November 24, 2019

You Can Be an Atheist

badlands

I was sitting in church around the age of 15 because my parents were still forcing me to go even though I had already told them I no longer believed in their god(s) and that compulsory church attendance made me feel like I was betraying myself. It didn't matter. My mother was absolutely convinced that it was "good for your soul" and that meant I was stuck. I had only recently recognized that I no longer believed in what was happening around me, and I was still coming to terms with the possibility that I might be an atheist. Although I was still somewhat resistant to apply that dreaded label to myself, I remember having one thought that Sunday morning that made me feel better: You can be an atheist.

This sounds so obvious now, but it was brand new to me then. I could be an atheist. Even if I chose not to identify myself that way to others, I could still be an atheist. Even if I wanted to pretend that I was still into religion (which I didn't), I could be an atheist inside. Others could (and did) force me to attend church against my will, but they could not change what was happening inside my own mind. I never chose to stop believing in gods; this was not something I would have chosen if it had been up to me. But I could choose what I would do with that information. This realization was both intimidating and liberating.

I wish it hadn't taken me so long to go from questioning the existence of gods to realizing I no longer believed in any of them to accepting the fact that I was an atheist whether I wanted to be or not. I can't help thinking that I wasted too much time and mental anguish trying to sort all that out. There was a sense of relief when I finally navigated through it. Over the years, that recognition that I could be an atheist has never lost its impact.

There are times in our lives, especially when we are young and being controlled by others, when we don't have many options besides retreating into the confines of our own minds. I did that quite a bit in my youth, probably too much. While it was scary at first because of how thoroughly I had been indoctrinated, I'd eventually recognize that it was the only safe place I'd have at times. A weird sense of empowerment would finally emerge where I'd recognize that my thoughts were my own and nobody else could control them.

Many of you will be spending at least some time over the upcoming holidays with religious family members. Some of you might even get to spend some time with family members who (gasp) hold different political views than you do. How you choose to navigate these interactions is up to you, but I can tell you that one of the things I always found helpful was remembering that I could be an atheist, a liberal, or whatever else. It didn't matter that it might be unpopular. It didn't even matter that I might be condemned for it. And it didn't matter whether I decided to keep some of all of it to myself to avoid conflict. No matter what sort of harassment I might face, I could still be me on the inside.

I'm not saying this made things easy in an absolute sense. I was way too impatient and was quick to get upset at anything I perceived as unfair. I didn't want to wait years to express myself, and I figured that if I had to listen to someone preaching nonsense that I should at least get to tell them what I thought of it. I was not very good at avoiding conflict in those days and had little motivation to do so. That said, there were plenty of times when I chose to keep my mouth shut because I saw no upside to attacking my grandparents' absurd religious beliefs. What they believed did not need to affect me; I could still be an atheist.

When the prayers started at the Thanksgiving dinner table, I sat quietly without bowing my head or closing my eyes. I was not going to participate in their superstitious ritual and found the whole thing silly. I also was not going to laugh in their faces or mock what they believed this. This was neither the time nor the place for that, and it would not have accomplished anything more than ruining everyone's holiday. If someone made the mistake of asking me what I thought about a religious or political topic, I'd tell them. I was not going to initiate these discussions, though. After all, I wanted to enjoy the day too.