Kinder, Gentler Atheists part 2

To continue our discussion of kinder, gentler atheism I’ve asked Nica Lalli some questions about her book, Nothing: Something to Believe In.

This book is different than most of the atheist books on the market today, because it includes no arguments against religion or the existence of god. It has no arguments at all, except for those that Nica had with her family members in the past. This book is the story of Nica’s personal journey from being uncomfortable as the only child in her school who was “nothing” to her coming to terms with the fact that she really does have many things to believe in, but none of them have anything to do with god or religion.

The book is well written, funny, touching, and always interesting. Nica is open and honest about the twists and turns in her own spiritual adventures and search for meaning outside of the religious American mainstream. Sometimes a personal story does more to get to the heart of an issue than pages and pages of logical argument and polemics. I think Nothing should be required reading for both believers and unbelievers because it shows that we actually have more in common than is often acknowledged.

You can learn more about Nica and her book, and find links to some of her other writing, on her website.

Skepchick: Chapter 1 of Nothing is called “God Punished Me.” You were in first grade when you lied about being sick to go home from school, accidentally slammed your finger in a door, and concluded that God was punishing you for lying. Your parents did not believe in God and did not teach you anything about religion, so where did you get the idea that God was watching you?

Lalli: I got it from a collective consciousness, something that I almost just breathed in from the air all around me. Or maybe the idea just came from my friends. I grew up with kids who were lots of different religions – mostly mainstream stuff – Christians of different stripes, including some Catholics, and a few Jewish kids. There were two friends in particular who clued me into the idea that there was a guy in the sky who watched, judged and punished us all. One was the neighbor across the street who was an occasional church-attending Protestant and the other was my church going Catholic friend, the one who got to have the first communion.

Skepchick: In Chapter 2, you write about your realization that your friends were all “something” and you were “nothing,” and how you discussed this concern with your parents. In the last chapter of the book, you write about having a similar discussion with your children. Many skepchicks (and dudes) are parents, with concerns about raising secular children in a religious world, particularly in the United States. Do you think your children are more comfortable with “nothingness” than you were at their age? Have you come up with better ways to discuss this topic with your children, improving upon the unsatisfactory discussion you had had with your parents? Do you have any suggestions for our readers?

Lalli: When my parents told me I was “nothing” they made it sound as if that label was all I needed to know. There was not much discussion around what that meant, how I could feel comfortable about it, or what other people believed. After I had a few negative experiences with religion and religious people, I stopped asking questions because I felt uncomfortable and frightened.

“Nothing” can sound like a void, and more importantly it can seem like a void that needs to be filled. I felt that way at times in my childhood and I was fearful of someone forcing me to fill it. As I grew more comfortable with my status as a non-believer, I realized that this fear was unfounded. No one can “make” me into anything.

My children are comfortable with being nothing. They seem to embrace the term and all the positive aspects that it can offer. They are curious and I encourage them to ask questions and even explore religion by going to different services if they want to. We have taken them to church services with their Californian grandparents (my in-laws), and they have been to a few religious weddings and bar(and bat) mitzvahs.

The main difference between what my parents did and what I (and my husband) do is that we discuss religion all the time. We talk about what we believe in and what other people believe in. We use art (since I am an art educator) to illuminate tales and stories from many of the world’s religions.

My main suggestion to readers is: think about what you DO believe in, even as a non-religious person. My kids know that “nothing” is really lots of things…just not a “religion.” Be ready for the same questions every year at each religious holiday (honestly – I still have to retell the story of Easter and Passover every year…they finally seem to have Christmas down, but still, new questions arise). Be open, be patient and most of all be confident that what you have (as belief, even if it seems like non-belief) is a positive, healthy thing.

Skepchick: Throughout your life, you were curious about and experimented with religion: you visited churches with your friends in grade school, you bargained with God in your preteen years, you befriended a Catholic priest in college, and you’ve participated in religious holiday rituals with your family. Why do you think, as an unbeliever, that you have such an enduring interest in religion?

Lalli: The fact that I was never comfortable with my religious status as a younger person led to my need to connect with different religions. But I never went very deep. I never “became” anything and I never studied religion. The first book about religion that I bought was Karen Armstrong’s book “The History of God” and I bought that in 1999.

My in-laws, and the fight I had with them over religion, was another way I connected with religion – conflict can be such a strong connecting point! When I realized that I just couldn’t leave it alone I had to look back and examine what it was about the argument that was so compelling. I think it was that I was “nothing” (according to my parents) and then I was “wrong” (according to my religious in-laws) and I needed to have some other title, something I decided on. I ended up accepting “nothing” and making it my own.

I also like ritual, celebration and family. And let’s face it – many of the big American holidays are about religion. I like to cook and gather. So if I do it on the day the Christians celebrate Christ’s birth, that is okay with me. I can deal with that and make it my own fun day, too.

Skepchick: I think the real reason that your in-laws are so threatened by your “nothingness” and your toying with the tarot is that they are afraid–for you, for your husband and children, and for themselves. Many born again Christians not only believe the Bible, but they also believe in many other supernatural elements. To them, witchcraft, the tarot, Ouija boards, and even yoga are real, supernatural forces that are under the domain of Satan. Playing with, or even joking about, these items opens you up to be attacked by the devil. How might you react differently to your family members if you thought they lived in constant fear?

Lalli: I know that they live in constant fear. But I think it is fear of any real contact or connection with anything that they cannot label or categorize. They, and others like them, seem to need to call everything out, they do not like the gray areas. Their lives seem to be all black and white – or good and evil.

I did not really know that they are fearful of so much, however, in the way you describe. And I feel sorry for them. Unfortunately, the way that they dismiss me as “wrong” makes me want to dismiss them as “silly” and where does that get us? Exactly nowhere.

So I strive to better understand them, but without more communication I have trouble achieving that. And how can you have good communication when the communicators are too busy calling each other names? In the end I don’t really get them, which is too bad.

Skepchick: Although the Bible says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. They rod and they staff, they comfort me,” many Christians today, like your in-laws, seem to live in a heightened state of fear that is taken advantage of by unscrupulous politicians and clergy. Do you think we, as atheists, have anything to offer to frightened Christians to help relieve these fears?

Lalli: Well, I think that we are born, we live and we die. The end. That brings me comfort because I don’t care about what comes next – which I think is nothing.
The goal for me to live my best life here, on this planet. I think that the time and energy spent on being set for the afterlife is time that could be spent taking care of this life, and living a better, more fully connected existence while we are here.

I would urge Christians to dump the idea of their god as a punishing, harsh, mean-spirited thug. They are always talking about how god is love and he forgives, and yet the fear of his reprisals seems to strike them paralyzed. I would tell these “believers” to take control of their lives, to think for themselves and be true to themselves. If that means that they believe, then that is fine. But THINK, don’t just accept.

Skepchick: You wrote an article for your local paper called “I am a Pink Atheist.” You came up with this visual imagery to differentiate yourself from more acerbic atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (the “Navy Blue Atheists”), who criticize religion relentlessly and without apology. And yet, you have said that Dawkins’s and Harris’s books have helped you gain confidence as an unbeliever, so obviously you are not saying that their type of presentation is unnecessary or inappropriate. Can you please tell us a little more about your own stance as an atheist and how you see your own style of communication fitting into the larger world of atheism?

Lalli: Look, if I want to have a meaningful conversation with a believer, than I have to drop the name calling and finger pointing. If Mr. Dawkins wants to reach those who need his message most (the terrified believers you describe above, for instance) then he might need to be less harsh toward them. Telling them they are wrong and ridiculous will not lead to productive dialogue. That said, I am thrilled that he and Harris have taken religion down off the high shelf it lived on for so long and started to examine it in a critical way. I am highly critical of some dogmatic, non-thinking forms of religion. And really, there are many who fall into the category of blindly following.

To me, belief is all about a personal narrative. It is about each person’s individual story, and the crazy things that happen to everyone as the live on this earth. One friend of mine summed it up very well. He is a practicing Catholic and was born in Poland. He said, “What I call God, Nica calls Nothing. But it is the same, it is the same thing.”

Skepchick: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your book or your journey to Nothingness?

Lalli: I enjoyed writing this book. It helped me define who I am. I like the dialogues I have had about religion in light of the book being released and I have had many differing opinions about many aspects of both belief and non-belief. As I say in the introduction to Nothing, “I do not pretend to be the voice for all the “others”; I can only speak for myself.” I like telling stories and I hope that people like reading them.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. "Telling them they are wrong and ridiculous will not lead to productive dialogue."

    I agree in principle, if one sees dialogue as an end to itself. However, what happens when the other person is wrong? Objectively, provably wrong, as with creationism? I don't think it's at all possible to have that discussion without, at some point, saying, "No, you're wrong." At least not if you're going to achieve anything productive like the promotion of sound biology education. You have to disagree with them eventually, or you get nowhere.

  2. Thank you for the review and interview. I will definitely pick this book up.

    Personally, I feel it's about time atheists and theists stop the bickering and try to find some common ground to work on. And while I do understand that my views on science will probably never be accepted by the theistic world, I think there are more important things to discuss – like how to feed the poor and how to clean up the environment.

    In fact, I always believed that science provides the best tools with which to better humanity and the church is best equipped to take care of distributing those tools to the people who need them. Just imagine if they could work together.

  3. reading the inetrview, I just had an idea for the belief questionnaire for kids: If your six year old comes to you and asks, "Melissa's a catholic, what am I?" instead of just saying 'nothing', do an interview with the kid, with no leading questions on what the kid believes; most six year olds don't believe in 'nothing', they usually have some firm beliefs regarding all sorts of things. Then check out which belief systems those answers coincide with. Belief in Fair Play would suggest humanist, but is also found in Christian Faith. Most kids will believe in Fairies even if you tell them there's no such thing, so that would make them pagan. That in turn works against Christian Faith, because they would say Faeries are of the devil. Actually, so does belief in the Easter Bunny :) The fact that they manage to get away with being bad when no ones looking makes them question the existence of god and thereby atheist. They might go through a few 'belief cycles' and then wind up being a secular humanist, which isn't that bad.

    If you don't believe in wooey stuff but are not frenetic about it (making them go for it just to get on your nerves when they hit puberty), chances are they'll follow in your footsteps. Aside from being raised as skeptics and coming to this conclusion on their own, people like what feels familiar to them and it will come naturally to them.

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