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What Atheism Means to Me: Part 1

Submitted by Ken Watts on Sat, 03/14/2009 - 12:36

SOME TIME AGO, when I first put a scarlet A from the Out Campaign on my site, I also posted a brief explanation of what I meant by it, at the time.

Since then I've had to reconsider—not so much to change my views as to sharpen them. But I do see things a bit differently now.

Partly, this is a result of conversations with Christian friends. Most of the Christians I know are relatively liberal, and very intelligent. I'd like to think the two go together, but, unfortunately, I know some intelligent conservatives as well. The world doesn't always satisfy our deepest cravings.

In these conversations, I get asked an interesting question. It would be meaningless to anyone who hadn't, at one point in their life, been a very, very, serious Christian. But I was, and so I understand it.

After learning that I am no longer religious, or that I now self-identify as an atheist, they ask me about "my relationship with God".

The question doesn't bother me. (Well, not in any cosmic sense. It usually causes me a bit of discomfort in a social sense.) What does bother me—in the sense that it has made me think about exactly what I mean by "Atheist"—is my answer.

Because, in the moment, I do know exactly what they mean, and I have no trouble reassuring them that my relationship with god is better than ever.

An odd thing for an atheist to say? An even odder thing for an atheist to believe?


Regular readers blessed with sharp eyes may have already noticed a hint of the explanation. The word "god" in my response is not capitalized.

That doesn't mean I don't consider it important—quite the opposite.

I've made something of a point in these pages of distinguishing between Capital letter terms and small letter terms: between "Truth" and "truth", "Patriotism" and "patriotism", "Belief" and "belief", "Morality" and "morality".

The basic difference, in each case, is the difference between Orthodoxy and reality.

Not that Orthodoxy absolutely excludes reality. It's an impediment, not a complete barrier.

In fact, the experience of having a real (small-"r") sense of welcome and open connection with myself, my world, and the—excuse the theological expression—ground of my being is what I experienced as my "relationship with God" when I was in my friends' place.

I wouldn't have put it that way, then. I had different models, a different vocabulary. But that is how I would describe it now. And that sense has only gotten deeper.

In fact, I wonder, sometimes, if it is possible to fully enjoy that experience without a little Orthodoxy.

Note to my atheist friends: if the last sentence bothered you because it sounded vaguely heretical from an atheist point of view, you qualify.

But let me rush on to reassure you. I don't mean that atheists don't experience this connection. I think the connection is inborn, and the normal state of affairs, in all of us.

What I do mean is that it may be harder to notice if you've never had enough Orthodoxy around to disconnect you from it—to make you feel separated and out of touch with yourself, your world, the ground of your being. (And I might add that not all Orthodoxy is religious.)

If you've never experienced that disconnect you may be too much like a fish in water. You may not notice the connection, even though you have it.

That brings me back to the sophomoric title of this series: "What Atheism Means to Me".

To be continued...