I dunno. I suggest asking the person.
But that’s not enough, is it? Just asking the question is the easiest thing to do. Listening to the answer…ahhh, there’s the rub!
The other day my daughter was studying her French. She insisted she had sufficiently studied. Being the ever-gullible parents that we are; we thought a quiz might be in order to confirm our trust. She missed the first question. She missed the second question. It became apparent that she hadn’t studied at all.
I opened my mouth and actually heard these words coming out—“Why did you say you studied?”
Can you imagine a more unintelligent question? I knew why she had said it: she hoped just saying the words would persuade her parents and she could go off to do what she really wanted to do. I wasn’t asking “why” out of some inquisitive spirit, intrigued with discovering a whole new insight into the teenage mind. I was merely making an introductory statement, which was about to develop into a full-fledged dressing down. There was more rhetoric then interrogatory in the question.
Why is an atheist an atheist?
Too often that question is asked and the person has a pre-prepared solution stuck fast in their mind. Respond in a manner that does not conform to the answer key firmly lodged in that mind and you would be quite, quite wrong.
We meet a person in an interesting profession. We ask, “What made you enter that field?” We are genuinely waiting for a response. The person replies that their parent did it, or they learned of it in school, or worked as an intern for a summer…whatever they respond. We walk away with, “Huh. How fascinating. Just learned something new.” We don’t respond, “Naw. You went into it for the money. You are lying to yourself.”
But ask an atheist why they are an atheist, and most times the person is so ready to respond to why the atheist is incorrect in her reply; they literally cannot wait for the poor person to stop talking. They will interrupt them before they are finished! “No, you are wrong!”
We ask questions as to what people do and why they do it all day long. Why go out with him? Why did you buy that particular TV? What’s with the new hair style? Why did you get so angry over something so mundane? Why did you do this, do that, go here, go there?
And we take people at their face. What they say. If they indicate they fell in love because of the other person’s smile, while we may not see it, do we argue with the person they are wrong?
But get into this field, and I have people everywhere almost giddy with the joy of informing me why I am an atheist, regardless of what I say. Yes, sirree!
They tell me it is because I am mad at the church. Well…I am not mad at a particular building. However, I must confess I was pretty upset with a particular person in the church. Weren’t we all? I was acting up in Sunday School class, and my teacher, to my complete and utter embarrassment, took me to my father to “rat me out!” See, my father was ALSO a teacher, so this meant interrupting HIS class, and taking me out in the hall and disrupting TWO classes. I was mad at my teacher for a whole week! My deconversion process can clearly be traced back to a certain fourth-grade teacher.
They tell me it is because I am mad at God. For what? I have a lovely wife, very healthy children, a good home…aha! My garage door just broke. THAT must be it. I am angry at the very creator of life because I must go out and spend a whooping $6.97 and 1/2 an hour fixing a hinge. Surely you can see how God dealt me so wrongly, and I am justified in my anger!
They tell me it is because I want to sin. He he he. Don’t they want to sin? Are they losing God, too? Is it some big secret that every human in existence wants to do something that a Christian calls “sin”? O.K. I will confess it. There are times I would like to…sin. (gasp!) I have fleeting (and some not-so fleeting) moments in which I would prefer to let loose on some internet opponent with a few well-chosen epitaphs, swear words, colorful metaphors, and apt (in my opinion) descriptions. That must be why I am an atheist. Because I wanted to justify having those reactions, while not engaging in performing them. (Most times.)
They tell me I had the wrong Christianity, the wrong Bible, the wrong beliefs, the wrong interpretation, the wrong teachers, the wrong association, the wrong prayers, the wrong faith, the wrong Jesus, the wrong hymns, pews and parking lots. I wonder sometimes how I ever managed to be a Christian for so long, doing it so wrong!
You want to know why an atheist is an atheist. Ask him. BUT (and this is the key part) that part of your brain that is already assured of the answer? You must turn it off. That part of your background which has ingrained in you a reason in stone? Ignore it. Pretend, for a moment, that you are asking why they became a dentist. Or wear those shoes. Pretend, for a moment, that you actually care about the response for what it is, not for why it is wrong.
See, people become atheists for as many and varied reasons as people do just about anything else. Yes, some do because of an emotional reaction. Some are born in atheist homes. Some because of study of science. Some for study of philosophy. Some by way of study of religion. Perhaps their own.
Some are convinced there is no god because of the various human creations of god(s), some by the troubling Problem of Suffering, some by Euthyphro.
Some are more defensive, some more offensive, some are ambivalent. Some don’t even stay atheists.
Look, if you are interested in informing me why your belief system mandates that I became an atheist—fine. Have at it. Don’t start off the conversation with a pleasant “Why did you become an atheist?” A more honest, “This is why you are an atheist. I know because this is what my God says.” We can draw swords and duel.
But if you are interested—really interested—it may take the hard, hard work of setting aside a prejudice and genuinely listening to the response. Listening with the prejudice that the person is actually telling the truth instead.