I’m an atheist, but here’s why I define myself by what I love

I’m an atheist, but here’s why I define myself by what I love April 6, 2019

When we leave Christianity, it’s easy to hate it.

After all, most of the people we know are Christian. They get together once a week. They paint us ex-Christians as terrible people, problematic anomalies, or patronizingly deficient “lost souls.” We might lose our spouses, our kids might become disappointed in us, our parents may be in tears, many of our “friends” might leave us, and our usual way of connecting with people – going to a church and bonding – has become the fastest way for us to be alienated the moment we’re honest.

It’s like taking a sudden jump into a cold pool. Suddenly, you can feel drastically lonely as an ex-Christian atheist – and that alienation can intensify the less complimentary your view of Christianity is.

Being right can, in many cases, be a lonely thing.

How do we find community? Many of us look for kindred spirits – atheist groups on Facebook, Reddit, or other online hangouts. Some of us are lucky enough to be near a major city where there is a collection of atheists who meet and socialize. We may join atheist organizations, write posts in favor of our stance that like-minded people gravitate towards, and meet at conferences to support each other.

Or at least, that’s what I did. I thought I had to.

But I found out something over the last seven years of my ex-Christian atheism that you might find relevant for your purposes, too.

It’s difficult to be part of a group whose entire existence is based on the disapproval of something. I’m not defined by the fact that I don’t believe in God. What I don’t believe in ultimately is a black hole — a thing that doesn’t have any real impact on my life, in and of itself.

I’m affected because other people around me love something that doesn’t exist, and that affects the way that they interact with me.

It’s like being surrounded by people who believe in bigfoot, when you don’t believe in bigfoot. Sure, you can join the small group of anti-bigfooters. But ultimately that’s boring, because you don’t believe in bigfoot. And it’s demoralizing, after a while, because you’re defining your group by something you hate. The people who believe in bigfoot are defining themselves by something they love.

And chances are high that when you list the reasons why you hate the concept of bigfoot, those reasons will have more to do with the ways people act on the concept of bigfoot in ways that trample things you love. Which would mean that your anti-bigfootness ultimately has less to do with bigfoot, and more to do with the way bigfoot believers trample on things that you love.

The things you love are really the point of your existence. They define your deepest experiences – and are, ultimately, who you are. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to me. The things I hate, I want to separate myself from. But the things I love? I want to hold them close.

And as an ex-antitheist, I’d rather focus my energy on embracing the things I love than pushing the things I hate. In that embrace of science, of truth, of empathy, and of love, I may engage in actions that may seem anti-theistic. But I am, fundamentally, not someone who sees himself as defined by what I reject; I am defined by what I am for.

For me, that’s a healthier way to live. It’s more exciting, in the long run, and it yields deeper enjoyment in a wider, deeper slice of this world that I only get to experience for about eighty years.

I guess I’ve decided that I’d like to love as much of this world as possible – to focus more on what is here than what is not.

Being part of a group defined by what we’re against can yield short-term dividends, and cause us to make quick friends. I’m convinced that people who have freshly left Christianity, or are under a lot of criticism for their atheism, likely need be part of groups that will hear their very important stories and assure them that they belong in the world. But I’ve also seen that hundreds of these ex-Christian atheists tend to change, over time. Oh, they still have atheist friends, and sometimes they build strong communities – but they eventually begin to get tired of griping about religion for the umpteenth time.

They start focusing, increasingly, on what they love. Many of the times, some things they love are not acceptable according to the branch(es) of Christianity they came out of. And while they are against the Christian beliefs that are opposed to what they love, Christianity eventually is not their main focus. The things they love are. And as the things they love take up a larger and larger part of who they are, they begin to focus less and less on what they are against and more and more on what they’re for.

I’ve written previously about the “splintering” of the atheist “movement” – movements that once seemed united and focused suddenly begin to divide based on different politics, interests, social positions, and other factors. The more I’ve observed this splintering, the more I’ve been beginning to suspect that it might be a feature of the atheist “movement,” and not a bug.

We’re dividing because we are growing free to embrace what we love. And when we do that…the lack of belief – or even the presence of belief – in those around us becomes less important than whether they will help us embrace the things we love.

And that’s why some may leave the beaten path of focusing on anger against religion, because we are distracted so deeply by the things we love. And eventually the things we love often become our new locuses of community.

And that’s OK. Or at least, that’s what I’ve told myself.

Today? I love science. I love philosophy. I love social justice. I love the beauty of black skin. I love economic justice. I love equality. I love empathy. I love a beautiful girl. I love lazy Saturday afternoons, laughing with friends, delicious food, and beautiful downtown evenings. I love a good movie, I love family, and I even sometimes love the architecture and solemnity I find in some churches or mosques or temples even though I don’t believe the religion itself. I love working. I love embracing a personally and communally meaningful life on the infinitesimal sliver of time I have on this infinitesimally small blue dot we call “earth.”

I love writing about the things I love, and I love you, reader, for taking the time to share these things with me.

From my heart to yours:

Thank you for reading.

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