July 21, 2015

Growing Up Atheist in the U.S.

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I came of age during the Reagan era. The Cold War did not seem all that cold in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many buildings were equipped with fallout shelters, and nuclear war seemed almost inevitable. I remember doing the duck-and-cover drills and wondering how the flimsy wood desk above my head would hold up against a nuclear attack.

There was no question that the Soviet Union was our "enemy," and this was a vital part of our indoctrination at the time. "Commie" was one of the worst insults one might hear on the playground. We didn't know what it meant, but we knew it was bad. We also knew that it was associated with godlessness. Apparently, these "Commies" didn't believe in gods. My young mind could barely comprehend that someone might not believe in gods, but I knew that this made them evil.

Within a couple of years, I'd find myself questioning how much of what I had been taught about the Soviet Union and Communism was true and how much was propaganda. On the rare occasions when I saw Soviet citizens interviewed on television, I'd marvel at how they seemed just like us and not the bloodthirsty monsters I'd grown up imagining. They seemed like people, and they did not seem to want war anymore than I did. I wondered what other lies I had accepted uncritically.

It was not more than a few years later that I would discover that I no longer believed in gods. I struggled to reconcile this with what I had grown up believing about the evils of the godless. I couldn't really question the existence of gods, could I? If I did, did that make me a Communist? If I didn't believe in any gods, could I still be an American? What would happen to me? I was confused, terrified, and alone. The only thing I knew for sure was that it was not safe to share my doubts with anyone.

I was convinced that something was wrong with me, but I didn't know what I could do about it. I threw myself into prayers and started reading the Christian bible again. Maybe I had done something wrong and was being punished for it. Maybe my doubts themselves were worthy of punishment. I could not hide from gods even in my own mind. I decided that I must have asked too many questions and now I was paying a price for doing so. That had to be it.

I would soon find what I needed in a used book store in the form of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. I could no longer deny that I did not believe in gods. I was an atheist. While I no longer feared supernatural consequences, the real-world consequences I imagined had always been worse. Informing my immediate family that I no longer believed in gods was rough, but they did not throw me out. They dismissed everything I said as teenage rebellion, decided that I was "going through a phase," and that I'd soon see the error of my ways. But I still had a roof over my head, and that was enough. I would wait a bit longer before telling anyone else. There was still far too much hatred out there for atheists, and I wasn't sure who I could trust.

To my astonishment, most of my close friends did not reject me. I was already growing apart from the couple who did, so losing them was tolerable. While most did not understand how I could question the god(s) in which they believed, it was a non-issue for the most part. A couple friends did begin to treat me differently after learning of my doubts, but I could live with that. Outside my circle of friends, things were a very different matter. Even though I did not tell anybody else, word got out quickly. I would soon experience the Christian hate I had long feared.

Most of the consequences of my atheism becoming known were social. I was called every name angry Christians could think of, told to "go back to Russia" and accused of being un-American more times than I can count. A few young women told me that they would not date atheists when I asked them out, and a few guys made it known through shared friends that I was no longer welcome at their parties because I was an atheist. This was enough for a couple more of my friends to decide that maintaining our friendship was not in their social self-interest, and so I would end up losing some friends who had previously been supportive. That was what hurt most of all.

Aside from the social consequences, my car was vandalized several times, I was spit on, threatened regularly with violence, and I found myself having to fight more than I wanted to defend myself. This usually happened at school, which was good because it meant that the fights would be broken up quickly. The worst incident involved getting assaulted in a mall parking lot. I was knocked unconscious by a blow to the back of my head I never saw coming and then kicked repeatedly several times while I was out. I was lucky to escape with only cuts, bruises, and a couple of broken ribs. I would learn later than there had been 4-5 assailants involved, and being unconscious was probably a lucky break.

How did I cope with all of this hatred? Not very well. In my defense, I was only 16 at the time. My coping strategy involved substance abuse, long hours at the gym, and making sure I had a weapon of some sort on my person and in my car most of the time. I never had to use one, but there were several times where pulling a knife, bat, or machete prevented another assault. The best defense was to avoid being alone, and so I tried to make sure I had at least a couple friends with me at all times.

My situation improved dramatically over the next couple years. My efforts at the gym paid off to the point where I had managed to transform myself from a skinny kid into someone who at least looked like he could take care of himself. Those who had messed with me previously decided I wasn't worth the trouble. I made new friends who did not seem at all bothered by my atheism. I finally began to accept who I was. And best of all, I realized that college would allow me to leave my hometown behind and start over somewhere else.

When I look back on this period in my life, I cannot help feeling that I was lucky to have survived it. It would not have taken much to lead to a very different sort of outcome. If I had to do it over again, there is no way I would have told anybody outside my immediate family about my atheism until I was 18 and had moved away. I would have lived a lie just a bit longer.
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