Why I am an atheist – Thomas Schratwieser

I was born into a Texan Catholic family. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C. I was raised to believe in God, but no real emphasis was placed on attendance of church, nor on the catechism. Despite my parents’ backgrounds they were very rational people, and encouraged my love of science from a young age. My father studied Chemical Engineering at university before changing tack when he realised that he preferred Law, but he always held out hope that I would go into the sciences when I was old enough to choose for myself. I recall a conversation I had with him when I was very young wherein he casually explained that he had been browbeaten into an engineering discipline in lieu of a pure (and I am not using this as a value term, purely as a demarcation) science, and had he gone into Chemistry or Physics he would probably still be in one of those fields today.

Little was made of religion as I grew. We went to church on Christmas Eve and on Easter, but other than that we rarely attended, and the spectre of formal mass ended up as a niggling anxiety in the back of my mind as we approached any high holy day. I think my parents were also put-off by the diocese in which we lived: it was conservative to the point of ridiculousness. Every sermon, including ones during Christmas Mass, were about the evils of abortion, and copious amounts of effluvium and brimstone were applied in the priest’s rhetoric. My family were not impressed, and soon we didn’t even attend mass at all.

This soon changed when my mother went to a funeral service at a local Episcopalian church. The setting was lovely, the parishioners were friendly, and the officiant, Father John (a pseudonym), was a kind and scholarly man. We soon began to attend every weekend, and for a time I enjoyed it. This caused quite a disturbance in the rest of the family; one of my aunts was especially perturbed and said she would “pray for us” to return to their flock. Soon came the time to become confirmed in the faith, and for my part I wanted to because of the community. Every weekend I would sit with the other children my age and we would speak with John about the foundations of the faith. I would regularly ask questions and John, to his credit, would answer honestly. If he didn’t know the answer he would ask for a week to go and read on the subject, and if he still had no answer the next week he would honestly say that he didn’t know. It was John and his attitude that led me to think for a while that I would like to go into the ministry. A lifetime of scholarly contemplation and caring for members of the community? Sign me up.

I was confirmed in the faith, and for a short time I participated in the community until, like all good church officials, John was eventually sent on a mission to Africa. I eagerly looked forward to the next father to arrive. I assumed too much of him, though: he was as obsessed with the evils of abortion and sin as any Catholic priest I had heard. It was at this point that I was turned off of Christian denominations.

I eventually started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a further step on my path to atheism, and enjoyed my time there immensely. The tapestries were double helices, the youth group was filled with politically-minded young people advocating social justice, and the sex education was superb — a wonderful counter to the state-mandated abstinence-only education.

I began to realise, though, that I didn’t believe in all the things that a Christian of any description is meant to believe. I don’t believe that the world was created in seven days, I don’t believe in original sin, I don’t believe in the transubstantiation, I don’t believe in the divinity — or existence — of Jesus, and I found that I don’t even believe in god(s). I eventually told my parents of my realisation, and, despite a few tense conversations at first, they accepted my decision.

I’m now living in the UK working on my PhD in Physics, and I feel very comfortable about my choices; they’re logical and based off of my own thinking, though I will admit that reading several texts on the subject and Pharyngula has greatly helped in my explorations. My life is my own, my choices are my own, and I will not subjugate my curiosity, nor my logical facilities, to believe in something that’s always been of dubious value, anyway.

I am an atheist because I choose to be free of fear, lies, and dogma.

Thomas Schratwieser


  1. Erp says

    UUs do not need to be Christian but there are plenty of UU Christians (and UU atheists, pagans, etc).

  2. ricklongworth says

    When I attended a small UU fellowship in the late 60’s, it seemed to me that the majority of members were refugees from other denominations. There were, as I recall, a good number of x-Jews. My father was one of the minority who came from the void – none of the above. My mother was a long lapsed catholic.
    I always found it interesting that the group was strongly reactive to their unpleasant early experiences. They did not hesitate in conversation to condemn or just have a good laugh about the sad, bad days of the past. Many had felt seriously suppressed and the most significant value of the UU group seemed to be that sense of shared experience and of new found community.

  3. stoferb says

    I’m wondering. Is it easier to be an atheist in Scotland? I imagine it is as stats show scots to be way more sceptic about religion than americans. But you never know about these things…

  4. Scientismist says

    When I was involved with organized Humanism in the early ’80s, there were U-U folks who were active in the group. Many were self-described agnostic believers who had concluded that the best course was to build a humanist ethic in the absence of direct guidance from God. Those who had moved away from the Christian flavor of U-U had a joke that the Unitarian Universalist Church was a “way station on the way to Humanism,” or, “Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga U-U?” I eventually came to feel the same way about Humanism, as I was repeatedly told that Humanism would regret tying itself so closely with science. As a scientific materialist and monist, I think I was a “New Atheist” before it was cool.

  5. allencdexter says

    Many of the organizers and prime members of the Sedona Verde Valley Secular Freethinkers were originally UU. It seems like a way station on the road to full blown atheism.

  6. whheydt says

    Bearing in mind that the merger of the Unitarians with the Universalists came quite a few years after I ceased to be anything at all, and considering the old joke,

    Protestants pray to GOd, Catholics pray to Mary, and Unitarians pray “to whom it may concern”.

    Unitarians have–historically–covered rather a lot of the map. The founder, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake (back when the Catholics could pull that off for any dissenters they could catch). In areas like Bohemia, last I heard Unitarianism was a serious Christian sect.

    In my youth, there was a noticeable difference between the East Coast (mostly Boston where the the Unitarians were nominally headquartered) and the western parts of the US. The East Coast Unitarians were much more “conservative” than the western ones…which is to say the the East Coast folks more or less acted like a Protestant church and the western ones didn’t care nearly as much.

    Back in the day when a “mixed marriage” meant that the partners came from different religions, one got a lot of them as Unitarians, since the Unitarians didn’t really care about that issue and each partner could believe what they wanted and no one made a fuss about it.

    When I lived in Abilene, TX (there were *3* Bible Colleges in town!), the local Unitarians consisted primarily of “fallen away” just about everything, plus almost all of the local oil geologists.

    In Hayward, CA, the local Unitarian Church hired a minister–but put into his contract that he couldn’t give a sermon more than twice a month (Unitarian groups divided into two sorts of groups: Churches–defined more or less by being big enough to hire a full time administrator in the form of a “minister”–and Fellowships–which were run less formally and were, at least in theory, smaller). He was rather put out about the limitation, but took the job anyway. One Sunday, the service consisted of a performance of Sarte’s “No Exit”. (It would probably be a good idea for more churches to use that for a “service”. Those attending might actually learn something…)

    As for me…as my wife puts it, “You can’t get much less religious than a fallen away Unitarian.”

    –W. H. Heydt

  7. The Apostate says

    Hi, all: Thomas S. here. It’s been a long time since I wrote this submission, and as a result, I feel like there are few more things I need to add. Plus, I’d like to address a few of the comments and questions.

    In the time since I submitted this I’ve also become much more interested in the feminist and LGBTQ movements — in no small part due to reading atheist blogs — and have realised that the poor treatment of those who aren’t cis, heterosexual, white men is another reason I found religion repellent; I just didn’t realise it — or at least couldn’t pin it down as such — at the time.

    rogiriverstone: To my understanding people who identify as UU oftentimes add a qualifier to describe their own particular beliefs, be it UU-Buddhist, UU-Atheist, or UU-Christian. As I came from a Catholic background the latter was how I identified myself. After a while I found that I no longer cared for the artifices of any sort of religious service.

    Erp: Thanks for answering the question, too!

    ricklongworth: A lot of the people in the congregation had been raised UU, but this was also the mid 00s so I don’t know how rare that is. There were a lot of jokes levelled at the other organised religions, but in a way that pushed me away even further. The focus — at least in this congregation — on talking about issues, but with no real talk about actions to tackle what we saw as injustice, further pushed me away from religion.

    stoferb: It’s really easy to be an atheist in the UK; just another way I’m a pretty damn privileged individual. If you say you’re an atheist here you’re met with a chorus of: “good for you, so are a lot of us! Get on with it!” I’ve felt no pressure, save for in a few small instances, based on my professed atheism. I can only imagine the difficulties of living as an “out” atheist in another country.

    Scientismist: I’d always tied myself with science from an early date, so tying my wagon to “New Atheism” made a lot of sense, and whilst I disagree with others within the movement based on their ideas of where to move forward I find that I agree with other “New Atheists” more often than not.

    allencdexter: It definitely is. It’s a great place for those who aren’t quite ready to commit to their beliefs or miss the old community structures. It also helped me achieve the rank of Eagle Scout because it meant I was attending religious services (fulfilling the spiritual requirements of the badge). Whilst I find that I don’t agree with the policies of the BSA, especially in regard to their backwards treatment of women and the LGBTQ communities, I’m still fond of the experiences I had outdoors and glad I earned it.

    whheydt: You’re very right: there’s a huge spectrum of UUism. The ones with whom I associated were very much East-Coast UUs, but there was a big emphasis on welcoming and inclusion. I attended my first same-sex marriage (though the marriage licence had to be obtained elsewhere because I lived in Virginia) at the church, and met a lot of people from backgrounds other than the straight, white, cis, middle-class one I was very familiar with.

    Thank you all for the comments and the interest,