I moved back to the USA a few months ago after living abroad in Western Europe for 4 years. Moving to the Netherlands was a culture shock. It was a very disorienting experience, but I strongly believe everyone should experience a different culture for at least a few years. Surprisingly, there's also a bit of reverse culture shock moving back the USA.
Almost immediately, I noticed how public people make their religion here in the USA. For the entire 4 years in the Netherlands, including the traveling through Eastern and Western Europe, I never truly became aware of any one person's religious beliefs. The only exception being the Muslim women dressed in the hijab. However, even they mostly kept that part of their lives to themselves and their families. It was the only outward facing religious context I experienced for nearly 4 years.
I am an atheist. It's a long, personal story on how a well-meaning, Bible reading, Catholic scholar once considering the priesthood arrived at atheism in his mid twenties. It was not a book, a personality, a TV series, but a series of experiences and events that conspired to test and inevitably shake that once deeply held faith. Today, I am a better, stronger, more understanding person than I dreamed possible during my teenage religious years.
My crisis of faith started when I was about 10 years old. My dog died. She was a black lab named Coco. Coco was never just a dog to me. I grew up with her as my confidant. She stayed by my bed when I was sick. She let me race matchbox cars on her back and over her head. She tolerated me as a toddler tugging on her ears and tail. She knew when I was upset or sad and would come running to me with a wagging tail to snuggle up to me. She was my friend, more so than many of the other children in the neighborhood.
Coco lived a long, happy life, but on a summer day in 1990, my dad took her to the vet to be put down. She was 13 years old and in constant pain. It was a very bad day. I had many bad days; crying until I was dehydrated and exhausted. By the time school started, I was still incredibly sad, but time had helped heal a bit. I went to public school and because my family was Catholic, on Wednesday nights during the school season, I would go to a Catholic class in the evenings. It was mostly benign; coloring Bible scenes, singing hymns, reading Bible stories, and occasionally writing a few sentences about things we were thankful for or how we could apply the morals of the story to our daily lives. Sometimes, we got to draw. I loved those classes.
We started the year's curriculum off with a drawing of our family. I drew my dad, then my mom, then me, and then my brother standing outside our house holding hands and smiling. It felt incomplete. I grabbed for the black crayon and sketched out Coco sitting on a cloud with a halo and angel wings. It felt better. I waited anxiously to share my picture with the class. When it was my turn, I explained my work and introduced the class to my family. My teacher, a lay person with special training from the church in teaching the Catholic canon to children, asked who the black angel was in my picture. I told her "That's my dog and best friend Coco, she went to heaven over the summer. She's there watching over us."
The teacher saw this as a teachable moment about the Catholic canon. She explained that dogs are animals, they are not people, and that dogs most certainly do not go to heaven. I suppose she was a cat person and despised the inaccurate propaganda spread by "All Dogs Go To Heaven." I told her that my mom and dad had both assured me that my dog was happy in heaven right now. She persisted, adamant to convince a room of ten year olds our beloved canine companions were not fit for such a holy place. And she did, firmly insisting to a broken-hearted 10 year old boy that his best friend in the world had no soul, no eternal presence and was simply "gone forever."
I cried when I got home. It was like Coco had died again. I asked my mom and dad and they did the best they could to comfort me. But they said Coco's memory would live on as long as I kept her in my heart. My mom grabbed the shoe boxes of photos and we sorted through them picking out our favorite pictures of Coco. We made a photo collage to hang on the wall and she gave my own photo album to fill up with every picture we had of her. I would never forget her.
I didn't lose my faith as a result of this hiccup, it actually had the opposite effect of spurring me to better understand the scriptures so I could make sense of this master plan that failed to include my best friend. It had cracked the foundations of my faith. Years later, those cracks in my faith this experience created would lead to its inevitable collapse.
Throughout middle school, I aced all my religion courses. I had powerful, personal experiences I attributed to my faith and I shared those in religion classes and religious social gatherings. I was confirmed in 8th grade, taking the Catholic middle name of "Joseph," Jesus' step-dad and the first name of both my grandfathers, two uncles, and my father's middle name. My friends in my Confirmation class thanked me personally for sharing stories that affirmed their faith.
High-school was the beginning of the end. My uncle Joe helped us buy our first computer. I was hooked. I spent long nights online in chat rooms discussing politics, religion, and world events with people much older and wiser than me. I had access to boundless information and I read, researched, and taught myself a lot. Cracks were getting bigger in the foundations of my faith as I was challenged constantly by people in other states and countries on my faith. In Sophomore year, our religious instruction required us to learn about other religions. We learned mostly about Judaism and Islam with a few sentences about the strange Eastern religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.
I couldn't help but notice where a person was born and raised was more indicative of their religious preference. Years later, I'd realize it was actually more to do with the parent's religion than anything else, but my geographic reasoning was enough to pique my curiosity. I had to raise my hand and ask our teacher about this. Doesn't it seem a bit too simplistic for an all knowing being to set our religious preference based on where we're born and raised? How had we been lucky enough to be born in the right place? Was there a class room full of Indian children asking the exact question about Christianity?
More acutely aware of the dangers of this question than me, the teacher masterfully posited it's possible or even likely that all these religions are simply different interpretations of the same god. The same way different languages exist and all facilitate verbal and written communication, these religions were just dialects of Christianity that were moving closer to the truth we already had available to us. I thought how lucky I was I to be born and raised in such an enlightened area and got back to work.
Over the summer before my junior year, I started playing Dungeons and Dragons online. The concept of magic and super human powers consumed my imagination. I spent a lot of time day dreaming.
I was now a deist.
My teacher's answer had lurked in my subconscious for months. I kept cycling back to it. I posited further that perhaps Christianity wasn't a complete answer to the question of this supreme being. Perhaps, just as Islam and Buddhism were not caught up to Christianity, Christianity itself was likely lacking the whole picture.
Up until this point, my religion was something I wore on my sleeve. I identified myself through it. Now, music, technology, and girls were increasingly more interesting to me. I needed to wear so many labels on my sleeve so people would know who I was.
I had arrived at the fringes of agnosticism.
I took the badge of my faith from my sleeve, and internalized it. I decided to build my own relationship with god in my own way. Sure, I'd leverage things I learned from Christianity, but my views started pulling in ideas from other places, like Wicca, concepts from the Founding Fathers, some Buddhist tendencies, and a hopeless dreamer, even lore from the times of dragons and wizards.
I refused to let dogma define who I was. I was a teenager. Teenagers need to feel they have built their own identities. I was doing just that. I identified as spiritual, but my participation in the Church dropped. I fought with my parents over going to Church. Sundays weren't fun.
I was now a "spiritual agnostic."
I finished high school, went to college for a year and then got hired into the dotCom boom on the late 90s. My spiritual journey had mostly stagnated as I focussed on joining the adult world of the work place. For several years, I didn't really change much.
It wasn't until someone handed me a copy of Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World that my experience would evolve again. The book isn't an atheist manifesto. It's about detecting and ultimately avoiding bullshit using tools like the scientific method and understanding logical fallacies. As I was reading the book, nearly every page triggered a memory from my years in the Catholic church, conversations with my teachers, and personal experiences I once held at the core of my faith. I saw that I not only been bullshitted by people I trusted, but I had, on many occasions unknowingly bullshitted myself. It was a powerful revelation. It made me angry.
I was now an atheist.
I was passionate to make sure no one else I cared about would get taken advantage of like I had allowed for so long. Using my knowledge of logical fallacies, I provoked intense religious debates with some of my closest friends. I bought and borrowed books on Gospel history, accuracy, and the art of textual criticism. I needed people to share religious claims, experiences, and passages I could burn down with historically rigorous facts and scientific explanations.
I was an angry, militant atheist.
It's during this period Richard Dawkins published "The God Delusion." I soaked it up in record time. I had more ammunition. I bought more of his books. I read Dennett, Harris, Sagan, Hitchens, and countless others. I dug in to the study of behavioural psychology. I rekindled my passion for abnormal psychology to provide possible explanations for Biblical miracles and personal religious experiences. No one would have to stay in the duped state I was furious I allowed myself to inhabit for nearly 20 years.
I lost a lot of friends.
It's understandable, I don't blame them. They know I was well-intended, but my execution left much to be desired. I hold myself at fault for that. Many of them have since forgiven me, but most still keep their distance.
Why am I telling you this?
I left the US nearly 4 years ago and lived in another country. I traveled all over Europe. In that time, the only people who discussed religion were atheists or agnostics. They may not be the majority everywhere, but my interaction was inside of community that was largely, if not completely godless. I saw very little poverty. I never felt my personal safety at risk. I'm not attributing any of that to a lack of religion. I am only contextualizing what this meant for me. I was given a unique opportunity to stop thinking about religion actively. There were no battles to be fought. I didn't feel the need to save anyone from their religious slavery. I was free to understand more of who I am, and who I want to be.
While traveling across, through, and over the USA since getting back, I am constantly inundated by religious symbols, messaging, and personal religious identification. People here wear their faith on their sleeve. It's jarring. However, to my surprise, I find myself more at peace with their faith. I told you my personal journey to atheism for a very specific and important reason.
It's personal. It's complex. It's a product of my life experiences. It no longer defines who I am, but is an important part of why I am who I am.
If it's not obvious. Many religious people would describe their feelings about their faith in much the same way. I am not stating atheism is a faith, it most certainly is not. Atheism can provide and fulfill in the same way faith does, however.
I am writing this mainly because we as a society demonize atheism and atheists. It certainly doesn't help when atheists who wear it on their sleeves act in cruel and insulting ways. It's important to understand just as there are atheists who are complete assholes, there are, statistically guaranteed, the same proliferation of assholes, dickheads, and douchebags in and amongst every major and minor faith now and forever.
My time away from the bull horn of faith has given me a new perspective and new toolkit for handling religious interactions. If you approach me for a conversation on religion or externalize your faith to me, I will try to respond respectfully.
- As faith is an intensely personal thing you are choosing to share with me, I will likely reciprocate and share my label of "atheist" with you.
- I will try to acknowledge your sharing of your faith is kind and generous position that I truly appreciate.
- I hope you will try to see that my sharing my label with you is also intensely personal and should be treated with respect as well.
- I will try to acknowledge my support of your right to religious freedom. Religion was always intensely personal to me. It's not my place to convert you to atheism. Nor is it yours to convert me to your religion and discard my personal experience.
- You inevitably will need to share the joy your faith has brought you.
Here's where things went pear-shaped in the past. But I think we can do better. As an atheist, I understand that when someone is sharing their faith with me, it comes from a place of love. They're not keeping score on how many atheists they convert so they can win a giant stuffed bear. To them, I am lost, injured, and they are legitimately extending a hand to save my immortal soul. It's not because they want to be right; they are right and they know it. They have a matching set of personal experiences that affirm their faith just as strongly as I have personal experiences to the contrary. Both parties need to make a decision to be humane, decent people. I'm not sure exactly how to handle this, but something along the lines of:
"I am truly humbled and touched that you would care so deeply for a stranger to share this intensely personal piece of yourself to help a stranger. I appreciate your offer, but I'm going to decline. As I stated, I'm an atheist, and I respect your beliefs. I have different experience and perspective than you. This has lead me to a different place and different, but no less beautiful, truth and way. I can no more understand your faith than you can my atheism. It doesn't mean we have to argue, fight, or even disagree. Faith is more poetry than historical non-fiction and each of us will interpret it in different, yet no less correct ways. If you ever want to know more about my journey, I'd love to share as well."
It's not about winning. You won't win. You will lose; friends, family, strangers on the bus, who may one day be sitting on the hiring side of the job interview. It's still a teachable moment. Religious people often don't realize how their religion can bring back powerful, negative memories for atheists. They don't realize that we're not broken, we spent a lot of time and energy, often on our own searching for how to heal ourselves. I've had the benefit of a "safe place" for 4 years to better understand my journey and how I can handle these painful situations in a way to move myself and others to a better place.
I think the onus falls squarely on all of our shoulders to be respectful to people's religions, beliefs, or lack of beliefs. Let's try to be respectful by acknowledging there are parts of us that we all hold dear. Those parts are products of decades of experiences and interactions that we can't possibly communicate and understand in passing.
I think we as a society need to stop demonizing atheists and maybe move our religions from our sleeves to inside our jacket pocket. Even after my four year cool down, it is very hard for me to come back to this country and be assaulted by religious messaging. Americans need to understand we can let something, even religion, be a part of who we are without letting it be all we are.
I'm aware of movements in the community to re-brand atheism. At one point, I labeled myself as a "secular humanist" to diffuse the negativity associated with the word "atheist." I no longer wish to dance around the issue, but meet it head on.
I am an atheist. I am a decent person. You expect me to be comfortable with your religious identity. I expect no less from you. We can build a better world together.
I'm an American Atheist.