Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Accidental Atheist

The first time I said I was an atheist, it was an accident, really.

In August of 2009, my then-husband and I drove out to Washington state with our two little boys. To pass the time, my husband had bought an audiobook, The God Delusion. To provide a bit of context, here's a brief outline of my religious life up to that point:

Birth -- 2002:  Faithful Mormon

2002: Excommunicated for fornication (married the man I fornicated with)

2003: First attempt at returning to the Church
Lasted a few months, but in the end just didn't feel right
Tried a few unimpressive Protestant churches
Pregnancy with first child makes questions about God feel more urgent

2004:  Complications at birth and scary-as-hell emergency c-section that I take as a sign from God that he wants me to return to the One True Church. So I do with new determination to be humble and make it work, for the sake of my child. Cognitive dissonance increases to intolerable levels.

2005:  I leave the LDS Church for good, more or less set all religion aside for a while. 

2006 -- 2009:  Still have nagging feelings that there's gotta be something more to life than just what meets the eye. Dabble in a few more Protestant churches, discover ideas about the sacred feminine and feminist spirituality, really get into yoga and meditation during second pregnancy (2007-2008), become disenchanted with organized religion, determined to forge my own path, a lot of dabbling, no real consistency, nothing fully satisfying, a persistent unease and yearning for an unnameable Something.

"I've heard about this book, been wanting to read it for a while," my husband said. All my spiritual exploring and dabbling over the previous few years had been done solo. My husband completely lost all interest in any religion or spirituality when we left the Church. He started listening on headphones before I did and was enthusiastic. "I think you'd actually really like this," he said. 

I listened to bits and pieces of it throughout the trip and found I liked and agreed with most of what Dawkins had to say. When he described pantheism as a reverence for nature, the belief that God is all of nature and the universe, I thought, Yeah, that's exactly what I believe. (Not sure where I'd say my beliefs are these days, but that was a good description of where I was at the time.) Then he said that pantheism was merely sexed up atheism. So I figured I was at least leaning more toward the atheist side of things. (Though I now have a problem with lumping pantheists in with atheists. As a friend pointed out, "No one made Dawkins the Grand Pope of pantheism. Let the pantheists speak for themselves.")

When we got home, I listened to the rest of the book. So much of what he said resonated with conclusions I had already drawn myself: the danger of taking things too literally, basing policy and science on religious beliefs; denying evolution; the abusive nature of teaching kids to be afraid of God; the intrusiveness of imposing religious beliefs into other people's lives; the way atheists and non-religious people have been looked down upon, feared and marginalized. I could see clearly that not believing in God was a perfectly legitimate conclusion to come to and did not make one a demon.

I was listening to the book while washing dishes a few days after returning from our trip. The doorbell rang. I opened the door to a smiling man in a white shirt and tie. I would have thought he was a Mormon missionary except he was alone. "Good morning, ma'am! We're out in the neighborhood sharing a verse from the Bible with folks today."

"Oh, no thank you," I said.

"Oh, okay. Can I ask why?"

"We're atheists." He literally jumped off my front step. I couldn't help chuckling as I shut the door.

But I was troubled. The words out of my mouth were a surprise. I had not planned to say them.

And I winced a little to hear it.


If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new blog.


  1. I had a hard time identifying as atheist when I left the church. For a long time I retained belief in God. Then I believed something like the pantheist idea you describe above. The word atheist didn't really roll off my tongue very easily at first and really it still doesn't but I do mostly identify myself as such. I wuss out a lot and tell people that my husband is atheist but fail to clarify my position and for some funny reason no-one has thought to ask. I think when I specify that DH is atheist they assume that I am not. See the sneakiness of my tactic! I like the pantheistic view and I think the atheist viewpoint is the most humanitarian view that I know of. I really need to read 'The God Delusion' and 'God is not great' (Christopher Hitchens).

    I think the difficulty in saying "I am atheist" comes from having had such a deep seated belief for so long, still mourning that loss, and a previous belief that atheists were pretty well evil :P

    Each day I feel a little more comfortable in my atheist skin :) especially when someone like Dawkins reminds me of what a brave thing it is to identify as such.

    Good luck with your spiritual journey. I highly recommend the Yoga and meditation!!! xx

  2. LOL! I love this story. I'm atheist, but I don't like the label. It feels limiting and pejorative because of how it has been defined by theists. That difference in definition makes it difficult to use as a description of my state of (non)belief.

    Although, I do like the sexed up version of called pantheism. Just 'cause Dawkins used the root word 'sex' to describe it. :)

  3. Atheism was a really contentious word for me until I was about 17. Two of my older brothers as well as my younger brother had already concluded that's where they were at and it really distressed my mom. However, she realized she was lucky they were even alive and not involved in drugs (anymore) at that point, so she could handle the atheism if her kids were healthy and happy.

    This doesn't keep her from occasionally mentioning that she hopes we'll change our minds in the after-life, but we seem to have a functional understanding that allows her to spend time with us and not disown us like some other LDS parents would.

    I've pretty much stuck to the label atheist since then, but I am definitely what my good friend Brian would have called a "Soft Atheist," or essentially an agnostic. I do crave spirituality though, and pantheism sounds like it just might be more inclusive of that desire than atheism is generally thought to.

  4. I think you have just converted a whole lot of people to pantheism!!!

  5. M, thanks! I barely know anything about pantheism though! I'm no one to do any converting. :-)

    TGD, who doesn't like sex? ;-)

    Arual, I think my discontent with people who want to entirely throw out all religion is that they haven't shown me any way to replace what I got out of religion. And I think before you can talk about belief or disbelief in God, you have to define the term. I think for a while I called myself an atheist simply because I didn't want anyone thinking I believed in that God (the bipolar sky bully who metes out love one minute and wrath the next and controls your sex life and answers your prayers for your souffle to turn out but lets kids in Africa starve to death).

  6. Leah, that is how I see it too. I didn't want to be associated with what is commonly believed about god. The co-dependent, insecure, vengeful, brat that requires worship and adulation in order for us to receive HIS unconditional love. No, I don't believe in that god.

    I'm sticking with pantheism because it makes more scene to me to worship nature.

    What I got out of organized religion was a community. But now I can choose the community that best fits me rather than the cultist environment was was forced upon me in the past. It was still a community and it was comfortable, but in the end, I was the wrong community.

  7. As I've said before, the label "Atheist" shouldn't be used... for the same reason we are not "A-astrologers", "A-fairiest"... I prefer Secular Humanist. For it is from our society that morals come from to allow for a better well-being for all.

    If you have not read Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape", by all means do so. It is a great book (completely different than The End of Faith, btw).

    I also think you might enjoy this post:

  8. Very nice post, thank you for sharing this. It can be quite a step to identify as atheist when coming from a faith based tradition!

    There are many of us open atheists who also consider ourselves spiritual, in the non-Casper sense of spirit. We have a particular thing we do that's fulfilling internally, it positively impacts our lives, and is completely natural. No need to replace one dogma with another!

  9. Hmm. Unconscious adoption of a label? And then it just popped out? Yea, there are a lot of little surprises the unconscious has in store for us, I would bet. I'd second SD's comment about Sam Harris' Moral Landscape above.

    Out of curiosity, have you heard of panentheism? It's sort of the theist's response to Dawkins' 'sexed up atheism', defining 'God' just vaguely enough to get whatever you want out of the term while preserving some of the agency and some the sacred elements.

    I've never been comfortable with the label 'atheist' for the same reason the label 'Christian' got so uncomfortable for me. As I got exposed to more Christianities, I figured I really didn't want to be associated with any of them. Same thing with atheism. They both get too muddied up with ideas rather than getting down to the more important work -- actually recognizing each other as individual, living beings...

  10. I am so glad I found your blog. I'm not a Christian believer in the sense that I used to be, but neither do I have any interest in joining the growing atheist community - so much of it seems to be derogatory of religion and religious people for the most part, and I know too many good ones to want to join up with that. I didn't think there were other spiritual(ish) atheists out there - though I don't really like to use the term to describe myself. Deist or agnostic or "spiritual humanist" is what I usually think of, when I try to think of something.

    Anyway, thanks so much for writing. I love reading the comments, too, to see how many other non-religious spirit-seekers get drawn out by your words!

  11. Growing up I was taught that "atheist" was a dirty word used to describe really evil people. My, how things have changed.

    Although I often take issue with the use of labels, technically I suppose I am a "soft atheist." As a practical matter I believe the only honest answer is "I don't know." What a burden was lifted from my shoulders when I reached that level of self-honestly.

    If that makes me an atheist, whatever. I guess that's why it now seems a tad offensive when those guys wearing the white shirts and ties show up on the front porch. They don't know either ... but they have convinced themselves otherwise.

  12. This is so interesting, my story is so complicated, so I admire your putting it all out there. :)

  13. As an atheist, you certainly don't have to believe that there is nothing more to life than meets the eye. (We humans keep discovering more and there's no end to that in sight.) You just have to give up pretending to know stuff that we don't know.

  14. The label "atheist" bothers me a little as well. But I think that is probably due in part to my upbringing and living in a "Christian" society where I have been ingrained to wince at the word. As I use it more and more, the term becomes more comfortable, and I mainly use it because when I try to say, "Hey, I'm a non dualist scientific pantheist," people just kind of look at me blankly and have no idea what I'm saying... so the word "atheist" saves me a lot of explaining.

    Also! Have you heard of Alan Watts? I'm sure some people reading this will laugh at me because I have been plugging him a lot lately. He studied theology and then was a priest for the catholic church. He then left the church and studied zen buddhism (though he never claimed to be a zen buddhist). I think you would rather enjoy this video if you lean towards any kind of pantheism:

    Please watch it and let me know what you think! Also, search youtube for some of his other stuff, and there are some good animations called "prickles and goo" which were produced by matt stone and trey parker and they are based on lectures by Watts. Also, search youtube for "Music and Life - Alan Watts". There is some good stuff there. . .

    Interestingly enough, though my husband and I have rather similar beliefs, he shies away from the word "atheist" as well. He calls himself "pantheist" as well. :) (Ironically enough, I sometimes use the two terms [atheist and pantheist] interchangeably for myself.)

  15. Great story, Leah. Hilarious that they jumped off your porch! Amazing how atheists are so scary to people, when it's religion that drives people to do the really scary and strange things.

  16. Secular Dentist, great article! Thanks. My ex is having similar dating quandaries here in Fargo. Sam Harris is on my list.

    Ted, thanks. I'm of the opinion that belief has little, if anything, to do with spirituality.

    Andrew, I've heard of panentheism, but know very little about it. Labeling is something I seem to be wrestling with a lot lately. Labels have their place and usefulness, but can be limiting and divisive too.

    dragonscat, glad to have you here! I was for a time part of the derogatory, anti-religious group, but ultimately decided that just wasn't how I wanted to live.

    Cognitive Dissenter, I think that "I don't know" is the one of the most courageous things a person can say.

    Young Mom, thanks!

    Jon, I fail to see a connection between belief or disbelief in God and pretending to know things we don't know. Perhaps you could clarify?

    Hypatia, when people ask me what I believe these days, all I can say is, it's complicated. It's evolving so much, trying to slap a label on it reminds me of trying to dress my two-year-old when he's running away and laughing and won't hold still. Distancing myself from the "atheist" label isn't about fear of atheists. It's simply because I don't feel it accurately describes me anymore. There was a time when I really didn't think there was any god. Now I think maybe there could be and I'm exploring that.

    Donna, thanks! I will take atheism over religious fundamentalism any day!

  17. Leah- Yeah I totally understand. It's just what happened to me, although, I completely get that is not the case for you. I've been reading your blog and I completely know what you are saying! ;) I don't think it describes you either. I know what you mean about constantly evolving too. Like a swing mine has swayed back and forth and I think finally inertia is catching up and it's starting to settle. . . But who knows when something might push it into motion again. :P

  18. Hypatia, thanks for clarifying! :-)

  19. I have similar 'cringes' when I call myself an atheist. For so many decades I thought of atheists as bitter ex-Christians/ex-Mormons and now I find I am counting myself amongst them. However I'm not at all bitter about it. I like to think I am open-hearted to possibilities (could that be a good label?) but for today I have no idea what I would call myself. Atheist is probably the closest true definition, but in spirit it still doesn't *feel* right to me.

    ...I'm enjoying your blog very much.

  20. Thanks for reading, Catherine! "Open-hearted" sounds like a label I could get on board with. Beautiful!

  21. I am so glad I found your blog. I'm not a Christian believer in the sense that I used to be, but neither do I have any interest in joining the growing atheist community - so much of it seems to be derogatory of religion and religious people for the most part, and I know too many good ones to want to join up with that. I didn't think there were other spiritual(ish) atheists out there - though I don't really like to use the term to describe myself. Deist or agnostic or "spiritual humanist" is what I usually think of, when I try to think of something.

    Anyway, thanks so much for writing. I love reading the comments, too, to see how many other non-religious spirit-seekers get drawn out by your words!

  22. Dawkins' "God's delusion" is not the best book about atheism, it has a few holes in their arguments. But, like you, it was the book that "push me" to declare myself "atheist", an eye-opener.

  23. Edin, yeah, another part of why I "declared" atheism was that I wanted
    to be part of giving visibility to non-religious people to show that
    there's nothing wrong with not believing in God and not practicing a
    religion. And I still feel that there's nothing wrong with it. That
    just doesn't happen to be who I am.

  24. I'm curious, do you have suggestions for what would be better books
    about atheism?

  25. Like your ideas Leah. Have you tried looking up discodianism or the cult of Eris? I was brought up Catholic myself. Doesn't it make you wonder that so many people have had a'christian' ( and I use that term extremely loosely) upbringing. Then many of them turn away to find something that is true to them? I declare myself to be a pagan which means I believe there is a Divine Being in all living things and how wonderful nature is around us. Then throw in a touch of Discord because just when you think life is hunky dory it goes and slaps you on the upside of your head. optimistic with a healthy dose of cynisism.


Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism