May 10, 2020

I Was a Teenage Atheist

Gypsophila flowers

When I let my parents know that I no longer believed in gods, they weren't particularly happy. They dealt with this news in different ways, and it seemed to be much less of a concern for my father. His initial approach seemed to be one of hoping it would go away if he ignored it. While my atheism still hasn't gone away, I think this was a smart decision on his part because I had gone through plenty of fleeting phases that did go away. Thus, he had plenty of recent experience with that sort of thing. My mother took it much harder and couldn't ignore it because she was worried about my "soul." In reality, I have long suspected that she was at least as worried about how my atheism would be perceived by others and how that might reflect poorly on her.

Thinking back on this turbulent time, there was one concern my parents shared and my mother was willing to express to which I was thoroughly unwilling to listen. And as it turns out, she was right to be concerned. You see, they knew far more than I did about how atheists were regarded in society. One of the more difficult conversations I can recall was when my mother pleaded with me that atheism was going to doom me to a life of isolation and loneliness because others would never accept it. They'd never accept me if I was an atheist. I was furious at the time because I interpreted her as speaking for herself, saying that she would never accept it and might decide that she wanted nothing to do with me. That wasn't what she was saying, but it was all I could hear.

What my mother was trying to tell me was that many, perhaps even most, people I would come in contact with despised atheists. They would likely despise me for being one. As it turns out, she was mostly right about this. The problem was, and still is, that I can no more will myself to believe in gods than I could will myself to forget how to read my native language. Belief just doesn't work like that. At least, it never has for me. Warning me about the social consequences of atheism didn't give me much to work with. If she was right, I was screwed. There was little I was going to be able to do.

It didn't take me long to realize that she had been more correct than I had wanted to admit. The lesson I took away was a bit different from the one she had in mind, though. Since resuming god-belief was out of my control, I was stuck being an atheist no matter what. The one thing I could do was conceal it from others to minimize the social consequences. This would come at a price, as I set about constructing a facade to prevent others from discovering who I really was. Living inauthentically and trusting no one is a shitty existence. It took a psychological toll from which I am still trying to recover. But it did give me at least some ability to prevent the worst forms of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination for as long as I could stand to do it.

I find myself thinking about my mother today and having a hard time acknowledging that she was right about something I really didn't want her to be right about (and still don't). I also find myself feeling mad that anti-atheist bigotry is still a thing and that I am hardly alone in having experienced it. In many ways, the "it gets better" thing we so desperately want to tell young atheists today hasn't yet materialized. I don't know about you, but this former atheist teenager is growing impatient.