How to Be an Atheist Without Being a Dick About ItS

I'm an atheist and I'm embarrassed. Not because I'm self-conscious about my convictions (lol, no), but because so many people insist on being such condescending dicks in the name of atheism. I didn't settle on my belief system because it's a great opportunity for me to dunk on church ladies—it's my belief system because I believe in it. Or, don't believe in it. Whatever. And I don't appreciate people turning my worldview into some weird, weaponized intellectual superiority complex. Religion is awful in a lot of ways, yes. But that doesn't mean you have to be awful too.

So, okay, in my heart, I am certain: that shit's not real. Even "certain" isn't quite accurate, because it implies the possibility of choice, of something outside this conviction. I'm not "certain" of this conviction—I am this conviction. At this point, the idea that god would enter my world in any sort of non-academic capacity is as laughable as the notion that I might hire Jenny McCarthy to be my child's pediatrician. Or, I don't know, that I might spend a weekend driving a microscopic school bus around inside the sinuses of a know-it-all child. Only it's even less plausible than that, because at least doing donuts in Arnold's colon is conceivable to the human mind.

God, on the other hand, is completely foreign to me. No, actually, more than foreign. Alien? What's the word for something that's so alien that we don't even have a word for it because it might as well be an 8-dimensional conceptual fog from space that eats villages and speaks in smells? Whatever that non-word word is, my relationship with god is like that. I grew up with godless parents in a godless home at godless schools with godless friends, so it's not even like god is something I knew and then rejected—we don't even have that level of bitter, resentful closeness. All we have is distance, strangeness, bafflement. But here's the thing: just because something is foreign to me doesn't mean I have to be a xenophobe.

God's not happening over here. Established. You can knock on my door and smile and give me a pamphlet about Kenny Loggins Jesus and allow me to gently brush you off, but there are more straightforward ways to recycle. Beyond that basic boundary, how do I comport myself as a human being when dealing with people who are super duper pumped about god? Atheism—especially in its incarnation as a movement—can so easily transform into smug hostility and dog-whistle classism. How do you avoid that? How do you find common ground? If you think you know better, how do you keep from feeling like you are better? And why does such a historically destructive force as religion deserve to be treated with kid-glove cordiality? People kill for religion. And I have to be nice?

Well, yes. If you want to be considered a nice person. I do want to be considered a nice person, so I try. Here's how.

Yes, Religion Definitely Blows a Lot of the Time

You really only have to make it through, like, 4th grade to notice that religious institutions are some of the most destructive, oppressive, authoritarian bodies in our history. So much of the time—especially to an outsider—they seem like tools of control rather than enlightenment. Actually, I'd go as far as to say that many religious factions ARE tools of control rather than enlightenment. And I believe passionately in calling out that destruction in every one of its fucked-up facets—from tiny internal shames to unspeakable mass horrors.

But this article isn't about forgiving or ignoring all of the atrocities—overt and covert—that religion sows. It's about being kind to individual human beings. I get that you, atheist person, think that religion is stupid. Magic sky-baby, fairy-tale theater, the whole thing. That's a seductive framework that simultaneously strokes your ego and doubles as a noble social justice crusade (and it's a self-indulgent trap I've fallen into many times). After all, religion does horrible things to the world! Religion deserves it! Yes, religion deserves it, and many people deserve it. But many other people don't.

Whatever your views on Christianity, you have to acknowledge that at least the Bible tells people to be nice. There are a lot of people who really love that book, and they only follow the "nice" parts. Those are the people I'm talking about here. I'm not interested in being part of a movement that actively excises "nice."

If you take your understanding that god is a fiction and use it to insult and abuse others, you're being exactly the kind of amoral garbage bag that religious bigots say we are. STOP LETTING THE RELIGIOUS BIGOTS WIN, PLEASE.

Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner, I Guess

To a person of genuine faith, my atheism (my contention that they're incorrect) shouldn't be any more offensive or threatening than their beliefs are to me. If you really believe in something, who cares? What matters—what is potentially offensive and threatening—is how we translate our convictions into real-world actions and attitudes. Believe in god because it makes you—YOU—feel safe and whole and fulfilled and accountable? Great. Tell me—ME—I'm a degenerate who deserves to spend eternity getting poked a red goatboy with a trident because I think consenting adults should be able to lovingly caress each other's bodays? Now we have an issue.

I have no interest in being nice when it comes to actual issues.

Be a Grownup

When right-wing religious assbags come at me spewing bigoted garbage (a.k.a. TUESDAY #isthisthingon), it is extremely difficult for me not to fire something back about their "magic book" or their "special sky friend" or some dismissive, infantilizing shit like that. Sometimes I don't manage to restrain myself, and I feel bad about it because it's a cheap shot about a thing that means a lot to a lot of people. It's not my nice neighbor's fault that some Twitter troll called me a baby-murderer.

Now, if people are actively trying to use the Bible to codify homophobia into law and drive up back-alley abortions, I think a "YOUR BOOK OF ANCIENT PARABLES HAS NO BEARING ON MY GOVERNMENT OR UTERUS" is more than justified. It's relevant to the debate. "Ur stupid god is fake dummy" is not.

Just like in comedy, it all comes back to punching up instead of down. What are you standing for? Are you attacking the strong for righteous reasons or the weak for petty reasons? Criticizing the pope is punching up. (I mean, his car is a house.) Criticizing institutional belief systems that oppress human beings is punching up. Criticizing an individual's harmless, personal road to solace and peace is about as low as it gets.

I Don't Want to Join a Religion

This has been said many times before, but I'm going to say it again. Community is fortifying, organization is valuable, but I don't want atheism to function like a religion. Maybe it's because I've always been an atheist—so I don't have the baggage that comes with a nonconsensual religious upbringing—but atheism isn't a cause for me. Evangelism in any form always seems to be partially about convincing oneself, over and over, of one's rightness—and that goes for evangelical atheists too.

Having grown up without god in my life, I don't have doubts and I don't have resentment and I don't have guilt and I don't have anything to prove. But I'm sympathetic to those feelings. I get it. And I get the impulse to want to replace one lifelong club with another. What I'm not sympathetic to—what I resent—is using atheism to perpetuate exactly the same negative cultural forces that make me dislike organized religion: Shaming. White supremacy. Unbridled, rabid misogyny. Yeah, no thanks.

Don't Tell People How to Handle Their Own Shit

This, to me, is the most important one, and the real reason I'm writing this piece. There are so many people in the world—marginalized people, brutalized people—whose experiences I could never understand. Unthinkable violence. Generations of systemic oppression. If faith is what certain people need to feel okay, then who the fuck am I to tell them otherwise? As soon as that faith translates into any action that oppresses others, it's fair game for criticism. But the faith itself? Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are you?

A few months ago I came across an astonishingly brutal article about sex offenders and their potential for rehabilitation—or, more accurately, "relapse prevention." (If you have any sensitivity to triggers of any kind, RUN from this link.) The piece profiles one particular "model" prisoner, a man who raped two teenage sisters in their home while their mother slept downstairs. The attack was unspeakably horrific. In the months since I read the article, there's one passage I've thought about nearly every day. It's from an interview with one of the victims, the younger of the two sisters.

Mitch gave her something? Yes, Angela says, “Mitch brought me to Christ. You see, I thought I was going to die, so I had a white light with me the whole time. I was in and out. I guess it was how I survived the pain, because the pain was unbelievable.” She still can’t feel the pain, she says, and she can’t feel anything else, either, and that’s what Mitch took away, that’s what he stole. “I’m not happy; I’m not sad,” Angela says. “I don’t look forward to anything. If I’m depressed, I eat—that’s how I feel things. I get high on sugar or I get full—and then it’s, ‘Oh boy, I feel something now.’”

You're going to tell that girl that she's an idiot for believing in god? You're going to laugh in her face and trot out one of your big logical trump cards? You're going to pat yourself on the back for being "smarter" than this person whose humanity was violently stripped from her when she was just a child? Are you also going to tell her that she's a disgusting fatass who should go on a diet because of your insurance premiums? Who the fuck are you to tell her how to survive?

There are a lot of people in the world who have nothing. Faith in a higher power gives them one thing. You know what we call people who try to take away other people's one thing?

A fucking dick. Don't be one.

Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock.