately cause an uproar of laughter.

    Hopefully the US will get there without having to behead televangelists 🙂

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    It was tough not knowing what the other options were. I think the soul was actually one of the first things that I questioned, leaving open the deist sort of god, and then I moved on to realize that I didn’t believe in god at all. Then I was confronted with all of these open questions about death and consciousness and meaning that god had never really answered but were now shockingly devoid of any ideas (or so I thought). The big change that I’m waiting for is when it becomes normal for people of our culture to believe in naturalism or physicalism right from the start and for spiritual and supernatural thinking to be abnormal and unusual.

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    To answer the question, I think it will become easier, but not quite as easy as other accepting other ideas like purposelessness.

    The one thing that tripped me up as a teenager and kept me from fully committing to atheism was a sense of dualism. I couldn’t help but feel there was some self, not a soul, but an essence to my consciousness separate from my body. Then I learned more, found out there’s no evidence for such a thing, and got over it.

    But I think this illusion of a separate self is innate, it seems to be self evident. It’s like turning on a flashlight on a moving train. Intuition tells us the light should move faster than if the flashlight wasn’t on the train, but it doesn’t. Likewise, I think we have a sense of ourselves piloting our bodies like driving a car, and existing somehow separate from the body. I think as long as that sense is there, people will struggle to let go of the idea of an afterlife.

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    I read and thought my way out of theism in my early twenties. It was personally traumatic, with the most painful thing being the loss of a belief in an after life.

    I was utterly alone, and felt very odd and isolated. It would have been wonderful to have a group of peers that I could have slotted into for support. How things have changed with the Internet! And even on campus, too.

    In my early thirties I did my first independent psychology research project (=dissertation in American English) on the psychology of belief change and loss as a kind of backwards way of finding out what made me different from the norm. I discovered I was not quite as odd as I had thought: there were others out there who had gone on a similar journey but, like me, had no-one to share this with.

    I described myself as an “agnostic” in the early stages when I was not sure quite what I believed any more. After that I just didn’t name the condition. I just said I had lost my religious beliefs. Period.

    I accepted the self-descriptor of “athiest” after reading Dawkins “The God Delusion” and shortly thereafter “came out” increasingly more boldly. By this time it was no big deal among my family and most of my friends. My mother had relinquished her religious beliefs several years before I had, my sister did not care, my best friend returned from a couple of years of postgrad education in Britain with a similar reaction against her earlier religious beliefs and my husband had never been brought up to believe in a god.

    Our son has grown up without a strong religious indoctrination. Although we were not able to protect him from the attempts of others to achieve this we considered this to be part of his general education and countered by pointing out that various people believed all kinds of things about gods and spirits and that some people, like ourselves, did not believe in any of them. We allowed him to identify as an atheist at the age of 16, at which stage we became increasingly open about your own unbelief and the reasons for it.

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    P.S. The findings from my study of people who had been devout Christian Union members some 10 years earlier was that a non-dogmatic and non-conservative personality was a necessary but not sufficient condition for religious belief change, and that non-conservatism was necessary but not sufficient conditions for religious belief loss. The missing ingredient was environmental influences, either educational, associative or traumatic.

    There are significant problems with assigning cause to correlations in cross-sectional retrospective studies of this nature. If I could find a university that would sponsor me (I am retired and have no money for such non-necessities in the USA) I would love to do some projective research on seminary students and other strongly committed theists to see if I could predict who would lose their beliefs and who would dig in more firmly in the succeeding years. If anyone has any ideas about how to get funding for such an endeavor pleas let me know.

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    I was born into a rather religious family, what with my brother being a priest and other brother and their wives all working in the field also. I also worked in christian youth groups and was a regular at the events and even ran a sportsclub for girls for the girls.

    At that time i didn’t really place much thought on the truth value of any of it, it was just the baground on which all of the things happened. After some time though I started thinking that all of this isn’t really right, paid closer attention to all of it and decided that it was most likely all horse-hockey. That inspired me to do some research on the web, where I ran into dear mr Hitchens, who then pretty much sealed the deal.

    After I came to that conclusion, most of the other, existential and otherways, issues just kind of fell into place naturally. Just a shift in paradigm. I logically sorted all the ones i could think of and ran into later, and pretty much just went “huh. so that’s how it is. Ok, i can live with that”

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    I guess my atheism came gradually through childhood, though I did my best to believe in my adolescence. Try as I might I found myself unable to “feel the spirit” like those around me, though I now wonder if many of those “spirit filled” Christians really felt anything either. They certainly spent a good deal if their time talking about living the spirit filled life than actually doing it.
    Because of what I saw in their lives I felt no great sense of loss when I finally let go if any desire to be filled with the loving spirit if some super nosey uber-grandfather in the sky.

    The more interesting thing for me is watching my own children and their growing understanding of the world and the people in it.
    My kids were, of course, born atheists, as are we all when it comes down to it. The difference for them and their upbringing as opposed to my own is that no one is trying to change them INTO believers.
    In fact, my kids have a hard time wrapping their wee heads around the idea that some people, including adults, actually believe that talking to an imaginary friend is going to change a damn thing. They see going to church to pray for god’s help with some problem as whining in an empty room. (actual comment from 6 year old daughter). They cannot comprehend how praising “their carpenter god who got himself nailed to a tree” is going to do any good, because “he wasn’t much of a god then was he?!”

    Raising my children without belief is made very easy living in New Zealand, a predominantly secular country, but I hope that even here, things will get easier with each generation. Perhaps the thing that will help most is that raising children WITH belief will get harder. More atheist in a community make it harder for believing parents to hide the truth from their children.

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    I’m a second generation non-believer. My father is as well, and my mother was raised Catholic but left as a teenager. Although I grew up in the US, I was barely exposed to religion as a child and I didn’t have a good friend who was religious until my late teens. For me, it already is easy, and the potential for discrimination in my own life is more an annoyance than a fear.

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    Your point about existentialism being an idea that was already part of society when we were growing up and therefore easy to understand/deal with for us makes sense to me. Atheism was like that for me.

    I was raised in a ‘culturally Muslim’ household, which means that you while we were told Biblical/Koranic stories, told about the basic tenets and rituals of Islam (as practiced in my household/social group, of course – as with most things, these aren’t all universal), we were expected to grow out of it around the same time we realized Cinderella and Rumplestiltskin weren’t real. Fear of god was never the reason to do things, basic decency and self-respect were the thing. Belief in god and rigid religiousness (religiosity, really) was seen as pretty backward and old fashioned if not silly, hence the view of it as something children grew out of eventually.

    I call myself an Atheist outright, but my family mostly identifies as Muslim by default and I understand that as referring to our history, literature and culture, not religious practice (much like familiarity with the Bible and other mythologies enriches one’s understanding of a lot of Western literature and culture). The only thing I can point to that is overtly religious in any way is the marriage contract (not the ceremony – that’s local) and how I expect to bury my parents, both of which are pretty practical.

    I do think it’ll be easier for cultural Christians to come to atheism in the coming years. I think it’ll be harder for Muslims though, mostly because of the pressure that world politics puts on them. It’s a bit of an emotional minefield – de-identifying with a group that’s being picked on, even if it’s for your own reasons, can make you feel like the proverbial rat leaving the sinking ship, and raise a whole bunch of issues that have more to do with racism than with your position on the existence of a deity. Because it’s no longer just about whether you believe in Allah or not – I know lots of people who identify as Muslim who don’t. If I had kids, I think I’d have a harder time sorting out questions of belief and identity than my parents and their parents did.

    So yeah, easier for some people, definitely, and a lot harder for others, for pretty much the same reasons.

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