A secular to atheist conversion story

This student received a $300 scholarhsip.

A lot of atheists can tell great stories about being raised in religious families, about adolescent moments of skepticism and dinner-table declarations of nonbelief. They can account for their atheism in compelling personal detail: the first time they asked a priest “But who created God?” or saw a documentary on evolution that contradicted everything they’d been taught. In other words, they have deconversion stories.

I envy the clarity and power of their narratives, but I’m the other sort of atheist, the kind for whom religion never had a chance.

I wasn’t brought up to be an atheist. I used to think my parents were religious. For some reason, when I was very young, I took pride in the idea that we were utterly normal in every respect. So I called my dad Jewish and my mom Christian; one side of the family celebrated Passover, the other Easter. Yes, I considered this normal.

The truth is that my father’s parents are the only bona fide believers in my immediate family. This became apparent as years went by with plenty of candle lighting, egg hunting and tree decorating, but hardly a word said about Jesus or Moses, heaven or hell.

The right word to describe this upbringing is secular, not atheist. It’s appropriate, then, that my first apostasy had nothing to do with religion: when I was 6, I declared myself a fan of the Cleveland Indians. This probably antagonized my New Jersey classmates, Yankee fans all, as much as incipient rationalism must irritate the little boys and girls of the bible belt.

I was never a “go along to get along” kind of guy, and I had a family that, for better or worse, didn’t exactly mandate conformity. Maybe it was inevitable that I would become an atheist.

Suffering is natural, not supernatural, and pointless, not planned.

Still, I’d like to identify the exact circumstances of my transition from mere absence of religion to outright rejection. Even if my story isn’t as dramatic as that of a Catholic or Baptist turned atheist, at least I’d have some explanation for what has become a major part of my identity.

Maybe the turning point was the day (I was probably 8 or 9) that my dad half-heartedly dragged me to a Hebrew school to see if I liked it. I did not. In my Exodus-themed coloring book, I filled in the Red Sea with a dark crimson, earning a reprimand from the teacher. Maybe my atheism started with a coloring book. I never went back to Hebrew school.

Soon I discovered Internet chatrooms where people anonymously debated religion, an utterly fruitless way to spend your time, I now realize. But I loved those angry, confused, frustrating arguments. I enjoyed being outnumbered, responding to multiple lines of attack at once. I was proud that I could hold my own.

This time period corresponds with my dad’s cancer diagnosis. Many children experience trauma and tragedy and don’t become atheists, but children with secular upbringings, who have never been told to take something on faith, are uniquely equipped to see through attempts to explain, and explain away, human suffering.

Even at that age, I sensed that the problem of suffering is something to which religion has nothing persuasive to say. Posed with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?,” the devout inevitably reply that God wants to test us, challenge us, improve us through suffering and striving.

I remember getting this answer from my best friend at the time, a minister’s son. “What does he know about suffering?” I thought. Now I realize that my question was juvenile. Almost everyone has experienced loss or deprivation of some kind.

I think there was a touch of wisdom in my position. It’s not that artful theologians can’t come up with ways to address suffering. It’s the fact that they need to be artful at all that makes them suspect.

The truth, rather than artful, is painful: Suffering is natural, not supernatural, and pointless, not planned. For some, denying these propositions is a way of comforting themselves, and they even recognize it as such. For others, the hope that there is purpose and design behind everything is so strong that they cannot separate wish from reality.

These believers sometimes find it hard to understand how atheists can deal with suffering, not as an intellectual matter, but personally, emotionally. “Yes,” they’ll say, “you make good rational arguments, but don’t you just need to believe in God? Doesn’t that explanation help you as much as it helps me?”

I am always tempted to say that I wish it did. But I’m not sure that’s right. No, there seems to be something substantively better about the atheist response to suffering. The believer who says “It is part of God’s plan” implies that we don’t have the right to be upset or to mourn.

Coping with inevitable pain

The cultural anthropologist Susan Harding once met a fundamentalist pastor, Rev. Milton Cantrell, who made this explicit. When Cantrell killed his own son in a tragic accident, he told God, “Lord, I accept it though I don’t understand it.” He resolved to love God even if he lost his other son, lost his wife, lost his health.

Cantrell’s position is repugnant. It’s a surrender of our humanity, the humanity that makes us grieve our loved ones, the humanity that compels us to honor them and their lives, rather than bow before their heavenly destroyer. Few believers are capable of the self-negation that Cantrell espouses, but that is only because their faith demands the near impossible.

There are dangers hidden in the philosophy that pain should not be wished or explained away. At its worst, this view can justify a complete lack of compassion, as in Ayn Rand’s “Objectivist” vision. If pain is an inevitable part of life, then there’s no point in helping the sick and the poor. To try to ease their suffering is to participate in the same delusion as Cantrell, who wanted so much to turn the bad into good, to avoid the painful reality.

I never became so extreme, but I can see that my philosophical acceptance of suffering informed my adolescent behavior. In eighth grade, when a federal court declared the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional [later reversed on appeal], I decided to make my own stand by remaining seated when my classmates stood up to say the pledge every morning. I realize now that I wanted to get a reaction, to be questioned, scorned, abused. But I wasn’t. My classmates treated it like a quirk, nothing more.

In ninth grade, I wrote a column for the school paper arguing that students should get “chapel credit” for going to meetings of an atheist club. (I went to a boarding school that hosted services in all faith traditions and required students to attend two services a semester.) I couldn’t see the educational purpose behind the chapel requirement. I saw it as a totalitarian attempt to force religion down my throat.

I wanted my screed to get attention, and this time I got my wish: a scornful rebuttal in the next issue of the paper. Instead of making friends in my new high school, I was determined to make enemies in a battle royal over religion.

But there’s nothing about being an atheist that requires a life of ostracism. Yes, atheists accept that pain and loss are facts of life. But we grieve our loved ones, and strive to alleviate suffering here on Earth, because we don’t welcome the pain the way Rev. Cantrell tried to.

Whether it all began with a coloring book, a chatroom or, more likely, next to a hospital bed, my atheism has continued to evolve since those early beginnings. The story of my transition from secular child to atheist adult cannot be encapsulated by a single moment of doubt and defiance, as so many deconversion narratives seem to be.

Born out of pain and tragedy, my rejection of religion needed time to mature into a joyful yet realistic humanism.

This student, 20, Metuchen, N.J., is a senior at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he is studying government.

Freedom From Religion Foundation