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Deconversion

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Deconversion a phenomenological study on becoming an atheist
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Wagstaff, Michael Paul ( author )
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What is it like to renounce belief in all gods? This phenomenological study explores the experience of United States citizens leaving religion and embracing an atheistic worldview. In-depth interviews with seven participants were conducted and examined for emergent themes. Participants invariably cited some form of cognitive dissonance as the impetus for leaving theistic structures. Often their break with these structures resulted in negative emotions such as loss, anger, fear, and existential angst. Participants also reported positive outcomes from the transition, including higher levels of confidence and empowerment, a greater understanding and acceptance for others, and a new life philosophy revolving around finding fulfillment, embracing life, building community, being compassionate, and growing personally. The study concludes with a discussion on clinical implications for those in the fields of mental health and human services.
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School of Education and Human Development
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by Michael Paul Wagstaff.

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Full Text
DECONVERSION:
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL STUDY
ON BECOMING AN ATHEIST
by
MICHAEL PAUL WAGSTAFF
B.S., Colorado State University, 2004
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Masters of Arts
Counseling Program
2015


11
2015
MICHAEL PAUL WAGSTALL
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Ill
This thesis for the Masters of Arts degree by
Michael Paul Wagstaff
has been approved for the
Counseling Program
by
Edward Cannon, Chair
Farah Ibrahim
Alan Davis
Date: May 4th, 2015


IV
Wagstaff, Michael Paul (M.A., Counseling)
Deconversion: A Phenomenological Study on Becoming an Atheist
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Edward Cannon.
ABSTRACT
What is it like to renounce belief in all gods? This phenomenological study
explores the experience of United States citizens leaving religion and embracing an
atheistic worldview. In-depth interviews with seven participants were conducted and
examined for emergent themes. Participants invariably cited some form of cognitive
dissonance as the impetus for leaving theistic structures. Often their break with these
structures resulted in negative emotions such as loss, anger, fear, and existential angst.
Participants also reported positive outcomes from the transition, including higher levels
of confidence and empowerment, a greater understanding and acceptance for others, and
a new life philosophy revolving around finding fulfillment, embracing life, building
community, being compassionate, and growing personally. The study concludes with a
discussion on clinical implications for those in the fields of mental health and human
services.
The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend its publication.
Approved: Edward Cannon


V
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
I. INTRODUCTION....................................................1
Purpose.........................................................2
Key Terms.......................................................3
II. LITERATURE REVIEW..............................................6
Demographics....................................................6
Distrust and Prejudice..........................................6
Effects on Mental Health........................................7
Causal Theories.................................................8
Previous Qualitative Studies....................................8
III. THE STUDY....................................................10
Research Paradigms.............................................10
Role of the Researcher.........................................10
Methodology....................................................16
IV FINDINGS......................................................20
Participant Backgrounds........................................20
Themes.........................................................24
Advice for Those Somewhere in the Process......................60
V DISCUSSION....................................................62
Implications for Clinical Work.................................63
REFERENCES...........................................................66


VI
APPENDIX
A. STAMPED PROTOCOL REVIEW..........................71
B. VERBAL CONSENT SCRIPT............................72
C. INTERVIEW SAMPLE QUESTIONS.......................75


LIST OF TABLES
TABLE
1.
Themes and sub-themes
24


1
CHAPTER I
INTRODUCTION
United States citizens are leaving religion at ever-increasing rates (Kosmin &
Keysar, 2009). The religiously unafFiliated now account for 20% of the United States
population, up from 15% in 2007 and 8% in 1990, according to a Pew Research Center
[PRC] study (2012). Of the unaffiliated, over 15 million (32%) say they do not believe in
God, with three-in-four of these atheists being former believers. More and more,
nonbelievers are becoming a significant part of our society.
What are they like? Research supports atheists as being on-par with believers in
areas of empathy, nurturing of relationships, and respect for nature (Caldwell-Harris,
Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2010). Atheism is also positively correlated with
higher educational attainment, higher verbal ability and greater support for equality.
Atheists also demonstrate lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and
homophobia (Zuckerman, 2009).
Despite the tremendous rise in prevalence of atheists and the positive attributes
correlated with being a non-believer, atheists are widely viewed as the most problematic
group in the United States. Disapproval and distrust levels are higher than that of even
Muslims in the post-9/11 U.S.A. (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006). Atheists are
subject to social exclusion and psychological distress from these negative perceptions
(Weber, Pargament, Kunik, Lomax & Stanley, 2012).
While some other minority groups are easy to identify, atheists are not outwardly
recognizable. With minimal effort, they can pass as believers by performing


2
perfunctory activities like church attendance and falsely claiming adherence to dominant
religions. Atheists can avoid prejudice by going along with the societal assumption that
they are believers, simply never stating anything to the contrary. Yet, even with the
negative repercussions that arise from self-identifying as an atheist, more and more
United States citizens are coming out in recent years to voluntarily join this distrusted
group (PRC, 2012; Thomas 2010).
However, there is very little recent research available on the experience of
becoming an atheist. How religious were they to begin with? What causes these
apostates to leave their religion and renounce belief in a god? What thoughts and feelings
do they experience in the coming-out process? Given the negative perceptions of
atheists, why do they do it? How does it affect their personal relationships and sense of
communal belonging? What facilitates this transition? What obstacles do they encounter
along the way? What impact does it have on their mental health? What is it like to move
through the world day-to-day as an atheist? This study seeks to answer these questions in
search of the essence of the transition-to-atheism experience.
Purpose
This research study seeks to explore and describe the transition to atheism
utilizing the rich narratives of individuals who have left their religious structure and have
renounced belief in deities. Drawing upon the phenomenological method outlined by
Husserl (1977), this study hopes to portray the phenomenon in all its subjective
complexity by delving into the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors the interviewees
experienced before, during, and after the transition. This study also examines factors


3
facilitating and obstructing the transition and explores the effects on mental health, day-
to-day living, personal relationships, and sense of communal belonging. Lastly, this
study will describe common themes that emerged among participants and discuss
potential implications for clinical work.
Key Terms
The literature identifies numerous, often-overlapping terms describing groups of
varying religiosity. The following terminology will be used for purposes of this study.
Nones. Often the term given to the religiously unaffiliated, this group now
accounts for 20% of the United States population, a sharp rise from 15% in 2007,
according to a Pew Research study (PRC, 2012). This amounts to over 46 million
people. These are individuals that, when asked about their current religion, responded
that they were atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular. As a precaution to those
who would dismiss this group as seekers in a phase of finding their way, it is notable
that 88% said they are not seeking a religion (PRC, 2012). In fact, most of them (73%)
emerged from religious homes and subsequently renounced their faith (Kosmin &
Keysar, 2009).
Atheist. While many of the Nones do not claim the atheist label and the
accompanying negative connotations, over 15 million of them (32%) say they do not
believe in God (PRC, 2012). Silver, Coleman, Hood, and Holcombe (2014) describe
nonbelievers in six types: intellectual atheist/agnostic, activist atheist/agnostic, seeker-
agnostic, anti-theist, non-theist, and ritual atheist/agnostic. Michael Martin (2007)
distinguishes between those who firmly claim that no god exists, known as positive


4
atheists, strong atheists, or gnostic atheists, from those who simply do not believe or
think they cannot know, known as negative atheists, weak atheists, or agnostic atheists.
Regardless of academic categorization, nonbelievers may identify by various
labels, including atheists, anti-theists, agnostics, spiritual-but-not-religious, Brights,
secular humanists, naturalists, Freethinkers, or skeptics. Some Buddhists and Taoists also
identify as atheists (Hayes, 1988; Bokun, 1998). Other nonbelievers choose not to label
themselves in regard to something that is not a part of their lives, along a similar vein as
not finding it necessary to identify as a non-astrologer (Harris, 2007). The percentage
of people in the United States choosing to self-identify as atheists has risen from 1% in
2005 to 5% in 2012 (Gallup International, 2012). For purposes of this study, an atheist
will be considered anyone who does not espouse belief in theism the existence of a god
or many gods regardless of their identification with the label atheist.
The reader should be cautioned that atheists are not a monolithic group. By
definition, atheism is the lack of belief in deities; attempts to group people by a lack of
something can be problematic at best, especially in the area of religion. Though atheism
is best understood as a non-religious group, research often groups atheists with religious
groups as points-of-comparison. This study will take a similar perspective. It should also
be noted that a problematic overlap exists between atheists and non-theistic religious
groups like Buddhists, Taoists, and many Unitarian Universalists (Bokun, 1998).
Deconversion, disaffiliation, apostasy, and transition. Several words connote
the idea of someone transitioning from a belief structure to atheism. Though some have
used the term apostasy in the past (Hunsberger & Brown, 1984; Hadaway, 1989),


5
deconversion and disaffiliation are used more currently (Streib, 2012; Simpson,
2013; Keller, Klein, Hood, & Streib, 2013). These terms refer to the idea that all people
are bom without belief and subsequently converted into a religion a process which can
be undone.
Regardless of the terminology, Streib (2012) emphasizes that the transition is a
process of depth and intensity, affecting everything from beliefs to morality, emotions to
intellect, inner world changes to shifts in communal belonging. Simpson (2013)
describes deconversion from theism as analogous to experiencing the death of a loved
one. In reference to this profound process, this study will use all of these words
interchangeably.


6
CHAPTER II
LITERATURE REVIEW
Demographics
The American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College
found that atheism was the only religion-related demographic that has grown in all 50
states since 1991 (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). A Pew Research Center study (2012) goes
on to detail this group of nearly three million as the most educated of any religious group
surveyed, with the highest percentage of college graduates (25%, compared with 19% of
the general public) and post-graduates (19% compared with 10% of the general public).
They are also among the highest earners as well, with nearly 22% earning $100,000 or
more annually. Only White Catholics have a greater percentage of high earners (26%).
Demographically, atheists tend to be young, with 42% ages 18-29 and 32% ages 30-49.
They are predominantly White, at 82%, compared to 66% of the general population. A
majority (64%) are male and, though scattered across the nation, the U.S. West has the
highest concentration (33%).
Distrust and Prejudice
Despite atheists generally being educated, high-earning, young, white males -
attributes generally privileged or celebrated in the United States they are also the subject
of great scorn and distrust (Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2008; Gervais, 2011). A 2006
study (Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann) asked two questions regarding the perception of
various minority groups. Participants were asked the question Does this group agree
with your vision of the America? Atheists ranked the lowest of all groups in cultural


7
acceptance, below African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Hispanics, recent
immigrants, gays and lesbians, and Muslims. About four-in-ten responders (39.6%) said
atheists Do not agree at all with [their] vision of society. Participants were asked about
trust and tolerance, as measured by the question Would you approve of a son or daughter
marrying a member of this minority group? Atheists were again ranked the lowest of all
groups. Almost half (47.6%) of all responders said they would disapprove, outpacing the
nearest demographic of Muslims by 14%. The study goes on to describe the
characterization of atheists in the public sphere as immoral, unstable, materialistic, elitist,
unpatriotic, and prone to crime. Clearly atheists are subject to an extreme amount of
distrust and prejudice.
Effects on Mental Health
Although nonbelievers fare just as well or better than believers in overall
happiness, the psychological distress they do experience often stems from the negative
perception from others, which is rooted primarily in distrust (Gervais, 2011; Weber,
Pargament, Kunik, Lomax & Stanley, 2012). Galen and Kloet (2011) found that a
curvilinear relationship exists between mental well-being and belief certainty. It did not
matter whether this certainty was in a religion or in atheism. This v-shaped curve implies
that the period of transitioning from certainty in religion to a comfort with atheism is a
difficult time, with mental health at a low point. This study seeks to elucidate patterns in
these experiences in order to support others who are undertaking this transition as well as
guide future research.


8
Causal Theories
Many theories have been proposed to account for the surge in atheism, including a
backlash to conservative policies of the United States government, the trend of marrying
later, an increase of social disengagement, a rise of secularism, and churches being overly
concerned with money, power, and politics (PRC, 2012). Others have found atheism to
be correlated with higher intelligence (Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg, 2008) and logic and
rationality (Caldwell-Harris et al., 2011), though no research exists citing these
characteristics as rising in recent years. This seems to be an area needing more research
and exploration if we are to better understand this emerging phenomenon.
Previous Qualitative Studies
Despite the social pressure to maintain a religious identity in the United States,
atheism is experiencing a surge in growth in recent years, both in membership and in
popular media (Thomas, 2010). However, research is sparse regarding the actual
experience of deconversion. In Amazing Conversions, Altemeyer (1997) profiled
conversions both to and away from religion among Canadian undergraduate students.
While offering excellent stories of conversion and deconversion, it appears trends and
sociological factors have shifted enough since the publication of Altemeyers research to
warrant a reexamination. Additionally, the Canadian university climate of the mid-
nineties is likely quite different from the U.S. environment of 2015. The rise of atheism
in the general population is likely impacting mental health, day-to-day living, personal
relationships, and sense of community belonging.


9
More recently, Hunsberger and Altemeyer (2006) offered an excellent mixed-
methods study of what being an active atheist is like in Atheists: A Groundbreaking
Study of Americas Nonbelievers. However, they readily state that their sample, mostly
culled from atheist clubs in San Francisco, is not entirely representative of atheists in
general. While this study offers excellent insight into the experience of being an atheist,
it does not discuss the deconversion process in-depth. The study also does not focus on
the barriers and obstacles that may be present to those not living in a city as progressive
as San Francisco.
In 2009, Blackford examined reasons for becoming an atheist in 50 Voices of
Disbelief: Why We are Atheists. In it, essays from prolific writers, scientists, scholars,
and politicians offer articulate and well-thought-out rationales for their lack of belief.
The focus is on the reasoning behind the process for these cultural elites; it does not focus
on the experience of transitioning to atheism, complete with thoughts and feelings, nor
does it address the day-to-day effects of becoming an atheist.
While all of these publications offer excellent insight into the topic, there is very
little recent research on the phenomenon of deconversion, especially in the realm of inner
thoughts and feelings throughout the process. There is scant information on perceived
obstacles and facilitators for deconversion, and a dearth of research on mental health
impacts, day-to-day experience, relationship effects, and community implications of the
transition. Clearly a greater examination of the process is needed to gain insight into the
lived experiences of the transition.


10
CHAPTER III
THE STUDY
Research Paradigm
This study is a qualitative phenomenology, drawing primarily on the
phenomenological approach as outlined by Johnson and Christensen (2012), Husserl
(1977), and Creswell (2013). The multiple-case study framework as outlined by Edwards
(1998) also influenced the study.
This methodology allows for a deep and rigorous exploration of the topic,
exploring the lived experience of interviewees. The participants thoughts, feelings, and
behaviors are explored, as well as the meaning they ascribe to the phenomena.
Qualitative methodology is uniquely suited to describing processes of change and
exploring the meaning of experiences (Creswell, 2013). We cannot conduct experimental
research on deconversion, as we cannot ethically coerce someone to leave their religion
to study the results (Johnson & Christensen, 2012). Therefore we can only hear accounts
of the phenomenon, ask deepening questions, and hope to find emergent themes among
the stories (Husserl, 1977).
Role of the Researcher
As outlined by Johnson and Christensen (2012), phenomenological interviewers
should maintain a neutral-yet-mindful demeanor to elicit participants authentic
experience without response bias. However, it is impossible for bias not to be a factor in
any encounter. Therefore it is important for my background and biases to be known,


11
accounted for, and bracketed to the fullest extent possible, as recommended by Johnson
and Christensen (2012).
Researcher background. Being raised by moderately religious parents, I was
exposed to religion from an early age. Both of my parents were raised Catholic and
continued to practice when I was brought into the world. One of my earliest memories is
my mom reading me biblical stories. I grew up in the religious city of Colorado Springs
and attended Sunday school at our local Catholic church at a young age. While religion
was not the primary guiding factor in our family life, the belief in God was unquestioned.
I became skeptical around the age of ten as I started to learn about science and
history in school and could not reconcile the new information with the childhood stories.
I remember the story of Noahs Ark being particularly improbable. How could the entire
earth flood? How could each species repopulate from just two members? What did they
all eat? Even my ten-year-old mind was skeptical in nature.
As skepticism turned to doubt, I began to think about a lot of the stories I was
taught. The stories of talking snakes, burning bushes, magical healing, and the dead
coming back to life seemed akin to stories of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny stories
told to encourage good behavior in children. I expressed my desire to no longer attend
church, wanting to better spend my Sunday mornings reading science books and
discovering the wonders of a new household toy the computer. My parents, always
promoters of independent thought, allowed for this. Over the years, I obliged them with
Easter and Christmas attendance while watching their own church-going wane.


12
My thoughts around religion remained dormant until entering university. Upon
beginning college, however, my curiosity was reignited. Meeting new people and being
exposed to different perspectives created an insatiable drive to understand why people
were religious. I enrolled in courses such as Biblical and Mythical Origins,
Introduction to Anthropology and Eastern Philosophy. My mind pondered big
questions around God, religion, and culture. I started a club for leaders of various
campus faith groups to interact, which I deemed The Interfaith Dialogue Club. I
worked at The Office of International Programs and pursued friendships with people
from various cultures in an attempt to gain knowledge on this strange practice of religion.
I wanted to find something anything to justify all the energy humanity has put into the
institution over the millennia. The more I learned, however, the further from the
institutions of religion I felt. It was at this point I became very critical of religion, though
I spent inordinate amounts of time pondering morality, meaning, purpose, and existence.
I joined the spiritual-but-not-religious bandwagon, often citing religion as a cause for
many of the worlds woes. I was also extremely skeptical of the concept of God.
Throughout my twenties, I endeavored to further deconstruct religion, culture, and
human history. Why do so many humans across the globe believe in the metaphysical? I
frequently took months-long trips through Europe and the Middle East, hoping I could
unravel the mysteries of faith under the dome of Saint Peters Cathedral in Rome, inside
the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or beside the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I wandered the
streets of ancient civilizations from Egypt to Greece to Rome while reading about the
precursors to our modern religions, the old religions we now deem mythology. I learned


13
about conflicts stemming from differences in belief and talked to people actively
experiencing them. I voraciously consumed books on Buddhism, Taoism, and paganism.
I discovered the existentialist works of Dostoyevsky and the nihilistic philosophies of
Nietzsche. I tried to grasp other ways to understand our reality, like theoretical physics
and quantum mechanics. The more I tried to reconcile my ever-expanding breadth of
knowledge, the more I found myself skeptical of the idea of personified deities that so
many religions espoused.
Simultaneously, I began questioning what I viewed as the underlying functions of
religion: morality transmission and community-building. Living in a large west coast
city, I met gays and lesbians negatively affected by religious doctrine masquerading as
morality. I met people whom I considered compassionate and kind, who had never
believed in a god at any point in their lives. I found communities of people being held
together by common interests and simply caring for each other rather than because of
metaphysical beliefs. I concluded that religion was not the only path to morality and
community.
Meanwhile, working in the field of technology, I was exposed to many more
people who claimed the title of atheist unabashedly. It was a word I had felt for years
but had never used. I soon came to claim this title as well. I spent some time as an anti-
theist, seeing the belief in gods as holding back scientific inquiry. I got into debates with
everyone who was willing. I alienated some people and helped expand the thinking of
others.


14
Eventually, as I moved into my thirties and transitioned to the field of mental
health counseling, I began to accept religion and gods as beneficial and even necessary
for some, even if it had no place in my life. I have come to define spirituality in my life
as many things: the feelings of awe and wonder I get when contemplating the universe;
the connection I feel when Im in nature; the beauty of a deep and powerful relationship;
the joy of helping others; those moments of enlightenment when everything seems to
make sense. I have accepted as a part of the human experience the existential angst that
comes with having unanswerable questions. I finally feel a contentment and wholeness
around the concept of spirituality.
Yet I see the shifting tides of our society and wonder how many closet atheists
there are, wishing to come out? How many do not have parents, friends, and
communities as accepting as my own? How many feel misunderstood and unaccepted by
an overwhelmingly Christian nation? How many professionals in the human services feel
distance or, worse, prejudice when working with an atheist? It is for these questions that
I have pursued this study.
Bias. Given my background, many biases exist and should be made explicit. I
approach the topic from the position of an atheist who has put plenty of thought and
energy into the subject. I may errantly assume other atheists share the same mental
constructs that I have built in my mind. I have the potential to follow lines of questioning
that supports my thought processes rather than follow those of the participant. There is
the possibility of confirmation bias, in which I seek to confirm my own assumptions


15
about the process. Finally, there is the tendency to think that those who espouse an
atheist worldview are closer to the truth, more logical, and less rigid than theists.
Bracketing. With the awareness of these biases in mind, I attempted to conduct
the study in the most neutral stance possible, putting aside my preconceived notions of
the experience. I did not tell participants about my journey or that I identified as an
atheist. I also tried to put my own experience out-of-mind and attain a beginners mind,
as if I was hearing about these topics for the first time so that I could fully immerse
myself in the experience of the participant. It was also important to actively engage in
self-critical reflection throughout the interviews by constantly asking myself if I was
exploring the participants story to the fullest extent possible. I endeavored to maintain a
constant curiosity about the participants experiences, pursuing topics in which I noticed
their emotions being provoked or their memory stirred. My training as a mental health
counselor facilitated this mentality. I also attempted to convey my findings in this study
in a descriptive manner, only making interpretations when explicitly stated.
Co-interviewer. Even with my attempts at neutrality, bracketing, and accounting
for bias, I wanted to ensure each interview gathered the most information possible. I
realized the limitations of having lines of questioning originating only from my limited
perspective. To this end I enlisted the assistance of a colleague as a co-interviewer. A
fellow graduate student in counseling, a believing theist, and a practicing Christian, his
perspective balanced out lines of inquiry with participants and added an additional
dimension to the data collected. While also maintaining a neutral-yet-curious demeanor,


16
he elicited many valuable responses throughout the process with thought-provoking
questions that would not have occurred to me given my disposition.
Methodology
Participant sample. Seven participants were recruited for this study. Each fit
the criteria of (a) having considered themselves believers at one point and (b) no longer
believing in a deity. They consisted of four women and three men ranging in age from
the mid-twenties to the late-forties. Six of the participants identified as White while the
seventh identified as half-White and half-Arab. Two held doctorates and three had
completed or were in the process of completing a masters degree. The participants came
from several different religions: Catholicism, Pentecostal Christianity, Presbyterianism,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Islam.
Recruiting. Participants were recruited via word-of-mouth and the use of social
media. A new email address was created for the study and subsequently deleted, helping
to ensure confidentiality of the participants. Six of the seven participants performed in-
person interviews, while the seventh participant interviewed via Skype.
Ethical consideration. The Colorado Multiple Institutional Review Board
approved the study prior to beginning recruitment (Appendix A). All participants
verbally agreed to an informed consent script (Appendix B). The script disclosed the
purpose of the study, explained the participants rights around confidentiality, and
discussed potential risks of the study, such as recalling traumatic events associated with
leaving a religion. Due to the negative perceptions associated with atheism, all efforts are


17
made to ensure confidentiality of the participants identities, including using pseudonyms,
meeting in private locations, and omitting identifying data in all records.
Data collection. Phenomenologies are characterized by in-depth, informal, open-
ended interviews that allow participants ample freedom to tell their story. Audio
recordings were created so that verbatim quotes, the lowest-inference descriptor, could be
utilized. After reading the informed consent document to the participant and receiving
verbal consent to record the session, each interview began with the question Where
would you like to begin your story? We were free to follow the discussion wherever it
led, asking follow-up questions to better understand the participants experiences and
using our intuition and curiosity as guides. Questions were sometimes drawn from a
prepared list of sample questions (Appendix C).
Each participant was interviewed individually for a duration of one to one-and-a-
half hours. The mean interview length was 67.5 minutes. All data was stored on
password-protected machines and services.
Analysis. The empirical, phenomenological, psychological (EPP) method of
Karlsson (1993) was used for data analysis. It is a qualitative method for interpretive and
descriptive analysis, consisting of five steps: 1) Going over the participants interviews
until I felt I had a good grasp of the material, including an empathetic understanding of
the experience the participant is conveying; 2) dividing the data into meaning units
(MUs), or singular ideas relevant to the study; 3) interpreting the meaning units in the
context of the entire interview and labeling them into my own language; 4) synthesizing


18
the units into emergent themes; and 5) presenting the themes in a general structure
supported by quotations from the original interviews.
To accomplish this analysis, I first reviewed the audio recordings of each session
several times. During this process, I maintained a curious and unknowing disposition
that was faithful to the phenomenological view of searching for underlying meaning in
the participants statements. As I felt I grasped the experience of each participant, I
formulated meaning units that I observed in the interviews. For example, one
participants discussion on finding purpose in life was labeled purpose while another
participants discussion on ascribing meaning to their life was labeled meaning. I
transcribed significant statements which conveyed the essence of each meaning unit. I
clustered the statements manifesting throughout the interview into emergent themes. To
continue the example, meaning and purpose were combined with other meaning units
such as fear of death into the emergent theme of existential angst. Finally, I
organized these themes into the structure which is conveyed in the Findings section.
Validity. While all efforts have been made to elicit deep and truthful stories from
the participants and convey them as accurately as possible, it is important to keep in mind
the limitations of qualitative research methodology (Johnson & Christensen, 2012).
While offering rich, deep, and holistic inquiry, generalizability is not a goal. Due to the
small sample size and highly individualistic nature of depth-seeking interviews, it is
impossible to account for the range of variability present in all atheists in a single study.
The participants stories are one point of view at one point in time, delivered in the
particular setting of a research study interview for an educational institution.


19
Additionally, attempts at bracketing, accounting for bias, and accurately interpreting
meaning are, after all, human endeavors and subject to the limitations of imperfection.


20
CHAPTER IV
FINDINGS
Participant Backgrounds
To protect participant anonymity, pseudonyms have been used and identifying
details have been omitted or changed.
Becca. Becca is an energetic White woman of about thirty. Her short, dark hair
frames warm, kind eyes. She speaks with confidence and eloquence, conveying a sense
of having experienced events that rendered her wiser than her years suggest. Her
fashionable dress and stylish hair hint more at her occupation in high-end retail
management than at her upbringing in the Mormon church:
I was raised pretty strictly LDS (Latter-Day Saints), so Mormon... I was really,
really invested in the religion... I really deeply believed in God and his presence.
My own testimony was really strong about like how I felt and how it made me
feel when I connected to God through prayer... I really strongly believed in all
the tenets of the church. I believed in the scriptures and the power of prayer.
(Becca)
Derek. Derek is a White male in his mid-forties with a background in
information technology. Witty and jovial, his well-groomed beard, sharp glasses, and
slightly receding hairline frame a ready smile. His articulate speech hints at the vast
knowledge a childhood spent reading books provides. He was raised by Roman Catholic
parents in a small town in the Midwest:


21
I was very devout throughout my childhood. I was an altar boy. The whole idea
that there were even people that existed that didnt believe in God was a shock to
me. I had no idea that was even possible! (Derek)
Paige. Paige is a White woman of around forty. She has blonde hair and piercing
blue eyes, and speaks in a manner that is both passionate and soft. She has a background
in law and is currently in graduate school for counseling psychology. Coming from an
unstable home, she joined the Mormon church in high school:
I joined the church when I was sixteen, and stayed in the church until I was thirty-
one, thirty-two-ish... You want to have lessons? You want to get baptized?
This and that. It felt a little bit like pressure, but a whole lot like a big warm
blanket and a lot of love. A whole bunch of people, all of a sudden, who wanted
to be my friend. Who wanted to tell me good stuff about me, build me up, and
support me in all the right ways... It felt really, really healthy, and I felt really
supported, so I adopted all those values. (Paige)
Abdul. Abdul is an half-Arab, half-White man in his late forties. He comes
across as thoughtful and kind-hearted. However, he also conveys a sense of being world-
weary and downtrodden, perhaps on account of his struggle with alcoholism. He holds
an MBA and works in the field of information technology. Raised by a Muslim father
and a Protestant mother, he describes his religious upbringing:
I was raised in the Islamic faith. That was the official brand because my dad was
the head of the household. While it was the official religion, it wasnt like we
lived some sort of devout lifestyle. We did go to the mosque on Fridays and


22
Sundays... I got a fairly thorough education in the Islamic faith... At the same
time, when I was younger, my mom would read from the Bible. This was the
early years, age six to ten... I did get a certain sense of spirituality in the Islamic
prayer ritual. You pack in and get shoulder-to-shoulder, and go through this
ritualistic prayer ritual... It creates this serenity that is quite comforting. (Abdul)
Michelle. Michelle is a vibrant White woman in her early forties with
shimmering shoulder-length brown hair and a large smile. She speaks with passion and
excitability. Smart and full of energy, she holds a PhD in sociology and works as a
therapist, professor, speaker, and writer on the West Coast. She grew up religious on the
East Coast:
I grew up Catholic. My mom was Catholic... There were certainly times when I
had conversations with God sorta-things... I never questioned that God existed
and the whole idea of Satan existing was terrifying... It was something I had
little critical thinking on. It had been fed to me and I had never questioned it.
(Michelle)
Ryan. Ryan is a White male in his late thirties. Raised in the Pacific Northwest,
he holds a Doctorate of Medicine and works as an internal medicine physician in a large
city in Southern California. Verbose and rambunctious, he speaks quickly and with a
youthful exuberance of someone half his age. Though not raised religious, he began
attending an Assembly of God Pentecostal church in high school shortly after meeting a
girl:


23
She didnt want to label us boyfriend-girlfriend because I wasnt a Christian.
Suddenly I was getting up on Sunday morning and taking off to her church.
Initially I was extraordinarily skeptical... However, as I went there more I got to
know the people in the church. I started to learn a little bit about the Christian
faith and there was a lot of things that impressed me about it. I liked the
community and the closeness of the community. I decided, partly or largely at
[her] behest, to become a Christian and enter that world. When I arrive [at
college], I was very much like Im a Christian. For all four years of college, I
was heavily involved with the largest Christian Fellowship on campus. (Ryan)
Tara. Tara is a White female in her mid-twenties with short brown hair, vibrant
eyes, and soft features. Contemplative and soulful, she is another participant who seems
wise beyond her years. Her large vocabulary and deliberate speech style hint at an active
and intelligent mind. Originally intent on medical school, she currently debates her
career options while working at a non-profit mental health and spiritual growth center.
She was raised Christian in a troubled home:
I was raised Christian and my family was Presbyterian. I grew up reciting
Catechism, going to church on Sundays, all the very stereotypical Christian
dogma... We were a deeply religious family. I was raised by a single mom and it
was kind of her crutch. We were also home-schooled. Pretty much everything in
our lives from the time I was very young until I was a teenager revolved around
the church and belief in the Bible and the dogma of Christianity. (Tara)


24
Themes
While each participants journey was different, several common themes emerged
(Table 1). The catalyst for questioning faith was invariably some form of cognitive
dissonance something that did not quite add up in their minds. For each participant, the
break from religion was difficult and accompanied by negative emotions such as
rejection, loss, fear, anger, and existential angst. Finally, almost all of the participants
have achieved some sense of reintegration of their identity, replete with positive emotions
and new philosophies.
Table 1: Themes and sub-themes
Cognitive dissonance
Exposure
Hypocrisy
Gay rights and sexuality
The break from belief
Fear of judgment and rejection
Loss
Anger
Existential Angst
Reintegration
Understanding and acceptance
Confidence and empowerment
Community
Societal progress
A new philosophy
Cognitive dissonance as the catalyst. What caused these formerly religious
people to question their faith? Almost invariably, the catalyst for each participants


25
transition stemmed from critically thinking about new information that conflicted with
their existing beliefs and values. The resulting discomfort and mental stress the
individual feels compelled to reduce is called cognitive dissonance, a term coined by
Leon Festinger (1957).
Exposure. For some the journey began with exposure to other cultures and
worldviews. Derek describes his first encounter with the larger tapestry of human
experience.
I had opportunities to travel to Germany a few times over my elementary school
career... I got the chance to basically see another world, another worldview,
another language, another people. Even though its not wildly different from
American culture, theres enough differences to give you the idea there are other
worldviews... I noticed different points of view. (Derek)
Soon, Derek would find himself reading the works of Nietzsche and other
philosophers in the back pews of Sunday service, expanding his mind and challenging his
thoughts. Philosophy became an enduring love affair for me (Derek). This expansion
of knowledge would only continue to grow throughout the years.
Similarly, Paige, who was now teaching Sunday school and very involved in The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, first became aware of other narratives via
the most innocent of avenues (Paige):
Fm watching the Discovery Channel. A show about the Masons. It was
fascinating. There are intersections with Joseph Smith and several other key
players in the beginning of church history, which I know the narrative of because


26
I taught that. And it was bullshit! Well, part of it. And I was angry, because Ive
been cheated, Ive been manipulated, and then I went around and taught people
this stuff. So I feel like Ive been betrayed. (Paige)
It was the first of several events to put cracks in Paiges worldview. It sparked her
curiosity at what else was out there. She would go on to explore humanist philosophy
and atheist literature, saying You just cant unring certain bells (Paige).
Michelle, the PhD-bound Catholic, began her questioning with an influx of
knowledge in college, though she still was discomforted around the concept of atheism:
In college I started getting into feminism and womens studies and sociology.
Certainly there is critique of religion there. Catholic beliefs are certainly not
empowering women... Still I never questioned the existence of God. I had a
really good friend in junior year of college who said he was an atheist. It made
me really uncomfortable. Like, scared inside that he would say that. How could
you even say that? There was this stupid linking I had that atheist means
satanist. (Michelle)
Inefficacy of prayer. For others, noticing the lack of effect of prayer was a
catalyst for cognitive dissonance. Ryan, though no longer with the girlfriend that brought
him into the world of religion, was still very active in church and the Christian fellowship
throughout his college years. He had become a believer. However, he was having a hard
time with prayer:
Christians talk about the power of prayer... How prayer will do this or that. To
be honest, I initially believed that would be something I would find to be true... I


27
did pray a lot. I prayed with people. I prayed alone a lot. And nothing ever
happened. As I prayed less and less, I realized I wasnt actually any more or less
stressed out, any more or less happy. Results werent any worse or better. It
seemed like the complete lack of a relationship. (Ryan)
Similarly, as a teenager trying to shoulder the burdens of a dysfunctional
household, Tara would begin to notice the absence of effect from praying. She vividly
recalled an event that began her questioning phase:
My mother was very dysfunctional... She would just unload everything on me.
Which was a lot for anybody but especially for a fifteen-year-old. She would take
me to the grocery and would park and just start venting... She let it all out. So
this was happening one time. We sat there for two hours. She's crying, shes
miserable, shes so unhappy. She's so sad. Her situation is so impossible. Her
fifteen year old daughter is there listening to her. I'm trying to take all of this in -
I just want to save her and make it better. Finally there's a lull and I'm like "I'm
going to go in and see if they have your donuts." Entenmann's donuts were her
thing, they always somehow made her feel better... I remember getting out of the
car and feeling the weight of everything she put on me. "Listen God, she needs
something. She needs anything. She needs a sign. I need a sign that this is going
to be okay... That something good is going to come out of this. Or even that this
is how it is supposed to be. The sign for me right now is if those donuts are here."
I'm fifteen years old there's really naive ways that we attach meaning to things.
They weren't. I remember standing there and crying in the grocery store aisle.


28
"What is the point? If something as simple as this makes her feel better, can't that
just be something that is available to her? I asked you for that and you didn't
come through?" That's a weird story, such a small, small thing. That's one of the
things I still remember now as definitely challenging my faith. (Tara)
Tara would go on to college a few years later and found, like many of the other
participants, that the exposure to other worldviews led to questioning her beliefs.
It's easier when you're the college environment, because a lot of people are in that
space... It was around that time that I started becoming more aware of the vast
diversity of worldviews that exist... Which kinda just supported my earlier
inclinations there can't possibly be just one absolute truth. (Tara)
Hypocrisy. For others, questioning their faith began with noticing the hypocrisy
of others:
The biggest thing was having an alcoholic father who claims to be a Muslimist
[sic]. Such hypocrisy. This is obviously not right. This faith is obviously not
purely correct if my primary example doesnt even halfway follow it. That was
the core of it all. (Abdul)
Abdul also had a hard time reconciling the tenets of a religion of peace and
kindness with his readings of the holy text:
I bought into that [Islam] for a number of years... But then theres the other side.
Every time I tried to read the Koran, I would just flip to a random page and say
What can I get out of this? Im going to read this and find some inspiration,
right? Every bit of it was fire and brimstone. (Abdul)


29
Michelle would also notice the dichotomy between the ideals and reality: When
you see people that are jerks in school or bullies or whatever, and then there they are in
church, you go Well, they arent good people! (Michelle).
Similar to Abdul and Michelle, Paige noticed the contradictory messages
embedded in the Mormon doctrine:
In the Mormon church, its all blurred. Theyre making judgments about
everyone else. Youre gonna go to heaven, youre not. Jesus says Dont judge,
or ye will be judged by the same judgement in which ye judge. Yet they're
judging all the time. (Paige)
For Tara, the hypocrisy was experienced on a very painful and personal level.
Her mother became involved with the pastor of their church, Who was one of the ickiest
people you can imagine. A total pedophile, he had a ton of issues (Tara). Tara would
talk about the sexual abuse that occurred in her household, which exacerbated her
questioning:
Becoming really aware as a teenager of these really awful things that were going
on around me and questioning Hey, this is happening for a reason? That's
absurd!" Really, starting to think deeply about that. Being told basically "Accept
things the way they are, this is the way they are supposed to be. And coming
back with "Wait, why? I don't think this is the way things are supposed to be. I
think they can be different and they should be different. It was very pragmatic...
Knowing that this person was evil, if you will, but seeing that he gets up on the
pulpit every Sunday and preaches to me about the Bible and the Catechism and


30
these things that I grew up with, and you start to question the authority of where
these ideas are coming from. That's definitely when breakdown happens... Why
would God ever want anyone to experience this? That is really abhorrent to me.
I'm not going to be aligned with something that tells me that that is the way the
world works. (Tara)
Gay rights and sexuality. Beyond Taras exposure to sexual abuse, issues around
sexuality played a role in several other participants stories. For some, getting to know
sinners opened their eyes to the pain experienced by gays and lesbians because of
religious doctrine.
Becca, moving from a large East Coast city to a small Western town in the fourth
grade, grew bored with the slow pace of primary schooling there. Her parents allowed
her to attend school in the nearby city where her dad worked:
Its just exposure. I was in theatre. I did a lot of sports. I was exposed to a ton of
different kinds of people. I always believe the more youre exposed to someone,
the less your ability to hate them... Once you start spending time with people that
are gay or these people that you have been told your whole life are making these
bad choices and you really shouldnt spend too much time with them, you realize
Wow, thats just not it at all... One friend in particular really struggled with his
sexuality throughout high school. It was a painful struggle for him. His mother
really disapproved. You watch someone struggle through that and you really
realize you wouldnt bother struggling through that if it was just a bad choice you
were making youd just not make the bad choice! Its just really who he is. You


31
find it harder and harder to believe that, if there was a God, that he would create
somebody only to put them through this. (Becca)
Beccas attempts to voice these concerns would not be well-met: I voiced it to
people at church, which always got me into trouble. I got kicked out of a lot of
classes (Becca). She would later see the direct impact of this within her own family,
who all were still very strongly connected to the church:
My sister came out of the closet as a lesbian, but then scurried back into the closet
a few years later. She really struggled with the lack of approval. The community
she created was a religious conservative community. (Becca)
Similarly, Paige also experienced cognitive dissonance resulting from the churchs
treatment of gay people:
In high school both of my best friends were gay. Neither of them were out
because they were Mormon... Its not accepted. If youre Mormon and youre
gay, you dont act on your impulses because theyre not right. Its kind of
embarrassing to think I use to believe that... The next time I saw my bishop, I
said the wrong thing. I dont know if its wrong for gays to be excluded. Why
cant we let them be in the church and be who they are? There are certain things
the church isnt ready to change... He told me I need to pray about it, and ask
heavenly Father to soften your heart. This is the way of the Lord. You need to
hold fast to the gospel. (Paige)


32
Ryan, who had become a prominent figure and leader in his college Christian
Fellowship, had also begun noticing the damage his churchs doctrine had inflicted upon
gays and lesbians:
The churchs approach in response to homosexuality is truly detestable. Its
horrific. Its had such a horrible impact on people... That was one thing that
didnt make sense to me, but I was in a church that said it was wrong... As I
became friends with gay people and learned their stories, a lot of them have pretty
common upbringings of rejection from some kind of community, a lot of times
their communities, a lot of times their parents, all tying back to people that were
held up with thinking it was a sinful affront to God. Its like calling someone
sinful for being black or Hawaiian. (Ryan)
Relating to another aspect of sexuality, Derek was trying to make sense of his
own burgeoning sexual impulses during his teenage years and the shame messages he
was receiving from the church: The principle of original sin suggests something wrong
with the human condition (Derek). As his sexuality emerged, he began his crisis of
faith (Derek):
The values of Roman Catholicism made less and less sense to me as I became
more educated around areas of sexual health. Spirituality felt very much like a
restriction on my sexual expression... I feel -1 was gonna use the word blessed -
that I had the sexual energy I have because that provided the fuel, the escape
velocity, from the gravitational pull of the religion. It provided the fuel for the
cognitive dissonance. Wait a minute, I feel this intense desire. And somehow


33
this is wrong? Im built this way. I didnt ask for these its part of me. Its
taken me a long time to own how sexual a person I am and not feel shame around
it. (Derek)
Becca would also have to confront some shame messages once she became
sexually active:
It felt good. I really enjoyed it. I had been so conditioned to think sex is really
wrong and youre not really supposed to enjoy it... Am I supposed to feel bad?
I feel bad that I dont feel bad. (Becca)
Whether embracing ones own sexuality or coming to terms with the sexuality of
gays and lesbians, sexuality often seemed at odds with religious doctrine. Combined
with exposure to other worldviews and a noticing of the hypocrisy present around them,
our participants were all beginning a transition that would lead to non-belief.
The break from belief. As the dissonance built, many of the participants slowly
extricated themselves from their churches. Often this was difficult:
Its a process. A long, slow process. Like a cancerous death. Really, its true.
Leaving the Mormon church is no easy feat. All your friends, all your family,
people you know, people you work with, where you got your job everything is
intertwined. (Paige)
Ryans process was also complicated, but more because of the internal struggles
he faced with leaving the church. He had come to love the sense of community. He
spoke quite highly of several friends he had made during those years. He sounded
ambivalent and bitter when he describes what caused him to leave:


34
This is just wrong! Its a flat-out evil that this religion that Ive found a
community in, this religion that Ive found meaning in, perpetuates. And thats
just not right. For a while, I tried to find is there a way that it can somehow be
mitigated or glossed over? And there isnt. With the culture of the Christian
church today, it perpetuates discrimination against homosexuality. Theres no
way you have to do linguistic and mental acrobatics to get around that fact. I
dont want be a part any part even if it gives me a sense of community -1 feel it
is morally objectionable to be a part of that situation. (Ryan)
Despite his vehement opposition of the churchs position on being gay, Ryan had
difficultly leaving the community he had grown to love. For years, he kept up a facade to
maintain the friendships and enjoy the community:
I was involved in the church, one foot in, one foot out, but I really didnt believe
any of it... My twenties was a very slow there was never a single time it was a
very slow backing out of the church... For a long time in my twenties, I could be
a Christian around my Christian friends, and not a Christian around my non-
Christian friends. (Ryan)
Some quietly left the structure of the church and called themselves agnostic for a
period of time, not identifying as an atheist until much later:
I was pretty much going my own route and not participating with the religion
much. I didnt have a lot of adult Muslim friends... For a long time I considered
myself agnostic, and then it just became more atheistic. (Abdul)


35
I stopped going to church when I was maybe 16. I just didn't really feel a need to
go back... I was on the fence about belief -1 would have called myself more
agnostic than atheist from about 18 until 27. (Becca)
Becca would eventually identify as an atheist after her fiance died unexpectedly.
Somewhere in the mourning and grief, she realized the idea of a supreme being did not
make sense. She recalls a time when her religious friend tried to comfort her by telling
her that he was still with them:
No hes fucking not. Theres no one here... It just wasnt there. I think I felt-
I was already sorta there. At the time I felt sort of betrayed. The only comfort
Im feeling are these people around me and the memories. (Becca).
For others, the transition happened much quicker. Once Michelle arrived in
graduate school for her doctorate she began to learn critical thinking skills:
I dont think I lingered in agnosticism. It was sort of an all-or-nothing. Once my
head was in that direction... I didnt have those skills yet to be able to stand
outside myself and look back at something critically. The development of those
in grad school and being in a place with scientific inquiry and professors and all
that... The first moment that stands out to me most was watching a football
game. Watching somebody score a touchdown and kneeling down in the end
zone and thanking God. I very clearly remember having a thought of Why
would God care about that? That was a moment. Thats what sticks with me the
most. Being like I dont know about that. That got the ball rolling. (Michelle)


36
Derek similarly experienced a relatively quick transition, after Nietzsche blew
the doors off of my worldview (Derek). One chink in the armor, you might say, was
noticing that there were different points of views, even within Christianity (Derek).
Around the age of seventeen, he told his parents I dont buy this anymore (Derek),
recalling None of those conversations went particularly well (Derek). Though hard to
picture now with his well-pressed button-up shirt and crew cut, Derek felt generally
ostracized as a nerdy kid and new wave punk kid with black finger nails and crazy
hair that embraced a rebellious, counter-culture identity. Being an atheist in a religious
town only increased his sense of marginalization.
While many participants were outward with their atheist proclamations, Taras
process was quiet and mostly internal throughout her teenage years. Her break began
with the difficultly reconciling the notion of original sin:
I just started to intellectualize and started to look at it logically. I started to
question the tenets of the Christian faith and dogma. The idea of original sin.
That, for me, was actually the flipping point from "Well, maybe God is
challenging my faith" or these Christian ways of reframing any kind of doubt, and
instead looking at it like "Wait a second, this just doesn't make any sense." The
idea of original sin to me was just completely illogical and irrational. This idea
that we would just come into life with no experience having done nothing and
having observed nothing we are just abhorrent, evil creatures that need to be
saved and redeemed. That's such a fairy tale to me once I actually started thinking
about it. (Tara)


37
By eighteen, Tara stopped going to church and labeled herself an agnostic. For a
few years I existed in that "I don't know" space, thinking I believed in a God. Not the
Christian God, but still somehow anthropomorphizing it (Tara). After ignoring the big
questions for some time, Tara one day was able to come to terms with herself:
I would probably have labeled myself agnostic until two-and-a-half years ago.
That was a lot of ignoring and pretending like it wasn't something I needed to
address... I was able to finally come to a place of being able to say "I don't
believe in God. I don't believe that is a fundamental reality." A lot of it was
learning more about Eastern traditions. A lot of it was studying yoga and
understanding that there is this way of integrating a lot of my intuitive beliefs
about humanity and consciousness that can exist independently from any kind of
authoritative and omnipotent power. Kinda starting to come back to a more
humanistic perspective. Bringing the control back within the sphere of our lived
biological existence, rather than some sort of whatever-that-is... It was really
subtle, and it wasn't a big deal. It just kinda happened. It was so natural to me to
be in that space that it wasn't a revelation. It was more like "This is reality. This
is the way it is. And that's okay. (Tara)
While some participants experienced discrete events marking their transition to
atheism, each was the culmination of a lifetime of events. Tara describes the process that
transpired in the decade between crying at the donut-less grocery store and renouncing
belief:


38
It's so subtle. These little shifts that happen in our perception. The little things
that guide us towards those shifts. It's being on the bus, watching people interact.
Being in relationships and understanding how you are in relationships. They
happen so subtly. I really don't have these clear benchmarks of going from one to
the other. (Tara)
Surely this is true for many participants. Early relationships, exposure to new
thoughts, and memorable life events begin the period of questioning. These are the first
cracks in the wall of belief, widening over time. Then the dam breaks and with it comes
tremendous change.
Fear of judgment and rejection. Many left religious belief structures because of
the judgment present only to then find themselves on the receiving end of judgment from
friends, family, and society-at-large. I hate feeling like there are people out there who
hate me because of my beliefs (Derek). Derek had previously heard of the Edgell,
Gerteis, and Hartmann study (2006) about the distrust and prejudice against atheists,
referencing it when talking about society:
It has changed some, but not as much as I might like. I still feel like I live in a
culture that is still Christian-based or belief-based in some fashion. As
homophobic as this culture is, Im still 30 points below that on an acceptability
scale. (Derek)
Michelle, even in the context of graduate school, remembers when she first found
the courage to openly identify as an atheist and the fear which accompanied:


39
I wouldnt use the word. It took me a year. I can remember the first time I used it.
Out in a bar with a bunch of friends in grad school. Thats the first time I came out
and said I think Im an atheist. It was scary. It had sort of built up enough. I
had purposefully not been saying it in contexts. I was afraid to say it out loud.
Certainly did not want to say it to my parents. It seemed like a bad thing to say.
What would other people think? How are they going to judge me? (Michelle)
Twenty years after first coming out to friends, Michelle stills holds a fear of
losing business if her beliefs were made public:
On something public, I dont want it out there in that way... I feel like me putting
myself out there as an atheist could hurt my career. Which sucks, because thats
the opposite of what Im about. Im about being totally authentic and putting it
out there. But for some reason, thats not a stigma Im willing to take on.
(Michelle)
Derek echoes the notion that the term still holds too negative of a stigma to be
public knowledge in the world of business:
In dealing with clients, I suspect I will not volunteer my religious views in talking
about differences. That point is going to be more contentious than talking about
race, gender, or sexual orientation. (Derek)
The need for discretion around being an atheist seems rooted in the societal
perception. In a predominantly-Christian nation, most people have difficulty calling their
foundational ideas into question:


40
I think it makes people really uncomfortable... People dont know what to do
with it. They avoid it. People really rely on that thought process... If you meet
someone you assume theyre Christian. People dont know what to do when they
meet somebody and realize theyre not. (Becca)
Michelle stated Its like coming out of the closet. I dont want people to know
this... I only out myself as an atheist if the person says it first (Michelle). Tara also
knows the effects the term can have and is somewhat understanding:
You come up against any kind of religious person and tell them you're an atheist
and the reaction is immediately negative... If you say you don't believe in God,
people immediately think you're void. That you have no substance. No
grounding. No imagination maybe, I don't know. They just kind of see you as a
black hole... I think it scares people. No one wants to think about dying. No one
wants to think about mortality. When you're an atheist, that's immediately what
people feel... "Crap, I have to think about the fact that someday I'm going to be
confronting my own death. I'm going to be confronting the fact that I'll cease to
exist. (Tara)
Derek is more open about his lack of belief, though not completely.
I still feel reticent. I have to choose when and where I talk about it. It threatens
their worldview... Im not wearing it on my sleeve. If someone asks about it,
Im happy to talk about it. (Derek)
An able-bodied heterosexual white male who is otherwise at the pinnacle of
privilege in society, Derek stated: It definitely impacts my feeling in general of feeling


41
included. There is certainly a sense of marginalization (Derek). Derek mentioned
having lost friends he tried to engage in intellectual discussion. Many cannot stand their
worldview being challenged: I have absolutely alienated people that are not my friends
anymore through these debates. People regard me as an enemy (Derek).
Many participants felt rejection from people very close to them. Becca developed
a rift with her parents. Her mom told her The path youre on is leading to a bad
place (Becca), while Beccas father openly disapproved of a happy relationship she was
in because they lived together premaritally. I didnt talk to my mom for a year (Becca).
Becca relates the feeling of being rejected by her parents on account of her lack of belief,
despite everything else in life going well:
That was really hard. I was really happy. I was in this great relationship...
Literally doing everything I was supposed to be doing. It felt frustrating that it
wasnt enough. Wow, Im never going to be good enough. No matter how good
my life is. (Becca)
Derek talked about the coming-out process with his parents, saying it really
shook them and concerned them a lot (Derek). He soon found his relationship with
them strained: There was a distance between myself and my parents. Their way of
relating to children, which was all about obedience and rules, was undercut. So it was
hard for us to have a relationship (Derek). When asked if an eventual resolution was
reached, Derek grew tearful in remembering his father dying without having accepted
him: The repercussions of that are still on-going. Its a continuing pain that I face.


42
Abdul also had difficulties with his father and their schism of faith, despite
describing his alcoholic father as a dysfunctional guy (Abdul):
We couldnt really have deep theological discussions. He believed the way he
did. I kinda had to maintain this aura of this Im still a Muslim even until he
died six years ago. (Abdul)
Tara also recalls being unable to share her questioning with her mother or any of
her friends:
I wasn't surrounded by a lot of people that I could process that with... I don't
remember talking about it with anyone in my family... If I had talked about it
with my mom there would have been a lot of resistance because she is very
devoted to her faith... I didn't talk about this with anybody until I was maybe in
my twenties. There was no room for dissent among most of the people I was in
contact with. (Tara)
Beyond straining parental relationships, several participants talked about tensions
in friendships. Becca left the Mormon church while relatively young, while Paige left as
an adult. Both experienced difficulties:
It becomes hard. Youre not really sure where you fit. You want to hang out with
this friend but some of the things you say really bother me. And you want to hang
out with this friend but some of the things I say still bother you. And you want to
fit in at that age. (Becca)


43
I regularly saw these people and shared what was going on in our lives. They
always accepted me, as long as I was still Mormon. When I had different ideas,
though, I didnt feel comfortable to share it with them. (Paige)
Whether from friends, family, or society, all of our participants experienced a
sense of rejection once they stopped believing in a god. Many felt they could not be
themselves among those closest to them. Several had family difficulties. Some felt fear
for their business if their lack of belief became public. All this occurred because they
stopped believing in a god. The transition was also often accompanied by a sense of loss.
Loss. Several participants felt loss for the characters and stories of their religious
texts, which they had previously thought of as real. During our interview, Paige talked
about the loss of Jesus in her life:
The four gospels thats powerful stuff. Theres goodness in that stuff. That
goodness I connected with. Even today, when I read the Bible Ill shed a tear.
Thats goodness. Thats a loss. Because its not true. But its a really lovely
story... (Paige)
Paige also had a sense of loss around the idea of an afterlife. She recently lost a
friend and now accepts that she will never see him again. Wistfully crying, she said
How lost I feel without religion to soothe me. Without all of that stuff to soothe me. I
cant count on it anymore, its not real for me anymore. (Paige). Similarly, Becca, no
stranger to the loss of a loved one, likened the loss of God to the loss of a best friend:


44
You just feel alone... Theres this sense of betrayal... It felt like a betrayal of
someone that I grew up thinking was my friend. I thought If you are there,
youre just not my friend. Maybe you arent there? (Becca)
Ryan shared a feeling of betrayal, but more directed at community he felt had
deceived him over the years: Man, Ive been lied to. All these people told me all these
things (Ryan). Ryans struggles with the loss of community was the hardest aspect of
the transition, and one which he has not found a suitable replacement:
Definitely loneliness has been one of the bigger struggles and probably will
continue to be for me... I miss the community. I dont really have a tribe. Im
convinced we all want a tribe. We all want to be in a group of one hundred... We
want to be a part of some kind of group. I think theres something extremely
human and evolutionarily ingrained about that. I dont have that and I miss it. I
have even gone to church just to tap into that a little bit, even in recent years...
Im going there for that community. But I sit there and think This is insane the
entire time. (Ryan)
Abdul also strongly felt a sense of loss around faith. His loss was accompanied
by a tragic, mourning quality of self-deficiency not seen in the other participants, as if the
loss of faith equated to a loss of hope:
Once you become an atheist, its extremely difficult to become un-atheist. You
just become so skeptical and cynical. Its really hard to un-prove it... I see huge
benefits in what people get out of spirituality... I just have a hard time finding it
for myself. (Abdul)


45
For Abdul, the lines between religion, parental influence, and alcoholism are
blurry. Ive struggled with my alcohol as well (Abdul). He is an active member of
Alcoholics Anonymous: That results in a certain sense of community, which is healthy.
Maybe I dont have a great faith, but Im socializing with these folks that have similar
issues (Abdul). However, he finds difficulty in belonging to yet another community
which requires belief in a higher power. The pain and suffering was evident in Abduls
voice during our conversation:
Theres a strong spiritual thread in that program. The spiritual aspects of that
program are extremely difficult for me to comprehend and master. The group
therapy aspects and the self-learning and introspection that you get out of it are
really powerful. It does provide some moments of serenity. But its fairly
fleeting... Youre supposed to ask God to remove defects of character. And Im
like Well, I dont have a god, so hows that work? (Abdul).
Whether the loss of the idea of heaven, the company an imagined friend, or of
hope itself, it is important to recognize that becoming an atheist involves profound
sacrifice and loss.
Anger. For several participants, anger comes about when contemplating religion.
Derek gets angry at the societal impact of religiosity:
Heres the stuff that gets my blood boiling when I look at things like education
policy and science instruction. In a southern state they are revising their
curriculum to write out climate change. Climate change isnt a religious issue as
such but it is in the same camp of things like creationism. It really worries me


46
that there is a generation of children being miseducated... That makes me feel
like Im not in a safe world. You know what I mean? People are making
decisions on the basis of things that arent real. Things that have no evidence.
(Derek)
Becca feels similarly about the topic of evolution, even though she is fine with
theism in schools:
Im not an atheist that will ever push to take God out of schools. That doesnt
really bother me outside of teaching incorrect stuff, like not teaching evolution.
Thats sort of a big deal, because youre teaching wrong stuff. (Becca)
With atheists being in the minority, some feel powerless in regard to the political
ramifications of living in a Christian nation:
When I see that stuff, I get a twinge and my heart races. What can I do about
this? I feel a big responsibility to do something, yet I feel powerless... How does
powerlessness affect my mental health? The fear about the outcomes... What
unintended consequences flow from being miseducated about science and
believing science is something to mistrust? People are raised with a mistrust of
science because it contradicts their spiritual beliefs and then they end up doing
dangerous shit that affects all of our lives. That really worries me and makes me
feel uncomfortable about the world we live in. (Derek)
For Ryan, who is generally a happy guy, anger manifests around the egocentrism
of the religious and the plight of gays and lesbians:


47
I get so mad. Theres not many things that make me that mad. That brings me to
a place of anger that I dont really experience in many other places of life...
People who have absolutely no concern about the ridiculousness of the Bible.
They seem all too gleeful that they are the ones chosen and loved by God. That
theyll stand over most people who are hell-bound and they think that is a great
thing. Theyre happy to worship a God that would create that scenario. Theyre
entirely unconcerned, not even wanting to not know the stories of gay people who
are so hurt by what their community is perpetuating in this country. (Ryan)
Michelle experienced anger with religious friends as well, though hers was more
tempered with an understanding humor. She remembers a holiday spent with her
Pentecostal boyfriends family:
Thanksgiving dinner they prayed for me. Prayed for my soul. I was like Thank
you? and Fuck you for thinking you can pray for my soul! And on the flip
side, its never bad if people are sending you good thoughts or thinking good
things about you. It felt a bit self-righteous. (Michelle)
Existential angst. Some participants talked about the existential angst which
arises from no longer believing, often accompanied by a melancholy reminiscence for the
safety of belief. Paige talked about loneliness: Its sad a little bit that its not real,
because it makes me feel more alone. But were all alone anyway (Paige). Michelle,
generally a positive and upbeat person, talked about the existential angst that stems from
being an atheist during an emotional moment of our interview. Her intensity grew and
grew as she told us:


48
That puts me into an existential angst. I reminded again that theres no fucking
point to any of this. Theres no meaning. We make it all up. Its all bullshit.
Nothing matters. This is bad dont let me stay in this state for too long. I dont
want to drop into this. Its not a fun place to go. Hopelessness, helplessness,
terror and sadness. A feeling Im not used to as a relatively positive person. This
is why people are religious. So they dont ever have to feel this. This feels shitty.
This feels bad. This is unmotivating. This is just awful. This is very well the
truth. Okay, so were making up meaning. So Im gonna make up meaning that
matters to me. Thats what makes me happy. Im going to be of service and help
people. Im here and thats what I do. Im here and lets reduce suffering. I make
up my own meaning around that. But it made me a little envious. You fuckers
dont have to feel this because you believe in something that makes you not have
to. I get it. It pisses me off, but it gives me respect psychologically,
emotionally, I get why people do this. It serves many purposes that really
fundamental alleviating of angst. (Michelle)
Abdul shared in the experience of existential angst and purposelessness, but
unlike the other participants I could feel his longing to return to belief:
Its an incredibly cynical and pessimistic way to live. You think, if there is no
God then whats the point of life? Were just these biological organisms spinning
through space. Perhaps some of that is age as well. As you get into middle age
and face your own mortality, you think What is the purpose of life? What have I
accomplished? Invariably, most people look at their life and realize I didnt


49
realize everything I thought I might achieve. Then you think, what is the
purpose of this whole life? You look at people that have spiritual serenity, and
theyre obviously seeming to have more peace around it. Its a quest for
banishing anxiety and such things. You can see that people in religious faith have
some benefits there. If you got a lot of emotional anxiety and psychological
things going on, its natural to look those folks and think I kinda want what they
have. How can I get that? (Abdul)
Tara was another participant that spoke at-length about existential angst. She
initially confronted it at age eighteen when she first broke away from the church,
resulting in a lengthy depression filled with the contemplation of nonexistence. Though
the depression eventually lifted, she still struggles with angst today:
It definitely brought up some existential angst for me. If there isn't a God, what is
there? What happens when we die? What is our purpose in life? If there isn't
some creator-man ascribing purpose to everything I do if fate doesn't exist why
am I here? What am I doing? In that way there was definitely some upheaval for
me... I have to ascribe my own meaning to it... I haven't resolved it. I've been
existing in this space for like a year-and-a-half or so, grappling with panic and
depression over the fact that one day I will die. There isn't any comfort in that. I
can't hold on to any kind of fairy tale that when I do die there will be anything
waiting for me. That's something I've been working through. (Tara)
The discussions around purpose, meaning, and death were some of the most
poignant moments of all the interviews. Ceasing belief in god and religion seemed to


50
bring our participants face-to-face with the big questions. For some, it was depressing
and difficult, at least initially. Combined with societal rejection, family pains, the loss of
friends, and outrage at the power of religion in this country, becoming an atheist was
tough for most. However, it was not without its benefits.
Reintegration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the negative the emotions of the
transition, most of the participants displayed an eventual reintegration of their identity
and cited several emergent strengths stemming from non-belief.
Understanding and acceptance. Having been on both sides of belief, several
participants relayed a newfound strength in being able to appreciate the perspectives of
others:
Ive become a lot more moderated in my views. Ive become a lot more
accepting. Sometimes I think of religious or spiritual beliefs as a coping
mechanism whatever people need to get through their day... It gives me an
ability to decontextualize things in a way others cant. (Derek)
Michelle has also softened around dealing with believers, both in life and in her
therapy practice:
Ive gotten way more tolerant, way less judgmental. I get why people are
religious. I certainly understand how it serves people and how it helps people. If
I have a client that has a strong religious belief that I dont hold, I will dig at it
and find out what strength comes from it. (Michelle)


51
For Paige, becoming an atheist and pursuing scientific inquiry in the realm of
psychology led to a greater sense of understanding and compassion for her dysfunctional
mother:
I understood there was many different facets to it. It wasnt just her lack of love
for me. It was her lack of ability to love herself, or care for herself, or care for
me, or understand what she was doing before she did it. (Paige)
Paige would later solidify her message of acceptance for others: That space
where you and someone else cant bridge a gap is the limits to your ability to
unconditionally love another person (Paige). Tara also feels a sense of universality
around religion nowadays:
I absolutely believe that there is deep wisdom in religiosity. I think it's perverted
and muddled by human ambition. But I absolutely believe there are some
fundamental truths. That's supposed to be what religion directs us to... Certain
things translate no matter what. I've become more interested in identifying what
those things are and what they mean for people, no matter where you are. (Tara)
Even Derek, who perpetually longed for debates on the topic, has found more
acceptance in recent years. I have more of a conciliatory attitude towards it now.
Accepting others and where they came from. He continues with a mischievous laugh:
Less apt to want to cure them! (Derek). Paige echoes Dereks sentiments towards
evidenced-based thought and has come to share an open-minded approach as well:


52
I think the naturalists are more committed to reality-based and evidence-based
thinking, and I think thats healthier. I dont need to bang the atheist bible. I want
to keep it open. (Paige)
Confidence and empowerment. For several participants, the transition led to
confidence and a sense of empowerment:.
As much as it was a stigma and I didnt want to say the word and share it with
people, it did feel empowering for two reasons. One, when I think back,
Catholicism to me is kinda heavy, kinda scary, and kinda guilt and shame and
stuff like that. There was a release from that I think. It also felt empowering
because I was using my brain and using critical thinking and it was logical.
(Michelle)
Tara shares in the sense of release that comes with embracing her new mindset.
She also found empowerment in a sense of truth:
On the positive side of things, there was assurance in that conviction. Which is
interesting... I feel like it's reality. That's a benefit -1 actually get to exist in
reality. I'm not trying to make something up or live in a made-up world. I
actually have to confront the real questions. Not the made up ones... For me, to
realize the truth was very freeing. It was a relief. All the angst I had carried
around for so long about like "I'm praying and my prayers aren't being answered."
or "I feel like a bad Christian because I have all of this doubt." Being able to
finally just say "Wait a second, I'm none of those things because this actually isn't
true!" For me it was really freeing. Being able to step out of that burden of sin


53
was extraordinary! I don't understand why anyone would walk through life
constantly believing they were innately bad and in need of redemption. Life is
hard enough! Why put that on yourself as well? (Tara)
Becca shared in the feeling of empowerment from being able to hold conflicting
ideas in her head. She also found a greater sense of awareness for herself and others:
Im really self-reliant. Also, I have confidence in my own ideas. Even now, if
something comes up that challenges what I believe right now, I dont have a
problem with that. I like self-reflection. Im really self-aware. I tend to notice
how Im feeling and how Im making others feel. (Becca)
For Derek, the empowerment connects to a broader historical movement: It does
make me feel a kinship with people of science and reason throughout history. He
continues with a laugh: Im an outsider, but Im a special outsider. An elite
outsider (Derek). Michelle echoes: I find it so refreshing if I meet somebody new and I
find out. It makes me so happy. Its like a sisterhood or brotherhood. Its like You think
smart too (Michelle).
Community. Many participants cited community as an appealing aspect of
religion. Some of the participants have maintained that concept as an atheist:
I still really believe in community, having this net of people. I have this
incredible network of friends that are insanely supportive in the way that I need,
which is really rare.... Because of the way I grew up, those were the type of
friendships I was taught to build. How to pay attention to people, how to listen to
people, how to support them... When I stepped outside of the church, I built


54
friends that were like-minded. Not like church-like-minded. But their moral
compass it the same as mine. (Becca)
I am so intent on building a tribe of people that I can really look to and that can
teach me stuff. I want a group of people that are really close to me, that I can
connect with, that I can really appreciate as human beings and that I can learn
from. (Paige)
Ryan often looks at the benefits he gained from being involved in religion and
discussed how to replace those facets in his new life:
You can attain the feelings I had with meditation. With a community. Were
listening to one another and were concerned with one another. Thats where the
value is. Its not in whats going up to the sky and what is or is not coming back.
Thats clearly not the value. The value is in developing that community, and the
demonstration of listening and being cognizant and aware of other people. (Ryan)
Abdul still looks favorably on the religious community, though he is unable to
intellectually feel like he can be a part of it. However, he seems to have found a sense of
healing in parenting his own children. He agreed to let his wife raise their children with
religion:
I think raising kids religiously, if its not too hardcore, is pretty beneficial overall.
My kids were raised Catholic. Theyre not super-Catholic. Theyre pretty
reasonably okay with it. My kids know its a story... Im optimistic for them
having some sort of religious faith... I think that would overall be a positive
thing. If you can tolerate religion, its good for you. (Abdul)


55
Societal progress. Some participants found solace in the shifting tides of society,
feeling like they are the vanguard:
I think its much more readily accepted now. Religious people do not want to
believe that religion is in the decline, but the fact of the matter is it is in decline.
Its just logical, from an anthropological perspective. Christ died over two
thousand years ago, okay? Four thousand years from now, his influence is going
to be less than it is now. Time erodes myth. It turns faith into myth. We dont
believe in the Roman gods anymore because that doesnt make any sense.
(Abdul)
I really appreciate that there is more of these [atheist] forces acting in our society.
It makes me feel more comforted that there are folks in positions of power and
influence trying to have an impact in some fashion in our world. (Derek)
Tara, being the youngest of the participants, perhaps represents the societal shift
several of the participants longed for a redefining of the term itself:
I feel like in America atheism is synonymous with nihilism... Atheism doesn't
have to mean nothingness. I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in
nothingness either... I would like to see the perception or definition of atheism
broadened a little bit. To encompass these worldviews that do have a lot of faith
in our spiritual essence outside of religion. (Tara)
A new philosophy. So what do all these former believers hold as their truths now
that they have renounced the metaphysical? Many seem to embrace this life more fully,


56
truly soaking up lifes pleasures. Ryan, an avid hiker, backpacker, traveller, and beach
volleyball player with friends around the globe, says:
Things that make me feel happy, I just enjoy! Instead of thinking about things
any further, I just say That was awesome! I enjoyed that! End-of-story. That is
meaningful enough. I can put my hand on it. It makes sense. Thats enough for
me. Tying that to Gods purpose for me and eternal existence is just going into a
block box of confusion that you can never say anything useful. It just muddles
whats actually important, which is That was awesome! I enjoyed that. It was
an extraordinarily, really good experience. (Ryan)
Several of the participants seemed to move through life with this ability to be
present and embrace experiences fully. Fueled by the finiteness of experience, Paige says
I dont want to die today because I have some stuff I need to do! (Paige). Like many of
the participants, she embraces personal growth: What I really connect with is seeking
growth and balance in my life. And seeking goodness (Paige). Though happiness is
always difficult to quantify, Ryan states it as such:
I love the sports Im involved with. I love my time in the hospital. For the people
Im around each week, I really enjoy being around them. For that reason, Im
happy the vast majority of the time. Im happy ninety-five percent of the time.
Five percent of the time Im not, and thats okay. For the five percent of the time
Im not, I know the happiness is not that far away. So Ill just get through it.
(Ryan)


57
For others, the quest for spirituality led to other traditions. Michelle remembers
doing some reading on Eastern traditions and discovering a pleasant surprise: All this
stuff that is resonating with me that is not God, but that is spiritual, has a name. Its
called Buddhism! (Michelle). Michelle would go on to learn about secular Buddhist
philosophy, becoming a vegetarian and incorporating mindfulness into her daily routine
and into her work with clients. She found a sense of spirituality there, later going on to
say:
I identify as spiritual. I sometimes call myself a spiritual atheist. What I realized
that meant is Buddhism. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. Theres
things we cant explain an interconnectedness between humans that cant be
explained. Although some of it is getting explained by psychology,
neuropsychology, and the powers of meditation and mindfulness those to me are
all very spiritual things. Buddhist beliefs of kindness, compassion, no cruelty,
reducing suffering by detaching, how were all in it together, stuff like that. It
really is a lot of Buddhist tenets. Though I dont call myself a Buddhist and I
dont want to. I dont really want a religious label. That doesnt appeal to me.
(Michelle)
Other participants, like Derek, would also gravitate towards Buddhism: I enjoy
the practices of Buddhism, like the meditations (Derek). Tara is also finding connection
and exploring meaning through mindfulness and Eastern traditions:
I'm very focused on learning how to be here now. This idea that our mind can live
in the past or future and can conceptualize world upon world, but my body can


58
only be right here... Trying to just be with that. It's hard. It's really really hard. I
think I'm still struggling with it. I really don't know. It changes for me on a daily
basis. Multiple times in a day. I've been very focused on trying to not prescribe
meaning, rather than being here now and seeing if any meaning comes from that.
Being led rather than leading. (Tara)
Paige is still uncertain what spirituality means, though it seems she has found
plenty of ways to connect with herself that are not dictated by a spiritual authority:
When I look at the components of what a well-rounded life is and I see the
spiritual component, I dont know what the fuck to do with it. I go to the
mountains. And sit. I do yoga. I connect with me. I smoke a joint. I dont need
a book anymore, or a set of rules. (Paige)
Meanwhile, Abdul seems to not have integrated atheism into his identity in a
healthy way. He still struggles with his efforts to bring spirituality back into his life and
help with his Alcohol Anonymous steps:
Lets keep trying it. Lets keep looking at it. Ill keep reviewing the steps that are
oriented towards spirituality and see if I can find some answer or some structure
that I can form a foundation on. But its pretty challenging. (Abdul)
For Becca, thoughts on god and spirituality do not seem a part of daily life: I
dont actively think about being an atheist. I dont wake up thinking Yep, still dont
believe in God today! (Becca). She describes her new philosophy:
Even if Im not in the church, I live a good life. I do good things. I dont put
anything bad out there... I have a deep belief in the importance of happiness and


59
contentment... Happiness is so fleeting. You have no idea. If it makes you
happy then Im really happy, as long as youre not hurting people. (Becca)
Tara also feels distant from her Christian upbringing, stating I've come so far
away from that world and that belief system that its not even something I think about on
a daily basis (Tara). She is coming to refine her new worldview, also reconciling her
existential angst with a hopefulness and compassionate outlook:
You have to start being very picky about what you do with your time. I think
that's a good thing. It's the first time I've had to confront the idea that this might
be my only life. Which is terrifying. But I think its a good thing because it
definitely leads me to be more bold. Hopefully. At least more compassionate.
Anything that leads us to be more compassionate can be nothing but good. (Tara)
Ryan also stays away from identifiers, instead focusing on the commonalities of
humanity:
I dont use that term [atheist], I dont like the term non-Christian. By trying to
label somebody something theyre not... We want families. We want to have
meaning. We want good people in our lives. We want relationships. We want the
same things... Atheists or agnostics or humanists or Christian or Muslim or
Buddhist were not those things. I dont think anybody is... Im a human. I
dont think Im any different from Christians or atheists. Were all transitory.
Every Christian will be non-Christian at times so dont label yourself as such...
Im Ryan. That stayed constant. (Ryan)


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Advice For Those Somewhere in the Process
Some of the participants were asked what they might say to someone beginning to
question their faith in gods and religion. Tara emphasized each individual figuring it out
for themselves:
If you're capable of being able to accept that God doesn't exist and you can find
peace in that, then by all means pursue that. If it puts you into a tail spin of misery
and sadness, then I don't care if people tell themselves stories. If it comforts
them, if it allows them to get through life, if it gives them meaning and purpose
and, I would hope, teaches them love and compassion, I think that's fine. Life is
hard enough. There's no reason to put a burden on yourself one way or another.
For me Christianity was a burden and making me miserable. (Tara)
Becca responded, Think. More than anything else. Take time to think. Dont
take time to talk. Stop taking so much time to listen. Thats all you do in religion. Just
stop listening and start thinking. It makes a difference. Try to expose yourself to other
people (Becca).
Paige also advises exposure to people with differing viewpoints: If you are
having misgivings about a religion, talk to lots of different kinds of people. If you only
talk to people in your religion youre likely to be manipulated into believing something
that you may not feel is right for you. Go with your gut and get a lot of support if you
can (Paige).


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Michelle recommends researching: I would just look up stuff... Learn the
terminology. Research a bunch of stuff and get it. Seek out a Meetup group, the
Rationalists Society, stuff like that (Michelle).
Tara perhaps best summarizes these sentiments, emphasizing the individual path
each individual must take to find harmony within: Read broadly. Read deeply. Have
conversations about it. Think about it. Figure out what works for you and what doesn't.
Seek peace (Tara).


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CHAPTERV
DISCUSSION
This study illustrates that the process of becoming an atheist is complex and
intense, replete with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components. Often sparked by
new thoughts which cannot be reconciled with the structures of religion, the precursors to
the transition might include exposure to new ideas and cultures, an analysis of the
hypocrisy present in religious structures and their followers, and critical thinking on the
power of prayer, the nature of sexuality, and gay rights. The break from belief is a trying
time, often fraught with feelings of rejection, fear, judgment, loss, anger, and angst.
Family relations, friendships, and a sense of community are all strained in the process.
These findings support the detrimental effects discussed in other studies (Gervais, 2011;
Weber, Pargament, Kunik, Lomax & Stanley, 2012). The study also adds credence to the
v-shaped relationship between well-being and certainty (Galen & Kloet, 2011), as these
tough times are often eventually buoyed by new-found strengths: a sense of
understanding and acceptance of others, feelings of confidence and empowerment, a
rediscovered thirst for community, and a new philosophy that embraces life, happiness,
goodness, and personal growth.
It is my hope that this study serves as a reminder that this stigmatized group is not
the immoral, untrustworthy, and dejected lot that popular culture has made them out to be
(Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006), but rather everyday people possessing the kindness,
the hopes, the anger, the fear, and the angst that anyone might. The study illustrates that
they embrace life for all the ups and down it offers, attempting to reconcile the big


63
questions free from myth. I hope we recognize that there are still many out there who do
not believe and remain hidden for fear of being judged and ostracized. I hope we as a
society can continue moving forward to a time when disbelief in deities is not a reason
for prejudice, stigma, or distrust.
Implications for Clinical Work
Given the levels of societal mistrust and prejudice towards atheists (Edgell,
Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006; Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2008; Gervais, 2011), it is
clear that they are a misunderstood group. Atheists still encounter many difficulties in
this country despite generally being highly educated and intelligent (Lynn, Harvey &
Nyborg, 2008; PRC, 2012), empathetic and nurturing of relationships (Caldwell-Harris,
Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2010), and often demonstrating lower levels of
prejudice, ethnocentrism, and homophobia (Zuckerman, 2009). If practitioners in the
fields of mental health and human services are any reflection of society-at-large, there is
much that they can learn from the accounts in this study to avoid contributing to the
damage done through misunderstanding, judgment, and fear of non-belief.
This study has reinforced the idea that becoming an atheist is a process. As we
work with clients, it is important to know where they are in the journey. Are they
experiencing cognitive discomfort with conflicting ideas and need someone to flesh out
their ambivalent feelings in a nonjudgmental, non-directive, and accepting way? Are
they slowly moving towards identifying as atheists and need support with the inevitable
fallout that will come from friends, family, and society? Do they need help processing


64
anger, mourning loss, or exploring existential angst? Are they reintegrating their identity
and need space to articulate what is important in their new worldview?
Awareness and understanding of these different aspects of the process can help
guide our work with burgeoning atheists. The journey can be a long one understand
where they are in it. Ask how they identify. Ask what their self-identification means.
Learn how they think about gods and religion and how those thoughts have changed.
Find out who supports them in this process. Find out which relationships are being
strained and what it means to them. Process struggles with family discord, loss of
friendships, and feeling alone. Understand how they experience marginalization and
ostracization. Learn about the negative feelings occurring within them. Understand their
losses and normalize these difficulties as part of the process. Explore meaning, purpose,
and existence. Build up the strengths that emerge from the journey. Recognize feelings
of empowerment and confidence. Connect the transition with broader community
resources and societal shifts. Help them define their guiding values and integrate them
into new life philosophy. Remind them of something Paige said: Its really confusing
for a while. Then you work it out (Paige).
As healers and guides, we can also direct burgeoning atheists to resources for
non-believers. For those feeling alone with their questioning, most towns have groups in
which nonbelievers can find support, with names like Freethinkers, Brights, humanists,
rationalists, skeptics, and secularists. For those needing literature to help think through
the process, we can recommend the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens,
Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Bertrand Russell, as


65
well as the references of this study. For those struggling with drugs and alcohol, but also
struggling with the metaphysical aspects of common twelve-step programs, there are
organizations like Secular Organizations for Sobriety, LifeRing, Rational Recovery, and
Smart Recovery.
As counselors, therapists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and doctors, we
have an ethical imperative to understand and support the cultural and philosophical lenses
of our clients (ACA, 2014; AMA, 2015; ANA, 2015; APA, 2010; NASW, 2008). This is
perhaps all the more important when it comes to marginalized minority groups such as
atheists. Let us endeavor to understand their values. Let us see the world through their
eyes. Let us accept that their perspective is fundamentally different from most of society.
Only then can we truly be of service to our clients.


66
REFERENCES
Altemeyer, B. (1997) Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon
Religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Altemeyer, B. & Hunsberger, B. (2006). Atheists: a groundbreaking study of Americas
nonbelievers. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
American Counseling Association (2014). Code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: American
Counseling Association.
American Medical Association (2015). Code of Medical Ethics. Chicago: IL: American
Medical Association.
American Nurses Association (2015). Code of Ethics for Nurses. Silver Spring, MD:
American Nurses Association
American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical principles ofpsychologists and code
of conduct. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Anspach, W., Coe, K., Thurlow, C. (2007) The other closet?: Atheists, homosexuals and
the lateral appropriation of discursive capital. Critical Discourse Studies, 7(1),
95-119. doi: 10.1080/17405900501149509
Blackford, R. (2009) 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Malden, MA:
Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Bokun, Z. (1998). Daoist patterns of thought and the tradition of Chinese metaphysics.
Contemporary Chinese Thought, 29(3), 13-71. doi: 10.2753/
CSP1097-1467290313


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Caldwell-Harris, C., Wilson, A., LoTempio, E., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2010). Exploring
the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists,
Buddhists, and Christians. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(1), 659-672.
doi: 10.1080/13674676.2010.509847
Creswell, J. (2013) Qualitative inquiry & research design: choosing among five
approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Edwards, D. (1998). Types of case study work: a conceptual framework for case-based
research. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38(3), 36-70. doi
10.1177/00221678980383003
Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as other: moral boundaries and
cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review,
77, 211-234. doi: 10.1177/000312240607100203
Festiner, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. California: Stanford University
Press.
Galen, L. & Kloet, J. (2010). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious:
evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(1),
673-689. doi: 10.1080/13674676.2010.510829
Gallup International (2012). Global index of religiosity and atheism. Retrieved August 1,
2013, from http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf
Gervais, W., Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is
central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
101(6), 1189-1206. doi:10.1037/a0025882


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Gervais, W. (2011). Finding the faithless: perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-
atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(543). doi
10.1177/0146167211399583
Hayes, R. (1988). Principled atheism in the buddhist scholastic tradition. Journal of
Indian Philosophy, 16(1), 5-28. doi: 10.1007/BF00235404
Hadaway, C. (1989). Identifying American apostates: a cluster analysis. Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion, 28(2), 201-215. doi: 10.2307/1387059
Harris, S. (2007). The problem with atheism. Atheist Alliance Conference. Lecture
conducted from Washington, DC.
Hunsberger, B. & Brown, L. (1984). Religious socialization, apostasy, and the impact of
family background. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 23(3), 239-251.
doi: 10.2307/1386039
Husserl, E. (1977). Phenomenological psychology (J. Scanlon, Trans.). The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff (Original work published 1925.)
Johnson, B. & Christensen, L. (2012). Education research: cpiantitative, cpialitative, and
mixed approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Keller, B., Klein, C., Hood, R., & Streib, H. (2013). Deconversion and religious or
spiritual transformation. In H. Westerink (Ed.), Religion and Transformation in
Contemporary European Society: Vol. 4. Constructs of Meaning and Religious
Transformation. ( hr rent Issues in the Psychology of Religion (pp. 119-139).
Gottingen: V&R unipress / Vienna University Press.


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Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates
across 137 nations. Intelligence, 37(1), 11-15. doi:10.1016/j.intell.2008.03.004
Karlsson, G. (1993). Psychological qualitative research from a phenomenological
perspective. Stockholm: Almvqvist & Wiksell International.
Kosmin, B. & Keysar, A. (2009). American religious identification survey: summary
report. Retrieved July 8, 2013, from http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/
2011/08/ARIS Report 2008.pdf
Martin, M. (2007). The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007.
National Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of ethics. Washington, DC:
National Association of Social Workers.
Pew Research Center (2012). Nones on the rise: one-in-five adults have no religious
affiliation. Retrieved July 8, 2013, from http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/
Topics/ReligiousAffiliation/Unaffiliated/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf
Seidman, I. (2013). Interviewing as qualitative research: a guide for researchers in
education & the social sciences. New York: Teachers College Press.
Silver, C., Coleman, T., Ill, Hood, R., Jr., & Holcombe, J. (2014). The six types of
nonbelief: a qualitative and quantitative study of type and narrative. Mental
Health, Religion & Culture, 77(10), 990-1001. doi:
10.1080/13674676.2014.987743


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Simpson, W. (2013). When god dies: deconversion from theism as analogous to the
experience of death. Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Retrieved July 24,
2013, from
http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/theses/1259
Streib, H. (2013). Deconversion. In Rambo, L. & Farhadian, C. (Eds.), Oxford Handbook
on Religious Conversion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thomas, O. (2010). The atheist surge: faith in science, secularism, and atheism. Theology
and Science, 5(2), 195-210. doi: 10.1080/14746701003675561
Weber, S., Pargament, K., Kunik, M., Lomax, J., & Stanley, M. (2012). Psychological
distress among religious nonbelievers: a systematic review. Journal of Religion
and Health, 57(1), 72-86. doi: 10.1007/s 10943-011-9541-1
Whitley, R. (2009) Atheism and mental health. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 18(3),
190-194. doi: 10.3109/10673221003747674
Zuckerman, P. (2009) Atheism, secularity, and well-being: how the findings of social
science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions. Sociology Compass, 3(6),
949-971. doi: 10.1111/j.l751-9020.2009.00247


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APPENDIX A
STAMPED PROTOCOL REVIEW
COMIRB Application for Protocol Review
Exempt/Non-Human Subject Research
COMIRB
APPROVED for
EXEMPTION
Protocol Number: 14-0535 I PI: Wagstaff, Michael
Do not enter PI name here it will be added automatically when selected in Section C below
Project Title:
Deconversion: A Phenomenological Inquiry Into The Transition To Atheism
[Section C: Key Study Personnel
Remove Last Name First Name and Ml Dept/Division Best Contact # and E-mail address VA Employee Role
Wagstaff Michael Student / UC Denver 619-808-8933 michael.wagstaff@uc denver.edu n Principal Investigator
X Cannon Edward CPCE/UC Denver 303-315-6335 edward.cannon@ucde nver.edu Faculty Mentor
Add Another Investigator
Add 1 Investigator with the role of PI (and if PI is a student, 1 Investigator with Role of Faculty Mentor). Also add 1 Investigator with the
role of Primary Contact. (Maximum of 3 investigators listed in this table). All Study Personnel will be added on the electronic form
Section C-Study Personnel when the protocol is submitted to COMIRB electronically.
Contact Information:
1. Is the PI a student or trainee (including resident/fellow), or doing this research to fulfill an educational requirement? ( Yes C No
Please be sure to specify the Faculty Mentor/Advisor in the Key Study Personnel section above
Make sure to include signed Trainee and Mentor responsibility agreements with this submission!
2. Best contact for scientific questions?
2a. Name
Michael Wagstaff
2b. Phone (lOdigit #): (619) 808-8933
Section D: Type of Review beinq Requested
1. Type of Review being requested:
CF-089NG COMIRB Applicationfor Protocol Review
Effective 10/28/13
Page 1 of8
Wagstaff, Michael | 14-0535


72
APPENDIX B
VERBAL CONSENT SCRIPT
This research study seeks to better understand the growing trend of United States citizens
leaving their religion-of-origin and embracing an atheistic worldview. Through a series
of interviews with participants such as yourself, this study hopes to contribute to the body
of knowledge on the transition.
Do I have your permission to audio record this interview?
Confidentiality is taken very seriously for this study. You do not have to disclose any
identifying information you wish to keep confidential during our interview, such as your
name, age, ethnicity, or geographic location. However, you are free to do so if you
believe the information is important to your story. Your participation in this study will
not be shared with anyone else, and no information will exist linking this audio recording
to you. All data will be destroyed at the conclusion of the study.
Do you have any questions about confidentiality?
It is my responsibility to inform you of potential risks associated with this study. In
talking about religion and spirituality, you may experience negative emotions associated
with recounting past life experiences. You do not have to answer any questions you do


73
not feel comfortable answering, and you can stop the interview at any time, for any
reason, without consequence.
Do you understand the risks and your rights?
The goal of this interview is to better understand the experience of leaving the religion
you were raised with and becoming an atheist. I want to hear your story as you
experienced it. I may ask questions about the meaning you ascribed to these life events,
as well as the effects it had on you and your life. Participation in this study in completely
voluntary, and no compensation is offered. Your participation in this study will
contribute to the growing knowledge base of atheism in the United States. I hope to
publish this work in one or more scientific journals pertaining to psychology, religious
studies, and social sciences, for use by mental health professionals, social scientists, and
the community at large.
Do you have any questions about what type of information I am seeking?
Do you consent to this interview?
Thank you. Should you have any questions or concerns after the interview, you can
contact me, Michael Wagstaff, at XXX.XXX.XXX or via email at
atheismstudv@gmail.com. Additionally, you can contact the Colorado Multiple


74
Institutional Review Board (COMIRB) at 303.724.1055. I will provide you a handout
with this contact information.


75
APPENDIX C
INTERVIEW SAMPLE QUESTIONS
Who?
Who influenced your transition? Who supported you during it?
Who disapproved?
Who was affected by the transition?
What?
What initiated the transition?
What did it feel like at the outset? During the process? After?
What impact did it have on your life? Relationships? Sense of communal belonging?
What obstacles and barriers did you encounter along the way?
When?
When did this transition begin?
When did you feel open to talk about it?
Where?
Where did you grow up? What influence did your surroundings have?
Where did this transition take place? What environmental factors helped/hindered?
How?
How was the experience of leaving religion?
How do you perceive your place in American culture?
Why?
Why did you leave your religion?


76
Why did you cease believing in a god or many gods?


Full Text

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DECONVERSION: A PHENOMENOLOGICAL STUDY ON BECOMING AN ATHEIST by MICHAEL PAUL WAGSTAFF B.S., Colorado State University, 2004 A thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Colorado in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Arts Counseling Program 2015

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! ii 2015 MICHAEL PAUL WAGSTAFF ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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! iii This thesis for the Masters of Arts degree by Michael Paul Wagstaff has been approved for the Counseling Program by Edward Cannon, Chair Farah Ibrahim Alan Davis Date: May 4th, 2015

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! iv Wagstaff, Michael Paul (M.A., Counseling) Deconversion: A Phenomenological Study on Becoming an Atheist Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Edward Cannon. ABSTRACT What is it like to renounce belief in all gods? This phenomenological study explores the experience of United States citizens leaving religion and embracing an atheistic worldview In-depth interviews with seven participants were conducted and examined for emergent themes. Participants invariably cited some form of cognitive dissonance as the impetus for leaving theistic structures. Often their break with these structures resulted in negative emotions such as loss, anger, fear, and existential angst. Participants also reported positive outcomes from the transition, including higher levels of confidence and empowerment, a greater understanding and acceptance for others, and a new life philosophy revolving around finding fulfillment, embracing life, building community, being compassionate, and growing personally. The study concludes with a discussion on clinical implications for those in the fields of mental health and human services. The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend its publication. Approved: Edward Cannon

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! v TABLE OF CONTENTS CHAPTER I. INTRODUCTION 1 ................................................................................................... Purpose 2 ..................................................................................................................... Key Terms 3 ................................................................................................................ II. LITERATURE REVIEW 6 ......................................................................................... Demographics 6 .......................................................................................................... Distrust and Prejudice 6 .............................................................................................. Effects on Mental Health 7 ......................................................................................... Causal Theories 8 ........................................................................................................ Previous Qualitative Studies 8 .................................................................................... III. THE STUDY 10 .......................................................................................................... Research Paradigms 10 ............................................................................................... Role of the Researcher 10 ........................................................................................... Methodology 16 .......................................................................................................... IV. FINDINGS 20 ............................................................................................................. Participant Backgrounds 20 ........................................................................................ Themes 24 ................................................................................................................... Advice for Those Somewhere in the Process 60 ........................................................ V. DISCUSSION 62 ........................................................................................................ Implications for Clinical Work 63 .............................................................................. REFERENCES 66 ..................................................................................................................

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! vi APPENDIX A. STAMPED PROTOCOL REVIEW 71 ....................................................................... B. VERBAL CONSENT SCRIPT 72 .............................................................................. C. INTERVIEW SAMPLE QUESTIONS 75 ..................................................................

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! vii LIST OF TABLES TABLE 1. Themes and sub-themes 24 .........................................................................................

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! 1 CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION United States citizens are leaving religion at ever-increasing rates (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). The religiously unaffiliated now account for 20% of the United States population, up from 15% in 2007 and 8% in 1990, according to a Pew Research Center [PRC] study (2012). Of the unaffiliated, over 15 million (32%) say they do not believe in God, with three-in-four of these atheists being former believers. More and more, nonbelievers are becoming a significant part of our society. What are they like? Research supports atheists as being on-par with believers in areas of empathy, nurturing of relationships, and respect for nature (Caldwell-Harris, Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2010) Atheism is also positively correlated with higher educational attainment, higher verbal ability and greater support for equality. Atheists also demonstrate lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and homophobia (Zuckerman, 2009). Despite the tremendous rise in prevalence of atheists and the positive attributes correlated with being a non-believer, atheists are widely viewed as the most problematic group in the United States. Disapproval and distrust levels are higher than that of even Muslims in the post-9/11 U.S.A. (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006). Atheists are subject to social exclusion and psychological distress from these negative perceptions (Weber, Pargament, Kunik, Lomax & Stanley, 2012) While some other minority groups are easy to identify, atheists are not outwardly recognizable. With minimal effort, they can "pass" as believers by performing

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! 2 perfunctory activities like church attendance and falsely claiming adherence to dominant religions. Atheists can avoid prejudice by going along with the societal assumption that they are believers, simply never stating anything to the contrary. Yet, even with the negative repercussions that arise from self-identifying as an atheist, more and more United States citizens are coming out in recent years to voluntarily join this distrusted group (PRC, 2012; Thomas 2010). However, there is very little recent research available on the experience of becoming an atheist. How religious were they to begin with? What causes these apostates to leave their religion and renounce belief in a god? What thoughts and feelings do they experience in the coming-out process? Given the negative perceptions of atheists, why do they do it? How does it affect their personal relationships and sense of communal belonging? What facilitates this transition? What obstacles do they encounter along the way? What impact does it have on their mental health? What is it like to move through the world day-to-day as an atheist? This study seeks to answer these questions in search of the essence of the transition-to-atheism experience. Purpose This research study seeks to explore and describe the transition to atheism utilizing the rich narratives of individuals who have left their religious structure and have renounced belief in deities. Drawing upon the phenomenological method outlined by Husserl (1977), this study hopes to portray the phenomenon in all its subjective complexity by delving into the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors the interviewees experienced before, during, and after the transition. This study also examines factors

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! 3 facilitating and obstructing the transition and explores the effects on mental health, dayto-day living, personal relationships, and sense of communal belonging. Lastly, this study will describe common themes that emerged among participants and discuss potential implications for clinical work. Key Terms The literature identifies numerous, often-overlapping terms describing groups of varying religiosity. The following terminology will be used for purposes of this study. "Nones". Often the term given to the religiously unaffiliated, this group now accounts for 20% of the United States population, a sharp rise from 15% in 2007, according to a Pew Research study (PRC, 2012). This amounts to over 46 million people. These are individuals that, when asked about their current religion, responded that they were "atheists," "agnostics," or "nothing in particular." As a precaution to those who would dismiss this group as "seekers" in a phase of finding their way, it is notable that 88% said they are not seeking a religion (PRC 2012). In fact, most of them (73%) emerged from religious homes and subsequently renounced their faith (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). Atheist. While many of the "Nones" do not claim the atheist label and the accompanying negative connotations, over 15 million of them (32%) say they do not believe in God (PRC, 2012). Silver, Coleman, Hood, and Holcombe (2014) describe nonbelievers in six types: intellectual atheist/agnostic, activist atheist/agnostic, seekeragnostic, anti-theist, non-theist, and ritual atheist/agnostic. Michael Martin (2007) distinguishes between those who firmly claim that no god exists, known as positive

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! 4 atheists, strong atheists, or gnostic atheists, from those who simply do not believe or think they cannot know, known as negative atheists weak atheists, or agnostic atheists. Regardless of academic categorization, nonbelievers may identify by various labels, including atheists, anti-theists, agnostics, "spiritual-but-not-religious," Brights, secular humanists, naturalists, Freethinkers, or skeptics. Some Buddhists and Taoists also identify as atheists (Hayes, 1988; Bokun, 1998). Other nonbelievers choose not to label themselves in regard to something that is not a part of their lives, along a similar vein as not finding it necessary to identify as a "non-astrologer" (Harris, 2007). The percentage of people in the United States choosing to self-identify as atheists has risen from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012 (Gallup International, 2012). For purposes of this study, an atheist will be considered anyone who does not espouse belief in theism the existence of a god or many gods regardless of their identification with the label "atheist." The reader should be cautioned that atheists are not a monolithic group. By definition, atheism is the lack of belief in deities; attempts to group people by a lack of something can be problematic at best, especially in the area of religion. Though atheism is best understood as a non-religious group, research often groups atheists with religious groups as points-of-comparison. This study will take a similar perspective. It should also be noted that a problematic overlap exists between atheists and non-theistic religious groups like Buddhists, Taoists, and many Unitarian Universalists (Bokun, 1998). Deconversion, disaffiliation, apostasy, and transition. Several words connote the idea of someone transitioning from a belief structure to atheism. Though some have used the term "apostasy" in the past (Hunsberger & Brown, 1984; Hadaway, 1989),

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! 5 "deconversion" and "disaffiliation" are used more currently (Streib, 2012; Simpson, 2013; Keller, Klein, Hood, & Streib, 2013). These terms refer to the idea that all people are born without belief and subsequently converted into a religion a process which can be undone. Regardless of the terminology, Streib (2012) emphasizes that the transition is a process of depth and intensity, affecting everything from beliefs to morality, emotions to intellect, inner world changes to shifts in communal belonging. Simpson (2013) describes deconversion from theism as analogous to experiencing the death of a loved one. In reference to this profound process, this study will use all of these words interchangeably.

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! 6 CHAPTER II LITERATURE REVIEW Demographics The American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College found that atheism was the only religion-related demographic that has grown in all 50 states since 1991 (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). A Pew Research Center study (2012) goes on to detail this group of nearly three million as the most educated of any religious group surveyed, with the highest percentage of college graduates (25%, compared with 19% of the general public) and post-graduates (19% compared with 10% of the general public). They are also among the highest earners as well, with nearly 22% earning $100,000 or more annually. Only White Catholics have a greater percentage of high earners (26%). Demographically, atheists tend to be young, with 42% ages 18-29 and 32% ages 30-49. They are predominantly White, at 82%, compared to 66% of the general population. A majority (64%) are male and, though scattered across the nation, the U.S. West has the highest concentration (33%). Distrust and Prejudice Despite atheists generally being educated, high-earning, young, white males attributes generally privileged or celebrated in the United States they are also the subject of great scorn and distrust (Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2008; Gervais, 2011). A 2006 study (Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann) asked two questions regarding the perception of various minority groups. Participants were asked the question "Does this group agree with your vision of the America?" Atheists ranked the lowest of all groups in cultural

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! 7 acceptance, below African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Hispanics, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and Muslims. About four-in-ten responders (39.6%) said atheists "Do not agree at all with [their] vision of society." Participants were asked about trust and tolerance, as measured by the question "Would you approve of a son or daughter marrying a member of this minority group?" Atheists were again ranked the lowest of all groups. Almost half (47.6%) of all responders said they would disapprove, outpacing the nearest demographic of Muslims by 14%. The study goes on to describe the characterization of atheists in the public sphere as immoral, unstable, materialistic, elitist, unpatriotic, and prone to crime. Clearly atheists are subject to an extreme amount of distrust and prejudice. Effects on Mental Health Although nonbelievers fare just as well or better than believers in overall happiness, the psychological distress they do experience often stems from the negative perception from others, which is rooted primarily in distrust (Gervais, 2011; Weber, Pargament, Kunik, Lomax & Stanley, 2012). Galen and Kloet (2011) found that a curvilinear relationship exists between mental well-being and belief certainty. It did not matter whether this certainty was in a religion or in atheism. This v-shaped curve implies that the period of transitioning from certainty in religion to a comfort with atheism is a difficult time, with mental health at a low point. This study seeks to elucidate patterns in these experiences in order to support others who are undertaking this transition as well as guide future research.

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! 8 Causal Theories Many theories have been proposed to account for the surge in atheism, including a backlash to conservative policies of the United States government, the trend of marrying later, an increase of social disengagement, a rise of secularism, and churches being overly concerned with money, power, and politics (PRC, 2012). Others have found atheism to be correlated with higher intelligence (Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg, 2008) and logic and rationality (Caldwell-Harris et al., 2011), though no research exists citing these characteristics as rising in recent years. This seems to be an area needing more research and exploration if we are to better understand this emerging phenomenon. Previous Qualitative Studies Despite the social pressure to maintain a religious identity in the United States, atheism is experiencing a surge in growth in recent years, both in membership and in popular media (Thomas, 2010). However, research is sparse regarding the actual experience of deconversion. In Amazing Conversions, Altemeyer (1997) profiled conversions both to and away from religion among Canadian undergraduate students. While offering excellent stories of conversion and deconversion, it appears trends and sociological factors have shifted enough since the publication of Altemeyer's research to warrant a reexamination. Additionally, the Canadian university climate of the midnineties is likely quite different from the U.S. environment of 2015. The rise of atheism in the general population is likely impacting mental health, day-to-day living, personal relationships, and sense of community belonging.

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! 9 More recently, Hunsberger and Altemeyer (2006) offered an excellent mixedmethods study of what being an "active atheist" is like in Atheists: A Groundbreaking St udy of A m e r i c a' s Nonbe l i e v e r s However, they readily state that their sample, mostly culled from atheist clubs in San Francisco, is not entirely representative of atheists in general. While this study offers excellent insight into the experience of being an atheist, it does not discuss the deconversion process in-depth. The study also does not focus on the barriers and obstacles that may be present to those not living in a city as progressive as San Francisco. In 2009, Blackford examined reasons for becoming an atheist in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists. In it, essays from prolific writers, scientists, scholars, and politicians offer articulate and well-thought-out rationales for their lack of belief. The focus is on the reasoning behind the process for these cultural elites; it does not focus on the experience of transitioning to atheism, complete with thoughts and feelings, nor does it address the day-to-day effects of becoming an atheist. While all of these publications offer excellent insight into the topic, there is very little recent research on the phenomenon of deconversion, especially in the realm of inner thoughts and feelings throughout the process. There is scant information on perceived obstacles and facilitators for deconversion, and a dearth of research on mental health impacts, day-to-day experience, relationship effects, and community implications of the transition. Clearly a greater examination of the process is needed to gain insight into the lived experiences of the transition.

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! 10 CHAPTER III THE STUDY Research Paradigm This study is a qualitative phenomenology, drawing primarily on the phenomenological approach as outlined by Johnson and Christensen (2012), Husserl (1977), and Creswell (2013). The multiple-case study framework as outlined by Edwards (1998) also influenced the study. This methodology allows for a deep and rigorous exploration of the topic, exploring the lived experience of interviewees. The participants' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are explored, as well as the meaning they ascribe to the phenomena Qualitative methodology is uniquely suited to describing processes of change and exploring the meaning of experiences (Creswell, 2013). We cannot conduct experimental research on deconversion, as we cannot ethically coerce someone to leave their religion to study the results (Johnson & Christensen, 2012). Therefore we can only hear accounts of the phenomenon, ask deepening questions, and hope to find emergent themes among the stories (Husserl, 1977). Role of the Researcher As outlined by Johnson and Christensen (2012), phenomenological interviewers should maintain a neutral-yet-mindful demeanor to elicit participants' authentic experience without response bias. However, it is impossible for bias not to be a factor in any encounter. Therefore it is important for my background and biases to be known,

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! 11 accounted for, and bracketed to the fullest extent possible, as recommended by Johnson and Christensen (2012). Researcher background. Being raised by moderately religious parents, I was exposed to religion from an early age. Both of my parents were raised Catholic and continued to practice when I was brought into the world. One of my earliest memories is my mom reading me biblical stories. I grew up in the religious city of Colorado Springs and attended Sunday school at our local Catholic church at a young age. While religion was not the primary guiding factor in our family life, the belief in God was unquestioned. I became skeptical around the age of ten as I started to learn about science and history in school and could not reconcile the new information with the childhood stories. I remember the story of Noah's Ark being particularly improbable. How could the entire earth flood? How could each species repopulate from just two members? What did they all eat? Even my ten-year-old mind was skeptical in nature. As skepticism turned to doubt, I began to think about a lot of the stories I was taught. The stories of talking snakes, burning bushes, magical healing, and the dead coming back to life seemed akin to stories of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny stories told to encourage good behavior in children. I expressed my desire to no longer attend church, wanting to better spend my Sunday mornings reading science books and discovering the wonders of a new household toy the computer. My parents, always promoters of independent thought, allowed for this. Over the years, I obliged them with Easter and Christmas attendance while watching their own church-going wane.

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! 12 My thoughts around religion remained dormant until entering university. Upon beginning college, however, my curiosity was reignited. Meeting new people and being exposed to different perspectives created an insatiable drive to understand why people were religious. I enrolled in courses such as "Biblical and Mythical Origins," "Introduction to Anthropology" and "Eastern Philosophy." My mind pondered big questions around God, religion, and culture. I started a club for leaders of various campus faith groups to interact, which I deemed "The Interfaith Dialogue Club." I worked at The Office of International Programs and pursued friendships with people from various cultures in an attempt to gain knowledge on this strange practice of religion. I wanted to find something anything to justify all the energy humanity has put into the institution over the millennia. The more I learned, however, the further from the institutions of religion I felt. It was at this point I became very critical of religion, though I spent inordinate amounts of time pondering morality, meaning, purpose, and existence. I joined the "spiritual-but-not-religious" bandwagon, often citing religion as a cause for many of the world's woes. I was also extremely skeptical of the concept of God. Throughout my twenties, I endeavored to further deconstruct religion, culture, and human history. Why do so many humans across the globe believe in the metaphysical? I frequently took months-long trips through Europe and the Middle East, hoping I could unravel the mysteries of faith under the dome of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome, inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or beside the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I wandered the streets of ancient civilizations from Egypt to Greece to Rome while reading about the precursors to our modern religions, the old religions we now deem mythology. I learned

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! 13 about conflicts stemming from differences in belief and talked to people actively experiencing them. I voraciously consumed books on Buddhism, Taoism, and paganism. I discovered the existentialist works of Dostoyevsky and the nihilistic philosophies of Nietzsche. I tried to grasp other ways to understand our reality, like theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. The more I tried to reconcile my ever-expanding breadth of knowledge, the more I found myself skeptical of the idea of personified deities that so many religions espoused. Simultaneously, I began questioning what I viewed as the underlying functions of religion: morality transmission and community-building. Living in a large west coast city, I met gays and lesbians negatively affected by religious doctrine masquerading as morality. I met people whom I considered compassionate and kind, who had never believed in a god at any point in their lives. I found communities of people being held together by common interests and simply caring for each other rather than because of metaphysical beliefs. I concluded that religion was not the only path to morality and community. Meanwhile, working in the field of technology, I was exposed to many more people who claimed the title of "atheist" unabashedly. It was a word I had felt for years but had never used. I soon came to claim this title as well. I spent some time as an antitheist, seeing the belief in gods as holding back scientific inquiry. I got into debates with everyone who was willing. I alienated some people and helped expand the thinking of others.

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! 14 Eventually, as I moved into my thirties and transitioned to the field of mental health counseling, I began to accept religion and gods as beneficial and even necessary for some even if it had no place in my life. I have come to define spirituality in my life as many things: the feelings of awe and wonder I get when contemplating the universe; the connection I feel when I'm in nature; the beauty of a deep and powerful relationship; the joy of helping others; those moments of enlightenment when everything seems to make sense. I have accepted as a part of the human experience the existential angst that comes with having unanswerable questions. I finally feel a contentment and wholeness around the concept of spirituality. Yet I see the shifting tides of our society and wonder how many closet atheists there are, wishing to come out? How many do not have parents, friends, and communities as accepting as my own? How many feel misunderstood and unaccepted by an overwhelmingly Christian nation? How many professionals in the human services feel distance or, worse, prejudice when working with an atheist? It is for these questions that I have pursued this study. Bias. Given my background, many biases exist and should be made explicit. I approach the topic from the position of an atheist who has put plenty of thought and energy into the subject. I may errantly assume other atheists share the same mental constructs that I have built in my mind. I have the potential to follow lines of questioning that supports my thought processes rather than follow those of the participant. There is the possibility of confirmation bias, in which I seek to confirm my own assumptions

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! 15 about the process. Finally, there is the tendency to think that those who espouse an atheist worldview are closer to the truth, more logical, and less rigid than theists. Bracketing. With the awareness of these biases in mind, I attempted to conduct the study in the most neutral stance possible, putting aside my preconceived notions of the experience. I did not tell participants about my journey or that I identified as an atheist. I also tried to put my own experience out-of-mind and attain a beginner's mind, as if I was hearing about these topics for the first time so that I could fully immerse myself in the experience of the participant. It was also important to actively engage in self-critical reflection throughout the interviews by constantly asking myself if I was exploring the participant's story to the fullest extent possible. I endeavored to maintain a constant curiosity about the participants' experiences, pursuing topics in which I noticed their emotions being provoked or their memory stirred. My training as a mental health counselor facilitated this mentality. I also attempted to convey my findings in this study in a descriptive manner, only making interpretations when explicitly stated. Co-interviewer. Even with my attempts at neutrality, bracketing, and accounting for bias, I wanted to ensure each interview gathered the most information possible. I realized the limitations of having lines of questioning originating only from my limited perspective. To this end I enlisted the assistance of a colleague as a co-interviewer. A fellow graduate student in counseling, a believing theist, and a practicing Christian, his perspective balanced out lines of inquiry with participants and added an additional dimension to the data collected. While also maintaining a neutral-yet-curious demeanor,

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! 16 he elicited many valuable responses throughout the process with thought-provoking questions that would not have occurred to me given my disposition. Methodology Participant sample. Seven participants were recruited for this study. Each fit the criteria of (a) having considered themselves believers at one point and (b) no longer believing in a deity. They consisted of four women and three men ranging in age from the mid-twenties to the late-forties. Six of the participants identified as White while the seventh identified as half-White and half-Arab. Two held doctorates and three had completed or were in the process of completing a masters degree. The participants came from several different religions: Catholicism, Pentecostal Christianity, Presbyterianism, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Islam. Recruiting. Participants were recruited via word-of-mouth and the use of social media. A new email address was created for the study and subsequently deleted, helping to ensure confidentiality of the participants. Six of the seven participants performed inperson interviews, while the seventh participant interviewed via Skype. Ethical consideration. The Colorado Multiple Institutional Review Board approved the study prior to beginning recruitment (Appendix A). All participants verbally agreed to an informed consent script (Appendix B). The script disclosed the purpose of the study, explained the participants rights around confidentiality, and discussed potential risks of the study, such as recalling traumatic events associated with leaving a religion. Due to the negative perceptions associated with atheism, all efforts are

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! 17 made to ensure confidentiality of the participants' identities, including using pseudonyms, meeting in private locations, and omitting identifying data in all records. Data collection. Phenomenologies are characterized by in-depth, informal, openended interviews that allow participants ample freedom to tell their story. Audio recordings were created so that verbatim quotes, the lowest-inference descriptor, could be utilized. After reading the informed consent document to the participant and receiving verbal consent to record the session, each interview began with the question "Where would you like to begin your story?" We were free to follow the discussion wherever it led, asking follow-up questions to better understand the participants' experiences and using our intuition and curiosity as guides. Questions were sometimes drawn from a prepared list of sample questions (Appendix C). Each participant was interviewed individually for a duration of one to one-and-ahalf hours. The mean interview length was 67.5 minutes. All data was stored on password-protected machines and services. Analysis. The empirical, phenomenological, psychological (EPP) method of Karlsson (1993) was used for data analysis. It is a qualitative method for interpretive and descriptive analysis, consisting of five steps: 1) Going over the participants' interviews until I felt I had a "good grasp" of the material, including an empathetic understanding of the experience the participant is conveying; 2) dividing the data into meaning units (MUs), or singular ideas relevant to the study; 3) interpreting the meaning units in the context of the entire interview and labeling them into my own language; 4) synthesizing

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! 18 the units into emergent themes; and 5) presenting the themes in a general structure supported by quotations from the original interviews. To accomplish this analysis, I first reviewed the audio recordings of each session several times. During this process, I maintained a curious and unknowing disposition that was faithful to the phenomenological view of searching for underlying meaning in the participants' statements. As I felt I grasped the experience of each participant, I formulated meaning units that I observed in the interviews. For example, one participant's discussion on finding purpose in life was labeled "purpose" while another participant's discussion on ascribing meaning to their life was labeled "meaning." I transcribed significant statements which conveyed the essence of each meaning unit. I clustered the statements manifesting throughout the interview into emergent themes. To continue the example, "meaning" and "purpose" were combined with other meaning units such as "fear of death" into the emergent theme of "existential angst." Finally, I organized these themes into the structure which is conveyed in the Findings section. Validity. While all efforts have been made to elicit deep and truthful stories from the participants and convey them as accurately as possible, it is important to keep in mind the limitations of qualitative research methodology (Johnson & Christensen, 2012). While offering rich, deep, and holistic inquiry, generalizability is not a goal. Due to the small sample size and highly individualistic nature of depth-seeking interviews, it is impossible to account for the range of variability present in all atheists in a single study The participants' stories are one point of view at one point in time, delivered in the particular setting of a research study interview for an educational institution.

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! 19 Additionally, attempts at bracketing, accounting for bias, and accurately interpreting meaning are, after all, human endeavors and subject to the limitations of imperfection.

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! 20 CHAPTER IV FINDINGS Participant Backgrounds To protect participant anonymity, pseudonyms have been used and identifying details have been omitted or changed. Becca. Becca is an energetic White woman of about thirty. Her short, dark hair frames warm, kind eyes. She speaks with confidence and eloquence, conveying a sense of having experienced events that rendered her wiser than her years suggest. Her fashionable dress and stylish hair hint more at her occupation in high-end retail management than at her upbringing in the Mormon church: I was raised pretty strictly LDS (Latter-Day Saints), so Mormon I was really, really invested in the religion I really deeply believed in God and his presence. My own testimony was really strong about like how I felt and how it made me feel when I connected to God through prayer I really strongly believed in all the tenets of the church. I believed in the scriptures and the power of prayer. (Becca) Derek. Derek is a White male in his mid-forties with a background in information technology. Witty and jovial, his well-groomed beard, sharp glasses, and slightly receding hairline frame a ready smile. His articulate speech hints at the vast knowledge a childhood spent reading books provides. He was raised by Roman Catholic parents in a small town in the Midwest:

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! 21 I was very devout throughout my childhood. I was an altar boy. The whole idea that there were even people that existed that didn't believe in God was a shock to me. I had no idea that was even possible! (Derek) Paige. Paige is a White woman of around forty. She has blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, and speaks in a manner that is both passionate and soft. She has a background in law and is currently in graduate school for counseling psychology. Coming from an unstable home, she joined the Mormon church in high school: I joined the church when I was sixteen, and stayed in the church until I was thirtyone, thirty-two-ish "You want to have lessons?" "You want to get baptized?" This and that. It felt a little bit like pressure, but a whole lot like a big warm blanket and a lot of love. A whole bunch of people, all of a sudden, who wanted to be my friend. Who wanted to tell me good stuff about me, build me up, and support me in all the right ways It felt really, really healthy, and I felt really supported, so I adopted all those values. (Paige) Abdul. Abdul is an half-Arab, half-White man in his late forties. He comes across as thoughtful and kind-hearted. However, he also conveys a sense of being worldweary and downtrodden, perhaps on account of his struggle with alcoholism. He holds an MBA and works in the field of information technology. Raised by a Muslim father and a Protestant mother, he describes his religious upbringing: I was raised in the Islamic faith. That was the official brand because my dad was the head of the household. While it was the official religion, it wasn't like we lived some sort of devout lifestyle. We did go to the mosque on Fridays and

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! 22 Sundays I got a fairly thorough education in the Islamic faith At the same time, when I was younger, my mom would read from the Bible. This was the early years, age six to ten I did get a certain sense of spirituality in the Islamic prayer ritual. You pack in and get shoulder-to-shoulder, and go through this ritualistic prayer ritual It creates this serenity that is quite comforting. (Abdul) Michelle. Michelle is a vibrant White woman in her early forties with shimmering shoulder-length brown hair and a large smile. She speaks with passion and excitability. Smart and full of energy, she holds a PhD in sociology and works as a therapist, professor, speaker, and writer on the West Coast. She grew up religious on the East Coast: I grew up Catholic. My mom was Catholic There were certainly times when I had conversations with God sorta-things I never questioned that God existed and the whole idea of Satan existing was terrifying It was something I had little critical thinking on. It had been fed to me and I had never questioned it. (Michelle) Ryan. Ryan is a White male in his late thirties. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, he holds a Doctorate of Medicine and works as an internal medicine physician in a large city in Southern California. Verbose and rambunctious, he speaks quickly and with a youthful exuberance of someone half his age. Though not raised religious, he began attending an Assembly of God Pentecostal church in high school shortly after meeting a girl:

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! 23 She didn't want to label us "boyfriend-girlfriend" because I wasn't a Christian. Suddenly I was getting up on Sunday morning and taking off to her church. Initially I was extraordinarily skeptical However, as I went there more I got to know the people in the church. I started to learn a little bit about the Christian faith and there was a lot of things that impressed me about it. I liked the community and the closeness of the community. I decided, partly or largely at [her] behest, to become a Christian and enter that world. When I arrive [at college], I was very much like "I'm a Christian." For all four years of college, I was heavily involved with the largest Christian Fellowship on campus. (Ryan) Tara. Tara is a White female in her mid-twenties with short brown hair, vibrant eyes, and soft features. Contemplative and soulful, she is another participant who seems wise beyond her years. Her large vocabulary and deliberate speech style hint at an active and intelligent mind. Originally intent on medical school, she currently debates her career options while working at a non-profit mental health and spiritual growth center. She was raised Christian in a troubled home: I was raised Christian and my family was Presbyterian. I grew up reciting Catechism, going to church on Sundays, all the very stereotypical Christian dogma We were a deeply religious family. I was raised by a single mom and it was kind of her crutch. We were also home-schooled. Pretty much everything in our lives from the time I was very young until I was a teenager revolved around the church and belief in the Bible and the dogma of Christianity. (Tara)

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! 24 Themes While each participant's journey was different, several common themes emerged (Table 1). The catalyst for questioning faith was invariably some form of cognitive dissonance something that did not quite add up in their minds. For each participant, the break from religion was difficult and accompanied by negative emotions such as rejection, loss, fear, anger, and existential angst. Finally, almost all of the participants have achieved some sense of reintegration of their identity, replete with positive emotions and new philosophies. Cognitive dissonance as the catalyst. What caused these formerly religious people to question their faith? Almost invariably, the catalyst for each participant's Table 1: Themes and sub-themes Cognitive dissonance "Exposure! "Hypocrisy "Gay rights and sexuality The break from belief! "Fear of judgment and rejection! "Loss "Anger "Existential Angst Reintegration "Understanding and acceptance "Condence and empowerment "Community "Societal progress! "A new philosophy

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! 25 transition stemmed from critically thinking about new information that conflicted with their existing beliefs and values. The resulting discomfort and mental stress the individual feels compelled to reduce is called cognitive dissonance, a term coined by Leon Festinger (1957). Exposure. For some the journey began with exposure to other cultures and worldviews. Derek describes his first encounter with the larger tapestry of human experience. I had opportunities to travel to Germany a few times over my elementary school career I got the chance to basically see another world, another worldview, another language, another people. Even though its not wildly different from American culture, there's enough differences to give you the idea there are other worldviews I noticed different points of view. (Derek) Soon, Derek would find himself reading the works of Nietzsche and other philosophers in the back pews of Sunday service, expanding his mind and challenging his thoughts. "Philosophy became an enduring love affair for me" (Derek). This expansion of knowledge would only continue to grow throughout the years. Similarly, Paige, who was now teaching Sunday school and very involved in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, first became aware of other narratives via "the most innocent of avenues (Paige)": I'm watching the Discovery Channel. A show about the Masons. It was fascinating. There are intersections with Joseph Smith and several other key players in the beginning of church history, which I know the narrative of because

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! 26 I taught that. And it was bullshit! Well, part of it. And I was angry, because I've been cheated, I've been manipulated, and then I went around and taught people this stuff. So I feel like I've been betrayed. (Paige) It was the first of several events to put cracks in Paige's worldview. It sparked her curiosity at what else was out there. She would go on to explore humanist philosophy and atheist literature, saying "You just can't unring certain bells (Paige)." Michelle, the PhD-bound Catholic, began her questioning with an influx of knowledge in college, though she still was discomforted around the concept of atheism: In college I started getting into feminism and women's studies and sociology. Certainly there is critique of religion there. Catholic beliefs are certainly not empowering women Still I never questioned the existence of God. I had a really good friend in junior year of college who said he was an atheist. It made me really uncomfortable. Like, scared inside that he would say that. "How could you even say that?" There was this stupid linking I had that atheist means satanist. (Michelle) Inefficacy of prayer. For others, noticing the lack of effect of prayer was a catalyst for cognitive dissonance. Ryan, though no longer with the girlfriend that brought him into the world of religion, was still very active in church and the Christian fellowship throughout his college years. He had become a believer. However, he was having a hard time with prayer: Christians talk about the power of prayer How prayer will do this or that. To be honest, I initially believed that would be something I would find to be true I

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! 27 did pray a lot. I prayed with people. I prayed alone a lot. And nothing ever happened. As I prayed less and less, I realized I wasn't actually any more or less stressed out, any more or less happy. Results weren't any worse or better. It seemed like the complete lack of a relationship (Ryan) Similarly, as a teenager trying to shoulder the burdens of a dysfunctional household, Tara would begin to notice the absence of effect from praying. She vividly recalled an event that began her questioning phase: My mother was very dysfunctional She would just unload everything on me. Which was a lot for anybody but especially for a fifteen-year-old. She would take me to the grocery and would park and just start venting... She let it all out. So this was happening one time. We sat there for two hours. She's crying, she's miserable, she's so unhappy. She's so sad. Her situation is so impossible. Her fifteen year old daughter is there listening to her. I'm trying to take all of this in I just want to save her and make it better. Finally there's a lull and I'm like "I'm going to go in and see if they have your donuts." Entenmann's donuts were her thing, they always somehow made her feel better... I remember getting out of the car and feeling the weight of everything she put on me. "Listen God, she needs something. She needs anything. She needs a sign. I need a sign that this is going to be okay... That something good is going to come out of this. Or even that this is how it is supposed to be. The sign for me right now is if those donuts are here." I'm fifteen years old there's really naive ways that we attach meaning to things. They weren't. I remember standing there and crying in the grocery store aisle.

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! 28 "What is the point? If something as simple as this makes her feel better, can't that just be something that is available to her? I asked you for that and you didn't come through?" That's a weird story, such a small, small thing. That's one of the things I still remember now as definitely challenging my faith. (Tara) Tara would go on to college a few years later and found, like many of the other participants, that the exposure to other worldviews led to questioning her beliefs. It's easier when you're the college environment, because a lot of people are in that space It was around that time that I started becoming more aware of the vast diversity of worldviews that exist... Which kinda just supported my earlier inclinations there can't possibly be just one absolute truth. (Tara) Hypocrisy. For others, questioning their faith began with noticing the hypocrisy of others: The biggest thing was having an alcoholic father who claims to be a Muslimist [sic]. Such hypocrisy. This is obviously not right. This faith is obviously not purely correct if my primary example doesn't even halfway follow it. That was the core of it all. (Abdul) Abdul also had a hard time reconciling the tenets of a religion of peace and kindness with his readings of the holy text: I bought into that [Islam] for a number of years But then there's the other side. Every time I tried to read the Koran, I would just flip to a random page and say "What can I get out of this? I'm going to read this and find some inspiration, right?" Every bit of it was fire and brimstone. (Abdul)

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! 29 Michelle would also notice the dichotomy between the ideals and reality: "When you see people that are jerks in school or bullies or whatever, and then there they are in church, you go Well, they aren't good people !'" (Michelle). Similar to Abdul and Michelle, Paige noticed the contradictory messages embedded in the Mormon doctrine: In the Mormon church, it's all blurred. They're making judgments about everyone else. You're gonna go to heaven, you're not. Jesus says "Don't judge, or ye will be judged by the same judgement in which ye judge." Yet they're judging all the time (Paige) For Tara, the hypocrisy was experienced on a very painful and personal level. Her mother became involved with the pastor of their church, "Who was one of the ickiest people you can imagine. A total pedophile, he had a ton of issues (Tara). Tara would talk about the sexual abuse that occurred in her household, which exacerbated her questioning: Becoming really aware as a teenager of these really awful things that were going on around me and questioning "Hey, this is happening for a reason? That's absurd!" Really, starting to think deeply about that. Being told basically "Accept things the way they are, this is the way they are supposed to be." And coming back with "Wait, why? I don't think this is the way things are supposed to be. I think they can be different and they should be different." It was very pragmatic Knowing that this person was evil, if you will, but seeing that he gets up on the pulpit every Sunday and preaches to me about the Bible and the Catechism and

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! 30 these things that I grew up with, and you start to question the authority of where these ideas are coming from. That's definitely when breakdown happens Why would God ever want anyone to experience this? That is really abhorrent to me. I'm not going to be aligned with something that tells me that that is the way the world works. (Tara) Gay rights and sexuality. Beyond Tara's exposure to sexual abuse, issues around sexuality played a role in several other participants' stories. For some, getting to know "sinners" opened their eyes to the pain experienced by gays and lesbians because of religious doctrine. Becca, moving from a large East Coast city to a small Western town in the fourth grade, grew bored with the slow pace of primary schooling there. Her parents allowed her to attend school in the nearby city where her dad worked: It's just exposure. I was in theatre. I did a lot of sports. I was exposed to a ton of different kinds of people. I always believe the more you're exposed to someone, the less your ability to hate them Once you start spending time with people that are gay or these people that you have been told your whole life are making these bad choices and you really shouldn't spend too much time with them, you realize "Wow, that's just not it at all" One friend in particular really struggled with his sexuality throughout high school. It was a painful struggle for him. His mother really disapproved. You watch someone struggle through that and you really realize you wouldn't bother struggling through that if it was just a bad choice you were making you'd just not make the bad choice! It's just really who he is. You

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! 31 find it harder and harder to believe that, if there was a God, that he would create somebody only to put them through this. (Becca) Becca's attempts to voice these concerns would not be well-met: "I voiced it to people at church, which always got me into trouble. I got kicked out of a lot of classes (Becca). She would later see the direct impact of this within her own family, who all were still very strongly connected to the church: My sister came out of the closet as a lesbian, but then scurried back into the closet a few years later. She really struggled with the lack of approval. The community she created was a religious conservative community. (Becca) Similarly, Paige also experienced cognitive dissonance resulting from the church's treatment of gay people: In high school both of my best friends were gay. Neither of them were out because they were Mormon It's not accepted. If you're Mormon and you're gay, you don't act on your impulses because they're not right. It's kind of embarrassing to think I use to believe that The next time I saw my bishop, I said the wrong thing. "I don't know if it's wrong for gays to be excluded. Why can't we let them be in the church and be who they are?" There are certain things the church isn't ready to change He told me I need to pray about it, and ask heavenly Father to soften your heart. This is the way of the Lord. You need to hold fast to the gospel. (Paige)

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! 32 Ryan, who had become a prominent figure and leader in his college Christian Fellowship, had also begun noticing the damage his church's doctrine had inflicted upon gays and lesbians: The church's approach in response to homosexuality is truly detestable. It's horrific. It's had such a horrible impact on people That was one thing that didn't make sense to me, but I was in a church that said it was wrong As I became friends with gay people and learned their stories, a lot of them have pretty common upbringings of rejection from some kind of community, a lot of times their communities, a lot of times their parents, all tying back to people that were held up with thinking it was a sinful affront to God. It's like calling someone sinful for being black or Hawaiian. (Ryan) Relating to another aspect of sexuality, Derek was trying to make sense of his own burgeoning sexual impulses during his teenage years and the shame messages he was receiving from the church: "The principle of original sin suggests something wrong with the human condition (Derek). As his sexuality emerged, he began his "crisis of faith" (Derek): The values of Roman Catholicism made less and less sense to me as I became more educated around areas of sexual health. Spirituality felt very much like a restriction on my sexual expression I feel I was gonna use the word blessed that I had the sexual energy I have because that provided the fuel, the escape velocity, from the gravitational pull of the religion. It provided the fuel for the cognitive dissonance. "Wait a minute, I feel this intense desire. And somehow

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! 33 this is wrong? I'm built this way. I didn't ask for these it's part of me." It's taken me a long time to own how sexual a person I am and not feel shame around it. (Derek) Becca would also have to confront some shame messages once she became sexually active: It felt good. I really enjoyed it. I had been so conditioned to think sex is really wrong and you're not really supposed to enjoy it "Am I supposed to feel bad? I feel bad that I don't feel bad." (Becca) Whether embracing one's own sexuality or coming to terms with the sexuality of gays and lesbians, sexuality often seemed at odds with religious doctrine. Combined with exposure to other worldviews and a noticing of the hypocrisy present around them, our participants were all beginning a transition that would lead to non-belief. The break from belief. As the dissonance built, many of the participants slowly extricated themselves from their churches. Often this was difficult: It's a process. A long, slow process. Like a cancerous death. Really, it's true. Leaving the Mormon church is no easy feat. All your friends, all your family, people you know, people you work with, where you got your job everything is intertwined. (Paige) Ryan's process was also complicated, but more because of the internal struggles he faced with leaving the church. He had come to love the sense of community. He spoke quite highly of several friends he had made during those years. He sounded ambivalent and bitter when he describes what caused him to leave:

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! 34 This is just wrong! It's a flat-out evil that this religion that I've found a community in, this religion that I've found meaning in, perpetuates. And that's just not right. For a while, I tried to find is there a way that it can somehow be mitigated or glossed over? And there isn't. With the culture of the Christian church today, it perpetuates discrimination against homosexuality. There's no way you have to do linguistic and mental acrobatics to get around that fact. I don't want be a part any part even if it gives me a sense of community I feel it is morally objectionable to be a part of that situation. (Ryan) Despite his vehement opposition of the church's position on being gay, Ryan had difficultly leaving the community he had grown to love. For years, he kept up a facade to maintain the friendships and enjoy the community: I was involved in the church, one foot in, one foot out, but I really didn't believe any of it My twenties was a very slow there was never a single time it was a very slow backing out of the church For a long time in my twenties, I could be a Christian around my Christian friends, and not a Christian around my nonChristian friends. (Ryan) Some quietly left the structure of the church and called themselves agnostic for a period of time, not identifying as an atheist until much later: I was pretty much going my own route and not participating with the religion much. I didn't have a lot of adult Muslim friends For a long time I considered myself agnostic, and then it just became more atheistic. (Abdul)

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! 35 I stopped going to church when I was maybe 16. I just didn't really feel a need to go back I was on the fence about belief I would have called myself more agnostic than atheist from about 18 until 27. (Becca) Becca would eventually identify as an atheist after her fiancÂŽ died unexpectedly. Somewhere in the mourning and grief, she realized the idea of a supreme being did not make sense. She recalls a time when her religious friend tried to comfort her by telling her that he was still with them: "No he's fucking not. There's no one here" It just wasn't there. I think I feltI was already sorta there. At the time I felt sort of betrayed. The only comfort I'm feeling are these people around me and the memories. (Becca). For others, the transition happened much quicker. Once Michelle arrived in graduate school for her doctorate she began to learn critical thinking skills: I don't think I lingered in agnosticism. It was sort of an all-or-nothing. Once my head was in that direction I didn't have those skills yet to be able to stand outside myself and look back at something critically. The development of those in grad school and being in a place with scientific inquiry and professors and all that The first moment that stands out to me most was watching a football game. Watching somebody score a touchdown and kneeling down in the end zone and thanking God. I very clearly remember having a thought of Why would God care about that?' That was a moment. That's what sticks with me the most. Being like "I don't know about that." That got the ball rolling. (Michelle)

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! 36 Derek similarly experienced a relatively quick transition, after Nietzsche "blew the doors off of my worldview" (Derek). "One chink in the armor, you might say, was noticing that there were different points of views, even within Christianity" (Derek). Around the age of seventeen, he told his parents "I don't buy this anymore" (Derek), recalling "None of those conversations went particularly well" (Derek). Though hard to picture now with his well-pressed button-up shirt and crew cut, Derek felt generally ostracized as a "nerdy kid" and "new wave punk kid" with black finger nails and crazy hair that embraced a rebellious, counter-culture identity. Being an atheist in a religious town only increased his sense of marginalization. While many participants were outward with their atheist proclamations, Tara's process was quiet and mostly internal throughout her teenage years. Her break began with the difficultly reconciling the notion of original sin: I just started to intellectualize and started to look at it logically. I started to question the tenets of the Christian faith and dogma. The idea of original sin. That, for me, was actually the flipping point from "Well, maybe God is challenging my faith" or these Christian ways of reframing any kind of doubt, and instead looking at it like "Wait a second, this just doesn't make any sense." The idea of original sin to me was just completely illogical and irrational. This idea that we would just come into life with no experience having done nothing and having observed nothing we are just abhorrent, evil creatures that need to be saved and redeemed. That's such a fairy tale to me once I actually started thinking about it. (Tara)

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! 37 By eighteen, Tara stopped going to church and labeled herself an agnostic. "For a few years I existed in that "I don't know" space, thinking I believed in a God. Not the Christian God, but still somehow anthropomorphizing it (Tara). After ignoring the big questions for some time, Tara one day was able to come to terms with herself: I would probably have labeled myself agnostic until two-and-a-half years ago. That was a lot of ignoring and pretending like it wasn't something I needed to address I was able to finally come to a place of being able to say "I don't believe in God. I don't believe that is a fundamental reality." A lot of it was learning more about Eastern traditions. A lot of it was studying yoga and understanding that there is this way of integrating a lot of my intuitive beliefs about humanity and consciousness that can exist independently from any kind of authoritative and omnipotent power. Kinda starting to come back to a more humanistic perspective. Bringing the control back within the sphere of our lived biological existence, rather than some sort of whatever-that-is It was really subtle, and it wasn't a big deal. It just kinda happened. It was so natural to me to be in that space that it wasn't a revelation. It was more like "This is reality. This is the way it is. And that's okay. (Tara) While some participants experienced discrete events marking their transition to atheism, each was the culmination of a lifetime of events. Tara describes the process that transpired in the decade between crying at the donut-less grocery store and renouncing belief:

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! 38 It's so subtle. These little shifts that happen in our perception. The little things that guide us towards those shifts. It's being on the bus, watching people interact. Being in relationships and understanding how you are in relationships. They happen so subtly. I really don't have these clear benchmarks of going from one to the other. (Tara) Surely this is true for many participants. Early relationships, exposure to new thoughts, and memorable life events begin the period of questioning. These are the first cracks in the wall of belief, widening over time. Then the dam breaks and with it comes tremendous change. Fear of judgment and rejection. Many left religious belief structures because of the judgment present only to then find themselves on the receiving end of judgment from friends, family, and society-at-large. "I hate feeling like there are people out there who hate me because of my beliefs" (Derek). Derek had previously heard of the Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann study (2006) about the distrust and prejudice against atheists, referencing it when talking about society: It has changed some, but not as much as I might like. I still feel like I live in a culture that is still Christian-based or belief-based in some fashion. As homophobic as this culture is, I'm still 30 points below that on an acceptability scale. (Derek) Michelle, even in the context of graduate school, remembers when she first found the courage to openly identify as an atheist and the fear which accompanied:

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! 39 I wouldn't use the word. It took me a year. I can remember the first time I used it. Out in a bar with a bunch of friends in grad school. That's the first time I came out and said "I think I'm an atheist." It was scary. It had sort of built up enough. I had purposefully not been saying it in contexts. I was afraid to say it out loud. Certainly did not want to say it to my parents. It seemed like a bad thing to say. What would other people think? How are they going to judge me? (Michelle) Twenty years after first coming out to friends, Michelle stills holds a fear of losing business if her beliefs were made public: On something public, I don't want it out there in that way I feel like me putting myself out there as an atheist could hurt my career. Which sucks, because that's the opposite of what I'm about. I'm about being totally authentic and putting it out there. But for some reason, that's not a stigma I'm willing to take on. (Michelle) Derek echoes the notion that the term still holds too negative of a stigma to be public knowledge in the world of business: In dealing with clients, I suspect I will not volunteer my religious views in talking about differences. That point is going to be more contentious than talking about race, gender, or sexual orientation. (Derek) The need for discretion around being an atheist seems rooted in the societal perception. In a predominantly-Christian nation, most people have difficulty calling their foundational ideas into question:

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! 40 I think it makes people really uncomfortable People don't know what to do with it. They avoid it. People really rely on that thought process If you meet someone you assume they're Christian. People don't know what to do when they meet somebody and realize they're not. (Becca) Michelle stated "It's like coming out of the closet. I don't want people to know this I only out myself as an atheist if the person says it first" (Michelle). Tara also knows the effects the term can have and is somewhat understanding: You come up against any kind of religious person and tell them you're an atheist and the reaction is immediately negative... If you say you don't believe in God, people immediately think you're void. That you have no substance. No grounding. No imagination maybe, I don't know. They just kind of see you as a black hole I think it scares people. No one wants to think about dying. No one wants to think about mortality. When you're an atheist, that's immediately what people feel... "Crap, I have to think about the fact that someday I'm going to be confronting my own death. I'm going to be confronting the fact that I'll cease to exist. (Tara) Derek is more open about his lack of belief, though not completely. I still feel reticent. I have to choose when and where I talk about it. It threatens their worldview I'm not wearing it on my sleeve. If someone asks about it, I'm happy to talk about it ." (Derek) An able-bodied heterosexual white male who is otherwise at the pinnacle of privilege in society, Derek stated: "It definitely impacts my feeling in general of feeling

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! 41 included. There is certainly a sense of marginalization" (Derek). Derek mentioned having lost friends he tried to engage in intellectual discussion. Many cannot stand their worldview being challenged: "I have absolutely alienated people that are not my friends anymore through these debates. People regard me as an enemy (Derek). Many participants felt rejection from people very close to them. Becca developed a rift with her parents. Her mom told her "The path you're on is leading to a bad place" (Becca), while Becca's father openly disapproved of a happy relationship she was in because they lived together premaritally. "I didn't talk to my mom for a year" (Becca). Becca relates the feeling of being rejected by her parents on account of her lack of belief, despite everything else in life going well: That was really hard. I was really happy. I was in this great relationship Literally doing everything I was supposed to be doing. It felt frustrating that it wasn't enough. "Wow, I'm never going to be good enough. No matter how good my life is ." (Becca) Derek talked about the coming-out process with his parents, saying "it really shook them and concerned them a lot" (Derek). He soon found his relationship with them strained: "There was a distance between myself and my parents. Their way of relating to children, which was all about obedience and rules, was undercut. So it was hard for us to have a relationship" (Derek). When asked if an eventual resolution was reached, Derek grew tearful in remembering his father dying without having accepted him: "The repercussions of that are still on-going. It's a continuing pain that I face."

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! 42 Abdul also had difficulties with his father and their schism of faith, despite describing his alcoholic father as a "dysfunctional guy" (Abdul): We couldn't really have deep theological discussions. He believed the way he did. I kinda had to maintain this aura of this "I'm still a Muslim" even until he died six years ago. (Abdul) Tara also recalls being unable to share her questioning with her mother or any of her friends: I wasn't surrounded by a lot of people that I could process that with I don't remember talking about it with anyone in my family... If I had talked about it with my mom there would have been a lot of resistance because she is very devoted to her faith I didn't talk about this with anybody until I was maybe in my twenties. There was no room for dissent among most of the people I was in contact with. (Tara) Beyond straining parental relationships, several participants talked about tensions in friendships. Becca left the Mormon church while relatively young, while Paige left as an adult. Both experienced difficulties: It becomes hard. You're not really sure where you fit. You want to hang out with this friend but some of the things you say really bother me. And you want to hang out with this friend but some of the things I say still bother you. And you want to fit in at that age. (Becca)

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! 43 I regularly saw these people and shared what was going on in our lives. They always accepted me, as long as I was still Mormon. When I had different ideas, though, I didn't feel comfortable to share it with them. (Paige) Whether from friends, family, or society, all of our participants experienced a sense of rejection once they stopped believing in a god. Many felt they could not be themselves among those closest to them. Several had family difficulties. Some felt fear for their business if their lack of belief became public. All this occurred because they stopped believing in a god. The transition was also often accompanied by a sense of loss. Loss. Several participants felt loss for the characters and stories of their religious texts, which they had previously thought of as real. During our interview, Paige talked about the loss of Jesus in her life: The four gospels that's powerful stuff. There's goodness in that stuff. That goodness I connected with. Even today, when I read the Bible I'll shed a tear. That's goodness. That's a loss. Because it's not true. But it's a really lovely story (Paige) Paige also had a sense of loss around the idea of an afterlife. She recently lost a friend and now accepts that she will never see him again. Wistfully crying, she said "How lost I feel without religion to soothe me. Without all of that stuff to soothe me. I can't count on it anymore, it's not real for me anymore." (Paige). Similarly, Becca, no stranger to the loss of a loved one, likened the loss of God to the loss of a best friend:

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! 44 You just feel alone There's this sense of betrayal It felt like a betrayal of someone that I grew up thinking was my friend. I thought "If you are there, you're just not my friend. Maybe you aren't there ?" (Becca) Ryan shared a feeling of betrayal, but more directed at community he felt had deceived him over the years: "Man, I've been lied to. All these people told me all these things" (Ryan). Ryan's struggles with the loss of community was the hardest aspect of the transition, and one which he has not found a suitable replacement: Definitely loneliness has been one of the bigger struggles and probably will continue to be for me I miss the community. I don't really have a tribe. I'm convinced we all want a tribe. We all want to be in a group of one hundred We want to be a part of some kind of group. I think there's something extremely human and evolutionarily ingrained about that. I don't have that and I miss it. I have even gone to church just to tap into that a little bit, even in recent years I'm going there for that community. But I sit there and think "This is insane" the entire time. (Ryan) Abdul also strongly felt a sense of loss around faith. His loss was accompanied by a tragic, mourning quality of self-deficiency not seen in the other participants, as if the loss of faith equated to a loss of hope: Once you become an atheist, it's extremely difficult to become un-atheist. You just become so skeptical and cynical. It's really hard to un-prove it I see huge benefits in what people get out of spirituality I just have a hard time finding it for myself. (Abdul)

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! 45 For Abdul, the lines between religion, parental influence, and alcoholism are blurry. "I've struggled with my alcohol as well" (Abdul). He is an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous: "That results in a certain sense of community, which is healthy. Maybe I don't have a great faith, but I'm socializing with these folks that have similar issues (Abdul). However, he finds difficulty in belonging to yet another community which requires belief in a higher power. The pain and suffering was evident in Abdul's voice during our conversation: There's a strong spiritual thread in that program. The spiritual aspects of that program are extremely difficult for me to comprehend and master. The group therapy aspects and the self-learning and introspection that you get out of it are really powerful. It does provide some moments of serenity. But it's fairly fleeting You're supposed to ask God to remove defects of character. And I'm like "Well, I don't have a god, so how's that work?" (Abdul). Whether the loss of the idea of heaven, the company an imagined friend, or of hope itself, it is important to recognize that becoming an atheist involves profound sacrifice and loss. Anger. For several participants, anger comes about when contemplating religion. Derek gets angry at the societal impact of religiosity: Here's the stuff that gets my blood boiling when I look at things like education policy and science instruction. In a southern state they are revising their curriculum to write out climate change. Climate change isn't a religious issue as such but it is in the same camp of things like creationism. It really worries me

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! 46 that there is a generation of children being miseducated That makes me feel like I'm not in a safe world. You know what I mean? People are making decisions on the basis of things that aren't real. Things that have no evidence. (Derek) Becca feels similarly about the topic of evolution, even though she is fine with theism in schools: I'm not an atheist that will ever push to take God out of schools. That doesn't really bother me outside of teaching incorrect stuff, like not teaching evolution. That's sort of a big deal, because you're teaching wrong stuff. (Becca) With atheists being in the minority, some feel powerless in regard to the political ramifications of living in a Christian nation: When I see that stuff, I get a twinge and my heart races. What can I do about this? I feel a big responsibility to do something, yet I feel powerless How does powerlessness affect my mental health? The fear about the outcomes What unintended consequences flow from being miseducated about science and believing science is something to mistrust? People are raised with a mistrust of science because it contradicts their spiritual beliefs and then they end up doing dangerous shit that affects all of our lives. That really worries me and makes me feel uncomfortable about the world we live in. (Derek) For Ryan, who is generally a happy guy, anger manifests around the egocentrism of the religious and the plight of gays and lesbians:

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! 47 I get so mad. There's not many things that make me that mad. That brings me to a place of anger that I don't really experience in many other places of life People who have absolutely no concern about the ridiculousness of the Bible. They seem all too gleeful that they are the ones chosen and loved by God. That they'll stand over most people who are hell-bound and they think that is a great thing. They're happy to worship a God that would create that scenario. They're entirely unconcerned, not even wanting to not know the stories of gay people who are so hurt by what their community is perpetuating in this country. (Ryan) Michelle experienced anger with religious friends as well, though hers was more tempered with an understanding humor. She remembers a holiday spent with her Pentecostal boyfriend's family: Thanksgiving dinner they prayed for me. Prayed for my soul. I was like "Thank you?" and "Fuck you for thinking you can pray for my soul!" And on the flip side, it's never bad if people are sending you good thoughts or thinking good things about you. It felt a bit self-righteous. (Michelle) Existential angst. Some participants talked about the existential angst which arises from no longer believing, often accompanied by a melancholy reminiscence for the safety of belief. Paige talked about loneliness: "It's sad a little bit that it's not real, because it makes me feel more alone. But we're all alone anyway" (Paige). Michelle, generally a positive and upbeat person, talked about the existential angst that stems from being an atheist during an emotional moment of our interview. Her intensity grew and grew as she told us:

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! 48 That puts me into an existential angst. I reminded again that there's no fucking point to any of this. There's no meaning. We make it all up. It's all bullshit. Nothing matters. This is bad don't let me stay in this state for too long. I don't want to drop into this. It's not a fun place to go. Hopelessness, helplessness, terror and sadness. A feeling I'm not used to as a relatively positive person. This is why people are religious. So they don't ever have to feel this. This feels shitty. This feels bad. This is unmotivating. This is just awful. This is very well the truth. Okay, so we're making up meaning. So I'm gonna make up meaning that matters to me. That's what makes me happy. I'm going to be of service and help people. I'm here and that's what I do. I'm here and let's reduce suffering. I make up my own meaning around that. But it made me a little envious. You fuckers don't have to feel this because you believe in something that makes you not have to. I get it. It pisses me off, but it gives me respect psychologically, emotionally, I get why people do this. It serves many purposes that really fundamental alleviating of angst. (Michelle) Abdul shared in the experience of existential angst and purposelessness, but unlike the other participants I could feel his longing to return to belief: It's an incredibly cynical and pessimistic way to live. You think, if there is no God then what's the point of life? We're just these biological organisms spinning through space. Perhaps some of that is age as well. As you get into middle age and face your own mortality, you think "What is the purpose of life? What have I accomplished?" Invariably, most people look at their life and realize "I didn't

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! 49 realize everything I thought I might achieve." Then you think, what is the purpose of this whole life? You look at people that have spiritual serenity, and they're obviously seeming to have more peace around it. It's a quest for banishing anxiety and such things. You can see that people in religious faith have some benefits there. If you got a lot of emotional anxiety and psychological things going on, it's natural to look those folks and think "I kinda want what they have. How can I get that? (Abdul) Tara was another participant that spoke at-length about existential angst. She initially confronted it at age eighteen when she first broke away from the church, resulting in a lengthy depression filled with the contemplation of nonexistence. Though the depression eventually lifted, she still struggles with angst today: It definitely brought up some existential angst for me. If there isn't a God, what is there? What happens when we die? What is our purpose in life? If there isn't some creator-man ascribing purpose to everything I do if fate doesn't exist why am I here? What am I doing? In that way there was definitely some upheaval for me I have to ascribe my own meaning to it I haven't resolved it. I've been existing in this space for like a year-and-a-half or so, grappling with panic and depression over the fact that one day I will die. There isn't any comfort in that. I can't hold on to any kind of fairy tale that when I do die there will be anything waiting for me. That's something I've been working through. (Tara) The discussions around purpose, meaning, and death were some of the most poignant moments of all the interviews. Ceasing belief in god and religion seemed to

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! 50 bring our participants face-to-face with the big questions. For some, it was depressing and difficult, at least initially. Combined with societal rejection, family pains, the loss of friends, and outrage at the power of religion in this country, becoming an atheist was tough for most. However, it was not without its benefits. Reintegration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the negative the emotions of the transition, most of the participants displayed an eventual reintegration of their identity and cited several emergent strengths stemming from non-belief. Understanding and acceptance. Having been on both sides of belief, several participants relayed a newfound strength in being able to appreciate the perspectives of others: I've become a lot more moderated in my views. I've become a lot more accepting. Sometimes I think of religious or spiritual beliefs as a coping mechanism whatever people need to get through their day It gives me an ability to decontextualize things in a way others can't (Derek) Michelle has also softened around dealing with believers, both in life and in her therapy practice: I've gotten way more tolerant, way less judgmental. I get why people are religious. I certainly understand how it serves people and how it helps people. If I have a client that has a strong religious belief that I don't hold, I will dig at it and find out what strength comes from it. (Michelle)

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! 51 For Paige, becoming an atheist and pursuing scientific inquiry in the realm of psychology led to a greater sense of understanding and compassion for her dysfunctional mother: I understood there was many different facets to it. It wasn't just her lack of love for me. It was her lack of ability to love herself, or care for herself, or care for me, or understand what she was doing before she did it. (Paige) Paige would later solidify her message of acceptance for others: "That space where you and someone else can't bridge a gap is the limits to your ability to unconditionally love another person" (Paige). Tara also feels a sense of universality around religion nowadays: I absolutely believe that there is deep wisdom in religiosity. I think it's perverted and muddled by human ambition. But I absolutely believe there are some fundamental truths. That's supposed to be what religion directs us to... Certain things translate no matter what. I've become more interested in identifying what those things are and what they mean for people, no matter where you are. (Tara) Even Derek, who perpetually longed for debates on the topic, has found more acceptance in recent years. "I have more of a conciliatory attitude towards it now. Accepting others and where they came from." He continues with a mischievous laugh: "Less apt to want to cure them !" (Derek). Paige echoes Derek's sentiments towards evidenced-based thought and has come to share an open-minded approach as well:

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! 52 I think the naturalists are more committed to reality-based and evidence-based thinking, and I think that's healthier. I don't need to bang the atheist bible. I want to keep it open. (Paige) Confidence and empowerment. For several participants, the transition led to confidence and a sense of empowerment:. As much as it was a stigma and I didn't want to say the word and share it with people, it did feel empowering for two reasons. One, when I think back, Catholicism to me is kinda heavy, kinda scary, and kinda guilt and shame and stuff like that. There was a release from that I think. It also felt empowering because I was using my brain and using critical thinking and it was logical. (Michelle) Tara shares in the sense of release that comes with embracing her new mindset. She also found empowerment in a sense of truth: On the positive side of things, there was assurance in that conviction. Which is interesting I feel like it's reality That's a benefit I actually get to exist in reality. I'm not trying to make something up or live in a made-up world. I actually have to confront the real questions. Not the made up ones For me, to realize the truth was very freeing. It was a relief. All the angst I had carried around for so long about like "I'm praying and my prayers aren't being answered." or "I feel like a bad Christian because I have all of this doubt." Being able to finally just say "Wait a second, I'm none of those things because this actually isn't true!" For me it was really freeing. Being able to step out of that burden of sin

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! 53 was extraordinary! I don't understand why anyone would walk through life constantly believing they were innately bad and in need of redemption. Life is hard enough! Why put that on yourself as well? (Tara) Becca shared in the feeling of empowerment from being able to hold conflicting ideas in her head. She also found a greater sense of awareness for herself and others: I'm really self-reliant. Also, I have confidence in my own ideas. Even now, if something comes up that challenges what I believe right now, I don't have a problem with that. I like self-reflection. I'm really self-aware. I tend to notice how I'm feeling and how I'm making others feel. (Becca) For Derek, the empowerment connects to a broader historical movement: "It does make me feel a kinship with people of science and reason throughout history." He continues with a laugh: "I'm an outsider, but I'm a special outsider. An elite outsider" (Derek). Michelle echoes: "I find it so refreshing if I meet somebody new and I find out. It makes me so happy. It's like a sisterhood or brotherhood. It's like You think smart too'" (Michelle). Community. Many participants cited community as an appealing aspect of religion. Some of the participants have maintained that concept as an atheist: I still really believe in community, having this net of people. I have this incredible network of friends that are insanely supportive in the way that I need, which is really rare. Because of the way I grew up, those were the type of friendships I was taught to build. How to pay attention to people, how to listen to people, how to support them When I stepped outside of the church, I built

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! 54 friends that were like-minded. Not like church-like-minded. But their moral compass it the same as mine. (Becca) I am so intent on building a tribe of people that I can really look to and that can teach me stuff. I want a group of people that are really close to me, that I can connect with, that I can really appreciate as human beings and that I can learn from. (Paige) Ryan often looks at the benefits he gained from being involved in religion and discussed how to replace those facets in his new life: You can attain the feelings I had with meditation. With a community. We're listening to one another and we're concerned with one another. That's where the value is. It's not in what's going up to the sky and what is or is not coming back. That's clearly not the value. The value is in developing that community, and the demonstration of listening and being cognizant and aware of other people. (Ryan) Abdul still looks favorably on the religious community, though he is unable to intellectually feel like he can be a part of it. However, he seems to have found a sense of healing in parenting his own children. He agreed to let his wife raise their children with religion: I think raising kids religiously, if it's not too hardcore, is pretty beneficial overall. My kids were raised Catholic. They're not super-Catholic. They're pretty reasonably okay with it. My kids know it's a story I'm optimistic for them having some sort of religious faith I think that would overall be a positive thing. If you can tolerate religion, it's good for you. (Abdul)

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! 55 Societal progress. Some participants found solace in the shifting tides of society, feeling like they are the vanguard: I think it's much more readily accepted now. Religious people do not want to believe that religion is in the decline, but the fact of the matter is it is in decline. It's just logical, from an anthropological perspective. Christ died over two thousand years ago, okay? Four thousand years from now, his influence is going to be less than it is now. Time erodes myth. It turns faith into myth. We don't believe in the Roman gods anymore because that doesn't make any sense. (Abdul) I really appreciate that there is more of these [atheist] forces acting in our society. It makes me feel more comforted that there are folks in positions of power and influence trying to have an impact in some fashion in our world. (Derek) Tara, being the youngest of the participants, perhaps represents the societal shift several of the participants longed for a redefining of the term itself: I feel like in America atheism is synonymous with nihilism... Atheism doesn't have to mean nothingness. I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in nothingness either I would like to see the perception or definition of atheism broadened a little bit. To encompass these worldviews that do have a lot of faith in our spiritual essence outside of religion. (Tara) A new philosophy. So what do all these former believers hold as their truths now that they have renounced the metaphysical? Many seem to embrace this life more fully,

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! 56 truly soaking up life's pleasures. Ryan, an avid hiker, backpacker, traveller, and beach volleyball player with friends around the globe, says: Things that make me feel happy, I just enjoy! Instead of thinking about things any further, I just say "That was awesome! I enjoyed that!" End-of-story. That is meaningful enough. I can put my hand on it. It makes sense. That's enough for me. Tying that to God's purpose for me and eternal existence is just going into a block box of confusion that you can never say anything useful. It just muddles what's actually important, which is "That was awesome! I enjoyed that. It was an extraordinarily, really good experience. (Ryan) Several of the participants seemed to move through life with this ability to be present and embrace experiences fully. Fueled by the finiteness of experience, Paige says "I don't want to die today because I have some stuff I need to do!" (Paige). Like many of the participants, she embraces personal growth: "What I really connect with is seeking growth and balance in my life. And seeking goodness" (Paige) Though happiness is always difficult to quantify, Ryan states it as such: I love the sports I'm involved with. I love my time in the hospital. For the people I'm around each week, I really enjoy being around them. For that reason, I'm happy the vast majority of the time. I'm happy ninety-five percent of the time. Five percent of the time I'm not, and that's okay. For the five percent of the time I'm not, I know the happiness is not that far away. So I'll just get through it. (Ryan)

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! 57 For others, the quest for spirituality led to other traditions. Michelle remembers doing some reading on Eastern traditions and discovering a pleasant surprise: "All this stuff that is resonating with me that is not God, but that is spiritual, has a name. It's called Buddhism! (Michelle). Michelle would go on to learn about secular Buddhist philosophy, becoming a vegetarian and incorporating mindfulness into her daily routine and into her work with clients. She found a sense of spirituality there, later going on to say: I identify as spiritual. I sometimes call myself a spiritual atheist. What I realized that meant is Buddhism. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. There's things we can't explain an interconnectedness between humans that can't be explained. Although some of it is getting explained by psychology, neuropsychology, and the powers of meditation and mindfulness those to me are all very spiritual things. Buddhist beliefs of kindness, compassion, no cruelty, reducing suffering by detaching, how we're all in it together, stuff like that. It really is a lot of Buddhist tenets. Though I don't call myself a Buddhist and I don't want to. I don't really want a religious label. That doesn't appeal to me. (Michelle) Other participants, like Derek, would also gravitate towards Buddhism: "I enjoy the practices of Buddhism, like the meditations" (Derek). Tara is also finding connection and exploring meaning through mindfulness and Eastern traditions: I'm very focused on learning how to be here now. This idea that our mind can live in the past or future and can conceptualize world upon world, but my body can

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! 58 only be right here... Trying to just be with that. It's hard. It's really really hard. I think I'm still struggling with it. I really don't know. It changes for me on a daily basis. Multiple times in a day. I've been very focused on trying to not prescribe meaning, rather than being here now and seeing if any meaning comes from that. Being led rather than leading. (Tara) Paige is still uncertain what spirituality means, though it seems she has found plenty of ways to connect with herself that are not dictated by a spiritual authority: When I look at the components of what a well-rounded life is and I see the spiritual component, I don't know what the fuck to do with it. I go to the mountains. And sit. I do yoga. I connect with me. I smoke a joint. I don't need a book anymore, or a set of rules. (Paige) Meanwhile, Abdul seems to not have integrated atheism into his identity in a healthy way. He still struggles with his efforts to bring spirituality back into his life and help with his Alcohol Anonymous steps: Let's keep trying it. Let's keep looking at it. I'll keep reviewing the steps that are oriented towards spirituality and see if I can find some answer or some structure that I can form a foundation on. But it's pretty challenging. (Abdul) For Becca, thoughts on god and spirituality do not seem a part of daily life: "I don't actively think about being an atheist. I don't wake up thinking Yep, still don't believe in God today!'" (Becca). She describes her new philosophy: Even if I'm not in the church, I live a good life. I do good things. I don't put anything bad out there I have a deep belief in the importance of happiness and

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! 59 contentment Happiness is so fleeting. You have no idea. If it makes you happy then I'm really happy, as long as you're not hurting people. (Becca) Tara also feels distant from her Christian upbringing, stating "I've come so far away from that world and that belief system that it's not even something I think about on a daily basis (Tara). She is coming to refine her new worldview, also reconciling her existential angst with a hopefulness and compassionate outlook: You have to start being very picky about what you do with your time. I think that's a good thing. It's the first time I've had to confront the idea that this might be my only life. Which is terrifying. But I think it's a good thing because it definitely leads me to be more bold. Hopefully. At least more compassionate. Anything that leads us to be more compassionate can be nothing but good. (Tara) Ryan also stays away from identifiers, instead focusing on the commonalities of humanity: I don't use that term [atheist]. I don't like the term non-Christian. By trying to label somebody something they're not We want families. We want to have meaning. We want good people in our lives. We want relationships. We want the same things Atheists or agnostics or humanists or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist we're not those things. I don't think anybody is I'm a human. I don't think I'm any different from Christians or atheists. We're all transitory. Every Christian will be non-Christian at times so don't label yourself as such I'm Ryan. That stayed constant. (Ryan)

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! 60 Advice For Those Somewhere in the Process Some of the participants were asked what they might say to someone beginning to question their faith in gods and religion. Tara emphasized each individual figuring it out for themselves: If you're capable of being able to accept that God doesn't exist and you can find peace in that, then by all means pursue that. If it puts you into a tailspin of misery and sadness, then I don't care if people tell themselves stories. If it comforts them, if it allows them to get through life, if it gives them meaning and purpose and, I would hope, teaches them love and compassion, I think that's fine. Life is hard enough. There's no reason to put a burden on yourself one way or another. For me Christianity was a burden and making me miserable. (Tara) Becca responded, "Think. More than anything else. Take time to think. Don't take time to talk. Stop taking so much time to listen. That's all you do in religion. Just stop listening and start thinking. It makes a difference. Try to expose yourself to other people (Becca). Paige also advises exposure to people with differing viewpoints: "If you are having misgivings about a religion, talk to lots of different kinds of people. If you only talk to people in your religion you're likely to be manipulated into believing something that you may not feel is right for you. Go with your gut and get a lot of support if you can (Paige).

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! 61 Michelle recommends researching: "I would just look up stuff Learn the terminology. Research a bunch of stuff and get it. Seek out a Meetup group, the Rationalists Society, stuff like that (Michelle). Tara perhaps best summarizes these sentiments, emphasizing the individual path each individual must take to find harmony within: "Read broadly. Read deeply. Have conversations about it. Think about it. Figure out what works for you and what doesn't. Seek peace (Tara).

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! 62 CHAPTER V DISCUSSION This study illustrates that the process of becoming an atheist is complex and intense, replete with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components. Often sparked by new thoughts which cannot be reconciled with the structures of religion, the precursors to the transition might include exposure to new ideas and cultures, an analysis of the hypocrisy present in religious structures and their followers, and critical thinking on the power of prayer, the nature of sexuality, and gay rights. The break from belief is a trying time, often fraught with feelings of rejection, fear, judgment, loss, anger, and angst. Family relations, friendships, and a sense of community are all strained in the process. These findings support the detrimental effects discussed in other studies (Gervais, 2011; Weber, Pargament, Kunik, Lomax & Stanley, 2012). The study also adds credence to the v-shaped relationship between well-being and certainty (Galen & Kloet, 2011) as these tough times are often eventually buoyed by new-found strengths: a sense of understanding and acceptance of others, feelings of confidence and empowerment, a rediscovered thirst for community, and a new philosophy that embraces life, happiness, goodness, and personal growth. It is my hope that this study serves as a reminder that this stigmatized group is not the immoral, untrustworthy, and dejected lot that popular culture has made them out to be (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006) but rather everyday people possessing the kindness, the hopes, the anger, the fear, and the angst that anyone might. The study illustrates that they embrace life for all the ups and down it offers, attempting to reconcile the big

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! 63 questions free from myth. I hope we recognize that there are still many out there who do not believe and remain hidden for fear of being judged and ostracized. I hope we as a society can continue moving forward to a time when disbelief in deities is not a reason for prejudice, stigma, or distrust. Implications for Clinical Work Given the levels of societal mistrust and prejudice towards atheists (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006; Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2008; Gervais, 2011), it is clear that they are a misunderstood group. Atheists still encounter many difficulties in this country despite generally being highly educated and intelligent (Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg, 2008; PRC, 2012), empathetic and nurturing of relationships (Caldwell-Harris, Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2010), and often demonstrating lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, and homophobia (Zuckerman, 2009) If practitioners in the fields of mental health and human services are any reflection of society-at-large, there is much that they can learn from the accounts in this study to avoid contributing to the damage done through misunderstanding, judgment, and fear of non-belief. This study has reinforced the idea that becoming an atheist is a process. As we work with clients, it is important to know where they are in the journey. Are they experiencing cognitive discomfort with conflicting ideas and need someone to flesh out their ambivalent feelings in a nonjudgmental, non-directive, and accepting way? Are they slowly moving towards identifying as atheists and need support with the inevitable fallout that will come from friends, family, and society? Do they need help processing

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! 64 anger, mourning loss, or exploring existential angst? Are they reintegrating their identity and need space to articulate what is important in their new worldview? Awareness and understanding of these different aspects of the process can help guide our work with burgeoning atheists. The journey can be a long one understand where they are in it. Ask how they identify. Ask what their self-identification means. Learn how they think about gods and religion and how those thoughts have changed. Find out who supports them in this process. Find out which relationships are being strained and what it means to them. Process struggles with family discord, loss of friendships, and feeling alone. Understand how they experience marginalization and ostracization. Learn about the negative feelings occurring within them. Understand their losses and normalize these difficulties as part of the process. Explore meaning, purpose, and existence. Build up the strengths that emerge from the journey. Recognize feelings of empowerment and confidence. Connect the transition with broader community resources and societal shifts. Help them define their guiding values and integrate them into new life philosophy. Remind them of something Paige said: "It's really confusing for a while. Then you work it out" (Paige). As healers and guides, we can also direct burgeoning atheists to resources for non-believers. For those feeling alone with their questioning, most towns have groups in which nonbelievers can find support, with names like Freethinkers, Brights, humanists, rationalists, skeptics, and secularists. For those needing literature to help think through the process, we can recommend the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Bertrand Russell, as

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! 65 well as the references of this study. For those struggling with drugs and alcohol, but also struggling with the metaphysical aspects of common twelve-step programs, there are organizations like Secular Organizations for Sobriety, LifeRing, Rational Recovery, and Smart Recovery. As counselors, therapists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and doctors, we have an ethical imperative to understand and support the cultural and philosophical lenses of our clients (ACA, 2014; AMA, 2015; ANA, 2015; APA, 2010; NASW, 2008). This is perhaps all the more important when it comes to marginalized minority groups such as atheists. Let us endeavor to understand their values. Let us see the world through their eyes. Let us accept that their perspective is fundamentally different from most of society. Only then can we truly be of service to our clients.

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! 66 REFERENCES Altemeyer, B. (1997) Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Altemeyer, B. & Hunsberger, B. (2006). Atheists: a groundbreaking study of America's nonbelievers. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. American Counseling Association (2014). Code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association. American Medical Association (2015). Code of Medical Ethics. Chicago: IL: American Medical Association. American Nurses Association (2015). Code of Ethics for Nurses. Silver Spring, MD: American Nurses Association American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Anspach, W., Coe, K., Thurlow, C. (2007) The other closet?: Atheists, homosexuals and the lateral appropriation of discursive capital. Critical Discourse Studies, 4 (1), 95-119. doi: 10.1080/17405900501149509 Blackford, R. (2009) 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Bokun, Z. (1998). Daoist patterns of thought and the tradition of Chinese metaphysics. Contemporary Chinese Thought, 29(3), 13-71. doi: 10.2753/ CSP1097-1467290313

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! 67 Caldwell-Harris, C., Wilson, A., LoTempio, E., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2010). Exploring the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14 (7) 659-672. doi: 10.1080/13674676.2010.509847 Creswell, J. (2013) Qualitative inquiry & research design: choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. Edwards, D. (1998). Types of case study work: a conceptual framework for case-based research. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38 (3) 36-70. doi 10.1177/00221678980383003 Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as "other": moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review 71 211234. doi: 10.1177/000312240607100203 Festiner, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. California: Stanford University Press. Galen, L. & Kloet, J. (2010). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious: evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14 (7) 673-689. doi: 10.1080/13674676.2010.510829 Gallup International (2012). Global index of religiosity and atheism. Retrieved August 1, 2013, from http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf Gervais, W., Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (6) 1189-1206. doi:10.1037/a0025882

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! 68 Gervais, W. (2011). Finding the faithless: perceived atheist prevalence reduces antiatheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (543) doi 10.1177/0146167211399583 Hayes, R. (1988). Principled atheism in the buddhist scholastic tradition. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16 (1) 5-28. doi: 10.1007/BF00235404 Hadaway, C. (1989). Identifying American apostates: a cluster analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28 (2) 201-215. doi: 10.2307/1387059 Harris, S. (2007). The problem with atheism. Atheist Alliance Conference. Lecture conducted from Washington, DC. Hunsberger, B. & Brown, L. (1984). Religious socialization, apostasy, and the impact of family background. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 23 (3) 239-251. doi: 10.2307/1386039 Husserl, E. (1977). Phenomenological psychology (J. Scanlon, Trans.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. (Original work published 1925.) Johnson, B. & Christensen, L. (2012). Education research: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. Keller, B., Klein, C., Hood, R., & Streib, H. (2013). Deconversion and religious or spiritual transformation. In H. Westerink (Ed.), Religion and Transformation in Contemporary European Society: Vol. 4. Constructs of Meaning and Religious Transformation. Current Issues in the Psychology of Religion (pp. 119139). Gšttingen: V&R unipress / Vienna University Press.

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! 69 Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence, 37 (1) 11-15. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2008.03.004 Karlsson, G. (1993). Psychological qualitative research from a phenomenological perspective. Stockholm: Almvqvist & Wiksell International. Kosmin, B. & Keysar, A. (2009). American religious identification survey: summary report. Retrieved July 8, 2013, from http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/ 2011/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf Martin, M. (2007). The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. National Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of ethics. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Pew Research Center (2012). "Nones" on the rise: one-in-five adults have no religious affiliation. Retrieved July 8, 2013, from http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/ Topics/Religious_Affiliation/Unaffiliated/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf Seidman, I. (2013). Interviewing as qualitative research: a guide for researchers in education & the social sciences. New York: Teachers College Press. Silver, C., Coleman, T., III, Hood, R., Jr., & Holcombe, J. (2014). The six types of nonbelief: a qualitative and quantitative study of type and narrative. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 17 (10), 990-1001. doi: 10.1080/13674676.2014.987743

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! 70 Simpson, W. (2013). When god dies: deconversion from theism as analogous to the experience of death. Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Retrieved July 24, 2013, from http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/theses/1259 Streib, H. (2013). Deconversion. In Rambo, L. & Farhadian, C. (Eds.), Oxford Handbook on Religious Conversion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thomas, O. (2010). The atheist surge: faith in science, secularism, and atheism. Theology and Science, 8 (2), 195-210. doi: 10.1080/14746701003675561 Weber, S., Pargament, K., Kunik, M., Lomax, J., & Stanley, M. (2012). Psychological distress among religious nonbelievers: a systematic review. Journal of Religion and Health, 51 (1) 72-86. doi:10.1007/s10943-011-9541-1 Whitley, R. (2009) Atheism and mental health. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 18(3), 190-194. doi: 10.3109/10673221003747674 Zuckerman, P. (2009) Atheism, secularity, and well-being: how the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions. Sociology Compass, 3 (6) 949-971. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2009.00247

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! 71 A PPENDIX A STAMPED PROTOCOL REVIEW COMIRB Application for Protocol Review Page 1 of 8 CF-089NG COMIRB Application for Protocol Review Effective 10/28/13 Wagstaff, Michael14-0535 Exempt/Non-Human Subject Research Section A: Submission Details Date of Initial Submission: Mar 21, 2014 Version Date: Mar 26, 2014 Section B: Protocol Information Protocol Number: 14-0535 PI: Wagstaff, Michael Do not enter PI name here it will be added automatically when selected in Section C below Project Title: Deconversion: A Phenomenological Inquiry Into The Transition To Atheism Section C: Key Study Personnel Remove Last Name First Name and MI Dept/Division Best Contact # and E-mail address VA Employee Role Wagstaff Michael Student / UC Denver 619-808-8933 michael.wagstaff@uc denver.edu Principal Investigator X Cannon Edward CPCE / UC Denver 303-315-6335 edward.cannon@ucde nver.edu Faculty Mentor Add Another Investigator Add 1 Investigator with the role of PI (and if PI is a student, 1 Investigator with Role of Faculty Mentor). Also add 1 Inves tigator with the role of Primary Contact. (Maximum of 3 investigators listed in this table). All Study Personnel will be added on the electronic form Section C Study Personnel when the protocol is submitted to COMIRB electronically. Contact Information: 1. Is the PI a student or trainee (including resident/fellow), or doing this research to fulfill an educational requirement? Yes No Please be sure to specify the Faculty Mentor/Advisor in the Key Study Personnel section above Make sure to include signed Trainee and Mentor responsibility agreements with this submission! 2. Best contact for scientific questions? 2a. Name Michael Wagstaff 2b. Phone ( 10 digit # ): (619) 808-8933 Section D: Type of Review being Requested 1. Type of Review being requested: COMIRB APPROVED for EXEMPTION 08-Apr-2014 08-Apr-2017

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! 72 APPENDIX B VERBAL CONSENT SCRIPT This research study seeks to better understand the growing trend of United States citizens leaving their religion-of-origin and embracing an atheistic worldview Through a series of interviews with participants such as yourself, this study hopes to contribute to the body of knowledge on the transition. Do I have your permission to audio record this interview? Confidentiality is taken very seriously for this study. You do not have to disclose any identifying information you wish to keep confidential during our interview, such as your name, age, ethnicity, or geographic location. However, you are free to do so if you believe the information is important to your story. Your participation in this study will not be shared with anyone else, and no information will exist linking this audio recording to you. All data will be destroyed at the conclusion of the study. Do you have any questions about confidentiality? It is my responsibility to inform you of potential risks associated with this study. In talking about religion and spirituality, you may experience negative emotions associated with recounting past life experiences. You do not have to answer any questions you do

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! 73 not feel comfortable answering, and you can stop the interview at any time, for any reason, without consequence. Do you understand the risks and your rights? The goal of this interview is to better understand the experience of leaving the religion you were raised with and becoming an atheist. I want to hear your story as you experienced it. I may ask questions about the meaning you ascribed to these life events, as well as the effects it had on you and your life. Participation in this study in completely voluntary, and no compensation is offered. Your participation in this study will contribute to the growing knowledge base of atheism in the United States. I hope to publish this work in one or more scientific journals pertaining to psychology, religious studies, and social sciences, for use by mental health professionals, social scientists, and the community at large. Do you have any questions about what type of information I am seeking? Do you consent to this interview? Thank you. Should you have any questions or concerns after the interview, you can contact me, Michael Wagstaff, at XXX.XXX.XXX or via email at atheismstudy@gmail.com Additionally, you can contact the Colorado Multiple

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! 74 Institutional Review Board (COMIRB) at 303.724.1055. I will provide you a handout with this contact information.

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! 75 A PPENDIX C INTERVIEW SAMPLE QUESTIONS Who? Who influenced your transition? Who supported you during it? Who disapproved? Who was affected by the transition? What? What initiated the transition? What did it feel like at the outset? During the process? After? What impact did it have on your life? Relationships? Sense of communal belonging? What obstacles and barriers did you encounter along the way? When? When did this transition begin? When did you feel open to talk about it? Where? Where did you grow up? What influence did your surroundings have? Where did this transition take place? What environmental factors helped/hindered? How? How was the experience of leaving religion? How do you perceive your place in American culture? Why? Why did you leave your religion?

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! 76 Why did you cease believing in a god or many gods?