“You Need to Get a Religion”: Explorations in Being a Godless Heathen

Being an atheist in the United States is hard.

Well, I should clarify: being a non-Christian in the United States is hard. Not being the “right flavor” of Christian is hard*. However, to many, being an atheist is a new kind of low. A new kind of rampant godless heathen low.

I have been with Mr. Silverwane, my Jewish boyfriend, for a long time now. Religion was never an issue for us. We agree on what we consider to be important, and we respect each other where we differ. And when I first started to meet his family and friends, I was (very) fortunate in that not one of them disliked me. But apparently they formed an image of me in their heads. Shy. Conservative. Christian. (Guess which one of the three was true? Hint: doesn’t start with “C.”)

While finding out that they assumed this about me was amusing, it set up a potentially uncomfortable conversation. And it wasn’t telling them that I was actually quite liberal that gave me pause. It was telling them I was an atheist.

For a long while, until I was about fifteen or so, when asked, I identified as agnostic. And it wasn’t because I was truly agnostic. It was because, deep down, I felt that when I told someone, “I am an atheist,” they would hear, “I hate you and your religion.” Indeed, the idea that atheism, by its very existence, challenges the efficacy of religion has been around for centuries. It has even been expressed by 17th century English philosopher John Locke, who has often been regarded as one of the most progressive people of his time when it came to religious toleration. In one of his Letters of Toleration, he wrote, “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” But later, in the exact same letter, he said this:

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.

Thus, John Locke, the same person who said it was un-Christian to hate not only other sects of Christianity but other religions as well, said that atheists were in no way trustworthy human beings. For him, to take away God, not only do you undermine religion as a whole, but you threaten everything society stands for. And indeed, I’ve faced this response more times than I can count. By revealing my rampant godlessness, I am in fact threatening someone’s sense that society matters. That morality counts.

And it’s all because they believe you can’t be a good, reliable person without religion.

In a 1999 Gallup poll, 48% of Americans said they would “refuse to vote for “˜a generally well-qualified person for president’” if they knew zhe was an atheist. (For context, an atheistic candidate received the highest percentage of automatic refusal, beating out a Muslim candidate at 38%, a gay candidate at 37%, and a Mormon candidate at 17%.)

Now, of course, this was over a decade ago. But times don’t seem to have changed much. Here’s a few key excepts from a recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia. Which, while based in Canada, also rings true for many an American.

 In one of the studies, participants said atheists more closely matched the description of an untrustworthy person than Muslims, Jews, Christians, feminists or homosexual men did. The only people that were counted nearly as untrustworthy as atheists were rapists, who are described by the study as an “unambiguously distrusted group.”

[…]

“While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty,” said [Ara] Norenzayan.

[…]

One of the reasons the researchers gave for this distrust of nonbelievers, however, is a shared feeling “that people behave better if they feel that God monitors their behavior.”

[…]

The UBC study was conducted in the “atypically secular settings of a university, in one of the most secular cities in North America,” indicating atheist distrust might be even stronger in “more typically religious areas.”

These days, I am unashamed about my atheism. I talk about it openly. But too often, when I talk about that part of who I am, I am met with antipathy and scorn.

Most of everyone in Mr. Silverwane’s circle was, to their credit, completely fine with my atheism. Or, at least, if they had an issue with it, they kept it private. But there was one person who was not: his now-ex-sister-in-law.

I wasn’t there when my atheism came up in conversation. He told me what happened later. I don’t even remember why it was mentioned, but it was, one day, when the two of them were talking: Silverwane is an atheist.

She went quiet, as he told me. That sudden quiet that falls on a person when they hear something about someone that shocks them to their core. That quiet that in a heartbeat turns into disgust. Revulsion. I am familiar with that quiet. The sudden snap of a person from warm to cold when you tell them those four dreaded words: “I am an atheist.”

He reminded her that I’m still the same person she thought I was when she thought I was Christian. The same person she saw as a kind, friendly, and upright human being. So she relaxed. But that was not the end of the discussion. One day, the two of them got into an argument. Alcohol was involved.

“If you two decide to have kids, how are you going to raise them? Jewish or atheist?” she demanded.

Mr. Silverwane remarked later that she never breathed a word of the question when she thought I was Christian. All of a sudden, it was a concern to her: that if we had children, they might also be godless heathens. It showed me then that it wasn’t being a non-Christian that was truly terrible to her. It was lacking religion at all.

When I was seven, my family and I were on vacation visiting my grandmother. She had been raised Christian, but she converted to Judaism for the sake of her Jewish husband when they married. She wasn’t an openly religious person. I never remember hearing about her attending any religious services, whether at a church or a synagogue. But nonetheless, one day, when were alone in the car together, she turned to me and said something I will never forget.

“You need to get a religion,” she told me.

I was flabbergasted. “Why?”

“I just want to see you grow up well.”

Today, I don’t believe she feels I would have grown up “better” had I grown up with religion. Nonetheless, my whole life, I have encountered people who have insinuated  that very sentiment: that children need religion to set them straight. Otherwise, they will grow up into malicious adults who don’t care for or about others. That they will grow up into the rampant godless shithead that is me.

So now, whenever I run into a person like this, I feel compelled to talk about what atheism is to me. About how I don’t think science can give the answers to everything. About how I’m strongly influenced by Daoism. About how sometimes I feel a strong disconnect from the atheist movement because it is so (white) male-dominated. About how I value not only religious experience but religion.

For every person whose mind I have changed, there have been ten more who cease listening the moment they hear the word “atheist” leave my lips. All they see is a person without morals, without feeling, and without religion.

So I keep talking. I keep talking because someday, I would love to see a world where it isn’t what you believe that counts, or even who you are, but how you live.

 

*It is, of course, a hell of a lot harder in many places, and I in no way wish to diminish the struggles of people who aren’t the “right” religion across the globe. I recognize that I have a lot of privilege in that I have the ability to talk openly about my atheism without facing more serious repercussions than some people thinking I’m a terrible person. A lot of people don’t have that.

139 thoughts on ““You Need to Get a Religion”: Explorations in Being a Godless Heathen”

  1. It took me awhile to accept that I am, more or less, an atheist. It was a hard realization for me, because it means that you don’t have the comfort of believing that everything has a meaning, and a purpose, and that there is someone out there looking out for you. Religion really is a comfort.

    But you can’t make yourself believe something just because you want to believe it. I can’t make myself take seriously the idea that I have a big sky friend. I would love to, but I can’t. It’s especially hard because I actually study religion– I just don’t believe any of it. It’s also hard to realize that I will never be able to run for office. But mostly, it’s hard to not have that comfort that religion provides. People really don’t realize that.

    1. That’s exactly what I struggled with, too. I started having doubts as early as age 10. For a while, I tried to suppress these thoughts and throw myself deeper into religion. The thought that there was no heaven and my death is really the end terrified me for so long. It took until I went to college for me to finally start accepting that I was an atheist. You’re right; it is not easy.

    2. No, I don’t suppose it is easy if you’ve always had that sense of comfort from it. I’ve frequently made the analogy between religious faith and romantic love: you feel what you feel. And if you’re expected to feel a thing that simply isn’t there, it is an incredibly unpleasant burden. I hope that isn’t too cheesey. It’s just that… if it’s there, that’s great, but if it’s not, it’s not.

      To continue my faith/love analogy (and also just enjoy a nice musical interlude):

  2. Great article. I’m not sure how much my mom was upset by my becoming an atheist. I tried to tell her she should be proud that she raised children who think for themselves, but I’m not sure how much that helped.

    One of my biggest problems with religion was the thanking god for good things and the devil tempting us to do bad things. I will take responsibility for myself, thank you very much, the good and the bad. And please don’t think I’m a satanist because I’m no longer a christian. I’m not a christian! That means I don’t believe in any of it, the god part, or the devil part.

  3. A little late to this, but I wanted to say that this is a lovely article.

    I often worry about the role of organized religion. I go rounds debating if the good it can do out weighs the bad it does do. And the tendency to turn into the high school cool kids clique is one of its biggest problems.

    The only successful argument I’ve ever had with a religious person about why, we of faith need to accept and respect atheists and not bug them about how they are “missing out” or “endangering their souls” went something like this:

    “Think to a time when you felt secure in your faith. When there was no doubt in your mind that you were in the presence of the divine. Was anyone nattering at you about religion? Were you being pressured about what you believe? Or were you being trusted by others to sort out the metaphysics of the universe for yourself? You cannot force someone into faith. Everyone should have the opportunity to seek understanding on their own terms. Shoving a religion down someone’s throat does not improve their chances of finding faith. (If anything, it’s going to make them resentful of the faithful and have the opposite effect)

    Furthermore, do you really want someone you care about to feel like they have to lie around you? Or that societal acceptance is based on them acting like they believe something they don’t? Do you really value someone going through the motions of faith over someone being willing to honestly engage with you about faith and the ways in which you differ?”

    And that was held with someone who was already liberal, they just needed their privilege checked. I have no answers for the people that are so wrapped up in being the bestest Christians ever, that they miss out on loving others (and as an aspect of loving them, giving them respect).

  4. I haven’t had time to read all the comments after this awesome article, but I plan to do so eventually. My entry into atheism was met with shock and horror from my mother, who cried because she felt as though I was making a huge mistake and that she had done something wrong. My father pretended I was confused, until a few years later when I was still an atheist and he announced via family email that I had no right to ask for Christmas presents. I didn’t take him seriously and just rolled my eyes, mostly because he said it after drinking too much that night. And after one more awful phone confrontation with my mother about my choice of religion (where she announced that I didn’t have a moral compass if I didn’t believe in God. I HATE THAT ARGUMENT!), she has since decided it’s healthier for our relationship to not talk about religion.

    My husband grew up and remains an atheist, so in my family we just don’t talk about religion when we all come to visit. Everyone has settled down and while no Christian can ACCEPT an atheist’s beliefs (it took me a while to understand that one. I suppose it was because I was always a “bad” Christian because I always accepted everyone’s beliefs/religions when growing up), my family doesn’t actively try to change me back. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t do what one of my brothers did – just never announce you’re an atheist to your family. That’s definitely not my style but it did hold some allure.

    I do have a friend who thinks whenever I have kids I’ll suddenly feel the NEED to switch back to Christianity. I definitely cocked my head in confusion after that statement. As for other friends, we just don’t bring up religion unless someone asks us outright. People are afraid of atheists because they equate them to satanists or, yes, godless heathens. But as long as they are able to remain friends with us after we tell them we actually DON’T ritually sacrifice Christians at the altar out back, then we’re good.

    1. Ugh, I hate the kids thing. This came up with my mom the other day.

      “But… how will you raise your kids?”

      “Uh, to be good people? To think for themselves?”

      It bothers me, because it comes back to the idea that you need religion to be a moral person or to teach morality. You don’t. It also bothered me, coming from my mom, because religion was not a big part of our household. Yes, we attended services on Sunday, but I was very ignorant about Biblical teachings (save for the stories everyone knows, like Noah’s Ark and David and Goliath), and we didn’t talk about religion at home. My mom taught me to be a good person because it’s the right thing to do, and it makes you and others feel good. And that’s how I plan on raising my kids.

        1. Yeah, I plan on raising my kids as freethinkers, so I’m not going to hide religion from them. Rather, I plan on introducing them to different stories from all different religions, as well as mythology, folk tales, etc. I want them to learn about religion, but I won’t be raising them in a certain faith.

          1. Yes! My husband was given a children’s bible when he was younger and he learned all of the stories (and remembers them waaay better than I ever have!). But to him, it was just a book. He occasionally went to church with his grandmother and he knew about Christianity but that’s as far as it went.

    2. I hate the kids thing too. I have an ex who told me, back when we were dating, that if we had kids we would need to start going to church. So that the kids would learn to be nice, moral people I guess. And neither of us was going to church at the time. It seemed so hypocritical to me.

  5. Just wanted to jump in here and say that it has been an absolute pleasure reading this article and all of the comments. I’m not sure what I am, but I know I’m not religious, am maybe kind of spiritual, love nature, and want to be the best human I can be. You all have given me some great food for thought, thanks!

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