“If you don’t believe in God, how do you have faith?” A version of this question comes up in nearly every conversation in which I describe myself as an atheist to someone who is religious. For a very long time, my answer was that I didn’t need faith. My naivety about religion and resentment towards it combined with the hubris I gained in what I thought was the discovery of my own beliefs caused me to act in a more aggressive way toward religion. Not only did I not believe in any god, but I sought out any chance to proclaim it. I was distraught by the idea that I could not persuade others to agree with me (and I often tried). I am happy to have grown, learned and moved away from such presentiment toward theism.
As a child, I prayed, attended religious gatherings and feared god, but I was not religious. I was far too young to claim to be a Christian. People that I trusted and looked up to taught me that god was real and Christianity was the truth. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister and I attended sermons regularly. I remember listening to passages from the bible while sitting cross-legged in front of his recliner. When I visited some of my aunts, I was also taken to Sunday school. I accepted it at the time. Because it was extremely taboo for individuals to challenge someone’s beliefs, I did not hear any opposition. However, I was not exposed to religion at home. My mother rarely spoke of god or atheism or even spirituality. She may have just been apathetic toward the subject, but the lack of pressure to believe gave me the opportunity to make the decision myself when I was of the appropriate age to do so. My mother was baptized by my grandfather and identifies herself as a Christian.
As I grew older, the influence of others over me subsided and I began to realize that those thoughts were not my own. While talking with a close friend in high school, he brought up an argument for religion that I could not counter. He was nontheistic, but had always inspired me to question things on a deep level. I began to look beyond my negative experiences with religion. The desire for more conversations and debates on the subject motivated me to learn more about both points of view. I found comfort in coming to conclusions about myself and justifying my beliefs as independent from heritage or coercion. This was only the beginning of a process that I am still actively engaged in.
By the time I reached college I was completely committed to atheism and proud of it. I was passionate and even argumentative about it, but I soon realized that the more intelligent individuals I spoke with were put-off by my attitude toward creationism and its believers. The one-sided, uninteresting conversations that formed around my passion on the subject became tiresome. I searched for opportunities to strengthen my reasoning for my beliefs against religion. Books, magazines, articles, interviews, movies and even music were all places I looked for explanations to the questions I had not yet overcome. I enrolled in a few classes that touched on the ideas of different belief systems. Church services and Bible study sessions along with “free-thinkers” meetings and book discussions on Richard Dawkins’ works were all full of information, emotion and facts.
The most influential experience in my search for truth was my attending an ALPHA course during college. It was a 10 week program that is meant as an introduction to the Christian faith. Each session started with a meal and light discussion. The course leader then presented that week’s theme with stories, videos, infographics and bible passages. Each table was assigned a conversation guide who was given a few questions to keep the chat going within the small groups. At the end of each session, individuals were encouraged to share stories about their past or things they had learned. I was open about my atheism and it did not hinder the quality of our talks. The group was lively, sensitive, respectful and curious. They taught me a great deal and I became very close with a few people who I still call friends.
I have always considered honesty to be one of the most important characteristics of companions and friends. There is a certain beauty in allowing yourself to be transparent to a point of vulnerability. Being truthful and straightforward about my beliefs and the reason behind them has allowed me to learn so much from the discussions I have with people about religion. I refuse to take “I am right” as a stance and always hope to learn something from conversations and debates. Someone saying “I’ll pray for you” no longer makes me angry, but humbled instead. I appreciate the beliefs that others have and do not try to change their minds. Now I simply encourage people to challenge themselves to truly understand not only what they believe, but why. If you are honest and open about your faith, you have the opportunity to be challenged and learn something about yourself.
“Because I was raised that way” is not a good enough reason to spend your life committed to a religion. It is irresponsible for people to label the many belief systems out there as myth without honestly searching for support and reasoning behind the one you choose to observe. So I have a new answer to that question I started with. I no longer see atheism as a lack of faith. I have faith in humanity. Mankind’s ability to overcome obstacles is awe-inspiring and inspirational. Humans can live morally and peacefully without the pressure of religion to do so. I feel that I have a certain responsibility to be open about my atheism. I urge others to search for your own true beliefs and declare them publicly. Gain the knowledge you need to be confident in your choice and never close yourself off to the possibility of learning something new, even if it frightens you. Find something to have faith in and don’t dismiss the faith of others simply because they do not align with yours.