An Atheist’s Evolution

I believe that religious deconversion is a process. Throughout this process, the person evolves. Some evolve more than others, and some endure the changes in more ways than one. For me, deconversion went like this: Christian → agnostic → atheist. My evolution underwent several transformational stages. In between Christian and agnostic, there was the initial period of doubt followed by a period of apathy. In between agnostic and atheist, there was curiosity and intrigue about general arguments regarding the existence of God. This intrigue made me very passionate about atheism itself. I have been engrossed in the interplay between religious and secular, reading about both to get the most precise answers I could.

For the past couple of years, I have felt as though, in this area of my life, atheism itself is all that I’m interested in. I wanted to read books that specifically laid out arguments for or against the existence of God, and I didn’t have much interest in books that were just about religion or just about science. Most people in the atheist community that I have encountered on WordPress and Twitter also have a fiery passion for science. I’ve always agreed that science and nature are spectacular, but I’ve been mostly coming from a place of “I like evolution because it supports my belief that God is superfluous to nature.” Being no scientist myself, I had never really thought that I would develop a love for science in its own right, but I am starting to understand why most atheists I meet have a passion of science whether or not they are using it to refute religion.

A few weeks ago, I began listening to The Here and How Podcast while I drive, and I have been loving it (seriously, go check it out!!). In retrospect, even my choice to listen to this podcast reflects that I’m beginning to move past strictly atheism to delve into science itself. Hosted by three atheist YouTubers, this podcast spends about an hour a week explaining different topics; so far some of my favorites have been on the missing link of human evolution, the legitimacy of psychics, and whether or not humans have free will.

Overlapping with my binging of The Here and How has been my absorption into Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True. Once I finish it, I’ll write a full review, so I don’t want to give too much away now, but so far, I’d say I’m enjoying it far more than any book I’ve ever reviewed. I’ve always been a big believer in evolution, and I’ve known there was evidence in fossils and in our DNA, but I haven’t known any specific examples (thanks, Christian college, for teaching me nothing about evolution but a whole lot about Adam and Eve!). What’s worse is any examples I do come across are coming from creationists trying to refute them. So learning about evolution from someone who understands it and speaks in layman’s terms is a dream come true. If you asked me to back up my belief in evolution, I might even be able to give a half-decent answer!

In a discussion with my “pastor-in-law” a few days ago, I described my personal evolution this way: first I had to get through what I don’t believe. In a sense, I had to strip down my beliefs to nothing so that I could start with a blank slate. Only then could I begin building up my knowledge on evolution, the big bang, free will, and anything else. I had a hard time learning about science when I had yet to completely leave religion behind me. I also couldn’t help but be hyperfocused on religion when I was at my Christian college, surrounded by thousands of Christians every day, learning their beliefs in class and running face-first into Jesus at every turn.

Now that I’m out of the closet, and out of college, I feel like I can take a deep breath, step away from the polar opposites like God is Not Great and The Case for a Creator, and revel in the fact that I get to just learn things that I never would have had the opportunity, or even the idea, of learning if I had never gone through a period of deconversion.

For example, if I wasn’t an atheist, and I wanted to know if humans had free will, I would be considering whether it was theologically tenable and how it coincided with the problem of evil. While I think this is an interesting topic (it was at least worth writing a post on), whether or not human free will and the Christian god are compatible is inconsequential to me. Being an atheist, in order to learn whether or not I have free will, I ask scientific rather than theological questions: does my brain operate like a machine? How much control do I really have over my choices? Are my actions predetermined by my needs or my personal dispositions?

They may not be synonymous, but I believe that atheism and inquiry go hand-in-hand. I think that I have always had a curious mind, but until now I’ve primarily used it to ask questions like: What does it mean to be moral without a god? Is prayer a paradox? Can atheists and Christians get along in peace? But at this turning point in my life, having recently graduated college, and being four months away from moving out and getting married, I am following a new urge to take each question much further than these surface-level “atheism” questions and get to the science behind it all.

17 Replies to “An Atheist’s Evolution”

  1. My process was like: fundamentalist Christian as a child (not knowing that was what it was) > moderate evangelical Christian > apathetic unthinking Christian (college) > liberal/”progressive Christian” > religious seeker > agnostic > crazy made-up terms like “non-Theist” to “avoid labels” > atheist.
    I grew up Christian, studied religion in religious environments up to and including Seminary, then studied it in “secular” environments, visited or was a member of dozens of denominations, visited a ton of non-Christian religious communities, finally found myself comfortable as an atheist. “Can atheists and Christians ever get along?” I second “yes”. My brother is a Baptist pastor, knows I’m an atheist, and we hang out all the time and are cool. My mother does not know I’m an atheist b/c she never deals with such things well at all and it doesn’t come up. My best friend is now an atheist whose wife is still an avid evangelical and they make it work.
    I’m always curious as to why some jump straight from “avid conservative Christian” straight to atheist and others take a more circuitous route. I do think (from those I know) that the former tend to bury themselves in atheist-only literature and experiences pretty quickly though that phase usually passes. I think you’re right that now is the time for you to explore knowledge for it’s own sake not to just cloister in the preaching to the (anti)choir crowd.

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  2. My initial journey was questioning my catholic belief -> christian deist -> deist -> where I’m agnostic atheist

    “They may not be synonymous, but I believe that atheism and inquiry go hand-in-hand”
    Spot on. Though in my case, I had a science background, but it was after leaving religion that I carried out deep studies on topics like evolution, big bang etc. I believe that this curiosity/quest for knowledge is a result of the lack of the wild card called god. Since I no longer have the convenience of god did it, I have to find out what actually did it

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  3. It amazes me, as I read this post and the comments thereto, that everyone is looking elsewhere for answers, when all the answers are already within us, just waiting for us to ask the correct questions, giving tiny nuances to words that teach us we are the only authorities we need to consult. But then, that is part of the process, isn’t it. We start life learning from authorities, yet when we start examining our beliefs, we don’t learn to question the belief in authorities themselves. So we go from religion to science. But we are still looking outward. How many of you will learn to look inward?
    Religion explains little. Science explains a lot. But neither explains everything. And I’m thinking that is what you all want, everything. I do hope you find it.

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      1. Don’t rush it, Jonathan, as much as you might want to. All things in their own time. But be ready for when it does come. Kinda like teetottering on a razor blade. But like I said, don’t listen to me. Everyone is different. Like an orange…

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  4. My journey too was a long process of evolution. I would say that I don’t think I ever really believed there was a god – I just went along with it for fear of upsetting anyone, as well as for fear of punishment (by my elders, not by god!) Although I suffered indoctrination and one-sided education from an early age, I think that most of my teachers were rather embarrassed by the whole thing, so they never really pushed it too hard. Perhaps this made my eventual escape a lot easier.

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  5. Yeah I went from Christian > Agnostic > Atheist too. I’m surprised it took so long me for though! When I learnt about evolution in high school (a secular school I should add), our teacher believed in Intelligent Design so would criticise it at every chance he got, which now seems quite annoying.

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  6. Hooray for being free to learn science! A podcast I recommend is the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. It tends to look more at current research and discoveries, and also current trends in pseudoscience, to help sort out the good stuff from the bogus stuff.

    A re-evaulation of values and attitudes may be a long-term ongoing project. Along with the religious beliefs, the church tries to sell you a package of values and political views, with the idea that “good people must think this way on these issues.” Figuring out which ideas are worth keeping, and which should be revised can take many years to unpack.

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  7. In my case I want Catholic to apathy to atheist. Know of the science behind the origin of the universe to some degree. In fact when people say who did we get something from nothing I have to tell them empty space isn’t necessarily so empty – there’s energy and through Einstein we know that energy==mass times the speed of light. And it goes the other way – mass can be turned to energy a la atomic bombs and using fission and fusion.

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  8. If you have not read Steven Pinker, particularly The Blank Slate, you may want to. I found it helpful with some of the topics you mentioned. Curiosity and learning work well with less dogmatic beliefs (pagans, druids, Buddhist, and such), but I think an atheist point of view allows for least prejudiced research. But it all depends, some atheists and believers/Christians manage fine. Others? Not so much. And, as Neil Carter points out, on line exchanges are not always with the true person.

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  9. Both religion and science are responses to curiosity about how things work. Science, for its part is an open effort. Anyone can play the game and authority has no role. In western religious traditions, all are appeals to authority and are anti-democratic to boot. At some point, not everyone can play the game as the authority is hoarded by those in positions of power. (Try being female and climbing the ladder of religious leadership in the Catholic Church, for example.)
    So, when a question about “Nature” is asked, all kinds of folks can chime in in science and reality is the arbiter of who is right and who is wrong (for now) but in religion, one merely asks a higher up who tells you what is what. (And I know that some religions are more open to science that others; not my point.)

    At a point in my life (mid-life crisis point?) I recognized that IO had rather uncritically accepted all of the life values my parents gave me. So, I took quite a bit of time and challenged many of them. In every case but one I found those values were good and to be continued. The one exception was the religion of my mother (if my father had an opinion, he didn’t voice it). Someone said an unexamined life isn’t worth living (Socrates? Plato?) and I agree. What you discover may not be comfortable, but if it is truer to your nature, how can you turn away from that and have a life with any peace in it?

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    1. I am interested in how you went about finding reason for your values. Though religious methods are flawed, they are often the most available source of moral values. Even if the stories are fantastic and probably mythical. The scientific method on the other hand is a lot of work and time that I can’t count on having all my values scientifically backed. So how did you do it?

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      1. If I may add my 2 cents… I can see at one time a system to focus it’s people on right and wrong may have been a necessity. That system could be religion, it could have been civil, government, tribal..etc. It could be by trial and error.

        I start off with the parents. We can see that some children grow up with a great sense of right and wrong- while other children seem to have trouble with the distinction.

        Through interacting with other people, we see what their sense of right and wrong is. (Getting involved in the right and wrong crowd)

        At School/Church we also see new interactions. Again, we are developing our sense of right and wrong.

        Through a system of ethics and laws, sometimes people have to learn the hard way 🙂

        You hope that at some point that everyone in your society has a pretty clear understanding of right and wrong but even with religion, no system is perfect.

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  10. “Can atheists and Christians get along in peace?” In my house we do, quite nicely, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to everywhere. The majority of people I know in real life are Christians, and I like them just fine. If I were open and “out” about my real beliefs, though, I’m not sure they would like me.

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