I have been doing a lot of unpacking lately, both literally and figuratively. I have recently moved to a different city, and returned to a place I once knew well, many years ago. It hasn’t been a case of ‘going home again’ as much as it has been an expression of self awareness of my preferences, but as with other significant life events, there are surprises waiting around each corner — surprises that carry with them hidden issues that require figurative unpacking. For the purposes of this post, however, I will only address one. It is the one that left my FB friends scratching their heads and sending me comments like, “WTF?” and “Wow. You surprise me!” and “Have you lost your mind?” It also led to the most annoying statement anyone can ever hear, “Obviously, you have issues you aren’t dealing with…” I don’t know about you, and maybe it is just my age, or the fact that I am a philosopher, but it is damn near the biggest insult you can pay me. The way I see it, and live it, my obsessively organized and compulsively compartmentalized mind is constantly on hyper-drive when it comes to analyzing and ‘dealing’ with my ‘issues.’ So after a few days of sitting with (read: doing anything but calmly sitting with) my annoyance and reviewing my own out of character posts, I have gotten to a place where I can begin to unpack the responses of others, rather than perseverate on my own insecurities.
I am a product of conservative evangelical Christianity. I memorized scripture, sang hymns, transitioned to the praise and worship songs as they became vogue, and attended Christian school, including Vacation Bible School during almost every summer. My school lessons were developed from curriculum created just for this purpose, replete with morality cartoons and admonitions to do missionary work. I remember one year my class was sent to evangelize to the neighborhood surrounding our school – to spread the ‘good news’ to our ‘neighbors.’ I felt bad for the neighbors then, and still do now. I actually still remember being turned away by one old man in particular who managed to get across, through his annoyance, that he hoped we would grow out of this nonsense. I told him I would pray for him and I did – for quite a while. I prayed about everything – so much so that I was labeled a ‘prayer warrior’ in my youth. I was somehow winning a war for Jesus. No, I didn’t understand it, but hey, all the adults beamed at me with pride, so I went with it. As I got older, I was very active in youth group and praise and worship leading for the church. I went from singing the songs with feeling as a child, to teaching others how to do it on the stage. I would also sing solos for the congregation and take on the role of mentor to other youth. I was a poster child for conservative evangelical Christianity and I actually lived it to the best of my ability – awash in the glory of…well…that actually was part of the problem…awash in the glory of – nothing other than self-sacrifice and losing any semblance of myself in favor of the expectations of others. Even at a young age, I could tell that something was amiss. There was an element of religion that was commercial – that was constantly being manipulated by people toward some purpose. This is what brings me to Keith Green.
I posted two of my favorite Keith Green songs on my FB timeline. My absolute favorite is included here. Keith Green was an extremely popular Christian singer/songwriter of my generation and I loved him. I know the words to every one of his songs, as it turns out I can still sing them with wild abandon, and importantly for the purposes of this post, I can remember what it felt like to want to be him so badly that I ached for it. Just to clarify a little, I wasn’t aching to literally be him, or a boy, but rather to feel about Jesus in the same way that he did. For me, he was the ultimate representation of the truth and possibility of the best of what Christianity had to offer. Maybe it was his flip flops, or his wild mane of curly brown hair, or just his fabulous hippie persona, but he seemed to be lacking all of the bullshit that I was feeling from my own Christian experiences. He was so pure, so honest, and so unassuming in his love for Christ that I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with “I WANT THAT.” Later, I realized that for me, he also symbolized freedom. In my adolescent mind, he wasn’t required to wear his Sunday best every week, or memorize passages of scripture of someone else’s choosing, or be held to an impossible standard of Christian virtue for others to follow – he just got to sing about and love Jesus, free from all the bullshit. As it turns out becoming ‘free from all the bullshit’ has been a running theme of my life, which is probably why I still love Keith and why I cry when I hear him sing. I didn’t know it then, in the ways I know it now, but representations of freedom are important and lasting and often crystalize before we are even ready for them. Hearing Keith sing a few days ago – via Youtube – created a flood of emotion for me, particularly in light of my life now actually relating to a personal freedom I have never before felt.
I know this is already a little long, and I know that most people want to stop reading right about now…and if I were still a Christian, maybe I could stop here with some clever adage about how we can all strive to become pure and unassuming in our love for Jesus and put down the confines of manipulative religious organization, but my musings about Keith Green are only a distant memory. Life has been long since then and has taken turns which have broadened both my mind and perspective in ways that don’t allow me to return fully to those feelings and desires. God and I have since parted ways – neither of us are much worse for it – I actually have found myself through the journey and He, well…I have to believe that He is sorry for the damage done to me in His name. I can’t believe that He would have looked back at the constant and complete religious manipulation with pride, but this is what brings me to the heart of this post – I can no longer believe.
The title of this post is reflective for me, of the assumed emotional/spiritual life of the atheist – that we are somehow devoid of emotion and violently hostile to anything and everything labeled ‘belief.’ More than this, is the assertion that we are somehow unable to bring ourselves to deal honestly with the divine; that we seek to hide from, or purposefully turn ourselves away, from the ‘saving grace’ of religion. It is very much as if we are summarily categorized as petulant children who, after being made aware of the truth, decide to misbehave and therefore deserve decisive punishment. I cannot, of course, speak for every other atheist, but I feel very confident in saying that this kind of thinking is hurtful to more than just me. Not only is it hurtful, it is disrespectful of life, of suffering, of the nuance involved in living and loving that is specific and unique to human beings. My lack of belief in deity is not a measure of my ability to love and delight in mystery, nor is it representative of a void in decency and caring in my personality. It is simply a place to which I have come after a long and winding journey. While I am not the same person today as I was then, I am still tied to those experiences through memory and feeling and they certainly have helped to shape me into the person I am now. My point here is that while I may not hold the same religious views as I once did, I am still fully human in the same ways that allowed me to hold those views. I did not suddenly, with the loss of my faith, become a robot or a simple shell of a person. I am as much able to feel things with sincerity and love as I ever did – and I would argue more so as my life and personhood became more genuine to my Self.
The hardest part about being an atheist has nothing to do with me. The journey from religion to atheism is not sudden, nor does it come without severe personal introspection. It is a journey that takes courage, faith, hope, and love – things that may seem immediately counterintuitive. From the perspective of someone who once was so religious that they gave up the Self in order to please, to be obedient, to prove their faith and live with sincerity – all according to the dictates of a set of scripture, or the interpretation of another – the journey toward un-belief is tumultuous before it is freeing. It is also a journey that more people than you think attempt, but can’t quite see through to the end because the courage it takes is of a kind that you are taught to relinquish – courage in yourself and abilities; the faith it takes is a kind that you have been taught is sinful – faith in humanity; the hope it takes has to come from within and be related to possibility in collaboration with other people, not simple reliance on God; and finally, the love it takes is a love that is formed with people, through suffering, and comes out of the commitment to do whatever is necessary for the benefit of all humanity – not just those in your group. In the final analysis for me, it was a deep understanding of responsibility. I had to internalize the responsibility for life and truth and for the alleviation of both suffering and injustice; I could no longer pray, I had to act; I could no longer say that recompense was coming one heavenly day, I had to find ways to be a part of solutions; and I had to face the reality that my faith was actually killing parts of my Self.
When I am asked why I have ‘given up’ on my faith or why I refuse to believe, I can only respond with, what does that mean? How is it you would like me to regain my ability for religious belief? My existence would be easy if I could just believe, but I can’t because I recognized some serious problems, like trying to force authenticity where there was none out of terror of hell, fear of abandonment, family disappointment, or a vengeful God who would no longer love me. The bottom line is that there is no new trail of belief for me — there is no god who will make sense and there is no religious remedy to which I can cling. It is a misunderstanding to think that all atheists choose to be atheists and there is so much more to it than simply aligning yourself with scientific method or relying on rationality to answer life’s questions. There was a huge price to pay for admitting my lack of belief and I pay it to this day. I pay it every time I see my family, sit with memories of my youth, reflect on friendships I couldn’t maintain because of it, and look at the reality of my life today. The good, the bad, and the suffering — I see it all through my being one who did and can no longer.
I don’t expect anyone to agree with the conclusions emanating from my journey, but I do hope that you can walk away from this post a little more appreciative of the significance that is a journey toward atheism, and recognize it for its introspective strength of character. We are not unreflective people. We are not devoid of emotion. We love and live and act in the world in ways that try to foster humanity and love in appreciation for its variation. I am more whole, and more able to appreciate you fully for who you are, through my broken relationship with God and this is my practice of unbelief.
This article is cross posted at Feminist Philospher: A Woman Who Speaks.
Leanne Dedrick, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Leanne’s research centers around the relationship and points of conflict between feminism, philosophy, and theology. Her dissertation considers the question “Can There be a Feminist Philosophy of Religion?” Her current writing pursuits involve an articulation of a Feminist Atheology. As a single mother of two daughters, Pisces, and CA beach bum, she and her lovely girls can be spotted near or in the ocean when she is not writing her latest musings.