On the 22nd day, I’m grateful for my friends who are atheists.
Growing up, I never knew any atheists. Literally everyone in my world was a low-church protestant. Well, the rich people we knew went to the Episcopalian church 10 miles away in the county seat, but the rest of us were Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian. Actually, most of us were Baptist or Methodist – the Presbyterian church in my hometown has had like 20 members as long as I can remember.
For none of us to actually know any atheists, we sure talked about them a lot. I went to a private, “Christian” school until the end of fourth grade. We were told that the kids who went to the public schools had parents who were probably atheists, and we prayed for them all because they weren’t allowed to pray in school. Also, the teachers were all probably atheists too because otherwise, they would teach at a Christian school.
In fact, in the 5th grade at my new, public school, I had spelling class after recess. My first day of class, I was put on the front row, up by the teacher, who had a Bible on her desk (which I later learned she liked to read during recess). I remember being afraid for her that she might get fired if the Principal learned she was a Christian. (As ridiculous as that was, I am, however, inordinately proud that 10-year-old me was worried for her, and took sides instinctively with the person I saw as being the victim in the scenario).
In Boot Camp, we were allowed to have 2 hours on Sunday morning for religious observation, and they split us into Catholic, Protestant, and Other. The Catholic and Protestant folks got to go to their respective chapel services, away from the Drill Instructors. Others were allowed to stay in the barracks (where the Drill Instructors also were). By the third week, everyone was either Catholic or Protestant.
I had, of course, read books about atheists, but that’s still very different than knowing one. Even as I came to know people in other faith traditions, belief in a higher power was still assumed.
I really don’t remember my first atheist friend. I do know that by the early 2000’s when I was living in Midtown Memphis, I knew lots of them. I had fallen into an arty crowd, and so I knew poets who felt what I felt in churches in the pages of a notebook, hikers who saw transcendence in nature, and scientists who saw it all as somewhat mechanistic. Instead of being a Christian surrounded by other Christians, I became a lot of people’s “Christian Friend”.
But when I began to do “ministry” work in North Carolina was when I really began to be influenced and shaped by them. Part of this was I had slipped away from the evangelicalism of my youth and embraced a far more universalistic idea of God, and if I no longer believed God would damn them to Hell, then there was no need to try to convince them I was right and they were wrong.
It’s amazing how much easier it is to have an honest relationship with people when you are not trying to get them to believe something they find impossible to believe.
I had many humanists and atheists volunteer with us over the years I did homelessness work. Because we refused to allow folks to preach to the people we shared food with, they fit right in. We didn’t want to convert anyone, and neither did they.
In fact, we came to look forward to working with atheist and humanist groups rather than Christian ones. Because they were there primarily out of altruism rather than their desire to convert folks, it made them much easier to deal with, and they instinctively got our desire to focus on promoting dignity and worth.
There was once an article about us in the paper, and the reporter, a Jewish woman, made a lot out of how we did not proselytize, nor allow our volunteers to do so, and that we had atheist volunteers. I got a couple of concerned emails from self-professed Christians that had never shown up to volunteer with us, not had they ever donated any money to the ministry I ran, yet it bothered them that atheists were “getting credit” for doing “God’s work”.
I wrote back and told them God would use whoever showed up to accomplish God’s plan of feeding hungry folks, and if the Christians stayed home, I’m sure God could use the atheists. I never got a reply to any of those emails.
The biggest thing I learned from my atheists and humanist friends, though, was responsibility. What if you couldn’t count on God to save you? What if there was no belief that God would fix this broken world in the next one? What if this was the only shot you got to relieve suffering, if the only way the hungry would be fed is if you did it, if the only way injustice was fixed was if you worked for it? What if the only chance at immortality you had was the way your memory lives on in the hearts of those you leave behind, if all the afterlife you could be assured of was the way they told your story after you were gone?
If all that was true, then it would matter how you live now. You are responsible. Your faith lies not in some “pie in the sky, it will be better when I die” future, but in your ability to work for change now, your ability to build community now, your ability to look reality dead in the face and keep going now, despite how hard it is, and knowing that any comfort you find will be in the community that surrounds you, your family that loves you, and whatever change your life and example bring about.
I pray that I may one day be strong enough to have the sort of faith that my atheist friends have.