I grew up in northern Illinois in the 80s and 90s, and while it wasn’t too unusual that we didn’t go to church, it never occurred to me to say to anyone that I didn’t believe in God. Daughter to a lapsed Catholic and an Episcopalian who’d rejected the whole notion of the church, there was no religion in my world. There was only reverence for nature and compassion, an awareness of the power of people to change the world, and a sense that there’s *something* out there. And so, as a product of my two parents and their two lapsed formal religious upbringings and their lived values… I believe in people. I believe what we do on this earth matters. I believe that we have to value the life we have because it’s the only life we’re guaranteed. I believe we are in control of our choices and our actions. I believe in acting in ways that will lead to a better life, a better world, and a better society. And I do not believe in a monotheistic god, nor do I believe in any supernatural otherness. I am an atheist. Period.
I’ve spent most of my life nervous about saying that out loud, and the place I grew up in didn’t help. When I was about 19, my cousin got married, and I was a bridesmaid in her Catholic wedding. At the rehearsal, they told us that we’d be offered communion and if we chose to refuse it, to just shake our head and they would pass us by. So I did. The server offered three times before finally leaving me alone, feeling incredibly self-conscious as I stood there, the source of the hold up in the smooth flowing process, saying no in the approved manner and being pestered to do it anyway (while standing in front of a zillion people at the front of a church!). I felt awkward and embarrassed and ashamed, and then I felt mad for feeling those things.
Five years or so later, I went to church with my friend Tim because we were all going to go do some family-type thing afterwards. Tim’s dad was an altarboy with my father years prior at Emmanual Episcopal in Rockford, so he looked at me askance when I slid to the side of the pew to get out of the way during communion. He smiled at me.
“You can go take communion.”
“No, thank you.” I always just said “no thank you”, because I believe in being polite, and really, who wants to stand in a church and say “I’m an atheist, so, no.” Not me. He didn’t give up.
“Everyone’s welcome.” He gestured for me to exit the pew.
“No, thank you. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“What? Why not?” Now he’s just confused. But, beliefs aside, I’d read the welcome pamphlet we’d all been handed, which invited all guests who’d been baptized or christened to take communion in this church.
“Because I haven’t been baptized or christened, and so it’s not right for me to take communion.”
“Well. We could fix THAT, too, you know.”
So that was the last time I discussed religion with Don. I didn’t want to get into it — not then and there, and not anywhere, really — that I believe that people’s traditions and rituals have meaning for them, and I respect that, and I wouldn’t want to disrespect them by taking part when I don’t believe. I feel like it belittles my respect for what others believe and it makes me into a liar.
Also, I’ve never been christened nor baptized, and feel no need to be. So there’s that.
Around the same time another librarian asked me, with absolute seriousness and pure puzzlement, how I could know right from wrong and have a moral code if I didn’t believe in Jesus and didn’t have the bible to tell me what was right. I was so taken aback that my spluttering rage at the absurdity of that question fizzled away, and I answered her question as earnestly as she asked it. We know right from wrong because we’re taught right and wrong, regardless of the framework in which we’re taught those values. “Because that’s what my parents showed me is right” is no less powerful than “Because the bible tells me so.” She struggled to hold onto those ideas. They were so counter to her beliefs… and her beliefs were what I grew up surrounded by.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. Maybe I’m writing it down because I finally feel like I can. In his first inaugural address President Obama explicitly acknowledged that there are American citizens who are non-believers, and I cried. And at nearly 40, I don’t feel wary about saying I’m an atheist. Or, not as wary. I still live in a distinctly homogeneous community… but times are changing, attitudes and expectations are changing, and my own self identity is pretty damn solid at this point.
We are all starstuff, I believe in kindness, and your life is now.