How I Became an Atheist

This post is related to my last one, because my grandmother may have — inadvertently — played a significant role in my becoming an atheist.

Someone I worked for once told me that he thought it was impossible for someone to believe in God if he was not raised with religion. I’m not sure if that’s true for all people, but that turned out to be true for me. As far back as I can remember, my family entered a church only infrequently — only when visiting certain family members (great grandparents, as I recall), or perhaps when attending a wedding. I don’t recall having any significant discussions about religion with my parents until I was at least sixteen years old. My grandmother told me a story, however, which indicates that I may have had significant exposure to religion at an impressionable age. That exposure apparently consisted of my watching bible-thumping preachers on television when I was only seven or eight years old!

I was an army brat and the first army base on which we lived was Ft. Leonard-Wood, Missouri. We used to call it “Fort Lost-in-the-Woods,” because that’s what it was at that time. Today it’s a much more developed, hospitable place to be. We lived there for only one year. My grandmother said we came home to visit for Christmas that year and, when we did, I started a very interesting conversation with her. She said that I told her that I had been watching television (probably alone, in the early mornings), and that the man on the television was talking about the devil! She said my eyes were very wide when I told her this, as if I was scared about what I had seen on TV. So what did she, the self-professed “lapsed Catholic,” tell me? She said she told me, “Oh Amy, there’s no such thing as the devil!”

She said I looked relieved.

Fast-forward a few years to the first time I remember consciously thinking about religion, at about 11 or 12 years of age. It wasn’t because my parents were starting to go to church or trying to discuss religion with me; it was because I had friends who were involved in churches and youth groups, and they wanted me to get involved as well. So I went and gave it a try. I remember going to at least a few regular youth group meetings, and one weekend camp. Yes, I spent a whole weekend at a religious youth-group camp! Most of it was fun (the cold showers at the camp were not, though), and of course I liked being asked to go along to a camp with my friends. What kid wouldn’t? But I still remember the times that we were supposed to stand or sit in a circle together and pray, and I remember looking around and wondering whether the other kids around me actually believed in God. That’s when I knew I didn’t.

So, at about age twelve, I decided that, because I wasn’t aware of any evidence for the existence of God, I didn’t believe in him. Which means that for some reason I had already internalized the onus-of-proof principle. But I also decided that it was important to be a good person, which for me at that age just meant to be honest, fair, not do drugs, etc. I recall that my rationale for not doing drugs was because I wanted to preserve the function of my mind, which I also already valued by that age. Other than that, I don’t recall having a good argument for my rudimentary ethics. Still I figure, given my age, I wasn’t doing too badly.

How did the conversation with my grandmother play a role in this? After all, she addressed only the issue of the devil. What I think happened was, when she told me there wasn’t any such thing as the devil, I inferred that the television preachers I had been watching were unreliable on any subject — including God. She left me free to dismiss them entirely.


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17 responses to “How I Became an Atheist

  1. Mr.

    So you based your decision on a lack of evidence for God you could think of, when it’s highly unlikely you knew any evidence for no God? That’s crazy bread!

    • How can there be evidence of something not existing? Can you prove that there are no Martians living in your computer, for example? What concrete evidence could you point to of something NOT being there? Something that isn’t there doesn’t make noise, doesn’t have an odor, weight, texture, etc. See what I mean?

      • Claus Enderlein

        You are confusing non-existence with “non-presence” (i.e. absence), they are not the same. If you opened your computer and found no Martians, that would merely prove that none were present in your computer. It would not prove their non-existence. On the other hand, if you had found Martians there, that would have proved their presence in your computer as well as their existence.

      • Mel M

        Exactly! Something that doesn’t exist can leave no fingerprints–anywhere. Even black-holes leave fingerprints. Atheists are right to ask for evidence of the gods. Some religious apologists disdain this question and invent another arbitrary hack to support the basic arbitrary claim: they will say that God chooses to hide himself. Someone who showed up on NoodleFood several years ago was an admirer of a theologian who takes this line. This article is tedious and definately disgusting, but I thought it was clear on several points and worth saving the link. Note that it doesn’t use the Natural Theology claims that are so common; the author actually ends up in a far more brazenly irrational position.

        From If Only Atheists Were the Skeptics They Think They Are
        by Edward Tingley (teaches philosophy at Augustine College in Ottawa):

        By 1660 there were only two options left: Either God does not exist or he is not a gift to our senses.

        There is no sign in Russell of the skeptic who will instinctively ask, What reason do I have to subordinate the possibility of God’s existence to the powers of my senses?

    • Claus Enderlein

      There is no evidence for “no God”. I cannot prove God’s non-existence any more than you can prove non-existence of flying pigs.

      • Yes, this was the point of my earlier reply: there can be no proof of the non-existence of something. Proof, in the end, has to be reduced to sensory data of some kind, and there is no sensory data that results from the non-existence of something. This is why the onus of proof, properly, is on he who asserts the positive (i.e., the existence of something).

      • Claus Enderlein

        My 7:24 pm reply was directed at you, the 7:28 pm one was meant for Mr. Sorry for the confusion.

  2. Kevin

    Wow, Amy. I had a VERY similar experience, at least in respect to casting doubt on religion. It was my mother who informed me there was no such thing as a devil. Like you, it was this moment when I began questioning religion in general, and especially religious family members who insisted otherwise. Unlike you though, it took me until I was nearly 25, after I read the Fountainhead, to actually make an official declaration.

  3. M. Stern

    How can there be evidence of something not existing?

    I agree with this, but isn’t the Objectivist argument far more than this? Isn’t it that the god concept violates every rule of cognition and therefor can’t be true? Objectivists don’t do what Richard Dawkins does and treat the god concept as a subject to be studied by the hypothetico-deductive method. For Objectivism, the god concept is a metaphysical impossibility because it violates that axioms and because the concept itself can’t even be defined. God is meaningless gibberish. It isn’t even wrong, its arbitrary. It has no epistemic status.

    That’s my understanding of the Objectivist position anyway. I’m under the impression that Objectivists are the strongest of the strong atheists.

    • Yes, you’re right, of course. But while I might have understood the Objectivist position, at least on some level, when I was twelve, I was not explicitly aware of it.

  4. Shahriar

    I also became an atheist at a very young age. The concept of God can be defined. It is defined as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent creator who is the source of all goodness. There is a very interesting book on this topic written by the philosopher Bertrand Russell titled Why I am not a Christian. I recommend it to any who are interested in the topic. By the way how does God violate the rules of cognition? In my mind those who believed in God gave arguments for his existence and those who did not believe in God refuted those arguments, that is how it was decided that God does not exist. Why is the concept of God not wrong but arbitrary, I would think it would just be wrong. And why is it meaningless gibberish? And what axiom does it violate exactly?

    There is no such thing as being “the strongest of the strong atheists”, either you are an atheist or not an atheist.

    • The idea of a God, as initially asserted, is arbitrary, because there is no evidence presented for the existence of such a being, nothing presented to show that idea’s relationship to reality. And, according to Objectivism, one need not expend any mental effort trying to bring an arbitrary concept or idea into relation with reality in order to evaluate it. The onus of proof is on the person who asserts the existence of something. However, given our familiarity with (and the “omnipresence” of) the concept of God, as an “omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent creator who is the source of all goodness” or similar definitions, we can quickly see that such an idea violates all the basic axioms of philosophy (existence, consciousness, identity) and is therefore not just arbitrary, but rather is false. For more on this, I refer you to Chapter 5 of Leonard Peikoff’s book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

      When I was twelve, however, my explicit thought process relied more upon the idea of God as arbitrary, less (although I think some) upon the idea of God violating basic axioms.

      • Mel M

        In recent years, I’ve read a number of attacks on reason from the pious and have been impressed with how often the attacks are dependent on a complete failure to understand philosophic axioms. I’d never been one to read religious prattle, so I was surprised when I saw this failure come up over and over again. They’re trying to justify faith by ignoring the axioms at the base of reason. (It gets kinda funny at times when their argument reduces to an implicit claim that, just like them, atheists have no grounds for their views–“basically, you’re just as arbitrary as we are.” Really, they use our alleged “faith” as an attack on us.) By undercutting reason, the pious can go on for centuries more just as they have for 10s of thousands of years.

        I don’t have a taxonomy of religious attacks on reason, but I see the problem with axioms in such claims as “reason is a matter of faith” and “the senses are a matter of faith.” At the theological level itself, one idea that’s popular in the U.S. is the mind-prison called (Wikipedia) presuppositional apologetics. I’ve seen the holy men refer to “presuppositions” quite often. In one version we have: “Gordon Clark and his followers treat the truth of the Scriptures as the axiom of their system.” In another version (Van Till’s), it’s claimed that the existence of God is presupposed by all thought. Being curious, I tracked down an explanation of this (by someone other than Van Till though). As I recall (I didn’t save the link) the argument is: (you won’t believe this!) since there are good and bad arguments and since good and bad come from God, one can’t think without implicitly assuming the existence of God.

        I’ve concluded that Rand’s theory of philosophic axioms is the key to the philosophic refutation of religion (and primarily, of course, the defense of reason); it’s needed on the front line of the battle. For example, the whole idea of the “supernatural” as being beyond natural law, is refuted by the axiom of causality (thanks L.P.). Unfortunately, the “New Atheism” has no clue about any of this; very importantly, they can’t define and defend reason–which they are trying to save. (As Ayn Rand might say, their philosophic bank account is way overdrawn.) This shows up too often in the sad backpedaling seen in such expressions as “God probably doesn’t exist.”

        When I see a YouTube video like this Lou Engle rally, it’s clear that we haven’t got hundreds of years to stop religion. (Lou Engle was in the “Jesus Camp” film and a principal at a prayer meeting of some Republican senators (or reps?) opposing Obamacare. He also has put out some “martyrdom” chatter.)

  5. I had a similar experience, as both of my parents were lapsed Catholics and rarely brought me to church. I did go to a Unitarian Universalist church for a couple of years, but our youth group focused on sex education classes instead of Bible readings 🙂

  6. John Newnham

    The realization that there was no God, at a similar age, did not prevent me from going to church sporadically until young adulthood. I found that when I attended, a combination of mass “hypnosis” (for lack of a more precise term), the music ( some religious music does stir), and the false sense of being a part of “something” was at work. This effect is potent and I suspect might lead many to the revelatory idea of “God”. A rather sad trickery of the mind.

  7. I enjoyed your story. Thanks for sharing it. I’m glad some people don’t have to grow up with the baggage of a religious upbringing.

    • Yes, but there was other sorts of baggage we had to deal with in our family anyway (divorced parents, alcoholism). If it’s not one thing, it’s another, it seems. Thanks for reading!

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