March 5, 2021

There Are Probably More Self-Loathing Atheists Than We Realize

depression

Is there such a thing as a self-loathing atheist (i.e., an atheist who dislikes atheism and the fact that he or she is an atheist)? It seems like there probably should be. Whoa! What? I'm not suggesting that atheists should feel this way; I'm saying that it is understandable that some might. After all, many of us who were raised in various religious traditions grew up holding extremely negative attitudes toward atheism and atheists. It makes sense that at least some of us would have internalized these attitudes.

I grew up surrounded by anti-atheist bigotry, and I internalized quite a bit of it. As a third-grader, I remember that "atheist" was a popular playground insult even though I don't think any of us knew what it meant. We used it as a synonym for Communist. We didn't know what that meant either, but that did not stop us from being convinced that it was just about the worst thing anybody could be. I was convinced that atheists were the lowest of the low, evil creatures who should be destroyed. Strangely, I'm not sure these convictions had much to do with what I'd learned about Christianity because I hadn't yet made the connection between atheism and a lack of belief in gods. It was more like I had been taught that "atheist" was a synonym for "evil" and didn't yet know why.

Of course, this would change soon. As the irrational fear of Communism gradually subsided, it was replaced with a different sort of boogeyman: Satan. I did not hear much about Satan at church or from my family. I was not raised in a fundamentalist branch of Christianity. Even so, I remember forming a basic understanding that god-belief was an essential part of morality and that people without it were necessarily evil (or at least seriously misguided and flawed). People who didn't believe in my preferred god would probably end up in the hell I imagined.

As I entered my teen years and began struggling with many unanswered questions and the growing recognition that there wasn't nearly enough evidence to support god-belief, I fought these doubts as long as I could. This is where the self-loathing really kicked in. I was a bad person for questioning the existence of gods. They had to be real, and my inability to grasp that meant that I was the one who was flawed. Even when I reached the point of realizing that I no longer believed in gods and that nothing I had done (e.g., frequent prayer, reading the Christian bible again, meetings with clergy, pleading with religious friends for help) had changed that, I was still determined not to be an atheist.

The self-loathing was so intense that I became one of those silly people who would say things like, "I don't believe in gods, but I'm not an atheist." And yes, I am ashamed to admit that I continued to say this for a little while even after I learned what atheism meant. As bad as it was not to believe in gods, I would eventually recognize that I had no choice in the matter. I no longer believed because I could no longer believe. But somehow, I still faced the hurdle of admitting to myself that I was an atheist. Looking back on it now, I think this was a function of everything I had internalized about atheism combined with my recognition of how atheists were regarded by others. You see, the idea of being hated by most of the people around me held little appeal.

I was fortunate in that this particular hurdle (i.e., admitting to myself that I was an atheist) did not take nearly as long as the process of recognizing that I no longer believed in gods. Since then, I've also been fortunate in that I cannot recall any times where I found myself reacting negatively to other atheists merely because they were atheists. I was a bit less fortunate in the persistence of one aspect of the self-loathing, though. There were many times when I wished I could stop being an atheist and reclaim the many social benefits associated with being a Christian in a country where most people equate Christianity with goodness. I haven't felt this way for some time, but I do remember it as being unpleasant.

Ideally, atheists would not experience any self-loathing. I am optimistic that younger atheists who have the luxury of growing up in a time when atheism is not as reviled as it once was will be less likely to face it. At the same time, I want to do what I can to normalize atheism, correct some of the lingering misconceptions about atheism that still lead to bigotry, and help to steer atheists in more productive directions (e.g., freethought, humanism). That way, the self-loathing atheist will be even less common in the future.