Sympathy for the Devil-Believers

Stephanie Savage

According to a 2014 Pew survey, more than half of the American public wouldn’t vote for a presidential candidate who didn’t believe in God. In a list of negative traits, atheism ranked the highest, a full twenty points above infidelity. Sure, it’s okay if you’ve cheated on your spouse, as long as you think you might go to hell for it.

In 2015, the secularist blogosphere was set ablaze by a Gallup poll showing that 54 percent of the electorate would vote for an atheistic president. Finally, slightly more than half of voters would vote for an atheist. Only 46 percent more to go!

Indeed, in my own life, I’ve experienced prejudice due to my atheism. During dinner on a second date, I mentioned in passing that I was an atheist. “How can you be moral without God?” my companion asked me in all earnestness. I’ve often thought I should’ve answered, “You know, you’re right,” and stabbed his hand with my fork. But of course I didn’t, because you don’t need the fear of God to be moral. Plus, he was a lot bigger than I was. There was no third date.

While prejudice against gays has receded at an astonishing rate, acceptance lags for atheists. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 68 percent of respondents said they would vote for a gay presidential candidate. There are a number of reasons for this remarkable progress. One is the sheer number of people in the LGBT community who have come out in recent years. Learning that someone you know and care about is gay often softens prejudices.

But bias works both ways. I was raised agnostic by a Jewish mother with no patience for the go-along-to-get-along approach of many so-called secular Jews. We never observed the Jewish holidays. We exchanged presents on Christmas but didn’t actually celebrate it. Why shouldn’t we be able to exchange gifts just because we weren’t believers?

The closest I came to religion was after my mother married a Unitarian Universalist, which is basically organized agnosticism. My favorite Unitarian Sunday school was glorified day-care. We did fun stuff such as carving wooden boats and fossil hunting, which I loved because I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up. I still have the tiny shells I collected during our “expedition.”

When we moved to Birmingham, Alabama—the buckle of the Bible Belt—the Sunday school at our new Unitarian Church was a humanist simulacrum of Christian Sunday school. Snooze! But being a Unitarian had its advantages. In the Deep South, people often ask you what church you belong to. I couldn’t say that I was an agnostic—or Jewish, for that matter. It was bad enough that I was relentlessly picked on for not being enough of a “Georgia Peach,” which confused me because we were in Alabama. With my Yankee accent, I automatically didn’t fit in, and being a tomboy didn’t help. But when I told them I was a Unitarian, it was their turn to feel perplexed. They probably thought it was one of those churches with bizarre rites such as handling hungry piranhas instead of a religion for people who would never join a religion. You’re a Unitarian? Oh, okay. . . .

At the time, there was a law in Alabama—later overturned by the Supreme Court—that allowed “voluntary silent prayer” in public schools. But it was most certainly not silent or voluntary. Every day before lunch, the teacher would have us recite, “Thank you, Lord, for our daily bread. God is great and God is good, and we thank him for our food. Amen.” I wondered what God had to do with that pucklike roll they handed out in the cafeteria and why I should be thanking him for the gelatinous Salisbury steak. It didn’t seem a very good example of God’s goodness to me. But I was terrified that the other kids would see I wasn’t praying, so I mouthed the words. The next year there was Bible reading in class. I prayed, so to speak, that I wouldn’t be called on to participate.

One afternoon in my early teens, I realized that I had come to assume that there was no God. In other words, I had already become an atheist; I just hadn’t realized it yet. These were the days of the Moral Majority, which further hardened my attitudes against believers, especially fundamentalists. My first published work was a satire of Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign in the form of the Twenty-Third Psalm called “The Psalm of Pat Robertson.” It appeared in American Atheist magazine. “Yea, though I walk through the halls of Congress, I will fear no Democrats, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and my Chief of Staff will comfort me,” read one line.

 

I didn’t have any Christian friends then to counter my prejudice. That all changed when I learned to play a traditional Appalachian stringed instrument called a mountain dulcimer. I became active on a popular dulcimer website with many members from the Deep South. I no longer worried about mentioning my Jewish heritage, and certainly no one asked about my religious beliefs. Still, my experience led me to gingerly refer to myself as a secular Jew. (Indeed, I was such a secular Jew that when I was a small child I once pointed to a group of Orthodox Jews and said, “What are those funny beanies they’re wearing, Mommy?”)

I doubt whether many were fooled by this euphemism, but the subject of religion didn’t come up that often. Until, that is, I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain. I fell into a deep coma and was on the edge of death. My boyfriend, Keith, was forced to inform my dulcimer friends about my dire condition.

Keith received an outpouring of support and sympathy from them. They said countless prayers for me. Six weeks later, I awoke, contrary to my doctors’ predictions, with no cognitive damage whatsoever. I was told my recovery was a miracle so many times—in the real world and online—that I jokingly referred to myself as “Miracle Girl.” As my Christian friends continued to shower me with support and prayers through the ups and downs of my difficult recovery, my attitudes about Christians slowly changed. I even welcomed their prayers in the spirit they were given. With my completely secular upbringing, this was an alien view, but they truly believed that prayers work. To them, prayers were the deepest, most meaningful form of support they could offer.

I began to see past the ignorance of fundamentalism to the kindness that can lie behind Christianity in people with modern egalitarian mentalities. When a 2008 Pew poll showed that 52 percent of American Christians believe non-Christians can go to Heaven, many religious leaders begged to differ, claiming those people just weren’t aware of Christian doctrine. But I felt even then that the respondents did indeed understand; they simply disregarded antiquated dogma. The modern mind-set recoils at the idea of God turning away Albert Einstein because he was a Jew or Mahatma Gandhi for his Hinduism.

Now that I was becoming more personally acquainted with Christians, that view only deepened. I slowly revealed my nonbelief to my friends. Okay, I’ll be honest: I was afraid they would abandon me when they found out about my atheism. It wasn’t exactly hard to read between the lines though. When a member became ill or lost a loved one, I always said I would be keeping them in my thoughts, not prayers. Conversely, when I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, I didn’t ask for their prayers. And when, months later, my treatments indirectly led to my coma, neither did Keith.

But any doubt about my nonbelief ended when Skeptical Inquirer accepted my article about my coma experience, “Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience.” It was quickly followed by Free Inquiry’s acceptance of my essay “Without a Prayer of a Chance,” which was largely about believers’ response to my supposedly miraculous recovery (and about my reaction to their support and prayers).

Did they abandon me? No. In fact, they cheered my success. Most of them probably didn’t even know any other “out” atheists. But, like my recovery, their acceptance was no miracle. As happened with the gay rights movement, learning that someone they cared about was an atheist forced them to incorporate the new information into their previously formed idea of me. I wasn’t some faceless person without the faith they held so dear. And I certainly wasn’t the kind of flame-throwing atheist frequently quoted in the press, which is all too often the public face of atheism.

Exposure to people with different backgrounds and values tends to broaden perspectives. That, in part, is what affirmative action is about. The idea that nonbelievers can have no moral compass without God is ingrained in believers from an early age. Only experience can shake such a deeply rooted belief.

Maybe atheists should steal a card from the gay movement’s deck by coming out to our religious friends and family. They may never abandon their dearly held religious beliefs, but they might shed their prejudices about atheists. In the process, we may start seeing them as more than mere holders of primitive beliefs. Then we’ll truly be one nation, with or without God. And perhaps we’ll finally see an avowed atheist in the Oval Office.

Stephanie Savage

Stephanie Savage focused on fiction writing before her coma. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including American AtheistJewish CurrentsSnickerPotpourri, and 3 am Magazine. The July/August 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features her article “Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience.” Her essay “Sympathy for the Devil-Believers” will appear in a future issue of Free Inquiry. Savage writes about her recovery through a skeptical and humanist lens in her blog, Coma Chameleon: My Recovery Chronicles.


“‘How can you be moral without God?’ my companion asked me in all earnestness. I’ve often thought I should’ve answered, ‘You know, you’re right,’ and stabbed his hand with my fork.”

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