I am lucky enough to be a part of a close knit group of writers that meets at a local library twice a month. I have been a part of this group for a couple of years now. They are made up of mostly retirees (myself excluded) and their religious views (mostly Christian) come through in their writing.
This past summer I decided to let them in on a part of me that I had yet to reveal. I am atheist. The following is the open letter that I read aloud to them.
In a recent interview, Anne Lamott gave some advice to writers. “Tell your story,” she said, “you’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs-your truth, your version of things-in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
This is what, as so many of you know, I am trying very hard to do. The telling of my life story is the most difficult thing that I have ever done. Most days I alternate between the inability to write a single word and what sometimes feels like purging on the paper before me. Some days I am confident that what I am writing is, or will be something at some point. Still other days, I can’t muster a single crumb of confidence and the thought, who the hell am I to be doing this repeats itself over and over until it feels like it’s made its point.
But the thing that keeps me going is knowing that I am not writing just for me. I am writing for those who cannot speak for themselves, for those who need a voice that says, “you are not alone,” and “I understand”. A voice that says, “I will explain this to them,” and “you will get through this, too.” Today, I will be using my voice for just that.
There is something about me you do not know. It is not something that I keep a secret. If anyone should ask me, they would receive an honest answer. But so far, the subject has not been brought up. I feel compelled to share this information with you not just so I can be authentically myself at all times, as I desire to be, but also, I wish to open your hearts to others in my community. You see, I am not like you.
Last month I went to my first-ever meeting of “my kind”. About 75 people gathered in a room downtown to listen to a speaker talk about the issues we all had in common. I brought my daughter with me because I wanted her to see that we aren’t the only ones in this town that think the way we do. Also, I wanted to see it for myself. There were a few people my age, but mostly, the crowd was older, which is fine with me because throughout my adulthood I have savored my time with those who are calmer, know more about life and have a better understanding of who they are.
Toward the end of the meeting the conversation changed. Stories were told of those who had to keep their presence at these types of gatherings a secret. One, afraid he would lose his job, lied to his boss about why he needed to leave an hour early. Another, a young woman, lied to her family about where she was, afraid that they would reject her and she would have no one to turn to. Sitting in the back row I could see heads nod in understanding and heads shake in despair. At the end, I shook the speaker’s hand and told him how glad I was that he came. Really, I was glad that I could be there, grateful that I was in a place in life where I no longer had to fear, as I once had been.
Over the next few weeks I thought of my experience. Remembering my own fear, empathy poured from my heart for those going through something so difficult. I thought about things I had seen online, death threats, detailed explanations of beatings that were due and in the case of females, threats of rape. Worse still was the taking of life in the news on a frequent basis. All of these actions were considered completely appropriate and justified by the aggressors. All for not being like-minded.
I had been lucky, the worst I received online was a comment from a woman that I did not know, in reference to my smile in my profile picture, “If you knew what was going to happen to you, you wouldn’t be smiling.”
I’ve read countless stories of people who have lost their entire careers, life-long friendships, spouses, children, parents, homes, anything and anyone you can deem important in life, poof- gone. I have watched my community rally behind those left with nothing, “I am here if you need to talk,” “come stay on my couch,” “come work for me,” “we are raising funds for you.” My heart swells for this band of misfits that give so much of themselves to others without being asked.
My son, who is in college, is like me as well. Though, most of the students around him are not. He has had to stand up in a large class, state his different opinion and have nearly everyone around him shake their head, snicker or say things like, “what an idiot.” But he never falters. He loves it when the professor smiles and nods at him. He is no idiot. My heart still aches. The mama bear in me wants to step in, but I can’t and I won’t. You see, he is being his authentic self and I would never want to take that away from him, nor is he in need of my defense. He is kind, strong, capable and happy, just as I always hoped he would be and I am so proud of him.
I have not always been different. I was once like you, so sure that what I thought was true. But in my early 30s I began to think about who I was and why that is. I began to say, I am this and not that. For instance, I am a Democrat, not a Republican. If I were to give myself a “proper” label like the English do, you know, “So-n-so of the wherever house of such-n-such, heir to this-n-that,” mine would have read, “Sarah, three-time divorce, fourth marriage ongoing, mother of three, step mother of two, Christian, feminist, abuse survivor, progressive liberal Democrat, LGBTQ ally, and one always willing to learn new things.” Yes, I had filters through which I viewed the world and everything in it, as we all do, whether we like to admit it or not. But slowly, I learned to put those filters aside and try to view things through others eyes.
Maybe it’s the writer in me that allowed me to imagine life that way. For instance, if a foreign country invaded ours, violence, death and destruction being the only thing my son knew growing up as he watched his family members die one by one, would he, too, be angry? Would he, too, want revenge like the little boys growing up in other parts of the world? I imagined so. I could see him using any excuse necessary, any means necessary to fight those whom he felt destroyed his life and the lives of those around him. I found that if I opened my heart, opened my mind and was honest with myself, my view of the world changed.
So, in the end, I decided to just focus on one single filter to see the world. Love and all it encompasses. Compassion, empathy, and forgiveness guided me not only forward but also backward. Reflecting through my past I filtered those memories through love. And as I went through the metaphorical file cabinet that held the memories in my mind I slowly understood, forgave, let go of and moved on from the pain that held me back for so long. It was a mission of mine and I found myself able to thrive instead of just survive.
Only, there was always this thing that I couldn’t make sense of. Over and over I tripped on it as though I were wearing clown shoes walking up a steep hill on an uneven road. So I thought that perhaps I was wrong about that thing. I made quick work of going through the file cabinet again, taking this thing out and then seeing what was left of my life. I found it to be, for a lack of better words, just fine.
Still not convinced that I should give up this thing that I held so closely, and feeling as though I was in uncharted territory, I did what I always do, research. For a month, I combed through facts and opinion, personal experiences and headlines in the news. But in the end, it came down to this: it was not necessary in my life. The things important to me, being a good person, mom, wife, and friend, in my opinion, did not require this thing. I had, after all, known people who had this thing who were not automatically good people and I came to a conclusion. Being good was a choice.
I wanted to tell my husband how I felt. But when we were dating he had expressed to me, very clearly, that he could never be with a person who did not have this thing. This thing that I no longer possessed. After more soul searching, I knew that this thing was not more important than my marriage, my love for him or our blended family that we had together. Even though I knew that, I couldn’t be certain that he would feel the same. For two years I agonized, wanting to talk to him about it, having the conversation a million times in my mind, opening my mouth to say something hundreds of times, only to shut it out of fear. Fear that our marriage would be over, that he would no longer accept me. Fear that he wouldn’t, couldn’t love me. Fear that our family would be torn apart.
Then one evening I returned home and he called me into the bedroom to talk. He had been on the iPad and had come across a conversation I had with a friend that I hadn’t closed out. A conversation about this thing and my fears of his unacceptance. As I stood in the doorway to our bedroom, I glanced outside through the front door of our house, taking a deep breath to steady myself for what was to come. He would accept me or he wouldn’t. Either way, I would be true to myself.
He started, “You deserve someone who will accept you and love you no matter what, Sarah.”
‘Ok’, I thought, ‘this could go either way’.
He continued, “I want to be the person you deserve.” Inside I was crying from relief, my fears ebbing slowly from me. Outside I was still in shock, afraid to speak, not wanting to say anything that would change his mind. He went further, “I just want to make sure I understand. You’re atheist? What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means that I do not believe in a god.”
Then he asked, “What happened?”
After a quick rehashing of my thought process and the lack of necessity of the belief in my life, I ended my response with, “and I just can’t believe anymore. I can’t.”
He took his time considering all I said and then asked, “But how do you know what’s wrong or right? What keeps you from robbing the bank down the street if there are no consequences?”
The thought made me giggle a little. Me? A bank robber? “Well,” I said, “there is a consequence, it’s called jail. And I don’t take things that aren’t mine. You know this about me, right?”
“Ok,” he said. I could see all of the questions spinning in his head, one pushing its way to the top, “Aren’t you afraid of hell?”
“I don’t believe in your God, so I don’t believe in heaven. Same goes for the Devil and hell, too.”
“But, where do you think you go when you die?”
“Nowhere. You cease to exist just like everything else on this planet. This one life is all that we get.”
His brow furrowed in confusion and he said, “I just don’t understand how you can’t believe.”
After another deep breath I asked, “Do you believe in Zeus or any of the other gods that have been worshiped or are being worshiped now?”
“If you think about why that is, then maybe you can better understand why I don’t believe in yours.”
Instead of just loving the person he married on our wedding day, my husband chose to love the wife standing before him that night. With change being an integral part of growth as a human being, (to paraphrase Bart Campolo) perhaps we should vow on our wedding day to love whomever shows up in the body of our spouse throughout their lives.
Since that conversation, it has not always been an easy road. But I have the freedom and the support to express my views in my home, with my family and throughout my life. Not all are so fortunate. There is a lot that my community is up against. Most Americans believe it is impossible that atheists can have morals, be good people. We are seen as being angry with God or hating religion or that we are trying to take away Christmas. Even stranger to me is the assumption that we worship Satan.
So, with atheists being among the least trusted and most hated groups in America, why would anyone chose to be one? The answer is easy. It is not a choice, any more than not believing in unicorns is a choice.
Shortly after my son was saved at the age of 14 he began to doubt, which then led to disbelief, which was then followed by, “Shouldn’t I believe in something?” He tried, he really did. But when he looked into other beliefs and tried them on for size, nothing seemed to fit. In the end, he knew that he believed in himself and his ability to choose the path of his own life. His capability to love others and his willingness to always do the right thing guided that life.
This past week my youngest son participated in vacation bible school while visiting his grandparents. I have taught him that people all over the world believe in different gods and that is ok. There are also people who do not believe in a god and that is ok, too. It doesn’t matter what they do or do not believe. What matters is if they are kind to others.
I am not here to deconvert you or debate you. I am not here to belittle your beliefs or tell you that you are wrong. There is no need to fear my disbelief. The only thing that I ask of you today is that, if you ever come across one of my fellow misfits, please remember that they are human, just like you. And if they are sharing this “secret” with you, it is because they want to be accepted for who they are, as you do, as we all do. They want to be seen and heard and live a life filled with love and respect. We are mothers, daughters, fathers and sons who believe in free speech, the pursuit of happiness and will defend your right to worship whichever God you choose. We work every day to live good lives, lives with meaning and purpose, just as you. We are part of a growing population in this country, now the second largest religious category in the United States, the “nones,” those not affiliated with any religion.
Some of us, like me, once believed as you do. We do not consider ourselves lost, nor did we lose our faith. We willingly gave it up for a better understanding of ourselves, our communities and our world. It is our truth.
My name is Sarah. I am a wife and mother, survivor, thinker, voter, writer, lover of equality, owner of a shelter dog, seeker of goodness, champion of anyone in need, and yes, I am an atheist and a secular humanist.