Understanding Atheism

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The Article

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Amy, Brad, Mike, and the Free-Thought Society at Clemson University.

I declared myself an agnostic in 1983 and stayed that way until I declared myself an atheist in 1992. The road from Christianity to atheism and back to Christianity was – with my apologies to Beatles fans – long and winding. It took many years to travel.

The decision to major in psychology was one of many factors that led to my decision to leave the church. Not many psychology departments have more atheists than the nearest philosophy department. But many come close. And the way the discipline of psychology approaches religion is likely to lead some students astray.

I recall quite well my first exposure to Freud and his ideas about the Oedipus complex. I became well-schooled in his ideas about man’s compelling psychological need to create a God in his own image – to resolve various feelings of guilt flowing from childhood trauma. I was so captivated by these ideas that I read “Moses and Monotheism,” “Totem and Taboo,” and “The Future of an Illusion” in my spare time. Each took me further away from God.

B.F. Skinner had a similar impact on my thinking. The principles of operant conditioning were not always used to explain religion away. Strict behaviorists seldom have a compelling need to “look inside the black box” or, in other words, analyze unobservable thoughts. But these principles do provide a ready explanation for those convinced that man created God, not vice versa. I was so captivated by Skinner that I read “Walden Two” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” in my spare time. These books pushed me further in the direction of atheism.

The notion that psychology might provide an explanation for atheism – rather than theism – never really occurred to me during my years as a psychology student (from 1983 until 1989 when I received my M.S. in psychology). But, in March of 1989, a woman named Martha Hamilton – the mother of my “second mother” Lisa Chambers – responded to my praise of B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists with the following comment: “It just sounds like a bunch of people trying to get out of serving God.”

I must confess that I thought Mrs. Hamilton was just a simple-minded fundamentalist. Now, I realize that she was right and I was wrong.

If psychologists were really interested in the fair and balanced treatment of religion they would see the obvious connection between cognitive dissonance theory and atheism. And, of course, they would discuss it in their classes in conjunction with the application of Freudian and Skinnerian theories seeking to explain religion away.

In the 1950s and 1960s, psychologists like Eliot Aronson began to suggest that behavior sometimes causes attitudes rather than vice versa. In the wake of this discussion, cognitive dissonance became a popular psychological theory. Put simply, it spoke to the issue of how beliefs sometimes emerge from a tension between certain cognitive elements.

For example, if a person is cognizant of the fact that smoking causes cancer, he will experience dissonance when he thinks about the fact that he is a smoker. He may be inclined to adopt other beliefs like “They will probably find a cure for cancer before I get it.” He may develop powerful, even silly, rationalizations like “I’ll quit next year” or “It does not matter because the world could end tomorrow in a nuclear holocaust” or “I could be hit by a car tomorrow so I might as well smoke today.”

Because Christianity is sometimes a demanding religion, it, too, may create a good deal of cognitive dissonance. For example, the declaration “I am a Christian” can sometimes clash with the awareness that “Christians are supposed to tithe” or “Christians are supposed to love their enemies.”

I have seen people who began tithing to the church and loving their enemies upon converting to Christianity. But that is not how it always ends for the converted Christian. Like me, many other Christians have resolved the tension by, at least temporarily, deciding to abandon the Way. Sometimes it is simply easier to say “I am not a Christian.”

Those who become agnostic or atheist often say that it was due to an intellectual journey or an intellectually honest re-appraisal of childhood faith. But, as my mentor David L. McMillen used to say, “People rarely understand their own motivations.”

I believe that cognitive dissonance theory helps people better understand their own motivations. I believe it has helped me to understand my fall from Christianity, which, thankfully ended with a return to the church.

But the theory might also explain why it took me so long to get back to church. I abandoned atheism on March 7th of 1996. But I did not return to the church until October of 2000. The reason for the delay was simple: I was ashamed.

As I imagined myself walking back into a church, I also imagined people thinking and, perhaps, even saying “What is Mike Adams doing here at church?” But I made it back and my life continues to be blessed as I walk further with Jesus every day.

I can understand the dissonance that is felt by the young woman who wrote to me last week telling of her multiple suicide attempts in the wake of a battle with manic depression. She says she cannot seem to get out of bed on Sundays because of the shame she feels for the harm she has tried to inflict upon herself. She needs to hear from confessing and humble Christians who say they desperately want her back regardless of what she’s done.

I often wonder why we speak of the atheists as if they are our enemies. And I wonder whether that should matter if we call ourselves Christians. I hope this column will inspire some cognitive dissonance, for the writer and the reader alike. And I hope the tension will be resolved with love, which the best cure for dissonance, or, for that matter, anything else.

Mike S. Adams
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