Recently, I had a few troubling experiences with locals regarding my atheism. The anger and rage displayed on the faces of those around me in those moments had the stunning effect of a taser. The experience was emotionally jarring, and in Trump’s America, the hostile anger and revulsion at my lack of belief were somewhat frightening. On one of these occasions, out of the blue, one of them demanded, “Do you or do you not believe in God?” Now, not two seconds prior, I observed these fine Christians making repeated racial slurs and jokes while laughing. In an instant, these racist Trump supporters, bathed in the light of the Lord, holy and perfect in their religious conviction, possessing morals superior to my own, became enraged. Had their lunch break been longer, I may have been exorcized on the spot. For me, the thought that at any moment one of these Christians could turn violent left me paralyzed and uncharacteristically silent. The last thing I wanted to do in this situation was to provoke the anger Trump stoked in his evangelical supporters, and these particular people are devout Trump supporters. A witness of the events which transpired over several days said that it likely wasn’t my atheism that had fueled the rage of these locals but rather my Jewish heritage combined with my atheism and liberal leanings. Plus, I’m an outsider, she pointed out. Who knows? Now, my experience in this town is in no way comparable to the threat faced by those living in countries where a lack of belief in a deity or failure to adhere to a specific religion can lead to capital punishment. No, I have not experienced anything like that, and my heart aches for those who must hide their atheism for fear of death. Still, my experience scared me given America’s current political climate.
After becoming an atheist, it always amazed me how a person’s right to a lack of belief wasn’t recognized by the average Christian. In my practicing days, learning that someone didn’t believe in God or that someone wasn’t part of my brand of Christianity didn’t make me angry. I recognized their right to their lack of belief whether I agreed or not. For me, the random encounters I had with atheists left me intrigued. The feeling was a mild reaction of surprise and amusement like one might have toward someone who makes eccentric fashion choices, an admiration at their ability to have no fear of judgment. I didn’t care about the lack of belief part so much. I found their complete lack of fear of being eternally deep-fried tantalizing. I envied their free mindset and wished it was mine.
I think it’s common for many Christians to respond with unrealistic anger when met with challenges to their beliefs. I understand why they respond in this manner. I get the superiority and the privilege. I understand that I’m better than you mentality. I can sympathize with their need for an afterlife. I can empathize with the fearfulness they feel. Religious discussions online between atheists and theists don’t generally result in either party fearing for their personal safety, though I’ve seen many theists make death threats to atheists in online forums and have, on occasion, received threats from theists myself. I’ve not had many personal encounters with theists in real life that ended with me being fearful for my personal safety but lately, I feel uneasy when in the company of far-right Christians.
After my last encounter with hostile locals I felt defeated. Why hadn’t I stood up for myself? Is it prudent to stand up for yourself in shituations like these or, in Trumerica, is de-escalation and hasty departure the best protocol? I felt I did the right thing by not responding to the hostility, but as the days progressed, it became increasingly difficult to remain quiet during harassment from theists. These experiences left me angry and confused. Why had I let them get to me?
It seemed as though many of my friends and followers could feel my descent into despair and fear. I received an outpouring of messages from contacts who had no idea the sort of week I had experienced but felt this was a good time to reach out to me with reminders to stay strong. Their messages were perfectly timed, empowering, and exactly what I needed.
During this time, I spoke with fellow atheist, Ricky Chua, and we began to reminisce the loss of our theism and the emotions following our awakenings. I recalled that initial transitional period of anger and tears, which for me, lasted exactly three days. Ironic, that. The idea that for centuries the oppressive and abusive nature of religion had wreaked violent havoc on innocent people, that I was one of these people, and that the leaders of these religious organizations KNEW what they were doing and didn’t give a fuck so long as they maintained power and profits, angered me. After this period of anger and grief passed, something beautiful happened. My mind opened and the veil of ignorance shattered, and not just for religion but for many ideologies. It was this euphoric spiral of enlightened conscious awakening.
Ricky described this awakening as an unexplainable rhapsody of chains being severed. He said, “That feeling cannot be anticipated. It just happens. The relief is overwhelming. Damn. I have goosebumps talking about it. It’s like a surge of power. No one to cringe to. No reason for guilt. Like pieces of a puzzle falling into place.”
That newfound freedom is so delicious. I told Ricky then that I needed this reminder after my encounter with hostile Christians. To be clear, I could never go back to religion. You can’t reverse enlightenment. Those chains for me are forever severed. However, there is, at times, a heaviness that comes with atheism, intellectualism, and awareness, a weariness that settles around you like fog as you navigate life surrounded by ignorance and oppression.
Fellow atheists, don’t let people like this get to you. Don’t let those people make you cry. (Thanks, Professor). I don’t have to fear capital punishment due to my lack of belief as atheists in some countries do (and those of you who live under such threat have my utmost respect) but, for many of us, no matter our location, atheism is, at times, emotionally taxing. Fear of being ostracized, disowned, loss of employment, and occasional threats to our safety, are some ways we may feel defeated and discouraged, not to mention the stress that comes from having to constantly defend and explain our lack of belief. Still, we must always be prepared to defend our unbelief, our freedom. We must stand our ground. Ricky reminded me of how important our memes and online communities are to this end. It’s not just memes we’re liking and stealing on Facebook, it’s not who has the best pages, or who has the highest number of followers. Atheist communities, profiles, and pages shouldn’t be popularity contests and atheist activism’s primary goal shouldn’t be financial gain (I’m not saying it’s wrong to make a living from it). These online communities are a kinship we’ve all built together, a bond, a family, a supportive network we can access for those times when we’re at our lowest and feeling discouraged. We should seek out those who are like-minded for support and not just for a higher like/share count on social media content or for a higher social media friend/follower count. Those of us who are able to do so should proclaim our atheism for those who cannot for whatever reason. Be supportive of fellow atheists struggling with the wearying heaviness that accompanies intellectualism amidst ignorance, the hostile intolerance of others, and the isolation that comes from being the only atheist among your peers or from ostracization.
I’m so grateful to have an incredible network of atheists and freethinkers on whom I can rely for support. So many of you are like family to me. I take my connections with atheists for granted at times. I’m grateful for all my atheist friends. You mean so much to me. It’s difficult to express that day-to-day as there are so many of you. Thank you, for sharing your experiences with me, for broadening my mind, and for being so uplifting. To those of you running online communities, websites, Facebook pages, podcasts, and activist groups, thank you! You are all so awesome and amazing and important and I hope you realize that. I truly love you guys.