When I first set out to write about my journey from religion to
reason, I did not initially intend to list those who had influenced my views. When I first
considered listing influences, my first instinct was to say there had been none — and this
was an honest mistake. Like most people, I prefer to believe I make every decision independently
and come to my viewpoints rationally, but in my most honest moments, I know this is not the
While much of my journey did occur when I was alone with my thoughts, there is no question that
I was helped along the way by several factors, some of them people.
Perhaps the first was science fiction. I don’t refer to today’s fairy-and-magic
“sci-fi”, but to the older books that I was reading at the time, primarily by
Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.
Heinlein was raised Methodist and claimed that as late as 1954, but was otherwise private about his
own religion. In his books, though, his characters often had strong opinions. Here are some of them,
from several different books:
“History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis.
Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.
But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem
to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.”
“Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other sins are invented
nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful — just stupid.)”
“Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a
black cat that isn’t there.”
“Faith strikes me as intellectual laziness.”
“I've never understood how God could expect His creatures to pick the one true
religion by faith — it strikes me as a sloppy way to run a universe.”
Asimov, on the other hand, was a scientist first, an atheist second, and a science fiction
writer only because it was easy for him. He was very open about his atheism, and I remember
reading in shock a foreword he wrote in someone else’s book, which overtly preached
evolution, a universe without God, and anti-religion. I don’t have access to that
exact text, but here are some of Asimov’s quotes:
“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”
“[Creationists] make it sound as though a ‘theory’ is something you dreamt up after
being drunk all night.”
“I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside
reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don't have to waste your time in either attacking
“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the
basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer
an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose
every deed is foul, foul, foul. I would also want a God who would not allow a Hell. Infinite
torture can only be a punishment for infinite evil, and I don’t believe that infinite evil
can be said to exist even in the case of Hitler. Besides, if most human governments are civilized
enough to try to eliminate torture and outlaw cruel and unusual punishments, can we expect
anything less of an all-merciful God? I feel that if there were an afterlife, punishment for
evil would be reasonable and of a fixed term. And I feel that the longest and worst punishment
should be reserved for those who slandered God by inventing Hell.”
“I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed
by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there
is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more
solid the evidence will have to be.”
At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to this. I was concerned with the worlds of the
future that their stories described, the human interactions, and — like many young fans
of sci-fi — the really cool gadgets: rocket ships, space stations, futuristic weapons,
and so on. But it had to have affected me on some level. The stories often portrayed
atheists as learned, scientific, and unencumbered by superstition. When a religious character
appeared, which wasn’t often, they tended to be malicious, especially Heinlein’s
character Nehemiah Scudder who appeared in several stories. Or they were mere dupes of the
Scudder types — sincere enough people who followed the creed that their leaders handed
At the time I was reading these stories, my ideological tendencies were actually becoming
more solidly fundamentalist Christian. But I remained interested in science, math,
cosmology, and so on, and therefore continued to read science fiction. There can be no question
that the thoughts introduced by these writers rolled around in my brain for years, eventually
coming to light.
Greg U. — ‘The Great Atheist’
Greg (last name withheld), a classmate of mine in high school in the late 1980s
and the first half of 1990, was mentioned in my high school journal only as part of a list of
people I talked to during the school day. A year after high school, I recorded his name once
more, describing him as the “great atheist” (the quote marks are
in my journal). He was only mentioned because he was dating someone on whom I had a small crush.
But in my memory, he was the first avowed atheist with whom I came in contact. I remember discussing
various proofs of God’s existence with him. He was the first person
in my life who wasn’t just a lackadaisical Christian that needed a little nudging, but an
actual non-believer. Though I didn’t think much of it at the time, this had to have
affected me as well, since for the first time I was considering actual “proofs” about
deity, and how a logical person who didn’t previously believe couldn’t possibly be
swayed by them.
I knew him from 1984 through 1990 or so; we were often in the same classes but never became
Matt W. L.
Matt (last name withheld) was my friend the last two years of high school. He was a self-described
ex-Christian agnostic. His father had been a Methodist minister
before becoming an abusive alcoholic. Matt and I were friends because of shared interests —
music, silliness, philosophy. We talked much about religion, but rarely in a personal sense. Late
in his junior year, he came to me and wanted to talk specifically about being “born again”
and later said he had gone through with it.
His influence on me came during our Study Hall, when he and I — and another student named
Dallas — invented a religion, purely by accident. We weren’t allowed to talk
during Study Hall, but we passed notes. It began with a discussion of fast-food service and how
to get a fresh burger. Before we knew it, we were deep into creating a new theology, in which a
Pickle was the primary deity, the Avocado was the enemy — but also Father and Mother
of the Pickle.
We began using phrases like “Praise the Pickle” around school, enough that other people
would ask us about it, and we would pass along the Good News. Within a week, more than a dozen of
our school chums were using Pickle-derived phrases and suggesting new tidbits to add to our growing
The point isn’t how silly it was (very), but that it happened organically and without
really even thinking about it. In later years, when someone would suggest that Christianity was
— like all other religions — invented, I almost always thought back to The Great
Pickle and how it could easily have grown into a viable religion had we actually pursued it.
(Perhaps fortunately, the texts we wrote regarding the Pickle do not survive to this day. I know
I had them at some point during my adulthood, but cannot find them now.)
Ms. M. — Senior English Teacher
Ms. M. (first name unknown, surname withheld) was the first authority figure I ever knew who
professed to be an atheist. At the time, I made it my mission to get under her skin, and made
sure many of my assignments had a religious flair to them, including my research paper “Is
There Really An Afterlife?”, a fictional short story “The Fourth Man”, and my
poem The Evolutionists — I was careful to
fit each one within the given parameters of the assignment and Mrs. M was careful to grade me
Had she been the epitome of the godless heathen that my Bible had warned me all atheists must be, I
likely would not have been surprised, or given it much thought. Instead, she was a normal enough adult
who was competent in her job, fair, polite, and had a better sense of humor than many of our teachers.
It was this — her normality, her complete lack of depravity — that stuck with me over the
years. My research paper about the afterlife, which I remember being so proud of, did not stick with me. I
have manuscripts for everything else I wrote in that class, but not that one.
Dr. D.O. (name withheld) was one of my professors at Bible college, and later became director
of a Ph.D. program for “Biblical Interpretation and Theology” at a theological seminary.
Incidentally, he’s also one of many translators for two English versions of the Bible. He is a
highly educated and thoroughly religious Christian man.
It was he who challenged my fundamentalist, literalist belief that
Noah’s Ark could indeed fit all of the animals necessary. I
still remember the daring expression on his face as he asserted that perhaps I should research the
math myself instead of depending on the “study” I had cited.
Until 1995 or so, movies could not have been much of an influence on my thinking, because I
rarely watched movies until after Bible college. Once I left, I bought my first VHS player and
began renting and watching movies regularly, both old and new. In later retrospect, I realized that
some of them must have influenced me.
One film that did influence me as a child was Star Wars (specifically, Episode 4). All the talk
about good and evil, balance, “the Force”, and other mystical lines were decried at my
church as a bad influence on children. At the time, I couldn’t understand what they were so
worried about — it was a fictional movie. Years later, I recalled that friends and I
had tested to see if the Force was real. We would set a toy on the kitchen table,
concentrate on it, and see if we could move it — like the Jedi characters in the movies could
do. Of course, it never worked. Perhaps this is what the preachers at my church were worried about,
that we children would eventually make the connection that religion is fictional too, and could be
tested for veracity.
Movies that could have influenced me later include
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) — there’s
a scene in a diner early in the film in which Kate (Juliette Lewis) asks her father Jacob (Harvey
Keitel), a former pastor, “Don’t you believe in god anymore?”, and he answers,
“Not enough to be a pastor.” Of course, when I saw this film, I was only one year
removed from studying to be a pastor, and had given up, so the line hit me hard. Then, a few lines
later, Jacob adds: “Yes, I do believe in Jesus. Yes, I do believe in God. But do I love
them? No.” That so closely reflected my own thoughts at the time that it was comforting
somehow, perhaps because I felt slightly less lonely knowing that someone else (if only the
script writer) had thought similarly to me.
Another one would be Dogma (1999). Despite some
of the main characters being angels, and even God (Alanis Morrisette), the movie itself was
decidedly anti-religion. At the time, it was shocking for me. But it was funny at the same time,
which made it easier to accept. There was a scene where an angel claims to be an atheist and
convinces a nun to leave her work. There are two angels complaining that God isn’t fair for
kicking them out of heaven (for an act of mercy on their part), and trying to get back in. It
pointed out that rules of sin change over the centuries (“How can you even be sure what
incurs the Lord’s wrath these days? Times change. I remember when eating meat on a Friday was
supposed to be a Hell-worthy trespass.”) They were talking about things that I wanted
to think about but had been afraid to approach.
Like anyone my age, the advent of adulthood coincided with the internet becoming commonplace and
accessible to most. And because I was never extremely comfortable in social situations, it was
natural that I would develop online friendships in place of in-person social circles. Like many
people, I felt more comfortable expressing certain opinions online than I did in person. And of
course, this gave me access to friends I would not have met in person, partly because of where I
lived — the Bible Belt. Yes, there are atheists and thinkers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas,
etc., but they’re often not very vocal about it. Online, you can cast your net more widely.
So in my early days on the internet, I ran into a number of non-Christians, including Wiccans,
agnostics, and atheists, not to mention Muslims and adherents of other religions. The comfort and
familiarity that characterized these interactions was eye-opening. Further, the sheer number of
these people was heartening as I continued to question my own beliefs.
I hesitate to list Richard here, because by the time I met
him and learned he was an atheist, I
was already most of the way through my journey. Perhaps it would not
be correct to list him as an “influence” on my actual beliefs, but his openness
and thoughtfulness were certainly an encouragement to me when I began thinking about writing these
This is the updated version of this page. To see the original version,
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• Edit, 2016.01.14: Added link to original
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Modernized the html code (not visible to readers). Reworded intro to reflect that I actually did think
at first there had been no influences. Added a final sentence to the science
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“currently” part that would have to be regularly updated. Added the word
“literalist”. Added Movies section.