I am an atheist.
I don't talk about it much. I never bring it up and, until quite recently, I would perform all sorts of linguistic gymnastics to avoid saying those four simple words. It's entirely possible that you have witnessed the very first time that I have made such a simple, declarative statement regarding my lack of belief in a supreme being.
Part of my aversion to directly admitting my atheism can be chalked up to cowardice, pure and simple--to the fear that people will think less of me, to the fear of damaging relationships with friends and coworkers. But a whole other part of that aversion is that to define myself as an atheist is to focus on what I don't believe in rather than what I do.
Contrary to persistent1 belief, atheism doesn't necessarily equal belief in nothing. While I wouldn't dream of speaking for other atheists, I am at long last ready to speak for myself about what I do believe.
I grew up in a non-religious household. My father was raised by a Catholic mother and a Protestant father (my Nan and Pap.) Pap wouldn't allow Nan to attend Catholic church, much less take my father. Though Pap was nominally Protestant, he apparently rarely (if ever) attended church and appeared to harbor some anger toward preachers of all sorts until much later in life, when he was baptized in his kitchen sink, read Our Daily Bread and listened to cassette tapes of sermons provided by the minister of a church down the road. Despite his own misgivings and outward lack of belief during my father's childhood, my grandfather forced my father to attend a Protestant church from the ages of eight through eleven or so.
My mother was also only loosely affiliated with church growing up--attending Sunday school with friends, but not forced to do so by her parents. She fell away from church entirely when she was fourteen and the minister questioned the length of her skirt (a hand-me-down) in front of the entire congregation--she did not believe God cared about fashion choices and that moment became the perfect stand-in for all kinds of misrepresentation and hypocrisy that she saw when she looked at religion in general.
As kids, my closest-in-age sister and I occasionally attended Vacation Bible School or Sunday School or even regular church services with friends, but God and religion were mostly not on our radar growing up. Both of my parents were big fans of the Don Williams song "I Believe In You" with the lyrics, "I don't believe that Heaven waits for only those who congregate/I like to think of God as love/He's down below, he's up above/He's watching people everywhere/He knows who does and doesn't care." Rightly or wrongly, I've always kind of thought of those lyrics as representative of the entirety of my parents' religious philosophy.
The one time that I can remember the subject of God coming up between my parents, my sister and I, it was a fairly disastrous conversation. I was seventeen and my sister sixteen at the time. Though we had never been encouraged, let alone forced, to attend church, when it somehow came out that my sister (at that time) identified herself as an atheist, there was yelling and tears and door-slamming. To my recollection, I was mostly a stunned bystander, as was my mom--though she tried to intercede a few times in hopes of calming things down a bit.
I clearly remember my father at one point demanding, "If you don't believe in God, what do you believe in?" and my sister responding, "I believe in people." And I remember, too, my father yelling, on the verge of tears, "I am telling you I have seen God! Doesn't that mean anything to you?!"
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