On New Blogs and Being a Nonbeliever

I recently encountered a new blog here on wordpress: Russell & Pascal. It is a blog written by two friends (one a Christian, one who recently deconverted). The blog aims to have a dialog about religious (non)belief that always remains civil.

I’ve touched on it from time to time, but growing up a nonbeliever, I often enjoy reading the experiences of people who have left religion because they provide a different perspective on nonbelief.  In this manner, reading Russell’s posts has been a pleasure.

In particular, I had an interesting experience reading Russell’s ‘about‘ page. In this post, he writes:

I am an aAAth. This is so very hard. I have actual tears trying to type that word. It appears I’m not ready to admit it yet.”

For all intents and purposes, I have been an atheist my entire life. It’s not quite right to say I was raised an atheist, but I was definitely raised without religion. My parents did not invoke god (or really even discuss god) while I was growing up. Let’s put it this way, my sensus santa clausis was much stronger than my sensus divinitatis. As a result, calling myself an atheist comes as easy to me as calling myself Jeff.

A common part of many deconversion stories is a sadness in leaving a religious identity, and Russell’s expression is in line with this theme. However, for some reason, reading this line from Russell’s about page struck me differently. He was brought to tears self-identifying as what I’ve always been. I don’t know how to describe it but that I had one of those life is weird moments.

I wanted to read Russell’s line as: becoming like Jeff brought Russell to tears. Obviously, this is completely false and misses the point entirely. Russell is going from Christian Russell to atheist Russell, and accepting this means letting go of certain ways Russell understood his place in the world. In so doing, Russell was bringing himself to tears. Jeff has nothing to do with it. Jeff is a totally different person. Jeff is feeling kinda weird referring to himself in the third person. But, in the moment, I couldn’t help but personalize it.

When I encounter religious people say things like “being an atheist is lonely and depressing” or that “atheists actually know god exists but they delude themselves to justify being selfish,” my response is a hearty, often defensive “fuck you.” My reaction to Russell’s post wasn’t a defensive reaction. I want to say it was sympathy, but I don’t think that’s quite right. In my head I was saying: “Nah, Russell. Wipe those tears. Atheistland is awesome. I’m walking on sunshine! Whoaoh!  

In a post from a couple weeks ago, Russell listed some of the reasons he is not a Christian. His list had 43 points. I remember laughing to myself as I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled. There is something chuckle-worthy in how the earnestness of human conviction can result in really long lists.

For myself, I am not a Christian for 1 reason: I don’t believe in the existence of any gods. I cannot say I’ve come to this position for intellectual reasons. As I mentioned above, I’m here by parentage. However, I’ve never become a theist because I’ve never been given a convincing reason to believe in a god that mattered. More importantly, I’ve never felt compelled to seek a god. Contrary to the platitude, there has never been a god-shaped hole in my heart. I recognize that these are vague explanations. Perhaps I’ll unpack them at a later time, but I’m leaving them for now.

This world, this life, has always been enough for me. It has to be; it’s what I’ve got. I’ve got my interests, my relationships, and my ability to have a positive impact on those around me. I can be a good person and a good example. My life feels small and simple. It’s mostly getting up, getting some coffee, and getting on with it. But it’s quite fulfilling.

That fulfillment. Reading about Russell’s tears didn’t mesh with that. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to express a sense of contentment. There are things in my life and in the world that I want to be different. But that’s all just a part of the getting up and getting on with it. Living. It’s fulfilling.

To be fair, if I found myself intellectually compelled to leave my worldview, I would be sad too. It would be disquieting; my worldview defines the meaning of my life and my relationships. I don’t fault Russell his tears. I’d have them going the other direction. But, again, that’s the disconnect. That’s the “sympathy” I mentioned earlier. Leaving this life is worth crying for as well. As far as I can tell, at least. Being sad about becoming something you’d be sad to leave. I don’t know. Life is weird.

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10 comments

  1. Ruth · March 12, 2014

    De-conversion is a painful experience. Being Christian is an identity, it’s who we were. Changing one’s identity isn’t very easy, even if it happens in one fell swoop.

    • fojap · March 12, 2014

      De-conversion may have been painful for you. I had one boyfriend who found it to be exhilarating and “liberating.” The word liberating surprised me. In any case, there wasn’t anything painful in it for him at all.

      • Ruth · March 12, 2014

        Wow. I’m in awe. I will say that once I was past the pain I definitely felt the exhilaration and liberation part of it. Going through the experience was the painful part. Coming to the conclusion, itself, caused me to crumble, but once I accepted it I was free.

      • Ruth · March 12, 2014

        Also, as in my case and for a lot of de-converts, de-converting means losing friends and family or, at least, that potential.

    • thecaveatlector · March 12, 2014

      I completely understand that the adjustment can be painful. There would be internal turmoil if I were convinced of the truth of Christianity. That would have implications on things I feel pretty sure of and have meaningful stock in (e.g., morals, life meaning, etc). However, current Christians would want to celebrate my conversion and coming to Christ.

      When I read Russell’s line and personalized the de-conversion destination, I got a similar thing in reverse. And it’s that… that sense in which it can go both ways. That sense in which both destinations are celebrated places to arrive (for the people who are there, at least) and yet moving between them is painful.

      To be honest, I’m not sure there is anything profound here. It just struck me different, this time.

      • Ruth · March 12, 2014

        I totally get what you’re saying. On this side of the fence I see that it’s kind of an insult to be made to feel like there’s something wrong, offensive even, in just being what you are. Not to the degree but, in the spectrum of, what it must feel like to be gay.

  2. fojap · March 12, 2014

    Like you, both my parents were atheists. My own upbringing echos yours in that religion was simply absent. Unlike you, I went through a period of questioning about religion. Mainly, it was an interest in ideas that today would be called New Age. It was, in my opinion, a massive waste of my time. I wish there had been a wider presence of atheists/skeptic when I was young. It might have saved me from a pretty fruitless wild goose chase.

    I entirely understand your response to what Russell said. It’s really hard to explain to people that it’s no big deal. Even my wild goose chase was partly prompted by believers exhorting me to me more open minded.

  3. EMil Wentzel · March 24, 2014

    I felt compelled to post a reply…then as I start typing I loose the words in my head *blink*

    I think that this post is very profound, you might not realise just how much because of your own point of reference. Just like Russel, I had to work hard and suffer the pain of deconstructing my beliefs and ultimately became an Atheist – a public, unafraid to say “I’m an Atheist”.

    I can, after reading the related blog post, fully empathise with Russel on why it brings him to tears. The fear of being “found out”, ostracised and critically reject for his choice by family, friends, social circles he has been part of and places where he once felt safe becoming literally a torture zone. It might not be the process by which you become (de)converted, it’s the implications and potential fall out that follows that is truly scary and fear inducing.

    Your perspective on the emotions of Russel reveals something tremendous to me, a secret which I will never fully know, but you’ve been kind enough to share. The glimpse of an atheist trying to empathise with someone becoming an atheist, and only scratching the surface of sympathy.

    • thecaveatlector · March 25, 2014

      Hi Emil,

      Thanks for commenting. I would write your final line in reverse: “…an atheist sympathizing with someone becoming an atheist, and scratching the surface of empathy for the first time.”

      Having never converted, it is hard to have that sense of the empathetic “I’ve been there.” I very specifically haven’t been. All I’ve ever been able to do is sympathize. I have become better able to make concrete exactly what I would be deconstructing if I were to (if I can steal your words) deconstruct my beliefs and become someone else.

      Were I to rewrite the post, I would probably replace “sympathetic disconnect” with “empathetic gap.” I think that better represents what I’m trying to describe. Though I feel I have come close to some genuine sense of empathy, my lack of actual experience means there is a gap I cannot cross.

      • EMil Wentzel · March 25, 2014

        *like*(cuz there’s no like button on comments)

        I honestly believe that atheists are some of the most empathetic people I’ve met in my life, and not to diminish your capacity for empathy, but especially those who have come from some or other belief.
        Experiencing the deep isolation of sometimes disliking oneself and the fears that arise when reevaluating your beliefs; I doubt anyone would truly wish such an endeavour trivially on another. When reading Russell’s story, you could gain some idea of the journey. Which is why I think many atheists dislike the more visible vocal atheists and anti-theists. We’d prefer the gentleness and empathy that you’ve shown here.
        Thanks for sharing your personal experience here.

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