Monday, July 21, 2008

“Being Atheist” is Not Who I Am

“Who are you?” The answer to that question can differ depending on your location, time, place and person. At a wedding, we answer that question in relation to the happy couple. “I am the groom’s friend.” “I am the bride’s cousin.” Or at our children’s events—in relation to our child. “I am Bob’s father.”

When taking a personality test, we respond with a set of letters like “ESTJ” that is supposed to provide meaning and insight regarding “Who am I?” Upon interacting with people, we constantly take mental inventory, checking off items, to better determine who the person is.

“Prefers vanilla over chocolate. Check.”
“Doesn’t like dogs. Check.”
“Doesn’t know the words to the song, but will sing loud and proud what they think the lyrics are. Check.”

For over 32 years, who I was consisted of being a Christian. It was a part of every molecule within my body. That meant I relied upon a God to direct my life. New Job? New Wife? New House? A God, somewhere in the cosmos, was intimately concerned and involved with each of those situations in my life.

I derived my morals from what I thought a God was saying—specifically the Protestant Bible. I searched out friends who held similar Christian beliefs, with similar morals, similar Christian goals, and similar Christian emotions. When moving to a new city, we immediately sought out a new church—why? To find others who answered, “Who am I?” in a comparative fashion. And the base foundation of kindred spirit would have to be that they are a Christian. Because this was core to who I was.

When I deconverted (it was four years ago I was in the process. Wow.), it is unremarkable I continued to desire the same relations with the same persons. Despite what you may read in the Christian papers—we don’t deconvert to begin a new life of crime, sin and immorality. We have much the same morals. The same concerns. The same guilt of breaching our moral code. It is no surprise, then, we would want to continue to associate with those who retained the same similarities.

Looking back, I shouldn’t be shocked that Christians wanted no part of this “new” association with me. I (as a Christian) wouldn’t have wanted an association with some new atheist. Atheists were immoral, grumpy, unlearned, anti-god, anti-good, anti-everything-I-wanted-to-be. In answer to the question “Who are you?” they were so far on the opposite end of the spectrum, we could hardly find common ground.

Each year, I go to my wife’s employment work party. There, people answer the question “Who are you?” in one of two fashions. Either you answer by what department you are in (“I am a nurse.”) OR you answer by your relation to the employee followed by what department they are in (“I am the husband of Diane, who is a nurse.”) So we sit at a large table with employees from various departments, and their relations. Nurse with nurse’s spouse. Occupational therapists with occupational therapist’s boyfriend. Secretary alone. And so on.

We have all been to such occasions. What do we do? Although there is only the slimmest commonality, we talk and laugh and joke and get along as best we can. Do we plan a get-together the following Saturday with the same people? Of course not! We return to the friends who are far more like us.

It is much the same level of interaction between Christians and atheists. We could get together for a time, share a few laughs; but in the end we would return back to our own kind. I watched my friends start to pull away from me. The Checklist of similarities just dropped “Christian”—such a huge part of their lives, they were no longer interested in associating with me.

I tried to continue with church, to keep the same friendships. It didn’t work. And not only because of Christians—I was no longer interested in the same subjects. I could only take “Yippee Jesus!” so long. The people wanted to revel in an inspired Bible, and I wanted to discuss why they thought it was inspired, why they thought Paul even wrote 2 Timothy, and their understanding of the compound Greek word which was translated “inspiration.”

So I did the natural thing we all do—looked for friendships amongst atheists. But I found I did not really fit in there, either. I was informed (sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much) how I had to be outraged at the label of “Christmas Tree” for the pine in front of our State Capitol. How a cement block with the 10 Commandments will over turn society as I know it. How “under God” within the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag is oppressive.

I understand these things are important to people…but not to me. My atheism is not dogmatically caught up in separation of Church and State. My atheism consists of being persuaded by the evidence there is no god.

To me, it is as remarkable as the fact I am equally not convinced in Big Foot, Yeti’s, or the Loch Ness Monster. When asked, “Who are you?” we rarely start proclaiming all the things we don’t believe.

“I am a person who thinks UFO’s are bunk.”
“I do not think 9/11 was a U.S. Governmental conspiracy.”

We tend to think of who we are in terms of what we believe—not what we don’t. I believe in living life to the fullest. I believe in enjoying moments, even tough moments, and appreciating them for what they are. I believe there is no such thing as learning too much. And that every person has something to teach.

Part of who I am is a person who loves to discuss Christianity on-line. I enjoy the interaction—the nuance, the new thoughts. I don’t bother in real life because it is too painful a reminder to those I would discuss. Here, on the internet, I think of myself in terms of a label of “atheist.” Because I am so rarely placed in situations where such a label is useful, I don’t as much when not on-line.

As a Christian, my theistic belief defined every element within my life. It defined how I lived, who I lived with, and who I wanted to spend time living with. My lack of theistic belief, I am finding, is less defining in those regards. My lack of theistic belief does not define my morals. It does not define my relationships with others. It doesn’t define who I am.

It says something about me—sure. But it doesn’t demand direction from me. I find it as noteworthy as my preference for carrot cake. I love carrot cake (no nuts; no raisins.) Yet my love for carrot cake does not force me to choose certain people to spend time with; it does not demand I act in certain ways. It means, given the chance, I prefer carrot cake. That’s all.

I don’t mind the label “atheist”—but that is all it is. Exterior. Limited in its use. And something that removed would not change the essence that is me.


  1. Yeah, I've found that my limited attempts to get involved with social groups that identify themselves as "Atheists", seem to involve a lot of people who have big opinions and matching egos, and for whom a large part of their identity seems to be deriding religion. I'm not so much interested in deriding religion as I am in exploring life without it.

    I think seeking out "Secular Humanists", rather than "Atheists", may be more fruitful for me.

  2. I understand these things are important to people…but not to me. My atheism is not dogmatically caught up in separation of Church and State. My atheism consists of being persuaded by the evidence there is no god.

    I think you're being a little unfair to call church-state separation an example of dogmatism. A lot of atheists are passionately interested in CSS, but it's hardly an item of dogma.

    I think you're putting too much emphasis on what other atheists think you're "supposed" to be interested in. It may simply be the case that they themselves are interested in these topics; because you're not interested, there's just a lack of topics of mutual interest. A lot of atheists are not really concerned with philosophy or discussing Christianity.

    Regardless, you're still just as much an atheist, still part of the "in group", still one of the "cool kids" '-) regardless of your specific interests. You're one of us, whether you like it or not. :-D

    It may help you to know that I don't give a hoot about xmas trees (I had one every year when my kids were growing up, and I know the words, music and harmonies to dozens of christmas carols and other religious music) and my interests in CSS, especially "under god" and "in god we trust" is tepid at best. And I used to be an administrator at IIDB.

  3. I feel your pain. In fairness, I think the vague deistic notion on our currency isn't as bad as, for instance, a small township planting a 5 ton granite decalogue in front of the courthouse, with a new, 11th commandment to boot: "LOVE GOD AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS"

    I've felt the way you have for a while about fitting in with local atheist groups, and wrote a little sum-sum about it here just a week ago, when I visited a local atheist group (in Columbia, SC, of all places) for the second time.

  4. I was informed (sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much) how I had to be outraged at the label of “Christmas Tree” for the pine in front of our State Capitol.

    I seriously do not understand why some atheists get so worked up about such things. Why do people care that the football coach prays to Yahweh before their football game? I understand that it sort of makes people feel left out, but you know what? We atheists are left out. That's the way it is here. If we lived in Pakistan we'd be left out of the Islamic prayers, but what do you expect? It's a Muslim nation. We're outsiders, folks. Might as well embrace it.

  5. Micah Cowan,

    I feel a bit…odd…when with people who are so focused on deriding religion. There is so much more to life. I understand it is a hindrance (BOY do I understand that) but the reality is we are in a nation which the vast majority of people self-define as “Christian.” I think it important to politely point out problems when appropriate, but if you and I are having a beer, the last thing I want to discuss is our non-belief in theism.

    I would much rather discuss beer…

  6. The Barefoot Bum,

    Not all people who support church-state separatism are dogmatic. Only the dogmatic ones. *wink* It was those dogmatic ones to whom I was referring.

    I guess part of the point of this blog entry was more directed at Christians. As Christians we defined ourselves so much by the terms of Christianity. It determined who could or could not be our spouses. If presented with a moral quandary—it was the precepts of Christianity that gave us direction as to how to respond. We could/could not watch certain TV; could/could not have certain employment; could/could not perform certain activities.

    How much do you use atheism as a measuring stick? How many times do you say, “Gee, I am an atheist, so I guess I am stuck doing this?” I would bet very, very rarely. It does not define our choices. It may cause us to seek out others with a mutual interest, as you point out, part of that mutual interest being non-theistic belief, but it does not mandate it.

    For example, I wouldn’t fault an atheist for marrying a Christian. I think difficulties may arise—but that is true of all marriages. I would never think, “You are an atheist, you CAN’T marry a theist.” Yet as a Christian that was 100% true. It mandated one could not marry a non-believer.

    I think sometimes Christians think “Because my theistic belief defines who I am; your theistic non-belief must likewise define who you are.” It doesn’t. As you know.

  7. D,

    I found your blog about “pop culture” atheism to be dead-on with what I have found. There were a few who wanted to engage in a bit more philosophical debate—but most were of the “We are all atheists; you believe in one less god” sort.

  8. FWIW, speaking as a theist, I strongly support separation of church & state, much to the contempt of the evangelical and fundamentalist wings of Christianity. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is headed by an ordained UCC minister, Barry Lynn. Speaking very broadly, I think that the mainstream and more progressive Christian movements in the United States realized that James Madison was right when he said that the purpose of the separation of church and state was to protect the integrity of both (Dagoods, if you haven't already, you might want to read Madison's 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance to Patrick Henry's proposal that Virginia taxpayers subsidize Christian education).

    I recognize that I belong to a sect of Christianity that, in large part due to an accident of history and geography, has always been a minority in the United States. Additionally, growing up with and attending school with Jewish and Hindu friends opened my eyes to other ways of seeing God. What those who argue that "America is a Christian nation" fail to recognize is that in all probability, the Christianity that would be established by government fiat would not be theirs.

    I understand that there are greater things to worry about than using my tax dollars to force children to engage in flag worship or to invoke God's favor in humiliating and injuring the other team, but these are symbols. And a good symbol is by definition emotionally powerful. Yes, we put "In God We Trust" on American currency in order to show the damn Soviets who was tougher (and the proof of this was in that the USSR, People's Republic of China, Democratic People's Republic of Korea and North Vietnam all collapsed in 1957).

    I've even started to see bumper stickers here in Georgia that say "'Under God': In the Pledge for fifty years. Don't change history!".

  9. Dagoods

    "I would much rather discuss beer"

    Im curious, why is it, do you think, that our Canadian Beer is so damn good? ;)

  10. How much do you use atheism as a measuring stick? How many times do you say, “Gee, I am an atheist, so I guess I am stuck doing this?” I would bet very, very rarely.

    In a sense, never; in another sense, almost always.

    I have to be conscious and intentional about thinking skeptically, and I don't believe in god because and only because I am think skeptically.

    It's a choice, so in that sense, I'm always "stuck" thinking skeptically in, I suppose, much the same sense that a Christian is "stuck" believing in God.

    But of course, thinking skeptically never causes the same kind of cognitive dissonance that Christianity often seems to cause. I don't have to take anything on faith or authority (indeed I discipline myself directly against doing so). I'm so used to the mental discipline that by now I have no remaining sentimentality for bullshit or ineluctable mystery.

  11. I seriously do not understand why some atheists get so worked up about such things. Why do people care that the football coach prays to Yahweh before their football game?

    It's not because any of these things harm us directly.

    It's because if you give some religious people an inch, they'll take a mile. Atheists are actively and sometimes violently discriminated against precisely in those places where the coach prays to Yahweh before the game.

    It's important not just to stand up against the actual discrimination, but make it crystal clear that if you're going to be a constitution-ignoring asshole, the government is not going to back you up, even a little. You're on your own.