This question came to me from my girlfriend Meagan on this past Ask an Atheist Day (April 14): What made me seek out atheism as my identity?
It’s a good question; for the decade prior to becoming an atheist, I was a “washed in the blood” Christian with a “the fool says in his heart, there is no God” chip on my shoulder regarding unbelievers. Not many years prior to this radical change, I asserted to a good friend, Sandi, that there was no way, none, zilch, zero chance that I’d ever reach the point that I wouldn’t consider the Bible as anything less than the Word of God, no matter how many changes my beliefs underwent (such as growing from Baptist to Presbyterian to a weird blending of the two to something that I’m not sure what I’d call it).
But becoming an atheist? Eww.
My resolve that there must be something beyond the physical, that there must be things like spirits and God and all the correlated supernatural thingamajigs came not only as a result of my faith in the Bible — faith which was expertly stirred by many an evangelist and preacher — but from my first (and I am thankful, my only) encounter with a sleep paralysis “demon.” Indeed, that encounter stuck with me even after leaving Christianity behind til the point when I learned about sleep paralysis and what it can make you see or experience.
Why I left Christianity isn’t important to this conversation; suffice it to say, it was an abrupt departure from a faith I had rather thoroughly enjoyed for about a decade of my life.
Once I realized that my faith was dead, I was not at all prepared to leave behind the idea that there was something beyond the physical. The idea of death being a cessation of being thoroughly terrorizes me (still does), so I figured that I should probably still be believing in something because surely this world wasn’t the end all be all of reality. For about a month or two, I called myself a “pagan.”
I didn’t really do anything with that — paganism, in my limited experience, felt like an à la carte thing: “Here are a bunch of gods and goddesses, a few vaguely defined concepts, and a smattering of ways to put it together — from cards to gemstones, stars to tea leaves — to mean whatever you want.” Religion was waning in my mind; I most certainly wasn’t prepared to continue in one that was very nearly completely built out of my own imagination. At least with Christianity, the book was already written!
Realizing the futility of any attempts to continue in this or that beliefs without any sort of foundation upon which to stand, I cast it all off with a simple declaration: I am an atheist. Although, that declaration was too simple.
Sure, I gave up theism — my beliefs are no longer occupied by the adoration or worship of a god or gods — but I also embraced science for providing ways of looking at the world which make sense and didn’t require me to take leaps away from the world around me.
I became not only an atheist but a rationalist or a secularist, albeit one who is all too eager to want there to be something beyond what science can tell us.
“Atheist” seems to carry all that weight, though. It carries the negative stigma of one who has rejected God or of someone who isn’t trustworthy. I call myself “atheist” because I once had the reputation of “happy Christian guy who’s always smiling,” and I think people need to know that joy can be found even in a secular state of mind.
I’ve been an atheist for eleven years now, though, and well, there is a real need for good, happy atheists. I’ve seen so very many prominent atheist bloggers who repeat the same tired mockery of religion, the same misunderstandings about the Bible, the same hate and sarcasm, that well, I’ve come to understand a bit why there is such a stigma with atheism.
I can’t express how frustrating it was to move away from judgy churches only to find myself part of a community filled with equally problematic figures. Can I really blame Christians for not understanding complex scientific theses when the atheists around me still think Adam and Eve only had a few sons so “where did Cain get his wife?”, for example?
There isn’t much I can lean into here, authority-wise. I’m just a guy who’s humble enough to know that there is always room to learn, always room to extend a hand in walking that path of learning together.
I’m just a guy who believes that the world would be better if we had better Christians and better atheists. When there is so much that needs to be done to better the world, the schism between us must be mended, although that will only ever happen if Christians take up the cross to live out Jesus’ compassion and if atheists get out of their way and focus on improving the secular matters which affect all of us.
We have room enough to grow, though we will forever be stunted should we continue to fight amongst ourselves.