Something I hear a lot from fellow religious people is this sentiment:
I might think other religions are wrong, but at least I understand where other people of faith are coming from. Atheism is something completely alien. I can’t understand someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of God!
I used to feel the same way.
You can see bhakti in people of other religions. Often I can see how my conception of God overlaps with someone else’s concept of God. As a kid and a teenager, I was deeply devotional and I couldn’t understand a life with nothing outside yourself to be devoted to.
There’s a fear that religious people have about those who are atheist or agnostic. It’s like they just don’t know which way that person will turn. It’s somehow unpredictable and dangerous, but really it only seems so because it is so foreign an idea.
Later I developed more of a jnana yoga path. I still pray to the Gods, but always with an awareness that reaching out to them is really reaching into my Self. God is everywhere and in everything and every person. You don’t have to search far to find Him.
After college I became friends with a number of atheists. It seems to be common in the geek/gamer/scientist crowd and those are the people whose company I most enjoy being a geeky gamer myself and the daughter of a scientist (though a deeply spiritual one).
I realized that actually, atheists are some of the most dependable people.
In my experience they have a strong code of honor that they stick to with more dedication than many religious people. There’s no one they’re answering to except themselves and they expect a lot of themselves. There’s no sense of trying to please a being outside of themselves and so there is no temptation to try to get away with anything or to get frustrated at feeling like they aren’t pleasing that other being.
While religious people tend to fear that without God enforcing morality, chaos would rein down and neighbors would be killing neighbors, all the atheists I know are tremendously honorable people who do the right thing because it is the right thing and they believe in themselves.
I realized that atheists are dedicated to their Selves and that is a very valid representation of divinity. I can respect that.
And you know what? Often there are beings outside themselves that Atheists are devoted to: the people they love such as family and friends. Not believing in God doesn’t mean not caring about things.
Things have changed a lot for me. Now I often feel most safe around Atheists. I know that they are not going to try to convert me to some other God. Their God, within themselves, is the same as my God.
Atheists don’t care what you believe. You can believe in something brilliant or something stupid, something wacky or something awesome. It makes no difference to them what you believe, so long as you don’t think everyone else in the world has to also believe it.
In general, they’ll respect your beliefs if you respect theirs.
(Of course, you’ll run into some jerks. It happens everywhere. The atheists I have known, however, only become jerks when someone is being a jerk to them. None of my friends are the type who want to tear my Gods away from me and tell me I have to also be atheist. They’ve experienced too many people preaching at them and they know how sucky it is, so they don’t do it to people who don’t do it to them.)
I’ll never be able to fully comprehend an Atheist worldview and I’m sure I get some things about their beliefs wrong, but my experience has been that Atheists can make some of the very best friends. They tend to be smart, thoughtful, kind, and careful people whose courage and determination I respect because it’s hard living in a world where people fear, distrust, and ridicule your beliefs.