Thursday, August 20, 2009

you say that like it's a BAD thing

[also posted at The Exponent]

Atheism- the absence of belief in the existence of deities.

At a large family dinner a few years ago, the conversation turned to the topic of one of my cousins (not present at this gathering). It had been discovered that this cousin no longer believed in the church (!!) which revelation brought about a general round of disappointed head-shaking. But that was not all, the informant continued, "he told me he no longer believes in God!" Gone was the disappointed head-shaking, in it's place was a profound sense of horror.

In my heart (a heart already secretly dealing with questions about the church) I also felt that sense of horror, my own hidden fears that I might lose God.

As manifest by the reactions of my family, the label "Atheist" is a slur, a tragedy, an almost incomprehensible failing, a fate worse than death (well, okay, maybe that's going a bit far, but you get the idea, right?)

[My trusty Webster's dictionary at home has as it's first definition of Atheism; UNGODLINESS, WICKEDNESS. ]

It always intrigues me when I see an individual address a predominately believing audience and refer to their own atheism. It doesn't happen very often. When it does, I try to speak to them about it afterward. Frequently they share the small reservation they feel about stating such a thing out loud in such a setting, there being such a negative stigma attached to the label amongst believers, but that they felt it should be included in their remarks anyways.

I, for one, am always glad they do.
Because, you see, I don't really believe in God anymore, and I'm having to confront my own reservations about admitting this to myself and my peers. (I was recently asked to give a lesson in relief society and was strongly tempted to say "Sure! But I'm atheist, do you still want me to teach the lesson?" But I didn't. I just graciously declined the invitation. Maybe someday.)

I have been delighted to discover the non-theist community is extremely diverse, full of good works, purpose, hope and joy. To discover, as Phil Zuckerman puts it, "Lack of theism does not render this world any less wondrous, lush, mystifying, or amazing."

I have an absence of belief in the existence God.

Which is very ironic because I have always been and still am a spiritual person. But it's not tragic and that's the point I'm trying to get across. There is incredible room for personal growth, for wonder and awe and profundity and mystery within the realms of non-theism. There are amazing people in this world, contributing members of society, friends, spouses, parents etc who do so much good even though they don't believe in God. (Funny isn't it, the impulse to add a caveat about how a person can be good without believing in God.)

I sort of wish I could go back in time to that family dinner and respond to the pronouncement that this cousin was atheist with something like "you say that like it's a BAD thing" and try to get a discussion going that perhaps distilled some of the negative associations with the label.
Maybe next time. :)
Meanwhile, I'll take this opportunity here, on this blog, to get a discussion going.

This is not a post to promote atheism and I want to avoid here any bashing or proselytizing of either theism or non-theism. I'm just curious what your own experiences with the label have been.


EmilyCC said...

I'm teaching a class right now called "Spirituality in Healthcare." I have some VERY evangelical students. In the past week, I had 2 students admit they were atheists. Those poor students had 5 "believers" jump all over them--saying how much easier their lives would be if they believed in God, how they'd continue to pray for their souls.

It was awful, and I felt like their response may have had something to do with their own insecurities about their faith--a sort of "me thinks thou doth protest too much."

I've been very interested in the humanist movement lately. The spirituality they speak of is something I really identify with.

Can't wait for the Exponent post!

jana said...

When I was a believer it was hard for me to understand how an atheist could find meaning in their life sans deity. Now, I am sympathetic to both sides, having experienced each. But I wish that tolerance would be extended in both directions--both from the militant atheists and the dogmatic theists.

Zenaida said...

Here's a link to the post I wrote about feeling atheist. I didn't really invite commentary about atheism, though. That's a door you just have to be willing to walk through, I think and be prepared for.

I think this is a great post. It's personal and open. I know that feeling of the floor dropping out from under you when the possibility of losing God comes up. It makes the world spin.

"Please don't mistake the purpose of this post. This isn't an attempt to proselyte for godlessness or promote Atheism as the way to go or anything like that.
Really, I am just hoping to do my (very little) part to try to detoxify the stigma associated with the Atheist label."

I wonder if this might be seen as defensive, and I don't know that the post _is_ detoxifying the stigma. You do share your own identification with atheism, but there doesn't seem to be much about _how_ the atheist community is diverse and full of good works. The bulk of the post deals with peoples' negative reactions to atheism (including your own).

G said...

Emily, thanks! I'll try to remember to find and bring an article I read recently about atheism and spirituality in healthcare. it was very interesting, particularly in light of what you just shared.

Jana, yah. /sigh. I just now read a post by an atheist who was very disparaging to people of faith.
I don't know that there will be much reconciliation amongst the extremists from either side...
but I do hold out hope for the open minded people in the middle.

G said...

Zenaida thanks for that link, I remember that post! (great one, btw)

and thank you very much for the suggestions.

(btw, to everyone... I am revising this post as the day goes on, per suggestions I receive, new ideas I get, etc. thank you all.)

Alisa said...

What I think is important to realize is, like you say, how spirituality can be possible with atheism. I would love to hear about what you like to do to enhance your spirituality. This may sound like a ridiculous question, but does being an atheist mean that one doesn't feel connected to the divine feminine (either outwardly or inwardly)? Would it be a contradiction?

Related to spirituality is ethics. One of my friends and her boyfriend/long-term partner are both athiests, yet the lead the most ethical lives of anyone I know: they overdo it on the wind power option with the power company, have negative carbon footprints, bike to work, sponsor imigrant families from eastern Europe, do volunteer projects in Africa, volunteer for public radio, the list goes on. And all of this done without seeking a reward in the afterlife, or cosmic blessings in the here and now. They just want to be good people.

Lessie said...

I have no suggestions for how to present this over on the Exponent, but it is a good post.

As far as dispelling misconceptions, I think Alisa has a good point. Maybe a quick paragraph showing how (if) your ethical values have changed. What do you see as important now versus what you thought was important as a believer?

In the mean time, welcome to the community :)

artemisandollie said...

I take for granted that people won't question my morality/ethics/character due to my atheism and obviously the truly obnoxious people are immaterial to me but I have found myself being much more open to people's questions about atheism and my atheism in particular, these last few years. I like this post and I agree, particularly for the Exponent, you could go into a little more detail re how your ideas of ethics/spirituality etc have shifted since discovering your atheism.
I think the hardest thing I have conveying to people is my sincere appreciation for spirituality and the community you find within a religion while having no desire to "become" religious myself.

Calladus said...

Carl Sagan remarked on "spirituality" in his book, "Demon Haunted World".

To paraphrase, the root of the word "spirit" means "to breath". Dr. Sagan then said what we breath is matter, and everything in the universe is made of matter.

Spirituality, in his view, is feeling the awe and humility that washes over you upon realizing your very small place in this incredibly large universe. The best way to visualize time and space, according to Sagan, is through science.

The best way to realize how connected we are to the universe is through science.

I tend to agree. When I realized that the calcium in my teeth and bones formed inside of a star, or the gold in my jewelry formed in a nova, I feel awe.

When I realize how long the universe has existed, and how long it takes radioactive isotopes to decay until they are no longer radioactive - then I'm humbled to discover that the potassium in the bananas I eat is still slightly radioactive from its stellar formation.

Is this spiritual? I dunno. I feel connected to everyone and everything through my understanding of how the natural world works. To me, that's spiritual.

The Numismatist said...

I have found that it is much easier to tell people that I am agnostic rather than atheist, even though that is not accurate. But truthfully, I just steer clear of any discussion of religion when I can, especially with a few members of my family who simply cannot comprehend my lack of belief.

I avoid most interactions with those people who continually "jab" me with references to God and the "wonderous things that he gives me". Unfortunately, that has also resulted in the fading of a few lifelong friendships that I cherished.

G said...

thanks, all for your input and suggestions and experiences. I Just posted the latest version of this over at the exponent.

G said...

hey alisa, sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. I've been thinking of the best way to answer your question about spirituality and the divine feminine.

it's difficult for me to precisely put into words myself, and probably the topic for upcoming blog posts.

but briefly, on continuing to develop my spirituality (for lack of a better word) I find myself significantly inspired and uplifted and moved and changed through music, art, poetry, literature (and books in general), as well my connections to other people, friends and family. I'd say those are the sources of guidance in my journey now (as opposed, for example, to seeking guidance through prayer to a higher being).

As for a connection to the divine feminine (and NO, that is not a silly question at all!) I used to have a literal belief in a female divine, (the heavenly mother, etc...). I no longer have a belief in any sort of higher-being, which includes, of course, a female being. But I do feel a strong connection to the idea of the feminine divine through my feminism and my firm belief that women are the spiritual equals of men etc...
That is something that is still every empowering to me though my belief in "her" is no longer literal.

hoping this made some sense (I am still working this out in my own head. thanks for the questions.)

flygirl said...

I'm way late on this thread, I've been too brain-dead and sleep-deprived to comment intelligently.

I have definitely found many people to be very averse to the thought of atheism. It seems like as long as you still believe in a god of some sort, religious people feel like they can understand or respect you. But once you go into atheism, some people feel okay openly villifying you. It seems like such a scary place to be when you're a believer. I remember thinking it was really sad not to believe in god-and maybe it's like you said, a fear of losing god yourself.

While I think the category of atheism probably fits me quite well (depending on how you define it, I think I still believe in some sort of positive force), I have found in myself a reluctance to take on new labels since casting off the Mormon label. I felt like Mormonism defined me so much, or that I let it in ways that I shouldn't, that didn't really explain who I was. Instead of trying to define myself as a Mormon, or an ex-Mormon, or any of the other ways of describing the spectrum, I like to tell more of a story, even if it's just a sentence of "I grew up in the LDS church, but I don't practice anymore." And I guess the same thing goes for my current spirituality, I like to describe it more than label it. (maybe that's the cowardly way out, not wanting to deal with people being horrified that I may be an atheist.)

That said, I am surprised at the peace and comfort and happiness I have been in a world that I do not worry about god's existence. Like you, I feel I have found a richness in life I did not expect.

(P.S. Was nice to meet you at Sunstone, G. I would have liked to talk more to you and several others, but wasn't there for very long and found myself overwhelmed by the Mormon-ness of everything and didn't quite know how to handle it. :)

G said...

thanks flygirl,
(and it was good to meet you too.)

Vajra said...

Catholics use the term "lapsed." While there are several definitions, Catholics use lapse in the sense of "falling into disuse" rather than a moral failure.

adamf said...

I have had a difficult time understanding people like you mentioned in the first paragraph as well... one thing that has helped, however, was to try to feel some compassion for them. You may be right on with the "sense of horror" that they may feel. If we can see the underlying tension/suffering/anxiety behind some of their dogmatic and overly intense beliefs it is easier to feel compassion.