Why I am an atheist – Brian Raiter

As best as I can remember, I was eight or nine years old, and I was looking through one of my parents’ books that I liked. It was almost an accidental find, or at least I don’t remember anyone showing it to me. I had discovered it on my own. I occasionally went through the large bookshelf my parents had, looking for something that didn’t look terminally boring. On one such occasion I had discovered a Time-Life science book, titled simply “The Stars”. The first time I ever looked at it, it was of course largely over my head, but every now and then I returned to it, and found more and more of it comprehensible, and more and more of it interesting. This early-sixties era Time-Life book introduced me to such marvels as galaxies, globular clusters and supernovae. (In later years it taught me about the Main Sequence, the carbon fusion chain, and the predicted fate of our own sun.)

One day, after admiring the artist’s conception of colliding galaxies near the back, I was paging through it looking for more to read about, and I hit upon a two-page spread that described the early formation of the solar system. It showed a cloud of interstellar dust slowly collapsing from its own gravity, spinning faster as it became denser, until there was enough matter crammed into the center to be a sun, at which point it started to heat up. When pretty much everything had collapsed into a single ball, it was spinning fast enough that it threw off a bunch of extra matter at the equator, where the speeds were fastest (and gravitational attraction was weakest). The ejected matter began repeating the original process in miniature, with several different areas forming their own local balls of matter that eventually drew in everything nearby. Many of them even repeated the part where at the point of maximum rotational speed they threw off a bit of matter from the equator before stabilizing, which in turn eventually collapsed into other balls. Voila: sun, planets, and moons, with the last straggling bits of matter winding up as asteroids or comets.

Pretty typical as explanations go at that age, in that it seemed to raise a bunch of really obvious followup questions, like for example if it just formed out of a bunch of preexisting matter then where the heck did THAT come from? Still, it was very likely easier to explain where a formless cloud of dust came from than a fully formed solar system, so even at that age I could see where this explanation was helpful. It wasn’t trying to do everything, but was just one piece of the puzzle.

I had read these pages before, of course, but on this one day something struck me about it. A light bulb went on within my head. I reread the text to make sure, even though I already knew full well there was no mistake. Here was a description of the formation of the solar system (complete, for the part that it described) that made no reference to God. None. Not even to suggest that God had nudged the cloud into position, or had given some chunk of matter a bit of a backspin in order to get things started, or even that he had carefully watched over it without interfering.

Not even to apologize for not mentioning God. It was that irrelevant.

There were people, I realized, who didn’t believe in God.

There were holes in my logic, I saw (if not immediately, then not long after). Just because these people contradicted the first chapter of Genesis didn’t mean they didn’t believe in God. They might still believe other parts of the Bible were right. Or they might believe that God created the interstellar dust, knowing that it would lead to the solar system and human beings. They might believe in a God I wasn’t familiar with.

But none of those objections really mattered, I realized. This explanation for the formation of the solar system was printed in a regular book, after all, and meant for kids to read. Clearly it wasn’t the work of a handful of lunatics trying to push their wild-eyed beliefs onto children before they were old enough to know better. No, this theory of the solar system’s formation had to be pretty widely accepted. Or even if it wasn’t, they at least were comfortable with the idea that it wasn’t God just stepping in and doing it by hand. And I knew that, even if all those people actually still believed that God existed, they couldn’t speak for everybody. I mean, taking this idea to its logical conclusion was simply too obvious, too compelling. If you could come up with a plausible notion of how the solar system formed just by leaving a bunch of interstellar dust alone for millions of years, then surely the formation of everything else could be explained similarly. So even if everyone who worked on this book believed in God, there were definitely other people out there who didn’t.

And if it truly turned out that there weren’t any other such people, well, there was one now.

If it had turned out that every adult I ever met believed in the Bible, then I wasn’t about to rebel against that. Those are long odds, stupid odds. But something within me, even at that age, didn’t find the Bible stories particularly compelling. They were just too strangely skewed while at the same time trying to be too pat. (Pat in a way that real explanations never seemed to succeed in being.) All I had needed was reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

The moment I deduced the existence of atheists, I knew that I was one too.

Brian Raiter
United States


  1. Dhorvath, OM says

    I was surely an atheist before I knew the term, and I suspect that we aren’t alone in that.

  2. paleotrent says

    Wow. What a great post. My journey to that realization was a lot slower – I remember at about age 11 asking my mother what an “agnostic” was, and when she gave me the definition, I was shocked, !shocked! mind you, to realize that I was one (I don’t think I told her that, though – we were a church-multiple-times-a-week-every-f&^%$#@#-week family). It’s only within the last few years (and I’m in my mid-forties) through reading this blog, and reading and re-reading a lot of Dawkins, and talking with my old grad school friend and still-collaborator, that I came to understand that I never really was an agnostic at all, but rather I’ve been an atheist all these many years without even realizing it. Weirdly, it was a RELIEF to come to this realization. I suspect that many religious folks would find such a statement odd – I guess one could call it an “Anti-Religious” experience.

  3. says


    I was surely an atheist before I knew the term, and I suspect that we aren’t alone in that.

    You are not. I know I’ve recited my own experience a couple of times here, but some of my earliest memories are of being in church thinking, “This is all balderdash.” Well, okay, I was too young to know the word “Balderdash,” but that was the gist of it.

    My folks didn’t go to church. I’m not sure why they trucked us off. Maybe so they could have some down-time for a couple of hours on Sunday.

  4. Father Ogvorbis, OM says


    Thank you. Excellent essay.

    And I remember those Time Life books. And I devoured them and my sisters and I read them until they fell apart.

  5. coralline says

    Father Ogvorbis, OM, at #5:

    I know what you wanted to say, and I know what you said, and I think both are amazing.

  6. says

    Father Ogvorbis:

    Ah. Sorry. Is there a grammatical equivalent to Tpyos?

    Beats me. I always get the grammar smackdown when I try to talk about grammar. I think most grammatical errors have specific terms applied to them (split infinitive, comma splice, dangling participles, and so on).

    I’d hazard that this specific error was an amusing case of run-on sentence.

    (Awaiting smackdown.)

  7. anteprepro says

    I was surely an atheist before I knew the term, and I suspect that we aren’t alone in that.

    lol, I thought that the relevant word to describe myself was “pagan” when I was younger (assuming the word just meant “non-Christian”). Though I was an atheist, despite not knowing the term. It took me a while to learn more about the atheist community, the ideas of other atheists, and what other atheists considered atheism to be. That was when I knew I was an atheist. It’s remarkably hard to figure that out, given how murky the believers want to make the issue: pretending that atheism is an absolutist position. They suggest that anything short of “there is a 100% chance that God doesn’t exist” isn’t really atheism, and that atheism is only an irrational, illogical, self-refuting 100% confidence position (totally unlike Christianity, of course) rather than a lack of belief based upon the lack of evidence for ANY (significant) religious ideology.

  8. emilykarp says

    I didn’t fully know that not believing in god was an option I think until stumbling across ThinkAtheist.com. It’s weird though, because the way I came across it was tweeting something like “I think I am an atheist” so I did know the term then. I know back when I was 14 and really really didn’t want to get confirmed into the Catholic Church, it was mainly because things like the Trinity and Original Sin and a few other basic things about Catholism didn’t make sense to me – like the fact that not going to church was somehow supposed to be a sin or that this sect of Christianity was supposed to definitely be the correct religion.

    Growing up I knew you could be non-religious. You could be different religions, the main ones I knew a lot about being Christian of various sorts and Jewish. I knew they all kinda believed in the same god and the same bible though and kinda thought everyone believed in god, even if they didn’t go to church. Because my dad was kinda like that. Not that I’d ever really asked as far as I remember. But he was a non-practicing Jew letting our mother raise my brother & me as Catholic, but he still bought into “God is love” and kinda thought maybe if that’s true then something exists that you could call “god”. My dad didn’t realize that he was an atheist and that that was okay until I told him I was one and why 2 years ago when I was 19 (almost 20), and he was 47.

    Growing up, if I had met someone who had said surely “I’m an atheist” I might have known what the word meant but the problem is no one ever said that around me. No one said “I don’t believe any god exists” and if they had, I bet I would have understood that I was an atheist years sooner. ;)

  9. Obstruct Tenet says

    I am with you, zarkoradulovic. Where can we submit?

    I am at the point of knowing I do not believe – – that I have no belief system – – but still learning how to intelligently defend my position. I have been crafting my own “testimonial” to be able to clearly state the thought process I traversed as well as some good literature and general information which helped me along the way.

  10. rork says

    I really liked the last sentence.

    My dad died when I was 12, and never told me we were being raised as howling atheists, but we didn’t go to church. Took me another year or two to realize it, but he probably thought I wasn’t ready for such knotty subjects yet, and maybe he was right. I don’t bother kids with tricky math until they are a certain age either.

    When I go to my in-law’s giant family reunions in northern MI, some of the youngish and even some older people want to get to talk to me, and my wife and daughter. They’ve heard the rumor. They want to finally talk to someone who thinks like they secretly do (even though we are southerners, stinking of Ann Arbor and the university). Maybe they’ve never talked about it before. They are often in tears. Maybe the internet has made it less lonely up there, and I hope these posts might help, cause it is a ghastly thing.

  11. truthspeaker says

    I was surely an atheist before I knew the term, and I suspect that we aren’t alone in that.

    Me too. I first read the term in a young adult novel called “Foster Child”, and figured out it was a term to describe what I already didn’t believe.

  12. Obstruct Tenet says

    Thank you, Julien Rousseau. I will be adding to the collection before the end of the year.

  13. inflection says

    “Deducing the existence of atheists” is one of the neater turns of phrase (and actual actions) I’ve read recently.

  14. John Morales says

    mythusmage, predestination is about as meaningful a conceit as is solipsism.

    (It explains nothing and it’s—even in principle—untestable)

  15. marella says

    Re grammar, I think it’s more useful to realise that language is a method of communication and consider what you wish to communicate. The elaborate dodging of so called ‘split infinitives’ tells everyone that you are a moderately well educated pompous twit. If this is what you wish to communicate then go for it, I prefer to communicate a more graceful, less hide bound understanding of our glorious language. If it’s good enough for Winston Churchill it’s good enough for me.

    “This is the sort of nonsense, up with which I will not put.” on being faced with an elaborate circumlocution designed to avoid a split infinitive.

  16. marella says

    Oops, forgot to say what a great story. Unusually insightful kid, but I expect cosmology has made a lot of atheists over the years. I think if the world were the centre of the universe I might believe in god, though I’d still think he was an arsehole/asshole.

  17. ManOutOfTime says

    One of my favorite themes: kids reading mainstream science books and finding they subvert religion completely. I especially love the “wait a minute” moment, re-reading the article about the solar system just to be sure … and … whaddya knows! No Invisible Santa!