People love to say that atheism is a religion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the smug assertion “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” I know good and well what they’re trying to say, but I always want to ask them, “Does that mean faith is a bad thing now, or is something you can have too much of?” It seems to me they are using a definition of faith here which means “drawing conclusions before collecting enough information to do so.” I wonder if they’re willing to follow that definition through to its logical conclusion? Most likely it’s meant to be a snarky sound bite, although it’s one which they clearly haven’t thought through well enough. I also hasten to add that this is yet another case of Christians projecting their own issues onto the rest of us.
[Read “Ten Things Christians Accidently Tell Me About Themselves” to see more examples of what I mean.]
I could spend a lot of time explaining the fundamental differences between evidence-based reasoning versus predicating truth claims on the religious authority of ancient texts. I could also explain that most atheists aren’t making positive claims about the nonexistence of all conceivable gods, which means there aren’t actually any claims that require testing in the first place (See my “Agnostic or Atheist? What’s the Difference?” for more on that). But I’d much rather use my own story to explain how utterly different the trip into religion is from the trip out of it. I think that gets at the same issue from a different angle.
Call it a sociological or psychological look at the difference between Christianity and atheism. Whatever you call it, the point is that becoming an atheist was for me a process fundamentally different from becoming a Christian. Here are six obvious differences that occur to me upon first reflection (I originally said five but I miscounted!):
Five Six Ways My Deconversion Was Nothing Like My Conversion
1.) I joined the faith as a part of a group; I left the faith alone. I grew up in a Christian home and attended a Southern Baptist church throughout my childhood but my “conversion” experience in which I was “born again” happened just before I turned 16. It was at a large youth evangelism conference and I was surrounded by nearly 3,000 of my peers. By contrast, my journey out of my faith 20 years later was a solitary one. I tried talking to people about my questions, but in that world, doubts are seen as challenges to overcome rather than clues to be followed wherever they lead. In the end I had to go it alone.
2.) When I became a Christian, I received a ton of help. When I left, there was no one. Because my initiation into the church (both times!) set in motion a time-tested process of integration into a well-established community, I had an abundance of resources to acclimate me to my new identity. Churches have classes, booklets, printed lessons, and spoken messages specifically geared toward helping the new convert learn the ropes, so to speak. Leaving the church and becoming a non-believer afforded me no such things. Since then, there have been a handful of organizations and individuals who have worked to remedy this situation, but I didn’t even know they existed at the time I was looking for help. Where I live there isn’t much visibility for the freethought community. I doubt you could even pay enough to get an advertisement put up in my town.
3.) Upon committing my life to my religion, my friends and family cheered; my departure met with angry disapproval and disappointment. In other words, all the peer pressure was in the direction of staying in the faith, and none of it was directed toward leaving it. I paid a particularly high social price when folks found out I wasn’t a Christian anymore. That’s why it’s particularly galling to me when I read something like this one guy said to me just yesterday:
We live much different the believer/non believer. I live to please God and hope to not offend him. You live to please man and hope to not offend them.
I was trying to reason with this guy by explaining to him that, for people like me, quoting Bible verses doesn’t add weight to what he’s saying. It’s not magic, or at least the magic doesn’t work on those of us who are “the dones” because we’ve already been there and done that. I was trying to help him understand how to get more out of conversing with nonbelievers, but he couldn’t accept anything I said. He has the Spirit and I don’t, so my perspective is automatically invalid. Great way to win friends and influence people, right? But I digress.
The point is that he harbors the notion that pleasing other people has anything at all to do with my being on the outside of the Christian faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I wanted to please people, I’d still be in church. When I was there, I had everybody’s approval. Now that I’m not, I’m a bit of a pariah and a disappointment. I’m a cautionary tale about what happens if you ask too many questions.
4.) My conversion was sudden, while my deconversion took years. Church worship services are a production. There’s sound and lighting, dramatic music, there are moving stories, and sometimes a persuasive speaker with well-polished oratory skills. Evangelistic youth events are like that, but on steroids. Everything is geared toward eliciting an emotional response from the attendee, and it worked on me very well. Not everyone has a dramatic conversion story, but I did. I know the exact date of my conversion. I used to celebrate my spiritual birthday every year because I saw it as the beginning of a new life.
In retrospect, I see how contrived the whole experience was. I fell for a carefully orchestrated sales pitch and it worked on me for twenty years. My departure from the faith was nothing like that. I can’t even pinpoint when I “became an atheist” because it happened so slowly over a period of time. There wasn’t a single moment wherein I suddenly realized “I’m an atheist.” It was more of a growing awareness of things and a gradual letting go of beliefs that I no longer felt were supported by reality.
5.) I entered the faith following my emotions; I left the faith in spite of them. Because of all of the above, all of the emotional reinforcement pushed me toward converting in the first place. There was promise of hope, of fulfillment, of joy, and of purpose. There were so many stories and promises about what following Jesus would be like, and I bought it all. Incidentally I did not belong to a tradition that promised health and wealth. In fact, the tradition I eventually inhabited was one which focused quite a bit on the notion of taking up one’s cross and denying self. It was very much the opposite of the prosperity gospel. But I found that neither of those traditions really deliver what they say they will deliver. And when I left, it wasn’t for promise of some better horizon. On the contrary, I knew that leaving my faith would bring heartache and loss and ostracism. I saw it coming. I just didn’t have much choice. I didn’t believe anymore and I’m not the kind of person who can live a lie indefinitely.
6.) The road into my faith was paved with answers; the road out has been paved with questions. Entering the faith, I was told there are some things we will just never understand, and I needed to be okay with that. Once outside, I’ve been encouraged to question everything. That fits my nature so much better. But I’ve noticed that my friends who are still Christians can’t seem to understand that my new social world is not as obsessed with certainty and answers as they are. Because they believe in divine revelation, there is a closed off quality about their views on things. God has spoken, so who can question what he says, right? There’s a formula for epistemic closure if ever I’ve seen one.
Quite the opposite, I now inhabit a world that knows it doesn’t know everything, but wants to know more. And it knows the only way to ever know more is to remain aware of the fallibility of its own conclusions. Consistent empiricists have to remain open to new paradigms and new information. They can always change their minds whenever new evidence presents itself. My old worldview didn’t have the capacity to self-correct. It changes over time, to be sure. But that always happens by attrition and by outside influence from the surrounding culture, like the frog in the kettle.
A Religion? Not So Much
All of this is to say: I get why they want to see atheism as just another religion, and I think I understand why they want to squeeze deconversion in the same mold in which they can squeeze “getting saved.” But looking back on my own story, I’m telling you they’re completely dissimilar. I know we could go thirty rounds arguing about the intellectual content of each worldview, and like I said I have plenty to say about whether or not the term “faith” is appropriate to describe filling in the gaps of our knowledge with evidence based suppositions (most of those discussions center around what the word “evidence” means). But for now I just wanted to point out that the word “religion” usually carries with it a set of sociological structures which atheism lacks, and until they see that, I don’t think we really understand each other, or what each other is about.
[Image source: Unsplash]