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Dec 04 2011

Why I am an atheist – David Spero

Dave Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, posted recently over at Open Salon a copy of a letter he received from an atheist friend. The friend wrote the letter to his own 11-year-old daughter, who was “very upset about her father’s non-belief” — particularly his refusal to pray for her (something apparently advocated by the friend’s wife, who is a Christian).

I won’t comment on a family situation I know next to nothing about, but it did remind me of the very issue that began the unraveling of my own faith: prayer. About 20 years ago, I was on a path to ministry. I was in the middle of co-founding a fellowship organization on my college campus and had just finished drafting the group’s constitution (as required by the school to be an official student organization and thus receive activity funds) when I had a moment of clarity while praying for guidance. Yes, I appreciate the irony.

The path I was on would have led me to fervent proselytizing. I was 19 years old, post-Catholic and in training to present the Word to non-believers. I studied the Bible with an ordained mentor and doggedly researched apologetics. I was going to provide irrefutable answers in defense of Christ in debate.

But there were no irrefutable answers.

I decided to keep on it — after all, I was just getting started and I had faith more would be revealed as I continued in my studies. But each revelation was more suspect than the last. Every question I had was answered with circular reasoning (e.g., why believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God? Because the Bible says so.). Finally, while praying to understand God’s will, a giant hole ripped in the fabric of my belief: Who am I praying to? Why? Why does God require me to pray when he is supposedly omniscient? What does that say about the nature of the god I’m praying to?

The God I believed in was supposed to be perfect. Too perfect, in fact, for mortal minds to fathom. Ultimate love. True goodness. Omniscient. Omnipotent. Omnipresent. The whole nine yards and then some. Whenever something about God didn’t make sense to me, I countered myself by saying my definition of God must simply be too narrow. But because of that, God soon became just an infinitely broad but paper-thin abstraction. It was then a very small step to the realization that the concept of a personal God was absurd. Eventually, I came to understand the fallacy of the “God of the Gaps“. There was no chance I’d turn to another religion; it was clear they’d all fail the litmus test instantly.

I claimed to be an agnostic throughout my 20s. I left open the door to the idea of a higher power but, again, was pretty sure the matter was too complex to be comprehended. It wasn’t until my 30s that I faced the issue head on and realized I had been making the same weak excuses.

A sequence of events and introspection ultimately left nowhere for my intellect to hide. Once I allowed myself to practice skepticism honestly, the absurdities appeared everywhere I looked. There was no God. And it quickly became clear that many of civilization’s messes — either directly or indirectly — were catalyzed by some form of religion. My eyes were opened, and I was faced with one big question: Now what? It didn’t take long to understand that the only sane response to an insane world was to roll up my sleeves and try to make it a better place. All alternative responses were (and remain) unacceptable. Ultimately, I discovered my ideals matched those of organized Humanism.

So yes, you could say that prayer accidentally provided me with guidance. It was exactly the spark I needed to put me on the right path.

David Spero
United States

32 comments

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  1. 1
    musner

    This is excellently done, thanks for telling your story in such a well-written and concise manner.

  2. 2
    humanape

    The path I was on would have led me to fervent proselytizing. I was 19 years old, post-Catholic and in training to present the Word to non-believers.

    You almost became an annoying pest but after using logic and common sense you decided to become normal instead. Way to go. If only a few million other victims of religious indoctrination had what it takes to live in the 21st century instead of the Dark Ages.

    Human Ape

  3. 3
    Inaji

    Excellent essay, David. Thanks for sharing. Back in my Jesus freak days at Calvary Chapel, I was on a similar path to yours and might have stayed except for one little thing – I couldn’t get a good answer to “is fear of going to hell a good reason to believe in God?”. Things God went tumbling down from there.

  4. 4
    Glen Davidson

    You just didn’t have enough faith, or you would have understood that religion…isn’t about making sense.

    Oh, you did understand that, hence you’re out? Nevermind.

    Glen Davidson

  5. 5
    rikitiki

    Good for you, David. Yeah, once a person really scrutinizes the house-of-cards honestly, it starts getting wobly. Asking questions really is the bane of religion — you’ve gotta have FAITH!!

  6. 6
    jacobfromlost

    This is very interesting. It seems to me that prayer is just a precursor to the ability to actually think through a problem to a solution. When people pray, they have no idea how to solve some problem because, if they did, they’d be thinking about how to solve it prior to and during their actual act of solving it. Since they don’t know how to solve the problem, the only thing they know is what the problem is and what a solved state looks like, but not how to get from problem to solution. So their brain just keeps feeding back on itself–solve, solve, solve, solve.

    Of course, if the problem is that there is no evidence for god, the solution becomes obvious. Stop praying and study problems that can be studied, analyzed, understood, and solved. The less time you waste hoping, wanting, and praying, and the more time you spend studying and understanding the nature of real problems for which there is objective evidence, the more often you will solve problems instead of just hoping they go away on their own (and if any problem ever DOES go away on its own, even if that is only 1 in 100 times, or even if it DIDN’T go away on its own and some thinking person solved it, we can say prayer “works” and not ever bother with the hard work of thinking ourselves).

  7. 7
    otrame

    Excellent essay, David. I was especially taken with this:

    But because of that, God soon became just an infinitely broad but paper-thin abstraction.

    I think a lot of people do this. In my opinion, the difference between you and those who prattle on about “sophisticated theology” is that you were an intellectually honest seeker of truth. At the most charitable, they are seekers of Truth, and not all that intellectually honest, at that. Because if you are intellectually honest, that paper-thin abstraction will (sooner rather than later) rip apart.

  8. 8
    'Tis Himself

    Thank you for the essay, David.

  9. 9
    raven

    I always call prayer “pretending to talk to nonexistent Sky Fairies.”

    Why bother? If god is omniscient, he already knows what is going on and so do the guardian angels. Why are there billions of angels flying around if they don’t actually do anything? Talk about make work.

    Besides which, what is god supposed to do or is he alleged to do? I’ve seen family members, friends and pets die of old age or one thing or another. If god can turn a 92 year old back into a 20 year old, no one has seen it yet.

  10. 10
    'Tis Himself

    To expand on jacobfromlost’s post #6, there’s some other points about prayer.

    Supposedly The Big Guy In The Sky™ has “a plan” and sticks to this plan closely. Often prayer is asking TBGITS™ to change the plan and instead do something else. As David points out in the OP, TBGITS™ is omniscient. He knows what folks are praying about and whether or not he’ll deviate from the plan. So why bother to pray? TBGITS™ will grant the prayer or not, depending on whim. Essentially this type of prayer is a combination of asking TBGITS™ to change his mind and giving him a blow job massaging his ego. If he does change his mind, then the blow job massage was good enough. If he doesn’t change his mind, then the plan was too important to change.

    One other thought about prayer. It’s a magical incantation to a magical creature. But Christians are supposed to be anti-magic.

  11. 11
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    So yes, you could say that prayer accidentally provided me with guidance. It was exactly the spark I needed to put me on the right path.

    Love this.

    Fabulous essay, David.

  12. 12
    Gregory Greenwood

    @ David Spero;

    As otrame points out @ 7, you had the intellectual honesty to look objectively at the weird rationalisations of a faith that posits an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent god and then claims that you have to pray to it in order that it can ‘hear’ you, and who is supposedly ultimately good despite all the suffering that, one assumes, it is supposed to either allow to go on in the world or actually orchestrates itself – the old problem of evil – and you saw that it made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Then, rather than go through increasingly ludicrous contortions in some kind of apologetics gymnastics that we see all too often here, you simply walked away from the whole mess.

    You have written a fabulous post that will resonate with a lot of former theists. Well done.

  13. 13
    coralline

    I want to echo the observation that this:

    God soon became just an infinitely broad but paper-thin abstraction.

    is spot-on, and a fine phrasing!

  14. 14
    Gary Hill

    Enjoyed your essay David, especially

    “when I had a moment of clarity while praying for guidance. Yes, I appreciate the irony”.

    I’m surprised at how many ex-believers have had ‘zen-like’ experiences leading to atheism when performing the rituals of their religion. It makes me wonder if there aren’t actually more like you who find it too uncomfortable to pick up the ball and run with it, as you have?

  15. 15
    TimKO,,.,,

    The irony of prayer: the belief that you are powerful enough to change god’s mind would mean you are more powerful than god and therefore at least as worthy of worship as the Abrahamic god. When I see people pray in public I like to feign worship of these powerful creatures that can change god’s mind.

    @10
    “But Christians are supposed to be anti-magic.”
    They’re also supposed to be monotheists yet they profess belief in several equally powerful supreme beings (and hundreds for Catholics).

  16. 16
    Jack Krebs

    I liked this one – good, clearcut essay. And yes, prayer seems to me to be a problem: either it is, as David says, sort of meaningless in respect to an omniscient deity who already knows all about the situation, or else an act of subservience that is too petty to expect of such a deity, which is all a part of the whole “I’ll only listen to you/save you if you act a certain way towards me” deal.

    The broader issue is that it’s hard (impossible) to reconcile the idea of a truly omni-everything deity with all the the narrow prescriptions and dogma that supposedly goes along with believing in him.

  17. 17
    echidna

    It makes me wonder if there aren’t actually more like you who find it too uncomfortable to pick up the ball and run with it, as you have?

    I know two ordained priests, one RC the other Anglican, who have left the ministry for reasons of intellectual honesty.

  18. 18
    echidna

    Very, very nice essay.

  19. 19
    Balstrome

    I take it that everyone has noticed the common traits, studying the bible makes one an atheist. And all those people who go to church bible study groups, well I think there is a lot of glossing over stuff and cherry picking. It’s knowledge that is the killer of religions, sheep and flock are good descriptions for the followers of religions.

    I made a fb post a while back, if studying the bible does not make you an atheist, then you are not studying the bible properly.

  20. 20
    Inaji

    mikede fleuriot:

    And all those people who go to church bible study groups, well I think there is a lot of glossing over stuff and cherry picking.

    While that’s true in many cases, it doesn’t cover all. I studied the bible, intensively, for well over 5 years, cover to cover, more than one language, more than one translation.

    Yes, I had problems with a lot of what I read, but there are always handy dandy answers for any doubt and you believe because you want to believe. Eventually, the doubts brought about by my study got noisy and wouldn’t go away, but it took quite a while for that to happen.

  21. 21
    federicobar

    Excellently phrased! And I also love the comments posted.
    Last week, an acquaintance of ours spent the night and the following morning in a hospital after a car accident. All that time, my family members and many other Catholic relatives and neighbors (I am not even a believer) kept recommending each other to maintain a chain of prayers. The lady died, and I would have liked to ask everybody why God had not fulfilled their sincere wishes. I did not, knowing that no one will even consider abandoning that absurd habit.-

  22. 22
    federicobar

    Excellently phrased! And I also love the comments posted.
    Last week, an acquaintance of ours spent the night and the following morning in a hospital after a car accident. All that time, my family members and many other Catholic relatives and neighbors (I am not even a believer) constantly reminded each other to maintain the chain of prayers. The lady died, and I would have liked to ask everybody why God had not fulfilled their sincere wishes. I did not do that, knowing that no one will even consider abandoning that absurd habit.-

  23. 23
    Wishful Thinking Rules All

    Nice essay, better than most!

    As for prayer, the “sophisticated” Christians, the ones who claim prayer isn’t about getting rewards/answers/help, ignore their Bible. I ain’t no biblical scholar, but it is pretty damn clear in there. In any case, prayer pisses me off, because it makes sitting on your ass and doing nothing a virtue. Take it away jacobfromlost:

    The less time you waste hoping, wanting, and praying, and the more time you spend studying and understanding the nature of real problems for which there is objective evidence, the more often you will solve problems instead of just hoping they go away on their own…

    Word. Funny this is coming from you, as you’re named after a god-like character.

  24. 24
    pokealot

    David,

    Even though you have made the transition from Christianity to atheism, one thing has stayed constant — your need to convince people you are right.

    There is nothing wrong with that though. It’s even kind of fun. However, I think you are just as wrong now as you were then, maybe even wronger.

    And now for an experiment:

    Go to google.com and type in the search phrase “why does” but don’t press enter. Instead take note of the search phrases that are suggested because of their popularity.

    Now type the search phrase “PZ Myers is” and check out those suggestions. Trust me, you don’t want PZ as your role model.

  25. 25
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    Pokesheadupass, you are an obsessed little turd nugget.

    Answer this question and for a change, be honest. Did David Spero say a thing about PZ being his role model? Or that is was PZ that influenced him in becoming an atheist?

    I think you are making shit up again.

    Stupid spleen weasel.

  26. 26
    John Morales

    [meta]

    pokealot:

    Trust me, you don’t want PZ as your role model.

    Such insecurity, such projection!

    Bah.

  27. 27
    raven

    troll:

    Even though you have made the transition from Christianity to atheism, one thing has stayed constant — your need to convince people you are right.

    Assertion without proof. It is also wrong.

    lying troll:

    Now type the search phrase “PZ Myers is” and check out those suggestions. Trust me, you don’t want PZ as your role model.

    Who says PZ Myers is his role model. David Spero didn’t. You just lying.

    Who wants a hate filled, lying moron troll like poke for a role model? Not many. Creeps like him and the fundies were why I dropped out of xianity after nearly 5 decades.

    Role models like poke are why xianity is dying, killed by the fundies. Last year 1.5 million members left the US religion.

  28. 28
    raven

    dumb christofascist troll:

    And now for an experiment:

    Here is a better experiment. Find a typical fundie xian troll. Like poke.

    Note that they hate and lie a lot. They are stupid and ignorant. They and their perversion of xianity are evil.

    Do you want to be like them? Millions of people a year say no.

  29. 29
    Worldtraveller

    Funnily, doing pokesheadupass’ ‘experiment’, the first hint is PZ Myers Islam. :)

    Not an epic fail, but a fail nonetheless.

  30. 30
    thunderbird5

    Cheers for that essay, David – excellent stuff, I enjoyed reading it.

    I think the babytroll is just jealous of you, quite frankly.

  31. 31
    David Spero

    Wow, I’m pretty stunned by the support! Thank you all (well, most of you anyway) very much.

  32. 32
    David Spero

    Oops. Comment 31 was from me. Don’t know why the system decided to identify me that way, but I fixed it in the profile.

    David

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