Monday, March 14, 2011

What Is It Like To Be an Atheist?

"Being an atheist is a lot like being the only sober person in a car full of drunk people and they refuse to pull over and let you drive" - author unknown

So what's it really like to be an atheist?  Well, while there are frustrations akin to the quote above, but for me, most of the time, it's just kind of weird.  It often feels like I live in a different reality than 90% of the world and now that I think about it, that is probably true.  While I certainly cannot and do not speak for all atheists, there are some commonalities among us and many I have spoken to have echoed some of the peculiarities I have highlighted below. 

Being an atheist in the USA today often puts one in an awkward position.  Our society is saturated with religion.  It is not unusual for me to encounter some kind of religious propaganda or speech several times per day.  When you are an atheist, you never know how people will react if they find out that you are a non-believer so responses need to be carefully measured.  I have been called lots of names.  I have been told I am evil.  I have been preached to by those trying to "save me".  I've lost friends.  Everytime I encounter religion, there is an internal battle in my head as to whether I should be myself and be honest or just stay quiet.  I speak in code a lot so I can say what I think without jeopardizing anything.

When I drive my son to school in the morning, I typically see 10 - 20 cars with the little "Jesus fish" magnets on the back.  I wonder why these people feel the need to wear their religion on their bumpers.  It seems conceited to me; like they're making sure everyone knows they're in the special "club".  Do they expect that other Christians will be more likely to let them in when they merge? 

Almost without fail, I will hear the phrase "God bless you" when someone sneezes at some point during the day.  This seems kind of strange to me, too but I generally figure that people are just trying to be polite.  I never know how to respond when it's directed at me.  "Thank you" doesn't feel genuine.  "Thanks, but not likely" seems a bit rude.  "There is no God" is pretty much out of the question.  I usually just go against my thoughts and say "thanks" and then I feel like I've been dishonest or hypocritical.

At least once a week, someone will tell me about some facet of their church; the spaghetti dinner, their youth group, their choir.  Sometimes they tell me about how moving the service was.  Again, I am at a loss for how to respond.  Especially to the Catholics.  I don't understand how they can support an institution responsible for destroying so many lives.  I look for positive things in the story that I can comment on but it's difficult.  I smile and nod while wishing the conversation would end.

Sometimes, people will tell me about how God was watching out for them or how God helped them with a personal struggle or difficult decision.  I want to ask these people if helping them with their decision is the reason that God wasn't available to save the kids who just died somewhere in a car accident but I don't.  If this were any other topic on which I thought they were mistaken, I would speak up immediately and let them know the facts I have learned.  I try to filter out the God aspect and respond to the underlying issues they are speaking about.  Sometimes I only get as far as "Well...hmm".

Once I get home, I usually check in on my Facebook page.  There is usually a post somewhere on my wall asking me to pray for someone.  If it is something personal to someone I know, I will usually offer some personal consolation or an offer to help if there is something I think I can do.  If it is for a disaster or a general cause, I will usually post a link to the cause and/or send a donation because I believe that prayer is a way to feel like you are helping without ever actually doing anything whereas donations and word-of-mouth are real help.

I sometimes post atheist-related material on my Facebook Page.  The first time I did, I received a message asking if I knew it was there.  When I said I did and that I was aware of what it was and had put it there intentionally, I was immediately "unfriended".  When I put up a link to my first blog post, I lost fourteen friends within an hour. 

I see articles on the internet telling me that atheists are America's most-distrusted minority.  This seems completely backward to me.  The atheists I know are some of the most ethical people with whom I am acquainted.  Overall, they have an extemely strong sense of right and wrong and are more likely to act on things they feel are wrong or to stand up for what they think is right.  I feel that as an atheist, there is no forgiveness for me at the end of my life so I damn well better get it right the first time.  Forgiveness comes from those I have wronged.  If I mess up and that person does not forgive me, I have to live with that.  On the other hand, there is no divine punishment.  My punishment happens in the here and now when I have to live with and face the consequences of the choices I make.  For this reason, I am very careful in my decision-making.
Image courtesy of Surly-Ramics at

So yes, my lack of belief sometimes makes things awkward which is bad considering that I am somewhat socially awkward to begin with but there is an upside to it, too.  First and foremost, I have freedom of thought.  I do not have to worry that the things in my head will be counted and judged.  I am free to question and explore as far as I can conceive.  I can look for truth and accept it when I find it.

I do not need to hold onto fear of death.  There are no worries about Heaven or Hell.  I have come to terms with it as a natural process.  I am not rushing to welcome it but I no longer need to fear it.  When I suffer the loss of someone I love, I can understand it.  It is painful but I know that it is part of the package deal when we get to experience life.  I do not need to worry about whether or not they were "saved".  I do not need to wonder why God thought he needed them with him more than I needed them here.

I have come to truly appreciate every moment of life on this earth.  I understand the likelihood of me being here was extremely small and yet here I am.  I am one of the lucky ones who is here today to marvel at nature's beauty and I have a brain that has evolved enough to understand my good fortune.  I get the privilege of staring up at the sky and wondering at the stars.  I get to watch history being made.  I get to watch our understanding of the universe unfold.  I get to learn.  I get to love.  I get to sing.  I get to dance.  Life's impermanence makes each day, each moment, so incredibly valuable.

My life has become unbelievably rich.  My atheism has led me to explore many scientific disciplines and I have discovered that I have a true love of astronomy and biology.  On more than one occasion, I have looked through a telescope and been moved to tears because of the beauty of it.  I have been amazed looking through a microscope thinking about all of the processes that led to what was seeing.  I am blown away by the beauty of natural processes and humbled by the immensity of our universe.

I have also had the pleasure and honor of meeting many wonderful, caring, like-minded people through the internet and through local meet-ups who have taught me much, engaged me in thought-provoking conversation, shown me books and videos which have expanded my understanding of the world and who have shared their friendship with me.

I have a confidence in myself and a clarity of thought that was inconceivable before I gave up my belief.  Because my conclusions have come to me after much thought and study, I can be more certain of their correctness.  Much of the material I store in my brain upon which I build my worldview is now backed by evidence-based knowledge instead of the emotional "knowing" of things taken on faith.  It is a concept that is immensely hard to convey to anyone who has not gone through the process of losing their faith through applied skepticism.  It is an entirely different way of processing information.  Sometimes, though, this benefit works against me such as when I have to deal with the frustration of not being able to get someone to understand the faults in their logic.  In fact sometimes, it's kind of like...being the only sober person in a car full of drunk people who refuse to pull over and let you drive. 


  1. I think being an atheist is like being part of the greatest untapped minority. There are more atheists in America than there are black people, gay people, Jewish people, gun owners... the list is very long. In fact, even by the most conservative estimates (in both senses of the word), there is only one singular religious group larger than non-believers in America, Catholics.

    And yet, we have only a handful of representatives who openly admit to being atheists (I suspect there's quite a few "in the closet," in more ways than one), and only one Senator... who was not even elected, he was selected to replace Biden when he became the VP.

    I think it's just a matter of being open about it and not being afraid to stand up to the loud, boisterous individuals who are drunk on faith. I guess that's what blogging is about.

  2. Even in New Zealand, which is largely "lazy agnostic", people get distressed when I tell them I'm an atheist. I live with a Muslim and a Christian, so dinnertime conversation about religion can be awkward - even though they believe in different things, they both believe in something...which I clearly don't.

  3. Bret - great points! I heard an interview with Pete Stark on the Freethought Radio podcast. It's too bad there aren't more as outspoken as him. I wasn't aware the Biden's replacement was an atheist - is that Kaufman?
    Deanna - I'm kind of surprised. From here in the USA, my image of New Zealand and Australia are pretty much atheist utopias, which, in comparison, they kind of are. ;)

  4. I'm not an atheist, but I still respect your beliefs (or non-beliefs?). I feel like a bad Christian because I don't put on this act of how awesome I am and how I never sin and how people who sin are horrible people. And I won't try to convert you. And I'm not going to not like you if you don't believe in God because there's so much more to people than their ideas of religion.

  5. Thanks, tuff517. Don't think of yourself as a bad Christian; think of yourself as a good person. I also respect an individual's right to believe as they choose but when someone tries to indoctrinate my child or legislate Christianity or justify horrific acts with a holy book, I get pretty upset. If all Christians were moderates, there would certainly be a lot less debate. I have many friends and family members who are Christian and I love them dearly. As you say, there is much more to people than their ideas of religion.

  6. Literally one of the best blog posts I have ever read in my life. I'm just astonished by the beauty in this post. It is beyond amazing. I want everyone on this planet to be able to read this and just understand the life and thoughts of an Atheist. I completely agree and can relate to everything you've said here. I'm young, so I still have a lot to learn, I admit. I'm fortunate to not have been stuck under the trap of religion. I've lived my whole life without the "fear" of god, but what's worse than that is living in a world almost full to the brim of theistic people and having your opinion never heard or fully understood by a massive majority of humanity.

    But I am young, and have much to learn. But what I do know is that everything you've written here, is RIGHT. I know for a fact that if every single person on this planet shared yours and mine ideologies and strong sense of morals, this planet would truly be a happy place. I am lucky to be here, to experience life and hopefully be able to enjoy it and share my joy with other people. As I grow I learn more and more about people, and this planet, and I know humanity is not always pleasant. That's why I often turn to nature, which is really the answer to everything. Nature is so simple, but so incredibly powerful. It's life itself. I try to appreciate everything that I have, my family, friends, my good fortune, and especially the world around me. I love being able to think clearly and being able to question things. I want that. I'd much rather be right and most people think I'm wrong than be wrong and have most people think I'm right. (Haha, that's a good quote there. :P I should write that down....)

    Anyway. Enough of that. I just wanted to say thank you for making this post and I highly appreciate you sharing this with the world. I hope you're doing well and I wish the best for you and to the ones you love. Continue to inspire and change the way the world thinks! We need more people like you to voice their opinion and change the world's view on things.

    And since you finished off with a great quote, I will as well:

    “For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.”
    -Neil deGrasse Tyson