A lot of atheists in the United States come from religious families and communities. Coming from that kind of situation, we have to deal with just about everyone around us telling us our way of viewing the world is bad and evil. If religion is very important to us, as it was to me, we also deal with our own internalized indoctrination.
I have always been a seeker of evidence. However, I was in my twenties before I really learned how to critically and skeptically evaluate that evidence. I was taught and believed from a very young age that God was real and could sometimes even do miraculous things in answer to a sincerely uttered prayer. I believed it was as true and real as the day and night and the sun and everything you see around you. But I also had a scientific mindset and accepted that there were natural laws that governed at least most of what happened in the universe. Right up to the binding of matter anyway--I had no comprehension of atomic forces, so I figured that God must be what prevented atoms from flying apart. When I explained to my middle school age Sunday School teacher that I thought the world works according to natural laws, with God only intervening with a miracle when there was great need, she made a comment something to the effect that I was like a deist. I had no idea what she was talking about at the time, but now I think there was much truth to that statement. Except that I did believe God could and did intervene with miracles, since I believed in the virgin birth of Jesus and other such miraculous happenings, so I wasn’t really a deist.
So imagine my confusion and disappointment when I saw that people were attributing perfectly natural and normal occurrences to the intervention of God. In church I would hear the testimonials of people who claim God had done something for them, but if I ever asked for detail it turned out that what had happened was perfectly natural and mundane. Their answered prayer was likely a result of actions they had taken themselves to bring about the desired outcome. But when I pointed these things out it seemed no one was listening. I had set a high bar for evaluating whether my own prayers had been really been answered. I didn’t yet see the need for the extraordinary evidence that would really justify belief in this extraordinary sort of event, but I needed some sort of confirmation that I wasn’t just fooling myself. I reasoned that if I really believed God could perform miracles, than settling for less than that as the intervention of God would be selling God short.
Eventually I realized through this kind of thinking that I no longer believed in God. Once when I was home alone I walked around my house softly and loudly and in a variety of tones of voices yelling and saying “I’m an atheist!” to the walls just to try to get myself used to the word. I remember the complexity of the emotions I felt at the time: fear of what I was saying, sadness and anger at having been taught as confirmed truth things that were so unfounded, and a tinge of excitement at saying something so blasphemous out loud. Unfortunately at that time “atheist” was a word that I only dared speak in private--the thought of saying it in front of another person scared me almost more than anything else in the whole world.
I could talk to no one about my newly discovered atheism. Everyone around me seemed to think that my way of seeing the world was bad, evil even. I feared rejection even by my own parents (fortunately, in my case, that fear was unfounded). Being isolated in this way is polarizing and angering. I see on the whole two major outcomes of being an atheist in this situation. One is shame and fear in thinking there must be something wrong with you in that you are unable to believe what is so clearly true to everyone else. If everyone else can see it, why can’t I? The other is smugness and arrogance in the knowledge that you are the only one you know who has seen though the farce of religion. Why can’t everyone else see what is so obvious to me? I went though both of these phases in my early years as an atheist.
I had contact with other former Christians and atheists though the Internet, through online message boards and the websites like American Atheists and The Secular web. These were incredibly helpful to me, but somehow remote computer connections didn’t compensate for the community I was missing. One day I came across a site called Meetup, and discovered that there was a meeting for atheists in Louisville, KY. There was a group I could meet with to talk about atheism only about 40 minutes away in Louisville, KY! On the way to my first meetup I was so excited and nervous that my heart pounded in my chest. In those days there were only about two to four people per meeting at Wick’s Pizza or a local coffee shop. But I could go and talk outloud about being an atheist and about the problems I had with Christianity and not fear being rejected or pitied for it. It was more than I’d hoped for.
My early stint with the Louisville Atheists meetup group lasted only a few meetings, as it was a very small and unorganized group at the time. One time I was the only one who showed up. It wasn’t until 2007 that I took another look at the Meetup website and was pleasantly surprised to see a photograph showing a small group of people on the Louisville Atheists page. Who were all these people? I decided to check back in to the group. The Louisville Atheists group (since named Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers by member vote), has grown into the 100’s in membership since then, with 30-50 members regularly coming to meetings.
Communities play a very important place in human life, and atheists are no different than anyone else in this respect. I have not only made many friendships though the group, but I also met my husband there and invited many of the members to my wedding. In a way, the atheist meetup became a substitute for the church I lost when I stopped believing. I have learned from face to face discussions with fellow atheists about issues that affect us such as how to manage the intrusion of religion into our lives. From watching group interactions I have seen that the atheist community (and other freethinkers who don’t necessarily refer to themselves as atheists) is greatly diverse, and have found many opportunities to learn and reevaluate my own views.
Perhaps most important of all, I have found that being around and socializing with other atheists has improved my social skills and helped me to see people as people--not as saved vs. lost or freethinker vs. believer. Being a part of an atheist community has helped me find acceptance for who I am and how I see the world. With this network of support an acceptance I am more confident about who I am. I am more able to mix in with other groups as well without so much concern about what their religious beliefs are or what they would think about me if I should decide to reveal that I am an atheist.