Is atheism a phase?

I’ve been wondering lately if atheism is a phase. No, I don’t mean wondering if atheism is a phase people go through on their way back into religion, but rather wondering if atheism can serve as a phase to something else. Let me explain.

If there was no such thing as religion, no one would call themselves an “atheist.” They would just, well, be. I have a colleague who doesn’t believe in a deity, but who would never even think of going to an atheist conference or a secular alliance meeting. Her lack of belief in God doesn’t mean anything to her – it just is. I’ve been told that in countries with large non-religious populations there generally aren’t atheist clubs or meetings because there’s no need for them. An atheist meeting, after all, is like meeting around a negative: people who don’t believe in Santa don’t have meetings, and people who don’t believe in leprechauns don’t have meetings.

So I guess my question is, is a strong identification as an “atheist” a phase? I have an acquaintance for whom it was. When he first identified as an atheist, it meant something to him, and he was very open and engaged about it. Today, well, he just…doesn’t believe in God. And that’s it. It doesn’t impact his life or how he sees himself any more than not believing in Santa does.

Now obviously, for some people, a strong identification as an atheist absolutely isn’t a phase: some people attend skeptic conventions all their lives. This leads to a question I get sometimes: If you don’t believe in God, why are you so interested in disproving him or in arguing with others about it? The implication, of course, is that if you have a strong identification as an atheist you must be secretly concerned that God does exist and you therefore fighting against theism and attending atheist meetings is a way to assure yourself that he really doesn’t. Is that what’s going on with people who strongly identify with atheists, as opposed to those who just, well, don’t believe? I don’t think so, and here’s why:

We have atheist groups and meetings in this country because the vast, vast majority of the population is theist. Because of this, (a) atheists sometimes face discrimination; (b) atheists who grew up in religious families often face difficult problems; and (c) atheists who live in conservative areas can feel out of place. Furthermore, for atheists who grew up in highly religious families their rejection of the beliefs they held growing up may permanently shape their identities and their psyche. An atheist meeting offers a group of people who understand the struggles you face with family or conservative colleagues (it can serve as a place where you can be yourself without fear of rejection) and it can also serve as a point of activism, both for promoting a positive image of atheism and for working against discrimination.

I would posit, then, that atheists who come from highly religious backgrounds and/or live in highly conservative areas are more likely to be drawn to atheist groups than those who did not grow up in very religious families and do not live in very conservative areas.

There’s another reason for atheist groups and conferences. There are atheists who see religion as a disease and see leaving fairy tales behind completely as the cure. They see religion as something that causes active harm, sort of a cancer, living on its host. They believe the world would be better off without religion, and they want to share that message. Atheist groups and conferences can serve for these individuals as a platform and brainstorming session for these sorts of ideas.

Now I want to clarify first that not all atheists see religion as a destructive cancer and second that the vast majority of those who do see it that it that way nevertheless don’t fit the “angry atheist” stereotype. I personally do think that religion does more harm than good and that it is inherently problematic, but at the same time I’m not sure that organizing to oppose religion does any real good. And like most atheists who see religion as inherently problematic, I can see it this way and still understand why people embrace religion and also have fulfilling friendships with religious individuals.

So, back to my original question: Is atheism a phase? I think for many people it is, or at least it will be. Many who are not religious will see no need to attend atheist meetings or read atheist literature, and that number will probably increase in the future if the percentage of non-religious Americans increases. Others, though, will always carry a strong identification with atheism. Perhaps it will be because they face grief from highly religious families or local communities and crave like-minded friends for a chance to let their hair down. Perhaps those who grew up in highly religious families will be permanently shaped by their walk away from belief leading their atheism to become an integral part of who they are. Still others will see so many problems with religion that they will want to do something about it, to spread their message of life beyond belief and work against the negative affects of religion with the message that there is another way.

As for myself, I don’t know. Will being an atheist be important to me in twenty years the way it is now, or will it be as irrelevant to me as my lack of belief in Santa? I really can’t say. Only time will tell.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • The Elephant’s Child

    My own view is that identifying as atheist was a phase. I had divorced the Biblical god some time earlier, but after reading Sam Harris's first book, I began to use the word "atheist" to describe myself. However, this made me re-evaluate all my thinking about religion up to that point. I found that (being of Jewish background), I missed a practice even though I did not miss thesitic belief. Over time, I began practicing Buddhism. I still don't believe in any gods, but disbelief is not my focus — practice is my focus.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    I agree with your post precisely because I'm on the other end of the spectrum having being raised by a fairly atheistic family.My parents are atheist but they never said to me that God didn't exist but tey didn't teach me about it either (my grandmother tried 'though) and when I was 5 years old I was asked if I wanted to go to religion class (a subject in school) or Etics (the alternative in those times). I still remember that I told my mum I wouldn't go because I didn't believe in God even 'though they had an awesome colour book I wanted. I know many people don't blieve in letting 5-6 y o to choose but I'm pretty proud of my mom for leting me do it in this topic.Getting back on topic, this marked me throguh the chool years and although I barely knew what atheist meant I felt segreagated form my classmates but when I reached High School and then University not believing in God was like not believing in Santa as you've put in your article.I've never gone to an atheist meeting or rally (although I don't think there are many around) nor have I felt the necessity (even if my country has a majority of catholics over the rest). I have felt at ease and so I havent' felt the need to identify with religious orientation or lack there off. It's this type of things I read in your blog and some oter stuff that make myself become a bit more atheist militant than I've ever beng. It also makes me proud to be Atheist (well an atheist who doesn't complete sut down the possibility of a superior being existing because she can't prove it but finds it completely unlikely) to read people like you and others doing reasonable logical arguments and who do not fall into name-calling debates with people who don't share their opinion.Also, although I find impossible to believe in the existence of any kind of God or similar and I think the ammount of damage church and religion have done is sad and terifying; I still think that if someone truly believes that tere is a merciful God watching over them and an eternal life waiting for them, they are lucky because it must give them a lot of peace (without wanting to insult anyone: ignorance is bliss). I know you haven't precisely felt that peace of heart but more liberal circles might.

  • Abby Spice

    YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN SANTA?!(In all seriousness–I just don't have anything to add. I adore your blog and often want to post just to say "I agree", but that sounds kind of lame, so I went with an attempt at humor…)

  • Anonymous

    I honestly equate believing in Santa with believing in God. It's cool if you don't, just don't be that kid that goes around telling all the other kids just how wrong they are and that their parents are the ones that put presents under the tree and ruin the fun. For the record, I also feel the same way about people going around saying that there's a god, however, I can't equate people saying Santa is real with people saying God is real, because it seems like people figure out the Santa thing on their own, and Santa seems so much more harmless.

  • Anonymous

    I don't think it's a phase so much as it is an identity. Moreover, I think you're partially right, but for the wrong reason. That is, I think people in conservative areas are more likely to be drawn to atheism as an identity because it gives them a community — both online an IRL. Being an atheist in Alabama can be really lonely. I think this also explains a lot of the demographics, namely, why white women and minorities who don't believe in a higher power don't accept this label. The atheist community's love affair with social darwinism encourages sexism and racism that makes us uncomfortable.

  • Anonymous

    I always remember what I learnt in class when we were learning about Darwin and Lamark. Biological evolution is "darwinian", social evolution is "Lamarkian". I found it a pretty quote.Now, being more serious, I haven't met a single atheist who defended (key word being defend) sexist or racist theories yet(although we are all a bit skewed by our upbringing in this imperfect society). I'll probably meet one tomorrow to prove me wrong as I'm sure there are a few around, what I want to say is that I don't know why would atheism be linked to those kind of backward ideas. Believing in evolution doen't mean you believe only the stronger need to survive in our society (I'm an asthmatic, miopic woman so I'm very happy for that XP).If I've missundersttod you, I'm really sorry.

  • Caravelle

    I've identified as an atheist for most of my life, I've actually been one for pretty much all of it and I've only been following the atheist community for the last few years. I don't live in a place where atheists are oppressed or even the minority. Yet atheism and the questions around it are fairly important to me; I've always been interested in how the world works and how we know what we know, and atheism/religion debates are just one more way of exploring that question.If we lived in a world where nobody believed in God I think although the label "atheist" might be obsolete, the overall questions would still be active because there will always be people attracted to supernatural concepts and explanations, and there will always be argument as to whether those things are real or not and what that all means. And religion would still exist as a historical reality so people would learn about it and understand that they're atheists. Kind of like I would identify as an abolitionist, even though the actual debate on slavery that the word applies to has been dead for over a century. (slavery isn't dead, but it's changed)Now I agree there wouldn't be atheist meetings. But there might be atheist-world equivalents, like skeptic meetings or, um, science conferences… about epistemology… Of course the proportion of people really interested in the question would go way down.

  • Sheena

    I don't think that beliefs (whether Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Pastafarian…) are a phase. That, to me, implies that *having* or *not having* religious or philosophical beliefs, or the beliefs themselves, is something that WILL change — like the "I only want to eat macaroni & cheese" stage little kids go through. I do think that the zealous and intense devotion (especially regarding "evangelism", i.e. "my beliefs are right and EVERYONE should have them") is more of a phase for most people. It's like during the teen/college years, when people are discovering and developing a sense of identity, and spend a few weeks to a few years so FOCUSED on one aspect of self-perception. Religious beliefs are just barely ahead of social identity or style (if you watch any TV show focused on high school/college students, there are the music kids, the athletes, the "Popular" types, the artists, the ultra-Christian kids, the goth kids, etc). And while some of those labels are more "exclusive" (like popularity), other groups fluctuate based on who's around at the time, and (especially athletics and any kind of performance group) are occasionally interested in "recruiting" — like the zealous evangelism phase in whatever belief system. Basically, I'd say that the extreme enthusiasm and desire to persuade is a phase, but the beliefs themselves are not.

  • Katy-Anne

    I don't think it's a phase and I think it's probably hard for you to be an atheist in America so I think you should go to all the meetings you want. After all, us Christians do. :)

  • boomSLANG

    "people who don't believe in Santa don't have meetings, and people who don't believe in leprechauns don't have meetings." Except that we don't have grown adults telling us that Santa and leprechauns exist and that we need to believe in and/or have "faith" in said characters. If we did? We'd probably have meetings centered around how to deal with these people. On the other hand, since we *do* have grown adults telling us the same stuff about invisible, conscious, creator-beings, AKA "God", it sometimes leads to a, b, and c in your article, hence, the meetings. As an aside – and keeping with the analogy – if someone told me that I have Santa all wrong and that he's not the strict fellow as seen in the book, "T'was the Night Before Christmas", and that he brings presents to ALL children, even the naughty ones, I would find that equally disconcerting. = /

  • Wendy

    My atheism would idle in the background if I weren't bombarded with religion all day long. (I live in the bible belt.) So, protecting my children from bigotry and defending myself from Christian privilege requires some vigilance.The fervency of some atheists reminds me of the OWS protesters. Mostly young, passionate people with a few older people really committed to the cause. Or the Breastfeeding Warrior Moms who run Le Leche League and stage protests at the mall.I feel grateful to the contributions these folks make, and I'm glad I don't have to!

  • Anonymous

    You pretty much laid out the two aspects of it. Atheism as activism (this one should be a phase) and as a personal philosophy.In my country, the church has always been a top-down authoritarian force, as opposed to the grassroots community-building, bottom-up strategy of American denominations. Because of that, most people see the church as a political lobby which, like any other lobby, tries to influence politics, and the actual doctrine doesn't matter much for the general population. When you listen to the opposition to the church here, it's almost always on political grounds, not on theological terms, and that's because the theological terms are a lost cause because most people aren't believers, even if they like to say they are they don't act or live like one. That's the reason why there aren't many meetings, but on the other hand you have plenty of demonstrations against religiously inspired law proposals, which is the sort of action you would expect against an undesirable political power. I guess it's just other kind of activism, adapted to other kind of relationship between religion and the state.

  • Exrelayman

    Atheism would exist purely on a personal skepticism level if not for the effects of theism in the real world. We see politicians proclaiming belief to buy votes. We see theists combating Roe vs Wade. They are not honest enough to combat it directly, but through the sly invidious 'personhood' amendments, combined with the ridiculous and ineffective 'abstinence only' birth control doctrine. We see theists saying 'teach the controversy', which sounds reasonable except that among real biologists there is no controversy – any controversy is between the ignorant and the knowledgeable. We see theists at war in northern Ireland, Shiite vs Sunni, etc.If you don't want religionists to control the way you live, your child's education, your governments actions, or to force a return to butcherous illegal back alley abortions for you, your wife, or your daughters, it behooves you to raise your voice, if only on the internet, against the superstition called religion. So yeah, it can be a phase if you (generic you) are apathetic about these issues, otherwise not so much.

  • Abby Spice

    Actually, I'll add another comment. I don't identify as an atheist particularly, but I am Jewish, and when I lived in Oklahoma I found that I had a "phase" of being *very* Jewish. In New York, it can be passive. I don't have to do anything, I'm just Jewish, whatever. In Oklahoma, I went to services much more, I was active in the Jewish community, I was always on guard. I had to be. Buckle of the Bible Belt. The Jewish community there was pretty tight-knit, because we had to cling together.I think that the "phases" come a) at the beginning of finding a (non-)belief or new piece of your identity (when I first came out as gay I was SUPER GAY, now I'm like whatever), or b) when your identity is a minority and challenged. And I love Exrelayman's comment above. Truth.

  • PersonalFailure

    It really is personal and has many facets to it. My husband and I are both atheists, but he won't even call himself an atheist. He doesn't have another word for it, he simply refuses any label. He doesn't read atheist blogs or argue about religion or anything. He was also raised in a nonreligious household and has never really been impacted by religion one way or the other.I, on the other hand, was raised in a very Catholic household, attended Catholics schools, went to a Catholic college and have been otherwise very affected by religion. So maybe it's not a surprise that I am an activist atheist with a blog and very strong opinions on the matter.As to where any of us will be twenty years from now, who can say? That's part of the pleasure of life, you just don't know.

  • Anonymous

    As a fellow blogger I thought you might find interesting this attempt to shut down sckeptical blogs.

  • Cluisanna

    "I don't think that beliefs (whether Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Pastafarian…) are a phase."Atheism isn't a belief, it is a lack of belief. Just wanted to point that out.

  • Glen

    You make a good point in that areas where religion isn't that important don't tend to generate a lot of "labeled" atheism. My girlfriend is from an area in Europe where religion is practiced mostly as a tradition (she's never read the bible, for example), and so my rather frequent complaining about theists was foreign to her, until she got involved in some discussions with some of my fundamentalist facebook acquaintances. After that, it was more clear to her that America needs a strong atheist movement do to all the crazies we have around here.I think it's going to be a while before non-believers as a whole can cease to utilize an identifying label. The reasons for this are that 1) religion is a persistent, parasitic idea, that will surge up whenever given the opportunity, and 2) even as people accept more liberal principles, they still tend to fit themselves into the spiritual category they're familiar with. Number 2 might not seem like such a bad thing, but I do think even a adhering in name to a specific religious tradition is damaging to free thinking. People that passively accept tradition are likely to go with the flow, and accept incorrect ideas if they don't really seem to matter. Perhaps it's the obstinate skeptic in me, but even "harmless" fairy tales are harmful if they prevent people from taking responsibility for their lives and understanding the world in an empirical fashion.While I must share the thought that one can never tell the future until the future arrives, I tend to imagine that I will always identify as atheist so long as organized religion exists (which will be for at least my lifespan; I have no delusion that a parasite that managed to cling to humanity for thousands of years will dissolve in my mere century). This is because I think religion is harmful to humanity, and one of the best things we can do for social advancement is to overcome it and take responsibility for our own destiny. Perhaps the term for my sentiments in this regard would better be described as antitheist, but I prefer to use atheist in most cases, because it allows me to easily make the case that non-belief is a default state, and that my position is not akin to "just another religion."

  • Psyence

    I liked reading your blog. You wrote it well and I think it changed my mind, even if just a little… :)