Being an atheist is a lonely existence. There’s no weekend club like Christians or Muslims have; there’s no community like Jews have. We are, for the most part, scattered to the four winds, nicely homogenized with our neighbors and our cultures, but we have no real coherence. Mainly this is because we don’t see atheism as a religion or some kind of other social identifier that would compel us to seek one another out for the sake of meetings or rituals. Our beliefs (assertions, really) are our own; personal. But with that solitude comes misunderstanding.
We have been given a stigma and our label has been deemed an ill omen by the religious. When someone learns that I’m an atheist their typical reaction is to act like I’m a lost child running through the Victorian snow looking for my parents — a sad, lonely person that has lost his way. Nothing could be further from the truth, actually, because I’ve found my way. My journey from uptight Christian to liberal Christian to deist to agnostic to atheist has been a poetic inversion of the old hymn “Amazing Grace”: talking about his conversion to Christianity the writer states, “I once was blind, but now I see”, but my journey has been the opposite, although the phrase still rings true — I was blinded and now I see — my “conversion” was rather the other way. The other typical reaction it pity. Why someone would feel pity for me is beyond me, I am happier with my personal beliefs and with my inner “zen” than I have ever been. My worldview has never been more clear, more coherent and consistent and logical, so why must someone feel sorry for me? If anything I think congratulations would be in order if that weren’t so blatantly self-serving.
I think the root of the condescension (let’s be honest, that’s what it really is) is the fact that in the minds of Christians atheists are people who have been led astray, people who have wandered off the straight and narrow path. We are lost in their eyes, both spiritually and emotionally, like someone would lose a dog. I think the biggest reason is that we’ve been demonized and shunned by Christian society — a society that has until quite recently held major sway over large swaths of our culture and our government. Recently Mike Huckabee of Fox News stated in no uncertain terms that the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and the mall in Oregon are the result of our secular nation refusing to allow blind theism to be taught to our children and implied that it was atheists that caused these tragedies to happen (that’s a whole other blog, which you can read here: Think!). In reality (something people like Huckabee obviously don’t live in) nothing could be further from the truth. Every worldview has its good and its bad people, but to blame the entire group for something that a few people did is absurd (Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, was Catholic, by the way). Christianity has Hitler, the KKK, and the Crusades; Islam has their extremist ayatollahs; atheism has Stalin. None of those people or groups are typical of the rest just like not all cars are Fords. To say otherwise, or to imply otherwise, is lazy logic and it makes you an idiot. But just as transgressive is the notion that all atheists are sad, lonely wanderers looking for answers to life’s questions that only religion can answer. Ignoring the fact that religion doesn’t actually answer any of the great questions of life, or even the not-so-great ones, we’re not all searching for answers (not in the same way that theists search for answers). The answers we’re searching for are to questions like “what is matter made of?” or “what are the mechanisms that allow a species to evolve over vast periods of time?”, not meaningless questions like “what did Paul mean when he called Jesus the Second Adam?”. Trying to interpret the writings of a Jewish zealot who never met Jesus or even mentions his earthly existence is not only a waste of time, but a gross misappropriation of the time and talents of people who could be putting their knowledge and their intellect to better use.
You might be asking, “well, if we’re not supposed to paint atheists all together like that, then how come you’re allowed to do it with Christians?”. The simple answer is that I was one, I’ve met literally thousands of Christians, and I know what they’re like and what they believe on an intimate level. The sad fact is I probably understand the Bible better than most Christians (which is one reason why I can’t take it seriously) while most Christians have only met a few atheists in their lifetime (unless they’ve lived overseas, especially Northern Europe, but my focus is American Christians because that’s what I know).
Society has made us pariahs; orphans of the mind looking for answers. One day you’ll wake up and realize that we were the ones who were right all along.