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.
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.
Even bloggers have to pay the bills! Monthly subscriptions- no matter how small- help give me the security to devote time to this place and keep a roof over my head. If you like what you read, please do help out: