I do not like to “belong” in any way that requires membership—whether the group in question would have someone like me as a member or not. The reason may be some psychological condition I lack the expertise to identify, but I don’t care (feel free to have at it yourself). I stretch the frame of “membership” in all directions, from refusing frequent-customer cards that earn discounts, to emotional fusion with a sports team, to surrendering my body parts, fluids, or the whole flabby package in exchange for undying loyalty. You’re not reading the words of a poorly clothed sociopath who lives beneath the floor with only a single bulb powered by a pirated extension cord (although I am trying). I do support causes and organizations, and I contribute to society with my time, money, and effort—in each case, with as much individuality and anonymity as possible. I just get screwed up tight at any sappy talk of identity through allegiance, whether or not I agree with the issue at hand.
The most ludicrous demands of membership are made by religions, but membership itself is a form of currency exchanged everywhere, and it requires degrees of credulity. I’ve always been a cynic and loudmouth about group behavior, even while I was a Catholic (I burned that membership card long ago), but I’ve always left “atheist” labeling to others—I simply want to be far more than I want to be something. My decision on how I want to spend my existence is inspired by the boorish rambling and bawdy Romanticism of Henry Miller, who reveled in his marginal status as a citizen of the world that he often despised. “Stay put and watch the world go round,” Henry wrote from his well-earned seclusion in Big Sur, inspired by the hummingbird. Even as a child, stillness let me watch everyone march by until the ignorant parade ended. But this is the twenty-first century, when one cannot sit unmolested for long.
In November 2007, I received a chain e-mail ordering parents to boycott the film adaptation of The Golden Compass so as not to inspire children to read the trilogy of books called His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I was, at the time, fully ignorant of the books, the film, and Pullman. The e-missive exists in many forms; it was inspired by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League—of whom I also had never heard, nor had I heard of the league for which he plays. I received the e-mail from many close friends and family. I was outraged at the idea of the masses boycotting a book (and to a lesser extent, a movie) without reading it simply because they were ordered to do so. Far worse was that suddenly, through membership alone, atheists and Pullman (and I) were now brute Philistines marauding among the children of believers, many of whom are members of my family. The incongruous association between fiction, atheism, and evil was made flesh in the cliché hurled by every religious supremacist: “We’re under attack!” My family was under attack, and I was among those goose-stepping across their front lawns.
Scandals, hypocrisy, and dogma aside, I was furious at the idea that it is dangerous for children to engage with any story in print, apart from the special effects and famous faces in the films made from them. But the affronted saw “Catholic” and “atheism” and then themselves in the middle of a war on a baptismal team they didn’t even pick for themselves. This familiar invocation of fear and self-victimization was received by people whom I knew well, and some were aware of my nonbelief. But they were told that this book was written by an atheist so it must be bad, and they clicked “Send.” They were frightened and likely meant no offense, so I forgave without a word. However, to condemn a book during the firestorm of revelations of abuse within the church angered me right down to the ground, so I looked up on Facebook the players unknown to me who had forwarded the e-mail. The symbols of membership abounded in profile pictures of people with red, white, and blue; cowboy hats; bleeding Jesuses; photos of Ronald Reagan; weeping Marys; and Tea-Party yellow. These were the sort of people who bathed in membership and demanded it of their friends. The character Lyra in His Dark Materials is precisely what the Catholic Church and all membership organizations fear above all else: someone with the wherewithal to stand up and shake her fist at the sacristy and spit on the ground in front of those with authority who try to command her participation on their cheating team. Real overlords fear this sort of scenario being illuminated in fiction, and the cassock of membership gets wrapped more tightly.
Until this e-mail arrived, I was vaguely and sympathetically “not religious but spiritual” but had long finished with Catholic trappings and belief in any sort of intervening deity. I didn’t even know what a secular humanist was until I came across Center for Inquiry videos on the Blasphemy Challenge, in which subjects denounce the Holy Spirit on camera. When I considered denying the Holy Spirit aloud even while alone in my own home, I was reluctant. I was still horribly indoctrinated without even knowing it (although I should have known, having been raised Catholic and with a depressive Irish disposition from my mother and austerity values from my unconverted Lutheran father). I was a thirty-four-year-old child standing outside the church but still well within the long shadow of its spire. I eventually denied the Holy Spirit aloud but not on camera—that would be too much like pledging membership—although I am grateful to those of you who did so.
I began stripping away from my daily life every indulgence in or irrational belief in superstition. I now vocally despise Jenny McCarthy and won’t suffer those who don’t “believe in” the Apollo moon landing. This didn’t go over well with some friends, one of whom claimed to be an atheist yet believed in The Secret. Her one supernatural belief led to an argument over pseudoscience regarding my children that ended our friendship because I wasn’t being “courteous” to her point of view. Our membership as friends should have compelled me to hold my tongue, she thought. Some claim that God is dead when he is only ailing due to a lapsed membership. I continued on alone, no longer a vassal—or a vessel—for anyone.
The “Why I Am Not a . . .” essays published in FREE INQUIRY declare what one is not, but the question, “What are you then?” always follows. I could flap my hands and say, “I’m a hummingbird!” (and be consigned to living under the floor a lot sooner). The world is filled with people constantly yammering at you about what they are, and they are usually agreeing to a largely inaccurate profile. To say in our current society that I’m a recovered Catholic or an atheist instantly puts a numbered jersey on my back, despite the fact that I’m not the least bit interested in playing the game. But in the strictest sense, contained within the Latin prefix a-, an “a-theist” is indeed what I am. But I am an amorphous and emergent one, so don’t expect me to go about shouting it in the street. I’ll stand with any card-carrying members of any group when a single fight is worthwhile. Just don’t tell me that I must or that I’m expected by precedent at the next new protest.
My walk from credulity was a lengthy trek out of social structures that use membership to entrap us, and I’m now on an open road to somewhere rather than away. I am not a member, simply because I don’t al
ways care enough to attend the meetings or compete in the debates—but I ultimately don’t care if there is a god or not, because, regardless, I simply am.