Losing your faith can be a messy, complicated process, and it’s important to do so responsibly. While all paths that lead to atheism are worth treading down, some are more sustainable and healthy, while others can be detrimental to your emotional wellbeing and also leave you susceptible to falling back into a religious mindset.
If you are wondering if you lost your faith responsibly, or are considering trying, here are four paths to atheism:
Path #1: Participating Without Belief
According to a 2014 PEW Research report, a growing number of American adults have low levels of religious commitment. It has increased across age groups, with Millennials jumping the farthest (+10%) in seven years.
We all know people who call themselves religious without actually practicing in a meaningful way. They consider themselves Christian, Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish because that’s what their family identifies as. The suspicion is that many of these culturally religious people are actually atheists. They don’t really believe in anything (or if they do, it’s too amorphous or nondescript to be considered classical theism):
The first path to atheism is to be an atheist who isn’t bothering to identify as such. You participate, but you aren’t invested. You hold no personal stake in the situation — it’s a tradition, a family thing.
While this kind of atheism is probably the most comfortable and the most prevalent, it is also the most tenuous. Whether or not you technically “believe,” you are still putting yourself in a position of vulnerability. You are absorbing a lot of false information, religious iconography, and logical fallacies by proxy. This can leave you primed for a religious reawakening through a “personal experience with God” later down the line.
There are atheists who claim they became Christians by feeling the presence of God during a church prayer. But atheists who are attending church and praying are priming their brains to interpret unexplained experiences as “divine” or “holy.” Take, for example, former athiest John Woodbridge. In an article on his re-conversion, he says:
I felt compelled to go up to the front of the church. I paused by a pew and asked God — if he existed at all — to accept my very meager faith because I did not believe much of anything. Something of an interior nature happened when I prayed that prayer. I felt as if I was now at least a theist — perhaps even a Christian.
“Something of an interior nature” is far too vague to logically ascribe to any one thing for sure. A longing for one’s childhood or family, a connection to a culture, the beauty or silence of the church’s architecture — any of these things could have been stirred Woodbridge. But because he immersed himself in a religious culture as an atheist, his instinct was to ascribe it to God.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that atheists cannot interact with religion. I do all the time — the majority of my friends and family identify as Christians, and I regularly read books and listen to debates on the subject. (I even watched The Prince of Egypt the other day and sang along whole-heartedly to “When You Believe,” because it’s an awesome song.) The key is to come at it from a place of skepticism and honest, rigorous thought. Simply participating without scrutinizing leaves you vulnerable.
Path #2: Lapsed Belief
In my very first blog post about my atheism, I discussed how much I hated the idea that atheists were believers who just quit:
Christianese has a selection of phrases for people who leave the faith, including: “backslidden,” (primarily Old Testament) “fallen away” (primarily New Testament) or “lapsed” (primarily institutional). These words all suggest that to leave the faith is an act of laziness, weakness, or lack of trying. If you no longer climb up, you slide back. If you no longer hold on, you fall away. If you no longer adhere to a set of rules or responsibilities, you have lapsed. With this kind of language ingrained in the Christian community, it’s no wonder that they view people who walk away as being weak (either mentally, emotionally, or spiritually).
Now, this could have been me. Before deciding to attend a private Christian college, I had applied and was accepted to another school. Kutztown University was two hours away from my super religious family, a public university with no ties to religion at all.
In that alternate dimension, my faith probably wouldn’t have made it, for no other reason than I was bored with it. Perhaps it’s simply that I can’t imagine a future where I remained Christian, but I am convinced I would have considered my religion a hinderance in enjoying the “college experience.” Without a Christian community to keep me accountable, I would have lapsed.
What is more, without the exposure to different (more progressive) strains of Christianity afforded me by attending a nondenominational Christian college, I would have made my decision to quit based on my very limited understanding of what it meant to “walk with Christ.” 18-year-old me only had one view of Christianity, courtesy of my preacher father: fundamentalist, conservative, judgmental, isolationist. There is no way such a faith would have lasted in a secular setting.
Atheists who take this path might be inspired by the intellectual freedom and lack of crushing weight of inherited guilt available to the nonbeliever. Or, they might simply enjoy sleeping in on Sundays, having sex, and keeping that 10% tithe out of the donation basket. All of these are extremely valid and real reasons to prefer atheism. It also isn’t enough to stave off a potential relapse.
Here’s why: It’s not borne out of an intellectual preference for skepticism. It’s a reaction — or a lack of action — and all it takes is one moment of guilt properly manipulated by an evangelizer explaining how you are “backslidden” to return you to the fold. This is their favorite kind of atheist, and they have memorized well-honed arguments that will convince and convict those who haven’t learned to skeptically evaluate and deconstruct religious logic.
Path #3: Anger At God
It’s strange how many believers think that atheists are angry at God; after all, you can’t be angry at something you don’t think exists. I can get angry at religion as a construct, at individuals manipulating others via that construct, and at the logical fallacies and intellectual dishonesty used to prop up individual belief. But I don’t get mad at God, and neither does any other real atheist. That would be like getting angry at the Washing Machine Gremlins for that lost left sock.
That does not mean, however, that anger at God can’t be a real and valid catalyst toward athiesm. In fact, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports some interesting statistics:
Studies in traumatic events suggest a possible link between suffering, anger toward God, and doubts about God’s existence. According to Cook and Wimberly (1983), 33% of parents who suffered the death of a child reported doubts about God in the first year of bereavement. In another study, 90% of mothers who had given birth to a profoundly retarded child voiced doubts about the existence of God (Childs, 1985). Our survey research with undergraduates has focused directly on the association between anger at God and self-reported drops in belief (Exline et al., 2004). In the wake of a negative life event, anger toward God predicted decreased belief in God’s existence.
While the source I linked calls atheism “a form of self-imposed intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or a case of vincible ignorance” (which is so profoundly wrongheaded and egotistical really deserves its own post), there is a valid point to this quoted research: anger at God can be a factor in later disbelief.
Anger towards a corrupt religion, believers who have hurt or taken advantage of you, or the personal delusion forced upon you from a young age are all extremely valid. Anger is also an amazing motivator: some of the “angriest” atheists — think Christopher Hitchens — made some of the biggest dents in religion’s population percentage. That’s likely one reason believers are so eager to dismiss anger as childish, ridiculous, or unfair — if anyone knows the power of righteous indignation, it’s religious folk.
But here’s the thing, anger fades. Forgiveness, not simply a Christian trait, happens with time and distance. And when the emotions wear off and you start to make peace with your past, atheism that isn’t backed by skeptical reasoning can wear off, too. As when dealing with the “lapsed” atheist in the previous section, believers have a lot of really convincing arguments to re-convert the angry atheist. Sometimes all it takes is an encounter with a truly loving, compassionate believer or a doctrine of “radical love” to convince you that “We aren’t all like that,” and to “Give it another chance,” and “Try the Truth.”
Path #4: Applied Skeptical Reasoning
I still remember the day I told my family I’d decided to attend Messiah College for my undergraduate degree. It was my graduation day, after the party. I found out that one of my best friends from high school was going, and we decided we’d try to room together.
Instead of the ecstatic response I had expected from my extremely religious family members, they got quiet and somber. “I’ve heard stories,” my aunt said in a worried voice. “Good Christian kids go to Messiah and leave believing in evolution.” Oh, how prophetic their concerns would end up being.
Now, I have many issues with Messiah College. But it is one of the more “progressive” of the Christian private colleges, miles ahead of Bob Jones or Liberty. And the professors there were willing to ask hard questions and delve into theological and biblical contentions with a level of intellectual integrity. They were still all (at least publicly) Christian, and the point of every class was still to steer us towards a deeper understanding of God and the Bible, but it wasn’t just fluff. I attribute this willingness to discuss Christianity to my eventual de-conversion (even though I didn’t start calling myself an atheist until after I left Messiah). Here are just some of the things I had to do before I could honestly question my faith:
- I learned about how the Bible was constructed, canonized, transcribed, and edited throughout history, which seriously put a dent in my conviction of its infallibility.
- I studied Koine Greek and translated scripture myself, which drove home the realization that mistakes are really easy to make and the mistranslation of a single word can change an entire doctrine.
- I took theology courses where the most basic fundamental presuppositions about God were challenged, and simple questions necessitated long, rambling, overly-complex answers that never fully satisfied.
- I read the writings of the church fathers, which revealed how much of my previously accepted dogma was not actually from the Bible, but from the thoughts of random men whose names I was just learning.
- I talked with Christians of other persuasions, denominations, and worldviews who challenged — if not completely upended — my own beliefs, all of them using the same Bible verses to prove contradictory points.
- I attended churches of all denominations and cultures looking for a version that felt right to me, and failed to find one that didn’t send up enormous red flags.
By the time I walked away from my faith, it was after a five-year search for answers. And even then, I wasn’t an atheist. It took another year of training myself to be a skeptical thinker and identify logical fallacies before I could make that leap.
In case it’s not clear, I don’t consider myself a “better” atheist because of how I lost my faith. I was lucky enough to come to atheism responsibly, it’s just how it happened. Others are not as lucky.
If one of these first three paths resonate with you, don’t worry! You’re still on the right track, you still have the right answer, and you are still ahead of about 90% of the population. My suggestion for you would be to make sure you have backed your reasonable lack of interest, your justified wish for freedom, and your valid emotional responses with some good old skepticism. It is the greatest tool we have, and we must utilize it at all times, lest we fall back into darkness.