A few words on this list. You’ll find that most of the people mentioned are 1) male and 2) white.

First, this may be a case of a gender-dominated intellectual area. The Four Horsemen of the New Atheists are all (white) males: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennet. Even the backup Horsemen are mostly (white) males: Stephen Fry, Jerry Coyne, A. C. Grayling, and Michael Onfray.

This is not to say there are no women in the field. The obvious exception is the “plus one Horsewoman,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose story features in this list. My favourite book on atheism, Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, is edited by a phenomenal female philospher, Louise M. Antony. And, of course, the notorious founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was a woman. Unfortunately, like I am just about to explain, I failed to find their deconversion stories.

Second, many of the most prominent skeptics and agnostics with readily available autobiographies happen to be European. There were a number of very influential Muslim skeptics, such as al-Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi, whose stories I just could not find. The same goes for famous Asian skeptics like Jinasena and Chang Tsai. Autobiographies became more common around the time of the Rennaissance, which allowed us to see the inner process of skeptics’ minds, and not just the end product. It also happened that when autobiographies were around, the most famous skeptics of religion were European or American. So don’t blame me, blame the whole history of the world.

Thirdly, I am an English-speaking white male. So I read mostly English-speaking authors. Around 90 percent of the books I’ve read were authored in the United States or the United Kingdom. I’m trying to change that. Until then, my interests have been Anglo-Saxon, so this list probably will be as well.

On another note, many of the most famous agnostics and atheists are not included in this list. Some, like Percy Shelly, David Hume, or Baruch Spinoza, wrote about their atheism(/pantheism), but not about the process of how they arrived there. Others, like Carl Sagan, Margaret Sanger or Albert Camus, were never religious to begin with–thus no stories of deconversion.

There are two further distinctions I believe are useful to remember:

1) Many agnostics or Deists may have been atheists if Darwin’s theory of evolution was made available to them:

Before Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of evolution, it was extremely hard for even the best men and women to completely reject some form of “ultimate mind” behind the creation of life or the universe, given there was no scientific explanation of how it could happen without such a mind! Even David Hume was seduced by this type of mind-based thinking.I’m aware that what I just wrote here may not be entirely clear. This is not really the place to go through with a large explanation. Succinctly: Many people believed the universe had a Designer. Later on, more sophisticated thinkers said this Designer might not be a personal God, but was at least a Mind. Hume came close to denying that a Mind-Designer was needed for the universe to exist, but he didn’t go all the way. I first came across this way of looking at the history in Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, in the two sections “Locke’s Proof of the Primacy of the Mind” and “Hume’s Close Encounter.” The book is freely available online.Evolution came along, eventually, and got rid of all that. Now there was a very good explanation for how the universe could sustain life and how it could develop to a sophisticated state without a designing mind behind it all. I assume that many of those agnostics and Deists before 1859 would have leaned towards atheism if such a solution had been made available to them.

2) Some skeptics were public agnostics but private atheists.

These are what you could call political agnostics. Take the case of Jean Meslier, the Catholic priest, who unknown to all the laymen he served, was an atheist for the majority of his life. The book he published, after his death and thus out of the reach of those who would have had him hanged during his life, is considered by some historians to be the first longform expression of atheism ever produced. Spinoza’s contemporary, Adriaan Koerbagh, was found guilty of blasphemy for a work he was about to publish about religion, sentenced to 10 years in jail by the Dutch authorities, and died a year later from the harsh prison conditions. So Spinoza published the Theological-Political Treatise under a pseudonym. And when the politcal ramifications of atheism are harsh, it is easier to soften your position. Thomas Jefferson, who rejected the miracles and the supernatural in his shortened version of the Gospels, was most likely a Deist. But read his public letters and you’ll see him take a very religious tone. How many thinkers have been atheist and publicly proclaimed religion in order to make the most the of the life they believed was the only one they had? No doubt many.

Bertrand Russell

1872-1970: Philosopher, Mathematician, Historian, Political Activist

Russell, Bertrand. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: Volume 1, 1872-1914. George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1967. Print, pp. 40-41.

Alongside with my interest in poetry, went an intense interest in religion and philosophy. My grandfather was Anglican, my grandmother was a Scots Presbyterian, but gradually became a Unitarian. I was taken on alternate Sundays to the (Episcopalian) Parish Church at Petersham and to the Presbyterian Church of Richmond, while at home I was taught the doctrines of Unitarianism. It was these last that I believed until the age of fifteen. At this age I began a systematic investigation of the supposed rational arguments in favour of fundamental Christian beliefs. I spent endless hours in meditation upon this subject; I could not speak to anybody about it for fear of giving pain. I suffered acutely both from the gradual loss of faith and from the need of silence. I thought that if I ceased to believe in God, freedom, and immortality, I should be very unhappy. I found, however, that the reasons given in favour of these dogmas were very unconvincing. I considered them one at a time with great seriousness. The first to go was freewill. At the age of fifteen, I became convinced that the motions of matter, whether living or dead, proceeded entirely in accordance with the laws of dynamics, and therefore the will can have no influence upon the body. I used at this time to write down my reflections in English written in Greek letters in a book headed 'Greek Exercises.' I did this for fear lest someone should find out what I was thinking. In this book I recorded my conviction that the human body is a machine. I should have found intellectual satisfaction in becoming a materialist, but on grounds almost identical with those of Descartes (who was unknown to me except as the inventor of Cartesian co-ordinates), I came to the conclusion that consciousness is an undeniable datum, and therefore pure materialism is impossible. This was at the age of fifteen. About two years later, I became convinced that there is no life after death, but I still believed in God, because the 'First Cause' argument appeared to be irrefutable. At the age of eighteen, however, shortly before I went to Cambridge, I read Mill's *Autobiography*, where I found a sentence to the effect that his father taught him that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered since it immediately suggests the further question 'Who made God?' This led me to abandon the 'First Cause' argument, and to become an atheist. Throughout the long period of religious doubt, I had been rendered very unhappy by the gradual loss of belief, but when the process was completed, I found to my surprise that I was quite glad to be done with the whole subject.

Charles Darwin

1809-1882: Naturalist, Geologist, Biologist, developed the theory of evolution

Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882. (With the original omissions restored). London: Collins, 1958. pp. 86-95. Accessed at: http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Freeman_LifeandLettersandAutobiography.html

During these two years [1836-1839] I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. The question then continually rose before my mind and would not be banished,—is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, would he permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament. This appeared to me utterly incredible. By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories. But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine. Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. But I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domestic Animals and Plants, and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered. ... That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection. At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons. But it cannot be doubted that Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favour of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddhists of no God. There are also many barbarian tribes who cannot be said with any truth to believe in what we call God: they believe indeed in spirits or ghosts, and it can be explained, as Tyler and Herbert Spencer have shown, how such a belief would be likely to arise. ... Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the *Origin of Species*; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt—can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake. ... I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

Bart Ehrman

1955-[]: New Testament Scholar on early Christianity and the Historical Jesus

Ehrman, Bart. “Leaving the Faith.” The Bart Ehrman Blog: The History & Literature of Early Christianity. Accessed at: https://ehrmanblog.org/leaving-the-faith/

By the early to mid-1990s I had come to think that whatever I had held dear and cherished on the basis of my belief in the Christian God, could still be held dear and cherished without that belief. Do I stand in awe before the unfathomable vastness and incredible majesty of the universe? Do I welcome and feel heartfelt gratitude for moments of grace? Do I value the love of family and the companionship of friends? Do I appreciate the many good things in life: My work? Travel? Good food and good drink? All the little things that make life enjoyable? Yes, but what does any of this necessarily have to do with God? As a Christian – from the time I was able to think, through my teenage and early-twenties fundamentalist period, up to my more mature adult liberal phase – I had believed in some form of the traditional, biblical God. This was a God who was not some kind of remote designer of the universe who had gotten the ball rolling and then stood aloof from everything he had created. This was a God who was active in the world. He loved people and was intent on showering his love on them. He helped them when they were in need. He answered their prayers. He intervened in this world when it was necessary and important to do so. But I had come very much to doubt that any such God existed. And it was the problem of suffering that had created these doubts and that eventually led me to doubt it so much that I simply no longer believed it. If God helps his people – why doesn’t he help his people? If he answers prayer, why doesn’t he answer prayer? If he intervenes, why doesn’t he intervene? It was innocent suffering that made me think there is no such God. People who are faithful to God, who devote their lives to him, who pray to him suffer no less than those who are indifferent to God or even scornful toward his existence. When a tsunami kills 300,000 people, the believers are included along with the unbelievers. No difference. When a child starves to death, as happens every seven seconds, her prayers are never answered. When a Holocaust kills many millions of people, the Chosen people are not exempt. Just the opposite. I came to think that it was very easy indeed for me as a middle class, white male, with a good career as a university professor, a loving wife and two terrific young kids, a house to live in and never any concerns about having enough to eat, plenty of money to buy cars and TVs and computers and … and all that, it was very easy for me to be grateful to God and to think that he acted on my behalf to provide me with the good things in life. But what about those who are no better than me and who pray no less fervently than me who are watching their children die of dysentery, who are sold to be sex slaves, who see the drought and the famine come and know there’s not a solitary thing they can do to avoid starving to death along with everyone they know and love? It’s easy to believe that God intervenes for you when you live a basically happy and fulfilled life. And yes, I know the typical response: that faith in God is especially important for those who are in the midst of suffering, that it provides them hope, that without it they would simply despair. But the reality is that most of these people despair anyway. How can they not? They are suffering in extremis and are about to die in agony. Not much to be thankful for. And even if it’s true that faith might provide them with some solace, that doesn’t make their faith *true* or the God whom they hope will intervene on their behalf *real*. It is their faith and hope that provides solace, not the divine being who supposedly could help them if he wanted to. Those of us on the outside observing these deaths – millions and millions of deaths – need ourselves to ask whether there is any reason to think that there is a God who is active in this world. And I came to think that it was perverse of me to be thankful for all the good things I had – as if God had provided them to me – when I knew full well that millions of people were dying from diseases contracted from not having clean water to drink; and from malaria; and from the lack of just the most basic protections against weather; and from starvation; and from natural disasters; and and and. If God is the one to be thanked for my good life, who is to be thanked – or rather blamed – for their suffering? Do I really want to say that it is God who has blessed me? If so, has he decided to curse the others? Or am I simply favored because I’m such a nice guy? I got to a point where I just didn’t believe it any more. This wasn’t because I was a biblical scholar who knew that the Bible was deeply flawed as a very human book filled with contradictions, discrepancies, and mistakes. All that was irrelevant. It also wasn’t because I was a historian of early Christianity who realized that traditional Christian faith developed as the result of historical and cultural forces, not divine guidance, that there was a huge variety of conflicting Christian views in its early years, decades, and centuries, and that what we know of Christianity is more or less the result of historical accident. That too was irrelevant. What was relevant was the very heart of the Christian claim that God loves his people, answers their prayers, and intervenes when they are in need. I came to think there was no such God, and decided that I had no choice but to abandon my faith and leave the Christian tradition.

Douglas Adams

1952-2001: Screenwriter, Humorist, Author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Silverman, David. Adams, Douglas. “Life, the Universe, and Everything: An Interview with Douglas Adams.” American Atheist: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought. Winter 1998-99. Accessed at: https://nytramsplace.activeboard.com/t62634047/1998-interview-with-douglas-adams/

Well, it's a rather corny story. As a teenager I was a committed Christian. It was in my background. I used to work for the school chapel, in fact. Then one day when I was about eighteen I was walking down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was talking complete nonsense, and that I had better have a bit of a think about it. I've put that a bit glibly. When I say I realized he was talking nonsense, what I mean is this. In the years I'd spent learning history, physics, Latin, math, I'd learnt (the hard way) something about standards of argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards simply didn't seem to apply in religious matters. In religious education we were asked to listen respectfully to arguments that, if they had been put forward in support of a view of, say, why the Corn Laws came to be abolished when they were, would have been laughed at as silly and childish and - in terms of logic and proof - just plain wrong. Why was this? Well, in history, even though the understanding of events, of cause and effect, is a matter of interpretation, and even though interpretation is in many ways a matter of opinion, nevertheless those opinions and interpretations are honed to within an inch of their lives in the withering crossfire of argument and counterargument, and those that are still standing are then subjected to a whole new round of challenges of fact and logic from the next generation of historians - and so on. All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated, and well-supported in logic and argument than others. So I was already familiar with and (I'm afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn't apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of "truth." (I now think this is baloney, but to continue) What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretive and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn't stand up to it. So I became an Agnostic. And I thought and thought and thought. But I just did not have enough to go on, so I didn't really come to any resolution. I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn't know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins' books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

Ricky Gervais

1961-[]:Stand-up Comedian, Writer, Actor

Gervais, Ricky. “Ricky Gervais: Why I’m an Atheist.” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 19. Accessed at: https://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/12/19/a-holiday-message-from-ricky-gervais-why-im-an-atheist/

One day when I was about 8 years old, I was drawing the crucifixion as part of my Bible studies homework. I loved art too. And nature. I loved how God made all the animals. They were also perfect. Unconditionally beautiful. It was an amazing world. I lived in a very poor, working-class estate in an urban sprawl called Reading, about 40 miles west of London. My father was a laborer and my mother was a housewife. I was never ashamed of poverty. It was almost noble. Also, everyone I knew was in the same situation, and I had everything I needed. School was free. My clothes were cheap and always clean and ironed. And mum was always cooking. She was cooking the day I was drawing on the cross. I was sitting at the kitchen table when my brother came home. He was 11 years older than me, so he would have been 19. He was as smart as anyone I knew, but he was too cheeky. He would answer back and get into trouble. I was a good boy. I went to church and believed in God -– what a relief for a working-class mother. You see, growing up where I did, mums didn’t hope as high as their kids growing up to be doctors; they just hoped their kids didn’t go to jail. So bring them up believing in God and they’ll be good and law abiding. It’s a perfect system. Well, nearly. 75 percent of Americans are God-­‐fearing Christians; 75 percent of prisoners are God-­‐fearing Christians. 10 percent of Americans are atheists; 0.2 percent of prisoners are atheists. But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked, “Why do you believe in God?" Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob,” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said. Oh…hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

John Stuart Mill

1806-1873: Philosopher, Political Economist

Mill, John Stuart. The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. Columbia University Press: New York, 1924. pp. 30-31. Accessed at: https://ia800909.us.archive.org/11/items/autobiographyofj006360mbp/autobiographyofj006360mbp.pdf

It would have been wholly inconsistent with my father's ideas of duty, to allow me to acquire impressions contrary to his convictions and feelings respecting religion: and he impressed upon me from the first, that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known: that the question, "Who made me? " cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, Who made God? He, at the same time, took care that I should be acquainted with what had been thought by mankind on these impenetrable problems. I have mentioned at how early an age he made me a reader of ecclesiastical history; and he taught me to take the strongest interest in the Reformation, as the great and decisive contest against priestly tyranny for liberty of thought. I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it. I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so. History had made the variety of opinions among mankind a fact familiar to me, and this was but a prolongation of that fact.

Will Durant

1885-1981: Historian, Philosopher, Author of The Story of Civilization

Durant, Will & Ariel. A Dual Autobiography. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1977. pp. 32. Accessed at: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL4554863M/A_dual_autobiography

As for my orthodoxy, it could not survive the 1909 volumes. By the end of my sophomore year I had discovered, through Darwin and other infidels, that the difference between man and the gorilla is largely a matter of trousers and words; that Christianity was only one of a hundred religions claiming special access to truth and salvation; and that myths of virgin births, mother goddesses, dying and resurrected deities, had appeared in many pre-Christian faiths, and had helped to transform a lovable Hebrew mystic into the Son of God. These learned discoveries alarmed and exalted me. They alarmed me because I could no longer think of becoming a priest, and must soon reveal my unwillingness to my beloved mentor, Father Mooney, and to my mother who was looking forward to my ordination as the reward of countless sacrifices, and the summit of her earthly happiness. They exalted me because they made me superior to nearly all those around me (except Kevin Lynch), who seemed to be dupes of childish legends and fears. No sensual pleasure could compare with the intellectual pride of belonging to the elite few who had liberated themselves from the falsehoods that had kept most Europeans and Americans in bondage for fifteen centuries. I took no notice of the utility of those myths in checking the unsocial nature of the trousered ape; on the contrary, I began to resent the use which churches and governments made of them in dulling the edge of economic discontent and political revolt.

H.G. Wells

1866-1946: Writer, Historian, known as the “Father of Science Fiction”

Wells, Herbert George. Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866). J. B. Lippincott: Philadelphia and New York, 1967. pp. 46-47. Accessed at: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/wellshg-autobiography/wellshg-autobiography-00-h-dir/wellshg-autobiography-00-h.html

I feared Hell dreadfully for some time. Hell was indeed good enough to scare me and prevent me calling either of my brothers fools, until I was eleven or twelve. But one night I had a dream of Hell so preposterous that it blasted that undesirable resort out of my mind for ever. In an old number of Chambers Journal I had read of the punishment of breaking a man on the wheel. The horror of it got into my dreams and there was Our Father in a particularly malignant phase, busy basting a poor broken sinner rotating slowly over a fire built under the wheel. I saw no Devil in the vision; my mind in its simplicity went straight to the responsible fountain head. That dream pursued me into the day time. Never had I hated God so intensely. And then suddenly the light broke through to me and I knew this God was a lie. I have a sort of love for most living things, but I cannot recall any time in my life when I had the faintest shadow of an intimation of love for any one of the Persons in the Holy Trinity. I could as soon love a field scarecrow as those patched up "persons." I am still as unable to account for the ecstasies of the faithful as I was to feel as my mother wished me to feel. I sensed it was a silly story long before I dared to admit even to myself that it was a silly story. For indeed it is a silly story and each generation nowadays swallows it with greater difficulty. It is a jumble up of a miscellany of the old sacrificial and consolatory religions of the confused and unhappy townspeople of the early Empire; its constituent practices were probably more soothing to troubled hearts before there was any attempt to weld them into one mystical creed, and all the disingenuous intelligence of generation after generation of time-serving or well-meaning divines has served only to accentuate the fundamental silliness of these synthesized Egyptian and Syrian myths. I doubt if one person in a million of all the hosts of Christendom has ever produced a spark of genuine gratitude for the Atonement. I think "love" for the Triune God is as rare as it is unnatural and irrational. Why do people go on pretending about this Christianity? At the test of war, disease, social injustice and every real human distress, it fails—and leaves a cheated victim, as it abandoned my mother. Jesus was some fine sort of man perhaps, the Jewish Messiah was a promise of leadership, but Our Saviour of the Trinity is a dressed-up inconsistent effigy of amiability, a monstrous hybrid of man and infinity, making vague promises of helpful miracles for the cheating of simple souls, an ever absent help in times of trouble. And their Sacrament, their wonderful Sacrament, in which the struggling Believers urge themselves to discover the profoundest satisfaction; what is it? What does it amount to? Was there ever a more unintelligible mix up of bad metaphysics and grossly materialistic superstition than this God-eating? Was there anything more corrupting to take into a human mind and be given cardinal importance there?

George Bernard Shaw

1856-1950: Playwright, Critic, Political Activist

Shaw, George Bernard. Shaw: An Autobiography, 1856-1898. Weybright and Talley: New York, 1969. pp. 29-38. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.183163

It may be asked here how I came by my heterodox opinions, seeing that my father's alcoholic neurosis, though it accounts for my not going into society, does not account for my not going to church. My reply, if put in the conventional terms of that day, would be that I was badly brought up because my mother was so well brought up. Her character reacted so strongly against her strict and loveless training that churchgoing was completely dropped in our family before I was ten years old. ... The Lord's Prayer I used once or twice as a protective spell. Thunderstorms are much less common in Ireland than in England; and the first two I remembered frightened me horribly. During the second I bethought me of the Lord's Prayer, and steadied myself by repeating it ... In my infancy I was told that if I was a bad child I should spend eternity after my death burning in a brimstone hell in an agony of thirst, tortured by a magical combustion that would never consume me. This fable served its turn while I was young enough to believe it; but when I was old enough to laugh at it I was left without any credible reason for behaving honorably, and with a habit of deriding all religious teaching as fraudulent, ridiculous, and characteristic of superstitious fools and humbugs. Fortunately by that time I had also evolved a sense of honor which inhibited my worst impulses and dictated my best ones; and I took to pointing out, in my capacity as a boy atheist, that this natural sense of honor, nowhere mentioned in the Bible, was the real source of honorable behavior and was quite independent of religious instruction. I rank it, and still do, as a passion. ... Try to imagine me, a very small boy, with my ears very wide open, in what Mr. Gilbert K. Chesterton called my "narrow, Puritan, home." Well, on the occasion which I am going to recall, there were in that narrow, Puritan home three gentlemen who were having what they believed to be a very heated discussion about religion. One was my father, another my maternal uncle, and the third a visitor of ours. The subject of the dispute was the raising of Lazarus. Only one of the parties took what would then have been called the Christian view. I shall call it the evangelical view, a less compromising term. That view was that the raising of Lazarus occurred exactly as it is described in the Gospels. I shouldn't object to call that the Christian view if it had not involved the opinion, very popular among religious people at that time, that the reason why you admired Jesus and followed Jesus was that he was able to raise people from the dead. Perhaps the reason why some of them always spoke very respectfully of him was a sort of feeling in their mind that a man who could raise people from the dead might possibly on sufficient provocation reverse the operation. However, one of the parties took this view. Another, the visitor, took the absolutely skeptical view; he said that such a thing had never happened--that such stories were told of all great teachers of mankind--that is was more probably that a storyteller was a liar than that a man could be raised from the dead. But the third person, my maternal uncle, took another view; he said that the miracle was what would be called in those a put-up job, by which he meant that Jesus had made a confederate of Lazarus--had made it worth his while, or had asked him for friendship's sake, to pretend he was dead and at the proper moment to pretend to come to life. ... I listened with very great interest, and I confess to you that the view which recommended itself most to me was that of my maternal uncle. I think, on reflection, ... that was the natural and healthy side for a growing boy to take, because my maternal uncle's view appealed to the sense of humor, which is a very good thing and a very human ting, whereas the other two views--one appealing to our mere credulity and the other to mere skepticism--really did not appeal to anything at all that had any genuine religious value.

George Carlin

1937-2008: Stand-up Comedian, Social Critic, Actor

Flegenheimer, Matt. “Honoring George Carlin With His Own Manhattan Block.” New York Times, Oct. 22, 2014. Accessed at: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/23/nyregion/honoring-george-carlin-with-his-own-manhattan-block.html

I credit that eight years of grammar school with nourishing me in a direction where I could trust myself and trust my instincts. They gave me the tools to reject my faith. They taught me to question and think for myself and to believe in my instincts to such an extent that I just said, 'This is a wonderful fairy tale they have going here, but it's not for me.'

H. L Mencken

1880-1956: Journalist, Essayist, Satirist

Durant, Will. On The Meaning of Life. (Chapter II. Some Contemporaries on the Meaning of Life, Men of Letters: H.L Mencken). Williams & Norgate Ltd, 1933. Print, pp. 33-34. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.470245/page/n41

As for religion, I am quite devoid of it. Never in my adult life have I experienced anything that could be plausibly called a religious impulse. My father and grandfather were agnostics before me, and though I was sent to Sunday-school as a boy and exposed to the Christian theology I was never taught to believe it. My father thought that I should learn what it was, but it apparently never occurred to him that I would accept it. He was a good psychologist. What I got in Sunday-school—beside a wide acquaintance with Christian hymnology—was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous. Since that time I have read a great deal in theology—perhaps much more than the average clergyman—but I have never discovered any reason to change my mind.

Ayn Rand

1905-1982: Writer and Philosopher

From “biographical interviews that she gave in the early 1960s”, quoted in: Mayhew, Robert. Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living. “The Sacred in We The Living”. Lexington Books, 2012. pp. 306. Accessed at: https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Essays_on_Ayn_Rand_s_We_the_Living.html?id=eXGK_JTrlTMC&redir_esc=y

I remember this one entry: "Today I decided to be an atheist." And then I proceeded to list why. ... I had decided that the concept of God is degrading to man. ... I had decided this: since they say that God is perfect and men can never be that perfect, the idea necessarily makes men low and imperfect and places something above him, which is totally wrong and untenable and I don't know of any proof. Nobody has ever told me why God exists and nobody *can* tell me. It is obviously an invention, and since it's rationally untenable and degrading to man, I am against it. It was all decided in one day.

Dan Barker

1949-[]: Ex-preacher, Musician

Barker, Dan. “Losing Faith in Faith.” Skeptical Science: Promoting Science and Critical Thinking. Accessed at: https://www.skeptical-science.com/essays/losing-faith-faith-dan-barker/

I did not lose my faith, I gave it up purposely. The motivation that drove me into the ministry is the same that drove me out. I have always wanted to know. Even as a child I fervently pursued truth. I was rarely content to accept things without examination, and my examinations were intense. I was a thirsty learner, a good student, and a good minister because of that drive. I always took things apart and put them back together again. Since I was taught and believed Christianity was the answer, the only hope for “man,” I dedicated myself to understanding all I possibly could. I devoured every book, every sermon, and the bible. I prayed, fasted and obeyed biblical teaching. I decided that I would lean my whole weight upon the truth of scripture. This attitude, I am sure, gave the impression that I was a notch above, that I could be trusted as a Christian authority and leader. Christians, eager for substantiation, gladly allowed me to assume a place of leadership and I took it as confirmation of my holy calling. But my mind did not go to sleep. In my thirst for knowledge I did not limit myself to Christian authors but curiously desired to understand the reasoning behind non-Christian thinking. I figured the only way to truly grasp a subject was to look at it from all sides. If I had limited myself to Christian books I would probably still be a Christian today. I read philosophy, theology, science and psychology. I studied evolution and natural history. I read Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Ayn Rand, John Dewey and others. At first I laughed at these worldly thinkers, but I eventually started discovering some disturbing facts–facts that discredited Christianity. I tried to ignore these facts because they did not integrate with my religious world view. For years I went through an intense inner conflict. On the one hand I was happy with the direction and fulfillment of my Christian life; on the other hand I had intellectual doubts. Faith and reason began a war within me. And it kept escalating. I would cry out to God for answers, and none would come. Like the battered wife who clings to hope, I kept trusting that God would someday come through. He never did. The only proposed answer was faith, and I gradually grew to dislike the smell of that word. I finally realized that faith is a cop-out, a defeat–an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason. It is only undemonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith. I just lost faith in faith. Biblical contradictions became more and more discrepant, apologist arguments more and more absurd and, when I finally discarded faith, things became more and more clear. But don’t imagine that was an easy process. It was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. It hurt. And it hurt bad. It was like spitting on my mother, or like throwing one of my children out a window. It was sacrilege. All of my bases for thinking and values had to be restructured. Add to that inner conflict the outer conflict of reputation and you have a destabilizing war. Did I really want to discard the respect I had so carefully built over many years with so many important people?

Aleister Crowley

1875-1947: Occultist, Magician, Poet, Painter, Novelist

Crowley, Alestier. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography. Ordo Templi Orientis. pp. 65-66. Accessed at: http://www.metaphysicspirit.com/books/Confessions%20of%20Aleister%20Crowley.pdf

It is impossible to suppose that the character of the school had completely changed between my father's death and my return from the funeral. Yet before that I was completely happy and in sympathy with my surroundings. Not three weeks later, Ishmael was my middle name. I cannot account for it at all satisfactorily. I had been perfectly genuine in my ambition to lead a life of holiness; the idea of intimate communion with "Jesus" was constantly present to my mind. I do not remember any steps in the volte-face. I asked one of the masters one day how it was that Jesus was three days and three nights in the grave, although crucified on Friday and risen again on Sunday morning. He could not explain and said that it had never been explained. So I formulated the ambition to become a shining light in Christianity by doing this thing that had never yet been done. This idea, by the way, is very characteristic. I am totally unable to take any interest in doing anything which has been done before. But tell me of an alleged impossibility; and health, wealth, life itself are nothing. I am out to do it. The apparent discrepancy in the gospel narrative aroused no doubt in my mind as to the literal truth of either of the texts. Indeed, my falling away from grace was not occasioned by any intellectual qualms; I accepted the theology of the Plymouth Brethren. In fact, I could hardly conceive of the existence of people who might doubt it. I simply went over to Satan's side; and to this hour I cannot tell why. But I found myself as passionately eager to serve my new master as I had been to serve the old. I was anxious to distinguish myself by committing sin. Here again my attitude was extraordinarily subtle. It never occurred to me to steal or in any other way to infringe the Decalogue. Such conduct would have been petty and contemptible. I wanted a supreme spiritual sin; and I had not the smallest idea how to set about it. There was a good deal of morbid curiosity among the saints about "the sin against the Holy Ghost" which "could never be forgiven". Nobody knew what it was. It was even considered rather blasphemous to offer any very positive conjecture on the point. The idea seems to have been that it was something like an ill-natured practical joke on the part of Jesus. This mysterious offense which could never be forgiven might be inadvertently committed by the greatest saint alive, with the result that he would be bowled out at the very gate of glory. Here was another impossibility to catch my youthful fancy; I must find out what that sin was and do it very thoroughly.

Robert Ingersoll

1833-1899: Writer, Orator

Ingersoll, Robert. Why I Am Agnostic. Bank of Wisdom. pp. 4-5, 12, 24. Accessed at: https://infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/why_i_am_agnostic.html

I heard hundreds of these evangelical sermons -- heard hundreds of the most fearful and vivid descriptions of the tortures inflicted in hell, of the horrible state of the lost. I supposed that what I heard was true and yet I did not believe it. I said: "It is," and then I thought: "It cannot be." These sermons made but faint impressions on my mind. I was not convinced. I had no desire to be "converted," did not want a "new heart" and had no wish to be "born again." But I heard one sermon that touched my heart, that left its mark, like a scar, on my brain. One Sunday I went with my brother to hear a Free Will Baptist preacher. He was a large man, dressed like a farmer, but he was an orator. He could paint a picture with words. He took for his text the parable of "the rich man and Lazarus." He described Dives, the rich man -- his manner of life, the excesses in which he indulged, his extravagance, his riotous nights, his purple and fine linen, his feasts, his wines, and his beautiful women. Then he described Lazarus, his poverty, his rags and wretchedness, his poor body eaten by disease, the crusts and crumbs he devoured, the dogs that pitied him. He pictured his lonely life, his friendless death. Then, changing his tone of pity to one of triumph -- leaping from tears to the heights of exultation -- from defeat to victory -- he described the glorious company of angels, who with white and outspread wings carried the soul of the despised pauper to Paradise -- to the bosom of Abraham. Then, changing his voice to one of scorn and loathing, he told of the rich man's death. He was in his palace, on his costly couch, the air heavy with perfume, the room filled with servants and physicians. His gold was worthless then. He could not buy another breath. He died, and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment. Then, assuming a dramatic attitude, putting his right hand to his ear, he whispered, "Hark! I hear the rich man's voice. What does he say? Hark! 'Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.'" "Oh, my hearers, he has been making that request for more than eighteen hundred years. And millions of ages hence that wail will cross the gulf that lies between the saved and lost and still will be heard the cry: 'Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.'" For the first time I understood the dogma of eternal pain -- appreciated "the glad tidings of great joy." For the first time my imagination grasped the height and depth of the Christian horror. Then I said: "It is a lie, and I hate your religion. If it is true, I hate your God." From that day I have had no fear, no doubt. For me, on that day, the flames of hell were quenched. From that day I have passionately hated every orthodox creed. That Sermon did some good. ... I gave up the Old Testament on account of its mistakes, its absurdities, its ignorance and its cruelty. I gave up the New because it vouched for the truth of the Old. I gave it up on account of its miracles, its contradictions, because Christ and his disciples believe in the existence of devils -- talked and made bargains with them. expelled them from people and animals. ... When I became convinced that the Universe is natural -- that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world -- not even in infinite space. I was free -- free to think, to express my thoughts -- free to live to my own ideal -- free to live for myself and those I loved -- free to use all my faculties, all my senses -- free to spread imagination's wings -- free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope -- free to judge and determine for myself -- free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the "inspired" books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past -- free from popes and priests -- free from all the "called" and "set apart" -- free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies -- free from the fear of eternal pain -- free from the winged monsters of the night -- free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought -- no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings -- no chains for my limbs -- no lashes for my back -- no fires for my flesh -- no master's frown or threat -- no following another's steps -- no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

Jean Meslier

1664-1729: Priest, “closet” Atheist, and author of the posthumously published Memoir of the Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier: Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World

Meslier, Jean. Freethought and Freedom: The Essays of George H. Smith Chapter 19: Jean Meslier and the Catholic Church. Cato Institute, 2017. Print. pp. 199-201. Accessed at: https://cdn.cato.org/libertarianismdotorg/books/FreethoughtandFreedom.pdf

I was easily led in my youth to the ecclesiastical state to please my parents, who were pleased to see me there because it was a state of life softer, more peaceful and more honorable in the world than that of the common man. ... I can truthfully say that the truth of any temporal advantage and the prospects of the fat payments of the ministry never brought me to love the duty of a profession so full of errors and impostures. ... I declare to you that I was never without pain and extreme loathing for what I was doing. That is also why I totally hated all the vain functions of my ministry, and particularly all the idolatrous and superstitious celebrations of masses, and the vain and ridiculous administrations of sacraments that I had to do for you. I cursed them thousands of times to the core when I had to do them, and particularly when I had to do them with a little more attention and solemnity than normal when I saw you come to your churches with a little more devotion to attend some vain solemnities or to hear with a little more devotion what they make you believe to be the word of God,it seemed to me that I was abusing your good faith much more shamefully and that I was, consequently, much more worthy of reproach and condemnation, which increased my hatred of these kinds of ceremonies and pompous solemnities and vain functions of my ministry so much that I was hundreds and hundreds of times on the point of indiscreetly bursting out with indignation, almost not able to hide my resentment any longer to keep to myself the indignation I felt. However, I did, in a way, keep it to myself, and I struggled to keep it to myself until the end of my days, not wanting to expose myself during my life to the indignation of the priests or to the cruelty of the tyrants who, it seemed to me, would not have found cruel enough tortures to punish me with for such so-called recklessness.

Albert Einstein

1879-1955: Theoretical Physicist

Einstein, Albert. Autobiographical Notes. Open Court Publishing Company, 1979. pp. 3-5. Accessed at: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL18198244M/Autobiographical_notes

I came—though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents—to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment—an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections. It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the 'merely personal,' from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.

Jawaharlal Nehru

1889-1964: Independence Activist, First Prime Minister of India

Nehru, Jawaharlal. Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru. The John Day Company, 1941. pp. 23, 28. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/towardfreedomaut00nehr

Of religion I had very hazy notions. It seemed to be a woman's affair. Father and my older cousins treated the question humorously and refused to take it seriously. The women of the family indulged in various ceremonies and *pujas* from time to time, and I rather enjoyed them, though I tried to imitate to some extent the casual attitude of the grown-up men of the family. Sometimes I accompanied my mother or aunt to the Ganges for a dip, sometimes we visited temples in Allahabad itself or in Benares or elsewhere, or went to see a *sanyasi* reputed to be very holy. But all this left little impression on me. Apart from my studies, F. T. Brooks brought a new influence to bear upon me which affected me powerfully for a while. This was theosophy. He used to have weekly meetings of theosophists in his rooms, and I attended them and gradually imbibed theosophical phraseology and ideas. These were metaphysical arguments, and discussions about reincarnation and the astral and other supernatural bodies, and auras, and the doctrine of karma, and references not only to big books by Madame Blavatsky and other theosophists but to the Hindu scriptures, the Buddhist *Dhammapada*, Pythagoras, Apollonius Tyanaeus, and various philosophers and mystics. I did not understand much that was said, but it all sounded very mysterious and fascinating, and I felt that here was they key to the secrets of the universe. For the first time I began to think, consciously and deliberately, of religion and other worlds. The Hindu religion especially went up in my estimation; not the ritual or ceremonial part, but its great books, the *Upanishads* and the *Bhagavad Gita*. I did not understand them, of course, but they seemed very wonderful. ... I decided to join the Theosophical Society, although I was only thirteen then. ... So I became a member of the Theosophical Society at thirteen, and Mrs. Besant herself performed the ceremony of initiation, which consisted of good advice and instruction in some mysterious signs, probably a relic of freemasonry. I was thrilled. I attended the Theosophical Convention at Benares and saw old Colonel Olcott with his fine beard. Soon after F. T. Brooks left me I lost touch with theosophy, and in a remarkably short time (partly because I went to school in England) theosophy left my life completely.

H. P. Lovecraft

1890-1937: Author of weird and horror fiction

“At five, Lovecraft was placed in the infant class of the Sunday school of the venerable First Baptist Meeting house on College Hill. The results were not what his elders expected. When the feeding of Christian martyrs to the lions came up, Lovecraft shocked the class by gleefully taking the side of the lions. He wrote:”Lovecraft, H. P; de Camp, L. Sprague. Lovecraft: A Biography. Doubleday & Company, 1975. pp. 18-19. Accessed at: https://archive.org/stream/lovecraftbiograp00deca

The absurdity of the myths I was called upon to accept, and the sombre greyness of the whole faith compared with the Eastern magnificence of Mahometanism, made me definitely an agnostic; and caused me to become so pestiferous a questioner that I was permitted to discontinue attendance. No statement of the kind-hearted and motherly preceptress had seemed to me to answer in any way the doubts I honestly and explicable expressed, and I was fast becoming a marked "man" through searching iconoclasm.

“Home again among his beloved books, the young heathen, now six, plunged into Classical mythology:”

... As soon as possible I procured an illustrated edition of Bullfinch's "Age of Fable", and gave all my time to reading of the text, in which the true spirit of Hellenism is delightfully preserved, and to the contemplation of the pictures, splendid designs and half-tones of the standard classical statues and paintings of classical subjects. Before long I was fairly familiar with the principal Grecian myths and had become a constant visitor at the classical art museums of Providence and Boston. I commenced a collection of small plaster casts of the Greek masterpieces, and learned the Greek alphabet and the rudiments of Latin tongue. I adopted the pseudonym of "Lucius Valerius Messala"--Roman and not Greek, since Rome had a charm all of its own for me. ... I mention this aesthetic tendency in detail only to lead up to its philosophical result--my last flickering of religious belief. When about seven or eight I was a genuine pagan, so intoxicated with the beauty of Greece that I acquired a half-sincere belief in the old gods and nature spirits. I have in literal truth built altars to Pan, Apollo, and Athena, and have watched for dryads and satyrs in the woods and fields at dusk. Once I firmly thought I beheld some kind of sylvan creatures dancing under autumnal oaks; a kind of "religious experience" as true in its way as the subjective ecstasies of a Christian. If a Christian tell me he has *felt* the reality of his Jesus or Jahveh, I can reply that I have *seen* hoofed Pan and the sisters of the Hesperian Phaethusa.

Joseph Conrad

1857-1924: Writer, author of Heart of Darkness

Conrad, Joseph. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. “To Edward Garnett: 22 Dec, 1902”. Cambridge University Press, 1986. p. 468. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/collectedletters00jose

It's strange how I always, from the age of fourteen, disliked the Christian religion, its doctrines, ceremonies and festivals. Presentiment that some day it will work my undoing, I suppose.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

1969-[]: Activist, Feminist, Author, Politician

Ali, Ayaan Hiris. Infidel. Free Press, 2007. pp. 280-281. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/infidel00hirs_0

In May 2002, Ellen and I decided to go on vacation. Perhaps Abshir had been right: I did need a break. We went to Corfu, and I took along with me a little brown book, *The Atheist Manifesto*, which Marco had handed me one day during an argument we were having. When Marco gave it to me, I felt as if he were handing me his holy book, as if I had pressed the Quran on him, and it put me off. But now I wanted to read it. I wanted to think this thing through. My questions were taboo. According to my upbringing, if I was not a follower of God, I must be a follower of Satan. But I couldn't be spouting answers for Holland's problems when I still had questions about my own religious faith. Before we left, I told Ellen, "I have huge doubts about God's existence, and the Hereafter. I'm planning to read this book while we're away, and think about it. Are you offended?" Ellen grew quiet. She said, "I'm not offended. I understand completely. I'll be there for you, like you were there for me when I was asking these questions." I read the book, marveling at the clarity and naughtiness of its author. But I really didn't have to. Just looking at it, just wanting to read it--that already meant I doubted, and I knew that. Before I'd read four pages I already knew my answer. I had left God behind years ago. I was an atheist. I had no one to talk to about this. One night in that Greek hotel I looked in the mirror and said out loud, "I don't believe in God." I said it slowly, enunciating it carefully, in Somali. And I felt relief. It felt right. There was no pain, but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure and carefully tiptoeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out, piece by piece--that was all over. The angels, watching from my shoulders; the mental tension about having sex without marriage, and drinking alcohol, and not observing any religious obligations--they were gone. The ever-present prospect of hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

John Loftus

1954-[]: Ex-minister and Author

Loftus, John. Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. Prometheus Books, 2008. pp. 23, 25, 27. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/JohnW.LoftusWhyIBecameAnAtheistAFormerPreacherRejectsChristianity_201504/page/n23/mode/1up

At this stage in my life, I probably had no doubts about my faith at all, and with good reason. I had never encountered anything at all to the contrary. It just made sense. Later I found out that none of these initial reasons for believing had any real merit to them. Christian philosopher Thomas V. Morris effectively dealt with Francis Schaeffer's apologetics in his book *Francis Schaeffer's Apologetics: A Critique*. I learned that the critics of the Bible are right, not Josh McDowell. I am also no longer convinced by C. S. Lewis's arguments. Furthermore, Hal Lindsey's timetable for Jesus' return has been shown to be wrong. Jesus has not yet returned to earth. Failed predictions of Jesus' return have become such an embarrassment to Christians that there is now a movement to embrace Preterism, which is the belief that Jesus returned to earth to reign from Jerusalem in a spiritual sense around 70 CE. I've concluded that I believed in the Christian faith for initial reasons that were just inadequate--reasons I have come to reject. I just did not have the ability to think through the intellectual foundations for my faith at such a time in my life. I believed what was presented to me because that's all I knew to believe. ... For me there were three major circumstances that happened in my life that changed my thinking. They all happened in the space of about five years, from 1991 to 1996. These things are associated with three people: a woman I'll call Linda, Larry, and Jeff. It was Linda who brought a major crisis into my life. Larry brought new information into my life. Jeff took away my sense of a loving Christian community. These are the three things that changed my thinking: a major crisis, plus new information, minus a sense of a loving, caring, Christian community. In the midst of these things, I felt rejected by the Church of Christ in my local area. For me it was an assault of major proportions that if I still believed in the devil, I would say it was orchestrated by the legions of hell. ... This was the first time I really considered the theological implications of the age of the universe. Two corollaries of that idea started me down the road to being the atheist I am today. The first is that in Genesis chapter 1 we see that the earth existed before the sun, moon, and stars, which were all created on the fourth day. This doesn't square with astronomy. So I began looking at the first few chapters in Genesis, and as my thinking developed over time, I came to the conclusion that those chapters are folk literature-myth. The second corollary for me at that time was this: If God took so long to create the universe, then why would he all of a sudden snap his fingers, so to speak, and create human beings? If God took his time to create the universe, then why wouldn't he also create living creatures with greater complexity during the same length of time? Why did it God so long to create the stuff of the universe, which is less valuable and presumably less complex to create, than it did to create the most valuable and highly complex creatures to inhabit the earth? Astronomy describes the long process of galaxy, star, and planet formation. It then becomes uncharacteristic of God to create life on planet earth by divine fiat, instantaneously. I concluded that God created human beings by the same long process as he created the universe as a whole, if he created us at all. Nearly two years later, I came to deny the Christian faith. It required too much intellectual gerrymandering to believe. There were just too many individual problems that I had to balance, like spinning several plates up on several sticks, in order to keep my faith. At some point they just all came crashing down.

Umberto Eco

1932-2016: Novelist, Philosopher, Semiotician

Israely, Jeff. “A Resounding Eco.” Time Magazine, June 5, 2005. Accessed at: https://web.archive.org/web/20121107020948/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1069054-2,00.html

Even though I'm still in love with that world, I stopped believing in God in my 20s after my doctoral studies on St. Thomas Aquinas. You could say he miraculously cured me of my faith ....

Richard Dawkins

1941-[]: Ethologist, Evolutionary Biologist, Author

Dawkins, Richard. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. Ecco Pr, 2013. pp.80-81. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/AppetiteForWonderTheMakingOfAScientistAnRichardDawkins/page/n79/mode/1up

I and two friends in my house became militantly anti-religious in our last year, when we were seventeen. We refused to kneel down in chapel and sat with folded arms and closed lips, defiantly upright like proud, volcanic islands in the sea of bowed and mumbling heads. As you'd expect of Anglicans, the school authorities were very decent and never complained, even when I took to skipping chapel altogether. But here I need to go back and trace my loss of religious faith. ... I'm happy to say it wasn't long before I reverted to earlier doubts, first planted at the age of about nine when I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn't all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up? At Oundle, after my brief phase of going to Communion, I gave up on believing in everything that was particular about Christianity, and even became quite contemptuous of all believing religions. I was especially incensed by the hypocrisy of the 'General Confession' in which we mumbled in chorus that we were 'miserable offenders'. The very fact that the exact words were written down to be repeated the following week, and the week after and for the rest of our lives (and had been so ever since 1662), sent a clear signal that we had no intention of being anything other than miserable offenders in the future. Indeed, the obsession with 'sin' and the Pauline belief that everybody is born in sin, inherited from Adam (whose embarrassing non-existence was unknown to St Paul), is one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity. But I retained a strong belief in some sort of unspecified creator, almost entirely because I was impressed by the beauty and apparent design of the living world, and--like so many others--I bamboozled myself into believing that the appearance of design demanded a designer. I blush to admit that I had not at that stage worked out the elementary fallacy of this argument, which is that any god capable of designing the universe would have needed a fair bit of designing himself. If you are going to allow yourself to conjure a designer out of thin air, why not apply the same indulgence to that which he is supposed to have designed, and cut out, so to speak, the middle man? In any case, of course, Darwin provided the magnificently powerful alternative to biological design which we now know to be true. Darwin's explanation had the huge advantage of starting from primeval simplicity and working up, by slow, gradual degrees, to the stunning complexity that pervades every living body. ... So, I worshiped Elvis and I was a strong believer in a non-denominational creator god. And it all came together when I passed and shop window in my home town of Chipping Norton and saw an album called Peace in the Valley featuring a song called 'I Believe'. I was transfixed. Elvis was religious! In a frenzy of excitement I dived into the shop and bought it. Hurrying home, I slipped the record out of the sleeve and on to the turntable. I listened with delight--for my hero sang that every time he saw the wonders of the natural world around him, he felt his religious faith reinforced. My own sentiments exactly! This was surely a sign from heaven. Why I was surprised that Elvis was religious is now beyond me. He came from an uneducated working-class family in the American South. How could he not have been religious? Nevertheless I was surprised at the time, and I sort of half-believed that in this unexpected record Elvis was speaking personally to me, calling me to devote my life to telling people about the creator god--which I should be especially well qualified to do if I became a biologist like my father. This seemed to be my vocation, and the call came from none other than the semi-divine Elvis. I am not proud of this period of religious frenzy, and I'm happy to say it didn't last long. I became increasingly aware that Darwinian evolution was a powerfully available alternative to my creator god as an explanation of the beauty and apparent design of life. It was my father who first explained it to me but, to begin with, although I understood the principle, I didn't think it was a big enough theory to do the job. I was biased against it by reading Bernard Shaw's preface to Back to Methuselah in the school library. Shaw, in his eloquently muddled way, favoured Lamarckian (more purpose-driven) and hated Darwinian (more mechanistic) evolution, and I was swayed towards the muddle by the eloquence. I went through a period of doubting the power of natural selection to do the job required of it. But eventually a friend--one of the two, neither of them biologists, in whose company I later refused to kneel in chapel--persuaded me of the full force of Darwin's brilliant idea and I shed my last vestige of theistic credulity, probably at the age of about sixteen. It was long then before I became strongly and militantly atheistic.

Michael Shermer

1954-[]: Science Writer, Historian of Science, Editor of Skeptic Magazine

Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies–How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths. Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2011. pp. 42-45. Accessed at: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL24423965M/The_believing_brain

But the switch to science was only one factor in my deconversion. There was the intolerance generated by absolute morality, the logical outcome of knowing without doubt that you are right and everyone else is wrong. There were the inevitable hypocrisies that arise from preaching the ought, but practicing the is. (One of my dorm mates regularly prayed for sex, rationalizing that he could better witness for the Lord without all that pent-up libido.) There was the awareness of other religious beliefs (often mutually exclusive) and their adherents, all of whom were equally adamant that theirs was the One True Religion. And there was the knowledge of the temporal, geographic, and cultural determiners of religious beliefs that made it obvious that God was made in our likeness and not the reverse. By the end of my first year of a graduate program in experimental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, I had abandoned Christianity and stripped off my silver ichthus medallion, replacing what was for me the stultifying dogmas of a 2,000-year-old religion with the worldview of an always-changing, always-fresh science. My enthusiasm for the passionate nature of this perspective was communicated to me most emphatically by my evolutionary biology professor, Bayard Brattstrom, particularly in his after-class discussions at a local bar — The 301 Club — that went late into the night. This was another factor in my road back from Damascus: I enjoyed the company and friendship of science people much more than that of religious people. Science is where the action was for me.

Shermer, Michael. “Michael Shermer Interview”. The Best Schools, 2015. Web. Accessed at: https://thebestschools.org/features/michael-shermer-interview/

This was nearly two decades before the birth of evolutionary psychology as a full-fledged science, but the groundwork was laid for my later work on the evolutionary origins of religion an morality. I also took a course in cultural anthropology from the well-traveled and worldly Marlene Dobkin de Rois. Her lectures and books on her experiences in South America with hallucinogenic-imbibing shamans and the numerous animisms, spirits, ghosts, and gods made me realize just how insular my worldview was and how naive I was in assuming that my Christian beliefs were grounded in the One True Religion while all the others were so obviously culturally determined. Together, these inputs led me to a personal exploration of comparative religions and to the eventual realization that these often mutually incompatible beliefs were held by people who believed as firmly as I did that they were right and everyone else was wrong. Midway through my graduate training, I quietly gave up my religious belief and removed my silver ichthus (Greek for "fish", sometimes rendered as "Jesus Christi Son of God Savior") from around my neck. I didn't announce it to anyone because no one really cared one way or the other--with the possible exception of my siblings, who were probably relieved that I would now finally quit trying to save them. ... In the end, though, what finally tipped my belief into skepticism was the problem of evil--if God is all knowing, all powerful, and all good, then why do bad things happen to good people? First, there was the intellectual consideration, where the more I thought about things such as cancer, birth defects, and accidents, the more I came to believe that God is either impotent or evil, or simply non-existent. Second, there was an emotional consideration that I was forced to confront on the most primal of levels. I've never told anyone this before, but the last time I ever prayed to God was in early 1980, shortly after I decided that I no longer believed in God. What happened to bring me back one last time? My college sweetheart, Maureen, a brilliant and beautiful Alaskan whom I met at Pepperdine and whom I was still dating, was in a horrific automobile accident in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Maureen worked for an inventory company that vanned their employees around the state during off hours; they slept supine on bench seats between jobs. The van veered off the highway and rolled several times, snapping Maureen's back and rendering her paralyzed from the waist down. When she called me in the wee hours of the morning from a Podunk hospital hours from Los Angeles, I figured it couldn't be too bad since she sounded as lucid and as sanguine as ever. It wasn't until days later, after we had her transported to the Long Beach Medical Center so she could be put into a hyperbaric chamber to try to coax some life into her severely bruised spinal cord, did the full implications of what this meant for her begin to dawn on me. The cognizance of Maureen's prospects generated a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, an indescribable sense of dread--what's the point if it can all be taken away in the flash of a moment? There, in the ICU, day after dreary day, night after sleepless night, alternating between pacing up and down cold sterile hallways and sitting on hard plastic chairs in the waiting room listening to the moans and prayers of other grieving souls, I took a knee and bowed my head and asked God to heal Maureen's broken back. I prayed with deepest sincerity. I cried out to God to overlook my doubts in the name of Maureen. I willingly suspended all disbelief. At that time and in that place, I was once again a believer. I believed because I wanted to believe that if there was any justice in the universe--any at all--this sweet, loving, smart, responsible, devoted, caring spirit did not deserve to be in a shattered body. A just and loving God who had the power to heal would surely heal Maureen. He didn't. I now believe, not because "God works in mysterious ways" or "He has a special plan for Maureen"--the nauseatingly banal comforts believers sometimes offer in such trying and ultimately futile times--but because there is no God.

Edward O. Wilson

1929-[]: Biologist, Naturalist, and Writer

Wilson, E. O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1998. pp. 12-13. Accessed at: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL369063M/Consilience

On a far more modest scale, I found it a wonderful feeling not just to taste the unification of metaphysics but also to be released from the confinement of fundamentalist religion. I had been raised a Southern Baptist, laid backward under the water on the sturdy arm of a pastor, been born again. I knew the healing power of redemption. Faith, hope, and charity were in my bones, and with millions of others I knew that my savior Jesus Christ would grant me eternal life. More pious than the average teenager, I read the Bible cover to cover, twice. But now at college, steroid-driven into moods of adolescent rebellion, I chose to doubt. I found it hard to accept that our deepest beliefs were set in stone by agricultural societies of the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago. I suffered cognitive dissonance between the cheerfully reported genocidal wars of these people and Christian civilization in 1940s Alabama. It seemed to me that the Book of Revelation might be black magic hallucinated by an ancient primitive. And I thought, surely a loving personal God, if He is paying attention, will not abandon those who reject the literal interpretation of the biblical cosmology. It is only fair to award points for intellectual courage. Better damned with Plato and Bacon, said Shelley, than go to heaven with Paley and Malthus. But most of all, Baptist theology made no provision for *evolution*. The biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be that they were not really privy to the thoughts of God? Might the pastors of my childhood, good and loving men though they were, be mistaken? It was all too much, and freedom was ever so sweet. I drifted away from the church, not definitely agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist no more.

Philip Pullman

1946-[]: Novelist, Author of His Dark Materials

Nicholas Tucker: So when did you start doubting the Christianity that you had been brought up in?Pullman, Philip; Tucker, Nicholas. “Philip Pullman: I’m Quite Against a Sentimental Vision of Childhood: In Conversation with the Author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy”. Literary Hub, Oct. 19, 2017. Web. Accessed at: https://lithub.com/philip-pullman-im-quite-against-a-sentimental-vision-of-childhood/

Philip Pullman:

I think the first thing I read that made me start thinking in a contrary way was Colin Wilson’s once famous book The Outsider. And that pointed me at people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and got me thinking in a new way. After that I got interested in existentialism and all that stuff and poor old God just got shuffled away. I floated in and out of various other beliefs in my twenties. I was a Buddhist for a bit and then got interested in the occult and astrology. But they all fell away. I still remain very interested in the esoteric but not as a believer. But people like Dawkins, who dismiss religion entirely as utter foolishness, I think are simply wrong.

Francis Crick

1916-2004: Molecular Biologist, Biophysicist, Neuroscientist

Crick, Francis. What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery. Basic Books: New York, 1988. pp. 10-12. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/whatmadpursuit00fran

At exactly which point I lost my early religious faith I am not clear, but I suspect I was then about twelve years old. It was almost certainly before the actual onset of puberty. Nor can I recall exactly what led me to this radical change of viewpoint. I remember telling my mother that I no longer wished to go to church, and she was visibly upset by this. I imagine that my growing interest in science and the rather lowly intellectual level of the preacher and his congregation motivated me, though I doubt if it would have made much difference if I had known of other more sophisticated Christian beliefs. Whatever the reason, from then on I was a skeptic, and agnostic with a strong inclination toward atheism. ... I have no doubt, as will emerge later, that this loss of faith in Christian religion and my growing attachment to science have played a dominant part in my scientific career. ... I realized early on that it is detailed scientific knowledge which makes certain religious beliefs untenable. A knowledge of the true age of the earth and of the fossil record makes it impossible for any balanced intellect to believe in the literal truth of every part of the Bible in the way that fundamentalists do. And if some of the Bible is manifestly wrong, why should any of the rest of it be accepted automatically? ... Although I found many religious beliefs absurd (the story of the animals in Noah's ark is a good example), I often excused them to myself on the assumption that they originally had some rational basis. This sometimes led me to quite unwarranted assumptions. I was familiar with the account in Genesis in which God makes Eve from one of Adam's ribs. How could such a belief arise? Of course, I knew that, at least in certain respects, men were anatomically different from women. What more natural for me to assume that men had one less rib than women? A primitive people, knowing this, could easily believe that this missing rib was used to construct Eve. It never entered my head to check whether this tacit hypothesis of mine corresponded to the facts. It was only some years later, probably when I was an undergraduate, that I let slip to a friend of mine, a medical student, that I understood that women had one more rib than men. To my surprise, instead of agreeing he reacted strongly to this idea and asked me why I thought so. When I explained me reasons he almost fell off his chair with laughter. I learned the hard way that in dealing with myths one should not try to be too rational.

Thomas Carlyle

1795-1881: Historian, Satirist, Translator, Philosopher, Mathematician

May 24.–Thomas Carlyle spoke of his College days:Allingham, William. William Allingham: A Diary. Macmillan And Co: London, 1908. p. 232. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/williamallingham00alli/mode/2up

The Mathematical Professor had no single word of encouragement or advice to give me. I studied the Evidences of Christianity for several years, with the greatest desire to be convinced, but in vain. I read Gibbon, and then first clearly saw that Christianity was not true. Then came the most trying time of my life. I should either have gone mad or made an end of myself had I not fallen in with some very superior minds.

Note: If you have found another first-hand story from a famous atheist, agnostic, or skeptic, feel free to leave a link or description in the comments.