Mention you’re an atheist to a theist, and more often than not they’ll look at you in disgust, or act like you never said it and change the subject, or make up a polite excuse to go darn their socks. Their reaction implies that you are an alien creature, not in the sense of having originated in a distant galaxy, but in the sense that you have somehow transformed into something inhuman, beyond their ken to understand.
So, theists, all indications to the contrary, there is nothing mystical or mysterious or alien about us. We are just like you, only, as Richard Dawkins likes to point out, we simply believe in one less god than you. You, too, can be just like us. Once you get the hang of it, it is easy to become an atheist.
In the interest of narrowing the divide between theist and atheist, I thought I’d set forth a handy primer on the necessary, though not exhaustive, steps to insure a smooth deconversion. If you follow these simple instructions and guidelines, it will be only a matter of time before you shed superstitious beliefs, begin to think critically about the world around you, apply logic and reason to those matters you now see as mysteries, and hopefully, god willing, become an atheist just like us.
Let us now jump into it with both eyes open.
1. Abandon all presuppositions.
First, you must clear your mind of all notions about reality that you previously entertained, especially those religious based ones related to the origins of the universe, life and you. Atheism doesn’t replace those notions, because atheism is simply a lack of belief, but they do get in the way of a smooth transition to atheism, because the concept of not believing in god oftentimes butts heads with the ideas of a universe that was magically conjured up by a supreme, supernatural deity. Dogma invites delusion, so you must have an open mind, willing to, at the very least, listen to explanations and philosophies previously anathema to your worldview. You are free to accept or reject them once they have been considered by your intellect, but they should not be rejected because they conflict with your previous upbringing or understandings. This is not meditation, you don’t need to clear your mind of all knowledge or thought, simply remove those springs from the steel trap that prevents your opinions from changing.
So, presuppositions should go.
2. Embrace Skepticism
Once you’ve cleared your mind of presuppositions, whenever you are confronted with any statement, explanation or fact – question it. Never, ever automatically accept them because they are told to you by someone you consider an authority. Or at least, don’t let that be your only reason. “The sky is blue”; “Vitamin C is good for you”; “Change your engine oil every 5000 miles”. These are all facts, explanations or suggestions for how to run your life. Good ones, too.
Sure, all of the above examples are true, to some degree or another. But they can also be false, in some instances. The sky is not blue, it just appears to be blue because the atmosphere allows the blue spectrum of the light band to pass through so it can be received by our eyes. Vitamin C can be good for you, and in fact is necessary to a healthy body due to the fact that somewhere in our evolutionary heritage, we lost the gene that turned on Vitamin C production (unlike our chimp cousins), but too much of it is not good for you. And some cars should have their oil changed every 3000 miles, others every 7500 miles.
In the area of theism, many many things are explained to you by religious authorities, whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, etc. Those authorities rely on ancient scriptures and other writings. They are just writings. By all means, read them, but read them with a skeptical mindset. Ask yourself, who wrote them? When were they written? What corroborative evidence is there for them? Are they internally consistent? Are they externally consistent, i.e. are there contradictory scriptures out there?
Only after you have asked questions about the source and veracity of the matters relayed to you, should you feel comfortable making you own decision to accept of reject them.
3. Adjust your historical perspective.
As a young man, I used to think that the history of mankind reached back only some 6000 years, primarily because that’s all we had evidence for. However, remember, just because history was not set down in a book, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It just means that we don’t know what it was.
Homo sapiens have been on this planet for about 100,000 years, and maybe longer (and if your reaction to this is “No, the earth is only 6000 years old, then you must have skipped steps #1 and 2. Go back and practice.). A detailed history of homo sapiens only extends back about 6000 years, with the exception of sporadic cave paintings, so that 94% (or more) of our history has been lost to our lack of development of written language, and our lack of sense of history. Perhaps we needed a history before we knew that it should be preserved.
The point is that we (modern man) are not all that special. History did not move inexorably forward for our benefit. It just moved. And it seems to have missed the bulk of time humans have been in existence. We are at the very end of it now, but sometime in the future, we will be in the middle of it, no more special than say, the Phoenicians are thought of today. And more importantly, we have little idea if man was religious during the first 94,000 years. As Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, why did god, any god, allow man to suffer through the multitude of diseases, childbearing, and vicissitudes of nature for 98,000 years before he decided to send his son to “save” us?
So keep a little perspective as to where you stand in history. It is humbling, and an accurate perspective will help you understand much about how we got where we are, and what role theism had in the process.
4. Accept that science is ideology free.
Science is a process, a method. Science assumes a natural world (again, if you don’t buy this, go back to #1). The process of science looks at facts contained in the natural world, and attempts to explain those facts. It does this through the use of the formulation of hypotheses, testing, and conclusions, which can then be repeated by anyone, anywhere. It is a mechanistic process, usable under any circumstance by anyone, regardless of personal belief or ideology. It is not necessary to have any beliefs about the state of the world in order to perform science. Beliefs actually get in the way, because science should be objective, meaning that anyone looking at the results of science should be able to come to the same conclusions. Beliefs in their nature are subjective, incapable of confirmation by any objective observer. Beliefs often cause those that use science to start with conclusions and work backwards to the evidence, when the reverse is the correct process.
So when science is used to explain the facts of any particular inquiry, whether it is why life is as it is, or why apples drop down rather than up, or why we all, to a man, get colds once in awhile, the process of explaining these facts is ideology free. It is not necessary to have a religious belief to understand the results of science. It’s only necessary to have an open mind and sufficient intellect to understand it.
And, more importantly, if you accept a particular scientific explanation or theory as the best explanation for the facts you are trying to understand, you are not coming to a religious conclusion. You are simply acknowledging that you have been convinced by the scientific explanation.
5. Understand that accepting god means accepting the supernatural, with all its attendant baggage.
If you are of a religious bent, then by definition you believe in god. Some type of god or gods. God, by further definition is beyond this natural world, unconstrained by space and time, existing on a plane of existence we term supernatural. If you believe in god, then, ipso facto, you must believe in the supernatural. If you believe in one supernatural entity, then you must be prepared to believe in all supernatural entities. Once you believe in the supernatural plane of existence, then there are myriad different forms of supernatural entities that you cannot automatically reject.
For instance – leprechauns. Leprechauns are little elf-like men (perhaps there are female leprechauns, but I’m not sure) with magical powers who hide pots of gold behind rainbows, challenging we mortals to find them. We know such creatures don’t exist in the natural world, so they must occur in the supernatural. Then there are fairies, unicorns, djinn, goblins, demons, wizards, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, and a whole host of supernatural, or natural/supernatural hybrids, the possibility of which you have to accept if you believe in the supernatural.
On the other hand, if you reject all of these silly little creatures as implausible, then you are on your way to atheism, because that places in doubt the concept of gods.
6. Understand evidence.
There is a maxim held by most atheists, and popularized by Carl Sagan, that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. This means that if you are examining a religious claim that a supernatural deity who lives outside of time and space, created the world in 6 days, in a fashion that seems to be contradicted by all external indications, you are, by definition, looking at an extraordinary claim, requiring evidence to match the claim. This means that the evidence that should convince you of the truth of the claim should be of such magnitude as to equal or surpass the claim itself. If you accept this requirement, you might say that a book written 2000 years ago by relatively ignorant people (relative to the amount of present day knowledge) would not be sufficiently extraordinary to amount to adequate evidence for such an extraordinary claim, absent a large amount of corroborating evidence. In short, one book just wouldn’t cut it.
As an example of the paucity of credibility attached to a mere book, if I told you that there was a powerful ring that was created long ago, that allowed the wearer of the ring to become invisible by simply slipping it on your finger, you might say that was an extraordinary claim, because in this world we think that it is impossible to become invisible, ring or no ring. So it would be reasonable to ask for extraordinary evidence for this claim. If I said that I had the evidence, and produced a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, would you feel cheated by the evidence? Would you reject the evidence?
If you would, then you are well on your way to having a firm grasp of the type of evidence needed to convince an atheist of a supernatural claim.
7. Stay away from Fox News.
Do I really need to explain this?
While the above are guidelines and examples of what you need to do to shed the faulty thinking and logic that leads one to embrace theism, they are by no means exclusive or exhaustive. One can become atheistic in their thinking through many other processes. For instance, we are all born atheists, so if our parents had not indoctrinated us as children, we wouldn’t have to consciously alter our brain functioning to get rid of years of brainwashing. Atheistic thinking would just be as natural as knowing how to breath, so natural, we shouldn’t be conscious of it. This post is for those of you theists who desire to finally come out of the closet and become atheists.
C’mon, you know you want to.
Next lesson is on what to do with all those kittens.