Today, I was walking in the park with my kids, and a little girl we’ve known since she was three, six years. As is wont to happen on long, meandering walks, much philosophizing took place. This led, eventually, to talk of beliefs. “I don’t think there is a God,” she said, without fear, without sadness, without the feeling of being gypped. This, it occurred to me, is how a child who has never been fed stories of eternal life and all its perceived benefits, internalizes the reality of life and it’s transient nature.
I came into my atheism as an adult. First Santa went. Then the Easter Bunny. Then angels. Then, after a great deal of trying to believe otherwise, God went as well. But turning your back on belief isn’t as simple as walking away. It means sitting quietly while your elders continue to tote the family spiritual line (because firstly, you don’t want to out yourself and later on because you realize that you don’t want to break your loved ones’ hearts before they pass on), biting your tongue, feeling as if you’re lying to them, even though you’ve never said a word. It means pursing your lips during the Pledge of Allegiance when everyone else says “Under God”, it means wondering if you have a right to celebrate Christmas without the belief systems. You never realize how many aspects of life religion touch until you walk away from it. The food you eat, the beverages you do or do not drink, what days you work, how you begin your meals, how you end your days, how you feel about good things that happen, and bad, the clothing you wear, the people you hang out with, the people you marry, how you marry them, how your children are welcomed into the community, everything. It’s a adjustment, even for someone like me who wasn’t particularly devout to begin with.
But my kids, and more and more of their friends won’t have to struggle with that (unless they go the other direction later in life and decide they believe in something). And what also impressed me was how matter-of-factly she said it. I think we’ll be seeing this more and more as adult atheists come out of the confessional, and child ones, who’ve known nothing else simply state their truth. And I think people are going to be surprised.
I remember the old days (and, frankly, they are present day for some parts of the country) when as soon as you arrived in town, you had people beating down your door, wanting to know which church you were going to, and woe to you if you said “we don’t attend a church.” That’s all your new community needed to know. Instantly, things would start to vaporize: friends for your kids, clubs you’d be invited to join, people who would patronize your business if you owned one, people who would piss on you if you were on fire, frankly. Today, that is not so much the case (thank goodness). But it didn’t stop there. Say you were committed to a church. And if you didn’t show up on a Sunday, then people immediately wanted to know why. The inference is that if you didn’t attend services, you’d best have a good reason, and you’d best be back asap.
As a former Catholic, I know that priests would track you down if he hadn’t seen your face looking up from the pews in one or two Sundays. That isn’t the case in most parishes now. But I do know that if you are LDS, for instance, and you don’t show up, they will send someone to your home to find out why. Not on the first Sunday, or not if they know you are out of town (though if you’re on vacation, you probably want to post that you’re attending Sunday services at the local ward anyhow), but soon.
But now that those ties are loosening for the majority of Americans, now that they can sleep in on Sunday without worry that someone will be pounding on their door, now that people kind of mind their own business better, the lines on who is religious and who isn’t is blurred. Now, unless people advertise it, your own neighbors won’t even know what your belief or non-belief is. Whereas the first question used to be which church you would be attending the very next Sunday, now, people ask where you came from, how many kids you have, what you do for a living, etc. I have noticed that people may never even ask that question at all. I have lived across the street from one woman for nearly a decade, and I have no clue if she even believes. But I do know that she loves her dog, has a nice boyfriend (they are older), who also has a nice dog, that they like to go out on walks together, that she sometimes stays over at his house, or vice-versa, and that she has a cool beanie collection. I know she likes to shop second-hand stores and is involved in environmental activism. I know she likes jeans, flannel shirts, and is often a night owl. My neighbors know about me that if they need a cup of sugar and I’m not home, they can walk right on in and get one. They know that if they need to use the rototiller, they can. They know if they need someone to watch the kids in a pinch, feed the dogs while they’re on vacation, keep an eye on their house, or a ride home if they break down, they can call me. So far, I don’t think we have anyone on the block who would care if they did know about my non-belief, I’m just fortunate to live in a neighborhood where people are pretty chill. But I haven’t always lived in those areas, so I am aware of how that could change things.
Still, it’s interesting to think how many believers assume that they are among like spirits in their own personal bubbles. Why? Because the people next door or around the corner are nice, generally (yes, we’ve all had “difficult” neighbors), because most people are giving and supportive, and kind. But while many believers have been told that morality is forever chained to devotion and faith, the rest of us are going about, quietly living our lives and proving them wrong, even though they may never know it.