How To Become an Atheist?

Many of my atheist friends like to argue with religious people.  I don’t.  As long as people don’t try to make their religious beliefs into laws, and turn this country into a theocracy, I don’t care what they believe.  However, I find it very intriguing how some atheists believe they can enlighten the faithful with science, as if new and better explanations of reality will supplant myth driven memes.  I’m not sure it works that way.  Think of a meme as virus of thoughts and knowledge.  Concepts – memes – have a powerful life of their own.  They infect our brains in ways beyond logical understanding.

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My theory is you have to go further into religion to find your way out.  Religious beliefs are deep-seated memes acquired in our formative years.  These memes are ancient and deeply routed in our culture.  It requires some serious soul searching to deprogram oneself.  I suppose some people might argue with an atheist or read Richard Dawkins and abruptly change their mind, but I’m not sure it’s a significant number.  Personally, I think most people are indifferent or only mildly accepting of religious beliefs.  They aren’t philosophical, and life after death isn’t that important to them one way or another.  It’s the true believer we’re really talking about. But true believers are hard wired to accept what they are taught as a child and won’t give up their ingrained beliefs easily.  Religion promises two things that science can’t, purpose and immortality.  True believers would rather have a purpose driven life with the promise of heaven, than the truth and death.

Converting true believers to evidence based thinking is probably a near impossible task.  I’m not actually interested in working at it, but as a philosophical problem of how to reprogram the mind, it’s a fascinating puzzle.  My hypothesis for my atheist friends is to suggest a different approach.  Instead of teaching science, teach religion.  Here’s what I would suggest that might work better.  Advise your God obsessed friends to:

Read the Bible

As a teen one of the most powerful deprogramming tools I discovered for myself was reading The Bible.  Start at the beginning and read it like a book.  Later in life I started listening to audiobook editions, and they are very powerful tools for revealing the book’s secrets.  The Bible is a very weird book.  It’s obvious written by many people, and for many reasons.  While reading it, constantly ask:  Who wrote this part?  Who did they write it for?  Why?  What did they hope to achieve?  Don’t just whiz past all the words and stories.  Think about their purpose.  Remember they were written 2,000-3,000 years ago, and they were first told as oral stories, not written, to people who were not literate, who had no concept of science, philosophy, history, medicine, mathematics, etc.  The Old Testament is fascinating because it’s obviously more of a book about social management than a textbook for spiritual education.  It’s about a history of people becoming a nation, about rulers inspiring a sense of history and social cohesion, and a means to justify the ownership of a piece of land.

The New Testament is totally different.  It’s a history of how Christianity started, but told from side of the winners.  Christianity had a myriad of forms in the first century.  Just reading The New Testament without historical supplements, it’s easy to spot that Paul is imposing his will on how people will conceive of Christianity.  Through his attacks on other proto-Christians we see there was many differences of opinions.

Study the Bible as History

Start with studying how The Bible has been translated into English many times over the last four hundred years.  That’s very fascinating.  Then study different approaches to modern translations – literal versus lyrical approaches.  Bart Ehrman was a fundamentalist believer until he went to divinity school to study The Bible in its original languages.  Ehrman is not an atheist, but his scholarly studies of how The Bible was put together has changed his beliefs.  I highly recommend reading his books.  Ehrman is also a specialists on early Christian sects and the battle for orthodoxy.  Be sure and study Gnosticism.  Elaine Pagels is a good writer for this.

Study the Gospels in a horizontal fashion.  They often retell stories about the same events but with different facts.  Learn how to put the various stories in chronological order to see when various belief memes arose.  Many cherished Christian beliefs were added long after Jesus died, and deal with concepts he never spoke about.  Read The Five Gospels created at The Jesus Seminar.

There are literally millions of books on religion, try to find the ones that use a scholarly historical approach, rather than speculation and interpretation books.

After studying The Bible itself, start studying history and anthropology of Biblical times.  Learn to overlay stories in The Bible with real history.  Study the cultures that existed concurrent to Israel and see how they saw events The Bible.

Study Other Religions

Going ecumenical is a great way to undermine your own parochial beliefs.  Start attending a variety of Christian churches and compare their specific doctrines.  Attend and study Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious services and holy books.  Start reading about everyone’s saviors and saints.  Study the origins of religions before monotheism.  Gods and religions existed for thousands and thousands of years before anything in The Bible was even thought about.   Karen Armstrong is a writer I like that explores the origins of religion.  Study Joseph Campbell, for myths and mythology.  I learned Buddhism from Alan Watts and Hinduism from Ram Dass, but I’m sure there are more comprehensive scholars have emerged since way back then.

Conclusion

I’m not sure how much is involved with getting people to change their minds about cherish beliefs and desires.  I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, who believes in many science fiction memes that I acquired early in childhood and have clung to my entire life.  Science undermines my beliefs too, and I hate to give them up.

However, it’s my theory that more knowledge about our cherished beliefs will change them faster than learning about other ways of thinking, or just being told they are wrong.  Over the decades I’ve actually studied faster-than-light travel, robotics, interplanetary travel, interstellar travel, colonizing the Moon and Mars, and many other science fictional memes, and it has been learning the limits of these concepts that has changed my mind.  Sure, it meant learning more science, but it took time for me to live with my cherished beliefs to understand how they wouldn’t work.

JWH – 1/22/14

10 Responses

  1. “Religion promises two things that science can’t, purpose and immortality.”
    Sorry (well, not really), but I have to disagree with you. Science teaches us that the basic components of which we are made will be recycled to serve other purposes. In that sense, we are immortal, and we will be reborn again and again. I realize that sounds sort of like Buddhism, where you reborn again and again until you attain nirvana, but I don’t mean it that way. Forgive me for linking to my own blog, but in this entry there are some thoughts that relate directly to what I mean: http://mrhellstroem.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/have-some-fun/
    It’s not about attaining nirvana. It’s not about attaining anything at all. Nevertheless, in a broader sense, we are all immortal, though not as individuals.
    And as far as “purpose” goes… well, whose purpose are you talking about? God’s purpose? Your personal purpose (should you in fact have one)? I’ll say this much about purpose: To me it seems that DNA has the purpose of perpetuating itself. Life is just a vehicle for perpetuating DNA. Why DNA would “want” to perpetuate itself is the question. You could go for the fatalist view and say: “just because”, but that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it now? Perhaps it doesn’t “want” to at all, perhaps it just can’t help itself (to put it in anthropormophistic terms). Poor DNA.
    All that said, I agree with you completely about knowledge debunking cherished beliefs. In fact, there seems to be a sort of balance between knowledge and belief. If you postulate that the two of them together make up 100%, it is clear that the more knowledge you have, the less belief you are allowed, and visa versa.

    • I’ll give you the law of conservation is a kind of immortality, but it’s not really the same. It’s like the Woody Allen joke, people want to be immortal by not dying.

      With regards to purpose, I mean that religious people find great purpose in being religious. They feel they are doing good by spreading their religion, and find a kind of order by living by God’s commands. We people who live by evolution must find our own personal purpose as defined by ourselves. The universe does not hand us assignments. The best we can do is become existentialists.

      By the way, I like your blog post, and agree that a romantic view of accepting reality for what it is, is the fun way to go.

  2. I am a Mormon. I believe in God and Jesus Christ and an afterlife. However, I find that ethically, morally, and politically I have more in common with atheists and secularists than I do with the people that go to church with me every Sunday. Too many so-called Christians do not seem to speak, think, or act in reflection of Christ’s own actions.

    I have found that many atheists will respect my choices as long as I explain them upfront. But, then again, many atheists attack religious people. I find this no different than calling blacks the N-word or gays being attacked as being deviant.

    • I am not religious but I believe it’s very important to lead ethical lives. I do believe Jesus existed and he was concerned with compassionate issues, many of which I’m also concerned with too I also think it very important for everyone to find ways to coexist with each other and respect each other’s beliefs.

  3. […] How To Become an Atheist? […]

  4. The existence of a deity in some form can neither be proven nor disproven. Atheism is therefore a belief system. Why not choose to be agnostice instead?

    • John, I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism and agnosticism. They’re not contradictory positions.

      Gnosticism/agnosticism refer to knowledge; theism/atheism about beliefs. Of course, different people label themselves in different ways, and that’s obviously up to them. (I wouldn’t presume to tell people who’s a ‘real’ Christan and who isn’t.)

      Speaking for myself, though, I’m an agnostic atheist. I say we can’t know for sure (can’t know anything for sure, not just the existence of gods), but I don’t believe any of the claims I’ve heard (mostly because of a complete lack of good evidence backing them up).

      Atheism is a belief system like baldness is a hair color or like abstinence is a sexual position. It’s not a belief, it’s a lack of belief.

  5. Jim, do you know why I like to argue with religious people (only those who also enjoy such discussions, of course)? Mostly, it’s because I want to understand their point of view. I’ve been surrounded by Christians my entire life, and I’ve never understood it. So it fascinates me.

    It’s also helpful to remind people – believers and nonbelievers alike – that we atheists exist. I never knew a single other atheist all the time I grew up. (Or maybe I did. Who knows?) These days, there aren’t just more of us, we’re more visible, too. That’s a good thing.

    Of course, I like to discuss all sorts of issues with people who disagree with me, because if I’m wrong, I want to know that, so I can change my mind. How can I test my beliefs if I only talk to people who agree with me?

    Of course, I don’t think I am wrong, and I don’t expect to change my mind (although it’s happened before). And if I can convince other people that they’ve been wrong, that would be great, since I think that faith-based thinking is a terrible vice. But I really don’t expect it to happen.

    Still, I’m not as pessimistic as you are. After all, most atheists in America used to be religious believers. Something convinced them that their beliefs were wrong. We atheists don’t go door to door as missionaries, but we’ve still had our successes.

  6. I follow your blog because you are a reasonable person unlike many atheists I have met and spoken with, but I think you’re over complicating the issue James. Many very intelligent and highly educated people convert to religious belief as adults. I became a Christian, aged 17, because I had no purpose and I thought I was useless. My faith gives me purpose and is shaping me into a better person. I don’t need evidence or proof. Jesus changed my life and that’s good enough for me…excellent title for this blog by the way.

    • That’s interesting D.A. Did you have no religious upbringing as a young person?

      That’s true, I have forgotten there are many people who convert later in life and use religion as a way to shape and guide their lives and find happiness, or at least order. That’s why I don’t like arguing with religious people because I don’t want to be negative about something positive in their lives.

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