I have not written about atheism in a while. I haven’t felt a need to really dig into it. When I have had something to say, Twitter and Facebook provided enough of a forum. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, though. I recently worked on a couple projects with fellow artists who also happen to be deeply religious people. It was surprising to me mostly because it’s just not something that comes up in conversation very much. At least it doesn’t in my usual social circle. And to be fair, it didn’t really come up in conversation on these projects either. It was just a fact about my co-workers. In the interest of maintaining a positive working environment I never broached the subject. But I’m always fascinated by what leads people to believe what they believe.
A long time ago I purchased the domain name “secularartistsalliance.org,” thinking to build something, well, for and about secular artists. I never really got beyond that step. I don’t know what I want such an organization to be, and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to achieve it. I don’t have any money, and that always seems to be Step One. I thought that if nothing else, I should try to articulate what being an atheist means to me. From there, perhaps I can sort out what, if anything, it has to do with my own artistic pursuits.
My parents got divorced when I was ten years old. Before that, I had no real exposure to religion, organized or otherwise. Both of my parents had been raised Catholic, but at the time my dad was not particularly serious about it, and my mother had left the Church altogether long before. So it just wasn’t a thing in our house. After they split up, my parents decided to get in touch with their own religious urges, in very different ways. My dad, with whom I lived, started attending a Catholic church again, and went so far as to have me and my two sisters baptized. I was eleven at that point. My first communion occurred just a few months later. I recall not really understanding what any of it meant. As I got older I grew more and more resentful that I never got a say in the matter.
My mom started exploring different areas of spirituality. She was a hardcore Wiccan for several years, followed by an interest in Buddhist philosophy. She has since come around to the side of the non-believers on her own, but she still incorporates Buddhism in her life. (Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion, so an atheist Buddhist is not out of the question.) My dad, by contrast, seems to have evolved into a fairly standard Catholic, who attends Church on Sundays as often as is convenient, and still says grace before dinner. I’ve never really talked to my dad about it, so I can’t say just how deep his beliefs run. I can say, however, that in spite of the crash course in sacraments followed by three years of CCD classes, Christianity never really clicked with me. (Years later I found out CCD stood for “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.” I’m still not sure what that means.) I never once voluntarily attended church. I never thought of myself as a member of the Catholic Church. I attended the classes because I wasn’t given a choice; if I participated at all, it was not because I felt any need for a deeper connection to the faith, but simply because I wanted to fit in.
There came a point shortly after I moved to Chicago where the need to “fit in” gave way to a need to “stand out.” I can’t say what sparked that transformation. I just wish it had happened about a decade earlier. I probably would have done better in school. Anyway, part of this transformation involved an interest in, if not a need for, some sort of spirituality. A roommate introduced me to counter-culture philosophies like Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius. I read the books with great amusement, but it never occurred to me to take any of it seriously. I thought they were intended to be funny. I read some of my mom’s books on modern paganism, but I found it difficult to apply any of it to my own life. I even read about occult figures like Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, but all I found with them was some stuff to make our Dungeons & Dragons stories a little more interesting.
Thinking about it, I’m surprised that at no point during that time did I consider going back and re-exploring Christianity. But then, Jesus had several years’ head start to try and get me, and if he hadn’t lured me in by then, I don’t think it was ever going to happen.
When did this investigation of my spirituality end? I can’t say. To be fair, I don’t know that it ever really began. I read the books because I was curious. I was in a new, cosmopolitan world, and I wanted to explore everything that made this place different from the sheltered Midwestern town from which I’d come. The truth is, I think I just got bored with it. I wasn’t finding anything that rang true for me.
At some point in the mid-2000’s, a confluence of events brought out my need to self-identify as an Atheist. (Note the capital “A.”) In hindsight I am sure this was a reaction to something, but I couldn’t say what, specifically. I suspect it had much to do with the suddenly very vocal Christian Right and their reaction to 9/11 and the War on Terror, but I can’t point to any one moment and say, “Here it is. Here is why.” I was disturbed not only by the violence in their rhetoric, but by the ignorance that inspired it. It was unfathomable to me that large swaths of the population refused to accept the theory of evolution, or believed the earth was less than 6,000 years old. Worse, people who believed such things had reached the upper echelons of the US government, and were making policy decisions based in large part on these beliefs, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. There was an insistence, even a strange pride, in being ignorant, and an equally baffling backlash against the educated “elite,” who had the audacity to reason, rather than rely solely on gut instinct. For our leaders, disproportionate value was placed on absurd qualities like which candidate would be more fun to have a beer with. And I realized that I don’t want my leaders to be “just one of the guys.” I want them to be better than the guys. I want them to be the elite.
Pursuing these ideas online, I stumbled across Pharyngula, the blog of biologist PZ Myers. If you haven’t read his stuff before, I cannot recommend it enough. I was immediately hooked by his humor and intelligence, and also his skill at making complex ideas understandable for the layperson. (He is a teacher, so that’s not so surprising, I suppose.) Through Pharyngula I discovered a worldwide community of skeptics and humanists who defied the stereotype of the angry atheist. Through Pharyngula I learned about Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. In spite of some odious political stances, Hitchens struck a particular chord with me. At his best, his acidic wit and overpowering intellect reminded me of a modern Oscar Wilde. I soaked up every word I could find. These men wrote and spoke with passion, yes, but also with intelligence, and (most importantly) they backed it all up with actual evidence. And I realized that none of the fairy tales I’d heard and read throughout my life ever resonated with me for that one simple reason: There was no proof.
This year, hometown hero (and guy whose career I’d love to emulate) Tracy Letts won a Tony Award for best actor in a play, and he said an amazing thing during his acceptance speech. He said, “We’re the ones who say it to their faces, and we have a unique responsibility.” It was like somebody rang a bell inside me when I heard that. For the past few weeks I have been ruminating on that idea. We say it to their faces… but what do I want to say? I don’t really know yet. Probably, I want to say lots of stuff. But some of it starts here.