Questioning the Standard Life Cycle of an Atheist

I’ve been an atheist all my life, but I didn’t notice until I was in high school. I didn’t notice because it never felt like a big deal. I didn’t feel discriminated against. I didn’t feel excluded or different. And I didn’t grow up in some bastion of godlessness either. I grew up in southern New Mexico, where Catholicism is the order of the day. I was surprisingly old before I realized Protestantism was the majority in the US, in my US History class when I was a junior in high school. As an adult I realize how lucky I was to grow up in a situation where my beliefs were such a nonissue.

 Growing Up

Looking back, there were moments. At Hanukah one year the rabbi’s wife told me I was going to hell when she discovered that I didn’t know how to play dreidel. Before one meal with my stepfamily my stepcousin, who was about eight at the time, chastised me for having my eyes open during grace. I explained to her that the only way she could know that was if her eyes were also open. I was surprised at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah when all the cousins were asked to come to the front to read a passage. I walked nervously to the front wondering if my family remembered that I had not had a Bat Mitzvah and could not read Hebrew.

DCF 1.0

San Albino Church Mesilla, a Catholic Church near my hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico

As an adult I have learned that there was strife behind the scenes. My Catholic grandparents were worried about the influence of my Jewish mother and wanted to pay for Catholic boarding school to save my soul. I am probably responsible for shortening my grandmother’s life. When she handed me a rosary at my grandfather’s funeral when I was ten years old I asked what it was.

It is probably clear by now, one side of my family is Jewish and one side is Catholic. On both sides my relatives range from devout to high holiday adherents to atheists. My stepfamily is nondenominationally Christian. My mom would probably call herself culturally Jewish. My dad calls himself a devoutly fallen away Catholic. Religion was a nonissue in my house. God was not discussed, but the subject wasn’t avoided either. It just didn’t come up. Just like in the rest of my life.

A Different Narrative

I’m not just previewing the first chapter of my memoirs. I tell you all this to explain that I am not nor was I ever an angry atheist. I am not a recovering theist. I never had to “come out” to my family. My decision to pursue a Masters in Religion was probably a bigger shock.

Yet I have been reluctant to join the atheist community. I only recently started accepting the atheist label. And I still prefer humanist. My reluctance was not because of the stigma and prejudice, but largely because I don’t like to be defined by a negative, in this case a lack of belief. I prefer to be defined by what I do believe in: the innate equality of all humans and right to have and to pursue happiness.

Now that I have accepted the atheist label, I am still reluctant to participate in the community. Why? Because a large part of the conversation is about why or how to leave religion. I didn’t realize how deep my reluctance was until I was asked to participate in the second annual International Day of Doubt. On June 1st atheists around the world posted on Facebook an invitation to religious people who were doubting their beliefs to message them. It was an opportunity to find a community and talk to people who had gone through a similar struggle. I should explain that I am in no way knocking people and organizations that provide support and guidance for those who have realized their beliefs are different from the religious beliefs of their family, friends, or community. I have infinite sympathy for the difficulty of that situation. But I struggled with the decision to participate in Day of Doubt or not. Ultimately I decided not to. My reasoning, right or wrong, was that since I had never been religious I was not the right person to talk to about the struggle of leaving religion if someone did contact me. I am still not sure I made the right decision.

Building Bridges

But my struggle is larger in scope than that. I want to build bridges between atheists and theists between atheists and theists through shared concern for the welfare of all. One’s belief or lack of belief in God is irrelevant. So when I hear phrases like “escaping religion” or “surviving religion” not only can I not relate personally, but I see an obstacle where I want to build my bridge. I am not letting those who fail to love their family unconditionally, regardless of their beliefs or change of beliefs, off the hook. That is deplorable. That is a contingency I can only hope the religious community work, and work hard, to root out this kind of attitude from among their ranks.

For those who have experienced serious problems with their families, Recovering from Religion is a great organization

For those who have experienced serious problems with their families and loved ones, Recovering from Religion is a great organization

These phrases coming from the atheist community are not nearly as bad, but they, and similar language and actions, are not helping either. There is no doubt that these kinds of phrases are helpful for those embracing atheistic beliefs, especially if doing so means breaking or straining relations with family and friends. But they also contribute to the prejudiced atmosphere between theists and atheists. They grate against the ears of those who still hold religious beliefs. To them they are attacks.

How is it possible to build a bridge when both sides are attacking each other? It’s not. Attacks on the religious community do not make it easier for atheists to leave them or remain in them but live openly. Attacks affirm some religious people’s prejudice that atheists are not worthwhile people. Theists who refuse to associate with atheists see only the label and not the person. These phrases coming from the atheist side do the same thing. One side must start building the bridge. Hopefully the other side will see construction and will be inspired to start building from their side as well.

It is, of course, unfair to lump all atheists together as attackers. Just as it is unfair to claim that all religious people think atheists are evil. But as long as atheism is strongly associated with anti-theism I will resist association myself. My resistance is not because of the prejudice atheists face from the religious, but because of the intolerance atheists aim at the religious.

Wendy Webber (Yale University; the Pathfinders Project)
Wendy WebberWendy Webber is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she was a founding member of an atheist, agnostic, and multifaith community that continues to foster interbelief dialogues and initiatives. Currently she's traveling the world with Pathfinders Project, which aims to create a permanent Humanist Service Corps. Wendy writes about religion, atheism, and interbelief primarily for her blog and State of Formation. When she is able, she plays tennis, takes photos, and enjoys offbeat museums.

6 responses to “Questioning the Standard Life Cycle of an Atheist

  1. I think the experience is very different for folks like you and I who grew up with understanding families and those who suffered in oppressive environment. The angry atheists really aren’t in a position to have perspective or think clearly and weigh and balance the situation. Occasionally you can talk these folks through it, but as often as not they need time and/or spatial distance from their home environments.

    On the other hand, I think perhaps it would be possible for atheists who don’t have the anger and lack of perspective to offer something of a more organized response. The problem is that there is nothing that ties together all atheists, any more than there is anything holding together people who don’t believe in leprechauns. Only the angry atheists are joined by their anger, and usually their ferocious defense of a simplistic materialism that has replaced their old religion.

    So who rolls out the welcome wagon? Who says, Nice of you to join us, but please realize giving up your old god isn’t the end all of the universe. Who points out that atheists don’t have all the answers and that religion isn’t the evil they see it as in their efforts to flee?

    Perhaps we all need to step up. Perhaps it would be good if a few thinking people or differing atheists perspective set up a “Diversity of Atheism” site with this kind of information…but do people like us for whom atheism is only a minor life issue even care enough to make that effort? A site or organization to explain to other atheists that atheism shouldn’t be that big a deal?

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  2. I agree. If the only thing that is tying atheists together is the lack of belief in God, that is a problem. Lack of belief is not something to rally around. For one thing, that is negative space. (I mean that in the artistic sense.) How do you celebrate a lack of something? You can’t. That is why I call myself a humanist. Humanism is an organized response much like the one you are calling for. (Check it out http://rutgershumanist.org/what-is-humanism/.) As I understand it, as it functions in my life, it is a framework for forming ethical beliefs and making ethical choices. Most importantly, for me, it is a framework that asks us to make choices that will not only make us happy, but attempt to help everyone live happy lives.

    Yes. Let’s celebrate diversity. The range of kinds of atheists is as wide as the number of atheists out there. Let’s embrace that. Let’s show the world that. That humanizes the atheist label. Not only would that make the community more inviting, but it would help show those theists that believe atheists are evil that we are just like everyone else.

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  3. Pingback: State of Formation - Why Are There So Many Secret Atheists?·

  4. As you note, the background of our forebears, and the area in which we grow up, influence who we are. Not all are fortunate enough to have a multicultural background. Especially for those immersed since birth (who therefore have no other frame of reference), religious denominations inculcate a “my way or the highway” perspective. So, yes, let’s celebrate diversity. But, as history and current events demonstrate, it is impossible to do so under the constraints of religion.

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  5. George, I agree that true diversity certainly is impossible under the constraints of some religions. But some religions, and some arms of some religions, are very open to celebrating diversity. For example, most UU congregations actively seek out diversity. Many liberal Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Protestants demonstrate that religions do not necessarily require the “my way or the highway” stance. I am already working with many religious people who are excited about nurturing a diverse and equal society. The challenge, as you point out, is how to convince the remaining “my way or the highway” people that there is a better way.

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