22 February 2013

Conversations: The Process of Coming to Atheism

Gentry McKeown has been a friend since we met at a mutual friend's birthday party. We've had some lively discussions about religion, politics, and other stuff, and she graciously agreed to share her story here.

So to start off, could you describe your growing up experience, your perspective on life then, and how your perspective started to change?

I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, the heart of the Bible Belt, so it’s no surprise I grew up in a Christian household and attended a fairly conservative Southern Baptist church. I went to Sunday school every week, participated in the youth group, and was even saved at the age of six.

My sister and I were home-schooled, so our only social interaction was with friends we met at church. Because I was always surrounded by like-minded people, I accepted Christianity without question and believed the Bible was the literal word of god.

As I got older, I studied the Bible on my own. I began to question the stories they taught me in Sunday school, and I read the ones they didn’t. The more I read, the more I began asking myself questions like: How can Jesus be his own father? Why would god give Adam and Eve free will but place forbidden fruit in the garden? Why did god murder innocent children in the flood? Does god actually want women to submit to their husbands? Why does god demand a blood sacrifice for sins anyway? Are gay people going to hell? Is god really endorsing slavery in Deuteronomy 21? And exactly how many people were burned because of Exodus 22:18?

The more I read the Bible, the more it sounded like a fairytale, and I began to feel stupid for believing it. And I decided that even if those stories were true, who wants to worship that kind of god anyway?

As you started having questions, did you ask others about them? Did you know others who were wrestling with similar questions?

In my early teens, I had no idea if anyone else had similar thoughts. My church didn’t exactly encourage critical thinking, and I was too afraid to ask questions openly in Sunday school because I felt I’d be judged. It was very alienating. 

Even though I didn’t really discuss my doubts with my friends or family, I prayed about it. I asked god to speak to me through the scripture, but I never felt his presence. I felt like I was praying to a god that didn’t exist. 

The older I got, the less concerned I became about expressing my skepticism. When my church played a video series about young-earth creationism, I knew I’d had enough. This experience led me to realize that Christianity isn’t open-minded; it only accepts evidence that fits the Christian worldview. After I reached this conclusion, I didn’t care who knew I felt this way. Finally, I got the courage to tell my parents I didn’t like our church and didn’t want to go anymore. 

We tried attending one of those new progressive churches—the kind with a rock band and a positive message—but the entire service felt like superficial, self-help nonsense. The sermons never addressed the burning questions I had about Christianity. Each Sunday, I felt like I was sitting in a room full of mindless people who never questioned anything and were more concerned about the complementary coffee and donuts than learning about the word of god or really understanding theology.

Soon, I stopped attending church altogether and started entertaining the idea of classifying myself as agnostic.

You mentioned dissatisfaction with Christian teaching on topics such as wives submitting to their husbands, gays going to hell, or the need for a blood sacrifice. What do you believe about these things now? And how does an agnostic or atheistic outlook make better sense of these issues for you?

When I was a Christian, I had difficulty reconciling these Biblical teachings with what I thought was true. Now I understand that these are just false beliefs held by deluded individuals–many of whom are so indoctrinated, they don’t even realize they’re perpetuating hate.

Many Christians are horrified by the inequality of women in countries like Iran, but they don’t recognize that the unequal treatment and forced submission of women in the Church are just milder forms of the same misogynistic mentality. The Bible was also used to justify slavery and discrimination against African Americans throughout our country’s history–something we can all agree is abhorrent—but now Christians are using it to justify discrimination against homosexuals and deny them basic civil rights. I find it disturbing and ironic that, when it comes to dealing with others, Christians tend to be the most unchristlike. In the future, we’ll look back at how we treated our fellow human beings and be ashamed.

This is why religion in all forms is detrimental to society. The religious waste time legislating morality and arguing about superstitions and dogma rather than fostering a love for humanity and focusing on improving our world. I’ve been accused of having no moral compass because I don’t believe in god, but I can’t imagine anything more repulsive and immoral than surrendering reason, hindering progress, and, as Richard Dawkins once said, being “satisfied with not understanding the world.”

I wouldn’t accuse you of having no moral compass. I can remember moments when you had more apparent charity than I had, but it is curious you think “christlikeness” is desirable—or at least more desirable than the behavior of many Christians. How would you defend your idea of what is true or reasonable? How would you determine whether a development is progress or regress?

Sometimes I use the word ‘christlike’ because it’s a concept people understand. When I say that, I simply mean treating others the way you want to be treated. However, I do think someone could be raised with no religion or knowledge of Christ and still know what's right and what's wrong. To me, it’s just common sense.

I’ll admit, however, that what seems reasonable or good to me, may not seem reasonable to someone else. Take women’s rights for example. One may argue that a Muslim man who requires his wife to wear a burqa and won’t allow her to drive a car or walk on the street by herself doesn’t feel she’s being oppressed. If she is legitimately happy not having a job, staying at home to raise her children, serving her husband, who am I judge?

Situations like these are still troubling, however, because oftentimes, people accept a deplorable situation without question because it’s the only reality they’ve ever known. Because of their faith, their worldview is limited. They don't know what they’re capable of and they’re never given the opportunity to find out. This is just one example. The repression of women isn’t limited to the Muslim faith. I witnessed it in my own Southern Baptist church as a child.

This is all just my long-winded way of saying that religion is harmful. Imagine the millions of hours we spend in church, reading religious texts and praying to a god that doesn’t exist. Now imagine what the world would be like if those hours were invested in medical research, finding cures for diseases, studying our universe and bettering our communities. It’s only natural for people to want to understand their place in the world, but the answer doesn’t lie in religion.

When I realized that I only needed to look to science to find answers, I felt as if a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I’m no longer afraid of a god who judges me and threatens me with eternal damnation. I now know I’m the only one in control my life and that’s exhilarating. When you believe you won’t spend forever in heaven and that your time on this planet is fleeting, life is a little more beautiful.


  1. Amazing words and inspiring insight to self-discovery.

  2. Thanks for this, Gentry and Loren. People's stories are fascinating. In my personal journey, I'm trying to figure out what to think about the relationship between science and God. So...
    What does Gentry mean by "I only needed to look to science to find answers"? As I understand it, science doesn't have anything to say about things like whether gays should have a legal status called "marriage" or whether women should submit to men. As far as I can see, science doesn't even say whether we should improve the world or what improving the world looks like - at most it tells us how to do that once we've decided to, and once we've decided what improvement means.
    But even beyond such normative questions, I question whether science has the power to tell us the truth about the way the world is. With Karl Popper, I think the scientific method is a way of finding which hypotheses are wrong, not which ones are right. Yes, I think it gets us closer to the truth, but how do we know at any given time how far from the truth we are? We don't know.
    So if this statement reveals a broad trust in science to guide us in what we ought to do and what the truth is about reality...I doubt that it can be justified.

    1. Hey, Luke, it's always good to hear from you. I hope Gentry can respond here too. I wonder if her attraction to science as a replacement for religion isn't precisely because of science's silence on normative questions.

  3. Slam. Dunk.

    It's beyond refreshing to see someone who knows exactly why they believe what they believe -- void of mystical thought.

    Thank you, Loren and Gentry, for this excellent read.

  4. I noticed in this interview that some of your most critical questions, from a Christian perspective, went unanswered by Gentry. For example, when you ask "And how does an agnostic or atheistic outlook make better sense of these issues for you?", her *answer*, "I can’t imagine anything more repulsive and immoral than surrendering reason, hindering progress, and, as Richard Dawkins once said, being 'satisfied with not understanding the world'" is completely devoid of teleology, which is the critical question for Christians. Crassly put, why should one hinder or encourage progress, either way, if one is going to die and not remember anything? Similarly to the Dawkins quote, which I will agree Gentry astutely identifies perhaps the #1 reason why people are converting to atheism today, I ask, what does it matter if you were right, when you are dead? The image of ignorant and bigoted Christians (often deserved), has become so prevalent in our society today, the last thing anyone wants to be accused of is fooling themselves. Identifying as a Christian is a good way to have your peers no longer accept your opinion on anything, or even be asked to step down from your teaching position. That said, Dawkins, as usual, misunderstands Christianity, which nowhere says you have to be satisfied with not understanding the world. In fact, it is Christians who keep seeking, trying to understand what one *should* or *shouldn't* do each and every day. We contemplate the purpose of life and how to participate in the world in a meaningful manner, that is, teleology. Despite his quote, Dawkins (and peers) are instead telling people shut up and be satisfied with not knowing what in life has meaning or purpose, but instead to focus on increasing quality of life and societal progress--even though these actions may not be meaningful at all! No one he feeds or clothes or arranges health care for will remember their life any more fondly (they won't remember it all) and certainly his eternity of nothingness will not be any better if he dies before or after humankind have achieved microprocessors of a certain computational speed. It is the exact same thing he is accusing Christianity of. There is professed belief and there is enacted belief, and secular humanists continue to behave as if their consciousness is immortal, but would never actually "say" that, for fear of being accused of deluding themselves. But which way is deluding oneself? Admitting what you believe (whether you chose to believe or not, or want to believe or not, or friends believe or not), or contradicting your professed beliefs with your actions? Any time an atheist does anything that is not directly related to the discovery and acquisition of immortality is either a relinquishment of autonomy (i.e. their beliefs don't matter because they just obey the hungers and thirsts of their biology and sociological milieu) or a contradiction. This is why determinism and fatalism are much more "logical" non-Christian belief systems, but free will (or at least a compatibilist moral responsibility) and independent value are essential staples of secular humanism (see Richard Norman, On Humanism for a basic introduction).

  5. Similarly, when pressed with your followup questions, "How would you defend your idea of what is true or reasonable? How would you determine whether a development is progress or regress?", Gentry says it is largely common sense, and her common sense may differ from other people, but probably not be radically different. There is an optimism that most people know the basics of good and bad intrinsically (see Kant) and do not need to learn it from religion. The question is much deeper though. Why, even knowing good, would anyone choose it? Why knowing that none of my actions will be remembered, none of the people I help or hurt will remember their lives, everything I enjoy I will forget, everything I suffer I will forget--why would anyone do anything? People get hungry and eat. People get thirsty and drink. People are selfish and behave selfishly. This is just evolution. Am I the only one who read *The Selfish Gene*? Yes, I read E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology too, there can be selfish altruism of degrees, despite how it sounds, but again all this is better defense of Determinism and Fatalism than the Humanist's position. If you want to say humans do mostly good things because that is how they evolved and I don't like humans who waste time doing religion instead of doing good things like I do, because, again, that is how I evolved and devloped through my life experiences--then, for sure, I have no argument. We Christians have plenty of struggle determining how much, if any, agency we have in a life, where everything was created and designed by a Supreme being. But when someone, from a humanist perspective, claims we *should* do good? Why? Because we know good? That hardly makes sense. We know bad too. Because of karma? Yeah, how's that prisoner's dilemma working out? And who cares if doing good improves my life? My life is meaningless and soon to be forgotten. It just doesn't add up. There is no purpose to life or action. No teleology. No reason for me to exercise my (at least an) illusion of freewill in any one way or the other. For me, as a selfish, rational, human being, it is an immobilizing worldview.