No gods, no masters…and no revelations, no miracles

Rachael Slick, the daughter of moderately well-known Christian apologist Matt Slick, has become an atheist. Her story is the kind evangelical Christians don’t like to hear: she was definitely a True Christian™, brought up deeply imbedded in Christian culture, with a father who coached her intensely in the minutia of Christian theology. In her story there is no hint that she was unloved, or worse, a victim of abuse (please keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of devout Christians love their children and do not abuse them physically at all). So what happened? She was raised to think rigorously about theological issues, and eventually, she thought her way out of the confusing Christian muddle.

That happens a lot. Most of the former Christians I know did not get to that point by trauma or emotion — it was an intellectual decision. via Russell Glasser shares his experiences with deconversion, and it’s the same story everywhere.

All I can say is, I know quite a few deconverted fundamentalists myself, and almost none of them that I know personally, changed their minds due to these petty personal issues. It is such a common cliche among apologists that it has its own section of the Atheist Community of Austin’s FAQ. “Q: What kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?”

The stories I’ve heard are most frequently very similar to Rachael Slick’s — that is to say, what Rachael Slick actually wrote, and not the creative spin that Glenn Peoples decided to put on her words. People don’t abandon a religious belief they’ve held their whole lives over something as trivial as “boyfriend issues” in my experience. Over and over again, what I’ve heard is “I set out to defend my faith as well as I could, I looked for opposing points of view, and I found that the responses to the opposition weren’t satisfying. Over a period of time, I gave up on defending the faith.”

Christians aren’t stupid people — they’re people dwelling in a certain habit of thought and in environment that makes it comfortable to accept a lot of nonsense. The trick to getting people to leave their faith is to simply get their brains to turn towards an evaluation of their beliefs — to wake them up! — and then they do the work of hauling themselves out of the morass. There are a thousand different ways to do that: atheists can shock them by being nice, normal people; atheists can point out the absurdities of their religion (I get lots of people telling me they lost their faith in their efforts to prove me wrong); they can witness the bad behavior of fellow Christians; they can feel a sense of injustice when they see atheists treated poorly.

The one thing we can’t do is do their thinking for them. You don’t see much in the way of abrupt revelations in the atheist world — it’s a matter of hard thinking to abandon familiar beliefs that saturate our environment.


  1. says

    This sounds similar to how/why I left christianshity. I was raised in a deeply evangelical christian home and beleived it all the way up to University. What happened? My lecturers at university taught me how to think and I suddenly saw christianity for the nonsense that it was. I think it took about six months to go from committed christian to atheist. It’s amazing what thinking for yourself can do.

  2. says

    In her story there is no hint that she was unloved, or worse, a victim of abuse (please keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of devout Christians love their children and do not abuse them physically at all).

    I’m not too sure about that. From the linked post:

    if we did not respond immediately to being called, we were spanked ten to fifteen times with a strip of leather cut from the stuff they used to make shoe soles.

    I’m sure her parents saw that as a token of love, rather than abuse, but let’s just say I find it hard to see it that way myself.

  3. kevinalexander says

    The Jesuits like to say ‘Give me a boy ’til he’s seven and he’s buggered for life’
    I’m paraphrasing, I can’t remember the exact quote but that’s the gist of it. Still, it’s nice to know that it’s not always true.

  4. eyeoffaith says

    I was raised as a christian and had strong belief, however, I also loved science which I read and learned. Watching creationists on saying clearly false things made me wonder how sound their beliefs in god were…..and ultimately it made me wonder how sound were mine. Ultimately I realised my beliefs in god could not stand up to scrutiny and I became atheist.

    I followed PZ here from TO so I have been around a long time even though I only comment occasionally.

  5. says

    I was brought up in a moderately Christian home (United Church of Christ), sent to Sunday School, sang in the children’s choir, etc. I didn’t have any strong sense of religious faith, but I assumed I believed in God, etc, because that’s what I had been taught. I recall vividly one Sunday morning when I was 13 (the age at which many young people start to really think and question and try to reason out the WHYs of life). It was “Communion Sunday,” the monthly celebration of the Eucharist; I was curious about this and really wanted to understand. I had learned and read about it, of course, but I wanted to experience what others claimed to feel at the moment of communion – some sort of peace or forgiveness flowing into them from god, or heaven, or whatever. I sat right down front in the big sanctuary, and paid close attention to every word. I knew what it was supposed to represent, and I knew how it was “supposed” to make me feel. But as I listened to the ritual words of sacrifice and death and blood etc. (eww!), and the convoluted belief that somehow the torture and murder of someone long ago would ensure my enternal salvation (what?), my mind formed a clear response: “This is STUPID. It makes no sense. Who made this all up, anyway?” I felt nothing, and I realized that the feelings that others claimed to feel were generated in their own minds. And that was that – from that moment I have been happily and unambiguously atheist.

    The rational mind is powerful, when it is left to function on its own, unhampered by superstition.

    Slightly OT: Through shared musical connections, I happen to be close friends with many members of a liberal, progressive, open & affirming UCC church in my area. After a recent death in my family, one of the church leaders, who knows that my husband and I are atheist, sent us a lovely note of sympathy. His never mentioned anything to do with God/Jesus, etc.; his words were so perfect that I’ll quote them here: “The thoughts and good wishes of your many friends, including our own [he and his partner], are with you at this difficult time.” There are a few religious types who don’t impose their beliefs on others, and who respect atheists. I regret that my friends choose to be religious, but I respect the way they keep it to themselves. (Their church devotes itself to assisting poor people…education, books, transportation, voting registration, shelter, etc. — no evangelicizing at all. Refreshing.)

  6. iknklast says

    I also resent the assumption that those of us who WERE abused left Christianity because of the abuse and not because of the process of thought. I had left behind much thought of belief early on (about 10), and the true abuse began later. There were some rough spots prior, but I certainly wouldn’t call it abuse. My mother steadily sank into abuse as we grew older.

    Besides, a lot of abused children don’t leave religion at all. Some of them dig in deeper, or find a different church, or just try to figure out what’s wrong with them so they can “fix” it and not have to be punished anymore.

    I heard someone say today that non-theists are really believers. I wanted to follow that up, but no one answered my raised hand. I think I’m the token atheist at this conference (Oxford Round Table) and as such, I will have to work much harder because there is a large imbalance.

  7. w00dview says

    My lecturers at university taught me how to think and I suddenly saw christianity for the nonsense that it was. I think it took about six months to go from committed christian to atheist. It’s amazing what thinking for yourself can do.

    And this is precisely the reason why the religious right demonise university and academics so much. Because they can encourage you to challenge your most deeply held beliefs. And once that happens, mere sound bites, fear and propaganda are not enough to get people to listen to you and vote for you. A decent education is their worst nightmare, hence the desperate attempts to strip funding to the bone.

  8. DLC says

    My own personal journey away from Religiousity is too long to go into here, but I will say that the road is marked with signs labelled “Asimov” , “Randi” , “Sagan” (a huge giant billboard lit up with neon), and (much later) “Dawkins.” It was the thinking of men like these that got me thinking about it, and thinking is the road to changing your mind.

  9. carlie says

    I thought myself out of it as well, although it took many years. The first big hole in the wall was, stereotypically, an evolution class. :) I took it specifically to learn “what the other side says so I know enough to refute it better”; instead, I fell completely in love with the logic and sense and beauty of it all and became an evolutionary biologist. Still, it wasn’t until over a decade later that I started to realize how dumb the rest of religion was. I went through most of grad school without going to church because we couldn’t find one in the town I was in that was acceptable to both my spouse and to me. When we moved to another town and found one, I realized that hearing all of this stuff again, it suddenly sounded more ridiculous after having been away from it for so long. Sort of like how anti-sensitization allergy shots work. Get them every week, you’re fine and don’t even notice. Go a year without one and then get one, and your body goes “oh hell no what the fuck ” and you go into anaphylaxis. But it still wasn’t everything; first it was just the stuff that was anti-liberal (I’d always been a liberal), and then it was the anti-feminism stuff, and little bits of “well, I just don’t believe this interpretation of this thing” again and again until there was nothing left. I do clearly remember the moment when I told myself “I think I just don’t believe in god at all any more”, and it was a very profound one.

  10. eyeoffaith says

    Sagan and Dawkins were very influential to me too. Shame that Dawkins hasn’t changed his mind on the “Dear Muslima” writings.

  11. David Marjanović says

    little bits of “well, I just don’t believe this interpretation of this thing” again and again until there was nothing left

    That’s pretty much how it worked with me, too.

    Sagan and Dawkins

    Science as a Candle in the Dark, Unweaving the Rainbow; but I was already quite godless when I read them.

  12. bigdyterminator says

    I went to Catholic school growing up, so religion was always part of my education, like history or math. One day in 2nd grade, I was 7 or 8 we listened to the teacher talk about jesus and his followers, and how they up and left everything to follow his preaching. We had to write an “essay” on how we would have followed Jesus, had we lived in that time. I remember thinking long and hard about it, and finally wrote and easy on why I wouldn’t follow him. I was 8 after all, too young, and my family would have probably been raised Jewish. And just as I would never leave my family now to follow someone of another religion, I wouldn’t leave them back then to become a Christian. I would remain at home and grow up a good Jewish girl.

    Well his got me sent to the principals office and it was decided that I was experiencing a crisis of faith. My parents couldn’t figure out the problem, but I agreed to attend afternoon church instead of recess. What got to me though was that nobody could tell me why an 8yo should leave her family to follow Jesus.

    I kept asking questions and they kept not answering them. By 12 I thought it was all a pretty myth; by 15 I knew it was ugly. Now at 33 I’m here.

  13. says

    @W00dview in #7:

    And this is precisely the reason why the religious right demonise university and academics so much. Because they can encourage you to challenge your most deeply held beliefs.

    Actually, what often seems more damaging to faith isn’t so much the professors, it’s the other students. It’s much easier to ignore the professors on matters of faith (after all, there’s only a few of them, and they can often be neatly fitted into the stereotypes of liberal elitists) than it is to deal with all those students they keep meeting. Students who don’t share their beliefs, and yet don’t seem to fit the stereotypes of the evil outside world people either. Having to deal with people with various different perspectives, possibly for the first time in any large numbers, can have more impact than the efforts of all the professors combined.

  14. Sastra says

    I became an atheist by leaving “spiritual but not religious” through the same basic process: applying reason to my beliefs and trying to be as curious, clear, and consistent as possible. That’s death to Faith. I started to care more about the truth of what I was believing (or trying to believe) than I cared about becoming the kind of person who believes.

    The “spiritual” which remained could be reinterpreted into humanism — which is where it came from in the first place. The transcendent, mystical, supernatural parts fell away under analysis. And I discovered that the community which had prided itself on being welcoming and tolerant proved to be completely closed off to questioning its own assumptions. It wasn’t about harmony and acceptance at all; it was about either harmonizing and accepting the supernatural or shutting up and allowing others to follow their Own Path in that direction unhindered by any pesky doubts. Believe. In whatever.

    So I intellectually hauled myself out of the morass of vague, hand-waving, feel-good, don’t-be-an-atheist Spirituality. I think the possibility of doing that is a serious indictment of the entire range of religion.

  15. moarscienceplz says

    She was raised to think rigorously

    Well shoot, that’s where her daddy went wrong. Everybody knows the best way to keep ’em in the church and on their knees is to keep ’em away from scientific facts and intellectual rigor. Just ask Ken Ham.

  16. grumpyoldfart says

    I feel sorry for the people who were enticed into the church and are still there today, still believing garbage taught to them by their now departed ‘friend’, still paying tithes, and still purchasing prayer cloths for $59.99 whenever they run into a problem.

  17. Azuma Hazuki says

    What did it for me was in two parts: as a girl, just being disgusted with the lot, including the usual about “Ooookay…he sacrificed himself TO himself to stop himself from throwing his own creations, whom he knew would sin and exactly how, into the hell he created but didn’t mention until the New Testament? Why didn’t he just, I dunno, erase Original Sin?” After getting confirmed I just never looked back.

    Then in 2009 after years of Bad Shit Happening (TM) something broke in my head and for some reason I started having awful nightmares and panic attacks over this stuff. That lead to massive research, with finally a turning point last year after learning a crapload of everything from koine Greek to pre-Nicene church history to formal logic to comparative religion to counter-apologetics.

    I’m probably more of a deist or panentheist than an atheist, but that’s fine; point is, I’m free of that horrible Abrahamic crap, and honestly I think if there is a God it’s blasphemy to ascribe what those religions believe to it. This isn’t over, as the occasional nightmare will attest, but I have some semblance of sanity. Now if only I hadn’t lost someone I loved over it…

  18. rabbitscribe says

    I don’t have time to do this justice, but my participation on Matt Slick’s message boards (CARM) set me on the road to unbelief. I was a frequent poster arguing in favor of Evangelical Christianity against the beliefs of a particular “cult.” I kept noticing that both sides were consistently very strong on the attack and much weaker than the defense. So were we right, or might they be right after all?

    Or might there be yet a third possibility… ?

  19. unclefrogy says

    There was a series of posts awhile back on “why am I a atheist” I was Challenged by that to think about how I came to not believe in what in the existence of a god. I could not do it then and I can not do it now. At least not in the space available here.
    The crux of question for me I never doubted at any time the rational scientific understanding of the world. I ca remember as a small kid looking over the latest copy of Life magazine showing the prehistoric animals and some of the books they published. It made nature understandable at the same time I knew the standard bible stories and they were supposed to be true also. I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile the 2 views of “reality”.
    I went from St Augustine to Alan Watts to Jiddu Krishnamurti. I still tried to follow all the latest discoveries of science and found “A brief History of Time” difficult but understandable.
    It is still find it somewhat difficult at times with nagging feelings guilt concerning god and eternity but can’t be helped what is true is true. I was doing it on my own until I found this area of the internet.
    I no longer try to reconcile the 2 views in the same ways as I have done but there are things to be learned about how religious thought works and its roots in the human experience.
    religious thought and practice often leads to much needless personal suffering which any individual is free to engage in but should not be allowed to determine how the society should be run.

    uncle frogy

  20. Rich Woods says

    I can’t claim I thought my way out of religious belief because I was never much soaked in it in the first place. Me and my brother were sent to Sunday School each week from the time we were four years old, but my mum and dad never attended any service other than the Harvest whatjamacallit, once a year. I reckon they just wanted an hour to themselves every Sunday morning (and who can blame them?).

    When I was eleven I stopped going to Sunday School. I’d just moved up from the Cub Scouts to the Sea Scouts, and found that they spent their Sunday mornings collecting old newspapers and milk bottle tops for recycling (ah, the seventies!). I told Mum and Dad I’d sooner do that than carry on repeating the saem old boring stuff at Sunday School and they agreed, so off I went.

    At the same time I’d started secondary school and was shocked to find out that I was expected to take Religious Studies from the age of 11 to 16 — it was the only compulsory subject other than English and Maths. I could see the sense of the latter two, but the first just struck me as wrong. It was like saying out loud that indoctrination was absolutely necessary for anyone to carry on believing any of it, and had to be enforced by law. That’s the first time I can remember feeling that there was something deeply flawed with religion. The compulsory lessons didn’t help me; I considered myself an atheist from the age of 12.

    Last year I found out something which made me laugh. My dad died, and as a consequence I spent a fortnight with my mum sorting out all the necessaries. We talked more than we’d done for a while, and on a wider range of subjects. She mentioned that my old Religious Studies teacher (who had also been a local vicar at the time) had once come to see her and my dad when I was about 14. He said that he was impressed by my understanding of the bible and with my questions in class, and wondered if they’d thought I might have a vocation in the church. They said it was entirely up to me to choose that, if that was what I wanted. The reason I laughed when she told me was because my questions had always been to dig into the contradictions and absurdities of Christianity (Sunday School had given me a good grounding in the gospels, something only a handful of kids in my class had), yet my teacher had interpreted it as an aptitude for theology! Of course I was much more polite and constructive in those days (my grades depended on it!); he wouldn’t want to hear the way I’d phrase those same questions now.

    By the time I was in Sixth Form more than a third of our class were atheists; it was just the way things were going. However I now understand why my old RS teacher looked so shocked and lost for words when I told him that I wouldn’t be carrying out my prefect’s duty to read a prayer in School Assembly, because I was an atheist. He really was the last to work it out.

  21. damiki says

    Ironically, my movement to the light started with contemplating the concept of prayer. I remember the thought that most prayer consisted of a fallible human asking the universe’s “creator” to change plans on his/her account. The absurdity of that cracked the facade, and, as cracks do, it spread until the whole thing shattered.

    I came to appreciate the natural wonder of the universe. In fact, another irony of the whole process is that my atheist world view has given me more “spiritual experiences” than my religious days (when I only “saw in the mirror dimly”) ever did.

  22. says

    Anyone who has read, and understood, the Lotus Sutra, knows that you can’t change a person’s way of thinking abruptly. You have to lead them down a road toward the answer, but even more importantly, they must first have the desire to find an answer. If the person is comfortable in their belief system and with their religious friends, then they will not have any motivation to change. If they have no motivation to change, then anything you say or point out is simply seen as a threat to their comfortable life. You must first make them uncomfortable and ready to “move” to a different understanding. If, however, you make them too uncomfortable too quickly, then you once again seen as a threat to their way of life (which you are!). The best way to make them uncomfortable and ready to start a search, is simply to be an example of how “good” and “moral” a person can be without any God belief. Once they understand that that’s possible, then they start wondering how it could work… and your work is done. That’s my theory, at least. :)

  23. says

    Like UncleFrogy, I was an avid reader from the get go, with a definite bias of interest toward nature and technology. My parents did make a point of sending me to Sunday service and Sunday School; and, because they were deaf, I never gave much thought to why they didn’t go. Nevertheless, from that time, until University, I would always have said that I believed in God. As so many, pretty much all here, have said, I didn’t think about it, and so didn’t face the contradiction between my avid interest in natural history (to use the old, but more inclusive, phrase) and the Bible. If I thought about it at all, it was that the Bible is metaphor and allegory and so didn’t contradict reality.

    I got to University (USC, originally a Methodist Seminary), and early on took a class from former minister, who himself had fallen away from the church. From him, I found that I LOVE religion — in the historical, anthropological, and comparative sense. How’s this for contradiction, or maybe compartmentalization: I graduated with a BS in Biology with a minor in religious studies!

    For the better part of 40 years thereafter, I was a chameleon: an atheist when dealing with science and technology, and a… I dunno, theist? … when dealing with people. In point of fact, there was a part of me that desperately wanted to believe in that higher power and better place. I won’t bother you all with the rocks in my road, but I needed help and couldn’t find it — not even in church. But, thirty-three years ago this month, I married my wife, a good Southern Baptist girl (but far too liberal for most Baptist congregations; why, she even liked to dance and drink!), and we regularly attended various Methodist and Presbyterian churches as we moved around. Indeed, just a few years ago I served a three-year stint as an Elder in a Presbyterian church. And that was all she wrote.

    The Elders in the Presbyterian Convention are responsible for the “worship life” of the congregation. I soon discovered, however, that to most of the Presbytery, “worship” meant regular church-going, and whether we’d let the GAYZ be ministers (the wimmenz had already won their battle). It was being an Elder, and realizing that most members don’t want to deal with hard theological issues, that set me up for the fall (as it were).

    And, then, I read Bart Erhman. He didn’t really tell me anything, in broad terms, that I didn’t already know (that Religious Studies professor at USC was VERY good), but the details caused me to think more critically. And as everybody here has said, thinking is bad for religion.

    Having reviewed this, I don’t know why anybody should care about how I got here. I’m, more than half tempted to dump this collection of bits, but I don’t see a cancel button.

    And so it goes.

    p.s. I was going to end with, “Whatever,” but I’m afraid PZ woudl ban me for using a word on his hate list.

  24. says

    Since this post was made on July 29 along with most of the comments, I don’t imagine anyone will read this but I feel like writing it anyway.

    When I was a child, my father taught us to pray before bedtime (Jesus tender shepherd, guard thy little lamb tonight…) because he thought it couldn’t do us any harm, I suppose, though he was pretty clear about the fact that he didn’t believe any of it. As for my mom, she told us that there was a part of God in everyone but that the Bible was symbolic. Nonetheless, the house was full of Bibles in all different translations, regularly sent by missionary grandparents. I think I was the only one among the children to actually open them and read them, compare them. I was fascinated.

    Our parents took us to Sunday morning church for many years and I’m not sure why. I think it was just kind of not knowing what else to do, or perhaps a social event. That all ended when the pastor was discovered one morning ****ing the church secretary on the floor in the church office. What made the adultery particularly egregious in people’s minds was that he had an invalid wife and seven or eight children. The church broke up, the pastor became an insurance salesman who was later convicted of selling inexistant orange groves to gullible investors and divorce ripped through the community, seemed like everybody’s parents were divorcing, it was the end of the 1960s, we moved away and that was the end of that.

    I am still fascinated with religion and religions, for instance I’m taking a course on “The Human Condition: Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible” and learning Hebrew. I’ve also had lots of religious experience in my life, visions and all sorts of things that I consider to be just another part of human experience for many people. Once I was in the hospital, losing my second child, the prognosis was grim and the doctors were trying, gently, to break to my husband and I what possible handicaps the child might have if it survived. I awoke to a vision of the Virgin Mary who touched my stomach. And the next afternoon, when the morning’s test results came back, the doctors were very embarrassed. They said there had been some sort of mistake, that everything was fine.

    So, what do I think of that? How do I reconcile that (and many other experiences) with being an atheist? I think the power of imagination is underestimated. I am in the habit of questioning my perceptions and thoughts, especially those that pertain to everyday or normal experience. But the child that was born, healthy and at term, and who is now a biologist, is named Mary. And she is also an atheist!

    I never actually began to call myself an atheist before I started reading and watching atheist blogs and vlogs. Before that, I just hoped no one would ask me what I believed with respect to the supernatural or “spirituality” (a word I detest) because it seemed that if I wanted to tell the truth about it, it would take many many hours of explaining. After reading and watching those blogs for about six months and also seeing the violent comments they provoked, it became clear to me that I had to take sides. And this, mostly for political reasons. I had to stand on the side of freedom.

    Since then, my declaring to be an atheist whenever I get the opportunity has raised a few eyebrows and once it almost got me punched in the face (I was shocked by that). Otherwise, it has been the occasion for many people to “come out” to me or to explore with me their yearnings for, their dissatisfaction with, their wondering about…

    Only once have I kept quiet about what I really believe and that was a month ago at my nephew’s funeral. When his grieving mother told me he had been called back to Jesus, I simply nodded my head and embraced her.

  25. says

    Elizabeth Hamilton
    Hello there.
    Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    If you are interested, feel free to dip into The Lounge (link in the sidebar) for social chat with other secularists, atheists, and humanists. It is a continuous thread with no specific topic where we can chat–kindly–about whatever we choose.