Atheist Personal Narratives

The personal narrative, or autobiography, is one of the most popular genres of literature in the present day.  Most critics and writers of personal narrative are agreed that there are several reasons for this genre’s prevalence.  Jill Kerr Conway thinks that people are familiarized with revealing stories of the most personal kind, either by narrating their own experiences, or hearing other people’s, through books, television, or film. 

The most intimate details of many people’s lives are open to assessment and interest. Conway also states that another reason for the rise of the autobiography is that people no longer read fiction for the same reasons they did at one time.  They once turned to fiction for instruction and reflection concerning life. Many no longer find literary fiction realistic or relevant, and they do not turn to it for direction in life.  She believes that many people do not seek out the great philosophical or psychological writers for the purpose of instruction any longer.  Readers today often turn to the personal narrative to begin a reflection on their own life experiences.

Conway has a very salient theory that the interior, spiritual journey of St. Augustine’s Confessions (397-8 C.E.,) originally based on the Greek epic hero’s outward journey, gradually through the centuries turned to the secular man’s journey of finding and building his place in society. Women’s journeys were often interior, as when the medieval nuns found god through religious experience, and later, when the secular woman’s journey ended by finding the man she loved.[1]

Much of the personal narrative genre has altered.  The autobiographies recommended in the Book List below have some resonance with St. Augustine’s Confessions. But as Augustine journeyed from paganism and heresy to the spiritual conversion of Christianity, modern atheists describe their intellectual and emotional breakthroughs from religious belief to the rationalism of non belief.  One of the narratives is the thrilling story of a woman’s journey from religious and cultural darkness to rationality and freedom.  The other three are men, two of them Christian pastors, who went through emotional and intellectual pain to arrive at a hard won and valued atheism.  The last book consists of the essays and lectures of one of the 20th Century’s eminent philosophers and social reformers. He exposes religious belief to the light of reason with biting irony and intellectual power. His light touch is keener than a scalpel as he maintains that religion is nonsensical, irrational, and harmful both now and in previous centuries. Atheists will identify and reflect on their own life experiences by reading such honest and deep accounts of the various difficulties these brave and intelligent narrators encountered on their way to atheism.

The following Books have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers:

Recommended Books

The following books have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers

Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. Infidel. New York: Free Press, 2007.

The life story of Hirsi Ali, now living in the United States, is a welcome departure from the traditional woman’s narrative.  In the classic tradition, the woman’s narrative ended when she found her romantic hero.  Her story, and life, were finished when she married the man she loved.  Hirsi Ali’s story is not yet complete and her love is intellectual enlightenment and freedom.

Born in Somalia to a strict family and Muslim clan, Infidel is the story of Hirsi Ali’s long and painful struggle to gain education and independence.  Having achieved both goals, she found herself forced to speak out against Islam, putting herself in danger of her life and under police protection.  The daughter of a political dissenter, she experienced migration from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, where she chafed under the strictures of binding Islamic law. Her family also lived in Kenya and Nairobi. In her twenties she fell under the spell of an Islamic cleric and became more religious.  For a while she was with the Muslim Brotherhood.  In 1992, she left the husband she had been ordered to marry and finally found a home in the Netherlands.  She went to school, achieved a Master’s Degree in political science, a job as a translator, and then became a political researcher for the Labor Party.  For a time she was a member of Parliament.

In 2004, she and Theo Van Gogh made Submission 1, a film about the maltreatment of Muslim women under Islam.  In the movie, Muslim women who have undergone maltreatment are shown with the Quranic verses that justify such egregious practices tattooed on their bodies. Van Gogh was murdered two months later by a fanatic Muslim.  He shot Van Gogh, then cut his throat and stabbed him.  The fanatic left a note on Van Gogh’s dead body that contained serious threats to Hirsi Ali’s life.  She decided to move to America as conflicts over her safe house and Dutch citizenship erupted.  She had previously pressured Holland to keep statistics on honor killing in Holland, and many such murders were found to be taking place. She was an outspoken critic of the practice of allowing a separate Muslim cultural and religious institution in Holland, insisting it led to the cruelty and abuse of women and children.

Hirsi Ali speaks movingly, and often ironically, of the events in her life and of the culture of Islam.  She does not dramatize. In moving, straight forward prose, she describes her genital excision, her intellectual enlightenment and her departure from belief in Allah. This brave woman’s book ends with Ali’s embrace of freedom and rationality.

Barker, Dan. Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to atheist. Madison, Wisconsin: FFRF, Inc., 1992.

Losing Faith is the story of Dan Barker, a co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (See Atheist Activism.) The book is an account of his long deconversion from Christian evangelical pastor to atheist.  For nineteen years, Barker labored as a “soul saver” for Christianity, as well as writing and publishing popular Christian music. Doubts concerning his belief system increasingly assailed him, and he describes the pain and intellectual conflict of losing belief in god.

Many critics and readers put Losing Faith on their top ten lists of atheist books.  Barker writes in an accessible, convincing, and lively style that is thoroughly engrossing. In addition to being a moving personal narrative of becoming an atheist, Mr. Barker’s volume is a very sophisticated rebuttal of many complex arguments for the existence of god. (Please see Arguments for and against the Existence of god.)  It is an extended critique of biblical errors, a consideration that Jesus may not have been a historical personage, and rumination on the irrationality of Christianity.  Barker writes eloquently about the separation of church and state. (See Atheism and the Law)

Dan Barker’s shared journey has been an encouragement and a spur to many atheists, and it will continue to be one for many people assailed by doubts concerning religion and also for many recent deconverts.  In the place of religious solace, fear and ignorance, he puts forth the values of rationality, freedom and humanism.  Atheism has never looked better, saner and happier than in Mr. Barker’s lucid, accessible prose.  Highly recommended.

Loftus, John. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2008.

John Loftus does not merely write an honest and moving account of his deconversion from minister to atheist, he has provided readers with a volume that Hector Avalos (The End of Biblical Studies,2007)compares to Augustine’s Confessions.  Surely Loftus is to be admired for revealing past difficulties.  They were not moral deficiencies so much as a young boy’s, and then a young man’s missteps while searching for meaning and answers.  He is a former minister and Christian apologist who left religion behind in the nineties.

Loftus is writing Why not merely for people who are non believers, but specifically for Christians.  He challenges them to take a skeptical stance and examine their religion and belief system as an outsider would.  If their belief can hold up under the intense scrutiny he prescribes, then his Christian readers are entitled to their faith.  They must not fall back on the Bible or faith answers, but try to rationally explain what their religion maintains is true.  If their faith does not still exist after such a difficult test, Loftus suggests “then the God of your faith is not worthy of being worshipped.” (71)

Loftus begins his objection to religion by discussing god’s existence with regard to the ontological, cosmological, and design arguments and disposes of them as failures very concisely and succinctly. (See Arguments for and against the Existence of god.) There is an interesting chapter on science and religion with a discussion of Methodological Naturalism. (See Atheist Philosophy- Naturalism)  He goes on to discuss the many difficulties and errancies of the Bible, deals with the problem of evil thoroughly, and addresses the subject of science versus Genesis.  Loftus traverses miracles, prayers, “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit,” and so on.  He has written very erudite chapters on Jesus being god, Jesus rising bodily from the dead, the devil and the non-existence of hell.

Atheists will find Why a rewarding volume.  John Loftus is a very well-read and sincere writer and thinker.  Many of the arguments against the existence of god are presented in this volume in an honest, non-condescending and accessible style.  Why has excellent end notes and an extensive bibliography. 

Highly Recommended. (One hopes a few brave Christians will take up John Loftus’ challenge.)

Russell, Bertrand. Why I am not a Christian and other essays on religion and related subjects. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Russell’s essays concerning religion are not only convincing, but a pure pleasure to read.  His lucid, exquisite prose and sophisticated, ironic and slightly humorous tone will be familiar to those who have encountered this 20th Century philosopher in other volumes.  Russell is one of the modern world’s most esteemed philosophers and mathematicians, yet his essays and speeches are not merely accessible to non professionals, but inspiring and worthwhile reading.

His first essay, “Why I am not a Christian,” defines basic beliefs a Christian must hold to be called one: belief in god, in immortality, and in Christ. Russell proceeds to lightly and humorously, rather like brushing off an annoying fly, demolish the basic arguments for the existence of god. (See Arguments for and against the Existence of god) He disposes of the moral arguments, the justice-remedying arguments, questions of the moral character of Christ, and describes the moral difficulties inherent in religion.  He warns against the promotion of fear and retardation of progress from church power.  Russell advises “making the best we can of the world.” (23) He maintains what we need, rather than faith, is “knowledge, kindness, and courage.”

Russell disagrees with the argument that religion has made contributions to civilization.  He does not believe such contributions are balanced out by the prolonged misery, superstition, wickedness and other egregious practices that institution has perpetuated over the centuries. He points out the churches’ long opposition to the abolition of slavery, their attempt to stop scientific discoveries, their absurd and harmful sexual prohibitions, the awful effect the doctrine of the immortality of the soul has had on morality, and their harmful and often murderous intolerance.

Russell’s essays on Thomas Paine, life in the Middle Ages, and a free man’s “worship,” are inimitable.  One of the most inspiring pieces in the book is titled “What I Believe.”  In this essay, Russell argues for the Good Life.  He hopes for a future world based on knowledge, love and benevolence.  He recommends bringing children up without superstition and creating favorable social conditions for all people.  His approach to science and human flourishing is very commonsense.  He believes that, in the long run, science will help us build better societies on healthier and sounder principles than those we have in the present. “What I Believe” is an essential essay for any atheist who embraces humanism to any degree. It is bracing, inspiring and filled with hope in the middle and muddle of our human darkness.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Dan Barker. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading atheists. (2008); William Lobdell. Losing my Religion: How I lost my Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace. (2009); Ronald Aronson. Living Without God. (2008); Jeffrey Mark.  Christian No More: On Leaving Christianity, Debunking Christianity, and Embracing Atheism and Freethinking. (2008); Ibn Warraq. Why I am not a Muslim. (2003); Kancha Ilaiah. Why I am not a Hindu. (2005.)


1 Conway, Jill Kerr. Professor of the Humanities at MIT, discussing her new book, When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. Online Focus. 1 June, 1998.