November 09, 2008

Coming Out

In case the new addition to the sidebar doesn't say it loudly enough, I'm an atheist.

This won't surprise anyone who knows me well, but this blog is here in part because few people know me well. It may not surprise regular readers of the blog. I do, after all, use rationality as a label for posts. It's utterly unlikely to surprise anyone I've argued with online. But I think it's still important to say, because a lot of people don't think they know any atheists, which leads directly to the kind of idiocy we saw in North Carolina.

What does this mean for you? Aside from having a face (or another face) to put to atheism that is hopefully prettier than Christopher Hitchens', not much--necessarily. Yes, if you're religious, I think some of the things you do and believe are irrational, but this is coming from someone who built a shrine for a jar of expired jelly (another story). Humans are irrational critters, and there's something deeply satisfying about being irrational sometimes.

So, Why Atheism?
Nobody comes to atheism because it's the popular choice. They come to it because none of the gods are any less silly or self-contradictory than the rest. They come to it because a non-arbitrary world is what they see when they open their eyes and look around them. They come to it because faith requires so many mental accommodations that it uses energy better spent on living. They come to it because every idiot they know (as opposed to just some of the smart people) is telling them to jump on the bandwagon.

Me? I was raised atheist, although it disturbed my mother somewhat when I told her so.

I was born to parents raised in a strict Methodist tradition. How strict? They got married because they wanted to have sex. No exaggeration. They had their big church wedding all planned and went through with it as scheduled, but they eloped a few weeks before because they were tired of waiting.

By the time I was born, they seem to have figured out that this was problematic (and thus, I may owe my existence to religion), because they decided to raise their kids outside any church and leave it up to us to choose once we grew up. I attended church services fewer than a dozen times as a child, mostly weddings and funerals, a couple of times after sleepovers with friends.

There were no prayers, no grace at meals. Christmas and Easter were strictly secular holidays (with the standard cartoony adopted pagan trappings). There was a bible in the house, but it had been a confirmation gift or something and lived in its gift box. It was never read.

So, Super-Rationalist Baby, Then?
Uh, no. The Christmas after I turned two, I was taken to see The Nutcracker ballet. I was mesmerized. (Christmas is still largely a mix of The Nutcracker and the Island of Misfit Toys for me.) This was followed by a long, late-night car trip to a destination coated and shiny with ice from a recent storm. I'm told that as I looked around me, I declared to my parents that I believed in magic.

Okay, I was two. Magic was probably a bit abstract for me to understand. I probably meant beauty. I conflated the two for a very long time, but I kept believing in them.

Oh, what didn't I believe in? I believed in faeries and mermaids, trolls and djinn. I believed in Norse and Greek and Egyptian and Japanese gods and in tricksters from just about any tradition. I believed in beasties under the bed. If it was in my books, I thought I might just find it in the real world if I turned the right corner or opened the right door or found the right place in the woods. That's how it worked in the books.

I believed longer than most children, I think, at least in those things. Even after I gave up believing in specifics, I had reasons to need to believe in a different world, and I didn't know yet that adulthood would be that world.

So, What Happened?
I stopped needing to believe so much some time in high school. I still can't tell you how I ended up changing, since my circumstances didn't, but I did. Blame it on hormones, maybe. I got happier, even amid all the drama, and I started living in this world.

I still thought it was cool that there was real weird stuff out there, like ghosts and glimmers of ESP. I'd never seen them, not really, but they were in books that weren't fiction. I looked forward to science figuring out how they worked. Oddly, though, even then I knew that I could make myself see them if I wanted to, just like the Ouija board could spell out something other than nonsense if I was half-willing to make it happen.

I went off to college around then, hung out at the pagan desk in the student center. With my dawning understanding of the role that desire played in belief, I was with the pagans but not of them. They were just a cool group of weirdos.

Then my favorite of the weirdos gave me Flim-Flam! as a present right around the time I was really getting into research design, and I realized that not all "nonfiction" is created equal. The whole experience rather shook up my standards for "proof."

So, Then You Were an Atheist?
Nah. I considered myself a militant agnostic for a long time--when I thought about it at all. Being raised without religion, my beliefs on the subject didn't seem terribly important. They still don't, really, except when someone else's views intersect with my life. But over time, I came to realize that I wasn't exactly agnostic, either.

I call myself a practical atheist. I don't believe we can prove there is nothing that we would ever call a god. However, every attempt at defining a god I've seen is either disproved or of no general human relevance or consequence whatsoever. On that, I am not agnostic. I'm not ignorant, either, as I spent a good chunk of my life reading all the world mythology I could get my hands on.

Nor am I agnostic on the question of whether religion should have any influence on important decisions. The ideas and philosophy of any religion must stand on their own, without the shield of religion, or they must be ignored in public life. The only weight that religion should be given is its cultural weight, and that only with all possible consideration for the question of privileging the culture of the majority. There is some use in recognizing that many of us want Christmas off from work because of family rituals that have sprung up around it but none in assuming everyone has these same family rituals.

It's the question of privilege, really, that's making me join the Out Campaign. It's too easy to denigrate and mistreat people based on their minority status when no one knows who they are. If you read my blog, you know me, at least a bit. So now you know an(other) atheist.


Patrick said...

Beautiful. I want to steal nearly every word of this (replace Methodist with Mormon, etc.), call it my own, and send it to everyone I know.

To be clear, I won't do that, but I will link to it. :)

The things you just said are precisely what so many people in my life, indeed in the lives of most atheists, need to hear. Those of us who are without religion and care how we are seen in the eyes of our theist friends and family need to do a better job of speaking out and making ourselves known.


Anonymous said...

Safety in numbers. Some of us can come out, but others can't for whatever reason. I didn't surprise anybody when I came out, and it didn't affect my career nor my friendships. But if you come out, I come out, greehishblue comes out, the people who can't come out don't have to feel so alone or isolated.

Thanks for adding that to the sidebar!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, folks. I really don't expect to write about this much, but I thought it was important to make a clear statement once. As I said, it just isn't that relevant to my life until someone else's beliefs start bumping up against it.

Dr. A said...

Well said. My favorite thing about your blog is that you write insightful, well-articulated posts about important issues. Please keep doing so, you keep my afternoon tea breaks interesting :)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thank you, Dr. A. That means a lot.

I'm a little worried if you're just getting to afternoon tea, though....

Dr. A said...

Yes, I am on a really shitty schedule. I have a meeting coming up so I need to get through 200 samples as quickly as possible (meaning really late nights). And it was AFTER noon. So that makes it an afternoon tea.

JLK said...

Hi Stephanie!

Consider me to be out also. My story is in a lot of ways the opposite of yours, though. Born into a Catholic family, church every sunday for my entire childhood, Catholic school from K-12th grade. I actually think that my Catholic schooling is what brought me to Atheism - not in a rebellious, reactant way, but because I was taught religion extensively and forced to read the bible and talk about it, I came to see contradictions that I might not have known about otherwise.
I was fortunate to have gone to Catholic schools where free exchange of ideas and opinions was valued substantially over blind acceptance. Teachers were excited when a student said "But that makes no sense." We also studied world religions in high school, which is what helped me realize that there was so much more out there than what I had experienced.
I did the Pagan thing, too. In college. Considered myself Wiccan for a time, because I liked the idea that I could control the things that happened in my life through sheer force of will and maybe some rightly-colored candles. Gave this up after joining a "coven" led by a woman I admired that made me realize that even something as beautiful as the idea of Paganism could be ruined by hierarchy and tradition. Not to mention that none of my spells ever worked.
Whatever it was I was looking for, I never found. So I stopped looking and realized that the search had been doing nothing but wasting my time. I still enjoy reading tarot cards for myself and friends (always for free). As a social scientist in-training, I am fascinated by how something like a tarot card can give us insight into what's going on - not through any divine intervention, but because of the sub/unsconscious expectations we have about things in our lives that become clear when we focus on them. I think of them as my Rorschach test, but the inkblots have been replaced by images from Arthurian legend and Greek mythology.
In any event, beautiful posting and thank you for sharing. :)

Lou FCD said...

shocked. shocked i tell you.


Lou FCD said...

Oh, and welcome out.

Alabastah said...

Wow. I think I'm gonna go home to my mother's house and check for hidden cameras. Clearly you have had my life under surveillance for some time now. Either that or we are actually the same person....

You might simply be from a different timeline, as my father was Anglican and my mother a self confessed "Aging Hippy", but everything else....freaky.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thank you, Lou.

JLK and Alabastah, we're apparently more common than we think (note Greenishblue too). I'm guessing there isn't as much catharsis in telling our kinds of stories as there is in deconversion stories, so we just don't see them as often. Nice to hear I'm not alone, though. Thanks.