The religious commonly address atheists by equating non-belief to belief, either claiming that all atheists have similar beliefs on the way the world is and should be or that alleged divisions amongst atheists prove there are “problems” with non-belief. The former claim allows politicians, preachers, and pundits to cast negativity on atheism, claiming it goes hand-in-hand with unrelated ideologies like communism, Marxism, Nazism and socialism or that it necessarily leads to degraded human states like depression, immorality, confusion, hatred, and anxiety. The latter claim, that “problems’ amongst atheists is evidenced by divisions regarding “how not to believe,” is a succinctly ironic ego defense, considering the thousands of divisions–not to mention wars–over theism.
How not to believe builds no barriers between atheists; the mechanics of non-belief are so uncomplicated and can’t generate many arguments. How not to believe is much the same as how not to do anything else–how not to go to a movie with bad reviews or how not to give your bank number to a scam artist. There is a proper interrogative that sometimes causes discontent, however, and it is how one should act once non-belief is realized.
In my early years, I attended a small Baptist school in the Bible Belt of the United States. This fact undermines, of course, another common misconception that atheists are raised without having lived and understood a religion. Presently, I have been a Christian for much more of my life than I have been an atheist. I can attest that my indoctrination was thorough, complete with daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance (with an emphasis on “under God”), as well as the pledge to the Christian flag, learning Christian songs, learning important Bible verses, discussing Biblical stories, learning Bible verses in Spanish (to prepare for our mission trips), and Christian-based science, history, and language courses. My peer group included kids who weren’t allowed to watch Disney movies because of references to magic and were forbidden from telling ghost stories. At the request of my teacher, I periodically kept my head on my desk with my eyes tightly closed to answer, without peer pressure, whether I thought I would go to Heaven if I died tomorrow. Although I only hoped I had been sincere enough in repentance for my sins, I always affirmed to my teacher that I felt certain of my eternal fate.
If you are thinking it, I agree: In my 20s, I should be on my way to an abortion protest in a car stickered with religious slogans and ads for the current fundamentalist trying to take the White House.
So how did I come to not believe, and how do I not believe? People with my religious upbringing have different ideas on this–a division amongst them, one might say. Most believe that accepting the “love of Christ” is a choice, but a number also adhere to the idea that Satan and his demons will try to derail you, the weak, from faith–whether by way of cognitive dissonance caused by people unafraid to state disbelief or by way of burying dinosaur bones in such a way that completely dismantles the story of Biblical creation.
Alongside fundamentalist Christianity, atheism started somewhere in my childhood too, but it was not overt. It was a seed of doubt, the likes of which I currently enjoy spreading. The seed was something capable of undoing the belief program of my brain. If I were to trace my atheism to its root, I would find myself as a 10-year-old on the day my dad surprised me and my sister with a brand new computer with 12 MB of RAM and America Online (AOL) access at 26.6 kb/s.
There were other, smaller things, that helped me realize atheism–unanswered questions from childhood that I sought answers to–but this Packard Bell computer in the mid-nineties was most certainly significant. Where I once had a small view of the world, the Internet offered a window, and, later, an open field. AOL Chatrooms became incredibly fun places to pass time, and I one day saw a chat about Christianity and decided to see what others were saying about the “Good Word.”
This was the first time I heard anyone say anything negative about Christians or even saw anyone claim not to be be a Christian. They labeled Christians as sexists, racists. “Well, I’m a Christian, and I don’t have anything against black people! My family isn’t racist!” I was indignant, not to mention ignorant. This one chat–or dozens of others–didn’t make me an instant atheist, obviously, but it did leave me forcefully denouncing and on the watch for the undeniable hatred spread by fundamentalists, which would one day lead to entirely questioning of the Christian faith.
The only choice I actually made regarding my belief was to challenge it. As someone who was frightened into unquestioning faith at an early age, though, I’m not certain that everyone achieves the ability (or happens upon the chance) to make this choice. However, after many years of making excuses for abhorrent or false teachings in the Bible (not to mention the constant distancing from fundamentalists themselves), I did , finally, commit the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost while in graduate school. After 20 years of fearing such blasphemy, it all came together quickly: I just didn’t believe anything that had, until that point, shaped much of my worldview and many of my greatest decisions.
The reasons I could give for dropping my faith are numerous. The reasons I could give for not picking up another faith–like Buddhism–are similar. One of my greatest problems with the Bible concerned the Creation story and how it stands up to current scientific thought. Fundamentalists are right to guard this story, for what is Original Sin without Adam and Eve, and, without Original Sin, for what reason did God send Jesus Christ to die on the cross for mankind’s sins? I understand that, for this reason and any other complaint I have with the Bible–whether from a literal translation or a cultural misdeed like codifying slavery–will be met by a chorus of liberal religious defenders. I understand because I once was of their numbers. There comes a time, however, when reinventing meaning in a text becomes meaningless to oneself. I eventually felt more like a parent making up extravagant stories to help an older child cling to the idea of Santa Claus, even when both the parent and child knew the story made no sense.
As a young atheist, what came to me was not the question, “How should I go about not believing?” Like not giving money to scam artists and not going to a movie with bad reviews, not believing in gods is easy when there is no evidence to support theistic claims. The question becomes, “What should I do now that I don’t believe in God?” Unlike theists, who typically have a doctrine which commands them quite literally of what they should do with their beliefs in God, the division amongst atheists is natural because there is no guidebook to be interpreted in a thousand ways or only one. The way atheists have approached this question is what some theists point to as “division,” but the choices can basically be broken into two paths: Shut up or Stand up.
Living in the Bible Belt, I must admit, the “Shut up” option is fairly easy. If you grew up in a religious area, you have the advantage of being numb to all manner of religious talk, from the everyday to the chilling. You’re accustomed to the logical shifts necessary to maintain belief. Having moved away from my hometown and straight into a buckle of the Bible Belt, I don’t have old friends who ask me where I’m going to church these days. I don’t have new friends who ask for any explanation of belief. “We don’t go to church,” in this area is not the equivalent of saying, “We don’t believe in God.” Belief in God is assumed and only asked by children practicing evangelism. Not initiating the discussion is easy, and people so rarely suspect atheism–something most consider a true slur.
Because this region so ingrains the idea that religious faith is completely positive, a number of atheists are raised to accept that the proper place for atheists is this: To listen to relentless talks of others’ belief in God and Jesus but to never state non-belief or to “rob” others of their faith. It is considered highly impolite to tell someone that you are not going to be tortured in demented inferno for eternity simply because you lack faith in God. On the flip side, this position also serves the purpose of avoiding discrimination due to non-belief. If it isn’t brought up, it isn’t an issue. In a city where 99% of the population make appeals to some God, where steeples and crosses define the skyline, where public prayer is present at all real public events, and where strong faith is a requirement for public office, I understand the need to be shielded from discrimination–be it societal or economic.
If you are an atheist in the Southern states’ more fundamentalist regions and you are alone, it is often in your best interest not to squeak too loudly. “Sure, I might be an atheist, but I was raised a Christian and respect your right to do whatever your faith tells you to do wherever it tells you to do it,” would be an acceptable and honest answer. Or that’s what I once thought.
When I was a teenager, my best friend came out as an atheist and quickly garnered the “special” attention of most students in the school, as well as some parents. She survived the attacks but switched schools the next year anyway. Although her atheism was somewhat upsetting for me at the time (I didn’t want her to end up in Hell), I had decided not to stop being her friend, thinking she would eventually see the light. She told me sometimes, however, that she was annoyed or distressed by the prayers at our public school assemblies or by the Christmas programs. At the time, I could see her point, but it was difficult to take my teenage self out of the majority: The other 500 kids at school didn’t have a problem with it (or so I thought, as it turns out there were more agnostics and atheists in my rural town than I had realized). She only told me about these issues because I had maintained friendship; speaking out to someone else would have resulted in more verbal assaults (or worse).
You see, the religious here depend on the docility and fear of dissenters to keep their children–and all others–shielded from the rise of atheism that is being experienced by younger generations in other parts of the country. If they can make you feel as if you are the only one who disagrees, they will push you down the spiral of silence, and their work is done. With no one asking questions or pushing back, they will quietly work to pass laws to undermine the teaching of scientific principles that are counter to faith. They work, without much friction, to establish policies of favoritism toward the faith of the majority, to maintain their bandwagon. Many work, with little dissent, to strip away the rights of others based solely on their particular view on a 2,000-year-old book.
Those who would give the louder, less-liked group of atheists and humanists, the Stand-Uppers, lip service about conformity and respect may have missed the national and local problems that our society faces in protecting our secular government, in protecting the right to think differently and to demand evidence for laws and policies. There is a concerted push against the idea that our society can be moral without traditional religion, and that push is likely to come with more oppression and hatred than we have seen in some time. There is an effort to keep religion and all matters of “religion” (even if they interfere with government policy) unaccountable to measurable evidence. Allowing the loudest of the majority to continue wedging religion into our government and schools can only result in oppression.
The option, really, is to allow truth to shape the world or to allow others to lie to control the world. You can speak what you know is true about religion while admitting your limitations on knowledge, or you can let others pretend to have absolute truth. Choosing the route for truth and transparency will, without much doubt, result in the label of “militant atheist,” or any of the plethora of names meant to belittle or demonize anyone who dares to say that a religious idea is wrong. A person who counters the ideas of religion and speaks about them in any forum at anytime will often be viewed by the moderates with the same negativity reserved for the worst of cults. For me, I don’t care much about the labels, though I must maintain a specific image for my career. Reason and self-evident truths are powerful against lies and propaganda, and I would much prefer to be on the right side of history than on the right side of society.
We know the idea that atheists are unsure of “how not to believe,” is not a problem: We were born without such beliefs, and the beliefs were often instilled in us by our parents and others and later done away with. The question of what to do next is up to each individual and his or her ability to stand up safely. However, where safety is a factor, all young atheists, even in the darkest places, should know that by speaking, you bring them–and yourself–light, strength and safety in numbers.