The Five Stages of My Atheism
I wasn’t always the atheist I am today. Or the one the day before.
The Stealth Atheist
Ages 4 through 12
Like every other human being I was born without any knowledge of or belief in deities, but for the first couple of years of my life I didn’t quite have the intellectual acuity to identify as atheist. Starting around age four, though, concepts like God, Islam, and eight-armed Hindu goddesses went from being merely entertaining to having a sense of meaning.
I began my journey through these five stages of atheism with the early realization that I did not much care for religious practices and rituals. “Why do I have to do this?” I asked myself at every interval, and sometimes out loud to my parents, who were never that upset about my reluctance to participate. It was a period of self-discovery in which I was generally too young to come to useful decisions, even about benign things, such as “should I wear shoes with shoelaces?”
One major reason of why I didn’t much care for the whole religion business (as presented by my mixed-religion parents): there were too many questions with answers that I felt were unsatisfying. I’d already devoured multiple children’s encyclopedias which taught me all about the first four-odd billion years of the planet. The various myths of omnipotent beings (Norse, biblical, Greek) creating the earth were more like cartoons.
One open-ended question was what religion I “belonged” to; in lieu of an answer, I was something of a religious swing-voter, indecisive about what seemed like equally valid arguments.
Like many products in their alpha stage, my beliefs had a few pivots.
The Rebellious Atheist
Ages 13 to 18
Enter the teenage years. Those tumultuous, emotional, life-changing, and mostly just plain awkward years.
In high school we were taught about the various religions around the world, their history, their origin stories. It was one of several classes I had relatively little interest in, feeling at the time that nothing I would learn in this class would empower me or provide insight later on in life. You know, like algebra.
It was in this stage that I started to openly rebel against any association with religion. I grew up in a Muslim household (my Catholic-raised mother had converted to Islam by this time, finding the Quran more inclusive and respectful towards women than the Bible), but fasting for Ramadan was about the only ritual I participated in.
As I exited high school and jumped straight into working as a professional web developer — because religion wasn’t the only normative system I rebelled against — I also started identifying openly as an atheist. It was rarely a topic of conversation, but it was my first genuine step into conscious atheism.
The Militant Atheist
Ages 19 to 25
Like most white, cisgender boys of adolescent age, I was far too convinced of my own cleverness and intellect than was good for me. I was the type of person who thought Richard Dawkins’ famous TED Talk was the best thing ever, and not, you know, an early tell of the Old Man Yelling At Religion (And Feminists™) he would later become.
Suffice it to say, I thought that it was ridiculous as an adult to still believe in mythical beings, and I was fiercely convinced of my own righteousness.
Now, this turned out to be a rather contentious stance when I was on an extended road trip with my girlfriend, who I had started dating less than a month prior to driving off across the country together.
Pro tip: if you’re going to spend two planned weeks of non-stop time together in a car with someone you just started dating, try to learn not to be a confrontational ass about your beliefs. Especially if you’re an adolescent atheist, like I was at the time.
So there I was, driving across the USA with the woman I was really into, insistently arguing about how ridiculous her beliefs were. (If you’re not cringing right now, you have not passed the previous paragraph’s test.)
God? Pfft, ridiculous.
Now, perhaps it may be ridiculous, but that’s really quite irrelevant. The point of faith and spirituality isn’t to be objectively right or wrong; it’s about what it means to you, and what your faith can offer you in support, guidance, inspiration, and compassion in life. You’ll always be wrong when you misuse your religion as your argument for being right.
If a faith leads some people to be bigoted towards others for being different, for believing something else, or any such thing, I would still consider that a failing of the faith on the part of those people, not the faith itself.
Of course, I was still a militant atheist at the time, so I didn’t quite realize all this back then. Thankfully, there was the fourth stage.
The Self-Confronting Atheist
Ages 26 to 29
Few things will shake a man as much as having his eyes truly opened to the wealth of his white male privileges, should he have them.
Particularly, I started realizing that militant atheism was not a useful or even healthy identity for a person. Atheism is not something that benefits from people trying to drive it to greater numbers, and is not some noble or “better” thing at all. I’ve seen atheists who were more despicably sexist than almost any Christian I’d ever met, for instance, and it drove the point home perfectly: people should be judged on their actions and how they treat others, and their personal beliefs only matter insofar as those beliefs are used to justify their actions. Believing in God while treating other people kindly and supportively is, after all, infinitely better than not believing in God and not being such a nice person.
What, then, drove the previously-held militant attitude I had towards religious people? When I finally asked myself that question, the answer came easily: it was when people used religion to discriminate against certain groups, be they gay or trans people, women, people of color, or simply people who believed in something else. It was when people hid their bigoted views behind their faith, or behind “traditions” — which were largely formed by religion.
So then I asked myself another question: do you want people to stop believing in God, or do you want them to stop espousing bigoted views and discriminating against people?
I believe no human being should ever pick the former option.
The God-loving Atheist
Ages 30 and above
Finally, I reached spiritual enlightenment as an atheist: the god-loving atheist who, themself, does not believe in God(s), but who has the courage in their heart to support and understand others who do.
I no longer think it’s ridiculous to believe in unproven deities. I think someone’s spiritual belief is a personal aspect that’s silly to make a big issue of, and it speaks poorly of anyone who would attack someone else for their specific faith. It also says you don’t feel confident enough in your own person to accept other people as different.
It is here that I have become a fifth-stage atheist, with the moderately adult perspective of not giving a damn (ahem) what religion someone belongs to, and choosing instead to focus on how they put their beliefs into practice.
Millions of Christians out there help Muslim, Christian, Hindu and other refugees to find shelter, or a new home. Billions of Muslims lead ordinary, everyday lives, and find the same comfort and support in their faith as Christians do in theirs. There are Sikh people out there whose kindness and compassion inspires me in ways I can only describe as spiritually riveting, but even still I don’t find enough appeal in religion to abandon atheism. Who I am as an atheist is meaningless next to what I do for others as a person.
You might argue that all I’ve achieved through these five stages of atheism is hitting the basic tenets of being a decent, non-asshole adult. I wouldn’t even disagree with you. I would point out that, just perhaps, it is a virtue still worth striving towards for most of us.
No matter what they believe.