Why I am an atheist – Sarah Tullen

PZ- you asked us why we’re atheists. Well, I’ve never been anything but an atheist, so that one’s no great mystery and no great story, but I thought I’d let you know why I’m the kind of atheist I am today; an active, informed, out-spoken one rather than an apathetic “live and let live” one.

I have the great fortune to be one of the “never indoctrinated” among the atheists of today. I was born an atheist, and my parents simply never mentioned religion to me. I grew up in Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family, and I barely knew that religion existed. I recall once my mom explaining that “bless you” was a polite thing to say after people sneezed, and that saying “Oh my god,” could be offensive to some people, but never did she explain why.

With no preconceived notions about religion at all, I got to meander wherever my growth and development took me. I quite naturally prayed once when my hamster was lost- not to any god in particular, but just to the general universe. When I was five I was convinced that I could fly (probably from a dream) and when I was seven I thought if I found the right muscle to flex and focused on it very hard I might develop magical powers. My mind and imagination were given room to battle as I was allowed to explore within the confines of my own intellect, and I very naturally (and through much observation, trial, and error) developed a sharp sense of logic and a tendency to think critically about everything that was said to me. Regardless of where my mind went, I was never led there or pushed there; rather I got to evolve there as my brain and body grew. 

A defining moment for my atheism happened when I was 18. I don’t think I’d even heard the term atheist by that point, but I unabashedly was one, and was happy to discuss it, but I wasn’t bothered by the existence of religion and hadn’t given any particular thought to it. My best friend was a Mormon at the time (she later became an atheist), and that meant nothing to me, and neither did any other religion. It was about this time that my dad, who had drifted more toward new-agey, yuppee crystals, affirmations, and Deepak Chopra kind of hoo-doo, enrolled me and my brother in a program called Rising Stars. It was NOT a religious program, if that’s what you’re thinking, but it was every bit as illogical, irrational, and cult-like in its design, and I will never until the day I die stop seething about the fact that this program ever existed. I’d always been happy to argue and debate when people were willing, but Rising Stars is what convinced me that it’s important to openly challenge bad thought processes where you find them.

Rising Stars had several different programs you could enroll yourself in. We were enrolled in the teen program, which is designed to “de-program” teens and free them from their “social contracts” so that they can be free and live to their full potential, etc etc. Insert buzz words here. It was supposed to help teens open their minds and know themselves better, I guess. My dad had already taken an adult class and was very impressed, so, despite my skepticism (I was already happy, knew myself well, had no problem being myself around others, didn’t feel peer pressure, etc), he pushed us to do it, and I decided that it was just for a few weeks and I could do it since it made him happy. 

Our first day we all sat in chairs before a small stage and were compelled to walk up on the stage to tell the group why we wanted to be there. Not why we WERE there, but why we WANTED to be there, a subtle distinction that was obviously important to the directory, Dorothy. There were a couple stock answers, a few “I just want to know myself better” answers which Dorothy praised, and then a girl came up and gave the answer Dorothy was clearly waiting for.

“Why do want to be here?”

“I don’t. I’m here because my parents made me.”

Dorothy leapt upon this answer; she’d clearly heard it before. Are your parents here? No. Then they can’t be stopping you from walking out that door, can they? No. Well then, the only thing keeping you here is you, so you must be here because you WANT to be here! The girl didn’t know what to say…I’m sure it didn’t ring true- she could tell that she really didn’t want to be there- but this woman had talked her into a box! If she didn’t want to be here, then why hadn’t she left? Could it be that she really did want to be there? She didn’t know where to go next, and Dorothy, radiating satisfaction, invited the next teen up there with a little admonishment that none of us would be there if we didn’t want to be.

What a load of crap! When it was my turn I walked up and gave the already “debunked” answer…I didn’t want to be there. This lady actually smiled condescendingly at me and said “haven’t we already demonstrated that that isn’t true?” No actually, we hadn’t! She’d taken a confused, inarticulate girl and wrapped her in a thread of poor logic that she didn’t know how to work her way out of. I addressed myself to the other teens in the group rather than to her. They were the ones who needed help. 

“I love my dad. This program really means a lot to him and he wanted me and my brother to go through it, enough so that he was willing to pay for it. I’m here because he asked me to be here, but that’s not the same as wanting to be here.” I explained that when we love people we will often do things that we don’t want to do if it will ensure their happiness. “What’s stopping me from walking out that door? Not a desire to go through your program, but a desire to make my dad happy.”

It was the first time in my life I’d had to defend myself on anything, and under the pressure of being on the spot, in front of a crowd and before an increasingly hostile adult no less! I was pretty pleased to find out that I could articulate a thought in those circumstances. It seemed that not many people could. What I’d said made sense to the teens, and Dorothy couldn’t say anything against it. What was she going to say? No you don’t love your parents? No we don’t do things we don’t want to do out of love? She had nothing. After me, there were a number of kids who simply said, “yeah, what she said.” This woman did NOT like me after that.

So there was incident number one. There were several others over the next few weeks, and though I didn’t always win every battle, it gave me the opportunity to cut my teeth under fire. I never knew when I’d have to defend my position or argue against some terrible line of reasoning. Ironically, she used peer pressure against us, she locked us into OTHER social contracts (hilarious since we were supposed to be breaking free of those), she used logical fallacies to trap us, and even used music to manipulate our emotions. The constant sense of manipulation was the most irritating and let me to be critical and outspoken whenever I had the opportunity.

They gave us a partner and compelled us to make solemn vows to our partners that we would never miss a class or be late. Of course we got stuck in traffic one day, we were late, and we were confronted by our partners. They had been taken aside, asked how they felt that their partner had BROKEN A SOLEMN VOW, and generally coerced into feeling awful, and then they were sent to tell us how we’d made them feel. After talking to my partner for seconds it was apparent that he didn’t feel bad at all. We both recognized that it was a bogus vow in the first place, but he did beg me not to be late again so that he wouldn’t have to have “the talk” with Dorothy or her minions.

Once we were supposed to be talking with a partner about a time when we felt like a “victim” and one of her minions- a Rising Stars Teen Graduate just a year older than me- came over, interrupted me, and asked me why I couldn’t let myself be loved…that one allowed me my first chance to look someone in the face and tell them that they needed to leave, a thing I was just too polite to do in the past.

There were maaaany other stories, but my favorite came toward the end of the program: We were told that graduation was being held two weeks after the program ended, and of course we had been made to VOW that we would attend. Well, they had admitted a 12 year old boy from Arizona…the kid tried to explain that he was going back home next week and wouldn’t be there for the graduation. Dorothy fixed him with her condescending smile and asked him one of her “coup de grace” questions-

“If I kidnapped your mother, was holding her hostage, and told you that I would kill her if you didn’t get back here for graduation, wouldn’t you find some way to get here?”

Yup. That’s what she said. She went on.

“Wouldn’t you hitchhike or sneak on a plane, or find SOME way of getting here? Well then, it must be possible for you to get here. Therefore, you CAN be here for graduation.”

She told this freaking’ 12 year old to run away from home, hitchhike if need be, to get to this stupid graduation, get piece of paper, and then find a way to get back home, all to fulfill the piece of crap “promise” he had been forced to make.

I had no chance to confront this one, and I had no chance to confront Dorothy the way I wished I could have, but I was given a crash course like I’d never experienced in watching someone use terrible logic to manipulate people who didn’t know how to follow a line of reasoning, let alone articulate it. The seed of anger that was planted in that program has steeled me. Critical reasoning and communication are THE most tools the human race has, and if you don’t know how to scrutinize information, come to a conclusion and communicate your thoughts effectively, you’re making yourself vulnerable to logical fallacies and manipulation by others who will take advantage of that fact.

Now I’m 27, a music teacher, married, and about to become a mother (just 4 weeks!). My opinions about communication have helped make me an effective educator, and my beliefs about critical thinking help me always try to improve in all aspects of my life. Over the past several years I’ve started paying attention to politics, religion, and the world around me; I listen to podcasts, read articles, educate myself, listen to others, and constantly practice my skills at coming to a position on a subject and then articulating that position effectively.

The teacher in me makes me want to help others improve their communication and critical thinking skills too- I like to help the person I’m talking with articulate their thoughts so that we can both see step by step where their logic is strong and where it is weak. I use every tool at my disposal in communicating my thoughts and helping others to see my line of thinking. I use humor, logic, evidence, anecdotes, thought experiments, Socratic questioning, gentle nudging, biting sarcasm, innocent unobtrusive inquiry, etc etc, but I do not ever stop a conversation so long as I feel like effective communication is going on.

Speaking of which, I believe I’ve talked enough about myself now.

Sarah Tullen
United States


  1. says


    When I was reading your description of “Rising Stars,” I was reminded of my own similar experiences in “Lifespring.” The latter is/was an offshoot of EST (cue the screams of horror), and I wonder if the former was too.

    Ugh. What a mess.

    I’m so happy to hear that you took some major woocrap, learned actual useful skills and got something out of it. That’s a good lesson – no matter what the situation, I CAN learn something and grow stronger.

  2. Quodlibet says

    “I was born an atheist”

    As are we all, just as we are born ignorant of algebra, and musical notation, and how to bake bread. Religious “beliefs” are the result of indoctrination and teaching and modeling.

    I was raised in a mildly Christian family – my parents did not go to church because my mother was in poor health and my father was exhausted on Sundays after a horrific work week. But they made us go to Sunday School and Church. I don’t think I ever believed any of the stuff, but I liked singing in the choir. I confirmed my lack of religious sentiment, and rejected religion altogether, one Sunday when I was 12. It was Communion Sunday, and I was listening very, very carefully to the service, sincerely trying to make sense of what the minister was trying to convey as he spoke about the Last Supper, Christ’s sacrifice that we might be saved, etc. etc. As he referred to little cubes of stale white bread and supermarket grape juice as the body and blood of Christ, I thought to myself — and I remember this vividly — “This is just plain stupid!” And that was the end of that.

    Religion? It’s just plain stupid. Any honest, sane, minimally intelligent person who really thinks about it for more than about 30 seconds has to come to the same conclusion. Everyone else is lying.

  3. Cerus says

    Reminds me of an ultra-conservative christian bible camp I was made to attend at age 8, they were constantly squawking about “undoing the damage” of indoctrination (from non-christian interaction, meaning public education).

    I believe it’s the first time I recognized irony.

  4. Zugswang says

    I don’t care how long this was; it was an enjoyable read. I think a lot of us can relate to the anger and frustration of arguing with a person who condescends from a position of ignorance and authority, especially when they seem to take some bizarre sense of smug gratification from winning a rigged argument.

    Thanks for sharing, and good luck in motherhood. A fun tip for you: if you’re changing your kid’s diaper and you see any weird, bright colors in their poop, check to make sure (s)he hasn’t eaten any crayons before you rush to the emergency room. My friend learned that one the hard way.

  5. Dhorvath, OM says

    Yes! Oh, yes. That situation sounds infuriating, but I cheered for your responses. We all need those skills.

  6. raven says

    Sarah would have been better off being enrolled in a critical thinking course. As would everyone.

    One of my most valuable lessons in HS was a 1 hour impromptu course by a young teacher in critical thinking.

    He used commercials and slanted newspaper articles as examples. It is one of the few hours I remember.

    These are taught at some schools but not many. It annoys the other teachers and parents when kids start pointing out logical fallacies, tortured nonlogic, and asking questions.

    If god is the omni-benficial, all powerful creator of all, then why did he create satan, demons, and hell? Thanks great Sky Father in heaven. It’s not like we need help messing things up.

  7. nazani14 says

    I’d actually like to read the sequel to this adventure: What did your Father have to say about your experiences?

  8. Brian says

    That Rising Teens program sounds like they employed something similar to love bombing.

    Classic manipulation techniques on the part of cults. I also like how the teacher glossed over the bit about decisions made under duress and what not with her kidnapping example.

  9. tuckerch says

    That whole “Rising Stars” thing sounded like it should have been an episode of “Daria”.

    For myself, upon hearing the “There’s the door” comment, I would have said, “Really? Cool!” and that would have been the last Dorothy would have seen of me.

  10. Eric O says

    Awesome story, there. I’ve been in similar situations, and I regret to say that I caved under the peer pressure. Kudos for being so assertive; I’m sure that you were an inspiration to many of your Rising Star classmates.

  11. mikee says

    Thank you Sarah for an awesome story.

    You make it so clear why atheists have to stand up for themselves. Wonderful.

    It makes me so mad that these types of programme exist. Even if they do help create such wonderful people as yourself through “trial by fire” it angers me that there are probably so many teens who are mentally corrupted by such claptrap.
    Though I suspect your example probably protected some of your class mates – I am in awe of your strength at such a young age.

    Keep and the good fight, and I hope you find motherhood a wonderful experience.

  12. says

    Congratulations on your courage and clear thinking. It sounds as if the course helped you to inoculate yourself against further manipulation.

    I, too, am curious. Did you ever discuss the experience with your dad?

  13. DaveG says

    Distasteful as Rising Stars was, Dorothy clearly taught you something, but I think your response was atypical and comes from some rare strength* you have which I wish we could bottle and distribute.

    *The ability to take offense when someone tries to mindfuck you. Most people say thank you, more please.

  14. Starfia says

    Yay, Sarah! This is a refreshing column for anyone who has had the feeling of wishing they could have had quicker responses to curve balls like that. I hope it also helps clear up the misunderstanding that nobody is picking a fight with religion just because of some arbitrary grudge — it’s that people notice that so much of its schtick is comprised of these logical pretzels, and that it’s important to identify them. It’s refreshing and fun to identify them! And sometimes, you even help people in the process, like you did.

  15. fennekeg says

    very enjoyable read, thnx for sharing! when reading all those stories of people who had a christian upbringing i feel very priviliged to have had a childhood similar to yours. except the rising stars experience, that is. you did a great job there! i’m sure the other kids learnt more from you than from the ‘teachers’)

  16. says

    *The ability to take offense when someone tries to mindfuck you. Most people say thank you, more please.— #19 DaveG

    My personal goal is to go one further and not let the mindfucker get to me. I’d rather just say, “Thank you,” forget what the person said/did as quickly as possible, and get on with my day.

  17. Rey Fox says

    I’d rather just say, “Thank you,” forget what the person said/did as quickly as possible, and get on with my day.

    And let them get away with it and think it’s perfectly okay? Fuck that noise.

  18. Lee says

    Excellent article. Thanks, Sarah! It sounds like your experience may have helped vaccinate you against unreason in a very effective way. Years ago I had friends trying to lure me into Lifespring. I actually felt flattered by all the attention I got as I was surrounded by a group of BYU psychology professors who were gung ho into the program and trying to talk me into it. I felt no desire to go there, or even to reason out in detail why it was a bad idea. I guess I had myself been innoculated earlier on in life, and knew hokum when I saw it.

    I think the best lessons in life are sometimes learned in the worst environments. This makes me think of words by CS Lewis in That Hideous Strength (Lewis meant something quite different, I think, but the lesson still applies. Substitute the word “rational” for “normal”):

    “As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else – something he vaguely called the ‘Normal’ – apparently existed…. somewhere outside, daylight was going on at that moment… He was choosing a side: the Normal.”

  19. Mario says

    I loved this story! And “wow” is my first sentiment, too.

    But I have to wonder, given the critical life lessons you learned at the camp, are you glad you went?

  20. Jamie says

    This was an enjoyable read and one of my favorites. I really like these stories, and can’t wait for more.

  21. Crudely Wrott says

    Your story, Sarah, illuminates a fact that is lost on so many adults. That is that the mind of a child is sufficient to separate reality from fantasy. My story shares some qualities with yours. As a child I knew that I didn’t believe in magic. It was obvious.

    As bad luck would have it, as a young adult I left my childish wisdom behind and joined the gathering crowd. Much to my eventual dismay and misfortune.

    As good luck would have it, I hadn’t grown up enough for the mob mentality to establish a firm hold on my mind.

    For the last mumble years I have lived without the poor fantasies of adulthood.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us and good fortune to you and your little one who will soon draw first breath.

  22. Zmidponk says

    a girl came up and gave the answer Dorothy was clearly waiting for.

    “Why do want to be here?”

    “I don’t. I’m here because my parents made me.”

    Dorothy leapt upon this answer; she’d clearly heard it before. Are your parents here? No. Then they can’t be stopping you from walking out that door, can they? No.

    I wonder if they ever had any kids that went, “you know something? That’s a very good point”, then simply gone over to said door, and walked out.

  23. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I wonder if they ever had any kids that went, “you know something? That’s a very good point”, then simply gone over to said door, and walked out.

    At which point Dorothy says, “There goes a quitter. Nobody likes a quitter.”

  24. anthonyallen says

    Outstanding, Sarah!

    You sound like a teacher I wish had taught me when I was in school.

    Congratulations on your baby, and good luck on your new adventure!


  25. Tom says

    An interesting point, I think, to be derived here is that being able to handle and refute bad logic actually seems to be quite a distinct skill from being able to logically derive a position from agreed axioms, and a somewhat less common one at that. This is not least, I would imagine, because much bad logic seems to ultimately rely upon unstated, often contradictory axioms that, once one finally picks one’s way back to them through all the tortuous wreckage they’ve produced, turn out not to be mutually held.

  26. Anj says

    After reading the essay, my first question was:

    “Did she ever talk to her dad about that experience?”.

    Because obviously their experiences were not the same, and WHY they weren’t the same is what interests me. Why is this experience perceived as positive by Person A, but not Person B?

    The answer isn’t “because Person A is stupid”. It’s not that simple.

  27. KG says


    Sarah says:

    It was about this time that my dad, who had drifted more toward new-agey, yuppee crystals, affirmations, and Deepak Chopra kind of hoo-doo

    Evidently Sarah wasn’t attracted by the same newage (rhymes with “sewage”) tosh as her father – which doesn’t mean the latter was stupid in the sense of having low intelligence. But I agree that whether the two discussed their experiences, and if so with what result, would be interesting to know.

  28. sunnydale75 says

    >Speaking of which, I believe I’ve talked enough about myself now. <

    -I don't know about anyone else, but I was quite captivated, and would certainly enjoy more to read.


  29. Sarah Tulien says

    Thanks to everyone who commented. I’m flattered you guys even made it through to the end, let alone liked it. I figured everyone would be sick of the topic by now, and I tend to be exceedingly verbose, which makes it harder. =/

    Just to answer one recurring question, yes, I did talk to my dad extensively regarding this subject and many others. He’s an interesting sort of fellow… great guy, fun as hell to be around, gave me my love of the outdoors, and certainly loves to talk about these kinds of subjects; however, he also has this weird thing where being his daughter makes my opinions hold less weight than other people. He tends to go to “arguments from authority,” for his information. If someone he perceives to be an expert says something, he’s much more likely to listen to what they’re saying. It’s much harder to get him to think about what I’m saying, whether it makes sense or not. And if the person you’re talking to won’t even think about what you’re saying, it can be difficult to communicate something like, “Rising Stars is the devil.” If he gets it stuck in his mind that I’m just being closed minded and if I’d try harder it would be a great experience, well, it can be very difficult to dissuade him from that position. The burden of the child I suppose.

    And to Zmidponk, yes, one girl did walk right out never to be seen again, and while I’m sure she enjoyed her next few weeks much more than I did, she also didn’t take that opportunity to make any kind of mark on the program or those of us who went through it. I’m pleased with my decision to stay.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  30. Linas says

    Loved this story. Thanks for sharing it.

    I always feel a bit shocked when people who are promoting nonsense are continuing to spread their bulshit almost with no opposition from anyone.

    I hold really high respect for people who stand up against it. Good luck!

  31. delteris says

    This was a refreshing account of your rationale for being an atheist. So many assume that atheists become so due to some trauma that caused them to lose faith, or even become angry with god.

    You counter this assumption neatly, and include a very nice parallel to the cultish Rising Stars, one where children are bullied into abandoning logic for blind allegiance. The fact that you were not indoctrinated into religion from a young age, and that your parents shielded you from it lends more weight to the atheist argument that religion is nothing more than a human social construct. Interesting and nicely done.