Parts of Speech

Parts of SpeechFacebook is such a wonderful laboratory for human interaction. We share photos, misspelled memes and inane cat videos, but we also share a lot of our opinions in a fairly low-risk environment. I’ve been “unfriended” before, mostly because of differences over religion. I’d like
to pretend that I didn’t care, but I did. It hurt. However, I figure that anyone who would “unfriend” me at the touch of a button probably never actually “friended” me in the real world.

Most people, in my experience, have similar goals. We want a better world, and we expect our fellow Earthlings to contribute to making a better world right alongside us. If we have kids, then we worry about the world that we’re leaving to them. We’re afraid of what we can’t control. We want to be remembered as good and decent people who, by our presence, improved the lives of others. We may differ on how best to reach these ends, but we ultimately want the same things.

In 1993, I spent my summer in Rochester, New York, at the Eastman School of Music. I remember a professor telling the story of a fellow musician who used to ask questions like, “Are you an oboe? Are you a flute?” In her wisdom, she explained that it was fine to identify yourself as being devoted to an instrument, but it was better to identify as a whole person. In other words, you’re an oboe player, not an oboe. You need a well-rounded sense of self.

I decided this week to stop using certain words as nouns and to start using them as adjectives. Two of those words are “liberal” and “conservative.” I can say either that someone is a liberal, or I can say someone is a liberal person or a person with liberal views. I’ve decided that I prefer the latter ways because in those phrasings, I’m acknowledging the existence of a person. When our adversaries stop being people to us, we become too comfortable dehumanizing those who disagree with us. For example, if you call yourself “believer” and identify your friend as “unbeliever,” then you may decide that “unfriending” the unbeliever is a stance for your principles. It’s not seen for what it is: a small, mean gesture revealing the closed nature of your own mind and heart.

When I look at my news feed and even my paper address book, I see a roster of people who have many opinions that are different from mine. Sometimes, I argue with them, either from a defensive posture or because I’m jones-ing for a sparring match, but there isn’t a name on my friends list or in my address book that I would choose to eliminate. When friends need me or when we’re laughing together, political and religious disagreements melt away. I’ll cancel out their votes at the ballot machine as often as I can, but I won’t cancel our friendship.

If you’re my friend, post your pro-Koch brothers editorials. Post your pro-NRA memes. Fill my news feed with Dave Ramsey quotes. Feel free to post about the hope that you find from your faith. You may almost make my unbelieving feminist pinkie commie head explode, but as long as my liberal skull stays intact, then you and I will always be friends.

I’m going to continue reflecting on which nouns I can transition to adjectives in my own conversation. A person isn’t a liberal or a conservative any more than he’s an oboe.


Coming Out

Today on the National Mall, many people who don’t believe in God chose to hold a rally. I listened to a story about this rally a few days ago on NPR. The purpose of the rally, one of the sponsors said, was to help “closeted” atheists to tell other people that they don’t believe in God. For those who weren’t ready to “come out of the closet,” the sponsor said, the rally would let them know that they were not alone.

I stopped believing in a Supreme Being in 2006. I had been a devout evangelical Christian throughout college, but belief slowly unraveled for me over a long period of time. I am a person who values science, and I could not convince myself that the Earth was 6,000 years old. Evolution made sense to me, no matter how hard I tried to tell myself that it didn’t. I started to research the history of how the Bible came together, and I realized just how human—and how fallible—the book was. The final unraveling came with the birth of my son, Sam. He was (and is) so innocent that I couldn’t feasibly believe that he was born a sinner, destined for hell.

After I admitted to myself the truth, that I no longer believed in the Christian religion or in any kind of God, I told my husband. The news was difficult for him because he was still quite devout. After about two years of discussing faith with me, and after doing his own research and soul searching, he, too, admitted to himself that he no longer believed. My children have never been told about God or about any kind of religion (save Hanukkah, which my oldest son insisted on celebrating this year). They live blissfully ignorant of the idea of a Supreme Being.

So there it is. I’m out of the closet. For those who know me in Connecticut, this mostly won’t be a surprise. However, I know I haven’t discussed it with my Arkansas friends in much detail, and I certainly have not discussed it with my family. The purpose of this blog is to give people some idea of what it’s like to be an atheist in America. So here goes:

I listen to many evangelical Christians who sincerely feel that they are in the minority and that they and their values are under attack in this country. The truth as I see it is that fewer than 20 percent of Americans are admitted atheists or agnostics. The true minority is the nonbeliever. If we were honest, then I’m sure we would say that we wouldn’t elect an atheist president. Consider this: a recent survey found that most people believe that atheists are less moral and more likely to do something dishonest. Many Christians assume that nonbelievers don’t believe in God because they have psychological problems. I know that I certainly assumed, when I was a Christian, that nonbelievers were unhappy and in need of help.

I’m here to tell you that becoming a nonbeliever has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I am the same person that I have always been, except that I take responsibility for my own life. I listen to myself instead of asking God for guidance or assuming that I need to follow a plan from God. I am moral and compassionate because I choose to be. In fact, I am better able to give and receive love because I am more authentically me. I don’t miss being a believer at all. In fact, becoming a nonbeliever made me much happier because it was genuinely how I felt as opposed to something I was trying to make myself feel. According to the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul felt the scales fall from his eyes and believed in Jesus Christ. I felt the scales fall from my eyes and no longer believed.

I have two major fears about “coming out” to my Christian friends. One is that they will no longer want to be my friends. I’m not talking about Facebook. If anyone “unfriends” me on Facebook for this announcement, it will tell me a lot about the poor quality of our relationship anyway. Unfortunately, I’m quite certain that I have some family members who will no longer want to talk to me. That’s the part that is the scariest. I’ve become distant from family because I live so far away from them. I’m afraid that I’ll be cut off completely.

Another fear that I have is that my Christian friends and family will now base their  relationships with me on one thing: trying to get me to believe in God again. Respectfully, even though I know it would come from a place of caring, I don’t want you to pray for me. I certainly don’t want to argue about theology with you. I want you to like me for me, just as I am. I don’t have or support a political agenda that seeks to do away with Christianity. I won’t spent time trying to dissuade you from your beliefs. I know that some atheists are very vocal and insulting toward people who are religious, but I find the behavior of those few people tiresome. I will always respect your beliefs, and I simply want you to respect mine in return.

I don’t have any psychological problems related to faith. I don’t feel a vacuum in my life left by the religion on which I have turned my back. When I say the pledge of allegiance, I may not say “under God,” but I haven’t taught my kids not to say it. When they learn about other faiths, I will let them make up their own minds. I am not more likely to engage in immoral behavior that I ever was. I’m not tempted by evil. Of course, some who want to judge me will say that I am simply deceived. If that’s so, then being deceived has finally allowed me to be truly happy with myself.

The greatest gift of nonbelief is that it has helped me to appreciate that the only time that I have in the world is now. Because I don’t believe that I have an eternity of potential reward or potential wrath waiting for me, I live for what matters to me now. I live for my family more than anything else. I live for my craft, which is writing. I live for myself, and I don’t apologize for that. Part of not believing, for me, is learning that I deserve to be happy in this life when happiness is appropriate.

Whether you are religious or not, if you are a friend or family member, then you always have my unconditional love and friendship. Hopefully, I have yours. If not, then I genuinely wish you well.