August 2, 2011

Atheists as the Ultimate Outsiders

OutsiderWhat is it that enables some people to discard the religious traditions in which they were raised and be comfortable with atheism in a culture that demonizes it? I don't have the answer to that intriguing question, but it seems to me that part of it must involve a certain level of comfort with nonconformity and a willingness to adopt the role of the outsider. I have certainly seen a connection between the two in my own life, and I wonder if this has been important to others.

I haven't always been comfortable in my own skin. The memories of my early childhood that stand out to me largely involve fear. It wasn't that I had bad parents or anything, but I think I was simply wired in such a way that I was a shy and nervous kid who tended to experience his world through a veil of anxiety. I clung to god belief, at least initially, because it helped to soothe my fears.

I did my best to conform throughout junior high and the first year or so of high school. I sought to blend in because that was what I thought I was supposed to do and because it felt safe. By blending in, I became invisible. God belief was a big part of this. Even though I had already stated to have doubts, I pushed them aside because everyone else believed and because I'd previously found comfort there.

Things changed for me rather dramatically in high school. My doubts about gods could not be ignored any longer. And I began to realize that much of my fear-based conformity was unhealthy. I discovered that there were advantages to crafting my own identity and setting myself apart from the pack. It was freeing to be true to myself, and I learned that how others judged me was of little importance. My success in dating increased dramatically, although this could have been as much about my elevated confidence as anything else. What I told myself at the time, however, was that most of the girls I was interested in liked the fact that I was content to go my own way.

My family observed these changes and naturally assumed that I was on drugs. They were right, but this was more of a consequence than a cause. Drugs were a small part of the much larger self-discovery that was taking place. The fear was receding into the background.

I carried a willingness to be the outsider into college and had a blast experimenting with how far I could push it. I expressed myself openly and honestly in class, with friends, and even with family when I visited them. I held back nothing, and I actually begin to feel some pride in my rejection of religion and other oppressive social conventions. I had finally began to get to know myself, and I discovered that I liked who I was. I had discovered freethought.

As I look back on this time through adult eyes, I realize that made some mistakes and went too far in many ways. But I wouldn't change any of it. I have found much greater balance since those days. I had to get serious and learn how to play the conformist game again to survive graduate school and the job market. But I have remained an outsider, and I am indeed comfortable with this status most of the time.