From Believer to Atheist

This paper is heavily adapted from a public talk I gave to a Christian discussion group in the Oak Park, Illinois main library on September 17, 2000. I want to thank my co-speaker, atheist-turned-Christian Paul Smith for his honesty, integrity, and eloquence, and the largely Christian audience for their warmth and understanding.


Although history records no shortage of people who have left the religion in which they were raised, and who sometimes even turn from any semblance of organized religion altogether, considerably fewer have ended up rejecting even the general proposition that there is a god. I am one of those few who has journeyed the lonely path from religious belief to atheism. Because openly avowed atheism is still uncommon in American society, many are interested in how people like me came to be where we are. What exactly led me to atheism, and what was it like to make that journey?

That is the story I will try to tell here.

It is a story that is partially obscured by the fog of time, since the process I went through was gradual and protracted, and I made no written record of it as it occurred. I have, however, tried to be as accurate as possible, limiting myself to events that remain salient in my memory.

Note that this is autobiography and not philosophy; I am not attempting to prove the truth of atheism here, so my story will be light on argument. Philosophical critique can be found elsewhere, for instance in other papers on Ninewells or the Secular Web.

Note also that I speak only for myself; my experiences may not be representative of most believers who have become atheists. Or they may be. I do not know.

Anyway, let me begin my tale.

Growing up liberal

My father is a Roman Catholic and my mother is a Lutheran. This should already say something about my religious upbringing: when a Catholic and a Protestant are willing to get married, it is a safe bet that they are both actually Unitarians. My parents did believe it was important for their children to believe in God and have a religion, so they agreed that my brother and I would be raised within a religious context; for reasons that still are not clear to me, they decided that that context would be Roman Catholic. I know my mother always planned to take me and my brother to a Lutheran service someday, and I think we might actually have gone once, but almost all of my religious environment was Roman Catholic: I was baptized a Roman Catholic, and attended Catholic religious education classes and Catholic mass. But my parents did not imbue me with the spirit of what I take to be the true Roman Catholic, who views his religion as the exclusive path to God, and who views Scripture and Church doctrine as sacred and infallible. Rather, I was taught the more personalized and loosely universalist believing attitudes that I once thought most Americans and Europeans shared (perhaps it is true of Europeans, but I am not at all sure about Americans anymore): I was taught that being a good person mattered more than assent to doctrine, that all of the major religions probably worshipped the same god in the end, that religion taught us how to go to heaven and science how the heavens go, that the Bible was written by inspired but fallible men who sometimes attributed to God their personal and sometimes barbaric moral attitudes, that God was a great mystery but faith in him was the greatest virtue, and that hell was only for murderers and televangelists. All of this had exactly nothing to do with Catholicism, and I remember being unclear even into my early teens about exactly what role Jesus played in Christianity. I think I thought of him as a good man who had been murdered (I cried over a movie that showed him being nailed to the Cross, just because he was in pain) and then resurrected.

I was content with this for a very long time. However, by the time I reached the age of fourteen, around the time I was preparing to undergo Confirmation, things had changed dramatically. I am not sure exactly why or how, but I had by that time become far more serious about religion than I had been even a few years earlier. If I may be permitted to speculate on my own psychology a bit, I think that was the tail end of a couple of years in which I had the normal growing experience of coming to realize that my parents were not infallible, and that they sometimes could even be quite unfair; so, having lost the ability of the child to worship perfectly the parents, but still feeling the need to have someone perfect to look up to, I cast my net elsewhere, and God was the logical candidate. If this does explain why I became a fervent believer, then I have followed the path of millions of believers throughout time, who have embraced religious belief as a substitute for some form of personal loss.

But when you become serious about something, you become serious about it, and aspects of it that you may have ignored before can become problematic. For me, becoming serious about god highlighted the contradiction between the doctrines of my church and the teachings of my parents, between the dictates of scripture and the beliefs I had absorbed from popular culture. I recognized that my parents and peers believed what they did about God not because it was licensed by scripture or by church doctrine, but because it was comfortable and habitual to them. Was I to contradict God’s dictations (or semi-dictations), or the authority of his representatives on earth, whose spiritual ancestors had interacted with God in the flesh, just because I found some of what they said uncomfortable or counterintuitive? Understanding even back then that comfort is a very poor guide to truth, I abandoned my muddled religious upbringing. I focused my entire being upon God. And in time, my entire being was filled by God.

Love, compassion, and torture

How exactly I came to have personal experience of God is another one of those things that is covered in haze right now. I do not recall any lightning-from-the-sky event, in which God suddenly revealed himself to me in all of his glory. But by the time Confirmation was over, I had given myself over to him entirely. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were alive for me, as much as any person in this room right now. I spoke to God for hours in prayer every night, and listened for a response. I loved God, I worshipped him, and I viewed myself in utter contempt next to him. My goal in life was to become a priest or a monk, so as to better worship and glorify God with my every action and my every thought. My world was a world where God was in heaven and on earth, in me and around me, and everything from the farthest corners of the universe to the deepest recesses of my own heart, were filled and consumed with the fire of God’s eternal majesty and perfect love.

And yet, this was a world of torture.

In the religious world I occupied, there is a place called Hell, where many people—even kind people who do good works but simply lack certain beliefs or have failed to go through the appropriate rituals—are condemned to suffer inconceivable torment for all eternity, with no chance of escape or redemption. Viewing myself as a sinner, I was never entirely convinced that I was not going to end up there. I was never sure whether I had adequate faith or was devoted to God as much as I should be. In fact, I usually felt sure I fell far short of the standards God set for me. But that wasn’t really the problem, since God was just. If I was worthy of salvation, then there was no question that I was saved. If I was not worthy of salvation, then whatever fate God chose for me was appropriate, and if he found me unworthy I would go to Hell with his name on my lips and love for him in my heart.

The problem rested in one thing that has remained constant throughout my entire life: I felt a degree of compassion towards others which was incompatible with an equally joyous acceptance of their going to Hell.

In Chapter 3 of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a priest named Father Arnall gives a wonderful and terrible and very, very long description of the Roman Catholic conception of Hell. It is way too long for me to quote here in its entirety, so I will limit myself to part of Arnall’s description of the fire of Hell and his description of the duration of Hell. I am not trying to draw any conclusions here about what the “real” Christian doctrine of Hell is, if there is such a thing, but am simply describing what I thought of Hell when I was a Christian.

Here is part of what Father Arnall says about the fire:

The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures…But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man…whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner…Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns so that the more intense it is the shorter its duration: but the fire of hell has this property that it preserves that which it burns and though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages forever…And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of these wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls…It is a fire which proceeds directly from God, working not of its own activity but as an instrument of divine vengeance…Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.

And here’s what Father Arnall says about the duration of Hell:

Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pains of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last for ever. But while they are everlasting they are at the same time, as you know, intolerably intense, unbearably extensive. To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.

Now for me the thought of anyone—even someone like Hitler or Torquemada—being condemned to something like that, was horrifying beyond comprehension. For all of the suffering Hitler and Torquemada have inflicted upon others, it has still only been a finite amount. So, to picture even them, much less kind and compassionate people who simply lacked the appropriate religious belief—to picture them thrashing and screaming in pain with the eternal rising and sinking of Father Arnall’s mountains of sand, shook me to my very core. If I could have spared even the greatest mass-murderer in history, much less a kindhearted unbeliever, the torment of Hell by taking his place myself, compassion would have driven me to do so without hesitation.

And yet, to be willing to do such a thing was to oppose myself to God’s justice, and to oppose oneself to God was the greatest sin imaginable. Thus, I would spend hours each night not only pleading with God to spare everyone, but begging his forgiveness for the arrogance and lack of faith present in the plea itself. I would pray to understand the justice of Hell, and then chastise myself for not being able simply to take it as an article of faith. I was being torn in half by compassion on the one hand, and love of God on the other.

The opposite pulls of these two very different kinds of love did not turn me into atheist; however, without such torture, I do not believe my eventual transformation would have been possible. Had my religious worldview not contained Hell, I believe it would have been too pleasant for me ever to have given up, no matter what the evidence against it. As a believer, I considered atheism one of the most terrifying views around. But even atheism paled in comparison to the thought of even one sentient being suffering for all eternity. I believe it was my moral discomfort with Hell that made me receptive to intellectual problems with the existence of god that I would otherwise have never given a fair hearing, although as I will explain, I still gave those problems very little credence for a long time.

To this day, I continue to believe that Hell is the greatest abomination possible. It is unfathomable to me that anyone could think it just to send anyone there, and yet, I know people who absolutely relish the thought, with virtual lip-smacking delight, of people who merely disagree with them being sent there. To this day, I am very proud of my old self for being more compassionate than that, for resisting that horrible doctrine; but, at the time, that situation created a situation for me that was itself a pale imitation of Hell.

Tension and revelation

There were two main intellectual problems that set me down the path to atheism.

The first problem was the problem of suffering, which is often somewhat misleadingly referred to as the problem of evil. We all know the drill: if there is an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful god, who loves each of us perfectly and infinitely, why do so many people suffer so horribly for no apparent reason? When a child molester kidnaps a little girl and tortures, sodomizes, and strangles her, what possible reason could God have had for not stepping in and stopping the act? Almost anyone with the power to intervene would do so, and anyone who could have intervened but chose not to would be viewed by all of us in exactly the same light as the child molester. Yet we are supposed to take it as an article of faith that when God fails to do what we would require of anyone else, God must be doing exactly the right thing. And most of the responses I had heard to the problem of suffering seemed shallow and inadequate: they were responses that no one would ever accept as legitimate excuses for a human being who failed to act, or even for any god other than the one they were already convinced was good. But I did not react to all of this by becoming an atheist.

Atheism just was not a live option for me at all—it was on par with the notion that there might not actually be a material world at all: something I acknowledged abstractly as a possibility, but which I never truly viewed as a possibility, and hence never really considered seriously. After all, I had personal experience of God—I knew his existence and his goodness first-hand. So when the possibility that God did not exist seemed to present itself to me, I dismissed it summarily without taking a good look at it. And so, it seemed to me that God must have a good reason for permitting rape, murder, child molestation, and all of that, and to whatever extent the problem worried me at times, I reacted to such worries in the same way as I did to the problem of Hell: condemning myself for the sinfulness and arrogance of not having complete faith in God.

The second problem doesn’t have a name that I know of, but its essence is captured by a question I had wondered about long before I began to have personal experience of God: what would things seem like to me if I had been raised in Iran? Well, no doubt I would be a Muslim, and believe in Allah, my mother told me. And of course, she was right. Now, this was not much of a problem in my liberal days, because all religions worshipped the same god, and were thus equally legitimate. But when I started to have personal experience of the Christian god, this knowledge took on more of an edge. I viewed it as a given that Islam and Christianity could not both be true, and that Christianity was true, and that Islam therefore must be false. But could I imagine a Muslim who experienced the reality of their god in exactly the same way as I experienced the reality of the Christian god? If I could, then that would mean that it was possible for a person to seem to have an absolutely convincing experience of a deity, and yet be mistaken. But if it was possible for an absolutely convincing experience of a deity to not really be a true experience of that deity, then wouldn’t that imply that my experiences might not be true? Could I blithely assert that perhaps it might be possible for Middle Easterners to deceived, but that I was so much better than them that there was no chance of my being deceived? Well, this is precisely what I did for quite a while. On top of that, I reacted in the same way as I had to the problem of Hell and the problem of suffering any doubts that appeared in my mind were condemned as betrayal of god, and pushed out of my mind as quickly and fully as possible.

But unfortunately for my religious belief, no one is the sole master of their own mind. Suppressed thoughts do not go away forever. If Freud is right, sometimes they reemerge in the form of unconscious behavior like nervous tics. Other times the unconscious seems to work on suppressed problems, and then pushes them back into the conscious arena in a new and improved form. Probably everyone has had some practical or mathematical problem solved while they slept overnight, or while they put it aside to do something else. I’ve personally experienced the bizarre phenomenon of mastering my high school Spanish lessons during a summer in which I did not practice Spanish at all. Something like this seems to have happened with the ill-formed questions I was having about the existence of God.

There came a point in time when the question finally emerged fully into my conscious mind and presented itself before me, stark and horrible: what if there actually was no god? What made this event so different from my previous ill-formed doubts is that this time around I was able to treat atheism as a live option. For a few seconds, I was not a religious mind, viewing atheism from behind a Plexiglas shield and handling it with industrial gloves, but a neutral mind, considering what the world looked like through both religious and atheistic eyes. For an ephemeral moment, I saw that the anomalies present in my religious perspective dissolved in the light of atheism. If there was no god, then there was no divine hand to intervene into suffering and terror, and hence I ought to expect the world to look the way it does. More importantly, when I considered what my experience of Christ looked like from a neutral perspective, unconstrained by the presuppositions and emotions that had demanded I affirm the experience as real and infallible, I saw the experience for what it was. I did not see a man with direct and infallible perception of a supernatural being, but rather a mere mortal, entangled in a coherent stream of imagination sustained by hope, habit, guilt, and fear.

Desperation, agnosticism, and atheism

Was I, then, an atheist all of the sudden? No, not at all. As quickly as the experience came, it vanished again, and I was back in Christendom, horrified at my lack of faith and convinced that I had betrayed someone I loved more than life itself. The experience of neutrality was transitory. This was not a mystical experience, were everything gets decided once and for all in a flash of powerful insight. But at the same time, it signaled a turning point.

With the illusion of personal infallibility once consciously bypassed, reason had now established a toehold in the realm of the emotions and thought patterns that had once held me hostage, and the neutral perspective would come back to me repeatedly, and would last longer and longer each time. A drawn out war had begun between the faint spark of reason that had lived in me from birth, and the phantoms of the mind that continuously condemned me for betrayal. I started to realize that even if there was a god, I had never really known that fact at all, but had merely incorrectly believed I knew it. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a god, but it certainly meant that I had no idea what, if anything, was out there. I was becoming agnostic.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “agnostic” but I remember distinctly the excitement I felt when I looked the word up in the dictionary the first time and saw that it described exactly where I was. By that time, I had tentatively begun the process of searching through the world, picking up pieces from science and from the different religions, and trying to get as much of the picture as I could to see what made the most sense. All of this, though, happened under the constant bombardment of guilt and fear. I had long been in the habit of believing serious doubt to be a sin and a betrayal, and such habits are not easily overcome, even when the cause has become distant. But eventually, over the course of years, that little spark of reason fanned itself into a huge conflagration which consumed and purified my mind. I came to realize that if there was a god, the only way I could be true to him was by doing exactly what I was doing: engaging in an honest search in every way I knew how, looking for evidence, and trusting that if there was a god who wanted me to believe, that that god would not lead me into error. I came to understand that I could not do, and could not be expected to do, anything other than what I was doing. I believe the first revelation occurred around the age of sixteen, and this final piece locked into place at around the age of eighteen.

During my college years, I made a lot of progress on the intellectual front. For one thing, I developed what can only be called a compulsion for reading. I started reading religion, science, and philosophy in virtually every spare scrap of time. For the first time, in fact, I read the New King James Version of the Bible cover-to-cover, something which I had never actually done as a believer. I also started to hang out with religious groups on campus, invite door-to-door missionaries into my house, and make contacts with other religious skeptics over the Internet. Finally, I changed my major from biology and chemistry to philosophy in my second year of college and immersed myself in the field, always focusing on the implications of what I studied for the existence of god. I prayed, I studied, I agonized.

I believe it was, at long last, a few months into my first year of graduate school, at the age of twenty-one, when I realized that the weight of evidence I had amassed had swung from “neutral” to “no, there probably is no god,” and that I was no longer an agnostic, but rather an atheist. This last change was quite mundane: it was a matter of gathering evidence and assessing it as thoroughly and honestly as possible. I concluded at the time that the sum of the evidence I had access to supported atheism over theism. This conclusion has on average grown stronger ever since, although on occasion, I have encountered an argument or a piece of evidence that, at least for a time, has caused me to take a few steps in the opposite direction.

I also should mention that around the time I became an atheist, I was invited to become Secretary of Internet Infidels, Inc., a non-profit organization which maintains an outstanding website called the Secular Web. During my tenure as Secretary, the website began to attract the attention of high-quality philosophers of religion, and so I was able to interact on a day-to-day basis with educated men and women who presented compelling defenses of atheism and critiques of religion. Although I eventually resigned the position, I continued for many years to maintain a strong connection to the site, and to some of the wonderful people who managed and contributed to it. Not only have they had an enormous impact upon my intellectual development, their compassion and integrity have helped set the standards I try to live up to every day.

Where to now?

My studies, of course, are not by any means finished. Although I have probably already studied the question of whether or not god exists more intensely than most people do in their entire lives, I believe I have only touched upon a small fraction of the information out there, and I despair of getting enough to satisfy me before I die. But you do what you can.

I should add, in case you are wondering what I hope to find in the end, that there is nothing I would like more than to discover that there is an all-good god. Even if there is only an all-good being out there who is not all-powerful, or all-knowing, or our creator, or anything else, I would still want to know about it so I could give it the respect and the loyalty that are its due. But in the absence of supernatural intervention, I have to go where my studies lead me—they are my best bet at finding out what the truth is. If my studies continue to confirm atheism, as I suspect they will, then I will remain an atheist, and I will die an atheist, and if this turns out to be the way things go, I hope that whatever else everyone may believe, no one will judge me or anyone who is like me to be an evil or dishonest person because of it.

Whether believers or atheists or agnostics, I hope we can all come to view one another with mutual respect and tolerance, and I hope that whatever our beliefs, we will find a way to work together for greater peace and understanding. If this talk helps to bring our communities closer together by even a fraction of an inch, I will consider it a success.