One More Path to Atheism

About a year ago, some folks from CNN were interviewing and asking around atheist groups for stories and perspectives on life as nonbelievers and our experience. With the airing of “Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers”, which looks to be the end product of this work, and my response to the special after it aired last night, I thought I’d finally post my lengthy email response to their questions.

I had never written this part of my life down to its completion before, so it was really long for a relatively short series of questions. I kept going, though, for my own sake, so I could process through it all and have a recording of that. Now I’m thankful I’m able to share it with others. There are a lot of conversion and deconversion stories out there, some filled with much more pain, suffering, triumph, loss, and acceptance, but mine is quiet, without great strife, and this type of experience should be known, as well. If any part of this story provides someone comfort on their journey to self-discovery, it was worth taking up this space on the internet.

There’ll be some edits to make it fit better in public blog post form.

The Prompt

I would love to hear more about your personal story–where you are from, did you grow up in the South, what kind of community did you grow up in, what is your religious background; what is your family like, what is their religious background; when you transitioned to atheism and why, how you came out to your family, what that experience was like; what experiences have you had in the secular movement—any backlash from Christian groups, family, friends; how you got involved with Campus Freethinkers, why are there more atheists now– especially young adults under the age of 25; how you got involved with Campus Freethinkers; is it more difficult being an atheist in the South which is more conservative–the Bible Belt; any anecdotes you want to share; you name, age and year at Ga. Tech.

My Story

I’m Ross Llewallyn. I’m 25, and I graduated from Georgia Tech in 2012 with a Masters in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

I’ve gone on so long. I’m sorry if this is tedious or self-indulgent. I’d be happy to cut this down to be more concise, but I’ve also never put all this down before, so it just kept coming. I just hope this was what you were looking for.

I was born and raised in metro Atlanta, specifically Marietta. I’ve always lived in the same house, until college at Georgia Tech, graduation, and then finally moving into Atlanta last year while working at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, where I am now.

I did grow up in the South. But when consider if I’m a Southerner, I debate the answer internally every time. Yes, I’ve always lived in Georgia, an unquestionably Southern state. But I feel I was raised in more of an upper-middle-class suburbia, rather than a small town. Yes, I love Southern rock, bluegrass, and blues. No, I don’t take part in the religious influence that permeates the air. Yet despite not knowing what defines it, I would call myself one.

It’s such a tough identifier while it’s so wrapped up in Christianity, and I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling that tension.

My parents are vaguely religious. My grandparents were much more so. I was baptized as a baby and confirmed around 13. We would drive down most Sundays into Atlanta, half an hour, to visit Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. I believe this was because it was my grandmother’s preferred church. It’s where my parents got married, now that I think about it. And I currently live down the street from the place.

The fact that we went so far to go to this large church was always unusual to me, especially considering that a block away from our house was a church and synagogue. That synagogue is where I first voted, too.

This religious observance was unusual for a number of reasons. First, I rarely went to the actual service, instead only attending Sunday school. Second, the distance made the whole experience lengthy and frustrating, taking away valuable time I could have spent playing my Nintendo 64. Third, living so far away from the church meant that I had less in common with any classmates and friends I had from Sunday school. Most of them were in private schools in Atlanta and difficult to spend more time with.

I have fond memories of memorizing books of the Old Testament and reciting John 3:16 to get little star stickers. I was studious when it was asked of me. I loved this one retreat I went on where I had a wonderful time doing activities with other kids, talking at night, and listening to religious songs that still ring in my head to this day, like for so many people.

But despite these small positives, I began to intentionally sleep in on Sundays to avoid having to go. I don’t believe my mom particularly wanted to take us, either, except as an obligation to us. As you get older, you see your parents in a new light, as fellow adults, and I’ve been able to have conversations around religion that indicate they are quite liberal believers. Though not so liberal to prevent my dad from ridiculing Mormons on occasion.

During this time I was also questioning my beliefs. Like most atheists today, the path of deconversion is very slow, full of twists, turns, and decreasingly specifically religious labels. The one time I remember most clearly was in a spur of attempts to pray every night before bed. I would have a list of relatives and friends to hope good things for that I would essentially execute. But as a kid interested in science and critical thinking, I asked myself why I needed to say them on the side of my bed. So I did them in bed. I asked why I needed to say them out loud. So I murmured them, and later simply “thought” them. And finally, I asked why I needed to actively think them at all, since God knew everything about me, he certainly knew how much I cared about my family, friends, and the needy!

This was a representative series of events for my larger deconversion story, as well. Around high school, I remember cementing my position as “agnostic” when a friend, dressed in a sombrero and poncho in stereotypical Halloween style, asked me. I suppose it was because I was acting as Stephen Colbert, a Catholic.

It’s hard to say when I truly adopted the label “atheist”. I had several meaningful conversations on the subject with different friends throughout the rest of high school and into college. One was at a giant party in Hawaii where the two of us thwarted the festivities for hours talking about philosophy. I recently caught up with this friend personally, and we picked up where we left off.

My sophomore year of college at Georgia Tech I took an introductory philosophy course that covered topics around religion, knowledge, and death. This course is what spurred my interest in philosophy (in a school based heavily on science and engineering) and exploring my lack of religious belief further. I found the remnants of a campus group for atheists, but no signs of life, so my activity stayed primarily online. I enjoyed arguing and discussing these issues, and still do to this day, in forums, in comment threads, or in person.

The gateway through which I found my passion was The Atheist Experience. A public access television show in Austin, two atheist hosts present topics and answer questions from believers and nonbelievers alike. They cover arguments for and against God’s existence, morality, free will, science, epistemology, and politics and current events that relate to atheism or secularism.

Hearing this weekly show and the several hosts, including Matt Dillahunty, express ideas and argue clearly and logically against theistic claims was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Every single thing the hosts said on that show, and still do today, was thoughtful, logical, and in the pursuit of truth. It was this rational approach to nonbelief that deeply affected my journey of atheist and secular activism and awareness. I found more outlets for expressing, testing, and learning about nonbelief. Websites and podcasts and communities already existed and increased in number as I found and joined them.

I believe that many deconverting individuals go through similar phases as I did. And my next one was a profound fascination with the subject of atheism and a desire to share this new information, this whole world that I came to. I frequented the subreddit /r/atheism, on Reddit.com, which I now look upon negatively in its impact on the atheism movement. But it serves a purpose of providing a first stop for new atheists to punch in the air at religion.

I also argued with people, including close friends. I justified it to myself then, but I can easily see now I was too antsy to pick a fight and prove someone wrong. I lost some friends because of my behavior.

Over all of this, I found out some friends were nontheistic or openly atheistic. I kept my newfound atheism from my parents, though not out of any fear of being disowned, but more because I didn’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation and increase the distance between us. To this day I still haven’t explicitly had this conversation and told them, but it’s impossible that they don’t see my activity on social media that leaves none of that to question.(1)Since writing this a year ago, I’ve been more explicit about my lack of belief, partly motivated by being asked about it by reporters.

In 2011, I spontaneously dipped into a classroom that seemed to be having an interesting group conversation. They were a semester-old campus group, called Campus Freethinkers, that essentially replaced the Georgia Tech Atheists that I had searched for years before. I immediately became a part of this group, having great discussions about philosophy and science and technology and religion. I made a lot of friends, but was disappointed that found them so late in my college career! In my last year at Tech I participated in lively discussions, attended a popular debate event, and frequently stopped by the Ask An Atheist tabling.

When I graduated in May of 2012, I still had many friends in the group and a lot of passion for promoting and raising awareness of atheism, secularism, skepticism, science, and critical thinking. Since I was still working on campus at my full-time job, I still attended meetings, gave a presentation, and regularly attended our weekly social dinner.

Zooming out from my experience, onto the larger atheism movement, there had been a schism with regards to feminism and social justice issues. Women were speaking out about feeling less welcome in the predominantly male conferences and groups, and representation of people of color and sexual minorities became more important. Well, to the social justice-minded. It was in my last semester and increasingly during that summer that I began to familiarize myself with feminism, to listen to what women had to say about their experiences and realize the inequalities that existed.

Then one day a Secular Student Alliance volunteer network coordinator said hello in the Campus Freethinkers Facebook group. We became friends and I soon became acquainted with her entire friend group, who were decidedly progressive and more involved in the intersectionality of social justice and atheism, secularism on a national level.

This began fostering my interest in the larger organizations out there, which I now had friends talking frequently about. I found friends who blogged regularly on these subjects on FreeThought Blogs and Skepchick. These were people who lead progressive and/or secular groups on their campuses and had an interest in internships and positions at national organizations. These were and are intelligent, driven people working with passion.

I got more motivated after attending DragonCon and visiting the Skeptic Track, full of “seculebrities” in our crowd and getting more of a glimpse of the larger movement. I sporadically attended Atlanta Skeptic meetings and chatted with Tim Farley and exchanged emails with Derek Colanduno, two prominent local skeptics and podcasters, in hopes of bringing them to speak at a CF meeting. I brought along Campus Freethinkers friends, too.

(Georgia State started a secular group around this time, and I became friends with the leader there, as well. I attended a small Thanksgiving dinner he helped put on with the Black Nonbeliever of Atlanta in the Atlanta Freethought Hall in 2013. I loved the conversation it brought and meeting even more members of this community around Atlanta.)

In the summer of 2013 I attended SSA Con in Columbus, Ohio. Here I met many of the friends I had known for half a year, which gave a wonderful, tangible sense to the people and efforts we pursued. I left inspired, frankly. I saw so many people I respected talking about all the ways I, we, and they can help make nonbelief and nonbelievers accepted and safe in society while promoting values to make the world a better, more inclusive place.

I similarly attended Skepticon in November of 2013 and came away with my perspective further widened. I also met many close friends in person yet again. We are a group bound together by similar values, and only consistently together at those conferences. The secular movement is what in large part enabled me to meet and grow close to some of my very best friends.

More recently

This interest in the larger movement and attempts to create community for nonbelievers is what I consider the stage of deconversion after argumentative atheist. What’s important shifts from knowing how to rebuke Pascal’s Wager to how to motivate people to complete a project. This was codified to me in a pamphlet or application I read for a position at the Secular Student Alliance. Written with emphasis, at one point the application says that the SSA does not care about how “good” of an atheist you are, or how many arguments you know. They care about responsible, reliable, motivated people. And I believe that is what will carry this movement forward and make non-theists more accepted and welcome in society. A positive community will encourage more people to be “out” as nonbelievers and make it commonplace, much like the gay rights movement before us showed that familiarity fostered understanding and compassion.

As of right now, I am a heavy and frequent participant in the atheism movement, in that I plan to continue to attend conferences, be a member of various national organizations, donate to efforts like The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, and promote the ideas my friends blog about and share on social media. I haven’t taken an active leadership role yet in leading or organizing groups in an official capacity, but I am increasingly interested in that venture, once I feel I’ve found my niche. For now, the most important thing I do is often the most overlooked: I’m simply open and honest about my atheism, to the best of my ability.

I have two quick examples of what this means and why it’s important.

First, at my workplace, the coworkers around me are fairly nonreligious, and I talk with one I consider a good friend about religion quite frequently. Talking with me made him feel comfortable accepting his doubts and “atheist” as a label, and we talk about dealing with religious in-laws and his spouse occasionally. All of this is simply because I made myself available and known as an atheist. So many people aren’t aware that there are others out there, or don’t have people to bounce these doubts or ideas off of.

Another time a Christian co-op (interning student) working with me coordinated a lunch with some others to discuss religion, knowing that I was an atheist. We had a really polite and thoughtful chat and met again with a preacher a few months later for another great conversation. This coworker considers his belief strong, and his open-mindedness and my out atheism lead to some great information being shared. And at the very least, I put to rest the idea of the evil, hateful atheist, or that religious ideas must be this taboo subject never discussed.

Other questions

Backlash from Christian groups?

I’ve been fortunate to not suffer too much from religious backlash. My parents were far from fundamentalist, and until the second half of high school I was a Christian alongside them. Campus Freethinkers has had a long relationship with Ratio Christi (now under a new name), a religious apologetics group. Many members of this group are young Earth creationists, like Ken Ham in the recent debate with Bill Nye. They believe the Bible is literally true, that evolution didn’t happen, and that the world and universe are roughly 6000 years old. One of these members is a biochemist, which infuriates my biology friends. It is baffling to consider how someone can graduate from Georgia Tech with those beliefs that violate fundamental aspects of their field.

But while we disagree on major issues, and discussion meetings get tense, they’ve never been vitriolic or aggressive.

Bible belt difficulties?

My usual response to being asked about being raised in the Bible belt is that I didn’t have it so bad. I struggle to think of truly egregious religious bigotry or influence. But upon reflection, there have been several moments in school and personally.

In high school I was forced to place a sticker in my biology textbook that said “Evolution is a theory, not a fact…” Yes, I went to school in Cobb county. This became notable news, and the effort was overturned soon after. Last year Campus Freethinkers brought in the man primarily responsible for having those stickers removed in to give a talk, which was a nice moment for me.

There were other moments in an engineering ethics class and an astronomy course where professors dipped into religion. The ethics class felt very underhanded, where the professor posited that religious morality and influence was on the rise and ended the class with, “And I choose Jesus Christ.” I fixated on this moment in my course review (that I’m told professors read). A year later a friend in my major said he did it again. I only felt comfortable doing the anonymous course review because he was my senior design project advisor that I would be working with for another year.

In contrast, the astronomy course lecture on the Big Bang treated religion as well as I could expect. The professor introduced the idea of a god kicking off the universe with a funny newspaper comic, which I thought was a fair way of addressing what was on many students’ minds. After this mention of his religiosity not interfering with the science, he went on to explain the first moments of the universe. I have happily met this professor since then when visiting the observatory he runs atop the physics building.

Outside of school, religious influence became difficult to deal with only in specific moments. Every Thanksgiving or Christmas when extended family would gather, a prayer would be said that I would quietly ignore. At weddings and funerals, I quietly bide my time during the religious elements. The worst part of all this is simply the seeming insistence, the presumption that everyone believes the Christian doctrine being presented. There isn’t even a consideration for nonbelievers in many people’s minds.

Last year, my grandmother passed away, and my mother wanted me to speak during the funeral. She very kindly provided me a book of poetry, conveniently suggesting one of a few passages that had the least overtly Christian tone. I wanted to express my caring for my grandmother, but without compromising who I am in the process. That’s the unfortunate choice people in worse positions than I have to face frequently.

That’s the real challenge to me, when my lack of belief intersects with friends’ or family’s wishes. It’s very easy to think in the abstract that you stand firm, but at the same time you care so much about your loved ones and making them happy. I struggle with this with my siblings, too. My younger brother is also an atheist, but my younger sister hasn’t had any religious or Christian instruction to my knowledge. It’s a difficult balance to wish to tell her all about what I believe and why without undermining my parents.

Other influences that didn’t affect me but rather those around me included my brother’s efforts to reach Eagle Scout, where he told me he had to lie to one Scout Leader who insisted on questioning religiosity. It infuriates me that as an atheist he had to violate a tenet of scouting (honesty) to uphold another in this backwards system. Also, blue laws still exist in parts of Georgia even after the Sunday alcohol ban was lifted in many counties. Little insidious religious influences like that frustrate me to this day.

Why the rise in atheism in young people?

The usual answer is the internet. And that’s a huge part of it. Communities aren’t able to be as insular any more. What a pastor says can be fact-checked live, tweeted to friends, and chatted about privately. I found this movement through a streaming public access show in Austin, after all. I honed my understanding through listening and participating in arguments with others. Most of my activity within the movement is arguing and sharing and supporting those around me.

Going forward, what will be needed to continue progressing are those physical communities that churches provide. The more people who are out as nonreligious and the more supportive groups that exist, the easier it will be for the many people who doubt or are on the fence about their faith to join us. That’s what Campus Freethinkers is, that’s what Atlanta Skeptics, Black Nonbelievers, Atlanta Freethought Society, Secular Panthers, the Secular Student Alliance, and so many others are all about.

I believe there are huge numbers of people who are less religious than the labels they describe themselves imply. They’re more moral than their holy books on issues of gender equality, homophobia, sexual health, and humanism. In recent years, it’s just that the alternative, or non belief, has risen in prominence and visibility to allow them to be honest with themselves.

Today

Hello, it’s Ross from 2015 again. I want to finish this post with some updates on changes in the year since I wrote this email. I went with a reporter soon after communicating with CNN producers to a Sunday Assembly. This is one of the “atheist churches” that people sometimes ridiculed in atheist circles. I attended more events by them and consider myself a regular member of Atlanta’s group. The folks there are filling the gap left by many of my college friends who have moved away since graduating. I’m very happy to have them in my life.

I’m moving away from Georgia Tech’s Campus Freethinkers as this spring semester winds down, as well. No one I knew while I was a student will remain next semester, and despite loving to help the group and working on campus, it needs to be student-run. Now seems like the appropriate time to officially say goodbye.

Other big family events, especially funerals, have been trying on me with their strong religiosity. One warm moment was when a cousin somehow knew I didn’t believe in any gods and gave a small nod when calling to prayer later in a service, adding the qualifier, “if you wish”. That moment of inclusion, that tiny bit of consideration, meant the world to me. It helped me embrace the event in remembrance of my aunt instead of feeling excluded by what I don’t believe in.

Going forward, atheism continues to be a foundational, important aspect of my life, but what’s built on top of it is what I actively participate in: science advocacy, secularism and nonbelief visibility, social justice, and fostering great relationships.

Thanks for taking the time to read about my journey. I appreciate it.

Notes   [ + ]

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