The first time that someone called me an atheist, I was very insulted. This was in December 2010. My crazy Muslim ex saw a picture of me sans hijab on Facebook and went ballistic. “You’re an atheist“, he said, his words dripping with condescension,”you’re the worst type of a person on this planet and you should be executed!” A number of thoughts raced through my mind. This man had no idea where I was in terms of religion at this point, because he had not asked and I had not volunteered that information to him. The simple fact of seeing my head uncovered was enough for him to assume I was an atheist. I was angered by his assumption and also insulted by the fact that he’d lumped me in with ‘those people’. I had no problem dissociating myself from the Abrahamic faiths, but I didn’t want to be associated with atheists either. For even though I thought myself to be open-minded, I still held prejudice towards those who were willing to openly state there was no God. It was simply how I’d been raised. Sure, as a Christian I thought that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc were all wrong, but at least they believed in something. What could one say to one who professed no belief at all?
My mind went back to January 2003. I remember the evening clearly. I was sitting across from my date at IHOP. It was late, we’d finished eating and were in the middle of a spirited discussion on religion. Back then I rarely attended church but still considered myself a Baptist and would defend my faith. He was the product of an interfaith marriage and had different views regarding religion as a result. So there I was, pressing him and telling him that Jesus is the only way, when he drops a bomb on me.
‘You should know that I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in Jesus or Allah. God only exists in our minds, none of it is real’.
If I had still been eating, I would have choked. “You’re a WHAT?”, I replied. I had never encountered a Black atheist before and was deeply shocked. He repeated himself. I was amazed. I immediately felt a sense of disappointment. There was so much about him that I desired in a mate. He was extremely intelligent-to this day one of the most brilliant men that I have ever encountered. He was educated-completed a double major in three years. He was articulate, ambitious, hard-working, respectful, tall and very handsome. But as soon as he told me he was an atheist, my view of him changed. In my mind he was no longer fit to be a potential long-term interest or husband. He didn’t believe in god, which meant he was damaged goods, flawed, deficient, confused and inferior as far as I was concerned.
Never mind the fact that I had my own questions and doubts about Christianity.
Never mind the fact that I wasn’t living according to its rules.
Never mind the fact that I’d been ‘fornicating’ with him and planned to continue doing so.
He was the atheist, he was the one openly stating that he didn’t believe in god, and I immediately judged him harshly in my mind for that.
All of my thoughts from that night came back to me when I was called an atheist. I thought of the way I’d heard atheists discussed growing up. I remembered when the news of the brutal murder and dismemberment of atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare broke in 1995. I recalled the smug self-righteousness that my elders displayed upon hearing the news, stating that was what happened when you “messed with god” and that O’Hare deserved such a fate for getting prayer ‘taken out of the schools’. I remembered all of the sermons I’d heard based on Romans 1:18-32, and the way nonbelievers were often vilified. And though I no longer viewed atheism as negatively as I had in my early twenties, I didn’t want to be associated with it out of fear. I knew all too well how atheists were viewed and had more sympathy for them. More than racial minorities, more than ‘illegal immigrants’, more than Muslims and even more than gays, atheists were one of the most despised minorities in my country. I didn’t want to experience that. So even after I apostatized, I still identified as a theist. I didn’t think I could exist without holding on to the concept of god. I was able to kick the habit of organized religion itself, but unable to say goodbye to my god delusion. Saying that I believed in god would be my security blanket, my protection against being lumped in with the atheists.
There was only one problem with this: I didn’t truly believe in any deity. Professing belief in a deity to others is certainly the more comfortable thing for me to do. But it would be dishonest of me. So here I am, thirty one years old and coming to grips with the fact that I’m an agnostic atheist. I’ve gone beyond having sympathy for atheists, a group so often accused of being misguided and evil. I’ve now joined their ranks.