How to Make An Atheist, Part 3

I clearly remember the first time I came out as an atheist.

About 5 years ago my husband and I ran into one of the Witness kids I’d grown up with outside a bookstore downtown. He looked pretty rough in a thrift-store suit, more lines around his eyes than seemed right. (Note: My sister and I have often observed that of the kids who stayed in the faith past a certain age, almost all of them fell into one of two categories. Either they became missionaries to Botswana or similar, or they ended up doing time for possession. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground among my generation of J Dubs, no quietly contented life of balance between the religious and the secular worlds. I find this not a little disturbing.) He hinted at some serious trouble in his life but said that he and his family were still with the congregation. And then he held me very warmly by the shoulder and said, “No one was ever mad at you, you know. You were just kids. You’ll be welcomed home with open arms if you come back.” The love in his voice was moving and I said so. “Thanks so much, but actually I’m an atheist now.”

There was a moment of shocked silence that I felt moved to try to fill. “Um, I’m really happy. Really.” His face bore a look that was hard to read – horror, confusion, bafflement, like I’d just announced in ancient Urdu that I’d taken up animal sacrifice. He recovered himself quickly and made as gracious an exit as he could manage, fleeing as though from a friendly axe murderer. My husband and I looked at each other questioningly and he said “Wow. You just came out and said it. That’s my wife!”

You have to understand that during the Bush years we atheists were a miserably besieged people. The administration’s relentless erosion of the separation of church and state had taken its toll. A 2006 University of Minnesota study found that in conservative households atheists were more mistrusted than Muslims, Jews, recent immigrants and homosexuals. For conservatives that’s pretty damn mistrusted. Many of us felt unheard, unrepresented, disavowed, disenfranchised to a degree never before reported. Even here in one of the most liberal cities in the country there was a feeling of risk that came along with outing oneself as an atheist, and it didn’t all come from the Christians. New Age spiritualism was nearly impossible to avoid and telling people that not only did you not believe in Jesus but you didn’t believe in past lives either was likely to result in a sour exchange. I found myself getting angrier and angrier, more and more aware of the double standards inherent in America’s treatment of her non-believers.

A good example: I had just started working as a therapist at a nearby school. After an introductory meeting with the faculty and administration one of the teachers said “Hey, your name is Irish. That must mean you’re Catholic, right?” (Let us for a moment bypass the egregious stereotypes expressed in this comment. Where would we even start?) Without hesitation I corrected him and named myself an atheist. (This particular teacher was a follower of a self-assembled aggregation of Christian and New Age beliefs that included Jesus, Satan, clairvoyance, Native American animism and the spirit of his frequently reincarnated cat Stu who was now watching over him from heaven. He was writing a book about it. No judgement.) For the next several months he mounted a dogged campaign to save my soul via logical argument proving the existence of various metaphysical forces. After my intern witnessed him trying it out on the kids I lodged a complaint with my supervisor who in turn brought it to the principal of the school. The teacher was reprimanded accordingly but both the principal and my supervisor chastised me as well, for announcing my “religious beliefs” to a coworker. My protest that if I had answered his question with a belief system that he accepted it would never have been a problem, that it was my belief itself and not the announcement of it that launched his campaign, went unheard.

By the time I walked into Glide last May I was embittered and shoulder-chipped beyond all reason. As a feminist, social justice activist and general liberal sh*t-disturber, the political atrocities I had witnessed in the name of righteousness infuriated me – beloved friends robbed of their right to marry; girls threshed into self-hatred and objectivity by abstinence-only sex ed that increased rather than decreased rates of teen pregnancy and STI’s; legal abortion threatened with extinction; ignorance and bigotry and corruption and greed made law by smug smiling demagogues hiding behind the cross. Everything I saw strengthened my conviction that religion, the opiate of the masses, was at the nefarious heart of all that plagued our country.

That morning in May 2009 I stumbled into the sanctuary at Glide for the music. Something extraordinary was about to start. My mind was about to be blown.

One response to this post.

  1. I was just watching Bill Marre (sp?) interview Cris Rock. It helps to familiar with On the Waterfront when visualizing what I am about describe. Basically there are these docks and a guy picks out of a crowed people who get to work that day. In Rock’s case and his fathers it was a newspaper distribution dock. Rock was talking about how in New York City (not the south), in the late 80’s (not 1960) that the workers were picked as Italians, Irish ( i think) first…then Blacks…then Jews (in New York City…I guess a lot of Jews live there…so this was ironic)…anyway he was illustrating the point that he was friends with Jews, because he knew what it was like to be pick low on the totem pole…and Jews were even lower in that community. It makes you wonder about the Atheist place. I certainly agree it is easier for me to say I am Jewish, then atheist…but then I have to have a conversation I don’t believe in. Honestly I should go with talking about my Oklahoma White Methodist side…skip over the Quaker side, ‘casue they get a lot of crap too. So now I am skeptical of liberty, freedom, separation of church and state, do on to others…, as they are skeptical of my intentions (which don’t add up to much of a threat).

    Reply

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