Why I am an atheist – Breton Vandenberg

My conversion to atheism was less of a de-conversion from religion as it was a personal realisation of what being an atheist represented. In my life I was not surrounded by religion nor was I compelled to find it by family or friends. However, even this is not a guarantee that someone will become an atheist – one only needs look at the numerous conspiracy-theorists in the world today to see how easily irrationality can take root in one’s mind.

So, the beginning of my conversion began with the simple realisation that after reading about the awesome-ness of the T-Rexs, Tricerotops, Great White Sharks and Killer Whales I found the stories of Joshua and Noah to be no more interesting or entertaining than the fairy tales I had been brought up on. Thus at around the age of 8 or 9 I simply decided I had enough with the bible and its silliness and promptly told my mother I wouldn’t be going to Sunday School any more.

But this did not make me an atheist. Rather I began to refer to myself as agnostic (once I learnt what the word meant of course! I was still young) – loudly proclaiming that I believed in a greater power, a personal God, but that this was a God not trapped in any book. A God that existed beyond us – but always there to guide and assist. Indeed, I still prayed every night to this God and I felt he listened. I left school, completed university and entered into work – sinning and fornicating along the way – and still I felt that this personal God was there with me. I could not perceive of a world without a greater power above us nor could I bear to associate myself with the now ingrained view I had of an atheist, that they were arrogant, nihilistic and dismissive by virtue of their disbelief.

And so it was that I found Richard Dawkins The God Delusion one day, in an airport on my way to Johannesburg. And it was within its pages that I started to recognise a deeper appreciation for the world – a world based on rationality and logic. And within its pages I also recognised myself. For here I was clinging to the idea of a personal God despite no evidence to its existence and all the while dismissing the superstition so prevalent in my society – giggling at stories of the ‘tokoloshe’, expressing shared disgust at ‘muti’-killings as well as mocking creationists. I was a hypocrite and it was all there for me to see.

And so it was that one evening, I just refused to pray. I had seen that to be an atheist was not to be closed minded, nor cynical. Rather it was to finally recognise what had begun when I first refused to return to Sunday School – that on looking at the evidence for religion, and finding it to be insufficient, the only honest outcome was atheism.

Breton Vandenberg
South Africa

PS Unless you are South African I doubt you would be familiar with the terms ‘tokoloshe’ and ‘muti’-killings. It is for this reason Google is there for you – I’m sure there are better and clearer definitions out there then I could provide!


  1. crys says

    Public service for the lazies

    Tokoloshe: The tokoloshe is a short, hairy, dwarf-like creature from Bantu folklore. It is a mischievous and evil spirit that can become invisible by swallowing a pebble. Tokoloshes are called upon by malevolent people to cause trouble for others. At it’s least harmful a tokoloshe can be used to scare children, but it’s power extends to causing illness and even death upon the victim. The way to get rid of him is to call in the n’anga or witch-doctor who has the power to banish him from the area.

    Muti killings, more correctly known as medicine murder are not human sacrifice in a religious sense, but rather involve the murder of someone in order to excise body parts for incorporation as ingredients into medicine and concoctions used in witchcraft. One example, I presume, is cutting the legs and arms off albinos to use in medicine (something I know happens in Tanzania, for instance)

  2. ManOutOfTime says

    For those who deconvert, it is interesting how the brain goes from believing what adults tell us, to not believing but holding on to some personal “faith” negotiated with our budding rationality, ultimately to an atheistic epiphany where the superstitious side just can’t hold. And often Dawkins is a catalyst! It’s fascinating how many different favors there are of the same general process – the South African recipe here is a good one.

    It’s also interesting to note how the deconversion process seems a very personal, independent one. Obviously if one wants to submit to Islam, Xtianity, Scientology, whatever – there’s a big community with open arms and coffee and donuts just waiting to embrace you and pick your pockets. The secular community seems largely made up of individuals who found their own way out, thanks of course to secuar literature and media. Which is fine – we don’t have to have congregations and proselytizing – we don’t have to be like them! But this movement is growing and it’s absolutely clear that the more vocal and visible freethinkers are, the more people will recognize they are good without you-know-who.

  3. breton says

    Wow Im on Pharyngula? Internet fame here I come. Thanks for including this PZ – apologies if you received it maybe 5 times from me as I think I may have kept resending it in error.

    @crys thanks for the definitions. As for muti killings in SA the most disturbing reports I have heard generally involve the murder and genital mutilation of young children. Unfortunately as there is such dire poverty in SA its quite easy for a child to ‘disappear’ and not be reported by the press so I suspect this is more prevalent then many realize.

    Also, the accepted form of protection from the tokolosh is to put your bed on bricks(he’s deadly but really, really short dont you know).

  4. Rich Woods says

    @breton #6:

    Also, the accepted form of protection from the tokolosh is to put your bed on bricks(he’s deadly but really, really short dont you know).

    Or if you hear him scuttling around in the night, can’t you just throw flour over the area and then kick the shit out of anything which moves?

    Honestly, mate, I’d try that before giving the n’anga any beer ;-)

  5. KG says

    Although not a South African, I came across both tokoloshes (or rather, believers in tokoloshes) and muti during a 2-month stay in Durban in 1991, while I was trying to make a living as a freelance journalist. There was a low-level civil war in progress in KwaZulu-Natal at the time, pitting the ANC against Inkatha. Both sides made use of “war muti” – stuff you rubbed into cuts made with a razor (great way to spread HIV), and that was supposed to make you invulnerable to bullets. Of course there were plenty of get-out clauses for when it didn’t work (which, I need hardly say, was any time you got hit by a bullet) – you’d done the ritual wrong, or had sex too soon beforehand, or the other side’s muti was stronger. I went into Zululand on atrocious roads, in a hired car that I found afterwards wasn’t insured for the journey, to interview an evil old buzzard who was selling the worthless stuff to both sides – I even got an article out of it, one of only two I actually got paid for. One of my guides lived in a bizarrely compartmentalised world – he had a mid-level job in Durban museum, was a member of the Zulu Nazareth Baptist Church (“Shembe’s Church”) which forbade both violence and the use of muti, and used muti as a member of the ANC involved in clashes with Inkatha. Nice guy, though.

  6. lesherb says

    I am thoroughly enjoying each tale of “coming to our senses”! Each one is so familiar yet unique at the same time. Thanks PZ for encouraging us to share. It’s one of my “must reads” each day.

  7. roda says

    Good story. Not all conspiracy theories are irrational – I consider people’s attitude to them, based on the evidence, is a litmus test of open enquiry and rationality, just as religion is.

  8. karin says

    Thanks for your story Brenton! Great to see a fellow South African on this site.

    By the way, according to our domestic worker, you need to stack your bed on layers of bricks as well as cans of paint in order to sufficiently protect yourself from the tokoloshe.

    Apparently, she has not been visited by one since adding the cans of paint to the stack, thus confirming her theory!

  9. coutsoulis says

    The fear for the Tokeloshe comes from the practice of making fires in the huts, with the resulting carbon dioxide emisions from the fires killing the people while they sleep on the ground. The concentration levels of CO2 are higher closer to the ground and therefore the practice of elovating the beds have been preventing people from dying.

  10. sytec says

    Good story Breton,
    I returned to the US after over 10 years in SA (Jo’burg) a couple of years ago. I found the stuff about the Tokoloshe (like the Castrol commercials and Leon Schuster’s bit) funny. But it was strange how many people I worked with (mostly rational people) blocked their beds up.
    BTW, are you on SA skeptics? Some smart, rational people on there.