“The Faith I Left Behind,” our four-issue cavalcade of first-person deconversion accounts, continues in this issue. (It will conclude in the August/September issue.) The current issue features six stories submitted in response to our reque st for short essays of the form “Why I Am Not a . . .” The final item, Kevin J. Zimmerman’s “Commonalities between Homosexuality and Atheism,” was submitted and accepted separately; it’s a full-length article, three times the length of most of the “Why I Am Not a . . .” essays, but irrefutably a deconversion story all the same.—Tom Flynn, Editor
I’ve been lucky. I was raised in a family where church was not a priority but rather a weekly event in which farm families were expected to participate in the course of rearing a family. We didn’t go every week, just often enough to say we were Christians. Throughout my early years, I didn’t give religion or God much serious thought. Baptized in the First Christian Church, I said, “Yes, I believe in God,” but at age fourteen that didn’t mean much, and I didn’t care one way or the other. When I got married, I said “yes” to raising future children Catholic. (Otherwise, marrying the love of my life—who is Catholic—was not going to happen.) When I was about thirty-five, my dad offered to help me join the Masonic Lodge and the Shriners, both of which require that members believe in God. I knew he really wanted me to join, so I said “yes” again, more out of filial devotion rather than conviction.
So, I am now a baptized Christian, husband of a Catholic, father to Catholic-raised children, a 32nd-degree Mason, and a Shriner—having said “yes” when these choices arose based on no religious belief of my own. My focus has always been on those whom I love, not on debating the seemingly trivial question of whether or not there was a God.
As I have advanced in years, I have wondered about the mechanics of heaven and proof for God. The questions about religion and God that I have been reluctant to resolve for myself are now pressing.
With a degree in science education, I have found that satisfactory answers to most questions are science-based or at least logic-based. Michael Shermer’s “The Skeptic” has always been my favorite column in each month’s issue of Scientific American. His logic has been inspiring, and his writing is very insightful.
Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, although a very hard read, presented the situation with clarity: there is a logical, rational explanation for how religion has come to be and what purpose it serves. Human evolution created in mankind a need to know, a need to feel secure, and a need to belong. Early humans crafted scenarios that explained the unknown and made them feel secure and part of something bigger. Those stories led to the development of rituals. Then, as writing evolved, beliefs became more structured and refined. Societies developed more elaborate belief systems to answer more of life’s hard questions. The logical progression of religion founded out of fear and superstition into more sophisticated forms is the same today as it was eons ago. Once the truth is discovered, the fear of the unknown diminishes. Once the light is turned on, the fear of the dark is dispelled. Once nature and life is valued and understood for what it is, the need for religion is outgrown.
But where does that leave me? Does that mean I’m no longer a Christian/Catholic/Mason/Shriner? And does saying “no” to religion mean saying “no” to my loved ones?
Surrounded by family members firmly devoted to their beliefs can make freethought a lonely journey. Again, I’ve been lucky. My younger daughter is one to ask questions, and as a result, her Catholic upbringing didn’t take root. She realized that church was not a necessary part of life if one looks at life and nature logically and rationally. One Christmas, she surprised me by giving me The Portable Atheist by the late Christopher Hitchens, a wonderful book that every freethinking person should be familiar with. Her support makes the road less traveled far more exciting and a lot less lonely.
The answers I have found in my readings have revolutionized my life and given me the confidence to finally say “no” to society’s religious assumptions. So I call myself an atheist. No, wait, I’m a secular humanist. Or am I a “new atheist,” a nontheist, or, as Dennett suggested, a Bright? A. C. Grayling’s book Against All Gods offers naturalist as a more accurate term for one not believing in supernatural things. I like that. Maybe I am a naturalist. There are various other terms used to describe people who have broken free of religion, but the use of each of these runs the very real risk of breaking bonds within the community.
The thought of atheism can leave a religious person feeling threatened and scared, in part because the atheist argument directly refutes the beliefs of the religious. While the atheist can point to tangible facts and logic, the faithful only have hearsay and superstition to fall back on. It can shake their world; therefore, they are far more oppositional and less willing to accept or listen to the atheist point of view. In addition, there is far less public support for the atheistic cause. Few movies show the plight of the poor, discriminated-against atheist. Few laws cry out for equal rights for atheists. Few songs sing the praises of atheism.
I can see how younger people, new to freethinking, might be afraid they will lose their jobs or become social outcasts if they let people know how they think. If, however, there was some sort of term or even an emblem to identify us as courageous enough to think on our own and to be proud of it, I think more people would step out of the shadows to be counted. If Christians use a cross and Jews use a Star of David, what should atheists use?
Help me out here! We need a term and a symbol that does not alienate the religious but will help to develop a freethinking community, show younger people that there is another option, and allow for the expression of new ideas without social condemnation. What is the term that we should all employ as a force for social change? Or, on a smaller scale, what term can I use when I share my new perspective with those around me, without endangering my personal connections to those who are religious?
The song “Imagine” by John Lennon pretty much says it all. I can only hope that people who follow religion will someday accept this perspective and join in this way of thinking. I feel fortunate to have found the truth of freethinking, and I dream of a world where atheism is not something to be hidden or suppressed but can be readily expressed as a lifestyle equal with religion or even as an evolutionary step beyond religion. As for me, I’m trying to find the way to politely say “no” to religion while basking in the light of a newfound freedom that is brightening the rest of my life.
James Stevens was raised on a farm in southeastern Kansas. He earned his BA from Wichita State University and his advanced degree from the Southern College of Optometry. He served in the Navy for thirty years, first as a flight instructor and then as an optometrist. He now practices optometry and lives with his family in northern Illinois.