I’ve been an atheist since age fourteen. Actually, if I’m being completely honest, I’ve been an atheist since I started pondering religion (probably right around the time my mother told me to put away my coloring book and start paying attention), but I was fourteen when I first heard the word. Prior to that, I would go to church with my parents, and sit there thinking things like I’m not sure about this, does no one else realize that a lot of this doesn’t make logical sense and I can’t wait until I’m a grown up and I don’t have to go to church anymore.
When I first heard the word atheist, it was possibly the only moment of clarity I’ve ever experienced. It was a so that’s what’s up with me—there’s a name for it, moment. It was really great to have a handy label, but at no point did I ever want to seek out other atheists for existential chats, or find people like me, or organize in any way.
The way I see it is, religion is an organization of people who believe the same thing getting together to discuss and learn about their beliefs. Since I do not believe in a god of any kind and am perfectly content with that, why would I need to get together and talk about it? How do you talk about a non-belief? I’m fine with groups like the American Atheists just as much as I am with any religious group until people start proselytizing at me, but religion is no part of my life the same way non-religion is. It seems like organizing in this way is just the same except the conversation is different.
Recently The Pew Research Center did a study on religion & public life, which has been getting quite a bit of press for turning up some interesting facts namely that atheists and agnostics did better on a basic religion test than most Christians. That makes perfect sense to me because learning about what people believe and why from a purely clinical researchy standpoint is fascinating. I’m intrigued by religion and ritual because it’s intriguing, not because I buy into it in any way. Though if I was spending an hour a week doing an activity, I would probably try to learn a few of the basic facts.
This study then led to a group of atheists, agnostics and humanists to get together and discuss the future of their movement, which went badly because they couldn’t agree on anything (it’s a bit tricky when your movement is based on non-belief rather than a set of rules and ideas). Of course, I don’t want the Religious Right to somehow get prayer into public schools, but I also don’t want to go to meetings and pay dues to yet another organization where we sit around talking for hours and accomplish (probably) very little.
Since Religion is a man-made idea, why can I not seem to opt out? Why does everyone have to be something? I mean, yes, I’m an atheist, but I’m not an emphatic atheist, it’s just that I don’t believe in god and it’s a handy word to bandy about because people know what it means. I could just as easily call myself a non-theist (which is closer to my non-beliefs, I guess) or a secular humanist, or an evolution fan–who cares? Why talk about something you don’t believe in? Do you really have that much to say about it?
Often when I tell people I’m an atheist, they say something like, “what were you, what are your parents?” Then I say Lutheran, and whoever I’m talking to seems to unclench. A friend who slipped more and more into crazy strident religious territory over the course of our friendship once told me that since I had once, when I was like six, parroted back the words “I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior” I was ok— not going to hell. My protestations that I didn’t actually believe what I had said, and that I have since rescinded that statement, didn’t seem to register with her. I’d said it once, was not going to hell, let’s have some onion rings.
I won’t be signing up with any organized atheist group anytime soon, and perhaps this is just a further manifestation of my non-joiner personality, but I don’t think so. I do like those bus ads though.