Journey of an Atheist

(Via vjack, Part I)

I've really enjoyed reading personal accounts from several atheist bloggers about their journey from religion to atheism (e.g., Steve Wild at, so I figured it was time to share mine. If nothing else, it will be a good excuse for some self reflection around how I came to believe what I do.

I was raised in the Methodist church by parents who were not particularly religious but who thought that it would somehow be good for me to be exposed to religion. They also attended church for the social networking, but the primary reason was that they wanted their child exposed to it.

My earliest memories of religion involved fear. Like our primitive ancestors, I was afraid of the unknown. As a young child, just about everything is unknown. Added to this, I was a bit more neurotic than most. I prayed because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't. Nobody really threatened me with hellfire and damnation; it was just the idea that if there was this invisible man in the sky with all these amazing powers, I better not disappoint him. My prayers were never about asking for crap I wanted and almost always attempts to prevent bad things from happening.

Entering public school (on the West Coast) exposed me to a couple of new ideas. First, I learned that religion was something that was considered private. One did not generally discuss it or hear about it at school. This was very different from experiences I would have later in Mississippi, and it set me up to believe that everyone would regard religion as a rather personal matter. Second, despite the rather private nature of religion, the children generally assumed that everyone was Christian. This type of Christianity in no way resembled the evangelical freaks I would encounter later, but there was surprise and sometimes ridicule for the children who did not identify as Christian. Subtle as it was, the expectation that everyone would fit in did include religion. I had friends of all different Christian denominations (including Mormons), but religion was almost never discussed.

Church was a formal, stuffy affair where children were expected to behave themselves. At this particular church, young children were dismissed mid-way through the service and before the actual sermon to go to Sunday school in another building. I guess the adults realized that we weren't going to understand the sermon (they were right about this). We were always relieved when it was time to exit the sanctuary and head off to Sunday school. I remember very little about Sunday school except that it involved a lot of singing, was always more focused on the younger children, and that I was happy when it was over.

(Via vjack Part II)

During my junior high years, my attitudes toward religion began to shift as a result of several factors. First, as my self-confidence gradually improved, I found myself praying less frequently. Since my primary motivation for prayer as a young child related to anxiety, it is not surprising that prayer ceased to be relevant as anxiety was no longer problematic. Second, my classmates increasingly viewed religion and religious persons as worthy of ridicule. Being "bad" was cool, and being a church-going "goody-two-shoes" was not. Cigarettes, heavy metal, and MTV became part of the context. Third, I became increasingly bored with church. Every Sunday I tried to think of creative ways to be permitted to skip church. Although I could tell that my father would have preferred to stay home and watch football, my mother continued to insist that it was good for us.

My boredom with church gradually turned to intense dislike and eventually hatred. It was completely irrelevant to my life. When I forced myself to pay attention, I noticed one contradiction after another. I looked around and found myself wondering why the people in the room didn't seem to live their lives in accordance with what they supposedly believed. What hypocrisy! Sunday mornings brought frequent arguments with my parents, as I was no longer afraid to criticize what I saw as a major waste of time. Somewhere around the end of junior high and beginning of high school, my parents finally decided that I was old enough to refuse church if I chose to do so. I would go willingly on Christmas eve, Easter, etc. but that was plenty.

The culture of high school was similar to junior high (i.e., excessively religious kids were often the butt of jokes), but there was an important difference. For the first time, I was exposed to evangelical Christianity (e.g., "Don't bother to ask her out - she's one of those Bible thumpers."). I had a close friend during this time whose parents were both pastors at an evangelical church. While he was anything but religious, he was required to attend a church where speaking in tongues was common. His parents would later burn his heavy metal record collection, conduct a full-blown exorcism over him while several parishioners held him down, and eventually throw him out of their house.

By this time, I had discovered politics, science, and philosophy. As I found myself in agreement with my parents' moderately liberal politics and was excited by learning about world history, science, and philosophy, religion transformed from a well-intentioned waste of time to something much more sinister. Faith demanded blind acceptance of things which had been disproved by science. History demonstrated countless atrocities committed in the name of religion. Philosophy showed that morality need not derive from religion. Perhaps most significantly at the time, my increased exposure to politics convinced me that the overwhelming majority of people who called themselves Christian were hypocrites because any true Christian would be a strong advocate for social welfare and would oppose the greed of big business (this was happening in the Reagan years).

(Via vjack, Part III)

As high school graduation neared, I found myself becoming more liberal than my parents on most issues (e.g., I supported the legalization of drugs, animal rights, and became quite concerned about the environment). I saw no use for religion, but my feelings toward it were considerably less hostile than they had been previously. I saw it more as a waste of time than a destructive force. My feelings toward most believers could be described as a mixture of pity and disdain.

Under the guidance of my parents and a few influential high school teachers whom I trusted, my college application process focused on private liberal arts colleges. I had the grades to get in, and my grandparents were willing to help considerably with the expenses to fund what they saw as a superior education. I was in complete agreement with everyone advising me that a small liberal arts college offered too many advantages to pass up (e.g., small class sizes, an opportunity to work closely with faculty, higher academic standards than state schools, etc.). The fact that all the liberal arts colleges I was considering were religious institutions did not bother me because all the ones I applied to played down their religious origins and emphasized the quality of the education they provided.

I ended up at a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest with a student body of approximately 4,500. The influence of religion turned out to be something of a paradox. Most of the faculty were either openly atheistic or so quiet about their religion that one could not guess what they might believe. The students were another matter entirely. I would say that approximately 50% of the student body were conservative Christians. Still, conservative Christians in the Northwest are nothing like those in the Midwest and Southeast. They had no interest in converting anyone; they just preferred to hang out with their own kind.

Academically, I was drawn to psychology, philosophy, and law. The pre-law program was fairly weak, so I ended up majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. I absolutely loved the liberal arts perspective of encouraging students to expose themselves to a wide variety of subjects. I took courses in biology, anthropology, art, and even religion (Christianity and Buddhism). Outside of my major, my favorite courses by far were the philosophy of religion, a survey of Buddhism, and an advanced philosophy seminar on identity and the nature of persons.

After reading Bertrand Russell, I fully embraced atheism and was quite open about this during at least 3 of my 4 years in college. I regularly debated Christian students, wrote most of my philosophy papers on the flaws of religious arguments, and had several great discussions with peers and faculty on the subject. I felt truly alive during this time and experienced virtually no meaningful consequences from my openness with atheism. There were plenty of rational students around, and my circle of friends was large.

In retrospect, the lack of consequences for being so open seems surprising. Of course, the culture of the Pacific Northwest is extremely different than where I live now in Mississippi. But I don't think that this was the only factor. My mindset at the time was very different than it is now - much more idealistic and carefree. I suppose it would be accurate to say that any rejection I may have encountered due to my atheism simply rolled off my back so that I barely noticed it. If someone didn't like my viewpoint, that was their problem, and I never dwelled on it. I guess you could say that I felt much more comfortable in my own skin then than I do now. But that will have to wait for the next part of this series.

(Via vjack, Part IV)

Where the third part of this series left off, I had graduated from high school and entered a private liberal arts university in the Pacific Northwest. Attending this particular Christian university turned out to be exactly what I needed. As I described in my previous post in this series, I received an outstanding secular education in this context, studied Christianity from both a theological and philosophical position, and honed my critical thinking and debate skills. I read Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Thoreau, Freud, and of course, Bertrand Russell. It was Russell's excellent Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects that gave me permission to fully reject Christianity and helped me understand that I was certainly not the first to do so. By the conclusion of college, I was openly atheistic and experiencing the joy of finally breaking free of religious indoctrination.

I graduated with a B.S. in psychology and acceptance to a Ph.D. program (also in psychology) in the central U.S. Since I knew I wanted to go the distance for the Ph.D., I saw no reason to wait. I left for the graduate school the summer after graduation. In retrospect, it might not have hurt me to do a bit more growing up before beginning graduate school, but I felt like I needed to capitalize on the momentum I had built up in college and keep going while my motivation was high.

I would not be exaggerating to say that nearly everything about my new graduate program was a shock. My life changed so dramatically at that point that I would end up becoming a very different person than the one who had just completed college. Relevant to my purpose here, I will focus on only one aspect of the transition - my exposure to a very different view of religion than anything I had previously experienced.

The community in which I resided was much smaller and more conservative than the area I had left on the West Coast. Religion was still a rather private matter here, but it was certainly more prevalent. However, this shift was trivial compared with what I experienced in graduate school itself. Not only was I the only atheist among my peers, but I would soon learn a very difficult lesson about my chosen field of psychology which continues to affect me to this day.

An important part of my training involved multiculturalism. This is typical in the helping professions because programs are faced with preparing students who may have had rather limited experiences with diverse groups to competently provide services to members of these groups. To my amazement, religious belief was considered part of multiculturalism in the sense that perceived intolerance of religious beliefs was considered as unacceptable as human differences based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. For a more in depth discussion of multiculturalism, political correctness, and religion, see my previous posts on the subject.

As you can imagine, this put me in an excruciatingly difficult position. It was made clear to me that successful completion of the program would depend on my ability to keep my disbelief to myself. Trust of my peers became an issue, as I learned that statements I had made outside of school got back to a professor. Clearly, this was not a safe environment to be open about atheism. I became increasingly depressed, withdrawn, and distant. I convinced myself that this had to be a fluke of this program and couldn't possibly reflect the field as a whole. I was determined to soldier on, bury my atheism, and refocus my energies on my studies. I would succeed, but success would come at a price I am only just beginning to understand.

(Via vjack, Part V)

When Part IV left off, I was in graduate school and struggling to come to terms with a form of multiculturalism that insisted that religious belief was on the same level with race, gender, and sexual orientation. On one hand, I was told that I was being evaluated on my openness, willingness to self-disclose, and exploration of how my beliefs impacted my work with others. On the other hand, I learned that hard way that questioning someone's religious beliefs equated with criticism of someone's race - it was a a marker of serious intolerance. To survive this program, I would need to bury my atheism and profess respect for religious belief.

This bind was nearly intolerable at times. I vividly recall turning in "personal reflection" papers where we were supposed to discuss our racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities. When I disclosed my atheism in one of these papers, it became the subject of intense class discussion. As the only atheist, I was expected to defend why I rejected religion without saying anything even mildly critical of religious belief! My peers seemed to think that my very presence in the program was a threat to their spiritual well-being. I became increasingly isolated. At least one professor penalized me for being intolerant because she felt that atheism was per se evidence of intolerance.

I made it through the program and completed my Ph.D. but not without lots of second thoughts about what I was doing and why. Looking back on it, I suppose I can almost see a valuable lesson about society's tolerance of atheism. As I moved to Mississippi for a job, I would be surrounded by Christian fundamentalists. Perhaps it was a good thing that I learned how to conceal my beliefs about religion and the importance of doing so.

Mississippi is by far the most conservative place I have ever lived (or even visited). Nothing I had previously experienced prepared me for the degree to which religion is part of public life. Within weeks of being here, I had been approached by complete strangers in the grocery store and at the gas station with some variation of, "Hi there! What church do you attend?" My ex-wife was repeatedly told by strangers that she was going to burn in hell after she indicated that she did not attend church. She was also subjected to mandatory prayer meetings at work and persistent invitations to attend church with her boss and his family. Our next door neighbor never spoke to me again after I politely told him that we did not attend church. I was invited to church by nearly every co-worker, secretary, pest control technician, and delivery person I encountered. I know this is hard to believe if you haven't been here, but I am really not exaggerating any of this this in the slightest.

I know full well that the obvious question is why I am still here. There are many days when I ask myself the same question. If it wasn't for loving my job, really liking some of the folks I work with, and the feeling that being settled (even in a place with many negatives) is better than the hassle of going through the academic job search and relocation processes again, I would have left long ago. Other perks include the winter weather, the cheap housing, and the small town atmosphere.

But if I am honest with myself, I suppose I must admit that another reason I'm still here is that I've made a lot of progress learning to become comfortable in my own skin, less concerned with what others think, and more willing to be true to myself even when it is unpopular. I've gained something intangible from struggling against Christian extremism while being in its heart. I'm not saying I don't still have a long way to go, but there has been movement, and I suppose that is what keeps me going.

No comments: