My mother was raised Catholic; my father was raised Jewish. So perhaps it was a bit of a surprise the day in second grade when I announced to my predominantly Christian classmates that the Greek pantheon of gods was the one I wanted to follow. I’m not sure if I really believed it or if I was just set myself apart from my classmates (if the latter, mission accomplished, as they reminded me for the rest of the year). It also could have been the only way I knew how to let my classmates – and by extension the world – know I didn’t believe in their Judeo-Christian God.
My penchant for atheism only grew from there. Later in elementary school I would desperately try to crack the arguments of my classmates that hinged on the simple truth “the bible was written by God, so anything written in it is true.” In middle and high school, I had many friends who were devout Christians, though I never quite felt I could relate. When I got to college, I got particularly adamant about my disdain for religion. I remember in one class when the teacher asked why many pagan holidays lined with with Christian holidays, I proudly replied “because Christians like to convert things.” I started making plans to rewrite the Christmas carols with secular lyrics instead, and every year I avoided the dreaded “Christmas Sing” in the main hall of my school.
After 9/11, I became even more convinced that religion was a misguided and deleterious institution. Certainly I was horrified that the hijackers would murder thousands of innocent people in the name of their god, but I was also disgusted by the jingoistic Christian-led backlash in the United States. Watching people with supposedly Christian values demonize and call for the extermination of Islam invoked the memory of a history we were doomed to repeat.
At the height of my atheist zeal, I was asked to play a show with the band overlord at the Godless Americans’ March on Washington in November 2002. It was a rally on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in which atheists, humanists, and freethinkers spoke about subjects such as creating a national identity for atheists, the separation of church and state, and the harmful effects of organized religion. It was exhilarating to finally be surrounded by people with whom I could identify, in a context where we could rebuke the religious. I had a great time laughing at the ridiculous religious people who believed in the “invisible man.”
Lest you believe I wasn’t actually there:
So there are a few things I want to point out in my rhetoric to this point. Things like my “disdain” for people who follow the tenants of a religion, and how I “rebuked” the religious. I was trying to “convince” my classmates that their blind faith in the bible was misguided. I’ve even used the word “zeal” to describe my passion for the subject. It kinda sorta sounds a little like I was doing and saying the same things that irritated me about organized religion. And while I do believe that atheism is attacked most frequently by a cultural machine that equates “no god” with “no morality,” I also think we atheists do ourselves no favors by sinking to the same level.
This has become increasingly more apparent with the development of social media and Facebook arguments. For one thing, the ad hominem arguments against the religious are vicious. “Jesus freak idiots who can’t think for themselves believe in an invisible man.” “Faith is a waste of time, as science subsumes and disproves every piece of fiction the believers come up with.” The slightly tenable arguments of those statements are hidden underneath a pile of insults. It’s no wonder no one ever gets convinced to change their minds in these situations.
While we’re on the subject, why do we try to change people’s minds? Certainly when I’m directly affected, I may need to persuade someone to “book my band,” or “put down that hacksaw,” or “throw me the idol.” There are so many great ways in which one can go about his or her life. Your belief in a higher power does not threaten my lack of belief. There may be specific times where this isn’t true, such as if a law were passed making prayer mandatory in school. But that’s not the fault of organized religion. That’s the fault of organized people, as my depiction of vehement atheism demonstrates above. There is plenty of space for both belief systems, and plenty of overlap of lifestyles outside that single pillar.
These days I’m as much of an atheist as I’ve ever been. I still don’t believe that a higher power exists, and I still don’t see the appeal of faith over facts. However, my disdain for religion and the religious has been replaced for an admiration of the beauty of a belief system outside my own. That something so delicate and intangible can be the source of so much happiness is delightful to me. I find the discussion of why we believe what we believe to be an incredibly exciting and interesting exercise, as long as both parties are treated with respect.
I regret that my younger self couldn’t see when he was saying things about religion that hurt other people’s feelings. And also that he couldn’t see that he was so threatened by the implications of what atheism meant that he had to show disgust towards the institutions of religion just to make a point.
Last Christmas I was surprised to come to terms with the fact that there are things about the holiday that I absolutely love. I love the music (and the religious lyrics that come along with it), I love the lights people put up, I love the traditions that bring people together. I even love the story of Christmas, regardless of whether Jesus was really born in the summertime, regardless of what race he was, and regardless of whether the holiday came together as a way to co-opt the Winter Solstice. Sure, the false sense of righteousness about the War on Christmas makes me crazy, and I’m not really into buying presents. Overall, though, I really do love the season. I wish I could have been so brave when I was younger.
I don’t like the term “Ethical Atheist,” as it implies that the natural state of atheism is unethical. What I mean by it, though, is that we can overcome the cultural perception of atheists as lawless selfish people. We can also overcome the cultural perception of atheism as a nihilistic and vindictive way to give Christians a “taste of their own medicine.” The tools of elitism, condescension, and ridicule don’t get us anywhere. Let’s instead be tolerant, respectful, and perhaps even engaged with the fundamental stories in the lives of our fellow humans. Let’s be ethical in our approach to religion and open up the door for others to be ethical in their interactions with us.