Who am I to talk about this stuff?
What does a lifelong atheist have to offer when many of the key problems we as a secular community face (antagonism, discrimination, psychological scars from childhood indoctrination, etc) are completely alien to me? This post is partly a bit of fretting about my relevance as a blogger, and partly an exploration of what I might have to constructively offer. It begins with a brief summary of my life so far …
I grew up in rural Alberta, one of the more socially and politically conservative regions of Canada. (The ruling party in Alberta’s legislature for the past 42 years has been the Conservative party.) I was extremely lucky. My parents are both much less tradition-bound than the general population. My mother grew up on a farm in England; they met when my dad (a farmer) was on exchange working for her dad. It’s all very romantic. More than that, I’ve always imagined it gives them a slightly wider view of the world than many rural Albertans. Some of whom have never been outside the province, let alone the country.
Anyway, I never had religion pushed on me as a kid. My grandparents were all religious – we would go to the local Anglican church on Christmas Eve every year. We did Christmas, but it was only ever for me a family-gathering, gift-sharing, feasting holiday. Religion’s only hold on it was that relatively indoctrination-free church service. Same for Easter – a secular holiday involving chocolate eggs, a fun bunny myth, and a family gathering. I have even less memory of token church attendance for Easter than for Christmas.
So I grew up without any religious belief. I had friends in school who were religious – mainstream Christians and one or two Mormons – but it was never a point of conflict. Just one of those things. I had a really tall father and a mom who was from England; my friend I.S. was Mormon; S.M. was really good at running; and so on. That sort of thing.
It’s not that I was sheltered from it. I had (perhaps my parents still have) a “Children’s Story Bible”, which I read from once in a while.
I do remember wondering a little about it – this thing that was part of other people’s lives but not mine. But what did religion offer that I really lacked? My parents were very clear about social and ethical precepts – we knew right from wrong, so obviously that didn’t depend on religion (or any sort of deep philosophy). Our extended family and the local community were very supportive and close-knit, so the community-building function of religion wasn’t needed. The story-making role of religion, giving us a sense of where we fit in things, was a no-go: I had way better facts, from being a science nerd, and more enjoyable myths, from consuming science-fiction.
(Not that I believed the sci-fi myths to be true, of course. Just that they were more engaging stories than anything of the religious stories that filtered through to me. Literature, even when one doesn’t believe the stories literally, is a great source of narratives to use for wrapping meaning around the events in our lives.)
I did go through a phase in my early university career where I actively explored religion. Partly, I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. Although I hadn’t been actively shielded from religious information, neither had I been taught the details as kids from more religious households had been. (Deena still laughs at my ignorance about some passages; I’m still amazed at her capacity to cite scripture, even if it’s largely confined to the headline verses such as John 3:16.) Partly, my exploration was driven by the same curiosity that made me a scientist: “Here’s a popular hypothesis, maybe I should examine it and see if it has some merit.”
I spent a little time identifying as a neopagan. They have some fun symbols, neat rituals, and a generally non-dogmatic approach to what you have to actually *believe* about the whole affair. It was also titillatingly controversial, at least if you read the conservative Christians’ tirades. Admit it: there’s something exciting about being a persecuted minority.
But basically, my background is a very vanilla secular-living-well story with no conversions or de-conversions, no ostracism or recognizable oppression of any kind, no religion-based trauma or excitement. Not even any great teen rebellion.
And here I am, a self-identified humanist, skeptic, and atheist. And it often feels like the people who share these labels – especially the last one – seem overwhelmingly to have come from religious backgrounds. Former-Baptist (eg, Matt Dillahunty). Former-Pentecostal (eg, Jerry DeWitt). Former-Muslim (eg, Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Former-Jain (eg, Hemant Mehta). Former-Something. People have been harassed, parents have kicked kids out of their homes, people live under death threats, while others are outright killed. All perpetrated by religious people against atheists. Even Richard Dawkins has a story about molestation by a religious figure (though he seems to have suffered more from reactions to how he told the story than from the event itself). There are whole communities dedicated to those who are struggling with their newfound atheism: the Living After Faith blog and podcast, Recovering From Religion, the Clergy Project, and probably loads others that I haven’t even heard of because that’s not my story. (If you know of any, please feel free to list them in the comments.)
Shifts in religious identity among Americans
By the numbers, the vast majority of atheists in the US come from religious backgrounds. This report seems to support my hunch that, for the UK, the trend is less pronounced, though it looks like a slight majority of current “no-religion” folks still claim some childhood religious identity. (I want to note I was unable to follow through to the original report for the UK link, so I’m interpreting a flashy graphic rather than hard survey numbers.) I suspect that Canadian numbers, if they’re out there, fall somewhere between these two cultural neighbours of ours.
Shifts in religious identity among the British
So, having said all that, am I the (metaphorical) white guy lecturing on feminism for minorities? Do I have anything relevant to offer the people in this community, that isn’t already being better provided by someone with more relevant experience?
It’s a question worth asking, and I hope I will always ask it before I condescend to put finger to keyboard. (Linguist’s side-note: Is “put finger to keyboard” an acceptable re-tooling of the old “put pen to paper” idiom? You know what I mean, anyway.) I think there are a couple of answers that can justify this admittedly self-indulgent blogging habit.
First, there are still a few (increasingly many) people like me out there: people who come to humanism/skepticism/atheism not as a reaction to a former state of theirs, but as a recognition of what they have always felt/believed/etc. So, within the wider tent, there is a large contingent of “people who are especially like me”. And perhaps my musings and reflections will seem particularly relevant to them.
Second, for people who continue to work through the fallout of their former beliefs, my story (and the stories of those like me) may be encouraging. This is the end-game that they are working toward: so their children, and future generations, can live lives that are casually and uneventfully religion-free. Lives unscarred by childhood belief in eternal torture, or untenable “moral” commandments.
Third (and most importantly), there is more that unites us than divides us. Whether you come to the humanist community from a nonreligious background or from a lifetime of fervent religious belief, you and I will tend to share values and goals. We want a public space that is free from religious coercion. We want a society that upholds basic secular values (individual rights and liberties, science as a beacon of understanding, etc). We want to promote quality education, discourage bigotry, and enjoy artistic creations that lift the spirit and inspire greatness.
Alright then. My angst is largely assuaged. The fact that I’ve never been a believer doesn’t disqualify me from being able to contribute useful ideas to our community.
Let me know what you think. Are you a formerly-religious person, now identifying as humanist or atheist? Are you a lifelong atheist? What do you think about the content of this blog? Does the material here seem relevant to you? How do you see yourself fitting into the freethinking community in general? What issues are important to you?
Is there anything I haven’t talked about that you would like to read from someone in my position?