What Atheism Means to Me

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 1)

SOME TIME AGO, when I first put a scarlet A from the Out Campaign on my site, I also posted a brief explanation of what I meant by it, at the time.

Since then I've had to reconsider—not so much to change my views as to sharpen them. But I do see things a bit differently now.

Partly, this is a result of conversations with Christian friends. Most of the Christians I know are relatively liberal, and very intelligent. I'd like to think the two go together, but, unfortunately, I know some intelligent conservatives as well. The world doesn't always satisfy our deepest cravings.

In these conversations, I get asked an interesting question. It would be meaningless to anyone who hadn't, at one point in their life, been a very, very, serious Christian. But I was, and so I understand it.

After learning that I am no longer religious, or that I now self-identify as an atheist, they ask me about "my relationship with God".

The question doesn't bother me. (Well, not in any cosmic sense. It usually causes me a bit of discomfort in a social sense.) What does bother me—in the sense that it has made me think about exactly what I mean by "Atheist"—is my answer.

Because, in the moment, I do know exactly what they mean, and I have no trouble reassuring them that my relationship with god is better than ever.

An odd thing for an atheist to say? An even odder thing for an atheist to believe?


Regular readers blessed with sharp eyes may have already noticed a hint of the explanation. The word "god" in my response is not capitalized.

That doesn't mean I don't consider it important—quite the opposite.

I've made something of a point in these pages of distinguishing between Capital letter terms and small letter terms: between "Truth" and "truth", "Patriotism" and "patriotism", "Belief" and "belief", "Morality" and "morality".

The basic difference, in each case, is the difference between Orthodoxy and reality.

Not that Orthodoxy absolutely excludes reality. It's an impediment, not a complete barrier.

In fact, the experience of having a real (small-"r") sense of welcome and open connection with myself, my world, and the—excuse the theological expression—ground of my being is what I experienced as my "relationship with God" when I was in my friends' place.

I wouldn't have put it that way, then. I had different models, a different vocabulary. But that is how I would describe it now. And that sense has only gotten deeper.

In fact, I wonder, sometimes, if it is possible to fully enjoy that experience without a little Orthodoxy.

Note to my atheist friends: if the last sentence bothered you because it sounded vaguely heretical from an atheist point of view, you qualify.

But let me rush on to reassure you. I don't mean that atheists don't experience this connection. I think the connection is inborn, and the normal state of affairs, in all of us.

What I do mean is that it may be harder to notice if you've never had enough Orthodoxy around to disconnect you from it—to make you feel separated and out of touch with yourself, your world, the ground of your being. (And I might add that not all Orthodoxy is religious.)

If you've never experienced that disconnect you may be too much like a fish in water. You may not notice the connection, even though you have it.

That brings me back to the sophomoric title of this series: "What Atheism Means to Me".

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 2)

IN MY FIRST POST, I outlined some of the things that caused me to refine my ideas about atheism, which brought me back to the sophomoric title of this series: "What Atheism Means to Me".

What I've come to see, since I put the scarlet A on my site, is that it's not really about whether or not someone or something called "God" exists. It's about knowledge, how we get it, and how we know which ideas to trust.

"But there is no evidence that this designer, even if one exists, is anything at all like a human being, let alone an ancient near-eastern king."

I didn't get here by the normal road. I never rejected God, or even the idea of god—and there is a sense (which I'll get to) in which I still haven't.

I was surprised, in fact, to find myself an atheist one day, when I caught myself thinking about it clearly.

It all came down to the meaning of the word "God"—which has two referents, even in a religious context: the inner experience which some Christians (and some atheists and members of other religions) have, which I outlined above, and an exterior, Orthodox, cultural definition and collection of knowledge which lays claim to being objective.

The orthodox definition shows up in all those "proofs" of God's existence. They each have holes you could drive a Buick through, of course, but I won't be dealing with that here.

Rather, if you just take them at face value, without questioning, what do they really prove?

Some examples:

1. The argument from a first cause:

It claims to prove that there had to be a beginning cause of everything, and usually ends with something like "this cause is what we call 'God'".

So, even if the proof works, it hasn't proven that Jesus rose from the dead, that Mary was assumed, that "receiving Jesus as your lord and savior" will get you into heaven, or even that there is a heaven.

It hasn't proven that "God", as defined by the proof, is anything like a human being, that he is fairly represented by any given religion, that he has a will, that he has desires, that he "acts", that, in fact, he is a "he" or "she" and not an "it".

Even if the proof is sound, it demonstrates nothing that is not currently being considered in the realm of physics.

2. The argument from a prime mover:

Much the same situation. It claims there has to be a source of movement, or energy. It then says "this we call 'God'".

And, again, what would that prove? Certainly not whether abortion is right or wrong, or even whether such a thing as right and wrong exist.

Nor does it prove that this "prime mover" is identical to the "first cause" of the previous argument. It merely gives them the same name.

At most, it would demonstrate something that properly belongs, as in the previous case, to the realm of physics.

3. The argument from design.
This is the argument that there must be a "designer" since the universe is so beautifully designed. But there is no evidence that this designer, even if one exists, is anything at all like a human being, let alone an ancient near-eastern king.

Even if we were to (quite arbitrarily) toss out evolution and other natural processes as candidates, there is no guarantee that such a 'designer' would be anything like the normal, culturally accepted, idea of "God" as defined by religion, or have anything to do with a "first cause" or a "prime mover".

But I came at all this from the other side: the interior, experiential side.

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 3)

IN PARTS ONE AND TWO , I described some experiences which caused me to refine my idea of atheism, and some of the problems with claims to exterior, objective, knowledge about God.

"I began to think that perhaps it was a little dishonest to use the word in a way in which almost no one else used it."

But I came at all this from the other side: the interior, experiential side.

I began my journey as a believer. I've left the "b" in lower-case, because I really did believe in all I was taught, not as a cultural stance, but as a basic world-view. That, I think, is what saved me. (pun, I'm sorry to say, intended)

Since I always assumed that "God" was a term that designated something real in the world, and not just the accepted mumbo-jumbo of my tribe, I was always open to the possibility that the ideas handed down to me, Orthodoxy itself, might be flawed.

And so I struggled mightily, to reconcile what I was taught about God with what I knew about the real world and also with my own, internal, experience.

The result, which was over thirty years in the making, was an understanding of God as the totality of existence, which included myself, and person I was talking to, the person I had never met, supernovae, my dog, Hitler, Jesus, the quantum field, the mosquito biting your arm (hey, it's my list), the anthrax virus, and even George W. Bush.

I used to say, jokingly, to my friends that I was God, but that they shouldn't be alarmed, because they were, too. This didn't, of course, mean that I expected to perform miracles, or raise the dead, or claim to know what was right or wrong for others.

I arrived at this view precisely because I was so dedicated a theist, and because I wanted nothing more than to understand God as well as I could, and to interact with God as a reality, and not a mere cultural fiction.

I'm only talking about my own journey here. I can't claim that everybody who takes that stance would end up in that place, or where I ended up later.

Because it didn't stop there.

The bigger God got for me, the more inclusive the idea became, the less power Orthodoxy had. God was real, both in my experience and in an objective sense. Everything physics or chemistry or any of the sciences proved was more information about God.

And that was when god lost the capital "G". The idea of god had become completely real for me, and in doing so had lost all connection to tradition and authority.

There was no longer a distinction between god and anything else. By this time I no longer had a connection to religion. I was living a completely spiritual, and completely secular, life.

And then Dawkins had to spoil it all. He started the out campaign, and made me think about things a little more clearly.

What, exactly, did the word "God" mean?

I had to admit, that for most people, "God" did not equal the sum total of a secular universe. And I began to think that perhaps it was a little dishonest to use the word in a way in which almost no one else used it.

So I put a scarlet A on my site, and wrote a post, explaining my position.

But I think I'm a little clearer about that position, now.

(Via Ken Watts, What Atheism Means to Me: Part 4)

I BEGAN THIS RAMBLING ESSAY with a question which my Christian friends have asked of me, now that they know I am an atheist—what has happened to my relationship with God?—and with the fact that my most common answer is that it's better than ever.

Along the way, I've pointed out that there are two referents for the word God:

1. The internal, subjective, experience, and

2. The set of beliefs which are taught to believers, and which claim to be objective knowledge about the real world.

And I've given a brief account of the evolution of my understanding and experience, until I came to the place where I put a scarlet A on my site, and wrote a post explaining my position.

But I think I'm a little clearer about that position, now.

I now think that the real point is not about God, or god, at all. It's about reality with a small "r", and about the relative value of Orthodoxy and experience.

It can be summed up in the answers to two questions:

1. Is there "something out there", which we can be in relationship with, and which is "bigger than all of us", and yet remains a mystery?


It's the real world, and we are part of it.

We relate to it, both objectively and subjectively, constantly—by using the best models we can find for interpreting it, by being true to our own inmost nature, by relating to each other, by taking care of the planet we live on, by doing science to learn more about it, by feeding the cat.

In fact, we can't avoid relating to it.

You can call it god, if you like, but the name you give to a reality doesn't change that reality one whit. (You can call an electron a "wave" or a "particle", but you're only naming the model you're using. The electron remains itself .)

2. Is there any evidence at all that any one of the thousand and one Orthodoxies that can be found in almost any state or nation has any claim to knowing more about ultimate reality than the average person on the street? Is there any way at all to judge which one has better models than another?

None whatsoever.

Your pastor, priest, or favorite theologian has no reason to believe that he or she has more insight into the nature of the "first cause" or "prime mover" than you do.

Their pronouncements on that subject, like an ancient Roman priest's pronouncements on the nature and desires of Zeus, are about culture , not ultimate reality.

As such, they may be useful, even extremely valuable in some cases, but they shouldn't be taken literally—and definitely shouldn't be taken as infallible.

Insofar as theology claims to be the source of objective knowledge about external reality, it has been clear since the enlightenment that science was the new theology.

What has all this got to do with my answer when people ask me about my "relationship with God"?

Why do I answer that it's "better than ever", and why do I believe what I say?

It's got to do with the difference between reality itself and the models we use to perceive, and talk about, reality.

The "relationship" they're speaking of is a real thing: the awareness of a connection with life, the universe, and everything—and the act of embracing that connectedness.

I'm actually grateful to my Christian background, since it's where I learned the importance of that stance.

But I've also found that Orthodoxy gets in the way—stands between a person and reality by dictating the models that must be used, and the conclusions that must be reached.

So, paradoxically, it was my very seriousness about Christian spirituality that ended up leading me away from the church.

It was that relationship, that connection, that brought me here. And I'm more aware of that connection, more at home with it, more connected than I was in the church.

The difference between me and a theist doesn't lie in the reality itself, but in our models, our interpretations of that reality.

I no longer interpret life, the universe, and everything through the model of a larger than life, invisible human being—both because of the peculiarities of my own internal journey and also because I just don't think the model is a very likely fit, from a practical point of view, given what we really do and don't know about—well, about life, the universe, and everything.

But the reality, the experience itself, I now find to be better, and deeper, more real and satisfying, than when I called it "God".

Which makes me believe that "better than ever" is the most honest, and relevant, answer I can give to their question.

At least, that's what I think today.

Sonny's Story

(Via Sonny Myhrr)

When I was a baby I saw my father for the first time and at that time I knew I would Die young and suffering. My grandfather died young suffering. I saw an image of him while I was in my crib looking into the sunlight!

I have always been smart and a quick learner. An example of that is when I was 3 I wrote to Fox the t.v. station and requested that the little house on the prairie would be stopped from being aired. I did this because my older half sister watched it religiously and I hated it.

I don't believe in God or much of anything spiritual except that art and love are a positive force. I have a few diseases that are genetic and I suffer greatly! The spiritual claim ignorance toward me when I exclaim my pain.

I have been suffering since I was four. I called a church at the age of 20 and asked the catholic priest if it were possible that the Devil were after me. He said that the holy bible holds the answers but the fact is that it is a schizophrenic literature hands down.

I think the devil is a woman who can become men and women and may have created the versions of spirituality. I feel she is not greater than anyone as a matter of fact she might be despised and destroyed by each thing ever. So she is what I consider the religious to believe in.

I am 29 years old and will die within 10 years. I would rather not have witnessed this life nor lived it but I see no reason to give up just because I am surrounded by sin and things that will never ever be worth while.

The new album by Drowning Pool is like I wrote it, word for word it is how I feel. Listen to it if you have read this and don't understand. I am godless and love being independent and free!

Jeff's Story

(Via Jeff Clanton)

There was no set day. No event. I've been an atheist for over ten years. I argued existence in college with buddies and I've made it known on occasion to my family for years. Recently, I became active in the movement. My participation includes debating and posting on YouTube, posting the great YouTube vids I've found on my Facebook and MySpace pages and inviting my Christian friends to discuss religion.

I've had a few friends delete me since becoming outspoken. Sad as it was, I felt very liberated by my decision to make a stand for what I know to be reasonable and good. Surprisingly, many of my Christian friends have been supportive in my endeavors and see the problems I present. Many of them have commended me for having the courage to speak about my views in spite of their unpopularity. I've earned their respect. It has been my great pleasure to learn that most of the fears I carried about what people would think are of little merit compared to reality.

Nigel's Story

(Via Nigel)

I was raised Christian. My parents started out as good Baptists, ‘heard’ from God to move from England to Australia, became Pentecostals, ‘heard’ again to move from Australia to Canada and left the organized church. I pretty much bought into all of it.

I wound up on an ‘End time farm’, involved in the ‘Move of god’. The end times were here and god was going to make us his chosen people.

So what happened to make me an Atheist?

As a young married couple my wife and I found ourselves rebelling against the authority of the eldership at the communal farm. We left but still attended meetings of the Move cult. As we lost interest in this we started attending more mainline churches. We more or less lost interest in those too.

I suppose I was a backslidden christian for the next 20 years or so. I didn’t hate god but quit praying. I more or less just didn’t care.

And then ... Our younger son came out to us. He is gay. He told us how he went to church as a kid and prayed to god that he could be normal and not be attracted to other boys. (God didn’t help much there.) Anyway, one of the things he told us was: Either god created him as he is, god screwed up and he turned out gay or ‘I am what I am’ and there is no god. My original understanding was the first option but it started me thinking. He is what he is and there is no god.

Wow! It has been a journey since then and has taken a few years to really start to get my feelings together. I am using reasoning and reading as much as I can. I don’t believe. Prove me wrong and I will listen. Just don’t quote the bible.

We Don't Need No Stinking Closets

(Via Godless Bastard)

I never came out of the atheist closet because I was never in it. Even as a small child I knew that religion was pure bunk. I'm no smarter or more aware than anyone else, and not that I would expect every young child to come to such a terminal realization, but I just can't wrap my arms around how any sane and (even marginally) intelligent adult would believe such utter nonsense.

Another Person Walks Away From Christianity

(Via Eddie Owens)

Not long ago I received the following email from Ed Owens, who lives in Missouri and attends a Church of Christ there with his wife, who still believes. Here’s what he said:

I'm a 50 year old man from Missouri who preached for almost 30 years for the Church of Christ. Several months ago I read Joe Holman’s article at minister turns atheist and began my study of why he would do such a thing. I am now convinced by my own studies of the absurdity of the book called the Bible. My family on both sides are all members of the church and are now giving me pure hell about it. I'm seeing a psychologist at the request of all the family. They seem to think she will reconvert me, I guess. That's their knee-jerk response; I must be coo coo or something like that.
In another email he added:
I was raised in a Church of Christ family and was baptized at the age of 19 by my sibling brother who is an Evangelist for the Church of Christ. We are the one cup one loaf no Sunday School group. My wife also has the same roots in the Church and still does. My brother and I married sisters. He got the younger and I got the older. He is eight years older than me. My wife is seven years and a few months older than I am. She was married before to the same guy twice while away from the church. When she returned and confessed her unfaithfulness to the church and asked God's forgiveness she was reinstated as a member in good standing.

I began preaching in 1978 at the tender age of 20 and gave it all fervor and conviction that I could muster. My Dad was a preacher for the CofC and an Elder for many years so you could say I was following in his steps as was two of my siblings besides me.

I came across Joe Holman's article on the internet entitled “minister turns atheist” and I couldn't help but wonder what would possess someone who was once a minister to turn to atheism. To make a long story short I studied his arguments and many other atheist arguments and found the Scriptures severely lacking in credibility and accuracy. I've been in touch with Joe and have corresponded quite often in the past few months.

I left the church and had it announced last Wednesday evening of my intentions. It came as quite a shock to some but not to all. My poor wife came unhinged when she began to discover my intentions. She has settled down somewhat in the past week. I told her I would attend with her on Sundays if she wanted and of course she does. How long that will last I have no idea. It is very difficult to set through a service and listen to a message that is full of error and conjecture and not be tempted to jump up and declare, "It is a bunch of hooey!" You know what hooey is, don't you? I thought so. DUNG! MANURE! KA-KA!

When the de-conversion started I was devastated!!! I felt like I had been lied to all my life. I was raised to believe the scriptures were without error and had no contradictions whatsoever. When I took the blinders off and began to see the multitude of errors and contradictions I became angry and tried to point them out to my Evangelist brother, who by the way had been my mentor all my life, and how he might see the truth of all this. You can imagine the result. He began to tell me how deluded I was and not to read that junk, as he called it, it would just confuse me and warp my mind. I tried time after time to illustrate the errors to him but he would not hear of it. He and I no longer speak to each other. He's refused to answer my email because he can't control the situation by his overpowering personality and make me shut up!

I've tried subtly to show others the errors and to no avail. I've even been told to quit trying to proselyte members. Any advice you can give me I sure would appreciate it!!! My wife belittles me at every turn claiming that I'm headed for Hell if I don't change and repent. My brother likewise gives me fits. He is an Evangelist for the church and at one time my dearest and closest friend, past tense!
I told him that until he put his foot down they wouldn’t leave him alone, so he composed the following letter and read it after last Wednesday's services:
It has come to my attention that some folks believe I have lost my mind. I believe the term was mentally ill. Let me assure you each and everyone that is not the case.

I stand before you this evening to set the record straight. I AM NOT MENTALLY ILL.

I am quite sane, I assure you. If this does not persuade you then you may call my analyst, who I have been seeing at the request of family and friends, and will verify what I have just said. I have given written legal permission to divulge my mental state.

People sincerely disagree on a host of issues, from who should be the next President, to which diet is best for losing weight. No one ever thinks to say that people who disagree about such issues is mentally ill. So why should that be the case here? Many of us have decided to walk away from the Christian faith, including former Church of Christ preachers Farrell Till, Joe Holman and John W. Loftus. I no longer believe for the same reasons you don't accept Islam or Mormonism, and no one considers those who don't believe them to be mentally ill for doing so.

Now, that having been said, I wish to make some things crystal clear so that not a single person misunderstands why I am up here.

1. I am no longer a member of the church.


3. I will not debate, verbally converse, or argue with ANYONE on the issues surrounding my decision to leave the church.

4. If you feel so disposed to chastise me, I reserve the right to respond in kind. When you do, realize that you are only reinforcing my decision by not showing that you care for me as a person.

5. I still love each and every one of you irregardless of your feelings toward me. I really do.

6. I may attend services from time to time out of respect, but I will be attending less and less, since it would be no different for you if you were asked to attend a Jewish service, which you don't believe. I admire your convictions even if I do not share in them.

7. I have been accused of trying to de-convert members with emails. I submit material for consideration by email and when I am told to stop, I DO!

In conclusion, I understand your concern for my spiritual well being. You have voiced it and I have heard. Now, please stop. I am assuming full responsibility for my own actions from this point forward.

You will not appreciate my decision I am sure, but you are going to have to learn to accept it because I am confident upon the ground I stand.
Then the shit hit the fan. Here’s what he wrote me last night afterwards:
I read the letter to the congregation after services had concluded and it was instant fireworks! My brother had to put in his two cents worth.

He claimed the analyst was my own decision, which was a lie, and then shouted that I was dis-fellowshipped. I thought that was really strange since I had just announced my own leaving of the faith. I asked if I was banned from the church assemblies and he said no, there was no need for me to attend ‘cause I would just be a hypocrite by doing so. I should have called him on the carpet right in front of everyone about not following scriptural process of dis-fellowship, but I didn't, I just walked out.

I know I did the right thing but now my wife has no intention of attending that congregation any longer. She says she will attend where my daughter goes.

Thanks again for your support.
Why in the hell do Christians have to make it so hard on us when we no longer believe? I’m proud of Ed. He did what was necessary and right. He's one of our unsung heroes. And I’m also proud of his wife for loving Ed enough to leave that church over it.