What Changed When I Became an Atheist
I officially left the United Methodist Church when I was fifteen. I hadn’t considered myself Christian for at least a year, but it took a little time to work up the courage to tell my parents I wouldn’t be attending Sunday service any longer. There was some yelling and a slammed door, but in the end the fallout was minimal. The high school classmates in my small town naturally noticed my absence. There were questions and lunch-room debates as I became notable as the school’s only avowed atheist.
But what really changed?
Not much, as far as I can tell. I think this was surprising to my peer group. I didn’t suddenly become a violent, lying, drug-dealing, anarchist slut. My moral beliefs and behaviors remained stable. I did not need God or Church to tell me what was ethically wrong. It was as self-evident to me as my hands before my face. Suffering is as obvious as it is unfortunate.
My attitudes about social issues, such as sexual ethics and gender politics, remained the same before and after. Even at fifteen, I already disagreed with my parents over the relationship between sex and marriage and on the issue of homosexuality, which was something of a surprise to all of us, as we’d never really discussed them. I think they assumed I’d naturally come to the ‘right’ conclusions, but I arrived at my own judgments independent of both their beliefs and church teaching.
Scientific rationalism remained the order of the day. Thankfully, my parents never saw any contradiction between evolution, the big bang, physics, or biology and the Christian teachings. These were just the mechanisms by which the Creator worked, as far as they were concerned. They encouraged my interests in astronomy and science fiction from an early age, and continued to do so afterward. As far as I know, they didn’t blame my atheism on science, education, or secularism, which is so often the case in the public debate. They recognized it as a personal stance fueled by a simple lack of belief.
In my twenties, I gained a more nuanced understanding of things like social, environment, and economic justice. In my thirties, I’m starting to form even more complex opinions on politics, poverty, economics, education, war, and the prison-industrial complex. At some point, I did make the switch from inherited Republicanism to become a registered independent who votes Democrat more often than not. I hadn’t gotten around to contemplating such issues at fifteen, but I tend to think I would have come to similar conclusions regardless. They are in keeping with my nature.
But what really changed between the last day that I truly considered myself a Christian and the next day when I honestly admitted I was not?
Relief. I remember the feeling of relief. I had a new freedom that comes from giving up a struggle to be or do something in contradiction to my nature.
Of course, I was anxious about coming out. Atheists are one of the most distrusted groups in the United States, according to a study reported in USA Today and other news outlets. I think this was just as true when I was fifteen as it is today. Despite that, declaring myself was a great relief because the truth is that I was never a ‘believing’ Christian.
As early as the age of five or six, I remember thinking something was wrong with me because I did not “feel Jesus’ love” in my heart. I never met an angel or witnessed a miracle. I never felt “God’s grace” or any type of accompanying presence. The universe was big and mysterious and magical (metaphorically), but I loved astronomy magazines far more than the Bible.
The older I became the less rational the Sunday stories sounded. If God loved his creation, why did he kill every living thing with a flood just because a few humans were behaving badly? Who created God, anyway? And if God made me this way, he really ought to have know that I wouldn’t be a very good Christian, right? I had too many questions that “good Christians” didn’t ask.
My friend Jake used to tell me I was a good Christian anyway, because I was a good person and God is the source of all that is good. I couldn’t be good without God. Maybe so, but in my experience, most Christians don’t see it that way. Nor did I, actually.
Life went on. When I was twenty-two, I bought a book by Thich Nhat Hanh and realized I was a Buddhist. I didn’t convert, I just gained a new vocabulary.
In some ways I’m not a very good Buddhist either. I’m a Mahayana Buddhist who vows to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings, yet I don’t believe in the celestial bodhisattvas that millions of Buddhists all over the world pray to for supernatural intercession. I have no more experience of Amida Buddha than I have of Jesus of Nazareth and no more belief in the bardo than heaven.
However, I think all of this is beside the point. First, I feel as though I had the same nature as a Christian, then an atheist, and now a Buddhist. I’ve changed a lot, of course, both as a matter of time and of religion. My beliefs, habits, responses, and much more have changed, but my what psychologists might call my underlying “temperament” has remained remarkably stable. Therefore, I my reactions to experiences are very similar.
Second, I hang around with Buddhists and Muslims and Christians and atheists and pagans who, despite remarkably dissimilar beliefs, behave in very similar ways. Most everyone disapproves of violence and greed and favors love and altruism. We quibble over the details, but I’m always amazed at the vast areas of agreement on the most basic fundamentals of ‘good behavior.’
I know this may sound shocking, but I truly don’t believe ‘beliefs’ are as important as we assume. Rather, we are predisposed to think, feel, and behave in certain ways and we endorse beliefs that give meaning to those modes of being. This predisposition may come from genetics, biology, culture, or karma. (The first three may be part of the fourth or not.) Of course, this is a belief about beliefs, a theory that applies to itself. Belief does have an influence (which I hope to explore in a future post), but I’m more interested in what influences belief to begin with.
A belief can give hope, provide resilience, and enhance optimism in the face of terrible life circumstances. However, if we are already predisposed to have hope, resilience, and optimism, then we will naturally find a belief to explain these things. Likewise, a belief can let us feel hopeless, worthless, and cynical about our circumstances, even when they aren’t that bad. But yet again, the affect comes first. We already feel hopeless, worthless, or cynical, so we tell ourselves a story about why this is or ought to be so. This story becomes a belief that reinforces our natural tendency. Buddhist teaching endorses this idea in an explanation of six personality types and their underlying tendencies.
In their ability to reinforce and perpetuate existing affective states and cognitive concepts, beliefs can be either helpful or harmful. Each personality type is often paired with corresponding practices to help bring balance and relieve afflictive emotions. These practices are based on cultivating beliefs in contradiction to one’s natural tendencies. For example, if one is naturally cynical and quick to anger, meditations on loving-kindness, compassion, and the essentially good nature of all beings would be the antidote. New beliefs supplant existing beliefs that arise from the nature, or temperament, of the person.
In his book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer spends a lot of time describing the experiences of people who believe they have encountered angels and aliens, had out-of-body or near-death experiences, and endorse psychic powers or supernatural forces. Shermer clearly labels himself a skeptic, which is not to say he has no beliefs, only that he believes these things are impossible rather than possible. His book is a good source of information on some of the latest brain science, describing in detail laboratory experiments and brain disorders (either through injury or chemical imbalance) that may explain these otherwise fantastic experiences. I take the book with a healthy dose of salt, yet it does shed some light on my own experiences.
Shermer describes many states that I have also experienced, such as lucid dreams, hallucinations, deja vu, and curious bodily sensations. When a person has an experience like this, they tend to form a belief to explain it and then stick doggedly to that belief. Where my personal natural tendency comes in to play is that I have no need or desire to interpret these experiences mystically, spiritually, or supernaturally.
For example, I only recently realized that many of these types of experiences belong to what Buddhists describe as nimitta (read more here). I often have them while on the verge of sleep during meditation, when my mind blends samatha with moments of lucid dreaming on the borders on hallucination. This never particularly bothered me and I felt no need to explain it (which is why it took me so long to associate them with this conceptual category my meditation professor went on and on about). Likewise, my life-long habit of vivid dreams, often kinestheic and/or in third-person, has never particularly needed explanation (although I have learned to be mindful of what my dreams tell me about my waking stress level).
This tendency is indicative of a personality trait that could best be described as a higher than average level of comfort with ambiguity and/or a lower than average level of need for certainty or explanation. I see this tendency expressed in other behaviors, such as a lack of competitiveness, willingness to explore new places, and try new things, but also a calm disposition that eschews excessive risk-taking or thrill-seeking behaviors.
Therefore, I don’t believe beliefs are that important because I’ve never particularly needed them to explain things. This also means that I don’t particularly mind when people believe other things. Belief in God, Jesus, Ganesha, Avalokiteshvara, Amida, or any other deity or supernatural being is no skin off my nose. After all, God is just as plausible as an explanation for the origin of the universe as the big bang is, given that I have no personal experience of either. I’m much more interested in what other people do and belief only comes into play when it influences behavior. I judge beliefs by their utility, rather than veracity, seeing as “The Truth” is such a hard thing to come by anyway.
So what changed when I became an atheist? I had more free time on Sunday mornings, more interesting debates over lunch, and I felt better about myself. That is all.
What would change if tomorrow I suddenly became overwhelmed by a belief in God? Well, I’d have less free time on Sunday morning, another set of interesting debates over lunch, and I’d probably, once again, feel better about myself for an entirely different reason. But that is all, because I’m essentially not a belief-driven person. (I do have strong beliefs; I’m just not that interested in whether they are ‘true.’ Again, more on this in a forthcoming post.) I’m not claiming that this is or would be the case for every type of religious conversion for every person.
I no longer describe myself as an atheist. I am at best a non-theist. I think the entire question of God is simply the wrong question. And with so many fascinating questions out there, I’d rather not spend too much time on that one.