The journey to atheism

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It’s also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

“I contend we are both atheists – I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well.” – Stephen F. Roberts

This quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is possible that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one’s personal philosophy. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize hat my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence. I don’t personally know of anybody who did such a thing.


It is always interesting how the media instinctively resorts to certain standard tropes to reinforce religious beliefs, even when they are wholly inappropriate. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewers this way of thinking when the media quickly jumped on the “It’s a miracle!” bandwagon to “explain” the lack of any fatalities from the recent Air France plane crash in Toronto when there was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation at hand. This reason is of, course, the competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the “miracle” theme.

As Stewart says: “The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew’s satanic competence.”

See the video here.


  1. Tomas R says

    Main Entry: truth
    Pronunciation: ‘trüth
    Function: noun
    Inflected Form(s): plural truths /’trü[th]z, ‘trüths/
    Etymology: Middle English trewthe, from Old English trEowth fidelity; akin to Old English trEowe faithful — more at TRUE
    1 a archaic : FIDELITY, CONSTANCY b : sincerity in action, character, and utterance
    2 a (1) : the state of being the case : FACT (2) : the body of real things, events, and facts : ACTUALITY (3) often capitalized : a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality b : a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true c : the body of true statements and propositions
    3 a : the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality b chiefly British : TRUE 2 c : fidelity to an original or to a standard. (Merriam Webster Online. Truth (Definition);

    Beth Hays writes, and I quote:
    “Since the nature of human beings is essentially egotistical, God put forth requirements to help us shape a better self, rather than a more self-absorbed self. He also gave us free will to choose our path, hence the differences in opinion about everything. He also promised us a witness of the truth — the Holy Spirit (who is not only referenced in Christianity). The hard part is asking the right question in order to get to the truth or at least part of it. This is not exclusive to Christianity. Also, Christianity has been fragmented over the years after the death of the Apostles, so there has been human interpretation to muddy up the finer points of original truth.”

    Its interesting how people like to use the word Truth in reference to religion and/or belief in general. Look around at all the horrible things that are happening in the world. Look at what is going on in Iraq and how people view their beliefs in contrast to others. They see themselves as believers in Truth as well. I think its more important to look at the facts, rather then peoples own ego driven ‘personal truths’. In all respect, the only point made by Beth Hays about egotism, is that its more important to impose a personal view in a blog (the perverbial answer to a question never asked), rather than accept someone for seeing the world in a way in which makes them a good (at least tolerant) person. Isn’t spirituality something that is suppose to be personal? If its personal then why the need for not only advertisement but self assurance through a public display. Suicide bombers (Zealots) kill themselves in the name of not only idealism, but religion and egotism. When is the last time someone has died at the hands of an idealistic atheist or agnostic? Just in case you forgot what the definition of BELIEF is, this is for you and anybody who feels the need to tell us what life IS.

    Main Entry: be·lief
    Pronunciation: b&-‘lEf
    Function: noun
    Etymology: Middle English beleave, probably alteration of Old English gelEafa, from ge-, associative prefix + lEafa; akin to Old English lyfan
    1 : a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
    2 : something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
    3 : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence
    synonyms BELIEF, FAITH, CREDENCE, CREDIT mean assent to the truth of something offered for acceptance. BELIEF may or may not imply certitude in the believer . FAITH almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof . CREDENCE suggests intellectual assent without implying anything about grounds for assent . CREDIT may imply assent on grounds other than direct proof . synonym see in addition OPINION.

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