I think there’s an overall trend to the way people come to an atheist conclusion here in the West. From my own experiences and those I’ve talked about the subject with in detail , it seems that there are almost distinct stages people go through in their philosophical evolution toward the belief that there is no god.
Let’s face it, many of us were raised in Christian (or at least nominally Christian) households. We may not have spoken about it much, but when Census rolled around, we knew our parents would tick the little box that said ‘Catholic’, or ‘Protestant’ or ‘Church of England’ or a variation thereof. Some of us might even have been dragged to church on the two days per year our family thought it best to attend, Christmas and Easter.
I grew up in an environment that was a little more focused on religion, the Mormon religion to be exact. Weekly church going was strongly encouraged and the indoctrination was powerful. Despite, or maybe because of this, I found myself doubting the entire existence of god by the age of seven. It was a little later that I came to the definite conclusion that the world was without a god, this delay mostly due to the fact that we were taught in Sunday school that any doubts were the devil looking over our shoulder and planting evil seeds into our minds.
But anyway, below is a rough guide to what I feel are some distinct stages in the evolution of our non belief in god. Take them or leave them, just my thoughts.
The unthinking (or Following Mummy and Daddy) stage – this occurs when our thoughts and identity are yet to fully coalesce, we may not have formed any opinion religious or philosophical at all at this stage, or we might mimic those opinions held by our elders. There has been no questioning, no delving into the details. Needless to say we are quite young at this time.
The doubting stage - So how is this god everywhere at once, and how did he create us all and just how was he ALWAYS here? How does he know who to punish for eternity and who to let into heaven, and why? We start to question what we have held as written in stone, often we have feelings of guilt that accompany this doubt, as if we are doing something wrong, which we may believe is true.
The realisation – this is often a short stage in between doubting and rebellion. We often keep our realisation a secret, maybe we think we’ll get into all kinds of trouble with our family. Maybe if we say it out loud we feel we’ll be damned to the hell the child part of us till half believes in. This phase can often be liberating, or it can be terrifying.
The rebellion – This is where we openly start to broadcast our views. Many new atheists will tell anyone they get the chance to that they do not believe in a god, they’ll confront their parents, refuse to go to church or do any religious activities (which might include Christmas). This is where their own personal philosophy starts to develop. It’s built upon by their thoughts on the subject, what they read about it and who they talk to. Leaving the ‘philosophical nest’ so to speak is often a very complicated and emotional undertaking. There are most likely still feelings toward the old set of thinking, conscious or unconscious, and a backlash often occurs against the religion they have left behind. We see it here in the west as the ‘anti christian’ mindset, which makes sense as the dominant religion currently is Christianity. It's important to keep in mind the culture the individual is coming from.
Many people who reach this stage are young teenagers at a vulnerable time in their lives and still dependent financially and emotionally on their parents. There can be harsh ramifications for such an ideological rebellion. In some parts of the world, admitting atheism to friends and family can have serious ramifications including social ostracism, being forced out of the family home and even death. There are fierce debates over whether a teen's newfound beliefs should be made public in environments such as a strictly religious family or community.
Residual Christian backlash – At this stage we are more comfortable in our thoughts and beliefs now, and less likely to want to continually confront people with them. Yet many of us retain our anti-past backlash to this stage, often lasting for years, maybe decades.
Belief security and acceptance of other ways of thinking - I think this stage is where we truly become secure in our own beliefs. We have thought deep and long about the god subject and have come to terms with the religious structure of our upbringing, our culture, or both. We understand that the world is in a state of cultural evolution and our past is mired heavily in religion.
I think also that this is where we let go of the last of our negative feelings toward religion that are soley based on our experiences in our formative years. We can acknowledge that, although we are now atheists, religion has most likely had a profound effect on the way we have developed through direct family contact or through our society’s structure, regulations and beliefs. We can discuss freely our own beliefs with the understanding that for some, a religious belief holds practical and fundamental value in staving off the fear of oblivion, providing a platform for contemplating the deeper meaning and philosophy of life and giving some humans a deeper connection to each other and the universe.
We should continue the questioning of long held traditions, especially those that harm or restrict others for no logical reason. The world will always need humans who will question and never blindly accept. We must also understand that in some cases, such as religion, we may never know who is 'right' and who is 'wrong'. There is no mathematical proof for or against the existence of a divine creator and there probably never will be.
We need to look at our actions and beliefs through the prism of societal evolution. What is best for humans as a whole?
Our belief that this existence is all there is makes it all the more poignant and valuable. We can quite easily cultivate an understanding of how this might create fear in the average individual. Can we also cultivate an understanding and acceptance of the comfort a religious belief might bring?
For now, our civilisation contains many individuals who hold religion as a comfort. I do not believe this will be so in the future. We must look toward that future with compassion for the past and the humans stuck in the wave of change in between.