Okay, so everyone who reads this blog knows I’m a loudmouth. I get it. I’m the kind of person that a lot of people ignore on Facebook (if you’re reading this then you’re not one of those, so THANK YOU), and it seems everyone’s in the place right now where they unfollow or ignore everyone except those who agree with them on social media. We are all in our own echo chambers, and the divisions in our country are growing deeper and wider by the minute. Because if someone supports causes you don’t and those causes oppose your deeply held, personal beliefs, how could they be the kind of person you want to have in your life? What are they missing that makes them not see how obvious it is to you that whatever you believe in is the right thing?
You all also know (I’d assume!) that I’m a feminist. An activist. An ‘oddball’. I speak loudly and until recently wore my hair, like my political convictions, mostly blue. Some of the things I ‘am’, though, are not so obvious, and one of those things is that I am an atheist.
Why does the ‘A’ word stir up such strong reactions? You can love cats and not automatically be labeled as ACANINE, you can hate to ice skate and never be accused of taking rights away from Kristi Yamaguchi. I remember being afraid of the A word and what it meant and of anyone who invoked it when I was a Christian. A-anything – NO – has such negativity stitched into it that a negative reaction is understandable to a certain extent. And if Christians are good people, anyone who isn’t… isn’t, right? Of course our leaders should govern guided by their core principles of Christianity, as ‘good’ and ‘moral’ people, right? What’s the harm there? If I get my morals and values from the one and only word of God, then where do atheists get theirs? What DO they believe in? Aren’t they afraid of what will happen when they die? They must think I’m stupid for believing in something that they so clearly labeled with that A, that NO.
I always knew that, for me, religion was a stretch. It’s not like I wasn’t fully immersed in it, I absolutely was; I’d always craved the music, the fellowship, the energy in a sunny morning spent in the sanctuary surrounded by like-minded people with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. I adored the feeling of hitting the ‘reset’ button each week and walking out into the world on Sunday afternoon recharged and refreshed. I’d had some wonderful pastors who were and are great mentors and friends to me and my family. I had my Children’s Bible Stories that I picked out at a flea market when I was a wee one because I’ve always been a book nerd, but mostly because I loved the pictures in this particular tome. I would read it over and over, touching the pictures of angels with beautiful faces, tumbling blonde curls, and gold-tipped wings, in awe of the magic of it all. Hell, since everyone else in my hometown seemed to and I felt left out, I was the one who, in 5th grade, asked my parents if we could go back to church. And maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe I entered into it all too late to suspend my disbelief about some of what I was supposed to believe so deeply – boats holding an impossible number of animals built by one man, immaculate births, etc – and look past the parts that made my stomach upset, the sections on misogyny, slavery, sacrifice, murder, war, and intolerance. I’d been told the stories, but I’d never stood in the presence of God and felt the weight of the words before that. I don’t know, maybe I was never a ‘real’ Christian to begin with. Maybe I am a shitty person who is going to hell.
Whatever the reason, my ever-present doubt held on and whispered in my ear so constantly in my first years of being devout that the only thing to do was go deeper. Deeper into my new faith, more intensely into believing to my core that this was what was right. Whoa buddy, did I become born again! From the little country church with an organ and 25 members where I’d first returned to the fold, I was now attending a more contemporary church. Hands in the air like I just didn’t care, rocking out to hymns punched out by drums and guitars. There was no room for doubt, because doubt was the devil, and questioning wasn’t what good servants of the Lord did. So I kept going, pushed through the doubt, mirrored what the good Christians around me did, read the passages, took notes on the sermon, nodded and shed tears of joy and fear and confusion in the pews. I was filled with guilt for failing to be the person I wanted so badly to be. That was about the time of my life when I started acting, too, and the parallels between the two started to jump from the page for me – in a scene, I was expected to be 100% invested in what was happening. I had to believe it, be living it to bring truth to my acting, but the harder I tried to focus ONLY on the present moment in the play, the more I was thinking about doing just that and completely distracting myself. Then I would scold myself for not staying in the moment, get self conscious that I now DEFINITELY wasn’t fully in the scene and that I was a shitty actor (real talk: I kind of was) and that now everyone could see through me and my act. The problem for me, I was finding, was that I couldn’t realistically give 100% of myself to anything, let alone something whose Bible I didn’t, couldn’t take for literal truth, and whose followers and their actions were just as evenly split between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as the rest of the nonreligious world’s. So I felt guilty on the stage and even more guilty in the pews, constantly trying to give more and more, to believe what I already didn’t really believe harder, to try harder and pray more to have this doubt taken away from me. I didn’t WANT it. Because, again, good people are religious, right? My parents would be crushed if I wasn’t. ‘Good Christian men & women’ was a phrase that rang in my ears. I didn’t want to be bad, I WASN’T bad, so… I HAD to be religious, doubt or no doubt. Right?
About this time into my return to religion I began dating my first serious boyfriend, a sweet boy, a similarly devoted Christian, and we both shared, among other beliefs, the not-at-all-rare mutually agreed upon understanding that our teenage sexual experiences were to be what was expected of us as young religious people in modern society. People of my generation know this idea well (the ‘poophole loophole’ as it’s jokingly called, because good God-fearing girls save their ‘true virginity’ for marriage) limited to me performing acts for him, trying not to enjoy anything too much, and not receiving much of anything but a high five and a kiss on the cheek since my purity, innocence, and virginity were, above all, my prize as a woman, and losing either or having anyone know I had or wanted to lose either would have brought so much shame to me and my family. On the other hand, though, a girl in my high school world had to keep her guy ‘happy’ to keep him around (much more the culture than the words of my, again, very kind boyfriend), and I was going to do whatever I thought I needed to do to strike that balance, whether I liked, hated, or felt indifferent to whatever act I was involved in. It was a time of Britney, of Christina, of the dawn of reality television and the blossoming of my womanhood, and having been a ‘loser’ and an ‘egghead’ and a ‘theater nerd’ for so long, I was desperate for acceptance, as much as I wanted people to think I didn’t care what people thought of me. I prayed for the memories of what I did on Saturday nights to go away as the words I was singing on Sunday morning rang hollow in my ears, cheeks wet with tears I was crying out of confusion and anger with myself for always, always, always falling short of being able to be the Christian I wanted to be, the girlfriend I wanted to be, the ‘cool girl’, the ‘good girl’, anything positive at all. I fit in nowhere, always fell short, and was not worthy of anything. This feeling of being torn in two was shared by many of the girls around me, and we sometimes talked about it in hushed tones and code words, but we couldn’t come up with a way around it. I couldn’t mend the hole being torn in me, tearing away my worth by creating a world in which I was stuck between two ideals, constantly striving for and failing at reaching either one, and searching for forgiveness for things I wasn’t sure I even wanted or needed forgiveness for.
The deeper I got into the church, the worse my doubt became. Like one week in college when the sermon was given by a member of Exodus International, a group committed to (painful, awful) conversion therapy for gay people. I felt like I was going to vomit when I walked out with a pamphlet from Exodus in my hand and congregants around me buzzing with excitement and positivity about what we’d just heard. Since I was young, I’d been in the theater world, filled to the brim with LGBTQ students, wonderful, loving people who didn’t seem to need or want change like that. How could those who supposedly knew best, with loving hearts and open hands, think something like this could be anything but wrong?
That was the beginning of the end for me. Guilt and fear of rejection from my religious friends and family kept me going along for years afterward, attending new churches, more and more liberal ones to try to find the truly ‘open and affirming’ one of my dreams, but all of my feelings about religion had changed since I’d begun to see some of the harsh truths I’d been pretending weren’t there. ‘Open and affirming’ still meant ‘homosexuality is a sin’, and I couldn’t be okay with that. So many of the taboos I was encountering as a young woman, alcohol, feminism, foul language, self expression, premarital sex, R rated movies, things that to other people are part of normal college age life were laden with gut wrenching guilt and deep, depression-aggravating frustration for me. The Sunday light, once so brilliant and warming, was a harsh glare reflecting the intolerance and hypocrisy I began to see laid bare all around me. We talked about being welcoming to outsiders and building our church, but each Sunday we sat in our unassigned assigned pews and whispered church gossip. We hated the sin and loved the sinner, when our sin – the sin of judging those around us in everyday life for everything from their choice of dress to their choice of partner to their choice of religion or lack thereof, wrapped in our own blessed assurance that we were right – seemed so much more egregious to me now. The infighting and cliques within the parishioners. The power plays within the church government. The constant struggle to fight the fact that I was becoming a woman. The guilt, especially after every time I did anything sexual with my boyfriend, that kept me from understanding my own sexuality and only striving to understand and appease his needs and never my own, because I of course had to keep him happy, but at least I could deny my own ‘evil’ sexual urges to try to balance out those acts that I tried to deny to myself that I enjoyed doing and wondered if I could or would ever enjoy having them done to me. The odd disconnected feeling I felt creeping up each Christmas Eve & Easter, as we reread and celebrated those stories I knew so well but that increasingly didn’t make sense – the tellings in each book were totally different, the ‘facts’ given filled with impossibilities, incongruities, and intolerance. The mistrust and fear of other religions, as if they were any different from us. I marvel that I was ever able to look at someone who was Jewish or Muslim and think, “I’M right. I’m sure of it. Theirs is a false god, and they simply need to be saved”, when they looked at me and were just as sure that THEY were the correct one. I looked around and saw people sitting in a bubble where they were able to feel superior and judge those who weren’t a part of their (obviously correct and best) group. I remembered the proud feeling I got when walking into my tiny town’s breakfast joint on Sunday mornings in my just-demure-enough dress, sure that our freshly scrubbed faces, clearly glowing with the light of God, made it clear where we’d been and where those around us hadn’t. I sincerely thought that all of the people eating pancakes around us were just unenlightened, that they simply hadn’t seen the truth yet, and I truly hoped that I could be the one to help them get to the holy place that I was in with my savior, although we never did much to actually achieve those goals outside of the church itself aside from fundraiser spaghetti suppers and charity acts wrapped in a big asterisk – sure, have this free cookie/gift/meal, but you’re going to take our message with it, thankyouverymuch. There was a certain thrill in the real or imagined judgement of others on my religious beliefs, too – Jesus suffered similarly, and people around me who didn’t believe seemed to either not notice what they were missing or feel that they were smarter than me and know better, both of which were confounding to me. Of course, what I know now is that what looked like faithfulness and devotion to me was actually arrogance and suppressed fear. Fear that even allowing thoughts of doubt would displease my God. Fear that I’d go to hell, either if I didn’t believe or even if I didn’t believe hard enough. And, of course, I never seemed to be able to believe hard enough. Until I finally gave up believing entirely.
Today, years on the other side of dropping the weight of religion from my shoulders, I walk through the world with an entirely different view. My morals come from my heart and nowhere else, and that is a beautiful thing, something that was true all along. I never allowed that still, small voice in me to guide me before, though – God was my guide. Not anymore. Doing good in the world is its own reward for me now, and the promise of a deity’s love or getting to heaven or avoiding the threat of hell isn’t necessary for me to be kind or go the extra mile. Sexuality, mine or anyone else’s and in all of its forms, is beautiful and human and not something to condemn or be ashamed of. Guilt and shame are no longer my motivator (well, except for food and exercise, but I’m working on it) anymore. I don’t have to feel bad for not being a ‘true Christian’ or for ‘not believing hard enough’, because that is a fool’s errand, and letting go of that has brought a truth and a clarity to my life that I didn’t know was possible. Anyone is able to believe anything they want as long as it doesn’t negatively affect those around them in any way, and in the same vein I can choose not to. I’ve walked that path already, all the way down, and it wasn’t for me. It never really was, but I couldn’t have known that without experiencing it for myself, and I’m so very glad I went through what I did to get to where I am now.
For me, in the end, it all comes down to empathy. There are people, cultures, religions, all kinds of different ways to ‘be’ in this world, and some may even make me uncomfortable at first. That happens, it’s human nature to want to identify with others and to be afraid of the unknown – but the next step after that initial feeling of “I don’t understand” needs to be “I WANT to understand”. To stop learning is to stop living, so open your eyes and learn about other peoples’ experiences – there’s no shame in not understanding something at first. The shame is in staying ignorant to something once it’s brought to your attention. If you don’t know who I am or why I am an atheist, and I don’t know you or your story, before you judge someone by their look or their labels, learn about their life, share yours, learn the value of ‘agree to disagree’ in some situations, and walk this world with open eyes and an empathetic ear. ‘Atheism’ is not a belief system or a religion, it is not attempting to take anything away from or attack anyone else, it is simply a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings. A (no) theist (religion). That’s it.
Being ‘humanist’, ‘secular’, or just plain old ‘atheist’ doesn’t make me bad or evil. It doesn’t affect my sense of right or wrong, or my grasp on the concept of truth. I’m still me. Always will be.