I frequent a few atheism/humanism meeting groups and a common ice breaker is to ask someone how long they’ve been a [insert-group-name]. Both the humanist and atheist groups are awkward for me because I’m neither an atheist nor a humanist. I’m an agnostic and (I think) a post-humanist.
But what’s really awkward is that I have no conversion story. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve always felt the same way about both religious beliefs or the relationship between humans and our environment. I do have a conversion story from my proto-libertarian to my current political self. And that conversion was heavily influenced by both my agnosticism and ethical foundation. So, I usually tell that story.
To be honest, I often think the conjunction of a) my lack of a conversion story and b) the prevalence of everyone else’s conversion stories is a primary cause of my distrust of atheists (less so re: humanists). Most of the outspoken atheists I run across seem like jilted lovers or somesuch… still bitter about being stabbed in the back by their prior belief systems. It’s a bit like the way some of us view ex-smokers or ex-drinkers. Nobody is more anti-something than those who used to engage in that something.
If I don’t manage to offend the atheists I meet when talking about my non-conversion, and there is still some hint they want to continue the conversation, I usually end up telling them the story of my childhood friend. This friend had some serious issues with drugs and petty crime, and was eventually committed to a psych hospital. He struggled quite a bit with his life direction long into adulthood. But, he finally found God. We’d both been raised Catholic. But neither of us, as children, believed the silliness they tried to program us with. The God he later found was a much more personal one. I think he finally found a church/people who allowed him to participate in defining the God he would worship. That participatory relationship (with the other humans) seemed to give him the right mix of freedom and self-imposed constraint he finally needed to take control of his life.
The point of the story, as I tell it to newly met atheists, is that I think newly minted atheists are similar to my friend. They are basking in a new found freedom by which they can construct their own ideals and their own recipes for how to live their lives. As such, they define their selves as much by contrast against what they once believed as they do positively by the open horizons in front of them.
But most importantly, I’d like the story to demonstrate that they are not so very different from my “born-again” childhood friend. For what it’s worth, I’m rarely successful.