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Is it possible to "try out" atheism?

I have been a Christian and churchgoer almost all of my life. This does not mean I haven’t had doubts about God’s existence – I have, but I learned to cope with them.

Recently I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with my own church, and have been considering alternatives. The conservative, evangelical tradition is not an alternative, because they ask you to believe too much (Bible as “Word of God,” Jesus as only path to salvation, etc.). But I find the liberal Christian sects unsatisfactory as well – their beliefs are vague, wishy-washy and non-committal. I see no point to that approach either.

In the last couple of months, I have been checking out atheist websites, not with any specific purpose in mind, but with increasing curiosity. And then a question occurred to me: Am I an atheist who’s having trouble admitting it to myself? Are the doubts I’ve had through the years more than just ordinary doubts, or a reflection of something I believe deep down? I’ve decided that at a minimum it’s something I want to explore. On the one hand, I’m not anxious to totally reject or discard religion-despite my dissatisfaction, I’ve not become hostile to it, or angry at God or anything like that. It’s that religion is something I insist on taking seriously and I don’t want to be dishonest about it.

But in addition to that, I have to admit that I find the possibility of being an atheist potentially liberating – even exciting, because I would looking at the universe in a wholly new way. For that reason, I want to take some concrete steps to try out atheism. It’s not like trying out a new church – there’s no specific place to go to in order to “see what it’s like.” Yes, I can continue to go to websites and read things, but I don’t that’s enough for what I’m looking for.

I am wondering if you have any suggestions, maybe drawing on your own experiences if some of you were previously Christians. So far, I’ve consciously chosen to not go to church (despite feelings of guilt) because I think it would be counterproductive. I’m also planning on sharing my thoughts with a friend. Part of me wants to take a deeper plunge, because I don’t think I’m going to get to the bottom of it otherwise. But I’m otherwise at a loss about what to do next.

I am very interested in your thoughts. Thanks in advance.

Posted: July 3rd 2011

logicel

It is often said that reason does not get people to believe in god. Because of this emotional basis of religious faith, it is difficult to use reason to leave religious beliefs behind.

Instead of thinking of trying out atheism, focus on applying reason to your religious beliefs. Atheism is just a by-product of doing that. For example, as I live in a highly secular country where religious beliefs are kept private, I have no identity as an atheist as do many non-believers in France. There is a focus on evidence, rationality, and the non-rational (mindfulness, beauty, metaphor, etc.) without any reaching out to the supernatural.

However, if you live in an overtly religious country, applying reason to religious beliefs is often a very uncomfortable thing to do! As religious believers enjoy regarding themselves as being rational towards their faith, bringing up reason as an counterpoint will have them rationalizing their non-evidential beliefs to the point of absurdity. In that case, I suggest patience with yourself. However from your description of what you are going through, I suspect that you are ready for the challenge of applying reason to your religious beliefs.

Posted: July 7th 2011

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Eric_PK

You sound very much like I was when I was younger. I grew up in a very religious household but found when I got to college that I really didn’t feel the need to keep going to services. At that time I probably would have labelled myself as “non-practicing”.

Over the next few years I did a lot of research into the topic, and found that most of the reasons being advocated towards belief didn’t make sense, and that faith made very little sense. After a few more years, I ended up arriving at the “atheist” label.

What you are going through is often termed as a “crisis of faith” in the religious circles; you’ve started questioning your beliefs and that’s something that you are definitely not supposed to do, which is why you feel guilty.

I did this all pre-internet so I had to depend on my (luckily very good) local library to do more research; you can benefit a bunch from the internet community. I recommend poking around at the various atheist sites (the library at infidels.org is a good place to start), and then spend time at some of the christian apologetics sites, and see what you think.

My guess is that you are going to end up comfortable with the “atheist” label eventually, but take your time.

I also recommend the “testimonies of former christians” forum at ex-christians.net.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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flagellant www

My initial reaction to your question was to say that if you have to ask it, you’re not yet an atheist so atheism isn’t something you can 'try out’. Then I thought back to my own experience, when I began to question my indoctrination more and more. I tried several different denominations and, unlike you, liked the wishy-washy ones – principally The Society of Friends (Quakers) – for their open-mindedness, but I never went more than once or twice. I too rejected the highly prescriptive ones for the same reason as you seem to: they are too controlling.

One practical thing you might do is contact the Brights and/or read something about them ; they don’t even use the term 'atheist’ – a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview and a bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.

Another thing you might do is read other people’s deconversion stories e.g. here – there are pages of them; some may strike a chord with you…

A few observations from my own journey: I began to wonder what drew me to church once parental influence was no longer relevant. Firstly, it was the comfort of familiarity, of friends my own age, and some very moving music. But, as time went on, I became more self-sufficient, made friends outside the church, and found even better ways to enjoy even better music. So, along with my doubts about the whole religion thing, I realised that the ties that bound me were nothing to do with the religious ideas underpinning church.

Finally, when I really thought about the faith-reinforcement value of the Nicene Creed I concluded I was being hoodwinked. I was troubled for a while that 'there might be something in it, after all’, but this feeling faded and, eventually, it disappeared. I hope that one day you will experience the feelings of joy I had when I realised I was completely free of my indoctrination.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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Reed Braden www

The best way to “try out” atheism is to delve into it for yourself. I would suggest you pick up and read a few books written by atheists, but don’t put too much stock in what any of them say. Remember, the same skepticism and the same demands for evidence that you should ask of your own religious beliefs apply to every claim in every book… it’s just that the footnotes in the atheist books actually point toward evidence, whereas the footnotes in the Bible are merely self-referential.

Really, the easiest way to try out atheism is by adding the questions, “How do you know?” and “What is the evidence for that?” to your list of everyday catch-phrases.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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Dave Hitt www

It sounds like you’re heading toward being an atheist, but are both uncomfortable and excited about it. This is entirely normal, and the path that many of us took.

As Daniel said, there’s no hurry. You can do this at whatever pace you feel comfortable with. Read the standard texts (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Sagan) and talk it out with people you trust. Be careful about the latter, though, because it can cost you friends.

There are atheist meetup groups all over the country. Some are quite large and active. Check meetup.com to see if there’s one in your area.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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brian thomson www

In your daily life, you probably already do “atheist” things, if you want to call them that: things that do not involve religion at all. Working, cooking, driving a car or catching a bus are examples. When you brush your teeth, do you pray about it as you do it – and if so, are your any teeth cleaner afterwards?

This is what I understand when I think about life as an atheist: it’s just life. It’s not defined by the absence of religion. The religion is just not there at all, and that’s normal.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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Daniel Midgley www

It’s too late; you’ve already started!

Once you’ve become able to question the existence of gods without fear, once you’ve learned to spot logical errors and cognitive traps, and once you’ve gotten hooked on science as a way of gaining knowledge — then your mind has grown, and it will be difficult to squash it back into its former dimensions.

For me, the 'next step’ was formally leaving my religion of origin, but that was some years later. There’s really no hurry. Keep doing what you’re doing.

I hope that you will read a lot, talk or blog about what you’re going through, keep thinking and questioning, and find a new zest for life as a born-again atheist.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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SmartLX www

I am not of the opinion that belief or non-belief is a choice, so it’s more a case of trying to work out whether you are an atheist.

Ceasing church attendance is a good start, because it will do two things: It will stop the weekly cycle of doctrinal reinforcement, and it will likely cause feelings of guilt which you can then examine. If you feel guilty, ask yourself who you feel guilty about leaving – God, the priest or the congregation? (I call feelings like this “faithdrawal symptoms”.)

What I think you need to do, in the end, is ask yourself two questions. Leave the second question until you have a self-satisfactory answer to the first.

1. Why have I believed in God for all these years? Is there something about the world which only makes sense to me if there’s a god, or is there a particular argument or piece of evidence I find convincing, or was I simply indoctrinated in my youth such that everything since has reinforced my inherited faith rather than truly justifying it?

2. Are my reasons for believing good reasons or not?

If the answer to the second question (which may take some research to find) is no, you’re probably already an atheist.

Posted: July 6th 2011

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