My Journey to Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 6, 2009 in Christian Theology,General Atheism

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A reader has asked me to give a list of which books moved me from devoted Christianity to skeptical atheism. But it didn’t happen that way. It’s not like I read a few key books and they converted me.

Rather, I read hundreds of articles and dozens of books, listened to debates and lectures, had conversations, and did lots of praying and thinking. This complex stew of thoughts and reasons was what eventually dragged me to atheism kicking and screaming, though I eventually learned that atheism wasn’t so scary. :)

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but luckily some of my journey was recorded on my earlier blog, What God Taught Me Today, which literally shared my unexpected deconversion as it happened.

My first post on that blog, from December 4th, 2005, reads:

God is transforming me in powerful and exciting ways this year. Every day I choose to be a little more like Jesus, and every day he teaches me how…

…God has used The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard to transform my heart and life more than any non-canonical text. It is the greatest book I have ever read. I’m currently reading The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, an immensely useful and densely insightful book on living life to the fullest in Jesus.

I don’t remember the old Luke who thought The Purpose Driven Life was a good book!

Other posts chronicle my spiritual assault on lust, which included not watching movies like Wedding Crashers. I also shared my thoughts on Christian marriage, What I Love About Islam, stewardship, my confusions on what God was ‘telling’ me, my favorite Greg Boyd sermon, my rejection of Biblical inerrancy, my application of The Long Tail to spiritual life, my dismissal of The God Delusion, my journey towards Anabaptism, my 2006 spiritual growth recap, my drastic step to conquer ‘music lust’, and more.

My journey toward atheism is not apparent until January 2007, when I shared my progress in Rediscovering Jesus after studying the historical Jesus. I was starting to realize that Jesus was not who “2000 years of theological engineering and religious propaganda” had made him out to be. At the time, I had no idea I was heading toward atheism – I just thought I was maturing into a more authentic Christian.

By then, I was already reading some atheistic material, probably from the Secular Web and Ebon Musings, for I complained about the mess of good and bad arguments for and against theism.

Unfortunately, most of my journey was going on in the background, for I “came out” as an atheist on January 17, 2007.

But I apparently wasn’t fully an atheist, as my dad had convinced me to keep trying to find God – to not be so “arrogant” as to think I could get to truth by evidence and reason, but instead to let myself be “led” into truth by “the Spirit.”

I badly wanted Christianity to be true, so I kept trying. I prayed. I read more apologetics material. I begged God to show himself, in any form.

About that time I left home to study abroad in Venezuela. I was also struggling with how to break the news of my deconversion to my girlfriend. But by February 1, I reported that:

I’m surprised to report that most of my existential pain [about atheism] has already faded, replaced by a rapturous sense of freedom to experience God, fall in love with him, and let his Spirit guide me into truth – all in totally fresh ways and to assuredly fresh ends.

One of the books I read to salvage my faith was Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic, a collection of letters between Boyd and his father which ultimately led to his father’s conversion to Christianity. Some of Boyd’s answers were comforting, some were not.

I thought maybe I could recover a faith similar to Christianity but without its absurdities and contradictions. I was comforted by this quote from Erwin McManus, an “emergent Christian” in Los Angeles:

Christianity is a world religion just like Hinduism, and Islam, and Buddhism, and it’s more dangerous than those because it’s more subtle, and it’s so close to the truth that it leads people in a lie.

In April 2007 I read and reconsidered Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which was a mess of good and bad arguments, but did give me some confidence that atheism would be okay, if my attempts to recover theism did not work.

After this, there is a gap in my online writings, but I remember that I quickly came to think any attempts to salvage God would fail, and became comfortable in my atheism. By January 2008 I was writing pages like Top 20 Evil Bible Stories and one on why a Martian would reject Christianity. And by November 2008 I had launched Common Sense Atheism.

But let me return to what I remember of my journey before January 2007.

In early 2005, I was apparently still skeptical of evolution. In a review of Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable, I wrote:

Quite simply, most of the book is filled with wild assumptions. Most questions of ‘How did this work?’ are answered by, ‘We really don’t know yet. But maaaaaybe…‘ – and that’s not very convincing. For a theory so dependent on scientific evidence, there is little to be found. (For example, the entirety of scientists’ ‘knowledge’ on ape-to-human forms – 300 million years of human development, 2 genera, and more than a dozen species – is based on a mound of fossils that wouldn’t fill the bed of a pickup truck and a whole lot of arbitrary assumptions.) I marvel at the faith of evolutionists that their theory is correct despite a nearly complete lack of real evidence – indeed, their faith may surpass that of most Christians who believe in creationism purely through faith.

But later that year I came to understand the evidence for evolution better and accepted it.

In summer 2005 I experienced a spiritual reawakening as a result of reading John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart and Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, and I wanted nothing more than to be like Jesus.

But every Christian leader had a different idea of who I was and what he wanted. I had to know what Jesus was really like in order to be like him, so I started studying the Historical Jesus, reading both Christian and secular historians.

Some sources I recall are:

But there were many others.

What I learned shocked me. Our ‘knowledge’ of Jesus is shrouded in the fogs of myth, superstition, contradiction, and just plain lack of evidence. Moreover, if we knew anything about Jesus it is that he was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. And a failed one at that, since the world did not come to an end!

Moreover, Jesus and Paul seemed to disagree on some fundamental issues, as did many other early Christians.

What was I to make of all this?

I had started by just wanting to know who Jesus was so I could be like him. Now I had discovered that most of what I’d been taught about Jesus was probably wrong, and I was thoroughly confused. Apparently, my methods of knowing so far had led me far, far away from the truth. I needed more reliable methods of knowing.

I studied many different ways of knowing, and was persuaded by the case made for critical thinking, logic, and science. Those were the best methods of knowing – the ones that most often led to truth. So I decided to use these new methods to figure out what was true about God and Jesus.

I admit I didn’t spend much time studying other religions. But I did study many defenses of Christianity. I studied the debates and articles of William Lane Craig, Alister McGrath and other apologists. Their work also led me to study atheism, which before this time I had only been vaguely aware of.

losing_faith_in_faithProbably the most influential book during this time was Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith. Dan was a Christian pastor and songwriter. He loved Jesus with all his heart. And then he did some studying and realized that his beloved Jesus did not exist. His short, readable chapters presented atheism to me in a very compelling way. Compared to Barker, the writings of Christian apologists were hopelessly confused, ad hoc, and desperate. Barker only talked about things that were well-evidenced and made plain, obvious sense. If I had to pin my loss of faith on one book, it would be Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith.

I also read the books of the New Atheists. They planted lots of important thoughts in my head, but I was turned off by their overzealous desire to blame everything on religion.

Bobby Henderson’s satirical The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster illustrated not just what was wrong with intelligent design, but showed that what was wrong with intelligent design is exactly what is wrong with theology in general.

I kept trying to rescue my faith by drowning out the atheists by reading Christian apologists way more often. But none of them had much to say besides “God is mysterious.” They complained when atheists came to conclusions based on only half a dozen pieces of evidence, but then they made hundreds incredibly wild and bizarre claims of their own with literally no evidence for them at all.

My deconversion was based on reason and evidence about as much as possible, but two very important events allowed me to see the reasons and evidence clearly in the first place.

The first was the realization that I literally had an invisible friend who granted me wishes with magical powers. My immediate reaction was, “Huh. Wow. Now, that may be true, but I guess I should at least look into this. I could be wrong, I guess.” So after that I wasn’t looking at the evidence as if it obviously had to point to God. Maybe I was wrong, though at that time I hadn’t really thought about the possibility that there was no God. That still seemed inconceivable to me.

The second was the much later realization that if atheism was true, I would be okay. I knew that if Christianity was true, I would be okay. I wanted Christianity to be true. But I had been raised to think that without God there was no meaning, morality, or happiness in life. When I discovered that many atheists led lives of incredible meaning, morality, and happiness, I was more open to the possibility of atheism. I didn’t have to endlessly resist the evidential pull of atheism any longer. I would be okay without God.

So I can’t give a list of books that deconverted me. My deconversion was the result of hundreds of articles and books and conversations and debates and thinking sessions.

Later, I’ll make a list of  the best atheistic books I’ve ever read, before or after my deconversion.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorkas July 6, 2009 at 9:02 am

(For example, the entirety of scientists’ ‘knowledge’ on ape-to-human forms – 300 million years of human development, 2 genera, and more than a dozen species – is based on a mound of fossils that wouldn’t fill the bed of a pickup truck and a whole lot of arbitrary assumptions.)

This is a common creationist claim, but, like most of their claims, is just plain false. I’m sure you know that now, but lies like these can be really compelling when they come from someone that you think you can trust, like parents or pastors, so I thought I would put it out for the sake of any readers.
 
The dishonesty of creationists is what led me, in a large part, to becoming an atheist. I realized if people could believe something so strongly when there’s so much evidence against it, then perhaps my strongly-held beliefs should be carefully examined. It worked. :)

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Marco July 6, 2009 at 9:31 am

By January 2008 I was writing pages like Top 20 Evil Bible Stories and one on why a Martian would reject Christianity.
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Please don’t do that here ;) I value the quality of this website too much for that!

I liked your story, especially your opennes is interesting.  Somehow having any religious interest is very non-European. Which sucks, cause it’s pretty fascinating.

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 9:58 am

Lorkas, thanks for the link.

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 9:59 am

Marco,

Actually, I still like those two posts. They serve their purpose.

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Haecceitas July 6, 2009 at 11:21 am

While I admit that I haven’t read Barker’s book, I must say on the basis of what I’ve heard of his debates that I’m a bit surprised that you found his arguments so convincing. Would you say that the book is significantly better than his typical debate performance as far as the quality of the argument is concerned?

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Wonderist July 6, 2009 at 11:22 am

Great story! The part I liked the most was your comparison of how theists complain that evolution doesn’t have much evidence (which isn’t true, as Lorkas mentions, but this is what they do claim), and yet they turn around and make wild claims with no evidence.
How important was the lack of evidence for Jesus to your overall de-conversion? What is your stance on Jesus mythicism (i.e. Jesus was not a historical person, but historicized out of a mythical saviour), as proposed by Earl Doherty, Bob Price, Richard Carrier, and others?

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Penneyworth July 6, 2009 at 11:30 am

I’m very interested in knowing more details about your relationship with your parents over the past couple of years. I would assume that you are still close to them, and that they have not lost their faith. I find it interesting to think about how my loss of christianity influenced my parents and siblings in subsequent years. I wonder how you influence your parents. I can’t believe they read your blog and don’t at least see some of that glimmering intelligence and clarity of reason that they raised you to have. Loving your child more than your own life, and also believing they will be tortured for the lack of belief in some ritual is a real eye-opener. I suspect that is their predicament.

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 11:37 am

Barker is especially poor on morality, and he is not a philosopher. His ‘arguments’, if you can call them such, are superior to those of Christian apologists only in the respect I indicated in this post.

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 11:40 am

Wonderist,

Thanks!

My studies of the historical Jesus ended up having much less effect than my studies of more basic issues in critical thinking, logic, and epistemology. I think Jesus mythicism is more probable than current scholarly consensus admits, and I think scholarly consensus will shift that way a bit, but I don’t know whether Jesus was a historical figure anything like historians think, or not.

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 11:43 am

Penneyworth,

I speak with my parents often and see them about twice a year (we live in different states). I rarely bring up atheism, because when I do they shut down. I’m pretty sure they don’t read my blog. They know I’m smart and earnest, but they actually think reason and study have led me astray from the truth that is more surely revealed in their own subjective experience. I have no idea what it feels like for them to love me so deeply and believe that I am going to hell and having rejected everything they hold most dearly. That must hurt.

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Chuck July 6, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Sometimes I wonder just how important the internet has been for ours and others’ deconversions. For my part, I must have read John Loftus for months before I found the courage to buy anything the least bit heretical. Even after I had admitted to my pastor I harbored serious doubts about the historicity of the exodus, the existence of demons, the flood …

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Chuck,

Interesting thought. I know it was hugely important for my deconversion, because it made the issues and arguments available to me, whereas without them it would have been easier for me to put it all off and stick to what I already “knew.”

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danielg July 6, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Thank you Luke, that was very interesting.  I have not journaled my exodus from faith, nor my subsequent return.   I am currently writing my first book on it, i hope to get it published.
The reasons I left were (1) having to unlearn ALL that I learned about God from a cultlike organization in order to reexplore spiritual truth without manipulation, (2) the appeal of psychology, Buddhism, and yoga (all of which I now embrace within an xian context, with obvious caveats), (3) the problem of eternal punishment.
Interestingly, I never lost my ‘faith’ in creationism, having been convinced of the doubtfulness of evolution by reading about the facts.  I guess that my doubt of evolution was in some ways independent of my faith.  BTW, I have a degree in Biochemistry, so my examination of the data is not superficial.
I returned to faith slowly, somewhat like A. N. Wilson – slowly.  What convinced me to return was:
- living without a personal god to talk to (as in my Buddhist practice) felt unnatural to me – either I needed it for psychological reasons, or I was actually resisting the reality of God, pretending that god did NOT exist.  I concluded the latter, though without direct evidence.
- the superiority of xianity as a world view, especially as applied to setting up a just society – I looked at the history of nations with various ideologies, and concluded that those with Protestant histories, and to a lesser extend, Catholic, had the most freedom and human prosperity.  Those with other ideologies had much worse problems with injustice, poverty, and totalitarianism.  Even Buddhism, which I love, did not translate well into public policy.  Sounds funny to say it, but this affected me because…
3. Christianity seemed to have the most comprehensive, integrated, and common sense (that is, verifiable in the things that could be verified) world view.  Its concepts of justice and mercy, the great archaeological support for the bible, the well developed philosophical arguments, all made me think that it was certainly a sound world view.
None of these are conclusive in themselves, and somewhat subjective.  However, as John Loftus indicated in an interview about his deconversion, no one makes decisions based on logic alone – there is always an emotional factor.  Cheers.

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Reginald Selkirk July 6, 2009 at 5:05 pm

 

danielg: None of these are conclusive in themselves, and somewhat subjective.

Specifically: none of these have any bearing on whether the Christian version of God actually exists.

I looked at the history of nations with various ideologies, and concluded that those with Protestant histories, and to a lesser extend, Catholic, had the most freedom and human prosperity.

Well there you go. Christianity/Catholicism had a death grip on Europe for a millenium, and this concept of freedom had no place until that grip was loosened by schism and the introduction of new ideas. Not to mention it is an argument from consequences anyway.

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Lorkas July 6, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Reginald Selkirk: Well there you go. Christianity/Catholicism had a death grip on Europe for a millenium, and this concept of freedom had no place until that grip was loosened by schism and the introduction of new ideas. Not to mention it is an argument from consequences anyway.

Not to mention that the most secular countries are demonstrably the countries that have the best education, health care, employment rates, civil rights, and the lowest rates of criminal behavior.

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UNRR July 7, 2009 at 2:33 am

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 7/7/2009, at The Unreligious Right

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Anthony July 7, 2009 at 10:28 am

In my deconversion there were several critical books that eventually led me to reject faith, and all were written by evangelical Christian scholars. Here is the list:

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns
Coming to Peace With Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology by Darrel R. Falk
God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship by Kenton L. Sparks
I had been reading a number of books and articles about the Old Testamant and it’s historicity, I won’t go into it now as to why I was specifically studying those issues, but it was during this time that I had been reading articles by Paul Seely regarding Genesis and the ancient near east. These studies opened a whole new area of interest to me. I then read Enns book which in many ways affirmed what Seely was saying and as well dealt with other related issues that I had not thought about before.

These studies eventually opened the question regarding origins and specifically evolution and creationism. I had been a young earth ID friendly creationist all of my life but had never really read anything by an evolutionist. I then decided to objectivity read what they had to say and that’s when I read the book by Falk which showed how overwhelming the evidence is for biological evolution.

For over a year I was an evolutionist and rejected full inerrancy but was still interested in seeing how the Bible could still be considered inspired and the “word of God.” I had bought many books on the subject which included the one by Sparks. I decided to read Sparks first and was totally dumb founded by the shear amount of critical and historical problems of the Bible. By the time I was finished reading I found that there was nothing left in Christianity for me to believe.

I spent a short time considering other religions and even open to the concepts of panentheism but in the end found nothing to support any type of theism.

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Haukur July 8, 2009 at 3:23 am

Awesome post, I love detailed conversion/deconversion stories.

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Jonny July 16, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Wow!
Thanks for the experiences!
I was rasied in a different christian denomination that hates the ones you were raised in. Yet, I see many simular strains. Just, wow!

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lukeprog July 16, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Thanks, Jonny. Care to share your own story?

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Adrian Russell February 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Your Stephen Roberts banner quote is nonsensical. It implies that either all gods exist or none do. Why can’t I reject non-existent gods and believe the one that exists?
Might as well say “When you understand why you dismiss all other possible scientific explanations, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

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lukeprog February 18, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Adrian Russell,

There are many possible interpretations of the banner quote. See here for an explanation of what I intend.

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Julian February 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Luke,
This is only the third time that I’ve posted something on the internet (though I’m 33). The first was on this website a few days ago. I was initially attracted by the by the generally polite tone of the people who contributed.
It was interesting reading your story on how you have come to reject Christianity and accept atheism. My main interest was sympathetic. I have gone through a similar process in my life but at crucial points things have happened, and ideas have been discovered that have diverted me from the path that you have taken.
My initial problems arose when I was in the 6th grade, and for some reason I just started to think that God just didn’t exist. This was an unbearable year for me, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had a nervous breakdown. I continued, however, to pray and act as though God existed.
When I was at Uni I read Dawkin’s Selfish Gene. Though I don’t ever remember having much of a problem with evolution, it fully dawned on me at one moment what the whole evolutionary world view entailed. That was quite a shock, but I wasn’t going to chuck God away without a fight. I deferred uni after two years and joined a Christian community (really to pursue prayer). During this time I discovered dead authors like George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. It became clear to me that these people understood the fact and implication of ideas which spring from evolution better than people like Dawkins did and had answered in many different ways his arguments well before Dawkins was a glint in the milkman’s eye-so to speak. I returned to uni, with a simple, and more practical and prayerful faith. Somehow, I realized that I had actually rejected the faith of my upbringing. Things like heaven and hell, predestination and the like didn’t concern me. Only the conscious presence of God, and open eyes to do what He would have me do were important. I’m now married with children building an earth house in country NSW Australia, trying to do what God would have me do.
When I read your story I could easily imagine that being mine. While I would not submit some of the most precious and deep things in my experience to the dead hand of rationalism, I fancy that my world view is as consistent as any that I have heard about. A certain amount of doubt is inevitable, but it seems to me that naturalism is the most self-refuting of all world views. It looks like stainless steel perfection from outside but fares poorly when examined at the presuppositional level. It is braver than agnosticism, but not nearly as reasonable.
It was interesting to read your story and I would like to know where you are coming from, but it is hard to get a specific atheistic creed out of your site. Are you able to summarise your basic beliefs so that I can see where you have gone your way and I have gone mine, I actually might have missed something, but so might have you.
I don’t know if you are in the habit of responding personally to such post. I’ll check from time to time. I’m pretty easily dissuaded, so if you would rather, just ignore me and I will go away.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 15, 2011 at 8:24 pm

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Troy November 26, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Man, this makes me so sad bro…you say youve seemingly felt god in the greatest and most exponential way possible: True Faith…but you let mere parchment get in the way of your relationship. People are imperfect, and therefore anything human~made is imperfect. Books and documents may depict the exact truth, but they also may not….which is why your decision to base your atheistic beliefs on paper rather than the actual relationship you had with God makes me so sad. You ignored what mattered and fell into the trap of secular documentation…You say you felt God. And you lost that because of your unfortunately suseptable personality:/…Also id like to add that I dont see why you or anyone can declare absolute atheism. Your a human, you know about as much about everything as a rock….How do you know indefinately that there is no creator? You have not traveled the universe my friend…i hope I have brought up some decent points for you to ponder…sincerly, In Love with My God;)

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Noela December 30, 2011 at 6:02 am

We get so conditioned to a certain way of thinking. Just as you might say, we are conditioned to be Christians, therefore, we need to seek the truth further, I am swinging it around and saying, today’s world is being conditioned by the enemy to be non-believers. You have been taught that you dont need to just believe that the sky is blue because you see it is blue, there are many intricate ways to study the sky and the composition of the sky, until you reach a conclusion that technically the sky is not really a thing that is blue, but millions of light particles scattering. Yet the sky is blue. You can’t see air, you can’t taste it. You know it’s there because scientists told you its there. So you are being conditioned OUT of your beliefs by a certain way of thinking. Are you comfortable with being fooled? That if it isn’t on paper it isn’t real. You seem to have chosen to go along with it. We make it so complicated for ourselves, yet it is so simple, I am sure you know this verse, you probably know the Bible better than I do!! “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.” I am sure you have a lot of explanations of why we feel the presence of God and that it’s all in our mind, because we believe. Why then, do you think did He instruct us to believe? He created us, every single thing in this world, has been created by Him and is working according to the structures that He has put in place. We know about ecosystems etc, but have you ever considered why a certain animal only eats a certain thing? They say a little science draws a man away from God, a lot of science brings him back. I say you just haven’t had enough science yet :-) Good luck with your journey, and I’d love to chat and exchange viewpoints if you are willing! :D

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