Like many others from blue collar, Mid-Western background, I was socialized early on to believe in a benevolent, omnipotent “Jesus” who solved all of my problems and whom I could ask for special favors. Every Sunday, my mother would dress us in our frilliest, girliest, floral 80s dresses and parade us off to a towering Methodist institution.
This persisted for years, despite my infantile wails of protest. As I got older, I went to Sunday school, choir practice, and even youth mission trips, but somehow something never felt quite right about it all. When I became a teenager, I realized that I had some very fundamental objections to Christianity and its teachings.
I left organized religion at 19, and with the exception of major holidays (during which I occasionally go to a service to make my mother happy) never looked back. I think that religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are a deeply intimate, personal thing. As a result, I try not to push my beliefs on anyone, and expect the same.
Unfortunately, my laid back attitude is not always reciprocated. I am constantly harangued by people who treat me not like an adult who after years of consideration decided to be an atheist, but rather as a misguided child. This trend extends itself on a broader scale as well -- a recent study even proved that atheists are the least trusted group in the U.S.
To help out those of you who may be unintentionally alienating your fellow (atheist) human beings, here is a short list of ways NOT to be a dick to an atheist.
1) Do not assume that simply because I am not afraid of an all-seeing god that I lack a moral compass.
This is wildly inaccurate -- some of the best people I know are atheists. Without getting into too much detail, I think that atheists can often have a great deal of moral drive because we see our lives as having an expiration date (no everlasting life, etc.) Without a god to forgive us or to punish us, we must be personally accountable for all of the things we do, and must rectify these things so as to better get along in society.
Besides, many parts of religious texts offer a moral code much different from what is acceptable in the present day because they were written thousands of years ago. If people lived by the rules of say, the Old Testament, we would be living in a far different, less cooperative world.
2) Don't assume that I am religious.
I had an emergency surgery once and was in my hospital room just recovering. While I was all doped up, an acquaintance came in, held my hand, and asked me to pray. I was in no position to protest, but even in my condition I was pretty irritated. Religion is NOT everyone’s normal, and in fact might make some people pretty uncomfortable. This extends to prayer at formal dinners, etc. Besides being an alienating practice, this is quite simply bad manners. I cannot begin to tell you how many dinners I have been at where we were all asked to hold hands and pray. Being a good host is making your guests comfortable, and making everyone pray hardly adheres to that.
3) Don’t hold me to your standards of behavior, because for me they don’t make any sense.
I wish that I could tell this to ALL of the Republican lawmakers! How dare you hold me and my sexuality to the code of a religion I don’t even subscribe to, especially when constitutionally, law and religion should be separate anyway. Anecdotally, my parents FREAKED out when they found out that I was living with my boyfriend. My mother’s religious beliefs caused her to feel like this was immoral. We were broke, we had both just recently gotten new jobs in the same town, and it was the logical next step in the relationship. She tried to make me see my impropriety, but to me, it wasn’t an improper decision because without religious doctrine, why would it be?
4) Please don’t console me with sayings like “God has a plan for you” or “They went to be with Jesus” when something bad happens.
I do not believe in fate, destiny, divine intervention, or heaven, and I have learned to cope with the harsh reality of human existence without these concepts. Issuing these kinds of condolences, while well-intended, does not make me feel any better and/or differently about the situation.
5) Do NOT go on some rant about how evolution never happened.
Like, seriously, just don’t. Open a science book and examine some hard evidence, and then please explain to me how I have the burden of proof. I am truly sad for the children who are being raised without exposure to biological anthropology, because it is absolutely fascinating! The evolution of the great apes is truly one of the most miraculous things in science.
6) Please don’t act like I’m just going through a phase or something.
I’ve held the same beliefs (after careful consideration) for nearly a decade. I’m pretty secure in my feelings now. Recently after talking about being an atheist, my very religious friend said “Oh, whatever, J, come on, you’re not an atheist. You’re, like, an agnostic or something.” He could not handle our differences in belief and so appointed me with what he considered a less harsh label.
My family tries to convince me all the time that I will come back to church at some point. In addition, there’s that charming phrase that there are no atheists in a foxhole or something. I don’t speak for everyone, but I’ve had some truly shitty experiences, and have not wavered (if anything, they have only reinforced my rejection of religion).
7) Please, stop thinking that a person needs a church or a religion to feel a sense of awe.
“Haven’t you ever felt like you were in the presence of something holy and bigger than you?” I have been asked. Yes, I have. I have seen ancient ruins that people created hundreds of years ago and have survived the elements, stars that have died but that we still can see the light of, and natural locations that were created by freak natural occurrences millions of years ago, and now are among the most beautiful places on earth. These places all make me realize the brevity of my own existence and the intertwined nature of all things. I don’t need religion to find beauty and connection in life, only the world around me.
8) Don't assume I hate religion or have a closed mind.
I am quite understanding and very willing to hear about your beliefs as long as you don’t try and convert me or push them on me. Once, on an 8-hour bus ride through Latin America, a woman I didn’t know told me all about how the Virgin de Guadalupe frequently visited her in her sleep and brought her a sense of peace and guidance through their conversations.
As the woman talked about the Virgin like she was a friend, I found a certain kind of beauty in such conviction. This woman believed with every fiber of her being. Religion is not for me, but I am not about to crush anyone else’s sense of happiness, or even question their belief systems. I don’t care if you worship Cthulu -- just be happy, and let me be happy in turn.