Golden Atheists

The popular aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes” implies that people can only be atheists in times of comfort and security, and that if the end of life is in view, they will inevitably cry out to God to save them. I wish everyone who uses this thoughtless and insulting slur could meet Claire Hull:

Claire Hull rarely misses a Sunday at church. That’s remarkable for two reasons: She’s a 91-year-old with a replacement hip, and she’s an atheist.

Yes, you heard right: Ms. Hull is a 91-year-old atheist. And from all accounts, she’s still living a life as rich, full and rewarding as that of many people far less than her age, reading three books each week and taking an active role in politics and her community. I hope I can accomplish half as much at that age!

So why is this atheist grandma at church on Sundays?

One of Hull’s greatest loves is people, which is how an atheist ended up being a steady churchgoer at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Tacoma.

“I believe in people and ideas,” she said.

Any atheist should be proud to give assent to such a concise and expressive creed. While we have no truck with notions of gods and other mythical beings from our past, we do focus our concern on the truly real and important things: the well-being of our fellow humans and the rich life of ideas we can conceive.

For an atheist, the Unitarian Universalist church is a good choice. Unlike most churches, it’s free of dogma and doctrine, leaving each congregant the freedom to make up their own mind as they see fit, and usually promotes a commendably progressive and humanistic viewpoint. I’ve attended services at a Unitarian Universalist church myself, and I enjoyed the experience – if I were a religious person, that’s where I would go.

And for the record, the redoubtable Ms. Hull is not the only golden-aged atheist out there; far from it. I myself had the privilege of meeting another one.

This happened during my junior year of college. I was on the bus home after a day on campus, typing up some notes on my laptop, when out of the blue an elderly Middle Eastern gentleman sitting across from me started talking to me. I admit my first thought was mild annoyance at being approached by a stranger, but I had nothing important to do, so I was polite.

He asked about my laptop and my major, computer science, and it transpired that he was auditing classes at my university because, he said, he wanted something to do and he doesn’t think you’re ever too old to improve yourself. I was fairly impressed by this.

Then, without any suggestion on my part, he started talking about religion. I thought it was an odd topic to bring up with someone you’d just met, but he did, and to my amazement, I learned he was an atheist. In just a brief conversation, he expressed his view that there was no life after death, ridiculed religious exclusivity and salvation based on holding a particular belief, and stated his opinion that, if there was a heaven, one good deed would do more to merit acceptance than a lifetime of faith. I was completely absorbed in the conversation by this point, and since I didn’t want him to think I was just agreeing to humor him, I even showed him the “Born Again Atheist” button on my bag (which got a smile from him).

Needless to say, I was very impressed by all of this. He told me that he was 90, and a 90-year-old speaking frankly and with no fear about death is truly something to be praised. I asked him a bit more about himself and learned that he was a surgeon for 50 years, now retired. (Back when he used to practice, he told me, there were no specializations – you were just a surgeon in general.) Just think about it – a 90-year-old atheist surgeon!

We talked about a few more things before my stop came up, and I was actually sad when it was time for me to shake his hand and get off. When I got back to my apartment, though, I looked up his name on Google and found his name on an issue of my university’s newsletter – it said he was the owner of a valuable collection of ancient, original Persian art, which he’d loaned to the college art museum.

These stories show that atheism is a view that any person at any stage of life can hold with courage and pride. In contrast to the apologists who smugly proclaim that even the slightest intimation of mortality will drive a person into the arms of religion, we atheists know that a life well-lived leaves no reason to fear.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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