I always assumed that atheists were assholes. Whenever Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens would show up on my computer screen, I would internally snarl at them: so angry, I thought. So prone to bitterness and self-righteousness.
Now that I’ve undergone my own deconstruction of faith I have to say that, while not excusing their more egregious behavior, I get why atheists can be assholes. It can feel like the whole world is against you, putting words in your mouth, or making assumptions about your character. Ever since coming out as a nontheist, I’ve gotten a steady torrent of unpleasantness from theists. I’ve gotten unsolicited challenges to debate, condescending private messages, and annoying assumptions about my personal integrity hurled at me.
Last week, I had the pleasure of appearing on the podcast Church and Other Drugs. What I expected to be a conversation about Satanism turned into an enjoyable back and forth over the existence of God. Jed, who hosts Church and Other Drugs, is a theist, while I am a nontheist. Jed finally brought up a question he says he has yet to hear a satisfying answer to, and it’s one I hear perpetually:
If there is no afterlife, how can this life have any meaning?
Last night before going to bed, I found myself praying the Evening Office from the Book of Common Prayer. I love the book of Common Prayer — I love the poetry and the guiding, inner choreography of the liturgy. As I prayed last night I felt that warmth, presence, and silent awe I’ve felt my whole life when I enter sacred spaces — many would call it the presence of God. Sometime, when praying, I find myself speaking in tongues, a torrent of syllables pouring from me unbidden. It feels warm in my mouth, and it feels like something outside of myself speaking through me. I also still attend church (when I can), and I experience the love and presence of an external, invisible force.
Nothing sends off fireworks in the brain for religious people quite like an admission of atheism. It’s scary, in my beloved religious community, to admit that I don’t believe in God. I’ve had some unexpectedly unpleasant conversations with friends — conversations that suddenly dipped into ferocious defensiveness, in which they assumed a lot about what I believe and don’t believe.
So, allow me to explain what I mean when I say I don’t believe in God.
Around this time last year, I buried my cousin. Ian was a vegan, atheist, and environmentalist so dedicated to the cause of caring for the earth that his principles extended even to his death. After a physicist gave a science lesson on what would happen to Ian’s body, and how he would nourish the tree that would be planted over him, we took shovels and buried what was left of Ian. He was wrapped in purple linen, and the cancer had reduced his frame to a frail shadow of his former fit, powerful, athletic self.
The ceremony was void of any spirit, symbol, or God. I was disquieted by the that, and yet I was moved. I was moved by Ian’s commitment to science, and his care for the earth. I was tempted to call the funeral hopeless, but realized that wasn’t right. The funeral was full of love, conviction, and hope, and didn’t need to say anything about an afterlife. That wasn’t the point of Ian’s life – Ian was about the here and now, the earth, the injustices that plagued the planet now. He didn’t believe in the afterlife, and that lack of belief thrust him headfirst into the present. Plus, it wasn’t my funeral. Who was I to cast judgement on Ian’s wishes? That would be tasteless.
I’ve been fairly vocal about my journey into nontheistic religion, and the response from fellow Christians has been a tremendous amount of anxiety. I’ve found myself in twitter disputes over faith, and I’ve had more awkward coffee dates with concerned Christians than I’d prefer.
For the past year or so now, I’ve been caught in the strange, lonely, interstitial space of no longer believing in the existence of a personal God but still deeply valuing the role of religion in my life.
Looking back, I realize that I’ve been quietly grieving for my faith in a literal, personal God for most of my twenties, and that it was only in 2017 that I finally accepted the death of my personal God. It took a long time to grieve, to even to build up the courage to pull the covers back and peak into a world without God. God felt more fundamental than my skin, breath, and blood. To lose Him felt like the loss of everything.
I recently had a fun, engaging, meeting-of-the-minds conversation with former Scientologist Chris Shelton for his Sensibly Speaking show. In our conversation we discussed struggling with atheism, deconstruction of faith, inner truth vs. outer truth, speaking in tongues, yoga, and much more. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation, and I hope you enjoy listening to it.