I think that, somewhere along the way, I forgot that atheism doesn’t have to be about leaders. It doesn’t have to be about joining groups, picking sides, or being partisan.
When I became an atheist, I was stating that God didn’t have authority over my life. Now, granted, there were people who made that statement easier — the so-called “New Atheists” cleared out a space in culture for us atheists to stand.
But when I was freshly escaped from church, I felt that I had some kind of obligation to find a new organization, a group of atheists, that I could join and campaign for. For a large part of my time as an atheist, that’s what I did. In the process I think I’ve missed out on some freedom and been hit with repeated disappointment.
I should have realized that the entire open world is in front of me, to embrace with gusto. And my life — the love I have for people, the awe I have for beauty, the drive I have for ambitious goals, the color and brilliance and music — all that is there for me to embrace.
I’ve heard it said that we are condemned to be free. Perhaps. But in this life of freedom there are still things we can grasp, objects and loves that we can hold onto, people who have the power to set our hearts aflame, journeys that make us relish each step. We can choose, freely and openly, how we wish to be ourselves.
The whole scenario reminds me of PT Barnum in The Greatest Show on Earth. Like the “New Atheists” who opened up a space for atheist outcasts of a religion-dominated culture back when I first became an atheist, PT Barnum opened up his famous circus for the outcasts in society — the people who seemed strange or unusual, like the bearded lady, or the dwarf, or the giant, and so on…the people who would be labeled “freaks.”
That’s an appropriate term for atheists in a lot of settings these days, especially here in the Bible Belt, where even atheists with the thickest skin can feel like outcasts. In the face of isolation, there can be a strong drive to find some representation, someone to give you a place in culture. And just as PT Barnum found a place for all the “freaks” in his day, so a lot of atheist “leaders” have carved out a place in culture for many of us atheists.
But some of these leaders forgot something.
And in the process, some of us forgot something.
It’s the same thing PT Barnum forgot:
His circus wasn’t about the leader.
It was about the outcasts who needed a place carved out for them in culture.
It was about the individuals who needed a voice.
It was ultimately, thoroughly, and finally about them.
Recently, the atheist world has seemed to me a bit of like a circus — especially here in the US. We have disputes over “leaders.” We have “leaders” who are exposed for things that are shameful. We have “leaders” who are saying things we do not feel, who do not represent the experiences of our lives, who seem fundamentally divorced from our thoughts and concerns.
In the midst of all this, it’s easy to focus on the “leaders” and forget that, fundamentally, they always and only existed for us.
They gained prominence because they cleared out a space for us to express ourselves.
But they are not the ones occupying that space. We are.
What I’m saying is that we can take the place in our society that has been cleared out for atheists and fill it with ourselves — not just our atheism, but all of who we are. What makes us fall in love, what gives us awe, what gives us drive, what brings us joy within our senses, what gives us hope in our dark days, what we struggle with, what our pains our, what the sources of our sorrow might be.
I can realize that this place labeled “atheists” is, for me, fundamentally defined by every scar and triumph written on the face I see in the mirror. Because it is.
And as you realize this space is ours, you also realize that the space cannot hold you or trap you. The small arena of so-called “New Atheism,” for example, is not big enough for us. We need more. And so do those we love.
We have to expand beyond the space, and in so doing we will find it necessary to change this space, because no space created by a small group of “leaders” is ever going to be large enough to hold who you are.
Yes, we may grow beyond “leaders.” But this is not a reason for handwringing; the place of atheists in the US was never there to be reserved for them, to be unchanged for them, to be controlled by them.
The space in culture for atheism was always and ever created and enabled and there for us “outcasts” of all different backgrounds and personalities and expressions of humanity.
We have too much within us — too much beauty, too much pain, too much love, too many emotions, too many stories, too much diversity — to be contained by restricting loyalty to a small group of “leaders.”
And I think, down inside, many “leaders” know this. Which is why so often it seems we are only allowed to express ourselves, according to them, in a small arena labeled “atheism” that forwards their personal goals for how the arena is supposed to look — so that ours don’t “belong.:
PT Barnum did the same thing. Oh, it was fine for his “freaks” to perform in the circus, as long as they were serving him. As long as they were improving his social position. As long as they were making him money.
But when their individuality expanded beyond that space — say, at a fancy ball for dignitaries — the “freaks” were shut out.
They were vehicles for him to clear out a space for himself…they weren’t supposed to express themselves. According to him.
And in the movie, the circus performers had a choice. They could be stuck in the place assigned to them by the “leader,” pretending to be perfect, unbruised models for their “leader’s” ego, losing themselves in the process, shaming themselves for who they were out of guilt or some twisted sense of allegiance to the man who supposedly gave them this space..
Or they could occupy the space, realizing that the leader did not create it ex-nihilo, but found it where they were. They can occupy it in all its beauty and in the face of all its manmade restrictions, proclaiming the entirety of their raw selves, and state:
“I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be.
This is me.
Look out, because here I come.
And I’m marching on to the beat *I* drum.
I’m not scared to be seen.
I make no apologies:
THIS IS ME.”
I think this is what I see atheists realizing. It is what I realize. I am myself. I am an atheist black man in America. I am all of those things. I am the sum of all the scars of my history and the hopes of my future, all crisscrossing and intersecting into the person I recognize in the mirror, with every scar and smile. You can call this “intersectionality” and demonize it if you want; it does not matter. You cannot police the limits of who I am. I am an atheist, but I am more.
And I choose not to be restricted by a “leader’s” restriction of the label.
And maybe, just maybe, that choice clears out a space for you to do the same.
Thanks for reading.
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