Sure, being an atheist means being reviled by the general church-going public, but what’s it like being open about our lack of belief to people we care about? Of course, it depends on whom we hang out with, but even in the most accepting groups of believers, we have to face a measure of condescension. I’ve heard many times that atheists are viewed as condescending and think they are better or smarter than believers, but believers give off this impression as well.
For example, religious or spiritual people often think they are privy to special knowledge, chosen, understand “mysteries” that atheists do not, they often believe they are the only ones with morals, and they feel sorry for poor atheists because they are “deceived.” It’s true that atheists think believers are deceived as well, and after realizing the fallacies of belief in religion, atheists have a hard time understanding how anyone could ever believe in the tenets of any faith, often forgetting that they may have once believed themselves. However, personally, I know I didn’t get smarter when I became an atheist although I did shake loose of my conditioning and began to look at things more objectively, but it is definitely not the easiest way of living in our culture.
Being an atheist isn’t easy in a predominantly religious culture, even when there is no church state or legal ramifications for disbelief. After coming out as an atheist, the suggestions for readings start coming in—bible verses, apologetic arguments, even ridiculous movie recommendations like God’s Not Dead. I never understood that title, by the way, because to think he was dead, we’d have to first believe he was once alive. But, by far, the worst thing we have to endure as atheists, in my opinion, is people who formerly respected us, now seeing us as people with no morals, no compassion, or a group to be feared. Of course, this is ridiculous; we are the same people we always were. Often, we are even more moral since dogmatic views of religion are frequently immoral, and when we let them go, we can have a clearer view of what is harmful to others—but that’s another blog for another time.
And despite popular opinion, belief is not a choice. I cannot force myself to believe something I do not. Being an atheist is not a belief. It is a lack of belief. We do not claim to know there is no god, but we do not have any good reason to believe there is one.
When I became an atheist, I had to choose to come out of the closet and be open about it or hide it and pretend to accept what everyone around me believed in so strongly. This was very scary. Atheists who come out to families and friends risk all the most important relationships in their lives. Even if their friends and families accept them, they will likely look at them differently than before. In addition to this, we do not want to cause pain or anxiety in our loved ones. This is very stressful, but I feel that I need to be real, especially with those who love me, but family holidays may never be the same.
As atheists, we have to deal with people we care about thinking that we have no morals and that we are going to hell. We may pretend we aren’t offended when they think we have no morality and that we are influenced by Satan, whom we think is another imaginary creature. Atheists are not more immoral than any other group of people. We generally think that living morally for no other reason except that it is the best way to live is more admirable than being good out of obedience, the promise of reward, or the threat of punishment. We, generally, think that if we followed the biblical law, we would actually be much more immoral. We are also permanently responsible for our actions, rather than believing we can just ask for forgiveness or do penance.
Still, we are required to endure pity, offers of prayer, and reading suggestions to change our minds when we think our friends and families are the ones who don’t realize the truth. And even though we may understand our believing friends and families are sincere in their concern, that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to deal with. It would be so much easier to pretend. It’s even harder if keeping your logical reasoning to yourself is the only acceptable choice to keep the relationships you value.
As atheists, we have to face the reality that things don’t happen for a reason, and that we create our own purpose in life. We don’t have any higher power to lean on or any hope of some being coming to our rescue, but in the end, we feel like this is a better way of living. We don’t have to try to make sense out of random tragedies. We don’t have to try and reconcile a loving god with terrible things happening to innocent people. Things just happen. Some are preventable and some aren’t, but no one is up there making arbitrary decisions about it.
As atheists, we may have to be careful not to say what we really think when people give God the credit for the skill of doctors and scientists, and then give God a pass when a loved one dies anyway. We may have to ignore the illogical comments about blessings and miracles and prayers and keep our rational thoughts to ourselves. We have to be nice when people offer prayers and platitudes and think that if we had God in our lives, everything would be better, even though bad things happen to them too.
We have to gently tell them we have already read the bible, and that’s one of the reasons we are atheists. Sometimes we have to show them that we actually know more about the bible than they do. We have to patiently listen to the pretzel logic of re-interpretation they go through so that the bible is not really contradicting itself and God is really good after all, despite his heinous acts. We have to kindly refuse to go to church revival services, and remind them that we used to be Christians for many years. We then have to convince them that we really were Christians when they point out that we weren’t true Christians. This is extremely frustrating. I know how sincerely I believed, and no one else can logically claim to know my mind.
Finally, we have to point out the fallacies in the double-standards—that what they consider an infringement on their religious views is actually an infringement on our right not to have a religion, and that in America, Christians are not the persecuted group. We have to point out that this country was not based on Christianity, but founded on a secular morality that our forefathers feared the intermingling of church and state, and that trying to legislate based on religion is the opposite of what the United States was created to do.
So, clearly being an atheist isn’t the easiest path, and being open about it comes with a host of unpleasant realities. Fitting in with the millions of believers around me would be easier in so many ways, but I care about reality and what’s true and makes sense, so although sometimes it’s harder, it’s the best way for me to live a moral and intellectually honest life, and in the long run, it has made me a much happier and less conflicted person. So, I’ll try to be less condescending if Christians will too. I will try to remember that I used to believe if they will consider the possibility that maybe someday they won’t believe anymore either.—Christina Knowles