There seem to be two kinds of non-theists. The first kind (type 1) are those who were raised that way. Their parents were not religious and didn’t teach or encourage religious participation. The second (type 2) are those who were infected early in life and had to endure religious indoctrination and intimidation through their most formative years.

These two groups often have difficulty understanding one another. Type 1 non-theists often think religion is just to obviously ridiculous that it cannot be taken seriously. They don’t have any emotional trauma associated with religious training and can’t understand why some people can have such strong reactions to religion. Type 2 people suffered years of religious fear and oppression. Having escaped, they often have a lot of strong emotions, fears and anxieties coming from their past and the religious conditioning they experienced. It is akin to the emotional experience of a prisoner of war coming back to society after the trauma of captivity. In some cases, there may even be post traumatic stress syndrome involved in recovering from religion. This is difficult for the Type 1 person to relate to or understand.

In my interaction and speaking to people about my book, I get a lot of stories. Among the most common are stories of parents, grandparents, preacher and sunday school teachers terrifying children when they were young. One person told that her mother was fond of seeing the devil in all sorts of places and situations. She once told him that because he had been particularly bad that day, the devil was behind the waving curtains in his room. He had better pray hard that the devil doesn’t take him to hell tonight. He said, “I didn’t sleep for days and every night I tried to pray all night, while keeping an eye on those curtains. Little did I suspect that it was just the air vent for the heater coming on that made them wave.”

People are most vulnerable to infection when they are very young. They are also most susceptible to terrorization and intimidation. Children in abusive situations where their parents abuse them, often cling to the parent even more. Rationally, it makes no sense to love and cling to a parent who abuses, but the young mind is not rational, it is simply trying to survive. The young mind, terrorized and brainwashed with religion will cling to the religion tightly, even as an adult. It is a powerful conditioned response that often never goes away. Once infected through religiously intimidating methods, the young mind may be permanently focused on the religion with the primitive fear of parental retribution if they question or deny the religion.

Fast forward to the Type 2 non-theist who has finally gotten the courage to shed his or her religion. It takes a huge emotional commitment to take the risk and leave one’s religion. In some religions it can mean death, in others ostracism, at the least it means certain rejection by some people which causes a realignment of relationships. Type 1 non-theists did not have the childhood trauma and have probably not encountered first rejection and social realignment that comes from leaving the religion of family and friends.

This is something to consider when talking to someone about their journey into non-theism. It also should guide us in understanding some of what they may have experienced and what healing may still be necessary. They may experience anger, a sense of loss from rejection by lifelong family and friends, loneliness. All normal emotions to experience, but not easy to deal with.

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Comment by Tak G. on April 21, 2009 at 5:15pm
Slam dunk on this one. I have often wished I were type 1 rather than type 2 because sometimes talking to other atheists I feel a little silly having taken so long to get away. Like Dre I knew it was wrong but I couldn't see how.
Comment by Ralph Dumain on April 21, 2009 at 5:15pm
Dre perhaps belongs to a type 1B: nominally religious, going through the motions, or relatively mild indoctrination, church attendance notwithstanding. I have a hard time relating to the Type 2, as that wasn't my experience. From earliest childhood I was into science; my first childhood career ambition was to become an astronomer. Bible stories seemed mighty cramped and paltry compared to the vastness of the universe. These fairy tales just didn't seem real, while science was.
Comment by Dre Smith on April 21, 2009 at 4:14pm
To be fair im not sure which category I would fall into, probably a bastard child of both 1 and 2. My parents were never really religious when it came to myself...I would say at best it was loosely Christian or Christian themed childhood growing up. There were discussions about religion when i was a kid but they were not deep and very synthetic to say the least. Now as I got older it became easier to slip into atheism if it were because to me it had more of a natural fit than religion ever could. I do remember go to church many a sundays with my mother and as we would read the passages in the Bible...thinking to myself this didn't sound right. Wasn't sure exactly what it was but I knew that something was definitely wrong with what they were trying to teach.
Comment by O'Tater on April 21, 2009 at 3:45pm
I think you're right to bring up the importance of recognizing the different paths that we've all travelled to get where we are today. As what you refer to as a Type 1 atheist, I've often found myself struggling to understand when people speak about their shyness about their atheism, or the alienation they feel within their communities. Up until recently I had never really been in a position where I felt uncomfortable expressing my beliefs.

My move to the south changed that, and for the first time I began to understand (albeit on a much smaller level I'm sure) how hard it must be for people to live in strongly religious communities when they don't agree with the majority belief system. Had you told me a few years ago that I would ever be in a position where I would think twice before expressing my beliefs I would have laughed. Now I find myself (usually to my disgust) censoring myself from time to time, especially in school and work setting, but even with friends sometimes, which disturbs me greatly.

Let me just finish off by saying that I have a great deal of admiration for those of you who have found logic and reason, even with all the odds against you. Who is to say I would've been strong enough myself had I been raised in that position. Kudos!



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