Why I am an atheist – Derek Neal

I am the eldest son of a military family.  I was born on the American Air Force at Weisbauden, Germany.  As you may have guessed, my father was a captain in the U.S. Airforce, who was stationed there at the time.  When I was six years old, he was reassigned, and we moved ‘back’ to the United States.

This was par for the course.  Every year or two, my father would be reassigned somewhere else, and our family would move again.  We bounced around from community to community, living mostly on military bases (or in communities close to them).  As a kid, this wasn’t the easiest thing to deal with.  The problem was that, every time we moved, it meant leaving all of my friends behind.  Everywhere I went, I was always the stranger.  As a result, true friendship was something that was rare and precious to me.  It was during one of these transitions in my life, in the middle of a particularly cold autumn, when I arrived on Hanscom Air Force base.  I had just moved once again, and was now starting  off at a new elementary school with yet another group of children I didn’t know.  To make matters worse, the local kids seemed to be avoiding me.  (In retrospect, my sullen attitude probably wasn’t helping anything.)

But there was one student at the elementary school who didn’t avoid me.  On the contrary, he reached out to me and tried to be my friend.  His name was Chris Smithy, and I snatched at the life line he offered.  I remember being thrilled when he invited me over to his house for dinner, my excitement peaking as we sat down at his dining room table and his parents said grace.  I remember being invited to attend Sunday school with him, and other religious functions.  And never in my life had I been happier.  He quickly became my best, and at the time only, friend.  His head was full of stories of the love of God and of Jesus, and he was constantly sharing them with me.  I thought it was great!  Although my family wasn’t particularly religious, I had been steeped in religious culture all of my life, so I did believe in the existence of some kind of supreme being.  I had only a vague idea about who or what this God could be, but I was eager to learn, and Chris was excited to teach me.

Autumn faded into Winter, and pretty soon it was Christmas time.  Little did I know, this Christmas was going to be a major milestone in my young life.  You see, while somewhat sullen and anti-social, I was also intrepid and infinitely curious.  So this winter, I set a trap.  I stuffed my blanket with pillows so it looked like I was going to sleep, then went downstairs to hide.  I was going to catch Santa in the act!

But then a strange thing happened.  Santa didn’t come.  Instead, I watched from my hidey-hole as my parents trucked gifts into the room, and carefully arranged them around the tree.  I watched as they ate the cookies we had set out, and drank the milk.  And slowly, the truth began to dawn on me.  I remember surprising my mother by tugging at her shirt from behind, and I still remember her chagrin as I rubbed at my bleary eyes and asked, “Mommy, there’s no such thing as Santa, is there?”

My parents, a little embarrassed that I had found out so early in life, confirmed the truth for me.  But they also cautioned me, in very strong words, not to tell any of the kids at school about this.  They said the kids wouldn’t understand.  But this was one discovery I was not about to keep to myself.  I was way too excited – Santa wasn’t real!  This was big news.  Of course I had to share it!  So…who to tell first?

Of course, there was only person to start with:  my bestest-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world, Chris.  So, on our first day back to school, I told him my newfound secret.  But his reaction was not something I could have anticipated.

At first he looked at me disbelievingly, and then with slowly growing horror.  And then, after stuttering and stammering for a while, he declared: “You…you don’t believe in the saints!  You’re going to hell!“  He lectured me about the truth of Saint Nicolas for perhaps two minutes, and how only evil Satan-worshippers would claim he didn’t exist.  His usually friendly tone had been replaced with scathing venom.  And at the end of his rant, he told me again that I was going to hell, and that he never he wanted to see me again.  And at that point, my only friend turned his back on me, and walked away.

My little heart broke.  Tears welled up in my eyes.  I tried to approach him, but he brushed me away.  And after that point, he never spoke to me again.  But all the while, the curse of my inquisitive mind wouldn’t leave me alone.  Santa isn’t real.  Chris believes Santa is real.  Chris’ beliefs are wrong.  The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became.  I mean, of course Santa wasn’t real.  Flying Reindeer?  Magical Elves?  Being at every shopping mall simultaneously?  These things weren’t possible.  In fact, they were ridiculous!  But…they also weren’t the only ridiculous stories Chris believed in.  What about the virgin birth?  The talking snake?  The Magic fruit?  The walking on water?  How were these things any more believable than jolly old Saint Nick?  How is “god did it” any more of an explanation than “it’s magic!”?

As I said, Chris never spoke to me again.  And a year or so later, we moved away.  But despite that, in the end, I’m glad things turned out the way they did.  The friends I have today deserve that label in a way that, I now realize, Chris never did.  These are people that love, deeply and completely – without needing to be told by a God to do so.  These are people who are friendly and welcoming – without needing to learn that behavior from a book.  These are people who put the advancement of our society, and the safety of our children, first – without needing threats of torture and damnation to guide them.  And most importantly, these are not people who sought me out.  These are the people I found on my own, after deciding for myself what kind of person I wanted to be.

I am proud to be an Atheist, and to count Atheists among my friends.  I only wish that I had run into more of them when growing up.

Derek Neal
United States


  1. christinea says

    My husband has been an atheist since he was a child and often says that Santa Claus is meant to prepare children for belief in god. It’s interesting to see the two faiths (faith in the fat man in red and faith in the bearded man in the sky) so perfectly intertwined in a child’s mind.

  2. redwood says

    I grew up in a military family as well. By the time I was 12 I counted that I had lived in 12 different houses/apartments (some in the same town or base). The always moving and losing friends was tough, but it made me pretty independent. That was helpful when my father died when I was 14 and later in life when I went my own way to live abroad.

    I like that you say, “These are the people I found on my own, after deciding for myself what kind of person I wanted to be.” That’s how I felt about growing up–it was about becoming the kind of person I wanted to be and it certainly didn’t include Jesus or his followers.

  3. Rike says

    It strikes me as so extremely sad for a young child to have to learn about atheism by losing (what he considered) his best friend in the process. Just another example about the negative impact religion can have.
    And good for you, Derek, to have followed the positive path!

  4. says

    What really intrigues me is why so many people learn and accept that Santa Claus is a fantasy, but still retain a belief in the beardy sky-fairy.

  5. leonpeyre says

    I’d have given my eye teeth to see the look on his face when he finally figured out that Santa isn’t real after all.

  6. robster says

    I always thought the godbots didn’t like the old Santa because he takes the focus off the baby jesus at xmas time and makes the whole chistmassy thing a big commercial celebration as opposed to the worshipfest they think it should be. Strange response from the former friend.

  7. dawei says

    “These are people that love, deeply and completely – without needing to be told by a God to do so.”

    This was one of the problems I had with the religious when I was a little boy. If you are only nice to people because God (Christian in this case) tells you then are you actually a good person or just following rules because you are scared He will not let you in to the club when you die. I could not figure out how being bullied into doing something good made that something intrinsically good or worthwhile. I guess this is a disagreement with the means justifies the ends. In the case of love and kindness however this in itself is a value to cherish and not something that can be coerced.

    What is the quote Matthew 7:16 “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” yes indeed I did at about 7 or so.