So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an Atheist — about why it seems such a scary word to so many. It’s easier to say “I’m not religious” or “well, who knows what’s out there?” But to proclaim oneself an Atheist is to cross some invisible line. It came to me yesterday that the reason for that has to do with how Atheists are viewed culturally. That is, that Atheism is perceived as an act of defiance against an existing God, rather than a simple statement of belief. Even in my own journey into atheism, I found it hard to say “I don’t believe in God.” This wasn’t because I secretly did believe. It was more because I thought it would be such a scary pronouncement, like standing before a king and saying, “oh, yeah? well, I don’t accept your authority!”
Atheists in media are often portrayed as angry or damaged in some way — raging against a God they find unjust or hiding behind the statement “there is no God” because they can’t believe that God could allow…. fill in the blank. But that’s not what it means to be an Atheist at all. It is just coming to a personal understanding that there is no God. That life is precious because I am living it now, and what I do today matters — not because of heaven or hell — but because I am surrounded by human beings whom my actions affect. It is a pronouncement that is meaningful, and honest, and carefully processed, but seldom defiant.
My journey towards atheism was slow and painful. To say I was a Jesus girl would be a massive understatement. I was the kind of Christian that never had a drop to drink, didn’t believe in sex before marriage, never swore, read the Bible all the way through — twice, and always listened to Christain music. I was absolutely insulated in that world. At the age of 22, I married a man whom I perceived to be a good, Christian man. But the marriage was traumatic and abusive. The community I had formed in my church was fractured. There was a split in the church and people were leaving in the droves. Hardly any of my remaining friends there knew what I was going through. I was taught to not complain about your husband, and besides, I barely knew what to make of it myself. However, after eight years, I made the decision to leave. I walked away from it with the judgment of some of the people I valued most. With a daughter to support and a life to recreate, I went back to school to try and gain skills for a career. I was 30.
Back in college, my faith became a sort of 3D puzzle that revealed itself to me in surprising gasps as I searched it, trying to figure out its relevance, its place in my evolving world view. I was divorced, and I was trying to figure out how to navigate dating as a person who was no longer a virgin. Additionally, I knew better than to believe that “being a Christian” was all it took to be a good person. And I was meeting people all the time who were not religious at all, but clearly good people. Better people than some I had known in the church. And they were going to Hell? I was having trouble wrapping my head around it. But, I knew all the Christian comebacks to these problems, and I wrapped myself in rote defenses. But they were losing their hold.
I read Harry Potter. I got a tattoo. I read “The Red Tent.” That one was a significant chink in the Armor — it was a Bible story told from the perspective of the women instead of the men. It rocked my world. It was a whole different story from their point of view. It was the first time I remember thinking that maybe not everything in the bible was true. And that was all it took. I dated a non-Christian, had sex outside of marriage and went to college. I experienced great triumphs and more than a few demoralizing setbacks. And every time I failed, I thought it might be a punishment from God. Maybe God was trying to win me back. Maybe I was experiencing “tough love.”
I felt shame. I felt loss. But never again did I feel conviction in a faith that I once wore as easily as my own skin. There were times when I mourned it like a friend. I found myself turning on praise music, longing for comfort, but there was none to be found. It was if a chord had been cut. And it is as simple, as devastating, as brutal, and as final as that.
So, when I say I don’t believe in God, it is not an act of defiance. It’s not a mask for fear or a denial of my mother’s faith. Saying I don’t believe in God is like emerging from a long, dark tunnel. It is being okay with an essential truth about who I am. It is hurtful to many who love me. I know it is, and I am sorry for that. If it helps, I still love Jesus. I strive to be like the Jesus I read about in the bible. The one who embraced everyone. The one who hated religion. The one who lived and died for love.
I know that’s not enough. But it’s what I’ve got, and it’s honest. And at the end of the day, I think that’s worth quite a bit.