Atheism Is No Monolith; Or, the Diversity of Disbelief

The Patheos atheist channel has just added two new blogs – Permission to Live, by Melissa, and Cross Examined, by Bob Seidensticker. I find the variety of different paths that lead people to atheism or agnosticism – and the diversity in how people then approach their disbelief – fascinating, and as I looked at these two blogs in tandem I saw this diversity  illustrated perfectly.

Background: Melissa was raised in a fairly extreme fundamentalist family while Bob was raised in a fairly normal Presbyterian family. While Melissa spent the early years of her adult life striving to follow the dictates of her religious faith, Bob never was very religious to begin with and transitioned naturally and uneventfully into a secular life when he reached adulthood. Melissa’s questioning of her faith has been rocky and taxing and has fundamentally changed her life, but Bob’s loss of faith was hardly noticeable and didn’t have much impact on his life at all.

Passions: Melissa blogs about the things that are important to her – gentle parenting, LGBTQ issues, and healing from the effects of an abusive upbringing and fundamentalist background. Bob’s passions are different, and his blog focuses on refuting Christian apologetics (he traces his interest in this area to a conversation about creationism with a fundamentalist relative some years ago). Bob has even written a book that is part novel and part apologetics debate over God’s existence.

Identity: While Melissa mainly finds community in her local LGBTQ community, Bob is active in his local atheist group. In some sense, Melissa’s identification as agnostic is not as important to her as many other parts of her life while identifying as an atheist is actually very important to Bob.

I think too often that when people hear the label “atheist,” they think of some sort of cookie cutter image – a liberal college student waving a copy of Dawkins, perhaps – but this is simply not the case. The reality is that atheists and agnostics differ in their backgrounds and reasons for abandoning religion, they differ in their interests and passions, and they even differ in how they approach atheism and/or agnosticism, and in what these terms mean to them, all of which is amply emphasized when contrasting the two newest additions to Patheos’ atheist channel.

And of course, this is how it should be.

I’d like to finish this thought by opening the floor for my atheist readers. What’s your story? What’s your background, what are your passions, and how do you approach your identity as an atheist (or agnostic)?

(Oh and, welcome aboard Melissa and Bob!)

Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech
You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
What Makes a Person an "Atheist" Parent?
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    I think a big misconception that a lot of people have is that humanism is all about being an athiest.

    • Froborr

      Indeed; Jewish humanism exists, for example.

      • Anat

        Well, Yeshayahu Leibowitz had a very short ‘why I am not a humanist’ where he said something along the lines of ‘a humanist is by definition pacifist, cosmopolitan and atheist and I am neither of the three’. The classical definition of a humanist is one who places humans first. Humanistic Judaism confused Leibowitz because his view of Judaism was 100% about accepting the yoke of Torah – ie Torah before humans. A secular ideology that never-the-less included Jewish cultural values was a contradiction in terms as far as he was concerned. Curiously in any area where Torah was not involved he was anti-authoritarian (for instance he spent his last few years calling soldiers to refuse to serve in the Occupied territories).

      • Froborr

        An interesting view, but I would counter that pikuach nefesh (the Jewish principle that the preservation of human life overrides the law) implies that humans come before Torah. And of course, Humanistic Judaism is undoubtedly far, far more liberal (in the religious sense, though of course this frequently aligns with the political sense) than Leibowitz’s version.

  • blotzphoto

    I was conceived a Rust Belt Irish/German Catholic, oldest of 8 kids. A churchgoer most of my early life, I believed in a lazy culturally Catholic fashion, never really questioning too much. Luckily I went to a great Jesuit high school (St. Xavier of Cincinnati, GO Bombers!) run by folks who believed in critical thinking alongside Catholic education. I never had to deal with creationists or fundamentalism in school, I just had to get used to boatloads of cognitive dissonance as a priest taught me all about Darwin and evolution. I stopped going to church when I turned 18. It was the last real argument I got into with my Dad.

    I identified as a secular humanist agnostic for a long time in the 90′s, only really adding atheist to my list of labels as I outgrew some very wooish beliefs about death and the “afterlife”. I don’t really find any conflict between humanism and atheism. I do believe in being very open about my atheism, I think visibility is really important in order to dispel myths and misconceptions about us held by believers.
    My real passion about belief now is about how my 3 kids will develop their beliefs and how I can ensure they enter the wider world best equipped to deal with our brief and precious lives. I blog about it (way to infrequently) at Raising Hellions, and occasionally at the group blog Skeptic Family

    • blotzphoto

      Just as added irony, the ad in the right corner as I type this is for “Mystic Monk Coffee”, the best coffee you will ever drink, which is ridiculous. The biggest indicator of coffee quality (besides bean quality, which is pretty consistent across most high end brands) is how recently it has been roasted and ground. Which is why I’m delighted to live in a ‘hood with TWO coffee roasting companies. My coffee was roasted this morning!

    • ScottInOH

      St. X, eh? Go Bombers, indeed! I’ve heard many people tell a similar story of finding atheism through a Jesuit education. Any idea how common that really is? And is it still as common now that there aren’t actually many priests teaching in Jesuit high schools?

      • Froborr

        Not quite the same thing, but a friend of mine converted to Islam as a direct result of his Catholic high school education. Specifically, the comparative religion classes.

  • machintelligence

    So we are going to do a Howdy post here? Great idea. I just did one at pharyngula (where I comment occasionally) but I will be a bit more verbose in this one.
    I suppose my description as a Old White Male Atheist (TM) says a lot about me. I was raised and confirmed a Lutheran, but never really believed in God. Something I said to my father at age 10 or so caused him to ask me (somewhat incredulously) “Don’t you believe in God?” I can’t remember my exact answer, but I remember thinking: of course not — does anybody? That was about 55 years ago. I recall my father reading the bible, but he seldom attended church. By the time I was confirmed at age 13 , he had died of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker). After my confirmation I announced to my mother that, since I was now an adult in the eyes of the church and responsible for my own actions, I was going to have nothing further to do with religion. She was not pleased, but there was little she could do about it. Since then I have not attended church, except for social reasons. Oddly enough, I was married by a minister in an outdoor service, but that was because he was a personal friend, rather than for religious reasons.
    I have a masters degree in biology (avian ecology and population dynamics) and was a PhD candidate, but dropped out prior to finishing my thesis. The job market at the time was flooded with new PhD’s, and almost all of the jobs were writing Environmental Impact Statements where you were paid by the pound. Since writing never came easy for me (an understatement), I went back to the job that had kept me in groceries during grad school: construction/handyman work. I have mostly been self-employed for the last 40 years.
    I was married at 35 and have two adult children, both nonbelievers. My son is a computer programmer for video games, and my daughter is applying to medical school (which is hard to get into: even getting two degrees in four years (BS biology and BS chemistry) with a 3.96 GPA, having lab experience and a scholarly publication as a junior author, and doing hospital volunteer work is only enough to get onto wait lists.) But enough bragging about my children…
    My interests and hobbies include reading science fiction and fantasy (my personal library includes about 75 lineal feet of books), gardening, target shooting, collecting Christmas ornaments and lights, and Destination Imagination. The last of these requires some explanation. DI is a program of competitive problem solving for students. It is an offshoot of Odyssey of the Mind (there was a schism in 1999 and both programs still exist, but DI is the larger of the two). These are truly wonderful programs for children, as they teach teamwork, independent thinking and public performance skills. I was a coach/team manager for 11 years, taking two teams to the global finals. When my kids outgrew the program I joined the “dark side” of DI and became a tournament appraiser (judge). For the last 4 years I have been a Regional Challenge Master for the High Tech problem as well as an appraiser at regional and state tournaments. I hope to officiate at the global finals next year. Colorado is a real DI hot spot, with 937 teams last year (second highest in the nation), 10 regional tournaments, and over 50 teams at the global finals.
    A few other items: I am not much of a joiner, and so I am not a member of any atheist/ humanist organizations. If I joined any I would only further skew the age/sex ratio evenmore to old and male. :-) There is some truth to the statement that atheist conventions tend to be hotel ballrooms full of old white males. In 2009 I attended the AAI convention in Montreal (my first) and got to meet Daniel Dennett, a philosopher of science and one of my favorite authors. You might expect to see a lot of his ideas reflected in my comments. The room was full of old white men (not exclusively, but we were the majority.) I think it has a lot to do with having the time and money to attend these things. I usually had one or the other, not both. I will be attending the American Atheists convention here in Denver over the Labor Day weekend. I will wear my blogonym on a name tag, so if you see me, say Hi.

    • Noelle

      Good luck to your daughter. She’ll get in. And then she’ll wonder what the Hell she got herself into. Has she taken her MCAT yet?

      • machintelligence


        Has she taken her MCAT yet?

        Thanks for the encouragement. She has taken it several times. After devoting an entire summer to review, she scored over 30. She apparently did not inherit her father’s intuitive “touch” for multiple choice exams.:-)

      • Noelle

        Over 30 is perfectly respectable. I’d recommend applying to all the public universities in her state of residence, plus a few more. Also, DO schools traditionally put less weight on the MCAT score. I applied to both MD and DO schools to give myself a better shot. My 1st MCAT try was a 24 and my 2nd was a 33, and I had to send out applications between the 2 scores and never dreamed I’d be able to pull myself up by 9 points. The first school I interviewed at knew my score before I did (a helpful interviewer was curious when I mentioned I didn’t have the results yet and looked it up for me). It cost more to apply to both. I interviewed and was accepted at both. In the end though, both degrees are considered equal in the US.

        My back-up plan was a toss-up between getting into a neurochem PhD program or a Master’s in science journalism. I didn’t much enjoy research though, and I loved writing, so I was leaning toward science journalism. I’m not sad I took the doctor path, but it would’ve been fun to do journalism.

      • machintelligence

        Thanks for the advice. It turns out she is already following it almost to the letter. She has now applied to DO schools as well. I hadn’t realized how similar they were to MD schools. Her main interest is oncology, which won’t become obsolete in the foreseeable future.

      • Noelle

        Oncology’s hard-core. We could use more primary care in the trenches. But I understand the cerebral draw of the specialties. She’ll do fine. If you’re lucky, she’ll let you tag along to a school while she’s interviewing. I hit my dad up for a ride to my first interview.

      • machintelligence

        I’m sure she is keeping her options open. Her organic chem research experience was synthesizing potential cancer drugs and then antibiotics. It was enough to convince her that she didn’t want to be a total lab rat. She has been shadowing a family friend who is an oncologist at C.U. med school and volunteering there as well. She had experience as a TA for general chemistry lab during her senior year and enjoys teaching as well. My worry about primary care is that down the road the doctor could end up being the “bedside manner” for a sophisticated “expert program” on a computer. It would have the trappings of medicine, but would be more like a receptionist or doorman, with little room for individual expertise.

      • Noelle

        I wish! :). That sophisticated computer could get cracking on the pile of work I just left so I could go home. Primary care is much too complicated and messy for that. We have to sort out people, and there is nothing messier than people. I think a specialist would have better luck with some futurist computer program than I would.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I think it’s also important to realize that it’s not just that the atheist label is applied to a whole range of different people, but also that it means different things to a single individual as they move through life. For example, a couple years ago, I was that young college grad waving a copy of Dawkins. Now that I have a toddler, my priorities have changed.

    What I need from the atheist/freethought community has changed. This is an area where I think that we stand to learn a lot from religions, because they’ve had hundreds/thousands of years of experience in being able to cater to diverse age groups and types of people. A really successful atheist organization is going to have the lectures and the activism, as well as the relaxed social BBQs, and it’ll be able to do both without dividing the community, and without overextending its resources.

  • Rosie

    I was raised conservative evangelical, in a family of preachers and missionaries. Always felt like I was missing something, so I became more and more extreme in my “faith” until that got me into an abusive relationship, whereupon I started to question everything. I finally decided that the god of the bible was a jerk even if he did exist. So I guess I’m a humanist first, and atheist second. I’m also a pagan. I don’t think the deities exist outside our heads, but I do think they can be useful as archetypes and metaphors. And I like the connection to the earth and seasons that a pagan practice brings. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable in atheist communities, because one thing I learned when leaving religion was to trust my own experience. Not to think it’s universal, because it certainly isn’t, but it’s *mine*, and it does give me information about my own needs and values. My religious upbringing, on the other hand, told me what I should and did feel and need (or more often, not need), to the point where by the time I was grown I had no idea that it was possible to have needs, feelings, or opinions that weren’t officially sanctioned. And at this point, I’m not about to simply trade in religious authority for a scientific one in my life.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    My parents are both atheists but they never did tell me god exist or isn’t when I was a kid. We actually did all the typical Christmas stuff in Spain (except going to mass) but I guess not being indoctrinated in the existence of god was enough to make me unable to believe. My extended family on my parents part was pretty religious by Spain’s actual normal standards so I did went to mass there and I think my grandmother tried to teach us about Jesus and some prayers for kids during the summer holidays when we saw her but she probably stop soon when she saw neither of us believed a single bit of it.

    I always find funny that my kindergarten was run by nuns but was completely secular. Just before starting first grade, when I was 5 my mom asked me if I wanted to go to religion class and I declined despite their nice crafts because I felt it was dishonest since I didn’t believe in god and in fact I think I never bought into it. As I was growing up, I started thinking about death and other stuff and I really wanted something to exist but I knew that was just wishful thinking and wanting it to be true didn’t make it.

    By the time I got to middle school I learnt about the term agnostic and since I still didn’t know you could be an agnostic atheist, burden of proof or about Russell’s teapot, I adopted the label since I didn’t want to be intellectually dishonest. I couldn’t prove with 100% certainty that no kind of god or supernatural existence didn’t exist in any way or form despite not believing it did, later I learn it’s not my job to prove but the person who does the affirmation and that that position is very well described as agnostic atheist or weak atheist and that it’s a pretty common one but that took years and it was thanks to the internet.

    Atheism was never an important civil rights matter to me unlike feminism (it also took me a long time to lose the fear of the stigmatisation of being a feminist), LGBTQIA rights or racism since for one thing, I didn’t feel discriminated or mistreated because of my atheism except in small ways (I was bullied but for other stuff). It still isn’t the most important issue for me but learning about real discrimination of non believers in the US made me wanted to help and embrace being an atheist, a secular humanist, a freethinker. It’s not like there’s not going on nothing in Spain, for example, in practical effect, every time the catholic church loses a trial in Spain (be it about property rights or whatever), it ends up being the State who ends up paying the money penalty, something completely egregious. We still have religion class in the classrooms even if its optional but you can’t teach ANYTHING to the rest of the students just in case they learn something the ones who were in religion class could not. In general in my country too the Right and The Church hand in hand try to turn back the clock in civil right issues like abortion or LGBTQ rights but fortunately we have a huge base opposing them so it isn’t as disastrous a situation as I’ve been seen in the US with the war in woman and for that I’m very grateful.

    Both my boyfriend and I are very committed to fighting for equal rights but we don’t do much real life activism being neck-deep into stuff like our careers, family and other things. The truth is I’ve been fighting depression for 3 years because of family and high expectations and then failing Medicine exams and being unable to break of this dmn destructive cycle. The economic crisis isn’t helping either XP I guess this is TMI, sorry for the long post.

  • Froborr

    I was raised as a semi-practicing non-believing Jew, and am now more almost-but-not-quite-entirely non-practicing (I usually describe myself as an atheist agnostic Jewish postmodern positivist).

    My primary passions have little to do with that (literary SF and fantasy, and anything and everything animated), but I’m also quite interested in moral philosophy, ethics, and epistemology, and a science fanboy, though I learned the hard way I am not remotely cut out for actual research. I’m also very very liberal (by American standards, which is to say a Social Democrat in the civilized world) and live in the U.S., so somewhat by necessity I’m politically active.

  • Discordia

    I grew up in Lutheran but very secular family just like the most people in this country. I was baptized as a baby (like almost all babies born here were at the time I was born). I went to a church preschool or something like that twice a week as a child, and had religion classes taught at (public) school. But religion was never a part of my family’s everyday life. We only went churh for weddings, funerals and such. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but Santa and chocolate eggs were much bigger part of those than Jesus and religion. I remember being very surprised when finding out that some people actually took Bible literally or prayed every day and things like that because I didn’t know anyone who did when I was a child. In my teens I choose to not be confirmed, which at the time was very seen unusual (there were only two who didn’t get confirmed at age 14 or 15 in my class of 25 people) and made some relatives to raise their eyebrows, however my reasons did have almost nothing to do with religion.

    In my mid teens when I was having very difficult time, I actually tried to find comfort from religion but never found any. In my late teens I became more interested about atheism and started to question religions more and more, but didn’t exactly identify as atheist at the time. At the age 22 when struggling with my health and having quite hard time, I realized that the thought about god(s) or any other supernatural powers NOT existing actually gave me some comfort. I guess I’ve identified as atheist since.

    My atheism isn’t something I constantly think about. It’s mostly just lack of religion. I’m definitely not a vocal atheist though I have once fought for my rights as an atheist in healthcare. Equal human rights for everyone are very important to me and I’m a non-active member of a secular human rights organization. I find community from people with similar interests and hobbies as I, and those have nothing to do with atheism or religion.

  • Kacy

    Yay for diversity!

    I would like to add to this discussion by saying that there is diversity among all religious/metaphysical beliefs. One thing I like about the Patheos blogs is that all sorts of represeented on each channel. People are Christian for different reasons, just as people are Atheists for different reasons, and they reflect these belifs in different ways. This is very important to remember when having discussions accross the theist-divide. I don’t want a Christian lumping me in to the angry-Reddit-Atheist stereotype, and I do my best to not lump all Christians into the Westboro Baptist Church stereotype.

    In Sociology, there is is the In-group/Out-group theory, which says that those on the inside of a group, atheists for example, will see everyone on the inside as being incredibly diverse. At the same time, they will have to fight against viewing those in their out-group as essentially the same. So hooray for Patheos, for reflecting diversity to help us all fight such biases!!

  • Jaimie

    I was raised by sort of dysfunctional Christians who grew to be very good Christians. They are seriously the real deal and I respect them greatly. They believe in helping the poor and marginalized and lived their lives according to those beliefs. I went to a Catholic church that was also geared toward social justice and have many friends there still. The priests are some of the best people I have ever met and I love those guys dearly. So I did not leave Christianity because of a personal bad experience. In fact, I stayed in the church for a long time because I had opportunities to help the poor which I very much believe in. I left because my beliefs collided with my intellectual reasoning and could no longer be ignored.
    For me, blind faith is not an acceptable way for knowing truth.
    Many years ago I was introduced to Buddhism by a Catholic priest (!) and it just took off from there. Buddhism is a non theistic religion and it has influenced me greatly over the years. It believes in religious tolerance among all people which I personally feel is very important. I do not attempt in any way, shape, or form to make others feel bad about their beliefs or think they are stupid. We all have our own paths.
    I am not a very political person but most people would consider me liberal. Some think I am conservative because I live a very conventional life. I am just me.
    I stopped attending church altogether over a year ago but it’s funny how the culture sticks with you. I catch myself saying things like, thank god, or things like that. So what?
    At the core I don’t think it is a big deal if someone believes in god or not. If someone believes in god and there is none, what of it? If it gives them strength, comfort, and inspires them to help others than it is a good thing. Of course faith can be very exploitable but I am talking about individuals.
    If you don’t believe in god and there is one, what of it again? If there is an all powerful god than he certainly doesn’t need my validation.
    The important thing is right living in the here and now. I try to live by integrity, generosity, equality, mindfulness, and reason.

  • Kacy

    As for the question: I grew up Baptist, and converted to Catholicism during my naive, youthful college years. After getting married and having children, I realized the ways in which the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality had harmed my marriage. I also concluded that the way I wanted to parent, and the way I interpreted loving-parental behavior, was completely different from the parental behaviors attributed to God in the Bible. I realized how religious beliefs (original sin, Hell, sexual teachings) had harmed me, and I wanted to do better for my family. I became an agnostic and stopped going to Church.

    I see this as an important part of my identity because I live in a small-town in the Bible belt. When you are regularly questioned about your church-going practices and confronted by family members who question your ability to raise your children without religion, it necessarily becomes an important part of your identity. If I lived in a culture that wasn’t religious, I could see my agnosticism as simply being a small part of my identity, but due to the circumstances in which I find myself, it necessarily plays a larger role.

  • smrnda

    I never really thought of myself as an ‘atheist’ though I was never religious. A few people in my family were highly nominal Reform Jews, and a few distant relatives were some sort of Christian but I grew up with minimal exposure to religion, except studying it from a more or less academic perspective. For me, a lack of religious faith doesn’t seem like such a huge defining feature of a person just because that’s been the norm for people that I have met over my life.

    At the same time, I know people who grew up with religion (typically Fundamentalist Christianity) rammed down their throats all the time, and I can see how, for them, being an atheist is a huge stand that they really need to take. To me, saying “I’m an atheist” would be like saying “I’m against cannibalism” – an issue I consider pretty much settled with no need for me to take a stand on.

    I don’t necessarily think that the atheist ‘movement’ (if you’ll call it that) which seems to be heavily skewed towards white males, is really representative of the people who have rejected religion, just possibly the people who have been drawn to the official ‘movement.’ Part of this might be that people from other demographics may be drawn towards other sort of organizations that might be more geared towards the needs they have.

  • PlumJo

    My father’s father was a Scotch-Irish Polish German Lutheran who converted to Catholicism for my Polish Catholic Grandmother. My father and uncles went to Catholic school in the early 1960s, and the abuse was horrible. One nun used to make my father sit under her desk so she could kick him while he taught. I don’t know what they did to my uncle, but every day after his father went to work he would throw his uniform shoes up on the roof so he wouldn’t be allowed to go to school. When they finally got him there a group of nuns would be waiting for my grandmother’s car so they could drag my uncle out literally kicking and screaming, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you bitches, I hate you, get off me, leave me alone! I hate you!” Eventually they told my grandparents not to bother bringing my uncle back to their school the next year, so my grandparents put them (and the following 2 children) into public school. The Catholic school experience left bad tastes in my father and uncles’ mouths and they, to this day, actively reject anything or anyone overtly religious. It takes a serious event to get either of them into a church, and if it actually happens a lot of jokes are made about the church bursting into flames because of it. My dad doesn’t identify as anything, but I figure he’s something like a believing atheist– he doesn’t really believe, but he thinks he does.
    My mother’s parents, however, were staunch Slovak Catholics. A generation or two before my grandparents the first of our family (the son of one of the sets of my great-great grandparents, not a direct relative), founded the first Catholic Church in Trenton. Both sets of my mother’s grandparents were Slovaks living in Austria/Hungary that left just before WWI and moved to what was then a heavily Slavic area of Trenton that included my father’s (Polish) family, and the (Polish) father of a friend of my parents’– it turned out that my maternal grandfather and the friend’s father had even known each other. They were all Catholic.
    The area surrounding Trenton (New Jersey) is still mostly Catholic. I remember being shocked, with the rest of my public school class, when a teacher referred to the US as a Protestant nation (for some reason). We were almost entirely Catholic. Even the few Protestants (and the one Jew) knew they were vastly outnumbered by the Catholics and were surprised to hear our country was mostly Protestant. I didn’t know until middle school that Poland itself was mostly Jewish– all the Polish I ever met were Catholic.
    My mother doesn’t acknowledge that two of her children (my brother and myself) are atheist, and our other brother is agnostic. She still considers us Catholic, my father doesn’t care. Every few years she tries to be a “good” Catholic and go to church, but it doesn’t last long. It lasts about one mass, actually.
    My own faith waxed and waned. I went through periods where I prayed daily, then not for years. I was confirmed against my will. Our catechism teachers were telling us during confirmation prep that it was wrong to be confirmed if you were doubting your faith. That we were promising to serve the Church and raise our children Catholic. That it was a lifelong commitment, and you had to be absolutely sure. I brought up my concerns to my mother and she said I could believe what I want after I was confirmed. I felt so guilty– like I was standing in front of the alter, in front of all those people, in front of the bishop, and lying. Late middle school, early high school I went through a very devout phase: refusing to participate in anything related to Halloween for being “Pagan”, and refusing Chistmas presents because they distracted from the true meaning of the holiday. I realize now this was just the death throes of me wanting to believe but not actually believing.
    It just didn’t make sense to me. None of it.
    So I identify as atheist. I’m not part of any atheist groups or anything, I’m not much of a joiner. I don’t feel the need to read atheist books or anything, I just don’t find it necessary. To quote Stranger Than Fiction, “Harold, a tree doesn’t think it’s a tree, it is a tree.”
    I am interested in religion academically, though, and was only a few credits short of a minor in religion when I got my BA. My interest in religion is how I found and why I read this blog– I think Libby Anne’s (and everyone else’s!) stories are fascinating. What religion is, why it is, and what it does, it’s…it’s just so interesting. I mean, to put it bluntly, I think it’s all a bunch of hooey, but it’s such an awesome force, like the universe or oceans– the entire history of humankind has been shaped by its presence.

    Speaking of the history of humankind, I’d literally give my left arm to play in the Vatican archives. I’m not being facetious, I put a lot of thought (don’t ask whhyyyy…but I did) into what lengths I would go to in order to have unlimited access for only, like, a month. Given the choice, ol’ lefty doesn’t stand a chance.

    • PlumJo

      TL;DR: One of my brothers and I are atheists that don’t belong to any atheist groups or anything, but I have an academic interest in religion. Our other brother is an agnostic. My mother is a “bad” but faithful Catholic that made us all get confirmed and doesn’t acknowledge our lack of faith, and my father is a Catholic that would be an atheist if he were honest with himself after suffering the abuses of 60s Catholic school.

    • Lindsay

      Awww, your uncle. :(

      (I have a couple of great-uncles with similar stories; they grew up to want nothing to do with the Church. I also have a great-aunt, a sister of theirs, who also went to Catholic school as a child and who has always been a very devout Catholic. Go figure.)

      I am myself a second-generation atheist. My mom was brought up nominally Christian — her mother didn’t so much care *where* her kids went to church as long as they went to a church, and nothing really took root in either my mom or my two uncles. My dad’s parents are Methodists, which my dad rejected fairly early on. My brother, sister, and I were all raised in a completely secular environment, and I consider my atheism to be part of my identity, if not a particularly important or interesting part.

    • Lindsay

      Also: 1) we have incredibly similar ethnic backgrounds! I am half-German on my dad’s side, and Polish and Czech on my mom’s. And you just surprised *me* with your factoid about Poland being mostly Jewish; I, too, had thought most Poles were Catholic. 2) your quote about the tree also encapsulates my worldview, and why there is really no room for a god in it. A god, or gods, would be an anthropomorphic thing that doesn’t fit onto what I see as a decidedly non-anthropomorphic reality.

      I also just read something in a magazine — completely unsourced, so I have to go hunting for the paper that spawned this factoid — about autistic people tending to believe in non-anthropomorphic (the article writer used the word “asocial”, and described these gods as being more concerned with forces of nature than with individual human lives, which sounds like plain old Deism to me) gods. As I am also autistic, and consider this fact (unlike my atheism) VERY central to my identity, I found this intriguing.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Thanks for the warm welcome, Libby!

    (A related question, which you may well have already addressed, is: How do atheists raise their children?)

    Bob Seidensticker, author of Cross Examined blog

  • Freya

    I’m an atheist, though I prefer to identify either as a Secular Humanist or a Freethinker. Atheist describes what I don’t believe, SH or Freethinker describes what I do believe. I was raised by Secular Humanists in the Bible Belt. I would occasionally go to church with friends but on the whole found it boring. When I was 13 I got online and started debating and thinking through the issues. I had my fill of debating by the time I was 17 and decided to live and let live, unless someone tries to convert me or take advantage of me, etc.

    I do feel that Secular Humanism is an important part of my identity. It shapes my volunteerism and the fact that I went into a helping profession. I also do not want people to think I am a Christian, while at the same time am scared of the backlash that occurs when people learn I’m not one. So I get very nervous when the religion question comes up and I answer truthfully. As I’ve gotten older people have tended to care less. My husband is a practicing Catholic who goes to church regularly, but I just can’t do that. Part of my convictions include showing that you can be a good person, have a happy life, and a happy family while not going to church. I feel too dishonest when I’m in a church to be comfortable there.

    Mostly I focus on leaving the world a better place than when I came in. I love reading about science and watching science documentaries, and I can hold my own in debates, but I don’t actively seek them so much anymore. I value harmony and focusing on similarities rather than differences.

  • HJ Hornbeck

    I’m a “never-believer;” at no point in my life have I believed in a god or the afterlife. I was raised in a 100% secular household where religion was never mentioned or discussed. A spin at a Catholic high school converted me to agnosticism, and in reading “The God Delusion” I was shocked to learn I was really an atheist. As nearly all my friends and relatives range from non-religious to atheist, I’ve never been given any grief over it.
    Dawkin’s book left me with a morbid fascination of the crazy things religion gets people to believe, and ever since it’s been a hobby of mine to ponder religious apologetics. I’ve since specialized in the search for a “universal counter-proof,” which argues against all gods both known and unknown. I’m 3/4 done writing a book on the subject, and hope to start handing out copies within a year.

  • Noelle

    I’m usually brief, but let me be long this time. Feel free to skim.

    My parents divorced when I was 4. I don’t remember going to church regularly at that time. My mother had grown up religious in a small-town United Brethren Church. My earliest church memories are from going there when we visited my grandparents. When she was a single mom, one of her friends invited her to their Lutheran church. She loved to sing and joined the choir. My little brother and I had fun in the weekly Sunday school. She met another divorced man with a young daughter there, and they married quickly when she got pregnant. They added a total of 3 half-sibs to go along with the 3 of us who started with them.

    We were poor. Sometimes we were a little above the poverty line. Sometimes we were a little below. My memories of being the oldest of a big family in poverty are not good ones. I remember being hungry. I remember being embarrassed by my clothes and shoes. I remember people treating us like poor white trash. My step-father, despite his many failings, insisted education was the key to getting out. All us kids were told on a daily basis to study hard and go to college. I was good at school, and strived to pull off straight A’s every year. My siblings didn’t all have the same knack with school. Then mom was diagnosed with melanoma at age 38, mets were found at age 39, and she died at age 40. She left 6 children, ages 16-4, with the forever scar of losing a parent young. My one full brother and I moved in with our dad, who lived a comfortable middle class life. And there I finished out my education. I quickly followed it up with a BA in Chemistry and Psychology at a local Christian College, nationally known for its science programs and churning out pre-meds. Then the MD degree, and residency, and now a busy medical practice. I’ll be 37 next month, and I’ve more than made education work for me. My 2 children (6 and 8) will never know true need. I have a great husband who quit his job to be a full-time stay-at-home-dad when the first was born.

    Religion-wise, when I lived with mom, step-dad, and the many sibs, we tried out a few denominations. We moved often, and it was usually a friend or coworker who got them to go to a particular church. I was full-immersion baptised at age 10 while we were attending a Missionary? Church. Then with our last move, we happened to be within walking distance from a Lutheran Church. My step-dad was happy to find the denomination he’d grown up with. Most of my church memories are from there, and I will usually tell people I’m Lutheran. I mean, I don’t believe in God (now), but ya know, I’m Lutheran. I loved the traditions, the droll sameness and stately drama of the services. I was at the age where I could accolyte. That is so much fun, being 13 and trusted with an open flame to light the candles for the service. I did youth group at the time, but as an awkward youth I never really felt like I connected with anyone.

    When my brother and I moved in with dad, I talked him into joining a local Lutheran church. It was my habit, and my older non-lutheran churches had instilled a sort of anxiety that if I didn’t attend church weekly I’d go to hell. I don’t remember this reinforced from the Lutherans, it was just there. We attended half-heartedly until I went to college. I did not attend youth group. I was depressed and only kept the Sunday service as a habit. At my high school, on the other hand, I had a string of hopeless crushes on the hot athesit nerdy guys. I dated one for awhile, who seemed perplexed that a Christian girl was hitting on him. Many of my good friends in school were atheists. I never associated my boring Lutheran church as part of the Fundy evils they complained about though. Lutherans have female ministers. Lutheran ministers do marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian people in states where the marriages aren’t even legal. My short stint in a Lutheran school was were I learned real evolution science. Lutherans weren’t what my atheist friends were talking about when they complained about Christianity.

    My Christian college was an exciting place to be a Christian. (It was probably an annoying place to be an atheist). There were spring break mission trips. Tri-weekly + Sunday chapel services that were not required but still packed because they had fun hip chaplains and good music. There were bible studies. And people were always talking about what God’s plan was in their lives or how they wanted to be pastors. It was an insulated little environment. I never questioned my faith. I continued to have hopeless crushes on the hot atheist nerdy guys. Had there been a free-thinking club, I probably would’ve showed up to meet more. I married my atheist PK boyfriend from my senior year.

    I didn’t really question my faith for many years later. I was too busy to attend church, so that habit fell away. My husband certainly wasn’t a church-goer, so I never had any reminders that people do that on Sundays. He is a philosopher at heart and tried to impress me with Neitzsche and the like. I hate philosophy and had no interest in even kind of following what he was saying. So I never brought up god, and he never brought up Neitzche. It was a fair trade.

    A few years ago, I stumbled upon a blog to look at something funny. It was a liberal Xian blog. I stuck around and started commenting. And then I bothered to question what was left of my belief. I rather liked the idea of Heaven. It’d be nice to see mom again. But I’m a scientist at heart. So I bothered, for the first time in my life, to offer the same scrutiny to God that I would to any other mystery. There was no God. I wasn’t sad about it. I wondered what took me so long to notice.

    If I have passions, they are for my children and patients. I care about health care and education. I’m happy to work with people of all religious persuasions. As for interests, I want to finish my work, go home, enjoy the kids, maybe read a book and drink some wine. My identity is simply me, an almost 37 year-old physician and mother of 2. And it is so nice to meet all of you.