Room Enough to Grow: What Made Me an Atheist?

This ques­tion came to me from my girl­friend Meagan on this past Ask an Atheist Day (April 14): What made me seek out athe­ism as my identity?

It’s a good ques­tion; for the decade pri­or to becom­ing an athe­ist, I was a “washed in the blood” Christian with a “the fool says in his heart, there is no God” chip on my shoul­der regard­ing unbe­liev­ers. Not many years pri­or to this rad­i­cal change, I assert­ed to a good friend, Sandi, that there was no way, none, zilch, zero chance that I’d ever reach the point that I would­n’t con­sid­er the Bible as any­thing less than the Word of God, no mat­ter how many changes my beliefs under­went (such as grow­ing from Baptist to Presbyterian to a weird blend­ing of the two to some­thing that I’m not sure what I’d call it).

But becom­ing an athe­ist? Eww.

My resolve that there must be some­thing beyond the phys­i­cal, that there must be things like spir­its and God and all the cor­re­lat­ed super­nat­ur­al thinga­ma­jigs came not only as a result of my faith in the Bible — faith which was expert­ly stirred by many an evan­ge­list and preach­er — but from my first (and I am thank­ful, my only) encounter with a sleep paral­y­sis “demon.” Indeed, that encounter stuck with me even after leav­ing Christianity behind til the point when I learned about sleep paral­y­sis and what it can make you see or experience.

Why I left Christianity isn’t impor­tant to this con­ver­sa­tion; suf­fice it to say, it was an abrupt depar­ture from a faith I had rather thor­ough­ly enjoyed for about a decade of my life.

Once I real­ized that my faith was dead, I was not at all pre­pared to leave behind the idea that there was some­thing beyond the phys­i­cal. The idea of death being a ces­sa­tion of being thor­ough­ly ter­ror­izes me (still does), so I fig­ured that I should prob­a­bly still be believ­ing in some­thing because sure­ly this world was­n’t the end all be all of real­i­ty. For about a month or two, I called myself a “pagan.”

I did­n’t real­ly do any­thing with that — pagan­ism, in my lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence, felt like an à la carte thing: “Here are a bunch of gods and god­dess­es, a few vague­ly defined con­cepts, and a smat­ter­ing of ways to put it togeth­er — from cards to gem­stones, stars to tea leaves — to mean what­ev­er you want.” Religion was wan­ing in my mind; I most cer­tain­ly was­n’t pre­pared to con­tin­ue in one that was very near­ly com­plete­ly built out of my own imag­i­na­tion. At least with Christianity, the book was already written!

Realizing the futil­i­ty of any attempts to con­tin­ue in this or that beliefs with­out any sort of foun­da­tion upon which to stand, I cast it all off with a sim­ple dec­la­ra­tion: I am an athe­ist. Although, that dec­la­ra­tion was too simple.

Sure, I gave up the­ism — my beliefs are no longer occu­pied by the ado­ra­tion or wor­ship of a god or gods — but I also embraced sci­ence for pro­vid­ing ways of look­ing at the world which make sense and did­n’t require me to take leaps away from the world around me. 

I became not only an athe­ist but a ratio­nal­ist or a sec­u­lar­ist, albeit one who is all too eager to want there to be some­thing beyond what sci­ence can tell us.

“Atheist” seems to car­ry all that weight, though. It car­ries the neg­a­tive stig­ma of one who has reject­ed God or of some­one who isn’t trust­wor­thy. I call myself “athe­ist” because I once had the rep­u­ta­tion of “hap­py Christian guy who’s always smil­ing,” and I think peo­ple need to know that joy can be found even in a sec­u­lar state of mind. 

I’ve been an athe­ist for eleven years now, though, and well, there is a real need for good, hap­py athe­ists. I’ve seen so very many promi­nent athe­ist blog­gers who repeat the same tired mock­ery of reli­gion, the same mis­un­der­stand­ings about the Bible, the same hate and sar­casm, that well, I’ve come to under­stand a bit why there is such a stig­ma with atheism. 

I can’t express how frus­trat­ing it was to move away from judgy church­es only to find myself part of a com­mu­ni­ty filled with equal­ly prob­lem­at­ic fig­ures. Can I real­ly blame Christians for not under­stand­ing com­plex sci­en­tif­ic the­ses when the athe­ists around me still think Adam and Eve only had a few sons so “where did Cain get his wife?”, for example?

There isn’t much I can lean into here, authority-​wise. I’m just a guy who’s hum­ble enough to know that there is always room to learn, always room to extend a hand in walk­ing that path of learn­ing together.

I’m just a guy who believes that the world would be bet­ter if we had bet­ter Christians and bet­ter athe­ists. When there is so much that needs to be done to bet­ter the world, the schism between us must be mend­ed, although that will only ever hap­pen if Christians take up the cross to live out Jesus’ com­pas­sion and if athe­ists get out of their way and focus on improv­ing the sec­u­lar mat­ters which affect all of us.

We have room enough to grow, though we will for­ev­er be stunt­ed should we con­tin­ue to fight amongst ourselves.

Resolutely, Rick

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Demi

    I would like to know more about your sleep paral­y­sis expe­ri­ence. You kin­da just left us hang­ing on that one…

    1. Rick Beckman

      At the time, I was con­vinced it was some kind of demon­ic or spir­i­tu­al vis­i­ta­tion. I lay in my bed, attempt­ing to sleep, then found myself star­ing into the blank face of a more or less humanoid shad­owy fig­ure, stand­ing a few feet from my bed. I was par­a­lyzed and felt intense fear. For years there­after, I was con­vinced what I saw that night was spir­i­tu­al in nature, but appar­ent­ly it was the result of a phe­nom­e­non called sleep paral­y­sis, where a per­son is kin­da between the wak­ing and sleep­ing state and may have the dream state over­lap with the wak­ing. What caus­es these events isn’t def­i­nite­ly known, but it’s a fair­ly com­mon thing and may be tied to things like nar­colep­sy or uneven sleep sched­ules, which at the time mine was. 

      It’s thought that sleep paral­y­sis hal­lu­ci­na­tions may be the expla­na­tion behind many spir­i­tu­al or alien “encoun­ters” told about through­out history.

  2. Meagan

    Your last sen­tence could also be applied to pol­i­tics regard­ing Democrats and Republicans, lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives. Once we all stop fight­ing amongst our­selves and learn to work *with* each oth­er to bet­ter the world around us, we will not achieve any­thing productive.

    1. Rick Beckman

      This is a lit­tle trick­i­er. At least with Christianity, when I say “I want peo­ple to be bet­ter Christians,” the end result is pover­ty, hunger, and oth­er ills of the world are decreased, which is what I want: a reduc­tion in harm.

      If I say “I want bet­ter Republicans,” what does that mean? If a per­son is a bet­ter Republican, does that mean they are stand­ing more firm­ly against “gov­ern­ment hand-​outs” (result­ing in an increase in hunger and pover­ty) and laws which cur­tail “free­dom” (result­ing in an increase in hate­ful activities)?

      Yes, the world should be filled with more bridges than chasms between peo­ple, but the Republican Party does lit­tle else these days than pro­mote harm; notably in my life­time, we have the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars and the abysmal respons­es to refugees, COVID-​19, etc.

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