Trigger warning: discussion about sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, but not detailed descriptions of that abuse.
I came out as an atheist… (wow, is that even necessary?!?) subtly as a young child, and more recently absolutely. (For some background, we went to a southern Baptist Church most of the time, but had Bible School education at a Pentecostal church.) I was ritually sexually and physically abused by my adoptive father, and in other ways by the rest of that family. My poor brothers were nearly beaten to death on a number of occasions, and my adopted mother, while wanting it to stop, was too frightened to do anything about it. My younger brother and sister later committed suicide. I have separated myself from that family almost completely, (I still occasionally talk to my adopted brother, though it is very uneasy at best, as he refuses to accept the reality of our childhood abuse, he is an atheist but cannot admit that his protectors were also his abusers, and he won’t talk about it).
Here’s the issue at hand though… I am finding that it’s nearly as bad to admit my atheism to my (biological) family — as well as friends and coworkers — as it was to my adopted mother who called me Satan, possessed, evil, destined to scream forever in hell for my sins, yadda yadda. When I tell people who start talking religion that I’m an atheist, I get harassed or told that I’m offending them by my non-belief; I have even been reported for being an atheist and “talked to” by HR, who said my atheism makes people uncomfortable, so I shouldn’t talk about it. Ever. (I quit that job.)
Yet again today, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation, and I said “Thanks, but I’m an atheist.” I was told — repeatedly — that I was just agnostic. When I said no, I’m an atheist, I was again told that I was wrong, that isn’t possible, no one can be atheist, I was just an agnostic in denial. It’s like people cannot accept that atheism is a valid thing. I just acquiesced as usual, because I’m not going to change their mind… so how does one approach that? (I have a paternal brother that I recently found, who is a Baptist preacher.) It’s very uneasy in general, all around. Do I just smile and nod? Or do I say, like I finally did today, “No! I’m not agnostic, I’m an atheist because I do not believe in any god!” (To which the person responded, “See, that proves you’re agnostic because nobody believes in nothing. You might not believe in a specific God, you just don’t know what God is!”) How do I handle this kind of thing?
Dear Frustrated Atheist,
Firstly, I am impressed by your fortitude and pluck, having come from such a horrendous background of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Few of us realize how rare it is for people raised in that kind of environment to be able to see it as abuse, see it as unjust, and do whatever it takes to get away from it or stop it.
Many abused children internalize it, becoming convinced that it’s all justified, that they have it coming, or that it’s the only way things can be. They have been raised on a diet of shame and fear over many years. So as adults they stay, and stay, or they find new abusive people to have relationships with because it’s the only kind of relationship they know. It’s the only role they know how to play.
It’s important to say here that those who stay are not cowardly, or weak, or stupid. Such hard judgments that healthy, strong adults might hold against each other do not apply here, have no meaning or relevance in this situation. The abused person’s sense of self-worth has been seriously injured over a long period of time when they were the most vulnerable. Many of them eventually succumb to the abuse, either dying physically or dying emotionally.
You haven’t. You’re alive and kicking.
Your history shows a succession of increasingly assertive responses to the variety of abuse that you have endured. It’s a story of an emerging self struggling against many suffocating forces and steadily overcoming them. As a young child, you mentally rejected religious indoctrination. You survived the savage abuse of that adoptive family, and you finally got out. You quit your job at that bizarre God-besotted company where you were “reported for being an atheist” (that is ridiculous) and were told to shut up and hide your views. Good riddance to them. Now you are beginning to stop smiling, nodding, and acquiescing, and you’re standing your ground and asserting yourself against an aggressive proselytizer.
There’s a theme that I want you to notice common to so many of the religious people you have described: It’s always about their fear. Their fear of you, and what your atheism implies. Your adopted mother called you Satan and described to you the horrors of your damnation. (That’s emotional abuse, by the way.) Satan’s a scary guy. She was afraid of you. Your co-workers said that your atheism “made them uncomfortable.” Scared them would probably be more accurate.
Now you’re faced with this silly person who thinks he’s smart telling you what your thoughts are, rather than asking you, and pretending that he knows your mind better than you do yourself. No, he doesn’t. He repeatedly says, “No, you can’t be an atheist.” It sounds kind of like a fearful pleading: “No, no! You can’t, you can’t, you can’t be an atheist! No one can be an atheist!! NOOooooo! (the echo fading away, as in a dark cavern) He tries to use his absurd attempt at “logic” to prove that atheism simply cannot exist. Sounds to me like he’s trying to take care of his own anxiety and fear. He’s confronted with someone who is clearly intelligent, sane, and decent, and who also doesn’t believe in his god, and even scarier, doesn’t believe in his afterlife. He can’t just write you off as stupid, or crazy, or evil, so he tries to deny the possibility of atheism, and impose onto you his own definition of agnosticism, which he apparently finds less threatening.
Think about this for a moment: So many people whom you have had to fear or be very cautious around, people who try to religiously bully you are actually afraid of you.
You have asked how do you approach these kinds of things. You approach them case-by-case. You pick your battles. Feel free to do whatever you are comfortable doing, and feel free to decline doing anything that makes you uncomfortable. With complete respect and with no mockery, I’m issuing you this license. You might already know these things, but it doesn’t hurt to reaffirm them. It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek, but I’m also serious:
License to Take Care of Yourself
You have the right to act in your own best interest.
You have the right to protect yourself.
You have the right to expect respect.
You have the right to make a request.
You have the right to refuse a request.
You have the right to take time to respond to a question.
You have the right to not respond at all to a question.
You have the right to express your views.
You have the right to keep your views private.
You have the right to end a conversation, or an interaction, or a relationship if you deem it is not in your best interest.
How you handle each person depends on your relationship with them, what is at stake, and how you feel at the moment. You don’t owe any of them any particular response. You don’t owe anyone a well-crafted logical retort, or an articulate schooling in the definitions of things like atheism vs. agnosticism, you don’t owe them a nod and a smile, and a nod and a smile is also perfectly okay for you to do. You don’t owe them any response at all. You do not have to explain or justify yourself. You can do any of those things or not, or many other things or not.
You only owe yourself whatever takes care of you.
Weigh all these things based only on what you think you will gain, spend, or lose, case by case. There’s a serenity that can come from knowing that you’re free to do whatever works for you in each situation.
I can’t be sure from your brief letter, but consider that even though you are making progress in asserting yourself, your history of receiving abuse for so long might have made you still a bit too willing to continue relationships where people are abusive or at least domineering with you. Consider that those relationships might not be worth it or healthy for you. You don’t have to put up with that; you can do better.
Your newly found paternal brother who’s a Baptist preacher for instance: If he behaves anything like those others you have described, ask yourself what’s the upside of being with him at all? If it’s not in your best interest, drop it.
This recent silly proselytizer who pretends to know your thoughts: Is it really worth continuing to try to play his game? Even if you can put together a devastatingly logical comeback to crush his absurd argument, he’s not likely to change his beliefs, and more importantly, he’s not likely to stop his aggressive pestering or badgering of you. That will require you making a clear demand and enforcing it.
Maybe that is difficult for you. It is for many or even most people. If you haven’t already, consider finding a secular counselor who has experience helping those who have been abused learn how to better assert themselves in all sorts of situations. You’ve already made remarkable progress; a counselor could help you progress faster and improve on trouble spots. If you’re in a part of the country where it’s a challenge to find a secular counselor, try the Secular Therapy Project.
Again, I applaud the strength you have shown in adversity. If you see an appropriate opportunity, sharing that kind of strength to help someone else who is not yet as strong as you is another way to boost your own strength, and to, in the end, give a positive outcome, even a positive purpose to what you should never have had to endure. Whatever you do, keep going. You’re going in the right direction.
You may send your questions to Richard right here. Please keep your letters concise, but include pertinent information such as age, relevant financial issues, and significant people in the situation. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.
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