Atheist Is Not A Four-Letter Word

    I’m not sure what to call myself now. “Agnostic” feels too convenient, “spiritual but not religious” is totally hackneyed, and “atheist”...well, I have to admit that something in me is still a bit uneasy at the thought. This is in part because I’m not quite sure if I actually am one and I don’t want to be disingenuous, but also because, growing up Evangelical, there was pretty much no worse thing a person could be. Atheists denied God. Atheists were going to Hell.

    The idea that someone could even be an atheist was both incomprehensible and ominous to the young, heavily indoctrinated me. Those of us who found ourselves in the spine-straightening pews every Sunday morning occasionally tried, in the privacy of our own minds, to consider how a person made with love and intention by the benevolent ruler of the universe and given every possible sign of God’s existence and concern could turn their back on the Creator with such brazen certainty. We felt they must--under demonic influence or perhaps because they were just plain stubborn--be purposefully and consciously denying the obvious truth: that there is a God, that this God is both all-loving and all-powerful, that this God created the world, that people screwed the world up, that God turned (part of?) himself into a person, that this person was killed but rose from the dead three days later, that this person/God ascended to heaven, that this person/God will one day return to earth to judge all humans, and that those who believe this story will be forgiven for their sins and join this God in heaven, forever. Yes, clearly they were the ones who refused to face the facts.

    But this post isn’t about refuting Christian apologetics, per se; it’s about getting over closed-mindedness and judgment. I think most Evangelicals would agree that the supernatural narrative in which they believe--the very same one in which I myself was raised--does not exactly rely on empirical evidence to prove its point. If it did, they would say, how could you call it “faith”? Fine; to each their own. However, those of us who grew up in this kind of church were not surrounded by adults who just waited around to see if we developed a personal, organic conviction that the Christian narrative was worth taking at face value. No, we were actively conditioned in a number of ways to ensure, as much as possible, that we believed that our religion’s story made sense. One such way was the consistent demonizing, or at least dehumanizing, of atheists.

    I sincerely believed, in addition to all that other crazy stuff I listed earlier, that atheists were messed up people. Not that they were malicious, necessarily--and not that I could have argued my conclusion using basic logic, mind you--but that they were angry, pained, childishly rebellious, depressed, and, surely, helplessly immoral. Where do morals come from, the pastors would always argue, if not from God? Therefore (again, please leave your Philosophy 101 syllabus at the door) atheists are not able to know what the right thing is in any given circumstance, let alone do it. Any evidence of morality in an atheist's life was merely the presence of God showing up despite their protestations, like a father who makes his children apologize to each other even when they don’t mean it. We must avoid the atheists, I was taught (but also, if possible, of course convert them.)

    When I was ready to hear it, though, and with the unexpected help of a particularly talented magician, my eyes were finally opened to the beautifully, compassionately rational world of of the godless non-believer. I was teaching a weekly seminar to high school juniors in which we read and wrote “This I Believe” essays, a tradition started by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and re-popularized by NPR in 2005. One afternoon, we looked at Penn Jillette’s contribution to the series, entitled “There Is No God”. It was thanks to this essay that I first realized that atheism wasn’t necessarily an active belief that there is no god, but could also be defined as having no belief in god. That subtle distinction was all I needed to start sympathizing with my former enemies. Though I felt done with task of believing in general and was not keen on the idea of pitching tent in yet another camp for which I’d feel obligated to fight, I could resonate--very deeply, it turns out--with not believing anymore.

    In addition, having atheism explained not as something that involves rage and bitterness and frustration but rather as a celebration of autonomy and intelligence and a desire for freedom from tyranny--in other words, as a decision, not a reaction--made me realize that I needed to respect atheists, not pity them. They--these smart, funny, talented, kind, and confident people--were doing what they thought was right for their own reasons, and often in the face of great enmity, while I sat around arguing points I could not prove simply because I didn’t have the guts to leave my tribe. I wanted to be that brave. Now, I’m working on it.

    Once my judgments against atheists began to disintegrate, once there was so much less to be defensive about, I found it easier to relax into honesty--to admit that I no longer believed what I had championed my whole life. As I said at the beginning, I still find it kind of scary to use the “A” word when referring to myself. It’s like my own personal scarlet letter, and I’m cheating on my God. Except, I no longer believe that God exists, so the premise on which I’d base my shame is gone, and I’m working on letting my fear go with it. I’m also reticent to take a side, even if it’s a new one, because that’s the kind of thinking that seems to have got me into trouble in the first place; but, at least now I am aware of how I was conditioned. At least now I can say that just because I feel something doesn’t mean it’s true, just because I’m scared to be an atheist doesn’t mean that atheists are scary, and just because it can be hard to live in chaos doesn’t mean I have to settle for the magical way out.