The fact that my father never came to mass with the rest of us didn’t bother me as a child. It registered in the same capacity as the fact that he worked night shifts or that Spanish was spoken in my house as often as English — distinctions between my home life and that of my peers, but nothing worth an existential crisis.
I was seven or eight when I stood in our garage and asked if he believed in God. He pretended not to really hear me, and only after I pressed did he give me a flat-noted, dull “No.” Again, I registered the statement with about as much incredulity as when he explained to me that he’d never learned to swim.
My mother was a fairly liberal Catholic, the kind who voted Democrat without compunction and thought the whole “no meat on Fridays” deal was petty semantics. Still, my sister and I were baptized, confessed, communioned, and confirmed. We had nightly prayers, went to church, and I was told with regularity to ask God to enlighten my father.
Most atheists who grow up in a particular faith say they can’t precisely recall what moment or experience led them to their doubts. I knew that some time around age 13, my love of Black Sabbath and masturbation began getting in the way of my faithfulness. (I would actually remove my crucifix necklace and take down the Virgin Mary portrait hanging on my bedroom wall before “abusing myself,” as one priest called it.)
I started questioning the missionary angle of Christianity, thinking of the arrogance it takes for one faith to assume superiority and preach damnation theology towards another. I applied that same logic to its attitudes towards homosexuality, traditional gender roles, and nonbelievers like my father. I was horrified in school to learn the Church’s history, be it the pedophilic abuses and de facto support of World War II fascism associated with Catholicism, or even just the influence of the Emperor Constantine on the proliferation of Christianity in the West. I got critical, belligerent, disillusioned. Some of this was tied to the general malaise that characterized most of my pubescence, but not all.
Finally when I was 17, I sat in the passenger seat of my then-girlfriend’s Sebring, the Florida summer air pressing heat into the tight space, and I told her that I had lost my faith. She herself was struggling with Jewish roots at the time, but found my news devastating. I however, had never felt more free. A friend would ask years later what brought me to that decision after four years of struggle. She wondered if it had been my father, or perhaps some phase. I told her simply that it was education and growing up. As a child, I had wanted to be a believer more than I ever actually had been — to please my mother, to fit in with my friends, to categorize myself through history and ritual. But none of it was me.
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For years after, I called myself a lapsed Catholic. I had read it somewhere and enjoyed the term: it was soft, and I fooled myself saying it represented where I’d come from. For some this may be true, but for me, I was just afraid of the term “atheist.” Atheists were cruel, bitter people, angry at everything. “Atheist” would break my mother’s heart. My father, who considered a label for non-belief to be stupid, never used it.
Still, I was finally happy in a way I never was with religion. I felt free to embrace my sexuality, my political and ethical instincts, my intellectual desires. I listened to death metal, watched all the pornography my poor computer could handle, and got cozy with the idea that nothing came after death.
I developed new problems, though. I was more arrogant than ever, going out of my way to be as harsh and cruel towards Christianity as possible. I was weirdly all right with other faiths, mostly because their lack of cultural supremacy where I lived made me view them more as allies against a common foe. This would change, however, when I started in with the New Atheists.
For those unfamiliar, New Atheism is the term given to the movement around the rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others like them. With books like god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (yes, the lower-case g is deliberate), The God Delusion, and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, these thinkers have become poster boys for aggressive antitheism (again, actual term used). They write of religion being the source of most, if not all, societal ills, of it as a great evil that must be eradicated if the human race is to survive, never mind thrive.
For every good idea coming from the New Atheists (I agree, for instance, that Mother Theresa deserves criticism for advocating against condom use in AIDS-plagued nations), there’s a horrible criticism to be levied against them: cultural elitism, willful ignorance of intersectional issues, and famously, the most violent Islamophobia I’ve ever read in contemporary rhetoric.
For a time, these were the guys I was taking cues from. I looked people in the eye, people I loved, and told them their worldviews were “based on a book of bronze-age fairy tales.” I told people in mourning and grief about how I felt their loved ones were now given to nothingness, and did it with gusto. I even briefly flirted with supporting the war in the Middle East and abandoning my Marxism for something more willing to blame religion (for those who know me, this is gasp-worthy). I had finally embraced my atheism, but I wasn’t happy anymore. I was just angry at nothing and hateful at everyone.
For a lot of atheist converts, this is a natural stage. Many of us bore the brunt of the worst our individual religious experiences had to offer, and embracing a world without them felt like shaking off shackles. We wanted to spread our good news to everyone around us and tear down the oppressive forces, which no longer had a hold over our bodies and minds. We believed this so passionately, and our only context for how to do so was to give in to those passions with the same aggression we ascribed to the worst of our former religions.
I mentioned earlier having a distaste for missionary practices, but at this point, I was blind to how my condescension matched it — I thought the Arab world was covered with desert people incapable of freeing their minds from a centuries-old fascistic thought system. I thought Christians and other believers in afterlives and divine intervention were cowards, too fearful of their own insignificance to imagine that yes, we are in fact apes obsessed with patterns on a speck of rock hurtling through the cosmos — that in the largest of schemes, we don’t matter. And I tried to convince them of it, wholly ignorant of my arrogance.
I knew how to be an atheist, but I didn’t yet know how to be a better person than I was when I was religious.
Then I stumbled across the writing of Chris Stedman. Only two years older than me, Stedman is a blogger, interfaith and LGBTQ activist, and atheist. I tore through his memoir, Faithiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, where he discussed converting to Evangelism at age 11 in the wake of his parents’ divorce, struggling with his homosexuality, his own troubled loss of faith, and finally his interfaith work. Stedman was the first strong non-theist voice I had heard criticizing New Atheism. His kindness and humility made me ashamed of myself.
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Interestingly, for all the rhetoric and reading I’d been doing, I didn’t reveal myself to my mother until the day she walked into my bedroom, found a copy of Stedman’s book on my desk, and asked me the question flat-out. I was 24 years old, and despite seven years since that night in my ex-girlfriend’s car, I had still accompanied her to church every week. I joked back then that she would go to her grave never knowing I’d left the church.
I didn’t lie to her when she asked. She, in turn, didn’t let me see her cry. But she told me she still loved me.
I’ve been happy with my lack of faith ever since. Everyone in my life who matters to me knows. The extended family for which it remains an issue don’t bother me. The theists I surround myself with are caring and nonjudgmental. I can debate and criticize without dehumanizing (again, to those who know me, this is important). I can look at the world around me and contemplate it through the beautiful and ecstatic lens which science and humility and appreciation for humanity offer me. I have compassion and more importantly, respect.
The entire experience, holding the spectrum I have of religious thought, has taught me more than anything the value of that compassion and respect. It was compassion that helped drive me away from the church — a devotion to ideas and people that I felt was impossible for me to reconcile with belief. It was respect for others that taught me how to use non-belief as a tool rather than a weapon.
Regardless of faith, it is the compassionate and respectful that I consider the very best of humanity. I stepped through a lot of horror, pain, and hate to get to that lesson, but at this point I hold it more tightly than I ever did Scripture.
[Feature image: black and white photo of a person walking through a tunnel towards a bright beam of light.]