One of the questions I am frequently asked is how I came to be an atheist. Personally, I don't place a high emphasis on the details of deconversion - whether it happens gradually or in a Damascus Road-like flash is not relevant to me - and since I did not have an intense religious upbringing to break away from as many deconverts do, I thought my personal testimony would not contribute greatly to those already out there. Nevertheless, I thought it good to write it down once and for all, so as to have something to refer to when I am asked about it in the future. I make no claims that this account is completely reliable, only that it is told as truly as I can remember it.
I wasn't raised with any particular religion. In fact, I can't ever remember my parents mentioning the topic to me when I was a child. Nevertheless, I wondered about Christianity when I was young. I don't remember how I learned about it, though given the way it permeates our culture, there was no lack of opportunities for me to have done so. I thought that was what I wanted to be when I was older - mainly because it seemed as if everyone else was - but the different denominations confused and worried me, as I had no idea how to choose one over any other. I used to pray at night, and sometimes I even thought I got responses, but there was never any insight, any guidance - nothing I did not already know myself.
As I grew older, this faded away, and my faith drifted toward a more generalized belief in a personal god, and then a less personal one. Until my senior year of high school, I considered myself a deist. I believed that there was an intelligent first cause behind the universe, although I did not believe in any organized religion, and indeed I considered them all human inventions and deplored the evils done because of them. I was agnostic on the existence of an afterlife, although I was certain that if there was one, holding any specific set of beliefs would not be among the criteria for admission. If you asked me why I believed as I did, I would have said that I saw too much beauty and goodness in the world to believe that it could have come about without an intelligent plan.
However, that argument was never fully satisfying, not even to me. I gradually began to realize that I couldn't defend my belief intellectually, and it began to bother me. However, I was able to ignore this and suppress the cognitive dissonance until two events that happened in quick succession.
The first step came that year when a Muslim acquaintance of mine sent out a mass e-mail to our entire circle of friends, including me, in an attempt to convince us all that Islam was the one true religion. A heated argument ensued, and when the dust settled, no one's mind had been changed, as might be expected. However, it was the first time in my life I had ever been given an incentive to think critically about any religion, and what struck me more than anything was the way the Muslims taking part in the discussion responded to my criticisms - not by answering them openly, but by ignoring them and trying to shut me out of further discussion. I wasn't an atheist when it was over, but it did get me thinking.
The second and final step came my freshman year of college, when a friend from high school, whom I had always considered very intelligent, revealed to me that she was a born-again Christian and a young-earth creationist. I was shocked by this; I didn't know very much about Christianity at that time, but I did know some things about science, and even then it was obvious to me that the creationist arguments were fundamentally flawed. As a result of some of the exchanges we had, I also began to educate myself about the Bible and Christianity. It was an eye-opening experience to learn about the many contradictions in the text and, even more disturbing, the numerous verses containing horrific violence and atrocities condoned or commanded by God. (I had already acquainted myself with some of the similar errors in the Qur'an as a result of the earlier debate, and I found it very interesting, though not totally unexpected, to see these patterns repeat across the scriptures of several major religions.)
I tried to bring these facts before my friend, out of the admittedly naïve hope that I could persuade her that her beliefs were in error. That did not happen, but I did learn a lot about Christianity in the process, even some things that my friend herself did not know. (My proudest moment was when I asked her how she could believe in a God that creates evil; when she angrily denied that Christianity taught any such thing, I cited Isaiah 45:7 to her.) But I soon became frustrated when she would not budge. After several unfruitful debates, I finally asked her one night if she believed I was going to Hell, and she said yes.
The cognitive dissonance of this overwhelmed me. Though I'd been aware, in a distant sort of way, of the evils caused by organized religion, I had never been confronted with them so starkly or on such a deeply personal level. Here was a person whom I cared about and respected, telling me with no apparent malice that she believed I was going to suffer eternal torture when I died, and more, that I deserved it. How could she possibly consider herself friends with someone whom she sincerely believed merited eternal torture and damnation?
After this exchange, I began to think clearly about this subject for the first time. So far, every religion I had learned about, all the beliefs I had come in contact with, were either factually false, morally outrageous, or both. I was certain, on a deep and fundamental level, that they couldn't be true. But then it occurred to me: if I was so sure that other people were mistaken about religion, why couldn't I be as well? I realized that it was time to stop believing in things I couldn't back up, and that was the day I decided I would henceforth call myself an atheist.
But I still knew very little about atheism, and was somewhat adrift, spiritually speaking. I remember searching the internet in hopes of finding something new, something that would speak to me - and I did. It was at about this time that I came across some pages on secular humanism (I don't even remember now which ones they were, alas), and when I read them, I experienced a profound resonance.
Here, at last, was what I had been searching for - what I now realize I had been unknowingly searching for all my life. Here was a group of people who saw the world as an awesome and beautiful place, full of mystery and wonder waiting to be discovered; people who rejected the morality of guilt and fear and still lived lives of love and kindness and understood the importance of human rights; people who acknowledged the power of science and the importance of defending one's beliefs with evidence. It was, as C.S. Lewis put it, the echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself.
However, I was not ready to give up the possibility that I could be mistaken. There was still much I did not know, after all, and even though the people I knew could not defend their beliefs against skepticism, there might be others that could. Therefore, I decided that before fully committing myself to this new view of life, I would give the advocates of traditional religion one last chance to prove their case to me. If they convinced me, well and good; if they could not, I would know I had made a clean break, and could move forward in my new role as atheist and humanist with no further regret.
I e-mailed an evangelical Christian website I was familiar with, explained my situation, and asked if there was someone I could talk to. I soon heard back from one of the site's editors, and I invited him to present his best case, to explain to me why I should believe. Over the course of a discussion, he did.
Needless to say, I was not convinced. What I remember best was that his case never, except tangentially, touched on the facts. It was never about what piece of evidence proved this or that claim to be true. It was about how Christ died for me, and graphic detail about the terrible tortures he underwent, and how could I be so ungrateful as to not believe in him after that. When I started getting impatient with this approach and asking to see the evidence that answered my questions, his tone changed abruptly, from polite and conversational to hostile and condescending, and the discussion ended soon afterward. (Looking back on this, I admit I was less polite than I could have been, and that may have been a contributing factor in the final response I got. I regret that. However, I believed at the time and still maintain that if he had had the evidence to give to satisfy my questions, I would have been easily convinced.) I also joined several Muslim discussion groups, posing a challenge or asking to debate; the invariant response I got to that was to be immediately banned from the list.
In a way, I was upset with this lackluster response at converting me. I had opened myself to their best shot, and this was all they could do - appeals to emotion and stonewalling? How could that be all they had to offer? These religions had been around for hundreds of years, had millions of adherents around the world; surely they could do better than this? It was tremendously disappointing, almost insulting, to learn that these faiths which commanded such power and respect had been built on such a flimsy foundation.
Yet at the same time, I felt strangely vindicated. It was a vast relief to learn that it was not just me, that I was not the only one in the world who saw religion in this way; that the reason so many people did not believe these things really was because they did not merit belief. It was as if a mist had cleared from my sight and I was now seeing through clear air for the first time, as if an area of the world that had always been marked off-limits was now thrown open. I felt like an explorer stumbling across a wild and new continent. That was the day I became confirmed as an atheist, and I have not looked back since.