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Beyond Belief 

An unapologetic atheist on growing up godless in the Bible Belt

I don't think there was ever a time in my life when I genuinely believed in God. My father died when I was very young, and though I don't remember it actually happening, I remember him, and I remember being told that he was in heaven. I also remember knowing at a very young age that that was impossible. From almost the start of my consciousness, in a frustrating but intrinsic way, I felt that 'This Is It.'

I was not raised by atheists, or "spiritual-but-not-religious" people, or Unitarians, or cultists, or Wiccans, or lapsed Catholics. I was raised by Methodists — good old-fashioned Methodists, in a good old-fashioned clapboard church. When I was little, I would often stay with my grandparents and attend church with them. It was a very rural place, with a little "community house" next door that was heated by a wood-burning stove, and the outhouse was in the woods. My two vivid memories of baby church down in the holler are a Sunday-school paint-by-numbers of "The Last Supper," and taking the "blood of Christ" thing literally and thinking all of the grape juice-drinkers were vampires.

Though there was never regular attendance at home, my mom went through a phase when I was in junior high where we had to go to church. It lasted several years, but eventually fizzled out. That was the time when I tried to believe in God, mostly for the social life. A couple of friends from school also attended, and I remember Youth Programs, "WWJD?" bracelets, movie nights and scavenger hunts. Good, clean, Hank Hill-approved fun.

I've had quite a few conversations with current-atheists-slash-former-Methodists, and have run across the same storyline over and over: None of us have a problem with Methodists, or the way church was inserted into our lives. We feel like we lucked out, as children of religious Southerners, to have avoided hateful sermons or parishioners, evangelical fanaticism, or anything else that could be interpreted by an outsider as crazy. Sometimes I even feel a little wistful when I drive past a United Methodist logo, with its bright red flame and thin black cross, and think about how my grandpa participated in his church's gospel choir.

The theory that I've developed when I hear atheists described as angry is this: An atheist's dickishness is directly proportional to the amount of resentment — valid or not — they harbor towards the religion they were brought up in. I harbor little to no resentment, so I ain't mad. A corollary observation regarding the atheists who seem to get on everyone's Internet nerves is this: A lot of young white males are very anxious to be oppressed over something. Anything. They are also very eager to prove themselves to be the smartest people in the room — and what's smarter than not believing in God?

I define my lack of belief as a pretty fundamental part of who I am. I didn't sit in a dark room and ponder The Infinite until I came to some "Eureka!" moment. If I may quote from the W. Somerset Maugham novel Of Human Bondage: "He was surprised at himself because he ceased to believe so easily, and, not knowing that he felt as he did on account of the subtle workings of his inmost nature, he ascribed the certainty he had reached to his own cleverness. He was unduly pleased with himself." May I follow that up with an "Oh, snap"?

Being the smartest person in the room doesn't really matter if you're a jackass. Congratulations, you're the smartest jackass in the room. I definitely think I was guilty of this to a degree when I was younger, but there is a certain contingent of nonbelievers who think that because they are correct in one thing (atheism), they are automatically correct in all of their opinions. But bigotry, sexism, homophobia or any of the other myriad ways human beings choose — yes, choose — to take issue with one another over their innermost natures, are not washed away just because one ceases to believe in God.

That's a thing I've been learning about, by the way — that many women who try to participate in atheist communities are ignored and marginalized. Why? I don't know for sure, but it's probably the same impulse that separates men and women in mosques and prevents women from being priests. It's not an attractive look, in any culture, in any religion, or any lack of religion. My atheist morality is this: Since this is the only life anyone ever has, we should try to make as many people in this world have the best lives they possibly can.

I'll end with this: Believers (hi, Grandma!), don't take it personally. There is nothing you can say or do that will make a non-believer change their mind. Don't feel sorry for us. We're going to be OK. To the non-believers, especially the younger ones: Don't take it personally. We live in a world with religion, and religion is probably going to be here for quite a while after we're all dead.

And hey, once we're dead, who cares?

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