Social Question

ekans's avatar

Is atheism often a phase?

Asked by ekans (1529points) October 31st, 2009
76 responses
“Great Question” (2points)

Do many people become non-believers while in their teens or twenties, only to become more religious as they age?
What is the breakdown by age of non-believers? How does this compare to that of other religions?

Note- This is not intended to say anything about non-believers or the strength of their convictions. I just notice a trend that I know of many more young atheists than older ones.

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simone54's avatar

Usually once someone figures out how it’s all bullshit, there is no turning back.

YARNLADY's avatar

Sometimes people who aren’t getting answers to their questions with in their religion come to think they don’t believe, but they eventually find that they are able to reconcile their questions with their desire to embrace religion.

For those of us who realize that there really isn’t any substance to it, we can’t just pretend to believe in what we have come to regard as nonsense. I was in my 20’s when I first realized that, and have gone on for over 40 years as an atheist.

nxknxk's avatar

There have been friends of mine who’ve gone through atheism as a ‘phase’. Even as a fad. Some people are atheists for the wrong reasons much in the same sense people can be religious for the wrong reasons.

But I’ve known even more people for whom atheism is not a phase and is not something to take lightly.

pinkparaluies's avatar

I was an Atheist in my teens. Now I’m very religious. I really think I was just rebelling.

FutureMemory's avatar

It’s been about 23 years for me, never has my faith (hah) been shaken that it’s allll made up nonsense that originated thousands of years ago to explain the sky and mountains and sun and all that shit. The various forms we have now are simply the evolution (hah!) of those original fairy tales. That’s how I see it anyway.

gagara's avatar

Most older people had grown up in much older times (naturally), thus your observation is biased by that simple fact that religion lost much of its traction within the society in the past 50 years or so, when social and media issues came forth in people’s minds.

I’d agree that generally more older people appear to be religious than young ones; however, it is nearly impossible to factor out the above effect. I don’t believe it’s a phase that makes people believers/nonbelievers, I think it is the family upbringing thing for most people, which brings us back to the above issue.

faye's avatar

is reincarnation a phase? i’ve been here for 36 years. -only thing that makes sense to me

johanna's avatar

@simone54 Hear, hear!

markyy's avatar

Allow me to generalize..

Yes you’re right, the older you get the more likely you are to start believing in a religion. But more importantly, the older you become the more you get confronted with your own mortality. Religion has the solution for that, call it heaven, reincarnation or whatever you want. Once you start believing there is more after this life, suddenly it’s a lot easier to live with the fact that you already spent move than half of your life on this earth and time is running out.

So wisdom or fear? I don’t know about you guys, but the people in my surroundings seem to have converted out of fear rather than some newfound wisdom. I’m with @simone54 on this one, those people probably never really were atheist but agnostic.

faye's avatar

i was 19— age doesn’t so much matter. is it outside scare tactics to make us behave or what feels right inside?

Thammuz's avatar

Dan Dennet 67, Sam Harris 42, Richard Dawkins 68, Christopher Hitchens 60, Bertrand Russel died at 97.

They seem way beyond their teen years to me.

Then again it really depends on the motive behind the deconversion.

Personally i just surveyed the main religions, realized they were based on pure assumption and that none could find actual proof of its claims even if it bothered and that those who claim there is objective proof are guillible, wishful thinkers or delusional.

Unless i find a religion whose prayer system actually works 99% of the time, or one of the gods comes down on earth and slaps me in the face and agrees to do that in monitored conditions so that i can have proof that i’m not hallucinating for some reason, I really doubt i’ll ever believe again

delirium's avatar

There is a trend, statistically, of the number of atheists increasing each year.
I have a sense that it has to do with the fact that it is more and more okay to question and have doubts nowadays than in past generations. Also I think it probably has a bit to do with the freedom of information/the Internet. No longer do you have to seek information in a public manner.

dpworkin's avatar

I think of atheism as being a form of religion, so I wonder how you distinguish the phases. Atheism is just as faith based, just as closed to new evidence, and shuns the scientific method just as much as does theism.

Agnosticism, however, does not seem to me to be a phase; rather it is a state of mind open to being convinced one way or another by whatever evidence should present itself. So far it has lasted all my life.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

@age doesn’t so much matter. is it outside scare tactics to make us behave or what feels right inside?
Religion has nothing to do with behaving. People who don’t believe in God often have strong personal moral codes. Religion, morals, and ethics exist separately from one another.

AlyxCaitlin's avatar

@simone54 I fully agree! But I’ve never been religious. I wasn’t brought up that way and I don’t plan on changing

syz's avatar

It’s a phase that’s lasted 30 years for me.

syz (35695points)“Great Answer” (2points)
Critter38's avatar

@pdworkin Sounds like a strawman, as that’s only true if you define an atheist as someone who “knows” there is no god (a stance I have rarely if ever come across..but perhaps that’s because the atheists I know are almost entirely scientifically trained).

Disbelief in god is all that is called for as an atheist, and the distinction between this stance an agnosticism is tenuous at best. People who don’t know whether there is a god or not (agnostic), do not believe in god (ie are atheists). If they did believe in a god or gods, they would be theists.

Similarly I would hazard a guess that the majority of self proclaimed atheists are “agnostic” with respect to the existence of god and “atheist” due to their lack of belief in god (this includes Dawkins for instance). This position has nothing to do with faith and is entirely consistent with being open to new information and the scientific method.

faye's avatar

not much scientific method in belief systems—go with your gut more

dpworkin's avatar

“Disbelief” suggests to me that the state of mind hinges upon a rejection of belief, which to me seems faith based, but I have no intention of arguing semantics. If by atheism you mean agnosticism, be my guest. I have learned to define the two words differently.

Critter38's avatar

They are defined differently. One deals with what can be “known” (agnosticism), one deals with belief (theism, atheism). They are not mutually exclusive. They are addressing different questions and that is where the confusion often lies.

The issue is more than semantic as your post demonstrates, because it involves the mis-labelling of real people’s worldviews. I think you’ll find most atheists (myself included) share a worldview more similar to your own that you realise.

For instance I have yet to converse with an atheist here at fluther that would disagree with your point “it is a state of mind open to being convinced one way or another by whatever evidence should present itself.”

virtualist's avatar

Dawkins’ The God Delusion is my Bible , added to my own mental armentarium, at what some would say is an advanced [in both senses], age.

dpworkin's avatar

I have heard Dawkins speak, and I found him to be rather doctrinaire.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I’ve never considered thinking of atheism as a phase for people – everything in our lives can be seen as a phase…when people talk about phases, it’s usually self-serving in that they want to believe that something they or others are going through isn’t going to last, because it’s too hard to admit…so one can say to their children their sexuality is just a phase, their partner’s indiscretions are just a phase, someone becoming an atheist is just a phase…for some people phases exist but more often than not, that’s not what’s happening…

in terms of people getting older…eh, it could go both ways…many people get to feel more desperation as they get closer to death or as they lose more of those around them, they seek answers…religion provides those answers for some…or they think ‘oh this must have happened to me because I didn’t believe’ and they guilt trip their way to church…some people long for their youth, their childhood, when maybe they went to church and they want that sense of security again, that sense of community…maybe they realized pursuing life’s materialistic treasures isn’t worth what they thought it’d be..

for others becoming adults is liberating, it’s a reason why they can drop the chains of religion..for so many people religion is associated with family, pressures from the parents, pressures and shame, basically…so it takes a bit of life to be able to pull away and say ‘fuck that noise, I’m living my life and I’m perfectly content’...I don’t really know if there are more people becoming atheist over the years or more people becoming religious…it’s all about how you want to live out the rest of your life, I suppose

wundayatta's avatar

FWIW, I’m a 53 yr-old atheist. I seriously doubt that atheism is a phase. I suspect your observations are biased. It is notoriously difficult to reliable information about religious beliefs, and it seems like there is almost no or no information on beliefs by age. However, this website has figures showing that “no religion” is growing, and one would think that it would be difficult for atheism to grow if older folks were finding religion.

Parrappa's avatar

I’m 15 and atheist, and I don’t see how I could ever change. I’m pretty set in my ways.

AstroChuck's avatar

I was atheist until it discovered the Fluther gods (Ben and Andrew, of course).

Sarcasm's avatar

I think that you see more young atheists because of the generations in which they were raised.

If you look at the people who are 20 now, and wait 40 years till they’re 60, I’d bet you’ll find that (roughly) the same amount of them are (non-)believers at 60 that were at 20.
And if you look at the people who are 60 now, and get in your time machine back to 1969 (40 years), I bet you’ll see the same trend.

Saturated_Brain's avatar

@simone54 For those of us who do have a religion they strongly believe in, that’s really rather tactless and offensive of you

RareDenver's avatar

@Saturated_Brain not really, just his opinion

Saturated_Brain's avatar

@RareDenver Well.. If I were to say that what you strongly believe in is bullshit, wouldn’t you be ticked off?

Haleth's avatar

Atheism isn’t a phase any more than having a religion is a phase. Some people are steadfast in their opinions and some people just like to try on beliefs. “Born agains” always seem like the loudest, most fervent believers, so they may be more visible than people whose beliefs don’t change over time.

Sarcasm's avatar

@Saturated_Brain You and I both know that Denver is un-tick-off-able.

Saturated_Brain's avatar

@Sarcasm Oh come on, he’s human. He must have a switch somewhere. Don’t you Denver?

Sarcasm's avatar

Only our Jenny gets to touch that switch I believe

RareDenver's avatar

@Saturated_Brain if someone said what I believed in was bullshit I would just think they were wrong, I wouldn’t necessarily be offended, I guess it would depend on how they said it.

ratboy's avatar

@Saturated_Brain: I’m deeply offended. That God doesn’t exist doesn’t mean He doesn’t have feelings.

delirium's avatar

Why does it always come down to the semantics of what the term ‘atheist’ means.

There are positive and negative atheists. Positive atheism could be argued as being a religious notion and most negative atheists don’t particularly like being grouped in with them.

Negative atheism, or teapot atheism, is the perception that although it is impossible to prove a negative scientifically, the notion of god is about as likely as there being a teapot orbiting mars or a tooth fairy. Even though I would never say that I am ‘positive’ that there is no god, I am sure enough to go on with my secular life without giving it much thought anymore.

I believe, as well, there’s a pertinent Douglas Adams quote to be had here…

“People will then often say, ‘But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?’ This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.)”

johanna's avatar

Just as I wouldn’t label a religious person as this or that, or for that matter label others with political opinions, as an atheist, I do not understand why anyone would say that my being an atheist includes a belief or not. Atheists, like all other, are heterogeneous.
I have no beliefs at all in regards to religion or for that matter in regards to any gods or no gods. All atheism is to me is the literal meaning ’ no god’. There is no ‘belief’ in it at all. I never decided not to believe – it was never a question of believing or not – just like believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny was never an issue. Atheism is not a religion – thank god!

On another note – someone thought simone54’s answer was offensive. I wonder why? If someone was to say that someones political views were bullshit would that also be offensive?

Ivan's avatar

For some people, yes. But that can be said about anything. I’ve seen plenty of people go through religious phases as well. I don’t judge the validity of a belief system (or lack of a belief system) on whether or not rebellious teens believe in it.

Grisaille's avatar

There’s a distinction between skepticism and atheism. One is an independent variable, the other not so.

Atheism without skepticism is blind rebellion, no better than blind faith. However, this rebellion could certainly lead to skepticism, but not all the time. That is what we would call a phase.

A true skeptic takes all evidence and asks, “is this real? Is it supported by fact and logic?” With regards to major religion, they generally find that it is outside the bounds of reality and empirical evidence. That is a long term atheist/agnostic/deist/whatever. Basically, this is a per-case question, as is most things.

YARNLADY's avatar

@Grisaille Good analysis. The thing is, the person experiencing it might not realize it until later, therefore take the wrong ‘label’.

Ivan's avatar

I think Grisaille is on to something. At the heart of atheism is skepticism. I hate to create some arbitrary distinction between “true” atheists and “fake” atheists, but to blindly rebel against theism just for the sake of it is more like “anti-religionism” than it is atheism.

johanna's avatar

@Grisaille Your distinction demands that one must have been exposed to religion and brought up in an environment where religion is more or less the norm. If not, how can it be either rebellion or skepticism? It would simply be an absence of any god.

And why must the choice not to be religious be rebellion, even if one has been taught about all kinds of religions? By such logic all choices not believe in any kind of dogma are rebellious? Can it just not be the absence of proof? And the absence of proof does not automatically mean skepticism.

@Ivan What do you mean by ‘blindly rebelling’ against theism?

Ivan's avatar


Rejecting the notion of god just to get attention or rebel against daddy. I’ve met plenty of atheists who can’t justify their atheism intellectually. That doesn’t make them any less of an atheist, of course, but it rings a bit hollow.

Cartman's avatar

A phase…? Nah, it’s a lifestyle, much like rock and roll.

johanna's avatar

@Ivan I understand the concept of ‘blindly rebelling’ I just didn’t understand how you meant that one does it in regards to religion and how someone decides that it is in fact a blind rebellion and not a true stance….
Besides, must one justify atheism intellectually? I do not I ever heard of anyone justifying being religious intellectually. In extension does that mean that one must be able to justify everything one doesn’t believe in intellectually for it to be a valid standpoint? That is quite a load to take on.

Cartman's avatar

@johanna “ever heard of anyone justifying being religious intellectually”

Is that even possible?

Grisaille's avatar

@YARNLADY Very true, but in the large scheme of things, I don’t believe that that is relevant. Remaining cognizant of the basic working universe and the intricacies within is paramount over “god sucks”, in my opinion. Searching, researching and compiling evidence and knowledge is more important than some insubstantial title.

@johanna Not necessarily. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that everyone is introduced to some form of religion in their lives, save for some really, really rural areas (and those are irrelevant for all intents and purposes of this conversation).

Skepticism does not equate to questioning your indoctrinated belief system. It is questioning every ideology that comes into your life, be it Christianity, a political system, Atheism (which isn’t even a set of beliefs or an organized structure to begin with, but I digress), or whatever – including your indoctrinated belief system. However, saying that my distinction demands being exposed to religion is true, albeit in a limited sense:

If I were raised on the assumption there was no god, and that science is the tool of nature, then that’s fine. But at some point in my life, I’d have come across a religion.

I have two choices:

Either refuse to believe it and hear nothing about the opposing system, or look at what is being presented and ask questions. The latter is what I mean by “skepticism”. A true skeptic tries to make the argument presented fit into reality. If it does not, then it is discarded.

And why must the choice not to be religious be rebellion, even if one has been taught about all kinds of religions?

It is rebellion in the sense that a large majority of the population believes in one religion or another. By not adhering to social norms, you are, by definition, a rebel. That isn’t to say that you become a radical, however – and that’s an important distinction that leads into the next point.

By such logic all choices not believe in any kind of dogma are rebellious?

Yep, that’s what I’m trying to say. But again, I use the word “rebel” in a more literal, social sense – I’m intentionally trying to leave out any sort of mental associations adhered to it.

Can it just not be the absence of proof? And the absence of proof does not automatically mean skepticism.

The absence of proof requires skepticism, for questions to be asked and for the ideology to be disproven. So, again, saying that “I find no evidence to support this claim” yet doing no research even at elementary level, is blind rebellion.

sorry this took so long… damn kids. I hate Halloween

Ivan's avatar


You are talking about things we “must” do and the “validity” of beliefs. There isn’t anything you “must” do, and it’s difficult to judge whether someone’s arguments constitute a “valid” stance. But if I asked you why you don’t believe in leprechauns, I would respect “because there is no positive evidence for the existence of leprechauns and their existence is not required to explain anything” more than “I dunno I just don’t.”

dpworkin's avatar

@Cartman I refer you to Blaise Pascal and Reinhold Niebuhr as only two of many many hundreds of people who have undertaken an intellectual defense of theism. You should, of course, be reading them in order to better understand the world around you, but if you would even just look them up on Wikipedia it would be better than nothing.

fundevogel's avatar

pardon me for not reading all the answers, but I wanted to share a letter from an atheist facing death. The source is noted and has additional information, but the letter is easier to make out here.

It should be taken into account that some Christians have a compulsion to claim deathbed conversions of famous atheists. It was done to Darwin and Dawkins plans to have a paid sitters whose only job is to observe whether or not Dawkins succumbs to theism.

This actually happened to a friend of mine’s grandmother (who was a devout Jew, not an atheist), her Mormon friends declared after her death that she had become a Mormon. It was just hurtful to the family to be posthumously reinvent their loved one.

nikipedia's avatar

@pdworkin: Just to echo what’s been said…I am a very firm atheist, but I would never call it a religion. My religion is Unitarian Universalism. These are related, but separate.

The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson recently referred to science as “a religion that worships truth as it god.” Many scientists were pretty irritated by this and I believe there’s an ongoing dialogue about it. Wilson has a lot more to say on the topic in his blog.

Cartman's avatar

@pdworkin thank you for your advice and for stooping to my level. Mr. Niebuhr was a theologian and pastor as well as a spokesperson for some less mainstream theories, making his judgement seem somewhat flawed in my humble opinion. Mr. Pascal was, indeed, a scientist but back in the days when science was lacking scope.

May I refer you back to House M.D. who poignantly said that “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people”.

Response moderated
fundevogel's avatar

@nikipedia I didn’t know you could be an atheist and a Unitarian. Does that put Unitarian Universalism more on the end of philosophy than religion? I’m confused, but intrigued.

dpworkin's avatar

My parents went to the Unitarian-Universalist church. They called themselves Jewnitarians.

fundevogel's avatar

That’s pretty awesome.

Psychedelic_Zebra's avatar

I’m an Evelynist, I don’t care what other people choose to believe or not believe.

LostInParadise's avatar

I have been an atheist since the age of 12. Lately though I have developed what I can only refer to as a sense of spirituality. I still do not believe in God and I believe you only pass through once, but I believe we are all parts of something larger, actually many things that are larger. In particular, we are part of our local community and a part of the natural ecosystem community. Without these attachments life does not make much sense. It is not just a matter of recognition or drawing from these larger entities, but a recognition that we help to form them and are obligated to make contributions. I get the sense that I am not alone in feeling this way. Of late many people have been saying that they are spiritual but not religious. Does this mean that I am no longer an atheist?

fundevogel's avatar

@LostInParadise Like this? I apologize for the extreme nerd/cheese factor.

…but you have to appreciate the enthusiasm.

RareDenver's avatar

Is theism often a phase?

Grisaille's avatar

@LostInParadise “We are all connected: to each other, biologically; to the Earth, chemically; to the stars and the rest of the universe, atomically.”

Sarcasm's avatar

@fundevogel OMG infinite lurve to you.

fundevogel's avatar

@Sarcasm Is it weird that that song had me crushing on Carl Sagan?

LostInParadise's avatar

@fundevogel , That is fun, but, as the saying goes, these guys should not give up on their day jobs.

Sarcasm's avatar

just making sure.. You know that they’re not singing, right? It’s clips of them speaking normally, and then digitally edited by Autotune, and then instruments placed atop that.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@fundevogel that video is awesome.

LostInParadise's avatar

@sarcasm, Oh, I did not get that! I suppose I should have. Neat video all the same

cbloom8's avatar

It could be a stage, especially out of rebellion or other negative emotions, but I’m sure most atheists stick with it their whole lives.

fundevogel's avatar

@cbloom8 I don’t think you could really be an atheist out of rebellion, though it could be accompanied by rebellion. Rebellion, in no uncertain terms, requires that the intent be to oppose someone or something. Atheists don’t disbelieve in something because they choose to or because it will piss off their parents. You could say you’re an atheist to those ends, but that wouldn’t make you an atheist.

It would be like changing your political affiliation for someone else. You can get a new party membership, but if it’s just about how other people respond to you, you’re not going to suddenly flips sides on gun control and healthcare. Its too much of a part of how you see the world to change for someone else. Unless someone convinces you of their position in which case it’s about the case they make, not how someone will feel about your party membership.

benjaminlevi's avatar

I can only speak for one atheist (myself) but I do not see it as a phase, as I would have to radically change my philosophy of nearly everything to adopt theism. It could happen, but I don’t think it will.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@benjaminlevi and when it will, I’ll have to turn you into a zombie..which is what you always wanted

benjaminlevi's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Like the kind of zombie that yells scripture at everyone?

vicnav's avatar

Totally not. I think it’s an Honor for one to become an Aheist, that means that the person actually started thinking. I totally believe that their are advanced beings out there on other planets. That doesnt mean GOD exisit at all. If you are atheist then you are smart you know the truth and you see the world for what it is not for lies and fairytales. It’s not going to be easy for everyone to change but I see it comming and I see it soon.

If it’s just a phase and a person goes back then they need reasurance concerning atheism.

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