Tonight on Maury: “Suddenly Atheist in a Strict Jewish Family!”

Question from Josh:
Hey Guys,

Firstly, thanks for wasting hours of my time and robbing me of any sort of productivity 🙂

I’m 30 years old and grew up in an ultra-orthodox, Jewish home. While I always had my doubts and skepticism, I did not make the leap to accepting there is no God till the past few months.

My wife is of course religious, and there are a ton of things we gotta work through now. My question to you is: Is there anything redeeming you can find in raising your kids to be religious?

Of course we will make sure they have a great education, and view everyone as equals, but is it morally or ethically wrong to raise your child with the burden of religious dogmas and beliefs you know to be false? (when I write out the question, it kind of answers itself. I guess I’m asking you to throw me a bone.)


Answer by SmartLX:
Think of it in more general terms: as a parenting team, what do you teach your kids about a subject where you disagree with each other? You hold off on the subject until it’s settled between you, if possible, but if it’s unavoidable then you’re honest about it at an age when you think they’ll understand the truth – “This is what Mum thinks, and this is what Dad thinks.” It’s a perfect introduction to critical thinking, and in the case of religion it often ends up favouring irreligion. I speak from experience, because the discovery of the mere fact of my father’s disbelief drove home to me that I had some investigating to do. There’s a good reason why many dogmatic religions have specific instructions against questioning them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t go ahead and raise them in the Jewish tradition. For many branches of Judaism belief is one of the less important aspects of the Jewish identity, and simply teaching all the rituals, customs, Israeli history and so on will suffice. A “secular Jew” is a common thing, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-proclaimed “secular Christian”. Maybe it’s different in your family, but you can work with that: “This is what Mum and Grandma think, and it’s very very important to them so make sure you remember it, okay?”

As you can tell, I’m not okay with indoctrinating children into faith at the best of times, let alone when you don’t share that faith. If every voice they trust either tells them a thing is true or says nothing, they may believe it for the rest of their lives, or else have a very hard time shedding it later in life. That said, learning in my teens that my father was an atheist had a huge impact over time, so even if you do stay silent for years it may ultimately be for nothing in your family’s eyes once your real position slips out. Better to be straight with them at the start, and teach them to do what the family requires of them while knowing the truth of the situation.

I’ve got the same situation coming up in a couple of years when my son’s old enough to understand the concept of God, but it won’t be so difficult compared to your situation. My wife’s religious but liberal, and both sides of the family are a patchwork in terms of religiosity, so Junior will be exposed to a variety of viewpoints regardless of what I tell him, and therefore there’s no point pretending I agree with his mother.

“If only she weren’t Christian…”

Question from Fiak:
We’ve been best friends for so long. While there’s no evidence (yet) that she’s going to want to date me, I feel she is contemplating doing that. The only problem is that I’m atheist and she’s Christian. I’m just confused. Please help me convert her. There’s about 7 more years till I totally lose her to some Christian. I feel she’s mine tho. Help please!

Answer by SmartLX:
I feel you presume too much about “her” in general, but I’ll concentrate on the religion part.

I’ve been with a Christian woman for almost ten years, and married to her for seven. Trust me when I say the difference in beliefs is not a deal-breaker. Each of us is also the product of an atheist-Christian couple, and beliefs vary among our siblings as well. Those of us in the extended family who are atheists got that way either because they were never indoctrinated or by a slow, natural fading of belief in the absence of reinforcement. Like in any group of people with two disparate positions among them, harmony is better served by not focusing on our differences. My wife and I each hope the other will “come around” in time, but it’s not a big enough part of either of our lives that we feel the need to force the issue.

What you’ll have noticed in the above description is that there were no major de-conversion events to speak of in the family. (One branch loudly denounced Christianity after one of its number was jilted by a hypocritical evangelical, but I suspect their actual beliefs didn’t shift much.) If I were you I wouldn’t try to make an atheist of “her” within a set timeframe as it’s really not reliably done.

Here’s how I would approach the issue directly if I did decide to try: I would ask the question, “Why do you believe in God?” Once I had the answer, I would work with her to answer the question, “Is that a good reason?” Maybe she has structured arguments that you can look up on this site or elsewhere, maybe she had a “road to Damascus” moment years ago you can examine, maybe she’s never really thought about it and will have to get back to you. Either way, it’s likely to be a conversation carried out in pieces over several days or weeks, especially since if you’re not careful it will be seen as an attack on an integral part of her identity and she won’t be keen to continue. (I did start along this path with my wife, but I sensed how defensive she was becoming and I let it be.) Remember to be totally open about your own position if she asks the same of you.

When it’s over and you’ve made your point, the belief may persist even if she’s unable to argue back, because beliefs are not beholden to reason. Only months or years later might it sink in that something’s not secure about them. On ATA I may argue specific points forcefully but I recognise that people are very unlikely to comment the next day thanking me for ridding them of their faith; that’s just not how it works.

What’s The Use?

Question from Tsahpina:
I am a strong atheist and as such one of those who keeps trying to put reason in believers’ minds. I believe I have never succeeded in anything, except to get unnerved so badly that I now hate them. Yes, hate them.

So, my question to fellow atheists is why bother even talking to to them about their silly uneducated beliefs?

I mean, can any atheist tell me any good reason why I should bother to even consider them as people with reason?

Answer by SmartLX:
Believers are not by definition devoid of reason. Some people probably are, but it’s not true of someone simply because they have an unjustifiable belief. It just means their reasoning is based on incorrect or unsupported premises, they have reasoned incorrectly, or their emotions have overridden or railroaded their reason. The most intelligent of us can be wrong about very important things, and still defend our positions on them very strongly.

You are expecting too much of believers and of yourself if you think they will simply drop their long-held beliefs during one conversation with you. Beliefs are seldom dispelled in an instant; if you’ve heard of true-believer syndrome, you know that they can even be reinforced when the objects of belief are utterly debunked. The most you can realistically hope for in a single exchange is to bring someone to a state of aporia. Simply put, it’s when they respond with (or at least think), “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, and I can’t reconcile it with my position right at this moment. I need to go and think about this some more before we discuss it further.” Their mind will process what was said and realised, and their position will have changed at least a little by the time they want to talk about the subject again – or, they will have found new logic or evidence they didn’t previously have to hand which supposedly supports their position. Either way the discussion will have moved forward.

As for why you should bother discussing beliefs with believers at all, that’s up to you. Many atheists decide that it’s not worthwhile and never do it, or keep it to specific situations. For those who do think it’s worth doing, it’s because it benefits someone. It might benefit the believer to be freed from religious beliefs because the beliefs are doing them harm, or holding them back, or making them unhappy, or putting pressure on their friends and family. It might benefit atheists and those whose beliefs don’t match those of the given believer, because reduced devotion to one dogma can mean less prejudice toward others, and toward a lack of dogma. I do it because I think people would be better off abandoning religion of their own accord, and by and large I restrict my efforts to this site.

The Very Obvious Decline of Religion

Question from Adam:
Hi again,

What is up man? I am writing today to bring up something that I am very interested in. I know you are not in the U.S….but I am so I will be talking from that perspective.

I have this theory that with the global phenomena of the internet, religion will start to fade away. I think that kids growing up with access to whatever knowledge they want will have major perspective compared to people in the past who only knew what their family/church/or community told them. I understand that indoctrination to children will not stop, but I think at some point soon, the kids of today will become the adults of tomorrow, and even if they still hold onto some beliefs from their indoctrination, they will be less likely to force those beliefs onto their kids (because of their gained perspective).

I think kids these days are gathering random knowledge from the internet more than ever before. This gives them more tools to form their own informed belief, rather than just taking what they are told.

I think the first thing we will see is a large increase in the number of “spiritual” people who believe in some magics, but think major organized religion is ritualistic bull for the most part. I think once these spiritual folk have kids, we will have a real coming of atheists (or at least non-spiritual agnostics).

Since monotheism largely destroyed polytheism, it has held a strong grasp onto the people of the world. Nothing has been able to touch monotheism since! I think the internet might be the first real threat to it. I really believe that being able to see different religions, different cultures, and more openly know what your friends are can break a child from the cycle. I think people are slowly breaking away from “I’m Christian because I was raised Christian”. And I think it is exciting!

In the U.S. there have been polls or whatnot of atheism growing. The whole “nones” thing. I even saw a prediction that in 40 or 50 years most of the U.S. might be in this group. I am going to try to be optimistic about this!

I hope this mind trap will largely die out with the 40+ population in 40 or 50 years. I want to see progress. I would love to know the majority of this world isn’t latching onto hopes of magic, and beliefs of incredible stories from poorly written books.

What do you think about the future of the U.S.? Or of the world? Will we make it out? Gosh I’d love to make a series or movie about this. “The end of religion”.

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, you’re “predicting” some things that have already happened. The “nones” directly represent an increase in the number of “spiritual” people as opposed to “religious” people as much as they represent a rise in the number of atheists. The United States are an outlier when it comes to adherence to religion in developed countries; there are some countries in Europe where they’re already asking whether religion is effectively dead. The internet stops any religion from completely suppressing information contrary to its dogma, even savvy religions like Scientology which installs a filter on its members’ computers. In places where particular religions are increasing, for instance Africa and China, they are doing so by cannibalising the followers of either archaic tribal religions or pseudo-religions such as the communist worldview. Proselytisers can’t make a statistically significant dent in the free atheist demographic, and many of them know it.

I wouldn’t hazard a guess when or even whether religion will die out completely, but I see no reason why the trend of deconversion and secularisation won’t continue for the time being. It’s not just atheists who have this outlook, as an unknown youth pastor’s Facebook status recently revealed:

“Information and time are on the side of nonbelievers. Every single day that the idea of a god persists, more will disbelieve in His existence. There is simply nothing we can do about it but accept the inevitable and hope they do not treat Christians the way Christians have treated them.”

Why I’m An Atheist

Question from Jenna:
Did God disappoint you in anyway that caused you not to believe? Or do you just not believe because no one ever taught you the right thing?

Question from Ryan:
What event(s) in your life made you believe there is no god?

Question from Randy:
In what part of your life have you decided or came to the conclusion that there is no God?

Question from Carly:
As an Atheist, why do you think that people believe in God if you don’t? With that answer, why don’t you believe in God?

Answer by SmartLX:
We’ve had a sudden influx of questions, some of which are fairly similar, so I may be grouping more together in the short term.

My essay “Why I am an atheist” on Pharyngula will answer the above questions. It was a gift to PZ so I won’t reproduce it here, but click the link. It won’t bite.

Edit: Carly, your question is related but slightly different. Most people believe because, like me, they’ve been brought up to believe in a particular faith but, unlike me, they’ve never seen a good reason to question it. This is not a comment on their intelligence or anything else; chances are, by the time they’re of an age where they might question their faith, they’re so emotionally invested in it that they see doubt as downright dangerous and actively avoid challenges. (This emotional investment is what I inadvertently allowed to fade away.) All those who have been converted by “religious experience”, religious apologetics, doorknockers and so forth are of insignificant number compared to the billions who simply accept what they’re told as children.

A toughie: How do you convert a theist to an atheist?

“That’s not just a toughie, it’s the toughie. If there were a reliable method of genuinely dispelling people’s theism, there wouldn’t be many theists left.”

Question from Rohit:
I think atheism is just a consequence of being rational. Logic, good judgement and common sensical thinking will lead one to atheism in my opinion. And I think that theism is an infantile habit that one clings on to – out of a sense of nostalgia, insecurity/fear , doubt or even just plain superstition.
Obviously a lot of people do not like this about me – they call it being ‘opinionated’, ‘not listening to the other side’ etc.
As far as religion and spirituality are concerned I’m sort of a been there, done that, found nothing type. I’ve read the bible, the bhagvatgita, qoran, granth sahib etc etc – I admire pieces of them as works of art (or philosophy). But no more than that. There are verses in each of these that are poetic, sublime. But I cannot for the life of me believe them to be fact. My brain just does not allow it (the curse of being trained as an engineer perhaps).

Someone very very close to me is a theist. I believe she is a borderline theist (bordering on agnosticism) but she is extremely particular about rituals, about me not cussing whenever the god word is raised etc.
She won’t listen to reason, or logic or anything. She’s fine in all other senses, much more practical than me in worldly matters, infact.

How does one push a borderline agnostic into the light of atheism?
What worries me most, the reason I want her to ‘convert’, is that the amount of time one wastes in superstitions and the amount of damage bad beliefs can do is tremendous – I’ve seen it happen in my own life.

Since she just won’t talk to me on this matter, I’ve been thinking of buying some good books on atheism and leaving them around casually – but I don’t know if that will work. Its pretty childish and frustrating – she has a pretty ok IQ (125) … but she just clings on. Maybe I should enroll her into an engineering/ physical science course 🙂

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s not just a toughie, it’s the toughie. If there were a reliable method of genuinely dispelling people’s theism, there wouldn’t be many theists left.

The main problem from your point of view is that losing one’s religion is largely an internal process. You can inspire it or set it off, but you can’t do it all for your friend. She has to realise things for herself.

The question I try to ask believers is why they believe. This bit of information above all will help you with your friend, whether she tells you outright or you find out another way. Once you know what’s supporting her belief, you’ll know what you actually need to address in order to bring her around. Keep in mind that the reason she believes will almost certainly be a combination of intellectual and emotional factors, so you probably won’t come up with an instant pill.

Educating the religious can sometimes have the opposite effect of what you’re expecting and entrench their beliefs further. Many champions of the intelligent design movement are engineers or computer programmers, and they claim to know design when they see it. Generally speaking, if one’s beliefs survive one’s education, one’s education then serves one’s beliefs.

I do agree with your reason for wanting to deconvert your friend. Religion tends to benefit itself far more than its hosts.

Atheism: The New Closet

“I don’t know where you are, but in most countries it’s as illegal to discriminate against atheists in practical ways (e.g. in job interviews) as against people of any religion. The worst you’ll get is a lot of attitude.”

Question from Kevin:
I am agnostic-atheist but barely anyone knows and I would like them to know but there is a price to doing such. Only a few of my family [all who dislike my choice] and my friends [which only a majority dislike my views]


Why should I come out as an atheist openly? It would bring me happiness to express my beliefs and i already have done so with friends, some have not taken it well and have left me for such. Others accepted it and I even converted a Christian to my point of view which I also enjoyed. But I understand there are problems with expressing this openly to everyone in real life (on job applications, social networking sites, job/other discrimination? etc.) I know that some people would hate, dislike, avoid or try to convert me and that would be awkward.

Why should I tell everyone I am an atheist and why should I not? Also do you think I should or should not, what is your opinion?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, the first thing you did there was give us a good reason to come out as an atheist (your own happiness) and a good reason not to come out (possible discrimination), so that’s a start.

Another reason to come out is that it will encourage other atheists around you to do the same. Some of the people you think may react negatively to your atheism might actually be closeted atheists themselves. Even if they don’t come out all the way, they might at least reveal themselves to you.

Discrimination pretty much covers the negatives all by itself. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, though; I don’t know where you are, but in most countries it’s as illegal to discriminate against atheists in practical ways (e.g. in job interviews) as against people of any religion. The worst you’ll get is a lot of attitude.

One thing though, just because you openly declare yourself an atheist doesn’t mean you have to try and deconvert everyone you know. Maybe you actually want to, but people with any kind of one-track mind don’t tend to do well socially. Just come out, and expect to be accepted, and most of the time you will be…unless you’re an Amish or something.

I’m interested in the Christian you deconverted. Care to write a comment and tell us what happened there?


“It is certainly possible for the mind of a Christian to change. Whether they change as a result of outside influence or internal reflection is more of a philosophical matter.”

Question from Brian:
Is it actually possible to change the mind of a christian? It seems like they’re just so cemented in their ideas that it’s impossible.

It is certainly possible for the mind of a Christian to change. Whether they change as a result of outside influence or internal reflection is more of a philosophical matter.

Check out Convert’s Corner on, where people describe exactly why they no longer believe in whatever gods they used to. Plenty of the contributors are ex-Christians.

Regardless of former religion, though, you’ll notice as you read that they generally see it as an internal process. What they were reading and who they were talking to is secondary to what they reasoned and realised and how they felt. The other thing you’ll notice is that deconversion takes a good long while, and is rarely complete at the end of a conversation.

Therefore, from your perspective as an advocate of atheism, even if what you say to a Christian is what ultimately convinces them that Christianity is false, they’re unlikely even to admit that you have a valid point while you’re talking to them. Encouraging deconversion often lacks the instant gratification of seeing people go, “Wow, you’re right!” About the most you can hope for is a look of frustration, then confusion.

Two other reasons why you’re not likely to see immediate change are peer pressure and doctrine.
– Evangelicals especially know that their fellow Christians will turn on them, in a sense, if they show doubt.
– It’s a common teaching that any words which sow doubt are ultimately from the Devil, so that doesn’t help your credibility among your audience.

Most importantly, none of this means that you are not having an effect.


Faith or mid-life crisis?

“My basic position hasn’t changed since I was 26, and I turn thirty in a week and a half. I’ll let you know if I have a religious experience before then…”

Question from Asylum:
I’ve notice a theme among atheists: many, including myself, start to question faith/reaffirm faith as they approach thirty. Is it more likely for a person to begin to reaffirm their faith and after thirty deconvert?

I have no idea.

My basic position hasn’t changed since I was 26, and I turn thirty in a week and a half. I’ll let you know if I have a religious experience before then, but otherwise I’m evidence that what you’re describing isn’t a hard and fast rule.

If there is some kind of trend towards late-twenties reaffirmation, it’s too subtle to show up in hard statistics. For instance, reports that only 6% of self-proclaimed “born-again” Christians say they had their “again” part after the age of eighteen.

I can see why some people might return to their faiths as they approach thirty, though. If they’ve deconverted as teenagers or young adults, in college/university or just after leaving home, and the deconversion was influenced as much by rebellion, peer pressure, would-be intellectualism and/or contrarianism as by actual reason, the age of thirty might well be when those other factors are no longer as important as whatever had them believing in the first place.

You’ve apparently got several people in mind who follow this “theme” of yours. Want to carry out some research? Go and ask them why they believe again, and let us know.


Changing Christians

Question from Brian:
Hi, I’m a recent christian turned atheist. I’ve found multiple atheist friends at my school, and they’re closer than I’ve ever had before. But there’s only one problem: I love this girl, but she’s a hardcore christian. She refuses to even consider anything beyond her blind limitations. Do you have any ideas for me? I’d really appreciate it.

Just as there are as many specific rationales for Christian belief as there are Christians, there are as many specific escape routes as there are ex-Christians. There’s nothing which works for everybody, and the process can take so long that you don’t know what really did it. I took 15 years.

So, help us out by providing the answer to this question: why, as specifically as possible, does your girlfriend believe in the first place? If you know this already, or if she’ll tell you when asked, great, otherwise try to figure it out. I don’t think you’ll get far without this information.

Get back to me in a comment and we’ll have a think about it.

– SmartLX