I stopped going to church when I was eleven or twelve. I didn’t leave in anger or despair. I didn’t leave in a huff. Religion had simply stopped making sense to me.
The reasons are pretty common, I’m sure. I had come to see churches as human institutions primarily concerned with perpetuating themselves. The doctrines of salvation or damnation due to accident of birth seemed fundamentally cruel and capricious. I couldn’t understand why an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being was so infantile that it would demand my worship. None of it seemed moral, by any moral standard that I had been taught or understood.
Beyond that, it seemed to me that being moral was important, and that if morality was important, being moral because it was the right thing–rather than out of fear of eternal punishment–was important. The eternal punishments and rewards of Christianity–and I knew no other religion–devalued morality, rather than encouraging it. Instead of making morality the center of a good life, it reduced it to a life of brown-nosing, a way of tricking “Dad” into giving me the keys to the car, when deep inside, I would know I didn’t deserve them.
Religion (and God) became irrelevant. I didn’t so much disbelieve as stop caring. I considered supernaturality as supernatural and therefore beyond knowing. I called myself an agnostic, not because I wrestled with the existence of God, but because I didn’t care about it. I didn’t believe in God, but neither did I believe in the non-existence of God.
While that position hasn’t changed, I now call myself an atheist, recognizing that I don’t believe in God, and that atheism describes that position better than agnostic.
So, why am I not open about it? I face no individual social sanction not to proclaim my beliefs. There are no clubs *I* wish to join that would exclude me for atheism. I live in a community where acknowledgement of atheism wouldn’t affect me, personally. Churches are peripheral here, not central.
My son, however, had some brain damage at birth. He is a wonderful kid. His disabilities are not extreme, but they are present and noticeable. As a result, he is socially isolated. Secular organizations have failed completely in addressing the social needs of our sons. The organizations that have accepted him, where the kids have welcomed him and helped him be part of the group have all had religious elements. I feel a responsibility to participate in those organizations, to recognize the value their acceptance provides for kids like my son. That’s part of my own, personal morality.
Some of those organizations–Boy Scouts, in particular–do not allow atheists to participate.
I would prefer, of course, to find organizations that accept without the strains of religiosity, but I’m not in a position to make that choice. When we find something that works for us, a group where he’s accepted, we have to stick with it. I have to give back to the organizations that support those groups, even if they’re flawed.
Perhaps it would have been possible to find non-religious organizations that were accepting and supportive. We found the ones we found. I might have looked harder in the atheist community if not for its intellectual snobbery, if not for its habit of mocking those who write confused letters and e-mails.
Within the adult atheist community I see wit and intellectual consistency. I see vigorous and rigorous argument. I see courage and conviction. What I don’t see much of, is kindness. Maybe when the movement gets past the sexism and classism debates, when it’s carved out enough social space that it doesn’t feel the need to constantly be on the attack, there will be room for more of it.