Warning: sappy personal anecdotes ahead! See also Eliezer's Coming of Age story, SarahC's Reflections on rationality a year out, and Alicorn's Polyhacking.

On January 11, 2007, at age 21, I finally whispered to myself: There is no God.

I felt the world collapse beneath me. I'd been raised to believe that God was necessary for meaning, morality, and purpose. My skin felt cold and my tongue felt like cardboard. This was the beginning of the darkest part of my life, but the seed of my later happiness.

I grew up in Cambridge, Minnesota — a town of 5,000 people and 22 Christian churches (at the time). My father was (and still is) pastor of a small church. My mother volunteered to support Christian missionaries around the world.

I went to church and Bible study every week. I prayed often and earnestly. For 12 years I attended a Christian school that taught Bible classes and creationism. I played in worship bands. As a teenager I made trips to China and England to tell the godless heathens there about Jesus. I witnessed miraculous healings unexplained by medical science.

And I felt the presence of God. Sometimes I would tingle and sweat with the Holy Spirit. Other times I felt led by God to give money to a certain cause, or to pay someone a specific compliment, or to walk to the cross at the front of my church and bow before it during a worship service.

Around age 19 I got depressed. But then I read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, a manual for how to fall in love with God so that following his ways is not a burden but a natural and painless product of loving God. And one day I saw a leaf twirling in the wind and it was so beautiful — like the twirling plastic bag in American Beauty — that I had an epiphany. I realized that everything in nature was a gift from God to me. Grass, lakes, trees, sunsets — all these were gifts of beauty from my Savior to me. That's how I fell in love with God, and he delivered me from my depression.

I moved to Minneapolis for college and was attracted to a Christian group led by Mark van Steenwyk. Mark’s small group of well-educated Jesus-followers are 'missional' Christians: they think that loving and serving others in the way of Jesus is more important than doctrinal truth. That resonated with me, and we lived it out with the poor immigrants of Minneapolis.

 

Doubt

By this time I had little interest in church structure or doctrinal disputes. I just wanted to be like Jesus to a lost and hurting world. So I decided I should try to find out who Jesus actually was. I began to study the Historical Jesus.

What I learned, even when reading Christian scholars, shocked me. The gospels were written decades after Jesus' death, by non-eyewitnesses. They are riddled with contradictions, legends, and known lies. Jesus and Paul disagreed on many core issues. And how could I accept miracle claims about Jesus when I outright rejected other ancient miracle claims as superstitious nonsense?

These discoveries scared me. It was not what I had wanted to learn. But now I had to know the truth. I studied the Historical Jesus, the history of Christianity, the Bible, theology, and the philosophy of religion. Almost everything I read — even the books written by conservative Christians — gave me more reason to doubt, not less. What preachers had taught me from the pulpit was not what they had learned in seminary. My discovery of the difference had just the effect on me that conservative Bible scholar Daniel B. Wallace predicted:

The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ.

I started to panic. I felt like my best friend — my source of purpose and happiness and comfort — was dying. And worse, I was killing him. If only I could have faith! If only I could unlearn all these things and just believe. I cried out with the words from Mark 9:24, "Lord, help my unbelief!"

I tried. For every atheist book I read, I read five books by the very best Christian philosophers. But the atheists made plain, simple sense, and the Christian philosophers were lost in a fog of big words that tried to hide the weakness of their arguments.

I did everything I could to keep my faith. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force myself to believe what I knew wasn’t true. So I finally let myself whisper the horrifying truth out loud: There is no God.

I told my dad, and he said I had been led astray because I was arrogant to think I could get to truth by studying — I was "relying too much on my own strength." Humbled and encouraged, I started a new quest to find God. I wrote on my blog:

I’ve been humbled. I was “doing discipleship” in my own strength, because I thought I was smart enough and disciplined enough. [Now] having surrendered my prideful and independent ways to him, I can see how my weakness is God’s strength.

I’ve repented. I was deceived because I did not let the Spirit lead me into truth. Now I ask for God’s guidance in all quests for knowledge and wisdom.

I feel like I’ve been born again, again.

It didn’t last. Every time I reached out for some reason — any reason — to believe, God simply wasn’t there. I tried to believe despite the evidence, but I couldn’t believe a lie. Not anymore.

No matter how much I missed him, I couldn’t bring Jesus back to life.

 

New Joy and Purpose

Eventually I realized that millions of people have lived lives of incredible meaning, morality, and happiness without gods. I soon realized I could be more happy and moral without God than I ever was with him.

In many ways, I regret wasting more than 20 years of my life on Christianity, but there are a few things of value I took from my life as an evangelical Christian. I know what it’s like to be a true believer. I know what it’s like to fall in love with God and serve him with all my heart. I know what’s it like to experience his presence. I know what it’s like to isolate one part of my life from reason or evidence, and I know what it’s like to think that is a virtue. I know what it’s like to be confused by the Trinity, the failure of prayers, or Biblical contradictions but to genuinely embrace them as the mystery of God. I know what it’s like to believe God is so far beyond human reason that we can’t understand him, but at the same time to fiercely believe I know the details of how he wants us to behave.

I can talk to believers with understanding. I've experienced God the same way they have.

Perhaps more important, I have a visceral knowledge that I can experience something personally, and be confident of it, and be completely wrong about it. I also have a gut understanding of how wonderful it can be to just say "oops" already and change your mind.

I suspect this is why it was so easy for me, a bit later, to quickly change my mind about free will, about metaethics, about political libertarianism, and about many other things. It was also why I became so interested in the cognitive science of how our beliefs can get so screwy, which eventually led me to Less Wrong, where I finally encountered that famous paragraph by I.J. Good:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion', and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

I remember reading that paragraph and immediately thinking something like: Woah. Umm... yeah... woah. That... yeah, that's probably true. But that's crazy because... that changes fricking everything.

So I thought about it for a week, and looked up the counterarguments, and concluded that given my current understanding, an intelligence explosion was nearly inevitable (conditional on a basic continued progress of science) and that everything else I could spend my life working on was trivial by comparison.

So I mostly stopped blogging about philosophy of religion, read through all of Less Wrong, studied more cognitive science and AI, quit my job in L.A., and moved to Berkeley to become a visiting fellow with Singularity Institute.

 

The Level Above My Own

My move to Berkeley was a bit like the common tale of the smartest kid in a small town going to Harvard and finding out that he's no longer the smartest person in the room. In L.A., I didn't know anyone as devoted as I was to applying the cognitive science of rationality and cognitive biases to my thinking habits (at least, not until I attended a few Less Wrong meetups shortly before moving to Berkeley). But in Berkeley, I suddenly found myself among the least mature rationalists in my social world.

There is a large and noticeable difference between my level of rationality and the level of Eliezer Yudkowsky, Carl ShulmanAnna Salamon, and several others. Every week I learn new rationality techniques. Friends help me uncover cached beliefs about economics, politics, and utilitarianism. I've begun to use the language of anti-rationalization and Bayesian updates in everyday conversation. In L.A. I had become complacent because my level of rationality looked relatively impressive to me. Now I can see how far above my level humans can go.

I still have a lot to learn, and many habits to improve. Living in a community with rationalist norms is a great way to do those things. But a 4-year journey from evangelical Christian missionary to Singularity Institute researcher writing about rationality and Friendly AI is... not too shabby, I suppose.

And that's why I'm glad some people are writing about atheism and the basics of rationality. Without them, I'd probably still be living for Jesus.

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Luke is really being too humble here. Clearly the events up to the atheist realization happened in the first 15 minutes of his existence, given a reasonable allowance for all the sources he read for his articles.

Are there also lots of "undramatic" people like me? Every one of these personal stories I see involves sadness, epiphany, that sort of thing, but is that publication bias or am I unusual?

I think it has to do with the "leaving the tribe" aspect more than anything. Those of us who became devout in one of the more serious religions (that is, religions that view everyone else as a spectrum from "good but deeply flawed" to "hellbound") had that religion encompass most of our social world, and so in order to leave it we had to face the prospect of ostracism from all the people we cared about. The evolutionary pressures to never get ostracized make for a lot of subconscious bias to fight, and a pretty dramatic tale.

If your conversion was undramatic, therefore, I conjecture that you didn't have lots of friends or family who might have abandoned you if you stopped being religious.

I've been an atheist for about a year now, but I still haven't "come out" of the atheist closet with my parents yet. They are southern baptist, and I know it will devastate them - my mom especially.

My own break with Christianity was a light switch moment (more like turning out the last light before leaving the place for good kind of light switch moment) that happened while I was watching the Discovery Channel, of all things. I'd been raised with the hard-line young earth, all-evidence-for-evolution-is-fabricated, fire and brimstone style belief. My faith had been eroding for almost a decade as I tried to rationalize the existence of God, but it didn't really click until I saw a bunch of little Japanese Mudskippers crawling around in the mud with their elongated fins, the very picture of an evolutionary transition species that I had been taught since I was kid could not exist. I just thought "Well, that's it then. I can't honestly believe Christianity any more can I?" I think I actually let out a sigh at some point, but that may just be my mind filling in details for dramatic effect.

Really, my true belief had been gone since probably some time in high school. That was just the last straw that forced me to give up my belief in belief. Sort of like finally letting go of the rope, expecting to fall to your death, and discovering you were only a few inches from solid ground after all.

Sort of like finally letting go of the rope, expecting to fall to your death, and discovering you were only a few inches from solid ground after all.

I like this analogy. I think I'm going to steal it.

(that is, religions that view everyone else as a spectrum from "good but deeply flawed" to "hellbound"

That isn't exactly a spectrum. There are serious and sincere believers who I have met who are forthright with the 'hellbound' prediction while also being far less judgemental than others who say 'good but deeply flawed'. "Hellbound" is a prediction about future consequences not a personal criticism.

Indeed, I had two close friends in high school who predicted I was definitely going to hell. One academic liberal, one fundamentalist conservative. (It didn't come up much.)

I meant 'religions with claims to exclusivity', basically. I don't think anyone today worries that they'll lose their social world if they leave their Unitarian church.

But yes, the relationship between theology and arrogance isn't quite as simple as some might think.

I grew up atheist. Without a story to tell, I've got nothing to publish. I would agree with the publication bias conjecture.

"Oh. There are people who aren't sure about God? They're called agnostics? Huh, yeah, I think that's what I am."

Just publication bias, I think.

Personally I just gradually went from "believing by default because of what school and family were telling me" as a kid, to "believing mostly, but not all of religion" in junior high, to "believing very little of it must be true" in highschool, to "vaguely hoping there's some just and merciful order in the universe" in college, to being an atheist now.

There was hardly any drama at all, as far as I can recall.

Are there also lots of "undramatic" people like me?

Definitely. My story is much the same as Luke's but I was a whole heap more chill the whole way through. Although come to think of it if I did publish my style of writing is such that it would come out seeming dramatic anyway.

I assume it's publication bias, based on the fact that dramatic conversions are easier to write about - not only do they make better stories, but the details of that kind of thing are easier to remember. (I'm also in the 'undramatic' category.)

I was terrified of Hell when I was younger, so it was a while before I was able to admit my doubts to myself, and my deconversion was a gradual process; but it wasn't particularly dramatic. I felt a bit sad a few times, and a bit guilty, but by the age of 17 I was an atheist and not too worried about it.

So it may be publication bias, yes, but that's only two examples. I post quite regularly on an atheism & agnosticism forum, I might put a poll asking this question.

Undramatic for me too.

If you've got a talent that keeps you very popular within a group, it's very easy to get sucked into being what those admiring people want you to be. Being bright, clear-thinking, eloquent, confident (and a musician) moves you very easily into a leadership position, and builds the feeling of responsibility for the welfare of the group.

It took me too long to commit to acknowledging my accumulated doubts and misgivings and examine them in anything other than a pro-Christian light. I had enough religious cached thoughts in an interconnected self-supporting web that doubting any one of them was discouraged by the support of the others. However, I was spending more of my time aware of the dissonance between what I knew and what I believed (or, as I later realised, what I was telling myself I believed).

I ended up deciding to spend a few months of my non-work time examining my faith in detail -- clearing the cache, and trying to understand what it was that made me hold on to what I thought I believed. During that time I gradually dropped out of church activities.

I look back on the time and see it as a process of becoming more honest with myself. Had I tried to determine what I really believed by looking at what I anticipated and how that influenced my behaviour, I'd have realised a lot earlier that my true beliefs were non-supernatural. I'd just been playing an expected role in a supportive family and social group, and I'd adjusted my thinking to blend into that role.

I was always an atheist. But I saw the drama of atheisation a generation before myself. 50 generation before that, pagan ancestors embraced Christianity.

Daria here -- I sobbed aloud the first time I read that story because of how strongly I identified with her. No family troubles to speak of once I deconverted, but I did lose a girlfriend to it.

I've got a similar story. A high school friend's grandmother took a trip to Sri Lanki (their home country) to visit a "healer" (they were Buddhist, but I don't know which kind) in a last-ditch effort to avoid death from cancer. She came back without her tumor. Can I explain this? No, I can't.

Well, we know that spontaneous remissions on cancers do occur, very rarely, but they do occur. One of the hypothesis is that the immune system finally learns to attack the cancer. With the huge number of people who, faced with a disease that scientific medicine doesn't know how to cure, go to prayer or healers, it's not surprising that, statistically, a few spontaneous remissions do happen just after such a visit. Especially considering the placebo effect, and the non-negligeable links between the efficiency of the immune system and the mental state (it's well known that stress diminish the efficiency of the immune system).

What would be meaningful is not a single case of unexplained spontaneous healing. It's a significant, reproducible, higher-than-placebo, increase in survival rate by a given healer (or a set of healers using a given faith). And that is, as far as I know, not backed by any study (or if it is, please show me the link).

It's a significant, reproducible, higher-than-placebo, increase in survival rate by a given healer (or a set of healers using a given faith). And that is, as far as I know, not backed by any study (or if it is, please show me the link).

That said, if you get the placebo effect from going to a faith healer, do it.

Right. Moreover, of all the people who read GabrielDuquette's comment and know someone that had cancer and went to a faith healer, I imagine only the ones with a story like Jayson_Virisimo's will post a reply. Failed attempts are not reported. If you are acquaintances with someone that experienced a failed faith healing, you are likely not even aware of it! (If it was successful, they would have lauded it.) An easy Bayesian estimate makes the presence of Jayson_Virisimo's comment unsurprising.

Given a sufficiently non-zero probability of spontaneous remission, this argument explains my lack of surprise at such a story. This is an important addition to your argument (and, I feel, indeed the crux), because a non-zero probability is not satisfactory. Consider if we had many people posting such claims; with sufficiently low probabilities of spontaneous remission, we would not expect such a density of claims.

I would explain it as a spontaneous remission followed by the post hoc fallacy.

Edit: assuming, of course, that the tumor was actually gone, as DSimon points out.

I would explain it as a spontaneous remission followed by the post hoc fallacy.

Surely you mean, causing post hoc fallacy?

How did you know that the tumor was eliminated? That is, was there a before-and-after x-ray clearly showing the difference?

How did you know that the tumor was eliminated? That is, was there a before-and-after x-ray clearly showing the difference?

I don't know it was eliminated. My only evidence is my friend's testimony, his track record of truth-telling, and the fact the his was an atheist (and, therefore, unlikely to make up mystical stories to promote his religion).

Then what I really want to know is: how did your friend know the tumor was eliminated?

I'd like to second the question. Computational decision theoretic cosmology doesn't rule out statistical miracles and more importantly it's best to compute likelihood ratios and posteriors separately. E.g. see: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/02/share-likelihood-ratios-not-posterior-beliefs.html

So I decided I should try to find out who Jesus actually was. I began to study the Historical Jesus. What I learned, even when reading Christian scholars, shocked me.

"Whoso wishes to grasp God with his intellect becomes an atheist."Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

It seems you abandoned Christianity for the right reasons. Few are those whose disbelief is the result of extensive studies and advanced knowledge, I'm certainly not one of them.

It seems you abandoned Christianity for the right reasons.

Well, kind of. My reasons for rejecting supernaturalism are much better informed than when I originally left theism behind. I didn't know about technical explanation, Bayesianism, or Solomonoff induction when I lost my faith.