How I Came To See Atheism As a Natural Part Of Spiritual Growth

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‘Atheists are typically selfish, angry, and immoral people. They don’t realize that, deep down, they’re miserable because their false beliefs have given them no basis for meaning in life. Even so, they pose both an external and an ideological threat to Christianity.’

This was the common narrative that I held through most of my life. Even after I began to meet actual atheists and see that I was wrong, I still held on to parts of the story in the back of my mind. Maybe atheism wasn’t bad per se, but it was still dangerous and something we should help people avoid.

The remnant of my beliefs would finally be challenged when I was introduced to a concept called Stage Theory.

Formulated by author and psychologist M. Scott Peck, Stage Theory posits that healthy individuals tend to go through four broad stages of spiritual growth: chaotic, formal, skeptic, and mystic.

Peck began to formulate the foundations for what would become Stage Theory when he began to notice the strange patterns of growth with his religious and nonreligious clients:

If people who were religious came to me in pain and trouble, and if they became engaged in the therapeutic process, so as to go the whole route, they frequently left therapy as atheists, agnostics, or at least skeptics. On the other hand, if atheists, agnostics, or skeptics came to me in pain or difficulty and became fully engaged, they frequently left therapy as deeply religious people. Same therapy, same therapist, successful but utterly different outcomes from a religious point of view. Again it didn’t compute–until I realized that we are not all in the same place spiritually. (Peck – The Different Drum, p188)

As this theory has been such a benefit to me, I will quickly outline and summarize it for you:

– – –

Stage I: Chaotic, Antisocial
Ego-driven, this group lacks basic morals and typically manipulates situations to get what they want.

In healthy groups, this Stage is the equivalent of babies or toddlers. There is obviously no expectation for them to have moral grounding; society is content to give them the strictest possible boundaries.

In unhealthy groups, adults who have never progressed forward or have otherwise fallen back can end up in this stage. If they are particularly undisciplined, they will often end up in a social institution like prison. If they are disciplined enough, they can leverage their manipulative powers to gain high status and are often preachers, politicians, and board room executives.

Stage II: Formal, Institutional
As an individual progresses, they now need foundation. They need to be given rules and to be taught that the world does not revolve around them. In steps Stage II. Aside from offering clear rules and boundaries, Stage II also teaches morality. All of these provisions combined offer the individual a sense of certainty along with security and stability. 

In healthy groups, Stage II is often represented by the parent-child dynamic. Parents set up rules and boundaries for their kids which help teach them how to be functioning members of society. Outside of this dynamic, Stage II often takes place in highly structured organizations such as churches or the military.

In unhealthy groups, Stage II is represented by “fundamentalism.” Fundamentalists are individuals who are so addicted to the laws of their system that their actions often conflict with the spirit behind those same laws.

While Stage II offers a good foundation for living, it does come with some inherent downsides:

  • It is often legalistic and hypocritical
  • It is threatened by anyone who thinks differently
  • It is insecure and is constantly seeking to convert people to its beliefs
  • It doesn’t naturally allow for discussion about the “why” behind rules
  • It wants security because it is so afraid of mystery
  • It is threatened by new forms and updates to existing beliefs

Stage III: Skeptic, Seeker
Seeing the downsides of Stage II, the individual begins to question if there is more to life. They begin a new journey that involves taking in new information and trying out new experiences. This may often involve testing the rules from their previous Stage to see how valid they really were. Inevitably, the individual will see areas where they believe their authority figures were wrong. 

Consider the scenario of a Stage II parent telling a Stage III teen that “all drugs are bad because addictions are bad.” The teen may have accepted this truth earlier in life, but as they seek more information (e.g., they read about drugs and learn that they’re are not all equally bad for the body) and compare it with their experience (e.g., they may have friends who do certain drugs and don’t seem to suffer many consequences), they may begin to test this rule. In situations where they see their parents as hypocrites (e.g., the parents are themselves addicted to coffee, eating, or working too much), they may quickly reject the “all drugs are bad” rule outright.

As more of these scenarios come into play, the individual moves further into questioning and testing the rules previously given. This is seen by Stage II as “rebellion.”

In healthy groups, Stage III is the equivalent of individuals in their late teens and 20s. They may have grown up following the rules, but over time they began to see that certain rules could be bent or broken. As people who are constantly seeking what’s true, they often end up finding truths that seem contradictory to what they’ve always believed. If they are not able to merge their new information with old teachings, they will reject the old teachings.

This group is typically non-believers (atheists, agnostics, and skeptics). While there are some churches that seem to land in this Stage, it is safe to say that the majority of Christians attempt to avoid this Stage completely.

In unhealthy groups, this stage is the equivalent of anti-theists. Seeing the legitimate problems of Stage II, these individuals seek to help people skip that Stage entirely. Ironically, they themselves become a new Stage II, complete with the exact same downsides: they are legalistic, dogmatic, intolerant, afraid of mystery, and always seeking to convert others.

Stage IV: Mystical, Communal
As the individual sought Truth in Stage III, they begin to find Truth in Stage IV. As it turns out, finding Truth inevitably leads to bigger and more open-ended questions. The individual is finally able to embrace mystery – to hold what they know in the same hand with what they do not. They are no longer afraid and are completely aware of how much they do not know. 

Stage IV sees life holistically and is known for its nuanced approaches to spirituality. It understands the limits of finite and fallible human beings to communicate about a perfect, infinite God. It attempts to transcend current cultures and join a collective community of life. While sounding wishy-washy, Stage IV is full of deep meaning, sought out by contemplation, meditation, reflection, and prayer.

Stage IV also sees rules and boundaries in a whole new light. It sees the spirit behind the rules from Stage II and is now able to understand and apply them properly. 

– – –

Discovering Stage Theory finally allowed me to accept that there are typically seasons of skepticism in healthy spirituality. Instead of trying help people skip that Stage as fast as possible, I was now free to allow them to embrace it.

Stage Theory taught me that Atheism, along with its rationalistic relatives, is in large part a rejection of the unhealthy aspects of Stage II spirituality. It rejects an unloving, rules-based, God. This explained why I had always agreed with atheists in rejecting the same god they did – my God was not a Stage II God. 

Overall, Stage Theory has helped to teach me that it is perfectly fine for people to be in different places spiritually. When I see someone in a different stage than me, I do not need to fight with or “fix” them. I only need to listen to and encourage them. 

What if we decided that all stages – including the atheism of Stage III – have opportunities for good, healthy growth?

How could you begin to accept people more who are in different stages than you?

– – –

M. Scott Peck said far more about Stage Theory than I could dig into here. The section of his book, A Different Drum, which deals with this concept is available online for free (link).

For a quick and easily shareable explanation of Stage Theory, I would also recommend this YouTube Video.


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