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Practical Ideas for Budding Atheists

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 19, 2023, ported here on January 6, 2024

In his review of my book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God, Jason Salzman says I have written "exactly the book much of America needs," yet he has a minor complaint:

It seems like it's missing a non-philosophical, and more practical, how-to chapter, maybe with ten concrete steps you can take to start your journey away from Christianity. I'm not sure what that would look like, but it might start with something like: 1. Go on a church fast for a month, 2. Have a cup of coffee with a happy atheist, 3. Write your own explanation of how a loving God could allow so much human misery in the world. . . .

I do interweave broader practical suggestions throughout the book, especially in my chapters, "Meaning in the Natural World" and "Morals without God." I write about the importance of building strong social relationships and of pursuing a meaningful career, among other things. Especially in the section "Made of Star Stuff" and in the last chapter, I discuss how secularists can experience awe, as by contemplating our place in the universe and in the web of life.

But mine is not primarily a how-to book on personal happiness. It's a more-philosophic take on religion intended to help people get to the point where they are ready to focus on their well-being in this life (as opposed to the imagined well-being of their soul after they die). Here I'm happy to talk more about practical ideas.

Alternatives to Church

I quite like Salzman's specific suggestions, but they're too narrow to be applicable to everyone. For example, a lot of people with religious beliefs don't regularly attend church.

Maybe some people who attend church weekly are ready to start questioning their faith, but most of them probably are quite committed to their religious beliefs and practices.

Maybe some people would find it helpful to do something else instead of going to church, such as going on a hike, meditating, reading a book, or attending some other social event. The social connections are a major reason many people attend church.

And maybe some regular church-goers who are ready to question their faith would find it useful to keep going to church for a while to observe what values they are getting from church, what the methods of persuasion are where beliefs are at issue, and what parts of the service resonate with them emotionally. For me, the best part of church was the group singing.

Atheist-Christian Coffees?

I like the idea of atheists and Christians (and indeed people of other different persuasions) having coffee. However, this could backfire, especially if the atheist is less "happy" than advertised and starts laying it on too thick. I think people would benefit from this sort of meeting only if they don't expect to convert each other and instead focus on sharing their personal experiences and really trying to live in each other's shoes for a while. Atheists should keep in mind that Christians are far better organized and might think it's an excellent idea to set up coffee meetings with atheist in an attempt to convert them to religion.


Journaling more broadly could be quite useful. It might be helpful to write two entries on a given topic, one from a secular perspective and one from a religious perspective. To take Salzman's example, one could write on the topic, "How can Christians make sense of the problem of evil?" and "Does the problem of evil disprove the existence of of a benevolent God?" (Note: Bart Ehrman writes on this topic in God's Problem.)

Here are some other possible topics for journal entries:

"If I really, seriously believed that there is is no God, could I still find meaning in the world?" Variant: "Why do I think that God existing, and my belief that God exists, are necessary for me to find my life meaningful?"

"What are the reasons, other than God telling me so or threatening me with Hell, for me to act ethically?"

"How can a Christian make sense of a benevolent God subjecting a person to eternal torture?" (This one makes sense only if a person takes the idea of Hell seriously. Many Christians don't believe in a literal Hell.)

"What are the mental blocks stopping me from seriously questioning my faith?" (On this topic, see my second chapter, "Christianity's Defense Mechanisms.)

"Am I turning my belief in God and Heaven into an excuse to fail to take my own life and values as seriously as I should?"

Read the Bible

For many Christians, regularly reading the Bible is a core component of their religious worship. But they tend to read or at least emphasize selective versus, ignore or downplay troublesome passages, and read into the Bible messages that they want to find.

To me, one of the best ways to prove to yourself that an all-knowing and benevolent God could not have written the Bible is to read it straight, without bullshitting yourself about what it says. (I discuss some of the Bible's troubling passages in my section, "The Bible Tells Me So.")

Also read about the Bible and how and when it was written. I recommend the books and lectures of Bart Ehrman.

This suggestion is probably most relevant to people raised in literalist forms of Christianity, as I was.

Read and Think Widely

Don't expect answers to come easily. Don't expect all secularists to agree. Don't throw out the real values that many people get from religious practice (sociality, a sense of awe) with the supernaturalist bathwater. Instead, take your time and find contentment in the struggle to discover the truth.

One book I recommend is Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, not because I always agree with Rand (I don't), but because Smith does such a good job of explaining why ethics matters to a successful life. Also critically read other works on ethics, such as Philippa Foot's Natural Goodness (which I've reviewed), Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save, and Michael Huemer's Knowledge, Reality, and Value (this one is somewhat technical).

To me, one of the best ways to experience awe is to observe living things and to contemplate our relationship to all life on Earth. For example, now anytime I see a flock of geese I remember that geese are dinosaurs, closely related to various ancient land dinosaurs. Amazing! You might want to read one of the popular works on evolution, such as Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth. My family loved the PBS series on Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish.

My basic advice is be curious about life and the universe and your place in it. Remember that atheism is not a positive philosophy; it just means lack of belief in a god (or in the supernatural realm more broadly). What matters most is not what you don't believe and how you don't act, but what you do believe and how you do act.

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