A slightly different version of this essay is included in the second edition of
Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism (2014)
July 23, 2013
I quit atheism this past June.
It’s funny how events and ideas converged over just about a week. I was attending the Florida Tech Creative Writing Institute, four days of lectures and workshops on writing; it ran from Thursday through Sunday. On Saturday evening, I’d ended a brief engagement in yet another trivial argument with an atheist on my atheist Facebook page and decided I was going to give up atheism.
Yes, I said I was arguing with an atheist.
I planned to delete the Facebook atheism page, the Atheist View Twitter account, and scale the Atheist View website down to the bare bones until its paid time ran out and then take it down. This was all very drastic so I decided I ought to sleep on it. When Sunday morning arrived and I was getting ready to attend my final day of workshops at Florida Tech, I told my husband, “I’m thinking of giving up on this whole atheism thing.” I told him I was tired of arguing with atheists.
His response was, “What about the [defunct at the time] Poultry Apologies blog?” I didn’t see the connection, but told him that, yes, I was thinking about giving that up, too. I was tired, I realized, of arguing with people, of being angry and frustrated all the time. He was not happy. Let me paraphrase: “If you’re not arguing with the atheists and you’re not pointing out everyone’s grammatical and spelling mistakes…where will all of your aggression go? Toward me, that’s where!”
I had to laugh. Because maybe he was right. But I was at a point in my life where I just wanted to enjoy. Enjoy the Internet, mostly. Enjoy the good things in life. Enjoy my day without having to focus on all things negative. I’d already started trimming down my Facebook “friends” list. You wouldn’t believe (well, maybe you would) what people post to their walls. And for years I was looking at it and starting my day off with it–essentially, I was getting pissed off every morning.
When I joined Facebook, I started “friending” atheists. It was as if all the atheists in the world were trying to connect and I was part of it. But after a while I stopped actively seeking out connections and just let them come to me. And then, about a year ago, I started to whittle away at the list.
People who posted pictures of suffering animals had to go. “But, wait,” they would cry when I clued them in on my plans, “We’re just trying to make you aware of the awful things going on.” And I said, “You think I don’t already know? And you think I need a picture on my wall of a dead and bloated dog tied to a tree during breakfast? Post a link instead,” I said. “Be thoughtful of what you’re showing people.” But they didn’t care. So, I “unfriended” them. I “unfriended” anyone who posted pictures of dead and suffering people, too. And children! How they loved to “make me aware” by posting pictures of dead or dying children. Maybe something is wrong with me, but when I see things like that, I cry. And I don’t want to cry when I’m sitting at my computer trying to enjoy the Internet.
And anyone who posted pictures of nearly naked women in sexually suggestive poses–always an abundance of those. “Unfriended.” And anyone who posted too many pictures of himself or herself, especially nearly naked in sexually suggestive positions. One guy posted a picture of himself masturbating. I had to suppose he didn’t have his mother on his friends list. All gone from my list.
Once I’d finally cleaned up my wall of the lovers of torture and sexual exhibitionism, most of whom were atheists, I was satisfied. Until June. When I decided to quit.
Sunday morning, after I told my husband my plans, I checked my email before going off to Florida Tech and coincidentally enough, there was a message from the leader of an atheist group near me wondering if I wanted to speak at one of their meetings. I was surprised. “I can’t do that!” I said to myself. “I’ve just quit!” But, I decided I would do it anyway. I was still an atheist, after all, and maybe I could talk about how I’d just quit atheism.
This person, however, suggested that I talk about something else: The Honesty of Atheism. I’d written an article by that name, and it was published in Russ Kick’s anthology, Everything You Know about God is Wrong. He said that my article was still relevant. “Okay,” I told him. “I’ll take a look at it and see what I can come up with.” After reading it, I was reminded of one of the lectures I’d sat in on at the Creative Writing Institute on Laura Riding Jackson.
Jackson was a poet and an intellectual. Born in New York, she lived in Europe for about fourteen years and after marrying Schuyler Jackson, moved to Wabasso, Florida, of all places. She and her husband lived in a Cracker Style house with no electricity, but she claimed to be happy. I can’t imagine it. The man who spoke to us was with the Laura Riding Jackson Foundation, an organization formed to preserve her home after her death. He read some of her poetry. It was poetry–but I liked it.
But then he told us that Jackson and her husband set out to rewrite the dictionary. [The result was Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words and Supplementary Essays] Jackson didn’t believe in synonyms. She believed that each word had a distinct and precise definition. I was instantly a fan. And I was reminded of it, when I reread my article, The Honesty of Atheism. Because, at heart, it’s about words and what they mean and how they ought to be used. And it was then, there in June, that I knew I was going to give up on atheism.
My history with atheism began in my thirties. I won’t get into how I realized I was an atheist. I talk about that in my book, Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism [First edition].
I’ve never been a social person. As a youngster I was socially inept. Unpracticed. And too particular. The biggest problem facing me at adolescence was that I’d never found a voice. Growing up in my family, I learned that expressing my opinions or extremes of emotion was bad. Such things were too often met with derision, criticism, or even punishment. As a young teen, I learned not to have an opinion of my own. I believed whatever you believed. If you believed that abortion was wrong, so did I. And when I talked to someone who believed abortion was a right, I agreed.
I had very few friends and looking back now, I can understand why. I was what they called “two-faced.” But I wasn’t that way because I was a naturally backstabbing bitch. I was that way because I hated confrontation and was terrified of being wrong. So, if you hated Julie, so did I. But of course, I liked Julie and so couldn’t be cruel to her (not that I was never cruel, because if the girls I was with at the time wanted to be cruel, I was cruel) so when with her, I hated the people who hated her.
Once I realized atheism, I started to find my voice. There I was, finally, with an opinion! And it was an opinion I could stand behind. Trust me, I’d thought about it. A lot. I’d even read the Bible (that had pretty much cinched it). Atheism was logical. It made sense. It was honest. And so, I started to learn my own opinions on everything else, as well. I was growing a backbone. It was very painful.
At some point, I had this epiphany (if you can call it an epiphany when it’s completely wrong). I thought that my social isolation, my lack of friends, must be because I’m an atheist. I’m not weird; I’m just trying to socialize with the wrong sorts of people. Once I find the atheists, I’ll be just fine! I’ll be like other people. I didn’t for a second think there were any atheists living near me, or that there were more than, say, fifty, in the country. So, there wouldn’t be parties. But there would be friends!
I believed that atheists, by definition, would be committed to reason, to truth and honesty, and to individual freedom.
My first foray into finding other atheists was in the AOL forums–this was back when AOL was the thing. While there, trying to learn and socialize, Christians would dart in and scream at us about how immoral we were and how happy they were going to be watching us writhing in pain in hell for all eternity. Over time, I learned to give just as good as I got and began engaging in email lists, mostly designed for debating Christianity. But I became acquainted with other atheists that way, too.
After a while, however, I got tired of arguing the same things over and over again with new Christians–or the same ones who just couldn’t accept logic and reason. So, I backed off a bit. I created a website, Atheist View, and then wrote my book. The book was cathartic–like a life dissertation. Here it is. This is what I think. Don’t ask me any more stupid questions. And I got to the point where religion no longer bothered me. When Christians attempted to tell me how wrong I was about their beliefs, I either responded with sarcastic humor, or ignored them. My time and energy was wasted there. And I no longer enjoyed the debate–probably because it was fruitless. It had become boring.
I sought more real association with atheists. Even though I didn’t think there were any around. I created an email list; I think it was called Atheists of Brevard, and was surprised to see the list grow into the hundreds. At some point, my brother and I attended an atheism convention in Tampa, probably Atheist Alliance International, and there was a table set up there with information on starting up a local atheist group. I told my brother, “That’s what I’m going to do.” So, I founded Space Coast Freethought Association. We thrived for a while, with a newsletter, meetings, and a website. The group still thrives, I suppose, as a Meetup.
Our first meeting was in a local park and only my brother and I showed up. But the next month, a few more people were there. And the next month, more. Right away, we got crazy people. The first was a man who wanted us all to go to his house for our meetings, and for dinner. He told us that what he did was to go around to all the restaurants at night and get their leftover food, the stuff they were going to put into the dumpster. And he fed people with it. He claimed that the mayor had even been over to his house for dinner!
I finally grew a pair and told him, “We are not meeting at your house.” Luckily, I had a good excuse. We needed a neutral place, where people would feel comfortable showing up and could easily escape when they decided they wanted to. That was the main thing I looked for when attending a meeting with people I didn’t know, anyway.
So, we started meeting regularly in the local library. Where more crazy people turned up. There was the perpetual victim. Before she found us, everything bad that happened to her was because she was a woman. After she found us, it was because she was an atheist. I can tell you neither of those was the reason for most of her troubles. Then there was the Aussie who insisted that voting in our country ought to be mandatory–by law. That’s right. If you don’t vote, you risk going to jail.
There were the people you thought were wonderful and sweet–but they couldn’t function logically. Like the sweet old man who believed that passages in the Bible told of aliens visiting earth. There was no other explanation! No one at that time could have described such a machine! Therefore: aliens. And then there were the people you respected, the ones you thought were intelligent, until they started appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks.
The email list was much worse than the meetings. We engaged in a lot of arguments. It was a wonderful learning experience, at least. I learned to argue out and parse my thoughts and opinions. But some others didn’t seem to be able to examine their own arguments during the engagements. There were people who would change their stance on an issue mid-argument. If you quoted them verbatim, it didn’t matter. They’d see it, and then claim it wasn’t they who were changing stance, but you. There were people who would make bold statements of fact and refuse to support them with sources. And there were people who stomped their feet and called me names. I was always willing to label ideas and opinions, as opposed to people. I once called one man’s opinion about some issue “fascist.” He threw a tantrum, called me a diva, and stalked off.
There were liberals, conservatives, Objectivists, socialists, fascists, and more. All trying to convince me they were smarter than I was. And, well, I wasn’t buying it.
And sure, you can say that maybe I was the stupid one, the unreasonable one–those people certainly would say so. But I had some back up. I had some study and research and discussion with others to boost my confidence. I was never, ever the type of person to be confident in myself. I was always quick to be the one who admitted she was wrong. But I was finding that, more and more, that wasn’t the case a lot of the time. And I was no longer willing to claim fault, where I was sure the fault wasn’t with me. I backed up my assertions with supported facts and evidence. They didn’t. I stuck to my premises, they didn’t. So, arrogant as it might seem, I came away fairly certain I wasn’t the one in the wrong.
I lost a lot of respect for a lot of people on that list. And no doubt, a lot of people lost respect for me–if they had it to begin with. But I learned something very important:
Atheists can, and do, believe in a lot of weird things. Atheists are not immune to being unreasonable.
But some things, you have to learn over and over again. And look, I’m not saying that I’m reasonable all of the time or that I’m smarter than everybody else, or that I never made mistakes. It was just these few instances in which I felt I was being wronged and it was edifying for me.
So I quit the group. I took to my website and blog. I started a Facebook page just for atheism. At some point I joined Twitter. And through it all, I realized another very important thing: I don’t like atheists any more than anyone else in the world. Just because someone is an atheist does not mean he is committed to reason. And I have a serious issue with that.
I like reason. I consider myself a rationalist. Am I perfectly reasonable all the time? Of course not, don’t be silly. But I strive for it. And I recognize stupidity when I see it. Unfortunately, I tended to not just let it pass. I’d learned to shrug off the religious who tried to argue with me, because I knew that they would not, could not, be reasonable. I still hadn’t learned the same about atheists.
Hence, finding myself once more in an argument with an atheist on Facebook in June. The Pope said something ridiculous like, wasting food is equal to stealing from the poor. I posted the link and said that it was stupid. I said, “Please. Every smart kid in America knew his mom was full of shit when she told him he had to clean his plate because there were starving kids in China.” An atheist challenged me. He said, “Are you suggesting we do not have a culture of waste and it is a bad thing?”
Right then, I should have realized this person was not reasonable. Nothing in my statement hinted at either of those things. I was talking about wasting food not equaling stealing. But, though I had learned my lesson over and over and over again and had backed off from trying to reason with atheists, once again, I had to learn. I replied, “I’m saying that me buying too much roast beef doesn’t make me a thief.”
It was as simple as that for me. You see, the word “stealing” means something. But he replied, “I think culture of waste says it pretty clearly. I find it hard to imagine any thinking person reading this piece and only finding fault with it.”
So I handed him his ass. “Ah, well, then there you have it. I’m clearly not a thinking person. Thanks for clueing me in. I’ll try to remember that, but not being a thinking person, I might have difficulty. You know how it is, oh, wait, no you don’t because obviously you’re a thinking person who can’t manage to find one thing to complain about in the idea that wasting food is stealing. As if, if I only wouldn’t buy too much food, the poor would magically have it. Yes, we absolutely live in a culture of waste, and a culture of throw-away products. But that culture is not what creates the poor, and conserving is not what will help the poor, in my totally thoughtless opinion.”
To this person, the article was about the feelings he had regarding the poor not having enough to eat, and the wealthy having more than they need. That was all that mattered. But to me, what mattered was the word “stealing.” That was what elicited my response to the Pope. I balked at the idea that wasting food was stealing. Because it absolutely is not. I was only arguing that word. But this person was arguing his feelings about the poor.
It just didn’t work. It can never work. I can’t argue with someone who can’t even see what the argument is about.
I realized that my “friends” list on my regular Facebook page and my “likers” on the atheism page were, for the most part (by far), liberals who, though they’re certainly not alone in it, think with their emotions and not their intellects, or the facts. And the funny thing is, this makes me more liberal than a lot of the liberals I know. During the gay marriage flurry, I posited that marriage equality was for everyone, not just gays. Plural marriage should also be legal. But some of the liberals thought I was out of my mind. They had an emotional reaction to plural marriage, probably because of their tiny amount of misinformation and, most definitely its religious affiliation, and so could not get past their feelings to accept what real freedom must mean: we ought to be able to enter into marriages with any other sentient adults without interference from the State.
I have said, occasionally, that my politics align most closely with Libertarianism. I have, however, not gone so far as to claim that I am a Libertarian. Because I don’t like a lot of Libertarians (they can’t reason any better than other people) and certainly not Libertarian politicians–I can’t say I agree with each and every point in their platform. I had an altercation with a woman some time ago that perfectly illustrates how people think, and especially how liberals view Libertarians. I made a status update that simply said: “My views are too complex and thoughtful to be reduced to an emotionally charged sound bite, to be cut, pasted, and spread like a virus, in an attempt to subtly shame anyone who dares not participate.”
Clearly, I was getting tired of the sound bite nature of Facebook [and it sounds like this was referencing one of those viral “share on your wall or I’ll know you’re evil” memes]. But this woman with whom I couldn’t recall any previous interaction responded by saying she wrote out a response explaining how I was wrong, but wasn’t going to post it, because doing so would be useless, much like arguing with Rush Limbaugh. She’d apparently read somewhere that I agreed with a lot of Libertarian principles. So, she wanted me to know that she wouldn’t bother to respond. Seriously. You can read the altercation here.
This was not the only problem I encountered being a socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative atheist (and don’t even try to assume you know what I mean by fiscally conservative–because you don’t). My wall was constantly filled with statements of bigotry and hatred toward conservatives, namely Republicans and Libertarians, known to most of my liberal “friends” as Republicunts, Repubtards, and the childishly selfish. Ayn Rand was called every vicious name in the book by people who had almost certainly never read her philosophical ideas, because they clearly didn’t understand them, and most often attacked her as a person instead. There were constant diatribes against capitalism, as if we actually live in a true capitalist society instead of a formally government-controlled capitalistic nation, and a current corporatocracy.
I formed new standards for “unfriending.” Anyone who called Ayn Rand a cunt was gone. And then, anyone who called any woman a cunt was gone. Anyone making bigoted and hateful statements about large groups of people was gone. Many were…gone.
I have family who are still Republicans. Sure, I can’t understand it completely, but I’m not going to stomp my feet and call them names. I used to be a Republican myself and only left when they started going batshit crazy–due, in my opinion, to religion. Every now and then someone on Facebook would post the question, “How can an atheist possibly be a Republican?” As if they couldn’t fathom the fact that most people don’t fit ideally into either party and choose the one they can stomach the best. And they apparently don’t know about the existence of decent social liberals who are also fiscally conservative–they call them Libertarians, as if it’s a slur, and lump them all in together because it makes their world neatly compact.
[Of course, by 2021, the so-called Conservatives–namely Republicans–had gone complete bonkers, so this argument hasn’t the impact it once did.]
Of course, they’re also asking how blacks and gays can be Christians, trying as hard as they can to deny the enormous propensity for hope and fear, and the need for belonging, in the human animal.
And so, there I was, arguing once again with someone who couldn’t understand something as simple as the meaning of the word “steal,” and was emotionally committed to the idea that his not finishing his Big Mac was stealing from the poor homeless man down the street. The guilt! And he dared to tell me he was the thinking one in the discussion.
I’d had it.
I didn’t want to talk to unreasonable people anymore.
And then I remembered Laura Riding Jackson. The lecturer told us that day that Jackson renounced poetry at some point in her life because it had failed in its mission. Call me skeptical, but I am fairly sure that poetry has no mission. Jackson disagreed. The speaker read a few paragraphs from Jackson’s treatise explaining why poetry had failed. When he was finished, he sighed and admitted he didn’t understand any of that and he often had to leave interpretations of her essays and poetry to people smarter than himself.
I didn’t understand it either, and when I was asked to speak to that group of atheists, and so reread my article, The Honesty of Atheism, I finally put it all together.
I finally got it.
Jackson chose the exact words she felt conveyed her reasons. And she failed to communicate.
Yes. Words have precise meanings. As an author, I must choose the right word. Not just the right word for its meaning, but right for the sentence, the paragraph, the novel, the tone, the voice–my audience. I can’t just insist that this word is the only word that means what it means and therefore, I must use it. It’s no good to use the precise word if people can’t understand what I’m saying. While I stand by my article on the honesty of atheism, while I agree with it completely, I understand that it’s meaningless. Because people don’t care.
Too many people think with their emotions instead of using their sense of reason. When the Zimmerman verdict came in, my Facebook wall was flooded with outrage. Never mind the truth. Never mind the actual facts of the case; and never mind the fair application of the law. I “unfriended” more than fifty people who were thinking with their emotions instead of seeing objective reality. Why? Because they were upset that Trayvon Martin was dead.
I was upset about that, too! I was horrified by what had happened. But I didn’t let those emotions guide my thinking, or my search for the facts. I didn’t let a media more concerned with ratings than truth tell me what was true. And I couldn’t reason with any of those who were crying out injustice, when in fact, justice and the law were adequately applied. I can’t argue with emotions.
I am not immune. When the Newtown school shooting happened, I was incredibly upset–sick with it. And I am still working out my position on the issue of guns in America. I struggle to leave my emotions out of it, to set my fears aside, but I strive to remind myself that freedom, above all, is paramount. It’s just like Benjamin Franklin said (and my husband dared to remind me during my period of anger and emotion): “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
[I no longer hold this view. While “freedom is paramount” is a lovely idea, it’s elusive. Because we’re talking about people and society. We don’t live completely and totally free. To argue that guns should be easier to obtain than a drivers’ license is, in my opinion, inane.]
And so, the moral of the story is this: No matter who they are, no matter what they believe or don’t believe, most people don’t want honesty and precise word usage and logic and reasoning. People too often think with their emotions, not their intellects. Objective reality, facts, evidence, the law, justice, and freedom are all too often cast aside in the rush to assuage feelings.
They just want to feel.
They want to feel alive. They want to feel important. They want to feel right, and justified, and useful. They don’t care about words and reasoning and what’s right or wrong. They only care about how it feels.
I can’t argue with that. I don’t want to.
So, I quit. I quit trying to reason with people who didn’t want to. It wasn’t good for me and it wasn’t good for them.
I quit atheism.
And by that, I mean that atheism can no longer be a defining characteristic for me. It says absolutely nothing at all about who I am. But I don’t want to stop learning. Not having to be acquainted with people for whom I’m not a good “friend” fit, doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to the world. Just like not wanting to see pictures of suffering animals almost daily doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally read about, and make myself aware of, the situation.
I have come to realize that you don’t learn by arguing with people who don’t share your passion for reason and preciseness of language. You learn by talking with intelligent people, reading their books, reading articles and discussions, etc. So I didn’t give up learning. And I’m still an atheist. But from what I’ve seen of the atheism community (do I need to mention the feminism fiasco and atheism+? And they can’t even come to terms with the definition of atheism), I just don’t fit in there.
I don’t fit anywhere. I never have, and I guess I never will. There is no club, no political party, no group into which I would put myself. And I’m just not the type of person who doesn’t mind aligning herself with a group even if she doesn’t accept all of its values and views. To me, that would debase my own. I’m just not willing to sacrifice my viewpoint to any group, or mob, to belong.
So, I’ll just stop trying. I emailed the leader of that atheist group and declined to speak to them. I have no interest in atheism, anymore.
Now I’m just looking for awe, education, reason, logic, science, nature, art, literature, fun…cats and chocolate. I think those things will do me just fine.
If you want to find out why I’m still here, you’ll have to read the essay, “Confessions of an Exhibitionist,” also known as Chapter Seventeen in Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism.