Coexisting phases of atheism

As I’ve said before, I’ve been an atheist ever since I had the abstract thinking skills to form a coherent opinion about it. However, the way my atheism manifests itself has gone through several distinct stages throughout my life — already! (I’m only in my twenties.)

As a child, and pretty much up through high school, I was in what I’ll call my “let’s all get along” phase. I thought of religions as traditions that different people followed, and although I didn’t personally find any value in following any of them, I was really bothered by the idea that some people were willing to kill other people simply because their traditions were the “wrong” ones. If you asked me about a particular religion, I’d probably tell you I thought their beliefs were false and rather silly, but some part of me found a kind of poetic beauty in religious practice anyway. I almost wished I was Jewish (I really liked the story about Abraham arguing with God as well as the melodies of Hebrew prayers). Others’ questions about my religious beliefs were usually met first with an explanation of Unitarian Universalism, followed by an admission that I didn’t believe in any gods myself but didn’t begrudge others the opportunity to do so if that was their preference. My primary concern was religious freedom — both in the sense of freedom from religion for myself and other nonbelievers, and in the sense of free exercise of all religious faiths.

I don’t remember exactly when or how the transition happened, but definitely by the time I got to college I was pretty angry about religion. We’ll say this is the “anti-apologist” phase. Somehow, it finally occurred to me that there were people out there who genuinely, truly believed that the earth was less than 10,000 years old, that Noah really put two of every animal on his ark and the entire planet was flooded, that women should not be allowed to go to school or even drive a car, that members of slightly more lax sects of their own religions should be spat upon and attacked in the streets. There were people who wanted to make sure that children were not taught about evolutionary biology, despite the mountains of evidence for it, and instead demanded that their Bronze Age superstitions be presented as literal fact. A religion wasn’t just a bunch of pretty traditions anymore; it was actually a set of factual claims that ought to be treated as such. Yes, there were (and are) more liberal religious people, but in this phase they frustrated me more than they reassured me. They were playing along with the whole sham, believing the parts that seemed nice while ignoring the other parts, with no more actual evidence to support the nice bits than the discarded ones … all the while propping up the numbers of their religion, helping the zealots’ case appear stronger. I would go out of my way to ask religious people why they believed what they believed, and I was happy to invest a lot of time and energy debating them on those reasons (provided they could come up with any). My primary concern was helping religious people see that they were mistaken in their beliefs, so they would stop doing all the terrible and stupid things they do in the name of those same beliefs.

The third phase of my atheism comes with being bored and dissatisfied with these debates. It can be incredibly draining arguing with someone who will never, under any circumstances, change their mind or even admit you’ve made a decent point. Even the religious people who are nominally interested in having “challenging” conversations are so entrenched in their mythologies, so insulated by centuries’ worth of carefully crafted excuses, that it’s difficult to get anywhere with them. And it certainly looks more and more appealing to set all that aside, surround myself with atheists and apatheists, and focus on what we as pragmatic, critical thinkers can accomplish together. I’d characterize this by a sort of “what now?” attitude. Now, I don’t think I’m entirely within this mindset (yet?), but rather oscillating between this and the previous one, spending slightly longer here with each swing. It’s this paradigm, though, that leads me to identify with Atheism+. I don’t spend nearly as much time arguing with campus evangelists as I used to; instead, I speak frankly about how religion is irrational (when it comes up in conversation) and I channel that extra energy toward scientific progress (i.e., my degree) and a variety of other efforts to make the world a better place.

That’s a whole lot more navel-gazing than I usually engage in here, but I also have a larger point: there are a lot of different ways to be an atheist. I’ve only named three here, but I’m sure that’s not exhaustive. (Tell me what you’d add, in the comments!) Even when I look back on perspectives I’ve had in the past that I don’t currently identify with, I don’t feel like I was wrong then. It’s just that I had slightly different priorities. And it’s fine for one person at different times, or different people at the same time, to have different priorities. That’s how we, the atheist community, can pursue a wide variety of goals at once. We can work for religious freedom and tolerance, teach critical thinking and debunk superstition, and apply our rationality to other societal issues — all at once!

I wish atheists in one phase would more consistently acknowledge the value of people in other phases. Do your interfaith work, but don’t boost your credibility with your religious friends by distancing yourself from “those angry New Atheists.” Debate religious apologists, but don’t try to silence those atheists who want to talk about something else for a while. Work for broader social justice, but don’t belittle others who are focused on getting society to recognize “just dictionary atheism.” All of these things are worthwhile.

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  1. I’d add a few stages for de-converts.

    Fence-sitting: Realizing that at least some parts of religion are a sham, and maybe all of it is, but still finding enough value in religion to continue practicing it. May say that they are “kind of agnostic” or a “deist”, but aren’t ready to consider going farther than that.

    Denial: Refusing to admit to oneself that one’s belief is actually gone, and trying really hard to believe again. I’ve read stories of people praying harder than ever at this point, trying desperately to get back that warm comfy feeling of complete reliance on a god, or begging for just some sign from god that he’s not fictional. I’ve read about people plunging ever more deeply into apologetics than ever at this point, hoping that in arguing for the truth of their faith, that they will be able to convince themselves. I’ve seen internet commenters who appeared to be complete godbots come back later and apologize, saying that they were overcompensating for their own waning faith.

    Resentment: Recent de-converts are often furious at having been taken in by the scam. They resent the amount of time and energy and money they devoted to it. They resent how religion messed up their relationships, or spoiled their education, or ruined their self-esteem. is full of people at this stage, venting out all their anger over this sort of thing. (Kind of like Sally Brown hollering a Linus after she found out she missed trick-or-treat by sitting with him in the pumpkin patch.)

    I’m sure there are others, this is just what comes to mind right now.

  2. I recognize all of these in me, at one point or another, and many concurrently. I have learned and am still learning how to acknowledge that my view is not the only one out there. Good post.

  3. What I find is that Religion is perfectly rational.
    It is rational for thinking animals^h^h^hbeings to look for patterns and explainations in the world around them. For civilisation to occur, thinking beings must establish protocols of acceptable, or more correctly speaking, expected, behaviour.
    :. when civilisation does occur in some form I find it entirely rational that those beings would imprint themselves on the image of the larger universe, as this reflects the herd social instincts of their is a greater authority and it says I’m accepted and through that authority I have recognition and peerage in the order.
    This is pretty much explain why they kill each other over it too. It’s not just a battle of resources, or who has what book. It’s the fundamental herd mentality that sets the underlying value system for their entire being and self worth – in a sense to give alternatives to that greater being and the protocols that go with is to attack the very order of their society, and worse the validity of that authority which creates their self worth and their entire ordering of the universe. It would take a very grown mind to be able to stand alone through that.

    That’s why I try to shake those who are looking, to show them that “God” isn’t in religion, religion is a human invention, a brand. What most people call “God” is just a reflection of themselves and their needs.

  4. Here’s an amusing quote (paraphrased)… if God is omniscient, then God knows all things thus he can have belief but not faith. Therefore God must be an atheist 🙂

  5. To me the entire “New Atheism” seems like a kind of strawman argument. What is the significant difference of atheists before and after the advent of alledged “New Atheism”? I really can not see any. However, it seems to me that the concept is somehow trying to insinuate some form of negative resemblance to ideological movements, that have died out but have been resurrected by a bunch of fanatics. Are there actually religious people who think that atheism had “magically” disappeared and was somehow rehashed by vocal atheists of our day, or what is it referring to? Perhaps it is infact the opposite. That because of religions attempting to achieve their past political power has aroused the atheists in recistance to defend the secular world view. Most modern people (regardless of their personal faith) would choose to live in a secular society, rather than in a theocracy led by any religion, but sadly most adherents of most religions do not see that their “club membership” may be used as an excuse to drive ancient tribal moralism into modern politics.

    Anyway, I was born atheist. I am an atheist in the third generation from both sides. I was never taught to believe in any supernatural stuff, exept Santa when I was very little, but at best even that was just a game of makebelief with my parents. Kids are very eager to reveal this secret to each other. Hence, I have never made an aware choise not to believe. None of that stuff has ever seemed real to me.

    I am very interrested in cultural history and reasons for human behaviour. I am a simple fellow and that is reflected in my form of atheism. I do not believe any extraordinary claims without hard evidence and obviously do not take as evidence what most often seems to be sufficient to the religious people. The more I learn about religions, the more absurd they seem to me. It is like their surface image is polished for the common man to accept them, but further down the apologetic path, there are even wilder claims and more unethical stuff.

    I have had different phases with my interaction with the religious people, but I rather see them reflecting the different phases of my personal development, than to be actual phases in my atheism. Living in a society where religion has historically strong cultural influence, but where it has lost most its political potency, atheism is still one of the things that define me as who I am. But only one little aspect of who I am.

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