How I became an agnostic


This is – very belatedly and with apologies for the long gap – the fifth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer (first an agnostic, ultimately an atheist).

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading, and my thoughts on the matter.

I wasn’t originally going to include either this or a post about how I moved from agnosticism to atheism, since I did write both those posts on my old blog, but then I decided that it would be good to have the whole story together in one place.

For those who haven’t read the previous posts, here’s the story so far: I’d spent a lot of time reading about why I should/shouldn’t believe in God, trying to make up my mind, but the arguments I read ranged from ‘inconclusive’ to ‘absolute rubbish’ and I was left feeling unable to reach any kind of sensible conclusion. This didn’t, as some believers would have it, mean that I was desperately searching to fill a God-shaped hole; I would have liked to be able to conclude that God existed (apart from any other considerations, it would have meant I could join a religion, which seemed to my lonely introverted teenage self to be a great way of finding instant community and the sense of belonging I craved), but I certainly didn’t feel my life would be meaningless without reaching that conclusion. I just felt it was something I ought to decide one way or the other. But none of the arguments I read were helping me do so.

And that’s where I was in my life when, browsing the shelves of the local library, I came across Yvonne Stevenson’s ‘The Hot-House Plant‘.

As I recall, it was in the biography section, not the religious section; I can’t remember why I looked at it. I guess the title must have caught my eye. The description, however, certainly did; Yvonne Stevenson was a vicar’s daughter who had written about her experience of converting from Christianity to atheism. That intrigued me, all right. Something had obviously led her to that decision; would her reasons be any help to me in my own?

No, as it turned out. But this book would still be the turning point in my search; my definitive ‘How I became an unbeliever’ moment.

Before I get to that, I’m going to switch genres for a moment into Book Review Mode, because, regardless of how it was to end up impacting my beliefs, this book was a joy to read. Yvonne Stevenson was a lively, irrepressible, strong-minded woman who threw herself into life and into her search for answers with engaging enthusiasm. It was quite an old book even then – Stevenson had been born in 1915, and was describing events in the first twenty-one years of her life, leading up to and following her conversion – but it was one of those delightful books that are timeless.

If Stevenson had lived a century later, she’d have become one of many bloggers telling similar deconversion stories. She grew up in a loving but strict Christian (Church of England) family, with a controlling father who encouraged her to think about her faith… as long as she was reaching the same conclusions as him. While she was happy with this situation for a long time, she came increasingly to question it as she grew older – and her questions weren’t getting satisfactory answers. Lost and seeking, she arrived at university and was initially shocked to meet an atheist for the first time. However, she was increasingly won over to her new friend’s worldview (which included Marxism as well as atheism) in a series of late evening discussion sessions. Eventually – to the fury of her family and her own great relief – she converted to those beliefs herself.

I loved the book (years later, I ordered a second-hand copy online just to have one for myself) but I also took its subject matter seriously and read it with the same careful analysis that I’d tried to bring to all the arguments I’d read – both pro and con – on the subject of belief. The questions Stevenson raised, the points her friend made – did they stand up? Or were there valid alternative ways to look at the issues?

In each case, unfortunately, the answers were ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ respectively. The pro-atheism arguments were interesting to read, but ultimately just as unconvincing to me as everything else I’d read. For one thing, a lot of them weren’t even directly about theism or Christianity as such -they were about the very rigid and classist form of Christianity with which she’d grown up, and, even as a teenager, I understood that I shouldn’t judge a whole religion by some of its participants and that her points, while very valid in their way, had nothing to do with the overall truth of Christianity. Even where the book did deal directly with the question of God’s existence, though, I didn’t feel any of her arguments were conclusive; I had little difficulty in thinking of counter-arguments. As much as I loved the book, I finished it feeling I had no more hard evidence for or against God’s existence than I’d had before I started it.

So, the book didn’t give me the Final Conclusive Argument on the matter for which I’d hoped. What it did, however, was to deal a knockout blow to the one teetering prop that had so far propped up my shaky such-as-it-was theism.

A key part of the book, you see, was Stevenson’s account of her actual conversion experience. As conversion accounts go, it was a good one. It was vivid, it was dramatic, it involved actual visions – including one of being born again – and it left her with a new, glorious sense of purpose and a life so joyously changed that she actually described her experience as seeing the world in colour and in three dimensions for the first time in her life. It was a conversion account so marvellously convincing that it would have done any apologetics book proud. Except, of course, for one little detail… this was her conversion to atheism. Her vision of being reborn (which she herself fully understood to be hallucinatory) was of being reborn as a child of nature and evolution, not of God; her joy and purpose were those of a person who has finally resolved a stressful dilemma and found a meaning that makes sense for their own life.

On top of that, there was her atheist friend’s excited comment on hearing the news: “It’s the most marvellous feeling, isn’t it, when you shake off Christianity? Everything comes alive! It’s indescribable. Like springing free from a great, heavy, black cloak that’s weighed you down.” (pp 157 – 8) Different vivid simile; same sentiment. Another person whose life had been left vastly happier and more positive by conversion… to atheism.

Under the circumstances, I felt it seemed quite fair to say that neither of these experiences could have been the work of God… which answered a key question for me. To recap something I wrote in the previous post in this series:

[T]here was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
And there, at last, was the answer: Yes, it could. This book had just given me clearcut, categorical evidence that it was perfectly possible to have a dramatic and utterly life-changing conversion experience for purely innate psychosocial reasons, without a deity being involved in it at all. I still couldn’t prove that God didn’t exist; but I’d just been left without any convincing remaining evidence that He did.
So I took the obvious route and started seriously considering atheism.
I rapidly realised something. During all the time I’d been considering the matter, while my conscious mind had been unable to decide, another and unrecognised level of my mind had always taken belief in God for granted. This had nothing to do with any genuine feeling of my own; it was the result of having grown up in a society where the prevailing message was that there was some sort of God out there, and of having internalised this and taken it for granted. While the logical part of my mind was analysing the matter, the part that went along unthinkingly with what I was told had accepted God as unquestioningly as it had accepted other beliefs. I found myself unable to look at the world around me without taking it for granted that there was a God behind it, like a presence behind a painted image. Trying to see the world another way felt not so much like an emotional wrench as like looking at an optical illusion and trying to make the mental shift from seeing it as two faces to seeing it as a candlestick.
So, I started focusing on trying to make that shift. Throughout my day, I practiced looking at the world and replacing my mental picture of a God behind it all with a mental picture of an absence behind it all; in what subtle ways would the world look and feel different if I believed there was nobody out there? It didn’t take very long; within a few days I felt I’d made the mental shift to seeing the world as one without a god behind it. The only thing was, this didn’t give me any more of a sense of ‘Aha! This way of looking at things is correct! I have found the right answer!’ than the background assumption that God was there.
Was there a god or wasn’t there? I thought over all the reading I’d been doing. All the inconclusive arguments, each one of which seemed to have its possible counter-argument. (The world must have been created by God – but what if it was actually created by some natural process that we didn’t yet know about? There was no sign of any Supreme Being directing human lives – but what if there was a Supreme Being who just didn’t direct human lives, for whatever reason? Round and round, on and on and on.) How long had these arguments been going on between humans? Centuries? Surely, if there actually was conclusive evidence on either side, the whole question would long since have been settled by now?
Finally I faced facts: If there was such a thing as conclusive proof that God did or didn’t exist, by this time I would have found it. We didn’t have such proof. I certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of it showing up at some unspecified time in the future, but what we had right then was what we had right then. Right then, we simply couldn’t prove the matter either way. There was, in short, only one sensible recourse; to become an agnostic.
And thus, with a sense of considerable relief at having resolved this, I became an agnostic. I would keep on actively searching for new arguments or evidence – but, in the absence of same, agnosticism seemed by far the most fair and sensible conclusion to draw on the matter. I was an agnostic, I was happy with that, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I would continue to define myself as an agnostic for the next twelve years.
To be continued…

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