On the Atheist Challenge

Question with Boldness and Everyday Infidel have recently completed a series of 15 questions for atheists. Ever the follower, I figured I would give it a shot.

And a-here we go…

1. At what point did you know you were an atheist? Why did you become one, what were the factors leading up to the decision, if you weren’t always one?

I was raised a nonbeliever, so there is not really a point at which I can say I knew I was an atheist. By all accounts, I have always been a dictionary atheist. According to my mom, when I was 4 years old, I made it clear to my parents that I never wanted to go to church, and I never wanted to join the Boy Scouts. I have absolutely no recollection of this, but apparently my atheist awareness started early.

When I was young, I would use the word God, but I can’t say I ever really knew what I was talking about. ‘God’ was a word many people used, so I picked up as vocabulary. My parents didn’t go out of their way to quash any belief in me, but neither did they make any effort to reinforce it. God quickly faded. Realistically, I had a much stronger conception of and belief in Santa Claus (which did receive some mild reinforcement early on) than God. By the time I was in grade school, God was no longer a part of my world.

2. What religion did you grow up with? Did you have positive or negative experiences with religion?

In first grade, I remember my classmates were determining which of us were Christian and which Catholic. Myself and another student (who was Jewish) found ourselves confused but Christian because it was a word we’d heard before.

My father’s side of the family is conservative Methodist. My dad, himself, identified as Christian, but would probably be most at home with a liberal branch of the emerging church. As he’s gotten older, he has become more outspoken against religion, but he has never identified as an atheist.

My mother’s family is Catholic and Lutheran. Mom was baptized Catholic, but the family attended a Lutheran church. My mom quickly became disillusioned with the church at a young age, often finding herself at odds with local church authorities for wanting to play the boy games. She openly identifies as an atheist.

By and large, my experience with religion was positive; though, it was also very periphery. My family celebrated Christmas; however, aside from caroling, it was rather secular. As I got older and more identified as a nonbeliever, I found myself having negative experiences with religion.

I am not out as an atheist with all of my extended family, largely because they have made it known such an announcement would lead to disowning. This is, perhaps, my most negative experience with religion. It is my family’s being religious that foundations their willingness to disown me.

3. Are you a more outspoken or more apathetic atheist? Why?

Historically, I would say I’ve been an apathetic atheist. More accurately, I was not very engaged in exploring my worldview as an atheist. This began to change when I became more public about being a nonbeliever. Close fiends and immediate family were always fine, but others became offended by my nonbelief.

More often than not, the offended would declare he or she could never be an atheist and end our interaction. On rare occasion, people would let their fears show. For example, while in high school, I volunteered at a fun fair for children. During a casual conversation, a parent asked me which church I attended. When I responded that I was a nonbeliever, he quickly pulled his toddler behind him and glared at me, aghast. I had to remind him that atheists only eat babies at night, so his child was safe (for now…).

Among those that didn’t discard me immediately, the most persistent response has been to try and convince me that I’m not really an atheist but an agnostic. As far as I can tell, this is a tactic from Ray Comfort. It is a weak argument, and I doubt many have converted because of it. In light of this weakness, however, I was shocked that this tactic was so common. Eventually, I asked someone why he made this argument, and he replied that, he felt more comfortable with me as an agnostic and that I was more likely to be saved if I was an agnostic. To his credit, this was a rather honest response and one I appreciated. However, it led me to want to be more outspoken about being an atheist. It was a response that said I wasn’t viewed as a human being of value but as a problem to be shunned or fixed.

4. Do you think religion is obsolete and should be wiped completely off the face of the Earth, or does some good come out of it?

I think this question is poorly phrased. As an atheist, naturally, I think any theistically based religion is falsely grounded. But this does not mean that all that follows from this false foundation should be rubbished.

Although I had quibbles with it, I think the basic point of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is sound. I think you can boil down his central premise to the idea the there are certain social needs humans have that are currently (and historically) served by the established religions. If we are going to “[wipe] completely off the face of the Earth” the currently established religions, I suspect that void will be filled with something we can reasonably call ‘religion’. This new religion could be vastly different from current religions, but I don’t see any reason to resist calling it a religion.

By and large, I have two issues with religion: (1) it seems to be one of the most successful mobilizers of “us versus them” violence and (2) it tries to resist self-assessment and is slow to revise. As a result, I think secularism is the best approach, pragmatically. It is an approach that aims to minimize the negative consequences of these two points.

I would argue that no religion is the brainchild of a single person, and I hold no illusion that I could craft an ideal religion, but I would push for something that is skeptical, evidential, and patient.

5. Did you lose any friends because you decided to be an atheist? Did your family flip out?

I touched on this point a bit earlier. I have not lost any friends due to being an atheist, nor did my immediate family flip out, as they were quite influential in my being a nonbeliever.

However, I have no doubt that people have stopped making an effort to become my friend as a result of my atheism. Likewise, I keep my atheism from some extended family in deference to the potential damage it could have to our relationship. Yes, it is their problem, but that’s the social reality I live in.

On the whole, though, I would not say being an atheist has been damaging to my social life.

6. How do you feel about so-called “militant atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris?

To be honest, I have never read a book by the so-called “New Atheists.” This is the case because I’ve just never been driven to read them. I have, however, briefly met Richard Dawkins at an event hosted by CFI. I’m not one for celebrity, but I figured I had to shake his hand.

Without going into detail, I find I have varying degrees of agreement and disagreement with each of them. However, I think their primary value was in being the public voice that brought atheists back into the public conversation. Furthermore, though I find them to be more polemical (more “militant”) than I am, I doubt they would have gotten the same media exposure if they had been more accommodating.

Where I credit them most is in being the figure heads that reignited a public atheist presence in the United States (and elsewhere) that I hope will continue.

7. Except for God, do you believe in anything supernatural or pseudoscientific? (Ghosts, alien abductions, spirits, souls, demons, psychics, magic, Harry Potter, etc.)

No, I do not believe in any of these.

8. What’s your political alignment? Does your atheism influence how you vote and how you feel on issues?

This will likely come as no surprise if you’ve read a number of my other posts, but I am a liberal-minded Democrat. My major salient issues tend to be social-rights issues, but I also consider social welfare a moral issue. My one caveat on this last point is that I don’t know enough about economics to claim to know the ideal balance between government and the market.

My atheism influences how I vote in a couple ways: (1) I won’t vote for a candidate that actively wants to dismantle the separation of church and state. (2) I hold most of my views on social issues because of the values that arise from being an atheist.

9. Even though you’re an atheist, have you ever experienced a moment that could be called “religious?” Like an epiphany about the world or complete peace?

All the time.

First, I am humbled by the vastness of the universe. Yet, I am inspired by the fact that all that inhabits the universe shares the same makeup.

More domestically, humans are autonomous beings that necessarily operate within social settings. This results in a wealth of experiences that inspire love, compassion, humor, embarrassment, and purpose. I don’t intend to sugarcoat the horrors this produces as well. But I am brought to joy by those moments when a child betrays his innocence, or a person is lost in her head while risking embarrassment due to being in public. They are, to my mind, the moments the best exemplify what it is to be human.

10. Are you spiritual, or are your feet always on the ground?

This question strikes me as a false dichotomy. I’m not sure why being spiritual excludes being grounded.

Putting that aside, I aspire to be realistic and purposeful in my actions, but I am prone flighty idealism. I tend to operate on values and move toward pragmatism when values don’t clarify direction. To give an everyday example of what I mean by “operate on values,” when I fly on a plane I will never move the back of my seat all the way back because I consider that grossly disrespectful. It is a known inconvenience on the person behind you, and it is unnecessary and avoidable.

11. Do you have/plan on having a career in the sciences? Alternatively: which branch of science intrigues you most?

I do not have a career in the sciences, and the only way I see myself having a career in the sciences is if I pursue a PhD and focus on education-related social science.

Physics was the branch of science I enjoyed most in high school. I studied anthropology and sociology in undergrad, so the social sciences are dear to me.

On a more leisurely level, astronomy is the science that brings me the most casual pleasure.

12. What happens when we die? Do you fear death?

Death is the termination of life, meaning the ceasing of the combined functioning of a biological individual.

When I was younger, I described myself as having a fear of death. More accurately, I would envision myself in a formless void, alone, for eternity. This isn’t death, as I described it above. This is eternal life in solitude. Such a fate is still quite frightening but not the result of death. Realizing this ended my fear.

Am I okay with dying? I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the termination of my life is satisfying in the way it allows my life to have a resolution. On the other hand, my curiosity is bummed that it won’t get to see what transpires after I die.

13. Would you ever date/marry somebody who follows a religion? Be honest.

I am 8+ years in a relationship with a Christian woman. We have a mutual respect for each other that has allowed the relationship to succeed. The biggest hurdle is still to come, however, when/if we have kids.

14. On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you with life at this moment, and why?

A not-so-quick pet peeve: I have had a number of jobs where I did one-on-one advising (my current job included) and assessment of the advisee is essential to successful advising. I would use scale-oriented questions a lot because they provide a nice temperature gauge; until, I realized that most people were grossly inaccurate in the number they chose. To begin with, no one chooses the ends of the scale. At the same time, neither party really knows how the middle numbers break down. Scale-oriented questions just created confusion or delayed getting to the meat of the conversation.

To make them useful, I will reduce the number scale to a maximum of 5 and either define the numbers myself (if I’ve got some specific to cover) or ask the advisee to define the numbers before choosing one.

With that out of the way, I will define 1 as suicidal depression and 10 as being on my deathbed having recently concluded a major goal and celebrating life with those most dear to me. 2-4 are gradually decreasing feelings of powerlessness and lacking direction. 5 is a lack of clarity but a willingness to move forward. 6-9 are gradually increasing feelings of direction, purpose, and achievement.

I would put myself at 6-7 (I know I know).

Two years ago, I moved from Portland, Oregon to Washington, DC. I loved Portland. First off, I love Portland’s rainy weather. Also, Portland has great beer. I lived in a downtown apartment with an incredible group of friends for neighbors. I am a fanatical soccer fan, and I lived 5 minute’s walk from the stadium of my favorite team, the Portland Timbers. I enjoyed my job and adored many of my coworkers. Last but not least, my parents live in the Portland area.

My primary reason for leaving was because my partner lived in DC, and I became fed up with living on opposite ends of the country (it had been 3 years). I also wanted to return to school to better my career outlook. Although I enjoyed my job, I was stagnating will little opportunity for upward mobility. So, I killed two birds with one stone by moving to DC and pursuing my Master’s in Higher Education Administration at the George Washington University. As much as I miss Portland, this is a choice I’m glad I made.

I officially completed my degree this August. The thing is, in pursuing the degree, I know I want to work in the field, but I am not clear on what I want to do. Currently, I work as an academic advisor to graduate students. The job is interesting, but I find working with graduate students less satisfying than working with undergrads. I am only in my second year as an advisor, so I am still learning the job, and it affords a lot of opportunities to take on other projects. This is great, but I still have this nagging feeling that I would be more satisfied in another department, and I fear I may be missing opportunities to move.

DC, on the whole, is not really my kind of city, but this doesn’t bother me as I don’t feel stuck. Likewise, I am so much happier now that I am able to move my relationship forward.

So, long story short, I have recently completed a large transition that is positive, and I am now having to solidify my trajectory to move forward.

15. Recommend a book. (Doesn’t have to be relevant to atheism, just any good book.)

My recommendation is: Youth by J.M. Coetzee. It is a novel that examines the beginning of that transition from childhood into adulthood. To some degree, I am now at the end of that transition, but I still found the novel relateable. Also, the novel touches on that struggle between wanting to be artistic and needing to get by.

More than anything, I think the novel captures well that period in your life when you are old enough to recognize that there is a world around you. You actually know that you are responsible for yourself, and you want to be responsible for yourself, but you completely lack the experience to feel confident navigating all of this.



  1. tmso · October 5, 2012

    These are actually great questions, and I love your answers to them. I’ll have to answer them sometime for my blog too!

    I have to agree that, yes, my atheism influences how I vote in the same way that you describe. I think the world could/would be better without religion, but I also don’t think we (as a society) are ready for that.

    Lots of food for thought, thanks for posting.

  2. ubi dubium · October 8, 2012

    Great answers, and thanks for the shoutout!

    I personally really like living in the DC area, except for the occasional winter storm. We probably don’t have enough soccer for you, though.

    • thecaveatlector · October 8, 2012

      I am a west coast kid, at heart. My growing up happened in Oregon and Nevada, with a lot of vacationing in California and Washington. I don’t know, it’s just a different vibe.

      I will say, though, there’s way more soccer in DC than in Portland, it’s just not my favorite team.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Pingback: On Being Worm Food | The Caveat Lector

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