Atheist in a Theist Land

In most regards, I’m a member of the privileged class. White. Male. Wealthy. I was raised by liberals, so I lean that way politically, and I do what I can to help people who have more struggles in life than I face. But in one regard, I am in a minority. Most minorities have advocates. Racial minorities. Ethnic minorities. LGBT minorities. Even representation minorities, like women in business. But my minority has no advocates. We lurk in the shadows. Assured of never achieving high political office. Viewed with suspicion by the vast majority of Americans. We are the atheists.

I’ve been an atheist my entire life, but this is the first time I’ve written about it. I grew up in a mixed income level, mixed religion community in southeastern Michigan. There was a great deal of tolerance and understanding there for pretty much everybody, except blacks and atheists. There were almost no black families in town, and the one that was there had to put up with a cross being erected across the street from them on private property. The Klan was a real thing in Michigan in the 1970s.

Unlike blacks, atheists are a little harder to pick out of a crowd. Lots of people who believe in God do not go to church, so that’s not an identifier. Pretty much the only way to find out if someone is an atheist is to ask them. And what I learned at a very young age was that lying was so much easier than coming out of that particular closet.

Whereas an atheist can easily understand that someone believes in God (although in my case at least, I really don’t understand why), in my experience, a theist cannot understand that we do not believe. It’s incomprehensible. It’s like we don’t believe in water or air.

It reminds me of the absurdity of straight people who think that gay people can be fixed so they are straight, too. Religious people think that atheists can be fixed. All they need to do, they believe, is teach us. There is a belief, going all the way back to the four Evangelists, that a belief in God can be taught like algebra, or spelling. But that just isn’t so. There is absolutely nothing that you can do or say that is going to convince me that we are anything other than a random collection of random events.

It might be helpful, at this point, to elucidate some things that I do believe. I believe in the infinite. The idea that time extends forever backward and forward. We happen to exist at a particular place in space-time that includes life, and consciousness, and love. That doesn’t mean those things were “created.” It means that they just happened to happen. The electron in this universe at this time has just the right mass and charge and spin. There are infinite possibilities, and all of them will happen. The ones that happened for us are the ones we see. That’s not a miracle. That’s just math.

Given my environment, I learned, over time, to avoid anything anywhere near a church. Once, I went with some friends to hear a concert in a church. I was just a little kid, and I’m not sure exactly what transpired, but by the end of the night I had been “saved” by a minister in a private room behind the stage. Nothing untoward: just some prayers and getting me to say whatever shit I had to say to get out of there. Not unlike getting a confession from a criminal down at headquarters.

Another time, I went to what was supposed to be a “fun night” with a friend at his church basement. “Nothing churchy, just games and stuff.” Yeah. It was really churchy. Prayer circles. The whole bit. It’s as though my friends did this churchy stuff so often they didn’t even realize they were performing rituals of worship.

A couple experiences like that and you learn to avoid coming within 100 yards of a church. A self-imposed restraining order.

And you also learn to never, ever, ever mention that you are atheist. Don’t even say agnostic, because that just means you’re a runner at third, and if they can get you home, they’ll get a save in their karmic scorecard. The right answer, particularly when you are a kid, is to just lie. “I’m protestant, but we don’t go to church.”

As I got older, the lesson stuck. Like most atheists I know, I am much more familiar with Christian theology, tradition, history, and teaching than most people who actually go to church. So I can hold my own in any theological discussion. My daughter asked me just yesterday what the difference was between the Congregational church next door, and the Catholic church she attends with her mother. That was my opening to give her a brief history of organized Christian religion, from the fourth century through today.

I am very involved in my community, doing volunteer work for both non-profit boards, and local government. But I won’t consider joining a fraternal organization like the Masons, because they are all religious organizations. And they welcome people of all religions, but they do not welcome people of no religion.

When my wife and I were courting, and we eventually got to the question of how we’ll raise our children, there was actually no issue. If she wanted to raise them in the church, that was fine with me. I won’t undermine that, and maybe they’ll grow up to believe in God. I’ve gotten very good at answering questions in a particular way that saves me from having to get into anything tricky. “Christians believe…” or “Your church teaches…” are my go-to sentence starters.

I tolerate going to churches for major ceremonies with our family and hers. When my kids got baptized, I even “renounced Satan” as required, since, to me, that was like renouncing Lex Luthor. Yeah, I’m not going to go worship your comic book villains. No worries.

It’s strange being atheist in America. We are a country in which freedom of religion is sacrosanct, but freedom from religion is not even on the table. Even the money in my pocket talks about God, for heaven’s sake. But really, it’s fine. I’ll tolerate your religion, and, for the most part, I’ll lie to you about mine. And everyone will get along just fine.

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5 thoughts on “Atheist in a Theist Land

  1. Of what religion were your parents? I have to tell you, as a non-atheist, I admire this excellent work. And I appreciate gaining more insight into you. Most especially, I appreciate this as probably the first unscathing account of non-atheists I’ve personally read — by an atheist. Bravo to you for not making an angry religion out of atheism, the way some do. Instead, you simply state your case. Very well done.

    • Dad was raised Catholic, but hated the church with a passion. Mom was a non-practicing Lutheran. Thanks for the feedback. It’s certainly a tricky subject to write about.

  2. Loved this post. And I’m agnostic Buddhist myself. Because, as you know, Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion having no theism as a prerequisite. Although I don’t openly share that with people. I’m open to the kids being whatever they believe. As a kid growing up in a Catholic family, I was always told I was Catholic too. But, I never was. My kids and every other human on the planet has the choice to believe or not believe. It is the most fundamental choice we have. End of sermon.

    • When my wife and I had our pre-marriage discussion with the priest, I said pretty much exactly that about the kids. I said we’d raise them in the church and then when they were older, they could make their own decisions. He freaked out. Apparently Catholic dogma disagrees with you (and me). If you are baptized in the church, you no longer have choice. You are Catholic. Period. Sigh.

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