On why being an atheist doesn’t feel like a choice.

I was brought up as an orthodox Jew. Even had I not been, I think I would have found religion at some point. I’m the ‘spiritual type’ (at least in my opinion). I’m romantic, I have a habit of thinking there’s more to things than meet the eye and I care more about abstract concepts than anything concrete.

And I really loved believing in God. I couldn’t understand how there could be so much beauty and order to the world without a divine touch involved. Believing in God made life easier for me. It made everything seem fairer and it made me feel far less anxious thinking that there was a reason to everything.

I’ll skip quite a few years to when I was about seventeen and I stopped being religious. I know others give up the religious lifestyle, however maintain and adapt their belief in God. And I was warned not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But, it wasn’t that I disliked the religious lifestyle and therefore needed to stop believing in God in order to live the secular life I wanted. It was my natural aversion to the mentality of belief, which made me want to stop the religious lifestyle.

A belief in God, at least the way I experienced it, was a mental state in which I would question everything, except whether God existed. It was this inability to question, which I found went against my nature. I found it hard to pick and choose what I would analyse and dissect. It was this need to question and explore life, which initially caused me stop believing in God.

(As I already qualified above, it doesn’t mean I’m against those who do believe in God. I’m not angry at religion, or religious people. I actually get upset when people bag out religion and say being an atheist is a superior manner of living. Anyway…)

While I was writing my book about a religious character earlier this year, I was deeply excited about reliving the belief in God, which had left me when I was a late teen. I realised how much I missed believing in God. And it made me wonder why I don’t just start again. Or become agnostic. It seemed reasonable enough that I would.

But, I know I can’t do this. And the reason is because I know what it felt like to believe in God and now I know that I don’t feel that way. Therefore, I’m an atheist. Simple as that. It’s just a feeling, the same as someone knowing they believe in God. I simply don’t. Obviously I don’t mean to suggest you have to have been religious at one point to call yourself an atheist. It’s just how I see it with myself. (Alright, I’ll stop qualifying everything now.)

Growing up, I was always taught there is no such thing as a Jewish atheist. Even if they didn’t know it, they still secretly believe in God on some level. But, I know through and through, this is what I am. And as a ‘spiritual type’ without God in his life, I’m now just an over analyzing, overly romantic, overly sensitive writer. Possibly, with a bit of a chip on my shoulder.

44 thoughts on “On why being an atheist doesn’t feel like a choice.

  1. It’s difficult to explain where you’re coming from without coming off as slightly defensive or possibly offending someone, but I think you’ve done so quite successfully here. This is a very clean, yet effective post and I thoroughly appreciate your ability to highlight how one can still be very spiritual without believing in a deity. It’s a common misconception many have trouble accepting.

  2. I can relate to you in several ways, Eli. We’re writers, we worry and perhaps overanalyze. You’ve got Jewish blood, and I wish I did. You’ve got a book coming out, and I wish I did. Even in the area of religion, we’ve had similar experiences.

    Instead of going from believing in God to believing in His absence, I’ve gone from believing in an infallible Bible (fundamentalist Christian) to believing in the absence of an infallible book – or any infallible human. Ironically, I seem to have accomplished this tragic enlightenment by reading the Bible too much, and by remembering too many details from the Old Testament when 9/11 came upon the innocent men, women, and children of New York.

    I still believe in God, largely because of a few classes in genetics and geology I took at a religious university when I was young and impressionable. Also because of this emotional connection, and a number of amazing people who have come into my life over the years, one of whom I married.

    And I still count myself a Christian, mainly because I think the only hope of long-term survival for our species centers around all of us finding a way to “love our enemies,” as Jesus suggested and personally championed.

    Nevertheless, I have a sneaking suspicion that God went to a lot of trouble to make it possible for Atheists to believe firmly in His absence. I have a hunch that He did this because freedom of choice is central to His creation, and that the true character of a person can best be shown when he/she becomes a nonbeliever. I have a suspicion that the people who are closest to God (in character, if not emotionally) are those who don’t believe He is there, and yet behave the same way He does, treating others with respect and love, even though there’s nobody above them to force the issue. Your motivation has got to be something similar to His, I would think.

    Kudo’s!

    God doesn’t need a higher power to influence Him into decent behavior. The Atheists I know don’t need it either. I don’t see God as pushing to change their minds about Him. Quite the contrary. He’s hiding from all of us for a good reason. An obvious reason, I would suggest:

    The fragility of our power to freely decide moral issues (i.e. freedom of choice). It’s the only thing that makes us human rather than predictable robots.

    I’m sure God is worried about the generational hatred that exists within religions and the hearts of some religious people worldwide – the hatred justified through words attributed to Him by “infallible” ancient scriptures.

    But killing in God’s name is so yesterday! How can anyone still believe it is, or ever was, part of God’s personal advice to people? It’s foolishness.

    If we believe He gave us any such advice in the past, we will believe He is giving it to us again sometime in the future. By then, we will all be armed to the teeth with nukes, and will likely end ourselves, justifying our actions by saying that God has once again called us to arms against the outsiders whom He deems expendable, morally inferior, or subhuman in some clever way.

    Speaking of babies and bathwater, a book doesn’t have to be perfect to contain broad insight. If we could learn to read the ancient scriptures like adults with common sense, we would find the wisdom our world lacks today. Religious people would find God outside of space and time, and they would no longer have a world full of religions that might easily dissolve into the White House lawn when Aliens land… next Thursday at 6:19 PM EST. (Just kidding.)

    Anyway, sorry for being so verbose. My wife’s off helping my daughter who’s about to deliver our second grandchild. It’s just me and Halo, my dog, tonight, so we’re getting long winded.

    Keep writing, Eli. I love your work, your objectivity and your honesty! Wow! Not to mention your talent, dude! You rock! You absolutely ROCK! “But don’t get cocky, kid.” (Han Solo. Haha)

    Talmage Eastland

    • Ha ha ha. First off, Mazel Tov on the second grandchild.

      I really appreciate everything you’ve said and it’s a keen insight paralleling God to atheists, in that neither believe in a higher power (at least that’s the way i understood it.)

      I remember reading an article for my thesis, which states that in order for God to hold the position of creator, Ze requires us, the created. A belief on the existence of God is a belief in who we are.

      Anyway, don’t know why I brought that up. Just came to mind.

      Thanks again :)

      Eli Glasman http://www.eliglasman.com

      >

  3. to write this being apart of a religion that does believe in god and u don’t takes alot of courage your words were very honest and filled with the questions people think about when it comes to god all the time but to afraid to say anything including myself I am a believer but do question every now and then I just wanted to say you are very courageous it takes a strong person to say your words and mean them with the outmost respect as well 😊

  4. I can relate so much to this feeling. I grew up strict Southern Baptist, converted to a strict Catholic (it was my idea), then, I stopped believing all together. Sometimes I miss things like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but I know, in my heart, it isn’t the faith that I miss, it’s a holiday tradition I miss.

  5. Interesting, honest, and well written post. Definitely thought-provoking for me since I have experienced the reverse, more or less (agnosticism to Catholicism). Also, I find it interesting as I feel that many who grew up in religious families, who may or may not still be religious themselves, rile at agnosticism while they accept atheism. That’s a complicated thought not completely flushed out by a comment… Bottom line is thanks for something to mentally “chew” on!

  6. I am the same way. I grew up a Devout Catholic and married a Jewish man. Even though we go to temple on occasion with families and attend Bar Mitzvah’s, I gave up religion long ago. I still find merit in spirituality and enjoy learning about religion but also feel like I can’t bring myself to believe in something is so contradictory.

    I do enjoy reminiscing about religion and how I used to feel about God. It was a peaceful time in my life, but it truly wasn’t real. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks for that thoughtful post.

    Kriya Yoga describes God as the one reality in which we all exist. Our journey then, is to remember what we’ve forgotten: that we are all a part of that one reality. That’s not how they taught it to me in Sunday School, but after searching my heart I find no conflict with that statement and my faith.

    Perhaps the disconnect for atheists is the idea of this separate, other being that exists apart from who and where we are? If that’s true, then I agree, although I would not call myself an atheist.

    So maybe it’s just a definition of God we’re quibbling about, after all… :)

  8. I found this post very interesting, especially because it was written with a voice that was careful to acknowledge that your view doesn’t have to be something the reader agrees with, but rather, that you are simply stepping into the spotlight for a moment to clarify your own view. It was a respectful and intuitive and very thoughtful post. Well done.

    I resonate with much of what you have said, in that I question everything, and struggle against the idea of being asked by the constraints of religion to never question God. Although one of your commenters has indicated their belief that we should always question God, and that is part of His plan, I believe the spiritual leaders of the world, or perhaps popular opinion, is that if you question God, then you are not a true believer.

    I was raised without much religion in my life, although my mother later went back to her Catholic roots. There were three distinct periods in my life when I would have to say that I was very religious, or a true believer. One was when I was in my late teens to early twenties, and it was my first real taste of being “born again” within a charismatic movement that was associated with the Catholic Church – the church to which my mother belonged. The second time around came after I was married and we were raising a family, and I felt obligated to expose my children to some point of reference as far as God was concerned. The third time around was during the six years I was caring for my terminally-ill mother, who passed away in 2009. I point to those three times because they are like landmarks on the map of my spiritual journey. There are other landmarks that are specific to times when I most certainly did NOT believe in God, but I’ll leave those for another day.

    One of the things you said was “I know what it felt like to believe in God and now I know that I don’t feel that way. Therefore, I’m an atheist.” I completely identify with the first part of that, in that I know what it feels like to be a believer, and today, I do not feel the same way. That certainty is definitely not a part of me today. In my case, I would probably be more comfortable with calling myself agnostic rather than atheist, but I say that with an open mind, knowing that at some point I may decide to lean in the direction of claiming atheism as the only truth that applies to me. Conversely, in the past several years, I have been progressively leaning in the direction of learning more and more about the Jewish traditions and beliefs, and wondering if that might not be a better fit for where I am in my spiritual questioning. I’ve also considered returning to the Catholic church, but I see that as a choice that would be a compromise, in that I might be seeking the surroundings, rather than adopting the beliefs. (Another whole complicated story). I also miss being part of the church community, but I can’t deny that my questioning nature has led me to where I am today.

    This post really gave me much to think about, and any time someone’s writing has the ability to spark creative thought, and especially asks the reader to expand their own limited view … well, I believe we have the obligation to show our appreciation. Perhaps it would be better stated to say that I am sincerely grateful for your willingness to open the conversation.

  9. Would you say you don’t believe in a God because there will be no mystery? I believe in God but that creates a ton more mystery for me, as well as beauty and reason which is very comforting.

    Out of curiosity, what do you mean by “benefits…initial adoption of atheism” and “more mature perception of things”? The rhetoric sounds condescending, but I know that’s not your intent. What did atheism award you? I would love it if you elaborate.

    If you believe in a God because you “don’t feel that way” anymore, I would say your orientation in believing in a God is sentimental and not grounded in Logic. There are logical reasons to believing in God. e.g. it’s comforting. It’s comforting on a higher level than the emotion of temporal comfort.

    Religion is natural. Atheism is a Religion. People who are anti- religion, ironically, are in a religion. In my opinion it’s foolish to believe in a religion that does not comfort humans. That’s the essence of what love is: comfort, protection, and humility.

    • Thank you for such a detailed comment. You are right, I hadn’t intended to be condescending. I’d left those sentences in, while I’d taken out the parts explaining what they meant. The benefits I found to atheism is that I am able to question everything in my life. I see it as more mature, only for me. It was a personal comment. I’ve taken it out, as I don’t want to cause confusion on my meaning.

      I’m not an atheist because I feel there will be no mystery. It’s as I wrote, because I knew what it felt like to believe in God and now I know that I don’t.

      I appreciate your views. Thanks again for commenting :)

      http://www.eliglasman.com

  10. Wow! Interesting post. And pretty heavy at that. When I was about 11 years old I asked my mom if she believed in God. She told me that she believed that there was something out there that watched over us. And from that time on, until the age of 20 I claimed to be an atheist. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I started to ask myself those questions that everybody asks at one point or time in life, “Why am I hear”, “Where did I come from?”, “Where am I going when I die?” It was then that I started checking things out. At that time I was drug dependent and in a really bad relationship. One night I said to God, “God, if you are real, you have got to show me. Take me away from all this. I don’t want it.” Within the next one to two months I lost everything that I held dear. My boyfriend and I broke up, and on the same day my apartment burnt to the ground. I didn’t have anything anymore and I was extremely insecure. Soon after I moved 4000 kilometers away from my home and when I arrived in Ottawa, I met up with an old friend I used to party with. However, he had become a Christian. I ended up becoming roommates with him and about a month later I became one too. I did so because I had tried so many other things in the past and just couldn’t bring myself to believing in them. And none of the other beliefs had the power to help me change. I knew right away that night that I became a Christ-follower that it meant no more drugs, no more party lifestyle, no more immorality. I just knew somehow that it was wrong. So I decided to give it all up. Stuff I knew that was wrong in the first place but had no power to overcome. And somehow I overcame, and believe it was because He gave me the power and ability to do so. Now, 20 years later, I have gone through the wringer. I had a lot of garbage and wrong mind-sets that I really needed healing from. I was gripped with anxiety and an emotional basket case, but I believe that God has established stability in me. I have been a missionary with YWAM since 2000 and been all over the world. I’ve seen people who were possessed and people who were changed. And sometimes I read these different blog posts about different beliefs and struggles and questions that people have about God. I have to confess that at times it makes me a bit sad and causes me to start to question as well. So I went to God about this. And what came to me is this:
    The power of the Christian faith lies in the cross. I choose to believe in and be a follower of Jesus because He really did exist. He is historical fact and not fiction. He really did walk the earth and say He is the way, the truth and the life. He really did live a pure and faultless life. I am not following a religion. I am not following something that was merely taught to me. I make my decision because of facts. Because of real life events. Because of who Jesus said He is. I believe Him. Not just with my heart and because of amazing spiritual experiences. Not just because of what He has done for me and continues doing for me. But I believe Him with my mind. I believe in Him with logic and rationale. My faith is not blind but a living and active, daily relationship with the one who said He is the Christ, the savior of the world. There are really only three things I can make of that. Either Jesus was a liar, or He was crazy, or He was who He said He was – Lord, the one who’s paid the price for me. I choose to believe the third. That through Him I find forgiveness of sins and peace of mind and tranquility of spirit. For this life and on into eternity.
    Eli, I’m so sorry if this is coming off as heavy. That is not my intent. And I, in no way intend to offend. I guess you can say that I am just using this opportunity to unload. To get it off of my chest. And I really do appreciate you taking the time to read this and for sharing your experience.
    Blessings =)
    –Staci

  11. I really appreciated reading your thoughts and liked the “honest conversation” style of your writing. I’m a Christian, and of course I long for others to experience God in a very personal way. But I also love people being honest with where they’re at, so thank you. I hear what you say, it does feel good to believe in God, to believe that there’s something bigger than ourselves to live for. And this is something I won’t ever stop believing, and not just because it feels good. But don’t be afraid to keep searching and asking. Because what if He is real and REALLY cares…about your day to day? What are the implications if He exists and what are the implications if he doesn’t? What risks are you prepared to take when it comes to eternity, if you believe that there is one? Just some questions I’ve often asked myself.

    I care because HE does. And I enjoyed the read :)

  12. I’ve been asked how I cannot believe in God, and I always reply with the same question to them, but in believing. A professor of mine admired my love of learning and natural curiosity. He told me to always be a sponge, to never dry out, to never stop asking questions, and to never be satisfied with a simple answer. There are so many things about being human that are beautiful, and one of those things is wonder. I simply cannot imagine a life where I’m not curious, or a life of being a saturated sponge. That would not be a fulfilling way to live. Accepting the existence of a God is like throwing in the towel to many great questions, including the ultimate one: what’s the purpose of life?

    Sorry to blather on. It’s a topic I enjoy discussing with believers and non-believers alike.

  13. A couple of thoughts. Christians often boast about their faith but are offended at the thought of challenging the existence of God. That’s funny. I believe on a God that sacrificed his son for me and raised him from the dead. I think God can handle having his existence challenged and would prefer to be followed by a believer who truly struggled over it than someone who just blindly goes to church every week. I have personally sat down in prayer and told God there is a part of me that questions his existence. Why not be honest? If any of my beliefs are true her knows my doubts anyway. Why fake it? I’ve been blessed with answers to my doubts.

  14. Interesting post. As an atheist, I’m usually interested in others religious (or non) ideas and how they come to them. I understand completely your statement that you just don’t believe. Me neither. I never did believe, it sounds like you did at one point. I could never understand what would make anyone believe in any supernatural being. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks Jill. I was raised orthodox and a lot of the beliefs I was brought up with had been handed down through many generations. If I had to put a reason to it, I guess that would be it. Although, I still think I would have found religion on my own had I not been raised with it. Just a feeling.

      Thanks for commenting :)

  15. “And I really loved believing in God. I couldn’t understand how there could be so much beauty and order to the world without a divine touch involved. Believing in God made life easier for me. It made everything seem fairer and it made me feel far less anxious thinking that there was a reason to everything.”

    I relate to the above. I am now an atheist. I cannot help or change it. I wish I could recapture belief, but I simply do not believe. I can’t look at the world, the suffering, the crimes against humanity via humanity, the poor, the orphans, and on and on, and believe there is a God. There is much more than this. But, no time for all of it.

    Like you, I respect and love many religious people. (I do not love pressure from them :), but I respect their right as humans to believe.)

    You’ve written about this topic in a respectful way, which is the best way to keep conversations open. Nicely done!

  16. “A belief in God, at least the way I experienced it, was a mental state in which I would question everything, except whether God existed. It was this inability to question, which I found went against my nature. I found it hard to pick and choose what I would analyse and dissect. It was this need to question and explore life, which initially caused me stop believing in God.”

    I wanted to question everything too. When I found out that this was not allowed, I felt more motivated than ever to question more than just the existence of God. I also think that too much is assumed about what God must be. I am interested in polytheism and pantheism because they make a lot more sense than monotheism. At the same time, I don’t think that there is any great reason that I have to believe anything at all about the existence of invisible people or the origin of life.

  17. Pingback: On why I don’t think it’s helpful to say: ‘the world should be atheist’. Despite, being one. | Eli Glasman

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