Atheism: A Conscious Choice?

According to the Peninsula Clarion, hating on atheists might not be so bad. At least, not as bad as hating on Blacks or Jews because, according to the author of this piece, to be an atheist, you make a conscious choice.

Before I refute this frail little argument, I believe some history and a few acknowledgments are in order:

It came to me while reading Gawd’s Word, as I routinely do. Gawd said that some grrl had been talking smak about Him so, naturally, I had to see what that was all about. Well, GrrlScientist had posted to her blog about a letter sent to the editor of the Augusta Chronicle. The letter, sent by one Alice Shannon, called for atheists to leave the United States!

Needless to say, GrrlScientist was not at all pleased, and her response is an absolute must-read.

Apparently, there is a fair bit of controversy over the origin of the letter, but that’s not relevant to the point of this post. Somewhere along the way, the letter in question was sent to the aforementioned Peninsula Clarion.

As Snopes acknowledges, attempting to assign any kind of “true” or “false” status to letters to the editor is often tricky, because such letters are generally expressions of opinion rather than fact, and the senders of such letters are not even necessarily the original authors. Sadly, Snopes also had this to say:

Given the plenitude of e-mails we’ve received over the years expressing the very same sentiments as this letter, it (regardless of the intentions of its creator and/or sender) apparently does reflect the genuine opinions of a not insubstantial readership base.

But regardless of the letter’s origin or the intention of its author/sender(s), the following response by the Peninsula Clarion jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

In two days, we receive more than 30 letters. Some were angry with her. Some were angry with us. They said we should be ashamed of ourselves for printing it, and that we would never have done that if it were about blacks or Jews. Theyโ€™re right, we wouldnโ€™t have. However, to be an atheist, you make a conscious choice.

Oh, where to begin? I can’t possibly address all the holes in this argument but, as always, I welcome comments and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

Assuming, to begin with, that atheism really is a conscious choice, which I am not prepared to concede, the author of this statement is basically saying that bigotry toward a group of people who choose their minority status is not as bad as bigotry toward people who don’t. Let’s examine this, shall we?

If atheism is a conscious choice, then theism must be as well. If people can choose their way out of theism, then by definition they can choose their way in.

So why is one kind of religious bigotry unacceptable in America while another is just fine and dandy?

Furthermore, Christianity is a conscious choice to deny all other gods and faiths. Would the Peninsula Clarion have published this letter if it had been directed at Christians, demanding that they leave the country? Not likely.

Protestants consciously choose to reject Catholicism. Catholics consciously choose to reject Mormonism. Mormons consciously choose to reject Hinduism. And so it goes.

There are many choices that people make which, if it were demanded that they leave the U.S. because of it, would no doubt be considered bigotry by mainstream society. What about interracial relationships and marriages, for example? People consciously choose to enter into those relationships. Oh sure, you can’t help who you’re attracted to, but you can certainly choose who to date and marry.

We’ve also made a lot of progress where gay couples are concerned. I’m not saying that homosexuality is a choice (although it doesn’t need that disclaimer as validation) but engaging in a same-sex relationship definitely is. And yet, it seems most people think it’s not OK to hate on gays.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

All that said, however, I’m not convinced that atheism necessarily is a conscious choice. While I made the conscious choice to begin examining my Christian faith and follow the evidence to where it lead, I don’t believe that atheism was a conscious choice for me so much as a logical conclusion. I know some would argue that I could have chosen to ignored the evidence, deny the facts and remain faithful. Of course, that only brings us right back to Christianity being a choice and the question of why it’s not OK to bash Christians, while bigotry toward atheists is alive and well in the United States.

We must also consider those atheists who never believed in any god(s). Theism is learned — we do not emerge from the womb believing in one deity or another. People are taught their religious beliefs. This is evidenced by the fact that religious practices vary greatly according to geographical locations. Many American Christians would, in fact, be Hindu had they been born in India to Indian parents, for example. Also, how many people born to Catholic parents end up Baptist, or vice versa? People generally adhere to the religion they are born into and raised to practice.

But what about those who were never taught any religion? Did they choose atheism? I submit that atheism is no more a choice to many of them than Hinduism was to me, being raised by staunch Baptists in the United States. Have they heard of Christianity or other religions? Probably. Could they choose to pursue a religious lifestyle as adults? Certainly. But, again, that brings us right back to religion being a choice and the question of why bashing religion is called bigotry while bashing atheists is not.

The argument that atheists choose their minority status and, therefore, discrimination and bigotry against them isn’t quite as bad as hatred toward other groups is nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to legitimize said bigotry. It begins with a false premise, is logically inconsistent, reinforces misconceptions about atheism and attempts to excuse prejudice and hatred.

It’s ignorant, it’s shameful, and yet Americans continually and enthusiastically accept it and make excuses for it, and I am on a mission to bring awareness to this ongoing issue. I realize the article is old but the problem is definitely ongoing. I am sending a link to this post to Peninsula Clarion. You can voice your opinion here, if you’d like.

Posted by Lottie — Copyright © 2008 Rambling On

27 responses to “Atheism: A Conscious Choice?

  • Postman

    I wasn’t even aware that the religious thought of their belief as genetically predestined, or anything of the sort. Certainly, atheism is the default setting, I think.
    On the other hand, what about that roughly 25% of people who seem to naturally gravitate toward authority figures and who are simply comfortable being told what to do and think?

    Interesting food for thought.

  • Lottie

    Very interesting food for thought!

    Now I feel like reading about the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment again. That’s some disturbing stuff. Good posting material, perhaps?

  • Postman

    Keep it under your hat, but I think the whole ball of wax may be a psychology experiment by Prof. Gawd… then again, maybe Douglas Adams was right. The earth is a computer program being run by mice.

  • Lottie

    I promise not to mention either possibility when I write about it.

    . ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Terra

    I agree in a round about way. So I will give my journey and you decide what to make of it (did I choose or open my mind?) I wanted faith but my mother brought me up to be a Christian, not a Baptist, not a specific faith within Christianity. She wanted me to be able to choose, well minus Catholic, she was and is quite against that religion.

    For the first part after much study, and a young mind I came to the conclusion that most of my friends were brainwashed (bare with me here, this was my personal journey.) Beyond the ten commandments, a few basic filler pieces they didn’t even know what their beliefs held. They also didn’t know what the bible says, and if the bible had a part they didn’t agree with (like you know the things about woman being property) they would dismiss it, or they would ask their preacher (or whatever they are called, depending on the church). After asking the person they asked they would normally come back with an excuse for the wording in the bible, or come back with but then Jesus said this.

    So feeling a bit frustrated I decided, well OK I don’t need a specific religion I will just be a Christian. So I started looking into what it meant. This included going and looking at the ways and whys for the changes made to the bible. Which by the way for most Christians I have talked to is quite unethical, after all if they took something out of the bible (they being the people in charge) it was for our own good.

    Then of course I came to a huge problem in that quite a bit of things in the bible (largely in the OT and some in the NT) are things I find to be quite deplorable, against most of the things I believe in as a person. Then I looked at the writings that were left out, after all the church decided what to put into the bible and what to keep out. It wasn’t written by a god it was written by men.

    That created more problems, as of course a lot of information that changed made huge differences. Then I started looking even deeper. According to the brother of Jesus, and other people at the actual time of Jesus said he was not the Christ. WHAT? This went against everything that I knew. Yet these writings from the actual time period of Jesus were so different. Then I learned that Jesus warned us about the changes to his teachings, and to be scared of those changes.

    And I could go on like that, in the end I decided I didn’t know if there was a god. I do know I still want to be moral and ethical. I turned to the Buddha, which has all of this but allows me to decide in the nature of my faith…

    So did I decide? Kind of, I decided to explore it…

  • Lottie

    Thank you for sharing your story, Terra. Yours is similar to mine in that you chose to examine your beliefs and follow the information where it lead you. It lead you someplace different, of course, but I admire the fact that you refused to swallow, hook, line and sinker, what you were taught from childhood.

    The main point I wanted to make, though, is that bigotry is not OK just because it’s directed at something someone chooses as opposed to something like skin color or ethnicity. If that standard is applied to atheists, it must be applied to theists as well.

    Thanks again for commenting on this.

  • Postman

    Agreed; wholeheartedly, that bigotry is not alright. We are, in some respects, lucky… or, rather, comparatively lucky in the level of bigotry aimed at us as atheists. No pogroms or inquisitions or sitting at the back of the bus.
    People certainly say stupid and hateful things to and about us and know they can get away with it, but my feeling is that it will (relatively) quickly change. It becomes easier for each succeeding minority in the US to gain an equal footing.
    Er… with the possible exception of American Indians, for some reason.
    And, of course, it’s not as if we aren’t more than willing to take up for ourselves.

  • Lottie

    We are, in some respects, luckyโ€ฆ or, rather, comparatively lucky in the level of bigotry aimed at us as atheists. No pogroms or inquisitions or sitting at the back of the bus.

    Good point, Postman. Thank you for putting that into perspective.

    I tend to become involved and somewhat emotional when I write about this stuff and forget to make that point. I certainly hope I haven’t offended anyone, and sincerely apologize if I have.

  • Postman

    You certainly haven’t offended me. I feel pretty damned strongly about it, myself. I was just trying to point out that the weapons brought to bear on us right now are words and we are generally better armed than our opponents. So I fully expect things to get much better in a relatively short time.
    Please don’t think I’m urging you to pull punches. Gawd forbid! Outflank and maul with your superior weaponry, by all means.

  • Lottie

    Please donโ€™t think Iโ€™m urging you to pull punches.

    Oh, I didn’t take it that way, but thanks for clarifying.

    Outflank and maul with your superior weaponry, by all means.

    Awww… That’s the sweetest things you’ve ever said to me.

    . ๐Ÿ˜†

  • Terra

    I want to take a moment to apologize. I have for so long wanted to tell my story, but to not offend anyone (and everyone I know is Christian). While I am somewhat sure you didn’t mind, I blew it at the end.

    I do not feel someone is unethical nor immoral if they do not have a religion, as the ending of my story in a round about way suggests. I am so used to suggesting to people that I am of the Buddha’s faith, I went to far. (I think that is exactly because of the “at least it is something, so I am not regarded as a bad person type thing, this way they just think I am mislead”) In reality I study the Buddha, but not in a way that it is a religion. (Philosophy not Theology.)

  • Lottie


    You have nothing to apologize for. When you said that you want to be moral and ethical, I took it as your acknowledging that you can be without religion, but that you had simply chosen to study Buddhism.

    You have an interesting story and I appreciate your willingness to tell it here. Please always feel free to comment on that or anything else that interests you.

    Thank you for taking the time but, again, you have nothing to apologize for. I am happy to have you following along her and always welcome your comments.


  • thehun

    @ Terra,
    I am terribly offended and aghast at your story, I denounce and reject you out right.

    ๐Ÿ˜› Just joking, I can’t see what could possibly be offensive about your story, nor did it suggest in anyway that there was anything immoral about nonbelievers.

    At first I looked at it and said “awww man, lots of words!” But I like reading other people’s stories (generally) and your was no exception.

    Your story points out the ignorance of the statement in question ( to be an atheist you have to make a conscious choice). Not just because you chose Buddism, at least in a philosophical sense, but as mentioned I think by other posts, people do chose a religion different from the one they initially had.

    Cat Stevens chose to convert to Islam.

    Sammy Davis Jr. chose Judaism.

    Even Sarah Palin made a choice from Catholic to Bat-Shit-Crazy Pentacostal, speaking in tongues, end-of-times-is-near, Jesus rode on dinosaurs… ism.

    So there you have it, of course religion is a choice for many people.

    What I find disturbing in a way, and what led me to begin serious questioning of religion and, eventually god, are those people who do not question the religion they are born into.

    My own dearest mom, who I love dearly, is Catholic. So are her 5 brothers and sisters. Why are they Catholic? They were born into a Catholic family and were brought up in the North East, a heavily Catholic area.

    Bam, that’s it. Their faith was determined by their family and the area they were born in. What can that say about one’s faith that it was determined not by careful consideration but mearly by random chance of birth? She and my aunts and uncles could have just as easily been Baptists if they were born in the south, or Hindu if they were born in India, etc.

    That’s just patently absurd! In fact it is the stupidest reason to be of a particular faith exactly because with a little thought and examination, one can change their beliefs.

    Postman, nailed it with the comment that atheism is the default setting. After all, w/o indoctrination, what else is there?

    If one decided to remain of the faith/belief they were born into, that is:

    1) better than being of that faith because that is what you were born into and that’s all you know.

    2) a choice they made to remain of that belief system. Just as much as it is a choice to convert to something else or to become an atheist and reject all religion and deities.

    Lottie hit it on the head, it is ignorant, as well as condescending, and insulting.

  • thehun

    Awww, poop, now look what I did… lots and lots or words.

  • Lottie

    Ah, but lots and lots of good words. ๐Ÿ˜‰


  • Terra

    Lots and lots of very good words ๐Ÿ™‚

  • truthwalker

    That’s interesting Terra, because I just sort spewed part of my story here last week for the same reason. I can sort of post who I am on my blog, but only the mostly reasoned atheist me. Not the me that cried for 6 hours when he realized Jesus wasn’t really his best friend.

    So, it’s my birthday today. I work nights, and it’s 7 AM here, but the end of my shift for me. As it is my birthday I am enjoying a bit of Guinness. Since I haven’t eaten in 11 hours, I think one bottle will be all, thank you. (I explain the above to pre-apologize for any unneeded weirdness below.)

    Lottie, your blog has inspired me. I was on facebook chatting to a good friend of mine, the ever skeptical and lovely Skepbitch. Facebook was really lagging and I was reading your blog between her comments. She had just asked me how I was coming on starting a webpage about an atheist nation. My original idea had been Israel. I mean if Jews get a homeland, why not atheists, and it got me thinking about an atheist nation. A place we could get kicked too by all the religious people of the world. And it got me thinking about how great it would be to live there

    No stupid politicians trying to out magic think each other, no stupid anti-gay laws, no tax exemptions for religions, all the policies would be rational, and everyone would be above average (pun intended) And as I was thinking about all this I read “…called for atheists to leave the United States!”

    If I weren’t an atheist, I say this was a sign. If I were I deist, I would say it is a sign that God has a sense of humor. I’m going to start a website about an imaginary atheist nation. Any contributions you want to make would be awesome. Or anyone esle wants to make.

    I mean seriously. A world without atheists? Sure you can still get a burger, but who will make your rockets, run your colleges, run your engineering departments, debug your software. What would it look like if we all left? A sort of rapture of irony if you will.

    And what would the place we ended up with look like? We’d have the creme de la creme of academia and industry. Let’s get kicked out! I can’t wait!

    The revolution will be open sourced.

  • efilyzarcym

    I know you and Mike were havin’ love time – – and I really don’t begrudge you.
    I just wanted you to know that I missed ya!! This was SO nice to read… be back into the land of the brain-live….LOL!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Lottie

    Truthwalker: Happy Birthday! (Even if it’s over by now)

    That sounds like a really cool idea for a website! I can’t think of a better group of people to be in exile with.
    . ๐Ÿ˜†

    Heidi: Good to hear from you again too! I’m about to post the one that you inspired!
    . ๐Ÿ˜€

  • thehun

    Truthwalker: Happy B-Day… and buts to you for making me wish I had a Guinness when I can’t ๐Ÿ˜›

    Awesome idea on the atheist nation, living in GA I can tell you that I’m not too picky about the “where”, so long as it ain’t here in the south… or Alaska, I understand that Alaska is supposed to be rapture-land or something.

  • Lottie

    I understand that Alaska is supposed to be rapture-land or something.

    That was so funny, I just had to repeat it! ๐Ÿ˜†

  • Postman

    I, too, have a dream that one day atheists will rise up and get a little place of our own. Not too big, but cozy and with a nice view. Someplace convenient to the shops and maybe with a park nearby.

    Barring that, that htere’s a sort of UN of planets out there somewhere that will step in to stop the religious from hurting themselves and others.

    When either day comes we can join hands and sing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank Nada Almighty, we are free at last!”

  • aspentroll

    I find all this pretty amusing. I’ve been a non-believer all of my 74 years on this planet and have never had a problem from any one because of it. That would be
    because I live in Canada. If I live in the US Bible belt I would be terrified.
    Some of the people there, as godly as they profess to be, are the most bigoted people I’ve ever heard of. I watched some of the people who interviewed on TV during the US election. I was appalled at their inability to see the other side of the coin. It seems that all of the different flavors of Christianity are in conflict with one another.

    So if there really is a god why doesn’t
    show up and straighten out these so- called believers. It wouldn’t take much, a thunder bolt or two. But wait, thunderstorms happen all the time don’t they. Well there’s always prayer, wouldn’t that work? While they are at it
    they could pray the limbs back for all the amputees and cure cancer etc.

    So much for that as a belief system.

  • Terra

    I can’t wait to see the website. It is strange to me, as until I had the compulsion to write my story I didn’t realize how much I needed to. Of course I don’t think faith in itself is bad, and my personal story could be thought of as bashing on Christianity, which isn’t my intention even if it does that.

    So I appreciate the support, and I can’t tell you how good it is to get that out…

  • Lottie

    I was appalled at their inability to see the other side of the coin.

    Along those lines, something I find equally disturbing is the number of people who seem unable to distinguish between opinion and fact or knowledge and belief.

  • truthwalker

    It’s very lame and not interesting or funny at this point. Please help me all!

  • Lottie

    Sorry, Truthwalker. For some reason your comment got stuck in my spam filter. Thanks for the link. I’ll have a look this afternoon or later tonight. I’m a bit backed up today.

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