Religious Window Shopping July 9, 2008

Religious Window Shopping

Skylar is 24.

She just became an atheist and is facing a lot of the difficulties that come with that territory. Ironically, even with atheist parents, this is not an easy process.

This is her story:

I’m a new atheist.

I’m an atheist.


That’s a little hard to wrap my head around. It’s been about a week now, and I’m to the point of stating it (i.e. my brand spankin’ new Facebook religion entry), but not advertising it (i.e. I chose to “hide” that on my mini-feed). Frankly, I don’t think anyone will believe me.

Once upon a time, my Facebook religion entry said “window shopper.” I was raised by atheistic parents in the Bible Belt but fell prey to the students who told me that, according to their parents, my parents (and therefore, me) were going to Hell (complicated, right?). Religion has always been divisive in my life. For instance, my aunt and grandmother concocted a plan to kidnap my infant self. Yes, I mean this literally and seriously, and unbeknownst to me, it tore my family apart for years. What amazes me is that my aunt never attended church either — the religious excuse was just a means to a personal end for her. But I believe my grandmother had misguided concern for my well-being. She didn’t believe that non-religious parents could raise an ethical, well-adjusted child.

My mother is openly and unabashedly hateful towards theists, and she made church the forbidden fruit. Combine forbidden fruit with the fact that all social life in my town revolved around one’s church. I desperately wanted to attend church and be “normal.”

My mother eventually allowed me to attend church, but only Catholic church “because they’re not religious.” I also spent a couple of years at an evangelical church. When I misbehaved in high school, I wasn’t grounded; I was forbidden to go to youth group. Like many teens, I forayed into paganism at various points along the way, but that was something I didn’t advertise. My senior year of high school, I fell away from everything, in spite of still being a leader in the Catholic youth retreat programs Quest and Search.

At the ripe young age of twenty, I was engaged to a lapsed reform Jew from Scotland, who suffered a great deal of religious discrimination growing up. One day he joked that I needed to be Jewish to “have his babies,” so being the inquisitive type, I started researching the faith. I fell in love with Judaism, and long story short, that’s what ended our relationship a year later. He had such a negative relationship with Judaism that my love for it drove a wedge between us. I spent four years working towards the goal of an orthodox conversion, which was never completed. I know I’m going to miss Judaism. A lot, in fact. However, I was never very good at following rules. Lots and lots of rules.

Running in some pretty “intellectual” circles, I’m always amazed by the people who criticize my forays into religion. I am known as the religious equivalent of John “the Flip Flopper” Kerry. Simply by exploring many different religious views, my opinions on those worldviews are worthless to them. Since I “can’t seem to pick a religion,” people stop listening when I mention one. “Oh, right, are you still trying Judaism?” is something I hear a lot. You’d think four years would say something! Reactions like those would be very different if I were Christian, however. In general, the most irrational people seem to be the ones who most demand consistency in opinions. But I have the unfortunate habit of being willing to accept a better premise. This translates to many people as, “can’t make a decision and stick with it.” I hold my opinions very strongly, which you know if you’ve ever argued with me, but if a better answer presents itself, I am able to drop my previous opinion quickly and without a fuss. I don’t feel the need to linger and fight when I’ve been proven wrong or simply misguided. Why is that a negative quality? Perhaps the world would be a better place if people could compromise so easily.

So now I face the difficult decisions of who to tell about my atheism and when to tell them. I can guarantee that 80% of the people who’ve known me a while will roll their eyes. It’s serious enough that it makes me doubt myself and my intellect. If enough people tell you that you are incapable of maintaining a decision, when does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I bought in to years of people saying I was too logical, too rational, too “un-emotional.” When did we as a society decide that rationality was a bad thing and that logic and emotion are mutually exclusive? I can only hope that the logic, beauty, and consistency I’ve discovered will help keep me afloat. Who knows how long it’ll take for anyone to take me seriously! My parents may be atheists, but after cramming religious dogma down their throats since the age of three (thanks, my other Grandma!), I don’t expect them to believe that I’m really an atheist anytime soon.

Whoever thought it would be hard to tell atheist parents that you’re an atheist?

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Eric

    A good post can be found here about “logic and emotion [being] mutually exclusive.” Perhaps you can forward that to her – not that she necessarily needs, it, but I’ve used the ideas from that post to explain the concept to people before, and found it very useful.

  • Skylar

    Thanks, Eric!

  • stephanie

    Filing emotion on the same continuum as logic is like filing Communism with Capitalism. They’re two different types of ideas that somehow got lumped together for convenience or connivance.
    It seems like she’s looking for spiritual fellowship without necessarily including religion. That screams UU to me, and I believe she is also likely to find some mutual ground there since a lot of UU children are encouraged to go experience various religions/denominations of Christianity while they are growing up.

  • Tom

    People evolve as individuals as they gather more information about the world – and hopefully gets wiser in the process – just like scientific theories evolve with the evidence. As long as you go where logic and evidence tells you to go – as you seem to do – I have the utmost respect for you.

    As long as you can make rational solid and logical arguments for whatever position you might hold – in this case atheism – I think that you will find that people will respect you for your position. If they don’t respect your position after you have presented your arguments, they better have even better counterarguments as to why it is a bad position.

    I encourage you to tell your parents. Just remember to tell them exactly why you have come to this conclusion (arguments, logic). Try telling them of the process that lead you to atheism. I think that if you do this, they will respect your position, and maybe even be proud.

  • It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy if it’s other people telling you what they think you are. Just don’t listen to them.

    I also think it’s not a bad thing to change your mind about things, not matter how sure you are *currently* that it’s correct.

    You said:

    I don’t feel the need to linger and fight when I’ve been proven wrong or simply misguided. Why is that a negative quality? Perhaps the world would be a better place if people could compromise so easily.

    There is an important difference between ‘changing your mind’ and compromising. Compromising is where you still think you’re right, but you give in to get something done. Changing your mind is where you realize you were wrong and move on to something else.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Skylar –

    I love your point of view:

    I hold my opinions very strongly, which you know if you’ve ever argued with me, but if a better answer presents itself, I am able to drop my previous opinion quickly and without a fuss.

    Since you have only been an atheist for a week now, I’d suggest you just live with it quietly for awhile (like months), to see how it sits with you, before you proclaim it to the world. I hope you stay an atheist, but even more than that, I hope you find a long-term belief system that makes rational sense to you.

    I’d recommend you spend some time here in the atheist blogosphere, as well. You will be able to read about and talk with many others who have faced the same difficult decision of what and when to tell their family and friends. If you are new to the atheosphere, let us know, and I’m sure we all can recommend some good places to hang out and think.

  • andrew

    I was gonna say what Tom said. Finding out where you are wrong leads you closer to find out what is right.

  • Pustulio

    I sounds to me like she’s always been an atheist. From the way she tells her story, she never once mentions a belief in any god, only fascination with the trappings of religion with a touch of teen rebellion thrown in. Desire for ritual and community are a big part of human nature and it seems like she feels she needs to give that up those pursuits because she doesn’t believe in god. Perhaps she would be happier striking a compromise of sorts with Unitarian Universalism, where one can gain those benefits of religion without actually being religious.

  • Skylar, I think you’ll be fine. Where I see a problem is where I have had one in the past, and I think a lot of other atheists have, too — acting on your resentment of other people’s religion being forced on you in the past. It’s easy to be mad at them for wanting to waste your time and money and to react negatively to their insistence that their irrational beliefs are correct and justified by no more than their emotions.

    When confronted with people like that, including the members of your own family you’re describing, maybe you should not raise the topic of religion at all, and if someone asks you, maybe say something like, “You know, I’m not really anything anymore, and I’m cool with that.” If they try and evangelize you, politely but firmly cut them off and say you’re not interested in further discussion: “Sorry, but you’re not going to change my mind, so let’s please talk about something else.”

    As you grow more comfortable with simply not having a religion, you’ll probably find that there are other interesting things about yourself — your education, your job, your friends, your hobbies — that give rise to other and more fruitful things to talk about. With practice, you’ll find a way to steer the conversation away from religion (or its absence) with more and more subtlety, and then it will stop being an issue altogether.

  • I sympathize when you say I’m going to miss Judaism. I was there. I miss it too, and I went a lot further down the path than you did. It’s OK, it’s still based on fairy tales (not to mention viewing women as property).

    Stay focused on facts. Facts can be beautiful too. A deception is no truer just because it is aesthetically pleasing.

  • Elaine

    Skylar, you rock. Regret nothing. I’m about twice your age and have also been all over the map in terms of religion.

    If people ask you why you change your mind frequently, just explain it as proof that you have a mind. After all, a person with no feet is not likely to change his or her shoes.

    -Elaine, the half-Catholic, half-Jewish, formerly born-again currently Unitarian-Universalist

  • Becky

    Wow, a lot (not all, of course) of these statements ring true for me, too! And I’m 25. Just thought I’d share.. and I know where you’re at, Skylar!

  • Lynx

    What seems curious to me is the testing with different religions. Having grown up in the same parental circumstances (with atheist parents) I would think that the FIRST order of business is convincing yourself of the existence of a god or gods. Once you had that doozy out of the way, I suppose you could try to search for the most agreeable form of theism. I guess I don’t see how you can first become a Christian and only after a theist. Presumably you came to believe in a god first no?

    I say this because it sounds a lot like what you were searching for was community and shared traditions, and having to accept a god was simply a price you had to pay, but wasn’t really at the core of your motivation. I apologize if this isn’t the case, but I guess I could see where being an atheist surrounded by theists could get a little lonely, since we generally don’t have group picnics, camp, support groups etc.

  • I’ve got some pretty solidified views on religious window-shopping, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few years.

    In short, I think it’s one of the best things you can do.

    But, there are caveats. Religious window-shopping makes sense from a philosophical and ideological point of view, in the same sense as we hear Hemant point to Jainism as a philosophy rather than a religion. Take a religion and strip away all of the supernatural fluff and what are you left with? A way to live your life, a full-fledged philosophy that is as valid as others (e.g. hedonism). Many of the eastern “religions” are already like this – Jainism being one example, Buddhism being another, and even Hinduism if you look at how the pantheon developed historically (they were stories developed to help get ideas across to the mass populace, which began to be taken literally). The Chinese “religions” (e.g. Taoism) are similar, though really most people consider them to be philosophies in the first place. From this perspective, I have no problem calling myself a Hindu (I use the term “philosophical Hindu” or “ideological Hindu”) while also maintaining my atheist label.

    So if you don’t like the idea of some supernatural creator (or you just don’t buy it), just strip all that junk away. But also consider that you already have a belief system, and that you don’t necessarily need to apply a label to it. On the other hand, ideological religious window-shopping give you an idea of what’s out there and shows you alternative ways of approaching life. If you like one and find it resonating with your own already-existing innate beliefs, by all means, go for it.

  • Skylar

    Lynx: Nah, my extended family made sure I thought my parents were freaks for not believing in God. One of my earliest memories is building a church at the age of three with some spare wood, nails, and a hammer. My dad’s even an elder in a church after remarrying with a woman who’s Episcopalian. He now calls himself agnostic. Strangely enough, half the small congregation (30 or so in total) are out atheists.

    But combine family and outside pressure, I thought my parents were absolute nuts. God seemed so obvious, especially if everyone but me could see him 🙂 The Emperor Wears No Clothes, indeed.

    In general, I think Pustulio hit the nail on the head. I just never thought about it that way before. I spent so much time convincing myself I believed in God 🙂

    And yeah, we need to work on the community aspects of atheism. Like hardcore.

    As for the UUs, I attended there for a few months in high school, and it annoyed the hell outta me. It was community around a “shared” ideal that wasn’t really shared, from my understanding at the time. My 17 year old reaction to my dad was, “If you want company so bad, join a book club or sports team.” Of course, that may have been the failure of one congregation, not the group as a whole. Maybe when I have kids I’ll give them a shot again.

  • Skylar,

    It sounds like you had quite an ordeal growing up. If I were you, I’d be confused and conflicted too!

    Whatever you do, just remember that ultimately, no one else but you is entitled to an explanation of your beliefs. I can only imagine how hard it must be for anyone who is in a position where no one takes them seriously, especially when that person came to his or her convictions rationally. Additionally, no one ever said that you have to declare your beliefs publicly, and it’s not as though you’re on some kind of timeline.Tell people when you want to.

  • Why not start with just casually telling your parents (or other people that you think it’s particularly important that they know) that religion doesn’t hold the same importance for you that it once did, without declaring as specifically atheist?

    Is it necessary to immediately tell everyone you know what your current beliefs are?

    I think you can take a bit of time to get used to it first.

  • Dan

    I was born to a Jewish mother and a father who wasn’t very religious but who came from a Nazarine. My own personal history aside here are a few words from one Atheist to another.
    Logic and emotion are far from being polar opposites, or akin to Capitalism and Communism. There can be no logic unless tempered with emotion. We are emotional beings. The key is not to let one aspect dominate too much over the other. Logic is simply a system of forming argument. I believe radishes are Gods. I believe Gods don’t exist. Therefore, radishes don’t exist. My logic is flawless, though my premises are faulty. (All philosophers reply here).
    Atheism is unique from religion specifically because it is a negative statement. You are proclaiming what you do not believe, and are making no claims as to what you actually believe. “I am a Jew” tells you something about the person so much more so than “I am an Atheist.”
    Lastly, always ask questions and never tell anyone, “Sorry, but you’re not going to change my mind, so let’s please talk about something else.” To paraphrase, the unexamined thought is not worth having. I encourage you to seek faith wherever you can. I do. Though, I have yet to hear a compelling argument for this sort of meme.
    Good luck, and may George Lucas never EVER make another movie as long as I live. Stupid rape of my childhood…. mutter mutter mutter.

    -Dan A.

  • Pseudonym


    I agree with those who have suggested sitting on it for a couple of months. You’ve been shopping around all your life, so who’s to say that this is the endpoint? Remember, there are plenty of atheist religions out there; UU was mentioned, but a lot of people also find the atheistic forms of Buddhism quite appealing.

    Having said that, a word of warning: Your extended family (and possibly your more immediate family, depending on “hateful” your mother actually is) seems more than a little dysfunctional. Trying to kidnap your granddaughter isn’t normal, even for a “bible belt” fundie Christian. I don’t want to play armchair psychologist, but I have to wonder if the “shopping around” is a symptom of something missing in your own family life.

    If so, then eventually, you’re may find yourself having to deal with this, possibly even including (secular!) counselling. May not be necessarily, but it might be something to think about.

    Whatever happens, I know you’ll end up fine.

    Oh, and definitely tell your parents. I think they’ll be proud, even if you’re not a rabid anti-theist.

    Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

  • Skylar


    Thankfully I have one hell of a sense of humor!

  • Pseudonym

    Glad to hear it!

  • My mother eventually allowed me to attend church, but only Catholic church “because they’re not religious.”
    Gotta tell my Catholic wife that 😉 mind you she’s a Polish Catholic, I think they’re a different species 😉

  • Ron in Houston

    I actually don’t get this “I am an atheist” mindset. There’s lots of things I don’t believe in and they aren’t part of my identity. I’m probably older than the writer but my mother is still alive. I haven’t told my mother I don’t believe in God nor do I feel that I should (or on the other side that I shouldn’t tell her.)

    In a way I think we should resist identifying ourselves as atheists. I think it’s part of a sort of sick societal meme that you must have a “religion” (even if it’s no religion.) I don’t believe in God and to me that’s not some big deal.

  • Pseudonym

    Ron: I find that very a interesting comment, because I think there’s a comparison with sexual orientation.

    A lot of homosexual people feel the need to “come out”, which is also something that I don’t understand. I mean, if you feel it’s important to you, then by all means do it, but it seems strange to base part of your identity around the what type of people you’re sexually attracted to.

    Thankfully, this seems to be waning a bit now, so perhaps it’s just a phase.

  • Skylar

    For gays, atheists, and anyone else who “comes out,” I think it has more to do with that particular individual than who he’s telling it to. It’s about making a differentiation in your own life. Going public helps make it “real.” It’s like the “no going back now” point.

    Because of this kind of idea, I think it’s important. Although I wouldn’t have thought about it before writing this post to an anonymous public, which seemed really huge once I thought about this being public and posted in the limitless life of the internet. (Reading that article about the Church of Google didn’t help!)

    So yeah. Psychologically beneficial for the person making the statement. I certainly feel a lot better. It’s empowering, even.

  • John Morales

    My take: to do it is to tell it.

    So, just be non-religious. If someone asks, tell them then.

    To Skylar: Cheers. You’ve now got time to do other stuff 🙂

  • …but only Catholic church “because they’re not religious.”

    This is what I’ve been saying!

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