For a long time, I was so unsure of myself. I questioned whether I was good enough. I questioned whether what I wanted was the right thing to want. I questioned whether I was being selfish, whether I was being prideful. I felt if God wasn’t answering my prayers, it was my fault for being jealous, or hateful or secretive.
For a very long time, I thought I was doing it wrong. I wasn’t believing hard enough. I wasn’t singing hard enough. I wasn’t focusing all my energy on God. That’s why I had doubts. That’s why I looked around in church to emulate what others were feeling. That’s why I always went to the altar to recommit myself, to repent. That’s why when the preacher puts his big sweaty hand on my head, I fell down with the rest of them.
I remember the last time. I feinted a blessed swoon and lied still on the floor, only to realize I had lain there too long and was the last one to “wake.” It was the last time I sought what I now consider a very duplicitous act.
I remember loathing myself. I loathed my body. I loathed the body that wanted to be with boys. I hated that I thought all those nasty thoughts the teacher warned about in Sunday classes. I was jealous or other girls. I wanted to kiss boys, and more. I was a bad person. I would surely go to Hell.
I hated being a girl. I was dirty, filthy, unclean. My blood was a curse. And I brought sin onto others for not being clean or virtuous enough.
I was afraid I would burn in hell. That I would be ripped asunder over and over again for all of eternity because I wasn’t good or virtuous or obedient enough.
Now that I am an atheist, I am missing so many things. I am missing the doubt. I’m missing the sense of loneliness. I am missing the self-consciousness. I’m missing the pretense. I’m missing the self-disgust. I’m missing the self-loathing. I’m missing the fear.
I dropped the heavy burden of religion that I was holding onto for dear life and an eternity from hell.
And I don’t miss any of those things.
I am an atheist.
And I am free.
It’s a bit hard not to be annoyed when people make big religious scenes out of purely secular events. For instance, I went to a silent auction fundraiser at a local bar for a friend of my husbands who needed help. This friend was in the hospital; but, barring infection, was going to be okay. His family had lost everything. So local citizens organized the event. We donated money and housewares that were gathering dust in our attic. Somewhere in the middle of the event, one of the participants halted everything to “lead everyone in prayer.” I was annoyed, but just continued drinking my beer in silence so as not to offend the other people who believed in it all.
The prayer lasted FIFTEEN MINUTES! Fifteen minutes of annoyance and discomfort. It was more convenient for the ‘faithful’ to assume everyone in the bar shared their beliefs, rather than acknowledge that there were some people in the crowd who may feel uncomfortable with or even offended by the whole religious ceremony by keeping it short and on point.
And I wasn’t the only person feeling these emotions. While all the theists had their eyes closed and heads bowed, I was looking around. What I saw filled me with hope and encouraged me beyond… well, I don’t know what.
I knew one friend in the crowd who was also atheist. I was surprised to find nearly a quarter of the people close to me were also not participating! I don’t know whether it was the intransigence of myself and my friend that emboldened others to waive participation or whether it was purely an individually-driven moment of “No thanks.” for all of us. Maybe it was a case of birds of a feather sticking together. I can’t even know whether every one of the spectators was atheist like me. But it was encouraging to know that I was not alone, that someone else shared my feelings – or at least some of them.
Sometimes taking a stand is not really worth the conflict and rancor it could create.
If you are an atheist and were getting married, would you let someone – a family member, friend, spouse-to-be – inject religious speech or traditions into your ceremony? I sometimes revisit this question with myself. A religious ceremony was injected into my wedding ceremony at the last minute. And I frequently remember on it with dissatisfaction.
I certainly never wanted a religious ceremony when I got married. I wasn’t even sure I was an atheist back then. (Though I have always been highly skeptical of religion.) But, I certainly was not getting married by some religious cleric or in a church. Frankly, I was ready to enlist the local Justice of the Peace to marry us. One of my husband’s long time friends received some sort of credentials via the internet, so we had him perform the ceremony. I wrote the entire ceremony. He never once broke script.
There was music, poetry, wine, rings and the traditional vow making (sans religious references). But my “adopted” mom took me aside before the wedding and asked if we would let her say “The Lord’s Prayer” “for the troops.” How could I say no to that? I relented. She led everyone (except me) in the prayer, then read the Pablo Neruda poem I gave her. I was annoyed. But it didn’t really hurt me any. Except, it always comes up in my mind as something I disliked. A gray mark on my beautifully blue day.
I’m sure most atheists experience daily the annoyance of people who assume you want or just don’t care whether you want to participate in religious practices. In my opinion, some people are downright rude about it. For instance, if they know you are an atheist, they’ll post religious passages or prayers on your Facebook page. I’ve even had theists try to tell me that my own Facebook page was neither “the time nor place” for atheist talk. (The audacity!)
Pointless reminiscing aside, sometimes taking a stand is not really worth the conflict and rancor it could create. Flexibility defines those who live to a ripe old age. A philosophy of compromise can certainly relieve unhealthy tensions. But maybe other times, getting your way may actually be worth the fight.