Category Archives: atheism

A new hope

(and for those of you who recognize the geek reference in the title, you win)

Earlier this week I ended up in a long online discussion with an extended family member about religion. Now if you know me at all, you know that I don’t stray away from tricky topics.

At one point, this person said:

You will never find true peace, confidence and joy until you see who God really is. It’s a matter of your eyes being opened….right now they are seeing what you want them to see. I will never quit praying for you.

Now while I know that this was said with (mostly) good intentions, it’s still a sentiment that I really push back against.  I push back not because it’s something I’ve never heard before (I’ve heard it countless times) — and it’s not like I’m an extra-fragile person who can’t handle being patronized to.  I push back against statements like these because I think people need to recognize when they’ve crossed a relational line.

I wonder if any nonbeliever would feel confident enough to say such a thing to someone who believes in God: “You will never find true peace, confidence, and joy until you stop believing in a magic man in the sky.”  While I know there’s always some assholes out there, I doubt you would find many atheists willing to make such a pronouncement — and yet, for many Christians, this sentiment is easily said aloud (or thought to themselves).

While my conversation with this family member ended up with me feeling frustrated and the family member entrenching herself deeper in her belief system, a happy coincidence brought up an old email I wrote to a friend, 4 years ago. I would have posted it in my online conversation, but it was definitely time to walk away.

Here’s what I wrote:

The question you ask [Where do atheists find hope?] is such an important one! If there’s one misunderstanding between believers and nonbelievers, it’s found here. A couple years ago at the funeral of Jerry’s grandma, I can remember how bad I felt when his minster brother made the statement that “those without God have no real hope.” I don’t think that statement is true, at all.

1613902_10154081761120134_7782833434266106439_nI guess the best place to start would be to define what you mean by “hope.” So much of my past Christian hope revolved around an all-knowing, all-loving God who was actively involved in my life — or at least, so I thought. I also had hope in an afterlife, which is hope for the process of death. Now that I’ve rejected my faith, and am agnostic as to whether or not there is a God, my hope has changed to more of what *this current world* has to offer, rather than invisible hopes.

So I have hope all around me. I see the world changing, in terms of new opportunities for my little girl, and that gives me hope. There are moments when someone unexpected gives me help or says to me words of support, and I have hope there. I get hopeful when I think of how science is advancing, of the technology that makes our world better, of how borders are getting smaller and the world isn’t as segmented as it once was.

What’s different now for me as an atheist, versus when I was a Christian, is that I have to look around me for hope. It requires more of an effort, and not just wishful thinking on my part. And, there are days that can be dark and sad — but another part of having hope in this current world is that I know these bad days pass, and they aren’t due to something I’ve done wrong (necessarily).

 

So much hope to be had! And without any dogma baggage.

Post-religious

One of the reasons why I’ve kept this blog running for as long as I have (11+ years!) is that it’s always served as a running artifact of my life since I’ve moved to Canada. In fact, if you dig enough in the archives, you’ll find chapters from all sorts of my life’s stages — from my changing political views, evolving cultural attitudes, and even different shades of belief and nonbelief.

And of course, there’s the infamous manifesto that Jerry and I wrote back in September 2007 when we outed ourselves as atheists to our friends and family. Maybe it’s time for me to revisit what I wrote in 2007 – because in some ways, I think I’ve moved past much of what it means to be an atheist.

Six years ago when we first identified ourselves as nonbelievers, there was a lot of issues for us to work through. There was some anger, some sadness, plus a whole lot of rejection from various friends and family members.

And then Jerry and I found ourselves an atheist community in town, and for a while, we were quite active in it. But after a few months it started to get tedious, arguing the same arguments and mocking the same religious foibles.  So we eventually left that group behind because it wasn’t filling what we needed in a community — I guess part of me felt like there’s got to be more to do than just mocking and arguing.

Which is one of the reasons why I started going to the local Unitarian congregation in Saskatoon. I had several friends who were already members, plus I wanted to find a community that would be a place for our family. I also wanted Emma to grow up in an intergenerational community where she could be exposed to lots of different people and ideas, apart from Jerry and I.

Emma, lighting the chalice in Children's Religious Education (RE)

Emma, looking fab while lighting the chalice in Children’s Religious Education (RE)

 

Today was a pretty important day for me in this community, because today I became a member of the Unitarian congregation.

Looking back on it, I think it’s funny how much I fought officially joining the Unitarian church. Granted, I’ve been volunteering with them for over 3 years now and am a pretty active part of the community, but initially there was something a bit scary in me taking that step to make my involvement official.

It helps to know that I’m a member of this particular congregation, and I’m not signing onto “Unitarianism” in general (hooray for congregationalist approaches!). And I think I’m ready for it now, especially since I’m starting to reconsider how I classify my “religious affiliation”.

These days I think I identify more as someone who’s post-religious. Sure, I’m still happy to claim the title of atheist, if only to challenge the misconceptions many religious believers have when they hear that label — but there’s a part of me who doesn’t like the term “atheist” as much, mainly because I don’t like to identify myself as being someone who’s in opposition to the religious. In part, identifying myself an atheist still inadvertently links me to religious belief, and really, I don’t want to be associated with it.

I first heard the term post-religous in an interview with the UK Sunday Assembly’s founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Here’s a part of an interview where they describe the SA and use the term:

How does Sunday Assembly bring together like minded liberal Christians who no longer believe in the supernatural or worship a Father God but like church community with humanists/atheists in a quest to live an authentic life?

Jones: We’ve got some people who love the Sunday Assembly who fit that description. If you start talking about living this one life as fully as possible, you can suddenly open the door very wide. I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious. 

Evans: We don’t check anyone’s beliefs at the door but seek out people who are just happy to be alive. [my emphasis]

I love the ideas behind the Sunday Assembly: Live Better. / Help Often. / Wonder More.

I think, in some ways, I’ve made the local Unitarian Centre our family’s Sunday Assembly.  While I’m not usually a fan of the Sunday morning services (you’ll find me hanging out with the youth group instead), I do love the community we’ve found.  Emma will grow up learning about the seven principles, and when she’s old enough, can decide for herself who she’ll be and what she’ll do with them (and I’ve already told her she can change her mind 100 times!).

But if you were to have asked me, 6 years ago, if I’d willingly sign-on as a member of a “church,” I would have probably laughed. Isn’t it funny how things have changed — but I don’t mind so much now.

And I don’t mind if others thing I’m crazy for being a part of the Unitarians, or think I’m hell-bound because I don’t believe in the particular tenets of their faith.

Take me or leave me, this is where I’m at today. I may be in a different spot tomorrow, a year from now, or 5 years later – and I’m okay with that.

grrrl meets mosque

Today I was invited to take part in an interfaith symposium on the topic – Religion: A Source of Conflict or Peace? When an organizer contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to be a part of it, it didn’t take me long to agree. I think it’s important for nonbelievers to have a voice in these kinds of events, even though we are not a part of a “faith” system.

Here are the slides I used for my talk:

I decided to approach the symposium’s question from a personal perspective, rather than outline all the ways religion has caused conflict all over the world (and throughout history).  My main goal was to get believers to think of atheists in a different, more positive light — so I made the focus more about the religious-induced conflict I’ve experienced in my personal life since I’ve come out as a nonbeliever.
And I think it worked.
It was interesting to watch how the women in the audience positively received my message. The majority of my audience was Muslim or Sikh, with only a few friends and Western-ized folks in attendance.  As I told my story, I could tell that many women could empathize with what it feels like to be discriminated against because of your philosophical (read: religious) outlook. Isn’t it funny how an atheist could build rapport with such an ideologically different set of people! But we did connect, and it was a cool experience.
And when it came to the question period, I had almost twice as many questions asked of me than the other panelists — I must have hit a nerve. I wish there could have been more time for the Q & A, since that’s when you really get to know someone.
As I left the mosque tonight, I wondered about if any evangelical church in Saskatoon (or elsewhere) would ever feel compelled to host an interfaith event like this. While I didn’t always agree with my fellow panelists on the issues (especially when it came to a woman’s role), I felt like I left today’s symposium with a better understanding of these different faiths. Would an evangelical church be comfortable to enable their congregation to consider other points of view when it comes to spirituality? Unfortunately, my experience in the church tells me no — and that’s really sad.

What he said (about Xmas)

Why do you want to leave people out? Why is it considered an attack to say “holidays,” to say “seasonal?” I mean, don’t you want other people to join you in joy? Why are you excluding other people? I don’t think there should be any sort of, you’re not allowed to say Christmas. I think you’re fine putting up your trees. I think you’re fine talking about Santa Claus and you’re fine talking about Jesus Christ, about equal to me. But why leave me out? Why do that? What’s your motive? And trying to turn around a “we want to leave you out,” into “why are you forcing us to not have our joy,” is insanity. It’s backwards.

 

An anniversary of sorts

5 years ago today was the day that Jerry and I announced to our families (and the larger world around us) that we were atheists.

Unbeknownst to us, September 30th would be later become International Blasphemy Rights Day. Kinda fitting, don’t you think?

This weekend has been a busy one, particularly in terms of the atheist-activist side of me. On Friday night, I helped host a reading group for the Saskatoon Secular Family Network. And tonight, I was a part of a Reasonable Women get-together.  Both groups are so important to me, not only because they help bring likeminded people together, but because (selfishly) I have made so many great friendships as a result of these groups’ existence.

I can’t say that the 5 years since I’ve been ‘out’ have all been good ones — I’ve used this blog to document many of the ups and downs of being the only nonbeliever in a family of believers, as well as some of the difficulties of being in a minority group.  But difficulties aside, I’m really proud that on September 30th, 2007, Jerry and I took that tough step of admitting out loud our nonbelief.

Here’s to the next  5 years!

It’s not easy being an apostate

Go. Go now. Go now and read ‘From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader’ in this week’s NYTimes’ Magazine. The article is about Jerry DeWitt, a former minister who’s now working as the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion. (sidenote: hey look! Cafe Apostate is listed as one of the 3 groups in Canada!)

I loved reading this article, if only because I think it really illustrates how it’s a long and difficult process to reject your faith.  So many times people ask me ‘when did you lose your faith?’ and expect me to point to the one day when I found that I was no longer a Christian.  It’s a process, people!  Just like you can’t pinpoint an answer to  ‘when did you grow up?’ — it’s impossible to know the precise moments when you realized you were no longer a believer. (p.s. Thanks to Dan Barker and his book ‘Godless‘ for that analogy)

When it comes to my deconversion, I found it was a series of small steps, or a feeling of slowly letting go — until I finally realized (and accepted) that I wasn’t holding on to that faith system anymore. And, I was OKAY.  I was the same person, just with one less box to check on the census.

What I found to be the hardest part of being an apostate is the rejection you face from your religious family, friends, and connections.  I think the NYTimes article on DeWitt does a good job of illustrating just how much can be lost in admitting your nonbelief. From the article:

Almost at once [after his 'outing' as an atheist], DeWitt became a pariah in DeRidder [his hometown]. His wife found herself ostracized in turn, and the marriage suffered. She moved out in June. He received a constant stream of hate messages — some threatening — and still does, more than seven months later. He played me a recent one he had saved on his cellphone as we ate lunch at a diner in town. “It’s just sickening to hear you try to turn people atheist,” a guttural voice intoned. It went on and on, telling DeWitt to go to hell in various ways. “I’m not going to sit around while you turn people against God,” the voice said at one point.

Can you feel the Christian love?

Thankfully I haven’t had any kind of death threats or a broken marriage because of my atheism. I have had many friendships lost, family relationships broken, and I’ve been on the receiving end of countless patronizing ‘we will pray for you’ letters and emails that passive-aggressively condemn my nonbelief.  It’s not something that you want to have to go through, but when compared to having to live a lie (ie., pretending to be something you’re not), then it’s all part of the experience.

So that’s why I get so riled up when I find believers who either mock, deride, or dismiss the stories of apostates (and yes, I’m focusing mainly on Christianity here, since that’s where I’m coming from — unfortunately with other monotheistic religions, the response to apostates is to murder them).

In my experience, I find there are a couple different reactions that Christians have to apostates: First, there’s the ‘you were never a True Christian™ in the first place‘ response, where the validity of the apostate’s past experiences as a believer is questioned. Usually when someone accuses me of never being an authentic believer, it’s for one of three reasons: it’s either out of fear (I don’t want to lose my faith one day!), defensiveness (how dare you reject something I hold so dear!) or it’s a response bred from a sense of competition (Christianity is so much better than atheism, let me tell you why!). Let me tell you, it’s disheartening to be on the end of such immediate judgmental conclusions.

Which reminds me, a year ago today, I was on the UK Christian radio program Unbelievable?. One of the most interesting parts of that experience was to listen in to some of the (primarily Christian) audience’s reactions to my apostasy story. From what I remember, most of the listener feedback in the following weeks fell into those three categories above.

But what I’ve found to be the most frustrating Christian reaction to stories of apostates is the mockery and ridicule that some love to heap.  And while I understand the motivations behind it (again, it probably falls under the same three categories I listed earlier), it doesn’t make this religiously-fueled bullying any easier to take.  In fact, I recently left an online group that I helped start because of a couple people who loved to be nasty in their reactions to the authentic stories of what is lost when outing yourself as a nonbeliever.

I wonder how these same people would react to reading DeWitt’s apostate story of what he lost. (I’m not optimistic)

Anyway, while there is a lot of sad feelings and experiences to be found in these stories of rejected (read: not ‘lost’) faith, I think there’s also so much more freedom and authenticity to be found in finally accepting who you are as a nonbeliever.

And for those people who decide not to embrace the ‘real’ godless you? Well, from my experience, it’s not really that big of a loss to no longer have them as a part of your life. I find that I prefer to have a handful of people who love and know me for who I am, rather than be in a relationship where I’m only accepted for being who they think I should be.

Which is one reason why I loved this song from Wicked so much:

Something has changed within me

Something is not the same

I’m through with playing by the rules

Of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing

Too late to go back to sleep

It’s time to trust my instincts

Close my eyes: and leap!

[...]

I’m through accepting limits

’cause someone says they’re so

Some things I cannot change

But till I try, I’ll never know!

Too long I’ve been afraid of

Losing love I guess I’ve lost

Well, if that’s love

It comes at much too high a cost!

-from ‘Defying Gravity’

grrrl meets conservative media

So I had an interesting day today.

Today I had a conversation with our local talk-radio star, John Gormley.  John and I are on pretty much different sides of the aisle on many (most?) political and social issues, but today we had a moment of commonality.  Beyond our shared affection for True Blood (!!),  we both aren’t in favor of a recent complaint filed with the province’s Human Rights Commission.

Some background: In April of this year, there was a prayer offered at a City of Saskatoon Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.  One of the volunteers being honored found the dinner grace to be inappropriate in the context, and complained. The complaint eventually escalated to now being a case before the Human Rights Commission. [Star-Phoenix article here]

Now when this story first came out, I was really glad the issue was being highlighted and discussed. I also don’t think public prayers are appropriate, because not only will it bother non-believers in the audience, but chances are the prayer will alienate another belief system.  And, thanks to Thomas Jefferson, I’m a big fan of separating church and state.

But that said, I can also understand why a prayer may have been given in the context of the volunteer appreciation dinner.  For many believers, it’s just second-nature to offer a grace before eating, and they may not have thought of the implications of their actions on audience members who don’t share their faith. (this doesn’t excuse what happened, but it may explain why it did)

I don’t think that this dinner prayer was meant to subvert nonbelievers or nonChristians in a way that violated their human rights, per se.  But I do think that we, as a society, need to talk about what’s appropriate in public contexts (and clearly this prayer wasn’t appropriate) — and then we can hold our leaders accountable for following through on what is best for ALL of us.  But, again, I think taking this complaint to the HRC is a few steps further than what I would have done.

SO — to hear more about where I’m coming from, check out today’s interview on John Gormley Live here.

When it’s all said and done, I’m happy with how it all turned out.  I feel like I was able to respectfully disagree with the complainant, while also highlighting how diverse the atheist/secular/humanist/nonbelieving community can be when it comes to various issues. I was also able to talk a bit about a case I think would be worthwhile taking to the HRC, plus there were 2 plugs for the different groups I help facilitate (including one plug made by the man, Gormley, himself!).

About 10 minutes after I did the interview, I got an email from a reporter from the national news station Sun News who was requesting me to do an on-camera interview!  Crazy.  So not only did I have a chance to speak my piece on local talk radio, but sometime tomorrow I’ll have a bit on a national news channel. (if anyone out there can PVR my interview, I’d be much appreciated — hopefully it’ll appear on the website)

All in all, it was a busy day — but a good day.  It was a chance for me to share my opinion and hopefully educate others on the diversity of the atheist movement.

The current signature line of my email account pretty much sums up why I decided to speak out on this issue when it could have been just as easy to walk away from it.  My signature quote is from Emile Zola, and it reads: “If you ask me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.”

Today was one of those days I lived out loud. And I liked it.