I Don’t Care About Being An Atheist (and maybe I should rethink that)

One of the many posts that has recently been percolating its way through my (terrifyingly overstuffed) drafts folder was going to be called I Don’t Care About Being An Atheist (And Neither Should You). Then- as happens fairly often- I read something that changed my mind.

Atheism used to feel important.

You see, atheism isn’t all that important to me, either in myself or others. It felt like a big deal for a while, when I had first admitted to myself that I had no belief in any supernatural force or entities at all. It was a transitional stage in my life. I’m sure many of you can relate! I’d spent years with a general sense that there was probably Something out there. As time went on, the Something became more and more vague. It felt like a revelation when I happened upon some atheist writers. This made sense! I started to think about it, read a ton more, and gradually realised that I couldn’t see a single reason to believe in anything supernatural at all.

For me, the process of becoming an atheist was inextricably intertwined with that of growing up. My atheism was one of many conclusions I came to when I started to look at the world as it is, instead of how I would like it to be. I learned to stand up and look at the world as it is with an unwavering gaze. I didn’t always like what I saw, but I know that the only way to live honestly in the world is to acknowledge what it true.

In short: for me, letting go of any gods was part of my process of becoming an adult. Like many transitional times, it felt big, important, freeing and sometimes downright terrifying.

Then it receded.

Life goes on. As important as becoming an atheist was to me, being one feels like nothing at all.

I don’t resent the religion of my childhood. Growing up, God- and Jesus, Mary and the saints- were as much a part of my life as my family and friends. Living with a close family spread out over several counties- and countries- who I saw intermittently, the idea of more ethereal family far away did not seem unnatural. It made sense. Praying to God was like sending a card to a distant cousin.

When I was a small kid, God was a bit like the Care Bears. Both of them showed up in my prayers (six-year-old me was convinced that if I prayed hard enough, they’d Care Bear Stare their way right down to me). When I was older, he was more like an older sibling or an aunt or uncle. Then I grew up, and he wasn’t there at all. Neither were the Care Bears.

And so I decided that atheism didn’t matter to me. It’s not a belief system, after all. I’m not particularly tied to it. Atheism stopped being important. It’s just a conclusion, and as with many conclusions, where you end up can be far less important than how you got there. What was (is!) important to me is scepticism: subjecting things I agree with to the same scrutiny I hold things I disagree with to.

Don’t make me talk about it. I’m not one of Them.

The past few years happened, and there was no way I was going to be one of those people who made a big deal of their atheism. That was the preserve of Dear Muslimah-ing Dawkbros. People who acted snide and superior towards any religious person. People who declared that atheism was so much more rational and then refused to turn an ounce of scepticism on their own racism and misogyny. Surrounded by wonderful, open and intelligent people of many religiouns and none, antitheism seemed to me to be a profoundly privileged perspective- one that could afford to ignore the myriad shitty experiences that people who are already excluded from power structures are forced to go through because their religions aren’t the right one.

I didn’t want antitheisms. I wanted secularisms that prioritised all of our individual rights to our own priorities and beliefs. (I still do)

And in all of that, maybe I became a little ashamed of my atheism. I was happy to be an atheist, even to be known as one, but I never really wanted to talk about it. Can you blame me? Who wants to be associated with the contextless ignorance of the rich-ass white men who get the loudest platforms as atheists? The only thing I seemed to have in common with them was our disbelief in gods. I wasn’t like that. I wasn’t. No.

And I was going to write a post- yes, on an atheist platform- about how none of you should care about being atheists either.

About that scepticism..

Then Alex wrote a post called Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement. It was a much-needed punch in my complacent guts. Here:

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

And later:

The fact I haven’t walked away from atheism isn’t because it’s not awful — it’s because I have no choice. For all the bullshit, this is still better than the religious community I come from — that’s how bad it was. So in a way, I think saying ‘Screw thing, I’d rather hang out with nice, progressive believers’ can be a sign of privilege.

Also though: because of my background, I have been oppressed for being an atheist, and I know many apostates who have. It’s tempting to say that isn’t structural or cultural oppression of the same kind as homophobia, racism, whatever — and that’s significantly true. But then again… religions are cultures and social structures. Apostates’ oppression is real.

Go read the rest, by the way.

Because Alex is right. Although the loudest voices in our community are often obnoxiously privileged, those of us who feel free to dip in and out of atheist communities as we please also have a privilege we often don’t realise. I live in a state whose institutions are still grossly entangled with the Catholic Church. But I can’t remember the last time that that affected my daily life. Nobody I interact with daily cares one jot about my lack of religious beliefs. Plenty of my family are atheists, and most of the rest couldn’t care less that I am. Nobody tells me that I’m going to hell. Nobody thinks less of me. I’ve never feared rejection from them. I’ve never even had to defend my atheism to a single one of them.

And I forgot that that’s not the case for everyone.

I still don’t really care about my own atheism. I care about scepticism. If someone plonked down some extraordinary evidence of a supernatural being in front of me tomorrow, I’d be surprised. I’d want to question it. And the answers to my questions wouldn’t drastically change how I see myself. (And if that supernatural being was an asshole, I hope I’d be courageous enough to say so.) But I think it’s time I started giving other people’s need for atheist space (and desire to put time into improving that space) the respect it deserves.

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I Don’t Care About Being An Atheist (and maybe I should rethink that)
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One thought on “I Don’t Care About Being An Atheist (and maybe I should rethink that)

  1. 1

    I read Alex’s post, and then a few days later I read a rebuttal to a Patheos post by a Methodist minister who considers himself moderate, admonishing ex-fundamentalists to be nicer, to sit down at the table with fundamentalists, to hear them out, and try to find middle ground. (in his favor, he was asking fundamentalists to do the same… but it’s not the same, for reasons I am sure are clear to you)

    Whatever else I feel about organized, movement atheism, I still need that space where there are people who understand the dynamics involved in being an atheist from a fundamentalist family. I still need a space where no one is telling me I should become more sympathetic toward the harmful positions and behaviors with which I was raised, where I’m allowed to be angry, confused, resigned, and it is still understood that I love my family. I still need spaces which are free from religious belief, if only because so often when religious belief is present, it dominates. I still need spaces where, when I describe the things I grew up with and what was done to me, people don’t either try to write it off as exaggeration or look at me with horror, but they nod along: I know, me too, I understand.

    That’s not always going to happen in a progressive religious environment. Sometimes? Yes, but progressive religious people still tend to try to control the narrative. I don’t know if there’s anything more frustrating, aside from being dismissed outright, than getting up the nerve to open up then informed you’re not being gracious or nuanced enough toward your audience– and that’s been my experience often enough with religious progressives that yes, I do usually prefer to speak about my upbringing and experiences in secular spaces rather than religious ones, and I do prefer to listen to people who don’t make apologetics. Because that knee jerk defensiveness is less likely to be present. Because we can get at the meat of a thing, the part what needs examination, rather than having to explain the surface scratches in exhausting detail.

    Religious individuals who hang out in secular spaces, I don’t have this problem with, necessarily, but there’s a threshold, and when it gets reached, they do tend to take over. Particularly if they belong to the majority religion. I just. I just. If I had to compare it to something, it would be the difference between hanging out with a group of feminist guys, and feminist women. Or straight allies vs. queer activists. The first group might get it, really really get it, they might be fantastic people to be around and to have on one’s side, but there’s still the issue of their tendency to reflexively dominate the narrative, to define someone else’s struggle in a way which benefits themselves rather than challenges, even when they are trying not to, and sometimes a person just needs to not have to constantly buck against that to be heard.

    Unlike Alex, I do usually feel like I have somewhere to go, because (after many years and no small effort) I’ve created a somewhere, which is my and my spouse’s home. But my spouse wasn’t raised in the same environment I was, so he does not always get it, even though he tries. I, like Alex, need to have the option of interacting with people who get it without trying.

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