One aspect of my deconversion story that stands out to many readers is that it didn’t feature certain accusations that atheists, especially freshly minted atheists, often receive. Partly, that’s because I was secretive about it for so many years, so the people who would have accused me of things simply didn’t know it was an option. More importantly, my culture, like some others, is entwined enough with its standard religion that it tends to forget that members of other religions, let alone of no religion, can be found in its ranks at all. The space filled by atheists in others’ imaginations is filled by communists here, or by sullen nihilistic teenagers whose non-religion is only ever implied, not stated.
So I’ve only rarely had to deal with that stereotyped idea that an atheist is an atheist because xe is “angry at God,” and that if I only quelled, grew out of, or found a “more productive” outlet for my anger, I’d return to the Christian fold. But I have nonetheless had that insulting supposition thrown at me more than once, and I want to silence it once and for all.
The dominant theme of my rejection of theism was not anger. I was about ten years old when I stopped believing in gods, and there was nothing for me to be angry about at that age. I was not beaten for disobeying religious edicts. I was not abused by religious leaders. I was not terrorized with threats of brimstone. I experienced no innate conflict between my gender or sexual identity and the Christianity I received. I grew up in a blue state, where the subversion of traditional gender roles was literally part of the elementary school curriculum, and was blissfully unaware of Christianity’s insistence on those roles until much later. The closest thing to a sense of injustice I felt at that age was confusion at the idea that sibling rivalry and less-than-immediate compliance with parental orders were so abhorrent that I supposedly needed to confess and repent of those sins before a priest to avoid hell. Even that was something that took up very little of my mind, because it completely fell out of every conversation after my First Confession, never to be mentioned again. The thoughts that undid my incipient cultural Catholicism were confusion, not anger.
But there they are, all the same: the people who hear that I’m an atheist and imagine that I merely fell out of my old religion and accidentally or spitefully landed on “nothing.” These people recognize that some folks get disgruntled with their old religions, and perhaps even became disillusioned with their own, and their response is to scour the globe (or at least their town) for a different sect that happens to match the things they liked and leave out the things they didn’t like. I say the word “atheist,” and they hear “someone who didn’t bother to consider other options.”
I wouldn’t be an American if I didn’t have a certain strange sort of respect for that mindset. There’s something distinctly American about spending a long time with a preacher who claims to be or represent the absolute authority of the cosmos, whose word is the law that undergirds all reality, deciding that that spiel doesn’t strike one’s fancy, and finding another spiel that does. These are people who, at their best, come to recognize their home denominations as bastions of bigoted evil and refuse to be part of their hate machine, using that most American tool, the boycott, to make their displeasure known. But even as I give these people a wry smile, I see the other side of their allegiance-shopping. America brings us a land of consumer religion, where Protestant and especially evangelical and charismatic sects pop up and disappear because of this or that minor schism and actively court new members based on their disappointment with the weird theology or hopeless nihilism of more established denominations. In this environment, people whose allegiance to their specific sect is more than cultural expect to have their own specific intuitions and prejudices catered to and set sail for more accommodating waters if they are challenged, rather than find the heart of the disagreement and address it. The whole exercise becomes one of soothing dissonance and taking in platitudes, rather than developing insight or gaining knowledge. This nonchalance becomes a slap in the face to those who, for cultural, geographical, or personal reasons, cannot so cavalierly shop around for someone to tell them what they already want to hear.
Such was my lot. My religious teachings were not consistent with my scientific ones, and when it dawned on me that that could be because my religious teachings were not consistent with reality, that was that. I did not shed my Catholicism over distinctively Catholic things like bland Communion wafers or rigid sacraments. I was not contorting my brain around Catholicism’s constant waffling between a monotheistic YHWH, a three-god team of YHWH, Jesus, and a “holy ghost,” and the rich pantheon of demigods it cribbed from quasi-historical heroes and pagan deities alike when I decided the whole thing was hogwash. I was not even trying to square the circle of religious prohibitions against idolatry or lust against Hispanic culture’s omnipresent saints and sexual verve. It was a process that, from beginning to end, was based on learning, knowledge, and building a picture of my world that helped me understand it. The things I firmly discarded that day in 1997 included textual authority being superior to scientific authority, the existence of intangible creatures like angels and fairies, and the plausibility of cosmic dimensions accessible only by dying or hallucinating. As my understanding grew, I added other gullible notions to the pile: vitalistic life-force, immortal souls, telepathy and other psychic powers, cosmic forces of balance and morality. My faith, if it could be called that, was in the adults in my life to not tell me things that weren’t true, intentionally or otherwise, and that is what gave that day.
I could have gotten angry then, at the idea that I had been deceived, but I didn’t. It was a joyous occasion, different from the other conclusions and tidbits I constantly picked up from people that weren’t my parents only in the degree to which it would later affect my place in this world. I got angry long after, at the equator-rounding list of human rights atrocities religions incited, encouraged, or failed to prevent and the crimes they continue to foment all over the world. My anger stems from knowing that it’s all for lies and falsehoods and how makes it all the more macabre and horrific. I abandoned religion because that list of things I rejected is religion’s stock in trade: every one of them has at least several of these things. “Anger” or “laziness” has nothing to do with it.