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Why I am an atheist – Anonymous

I discovered I was an atheist when I was 18 years old, but it would probably be more accurate to say that’s when I discovered other people weren’t atheists.

I grew up in the midwestern USA in the 80′s. Nobody in my family ever mentioned anything about religion when I was a child. It’s not that anyone was against it, they just didn’t bring it up. I was generally aware that many of my friends and acquaintances went to church on a fairly regular basis, but they never mentioned anything about any god in my presence and I assumed that it was just a cultural habit they inherited from their parents, and if their parents didn’t attend they wouldn’t either.

Then, one year, I got invited to Christmas Mass with a good friend. My family always had a Christmas tree and exchanged gifts, but it was a completely secular affair. I’d never actually been in a church as anything other than a tourist looking at architecture, and I thought it would be interesting to see what happens in practice. The fact it was a Catholic service made it ever more interesting.

It was pleasant enough, and at times you could even call it uplifting. Even when I was there, however, I didn’t get the feeling anyone actually believed anything they were singing about, and even the priest seemed more of a philosopher than a theist. It was all exactly the sort of “be nice to each other” messages that I’d expected, and I didn’t hear much of anything that required any particular religious sentiment. There was obviously some readings from a bible that mentioned god and angels, but I took that more like a reading of poetry that was the cultural basis of all the “be nice to each other” songs and speeches. In other words, I managed to get through an entire Christmas Mass as an atheist without feeling out-of-place.

It wasn’t until after services that I started talking to my friend and found she genuinely believed in some kind of supernatural entity. By coincidence, quite a few other friends also started becoming more engaged with religion over the following year, and I discovered they all seemed to have a nonspecific belief that something supernatural is afoot. They were so vague on the details that I wasn’t entirely sure what it was they believed. They clearly had a firm belief in somebody named Jesus and that it was vitally important to believe he existed, but that was about the end of it. It seemed to be mostly that they enjoyed the sense of community they felt when they said and did the proper things, plus it was a security blanket to make them less afraid of death and the randomness of the world.

To this day, I’m still baffled how so many people claim to be Christian but seem to have no understanding of the basis of the religion they profess to embrace. I honestly think that the ranks of atheists are far larger than the statistics suggest. How can someone be religious when they have no understanding of their religious they profess to follow? Many people identify themselves as Jewish and openly treat it as a cultural/ethnic quality that no longer has any religious significance. For many people there’s no conflict in being a Jewish atheist because Jewishness has become a matter of heritage. Many Christians are the same, but they’re afraid to actual use the word “atheist”. With all due respect to folks like PZ and Dawkins, I also think that the increase in open atheism in recent years isn’t because people are actually changing their views, it’s because they’re realizing they never believed in their religion in the first place.

Anonymous

Comments

  1. Brownian says

    Many Christians are the same, but they’re afraid to actual use the word “atheist”. With all due respect to folks like PZ and Dawkins, I also think that the increase in open atheism in recent years isn’t because people are actually changing their views, it’s because they’re realizing they never believed in their religion in the first place.

    That’s probably true, and I don’t see that it disrespects the work of Dawkins and PZ in any way. That’s the whole point of the big red A: come out.

    But I can’t help but wonder at this point in the context of a WIAAA post by an anonymous writer. Is the author’s desire to remain anonymous related in some way to the cultural dominance of Christianity?

  2. cogito says

    Well said. I also think the statistics on belief underestimate the number of atheists, particularly in the US.

  3. says

    I also think that the increase in open atheism in recent years isn’t because people are actually changing their views, it’s because they’re realizing they never believed in their religion in the first place.

    I disagree. It’s that people are made aware that non-belief is even an option…one that for many of them better aligns with their ethics.

  4. says

    the increase in open atheism in recent years isn’t because people are actually changing their views, it’s because they’re realizing they never believed in their religion in the first place. –Atheist Anonymous

    Could be. A lot of it is really hard to take seriously, such as Adam and Eve and the flood and super-zombie Jesus, and the more one learns, the more ridiculous the other parts get, too. For me it was more of the realization that nobody knew much of anything about the origins of their religion that they were basing their most serious beliefs on, and a little exploration in the library led to massive doubt about all of it.

    That’s the whole point of the big red A: come out. –Brownian

    And I’ll happily add to this, speaking of origins, that the “scarlet letter of atheism” was a joint creation by PZ, Timonen, and Dawkins–brilliant minds all. I’ve recently updated the entry on New Atheism in the Pharyngula Wiki with information about that.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Could be. A lot of it is really hard to take seriously, such as Adam and Eve and the flood

    I was never taught to take this anywhere near literally.

    and super-zombie Jesus

    I was taught to take this literally – and I did. Few (though more and more) people are brought up without religion, and few of those manage not to notice that other people believe all the way till they’re 18!

    PZ, Timonen, and Dawkins–brilliant minds all.

    …notwithstanding the fact that the A is majorly ugly, and the fact that Timonen is among the most evil people this side of Enron.

  6. says

    …notwithstanding the fact that the A is majorly ugly,

    Perhaps the entry on it in the wiki should have a section for complaints, and maybe it needs to be toned down. Anyone can edit it if they are up to it.

    and the fact that Timonen is among the most evil people this side of Enron.

    B-b-but…. crocoducks!

  7. Die Anyway says

    > “that the “scarlet letter of atheism” was a joint creation by PZ, Timonen, and Dawkins”

    I was pleasantly surprised to see how many vehicles in my area were sporting the atheist A. My opinion of my fellow South Floridians was ratcheting up a notch until I realized that they were actually advertising the University of Alabama. I suspect that if I put a big, red, atheist A on my car I would hear “Roll Tide” more than anything else.

    In any case, much like the anonymous author, I’m convinced that many who call themselves Christians don’t really believe. C’mon. If you really, really, truly believed that the omnipotent, omniscient, creator of the universe had laid down some laws and would severely punish you if you so much as thought about disobeying… well, the world would be a different place that’s for sure.

  8. busterggi says

    “How can someone be religious when they have no understanding of their religious they profess to follow? ”

    My dear fellow, ignorance about the history of the evolution of their religion and the details of its changing dogmas are the main reasons they can profess to follow it.

  9. says

    I realized that they were actually advertising the University of Alabama

    So disappointing. I was thinking how devilish of me it would be to get one of those “BAMA” vanity plates and put an “O” in front of it, but I fear that would invite vandals to have a go at my vehicle.

  10. jaybee says

    Speaking only for the US, I think the statement that there are far more atheists than are acknowledged is half true. Unfortunately, the definition that atheists use for “atheism” isn’t the one that the other 95% of the people who don’t identify as atheists use.

    For them, “atheism” is an absurd position — to claim that one knows with 100% certainty that God doesn’t exist. Many people hide behind the label “agnostic,” thinking it is a reasonable middle ground between the kooks on either end. Even if they don’t believe in God in the exact same way I don’t believe in God, they would refuse to bear the label “atheist.”

  11. ramblindude says

    Nice, tame Catholic service, eh? Try going to a charismatic church sometime and watch them speak in tongues and weep for Jesus, or even a typical protestant church on a prayer meeting night when they cut loose with the prayer and the praising. Watch them work themselves into an orgy of ecstasy as they concentrate really hard on feeling the joy of groveling in servitude and adoration before their Lord and Master. It’s a surreal experience.

    It makes you realize that only rarely will arguing from facts and logic will ever dissuade the born-again crowd that their god is no more real than any of the others. They are addicted to this group elation, and it’s all the proof they need that Jesus is real and answers prayers.

    Sure, there are many within religion who have serious doubts and are even closet atheists, but there are also many who buy wholeheartedly into Christian fundamentalism in the USA.

    It’s what we’re up against.

  12. unclefrogy says

    Anonymous brings up an interesting point. I myself was not comfortable with the appellation “atheist” though for many years I did not believe in any supernatural being that should worship in any way, I do not think it unreasonable to consider the possibility that there might be some “being” as as advanced over us as we are of an earthworm but they would not be gods in the religious sense. I do not know of any so I just leave that idea alone but there is no gods but am still some uncomfortable with the word atheist I grew up in the U.S. during the cold war so that helps to explain it I guess.
    When asked I would avoid the word atheist and simply reply that I did not believe in any personal god being it still is very difficult. I really like these why am I an atheist posts.

    uncle frogy

  13. unclefrogy says

    I do realize that I actually wrote that on paper and submitted it it would return with many red marks. I do apologize that my thoughts and words sometimes get all jammed up in the doorway as it were and it comes out a little off, some words don’t make it all the way out and the order sometimes changes which I do not catch because I see what I thought and not what I wrote. I am trying but I have forgotten much it seems.

    uncle frogy

  14. raven says

    How can someone be religious when they have no understanding of their religious they profess to follow?

    That is so simple.

    1. They just make it up as they go along. Why not, it was all made up in the first place. All xians are cafeteria xians. Some just choose more palatable items than others.

    2. Or some just follow someone who made it all up as they went along. This is even easier. Just hand over your brain and freedom to some vaguely humanoid toad leader and then believe and do what they tell you. And oh yeah, send them lots of money. The all powerful god of the universe, or at least his self selected deputies, always seem to need money.

  15. RFW says

    @12 ramblindude says:

    Try going to a charismatic church sometime and watch them speak in tongues and weep for Jesus, or even a typical protestant church on a prayer meeting night when they cut loose with the prayer and the praising. Watch them work themselves into an orgy of ecstasy as they concentrate really hard on feeling the joy of groveling in servitude and adoration before their Lord and Master. It’s a surreal experience.

    Sounds like a rave to me. Do they add ecstasy to the bread and psilocybin to the wine? If not, they should, in order to have an authenticker experience.

  16. says

    @7 – they conveniently addressed that little puzzler by creating the torture Jesus to death get out of jail card. Now you don’t actually have to try to behave very well at all, so long as you *believe* the right thing and ask for forgiveness for your sins. If you can do that, why you can blow a gay hooker while high on meth and still be a good Christian!

  17. says

    Oh and busterggi, sounds like you aren’t familiar with how atheists define atheism. Sounds like you have the theist’s understanding of atheism, framed around how they understand their theism.

    Atheists do not posit that the cannot possibly be a God that exists. Atheists believe no credible evidence supporting the existence of a God has been presented, thus we do not believe God exists. If presented more compelling evidence, that position can be reconsidered.

  18. Azuma Hazuki says

    @barbyau

    In my experience, believers parse “agnostic” the way we mean “atheist” and “atheist” the way we mean “anti-theist.” Yes, it’s all down to ignorance but it helps explaining this to them.

  19. johnscanlon says

    Azuma,

    I thought “anti-theist” wasn’t the 100% positive position, but the one that says “If there’s a god, it’s the enemy.” Ethical, not ontological. Hitchens did it rather well.

    …But I guess that’s what a lot of believers are thinking when they say “Why do you hate Gawd?”

    Huh, maybe they’re not missing the point as much as I thought.

  20. stellai says

    I am a long time follower of this blog, but this is the first time I feel compelled to comment, because it was like the author ofthe post was telling about my own atheist experience. And I have a completely different background – I am from a former Communist country where atheism was supposedly the default mode. Religion was never discussed at home based, I believe, on the tacit acknowledgment that there is nothing to discuss. At school religion was regarded as a historical phenomenon and of course we were told it was “opium form the masses” (or sth), but these were that last years of Communism, so the messages were never too strident. But it made sense. So I was completely baffled when, same as the post’s author, I was 17-18 shortly after the fall of the regime when people started to come out as Christian. My best friend took me to a service at her chirch where, to my utter surprise, people were taking the whole thing completely seriously (!). To my mind, church going was a cultural / community thing, but to believe this obviously made up stuff… Anyway, not to make this an athist testimonial of my own, given that even in a country where you were not supposed to believe so many people did and had been believers all along, well, probably some people will just be theists regardless and the family’s upbringing matters more than what they tell you at school.