The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 3, 2007

Becoming atheist akin to finding religion

Jean Lundquist

By now, the stories have become a cliché. You know the ones — where someone enduring a difficult or embarrassing ordeal suddenly sees the light and, in one of those a-ha moments, finds God.

But when someone decides to abandon their belief in God, things don’t happen quite so suddenly. August Berkshire of the group Minnesota Atheists says that becoming an atheist — which Berkshire defines as “a lack of belief in God, rather than a belief that God doesn’t exist” — could take three to five years.

One man who made such a conversion is Mankato attorney Jim Manahan, who defines his atheism much like Berkshire. Writing from Chile, Manahan said, “Since I believe that there is no God and no ‘life after death,’ I am a non-theist, which is what the word atheist means.”

Both Manahan and Berkshire were raised Catholic. In an e-mail interview, Manahan wrote:

“I was raised Roman Catholic, and was very active in the Church. I was choir director at SS Peter & Paul Catholic Church from 1969 to 1972. I also taught comparative religion at Fitzgerald Middle School. During that time I was reevaluating my beliefs and deciding what made sense, and I realized one day that all religions, rather than being equally true, are equally untrue.

“It makes no more sense to think that humans survive their own death than to believe that dogs, cows, germs, or leaves do so. Bertrand Russell’s Humanist Manifesto makes much more sense as a guide to living. So you could call me an ‘atheist/humanist.’”

Berkshire relates his coming to atheism in a similar fashion.

“I saw the inequities in the Church, and realized God was the God of gaps,” he said. “Whenever we don’t know something, we could say, ‘God did it.’”

Gustavus Adolphus College Religion professor Darrell Jodock agrees that some of the factors driving people to declare they are atheists come from shortcomings in organized religion.

“In my judgment, for many young people, public statements by the religious right are very troubling,” Jodock said. “They are uncertain whether their displeasure is with the spokesperson, or Christianity.”

Manahan calls his acceptance of atheism a “relief.”

“Since my years of doubting were resolved. It was a relief to tell my family and friends, and since I believe strongly in the value of honesty, it is a pleasure to answer your questions. However, it is not a subject that I talk about unless asked.

Manahan said he enjoys reading books such as Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which he says present “irrefutable reasoning against religious belief, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other.”

Berkshire compares his revelation to friends and family to a gay person coming out of the closet. When he told his family, it led to a decade of strained relations.

“They felt as though they had done something wrong in raising me, until they realized I was still the same person,” he said.

Without believing in the promise of life after death, Berskshire says he finds a lot of reason to differentiate between good and evil.

“Heaven and hell are both here on earth,” he explains. “Good and bad have to do with consequences. Bad actions are not good for the other person, not good for me, and not good for society. It’s a better life if we do good. It’s not perfect, but it’s better if we mean well.”

Manahan has represented some unpopular clients in his career as an attorney, but he says that is not necessarily due to anything related to religion or the lack of it.

“Part of my humanism is the belief that people’s rights should be respected, which is why I have been active in the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association ... Obviously, there are many good people who believe there is a God, but I think they are in all likelihood mistaken.”

As for witnesses in court being sworn in with their hand on the Bible, Manahan says its use is a relic from the past. He says it is the law, not the Bible, that provides sanctions for false testimony.

Minnesota Atheists currently have a membership of about 300. Berkshire says atheists in rural areas are less likely to speak out due to fear. Young people, he says, are less afraid of the “the A word” than were their elders.

Jodock says he has friends who are atheists. The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more accepting you are of the differences of others, he says.