Because I am an atheist: Scotlyn

Today’s contribution comes from Scotlyn via email

Because I am an atheist…

…I enjoy a private life.

I was prompted to reflect on the singular importance of this when an evangelical relative posted the following:

“No single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ ” – Kuyper

(PS – I don’t know who Kuyper is, this is the only attribution that was given in the post).

I can’t tell you how much that quote, and the concepts embodied within it, fills me with utter revulsion.  How can anyone live authentically, truly, bravely, when their very thoughts are not, cannot be, their own?

I grew up as the daughter of evangelical missionaries, and going to college was a catalyst, for me, to assess my faith, and find it wanting.  This process was lengthy, taking place over a number of years, but I remember with extreme clarity a moment when I realised how lacking my childhood had been in mental privacy.  I was on a visit home (age approx 25) and met a family acquaintance who was unfamiliar with the then painful process of my communicating my doubts and workings and my eventual departure from their faith with my family.

This person casually enquired, “so how is your walk with Jesus.”  And several realisations hit me with sudden force:

  1. I didn’t feel this person I barely knew was entitled to such personal information and I was not inclined to provide it
  2. that the sense of entitlement (to other people’s private thoughts and emotions) this person displayed was shared by every evangelical person I had every known.  (Strangely, I had NEVER noticed this before!).
  3. that there is something a bit perverse about such entitlement, as if Christians (who emphasised modesty in dress), were happy to insist on their fellow brethren walking around spiritually and mentally naked in front of one another, with no area of personal life considered too private to share with fellow Christians “as with Christ”.

I realised how essential this groupthink and mutual thought supervision/censorship process could be for keeping people trapped within their communities of faith, for keeping them always just that bit off balance, and unsure when they might be caught out or in the wrong (greatly reinforcing the belief in the fallenness and sinfulness of humanity).

I also realised that my simple refusal to play along amounted to a discovery that my own mind is my very own.  (A discovery withheld from me until age 25 – imagine!)

That I owe nothing and no one access to any of my own mind other than at a time of my choosing was an exhilarating thought.  Strangely, at that point I had not yet arrived completely at atheism, nevertheless, I realised that the power of the IDEA of God inhabiting your heart and mind and watching everything you think and feel was mainly derived from the reinforcing ACTIONS of fellow Christians, and that my small act of resistance set me permanently free from its power.

This process certainly contributed, among other things, to a greater relaxation and openness to experimentation and to the pure enjoyment of my life, my sexuality, my friendships, my reading, and my thinking, having pretty much demolished all the “forbidden” signposts within my own mind.  I probably acknowledged my atheism within a year of that moment.

So, I now enjoy, cherish, and appreciate the privacy of my own mind, because I’m an Atheist.

As a Christian I never could do so. And that is a help in understanding how little respect Christians have for the privacy of others.  How could they, when they have no idea how to value their own privacy, having no corner of their mind forbidden either to the putative inquisitiveness of their god, or to the real inquisitiveness of their fellows in faith? Having no corner of their mind to call their own?

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  1. baal says

    I really like this post, thanks Scotlyn.

    I don’t fear the thoughts that are in my head and have to remember, from time to time, that others really do have the giant forbidden signs. I usually notice it as them swerving around certain (person specific) topics that are otherwise reasonable for discussion (often diet or sex related).

  2. says

    About 10 years ago I ran into a friend from fundy days, whom I hadn’t seen in some years, and sure enough he asked me, “How’s your spiritual life”. My reply: “Heh. It isn’t.” The ensuing conversation made me realize that, no, I wasn’t agnostic either: I was a full-blown atheist goddammit, and was quite comfortable with that fact.

  3. scotlyn says

    machineintelligence, thanks for the poem, and for finding Kuyper for me.

    Baal – you are fortunate indeed. I’m looking forward to reading Darry Ray’s book on religious use of sexual thought control as a recruitment tool. I’d certainly liked to have had more “years of no mental forbidden signposts” in my youth.

    Eamon Knight – the sense of ownership believers have in relation to one another’s minds and hearts is astounding, when you consider the alternative…when you realise there IS an alternative…

  4. says

    Never having had religion myself, it often fascinates me to read about former theists’ experiences. The closed circle of the group that regulates each individual’s mind has a very disturbing feel to me.

    Thanks for sharing, scotlyn.

  5. leni says

    I was never terribly religious either, but what a disturbing idea. My thoughts are a place of solace and, well, less often of horror. Some things i just do not share and it’s very difficult for me to imagine not having that retreat.

    What an absolute nightmare. I’m glad you are free of it 🙂

  6. Ysanne says

    Hm. Maybe I’m just a horribly intrusive person with no sense of boundaries or privacy, but where’s the problem in discussing all of one’s thoughts?
    Of course, everyone is totally entitled to refuse to discuss their views/ideas/feelings about whatever, but as someone who was raised without belief, and encouraged to think everything through freely (and discuss it to check my reasoning) without putting up mental “forbidden” signs, I just don’t understand why someone would feeel uncomfortable with sharing their thoughts.
    (I mean uncomfortable for themselves, and not situations where “You’d be offended by my answer, are you sure you want to discuss this?” is an appropriate warning.)
    Can somebody please explain?

  7. smrnda says

    In college I encountered Christians from one of the many Christian organizations. Luckily I was smart enough not to disclose much about myself personally – I thought it was so bizarre how people would willingly say so many personal things and then put up with criticism. Plus, any reluctance to do so is seen as pride, as if there wasn’t some legitimate need for privacy.

    I think that it also cuts a wedge between married couples and men and women. You segregate by gender, then you teach the women to feel ashamed of their sexuality and to confess it to their all female accountability group, you teach the men to do the same thing, and then the relationships are an inauthentic performance where each party is trying to live up to an ideal someone else built for the other person.

  8. says

    If sharing all your thoughts is something you’ve chosen to do, that’s fine. If someone else decided for you that you must share all your thoughts, that’s… not so fine.
    Basically, it’s a question of autonomy. Or the lack thereof.

  9. scotlyn says

    Hi Ysanne,
    I still haven’t stopped being an utterly nosy person or welcoming nosy people into my life, in lots of cases. 😉

    But nowadays, I mostly encounter people who are interested in what might be happening with me, without feeling entitled to be told everything, people who will give thoughtful feedback, but are not judgmental. This kind of sharing which stays on the terms of the sharer, and which is not taking place in the context of judgment, is hugely different to what I was describing.

    Firstly, the background to this “entitled thought-sharing” as I experienced it, is the idea of the basic sinfulness and fallenness of humanity, and the fact that it is RIGHT for god to judge us. Then there is also god’s ability to judge us by being omnipresent and aware of our every inner thought.

    But (as I think now), humans – especially children, are not naturally prone to feel dirty and sinful, so this must be encouraged early, for example, by turning something we are all naturally curious about and that we will all, by and large, incorporate into our lives at some stage – sex – into something that is wrong even to think about or to feel about. We are made to see how evil we are when we cannot resist our own bodies’ natural and biologically powerful response to sexual thoughts and to the sexual attraction of others.

    And Christians reinforce the supposed omnibusybodiness of God with their own entitled intrusiveness into your “spiritual life,” while also reinforcing your necessary awareness of your own sinfulness while concerntrollingly “listening” to what you tell them.

  10. scotlyn says

    There’s also the fact that if you believe God already knows all your thoughts and has already judged them and found them wanting, there is no reason not to share the full extent of your sinfulness and debasement with other Christians – and just get it over with!

  11. scotlyn says

    Smrnda – excellent points about the interference factor. This process alienates everyone from any possibility of being authentic either within your own mind (which you fill with “don’t go there” signs for self-protection) or within relationships (which you fill with “don’t go there” signs for the partner, both to protect them and yourself.)

  12. machintelligence says

    Language was invented to conceal our thoughts from others. In order to get what you want, it is frequently necessary to instill doubt in others minds. For instance, when you are haggling with an antique shop owner over the price of a lamp, you don’t want her to know how much you want it. (Thanks to Dan Dennett)

  13. scotlyn says

    Yes! And you certainly don’t want her to find out what happened when you accidentally on purpose gave the lamp a rub when her back was turned….

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