I have never been very good at believing in God. Born and baptized in the Episcopalian tradition, weekly church services and Sunday School lessons formed the background noise of my childhood. Church was something that we, my good southern family, did. It was something that just about everybody I knew did.
Like so many of the legacies of childhood, I didn’t mind going to church until one day I did. I remember how I used to explain my newfound skepticism: if someone was standing in front of you, holding out three stones in one hand and two stones in the other, and that person proclaimed that they were holding a total of four stones, you would question the conclusion. You wouldn’t blindly believe in something’s veracity despite evidence to the contrary. Faith was the delusion of the unquestioning – or so I thought, with all the wisdom of a middle-schooler.
I softened as the years passed. I attended an Episcopalian boarding school, attending thrice-weekly services in our school chapel. Rows of detached, disinterested girls sat quietly, few displaying any real fervor for faith. In the midst of these passive believers, I rarely admitted my atheism. I was an atheist by abstention, and I rarely spoke out about my lack of faith.
In school, I studied religion under a harsh light, seeking out its flaws. But my classes on European history and western Christian thought began to inform a personal thesis on religion that allowed me to see the value in this thing called faith. I realized that the very evidence I used to bolster my doubt – the pain of living, the trials and tribulations we face daily – was, to another person, a perfect reason to turn to God. I knew little of non-Western religious traditions, and it wasn’t until I began to hurtle toward my high school graduation, toward my new home out of the South, that I started to wonder about those systems of belief. But the plurality of religions did little to dissuade me. I still felt that to believe was to set aside one’s doubts uncritically, and I have never made a decision without over-thinking it, without steeping myself in the act of questioning. I knew then, as I know now, that there is so much that I do not understand about this world. And while I no longer presume that the evidence before me – those five stones – unilaterally proves anything, I am still an atheist.
Last year, I participated in a public speaking contest co-sponsored by a local church and my college. I took the lectern, standing before a wooden cross mounted on the church wall, and I spoke about the language of belief I now use to define my atheism. When I finished my speech, a member of the congregation came up to me, and placed her hand on my wrist: “I think,” she said, “that one day, you will find a faith that suits you.”
Still dazed, I simply smiled in response. But a year later, I know what I should have said: I think I already have.
I cannot unhear the prayers of my childhood, nor can I forget the mosques and the cathedrals and the shrines I have seen, the hymns I have sung and the stories I have heard from the people of faith I have encountered over the years. These things have informed the tenor of my voice when I speak of faith, forever changing the vocabulary I have at my disposal when I write of belief. But I still do not believe in a God, cannot follow a faith, do not feel the call of a higher power.
I believe in my atheism.
In this atheism, I have found a kind of freedom, because I have realized that this is my one shot at life, and that life is worth living for its own sake. We are each the captains of our own destinies, responsible for staying the course even in our darkest hours. When the waves are crashing over the deck, when all seems lost, you can – and should – turn outward. Outward to the millions of other people who are on their own versions of this voyage. They will be your salvation. Sometimes, those people will let you down, and sometimes, you will do the same to them. But for the most part, your life will be filled with outstretched hands and open hearts.
Some things have changed since I began to doubt. I have learned to be gentler with those who navigate life by a different compass. I have loved people who have also loved their God, and I have seen the power of that faith, and it has touched me in a more genuine way than I ever imagined. I carry with me a deep, abiding respect for the faithful, and perhaps – although I am often too slow to admit it – a bit of jealousy.
But my most important lesson has also been my hardest. For too long, I saw faith as the province of the unthinking follower. But one day, someone who believed opened up the inner workings of their faith to me, allowing it to bleed into the texture of our shared life, and I began to see nuance where I hadn’t before. Over the years, I realized that I have more in common with the faithful than I could have ever imagined. I realized that to believe is to doubt, to doubt often and to doubt deeply.
Like my atheism, this kind of faith requires constant maintenance and careful consideration. And like this belief, my atheism is a matter of faith.
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