The seven stages on the journey to atheism

I finally got around to seeing Julia Sweeney’s 2007 monologue performance Letting Go of God, where she describes her journey from being a good Catholic girl to an atheist in adulthood. It was funny, informative, and moving, as she describes the kinds of questions that occurred to her and the answers she sought from her parents, her priest, other religions, and her readings, before she finally accepted that she was, in effect, an atheist.

Here’s the trailer.

It struck me that there are three kinds of atheist stories. There are those who grew up in a nonbelieving home and thus were never indoctrinated into belief in the first place. Then there are those who grew up in a religious environment but realized at a young age, either in their teens or pre-teens, that it did not make any sense and ditched the whole thing without too much angst, though possibly leading to some conflict with their families. And then there are people like Sweeney and me, who were ‘good’ believers growing up in that we accepted most of the teachings of our religions and came to our atheist realizations much later in life. It is this last group for which it is the greatest struggle in letting go.

Although Sweeney’s story is different from mine in many of its details (she grew up in an Irish Catholic home in the US, I in a liberal Protestant Sri Lankan home) I saw many similarities too, as she grappled first with the realization that god may not be good, to the intermediate stage that the Bible did not seem to make much sense and that god seemed to be either inept or malevolent, to the final one that god may not exist at all.

The key similarity is that we both started out as strong believers and transitioned to nonbelief in adulthood. It struck me that perhaps the stages of transition for adults from belief to disbelief in a god may have sufficient generality that some psychologist should explore, like the Kubler-Ross seven stages of grief: Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.

What might be some initial candidates for the various stages? Based purely on the two data points provided by Sweeney and me, I identified seven stages that I suspect are not unique to the two of us.

  1. Suspicion (that there is more to the story of god than what we were told as children or in church, and that some of the things we were told and believed are not true)
  2. Curiosity (to see if we can find ways to allay those suspicions, fix the problems, and thus salvage belief)
  3. Fear (that the problems are insurmountable and are far more widespread than we initially thought)
  4. Dismay (at the thought of what the non-existence of god or an afterlife entails)
  5. Apprehension (as to what might happen while we secretly test the hypothesis that god does not exist)
  6. Relief (at the discovery that assuming god does not exist does not result in catastrophe)
  7. Exhilaration (at experiencing the intellectual and emotional freedom that results when superstitious beliefs are abandoned and the mind is free to go where the evidence leads, and at the realization that we are lucky to be alive and that life is wonderful)

Of course, the process may not proceed linearly. There will be some backsliding out of fear as to where the journey is leading and deliberate attempts to silence doubts.

I am curious to hear from readers what they think of this sequence and how their own experiences compare with this.


  1. Thorne says

    I guess the sequence works, and like you said, there may be some backsliding by some people. But in my case, I seem to have just skipped over steps 2,3 and 4, moving right to 5. And even then, any apprehension I may have felt was minimal. I just seemed to drift away from a belief in God into a non-belief in gods of any kind. It was many years in the process, during which I just didn’t care one way or the other. Gods and religion just weren’t worth thinking about. Still aren’t, actually!

    And I have to say, too, that I’ve never reached step 7, either. I think that in order to achieve that level you need to have been held very deeply in the muck of religion, to the point where escaping from it would have to seem almost miraculous. For me it wasn’t so much an escape as a simple wandering away. And I’ve never looked back.

  2. Ex Patriot says

    She speaks the truth. I grew up in a home with no strong relgious convictions so I had no problem being Atheist, which I have been for the last 60 or so years. I never had a problem with relgion except when the bible thumpers came knocking on my door and I was able to take care of them one way or another

  3. says

    I’m goofing off in a work meeting right now so my comments will be brief (maybe more later). I think this sequence is a good general outline for some people who came away from belief, but mine is quite a bit different and I wonder how common it is. I fall sort of somewhere in between the latter two of the three categories you describe, probably closer to the letting go early in life, but it was a bit of an angsty transition, and I wasn’t full-on atheist until late in my 20s.

    The main difference for me is that the early stages had very little to do with suspicions of dogma/religion/faith, but rather with just not liking church and not fitting in with church-y people. I did have some suspicions of the supposed morality, that didn’t make sense to me… but I was primarily impelled away by just not liking it, largely an aesthetic grounds. It wasn’t fun, it didn’t work for me, I drifted away. Then came an amplification of the moral objections. And only after I had no use for religion either practically or morally did it start to sink in that it was a total crock from a logical perspective too.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I’m curious. Were you a strong believer during the time you were a churchgoer? Were you active in church/religious activities? Were you interested in reading about faith/god/religion?

  5. Steerpike says

    I might propose an intermediate step in there somewhere, which more or less corresponds to Kubler-Ross’s “Bargaining” phase. In the Bargaining step, the dying person may take irrational steps to somehow “cheat” death. They may delve into religion, immersing themselves in prayer or other superstitios rituals, hoping for an actual “miracle”, or it may be more subtle, like engaging in obsessive exercise, or eating certain foods, that they hope against hope will somehow cure them. Eventually this gives way to the realization that death is, in fact, inevitable, and they can move on to the final stages of coming to terms with that fact.

    For the nascent atheist, this mind-set can often (not always, of course) be seen in sudden bursts of extraordinary devotion to the religion. If only they pray harder, they reason, read the Bible more thoroughly, attend services more often, preach and evangelize more fervently, maybe God will somehow strengthen their faltering faith. Maybe they can drown out the insistent little voice of Doubt, if only they can sing hymns loudly enough. Maybe it even works sometimes, who knows? Eventually (hopefully), reason wins out, and they can come the rest of the way out of the darkness.

    It has often been observed, and I think rightly, that trolls on atheist website comment threads may be struggling with doubts themselves, and pit themselves against non-believers in pointless arguments as a way of proving to themselves (and to God) that they DO still believe. Maybe this behavior, rather than any real attempt to convert the sinners, is actually a manifestation of some sort of “bargaining” behavior, trying desperately to preserve their own crumbling belief structure.

  6. says

    So here’s an old blog post about my deconversion. If I were to bullet-point it the way you have above, I would describe my path more like this:

    1. Displeasure (with the peer group, with the general social dynamic, and with the lack of intellectual curiosity)
    2. Detachment (from organized religion, purely as a result of a lack of connection rather than any kind of reasoned objection)
    3. Revisiting apologetics from an outside perspective (i.e. with the benefit of a long period of detachment, seeing that the Cosmological Argument, the various replies to the Problem of Evil, etc., simply don’t really make any sense — note that this does not entail a realization that god doesn’t exist, but rather a realization that god doesn’t have to exist)
    4. Revulsion (at all the evil done in the name of religion, and the obviously vile “moral” proscriptions especially in regards to sexuality)
    5. Reasoning (i.e. finally putting it all together and realizing that an atheistic worldview not only neatly resolves all of the difficult issues encountered in the first four steps, but also is the most plausible based on the evidence)

    There are arguably more muted versions of the “relief” and “exhilaration” steps following this, I think. But for the rest, it is almost the reverse of the order you describe: Rather than reasoning and questioning creating a cognitive dissonance that is later resolved when you realize this religion stuff ain’t so great anyways, instead I was viscerally impelled away from religion, and the reasoning and questioning came later. (To be fair, a large part of my visceral distaste was at the way that reasoning and questioning were discouraged… but I initially wasn’t questioning faith itself, I just had questions about faith and about the dogma, and the fact that even this kind of intellectually curiosity was squelched drove me away from the church even before I had reasoned it through far enough to see the other problems with the church).

  7. JustKat says

    When I was very little my family went to church. My mother started dropping me off at church around the age of seven or so but didn’t attend herself (although she still calls herself Christian). My grandmother and grandfather were VERY religiuos and it was their church I attended. I went regularly until maybe age nine or ten? Sporadically attended through teen years.

    When my husband (then live-in boyfriend) and I first moved in together we started going to church again and took all of our kids. This went on for a few years. We eventually moved to Houston and just stopped going. I tried a time to two to find a new “church home” but just lost interest.

    During all of those years I considered myself to be a Christian and was of the thought that it was okay if I skipped church, there would always be time to go back later, pray for forgiveness and all that, etc.

    I was watching The Daily Show one day and Jon Stewart was interviewing Bart Erhman on his new book, “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.” I was intrigued, went to the local library and found that they had this book on their new items shelf so I checked it out.

    That was it. Up until that point I’d never even given any thought to how the bible came to be in any way, shape or form. I wasn’t reading for very long before I gave up belief. I suppose before this I really thought of the bible as a special holy book and not a book put together by men. It seems very silly now that I’d never given serious thought to where the book came from that was the whole basis of my religion, but there you go. 😉

    I started talking to my husband about the interesting things I was reading. At first he seemed offended but it was almost no time at all before he said, “Yes, this is silly bullshit. Can’t believe I ever took it seriously.”

    I felt a little scared when I started questioning but that didn’t last long – I lost my faith before I even finished reading “Misquoting.” I think there are probably a lot of people who identify as Christians but don’t give their religion much thought, if any. It’s childhood indoctrination. And to this day my mother who can’t be bothered to attend church still identifies as Christian and WILL NOT DISCUSS anything that might cause her to lose her “faith.” Again, childhood indoctrination.

    Plus it’s much easier in southeast Texas to be a professed believer and then not give religion another thought than it is to say you’re an athiest – people then expect you to know all there is to know about religion since you’re rejecting it and all.

  8. says

    The answer to all three questions is “Yes, but.”

    Yes, I was a strong believer in that I assumed it was all literally true. But I never really “felt the spirit”, even though I tried. I never really took joy in it. And by the time I was a junior in high school, I guess you couldn’t even say I thought it was all literally true. I’d become pretty agnostic about it, though it was as much out of indifference than anything else.

    Yes, I was active in church activities — very active, in fact since I was raised Mormon, church was a minimum of three hours every Sunday (one hour sacrament meeting, one hour young men’s/young women’s, and one hour of priesthood meeting), plus often I would hang out at the church for an extra hour while my mother did choir practice, plus another couple of hours on Wednesday nights for young men’s/young women’s/scouting. Oh yeah, and home teaching, which is when you and an older guy go visit somebody’s house once a month to present some little lesson or something, or just help them with shit. Plus various church picnics and other activities and stuff. Oh yeah, and plus getting up before school four days a week for a one hour seminary lesson.

    But, I just sort of did that stuff because it was expected. I did it for the same reason I went to school — that was what I was expected to do, and I was an obedient kid. By the time I had my own car I started to play hooky a lot. But up until then, I was very involved.

    And yes, when I was younger I was very interested in reading about it, though then as a teen I just sort of stopped doing that stuff very much. Again, though, not because it stopped making sense per se, but rather because it didn’t seem like much fun. And I should say there’s a BUT here as well: My parents own a Mormon bookstore that they operate out of their home. So I literally grew up in a Mormon bookstore. It wasn’t like I was seeking out Mormon stuff to read; it’s just what was there.

    The key point in all of this, though, is that despite this level of immersion, it never worked on me. I don’t mean intellectually it didn’t work on me, i.e. I don’t mean I never fell for the logical contradictions, the absurd apologetics, etc. I did, in fact, fall for all of it. No, what didn’t work on me was the way church is supposed to feel. My equally-atheistic wife misses going to synagogue; I don’t miss church one tiny iota. (I do have fond memories of playing hooky from Sunday school with some like-minded teens, so I guess you could say a part of me misses avoiding church… heh…) Some of that I think is chalked up to the stodginess of the Mormon church experience, but I think a lot of it is also my personality. (After all, there are scads of Mormons who do “feel the spirit”, who get that visceral enjoyment from church) I’m just not a joiner. I’m not someone who easily fits into what the crowd is doing. I rarely like to dance. I always feel impelled to go against the grain, to be a bit contrarian. Although as an adult, I have managed at times to feel that connectedness of a shared group experience, it is very difficult for me to get in the right frame of mind (especially sober).

    While many people’s journey from theism to atheism is represented by a growing conflict between a group they feel connected to vs. what they find themselves rationally able to believe, my journey was somewhat the other way around: I felt increasingly little connection to the group that believed the things I was supposed to be believing. As that connection dwindled, it became easy to spot the holes in those beliefs.

    I don’t want to downplay the intellectual journey. I am very much a seeker and a questioner. In fact, as I mentioned in another comment, a large factor in my lack of connection to the group was that they discouraged asking questions even within the context of faith, even when it was presupposed that the answers would support the central dogmas rather than tear them down. It seems likely I would have eventually gotten to the really hard questions and gone through a more conventional later life transition (though I will always wonder if I would have landed as a liberal believer rather than an atheist if I had actually felt a connection to spirituality; it is difficult to say). It’s just that I felt disconnected even before I got around to asking those questions.

    I know this makes me sound more like the category two believer you mentioned, but I don’t think it’s quite the same. My wife’s story fits that narrative very well: At around 12 years old, she read the majority of the Bible, and was like, “Well, that doesn’t make any fucking sense at all!”, and immediately became agnostic (she held onto some vague pantheistic beliefs well into adulthood, until I convinced her they were superfluous and nonsensical; I think she still hasn’t forgiven me, as she found those vague beliefs very comforting, and she rather regrets that she now sees them as intellectually untenable. heh, whoops…) My story wasn’t anything like that. I still nominally just kind of assumed it was all true even as I started to completely lose interest in it. Of course, any time I revisited it then whatever I was revisiting seemed obviously ludicrous… but I wasn’t motivated to revisit it extensively until later in life when Religulous* and god is not great got me fired up about the horrible harms of religion, and convinced me it was worthwhile to a) put a stake in the ground defining myself as an atheist, and b) actively oppose the special deference afforded to religious belief.

    * Yes, Religulous is a very flawed and unfair movie, and Maher is a comedian and not an intellectual. The movie ought not to convince anyone of anything they did not already believe, as it is edited unfairly and many of the arguments presented in it are terrible. However, as a tool for getting people fired up about something they already believe in, I think it is greatly underestimated. Religulous does a tremendous job at “breaking the spell”, and the closing monologue is perhaps the most moving call to arms against the abuses of religion that I have ever heard.

  9. says

    And I have to say, too, that I’ve never reached step 7, either. I think that in order to achieve that level you need to have been held very deeply in the muck of religion, to the point where escaping from it would have to seem almost miraculous. For me it wasn’t so much an escape as a simple wandering away.

    I think there is some truth to this as well. Although my journey looks very different from this outline, I did experience the exhilaration of being free from religion. By contrast, my wife very much misses being able to believe in an afterlife, to believe that everything is going to turn out in the end. We have difficulty identifying with how the other feels about the lack of an afterlife. I think in large part this is because she had a positive experience with religion (and just saw early on that it simply couldn’t be true, at least not in the sense of a personal Abrahamic god), whereas I had a negative experience with religion. For me, then, it is very freeing to discard all that, and when I think of the idea of an afterlife, I feel relieved that there is no such complication. For her, by contrast, it is with a sense of sadness that she discards belief, and when she ponders the lack of an afterlife, she feels the existential vertigo of staring in to the Neitzchean abyss.

  10. Thorne says

    I’m just not a joiner. I’m not someone who easily fits into what the crowd is doing. I rarely like to dance. I always feel impelled to go against the grain, to be a bit contrarian.

    I’m pretty much the same. Not a joiner, and not a follower. But not a leader, either. I don’t socialize if I can help it, don’t dance, don’t party. But it’s not so much a case of going against the grain as it is just not worrying about which way the grain is going. If I happen to be following it, great. If not, who cares?

    Although as an adult, I have managed at times to feel that connectedness of a shared group experience, it is very difficult for me to get in the right frame of mind (especially sober).

    I don’t think I’ve ever felt any kind of connectedness, with anyone. I see people around me who are still connected, at least minimally, with friends from high school or college, and I wonder how that can be. I haven’t so much as spoken to anyone from high school since graduation, some 40+ years ago. Perhaps it’s this lack of connections that made it so blandly easy for me to just drop religion from my life.

  11. Thorne says

    You may be right about this last part, Steerpike. It’s one reason why I try not to come down so hard on theists who post in atheist blogs, at least initially. Perhaps they do have doubts, and allowing them to state their case, then dismantling it politely and intelligently, will help those doubts to spread rather than be suppressed.

    I find it interesting that almost none of the religious blogs I’ve been to will provide links to the atheist blogs they may be arguing against, and some won’t even name the authors of those atheist blogs, yet the theists still seem to manage to find us. Perhaps trying to engage them intelligently, debunking their myths with real science, would help them separate from their weakened faith. Stomping on them from the first posting does nothing but drive them back to their starting point.

  12. jamessweet says

    I’ve found it in myself to assume a leadership position on some occasions, and when I can do it I am reasonable at it and find it quite rewarding — but I also find it emotionally exhausting, and if I’m having even a slightly bad day I basically completely “check out” from doing that sort of thing.

    I’ve been in contact with some people from high school only because of Facebook. While I have enjoyed the renewed contact, I can pretty confidently state that if they hadn’t just randomly shown up as “Hey, you might be friends with this person!”, there is no way I would have gone to the effort to locate them.

    I think one of the things the atheism movement struggles with is that people like you and me are disproportionately represented among atheists, at least in America. People who like the whole church experience never have a strong incentive to question it. Many of them still do anyway, but their journey to atheism can be long, conflicted, painful, and they may wind up turning back or simply embracing some wishy-washy progressive theology.

    While my journey was no bed of roses — it was very difficult to feel as though I did not belong among all these people who were supposed to be shining examples of what was right and good — all of the actually directly-atheism-related steps were a relief or even a pleasure. “Oh, I see… it’s perfectly okay that I can’t identify with these people, because what they believe is actually a crock of shit anyway. That’s good to know!” I was impelled away from religion to begin with, so coming to a position of atheism was a simple and inevitable outcome.

    In a place like the US where even the not-very-religious are sort of expected to have a de facto spirituality, people like us are going to be disproportionately represented among atheists. And since people like us also tend not to get along with others quite as easily… well, it’s a challenge 🙂

  13. DrVanNostrand says

    I would add a fourth group: “bad” believers. I was always deeply skeptical of my religion (Catholicism), but I could have easily been Christmas/Easter guy and nominal believer just because going along is easier. Especially since most Catholics I knew pretty much blew off any dogma they didn’t like. But my curiosity got the better of me. I read the bible and various arguments for and against Christianity/theism, and atheism was the clear winner. I wasn’t invested enough in religion to feel 3-7. It took me about 6-8 years to leave behind “bad” believer status, but most of my friends still fall into that category.

  14. says

    A couple thoughts: religion is an impediment to honest philosophical enquiry. If you believe all this baggage, it gets in your way when you’re trying to think about our role in the universe (so small that it’s not even a rounding error) and the interesting questions of how to live and how we wish to establish meaning for ourselves. The lies of religion are corrosive to that examination, so there’s a certain exhilaration to realizing you can set them aside and begin the process, if you wish to.

    As someone who grew up free from religion, I never needed to cast off the baggage but it wasn’t until my late 30s that I started thinking really hard about philosophy and – yes – there’s exhilaration and wonder when you realize that some Greek thinker in 300BC nailed all this stuff pretty much definitively, and you ponder that the frameworks defined for these questions might make equal sense to another sentient life-form, out there, because the problems may be inherent to life in general. When I started to imagine LaoTze, Epicurus and Socrates discussing the examined life with some completely different life-form, I smile so hard my face hurts.

    I hadn’t really realized how fun just thinking about how big and wonderful stuff is until I watched philhellene’s “science saved my soul” video on youtube. It’s a bit cheesy, but his excitement is the message, not what he’s saying. Looked at from that perspective, it’s like the whoopin’ and a hollerin’ of a holy roller who actually is interested in what the questions are, rather than just the answers.

    So, yeah, you don’t need to get rid of religion to have those wonderful moments. Ponder, if you will, the amazing way evolution accidentally made sex pleasant for us, or consider the chemical and neurological processes that take place when you take a big bite of pizza. And you’re realize that it’s so fucking wonderful that if you died at that minute, the ride was short but oh so worth it.

  15. Anat says

    I don’t fall into either clear category. I was raised by parents who probably at least doubted religion, but held up some version of it to their children because tradition was supposed to be important regardless of truth (or out of guilt towards their forebears).

    As an Israeli in what counts as a secular Jewish home I was exposed to religious beliefs via school and via holiday celebrations at home. And I took it very seriously, because why would adults lie to children? I was concerned about the rather arbitrary way my parents selected which religious customs to follow and which not – why make such a deal of getting rid of leavened foods for Passover but eat lunch-meats and cheese in the same meal year-round? Why go to synagogue on Yom Kippur but break the fast by mid-morning? And why drive on Shabbat?

    My plan was to adopt a fully religious life-style once I left home and was in control of my life, but meanwhile I studied. I read the Hebrew Bible with traditional commentaries, midrash (Bialik and Ravnitzki’s ‘sefer ha’agada’) – and accustomed myself to the religious way of thinking. What justifications are used for the status of women? What do modern religious thinkers say about prehistorical life?

    I looked for a way I could reconcile an evidence-based worldview and some version of traditional Judaism. Until in high school I was exposed to the Documentary Hypothesis and other modern views of how the biblical text may have formed. Then I realized I could stop my mental gymnastics – while an interesting insight into how some people in antiquity represented their history and their place in the world there was no reason for me to use a religious view as a guide to living, as the laws were a creation of ancient humans, there was no law-giving god.

    Before learning the history of the biblical text I never doubted my religion, though I was willing to accept that large chunks of Genesis were folk-tales of some kind. But Exodus and on describes a society with a literate elite, so surely they knew what they were doing?

  16. sailor1031 says

    You forgot anger and distrust at having been lied to and fooled by those one trusted.

  17. Katie says

    Just before my deconversion I experienced a brief but intense period of feeling “close to god”. It was the closest I had ever felt, and I felt surrounded by others of my same faith who I believed I was genuinely spiritually connected to. It was these feelings that motivated me to read the bible from cover to cover. I wanted to read the entire bible and learn more about and grow closer to my god. Of course, this backfired significantly, as reading the bible is what set off the chain reaction of questions in the first place.

    I would say that the first stage for me was not actually doubt or suspicion, but genuine curiosity and the desire to be closer to God.

    Can anyone else relate to this?


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