What It Feels Like To Be An Atheist

By Andrew Van Herik // As Told to Lauryn Hugener

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Lauryn Hugener

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What It Feels Like To Be An Atheist

When I was ten or so, I was walking out of a department store, and in my head I swore. And in my head I thought, Oh no, I can’t do that because God will be angry. But then in my head, I was also like, Wait, that’s dumb. Because if there’s an invisible being that’s judging me for what my brain is doing, that’s an awful world of fear and destruction, which doesn’t seem valuable to me. So at about age ten, I entirely threw it out as a belief system.

The religious situation I grew up in was a little complex. When I was younger, my mom would try to give us room to experience a lot of different options. So we would go to church, all different kinds: Catholic church, Methodist church, Protestant church. My half brother and his father are Jewish, but my brother has never been a devout Jew. We’d celebrate Hanukkah, and I went to Bar Mitzvahs for my friends. I had a lot of those religious experiences, but there was never any pressure for me to believe things.

If there was ever any pressure from my parents about what to think, it was just to critically think, to question things, to not just accept something at face value… but always wonder whether or not something’s true and try to investigate it. My mom is more spiritual, but she didn’t go to church that often. My dad values individualism; he and my brother are both atheists. They are much less kind about religion than I am now. In high school, I was a sarcastic, jerk atheist.

Before college, I was sort of an anti-theist. Anti-theists and atheists have largely different meanings.  Anti-theists have a mindset of, ‘God is bad, religion is bad, everything is bad, and therefore we have to talk about how it’s bad.’ But then there’s atheism: atheists believe that without God there’s still belief in humanity and its goodness, without the requirement of a divine backing. As an atheist, I don’t think religion is awful.

College mellowed me out. While there, I aimed to expand my mind as much as I could in everything, even though I was a philosophy and English major. By looking at religion, which exists throughout philosophy and English, and especially looking at Christianity through that, I became a lot more understanding of believers. Now, not only as a teacher, but in life, I try to be respectful and caring toward people of all beliefs, as long as those beliefs don’t hurt others.

I know lots of believers who aren’t bad people, who do good things, who are charitable and caring and wonderful. They use their religious belief as a mode of understanding in order to do good in the world. That’s exactly what all of us should be doing, on either side. With any text, if it’s used to promote humanity, to promote our kindness and love toward one another, that’s what matters.

There are terrible things that have been done with religion in mind, but it’s important to not be dogmatic or force our beliefs on others, no matter what they are. Atheists try not to be prejudiced toward anybody based off of their beliefs, how they look or how they act. The best way to understand someone’s perspective is to talk to them about it.

However, this is a struggle for many atheists; it’s like being gay and closeted in some ways. Because when someone is gay, they don’t automatically project that they’re gay. Atheists don’t automatically project that they’re atheists. They often encounter persecution because of wrongful assumptions about what they do or don’t think, and thus, have a hard time talking about it. Atheism is frequently and incorrectly associated with immorality: the idea that because we don’t believe in a divine order, that we like to be violent, swear and be a bad person without a connection to inherent moral good. Which just isn’t true.

I’m not a very public atheist, so I don’t face many stereotypes. A lot of atheists do encounter stereotypes, though: that they don’t believe in anything; that they’re nihilists; that they’re arrogant, destructive and hateful; that they know better than everybody else; that they don’t have friends. But a lot of these stereotypes come from people who are afraid to question their own beliefs; that if they doubt, they will somehow lose strength. I think doubt and questioning build strength. If we’re willing to question, to doubt, to look into what we believe and why, then how we come out of that is going to be far more true and valuable than where we were going into it.

One of the other biggest misconceptions about atheists is how we view hell. As an atheist, I don’t worship hell. Even a lot of theists don’t believe in it. Personally, I see it as a way to scare poor people. Today, hell is used by rich organizations to tell people who are trying to improve their lives that if they don’t join the organization they’re going to have a much worse life, when in reality, those people are already living a personal hell. Hell is used as a scare tool to make religion work because it’s a really scary thing. If we throw that out, and we make religion work toward charity, goodness and helping people, then we don’t need hell.

A lot of how Christianity is put forward is in an aggressive, negative way, using hell to justify right actions. If someone doesn’t do things well, they’ll go to a place of eternal torment and torture. If I tell a student, ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll get a detention,’ that’s not a great motivator. That attaches the good thing to punishment. If I tell a student, ‘If you do this, here are the skills you’ll learn. Here’s how you will grow as a person. Here’s what you’ll gain from it’; that’s more valuable.

***

There are moments in life when you are searching for meaning–for strength. I’ve thought about how nice it would be to have an inherent group of connections, a religious group. But ultimately, that would be disingenuous to myself and that group, because internally, my belief system wouldn’t change. I so deeply believe that everything has greater meaning, I just don’t think that meaning is derived from religion.

Since I don’t turn to divine order for meaning, I receive mine from my understanding of how people interact with each other. It better helps me understand how humanity works. It’s illogical for me to rely on this external source if the internal force is what matters. That’s the idea.

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