Monday, April 01, 2013

What A Fool* Believes

(Deep breath...)

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?!"

I understand my father's anguish much better now, twenty-and-then-some years on--one of those universal parenthood moments when we feel we've failed our children in some fundamental way. 

Even in the face of that anguish, though, my sister did not back down. Not one tiny bit. Though there were tears on all sides, she refused to say she believed in something she did not believe in and she continued to argue vehemently for her right to express her own beliefs while at no point attacking or belittling my father's beliefs. Her answer to his shouted assertion about having seen God was to say that she was glad it was a comfort to him at a time when he needed it (Vietnam).

In contrast, my part of that conversation was to sit with some relief as my sister took the heat, content to get away with the wimpy and evasive: "I'm not sure really what I believe." even though at the time, my beliefs were pretty well lined up with my sister's.

Wimpy and evasive succinctly sums up my approach to religious conversation ever since. I have become adept at non-committal answers and well-timed changes of subject. A time-worn favorite of mine is to say "I'm a lot more sure of what I don't believe than what I do." and then not elaborate on any of my beliefs or non-beliefs.

There comes a point, though, where it is far scarier to continue hedging and dancing around the things that are important to you than it is to just come out with it. And here we are.

I do not believe in the Christian God or any other supreme being, but I do believe in the power of thoughts and in a kind of prayer. I believe that love is a verb, not just a noun--that, ideally, it is not merely something we feel, but something we do. I believe, too, in compassion and empathy and tolerance and forgiveness--and I have tried mightily to practice these things, not merely preach them. (I fail miserably on a regular basis--but I try to spare myself a little compassion and forgiveness, too.) I believe in learning a little more each day to live my beliefs.

Though I do not believe they are bestowed from some force outside ourselves, I do believe in blessings, miracles and sacred wonder. I believe in something like a soul in each of us--if it is merely the product of firing electrons and stewing chemicals in our brains, it is no less precious and may even be more so.

I believe that religious faith is an inclination we are born with or not. Environment and training can contribute to what you come to believe in, but I don't think they have much influence over whether or not you believe in (or seek) a higher power. A substitute teacher I had in humanities during the Bible unit my senior year in high school said it best when he said, "I believe you either feel that spark or you don't." Perhaps it's not quite that simple, but I believe it's close.

Finally, I believe that sharing what we believe is our only hope of seeing each other as more than just the labels we attach to ourselves and to one another.

I am an atheist. And I believe.

A is for Atheism
~~With thanks to Little Sister and my father for allowing me to pick their brains about a difficult moment in our shared history. Thanks, too, goes to Tara at Faith in Ambiguity for leading by example and nudging me in the direction of living (and blogging) more openly.

*Just to be absolutely clear, the fool here is me.

1. Though stubbornly persistent, this belief is not as popular as it once was.



  1. What am awesome post. I am not an atheist. And I believe. I think it takes a lot of courage to own up to what you believe. Although I don't agree with some of what you say, I certainly agree with a lot of it. Thank you for being brave.

  2. Yay, Tara!
    I like your thoughtful piece, MM. I believe in all that stuff that you believe in too. I grew up saturated in Catholicism and I don't really care if there is a god or not. It wouldn't change how I live my life so I just don't think about it.

  3. I admire your courage and the thoughtfulness of the way you wrote this post, MM. I especially like the part where you assert your atheism, as well as your belief. I too believe in people:) or at least I strive to;)

  4. I believe in God, but I take some liberal side roads to get there! And if the great Don Williams sings it, then I know it's true. I love that guy!

  5. Whew. There. Now, don't you feel better? This kind of thing - this kind of reasoned, honest, open discussion and confession of belief is exactly what we all need a lot more of on all sides, so thank you for that. It gives everyone a place to start and it exposes so much more common ground than if we just walk around slapping labels on things and people and ignoring the contents. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  6. Go for you! Way to own your Atheism!

  7. Your second paragraph says it all for me. You see, I too am an atheist; I just confuse the issue by calling myself an existentialist. I raised my three sons to adhere to first, the golden rule, and second, the concept of responsibility. I never told them that I did not believe in a higher power, except for that of love. They are all three community contributors, as am I. Enough said. Thanks for making it easier for the rest of us to express an opinion.

  8. This was a very honest, authentic post--beautiful! I too am a believer and attend a progressive church, but I experience God in people, not in the I can relate to much of what you are saying!

  9. Hm, an interesting posting. I like what your substitute teacher says about either feeling the spark, or not feeling it. . . I get that. I teach at a religious school and so am surrounded by believers, I am a non-believer but do believe in the Christian ethos of the school, or I wouldn't have been able to continue teaching there, and yet I have never ever felt the spark.
    And that's OK.
    Stella x
    PS I missed the sign up for the A-Z blgging, darn, would've been a good challenge to get me back into it.

  10. Your beliefs about love and compassion are something many Christians could learn from. I'm so grateful to you and Tara for sharing your beliefs and helping me understand something I'd never known much about before. I believe in people, and I firmly believe in you.

  11. I believe in God, but I vehemently do not believe in organized religion. I also believe that this is an incredibly brave and honest post. Well written!

  12. Thank you everyone for the kind and supportive comments. They're greatly appreciated.

  13. Little Sister5/6/13, 2:57 AM

    Congrats on this liberating post. As always, I appreciate the way that you tell it. That particular Don Williams song did sum it up well. My experience of the Human Condition since that revealing conversation, has reinforced my belief in the power of People. The arbitrary use of that power has convinced me of an entity which stops me from living my life in the "let go and let god" mode. There are days when I envy that spark of faith that must bring great comfort in the face of the realization that all that CAN be done HAS been done.