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.