Steve's Story

I can’t really say that I’ve been an atheist my entire life, but I don’t think I was ever a genuine believer. My parents both come from a southern baptist background, but we never went to church regularly when I was growing up. I’m pretty sure that all of my parents’ siblings and their families regularly attend church now, and one of my uncles is even a music minister in a baptist church in Texas. We would sometimes go to church on Easter and there was a period where we attended a weekly bible study led by some family friends. I think we finally stopped attending because of some silly theological dispute between my parents and the study leaders about what was required to “be saved.” This was a big deal to them, of course, but it all seems ridiculous to me now. I will always be grateful to my parents that they didn’t shove religion down my throat as a child, though grace was always said before dinner and my brother and I were taught to say our prayers before bed when we were very young.

I officially became an atheist over the summer after my freshman year of college. I think that the moment of truth came while reading Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” for a summer literature class. The hero of the novel, Howard Roark, was a very appealing character for me, and when he stated at one point that he didn’t believe in a god, that seemed to fit with his integrity and honest view of the world. I don’t think I had really been exposed to atheism that much growing up, and certainly not in a positive light. I do remember reading Camus’s “The Stranger” in high school and responding sympathetically to the main character’s atheism, though I didn’t consider myself an atheist at the time. One of my high school classmates was courageously outspoken about his non-belief, which earned him much condemnation from certain classmates. I also remember being sympathetic towards his views, but I wasn’t courageous enough at the time to defend him in class debates, in which he was hopelessly outnumbered.

After my Fountainhead experience I read more of Rand’s works, as well as books like “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith. One night in July 1998 I stopped saying my prayers before bedtime, which had always been more formulaic than heartfelt, and I now officially considered myself an atheist. I was still living at home, so I kept my atheism to myself, not knowing how my parents might react if they found out. My parents are wonderful, loving people, but I was still unsure of how they might react. I remember being very nervous around Easter of 1999, feeling that I would come out as an atheist and refuse to go to church if my parents decided that we were going. I didn’t think I could stomach the church experience at this point in my life, but luckily we didn’t go to church that Easter, or ever again while I was living at home.

I finally came out to my parents on September 4, 2001, a few weeks before I was scheduled to leave for a one-year exchange program in Germany after I graduated from college. I was about to move away from home for the first time, and my dad wanted to make sure I was a christian. The two of us were driving to town in his truck and he mentioned one of my best friends who I’ve known since 4th grade, whose family is from Puerto Rico. He asked if this friend was catholic, which made me sort of uncomfortable, since I never really discussed religion with my friends. I had several friends who attended church regularly, and I would occasionally go with them when I was younger, but I thought of them as individuals, not members of a particular religious group. I told my dad that I assumed this friend of mine was catholic, but that I wasn’t sure. He then asked what I believed, and I told him that I was an atheist. I could tell that this made him uncomfortable, and he kept interrogating me about my views (but not in an overbearing or intimidating manner) over the next week. My mother naturally found out, though she seemed to take the news a little better than he did. My brother considers himself a christian (though a very liberal one), and I’m sure that the idea of the four of us not being united in
heaven was quite painful to them. My explanation that, even if there was an afterlife, I wouldn’t want to believe in a god that rewarded blind faith over good deeds, didn’t seem to reassure them very much.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 occurred a week later and helped to make that month one of the most traumatic of my entire life. I finally made it to Germany near the end of September, though my dad bought a couple of books for me to read while I was over there, a bible and a few books by Lee Strobel. At one point, Strobel was trying to answer the question of what would happen in the afterlife to people like Gandhi, who were not Christian but did great deeds. When he answered that god would surely make “exceptions” for people like that and let them into heaven, I shut the book and refused to read another word. So much for the argument that blind faith alone would grant one admittance to heaven. It never ceases to amaze me how the religious will make exceptions to rules or selectively interpret evidence to reinforce and justify their beliefs.

I have a good relationship with my family (we just don’t discuss religion) and the tension that followed my coming out certainly seems to have eased. My parents probably think that I’m not “really” an atheist (how could such a good person be an atheist?) or that I’ll have a change of heart. My wife was raised catholic but considers herself an agnostic, and our wedding ceremony was officiated by one of her best friends, who happens to be gay and was ordained online! Our outdoor ceremony had no mention of any god (except for one vague mention of a “universal spirit” or something like that) and none of my religious relatives made any mention of that fact. I don’t know how many of my relatives know about my atheism, though it’s definitely not something I mention around them.

I see no evidence for a supernatural being and live my life as if there is none. Though we live in a chaotic world in which there are reasons to be cynical about the future of humanity, I find hope and meaning in things like family, music and the other arts, cooking, wine, coffee, books, etc. One of the biggest disadvantages of being an atheist is that you don’t have the automatic social network that a church provides. My wife is working right now while I try to finish grad school, and she doesn’t have much in common with many of her coworkers, many of whom are very religious and vocal about that. There are only a few of my school colleagues who I am reasonably close to and it is certainly easier to feel isolated as an atheist here in the Bible Belt than as a believer. I am encouraged by the recent crop of books by prominent atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, and I hope that we will see a gradual shift in the U.S. towards greater secularism and acceptance of non-believers in politics and culture.

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