Why I am an atheist – The Heretic Next Door

I grew up in a Catholic household and attended parochial schools from kindergarten until high school graduation. I took communion weekly but never truly swallowed what the sacrement was intended to be: the conversion of a strange round wafer into the body of Jesus. I told myself I believed it, and I said, “Amen,” when it was my turn in the communion line. I knew what the right answer was–and by golly, I wanted that “A.”

At around age eight, the tapestry started to unravel. After learning of the existence of different belief systems around the world, it occurred to me that one line in the profession of faith we recited was obnoxious, arrogant, and unfair to non-Catholics: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” I stopped saying it as a form of silent protest.

I quit going to mass once I went to college. I dabbled with various denominations after I married an Episcopalian, especially after we moved to a small southern town and had kids. Not only did it provide a comfortable community, it seemed like what we should be doing, particularly for our sons. My attendance was sporadic at best, and ceased altogether when we moved to a small college town in southwest Virginia, though my family continues to attend a church.

When my oldest was 12 or so, I was holding forth to him on my thoughts about religion. It started with my disdain for organized religions, the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of many religious people, yet a concession that many others–people we know–are good and derive profound benefits from religious faith. I explained that in high school, I learned that “religion” is defined as “answers to the questions of the mysteries of life,” then held forth on the mythologies that peoples of various cultures have developed over the millennia to explain how and why we are here. Given the numbers, the variety and the lack of accord, I just doubted that any one was correct. And given the advances in scientific understanding of matters that address many of these questions, I didn’t really have much use for religion after all.

He asked, “So are you an atheist?” I said I didn’t think so, but would get back to him. Despite my indoctrinated aversion to that label, I felt I owed him and his younger brother an honest evaluation and answer.

I began reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, and on a weekend home alone, watched Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, which moved me to tears of relief. It was as though I could finally let go of the last gossamer thread of the falsehood. Finally, I’d found ideas, thoughts, concepts and a worldview that accorded with my own, that rang effortlessly true with an unmistakable clarity.

At long last, I recognize that we must write our own test of truth; it is our responsibility to find honest answers for ourselves. As for me, I believe that there are no gods. I am an atheist. I’ve earned this “A.”

The Heretic Next Door


  1. lobotomy says

    Well done!

    >Despite my indoctrinated aversion to that label, I felt I owed him and his younger brother an honest evaluation and answer.

    And thanks for taking your kid’s questions seriously.

  2. Subtract Hominem says

    A moving and relatable tale, beautifully written. I commend you for not continuing to live in denial, and for following up on your son’s question rather than brushing it off with a handwave like so many parents do when they don’t know the answers to the questions their children ask. Your boys are lucky to have a parent like you.

  3. drummer25 says

    Thanks for your story. Just interested to know if your kids are now atheists? My stepson’s father is a theist so I was always careful. But the boy thought it through by himself and eventually, when his father was pressing him to be confirmed, he asked me directly if I was an atheist (he must have suspected anyway). His huge relief when I confirmed that I was, was tangible. He then had the confidence to be straight with his father. My stepson and I were were already close but this brought us closer.

  4. Francisco Bacopa says

    Interesting that a 12 year old could understand that the author was an atheist before the author did. And I mean no disrespect by that.

  5. abb3w says

    For what it’s worth, the line “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” is mostly just “unfair” to non-Christians. As I understand, it means one baptism is all that’s needed; any baptism. If you’ve had your “one baptism”, in any sect of Christianity, you’ve got THAT checkbox taken care of for all eternity, and don’t need to do it again. In fact, under canon law, in exigent necessity “any person with the right intention” may be the baptizer — potentially even a non-Christian. Which is actually pretty inclusive.

    Not that this makes a great difference to the Atheism at the end. However, such theological fine points may remain of some marginal morbid interest to some atheists, especially those who find it amusing to know more about Church doctrine than nominally believing Church members. (It’s no more silly than discussing the differences in Jedi combat forms….)

  6. hereticnextdoor says

    Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. drummer25, my boys both claim to be Christian–which they may sincerely be, or believe themselves to be–and I’m not interested in changing that. I trust that they will find and hold their own truths as they proceed through life. I only hope that they are open to a frank, critical evaluation of what they experience, without allowing the expectations of others (including me) to color their judgment.