About 172 million people worldwide consider themselves atheists, adding those who call themselves “unaffiliated” or “nonreligious” brings the number to around 1 billion. Atheism represents a variety of people with equally varied journeys. Some “found” atheism, others have been atheists since childhood. Many people easily transitioned into non-belief but many others found the journey difficult and heartbreaking. Some atheists are vocal activists while others aren’t safe to live openly as nonbelievers. Let’s celebrate our diversity! The labels don’t matter, but our stories do.
The Lifelong Atheist
Lifelong atheists grew up in atheist, or otherwise nonreligious families. They were born atheists (as are we all) and for the most part, have never been interested in religion beyond the academic. Most lifelong atheists find religious people perplexing. Having never been exposed to religious communities, they may find it difficult to understand religious people.
When Corey Evans was young, his parents allowed him to make up his own mind about religion. When invited to church, he was curious and went. He continued to go, but not as a believer. He asked a lot of questions and marveled when the people didn’t have answers or gave him answers that were trite. Corey was told that it wasn’t his place to ask questions. Once he asked the pastor why they would not accept gays and why they always condemned others for being wrong even though they couldn’t prove that other religions weren’t right. The pastor basically told him that he’s not the one who is allowed to make those choices, it was God who was the judge. It didn’t take Corey long to realize church wasn’t where he belonged. When he was nine or ten he left and never returned. “I’ve always felt that religion is holding us back from accomplishing something greater. It’s time for God to die, the universe is too big to be concerned with the mythological standards of religion.”
The atheist-at-heart is very similar to the lifelong atheist but they didn’t have the benefit of a supportive atheist community. Even though they might have been forced to participate in religion as a child, deep down, they never fully bought into it.
Jessika Yamily Pardio started off her young life in Mexico in a very eclectic family with no strict religious beliefs. After moving to America when she was six, Jessika’s mother (then divorced from her father) remarried. Her stepfather was a fundamentalist Christian so her family began attending a Baptist church. She was reluctant at first to accept her stepfather’s religion - after all, her grandfather was an atheist and told her “don’t believe everything anyone tells you, especially if they are trying to get you to think the way they do.” But over time, the influence of the church youth group wooed her into the fold, and at 12, she became a devoted Christian. When she was 14, Jessika began to feel the oppression of Christianity. She had always felt fluid in her sexuality and her first crush in fifth grade was on a female classmate. At the same time, she was hearing the church condemn homosexuality while demonstrating blatant hypocrisy by hiding the indiscretions of church leaders. At 15, it became clear to her that Christian ideology was a failure and she left the religion. Jessika’s atheist grandfather recently passed away and she is forever thankful that he planted the seeds of critical thinking.
The waffler has shifted between religion and non-belief in a variety of forms and for a variety of reasons - sometimes multiple times. Some people started out secular then sought out religion in times of crisis or (re)turned to religion because of marriage or children and later find their way to atheism.
Raised in a secular family, Armin Navabi was surrounded by religion in the Islamic Republic. Even though the ruling clerics were generally despised at the time, most people still would never think to question god or the prophet Muhammad. Around 9 or 10, he became very worried about hell, especially for his parents since they did not pray or fast, a requirement in Islam, for one to go to heaven. In his school, children were taught that boys couldn’t sin before age 15 (for girls, it was 9); no matter what they did, they would go to heaven if they died before 15. So he reasoned that he had a solution to his worry about hell - he would kill himself before he turned 15. When he was 12 years old, Armin jumped from a school window. He broke his left ankle in nine places, his right leg, his left hand and his back without cutting the spinal cord. He was in a wheelchair for seven months.
After his failed suicide attempt, Armin determined to live as a perfect Muslim. He became very zealous, even trying to get his parents to pray, which only served to annoy them. He developed a fascination in god, and a curiosity about all things related to god, including other religious views. While studying the history of religion, the more he thought about it, the more god seemed to be fabricated by man. Armin prayed many times, asking for a sign or direction to a logical proof of god’s existence, but to no avail. By 16, Armin was an agnostic searching for proof. But the fact that it was so hard to find evidence of god, turned him into an atheist by 18. His experience has given him an understanding of religious people as well as a conviction about the dangers of superstitious belief.
Seekers are often deep thinkers, hungry for answers. Some seekers explore and experience many different spiritual paths as they journey through life. Others have never considered themselves spiritual, but have always asked the hard questions, demanding to know “why?”. As atheists, seekers often make great skeptics.
Fiona Owens was born to a single mom who is a Wiccan. Early on, Fiona was the one always asking “why?”, never just accepting what she was told by anyone. When she was curious about the Christianity of her neighbor, her mom allowed her to visit a Sunday School class. After asking one too many difficult questions, Fiona was told she was no longer welcome. At 14, the concerns she had about her mother’s coven and the lack of answer from the church led her to reject religion for good. As an adult, she confronted her alcoholism and was told that without a higher power, she would fail, which made her think,“if I get the blame for drinking why should a higher power get the credit for my hard work while getting sober?” Facebook opened up the atheist community to her and she is glad she is no longer alone.
The rogue most likely grew up in a religious family (or came to religion at some point), conforming to the religious community and experiencing and expressing religion with sincere conviction. A combination of compelling atheist arguments and internal self-doubt led the rogue to abandon his/her religious convictions, often with a lot of hurt feelings and resentment. Rogues tend to become the most outspoken activists after having seen first-hand how much damage religion can cause.
April White Ward grew up in a fanatical Christian home. As a sensitive, creative child, the details of hell and sin forged deep-rooted fears that have followed her into adulthood. Convinced she could never make a right decision, that she was a horrible person and that she would be punished if she stepped out of line, April descended into a dark sea of self-loathing and self-punishing behavior. On the edge of a mental break, she decided to start reading the Bible at Genesis and write down all her questions. When her father got frustrated with her questions, telling her she couldn’t understand because she was a woman, her eyes were opened to the flaws and contradictions. She began to see how she had been manipulated and controlled, leaving her helpless, trapped and scared. She became furious. It was out of this fury that a desire to prove her worth took hold. Her mind kept trying to return to her old beliefs but the more she read the Bible, the clearer it became that it was all a lie.
April now considers herself an atheist. There is nothing left of Christianity in her. She is a strong, capable woman. Even though her family thinks she is demon-possessed and is pushing her away to the point of asking her to remove her maiden name from her Facebook account, she stands strong. “The scared little girl is still there, but she is a little less afraid. I will have to work on the esteem, but at least now I am searching for a way to feel whole. I’m certain that I will grow up and find my place in this world. I will fight for all the other scared little girls, and if I can help one to feel loved and whole, then I will deem my life a success.”
The Conscientious Objector
Like the rogue, this person chooses to leave religion as an adult, often to the chagrin of family and friends. The Conscientious Objector might actually desire to stay in religious community because they don’t want to hurt their family, but they cannot, in good conscience, continue to participate in things they don’t believe. They understand the religious impulse and are sympathetic to their religious friends and family.
When the Jehovah’s Witness missionaries would come to Natalia Sali’s door, her mother would respond, “We’re born Catholics, we will die Catholics,” right after offering them drinks and biscuits. Her father didn’t care about religion much until a few months before he died. Like many Catholics, they were regular churchgoers with very little knowledge of the Bible, not reading it much themselves. In college, she was focused on her studies and local activism to oust corrupt Philippine presidents, dismantle American military bases, getting health bills and welfare legislation passed, etc. When she was 24, she married a man from a Muslim family but because her family wanted to see her married in a Catholic church, her fiancé underwent baptism and confirmation.
After college, she worked for a Christian organization that helped the poor. During that time, she became a feminist and found it difficult to reconcile Christianity with feminism. After moving to England, Natalia joined a Filipino Evangelical Church. There were many elements of the religion she found absurd but she still believed in a God who was good and wanted to answer prayers. After being in England for two years which included much soul-searching, finding discrepancies in the Bible, reading books like In God We Doubt, by John Humphrys, and using common sense, Natalia became a closet atheist. Coming out in England was easy but back in the Philippines, her family was heartbroken. Natalia is very understanding of the impulse to turn to religion when people don’t have hope and works with many religious people in charity organizations. She is not keen to debate and really would like to be seen as a nice person. She wants people to see that that “atheists can be good, happy, decent, helpful, and successful without a god.”
The Reluctant Nonbeliever
While most atheists are content in their non-belief, some come by it kicking and screaming and may continue to pine for the days of certainty and religious community. Reluctant Nonbelievers may continue to consider themselves “spiritual” while maintaining a disbelief in any kind of higher power or mystical element to the world, or they may just wish they could believe for whatever reason - often thinking it would be “easier”. Some reluctant nonbelievers are atheists who live in very religious communities, finding atheism to be a very lonely path or think they “should” be religious.
Susi Bocks did not grow up in a religious home, but she still thought she was “supposed” to have religious conviction, or at least believe in god. When she was younger, Susi’s thoughts revolved around a feeling that there had to be a creator. She tried for years to find the creator. She went from church to church hoping for answers. One day, she stopped going to church for answers and just asked people questions. She experienced an epiphany after watching a movie called “The Rapture”, realizing that she could never follow this egomaniacal god that so many people wanted her to believe was real. She realized if there was a god, he was a dick. From that time on, having no evidence for a god, she called herself an atheist and feels free to experience the love of a husband, children and friends, not worrying about belief in the supernatural or the guilt and shame it can bring.
Whatever your path, finding your voice and telling your story can be a liberating experience, even if all you can do is start by telling it to yourself. Is now the time to share your personal pathway to atheism? We would be honored to create a platform for you. Reply to this email to tell us your story and we might publish it on the Atheist Republic website. Please be clear about how you want your name to appear. You also have the option of using a pseudonym or remaining anonymous.
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