When you grow up in a conservative Christian household, and believe for a quarter-century in God’s existence and the resurrection of and salvation through Jesus Christ, you never suppose atheism might be in your future.
Atheism is an idea, a thought: “It seems more likely God is fictional than real.”
I never expected this thought to come along, because, after all, how can you predict your next thought? Or contain it? And after you’ve thought it, how can you “unthink” it?
Christians, my former self included, tend to believe people leave faith behind either A) because something horrible happened to them and they can’t understand why a loving God would allow that or B) because they wish to live a life of “sin”–usually meaning enjoy sex, drugs, or alcohol–without eternal consequences.
A third option is less comfortable and is largely ignored: that someone might simply conclude the arguments for disbelief are more convincing, more reasonable, than religious arguments.
A great deal of thought and reading comes before that conclusion. Obviously, you have to investigate and consider specifically why atheists suppose there is no God–you may have to read some books that will make your pastor go ballistic. This process, for me and I’m sure many others, was long–it took years. This is unlike A or B above, which can likely happen quickly by comparison.
Note that in all three scenarios Christians point to lack of faith as the principal cause. If you’d trusted God’s plan, you wouldn’t have abandoned faith when your spouse died. If you’d been a stronger Christian, you wouldn’t have traded God for sex. Sometimes friends tell me I must not have been a true believer if I was convinced by atheist arguments.
Considering under that premise there’s no way to prove you were a true believer before any of those things occurred except by not becoming an atheist (and preventing such a conversation from ever taking place), there is little one can say in response. Telling people about the nonbelievers I tried to bring to Christ in my youth, or my study of Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, C.S. Lewis, Paul Little, etc., doesn’t convince them of my former piety.
Before one decides it’s more likely man created God, rather than the other way around, there has to be a moment where one changes in some way, becomes open to change.
I don’t mean to insult people whose road to atheism started in a different way than mine. There surely are many who, after losing a loved one or deciding they didn’t want to live by the moral codes of primitive Middle Eastern tribes, started investigating the arguments for disbelief seriously. But in my case, it was a simple crumb of knowledge that started me on a journey.
I was in graduate school at the time. I remember the book, and the two short sentences presented in such a causal, side-note sort of way, that heralded a metamorphosis. It was The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, a famous evolutionary biologist, though the book explored how racism affected scientific findings of the past few centuries.
Gould was, for whatever reason, discussing archaeology in Egypt:
The tombs also contained blacks and Caucasians. [Samuel George] Morton dated the beaching of Noah’s Ark on Ararat at 4,179 years before his time, and the Egyptian tombs at just 1,000 years after that–clearly not enough time for the sons of Noah to differentiate into races.
Something in my mind clicked.
It was as if a gear, never used and covered in dust, began turning. I remember frowning, not in discomfort but in amazement, and I began to ponder.
Could one family incest its way to multiple races in a millennium? Wouldn’t that take longer? Maybe Christian teachings are wrong and the human race isn’t 6,000 years old, as scholars mapped out using bible characters beginning with Adam. Maybe the flood occurred 10,000 years ago. Would that give Noah’s sons enough time?
And worse: If there isn’t any flexibility with the age of the human race, did the flood even happen?
Conflict had struck. Were the human race so young, different ethnicities seemed unlikely to me. That would require procreation and evolution at a rate that would make Darwin laugh in your face (there are actually Christian scholars with Ph.D.s that still argue this is exactly what happened; their writings are…unconvincing).
I decided something was likely off. But if one story was wrong, which one? Was the human race so young and the flood story false? Or was the human race older and the flood story true? (My conclusion much later in life, that the human race was much older and the flood story false, was still not an option.)
I’ll let you wonder which one I settled on. That’s not the important part of the tale. In that moment, I did something I’d never done: I allowed a new idea to (ever-so-slightly) modify my religious beliefs. Generally, you’re not supposed to do this. Pastors like to say doubt is a good thing (“Even King David wrestled with doubt!”), but what they usually mean is doubt is a good thing if you end up right where you started. If your views don’t change.
It was possible Gould was lying or misinformed. Perhaps there never were multiple races discovered in Egyptian tombs; perhaps dating methods were (are) flawed and those mummies were enshrined much later in human history. Yet I imagined with enough serious investigation I would determine he was right.
In other words, I believed Gould. I found his view more convincing. He persuaded me not to take the flood story so seriously–to question it.
Atheism often begins not with despair or rebellion, but with questioning and critical thinking.
When I put down The Mismeasure of Man, I wasn’t an atheist. I honestly didn’t think that much of this event, instead comfortably absorbing a new idea, opening my mind to a new possibility, and then going about my business. I remained a believer in God for years. But something was different, as a seed of thought was planted: Perhaps I’m wrong.
That thought–such a simple idea–couldn’t have been predicted. Afterwards it could not be unthought. Inherent within it was the dismissal of blind faith. When you experience that (experience it seriously, not just saying “Hey, I might be wrong” as some Christians do who are completely closed to the possibility), you can’t “just have faith” anymore. Not when you suddenly realize you’re possibly–likely–wrong.
That’s the how. Why I became an atheist would include this tale of doubt and a million others, encompassing a multitude of later ideas: that if the horrific actions of God in the bible were attributed to Allah, Zeus, or Shiva, Christians would call that deity a monster; that many bible stories, such as the virgin birth of deities, are found in cultures that existed long before the Jews; that the story of Jesus, like many in holy texts around the world, could simply be a manmade myth; that “the existence, immensity, and complexity of the universe can only be explained by a designer” argument is weak because said designer, if he created the universe, would have to be even more immense and complex than the universe, and how is his existence explained?
Perhaps the two most significant ones would be, as any reading of history–no matter how subjective–would tell you, that human beings love to invent gods. Further, they love to attribute divine powers to religious leaders after said leaders die. These kinds of thoughts form the foundation of atheism: perhaps it’s more likely God is fictional, like so many millions of other gods.
It could well be that I’m wrong. Perhaps God does exist. As much as I doubt it, I remain open to the possibility.
Yet after reading the most thoughtful Christian apologetics and most thoughtful atheistic arguments, one stood out as more reasonable to me. That’s why I’m an atheist. Most Christians claim to understand atheistic arguments, and reject them, without ever reading a book, an article, even a single sentence by an atheist. Who’s to say you won’t find a book by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Dan Barker (a former pastor) in your hands someday? And find their arguments better? Even before that, who’s to say something won’t click for you, that new information won’t make you rethink long-held ideas?
Like me, you never know what your next thought will be.