How I Became an Atheist

Please include in your answer,

-current age

-age you became an atheist

-how long you were a Christian then

– incidents

– how devout a Christian you were then

Pls note this qn is not to arouse any debates w/ Christians & atheists, I just want to know your stories.

pls suggest a better word than ‘convert’ 🙂

Sarah Bowman
Sarah Bowman, Humanist studied theology, social work, some philosophy, anthropology

First let me correct a misconception: No one “converts” to atheism. An atheist is simply a person who lacks belief in a god or gods. Older definitions say atheist means to deny god but since these days with an enlarged understanding of an unknowable universe we simply define it as lacking belief. We acknowledge that the possibility exists for a god to exist in some unknown part of the universe or multiverse or “out there somewhere.” But we lack belief.

If you wish to take that argument to its logical conclusion, then yes, in that definition babies are atheists because atheist is the default position. We are born without knowledge of the supernatural, i.e. God or gods. Baptizing an infant, or in any other way “marking it for God,” does not change the fact that babies do not possess the cognitive ability to believe in God or gods. However, why the big fuss about atheism? We’re all just people. Some people have managed to make the word atheist out to be an evil label, possibly out of fear for what they don’t understand. So be it.

As for a better word than “converted,” some of us exChristians say we have deconverted but not all exChristians become atheists because some convert to another religion. I think the term I see most often is just the simple “become an atheist.”

The “incident” that led me to loose my faith in God was primarily the statement that Jesus died so we can go to heaven. I was a child of about seven when I heard my mother make that statement. It was like someone from behind had grabbed me by the throat—so illogical did it seem.

We lived on the farm. I knew all about dead animals. My parents, as well as their parents and grandparents, had been born into a very religious sect so I and my siblings were born and raised in the same sect. It was believed that young children should be exposed to the realities of death and allowed to see into open coffins at funerals in order to understand that life is impermanent. Thus, I also knew what dead human bodies looked like. Somehow I knew that heaven was a spiritual place and that God was likewise spiritual. I must have also known that humans have a spiritual element. It all happened a very long time ago and some of the details are a bit vague. I’m sixty now.

Though I did not at that early age have the vocabulary to explain it, what I needed to understand was: How can a dead body (which is physical, material, flesh and bones) help human souls (which are spiritual) get into a spiritual place called heaven?

My mother was not the type of person to tolerate difficult questions. For a period in my life, she answered many of my questions with “The Bible says so.” I trusted her and believed her, but only so far. When I was in Grade 5, I was given a Gideon New Testament in school. When I got home I told her about it but didn’t dare let it go out of my hands lest she keep it saying I was too young to understand it. That’s what she said every time I asked to read the Bible. It was kept on a high shelf that I was not allowed to touch.

I knew the New Testament was not the entire Bible but it was a good piece of the Bible. In our sect we didn’t have Sunday School. We had Sunday morning church services, used horse and buggy transportation, and wore different clothing from the general public. Mom said the Bible said to do these things. Now that I finally had a part of the Bible I wanted to read where God said it.

To my consternation I discovered the Bible was not a rule book about using horse and buggies and what kind of clothes to wear. It was a storybook about Jesus and Jesus seemed to walk everywhere with his disciples. The one or two times he got a ride it was on the back of—not a horse but a lowly donkey. Mom changed her answer to, “There are things in the Bible that mean it is better to live the way we do.”

Proving/disproving that statement took decades but eventually I was able to find the verses she referred to. I also learned about believer’s baptism. Our sect did not baptize babies (which was considered evil and of the devil) but built on the verse in the Bible where Jesus said his followers should believe and be baptized. “Babies cannot believe,” my people said, and baptized young adults in their late teens. I was seventeen.

The question about Jesus dying to make it possible for us to go to heaven still burned in my mind. “How does it work?” I had to know. Unless I understood that, I could not be sure that Christianity worked or was true. Yet I had no social options but to get baptized.

I did not know anyone outside our own group, except people who had broken off from our group in earlier decades before my time. All of them believed basically the same thing. We lived in the heart of Ontario’s historical Mennonite community and everyone I knew was some kind of Mennonite. Some drove cars and some even had TV and dressed like the world. Those people didn’t seem like real Mennonites so they didn’t count in my mind. But what I’m saying is that leaving my own group to join another was not something you did lightly. For one thing, your family would turn against you, as well as your friends. I had seen it happen to others. Besides, I was still under-age.

But I had to be baptized if I wanted to belong to my own group. I could not marry or part take of Communion or community council unless I was baptized. I could not even help in important community leadership tasks. But how could I confess to believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit if I did not really know how salvation worked? It was a very seriously difficult situation, and I had no one to ask. I was afraid of the ridicule I would receive if I did ask such a difficult question, something that everyone simply accepted as truth. I took refuge in what the adults and the bishop said during instruction classes for baptism: You won’t understand it all now but when you are older you will.

I trusted that promise and clung to it. Based on that, I accepted water baptism, believing that somehow when I got to be as old as my mother and the bishop I would understand the question about how Jesus’ dying on the cross could help human souls get to heaven. As the decades passed, the question continued to burn red hot. One Good Friday during church services when everyone around me was singing doleful songs about Jesus cruel death on the cross, something in me snapped. “You didn’t have to do it!” I railed at Jesus inside myself. This happened in church and the people around me went on singing, not knowing what a crisis was happening next to them on the church bench.

But leaving the church was not an option. Not for another ten years or so. I had to find a way to believe. I forced my imagination to the limit and eventually came up with what I much later learned was the Jesus as Victor theory. I thought maybe something had to be altered in hell or somewhere in the universe that could only be done by the soul of a dead person, by the soul of a person who had never sinned. And that person was Jesus. That belief carried me through until I left my sect for the kind of Mennonites who watched TV and dressed like the general public or “the world,” as my people saw it. I still had have my theory validated and these people said it was okay to ask questions. When I presented it to the pastor, a young man with an MDiv, he said, “The Bible does not specifically say so.”

My hopes were dashed. If the Bible didn’t say so, I thought it meant the theory was wrong. I begged him for a better explanation but he said he would preach on it in July. July was four months away and this was urgent but nothing would convince him to explain that day. When July finally came around, all he preached on was four different versions of the old worn out biblical versions I had heard all my life. By that point in my life I was in my early forties and had read the Bible, the NT several times, and I knew the answer I sought was not in the Bible.

Eventually I found myself in seminary studying Lutheran theology on the Masters level. After reading a year or two of heavy theology texts, I realized I still had not found The Answer. Not that I understood everything I read but hey! I was taught that Christianity was a religion for children and slaves, and I realized I should not have to study theology for years and years to understand it. I concluded that if I still hadn’t found the answer, it probably didn’t exist. From there on things went downhill fast.

I already believed in Jesus as Myth. It was just one of those ideas that came to me in my effort to make sense of the illogic of Christianity. Then I came across a book that claimed to have evidence that the Jesus story truly was a myth. (At the moment I forget the author’s name or book title.)

One day, after handing in my last assignment for the summer semester, I was walking home through the bush, a pleasant sun-dappled footpath. A chipmunk sat beside me and suddenly it came to me: God does not exist. That felt really good to know, there in the woods with the chipmunk. Not that I was ready to embrace atheism, not after a lifetime of hearing about evil angry atheists. I was a good person, not the kind of person atheists were made out to be. I knew a pagan at the university and had some conversation with him, only to learn that pagans (wicca, etc.) had the same kind of inexplicable miracles and supernatural beliefs that Christianity did. I was through with the no-answer kind of beliefs.

About the same time, a friend I had met online sent me a link for an article on ex-Christian.net. It was written by another ex-Mennonite. That led to the exC forums, where I met people who professed to be atheists yet they were very kind and gentle. I think that was about August or September 2006. Or was it 2008? By Christmas, I was an atheist in the old definition: I was convinced there was no God because at a Winter Solstice Party of Secular Humanists I heard about the work of Michael Persinger, but what convinced me was the article on his work in “This Is Your Brain On God.” Because the feeling of a “presence in the room” (which many equate with God’s presence) could be artificially stimulated, I was convinced no God or gods existed.

In addition, everything I had read or studied about the supernatural—from Christian faith healing to ancient Pacific Islander “supernatural” rituals—had natural explanations. Earlier, these things had been “evidence” to me of the supernatural. Now I saw them as evidence of the human response the inner feelings they did not understand and ascribing it to a Higher Power or Divine Authority by whatever name their culture found appropriate. I’ve been an atheist ever since and never felt more at peace with myself and the world.

Just now I read over my post. I did not address the question: How deep was your faith. I believed absolutely that God existed and trusted completely that he could and would give me the peace that passeth understanding, as promised in Phil. 4:7. I was sure I would understand and find The Answer when I got older. Why? Because it had been promised by the people I trusted most, and in the Bible. It was only when none of these expectations and promises delivered that I lost my faith. It was a betrayal of the deepest kind. I had sacrificed much for the faith as it was taught to me, only to find it all an empty promise, a lie. But I don’t like dwelling on that line of thought; it leads to bitterness. Life is good. I have new friends and a new life in a new city. And a beautiful dog, a constant companion.

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