Fish out of Water: On Being an Atheist in a Religious Culture

By Dale McGowan

I’m an atheist, though I don’t usually call myself that. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about it or worried about the reactions of others. I don’t usually call myself an atheist for the same reason I don’t call myself a Pisces or a member of the phylum Chordata. They all say too little about me.  

I have hundreds of religious friends, but none of them puts “theist” on a survey, and for the same reason. “I think there’s a god” just says too little.  

Among the things that “I don’t think there’s a god” fails to say about me is what I do think is true. So I call myself a secular humanist, which means, “I don’t think there’s a god, and here are a hundred things I think are true and valuable and good, and isn’t it interesting that most of those are shared by most of the people I know, even if they do think there’s a god.”  

Now we’re talking.  

An early fascination

It’s sometimes assumed that I’m just not interested in religious questions, when in fact the opposite is true. I’m fascinated by those big questions and have been for as long as I can remember. If I had ended up a believer, I think I might have been a theologian. If it’s all true, how could you not be?  

As a kid, I attended Sunday School in the United Church of Christ and swam in Greek, Roman, and Norse myths the rest of the week. My dad died when I was thirteen, and my explorations took on a new intensity. For the next 20 years I was wide awake, listening, thinking, reading, questioning, spending time in the churches of nine denominations (Catholic, UCC, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian, Mormon, Presbyterian, and Lutheran).  I asked believers why they believed, why they weren’t Hindus or Druids, what they thought was literal and what was figurative in their scriptures. And I read their scriptures – not only the Old and New Testaments, but large parts of the Koran, the Vedas, the Gnostic texts, the Apochrypha, and commentaries on them all. 

O'Hair

As my first serious doubts began to form, I entered a period I call “Madalyn and Me,” since I was certain Madalyn Murray O’Hair and I were the only two nonbelievers on the face of the Earth. How could I think otherwise? The greatest minds of every generation had apparently accepted Christianity. I was sure I’d made a serious error of some sort. I had begun to doubt the Christian story, but I’d yet to discover any system of thought to replace it, nor any ancestral lineage for my doubts. 

In college my investigation was formalized. I studied anthropology, biology, astronomy, geology, philosophy and more. I learned about evolution, in depth and detail. I learned that it withstood three generations of scientific onslaught before being accepted as an awe-inspiring and humbling reality that establishes a deep kinship of all life on earth – far more beautiful than special creation in my eyes. And I realized, very gradually, that a full understanding of all the implications of evolution leaves an essential element of Christianity – human specialness among the creatures of the Earth – dismantled. 

But it was still just Madalyn and me, as far as I knew. Even in college I had not discovered any significant presence of articulate disbelief in our cultural history. How could I disbelieve when all of my greatest intellectual heroes believed? I’d heard it said the Founding Fathers were traditional Christians – when in fact very few were. I had heard that Darwin found no contradiction between evolutionary theory and Christian belief, when in fact he did. He made that clear in his autobiography – though those pages were removed from the first edition by his wife, with the best of misguided motives. I assumed that Einstein’s references to God were literal reflections of a personal faith, only later discovering his several irritated denials of that claim. 

Dale McGowan

I was in my thirties before I learned, through the works of A.N. Wilson, how many of the greatest intellectual and moral minds of every generation have been nonbelievers of one degree or another – Seneca, Diderot, Voltaire, Jefferson, Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Freud, Twain, Hume, H.L. Mencken, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertrand Russell. They had all written eloquently of their doubts and their reasons, often giving voice to their honest convictions at a far greater risk than any I will ever encounter. In the span of a single summer, I went from isolation to the company of giants. 

So I wasn’t to be a theologian after all. In fact, if there is such a thing as an atheologian, I am it.  

Coming out

It’s not always easy to be an atheist in a predominantly religious culture, but most of the challenges are manageable and getting easier with time. Some of my fellow non-believers would kill me for saying that, but it’s silly to suggest that it’s as difficult to be openly nonreligious now as it was in 1954. Not to mention 1454. 

It’s true that we occasionally see a single religious viewpoint injected into public school classrooms. But where this was once the norm, it is now the exception. Most school districts and school administrators are so eager to avoid the unhelpful distraction of a church-state smackdown that they sometimes err on the side of overcaution, banning any and all reference to religion. This is neither necessary nor good. Far better to do it right than to excise such a large and important part of human culture from our children’s education. 

It’s also the case that six states have laws on the books banning atheists from holding public office (Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas). Imagine the justified outrage if state statutes banned Jews or blacks from holding office. But the fact that these antiquated statutes are unenforced, unenforceable, and a general embarrassment to cooler heads in said states certainly helps to disqualify this as quite the outrage it would otherwise be. 

Most of the difficulty and genuine pain of being nonreligious takes place on a smaller scale—the level of family, friends, and community.  A recent Pew study confirmed that most atheists were raised in religious families, which means there was an act of departure at some point. In some families this is met with a shrug, but in many others it is seen as a rejection not just of belief but of family identity and even of the basic values associated with the faith. 

In reality, the atheist is most often walking away from theistic belief while retaining 90 percent of his or her values—values that can and do thrive with or without the frame of religion. Growing up, my family attended the United Church of Christ, and I did my best to behave decently and to treat others as I would like to be treated. More often than not, I succeeded. Now I don’t attend church or believe in God, and I do my best to behave decently and to treat others as I would like to be treated. More often than not, I succeed. The picture is the same; only the frame has changed. 

I’m often asked for advice about “coming out” as an atheist in a religious family. The best approach is to aim not to change minds on the subject of belief itself, but to work toward a reduction in tension around differences in belief. The best way to do that is to simply be “out and normal”—to confound the stereotype by being the lovely person you always were. 

Though there will be bumps, I tell my friends that most of the time the process of “coming out” goes much better than they think it will. And the opportunity to contribute your part to the net reduction of fear and misunderstanding in the world is a nice reward for showing a little courage. 

This courage is self-perpetuating. The American Religious Identification Survey of 1990 put nonbelievers at 8 percent of the U.S. population. By 2008, that number had risen to 15 percent. I think that had much less to do with changes of belief than with an increased willingness to answer the question honestly. And nothing contributes more to that honesty than the knowledge that a nonbeliever isn’t remotely alone.  

Indoctrination vs. influence

Most important to me now is protecting the rights of my children to come to their own conclusions about the big questions. And I’ve spent more time wondering how to avoid indoctrinating them myself than worrying about indoctrination from the outside. I’m the parent, after all, and my influence is bound to be huge.  

Influence becomes indoctrination only when you forbid them to question what they receive from you. For extra insurance, we should explicitly invite them to. Teach kids to think independently and well, then trust them to do so. And part of that education is encouraging them to resist indoctrination of all kinds — even if it’s coming from Mom and Dad.  

I go to great lengths to counter my undue influence so my children won’t be ossified before they can make up their adult minds. “Dad?” my daughter asked when she was eight. “Did Jesus really come alive after he was dead?”  

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think that’s a story people created so we feel better about death. But talk to Grandma Barbara. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth a thousand times if you want.”  

That’s influence without indoctrination. The one thing I value most in my own worldview is that I came to it myself. Why should I deprive my kids of that authenticity?  

And that’s all I would ever ask of a religious parent as well—not that they forego sharing the experience of their faith, but that they say, “Here’s what I believe with all my heart, it’s very important to me and I think it’s true, but these are things each person has to decide for herself, and I want you to talk to people who have different beliefs so you can make up your own mind. You can change your mind a thousand times. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong, and I will love you no less if you end up believing differently from me”—just imagine if that was the norm.  

“Question with boldness even the existence of a god,” said Thomas Jefferson in a letter to his nephew, “because if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear.” Even if God exists, I picture him smacking his forehead in exasperation at the lines we draw, the questions we think he can’t withstand. And I’ve encouraged my kids to picture that same possibility—that one of the many things they might end up believing is that there’s a God about whom we’ve gotten every last detail completely wrong.

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