How To Be An Atheist (Or, What I’ve Learned from Faith)

A Discrepancy of Thanks
November 26, 2015
December 13, 2015

Let’s start with an uncomfortable premise: Believing begins in doubting.


Over the past several years, I have had the privilege of working with the “movers and shakers” of the Colorado LGBT scene. These are passionate people, and many of them have forwarded the cause for LGBT equality across our country. I admire them greatly, and have tried in earnest to learn from their experiences and vision.

Meanwhile, I have shakily tried to make my own voice heard: Let us bridge the gap between religion and LGBT individuals.

What I have found is that activists in this community are necessarily focused on government and politics. This is where the law is made and served, and it is the most sensible and concrete way to affect equality. Because of their dedication to the cause, we have seen tremendous strides forward—culminating in the marriage equality ruling issued by the Supreme Court.

But where does religion figure in? I can’t help but think that marriage has historically been the purview of religious institutions, and while such codified relationships are granted certain rights in the civic realm, the roots are in the church. (Martin Luther would argue against this, but let’s leave that alone for now.)

So where do constructive discussions of religion fit in? Well, mostly, they don’t. As history tell us, mainline organized religion did its best to condemn homosexuals for centuries. It’s hard to move past the violence and degradation it inflicted, and yet, haven’t governments done much the same? Dig deep enough in human annals and you can hardly separate government from church; they were, for millennia, mutually dependent and beneficial.

Thanks to our beloved Constitution, church and state are separate entities—and for good reason. But now that we have cast off the civic authority of the church, what do we do about reconciling with her?

From my perspective, the reconciliation has been mostly one-sided. Exceptions always exist, but I see mainline denominations of Christianity in the U.S. moving towards apology and acceptance, rather than stubborn denial of wrongdoing. There is still work to be done, but it is promising to see churches bring LGBT individuals into the fold—not just as congregants or members, but as clergy.

Still, I regularly hear the dismissal of religion—primarily Christianity—from many of peers, and those of younger generations. For LGBT individuals, there appears to be a twofold explanation: 1) damage done to LGBT folk over recent decades is hard to ignore and even harder to forgive; and 2) the LGBT community turned to themselves to shape their future and success. What need does our community have of church if it is our own perseverance, our own commitment, our own intrepid activism that secured the equality we now enjoy?

Touché. But let’s not unfairly conflate a human institution with faith or belief. While most in my peer group who dismiss church do so because of the institution, some will admit to nurturing a self-defined spirituality—not trusting any human organization to sustain and grow it. And that trepidation is fully understandable, but it is not unique to LGBT individuals. It is pervasive in society as a whole.

Which brings me to the real issue of atheism vs. faith. Many without a history of engagement in church can easily look to existing religious institutions and toss them aside as unnecessary to their own life journey. But others continue to cling to anger and hurt from past wrongs caused by church action, and in so doing, deny both faith and religion.

I am not about to argue that religion regularly needs a makeover. But I will question the blind abrogation of faith and whole-hearted embrace of atheism—an occurrence I’ve seen often in both the LGBT community and in younger generations of Americans. It seems to me that atheism—as I have heard it expressed (that is to say, absolute disbelief of a higher being because of lack of proof, or dismissal of a deity disconnected from real life spiritual need)—is nothing more than a cerebral exercise. When I prod the open-minded atheist about his or her views on spirituality, they invariably point to science as explanation for human experience. Science explains love, sadness, and all emotions. Science explains the non-biological bonds between family members. Science even adequately explains our existence in the universe.

The older I get, however, the more this sounds like an inability to hold up one’s own doubts. There is a distinct and important difference between doubting and not believing. The former is a human condition; I would be concerned to meet anyone who claims never to have doubted anything. The latter is a choice made by concluding that there is no resolution to perceived doubt and mystery, and therefore, God does not exist.

But doubting is the seed of faith—and, incidentally, the cornerstone of healthy humility. A cerebral exercise in atheism demands that one affirm there is a knowable explanation for all things. “Science,” that vague and often meaningless umbrella explanation, is the champion of modern atheists. And it allows them—and all of us, in certain moments—to stand on something other than the shaky grounds of doubt. It offers a measure of control and responsibility to self alone that is, potentially, devastating. (By this, I do not mean to discount secular humanists who work hard to lift up community and society, but merely suggest that in the grand scheme of things, the “making of meaning” in one’s life is only up to the individual.)

Frankly, I have come to realize the necessity of both humility and doubt. Without fail, I often find myself mired in situations I once claimed to control entirely, but tumbled into chaos. When this happens, I can either point the finger at someone or something else for the failure, or I can recognize that I thought myself able to handle something that was beyond me. And each time an event like this happens, I slowly—very slowly—learn to dive in less eagerly. I am more careful about leading the charge and claiming full knowledge of possible consequences. And when these moments bring failure, as they will continue to do from time to time, I am more readily able to hang my head and say: “This was too much for me. I’m sorry. Next time, I’ll ask for help.”

This is the manifestation of of mystery and doubt—the doubting of self, the battalion of whys and hows, the uncertainties piling up. And this is okay—a very natural part of our humanity. And one that can open the door to a quiet prayer, and maybe—just maybe—a request for help from who or whatever does have control.

The ardent atheist is bound to stumble here. They are no more or less human than the rest of us, and so will face the same doubts, failures, and mysteries, but will continue to argue for clear explanations. If all things are explicable by science, or mathematics, or measurable nature, then a failure in life simply means a failure to know enough about all elements that make a certain moment happen. The constant striving for knowledge, then—in an effort to snuff doubt—must be exhausting. And as far as I have read and witnessed, it is never absolutely satisfying.

I am a mere 34 years old, but the one comfort I always have in moments of debilitating anxiety, fear, anger, and hurt is the same comfort that was shared with me as a child: It is ok to doubt oneself and to doubt the world. But doubt opens the door to faith, if you will consider it. Dare to be humble about what you can and cannot do, what you do and do not know. Dare to ask for help. Dare to let the mystery sit and stir inside you.

And dare to embrace everyone in this complicated life who strives for meaning, stumbles, and falls. Pick them up, as you, in turn, let yourself be picked up by those with you on the journey.

And if, as you read this, you think I have misunderstood atheism altogether, then please: Help me understand it better.

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