When I Wasn’t An Atheist
Looking back on my life, I have been an atheist for more of it than I wasn’t. The times when I wasn’t an atheist were essentially times when I was vulnerable and wanted to believe something comforting badly enough that I didn’t care if it was really true.
And it isn’t so much that I dislike mythologies in general that any sort of religious schema is so unappealing (seriously, I love myths and find various belief structures and customs of people absolutely fascinating). I suppose it just seems like reality is so interesting, complicated and engrossing that we shouldn’t muck up our reasoning processes by fostering anti-rational methods of thought and explanation that supernatural belief encourages. Not only does this shortchange us intellectually, it can lead people to hold onto bad ideas alongside good ones because of religious rationalization.
I began my thinking life somewhere on an agnostic/atheist continuum, although I can’t say whether this is because of, or despite my parents’ open-tent exposure to faith systems during my childhood. I do have a clear recollection of a guided meditation session by a local Native American cleric (I wish I could remember the tribe to which she belonged, but those details have been lost for years) where we were to go on some kind of spiritual journey with a spirit guide. I tried my damnedest, but despite having a highly active daydreaming mind, I spent the whole session feeling annoyed and bored waiting for anything at all to happen. Then at the end we were asked to recount what had happened and I sat listening to a girl who was obviously making things up based on her reading of what the leader wanted to hear. I listened in silence as she subtly changed and retroactively revised her “vision.” I sat there quietly and respectfully, all while suppressing a need to shout, “Stop making shit up, you’re obviously lying!”
I couldn’t understand why anyone would lie about having a transcendent experience just to get some positive attention. Didn’t she care about her honesty, integrity or character? (Obviously, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of this in an adult way as I do now, but children have some pretty strong understanding of ethics whether or not they can defend those beliefs in a debate.) How could it not matter that she was simply making up a pile of bullshit for no reason and why were all these adults lavishing praise on her for it? It simply flew in the face of everything I had been raised to be as a good human being.
My exposure to various Christian faiths was little less clear and my experiences were far more mixed, to put it mildly. This is partially because of some intensive indoctrination I experienced, partially because it was socially expedient to be Christian and partially because it gave me some easy answers when I wanted them. And I’m sorry to say that when I called myself a Christian, I was a poorer human being. I wish I could go back and apologize to a few choice people for incidents that I still recall with shame; I would never have behaved the way I did if not for faith in a supernatural worldview that is unsupported by our current understanding of the world.
I should probably start off by saying that Mormonism was never going to be an appealing option for me when selecting a religious worldview. For one thing, I was proudly a feminist, and raised by feminists; given the daily marginalization experience of being a female in Utah, I was under no illusions that Mormonism would respect me as a full human being. So no matter how many cousins’ slumber parties followed by sacrament meetings I went to, I would always happily identify as anything but Mormon. It also didn’t hurt that LDS church services are absolutely, barring none, the most boring religious ceremonies I have ever experienced. (Seriously, I’m putting this alongside sitting in literal silence during a Quaker meeting and still saying it’s more boring.)
My other family was a bit trickier. I had very loving Catholic and Baptist-like-Quaker family members who I love dearly. And when I visited with them, their religious services were interesting and engaging. There are elements of the Catholic mass ritual that I very much like, especially the sign of peace.
I started going to a super-indoctrinating religious summer camp that was tied to my Grams’ church because my other cousins attended, and I could screw around in some truly breathtaking scenery in California’s redwood forests. I didn’t really feel like I belonged with these people (but until high school, I never felt like I belonged with peers something like 99% of the time) and even sometimes felt alienated from my extended family. There was one clear moment where I realized that no matter what happened, I would never completely see eye to eye with many of them. Unsurprisingly, it was the first time I realized how truly homophobic they were, although when you’re 8 or 9 years old, you may think “These people are freaking crazy!” but you don’t actually challenge them on it.
At first I couldn’t bring myself to embrace what they said, but neither could I just reject them as believing in outdated myths that weren’t relevant anymore. (I dealt with enough religious discrimination for being non-Mormon, and it’s exhausting to defend what you think all the time. I beg forgiveness for my laziness.) I told myself and others that I was sort of “spiritual”, and fell back on some feel-good interfaith ideas: that so many people have historically believed in gods or supernatural beings that there must be something behind that. I was one of those can’t-we-all-get-along rationalizers who said things like “every faith is a facet of the same thing.”
I didn’t hold onto any specific dogma, although I had generally positive fuzzy feelings about Christianity (mostly) and I’m not certain that even then I truly believed in a supernatural god who affected the world. I certainly never let ideas about religion cast doubt on the science I gobbled up and loved; if confronted with a discrepancy and asked if I accepted scientific consensus or a religious idea, I would undoubtedly have praised scientific reality to the metaphorical heavens. And relatedly (though it’s a separate issue), I still strongly supported secular state institutions under the rule of law. Somewhere early on I acquired the idea that the state is always and should always be a secular institution and no matter how how I felt about supernatural beings, that was always the same.
Then everything changed. I lost my grandfather just before the time that most kids are already dealing with identity issues, budding sexuality/puberty and all that horrible shit we’re glad we only have to deal with once. Suddenly I very much wanted to believe that we are more than soulless meatsacks, because the comforting lie of an impermanent death and happy afterlife was what I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to think hard about reality because there was a very real risk that reality is heartless, disinterested and often cruel.
I opened my mind up to anti-rational ideas because they were easier, and unfortunately, I was exposed to the type of religious fervor that tends to make one proselytize. I lost time during a particularly intense revival session at camp, where although I know that literal hours passed, I really do not remember kneeling on concrete that long. And although it sounds strange, on some level, I’m glad I had this kind of experience from an anthropological standpoint. I wouldn’t quite be able to “get” the transcendent experience people talk about with revivals and other services where people experience altered consciousness on the same level if I had not been exposed to just that kind of raucous no-holds-barred Jesus Camp. I do regret what it did to my critical thinking and tolerance of others for a couple years, though, more than I can express.
I became the person who couldn’t just let well enough alone and let someone believe differently because I had to come to believe that if I did that, they were eternally damned. One of the most screwed up ideas that human beings have come up with is hell. It makes otherwise good people act in horribly disrespectful, intolerant ways that insult others’ intelligence and right to self-determination because of an irrational fear of mystic eternal punishment. It made me an asshole. An arrogant, closed-minded, intolerant, preachy asshole. I’m so sorry for that.
Thankfully I was only a flaming asshole for a brief period of time, maybe 18 months or so; I even felt a little guilty at the time, in retrospect. I was looking for a way to hold onto my idea that there was a heaven where I could see those I loved again while shedding the parts of my Grams’ version of Christianity that was making me act like a complete douchebag. I also had anxiety about the fact that everyone around me was talking about having a direct relationship with this god person, and that some of them had literally experienced attacks from devils and demons (yes really), but I wasn’t sure I believed them. It felt a lot like the little girl who made up a vision with a spirit animal, only these weren’t little kids at a meditation, they were talking about this as daily reality. I wasn’t convinced that anything really supernatural happened, and still stuck to scientific understanding of biology, geology, etc. Basically I started to realize that I was supposed to be communicating with God directly, but he never seemed to be home if I called and he never returned messages.
Enter influences from my middle school experience, where I was attending a private Catholic school. There are huge variations in the way that Roman Catholics practice, although on the whole, I feel like American Catholics are pretty laid back. Well, it turns out that when Catholics are the religious minority in a very religious place, they come off as very casual but also generally reasonable by comparison. Here were some pretty nice people (remember I have Catholic family as well), who could let people believe what they wanted, didn’t really harp on the whole damnation/brimstone thing, left homophobia out of the conversation and who still said I could see those I loved after I died. Now I still had some concerns; they certainly weren’t great in terms of respecting women (let alone LGBT people) as fully equal human beings. But there were lots of my teachers who wanted to see feminist reforms put into place and peers who were raised Catholic seemed positive or at worst neutral to the idea of ordaining women.
Catholicism, for all its faults, offered me what seemed like a more sane and sophisticated concept of divinity, and that was what I wanted. They didn’t have any crazy ideas that devils routinely interacted with human beings, that miracles were an everyday occurrence, that the world was literally created in a week or that evolution didn’t happen. To sweeten the deal, it was easier for me socially (and economically) for me to be Catholic. I had started attending a private Catholic school in fifth grade, and my parents scrimped and saved to scrape together my tuition. (Unlike many of my peers who were, let’s face it, filthy stinking rich.) Tuition for Catholic students is lower than non-Catholic students because the idea is you’re subsidizing the diocesan schools through donations at church. My mother had converted to Catholicism when I was in perhaps 6th grade, and was baptized over Easter with my aunt (her sister), who had married into a Catholic family.
So in 8th grade, I converted too. My mom and I started attending church regularly, where we had a very nice parish priest. We joined the choir. Oh, the music, I almost forgot.
I have always been highly moved by music; it has the power to drastically change my mood, feelings and outlook on any given day. My mom is much the same and my childhood was a highly musical one. We sang rounds and duets often. So it is probably no surprise that being in the church choir made me feel more happy to be Catholic at the time. I trained to be a “eucharistic minister” and participated in school masses during high school.
It was easy. My Grams’ branch of the family was content that I was at least practicing some Christian faith, I had an answer when her church youth group people asked me if I was a Christian, and I didn’t have to deal with the stigma I had in early middle school. I was in a high school that had exemplary science education (I’m only now coming to realize just how thorough and wonderful my biology education was compared to what is the norm). We were taught that evolution was both theory and fact, without having to feel guilty for trying to reconcile a Christian creation narrative with evidence supported science.
But there was always the one niggling thing: I still needed to believe that a supernatural being existed and sometimes did magical things. It was all well and good for teachers to talk about how stuff in the Bible wasn’t all literally true (which is obvious), how many things were metaphors and how historical biases were written in by authors. The problem is: metaphors for what precisely? As time went on, I couldn’t escape the idea that either you throw out huge swaths of a supposedly holy text or you really have to believe that your god wants and does things that are absolutely batshit nuts. It was harder and harder to overlook that the ideas that those around me had about what god wanted just happened to coincide what they thought too.
I don’t have a snap moment when I realized I had returned to being an atheist. It was so gradual that I think I gave up on the idea of faith as a positive thing almost without realizing it. At some point, I realized that I just couldn’t believe in a supernatural being anymore, even before I made final arrangements for my wedding. And yet, I found that I still had a lot of attachment and affection for the local diocese and individual priests, and it meant something to both me and Thrack that our wedding involve them, even if we stopped believing in any of the supernatural elements or gender role stupidity involved in a Catholic marriage. We wanted a Catholic wedding, even if it was irrational, basically. We wanted to invite old friends to be involved, and have readings that family members could be involved in. Even if we didn’t think those readings were uniquely profound, it meant a way for our families and friends to celebrate with us as we celebrated a new chapter in our lives. Whether or not I was an atheist didn’t matter if it meant my Grams could be touched and happy to read from the bible at the ceremony. I stayed in the closet as an atheist.
For years now I’ve been quietly not believing in gods. I simply can’t do otherwise; belief (based on faith alone) in the face of consistent natural explanations of reality doesn’t make any sense.
But I’m starting to think that it’s not good for me to be silent about not believing in gods. Because belief in gods does bad things to people as individuals and damaging things to society at large. (But because I believe in the Constitution of the United States, I very much believe you need to have the right to choose religious belief with all the bad that comes with them.) I read what wonderfully eloquent people are saying and I think how much better it would have been for me if among the options my parents had presented to me had been atheism. I think how much of the time I would have been a better person, more respectful of others’ dignity and freedom, less arrogant and meddling and I wish that I’d never been in such a vulnerable position that I needed to believe in something more than I needed what I believed to be true. It needs to be acceptable for atheists to exist in public, without being condemned as morally bankrupt or un-American; we need to get to the point where there are no longer de-facto litmus tests for office based on religious affiliation. We need to stand up and demand that our schools stop tiptoeing around reality because we’re afraid that it contradicts the myths of others. We need to demand what is established by long established law and precedent: freedom from and of religion in our country.