you say that like it's a BAD thing

by G

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.


  1. I remember my first year teaching school after graduating from BYU. One of my students began one of the class discussions this way, “Well, being and atheist…” and I was taken aback. I had never actually met many atheists, especially one who was 15 (and he wasn’t doing it just to be the “cool atheist guy” it was actually very well thought out and conceived and practiced by him and his family).

    At the time I remember feeling extremely sorry for him to have lost God at such a young age.

    And now, being almost 32, I finally understand a lot more about the term, the feelings associated with it, the magic the universe still holds when you don’t believe in the God you were raised to believe in.

    I’m one of those people who just doesn’t want to judge anyone for the labels placed on them in society…gay/straight, married/single, theist/atheist, etc. etc.

    I used to believe when it came to religion that “one size fits all”

    Now I see how ridiculous that is. One size just NEVER fits all.

  2. Great post, G! I think we are taught to be wary of atheists in US society (not just Mormondom), which is too bad. I wonder why it is a label that invokes so much fear. I’ve learned a lot about our inter-connectedness as humans in the discussions I’ve had and writings I’ve read from atheists; there’s a lovely common thread of spirituality (maybe that’s not the best word, but I can’t think of a better one) that we share.

    I heard a piece on Speaking of Faith recently, where they talked about the label, “atheist,” and some members of this group found that people reacted more positively to “humanist.” I wonder, G, (or anyone else), if you think the label might be a barrier for some? Like that word, “feminist” 🙂

  3. Interesting point about the word ‘humanist,’ Emily. When I hear the word humanist I have warm fuzzy feelings. Probably because the word connotes someone who believes in the dignity and worth of all humans, and it also implies adherence to some sort of ethics (to me).

    In contrast, the word ‘atheist’ leaves me feeling… nothing. Not positive, not negative. I wonder why… but I’m thinking it might have to do with the fact that the word doesn’t define what a person believes in so much. Instead it defines what a person doesn’t believe in (God). At least, this is how I think of the word. I’m sure if I were more well read on atheism, I would find there are many more dimensions to the word.

    It’s good to get a chance to work this out a bit in my mind. Thanks, G.

  4. I agree there certainly does seem to be a general negative association in our culture at large against atheists (probably closely related to the fact that America is perceived as a Judeo-Christian nation).

    And yes, I think the word “feminist” is another good example of a word with lots of negative associations. (funny, I think, how I am adopting all the labels that are the most toxic among my immediate peers).

    caroline, yah, there are complexities to a label that is merely a negation of something. Phil Zuckerman (who I quoted up there in this post) wrote an excellent article (where that quote came from) about the problems of labeling within the secular community, I did a blog post about it here.

  5. Speaking of cultural connotations. One of my favorite people in the world has this under “religion” in the Facebook Info section: “Atheist (but the mellow kind of athiest, not the jerky Dawkins-Hitchens-Maher kind of athiest)”

    My associations:

    I do struggle with the word “atheism” because it feels so *absolute.* Like another end of “I know with every fiber of my being . . . ”

    I guess I’m just more comfortable with “I don’t know.” I think, in Mormonism and religion in general, there is a lot of space for communion and community in “I don’t know,”

    in “After that horrific experience, I’m not sure I can believe in God,”

    in “I don’t know if/how God answers my prayers — I don’t seem to get reponses the way others do,”

    in long dark nights of the soul, facing the sky and wondering “is there anybody out there?”

    in “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?”

    These conversations, I think, can be at the heart of spirituality . . . something I was reminded of in reading Mother Teresa’s letters, where — after intense communion with God — she faced fifty years of *silence* and doubt. In one letter, she wrote, “I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” (Sidenote: when I read this book, I wondered if Mormonism would be better served if there was a little respect for the honored christian tradition of ‘dark nights of the soul’ — if doubt could be viewed as an opportunity for spiritual growth, not a scary condition.)

    So here’s a question for you, meant sincerely: Why do you choose the term atheist over agnostic? (def: a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god)

    Doesn’t agnostic leave more room for: “I don’t know . . . maybe.”

  6. My first reaction was to your definition: “the absence of belief in the existence of deities”. I have always thought of athiesm as defined by Merriam-Webster online as “the DISBELIEF in existence of diety”. To me, absence of belief and disbelief are very different things. So maybe that is part of the problem? If someone believes that your God does not exist, that is different than if he does not believe your God exists. Sounds similar, but it is like the difference is being simply anti-Republican and being a Democrat.

  7. As an atheist myself I’m often confronted with people who don’t understand what atheism means to most atheists nor what it means to me. I very often have to correct misconceptions and harmful beliefs about atheism, and am constantly required to come out as an atheist (as well as gay – and it’s hard to tell which one of those facts is more surprising to people). I find the conversation surrounding this and other social terms to be incredibly interesting, so forgive me if I start to get overly wordy. Having had to define my concept of “atheism” many times, I’ve found the following to be necessary in a discussion about what atheism is (and isn’t). I also which to point out that I’m not in any way criticising theists, or trying to convince anyone that I’m right – just explaining (in detail) the reasons behind by profession of atheism.

    First of all, very, very, very few atheists purport to “know there are no gods”. Much more common are the two beliefs 1) I don’t believe in gods & 2) I don’t believe there are any gods.

    I hold both these beliefs, and #1 is I think included in #2. Many atheists profess #1 but not #2, and many who have either or or both of these beliefs identify as many other things. There may be several people who have very similar beliefs but use many different words to identify what those beliefs are, including “agnostic”, “secular humanist”, “non-religious”, “sceptic” among other terms.

    The main misconception about atheism is that atheists say they “know there is no god”, which effectively would make atheism seem just as dogmatic and non-evidence based as religion. That is almost never the case, and I don’t think that belief is ever warranted. The most widespread (and therefore to some degree most “correct”) definition of atheism is the one G gave, and is the one most atheists use most often – a lack of belief in god(s).

    Whereas I don’t foresee a situation where I would ever say “I know there are no gods” (it was have to be an amazing and totally unrealistic situation), I do have excellent evidence and logic based reasons for why I say not only “I don’t believe in gods”, but also “I don’t believe gods exist” (again, not saying “know” but “believe). That doesn’t make me dogmatic or having “faith” in a non-evidence based belief. I don’t believe there are any gods for all the same reasons I don’t believe there are any unicorns, leprechauns, fairies, magic, invisible teacups or flying spaghetti monsters. There is absolutely no observable, repeatable scientific evidence which would suggest there is any such thing as gods. Obviously many others think there is evidence or reasons for gods which still preclude unicorns, et. al, – my point is simply that I don’t. Furthermore, all of the “reasons” which have been given me for the existence of gods (otherwise inexplicable personal experience, the fact of widespread human belief in deities, seeming “design” in nature, etc.) among other reasons are all things which I think can be more simply, usefully, and fully explained with scientific reasoning. I’ve never heard a single reason any theist or deist gives for why they believe in god(s) which I’ve not been able to give a (to my mind) better, more reasonable and scientific answer to.

    As for why I’m an atheist and not agnostic, while I did identify as agnostic for a while, I found that, for me, atheism + scepticism was slightly more correct and useful a term for what I believed. Furthermore, there terms atheism and agnosticism overlap extensively, and there are no clear definitions of either which would definitively preclude the other. A person who says “I don’t know whether there are any gods” and/or “I don’t believe in gods” may identify as either agnostic or atheist, or both (or any of the other terms I mention previously). Often it’s just a personal choice as to which term a certain person prefers. Also, the term “agnosticism” is applied to far more than simply the supernatural – which is the only thing atheism is concerned with. Most often, the term “sceptic” is synonymous with “agnostic” – meaning the default position is lack of belief until there is proof. And many who aren’t comfortable with “atheism” prefer “agnosticism” for whatever reason.

    To respond to Deborah’s very excellent question, I think that while the existence of gods is possible, it’s incredibly unlikely, unlikely enough for me to say I don’t believe they exist. I think it is quite unlikely that we’ll ever settle the question definitively, but I still think that for me, it’s more rational to be atheistic about gods rather than just agnostic – partly because I don’t see the possibility of gods existing as being nearly as likely as them not existing. The probability is more heavily weighted towards non-existence. I think that it is not useful to use the definition of “agnosticism” which argues that all things are equally possible, because that’s an argument which isn’t very realistic. In fact, almost never are two (or however many) possible answers to a question completely equally probably. Most often there is listing one way or another.

    All in all, I think the main thing is that the term “atheism” is quite subjective, and besides the lack of belief in gods, there are no other beliefs which must coincide with a profession of atheism. The reason I said all this is because it bothers me that a profession of atheism is so often horrifying, misunderstood, and harshly judged. It is often though to include things it doesn’t, and not include things it does (depending on the person).

    This is basically what my atheism is, and what atheism often is to others as well. The only think you can know (more or less) for certain if a person professes atheism is that they don’t believe in gods and probably not the supernatural either. There is no set of social or political which belong to atheism, and obviously, it’s a complicated subject.

  8. Take your name off the roles and find your path. Labels are the boundaries we draw and when one draws such a clear boundary, it is important to at least be courageous enough to stop pretending and live with the consequences.

  9. G, kudos to you for taking a risk and speaking openly at this virtual Mormon dinner table. 🙂

    I read through the comments, crafted responses, then found that Craig beat me to it. The Quaker in me says, “This friend speaks my mind.”

    Caroline brings up a good point, and one that many thoughtful atheists struggle with. My answer is this: many belief labels communicate more than belief. Saying that you’re a Mormon implies a comprehensive set of beliefs about God, the universe, and your place in it as well as adherence to certain practices, adoption of certain cultural norms, etc. Although atheism is at its core simply the recognition of one’s disbelief in particular concepts of god/s, because we live in a society with tensions between theistic and secular values, people think it implies a range of positions on culture, morality, philosophy and religion. Food for thought: most Theravada and Zen Buddhists are also atheists.

    Anyhow, when someone is coming to terms with their lack of belief in God, ‘atheist’ is a great label. But when I consider my social values and moral/political stances, I tend to use words like secular humanist, rationalist, Quaker, feminist, hedonist, environmentalist, etc.

  10. Cindy, most Bishops (including 4 that I worked with over 10 years) would prefer that atheist members stayed within the fold, attending church, fulfilling their callings, in the hope that they regain their belief. You’re assuming that recognizing unbelief is the same as making a commitment to a way of life. Acknowledging doubt is not comparable to getting baptized.

  11. ‘@Cindy,

    I think that idea you expressed is an extremely problematic one. I’m of the opinion that more diversity is what Mormonism needs, not less. I think G is amazingly courageous living her life the way she chooses to, and don’t find she’s pretending at all. I fail to see how it’s any other person’s place to tell another person what is and is not authentic for them. That’s something only G can decide, and it seems presumptuous to make such a judgement about her and imagine up supposed consequences which she ought to face. I feel that the main problem in any religion is the tendency towards orthodoxy which externally forces conformity out of people who wouldn’t naturally choose it if they were truly given free choice.

  12. I may get these out of order, but to address a few of the questions posed…:

    I love the term humanist (esp as a postive statement) but to be quite frank, atheist is much more familiar. Specifically when I imaging using it to share my position with my family and ward members and friends I think using “Humanist” will draw a lot of blank stares.

    (Plus, I have a soft spot for misunderstood labels and I definitely see “Atheism” as being very misunderstood and misrepresented.)

    As for using the Label Agnostic, that is actually how I have thought of myself for quite some time and for me it was a good way to describe how I really didn’t know how to explain God or God’s relationship to humans etc.

    Then there came a point early this year when I realized I no longer held a belief in God. I won’t lie, that was a rough patch to go through (I touched upon it just briefly in this post.) but after a bit of soul searching and reading and learning more about the non-theist community (how Atheist is so much more than hardcore absolutes and dismissing other’s faith and beliefs) I am now at peace with this particular location and label.

    And (in response to Cindy’s comment) I am negotiating how to navigate this within my local ward and the church in general. I recognize that boundaries and barriers are in place, but I am still hopeful.

  13. oh, and so much of this really just depends on an individuals definition of “God” to begin with.

    I recently had a conversation with a friend, and her definition of God is based on the connection that we feel with each other and with the earth.

    That falls outside of my personal definition of God, so even though I believe in that connection she is talking about it doesn’t make me feel like I am a theist.

    everyone is different that way.
    I like how there is room to encompass those differences.

  14. As Emily commented, Americans in general are very wary of atheism—I remember seeing poll results that a large majority wouldn’t vote for an atheist presidential candidate. Humanist sounds good to me, but many people associate it with “secular humanist” which has achieved negative connotations among conservative folk with the same order of magnitude as “feminist.”

    I like (and share) Craig’s definitions and thoughts on his own experience of atheism, and I fall into the category he describes, ‘many who aren’t comfortable with “atheism” prefer “agnosticism” for whatever reason’ (my reason being the more negative and didactic implications of atheism in many minds).

    I’ve heard a number of people call themselves “Christians in the Mormon tradition,” and I would call myself “Atheist (or agnostic) in the Mormon tradition. I disagree with Cindy about the need to take my name off the rolls of the church, since I am very much a Mormon in culture and social connection—I can continue to enjoy associations with good people and good works through the church. (Or maybe Cindy actually did mean “roles” as she stated, since I can’t play the entire prescribed “roles” expected in the church).

  15. What Craig said. But I’m shocked and pained to find he has included the Spaghetti Monster in his list of high improbables. I saw an Italian restaurant just this morning and on the menu was…spaghetti. ’nuff said.

  16. As much as I find the idea of the FSM wondrous and spiritually fulfilling, my intellectual honestly forces me to conclude that he’s just as imaginary as any other deity. But certainly tastier.

  17. I wanted to point out another issue that is problematic about the “you can leave now” attitude expressed in Cindy’s comment: my experience, and maybe one that G and Craig and KayG will back me up on, is that Church culture would prefer me to be quiet or even dishonest about my unbelief than to air it out in the open (how many of you have tried the “even if you don’t believe bear testimony of [the gospel principle] and the Spirit will bear witness of the truth of it to you”). Cindy’s comment reinforces the notion that if you’re open about unbelief, you’re not welcome. My experience is that for every one person who voices doubts publicly, there are probably 10-20 others who share the same doubt but keep quiet about it.

  18. G, thank you for tackling this issue. I agree with John that for every 1 person who speaks up, 20 more have doubts. Thank you for sharing your perspective on atheism.

    While I am pretty sure the Mormon community will never be as open as the Unitarians, it is important to speak up so that people’s experiences can be recognized. I’d say say yes to teaching next time. But that is coming from me who likes to make trouble … I’ll admit though it is much easier to speak up on a blog though than in the church.

  19. First, good quote from Phil Zuckerman who I remember fondly from my time in grad school with his wife. A very very smart and prolific writer, people should pay more attention to him.

    I was an atheist prior to becoming a Mormon, so I have no negative feelings about the label at all, but some contemporary authors are selling their own brand of anti-conservative-religion as THE atheism, which is unfortunate. For me moving from atheism to becoming a Mormon had a lot to do with embracing what in our experience is in excess of reason. I realize that not everyone will find religion necessary to this awareness but it was central to me. I fully respect those who can find the mystifying and amazing aspects of life without religion.

  20. Darling G.
    As you loose the prescribed god that fails to comfort and inspire you, I know you will continue on with a spiritual journey that will enhance your life.

    Karen Armstrong said, ” I am only able to believe what my personal intuition tells me is true.” Listen to the god voice in your own head, discover your truths. I wish you joy and peace.

  21. thank you susan w 🙂

    and douglas hunter, thanks as well. I’m curious about your path, your move, as you put it to embrace “what in our experience is in excess of reason” and your change from not having a belief in God to having a belief in to the LDS church. (And if your own personal belief system is significantly different from Church doctrine, how you negotiate that divide. Because that’s my big question right now.)
    (Hope that’s not too nosy)

  22. Sorry for the reaction that I caused by my comment. I was obviously too brief. Let me just say that I did leave the church when I had determined that “the church was not true in the way I had thought it to be true.” I needed to do that for my own authenticity because I had gone to the side of “dis-belief” which atheism is. It is not a suspension of belief, or absence of belief, it is a BELIEF that God is a fairytale – does not exist. I was out of the church for 8 years and searched the entire time for truth – real truth. My search and questioning out of the church led me right back to the church where the truth was all along. I personally needed to be in integrity and not be a jack-Mormon (so to speak) but I realize that everyone must make that determination for themselves. My entire family and extended family left the church but kept their names on the rolls of the church – they dis-believe and remain in that place. The point is, we all have choice! Upon coming back to the church and being re-baptised, when someone says they are an “atheist”, it actually hurts my spirit. I feel the spirit grieve. Sorry if I offended anyone. I just personally have a strong belief in not staying stuck and in exercising choice! Thanks for the post.

  23. I’m having a hard time knowing how to put this, so forgive me if it’s terribly incoherent.

    For a long time I believed that if I just kept living the way I was brought up (LDS) and participated in the church regardless of my belief or fulfillment, I would be satisfied in the end. This is what I hoped for, what I believed, I suppose, but also what was taught to me.

    And now. I find life very, very unsatisfactory. And I am now so emersed in life (family, status, location) that to break free from that which binds would shatter so much, absolutely– some bad, but much too that is both irreplacable and good.

    I wish I would have known how far my doubt would find me before I really ‘started’ life. I wish I would have dealt with this thorn earlier. So kudos to those who are.

    It seems that in many of these stories, the individuals are either single or they have a supportive spouse (ie. a spouse who can reconcile a turning from the church). I’m sure I don’t fall into either category so the ground is very shaky. Unapproachable, in fact.

    To declare myself an agnostic (though true it may be) in my world would be a very bad thing indeed. It may mean discomfort in the presence of most people I know. It may mean being unable to see my children every day of my life. I guess I’m not sure exactly what it would mean. And trust me when I say that this is very painful even to write about.

    I know how members can talk about ‘these people’, these declared atheists, agnostics, call it what you will. That which they are not. And there I sit listening always, myself filled with great longing and jealousy.

    I will act on nothing until I am more certain. It’s the nothing, however, that’s killing me.

  24. What a great discussion. Wow, thanks for that Craig! That was awesome to read!! And Anonymous, thank you so much for posting and commenting. I think I needed to hear that comment because somehow I keep thinking my doubt will go away and I’ll fit nicely back into some semblance of Mormonism…it’s important for me to realize that this just might never be. I hope you find peace in your journey.

  25. G :
    “I’m curious about your path, your move, as you put it to embrace “what in our experience is in excess of reason” and your change from not having a belief in God to having a belief in to the LDS church. (And if your own personal belief system is significantly different from Church doctrine, how you negotiate that divide. Because that’s my big question right now.)”

    These are questions for which I don’t have short answers. So I will address your last one about belief systems in light of doctrine. I approach the issues from a couple of different directions.

    1) First, its true that my personal belief system is very different that that espoused in Mormon culture as doctrinal. One tool I have for dealing with this is that the potential of Mormon theology is much greater than what can be fit into common notions of doctrine. So I spend my time maximizing doctrine and then doing theology. I find this very rewarding and an essential aspect of spiritual growth. Now if you want to look at something pragmatic such as Prop. 8 where I was in direct conflict with the church. I still found this a wonderful experience. As I was invited to speak at a number of different forums about the issue, I found it a really good experience to have to be able to articulate what I believed, why I believed it, and why I was behaving as I was. It was a purifying moment. And a necessary moment. As I worked through the issue I discovered that the ethical message I was articulating was by and large within Mormon doctrine, and theology. It also gave me the opportunity to build bridges and to work for understanding between religious liberals and conservatives. Finally, I also saw first hand how its possible to have a profound spiritual commitment to people in spite of vigorously disagreement, and that commitment was also coming from the other side.

    2) I see religion as a tool, an emotional, spiritual, intellectual, etc tool for personal transformation. Mormon doctrine, as I see it, contains wonderful tools of transformation. So I work to understand these tools, and to apply them in the most meaningful way I can. Further, I like being a raging liberal in an arch conservative church culture because while I critique many things about it, I also learn from it, see its limits, and also see the values that I want to adopt from it.

    3) I also do a great deal of religious study that has little to do with the church. I am a reader of Levinas, Brueggemann, Bonhoffer, Derrida, among others and I find I learn a great deal from them that I can apply to my understanding of Mormon scripture, Mormon doctrine, Mormon theology, and the experience of being Mormon. For example, it was not until I read Brueggemann on the psalms, that I understood aspects of how Joseph Smith was reading and using the OT. For example the first part of D&C 121 is structurally what is know as a psalm of community lament. It is exactly hebrew in its structure tone and desire, it even borrows lines from specific psalms. I find this kind of knowledge to be powerful on a number of different levels.

    I could keep going but hopeful I’ve answered part of your question. Being a Mormon gives me a huge amount of spiritual work to do, its often difficult and rather counter cultural, but it is very rewarding and worth doing. One last example, I have a sermon being published in the winter issue of Dialogue. That’s an example of something that I don’t think I could have possibly written if I were not a Mormon, and yet its not what one would think of as a Mormon bit of writing at all, yet, I think its a good piece and it was very well received when I presented it at church.

    For me the question is not if I should be a Mormon, but how I should be a Mormon.

    Anyway, sorry that was so long, and a total thread jack.

  26. Wow, Douglas, you’re insights are awesome and I hope they stimulate discussion by many.

    I really like your statement that: For me the question is not if I should be a Mormon, but how I should be a Mormon.

    I will remember that.

  27. ‘@Deborah “not the jerky Dawkins-Hitchens-Maher kind of athiest” That was great!

    1) Why get grumpy with any atheist if they aren’t being rude or mean? Hitchens I could smack (mostly on an academic level for his history), but I’ve met very few atheists who are obnoxious at that level. Conversely, do I want my friends to think of me as a “Pat Robertson” type, or a real Christian that responds to all with friendship and love? There is no love in shoving the Gospel down an atheist’s throat.

    2) What is so wrong with people expressing sadness at a loved one who has turned away from God? If we are talking about people who have felt the power of Christ’s redeeming love and know that comfort and guidance of the Holy Ghost, why would they not have some sorrow about a person they love choosing to reject that? I disagree with people who see rejection of God as a personal slight against a family or tradition, however, and that sort of “sadness” just irks me – it is nothing but pride.

  28. So, this is my first post on here. I know a few of you in person from the Phoenix group and I am honored to read all your comments.

    My first reaction to all the discussion is how the concreteness/perceptions of theism, atheism, and humanism is problematic. Kay mentioned that she is atheist in the Mormon tradition and I guess I would define myself that way also.

    This last spring I was at dinner with a good friend who recently joined the church. She couldn’t understand that I didn’t support the church in prop 102/prop 8. Especially since the prophet receives revelation from God. I told her that the God I believed in would want equal rights for everyone.

    It feels really good to conceptualize how I have been feeling for so long.

    Thanks, G, for your very thoughtful and honest post.

  29. Hi G. Thought I’d follow my amazing wife and make a few comments of my own on your post here. I’m new here. Hi folks, this is Joseph West.

    First of all, let me say that in the right social circumstances, I would gladly claim the label of “atheist”. To the extent theism is defined as the belief in a supernatural, superempirical being who exists apart from space and time and dictates value itself, then YES, I am as atheistic as Richard Dawkins if not more so. But is that really what God is? I think this oppressive concept is that from which Joseph Smith was trying to free us by bringing forth new revelation.

    And I realize, G, that you are defining atheism more broadly than how I’ve defined it above, and that is why I think I’ll politely part ways from you at this point in my own willingness to define myself in that way.

    I think that the first time our ancient ancestors began dancing in collective effervescence around totems in an appeal to a God in the heavens was the moment humanity began creating its future. Belief in God need not be about something or someone out there, sitting in a throne on a planet somewhat close to a star called Kolob. It’s much more practical than that — more personal. Belief in God — especially within the context of authentic Mormonism — is about recognizing the divine within yourself and projecting that divinity onto the people and the world around you. When you see your son creating works of art, do you see divinity within him? If so, then you are a theist, so far as I am concerned. Joseph Smith posited God as a natural, material being who became God through natural, material means — suggesting how we might do the same. Mormonism teaches us that we should seek to join the Gods to whatever extent they exist, and to BECOME them to whatever extent they do not YET exist. Either way, we are positing God, whether within ourselves or out there somewhere in the cosmos. And that’s what theism is, to me — the willingness to posit God in faith. God, afterall, is posited, not proven, except within the context of the position. And this concept is as Mormon as it gets. We do not know God, or anything else for that matter, by proof. Our knowledge is the result of practical experience with the fruits of our faith. That is the only proof we will ever get.

    And now, on the slightly more critical side, and please push back on this if you will — one thing that kinda bugs about atheism is that it is not an identity. It is the negation of an identity. It is the rebellion from an identity. When you claim that you are an atheist, you are defining yourself in terms of what you are NOT. I think such a position is fine as far as it goes. God is Dead, and we have killed him! Well hell, I believe that, with one caveat. The hand raised to finish the dying God is the sign of the oath to the resurrecting God. You cannot negate one God without pledging allegiance to others — at least, not within the context of the way I (and I believe Joseph Smith) defines God.

    Ok, I’ll shut up now.

  30. Joseph West said that atheism “is the negation of an identity…When you claim that you are an atheist, you are defining yourself in terms of what you are NOT…The hand raised to finish the dying God is the sign of the oath to the resurrecting God. You cannot negate one God without pledging allegiance to others.”

    This is poetic, but I have to disagree. First of all, because we live in a predominantly theistic society, claiming atheism does establish some form of counter-cultural identity, and creates some social identification between atheists (at least as far as I’ve experienced it). If everyone’s wearing pants, going around in your boxers is much more than the negation of pants-wearing. 😉

    Secondly, I still don’t see how you can say that someone like me believes in God. Could you kindly please define (in unambiguous terms) the god that I, an introspective and self-identified atheist am “pledging allegiance to.”

    But you do echo G’s comment about the problem of defining the God/gods that atheists don’t (and which theists do!) believe in. In my opinion, even though the following people are using the same word, “god”, they are talking about very different things:

    1) a bearded immortal natural, material superhuman
    2) a non-physical but omnipresent consciousness that created the universe and all in it
    3) the subjective feeling of connection to other humans and to the earth

    Maybe we can’t even have a meaningful conversation about atheism without defining terms first.

  31. Awesome post, G!

    I wish I had something brilliant to add, but I don’t.
    Instead, I’ll just comment that this thread has attracted men and it’s not about sex!
    Congratulations, that’s quite a feat.

  32. ‘@Joseph West

    You certainly have some interesting ideas, but I completely disagree, and find certain ideas you posited as fundamentally flawed. I’m not criticising the fact that you believe these things, but I am criticising your definitions and your somewhat odd conclusions.

    First of all, I don’t find your characterisation of Joseph Smith to be at all accurate, based on historical documents. You seem to have applied all sorts of motivations and beliefs to him which stem from your own suppositions – which are fine, but I don’t find that you’re accurately portraying Smith’s motivations or beliefs – what we know of them.

    Secondly and most importantly, I don’t think your definition of atheism is useful. It’s just not atheism. You’re watering down the definition to the point where it’s useless and confusing. I think in order for you to talk about your ideas you need to use different words, because your versions of “atheism” and “theism” are so very far from the norm that they only serve to confuse and alienate.

    By your own words you’ve proven yourself to not be “as atheistic as Richard Dawkins”. By referencing “faith”, by expounding on Mormon doctrines and beliefs, you’ve gone into a realm which Dawkins, and most other atheists avoid and care nothing about, because it is non-empirical, non-rational, and non-scientific and inherently theistic.

    Our knowledge is the result of practical experience with the fruits of our faith. That is the only proof we will ever get.

    That’s not proof, and that’s not knowledge. You also seem to think that knowledge (instead of just belief) is something that can be acquired though non-empirical means, and that’s just not true – not in any useful sense of the word “knowledge”. It is falsehood when any person (mormon or otherwise) says that they “know” something for which there is no and never has been physical proof. That is “belief”, or in religious contexts, “faith”. I find it very disturbing that the LdS church encourages people to call belief knowledge, because it confuses people as to what knowledge really is, and helps people justify dismissing scientific knowledge because they think it is superceded by some “higher” type of “knowledge” which is spiritual. That is NOT knowledge, it’s a belief which has no proof. Every person has the right to those beliefs, but it is literally crazy to call that sort of thing “knowledge”.

    Furthermore, atheism is far more than a negation of theism. It is an identity in and of itself – ask any professed atheist whether their secular non-religiousness is an identity. While “atheism” is at its core simply the belief that there are no gods or the supernatural/ a lack of belief in gods or the supernatural, for most atheists, that belief is also backed up with a very rich world-view (secularism, humanism, scepticism, feminism, environmentalism, etc.)

    When you claim that you are an atheist, you are defining yourself in terms of what you are NOT.

    That’s not an accurate description of atheism. It’s cherry-picking one aspect of atheism and making a generalisation out of it.

    God is Dead, and we have killed him!

    I’m not sure who claims that, but it’s not any atheist I know. A god would have to have first existed in the first place for it to be dead and have been killed. If you’re speaking metaphorically about the concept of gods, it’s obvious that the god-concept is not dead, as evidenced by yourself.

    You cannot negate one God without pledging allegiance to others

    That’s ridiculous and totally nonsensical. I don’t believe in gods or the supernatural or divinity, or anything else like that. I have no requirement to replace my lack of belief in gods with anything else, least of all some other type or version of a deity. As an atheist, I believe there is nothing outside of the physical universe, (there being no evidence for it, and to me, belief in something for which there is no evidence is beyond pointless and a waste of time). There is no ghost in the machine, no design, no greater purpose, nothing special about humans that can’t be explained with evolution and natural processes. Our sentience is a product of our physical brains, and without our physicality we cease to exist. We are simply highly evolved animals which happened to evolve in such a way, in such an environment where increased brain size helped us survive and better procreate. That it became complicated enough to allow self-awareness only happened because that increased our chances of surviving. That’s it. There no mystical reason for anything, no divinity in anyone or anywhere, nothing beyond the world you can see with your eyes (or in a telescope or microscope). That is (especially in our culture) atheism, and it is very, very much an identity in and of itself.

  33. I agree with EmilyCC mistrust of atheism is an American phenomenon, not just a Mormon one.

    I don’t think I can explain it as a cultural phenomenon, but I can say why atheism makes me personally uncomfortable. Well, sad, at least. I guess I just believe the notion that human beings are God’s children, so saying that God does not exists feels a bit like disowning a family member who wants to love you if you’ll let him. Someone else’s lost belief is not mine to mourn, but it still feels a bit sad to me. I hope that doesn’t sound judgmental, I’m just saying where some of the negative associations with the term might come from.

  34. ‘@Emily U

    I understand that feeling, because I find it sad that so many humans believe in things which just aren’t real, and detract from a real, authentic human experience in this life. I think it is sad that religion obscures truth and reality for so many people, and keeps many from ever realising their full potential as transient beings in this short life. Personally, I know that religion kept me from being who I really was, and living a full life because of arbitrary restrictions and rules which serve those in power and harm everyone else. The belief that we are still children after we’ve grown up keeps us in a somewhat infantile state and inhibits a natural life as a person who is fully responsible for their own choices, is fully free to make any choice, and whose personhood and self-worth isn’t dependant on being in any way related to some imaginary invisible sky-god. Not being a child of a god is far more freeing and liberating and authentic, and I’m sad that so many people think they owe anything sort of allegiance to anyone, least of all a petty, jealous, vindictive being who cares more about arbitrary notions of purity than the happiness of those who don’t fit into the perfect little box.

    Also many atheists never “lost” any belief – they never had it to begin with, and have never needed it.

  35. Craig, let’s play nice, huh? No need to use words like ‘ridiculous’ and ‘nonsensical’ in response to someone’s beliefs or ideas.

    Joseph, I thought this was beautiful – you here articulate one of the things I like most about Mormonism:

    “Belief in God — especially within the context of authentic Mormonism — is about recognizing the divine within yourself and projecting that divinity onto the people and the world around you.”

  36. I apologise if I used words which seemed ad hominem. That was not my intention.

    I do find Joseph’s ideas interesting, I guess I was just somewhat troubled at the idea that I’m somehow “really” a theist, or at his portrayal of atheism which seemed to me to be cartoonish and a little insulting.

  37. ‘@ John Remy

    Sure, yeah, I mean, I’m not trying to say “You’re not REALLY an atheist.” Because then it’s like, well, yeah I am. Oh no you’re not! Oh yes I am! . . .ad infinitum.

    I mean that’s the point, right? It’s all word games. So why can’t we get past it? God is posited, not proven, except within the context of the position. Your faith in God, or lack thereof, is determined by the definition of God you choose to embrace. The atheism/theism debate is a dead end because it is a game of words.

    So I guess if I have a point, it is this: In my opinion, authentic Mormonism (not the orthodoxy of the modern LDS Church, mind you) transcends the atheism-theism divide. This is because, again, Mormonism posits God as a natural material being who became God through natural material means, suggesting how we might do the same. This is perfectly compatible with a materialistic understanding of the world.

    All authentic Mormons are hardened atheists at the same time that they are faithful, passionate theists. *hands up* S’all I’m sayin. Don’t hate on me for it.

  38. Caroline and Joseph, I agree with the beauty of “finding the divinity within”, but as a definition of “believing in god” or being theistic, it’s problematic. “Divinity” is defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as 1) “of, relating to, or proceeding directly from God or a god” or 2) “supremely good: superb .” Under the first definition of divine, “belief in God” as you both describe is tautological.

  39. Oops, just crossed over Joseph’s last comment.

    I think I understand where you’re going with your Mormons as atheists-theists argument, but because my own atheism arises from a Mormon context, I can say that I don’t really believe or even desire to have faith in the natural material god that Joseph Smith taught. This would make me still an atheist within the Mormon context. I also don’t see evidence or find it productive to try to have faith in a single being who created the universe, which is also one characteristic assigned to the Mormon God by basic Mormon teachings. If you have different definitions/characteristics that you assign to god, I’m happy to hear them.

    Philosophically, I’m what is sometimes called a “weak” atheist, so I’m open to the possibility of a god existing, but this has to be evaluated/approached on a case by case basis. Of all the gods I’ve been exposed to (and as someone with mixed Asian and American heritage and as a former student of comparative religion, I’ve seen quite a few), none of them seem believable to me (most of you have implicitly or explicitly rejected gods yourselves).

    If you define god as a natural/material being with more than human creative/destructive power and knowledge, then I am definitely open to the possibility.

  40. Exactly! There is an important sense in which faith in God IS circular, or tautological. Again, that’s the whole point. It comes down to a choice of whether or not to posit a God that exists by definition.

    It’s not about some dogmatic need to align your beliefs to something external. It’s about the aesthetic experience that results from the faithful choice.

  41. Joseph West, thank you for your comment. your feelings about God and the Mormon concept of divinity. Those are topics that fascinate me.

    “When you see your son creating works of art, do you see divinity within him?”

    Heheh, this is applicable as he is currently hard at work on some sort of creation. And I think this may also serve to illustrate where we differ in our definitions. Yes, I am profoundly moved by my son, by his growth and development, AND by the art he makes (and the art we make together), but the sense of wonder and awe and inspiration I get from this falls outside of my definition of deity. This goes back to what I mean when I say I am a “spiritual” person (my own way of defining/labeling this experience). This “Spirituality” is merely no longer connected to a belief in a higher being.

    Which goes back (once again) to individuals personal definitions of God.

  42. To address the sadness mentioned by Jalina and EmilyU… I understand this. And it would be accurate to say that I went through a bit of a mourning process when I became aware of the loss of belief.
    I had always felt a close relationship with god, as a literal parent and as a source of guidance, and I wondered where I would get comfort and answers if s/he wasn’t there.

    But after the mourning period there was peace. I found there was still comfort and guidance in the world.

    To me, it doesn’t feel like a rejection or a disowning. But I do understand how for believers (particularly ones with the literal parent/god belief) it would seem like that.

  43. ‘@ craig and johnremy

    Yes, I know. You guys are awesome. Glad you’re here discussing these issues.

    I was trying to be funny, but it really wasn’t funny. Sorry.

  44. Thanks, and again, sorry for diverting the discussion. I experienced the comment differently at first, but then Caroline explained some of the behind the scenes context and earlier history, which I lacked. I was drawn here by the atheism talk. 🙂

  45. Craig – I think it is hubris to say that “religion obscures truth and reality for so many people.” Do you think you have such a clear view of truth that you can say who sees it clearly and who doesn’t? I’m perfectly aware that some religious people claim they have a full view of the truth that others lack, and I think they lack humility. You’ve made that same mistake.

    In matters of faith everyone is a seeker because there are no empirical proofs. So let’s just treat each other’s beliefs with respect, because neither your belief nor mine can be proved or disproved.

    Also, you need to broaden your horizons if you think God needs to be petty, jealous, and vindictive. Although I’m a Mormon, I’ve attended United Church of Christ, Unitarian, Lutheran (ELCA), and Congregationalist services almost weekly for 10 years with my husband who has worked for them as a professional organist. I’ve listened to thousands of sermons from people with many faith traditions and the God we worship is nothing like that.

    G – I’m glad you’ve found peace and I understand that you wouldn’t people to think you’re tragic. I’d feel the same way. I went through a period when I stopped believing, and mourned my own loss of faith. I’ve decided to choose faith, although for me it takes work to maintain it – faith just isn’t a gift for me. So I can understand not believing, too.

  46. I think it is hubris to say that “religion obscures truth and reality for so many people.” Do you think you have such a clear view of truth that you can say who sees it clearly and who doesn’t? I’m perfectly aware that some religious people claim they have a full view of the truth that others lack, and I think they lack humility. You’ve made that same mistake.

    EmilyU, while I agree that it is best for our discussion about religion to be respectful in tone, I would suggest that we do not in practice respect all assertions that come from beliefs equally, especially in rational public discourse. This is a feminist space, and there are beliefs related to the submission of women to men in patriarchal religions that are argued against. Most of us do not respect the belief that, to pick an extreme but common example, say that it is lawful for a man to strike a woman in punishment and for the woman to gladly submit to such a beating. (this is widely accepted by women throughout the world, according to a recent UNICEF poll)

    Belief is not entirely a private and internal thing, but something that shapes our interactions with others, our public policy, and our society. Especially for a proselytizing religion like Mormonism, it strikes me as inconsistent to engage non-Mormons and to be critical of other belief systems (I know that missionaries try to be positive in their approach, but the sheer act of trying to convert people out of their existing beliefs is a form of critique in and of itself) on the one hand, but then to suggest that criticism of Mormonism/theism/religion and its impact on adherents is disrespectful on the other hand. The public discursive space is a critical space, but it is possible to critique with mutual respect for the believer, if not the belief.

  47. Um, that last comment was directed at EmilyU.

    Also, one of the reasons I stopped attending Church, after trying for years to be faithful in practice while I worked on my beliefs, was because of the bashing of atheists and intellectuals across the pulpit and in conversation with other members. It was pretty painful. :-/

  48. ‘@Emily U

    I’m a bit confused as to why you seem offended or put out by what I said. You pointed out why you felt sad when people leave the church / lose their faith in god, and I was simply giving you the other side of the issue – from someone who left the church because if its harmful effects on me, and who became an atheist after examining religion and faith in a critical way. You stated your belief and view, and I stated mine, not attacking yours, disrespecting yours, nor telling you that you were in any wrong.

    I was speaking solely from my own experience and beliefs about religion. It wasn’t an attack on anyone here. I pointed out that those of us who leave the church often see the concept of being “children of god” differently than you do, perceive religion differently than you do, and may well have good reasons for those perceptions.

    As I already alluded to earlier in my discussion of atheism, it is a fact that religion relies on faith, and faith is belief in an idea which is not non-proven, and non-scientific. As an atheist I reject truth-claim which cannot be backed up by evidence, reason, logic, and scientific proof. Which therefore means I reject all religion – again, I’m an atheist so this makes sense. Obviously, you see faith and religion differently, and are (I assume) some sort of theist. That’s fine, I wasn’t attacking that. Your world-view inherently means that mine is incorrect, and mine inherently means yours is. That’s the way it is with religion vs. atheism.

    Perhaps it is hubris that I think truth should be backed up by evidence, I don’t think so, but perhaps. But please don’t make the mistake in thinking I’m at all saying that I have all or even a majority of “truth”. All I’m saying is that in my experience religion very, very often keeps its adherents from accepting certain truths about existence. A few examples are homosexuality, evolution, & feminism. I believe it to be a fact (as backed up by copious amounts of evidence) that faith and religion very often motivates people to disbelieve things and have false beliefs about things even in the face of reams of evidence – and to me, that’s a bad thing.

    You are correct that some versions of god are a lot nicer than others. I am very glad your version of god isn’t like the one I described, I would be sad if it were. The version I was raised with was not nice at all. He was a disgusting entity and I finally decided I wanted nothing to do with him. Then I decided I didn’t believe he (or any other gods) existed at all. The Mormon god I was taught to believe in was all the things I said, and I stand by them. As I don’t believe in gods, there is no one “right” version of what god is “really” like, and even if I did believe in any god(s), my god(s) would still be significantly different from the god(s) believed in by most everyone else in the world. Some versions of god are nice, and some are absolutely horrible, and most are a weird mixture of the two. That is fact.

  49. I don’t know if I can necessarily jump into any of these threads-in-progress…but just wanted to add a few thoughts:

    –I often use the term non-theist rather than atheist. I’ve found that it causes people to think about what it means (because it’s an unusual term) rather than have a knee-jerk reaction to the term atheism. For me, being non-theist means that I don’t acknowledge or worship any god.

    –Trying to understand and please the Mormon God was one of the most confusing things I’ve attempted. I tried to understand that he loved me implicitly, but I couldn’t make sense of that with the need to mediate his will through priesthood leaders and archaic/mistranslated texts. I also felt constantly insecure about my how my own core values and inclinations were at odds with mormon god’s commandments or directives. As time went on I also became more and more uncomfortable with the atonement (necessary, salvific violence is repulsive to my commitment to pacifism, just as much as prescribed gender roles are abhorrent to my notion of human equality).

    –Embracing non-theism allows me to act according to my own light & knowledge rather than conforming to the arbitrary dictates of a Mormon god whose will seems in conflict with mine. Of course I know this isn’t everyone’s experience and I still respect my theist friends, despite our differences in beliefs/values. Please don’t be sad for me–I’m far happier now than before. And if there were a god, I’d imagine that s/he’d understand why I’m on this path and would rejoice that I am finding peace.

  50. John Remy – I did not say all beliefs are worthy of respect. I was taking umbrage with Craig’s sweeping assertion that religion obscures truth and detracts from authentic human experience. Criticizing particular beliefs is not necessarily disrespectful. Dismissing an entire belief system as ridiculous or nonsensical is.

    Craig – I am truly sorry you were hurt by your experiences with religion. But I think your comment went further than simply giving me the other side of the issue and it borders on being contemptuous.

  51. Emily U: Thanks for the clarification.

    Regarding Craig’s comment that:

    “Your world-view inherently means that mine is incorrect, and mine inherently means yours is. That’s the way it is with religion vs. atheism.”

    In the interest of demonstrating some diversity within atheism, not all atheists see atheism and religion as mutually exclusive. As I mentioned earlier, some varieties of Buddhism do not require faith in a deity, and in much of East and SE Asia the emphasis is on practice over belief. Orthodox belief is a strong characteristic of Western monotheism. From a Japanese perspective, I am a Pure Land Buddhist, not because I have any faith in Amida, but because when my mom dies, I’ve committed to honor her with the appropriate rites, at certain temples and locations, at the prescribed times over the few decades after her death.

    Also, I’ve seen a wide range of approaches to faith and empiricism within religion and among atheists. Some atheists believe in the efficacy of astrology, or in reincarnation, or that tin foil hats prevent aliens from reading our thoughts. Some theists believe that they have strong empirical evidence for the existence of some kind of God (however they are define the concept). I know a scientist at UCI who is a powerful proponent for the scientific method who is also a believing Catholic, for example (though I don’t know the specifics of what he does or doesn’t believe).

  52. Hey G, sorry I’m late to the party.

    I was one of those folks who recently addressed a predominantly believing audience. It was at Sunstone, ironically in the session This I Believe (following in John Remy’s footsteps). I thought about what to do with that essay for a couple months, considering the fact that I don’t believe in much in terms of doctrine and religiosity. I also didn’t realize that I had sort of hijacked the concept of belief in order to stow my Mormon theological cargo, and had not really taken it back. I ended up pulling together my essay the night before, all because I had forgotten that faith as a positive principle was not actually inextricable from the invisible god.

    After delivering an essay which was carefully non-committal in terms of theology, I explained to the audience that it was a difficult task because I am “a hair away from Atheism” (i.e. Agnostic). I was surprised by a both the physical shift in the audience, and even an audible reaction, when I said the word. It made me sad in a sense, and a little nervous, too, wondering if I had just made a mistake. I’m hoping the reaction was one of stereotypes breaking.

    One more thought. Coming from being a very faithful and believing Mormon, it is a terrifying situation to face the collapse of your testimony. Once that breaks, I think there is a tendency to set up a second wall. “At least I’m still a Christian!” Beyond that wall is another, “At least I still believe in a personal God!” From the near side of those walls, the other side always looks lonely and bleak. As if they are completely without hope, love, joy, spirituality, or inspiration. But my experience has been that once I completely gutted myself, I became an empty vessel ready to be filled with things that clearly radiate light (to me).

  53. Thank you all for this discussion. I will be re-reading it a few times so that I can absorb more of the insightful comments.

    As a “non-theist” (thank you so much for that term, Jana) I have experienced many of the difficulties expressed by G and others. It is always helpful to know that others have walked my path.

  54. I just wanted to offer my observations as a recently “out” agnostic, that I find the claims of Mormonism to be as plausible as “classic, orthodox Chrisianity.” I was steeped in the latter of the two, and taught to despise Mormons in my youth. In retrospect, I think the only edge “classic” Christianity has over Mormonism, is that it’s older. The magical thinking that religion encourages is the same, I think, in eaither camp.

  55. G,

    Hats off to your cousin brave enough to remain true to his internal convictions.
    “To thine own self be true” (Shakespeare).

    Because when the Lord appears to him,& inquires of him of his earthly actions at the cloudy ol’ Pearly Gates, your cousin with the clearest conscience can say, “well, at least I didn’t bullshit you”. My thumbs up to cuzzo here.

  56. When I was younger and said I was an atheist, people sometimes responded by telling me in an a pitying or placating tone, that “No dear, you’re an agnostic.” Wishing to spare me the stigma they attached to the word “atheist,” they seemed unaware that they were insulting me by saying I was confused rather than accepting that I had reached a conclusion by means of rational thinking.
    A few years ago, when I mentioned over coffee to a new acquaintance that I was an atheist, she appeared shocked. “But how can you be an atheist?” she said. “You’re so spiritual!” I was surprised both at the implication that being an atheist was so awful; — I live in New Hampshire, not the Bible-thumping south, — and that she considered me “spiritual”! I am put off by all the New Age silliness and was sure I’d never have spoken about anything at all mystical. The only thing I could think of that would have caused her to say that I was “spiritual” was that I relate to people (and animals and plants and I suppose the entire universe) in a compassionate, positive, kind, and helpful manner, to the best of my ability. I regard myself as intellectually hard-headed and opposed to romanticizing anything. I simply believe that since two of the most basic characteristics of normal human beings, besides self-awareness, are to be social and to long for expansiveness, (i.e., to want “more” of one thing or another —knowledge, novelty, money, fame, power, Facebook friends, understanding, self-esteem, humility, recipes, houseplants, etc.) — the more a person can increase his or her ability to care about people and things beyond him or herself, the more fully human s/he has become.
    Not long ago, I was sitting in church listening to a singularly bad sermon. The church was an historic building that had never been winterized and was only used one day a year for services in order to retain its tax-exempt status, so it was a community rather than a religious event. After a particularly gauche comment by the pastor, I turned to the woman beside me, whom I knew by name but not very well, and quietly said something about being an atheist. She replied that so was she. The woman sitting one the other side of her overheard us and said “Me, too.” We were all over 60 years old.
    I think the term “non-believer” is easier for most people to take, but I usually prefer to use the term “atheist” in an effort to extinguish the stigma associated with the term. “Free thinker” sounds a bit too academic to me. When I’m feeling particularly mischievous I say, mixing an archaic expression with an anti-archaic sentiment, “I don’t hold with religion.”

  57. Jean, I love this. “the more a person can increase his or her ability to care about people and things beyond him or herself, the more fully human s/he has become.”

    So true. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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