From kindergarten through high school, I went to school at Catholic schools. I’m going to preface this whole post by saying that I loved my schools: I met good friends, had good teachers, and got a good education. But I have never been religious. This means I have more experience than most at being an atheist in a world of presumed religious people. What does it mean to grow up feeling an outsider in this fashion? How does it change one’s experience and perspective as an atheist? And what can adult atheists who never had this kind of experience learn about communicating one’s position effectively?
It’s incredibly difficult to feel like an outsider, particularly when your brand of “outsider” is considered inherently morally wrong. There are some lessons that all of us outsiders have to learn about how to communicate with the in-group, and learning those lessons early on can have some serious benefits.
One of the things that I think was most beneficial to me was that I went through the angry atheist stage early. When I first started really caring enough to question I was about 11. I knew from the time I was young that you were “supposed” to believe in God, but I also knew that I never really was convinced. This means that I went through the angry atheist stage at approximately the same time that I went through the angry everything stage: 14. This stage looks a lot uglier when it happens at 20 or 40 or 60. It can be an incredibly immature stage, although it is also important to developing a new and different set of beliefs. However I’ve seen a lot of incredibly argumentative and contrary people who think that disagreeing is the key to freethinking.
The early stages of skepticism make the most sense when they’re happening in conjunction with all the other early stages of learning who you are and how to think, and seem to make the most sense for a young adult to go through. I’m quite grateful that I got to go through this period in time without alienating a lot of people because I was young and people expected it of me.
Part of being an atheist in a religious school is that you get used to tolerating things. This might be a good thing and it might be a bad thing, but it does mean that you learn how to see the positives of the people who are religious while still disagreeing with them. You learn how to speak without simply insulting someone, how to pick your battles so that you only fight when you have a chance of achieving something. Because I was often debating with teachers or other people in positions of power, I learned how to ask questions instead of arguing, how to be genuinely curious in a way that illustrated where the holes were in the logic, how to hold my tongue when appropriate, and how to speak up when I had something respectful to say.
I also had to separate the individuals from some of the beliefs they had, because I knew incredibly good and kind people who believed things that I found horrible. I also knew that they deeply respected life, other people, kindness, and service. These things were difficult to reconcile, but it’s something that all atheists will have to learn how to do eventually if they want to be intellectually honest about people who are religious.
I also found that being around people who were deeply religious left me with a healthy curiosity about religion. Despite the fact that I don’t believe in God, I recognize how important it is to know about religion because religion has a massive impact on many people’s lives, even people who are not religious. Understanding it is important to understanding our world and our fellow human beings. Being exposed to kind, intelligent people who are also religious taught me about the importance of exploring religion without cynicism. This doesn’t mean that I went in open to believing, but rather that I went in trying not to be angry, trying to let people tell me what they truly though, trying to honestly understand what people get from religion.
This is a humbling experience. After many years of religious classes, I’ve had to recognize that I don’t have answers for everyone, and that for some people “I don’t know how that works” isn’t enough. Some atheists take on the persona that they can answer any question- they do become their own gods (this is not true for all atheists). When you spend a great deal of time trying to honestly answer the questions of and engage with truly religious people, you quickly learn that you have to have humility.
On the negative side, I’ve found that I’ll let more things slide. I know how kind some religious people are, so I often assume good intentions where there likely are none. I know why many people think the way they do and so I’m willing to excuse them, even if their beliefs are harmful. In addition, I crave the kind of belonging that I’ve seen in churches that I never experienced growing up. That jealousy can blind someone who’s trying to be an activist for atheism. Each way of coming to atheism gives us different blind spots and different moments of insight.
People who come to atheism later in life may have something to learn from those who have had to navigate communicating with religious individuals for their whole lives, just as those who never had to leave religion have something to learn from those who did. Dialogue can only benefit us all.