I am a non-native atheist: I was not born into atheism, but as a result of deep philosophical and political differences with the inhabitants of the land of Christianity, as well as with some of its founding principles*, I chose to immigrate to it in my late teens, with the hope that I might build a better life for myself and, later, my son. I have, for the most part, been able to build such a life, and even though there are times when I miss some of the comforts and certainties of the land of my birth, I have no intention of ever going back there. Atheism is home now.
Like all non-native atheists, I frequently interact with people from my former life, my Christian (specifically Catholic) life, the people who knew me before I turned away from the beliefs and values that, in many cases, comprise the most central parts of their lives and personalities. Most of these interactions are friendly, often nostalgic, and make me happy. Occasionally, however, all too often I’m afraid, these interactions can be deeply uncomfortable; not everyone I knew back then who knows where I’ve gone is happy about my leaving. Some don’t quite know how to talk to me, some are confused about exactly what my leaving means, and a few have cut off ties with me altogether.
The most important, and often the most uncomfortable interactions I have with people who knew me before I left the fold are with my parents, my mother in particular. My parents, you must understand, are not casual citizens of their land. They are, in a sense, deeply patriotic to the point of xenophobia. They attend church functions three or four times a week and a separate, “non-denominational” Bible study a couple times a month. They advertise their business as a Christian-owned business, and they use a Greek word for a popular Christian concept as the business’ name. They have spent a great deal of time, energy, and money on church causes, including overseas mission trips. They are, it could be said, model citizens of their land, and what’s more, they see being such citizens as one of the most important things in this life. It could be said that, for them, that is the very purpose of this life.
It should come as no surprise, then, that my leaving has caused them a great deal of distress and anxiety. Nor should it come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with either Christians or parents that they, again my mother in particular, have made their distress and anxiety abundantly clear to me on many occasions.
And here enters a concept, and feeling, wholly alien I imagine to the native atheist, that of atheist guilt. I love my parents very much, so the knowledge that I am causing them pain is deeply disturbing to me. Yet what am I to do? Am I to lie to them and pretend that I have come back home? No, I respect them too much to deceive them. Am I to indulge them in their attempts to bring me back into the fold, with all of the praying and Bible verses and invitations to church when I visit? Nothing can come of such things, and I worry that false hopes inevitably dashed will only increase their suffering.
So my guilt is a dilemma, and the more I think on the dilemma, the more I am aware of being powerless to overcome it. Powerlessness in the face of guilt all but guarantees dysfunction in interpersonal relationships, and my relationship with my parents is no exception. I tip toe over many of the insensitive things they say, things that reveal how little respect they have for my world view while they, at the same time, are deeply intolerant of any perceived disrespect for theirs, and my doing so results in resentment — likely mutual at times — that occasionally spills over in the form of anger. On my last trip to visit my parents, during a conversation with my mother that involved her sobbing and imploring, I briefly lashed out, only to reign myself in and let the resentment begin to rebuild, all while adding another layer to the mound guilt that I have spent much of my adult life building.
In conversations with other first-generation atheists I have learned that my experience with atheist guilt is hardly unique. Most of us struggle to deal with religious parents, many of whom react much more harshly to their children straying than my own have. Talking about it with other atheists helps, of course, but as there is no known cure it can only help so much.
I do think that when, in the middle of the last decade, atheism became something of a fad and intelligent atheists had the ears of both atheists and theists, those atheists could have attempted to have a public conversation about issues like this that affect atheists in their everyday lives, instead of spending so much time villainizing the very people with whom so many of us are trying to have real, meaningful relationships. Perhaps if everyone knew going in that atheist guilt exists, and that it can be personally painful and interpersonally damaging, theists would be more sensitive from the start, attenuating if not eliminating the painful cycle. But we let the wrong atheists have the mic, and now that the fad is mostly past, with the nouveau atheists retreating back into their little corners of the blogosphere where they preach mostly to the choir, the opportunity is lost.
I have no real point to get to in all of this, except perhaps the point of saying it at all. I think it’s the sort of thing that should be said now and then.
*Basically anything written by the Founding Father Paul.