Sunday, December 12, 2010

Godless Heathen

All right, here it is, just in time for Christmas:  I am an atheist.

Reasons why I ought to be a Christian:
  • I was raised in a Christian household, and though he died when I was small and I never really knew him, my maternal grandfather was a minister
  • I grew up attending a small rural church that perfectly embodied what most people would think of as the churchy ideal -- it was basically a cross between the church on Little House On The Prairie and the one on The Waltons, but with more modern plumbing
  • In that church, I spent a large number of happy hours eating fried chicken and oven-baked macaroni and cheese during potluck lunches in our little Fellowship Hall; wearing a dress made out of a white sheet and a ring of gold tinsel on my head to be a part of the "multitude of heavenly host" in our Christmas pageant (or, when a little older, wearing my father's plaid wool bathrobe to be a "shepherd in the field"); and singing hymns (Love Lifted Me was my favorite)
  • My father, when dictating his obituary to me a few years ago, chose to deliberately leave out his long military career, including serving in the Army during World War II, hoping to highlight his lifetime of devoted service to the church
  • My mother and sister are both dedicated Christians who are happy in their faith (and unaware of my godless heathen status, although they do know that I don't attend church)
Calling myself an atheist is not a thing that I say lightly.  I have tried to believe in God, to have faith.  And part of why I have hesitated to write about this is that I have no easy explanation for why I don't; all I have is my mind, and my heart, telling me that it just isn't true.  It's not right.  And when I was finally able to let go of trying to force myself, all of a sudden everything made sense.  It was such a relief.

I am reluctant to tell people because almost universally people hear atheist and they think amoral. Is the wrath of a higher power and the threat of eternal damnation the only reason to decide not to do bad things?  I am a very moral person, I try hard to be compassionate and honest, and though I have my selfish and impatient moments, I would never deliberately hurt anyone. I don't dislike or think less of people who are religious, and I would never think of trying to talk anyone out of their faith. I know several people whose faith clearly brings them joy, and I am happy for them. Obviously, within any group of people there are kind and awesome individuals, mean and nasty individuals, and everything in between.

You know who I have trouble with, though?  Those people, and this actually may be the majority of people, who don't take the time to really think about it.  In our society, a belief in God is like the default setting, it's just what you are supposed to do.  I am afraid that a lot of people who say they are Christian say it as though they think it equals "good person", and to not believe in God means "bad person", but they don't ever actually go to church, or pray, or read the Bible.  I know multiple people who identify themselves as Christian, are impressed with a person/business/politician who makes their Christianity known, genuinely think of themselves as religious, and yet they never go to church and don't even own a Bible.  Somehow I don't think putting up a false, insincere front will get anyone on the fast track to Heaven.  I am sympathetic, though, because stopping to really think about it, about how the world was created and where we go when we die and what our lives actually mean, is overwhelming.  But what is life if you never stop to think about it?

I don't believe in God, in any God, and I am a good person. 


  1. You are a good person.


  2. ellen, you are a good person, i know that.

    you may wonder if this post will change some people's opinion of you, but for me it changes nothing. Except I know you a little better now and i love that. What we believe about our life on this earth is personal. i do believe in God, but not the punishing God of most organized religions. Was it Fanon who said religion is the opiate of the people? I believe that is true and i even think sometimes that opiate is needed, like medicine is sometimes needed, but for me God is something else. I think of God as the impulse that pushes us to be our best self, to treat others kindly, and to believe that we have what it takes to meet any circumstance we encounter. And for me it is a relief sometimes to pray for the safety of my children, because I have no control over what happens out in the world and it is helpful to believe there is some protective force that encircles them.

    but i have often thought that the language of religion is semantics. i believe in all religions and in none. i believe in living well with others, or as well as we can manage moment to moment, and in that, i think we are the same.

    just as atheism makes sense to you, it makes sense to me that all the energy we are must take some form after we die. i don't pretend to know what that form is but i have fun playing with notions of it. i have always hated it, though, when people tried to proselytize to me, so please know i have no interest in trying to convince you of anything. i'm just sharing here in appreciation of your sharing.

    i love you, my atheist friend.

  3. You need to come to Jesus!

    I applaud anyone who finds peace in any form. I have played for the Methodists, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, flirted with converting to Judaism, dorked around under silly modern Satanism, spent a brief period of time half-heartedly trying to summon Cthulu, and sometimes flirt with being a Buddhist, but then get scared of losing beef.

    In all that time and talk of religion, I have formed two absolute truths.

    1. I am not sure of anything, except

    2. Most religion is shit.

    I think most people worry they will have no reason to get out of bed, or an effective moral compass, if there is no goodie/spanking over the rainbow.

    I admire you for choosing to be a kick ass person regardless of some vague threat of an afterlife.


  4. Hi, Shiva! Wow, old friends are turning up on my blog now that I've started spamming it on Facebook.

    Thank you, I appreciate that. And I still believe in you :)

  5. Angella, that is such a good point about semantics. I actually rewrote this blog entry several times because I kept finding what sounded like anger, and that's not at all what I wanted.

    It made me realize that I do have some anger towards people who make all kinds of assumptions based on the words people use to identify themselves, but as you say, it really is just words.

    Also, Geoff is very funny! The idea that you and Geoff have connected even in a small way through my blog is so amazing, as I love and respect you both similarly.

    I know you have an awful lot going on right now, thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully.

  6. Thank you, Geoff. I am still sad about your decision to discontinue your blog. The world needs more funny, and also more deciding not to die! But regardless, I admire you, too.

  7. some people use God and religion like a bludgeon, which makes me angry too. who gives anyone the right to judge what we believe? anger, i get.

    you know the old cliche, some of my best friends are black? well some of my best friends are atheists. happens to be true! and two of them are daughters of ministers! and now you, the granddaughter of a minister. hmm.

    you know, even the phrase "godless heathen" is the language of judgement. no doubt you've felt unfairly judged for your beliefs. so glad you're stating your truth here!

  8. So all of your atheist friends come from minister's families? Interesting!

    I looked up the definition of heathen when I chose that word for my blog title, and this is what I found: an unconverted individual that does not acknowledge the god of the Bible; a person who is neither a Jew, Christian, nor Muslim. It mostly just means godless, so my blog title was more redundant than anything. But the phrase "godless heathen" has such a ring to it. :)

    Angella, I love the way you do not feel obligated to capitalize things in a traditional way, I'm all about the lower case letters. (And thanks for always spelling "ellen" correctly, with my lil' lower case e.) Did you notice that the only word that you capitalized above was God?

  9. Ha! My mother and my episcopalian schooling planted deep roots in me for sure! I never even noticed.

    from the definition, it sounds like heathen implies a conversion to come. this conversation is fascinating on so many levels.

    we're even truer friends now, ellen, because we've dared to discuss politics, race, and now religion.


  10. Honey- don't worry. I swear- there is a religion gene and some of us just don't have it.
    Me for one.
    It's okay.

  11. Angella, one of these days you'll have to come down to Orlando to see the Wizarding World, and we can meet for dinner and talk about politics, race and religion in person. I would love that!

    Hi Ms. Moon! Thanks for visiting my blog.

    That's funny, it really does feel like I am missing a gene everyone else seems to have. :)


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